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Trump Team Hedges Tweet About Nuclear Expansion; Transition Official: Trump Weighing Tariff As High As 10 Percent; Syrian Regime Says It Has Full Control Of Aleppo; The Rockettes To Perform At Trump Inauguration; Old Case Haunts Trump Attorney General Nominee. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired December 22, 2016 - 15:30   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: So now there's been a follow-up statement coming from Jason Miller, the communications director and this is -- let me read in for everyone. He says this "President-elect Trump was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it, particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes."

He's also emphasized the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to preserve peace through strength. Wanted to get that in there off the top.

Bob Cusack, to you first, I was talking to a general who, a, the notion that the next president is talking about what should be closed- door policy out loud on Twitter concerns him, one.

But number two, the timing of this, the tweet came after Putin met with military advisers specifically saying Russia needs to bolster its military nuclear potential. What does that tell you about where Trump is and Trump and Putin?

BOB CUSACK, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "THE HILL": Well, I think the way that things are done in Washington is changing and that's hitting people pretty hard and I think Trump here is trying to mimic former President Reagan of the peace through strength kind of language.

He's gotten in controversies before on nuclear issues, saying Japan should have nuclear weapons, but this is the par for the course and as far as for Donald Trump, but it's not the par for Washington is that he's going to be saying things that maybe people say you should say that privately not publicly.

You know, I think you'll see more of this going forward. I don't think anything will be changing about Donald Trump and the way he does business.

BALDWIN: Julie, what do you think?

JULIE PACE, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": Well, I think that's absolutely true. I think Donald Trump is who he is and is going to do business the way he wants to. The timing of the tweet, though, is certainly interesting. Not only because of the comments that Putin was making in Russia just hours before, but also based on meetings that Donald Trump was having in Mar-a-Lago on Wednesday.

He met with some top Pentagon officials who specifically focus on defense procurement issues and then he also met with the CEOs of Lockheed Martin and Boeing who are two companies with big defense contracts. And now he's talking about expanding our capabilities.

Expanding and modernizing at least capabilities is something that's already happening in the U.S. government and we just need more details on what the president-elect means and we didn't get a ton of new details in the statement that Jason Miller put out, either.

BALDWIN: Right. We'll move on to a couple big announcements from the Trump transition team. You know, Sean Spicer, we're now learning press secretary, Hope Hicks, Director of Strategic Communications. We heard earlier today, Kellyanne Conway will be the counselor to the president.

I mean, Julie, these are supposed to be an intermediary between the president and the press, but this is the president that likes to use Twitter as his megaphone. How will that work?

PACE: I think being a spokesperson for Donald Trump is a challenging job and I wish Sean and all of his colleagues a lot of luck. The president-elect has been very effective at communicating directly to the public on Twitter, at his rallies and I think you'll see him continue to do that.

The spokespeople, though, can serve as the explainers, people who fill out the details and give the context for what is happening when he is hitting Twitter or doing these big rallies.

It's really an important job and one when you're in the White House that requires people to move quickly and be very flexible because whatever issues you start off with in the morning could completely change by the end of the day.

BALDWIN: It's a huge, huge, huge job. Bob, what about news from the Trump transition team? They're telling CNN the incoming administration is mulling a double digit tariff. Jeremy Diamond was saying it could be up to 10 percent on imports though that could be the starting point in negotiation here.

You know, this is part of Trump's America's first policy which we heard over and over from Candidate Trump, but you also have business sources saying it could spark a trade war. Richard Quest called it a bluff. What do you think?

CUSACK: I mean, listen, the trade policy in Washington is going to be changing. There was a huge anti-trade sentiment that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders road to a lot of success in 2016.

So if you look at Trump's picks including for a top trade post, Peter Ferrara, very much a China critic and so China is watching every move the Trump administration is doing.

Is there some gamesmanship here especially with how Trump deals with defense companies like Boeing and Lockheed, he'll hit them one day and then meet with them next. Sure.

That's how I think Trump does business. But certainly the TPP is completely dead and trade policy is a big question moving forward.

[15:35:06]BALDWIN: We mentioned Boeing and Lockheed Martin CEOS, popping buy, surprise to the press pool, right, dinner at Mar-a-Lago with Mr. Trump and someone else who apparently popped by Palm Beach, David Koch, fellow billionaire who hasn't been friendly to Trump during his campaign.

And the "Washington Post" is reporting it was an informal, impromptu meeting in Florida where they talked about the campaign plans for the administration. Can you just remind everyone of their tenuous relationship and how they could work together?

PACE: Yes. These are two men who have been critical of each other and the Koch network which has been one of the most powerful Republican fundraising networks was not involved in supporting Trump's campaign.

So the fact they spoke at Mar-a-Lago I think, one, tells us that Mar- a-Lago is becoming the new power center for politics going forward. Two, it's part of an effort by Republican establishment lawmakers and other kind of players like the Kochs to basically come to terms with the fact that Donald Trump will be the party's leader for the next four years.

What that means about the Kochs potentially putting money behind efforts to back Trump's agenda or support lawmakers who are in line with him I think is a whole other question, though, that we don't have answers to right now.

BALDWIN: It's 29 more days until the president-elect becomes president. When he puts his hand on that bible, Bob Cusack, just final thoughts here as we are looking ahead?

CUSACK: I think it will be quite a day. I think January will be a very interesting month and people are going to be looking at his inaugural speech for clues on what he's going to do. A lot of people in Washington are very, very nervous and certainly Trump has a lot more power and is attracting more friends than he used to have they'll be looking for clues in that first speech of what he's going to do because a lot people don't know what his agenda will be.

BALDWIN: How high on that list do you think repealing and replacing Obamacare will be?

CUSACK: I think number one.

BALDWIN: Number one. Bob Cusack, thank you. Julie Pace, thank you.

Next, the Syrian Army declares Aleppo free of armed guards. We'll take you live to the Turkish-Syrian border as the final evacuations come to an end. Plus, speaking of January, the Trump insider will join me with some scoop about who will be performing at President-elect Trump's inauguration as apparently dozens of stars are coming out publicly and saying thanks but no thanks.



BALDWIN: Breaking news out of Syria, the Syrian regime now says it has taken full control of Aleppo, which marks a major turning point in the country's five-year civil war. The Syrian state-run news outlet is reporting that last convoy carrying rebel troops and groups and their families has left the evacuation of the bombarded city is complete.

Muhammad Lila is there along the border between Turkey and Syria. Tell me what you're hearing.

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, it's not just Syrian state media that are saying it now. Turkish media as well as a leading rebel negotiator are all saying the same thing. That all of the rebel and armed groups have been evacuated from that eastern part of Aleppo.

The Syrian government, the government of Bashar al-Assad now controls the entire city. What that means is that the city is no longer divided between rebels and the government. The government controls the entire thing. It's now united.

Syrian state television broadcasting images of people celebrating in the streets and firing guns in the air and of course, the language that the Syrian government is using is that they're saying that they have liberated East Aleppo.

And they have sent out sort of a warning, if you will, or even a threat to the remaining rebel groups saying, look, we are encouraging you to put down your arms because you've already lost Aleppo.

And you can see what the future holds for you so put down your arms and come to the negotiating table. So certainly the Syrian government is celebrating this as a decisive and major victory.

BALDWIN: Well, I mean, we're looking at pictures. This is Syrian state TV and all these flags being waved and the celebratory sort of atmosphere but what's the reality among Syrians, Muhammad?

LILA: That's a difficult question. Like so much of this conflict it all depends who you ask. Look, the Syrian government from day one has said this is a battle against a group of terrorists who are bent on not only overthrowing the government but also applying a rigid version of Sharia law inside Syria.

Syria for a long time has been a secular state. Certainly perhaps not democratic but secular in any case so the Syrian government said they're defending secularism against these Islamic radicals. The opposition says something different. They say, well, no, we're fighting to overthrow a dictator who is killing and attacking and using chemical weapons on his own people. So it depends who asked.

But the question now is it's undisputable that the rebels have suffered a major defeat by losing Aleppo. Look, this was a city that was their home base for more than four years.

They ran their operations out of there. They had their control and command centers and they had a network of activists in that city that were branched out and in connection with people around the country.

So what happens when you lose that home base? Well, some people are saying maybe this is an end to the revolution, but I don't think you can go that far just yet. But there's no question that the Syrian rebels who started the uprising have their backs against the wall.

BALDWIN: Muhammad Lila, thank you.

Coming up next, decades old allegations against Senator Jeff Sessions come back to surface as his confirmation hearings to become the next U.S. attorney general gets closer. CNN digs into the accusations. We'll have that next.



BALDWIN: There have been no major announcements of any famous musicians or artists signing up to perform at President-elect Trump's inauguration next month that we know of. I can tell you a member of Trump's transition team told the BBC that rock icon Elton John would perform.

But his spokeswoman squashed that rumor telling CNN, quote, "He will not be performing" at Trump's inauguration. You have legendary composer and musician, David Foster, posting this on Facebook. "For the record I was asked to participate in the upcoming inauguration some time ago and I politely and respectfully declined."

But one young woman is very excited to be performing in Washington for Mr. Trump. She is 16-year-old Jackie Evancho from "America's Got Talent." Here she was on the "Today Show."


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm honored I get to perform for the office and I'm very excited.


BALDWIN: Well, we wanted to go straight to the source for this. Boris Epshteyn, director of communications for the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Boris, welcome back.


BALDWIN: OK, so start naming names. Tell me who do you have?

EPSHTEYN: First, happy holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah to you and all the viewers. As far as the celebration goes we are extremely excited. We've had a ton of great performers, entertainers and Americans reaching out wanting to be part.

And I can announce right now on your air that the Radio City Rockettes will be taking part in the inaugural celebration. They did so in 2001 and 2005. The Rockettes are a wonderful group who have been a part of American culture for decades almost 100 years.

And they represent many women from around the country and what's best about America so we're very excited and honored to have them be a part of the 58th inaugural.

BALDWIN: I remember being a kid and going to Radio City and they're amazing. Let me ask you this, did you approach them? Did they approach you? What exactly will their role be at inauguration?

EPSHTEYN: Well, we're still determining exact specifics, but they will be part of the inaugural balls. There may be something else, but they are going to be a big part of the celebration of freedom and democracy, a uniting event whereby Donald J. Trump and the Trump movement move into Washington, D.C. and get to work making sure Americans are safe at home and in their jobs.

BALDWIN: OK, so we have the Rockettes. I had seen a report about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Can you confirm that? That's official?

EPSHTEYN: That's official. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir will be performing at the swearing in. This will be their sixth inaugural. They started all the way back with Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1968, 1969, and then they went right through Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush inaugurations. And they will be performing, over 200 professionals on stage singing thanks that treasure America and uplift everyone's spirits.

BALDWIN: The choir and the Rockettes not to be performing together. Just two separate performances right?

[15:50:03]EPSHTEYN: And Jackie Evancho who you just mentioned. We're such an unbelievable talent. We are so excited to have her singing the national anthem and again, celebrating the Unite States of America, our beautiful, wonderful country.

BALDWIN: Now, Boris, you know, I have to ask you. Listen, I can just hear people at home thinking, great, the Rockettes and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Where are your big names, your mega artists? Do you have any big reveals that you're kind of keeping close to the best?

EPSHTEYN: That's a little bit of a misguided approach. We're not putting on Woodstock or summer jam. We are putting on an inauguration. This is an inauguration whose work all night. We'll have three balls. Two inaugural balls and one ball saluting the Armed Forces and the first responders.

Where in some previous inaugurals such as in 2009 for President Obama, they had ten official balls and why is that because this president, Donald J. Trump and the vice president-elect, Mike Pence, are here to get to work.

You are already seeing that in discussions around Carrier, saving jobs. Discussions around Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Air Force One. As well as today the news you were talking about earlier, making sure that America does veto the resolution of the U.N.

Donald J. Trump is here to work and to do everything he can to keep jobs in America, and keep Americans safe here in around the world.

BALDWIN: Understand. That's why you know, Americans are nearly half wanted him to be president, but have fun with me, Boris.

EPSHTEYN: There you go.

BALDWIN: Hang on. Who knows who could be watching CNN right now? Top three, if you could have -- who would be in your top three of artists to say yes for January 20th?

EPSHTEYN: It's not about artists. My top three people I would like to see are Donald J. Trump, Donald J. Trump, and Donald J. Trump. The next top three are Governor Pence, Governor Pence and Governor Pence.

If you remember, during the campaign, Hillary Clinton had Beyonce and Jay-z, all good Americans, but Donald Trump was very clear that all he needs is himself, the American flag and his supporters.

That's what the Trump movement is. It's for the people. It's by the people. It's not about billionaire artists, celebrities, people sipping champagne in the Beverly Hills or Hamptons. It's about everyday Americans. That's what won the election with over 300 electoral votes on November 8th.

BALDWIN: Last one, we know Donald Trump knows how to make an entrance. Listen. We were in Cleveland at the RNC. I remember covering the helicopter swooping in to meet Governor Pence. We remember the walkout to Queen and the smoke. Do you have anything up your sleeve?

EPSHTEYN: We've got over four weeks to go. Stay tuned. We're going to have an exciting event. There will be some surprises. Overall, this is an event that rings in the Trump movement. It's a new day in America where America is the city on a hill once more. Very excited for it.

BALDWIN: Thank you, Boris Epshteyn, the Rockettes it is. We'll see you in Washington. Thank you so much.

EPSHTEYN: See you soon.

BALDWIN: Coming up next, we are live in Berlin as the international manhunt intensifies for the suspect in that deadly attack on a Christmas market. We are now learning he was on the radar of U.S. intelligence.



BALDWIN: He has been tapped to become Donald Trump's attorney general. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions comes with his share of controversy. CNN's Drew Griffin digs into what may come up at his confirmation hearing.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Make America great again.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He is Donald Trump's pick for U.S. attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a popular senator, yes, for nearly 20 years. A lawyer, yes, since 1973. A federal prosecutor for more than a decade.

But it's what happened when Sessions was attorney general of Alabama from 1995 to 1997 that might raise questions during his confirmation hearings. In court, a judge was accused Sessions' Attorney General Office of prosecutorial misconduct.

It was 1996, Sessions' office indicts an Alabama supply company named Tieco. At the time, Attorney General Sessions called the case a significant investigation.

But in a scathing opinion, Circuit Judge James Garrett threw the entire case out and ripped apart the Attorney General's Office in the process.

The judge finding that even having been given every benefit of every any doubt, the misconduct of the attorney general in this case far surpasses in both extensiveness and measure the totality of any prosecutorial misconduct ever previously presented to or witnessed by this court.

The case against Tieco was presented as a case of theft. The company accused of falsely billing a client. But in a bizarre arrangement, the attorney general's investigation was fueled by money and information from that same client, who was getting ready to sue Tieco itself.

Judge Garrett's order says the misconduct by the Attorney General's Office included refusals and failures to produce exculpatory evidence, evidence that there was no theft.

The judge found a flagrant disregard of the constitutional rights of those accused, what he called completely incredible and deceptive testimony of so many witnesses and concludes that the patterns of prosecutorial misconduct was either intentional in deliberate misconduct or so reckless and improper as to constitute conscious disregard for the lawful duties of the attorney general. At that time, Sessions said the allegations and the order are unfounded and without merit. Sessions was already a U.S. senator by the time the judge threw out his significant case against Tieco and the state of Alabama's new attorney general dropped the case.

After Tieco's owner complained, the Alabama Ethics Commission investigated the attorney general's role in the case, but the commission tells CNN the claims against Sessions was tossed out due to insufficient facts to hold that the Honorable Jeff Sessions violated the Alabama Ethics Law.

The Tieco case was a major embarrassment for Sessions, which is why he may have left it out of his congressional questionnaire just submitted which includes his most significant litigated matters.

A transition official for Senator Sessions told CNN, while the case was in fact lost by the Alabama attorney general, and that the ruling describing serious and wholesale prosecutorial misconduct stands as law in Alabama, he went on to say a decision in a separate federal civil lawsuit discredited the criminal judge's opinions on some of the prosecutorial misconduct. Senator Jeff Sessions himself did not respond to CNN.


GRIFFIN: Jeff Sessions' supporters will no doubt point to the fact that this is an old case. It's also complicated. But there is also no doubt it was a poorly handled criminal prosecution by the Alabama Attorney General's Office when Jeff Sessions was the attorney general.

So will it come up in his hearings? Well, Sessions certainly did not bring it up in his disclosure form, so any senators who want to ask him about it are going to have this case on their own. Drew Griffin, CNN, Atlanta.

BALDWIN: Drew, thank you. Thank you for being with me. "THE LEAD" starts now.