Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar; North Carolina Governor Sues Legislature; Putin Responds to Russia Sanctions. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 30, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Vladimir Putin says new year means a new start with a new president.

THE LEAD starts right now.

After President Obama kicks out dozens of Russian operatives, Vladimir Putin says the Americans can stay in Moscow and bring the kids. What's behind his move? I will ask a former CIA director.

A tennis court, a wine cellar, a fur vault all a front for stealing America's secrets? The mansions the U.S. just closed down and a look at the spy game that's been going on for decades.

Plus, after a bitter election and allegations of a power grab, an incoming Democratic governor sues his own legislature just to have the same authority the last guy did -- how the judge ruled.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Acosta, in for Jake Tapper today.

We begin with the world lead, the U.S. Senate now taking action against Russia for election-year hacking. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, will now hold a hearing on cyber-threats Thursday and Russian hacking is likely to dominate the discussion.

The news comes as the clock ticks for Russian diplomats, suspected spies and their families to get out of the U.S. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his response to U.S. sanctions and it was less tough guy wrestling a bear and more jolly old St. Vlad.

Putin announcing that he's taking the high road for now and will not expel American diplomats in response to U.S. sanctions against Russia for hacks targeting the DNC during the 2016 race.

He also invited diplomats and their children in Russia to Christmas and New Year's shows in the Kremlin. President-elect Trump a short time ago, you have probably all seen this by now, reacted to Putin with this tweet: "Great move on delay by V. Putin. I always knew he was very smart."

CNN chief security national correspondent Jim Sciutto joins us now.

Jim, that tweet aside, Russia vowed to answer any hostile steps from the U.S., but it hasn't been very hostile so far, right?


Let's be honest. He will get a much friendlier U.S. administration in just three weeks' time. He knows that. And with that tweet, Donald Trump has been telegraphing that broadly and widely, so perhaps a smart strategic move to wait.

But Vladimir Putin has always been very conscious of political theater, and with these moves inviting American children to a New Year's celebration, holding off for now, very conscious of that theater as well.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, Russians vacating compounds shut down by the U.S. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, dismissing Washington's payback, instead wishing President Obama and his family a happy new year, saying in a statement -- quote -- "We will not stoop to the level of irresponsible diplomacy. It is a pity that the President Obama administration finishes its work this way, but, nevertheless, I congratulate him and his family a happy new year."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recommended Putin expel 35 American diplomats from Russia after the U.S. ordered 35 alleged Russian spies to leave the U.S. by this weekend.

SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): We cannot let such escapades happen without a response. The Russian Foreign Ministry, together with our colleagues from other departments, have made a proposal to declare 31 staff from the embassy of Moscow and four diplomats from the general consulate of St. Petersburg as persona non grata.

SCIUTTO: President Putin, likely waiting for a far friendlier administration under Donald Trump, did not take that advice, saying in his statement: "We will not create problems for American diplomats. We will not send anyone away."

With a stroke of drama, Putin even issued this invitation to American children: "In response to the new U.S. sanctions, I invite all children of the U.S. diplomats to the new year and Christmas children's show at the Kremlin, signed yours sincerely, Vladimir Putin."

The U.S. shut down two Russian government-owned compounds, one in New York, where law enforcement was seen outside, and another in Maryland, a 45-acre property purchased by the Soviet government in 1972. Today, vehicles were seen leaving the Maryland estate and returning to the Russian Embassy in Washington. The White House says the Russians working at the compounds were spying on the U.S.

Russia, however, refutes that the estates were being used for espionage. VITALY CHURKIN, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: I think it's

quite scandalous that they chose to go after our kids, you know? They know full well those two facilities which they mentioned in their notes, they are vacation facilities for our kids, and this is Christmastime.

SCIUTTO: Four of the Russians sanctioned by the U.S. are part of the Russian military intelligence unit known as the GRU. One of them is the unit's chief.

MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's assigning blame to Russia's military and intelligence service, but the actual perpetrators of these hacks are contractors, if you like, people who have been found by the Russian government to do their dirty work for them.


SCIUTTO: To be clear, hacking the election is not the only disagreement that the U.S. has with Russia.


The invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, bombing of civilians in Syria, there's a whole host of things, Jim. You know about it. You and I report about it all the time, buzzing U.S. aircraft and ships, putting nuclear-capable submarines off the coast of the U.S.

You speak to folks not just in the intelligence space, but the defense space, they call Russia a threat. And today we just had a president- elect of the United States praise once again the Russian leader.

ACOSTA: Donald Trump doesn't see Vladimir Putin as a threat, or at least he's not saying as much at this point.

Jim Sciutto, thank you very much.

For 24 hours after President Obama's announcement on Russia, president-elect Trump's Twitter account was silent, but he just weighed in, and he's complimenting Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, for his response.

CNN correspondent Sunlen Serfaty is in Palm Beach, Florida.

Sunlen, perhaps the most surprising thing about Trump's reaction is that it didn't happen any sooner, but it was very much in the same theme that he is praising Vladimir Putin in all of this.


The tone here shouldn't be a surprise if you look at what Donald Trump himself and members of his transition team have done in recent days. But it is certainly notable that the president-elect is not only saying let's basically move on from all of this, but is now openly praising the Russian president only 24 hours after President Obama slapped those sanctions on Russia.


SERFATY (voice-over): Tonight, president-elect Donald Trump is out with new praise for Vladimir Putin, applauding the Russian president for withholding retaliatory sanctions on the U.S., Trump tweeting: "Great move on delay by V. Putin. I always knew he was very smart."

But as the president-elect determines his next move responding further to Russia and the new U.S. sanctions, his advisers are calling out the Obama administration for what they see as politics at play.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: We have been talking about this for a while. I think that, you know, all we heard all through the election was Russia, Russia, Russia whenever it came to anything Donald Trump said or did, it seemed most days. And now, you know, since the election, it's just this fever pitch of accusations and insinuations.

SERFATY: Trump transition officials are speculating the administration sanctions against Russia are a distraction to undermine his win and tie his hands on Russia before he becomes president.

CONWAY: I will tell you even those who are sympathetic to President Obama on most issues are saying that part of the reason he did this today was to -- quote -- "box in" president-elect Trump. That would be very unfortunate if that were the motivating -- if politics were the motivating factor here.

SERFATY: Since the sanctions were announced, Trump himself has only issued a blunt two-line statement Thursday night saying in part -- quote -- "It's time for our country to move on to bigger and better things," a posture he's taken publicly in recent days.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think the computers have complicated lives very greatly. You know, the whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what's going on.

SERFATY: But the president-elect has now agreed to sit down with the intelligence community.

REINCE PRIEBUS, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: We just need to get to a point ourselves where we can talk to all of these intelligence agencies and find out once and for all what evidence is there, how bad is it.

SERFATY: That closed-door meeting likely to take place in New York next week, where Trump will be presented with the evidence the intel community says points a finger at Russia for the hacks.

PRIEBUS: Maybe at that time or maybe later, he will have a response, but right now we're just not in a position to sit here and respond to all of these details before we have a full-blown intelligence report on this particular matter.

SERFATY: In the past, Trump and his aides have publicly been skeptical of the intelligence community's conclusions.

TRUMP: I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. Could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. OK?

SERFATY: And have attempted to deflect blame away from the Russians, vowing during the campaign to improve the relationship with Russia.

TRUMP: Wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along with Russia and these other countries? Wouldn't that be a positive thing?


SERFATY: Once sworn into office in January, Trump has the power to reverse the sanctions or keep them in place. That decision hanging in the balance tonight.


SERFATY: And it was only a matter of minutes after Donald Trump posted that tweet this afternoon with that praise of Vladimir Putin that the official Twitter account of the Russian Embassy, they retweeted that tweet -- Jim.

ACOSTA: Interesting times indeed. Sunlen Serfaty, thank you very much.

Joining me now with reaction to all of these developments between Russia and the U.S., Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat from Minnesota. She's in Ukraine right now touring Russian border states with Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham.

Senator Klobuchar, thanks for joining us.

Let me just get right to this Donald Trump tweet that we have seen in the last hour or so. He says: "Great move on delay by Vladimir Putin. I always knew he was very smart."


We just noted a few moments ago that the Russian Embassy here in the U.S. retweeted that tweet. What is your reaction to that?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), MINNESOTA: Well, Jim, I'm in Ukraine, where we have just met with the president; 10,000 people have died here since Russia illegally annexed Crimea.

They are defending their country. They are true patriots. And so it is hard for me to think about even praising Vladimir Putin. At the same time, I'm glad that the president-elect is going to be meeting with our intelligence agencies.

When the FBI and the CIA, when 17 American intelligence agencies join together and emphatically say that Russia attempted to influence our election, that is a major problem. And when you are in the Baltic countries and you hear that they have

been doing this for decades in places like Estonia and Lithuania, they have seen this movie before, hacking, shutting down Internet access. This is a method and a technique, and our country does have to stand up to it. And if we don't stand up to it, it's going to keep happening in other democracies across the world.

ACOSTA: And, Senator, Donald Trump and his team seem to be very cool to the intelligence community's assessment, actually, their conclusion, we really should call it their conclusion, that the Russians were intervening in the last election.

What do you make of that? Do you think they're just not dealing with reality?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, Homeland Security and FBI jointly released a 13-page report. And Senator McCain has announced hearings.

You have the former Republican candidate for president that thoroughly believes that this has happened and is announcing hearings, so that our other colleagues can learn the details. And the more we can declassify and get out there publicly, I think it's important not only for our own democracy, because we have to remember this isn't about one political candidate or one party.

It's not even about one election or one country. They have done this in other elections. And I think getting the information out there for the world is going to be very important.

ACOSTA: And, Senator, the incoming president's counselor Kellyanne Conway said that she believes that the Obama administration's actions against Russia in response to the hacking is really an attempt to box in the incoming administration.

What do you think about that? What's your response to that? And do you feel that that is true?

KLOBUCHAR: You know, Jim, I don't see it that way at all.

In fact, what President Obama did was amend his original order from back in 2015 that was actually done in response to hacking Sony. He amended it to make clear that if any foreign entity comes in and tries to influence an American election, it wouldn't even have to be Russia, that the president has a right to respond.

So I think any president would welcome that tool in their toolbox. In addition to that, he put these sanctions in place. And if we just rolled over and did nothing, when our own intelligence agencies have concluded decisively that this was going on, we are just welcoming more of this and empowering other regimes, including Russia, to do more.

ACOSTA: All right, Senator Amy Klobuchar traveling in Ukraine right now, probably getting some very interesting perspectives over there, thank you, Senator, very much. We appreciate it. So, what is Putin's endgame, and is Trump being played by the Kremlin?

We ask the former head of the CIA who is advising the president-elect next.



[16:16:31] JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with more of our top story. Russian President Vladimir Putin playing the waiting game and passing on payback measures after President Obama handed down sanctions against Russia and operatives, institutions, and wanted cybercriminals for hack attacks on the DNC.

Joining me now is former CIA director and current national security adviser to the president-elect. He is an adviser with the lower case A, not the national security adviser, Ambassador James Woolsey.

Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

I guess first of all, what is your take on what the Obama administration did? You have Republicans and Democrats saying that this was long overdue.

AMB. JAMES WOOLSEY, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO PRES.-ELECT TRUMP: President Obama has sort of been the -- playing the role of investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury in this. And I think it's one reason why there is some skepticism that the Russians were doing as much as some say. It's clear they were doing some important attacks on our system. But what was it? What occurred?

President Obama says it did not interfere with voting in the sense of counting dead people as voters in Chicago.

ACOSTA: Right.

WOOLSEY: That's happened from time to time.

ACOSTA: Election numbers weren't changed from --

WOOLSEY: As far as what he has said and I've heard from other places, that did not occur. They may have tried and failed.

But there's -- I think a situation developing in which Putin has played his cards very shrewdly. He is now in the position of inviting American children to parties, New Year's parties at the Kremlin --

ACOSTA: Instead of expelling diplomats and their families, he's inviting them over to a party.

WOOLSEY: Right. And I think --

ACOSTA: You think this is a chess move by Putin.

WOOLSEY: Yes, and the key is we don't want to be playing checkers while they're playing chess. We need -- ACOSTA: Does the president-elect understand that? My question is,

you know, when you saw that tweet earlier on this amp from Donald Trump saying very smart move from Vladimir Putin by holding off, great move on delay, it seems to me that Vladimir Putin made this conscious decision not to retaliate because come January 20th, it will be a whole lot easier for Donald Trump to reverse these actions by the Obama administration. How much of that is true do you think?

WOOLSEY: I think -- I think that's right on. I think there's a real problem in President Obama. He's the actor here. President-elect Trump is watching and commenting from the sidelines for another three weeks. Everybody realizes he'll be president and a very important figure, but decisions are being made by President Obama and they haven't been very shrewd.

These sanctions, for example, are not particularly strong. They could have been if somebody was willing to go as far as not let the Russians use dollars in international exchanges but nobody's taken a step like that. And so, you ended up closing a couple of summer houses, having three dozen KGB and GRU officers under official cover so they're declared persona non grata, they can't be arrested or anything, they get shipped out to Moscow and another 35 arrive from Moscow to take their places.

[16:20:05] So, what --

ACOSTA: What about this tweet from the president-elect earlier this afternoon? Because there are a lot of Americans scratching their heads and looking at this praise that Donald Trump continues to offer the Russian president even though he has been meddling in our election, and I direct this question not to you personally, but I think in general, people are asking the question, what in the hell happened to America first?


ACOSTA: Why is Donald Trump effusive with praise for Vladimir Putin, somebody who's advise him -- what's going on?

WOOLSEY: I wouldn't call it effusive pip think it's been positive, but I think it's well within Teddy Roosevelt's dictum of speak softly and carry a big stick. He's been speaking softly. But that's part of diplomacy. Sometimes, I mean, I --

ACOSTA: Does he come to this with a skeptical eye, do you think, more than what we're seeing in these tweets when it comes to Vladimir Putin? Does he just so want to repair this relationship with the Russians that he's willing to overlook, intervening in our democratic process?

WOOLSEY: Well, the degree to which they intervened in the process is something that we really need to get a handle on, but at this point it doesn't look as if they were interfering with the voting. And insofar as that's the case, it's a very different thing than if they were hacking into the voting machines, and by the way --

ACOSTA: They shouldn't be involved, period.

WOOLSEY: They shouldn't be involved, period. But we have to make sure that two years from now and four years from now, we are protecting our voting machines and a lot of people in counties and so forth have added essentially touch screens and you can't check up on hacking with that. You've got to have some kind of a paper trail.

There's also I think a situation that will has pushed us into -- President Obama into a situation where he's just not credible. More and more people looking at this.

ACOSTA: Let me ask you about this, because some people were asking about the credibility of this statement. Let's listen to what Kellyanne Conway had to say about these sanctions last night.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP TRANSITION SENIOR ADVISER: Some of them seem largely symbolic. The GRU doesn't really travel here, doesn't keep its assets here.


ACOSTA: Is that correct? The GRU from my understanding does have assets here. They're covert.

WOOLSEY: They probably have -- certainly I don't know how many, but they probably have a few official cover people in their Washington embassy and as far as non-official cover, not, which more and more intelligence services around the world are moving to in spite of the danger of having someone who's not covered by a diplomatic immunity. Those are growing for many countries, and Russia has always used a fair number of knocks because when they first came into existence back in 1917, they weren't recognized by anybody.

So they couldn't have any official cover so they started out, and as a result, a lot of the very effective Russian spies have been non- official cover people.

ACOSTA: Well, Ambassador Woolsey, we appreciate your time. We know you'll continue to advice the president-elect and soon to be president and you'll keep talking to us as well. Thank you very much, sir. We appreciate it.

WOOLSEY: Absolutely.

ACOSTA: Russian operatives being kicked out of America is nothing new. Remember Anna Chapman, the so-called "Femme Fatale", busted after having coffee with an FBI agent? We'll look at how this Cold War spy game has always been stranger than fiction.

Then, a Democratic governor-elect about to be sworn into office taking his own legislature into court, trying to stop lawmakers from stripping him of his power. That's actually happening. The judge's ruling, ahead.


[16:26:55] ACOSTA: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Let's talk more about President Obama's actions on Russia this week and how President-elect Donald Trump could respond.

I'm joined by my political panel: senior writer and "U.S. News and World Report" reporter, Susan Milligan, CNN political analyst Jackie Kucinich, and online editor for "The Weekly Standard", Michael Warren.

Susan, let me go to you first. President-elect Trump issued a tweet earlier this afternoon praising Vladimir Putin, describing his non- response to the sanctions as very smart. What do we make of all this?

SUSAN MILLIGAN, SENIOR WRITER, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Well, it was smart in a way. I mean, he's sending a message to the Obama administration. I don't really care what you think anymore, we have a new president coming in.

I'm not sure that the president-elect quite understands the little dance that's going on here and that when he comes into power, he's going to -- you know, Putin seems to know flattery goes a long way with Trump and Trump seems to know that it goes a little bit with Putin. But I'm not sure it occurs to him he's being played on this.

ACOSTA: Yes, Michael, it doesn't take a lot of translation for the Russian president to understand that Donald Trump enjoys being praised. But, you know, the question I guess of the hour and of this afternoon, is Donald Trump being played by Vladimir Putin. I guess we've asked this question before.

What do you make of that question when you hear it? Is it overblown? Are we hyperventilating? What do you think?

MICHAEL WARREN, ONLINE EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I think that's possibly what's happening here, I think, as well. President Obama going out of the White House here is in many ways play into Putin's hands and exactly what Vladimir Putin wants to do with all of the hacking of the DNC and other political organizations, which is to sow discontent among Americans over their own political system. So, in a way, you know, this is -- to sort of say this is Vladimir Putin is getting the presidential candidate to win, and Donald Trump that he wanted I think is oversimplifying it.

What Vladimir Putin wants to see here is exactly what's happening right now, which is all of this discontent, all of this confusion and everybody on both sides of the political aisle of the United States upset with political leaders on the other side.

MILLIGAN: And discrediting the whole electoral process.

ACOSTA: I mean, Jackie, should we take a step back? As Susan pointed out, it was a pretty smart move by Vladimir Putin to not respond. It makes it a lot easier for Donald Trump to go ahead and reverse these Obama administration actions. Had Vladimir Putin retaliated, it might have made it more complicated for the new president to do that. JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't know. I think this

still is going to be very hard for him to take back those sanctions. Because everybody knows what Vladimir Putin's doing. He's not all of a sudden Putin Claus inviting all the kids over for Christmas. That's not a thing. It's not real.

The long-held thought that Vladimir Putin is out for Russia and for expanding Russian influence at the cost of the United States, that is still very much a reality, and I think that takes hold with people like Lindsey Graham, with John McCain, and many, many other members of the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans. So, he's going to face a lot of political backlash if he does that.

ACOSTA: And, Susan, we were just on the phone with Amy Klobuchar earlier, who was traveling in Ukraine with Lindsey Graham and John McCain. And John McCain is going to hold hearings on this starting next week.