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Trump Taps Tillerson; Trump "Leaving My Businesses"; Russian Hacking; The Fall of Aleppo. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired December 13, 2016 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:11] GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR: Donald Trump poised to pick the CEO of ExxonMobil as his secretary of state, but there's already plenty of push back of Rex Tillerson and it is not just coming from Republicans.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: A late night tweet from President-elect Donald Trump vowing to leave his business before January 20th. Does that mean he no longer own the Trump Organization?

HOWELL: Questions there.

Plus, new details about Russia's meddling in the presidential election. Why the U.S. intelligence community is so convinced that Moscow is trying to influence the outcome with Donald Trump's favor.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm George Howell.

ROMANS: Nice to see you today, George. Nice to see you. I'm Christine Romans. It is Tuesday, December 13th. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

Breaking overnight, Donald Trump is set to name his pick for secretary of state this morning. Multiple sources tell CNN the president-elect has chosen ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for the job.

Even before the official announcement, there are signs of trouble ahead for Tillerson's nomination and certainty over his views on climate change and his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin raising concerns on both sides of the aisle.

The latest now from CNN's Phil Mattingly at Trump Tower.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, George and Christine. Well, the pick is in. The president-elect will announce that Rex Tillerson, the Exxon CEO, will be his selection for secretary of state. He intends to nominate the Exxon CEO because sources say the two just hit it off. They found a hit with one another. They share similar world views. They share similar backgrounds as deal-makers.

But it really comes down to I'm told, three people, Condoleezza Rice, James Baker, and Robert Gates -- obviously, three individuals with extensive government experience and three individuals who all recommended Rex Tillerson to the president-elect. The two did not have a relationship before this process started. Now, he will be the president-elect's top diplomat.

Now, that doesn't mean he's going to have clear sailing. Democrats have already raised concerns about his potential nomination. Not just Democrats. Republicans have has well primarily because of Tillerson's ties to Russia.

Now, Exxon as an oil company has done numerous deals with the country of Russia and Tillerson himself has a relationship with Vladimir Putin. That relationship has drawn scrutiny, from individuals like by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio. All individuals who could make this confirmation incredibly difficult, in a Senate where Republicans just hold a four-seat advantage.

Now, what does this mean for the other candidates? The many candidates who've seen cycled through over the course of the last couple weeks? Well, obviously, they didn't get the job. But most interestingly, Mitt Romney taking to Facebook, saying he was honored to have been considered for the position and saying he has very high hopes for the Trump administration.

This is a long way from when he called the president-elect a phony and a fake throughout the general election process. But the two formed a sort of mutual respect of one another over the course of this process, according to sources. The president-elect even calling Mitt Romney on Monday night to tell him he did not get the position, that he appreciated his willingness to participate at all.

Now, obviously, that is on the cabinet side of things. But there is a big question on the conflict of interest side of things. And the president-elect was supposed to answer questions this week, touting his news conference on December 15th where he was going to announce he would separate himself from his business interest.

Well, no longer. The reality, according to Trump advisers, is the president-elect has been almost solely focused on personnel, cabinet decisions. And certainly, that's been backed up by the steady stream of individuals who've seen going in and out of the building behind over the course of the last couple weeks.

But there's also this fact: this is an incredibly complicated process, according to Trump advisors. One that Trump's lawyers, the Trump Organization's legal team simply haven't gotten their heads around yet. Donald Trump himself wants to maintain his stake in the company. While he wants to remove himself from operational side of things, he wants to maintain a stake and obviously figure out a legal structure to pass this down to his children -- George and Christine.


ROMANS: All right, Phil.

So much going on. President-elect Trump says he does still plan to disentangle himself from his businesses empire, and he underscored that point in a series of tweets. "Even though I'm not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my business before January 20th, the inauguration, so that I can focus full time on the presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage the team." And he added this, "No new deals will be done during my term in office."

In the final tweet, Mr. Trump committed to hold that press conference in the near future to discuss the business cabinet picks and all other topics of interests. Busy times.

Of course, we have been expecting that press conference this week. We also know that his daughter and son-in-law were house-hunting in Georgetown this weekend. So, you're talking about the two adult sons managing the business.

[04:05:01] So many questions about what Donald Trump's role will be. We're going to have a wait a little bit longer I guess to find out.

HOWELL: Also, interesting that word "new". So, not old deals, but rather new deals.

ROMANS: Right. What about financing the current deals that might be on the books? Loans, for example, that are backed by foreign governments? How will that be treated? We just don't know yet.

HOWELL: That's right.

Well, as Phil mentioned, there are concerns about the Senate, Trump's likely pick for secretary of state and his close ties to Russia. Some of those concerns so great he may not even get past the committee hearing stage.

CNN's Manu Raju spoke about Rex Tillerson's nomination with retiring Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. And Reid says if Tillerson's nomination does make it to the floor for a full vote, bipartisan opposition could very well kill it.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: Well, I don't know if he can get 50 votes or not. I think it may be a little hard for him to do that.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Did reports you are seeing about the Russian connections concern you in any way given Russia's role here?

REID: It's in keeping with Trump. He has already stated he likes Putin better than he likes Obama. So, it's obvious he likes Russia. And that's fairly concerning to the world and certainly concerning to America and it's concerning to me.


ROMANS: If Rex Tillerson is confirmed -- nominated and confirmed, the big oil CEO would become American's emissary on climate change. The Exxon he leads, ExxonMobil, is under investigation by New York and Massachusetts for misleading shareholders about climate change.

But Tillerson is by no means a climate change denier. Since taking the helm in 2006, Tillerson has shifted ExxonMobil stance, admitting climate change is a problem. In 2007, he said the risk of greenhouse gasses could be significant. In 2009, he endorsed a carbon tax on businesses over the proposed cap and trade policy.

Most recently, ExxonMobil supported the Paris agreement. Speaking at the conference last month, Tillerson said it helps world governments work together to solve the issue.

His history could put him at odds with Donald Trump who ripped into the Paris agreement on the campaign trail. He said over the weekend nobody knows if climate change is real.

HOWELL: The Kremlin is flatly rejecting the CIA's assessment that Russians hackers meddled in the U.S. election, with aims of helping Donald Trump. State media there is reporting that Vladimir Putin's press secretary called the claims of Russian interference, quote, "allegations unsupported by any evidence."

Let's go live to Moscow and CNN's Matthew Chance is following the story.

Matthew, the Russian government has expressed interest in seeing the outcome of any investigation into this matter, but all the while saying if there is evidence, to prove it.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, that's what they are saying definitely. They are saying, look, you know, you are making serious allegations about Russia's involvement in these hacking allegations. Without providing any concrete proof that those allegations are true.

And, you know, that's what they have been saying that time and again since this emerged in October at the height of the presidential campaign. And they are even pointing to what Donald Trump is saying as well, because on this issue is with a number of other issues, Donald Trump is singing the same tune as the Kremlin.

When it comes to the hacking allegations, because Trump himself is saying that, you know, he's been briefed in these issues we assume. He's saying that there is no concrete proof that hacking came from Russia. And so, he is trying to play down the significance of those intelligence concerns that Russia may have been implicated possibly for domestic reasons.

He wants to distance himself, of course, from -- any indication that his election was illegitimate. And, of course, he has an eye on making a deal in the future potentially with Vladimir Putin over a range of issues. That's what he talks about in his campaign and that's what the expectation is for his administration here.

HOWELL: And Russia at the same time siding, as you point out, with president-elect who has thrown the U.S. intelligence community under the bus. CHANCE: Yes. He seems to, yes. We don't know. I mean, the problem

is with the allegations that the U.S. intelligence community has come out with, is that they are treating an allegation which is that the Russia engaged in the hacking as an actual fact, without providing the kind of evidence that many people around the world, including the Russians and including Donald Trump, it seems, want to see.

Now, whether those facts or evidence will come out later on as a result of this investigation or result of the public pressure remains to be seen. But nevertheless, without that concrete proof, it gives the opportunity to the Russians and to Trump to say, look, there is no digital evidence. There's no digital footprint. There is no straight line from the hacking straight to the Kremlin.

So, you know, if we are going to put this matter to rest, then we're going to have to see the evidence.

[04:10:00] I mean, no one is doubting that Russia had the motivation to this. I mean, it clearly backed Trump throughout the election campaign. It despised Hillary Clinton, seeing her as a sort of raving anti-Russian, and saw Trump as much more sympathetic to its world view. So, it had every motivation to want to support Trump. And just the extent to which he went to achieve that, that's what is being, I think, disputed in fact.

HOWELL: It is uncertain whether these different agencies would provide their methods and sources into their findings. But certainly notable to point that they are saying, many of them, that they have confidence in those findings.

Matthew Chance live for us in Moscow -- Matthew, thank you.

ROMANS: All right. Ten minutes past the hour.

The Clinton campaign is publicly backing a handful of electors from the Electoral College who are asking for intelligence briefings before they vote on December 19th. Ten electors from five states are asking the director of national intelligence for, quote, "all investigative" related to Russia's involvement in the election.

Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta calls the request, quote, "a very grave issue involving our national security."

HOWELL: Despite all the chaos, the Donald Trump "Thank You" tour is hitting the road again. The president-elect a stop in Wisconsin later tonight, to be joined by Vice President-elect Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan. The next stop on that "Thank You" tour is Hershey, Pennsylvania. It is set for Thursday.

ROMANS: All right. Chinese officials sending a warning to the president-elect. Respect the One China Policy on Taiwan or risk severing ties. Where does this relationship go from here?

EARLY START back in a moment.


The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is set to meet with the president-elect here in New York in the coming days. General Joseph Dunford is the chief military advisor to the president. We're told that he is finalizing a new classified military strategy to present to Donald Trump and that he also plans to discuss how U.S. forces are being deployed around the world.

[04:15:07] ROMANS: The Republican Party chairwoman in Michigan, Rana Romney McDaniel, is Donald Trump's pick to become the next head of the RNC. The transition source tells CNN this announcement is expected this week. Romney McDaniel would succeed Reince Priebus, who is now the president-elect's chief of staff. She is the niece of former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

HOWELL: Donald Trump in his latest comments is making it clear that he will not back down (VIDEO GAP) saying, quote, "that they are seriously concerned." The president-elect continuing to question whether the U.S. should adhere to the longstanding agreement called the One China Policy, specifically that Taiwan is part of China. Trump is showing he is willing to provoke Chinese officials on this very sensitive matter until they agree to new talks on trade and North Korea.

CNN's Matt Rivers has been following this story and is live in Beijing this hour.

Matt, Chinese officials have made it clear to the billionaire business now president-elect the One China Policy is not for sale.

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right. As much as the president-elect says he wants to use the One China Policy as a point of leverage in future negotiations on things like trade, North Korea, even Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea, the Chinese have countered very, very strongly here in Beijing over the last 48 hours or so, saying this is not something that they are willing to negotiate, that any bilateral cooperation that will exist between the United States and China will have to happen under the auspices of both sides acknowledging the One China Policy.

We heard strong reaction in Beijing yesterday. And today, we hear continued strong negative reaction to the president-elect's comments, specifically in state-run media, communist party-censored newspapers. And we have a bit of editorial that we in Beijing here woke up to this morning from a tabloid newspaper called "The Global Times", again censored by the communist party.

The editorial reading, quote, "The truth is this president-elect is inexperienced in diplomatic practices. Probably, he has idea what he's talking about. He has greatly overestimated the U.S.'s capability of dominating the world and fails to understand the limitation of U.S. powers in the current era."

So, it is safe to say that given that, the communist party approves what is printed in all newspapers here, that that feeling, that negative feeling towards the president-elect is continuing just one day after we heard from the first time from Chinese officials how unhappy they were with Donald Trump's comments.

HOWELL: We heard from the tabloid. We heard from officials. And we also saw a show of military force over the weekend.

RIVERS: That's exactly right. What we saw actually was December 7th and 8th. So, it was between the call that Donald Trump had with the Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, and the comments that he made to FOX News. It was a show of force.

According to officials that spoken to CNN, China flew for the first time over contested areas in the South China Sea, bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. And what you're hearing from members of the diplomatic community here in Beijing is that it's pretty obvious that given the timing of that flight, it could be a signal to the president-elect a show of force, if you will, that it was not happy that the fact that Donald Trump took a phone call with the president of Taiwan. Just a few days later, he is making comments about the One China Policy -- very interesting start to the U.S./China relationship under the incoming Trump administration.

HOWELL: Also interesting to see the current administration pointing out the United States does adhere to the One China Policy.

Matt Rivers live for us in Beijing -- Matt, thank you.

ROMANS: All right. Back to politics there. The ballots have been officially recounted in Wisconsin and the winner is Donald Trump. The state elections commission saying it cannot only recertify the president-elect is the winner, but award him 131 more votes in the process. Green Party candidate Jill Stein ordered and financed the recount over concerns of hacking possibilities and what she called other voting irregularities.

Donald Trump celebrated that win on Twitter, saying, quote, this, "The Wisconsin win is in and guess what? We just picked up an additional 131 votes. The Dems and the Green Party can now rest. Scam."

HOWELL: All right. Also in Pennsylvania, a federal judge ruled last month's election results will stand and Trump is the winner there. The judge rejecting Jill Stein's push for a recount, saying in part, suspicion of a hacked Pennsylvania election "borders on the irrational."

ROMANS: Up next, the crisis in Aleppo. Thousands of civilians trying to flee the carnage there. New reports of mass executions by Syrian government forces. How much longer before the city falls, the fighting stop? What is the status of the rebel movement? A live report ahead.


[04:23:34] ROMANS: Humanitarian groups in Syria pleading for help this morning as government forces enter the final stages of recapturing Aleppo. Thousands of civilians are fleeing. Several of the groups report large numbers of people with ties to rebels are being executed. CNN has not been able to verify those reports.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh is monitoring the situation. She joins us live.

Jomana, what do we know here about those rebels who are caught in the crosshairs?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, here's what we know right now about the situation, Christine. We are hearing from people on the ground, from residents, from activists, from a monitoring group, too, saying that there had been reports -- these are unverified reports at this point -- of mass executions that have taken place. They say it was committed by regime forces in areas that they captured from rebel fighters. They say that people who are relatives of rebels have been rounded up and that includes women and children and they were executed publicly.

The United Nations is also receiving these unverified reports and expressed its concern and alarm over what it says are these reports of mass atrocities against civilians, including women and children, but also the United Nations stressing that they cannot independently verify these reports. It is very hard to verify reports out of eastern Aleppo.

[04:25:01] What is going on right now, but we have been speaking to people there. And they really draw a very grim picture. It is becoming harder to find the words to describe this situation on the ground.

People, thousands have fled this neighborhood that were captured by the regime yesterday. They moved into this very small enclave of what is left of eastern Aleppo under the control of the rebels. People there are huddled together in buildings. They're really crammed in the small area. They are running out of space to find shelter. People are on the streets and that intense, relentless and indiscriminate artillery shelling that's continuing.

People are describing dead bodies on the street and wounded with no one to help. And when you talk to people and you really hear the fear in their voices and that despair. And they fear that now, it's a matter of time before what is left of Eastern Aleppo is going to fall to the regime. They do not know what their fate is going to be. They fear this is it. They could be facing death right now as the regime closes in on what's left, Christine.

ROMANS: Terrifying. What is the status of the rebels if Aleppo falls? If the government is able to retake Aleppo, is there another stronghold or is that the last stand for the rebels?

KARADSHEH: That's the big question right now is what we are going to see happen? It seemed that, yes, Eastern Aleppo or that little tiny enclave is on the verge of falling. That rebels are on the verge of complete defeat in Eastern Aleppo. But what are they going to do? Are they going to continue fighting until the last minute or are we going to see some sort of a deal where they're going to be able to leave? Now, it's looking very unlikely the United States has been working in

talks with the Russians to try and reach some sort of a deal. But all indications right now that it is unlikely that any sort of deal will happen to create the safe passage for the rebels to move to the western part of the country to Idlib province and to evacuate the civilians who remains to be seen what happened in the coming hours and coming days -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Jomana Karadsheh, thank you so much for that, Jomana.

HOWELL: We are also following the Twitter account of Bana Alabed, a 7-year-old girl in eastern Aleppo. Just tweeted 19 minutes ago.

"My name is Bana. I'm 7 years old. I'm talking to the world now live from east Aleppo. This is my last moment to either live or die."

Still ahead, Donald Trump is poised to pick ExxonMobil's Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. But before the official announcement, there are signs of trouble ahead for his nomination. It's not just from Democrats. The story ahead here on EARLY START.