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Trump Presidency; North Korea Committed to Nuclear Development; Assaults Targeting Egyptian Coptic Community; Animals Evacuated from Syrian Amusement Park; Stepped-Up Security for Times Square. Aired 12- 12:30a ET

Aired December 30, 2017 - 00:00   ET

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


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(MUSIC PLAYING) NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Historically low approval ratings put President Trump behind his predecessors. We'll look at the possible effects of his America first motto.

North Korea seeks to evolve its nuclear capabilities.

And with New Year's Eve just around the corner, New York City amps up its security.

All these stories ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Natalie Allen live in Atlanta and we begin right now.

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ALLEN: Our top story, U.S. President Donald Trump is wrapping up his first year in office with the lowest approval rating of any president in at least 65 years, maybe ever for that matter.

CNN's own poll puts that approval rating at just 35 percent, far behind any of his predecessors at the same point. Even back in October, his approval rating was at the very bottom of past presidents but that has not stopped Mr. Trump from claiming his approval rating matches that of former president Barack Obama.

For more now, here's CNN's Sara Murray.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump in full vacation mode and hosting Coast Guard members for golf at his Palm Beach club.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I said to come use my course. I didn't know I would be flooded, but that's OK. You guys go 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 Russian 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 will 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 will 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 is hoping to work with Democrats on health care, infrastructure and immigration, tweeting: "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 & 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: President Trump also took to Twitter to express his displeasure of the media's coverage of his approval ratings, insisting that his numbers are on par with where President Obama's were at the end of his first year in office.

But if you look at nearly every reputable poll, you can see that President Trump's numbers trail behind nearly every one of his predecessors, including President Obama -- Sara Murray, CNN, West Palm Beach, Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: The president's comments about being able to tell the Justice Department what to do earned a sharp rebuke from the man who used to run the agency under President Obama.

Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder fired back on Twitter, "Wrong/dangerous. Trump doesn't have absolute rights with DOJ but women and men there have absolute duty to follow Constitution and rule of law -- not a man. Career DOJ people have ABSOLUTE right to defy illegal orders.

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ALLEN: "And they will. I know them."

As for what to expect in the new year, Mr. Trump has already set the tone with his America first policy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)]

TRUMP: NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations, but 23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they're supposed to be paying for their defense. This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States.

The Paris Agreement handicaps the United States economy in order to win praise from the very foreign capitals and global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country's expense. They don't put America first. I do, and I always will.

We've had a very good relationship with China in all fairness and I do like President Xi. I wish we would have a little more help with respect to North Korea from China but that doesn't seem to be working out.

He does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody's seen before, what will happen in North Korea.

But we can no longer be taken advantage of or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return. As long as I hold this office, I will defend America's interests above all else.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ALLEN: Well, let's talk now about the year that was. Robert English teaches international relations at the University of Southern California.

Thank you for joining us.

ROBERT ENGLISH, USC: You're quite welcome.

ALLEN: How do you sum up the first year of the Trump presidency, from zingers, tweets, alleged collusion, take a day.

ENGLISH: I guess among the foreign policy community, experts, analysts, academics, the best, most we'd say is that it's not been as bad as they'd feared, right, the good is that it could have been worse.

So we have saber rattling and ruffled feathers all around the world but we've avoided major war. That's not very high praise and the worst is probably yet to come. In other words, we're sowing the seed for future problems by alienating allies and inflaming conflict all around. And this policy of America first is fine to declare. But we can't go it alone.

And we're shedding allies very rapidly. It'll come back to haunt us.

ALLEN: So that said, is the U.S. stronger or weaker and what has this president achieved for his very loyal base?

ENGLISH: I think the country is weaker. Abroad we're clearly weaker. So of course we're building up the military. We have a target of a 350-ship Navy, Air Force, infantry, Marines.

So what?

Those gains are outweighed by the loss of support from allies, by the confusion we cause and the conflicts that are inflamed that will come back to haunt us. And I'd like point out something that's often overlooked.

So we're talking about foreign policy and we tend to think about the instruments of foreign policy and our allies in foreign policy. We shouldn't forget the foreign policy begins at home. It begins with a strong economy and a united populace.

And tax policies that are going to increase polarization and perhaps weaken us in the long run and social policies that inflame and divide, you know, even backing, for goodness sake, an accused child molester, an apologist for slavery, these thing resonate abroad in the worst possible way.

That President Trump doesn't seem to appreciate. And when we need allies, as future junctures, a crisis in North Korea, the South China Sea, we may find that Japan, that England, Germany and others aren't there as they've been in the past.

ALLEN: Let's talk about the specifics if we can. We have time for one more, though. He pulled out of the climate accord. He's played really tough with North Korea, which s considered the most dangerous issue in the world. And now he is kind of stepping back and let China perhaps be the global leader.

What of these issues will you be looking for in year two with this president?

ENGLISH: North Korea, of course. The climate accord, what's happening environmentally, globally, is a tragedy and our abdication of leadership is another example of what I just said.

But North Korea is the most dangerous current issue. And so far, it's been saber rattling. Let's hope it doesn't get any worse. We are in a very dangerous situation. I have to acknowledge --

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ENGLISH: -- that behind the saber rattling, the Trump administration has fairly effectively tightened sanctions that limit the North Korean regime's access to financing through smuggling, contraband, money laundering and the like.

That's a small gain. But the big nuclear issue is unresolved and the path thereon will not resolve it in any fashion but the most dangerous one.

ALLEN: As you said, the good news about this first year is we're not at war. I guess the other positive thing is the economy is doing well. We really appreciate your comments, Professor English, and I'm sure we'll have a chance to talk again. Thank you.

ENGLISH: My pleasure.

ALLEN: We mentioned North Korea. Well, Pyongyang is telling the world not to expect any changes. It remains committed to developing its nuclear capabilities next year. A report in North Korean state media says as long as the U.S. and its allies remain a threat, the regime will push its program forward.

Pyongyang also boasted it can strike the U.S. with world-class nuclear power. But it calls itself "a responsible nuclear weapons state."

At the same time, there are troubling signs North Korea may conduct another weapons test sometime after the new year. Our Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: U.S. officials are now telling me they are watching for the very real possibility that North Korea may launch another ballistic missile in yet another weapons test.

It is not imminent. The signs are still very preliminary. But right now, they don't think it's a satellite launch; much more likely to be a missile launch, if North Korea were to proceed with this. Now in an end-of-the-year meeting with Pentagon reporters, Defense

Secretary James Mattis said he was still very much on the page of diplomacy, buttressed by economic sanctions, trying to underscore that diplomacy will not be just words, that there will be real economic pressure on North Korea to give up its weapons program.

But, of course, no sign at this point that Kim Jong-un has any intention of doing that. So if there is a missile test, it comes at a very sensitive time after the New Year, when secretary of state Rex Tillerson is headed to Canada for meetings with the allies about North Korea.

And, of course, just weeks away from the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, a time when everyone is looking for a little stability and no drama in the region -- Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: ISIS has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Coptic church near the Egyptian capital of Cairo. Nine people were killed Friday when gunmen opened fire as people left the church service.

The archbishop of the district says worshipers inside could hear machine gun rounds for about 15 minutes. Later Friday evening, grief- stricken families held a funeral for the victims. This is just the latest in a string of attacks on minority Coptic Christians in Egypt this year. CNN's Salma Abdelaziz tells us more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN PRODUCER: Egypt is reeling after another attack on its Christian minority today in Cairo. Let's go through what happened.

Shortly after Friday services ended at the St. Mina (ph) Coptic Church in Idlan (ph) in Greater Cairo, as worshippers were leaving the church, two gunmen opened fire on the crowd; armed with machine guns police fired back. A gun battle ensued between them that lasted for about 15 minutes according to the archbishop of the church.

Nine people were killed. Among them, one police officer and separately one of those two gunmen was killed as well. The second one was arrested. He is the man that authorities have described as a known terrorist, one who has been involved in previous attacks.

And they say he had a bomb with him and he had intended to enter the church and detonate this explosive device.

Still, the attack was bloody and brazen, taking place during the day in Cairo. It is absolutely terrifying for residents but it is of particular concern to the Coptic Christian community in Egypt. Remember this is a minority group that makes up about 10 percent of the country's population. And they have long said that they're treated as second class citizens in Egypt.

But the past few years have been particularly bloody for the Coptic minority in Egypt. As President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has waged war on his opponents, as ISIS has taken a hold in the Sinai, as terrorism has been on the rise in the country, more and more of these types of attacks on Coptic Christians have taken place.

Remember one of the deadliest attacks on Christians in Egypt's history happened this year on Palm Sunday. That was in April; two churches were bombed, almost 50 people killed.

But it's important to remember that it's not just Egypt's Christian community that is suffering terrorism. Just last month, a mosque --

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ABDELAZIZ: -- was attacked by ISIS. Almost 300 people lost their lives.

The entire country really reeling from terrorism. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has issued his condolences to the victims of this attack. He has said it will only strengthen the country's resolve in the face of terrorism.

But during this holiday season, when people are on edge, of course Christmas for the orthodox community will be coming up in January. During these times they want to feel safe. But they're going to point to attacks like this one to say the state isn't doing enough to protect them -- Salma Abdelaziz, CNN, Paris.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: New York City is taking steps to keep Times Square safe this weekend. We'll tell you what they're doing toward that regard.

Plus:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One of Asian black bears that, when he hears a military helicopter fly overhead, he will immediately run into the night room.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALLEN: The tragic story of animals scarred by Syria's civil war but we report on how they're now recovering.

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ALLEN: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM.

Iranian police dispersed rare antigovernment protests on Friday in the western city of Kermanshah (ph). Similar protests spread through the country, including the capital, Tehran. The demonstrations began on Thursday in response to a surging crisis but they've since adopted a more purely political tone, calling out government corruption and Iranian participation in conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, antigovernment rebels are evacuating the Beit Jin area near Damascus. State media report it's part of a deal with the government. Some of the rebels and their families are supposed to go to Idlib province. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said many of Beit Jin rebels are part of an Al Qaeda-linked group.

The Syrian civil war is set to reach its seventh anniversary in 2018. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed but they're not the only casualties. CNN's Hala Gorani has more on zoo animals in one devastated Syrian city and how people came together to help them.

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HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Originally modeled after Disneyland, the sprawling theme park is now a war zone on the outskirts of Aleppo. Like much of the city, Syria's long conflict has laid waste to the Magic World Zoo. And to the helpless animals inside, unable to escape when bombs began to fall.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Apparently, there was over 300 animals in the zoo and only 13 survivors. So that tells you the horrific conditions that they had to exist in.

GORANI (voice-over): Violence, starvation and disease claimed most of the lives inside here. But help came for the few animals who survived.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm very happy that the animals are here. But we still have very large (INAUDIBLE).

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GORANI (voice-over): In July, Dr. Emir Kal (ph), an animal rescue organization For Paws (ph) conducted what was essentially a military operation. Across hundreds of kilometers to one of the world's most dangerous war zones, they moved the traumatized animals to safety.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was a mission that was planned for several months in advance because it was so dangerous. And people literally risked their lives for these animals.

Once all 13 animals were retrieved, then the trucks started rolling through Syria, through different checkpoints, until the borders were open for them in Turkey.

GORANI (voice-over): Arriving safely to Turkey from Aleppo was a nearly miraculous feat. The animals were safe there until they could be airlifted to their new home, a wildlife reserve in Jordan.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The physical wounds that they arrived with were really hard to see. They were just totally dehydrated. They were malnourished. They were very, very skinny.

GORANI (voice-over): Months later, their physical wounds have healed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sayid (ph), hello, hello.

GORANI (voice-over): But the scars from suffering years of conflict don't fade as quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The emotional attributes they bring with them, they don't display that as obvious as the physical wounds. Sometimes, we see, if we just raise a broom sometimes around Sayid, he will react.

One of Asian black bears that, when he hears a military helicopter fly overhead, he will immediately run into the night room.

GORANI (voice-over): These four-legged refugees can now recover in peace, owing their lives to the small, dedicated group that dared to save them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If we want to call ourselves civilized, we have to be able to share this planet with these magnificent beings. And that's part of my work.

GORANI (voice-over): Hala Gorani, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: Who isn't, what isn't scarred by war?

Coming up here, the ball will drop soon in Times Square. We'll tell you about the added security at New Year's celebrations in the Big Apple.

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ALLEN: Heading to New York Times Square for New Year's Eve along with 2 million other revelers?

You'll be joined by stepped-up security including snipers on rooftops, vapor-detecting dog and radiation detection devices.

Whatever it takes, right?

CNN's Athena Jones has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there. The New Year's Eve celebration here in Times Square is an iconic event. It's also a massive security challenge. This is something the NYPD has been preparing for since the last confetti was being swept up after last year's celebration. That's according to the police commissioner. We will see a stepped-up police presence here in and around Times

Square this year. That means more uniformed police officers, more police officers carrying heavy weapons and more dogs.

Where I'm standing right here, including several blocks north, south, east and west, it's going to shut down to vehicular traffic starting relatively early on Sunday morning. There will be 12 access points for spectators, who want to come in and enter this area to view the ball drop, ring in 2018.

Those spectators are going to see teams of police officers, they're going to see metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs. They're going to see police who are able to detect radiological material.

And they're going to have to go through two checkpoints, two screenings of their bags and of their persons in order to enter the pins to celebrate the New Year.

Also for the first time, "The New York Times" is reporting that for the first time, police will be attaching reflective material to the outsides of some of the buildings in and around Times Square and that is so they can help -- those -- that --

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JONES: -- reflective material can help them locate any gunman or shooter, should there be one. That, of course, is a lesson from the Las Vegas shooting.

Among the other stepped-up efforts, there will be rooftop observation and counter sniper teams; 125 parking garages in and around this area will be sealed and police officers are also undergoing a special suicide attack training, training to try to help prevent any sort of suicide attack.

We're also going to see the familiar sanitation trucks, filled with sand and cement blocks to help block off this area to prevent any sort of vehicular attack.

Now authorities from the mayor, the police commissioner on down say there is no credible threat to this New Year's Eve celebrations here in Times Square, no credible threat to New York City in general but they want everyone to remain vigilant.

They say that there's some 2 million people they expect to come out on Sunday night, so all remain vigilant and, as they say, if you see something, say something. Back to you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: Well, there is a threat from Old Man Winter. It is deeply, dangerously cold across much of the northern U.S., cold enough for a sizeable part of Niagara Falls -- check out that picture -- to freeze up.

(WEATHER REPORT) ALLEN: Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Natalie Allen. Our top stories right after this.