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Tillerson Faces Challenging Confirmation; Trump "Leaving My Businesses"; Russian Hacking; The Fall of Aleppo. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 13, 2016 - 05:00   ET


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

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

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell. It is Tuesday, December 13th, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

And breaking overnight: Donald Trump now set to name his pick for the role of secretary of state this morning. And multiple sources telling CNN the president-elect has chosen the man you see here, the CEO of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson as the man for that job. Even before, though, the official announcement comes out, there are already signs of trouble ahead for Tillerson's nomination. There is uncertainty over his views on climate change, also the questions about his close relationship with the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, raising concerns on both sides of the aisle.

We get more 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.

[05:00:02] 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, thank you for that.

President-elect Trump says he does still plan to disentangle himself from the business empire. And he underscored that point in a series of tweets. Here we go: "Even though I'm not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my business before January 20th," that's the inauguration, "so that I can focus full time on the presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them."

And he added this. "No new deals will be done during my terms in office."

And a final tweet, Mr. Trump committed to hold that press conference in the near future to discuss the business cabinet picks and all of the topics of interest. Busy times. In fact, so busy that the December 15th press conference has now been cancelled.

So, a lot of questions. No new deals. What does that mean? What entanglements with foreign governments of loans to his properties and the like? We just don't know yet.

HOWELL: Yes. As Phil mentioned, now, there are concerns in the Senate about the likely pick for secretary of state and his close business ties to Russia. Some of those concerns so great, he might 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: Not surprising Harry Reid, of course, to be concerned about that pick.

You know, if Rex Tillerson is nominated or confirmed, the big oil CEO would become America's emissary on climate change. The company 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, he has shifted ExxonMobil's stance, admitting the climate change is real. 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.

[05:05:04] Most recently, ExxonMobil supported the Paris agreement. Speaking at a conference last month, Tillerson said it helps world governments work together to solve the issue. Tillerson's history could put him at odds with Donald Trump who ripped into the Paris agreement on the campaign trail and said nobody really knows if climate change is real.

HOWELL: There is strong reaction to the Tillerson nomination from Russia this morning and it's just about all positive.

Let's go live to Moscow. CNN's Matthew Chance is live.

Matthew, good morning.


That's right, the potential nomination of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state of the United States has already been greeted enthusiastically here even before that expected tweet of his name from Donald Trump has been made. Russian politicians have been falling over themselves to heap praise on the Texas oil man.

The Kremlin spokesman told CNN earlier that this was a positive thing. That Rex Tillerson was a pragmatist and had contacts at the highest level of the Russian government. They have done deals, of course, in the past, involving hundreds of billions of dollars worth of in cash, worth of deals with the Russian government and Exxon, which he is the CEO of.

And also, the head of the Russian parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, has gone even further, saying that this is a sensation. This demonstrates the seriousness of Donald Trump. And so, there's a great deal of excitement.

You get the sense in Russia that not only Donald Trump is going to take on the White House and be the president of the United States, but Rex Tillerson, a friend of Russia, so much of a friend of Russia that he was awarded a medal for being a friend of Russia by Vladimir Putin himself back in 2013. But he's going to be the secretary of state.

So, all this anticipation that the rocky relationship under that government and the United States, between Russia and the United States could change significantly.

HOWELL: Matthew Chance live in Moscow -- Matthew, thank you.

A lot to talk about for sure, especially Trump's likely pick for secretary of state. And to help break it all down for us these questions about Rex Tillerson's nomination, CNN politics reporter Tal Kopan, Tal Kopan, and along with political analyst and bestselling author Ellis Henican live with us here on set.

ROMANS: Good morning to you, guys.


ELLIS HENICAN, POLITICAL ANALYST AND BESTSELLING AUTHOR: Hey. How are you? HOWELL: So, Rex Tillerson, the very likely pick, that's what we are hearing from sources, but we're also hearing from many people on both sides of the aisle, they question his ties to Russia. Let's listen here to what we hear from Senator McCain talking specifically about Rex Tillerson.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Anybody who is a friend of Vladimir Putin must disregard the fact that Vladimir Putin is a murderer, a thug, a KGB agent whose airplanes as we speak have been targeting with precision weapons hospitals in Aleppo, who have committed atrocities throughout the region and has destabilized Ukraine, has invaded Ukraine, destabilizing -- trying to destabilize Baltic countries. And the list goes on and on.


HOWELL: Ellis, I'll start with you. The simple fact there is a relationship or a friendship, is that a positive or is that a negative as Senator McCain states?

HENICAN: Well, that itself is fine. I mean, I don't object to having a secretary of state who actually knows people in the world. And Rex Tillerson does. So, I mean, that's on the good side of the equation.

But, you know, you have to take some pause with the name is greeted with high fives in the Kremlin and head shaking on Capitol Hill. And I think that's where we are at this point. We don't really know the political issues in Washington.

It is still coming together. Does the Russian hacking investigation, interfere with it? I got to tell you, the initial signs are that there are going to be some questions here.

ROMANS: You know, there will be questions. I mean, when someone is so closely tied with the Russian president at a time when, you know, we are having the questions about the Russian hacking. But Donald Trump, the point the surrogates keep making to me is that, you know, this is a guy who knows how to get stuff done. This is a guy who can pick up the phone and presidents, (INAUDIBLE) kings and prime ministers pick up the phone.

Petro diplomacy is more powerful than Washington insiders realize. This is someone who maybe because he knows how to get things done, can move things along in America's interests. That's what they're going to have to try to prove in these confirmation hearings.

KOPAN: That's right. Keep in mind after Louisiana voted this weekend, the Senate split right now is 52-48. Republicans can't afford to lose more than three members if Democrats vote as one bloc. So, we already had four Republican senators they have questions.

So, you're right, the mission now is to convince these people that Rex Tillerson is great because he can sort of do what he did in the business world and make some of the connections. ROMANS: I have to say, it really looks to me that fits so well.

[05:10:02] Rex Tillerson's pick is well with the other names, Gary Cohn from Goldman Sachs. When you look at Steve Mnuchin, the treasury pick. These are dealmakers who have been very successful and made their money by doing what they do well. It's interesting to me that Trump the dealmaker is surrounding himself with people he can understand, other dealmakers.

HOWELL: Dealmakers, yes.


HENICAN: Can I push back on the world connection? Listen, anyone who is secretary of state gets calls returned, right?

ROMANS: That's true.

HENICAN: I mean, it doesn't matter if you ever heard of the person. If you are some head of the state, or some business leader elsewhere, when the American secretary of state is online three, usually, you say, "Hello, sir".

HOWELL: Let's talk about Rex Tillerson, the likely pick of Trump when it comes to the relationship with China, OK? Trump has made some statements that has certainly drawn the ire of China.

The question here -- focusing on this sensitive matter on the One China Policy, Tal, is that something that can truly be used as leverage as a businessman? You know, coming in -- becoming the president of the United States looking to use this as leverage to talk about trade, to talk about North Korea? Will that work?

KOPAN: Well, we'll see. And remember, that's exactly what Trump has always said he likes to do, right? This is "The Art of the Deal" author. He said numerous times throughout the campaign trail that he's all about getting leverage and negotiations. And, you know, going back to who selected first ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, who is someone who can communicate with the Chinese. You wonder if there is a good cop-bad cop situation going here.

But keep in mind as well, one of the things we've seen is Donald Trump takes these calls from world leaders, he has not talked to the State Department. He has not gotten briefings from diplomats. And this pick of Rex Tillerson signals that he may not necessarily follow this tradition of getting a lot of advice from career diplomats about how to handle some of these situations.

ROMANS: Interesting, too, that Terry Branstad was cheered by the Chinese. The Chinese said they know him and they can work with him and they hold him in high regard. And the same thing with the Russian reaction to Rex Tillerson.

Donald Trump is picking people he knows can talk to people he has been critical of, not necessarily the Russians, but at least in the Chinese case. HENICAN: That's right. Pretty soon, he will get someone who can talk

to Mitt Romney for sure.


HOWELL: You remember the briefings he is taking right now, he is focusing on nth Korea.

HENICAN: It's interesting. We have not had a president-elect who came in sort of promoting skepticism in his relationship with the American government as it now stands. I mean, dissing the CIA over the Russian hacking stuff, for instance, sets a tone that is really different from picking a nominee who may be not everyone loves. I mean, it raises questions that I don't think we know the answers to yet.

HOWELL: We'll have to see January 20th.

ROMANS: We'll talk. We're going to come back in a few minutes. We'll talk about business dealings. I want to know what you guys think about what we're going to learn about his business dealings and how he's going to disentangle. So, don't go away, guys.

HOWELL: Thank you. We'll see you shortly.

Still ahead, as we mentioned, President-elect Trump pushing Beijing's buttons by talking about the One China Policy on Taiwan. Beijing is also pushing back too. We're live there in a moment.


[05:16:13] HOWELL: Welcome back.

Ballots have officially recounted -- been recounted in Wisconsin. The winner there is Donald Trump. The state's election commission saying that it can no -- not only recertify the president-elect is the winner, but also awarded 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 irregularities. Trump celebrated said, "The final Wisconsin vote is in and guess what? We just picked up an additional 131 votes. The Dems and Green Party can now rest. Scam", he says.

Also in Pennsylvania, a federal judge ruled last month's election results will stand with Donald Trump as the winner of that state. The judge rejecting Jill Stein's push for recount saying suspicion of a hacked Pennsylvania election borders on the irrational.

ROMANS: All right. Trump in his latest comments making it clear he will not back down from China. It is drawing a sharp response from officials in Beijing, saying they are seriously concerned. 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 agreed on new talks on trade and North Korea.

I want to bring in Matt Rivers. He is with us this morning live from Beijing.

This is a really fascinating development. Donald Trump before he's even president has managed to move the boundaries of what is the negotiation with China.

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he is bringing up a topic and item and point of leverage if you listen to what the president-elect says and negotiation that, frankly, no president has done this for decades in traditional foreign policy in the United States. But what you are hearing from the Chinese side is that they will not entertain that notion. So, the Chinese came out just as strong if not stronger than Trump and said the One China Policy is not for sale, that it is not something that they will use as a point of negotiation in any or point of leverage or point of bargaining in any future negotiation about trade, about the joint cooperation between China and the United States in terms of curbing North Korea's nuclear program, in terms of any Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea.

We have heard a very, very consistent line of comments from Chinese officials, both officially on the record, officials up on the podium, but also more of an unofficial way. The communist party here controls all media in China, all Chinese media that is. And they frequently use state-run newspapers to get out a more provocative viewpoint.

And so, here in Beijing this morning, in the "Global Times", the tabloid newspaper, there was an editorial that caught our eye. And that editorial read in part, quote, "The truth is this president- elect, inexperienced in diplomatic practices, probably has no idea of what he's talking about. He has greatly overestimated the U.S. capability of dominating the world and fails to understand the limitations of U.S. powers in the current era."

And all of this is coming, Christine, you'll note, it was just nine or ten ago days at this point that President-elect Trump took a call from the president of Taiwan, and that was another precedent-breaking move in the president-elect relationship the president-elect appears to be attempting to do in this relationship between U.S. and China.

ROMANS: Yes. Well, it's fascinating to see how this goes forward. Thanks so much, Matt Rivers, for that.

HOWELL: Interesting to point out the president-elect saying that he is aware of the One China Policy and that that call, that was a planned call. So, we will see how that relationship continues after he takes the oath of office.

Still ahead here, we have to tell you about this crisis that's playing out in Aleppo. Thousands of civilians have been trying to escape carnage with reports now of mass executions by Syrian government forces. How much longer before the city falls and the fighting stops? We'll have a live report, ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [05:23:59] HOWELL: Welcome back.

The crisis in Syria, humanitarian groups there are pleading for help, as government forces enter the final stages of recapturing the city of Aleppo. Thousands of civilians are trying to escape and now, we are hearing from several humanitarian groups that large numbers of people with ties to rebel forces are all being executed. CNN has been not able to verify those reports.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh is monitoring the situation and joins us live this hour.

Jomana, what's the latest?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, these reports, George, are coming from several sources, these are residents, from activists, and also, that Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, that monitoring group, and they are reporting these unverified reports that CNN cannot independently verify of civilians who have been executed they say in areas where regime forces entered yesterday.

These reports say that these people who are rounded up are family members of rebel fighters. They include women and children and they were executed on the spot.

[05:25:06] Now, the United Nations is also receiving these reports. They cannot independently verify these reports, they say. But they are really concerned about these reports of mass atrocities committed against civilians in eastern Aleppo, including women and children. People we have been speaking to, they are also hearing these reports.

They are absolutely terrified. Thousands upon thousands of civilians who had to flee their homes in areas the regime captured. They are all crammed in these small areas, that little enclave that is under rebel control. They are living under intense shelling and they're describing scenes where bodies are lying in the streets and wounded with no one there to help them.

And these people feel the regime is closing in, they don't know their fate and nowhere else left to run -- George.

HOWELL: One thing that really drives home the heartbreak, thousands of people around the world had been following the Twitter account of a 7-year-old girl. I don't know if we can take the picture of 7-year- old Bana full screen, just to show people who we're talking about.

And, Jomana, she has tweeted this morning. Can you give us a little background? And what is she saying now?

KARADSHEH: Well, George, Bana Alabed is a 7-year-old girl in eastern Aleppo. Her and her mother Fatima have been tweeting for a few months now about life in eastern Aleppo. They say they wanted to give the children of eastern Aleppo a voice and a face for people to relate to around the world.

Now, a couple of weeks ago, their home was bombed. They have been on the run since and fled to another house where they found shelter. We have spoken to them. We have been in touch with the family.

But that home was again hit yesterday. Bana's father was injured. The children according to their mother, Bana and her younger brothers who are three and five, have been absolutely terrified seeing their father injured. We're told it's not a serious injury, but they had to flee again.

But they are also in the little area that is left under regime control. They have nowhere safe left to go. And they are absolutely terrified right now. We have been speaking to them since.

And as you mentioned that tweet from Bana. This came out an hour ago, saying, "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. Bana."

These are similar messages to what we have been hearing from so many residents of eastern Aleppo, those who still have access to social media, sending out what they believe are their final messages to the world.

HOWELL: And now, the question is what happens as we hear the unconfirmed reports of Syrian forces moving in, executing men, women and children. What happens to her and her mother?

ROMANS: The U.N. humanitarian office calling it a meltdown of humanitarian in Aleppo.

Jomana Karadsheh, thank you.

HOWELL: Thank you, Jomana.

ROMANS: We'll be right back.