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U.S. Officials: North Korea May Test Missile After Jan. 1; Trump Says Mueller Will Be 'Fair' But Slams Russia Probe; Trump: 'Absolutely Right to Do What I Want' with Justice Dept.; Trump Says "No Collusion" 16 Times During New York Times Interview; Trump "Absolute Right To Do What I Want" With Justice Department; Defector's Inside Story Of North Korean Smugglers Paradise. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 29, 2017 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:17] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Thanks, Dana. Happening now, missile warning. U.S. officials tell CNN North Korea may be moving toward a new ballistic missile test after New Year's Day. President Trump says he wants China to pressure North Korea but won't say if he thinks diplomacy will be enough to end Kim Jong-un's nuclear program.

Treated fairly. President Trump says he thinks he's being treated fairly by Special Counsel Robert Mueller but tells "The New York Times" he believes the investigation is still a witch hunt making America look bad. Why did he insist 16 times that there's no collusion?

An "absolute right." President Trump says he has the absolute right to do what he wants with the Justice Department but says he isn't calling for a new investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails, explaining that he's kept his hands off, quote, "hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly."

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Brianna Keilar. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

New tonight: North Korea may now be preparing for another powerful show of force soon. At some point after New Year's Day, U.S. officials tell CNN recent movement indicate there will be a ballistic missile test rather than a satellite launch. But Defense Secretary James Mattis says he's not impressed by North Korea's weapons program, adding that while the U.S. is pursuing a diplomatic resolution, his job is to provide military options.

And in an extraordinary end-of-year interview, President Trump says he thinks Special Counsel Robert Mueller will be fair in his investigation of Russia's election meddling and ties to Trump associates. Nevertheless, the president tells "The New York Times" he thinks the investigation is a witch hunt which makes the U.S. look very bad.

During the course of the interview, the president insists no less than 16 times that there has been no collusion, and declares ominously that he has an absolute right to do what he wants with the U.S. Justice Department. And the president is making new demands on Democrats, saying if they

want an immigration deal that would protect hundreds of thousands of young DREAMers, they'll need to agree to some big concessions. First and foremost, what the president calls a desperately-needed border wall. I'll be speaking with Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of the Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees. And our correspondents, specialists and guest are standing by with full coverage.

We do begin with growing signs that North Korea may be moving toward a new missile launch. I want to go straight to CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, tell us what you're learning.


The latest we have is that several U.S. officials are telling me there are signs North Korea could be preparing, in fact, for yet another ballistic missile test launch.

It's early days. They don't think it's imminent, but any time after New Year's it could happen if North Korea decides to proceed. The evidence is not that they're going for a satellite launch at this time, more the case that it's a ballistic missile launch.

This comes as Defense Secretary James Mattis met with reporters in the Pentagon today for an end-of-the-year chat, and as you said, he said he's not impressed with North Korea's weapons program. And very much the page they are on, still, is diplomacy and economic sanctions.

Mattis is really looking for no drama right now in this situation. He's emphasizing economic sanctions are buttressing diplomacy. It's not just words; it's economics, as well.

January will be a very interesting time. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be meeting in Vancouver with the allies to discuss developments in North Korea. We will be just weeks away from the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. The question is, if Kim were to proceed with a ballistic missile test, what his motivation might be at such a sensitive time for such a provocative act -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Very good question. CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

Now, President Trump was out on the golf course again today, but his Florida vacation has also given him a lot of time to think, or maybe stew, about the Russia investigation, and now he's let it all out in a striking end-of-year newspaper interview.

I want to go live now to CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray. She is in West Palm Beach following President Trump.

Sara, it's pretty clear when you look at this interview what's on the president's mind.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's absolutely right, Brianna. And look, this president has been largely out of sight for most of this week, but he has this unplanned run-in with a "New York Times" reporter and clearly had plenty to get off his chest, including a host of complaints about the Russia investigation.


[17:05:00] MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump in full vacation mode and hosting Coast Guard members for golf at his Palm Beach club.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I said, "Come use my course." I didn't know I'd be flooded, but that's OK. You guys still have a good time.

MURRAY: But pressing pause long enough to rail against the Russia investigation in an interview with "The New York Times."

While he didn't call for an end to the special counsel's probe into potential collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia officials, the president insisted, "It's damaging. I think it's a very bad thing for the country," he told "The Times," "because it makes the country look bad. It makes the country look very bad, and it puts the country in a very bad position. So the sooner it's worked out, the better it is for the country."

In the impromptu interview at his golf club, Trump insisted 16 times that no collusion has been uncovered in the various Russia investigations, reiterating the frustration he's aired publicly.

TRUMP: The Russia story is a total fabrication.

There has been absolutely no collusion.

Are there any Russians here tonight? Any Russians?

MURRAY: Trump also lamenting that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe, insisting such a move wouldn't have happened under former Attorney General Eric Holder. "I don't want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that I will say this. Holder protected President Obama, totally protected him," Trump said.

But even as more Republicans take aim at Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Trump predicted he'll get a fair shake. "There was tremendous collusion on behalf of the Russians and the Democrats. There was no collusion with respect to my campaign. I think I'll be treated fairly."

Despite the swipe at Democrats, Trump appeared uninterested in trying to reopen an investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private e- mail server. "I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department, but for purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly, I've stayed uninvolved with this particular matter," he said of Clinton's e-mails.

Turning back to his legislative agenda, Trump said he's hoping to work with Democrats on health care, infrastructure and immigration. Tweeting, "The Democrats have been told and fully understand there can be no DACA without the desperately-needed wall at the southern border and an end to the horrible chain migration and ridiculous lottery system of immigration, et cetera. We must protect our country at all costs."

But Democrats may see little reason to cooperate with a president with a 35 percent approval rating, according to the latest CNN poll.

Even amid those low ratings, Trump is already gearing up for his reelection campaign, telling "The New York Times" he's sure to win another term because of his accomplishments in office, "But another reason that I'm going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I'm not there, because without me their ratings are going down the tubes."


MURRAY: Now, the president also took to Twitter to express his displeasure about the media's coverage of his approval ratings. He insisted that his approval numbers are close to what Obama's were at this point in his presidency. But if you look at nearly every reputable poll, he's lagging behind pretty much all of his predecessors, including Obama -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Sara Murray in West Palm Beach, thank you.

Now, there has been sharp reaction from legal experts and lawmakers to President Trump's comment to "The Times" that he has an absolute right to do what he wants with the Justice Department.

Let's bring in CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez to talk about this. Does this cross a legal line what he said?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I mean, I think the Justice Department, it's clear the Justice Department is part of the executive branch, and it reports to the president. So you know, in so many words, I mean, I think he's right.

But he's also, I think, really getting close to the line there of what is proper for the president to talk about with his Justice Department. I think if he were to give a direct order to the attorney general to investigate his political opponents just because he wants them to, not because there's any legal basis to do that, I think you'd see the attorney general would push back. Jeff Sessions would push back, and I think people at the Justice Department would also push back against that.

KEILAR: It's interesting, because he also says in this interview that former Attorney General Eric Holder totally protected President Obama and he has, quote, "great respect for that."

PEREZ: Right.

KEILAR: Perhaps he wishes he had the backup of Jeff Sessions, and that seems to be the read on that.

PEREZ: Right. The read, and I think -- I think the signal he's sending is another shot at Jeff Sessions, saying he should never have recused himself, because he does believe that that decision has brought all of the problems of the special counsel and the fact that the Russia investigation has sort of been a cloud over the administration. I think it's another telegraphing that he's very angry at Jeff Sessions and is not going to let it go.

KEILAR: It -- I sort of chuckled to myself when I read the part about Paul Manafort, because he says, you know, like, "He only worked for me for like, you know, for a few months," he said. I mean, to be clear, Paul Manafort...

PEREZ: Right.

KEILAR: ... was in charge of his campaign and was there once he clinched what he needed for the nomination through the convention.

PEREZ: Right.

[17:10:05] KEILAR: I mean, he was there for a critical period of time.

PEREZ: Right, and look, I think that's part of the legal strategy that you're seeing from the White House and from the president on down. If you hear -- you talk to people in the White House nowadays, they'll even tell you that he barely knew or talked to General Flynn, who I think we have pictures of them from, you know, any number of times that General Flynn was in the White House right next to the president at key moments.

So look, I think it's part of their effort to distance themselves from every single person who's been indicted or who has gotten into trouble with this investigation.

KEILAR: Evan Perez, I only spent two to three minutes with him occasionally...

PEREZ: Barely know you.

KEILAR: Barely know you. All right. Evan Perez, thank you so much.

And joining me now is Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island. He is a member of the Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees.

Sir, thank you so much for making time for us.

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: My pleasure. Good to be with you.

KEILAR: So in this interview, the president says 16 times that there was no collusion, and he also said Democrats agree there's no collusion. I guess I'll just have you speak for yourself. You can, if you want to, speak for some of your colleagues, but is that the conclusion you would make?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, I have to say when I read that interview I thought of the line in "Hamlet," you know, "Thou doth protest too much." I mean, 16 times to say there's no collusion, and then to say, you know, that this investigation is very bad for America.

Actually, what's very bad for America is to have a foreign power interfere with our presidential election and to not have the president of the United States condemn it and be committed to getting to the bottom of it to make sure that it never happens again and that you protect the institutions that are so important to the functioning of our democracy.

And so, you know, the president's characterization that it's sort of bad for America, the world is watching. You know, Russia is engaged in this kind of activity all around the world to undermine western democracies. They will try this again. There's no question about that. And what we really need is a national effort to make sure we get to the bottom of this and make sure it never happens again. And the president should be leading that.

But instead, from the very beginning, he's tried to undermine this investigation, minimize its significance, call it a witch hunt, even though it's a unanimous conclusion of our intelligence agencies that Vladimir Putin personally led the intervention that has been described by our intelligence communities to help Donald Trump and undermine the election of Hillary Clinton in a variety of very substantial ways. That will be a concern to everyone, Republicans, Democrats, independents. This is about protecting our democracy.

So I just think it's more of the same from President Trump, sadly. But I think we can have a lot of confidence that Robert Mueller is going to get to the bottom of it, and his team is doing the work to be sure that we understand what really happened.

KEILAR: The president was asked whether he would re-open the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails, and here's what he said: "I have the absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department, but for purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly, I've stayed uninvolved with this particular matter."

He seems to be linking his treatment versus reopening into the e- mails. It's just -- I wonder what you think about that, that he's tied these two things together?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, I think, first of all, the statement that he can do absolutely whatever he wants, it's a complete misunderstanding of the role of the Justice Department. These are individuals who are professionals, who take an oath to the Constitution of the United States, not to Donald Trump. They have independent responsibilities.

So the idea that he can do whatever he wants, including ordering the investigation of a political adversary, is, you know, sort of something you expect in a banana republic, not in the United States of America. So sadly, there have been a number of Republicans on the Judiciary Committee that have been doing that for him, asking that we re-open the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails.

KEILAR: Do you think they will? I wonder if you think -- do you think your Republican colleagues will re-open that?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, the chairman of the Oversight Committee and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee have already initiated a review. So they've opened their own investigation themselves, not the Justice Department but members of Congress.

Again, I think this is an effort -- every time this Russia investigation becomes more serious, when there are additional indictments, additional pleas, sort of what Donald Trump and many of my Republican colleagues do is they pull out the Hillary Clinton card. You know, it's the best thing to distract attention is "What about Hillary Clinton?" You know, Hillary Clinton is not the president of the United States.

The overwhelming evidence from the intelligence committee is that Vladimir Putin's Russia interfered to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. We need to get to the bottom of this. And by the way, the e-mails have been investigated fully. The attorney general came to a conclusion. The Justice Department made its findings public. So it's already been investigated. And I think the American people see through this. They understand this is an effort to distract from the very serious investigation that Robert Mueller is leading.

KEILAR: The president did say that he thinks Mueller is going to be fair to him. Democrats, obviously, have been voicing concern that Trump could fire Mueller. When you look at this interview, do you think there's anything in it, from those comments, that may soothe Democrats' concerns that Trump would fire Mueller?

[17:15:09] CICILLINE: No, not at all. Look, we've seen over the last several weeks Republicans have been engaged in a very focused campaign to undermine the credibility of Robert Mueller.

This is a Republican, when he was appointed he was praised by Republicans almost universally. His integrity is beyond reproach. Respected deeply in the law enforcement community. And the only thing that's changed is he's indicted two high-level officials in the Trump campaign. He's gotten two pleas from somebody who actually worked in the White House, and he's proceeding very thoughtfully and very carefully in this investigation.

And so now that he's sort of moved the investigation to the White House, I think getting closer to the president's inner circle and maybe the president himself, now all of a sudden, they've begun this attack: Robert Mueller is corrupt; the investigation's corrupt. I mean, it's an old playbook. You know, just -- if you are worried about the conclusions of the investigation, undermine the investigators.

And I don't have a lot of confidence, because the president didn't do that in the interview, his Republican colleagues are doing it for him in the Congress and all over talk radio and cable TV. And I think we have to all be very concerned.

And we have a piece of legislation that will protect Robert Mueller from being fired except for cause that I hope the speaker will bring to the floor so that it can be clear that Republicans and Democrats will not tolerate this president interfering with this investigation. He already fired Jim Comey when he refused to sort of go easy on Michael Flynn. We need to send a strong message to him that he cannot interfere with Robert Mueller.

KEILAR: Jerry Nadler is going to replace Congressman John Conyers as the ranking member of your committee, Conyers leaving amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Nadler is a constitutional law expert. How seriously, I wonder, if at all, are Democrats considering bringing impeachment proceedings if they were to win back control of the House in the mid-term election?

CICILLINE: Well, I think, you know, most of my colleagues would agree that it's -- it's really too early to do that, that Robert Mueller is in the midst of an investigation. I think it is very important that we make sure that he has the resources he needs to complete that investigation, and that we protect him from any political interference; and that when he concludes that work, if it produces evidence that would subject the president to removal from office, I think you'll find the committee prepared to do that.

But I think at this moment, it's very important to protect this investigation that's being done very professionally, and rather than undermining the FBI or attacking the Justice Department, as many of my Republican colleagues are doing, we should be protecting this investigation from any political interference so they can continue to do their really important work.

KEILAR: Much more ahead with you, Congressman Cicilline, especially because you are on the Foreign Affairs Committee. We're going to talk about North Korea. What is the red line? Perhaps a nuclear-armed missile test? Is that in the works? More on that when we get back.


[17:22:09] KEILAR: Our top story: U.S. officials tell CNN North Korea may be moving towards a new ballistic missile test after New Year's Day. And we are back now with Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of the Foreign Affairs and the Judiciary -- Judiciary Committees.

Congressman, if North Korea conducts another missile test after the New Year, the North Koreans have warned that the next test could be an atmospheric test, so we're talking about a nuclear test in the atmosphere. Do you think it's possible we could see that?

CICILLINE: Well, I think this -- obviously, the situation is incredibly serious. We've seen significant progress in the North Korean nuclear program in the last year, and this is a moment that requires intense, thoughtful diplomacy; really building an international coalition to continue to put pressure on the North Koreans; not only passing sanctions but being certain that they're being properly implemented by our implementing partners; trying to put as much pressure as possible on the Chinese, who really have the ability to stop this program by, you know, really cutting off the resources that are necessary to continue it. I think, rather than doing a tweet from the golf course about it, the president ought to be engaged in a very serious diplomatic effort that helps to deescalate this...

KEILAR: But do you think it's possible that that is a reality? Because we had an expert on earlier who said there could be an atmospheric test. What we've seen before are -- we've seen an ICBM. The -- we've not seen North Korea miniaturize a nuclear warhead and put it on a missile. Do you think they, at this point, or do you not know if they have the ability to do an atmospheric test?

CICILLINE: Yes, I don't think we know that. That would be a significant step forward that's hard to imagine that they have achieved that at this point. But there's no question that they are very focused on this program, devoting substantial resources to it. And, you know, I think we have to be prepared for their continued progress in this program and be sure that we have an effective strategy to prevent them from being able to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States.

KEILAR: You mentioned that the president needs to be concentrating on a diplomatic pathway here instead of tweeting, but it doesn't appear that sanctions against North Korea are actually deterring their weapons program at this point.

CICILLINE: Yes, I mean, part of that is because it's one thing to pass sanctions. It's another thing to be certain that they're being fully implemented.

So I think, you know, the Chinese have been supportive of our efforts at the Security Council, but I think there's some evidence that they are not, in fact, honoring some of the sanctions. And so there have to be very strong messages transmitted to the Chinese and to the international committee that these sanctions, when we pass them, actually must be complied with and that there will be consequences if they're not.

[17:25:05] This requires, again, deep -- you know, really deep diplomatic engagement, doing everything we can to make sure the Chinese understand that they have to make a different calculation, that as much as they may be worried about a unified Korean Peninsula and the fall of the North Korean regime and the refugees that will result from that, that they have to understand further provocative action by the North Korean leader will destabilize the peninsula more, and that's sort of, I think, the work that we have to do to make them change that calculation.

But all of this means we need to really tone down the rhetoric, the name calling, the use of hyperbolic language. I mean, this situation has gotten much worse despite the tough talk of President Trump and the kind of language he uses on Twitter. He hasn't made -- he hasn't made the situation better. Instead, I think what he needs to focus on is a real strategy to prevent North Korea from developing this capability.

KEILAR: I want to turn quickly to the subject of immigration. President Trump tweeted this morning, "The Democrats have been told and fully understand that there can be no DACA without the desperately-needed wall at the southern border and an end to the horrible chain migration and ridiculous lottery system of immigration, et cetera. We must protect our country at all costs." He's referring to DREAMers, people brought undocumented to the U.S. as children, who really know no other place as their home than the U.S.

Did Democrats lose a bargaining position on this issue when they left for the holidays without even making an issue of DACA?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, we -- I led a letter along with Congressman Welch to the speaker and to the majority leader and to the president, setting out a series of things that we had to have before we could vote for a continuing resolution.

KEILAR: But there was a vote on funding the government.

CICILLINE: It included...

KEILAR: I mean, funding the government had to be dealt with, and Democrats walked without making an issue of it.

CICILLINE: Yes, no, no, I mean, you'll see in the House, at least, most of the Democrats didn't support the funding resolution. I don't want to speak for them. But I think in part because it didn't take care of our veterans. It didn't address the opioid crisis. It didn't take care of the DREAMers. So wet set out in a letter, "Here are the five things that we think are bipartisan priorities. You should do them." And if we didn't have them, we didn't vote for the resolution. And I was one of those people. I think that was almost all the Democrats, so...

KEILAR: What do you want your Senate Democrat colleagues -- Senate Democratic colleagues to do?

CICILLINE: Well, what we want to do is remind people, look, these are 800,000 young people who -- who know no other country but America. They are as American as I am, other than for a piece of paper. These are young people who are in school, who are working, who have served our country, who have not been involved in the criminal justice system. This is the cream of the crop, and they came here as kids. And they're making incredible contributions to this country.

Not taking care of the DREAMers is not just unfair to them; it's unfair to our country, because we benefit from the presence of these wonderful young people.

And the president has said in meetings with our leadership that he's prepared to do DACA. We have, you know, about 40 Republicans who have identified in statements to the public that they would support taking care of the DREAMers. We need to get this done.

And the idea of connecting it to the wall, which the president's own chief of staff said is not an effective way to control our border. There's a lot of good technology. We ought to secure our border, but the idea of building a wall really doesn't understand the immigration issue and doesn't make sure of good technology to secure our borders. So let's take care of the DREAMers. The president promised that

Congress would have the opportunity to do that before March. We ought to have done it already. I think it's inexcusable, the heartache that it's caused so many families, who just don't know where they're going to be here, and really don't know another country. It's really disgraceful.

And I hope that we'll be able to use our power in the minority to force our Republican leadership in the House and THE Senate to take up the DREAM Act and take care of this once and for all.

KEILAR: Congressman David Cicilline, thank you so much for joining us. And a very happy New Year to you and your family.

CICILLINE: Same to you and yours.

KEILAR: Now, coming up, President Trump declares in a "New York Times" interview, that he has an absolute right to do what he wants with the Justice Department. Well, does he? You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


[17:33:15] KEILAR: There's plenty of fallout from President Trump's eye-popping interview with the New York Times. The half-hour interview at his golf resort ranged from the Russia investigation, the president's saying no collusion, 16 times, to the president's legislative priorities for the new year's. Let's get the insights of our political and legal specialists on all of this. OK. And I want to talk to you first, Susan Hennessy, about Donald Trump.

There's actually a couple of questions I have about this one. He says, when asked about whether he would re-open the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails, "I have the absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department but for purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly. I've stayed uninvolved with this particular matter." Legally speaking, does he have an absolute right?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, FELLOW IN NATIONAL SECURITY IN GOVERNANCE STUDIES AT THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: All right. So, the president is the head of the executive branches, so he does have very, very broad authority to set the priorities and to dictate certain activity at the Justice Department, and essentially to fire people that decide not carry those out. Set is broad authority, that's not the same as absolute power.

And actually, what we see right now is sort of the basis of one of the threads of Robert Mueller's investigation is this very question. Donald Trump, exercising some of his authorities as president to fire someone, to have a conversation with the FBI director, but the question is: if he did that with a corrupt or improper motive, that becomes criminal. So, it really is, sort of, a grotesque overstatement. There's a little kernel of truth in there, but it's a long way off from the legal reality.

KEILAR: And then the other thing that is interesting here, Phil Mattingly, is where he says, "for the purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly", he's talking about the investigation into Russian investigation meddling, potential obstruction of justice if that's where the Mueller special counsel is going with this. And he's linking that to why he wouldn't re-open the Hillary Clinton e- mail investigation, unrelated. So, that's sort of political weaponry he's talking about.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I'm not saying I'm going to exercise my absolute power, but I just might exercise my absolutely power if it comes to that point. It was an odd phrase. The president, multiple times throughout this year, has not just kind of walked up to the line of, kind of, undoing the norms that we expect from institutions or that lawmakers expect, or the Justice Department expects from the institutions, or maybe walked a couple of steps over it, and I think he did again in this instance.

Look, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are very uncomfortable with stuff like this. You remember Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, this was one of the reasons he put out a very lengthy statement going after the president for saying that he thought Hillary Clinton should be investigated, saying this erodes the American confidence in their institution. This is the kind of thing that will fire up lawmakers that aren't just Democrats, but Republicans as well, because the institutions and as they currently stand are the things that they want to protect, and that's across the board, there's not enough -- some Republican house members may disagree with me on that.

But I think lawmakers on Capitol Hill are keenly aware that while there are political over the Justice Department, while there are political appointees, there are career Justice Department attorneys who care deeply about the institution, who don't want be put in the positions where they feel like they're being given orders from on high, and those are the types of things that people want to protect -- contrary to what the president might say.

KEILAR: David Drucker, he's made this assertion about having the ability or the right, even though it's clearly not advisable in many of these cases to say the least; he has the right to do whatever he wants as president. Talking to people today, many have said, he just doesn't seem to know where the boundaries are, but it's been a year, he's got a pretty smart chief counsel over there, Don McGahn. Clearly, somebody at this point in time has explained to him the limitations on things. So, what is going here? Is that he maybe doesn't care about what the limitations are? Is it just rhetorical?

DAVID DRUCKER, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Well, look, I don't want to try and shrink the president, but let's take a look at what he's talking about. I think often, voters have look at this, Americans have look at this, come at two opposite experience. Either is, the Department of Justice is a wholly independent organization that is supposed to have no political influence or political players, or it's completely controlled by the president, the president is supposed to do whatever it is that he wants to do with it -- and it's really somewhere in the middle.

The president has oversight of the DOJ, and that is how the DOJ, in turn, is accountable to the voters through the president. By the same token, it is not his personal lawyer and his personal attack machine to go after his political opponents or cover up crimes that he would prefer be covered up. And that's why we have a career lawyers at the DOJ, because they are supposed to enforce the laws of the United States; they are not the president's legal team.

I think the president likes the sort of -- it appears that he likes to act as though the executive branch is his to run entirely as he sees fit. I think part of that was his transition from business to politics, and not understanding the processes. I think now, it gives him a way to show strength, and in the sense, say, I don't think I did anything wrong, but if I don't like the way things are going, maybe I will do something about it and it's a leverage that I think he wants to have over the special counsel and his political opponents that he thinks are coming after him unfairly.

[17:38:22] KEILAR: We have much more ahead, much more to talk about. You think 2017 was wild? What does 2018 hold? We will get our panel's impression of that next.


[17:43:08] KEILAR: And we're back now with our political and legal specialists to talk about the agenda in year ahead. Phil Mattingly, we heard the president expressing some hope that he'd be able to work with Democrats; he talked about infrastructure, he talked about DREAMERS, he talked about health care. Then, at the same time, he lobs off a tweet today and he says to the Democrats, there isn't going to be any DREAMER fix without there being a wall, which is a poison pill for Democrats. How do you see this all playing out?

MATTINGLY: So, I actually saw this since I'm laying out his markers, right? That there -- this is going to commence in a major way in the next couple of days, probably next couple of weeks. They want to try and tie it, not in terms of being inside the vehicle of the spinning bill that's due on January 19th but around the same timeline. And this is what the White House wants; they've put out principles that say something similar. But as you know, there are pieces of this weather it's chain migration element or weather it's the wall itself that Democrats have said are basically non-starters.

Here's the reality: everybody knows the general parameters of this deal, and that is giving DREAMERS some type of (INAUDIBLE) citizenship, or an ability to stay as long as they want inside the country, and there needs to be border security in return for that. Democrats are willing to acknowledge that fact; it's the details that they need to actually hash out right now. If you talk to Democrats, they would like the White House not to be involved at all in this, they would like to negotiate this with Mitch McConnell, with Paul Ryan and work from there.

But the reality is, Republicans who are going to have sell something at large portions of their (INAUDIBLE) aren't going to, like, need the president sign off or whatever happens. So, when the president puts out a tweet like today, whether it upsets Democrats or not, he's laying out markers for a deal that's going to have to be made. People are going to have to make concessions, there's ways around the wall where Democrats get what they want and Republicans get display it to the wall.

KEILAR: You may see it's not really a wall.

MATTINGLY: There's really a lot of ways to work, but I think what the president is doing is acknowledging that things are about to heat in a major way, and this is where he wants to start.

KEILAR: So, Susan, in this interview, one of the things that was very noticeable was that he said 16 times: "there was no collusion", and that he hopes Mueller's going to wrap up the investigation quickly. What did you think about this so many times saying there is no collusion?

HENNESSEY: Yes. So, this White House has a way sort of shedding a bright light on the thing that they're most insecure or concerned about. And whether or not Trump, you know, how many times he says it is not going to dictate whether that's actually a live issue. I mean, one thing that is clearly erroneous is, sort of, the president's representation that this is going to be wrapped up anytime soon. This is, you know, this probably going to extend well into 2018, potentially even past that.

KEILAR: When he says it over and over, though, David Drucker, it seems to be a signal to his supporters and those around him, this is the message, this what we are hammering and trying to make people internalize.

DRUCKER: It's interesting, because the president is so upset by the idea that people think he colluded, are talking about the idea that he colluded, he thinks it undermines legitimacy of his 2016 victory of the presidential race. And you know, he's the one that talks about it more than anybody. I mean, sure Democrats talk about it all the time, but when do reporters tend to deal with it the most? Obviously, when the most important biggest newsmaker in the country talks about it.

And that is President Trump, and he continues to talk about it over and over. And it would actually -- for what he claims to be interested in would work much better for him if he simply said, I'm glad that Special Counsel Mueller is looking into Russian meddling in 2016 -- it was a problem. I look forward to the conclusion of his investigation and leave it at that, and there would really be not much to talk about, but the president keeps raising it as a problem which, of course, leads a lot of us to then ask even more questions.

[17:46:37] KEILAR: David Drucker, Susan Hennessey, and Phil Mattingly, thank you so much. And coming up, suspicious new activity in North Korea, will Kim Jong-un get the new year off to a provocative start with another ballistic missile launch?


[17:51:16] KEILAR: A South Korean official tells CNN, his country seized a Hong Kong registered ship over allegations that its crew transferred refined oil to a North Korean vessel on the high seas, such transfers violate U.N. sanctions. And this week, President Trump complained about China's allege oil sales to Kim Jong-un's regime -- something the Chinese deny. CNN's Brian Todd has spoken with the defector who helped run North Korea's sophisticated smuggling network. Brian, what have you learned?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, we have new information tonight from this defector on exactly how Kim Jong-un's regime gets weapons and other banned material out of the country to sell on the black market. This man knows how Kim gets his cash and helped him get it. Funneling tens of billions of dollars, a year to the young dictator.


TODD: August 2016, a freighter called the Jie Shun is intercepted heading to the Sues Canal. Underneath 2000 tons of iron ore on board, around 30,000 rocket propelled grenades made in North Korea -- part of what a North Korea defector describes a spider web of smuggling to lie in the pockets of Kim Jong-un.

How do North Korean smuggling operations work? Are there people with false names? Are there ships with false names being moved around?

RI JONG-HO, NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR (through translator): The smuggling is conducted by any and every means you can imagine. Larger items are mostly done using ships, for example, by filing the cargo list. Where what's written is different from what is really being shipped.

TODD: For decades, Ri Jong-ho was a top wrangler of cash for Kim Jong-un's regime. He says, he sometimes hand bags of cash to ship captains leaving from China where he was stationed for North Korea. Redefected in 2014, he says he worked mostly in legal imports and exports, but also gave us insight into North Korea's smuggling operations which he describes as being almost unstoppable.

RI: On the open sea, the Yellow Sea, there are hundreds of fishing boats -- both from China and North Korea. And all the smuggling is done by these so-called fishing boats. Instead of fishing, they are involved in smuggling. And it is very difficult even for China to stop these hundreds of fishing boats.

TODD: According to the U.N. and outside analysts, Kim's regime sells weapons on the black market, uses its diplomats to move illegal drugs like methamphetamine. They've trafficked and counterfeit American dollars, fake Viagra, even endangered species.

BRUCE KLINGNER, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Kim Jong-un really sits atop a criminal network that would make Don Corleone or Tony Soprano proud.

TODD: New U.S. sanctions are aimed at tightening limits on North Korean shipping to stop the flow of elicit goods leaving and arriving in North Korea. Those might include luxury items for Kim and his inner circle, like that well-known Mercedes Limo which the supreme leader is often seen stepping out of.

RI: The Mercedes Benz is for example, provided for the leader, they're not legally imported; they're being smuggled in.

TODD: The cash that Ri was so good at getting to his boss, expert say, pays for Kim's weapons and buys off top generals and others to keep them from turning on him.

MARCUS NOLAND, PETERSON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL ECONOMICS: He has to maintain political loyalty. And so, he needs sort of walking around money to hand out.


TODD: North Korean officials at the U.N. have denied that their government engages in smuggling. As for our interview with Ri Jong- ho, a North Korean official said the defector is telling lies to make money and save his own life. Brianna?

KEILAR: Brian Todd, thank you so much for that.

[17:54:37] Coming up, President Trump slams the Russia investigation. And in a single New York Times interview, he insists, 16 times, that there's no collusion. The president also says he has the absolute right to do what he wants with the Justice Department. What does he have in mind?


KEILER: Happening now, bad for the country. President Trump unleashes new attacks on the Russia investigation calling it a witch hunt that hurts the U.S., while also predicting that the special counsel will treat him fairly. This hour, new insights into his mixed messages in a wide-ranging interview.

Do what I want. Mr. Trump claims an absolute right to have the Justice Department do his bidding; a chilling take as he vents his frustrations with his attorney general once again. What might the president be planning?