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THE SITUATION ROOM
House GOP Drops Plans to Gut Ethics Panel; Interview With Idaho Senator James Risch; Trump News Conference on Business Conflicts Scheduled; NAACP Sit-In Protesting Trump Attorney General Nominee; White House Suggest Obama Doubts Trump on Nukes; Expert: Nightclub Gunman May Have Had ISIS Training. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 3, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: CNN has learned that the final classified comprehensive report on cyber-attacks targeting the U.S. election is expected to be finished within days. The WikiLeaks founder denies Russia supplied stolen e-mails, while Trump continues to cast doubt. Will a personal high-level briefing change Donald Trump's mind?
General sit-in. Civil rights activists protest in the office of Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, vowing to stay until Senator Jeff Sessions or Trump withdraw his name or until the protesters are arrested. I will talk to the head of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks. He's at that protest.
And tweet revenge. Trump puts North Korea on notice via Twitter, warning the U.S. will prevent the Kim Jong-un regime from developing a nuclear weapon that could strike the American shores. Could this prove to be Trump's most dangerous tweet?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
It's not the headline the GOP wanted to see on this, the first day of the 115th Congress. But when president-elect Donald Trump tweeted his displeasure at a plan to gut an independent congressional ethics panel, House Republicans were forced to convene an emergency meeting and scuttle their effort.
And new tonight, CNN has learned that the classified report President Obama ordered on election cyber-attacks is expected to be ready as early as this week. A source also says Trump, who's cast doubt on Russia's involvement, is expected to be briefed on the findings by the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and the CIA director, John Brennan.
And we're following a protest against the president-elect's nominee for attorney general. Members of the NAACP are staging a sit-in tonight in the office of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who was denied a federal judgeship decades ago over alleged racist remarks which he denied making. I will talk to the head of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks. He's at
that protest and vowing to stay until Sessions' nomination is dropped or until the protesters are arrested.
We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including Republican Senator James Risch. He's a member of the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents and expert analysts are also standing by.
Let's begin with a turnaround by House Republicans, who were poised to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.
Our senior political reporter, Manu Raju, has the very latest from Capitol Hill.
Manu, it's a dramatic development on the first day of the 115th Congress.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. Remember, after Donald Trump won his election in November, and House and the Senate are staying in Republican hands, the leadership has spent hours and hours trying to methodically lay out their plans to make sure that there will be no hitches in the opening days of the new Congress.
But when this ethics proposal came essentially out of nowhere, Republicans ended up bickering internally, and made a major about- face.
RAJU (voice-over): Tonight, House Republicans are abruptly reversing course, scrapping a plan to gut a key ethics watchdog, after an outpouring of criticism from voters and even Donald Trump.
Trump expressing his opposition on Twitter, writing, "With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the independent ethics watchdog, as unfair as that may be, their number one act of priority? Focus on tax reform, health care and so many other things of far greater importance. #draintheswamp."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had opposed weakening the watchdog, convening an emergency meeting today, when his confidence changed course, unanimously voting to keep the ethics office intact. Republicans in tough districts were concerned by the proposal.
REP. MIKE COFFMAN (R), COLORADO: This was the wrong message to send at the start of the session. And I really didn't agree with that.
RAJU (on camera): I mean, optically, how concerned are you about the way this makes the Republican Congress look as a Congress?
COFFMAN: Very concerned. I mean, I think it's a terrible mistake.
RAJU: The surprise move began Monday night, when Congressman Bob Goodlatte, proposed a change to House rules behind closed doors to rein in the Office of Congressional Ethics, which was created nearly a decade ago in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
The proposal would have given the very House members who might be investigated greater control over the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Critics of the ethics panel say it has overreached in its pursuit of headlines. And the GOP conference voted 119-74 to make the changes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I supported it just because I think it's -- first of all, I think it's duplicative. But at the very least, in my view, it requires greater oversight than it has.
RAJU: A top Trump adviser said earlier in the day that the panel needed to be overhauled.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: There's also been an overzealousness in some of the processes over the years. And we don't want people wrongly accusing, we don't want people mired in months if not years of ethical complaint review.
RAJU: Yet the proposal put Republicans in an awkward spot, with some refusing to say if they wanted to weaken the panel.
(on camera): Did you vote for that?
REP. RANDY WEBER (R), TEXAS: That was a voice vote. It was not a recorded vote. Quite frankly, I sat there and observed.
RAJU: Now, Wolf, the reason why that congressman didn't want to answer how he voted was that vote on Monday night happened behind closed doors.
But if they were going to vote on the rules package today, that would be a public vote and pressure was building. Now, we're getting word that pressure was so intense that, after the vote happened, after the decision was made by the House Republican leadership to strip out that provision, that Donald Trump and Paul Ryan actually spoke today by phone on the floor of the House.
We're told by a senior House Republican aide telling our colleague Deirdre Walsh that it's safe to say that Trump's tweets probably added to the pressure, but it was already being heavily covered in the press, the aide also saying that Trump and Ryan spoke only after the vote was resolved.
So Trump not actually making any phone calls to add to the pressure, just simply tweeting and adding to those phone calls that members of Congress were getting from their own constituents who were angry about these changes they were proposing, Wolf.
BLITZER: Clearly, that tweet did have an impact. But there was a lot of other pressure building against this move as well.
Manu, thank you very much.
Top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway says the president-elect will finally hold his news conference on how he plan to address business conflicts of interest on January 11.
CNN political reporter Sara Murray is in New York City for us.
Sara, you're also learning more. Update our viewers.
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
As Donald Trump prepares to unwind himself from his business interests, at least one thing is clear, and that that's his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, are inching closer to the White House. Now, Donald Trump's transition team feels confident that he will, in fact, hold this press conference about his business on either January 11, or possibly the following day on January 12.
He will explain how he will extricate himself from his business interests. It's not clear exactly how he will do that, but sources say it's still unlikely that Donald Trump will divest completely, and it's a possibility he could name an outside trustee to sort of help bat back concerns about a conflict of interest.
But what's clear in all of this is Jared and Ivanka are Washington- bound. They have secured a property there and sources familiar with the discussions say that they are expected to advise Donald Trump in the White House.
Now, there are still ongoing discussions about whether there's a way to give them some kind of formalized title that would be permissible under ethics rules, but they do feel like, at this point, the Trump transition team, they're on solid ground to at least have Jared and Ivanka there as informal advisers.
Now, in many ways, this is an ethics nightmare -- or an ethic expert's worst nightmare. They feel like Donald Trump should go to Congress, ask them to amend these anti-nepotism laws. They have been very vocal about it, even putting out editorials calling on Donald Trump publicly to do it. If Ivanka and Jared do, in fact, end up in Washington, as they are poised to do, it presents another set of questions, which is what they do with their businesses.
Ivanka Trump has been a little bit more straightforward in this. She's made it clear she would separate herself from her company if she does go to Washington and advise her father. And we were told by a spokeswoman for the brand that, as Ivanka has previously stated, she would separate herself from her businesses if asked to become an adviser to her father and the Trump administration.
We have asked for more details about what Jared Kushner would do with his own real estate company. But so far, we have not heard how he would handle that -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Sara Murray reporting for us, Sara, thanks very much. Let's some get more on all of this. Republican Senator James Risch of
Idaho is a member of the Ethics, Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees in the United States Senate.
Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
So, very quickly on what we just heard from Sara, do you have any recommendations how Donald Trump can avoid potential conflicts of interest? He's got an enormous business that he's got to separate from.
SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO: Wolf, he's going to have an army of lawyers that are advising him on how to do this. It's going to be done, I'm sure, very carefully. And you guys are going to be looking over his shoulder every step of the way, so I'm sure they're going to be very careful about how they do that.
BLITZER: What about the Senate and the House of Representatives?
You guys have oversight responsibilities as well. I assume you will be looking as well.
RISCH: I think everybody's going to be watching. I'm sure they're going to be very careful on that.
The law -- we have very clear laws in America about using your public office to make money, to benefit yourself. And I would be shocked if the president-elect of the United States wasn't fully aware of the consequences, his lawyers breathing down his throat every day to see that he stays clear.
BLITZER: This is Donald Trump. You know, he doesn't necessarily always play by the normal rules.
RISCH: I get it.
BLITZER: You're laughing. He does it his own way a lot of the time.
RISCH: He does. Got him elected.
BLITZER: That's right. So you're saying you're not worried?
RISCH: Well, you know, you got to take these things one step at a time.
You know, people are going out looking at a parade of horrors that could happen. Certainly, things could happen. But let's give him the opportunity to move forward and watch how he does it.
BLITZER: What would you do if there is some sort of perceived conflict, that you see a conflict after January 20, a business deal, for example, all of a sudden getting done in part, let's say, because he's president of the United States?
RISCH: Well, there's obviously procedures in place for that through Department of Justice. And that's where that would have to be handled, not through the legislative branch, but through the Department of Justice.
BLITZER: Because it is pretty extraordinary. I don't know any other president in our history who's had these kinds of enormous business deals, you know, and a huge Trump Organization, which he certainly has.
RISCH: Right. And you're right.
On the magnitude, it is larger than it's been, but it's always been. We're all human beings.
BLITZER: When you say procedures, there are procedures, what procedures are you talking about?
RISCH: Well, I'm talking about the criminal procedures through the Department of Justice. They have an FBI that can investigate any of these things. They can -- using the subpoena system and the other ways that they gather evidence, they can do that. They can follow the rabbit down the hole and eventually put it in front of a judge.
BLITZER: He's got to be very precise when he has this news conference.
RISCH: No question about that.
BLITZER: Assuming he does.
Supposedly, it's going to be on January 11. We will all be anxious to hear what he and his lawyers have come up with.
I suppose you were pretty shocked when you woke up this morning, and you heard about the House ethics panel being gutted.
RISCH: Well, not really, Wolf.
We do it differently on the Senate side than the House side does. They apparently have another step in there that we don't have of this other committee. On our side...
BLITZER: Independent panel that can go ahead and investigate.
RISCH: On our side, there's three Republicans and three Democrats, all equal, who sit on our Ethics Committee
And in the years I have been on it, which has been all my time in the United States Senate, it has worked very well. The most important things to come out of ethics investigations are when someone crosses the line for criminal behavior. And when that happens, we always refer it to the Department of Justice, if necessary, although usually the Department of Justice is there at least as quickly as we are, or maybe even before we are.
And so those are -- it's the crossing the line on criminal statutes that is really important. And we have a very clear way of handling it. It's been very successful. I can -- I obviously can't speak for anyone in the committee, but I think that our committee is very well...
BLITZER: You give Donald Trump credit for that tweet which propelled, I suspect, at least contributed to the House Republican leadership changing their mind, reversing course, and deciding, you know what, we're not going to gut that panel?
RISCH: Well, I think so. And I think that actually shows sensitivity on his part.
BLITZER: On the part of Donald Trump.
RISCH: On the part of Donald Trump to go there, because I think being part of the internal workings on this, a lot of this is much more perception than it is anything else, because, like I said, you have the second branch of government, the judicial system, the third branch of government involved when someone steps over the line on criminal things.
BLITZER: But this was a demonstration of his power. He's not even president of the United States. But he is the leader of the Republican Party right now.
RISCH: Well, he certainly is the leader of America right now. The states of America elected him to be their president, and that's important and people are going to listen to him.
And I'm sure that as he goes day by days, he realizes how closely people are listening to him and the power that he does have, be it with a tweet or elsewhere.
BLITZER: He could do it through a tweet or a statement he makes or we will see what he does at that news conference, if, in fact, that news conference takes place.
RISCH: His tweets are more closely followed than any tweeter before him.
BLITZER: Well, there are some movie stars that have more followers than he does.
RISCH: But probably not as much influence.
BLITZER: That is correct. That is correct. All right. Stand by.
There's new developments happening on the Russian hacking.
RISCH: Right. BLITZER: New information we're getting about statements that are
about to be made by the director of national intelligence, the CIA director. We will take a quick break. Much more with Senator Risch right after this.
BLITZER: We're back with Republican Senator James Risch.
And we want to talk to him about the classified report on cyber- attacks linked to the U.S. election which U.S. intelligence blames on Russia. Sources tell CNN it's expected to be ready as early as this week and that the president-elect, Donald Trump, will get a personal high-level briefing.
Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, is joining us now with more.
Evan, Trump continues to cast doubt on Russia's role in the hackings. And the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, denies Russia was the source of stolen e-mails leaked by his organization. What's the latest information you're getting?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know that the intelligence community is certain about its assessment that Russia was behind the election hacks.
They don't so much care about what Julian Assange has to say, but later this week, the top leaders of the intelligence community hope to make the case personally to the president-elect, Donald Trump, and that could come on Friday, when Trump finally meets with the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and the CIA director, John Brennan, along with other top national security officials.
The intelligence community is completing a report in the next couple of days on cyber-intrusions on the U.S. elections going all the way back to 2008. We expect the public version of the report will include newly declassified information on the evidence that supports the intelligence community's assessment that Russia was, indeed, behind the hack of the Democratic Party organizations.
U.S. officials tell CNN that companies across the country have detected I.P. addresses and malware that could be connected to the Russian hackers, though it's unclear if they penetrated the networks.
Now, the discovery comes after the FBI and DHS put out this report last week naming the Russian hacking operation, Grizzly Steppe, and warning companies on what to be on the lookout far. And we should add that the Russian government again today said that it had nothing to do with these hacks.
And, meanwhile, Wolf, on Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of lawmakers says that it's planning legislation that would expand on these sanctions on Russia for these cyber-activities -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Evan Perez, our justice correspondent, thanks very much.
We're back with Senator Risch.
You have any doubt that Russia was responsible for these cyber- attacks?
RISCH: Well, I wouldn't put it in terms of having any doubt.
People keep saying, oh, they're certain, 100 percent. That never happens in the intelligence community, particularly on hacking. It is with a high degree of probability that that's where it came from.
But with the kinds of spoofing that's done on the Internet, and what have you, you're never 100 percent. However, certainly, the intelligence community has concluded with a high degree of reliability that, in fact, the Russians were involved.
You have to set aside what the Russians say. You have to set aside what Assange says. They both are people, entities...
BLITZER: You clearly don't believe the Russian statements, and you don't believe Julian Assange?
RISCH: Set them aside.
BLITZER: When you say set them aside, what does that mean?
RISCH: That means look at all the other evidence. What they say bears nothing as far as evidence is concerned, because it's not believable.
BLITZER: Because the evidence that you have seen, and you're privy, you're a member of the Intelligence Committee, the evidence that you have seen, and you don't want to release classified information, sources and methods, as they say -- but the evidence that you have seen is convincing enough for you to conclude that the Russians did it?
RISCH: Let me put it in these terms.
I have reviewed the -- much, if not most of the material that the intelligence community has reviewed, and it's been a lot of material. My assessment is no different than the intelligence community. And that is that it is with a high degree of probability that the Russians were responsible for the hacking that's involved.
Having said that, you know, I keep trying to put a -- put this in perspective. This shouldn't surprise anyone. This hacking that goes on goes on all day, every day.
BLITZER: But Donald Trump repeatedly rejects it. He says it could be Russia, could be China, could be some guy on a bed weighing 400 pounds. Those are his words.
He makes it sound like it's ridiculous to conclude that Russia was responsible, and then he doubles down and praises Putin.
RISCH: Well, I can't -- I certainly don't want to speak for the president-elect. He will have to speak for himself in that regard.
He's going to get this high-level briefing. I suspect part of this is colored by the fact that every time this is reported in the media, what have you, there's this tinge of, well, that makes his election in question or it raises questions about his legitimacy as president. And I think that's probably a...
BLITZER: But Senator McCain, your colleague, he says this was an act of war by the Russians.
And forget about whether or not it had an impact on the elections. You believe, McCain believes -- when Donald Trump gets this briefing from Clapper and Brennan maybe as early as Friday, do you think he will emerge from that briefing convinced, as you are?
RISCH: I can't answer that question. Regarding an act of war, I think that we have long concluded that these kinds of things are an act of war, certainly not a bloody, hostile, physical attack.
But any time that a country tries to disrupt another country in some way, shape or form -- and I can say, I think, without going overboard here, that what you see now in this election process is just a small part of what's actually going on out there as far as hacking is concerned. And it isn't just the Russians and it isn't just in our election process.
This -- as we're sitting here, there have been many, many attacks on the Department of Defense and all other agencies of the United States government. There are over 200 countries in the world, and the number that are involved in this sort of thing far exceeds the number that...
BLITZER: Because President Obama says, in 2015, the Chinese hacked the Office of Personnel Management, and millions of Americans who work in the government, some of the most sensitive information that they had to supply the U.S. government to get security clearances was compromised.
RISCH: That's true.
And, as I said, the number of countries involved in this far exceed the number that are not.
BLITZER: But Russia, China, North Korea, the Sony operation, they were responsible for that. The U.S. has pretty good intelligence when it comes to hacking, cyber-attacks, because they can figure out in a physical way how they did it.
RISCH: Sometimes. These things are -- we are aware -- on cyber-security matters, we are
aware -- Henry Ford was when he made the Model T. We got a long, long, long ways to go before we can say with certainty what's happening in these matters and, for that matter, how they're done and that type of thing.
BLITZER: You think the president, President Obama, did the right thing by expelling those Russian diplomats, by shutting down some of their facilities here in the United States?
RISCH: Well, I think that it was a normal response to it.
When I heard that he was going to give a response, I knew exactly -- or I thought I knew exactly what he was going to do. And I was right, that there were going to be these expulsions.
This isn't new. This happens all the time. From a diplomatic standpoint, it is almost, not quite, but almost a nonevent as far as expelling...
BLITZER: Normally, the other country, in this particular case, Russia, they reciprocate, they do the same thing to America.
BLITZER: Normally. But Putin decided not to do it, for which Trump praised him. Are you OK with that?
RISCH: I was a little surprised that the Russians did not do that.
But, look, Putin's moved beyond Obama. He's -- when he sent out his Christmas greetings, he sent Christmas greetings to president-elect Trump. He did not send the same thing to -- he's moved on. And so I don't -- I think that things are going to change, and I think we all need to just sit tight for a little bit and see how this relationship is going to play out.
Remember, Obama announced a reset. There's been no such announcement from the Trump administration. And I think you're going to see a bit of a reset in one way or another.
BLITZER: We will see what happens. It's going to be happening very, very soon.
Senator Risch, thanks so much for coming in.
RISCH: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, a sit-in protesting Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general of the United States. I will speak with one of the organizers, the head of the NAACP, Cornell Brooks.
He's sitting in, in Mobile, Alabama, at Senator Sessions' office there. He's going to sit there until they're either arrested or the nomination of Senator Sessions is withdrawn.
BLITZER: A tweet from Donald Trump today apparently persuaded House Republicans to abandon their plan to strip power from an independent congressional ethics watchdog. The president-elect questioned lawmakers' priorities and urged them to focus in on tax reform, health care, and, quote, "so many other things of far greater importance."
[18:30:20] Let's dig deeper with our political experts. David Axelrod, how much credit does Donald Trump deserve for convincing the Republican leadership in the House to drop their plan to gut this ethics office?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I would guess he would say about 100 percent.
But look, I think -- I think, Wolf, if the House Republican Caucus wanted to give Donald Trump a welcoming gift, they could not have done anything differently than they did last night. They sent up this big zeppelin of a trial balloon, and he shot it down.
Now, I think that balloon was going to sink of its own -- on its own volition because of the way their constituents were reacting to what was a really bad idea. But Donald Trump, as usual, saw a good public relations opportunity here, and he took advantage of it, and he scored.
BLITZER: He certainly did.
You know, and Gloria, you know, he tweeted about it this morning. And there was a lot of criticism already emerging, so he was under some pressure to go ahead and do it, but he did it. And then the speaker, the majority leader in the House, they both reversed themselves and said, "You know what? We'll dump it."
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, right. I mean, look, originally they weren't for it. It was behind closed doors. It was done -- it was unplanned, kind of a last-minute thing. I mean, whose idea was is to say, "Gee, I think this is a really good idea. We're going to come back to Congress and the first thing we're going to do is gut our own ethics commission"...
BLITZER: The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Goodlatte...
BLITZER: ... he was the one who was pushing it.
BORGER: He thought it was a great idea. "We're going to do this behind closed doors before we do anything else
in Congress, and that will send a great signal to the American public that we're ready to so-called 'drain the swamp,' as Donald Trump likes to say."
I mean, that was an awful idea. The leaders knew it. The leaders absolutely knew it. And Trump knew it. Of course he knew it. You know, Donald Trump understands the zeitgeist in this country pretty well. And he criticized it, and they were getting calls from their constituents. They were listening and they decided, "You know what? Maybe not such a good idea."
BLITZER: Yes, but, you know, Gloria is 100 percent right, Rebecca, that the leadership, they didn't want to do it, but it went through. And it was part of this bigger package of rules reforms or whatever.
And then the next morning, this morning, they accepted it. Then Trump tweeted it; then they reversed themselves. It was about as awkward as it -- as it comes.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It was quite an emotional roller coaster, I guess, as much as you get in Congress.
But I think what Republicans realized -- and maybe Trump's tweet helps them along -- was that this was not the right time for something like this.
That's not to say that there's never going to be a time and place for reforming the Office of Congressional Ethics, because there are plenty of lawmakers who would argue that there are problems that need to be addressed.
But like Gloria said, you don't want that to be known as the first thing you do, your priority when you return to Washington, D.C., as Congress, and certainly, in a new administration, at the dawn of a Republican-run Washington, you don't want that to be the lasting image that Americans are getting.
BLITZER: With the Republicans now in charge of the White House, as of January 20, the House and the Senate, this was not the headline they wanted to emerge on day one of the 115th session, David Swerdlick.
DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": No. Definitely not, Wolf. And that's the thing.
I mean, one thing that's clear, apart from just the timing this was right at the beginning of the new Congress, is this idea that Republicans know and the White House knows that the public knows that Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House.
So that if there are -- something goes through that's not to the public's liking, there is no longer a President Obama to blame. There are no longer congressional Democrats to blame. And they're cognizant of that.
BLITZER: David Axelrod, Kellyanne Conway, who's going to be the White House counselor, told our Anderson Cooper last night that Trump finally will hold his news conference next week, next Thursday, January 11, and talk about what he's going to do to prevent conflicts of interest, his business deals as they connect to being president of the United States. What do you want to hear?
AXELROD: Well, look, Wolf, Donald Trump has his own version of a blind trust, which is we're all blind to what his dealings are, what his finances are; and we're expected to trust him. And it doesn't work that way.
Most presidents liquidate their holdings, buy treasuries, and let their accounts be managed by someone without their knowledge. This is obviously not possible if you own the business, if you've been involved in all the dealings, and your children are running the business.
[18:35:02] So it's hard for me to understand how he's going to set up any kind of system that would inoculate him from charges of potential conflicts of interest and, you know, it will be interesting to see. They'll be a month overdue on that press conference. Maybe they've come up with something no one has thought of.
BLITZER: He tends to delay these kinds of press conferences, Gloria, as you know...
BORGER: Well, we haven't had a press conference since July 27.
BLITZER: Well, especially on a sensitive issue like this.
BLITZER: And there are already some skeptics out there, who are saying he says January -- she says, Kellyanne Conway, January 11. Don't hold your breath for this news conference.
So what can he do to prevent the impression that there's a potential conflict?
BORGER: Well, there have been lots of suggestions made about how he can manage it. As David points out, it's very difficult, given the nature of his business.
Some people have said you have to put somebody inside the White House who is under the office of the counselor to the president, who would be your internal czar to kind of make sure that no lines are crossed. And it should be somebody that is very well-respected and that has dealt with government ethics issues before.
And if you could have that person effectively living there, that may be one way to sort of get around this, because there would be somebody constantly saying, "You can't do this. You can't do that," and that might help.
AXELROD: How many -- Gloria, how many volunteers do you think there will be for that job?
BORGER: Not a lot.
Everybody stand by. There's another story we're following tonight. The NAACP is protesting Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. His nomination to the federal bench 30 years ago was derailed by allegations he had made some racist remarks which Sessions denied.
Now protesters are staging a sit-in at his office in Mobile, Alabama, vowing to remain there until Sessions is no longer the nominee or until they are arrested.
The president and CEO of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, is among those who are sitting in. He's joining us now on the phone.
Cornell, tell us more about why you're protesting the nomination of Senator Sessions.
CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS, PRESIDENT/CEO, NAACP (via phone): Well, we don't take any pleasure in opposing the nomination, someone to the highest law enforcement office in the land, but when we have a United States senator who has received consistently failing grades from the ACLU and the NAACP as to his civil rights record; when we have a senator who, with his one instance of prosecuting voting rights, he prosecutes three civil rights activists who were later given the Congressional Gold Medal and not found guilty; when we have a senator who is barely -- I should say not acknowledged voter suppression, but has vowed a faith (ph) in the midst of voter fraud, this is unconscionable and intolerable.
We have, in Senator Sessions, someone who has mouthed support for the president-elect's policy with respect to -- immigration policy with respect to a global ban on -- I should say a ban on a global religion, namely Islam. That's, frankly, something we can't support.
BLITZER: So, do you believe, Cornell, that the president-elect will actually change his mind and withdraw this nomination?
BROOKS: Well, it's not -- it is not our position to gauge our position based on probability. It is tough, but here's what I would note.
Today we had hundreds of law professors sign a letter objecting to and opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions as the attorney general. We have Deval Patrick taking the same position. We have organizations across the country, citizens across Alabama who are standing up and saying that we deserve better, we deserve different, we deserve someone who's willing to enforce all the laws on behalf of all the people from the nation's highest law enforcement office.
And so when you ask me whether or not it's likely, whether or not it is probable, I would simply say this. It was not particularly likely, not particularly probable that a ragtag group of civil rights activists attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, met with resistance and, in the face of resistance, persisted. They persisted in 1965, and as a consequence, we have the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
So this is not a matter of probabilities. This is not a game of chance. But this is a matter of ensuring that the Constitution is respected and the Constitution is enforced, and the nation's civil rights laws are enforced from the vantage point of the Justice Department.
[18:40:10] Think about this. Here we are in the midst of this Twitter age civil rights movement, where we have activists in the streets all across the country. This is among the worst possible times and Senator Sessions would be among the worst possible nominees to hold this office at this juncture in history.
And so we can't simply determine what we do based upon the probability of it being accepted. That being said, in 1986, the odds might not have been great then, but we were able to ensure -- we, with many others -- that Mr. Sessions did not become a federal judge. We are as opposed to his nomination then -- now as we were then. We're not concerned about the odds.
BLITZER: Cornell, has the Trump transition team been in touch with the NAACP about possibly setting up a meeting with the president- elect?
BROOKS: That has not happened. That has not happened. They've reached out to our office, I think, to get some contact information, but we've not heard from them in any serious and substantive way.
And I would just simply note that most attorneys generals regard the NAACP as an ally and a friend in the pursuit of justice. We are frequently consulted when it comes to these kinds of nominations and picks.
But the issue here is not whether or not we received a call, not whether or not we have a meeting scheduled, but the quality of the nominee. And when it comes to immigration rights, when it comes to LGBTQ rights, when it comes to voting rights, when it comes to criminal justice reform, we do not have, in Senator Sessions, the kind of man we need to lead the Justice Department at this juncture in history or at any juncture in history.
BLITZER: Cornell William Brooks, the president of the NAACP, thanks very much for joining us. We'll stay in close touch. We'll follow up and see what happens. If you're arrested, you and your NAACP colleagues, we'll update our viewers, as well. Thank you for that.
You know, David Axelrod, it's a tough decision, I'm sure, for the NAACP to do this, because presumably, at some point, they're going to be forced to leave; and they're going to be arrested.
AXELROD: Yes, but this also was an exceptionally provocative appointment. I think Donald Trump knew that when he made it.
Senator Sessions was denied a judgeship based on some of the charges that we just heard. He has taken very tough positions on things like immigration and voting rights and other issues that are of great concern to a lot of people.
So I suspect that this protest isn't going to end with a withdrawal of the nomination; probably will end with arrests. But what it won't -- what won't happen is an easy hearing for Senator Sessions. I think this is one of those, even though he's a member of the Senate, which is a collegial body, I expect this to be a very, very contentious confirmation hearing.
BLITZER: I assume, Gloria, you agree?
BORGER: I do. I mean, I think normally, when you have a member of the club that goes before the club to get confirmed, it's kind of an easy -- it's an easy hearing to have. I think this will be difficult, and I think it puts some Republicans in a tough spot, and some people who have served with Sessions amicably over the years, Democrats, in a tough spot; and I think it's not going to be easy. In the end, if you were to ask me, do I think Sessions is going to get confirmed? Yes, he's going to get confirmed.
BLITZER: Republicans have the majority.
BLITZER: You need 50.
BORGER: You bet.
BLITZER: And that's what they're going to get, because the vice president, at that point, will be Mike Pence; and he can break a tie.
All right, guys. Everybody stand by. Donald Trump is sparking some concern with a warning to North Korea on Twitter. We'll be right back.
[18:47:42] BLITZER: North Korea's Kim Jong-un is vowing to test a long-range missile which at some point could give him the capability of launching a nuclear weapon at the United States. A tweet from President-elect Donald Trump warns North Korea he won't let that happen, but the White House suggests President Obama still lacks confidence in Trump's ability to protect the United States from nuclear threats.
Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
Barbara, how dangerous, potentially, could Donald Trump's tweet on North Korea be?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this may be one of the most eyebrow-raising tweets by Trump so far because you never know how Kim Jong-un is going to react and as you just pointed out, today the White House also raising the prospect that President Obama isn't convinced Trump can protect the U.S. from North Korea.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) STARR (voice-over): Nobody knows if North Korea's Kim Jong-un has seen Donald Trump's latest tweet, "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen."
And nobody knows how North Korea's erratic leader will now react.
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: This particular tweet is in essence telling the North Koreans, putting them on notice that they are going to be watched very carefully by the incoming administration and that they don't have carte blanche.
STARR: This after Kim said --
KIM JONG-UN, NORTH KOREAN LEADER (through translator): Cutting-edge arms equipment is actively progressing and intercontinental ballistic missile test launch preparation is in its last stage.
STARR: It's not clear how soon Kim can be ready to launch a missile that could reach the U.S. but the prospect raises alarm. If a nuclear weapon exploded over a West Coast population center like Los Angeles or San Francisco, tens of thousands could be killed. Even a non- nuclear North Korean attack into South Korea could also kill tens of thousands including 30,000 U.S. troops based there.
Trump on the campaign trail was open to talking to Kim.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: I would go there, that I can tell you. If he came here, I'd accept him, but I wouldn't but I wouldn't give him a state dinner.
STARR: Now, Trump wants to pressure China to get Kim to roll back his nuclear program.
[18:50:02] "China has been taking out massive amounts of money and wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but it won't help with North Korea. Nice."
But that message already largely brushed aside by Beijing.
GENG SHUANG, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN (through translator): We hope to see all sides avoid remarks and actions that would escalate tensions.
STARR: The Obama administration doesn't think North Korea can threaten the U.S. with a nuclear missile yet.
JOHN KIRBY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We do not believe that he at this point in time has the capability to tip one of these with a nuclear warhead.
STARR: The current U.S. military response focuses on defending against an attack with interceptors in Alaska and California and ships in the Western Pacific.
But in the face of a sudden imminent threat, U.S. officials tell CNN, President Trump could activate existing plans for preemptive attacks, so-called No Mercy Strikes, to destroy the regime and its weapons.
A former defense secretary who called for a pre-emptive strike in 2006 now says it must not happen.
WILLIAM PERRY, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: A preemptive strike could bring about complete and total catastrophe to South Korea and Japan. So, that is not an option.
STARR: The other person who called for a preemptive strike back in 2006, the current Defense Secretary Ash Carter -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr, pretty ominous indeed. Thank you very much.
Just ahead, the latest on the manhunt for the gunman behind a nightclub massacre. Was he trained by ISIS?
[18:55:23] BLITZER: We're following the manhunt for the gunman who killed 39 people in that New Year's Eve attack at an Istanbul nightclub.
CNN's Brian Todd is working the story.
Brian, we're learning more about possible ties to ISIS, even terrorist training.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, right, Wolf, we are. We're getting information tonight, new information that the gunman might have been more than a lone wolf, more than someone who was merely inspired by ISIS. We're told video of the suspect, which he took himself, was posted on a pro-ISIS social media account. A terror tracking agency says that suggests he may have been part of a network supportive of ISIS or linked to the group.
This comes as Turkish officials tonight are furiously working to track this man down.
TODD (voice-over): The manhunt for this suspect, who police say killed 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub, has intensified tonight. CNN is told Turkish officials are checking every possible source to identify him. Turkish security forces have arrested more than a dozen people. Police say they have the suspect's fingerprints. They have this harrowing surveillance footage of him firing as he enters the club.
But so far, there's no word on his name or nationality. And nearly three days after the massacre, time is working against those tracking him.
LENNY DEPAUL, FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. MARSHALS: I'm hoping they know a heck of a lot more than we do because, you know, three days and timing on a fugitive is very important. Crossing borders, the landscape is a little rough, it's a porous border they've got. He's got to go south to Syria if he decides to head in that direction.
TODD: Tonight, new information on this selfie video of the suspect. He's taking video of himself not far from the scene of the attack.
Flashpoint, an intelligence firm which tracks terrorist threats, says the video was first posted on a pro-ISIS Telegram account. Flashpoint says that suggests suspect was part of a network supportive of ISIS or linked to the terror group, which has claimed responsibility for the massacre.
At this stage, there are still unconfirmed reports that the suspect may have traveled to Turkey through Syria. Tonight, it's not clear if the attacker might have been directed by ISIS or may have been a lone wolf inspired by the group.
But analysts say his tactics suggest he's had training.
AYKAN ERDEMIR, FOUNDATION FOR DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: Must be a seasoned fighter, the manner in which he kept calm, changed magazines, continued to shoot accurately at targets and also, the way in which he used his AK-47 in a very skilled way.
TODD: A former U.S. marshal says ISIS could be helping this man elude capture, even if he's just a loose supporter.
DEPAUL: They're going to take care of him. They're probably going to hide him out somewhere. I'm sure they're bringing in assets, whether it's money or whatever support they need.
TODD: Analysts say ISIS has an extensive network of cells inside Turkey ready to strike again.
ERDEMIR: There have been cells uncovered in Turkey southeast, in central Anatolia, and the capital Ankara as well as major cities, Istanbul and Izmir. ISIS has a pretty strong grassroots network that they rely on for logistics, for intelligence, and for support.
TODD: Now, that gentleman who we spoke to, a former member of Turkey's parliament, Aykan Erdemir, he told us this attack and the manhunt underway exposed the weaknesses of Turkey's security surfaces. Erdemir says since the failed coup against President Erdogan last summer, Turkish police and security forces have been gutted with massive purges. He says they're understaffed, overstretched, have a shortage of human intelligence, and that they were not ready for this attack. Turkish officials have so far not responded to our requests for comment on that -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian, there are also some new details emerging on the attacker's movements that night just before, during, and after the massacre. What are you learning?
TODD: Very specific details, Wolf. Turkish news agencies citing witness accounts and government officials are reporting that the gunman took a cab from a neighborhood near Istanbul's airport, to a street near the nightclub, that he was carrying a backpack, that once he got inside the nightclub, he stood near the deejay's booth and started shooting, changing his magazines on his gun several times. Then, afterward, according to Turkish media, he got into another cab but got out a short distance away telling the cabdriver he didn't have any money.
The driver told police the man borrowed his phone and made a call. The details of that call have not been released yet, Wolf.
BLITZER: Clearly, the evidence suggests the way he used that weapon, he had been trained by someone. That's what the evidence suggests.
Brian Todd, thanks very much for that report.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.