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Briefed by the FBI; Emotional Surprise Award; Debates in France; Grilled in Senate; Spreading Alarm; Change in Policy; Sour Media Relationship; . Aired 3-4a ET

Aired January 13, 2017 - 03:00   ET



[03:00:00] GEORGE HOWELL, CNN HOST: Briefed by the FBI. We're learning more about that controversial Intel briefing between U.S. intelligence officials and Donald Trump.

Well, the left debates in France. The socialist party lagging in popularity, the prime minister lays out his case to voters.

And spreading alarm, Nutella's maker defends itself after reports of a potentially dangerous ingredient.

Live from CNN world headquarters in Atlanta. Welcome to our viewers around the world. I'm George Howell. CNN Newsroom starts right now.

Good day to you. We begin with big dealings in the U.S. intelligence community. The Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden, confirms that he and President Barack Obama were with briefed on unsubstantiated claims against the President-elect Donald Trump.

And even though Trump says it never happened, our sources tell CNN the FBI Director James Comey personally briefed the president-elect. We'll have more on that in just a moment.

In the meantime, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice is investigating the FBI on the Clinton e-mail server probe and its impact on the presidential election.

And then this. Trump's choices for intelligence chief and defense secretary, former CIA Director, Leon Panetta is backing Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo saying that he would be a good director.

But in the meantime, the Senate passed a waiver to allow retired General James Mattis to serve as secretary of defense. The House will consider that waiver on Friday.

CNN's Jim Sciutto has more on the fight between Donald Trump and the intelligence community in the U.S.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN'S CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The same day the President-elect Trump accused CNN of reporting fake news.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's all fake news. It's phony stuff.


SCIUTTO: The nation's top spy confirmed CNN's report. That the intelligence community presented Trump with the information on claims that Russia has compromising information on him.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper saying in a statement, quote, "Part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security."

Director Clapper also told Mr. Trump that the intelligence community is not to blame for leaking the allegations saying in the statement, quote, "I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press. I do not believe the leaks came from within the intelligence community."

Apparently, an effort to diffuse tensions after Trump accused the intelligence chiefs Wednesday of leaking the claims intentionally.


TRUMP: I think it was disgraceful, disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. I think it's a disgrace. And I say that and I say that, and that's something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.


SCIUTTO: Trump tweeted about his conversation with Clapper saying, quote, "James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated, made up, phony facts, too bad." Exclamation point. That is actually a contradiction of Clapper's public statement.

The intelligence community has not made a judgment, it says, on the veracity of the allegations. President Obama was also presented with the claims and reportedly dismissed them. Today, Vice President Biden telling print reporters, quote, "The president was like, what does this have to do with anything," Biden said? "Neither of us asked for any detail."


MIKE POMPEO, UNITED STATES REPRESENTATIVE: Look, there are a number of very serious things that have taken place.


SCIUTTO: Today, the man that President-elect Trump has chosen to lead the CIA told senators that the agency would continue to explore the allegations. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POMPEO: I promise I will pursue the facts wherever they take us.


SCIUTTO: Still, senators questioned Pompeo's judgment on what constitutes credible information. During Pompeo's nomination hearing...




SCIUTTO: Senator Angus King pointed to this tweet in which Pompeo equates WikiLeaks with proof.


KING: Do you think WikiLeaks is a reliable source of information?

POMPEO: I do not.

KING: And the fact that you used the word proof, need proof that would indicate that you did think it was a credible source of information.

POMPEO: Senator King, I have never believed that WikiLeaks was a credible source of information.

KING: Well, how do you explain your Twitter?

POMPEO: I'd have to go back and take a look at that, Senator. But I can assure you, I have some deep understanding of WikiLeaks and I have never viewed it as a credible source of information for the United States or for anyone else.


SCIUTTO: The entire Senate has now been briefed in closed session about Russian hacking of the U.S. election process, and we know from senators who were in that meeting that that briefing included mention and discussion of this two-page synopsis of the allegations that Russia has compromising personal and financial information about Donald Trump.

[03:05:10] Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.

HOWELL: Joining us to talk more about this is CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza, he is also the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker. Ryan, good to have you with us at this hour.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Thank you. HOWELL: So, knowing what we know now from officials, from U.S.

officials, about FBI Director James Comey's briefing with Donald Trump confirming our reporting in fact, that it was based on multiple sources. What do you make of the president-elect and his team? Are they trying to deceive, are they trying to confuse the public on whether or not the information had even been briefed to Trump?

LIZZA: I think they are. I think Kellyanne Conway, his senior advisor, stated very clearly that it didn't happen. And it's not really clear why she would necessarily know that because she wouldn't be in a briefing like that.

Look, they're very, very sensitive to any allegations that this election is somehow tainted. And Trump and the people around him push back very hard on anything that they see as a partisan attempt to undermine his legitimacy.

That's why it took him a long time to really admit as he did yesterday, or as he did I guess on Wednesday, that, yes, Russia did have a role in running an influence campaign in the American election. I think it all drives from the sensitivity that the American media and democrats are out to de-legitimatize him.

HOWELL: But what does this say about the Trump team as they become, you know, the president's team after January 20th? Will this be a team that works in a fact-free world...


HOWELL: ... or will they later, as we've seen in the past here, will they later admits, well, we didn't quite get this right? Will they even admit to fault or error?

LIZZA: Look, I've covered five presidential campaigns and I never saw one like this where Trump would not always grapple with the reality of a situation. And he had an ongoing war with us in the media that is not died down. If anything, it's escalated since the election.

They have not been willing to admit mistakes when they get something wrong and where they say something that is not accurate. And it's a problem. It just means that we, in the media have to step up and make sure that we are fact checking and demanding transparency in a way that maybe we haven't had to do for other presidencies.

I think the other issue that's been exposed here is his ongoing fight with the intelligence community. That has much more serious ramifications than his fights with us in the media. He compared the intelligence community to Nazis.

Look, there is a rule in American politics and most countries, you don't use Nazi analogies, right? You don't compare anything to that. And to compare his own government servants, people who are frankly not paid that well, who are on the front lines of providing information to the presidency, some of them at great risk to themselves, to compare them to Nazis is just -- there's no words for that.

And he's going to have to rely on these people now and there is some real healing that has to go on there. And it's really worrying.

HOWELL: Ryan, on the intelligence topic, look, there are a lot of questions about why unverified information was ever even presented during the briefing. Listen here to what former CIA Director Leon Panetta told CNN's Erin Burnett. We can talk about it on the other side.


LEON PANETTA, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I think the problem is that the intelligence agencies would have felt that they would be at fault if they didn't bring that to the attention of the principals and this is what happens in intelligence briefings.

If we have information that is unsubstantiated but very sensitive, it's important to bring it to the attention of the key people so that they know that this information is out there, even though you make very clear that it is unsubstantiated and uncorroborated, it's still important information for them to have.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: So, it's the sensitivity that drives the briefing as opposed to whether it's substantiated which is an important clarification. Would they have tried ordinarily to substantiate it?

When we hear that it's unsubstantiated, do you infer they didn't even bother to look into it or that they did and they found some of it to be untrue, or would you say there would be no inference at all to be made from that statement?

PANETTA: I would assume that they made every effort to try to substantiate and corroborate that information.

[03:09:58] So, my sense is that they made the effort, they were unable to do it, but because it was so sensitive they felt an obligation to present it to the key player.


HOWELL: All right, Ryan, so that's what Leon Panetta said. But seeing how things have all unraveled since that briefing, do you think that explains the intelligence community's actions?

LIZZA: I think it does. Look, if Donald Trump didn't know about this dossier that was put together by this British intelligence agent who was working essentially for Trump's political opponents, he was one of the few people in Washington and New York who didn't know about it.

As a journalist, I knew about it. It was written about in Mother Jones' magazine frankly back on October 31st. So, the idea that it was some secret is ridiculous. It was being circulated among journalists and intelligence officials for quite some time.

So, Panetta's explanation makes perfect sense to me. You want to go and tell the president, hey, there's someone that has a decent record in the intelligence world, a former MI-6 agent who has put together this thing and it's making claims against you. You need to know about that. I think that is legitimate.

I think what's more troubling, of course, from the perspective of Donald Trump and officials in the government is that the nature of the briefing leaked out through the great reporting of CNN. And I think that's what infuriated Trump, is the leak of the information.

HOWELL: All right, Ryan, clearly a lot of news to talk about. Another big story that we're following, the Justice Department's Inspector General announcing an investigation into the FBI's handling of Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server, specifically, though, about how that information was released to the public.

Let's listen here to this response from Hillary Clinton's former campaign manager Robby Mook, and we can talk about that after this.


ROBBY MOOK, FORMER Hillary Clinton's CAMPAIGN MANAGER: The leaks were coming left and right from the FBI were so slanted against Hillary Clinton. Director Comey also claimed that he needed to send that letter to the Hill because he was worried it would leak out. Well, we can't punish candidates because of the bad behavior, the improper and unprofessional behavior of bureaucrats. It's just unacceptable.


HOWELL: So, a new investigation, but under the Trump presidency, here's the question. What happens to the inspector general under a Trump presidency? Could he, in fact, stop this investigation if he wanted to?

LIZZA: Look, the president has incredibly broad powers over the executive branch that he is in charge of. And I think theoretically he could. There would be a public outcry. There would probably be an outcry from even some republicans in Congress if Trump tried to medal in an I.G. investigation.

In our system, the inspector generals are quite important. They have a very important ombudsman role in the government. And when politicians or any political appointees try and interfere with inspector general investigations, it's a pretty big deal.

But theoretically, Trump can go in and fire that I.G. on day one just like he can basically fire anyone in the executive branch of the government. But this is going to have intense focus from the press and Congress. He's going to risk a very, very, very tough political situation and a lot of blow back if he goes forward with that.

HOWELL: Tradition has shown that presidents do not remove the inspector general. So, again, it will be interesting to see what happens after Donald Trump takes office.


HOWELL: Let's talk also about the current President of the United States, Barack Obama. He gave an interview to CBS News and admitted that there was some major P.R. opportunities that were lost, that weren't seized. He felt that he had better success, in fact, garnering public opinion during the campaigns than during his actual term of governing. Let's listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Part of the job description is also shaping public opinion. And we were very effective, and I was very effective in shaping public opinion around my campaigns, but there were big stretches while governing where even though we were doing the right thing, we weren't able to mobilize public opinion firmly enough behind us to weaken the resolve of the republicans to stop opposing us or to cooperate with us.


HOWELL: You'll remember that republicans accused President Obama many times of leading from behind. The question here, could the president have done more? It seems that he's reflecting on his eight years as president.

LIZZA: Look, and this is a bind that George W. Bush, Bush found himself in and Trump is going to find himself in. And it's sort of one of the paradoxes of our polarization right now in American politics. Not only could Obama not mobilize public opinion to overcome the opposition of republicans in Congress.

[03:14:59] Actually going out and speaking in favor of certain policies would mobilize his opposition. There is actually a lot of good research on this. And that at certain points when he was pushing for a legislative priority, just by going out and talking about it and praising it and campaigning for it, it would have the opposite effect.

It would actually do more to mobilize opposition than to mobilize his own folks. I'll never forget during the immigration debates, Obama had to be told by democrats on the Hill, please don't give a speech in Vegas that he was going to give in favor of immigration reform because if he did it, it would actually lose republicans in Congress.

So, in a country that is so politically polarized where half of the country disliked Obama so much, it is a unique problem that the bully pulpit could actually often have the opposite effect of what presidents in previous eras intended. So, I understand his frustrations. And Trump is going to find himself in a very similar place.

HOWELL: Ryan, CNN political commentator, thank you so much for your time and insight.

LIZZA: My pleasure.

HOWELL: And speaking of President Barack Obama, the Obama administration is ending the long-time practice of allowing Cubans who managed to reach U.S. soil to stay and become permanent residents. The change in policy now means that Cubans entering the U.S. illegally will now be sent back. CNN's Patrick Oppman has more now from Havana on the sudden change.

PATRICK OPPMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: With just days left in office, President Barack Obama has made a major change to U.S.-Cuba policy, ending the so-called wet foot, dry foot law. This was a policy that allowed Cubans arriving in the U.S. to stay.

Cubans who were intercepted at sea were generally sent back, but if Cubans made it to a beach in Florida or across the border from Mexico, they were essentially allowed to cut the immigration line and given a special status that people from no other nation in the world received.

Cuban government was very critical of this. They said it led to more illegal immigration, it led to more people smuggling. And it emptied the island of young people and some of the most educated Cubans like doctors and engineers.

Other Cubans that I have spoken to said that they saw the change coming as U.S. and Cuba have normalized relations. And we have seen an uptick in Cubans leaving into by sea or making the land crossing from countries like Mexico in the last two years.

Other Cubans I spoke to said that they were very concerned that this would lead to an increase in unrest. Because for years, this policy has worked as something of an escape valve. That people who were desperate enough who wanted more personal freedoms that were unhappy with the sourly state of the Cuban economy that they were able to leave more easily or able to arrive in the United States more easily than many other people.

And that essentially that the people who were going to effect change might protest against the government would leave. And now that doorway has been closed. All the same, it is the end of an era as a policy that led to thousands of people leaving this island has now ended.

I'm Patrick Oppman in Havana.

HOWELL: Still ahead here on CNN Newsroom, Russia at the center of a U.S. political fire storm for its alleged hacks on the U.S. election.

Now a Russian cyber journalist is giving his take on those allegations. Stay with us.


HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN Newsroom. I'm George Howell.

Russia has denied allegations that it is behind any meddling in the U.S. election nor does it say that it has any compromising information or material on Donald Trump.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen asked a -- asked the Russian cyber journalist for his take on what's really going on at the Kremlin.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The U.S. intelligence community says it's certain Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee servers on orders from Vladimir Putin. Aiming to help Donald Trump win the presidency.

I sat down with one of Russia's premiere cyber journalists, Andrei Soldatov, co-author of the book "The Red Web." His assessment is clear.


ANDREI SOLDATOV, RUSSIAN JOURNALIST: I think that the Kremlin was involved. And given the ground has a history of all cyber offensives launched by the Kremlin over the last, say, 10 years at least since 2007. It looks very plausible to me.


PLEITGEN: The Putin administration has vehemently denied claims that it's behind the hacking attacks, calling the assessments absurd and, quote, "a witch hunt." But Andrei Soldatov says the Kremlin often turns to private cyber firm to carry out similar operations.


SOLDATOV: They have this mark that they use there are not directly sponsored by the state because it would help the Kremlin to create plausible deniability.


PLEITGEN: But he says many of those working for such firms are fiercely loyal to the Russian state, some even trained by Russian intelligence services.


SOLDATOV: Still the same thing, basically, still about security, still about loyalty, still about the industrial complex. So, the problem is these people might be very easily approached by the state and they all have examples, people from say ministry. Might approach a very good company, I.T. company based in Moscow and to ask to help with some sensitive things. And usually this kind of help might be provided.


PLEITGEN: As for a possible motive, Soldatov believes at least in the early stages it was more about hurting Hillary Clinton than helping Donald Trump.


SOLDATOV: She's always seen as a kind of enemy of the state because a lot of people in the Kremlin believe that she was behind Moscow protests in 2011 and 2012 when she was state secretary. So, it looks like (Inaudible) trying to undermine her positions.

(END VIDEO CLIP) PLEITGEN: While Russian officials continue to deny any involvement in

hacking around the U.S. elections, they also say they hope for a more positive attitude towards their country once Donald Trump takes office.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Moscow.

HOWELL: Fred, thank you. Now let's bring in CNN contributor Jill Dougherty, also in Moscow. Jill, it was interesting to get that perspective from Fred's reporting.

A Russian lawmaker had more to say on that Trump intelligence briefing and Trump's spat with CNN and other media outlets. Aleksey Pushkovfor, one who posted the following on Twitter. I'll read this here.

"Liberal media in the United States," it says, "have been conducting for a year an info war against Trump and then they are surprised their relationship with him is bad, but what you sow you shall reap," it says.

"The main intrigue of January, what else? Will the coalition of Trump's enemies create to undermine his political legitimacy? And tie his hands and his feet?"

Jill, just to reiterate, CNN standing by its reporting on that issue, but beyond that, what is Pushkov getting at here?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I think it's an important tweet, George, because really what he is saying, you're beginning to hear from a lot of different sources kind of here in Russia, which is the government -- the Russian government is essentially saying that, look, we're open to dialogue. We want to a good dialogue with President Trump. That is what he says he wants with us.

But there is kind of a cabal of liberal, they call them liberal elite people in the government who hate Russia and want to make relations impossible.

[03:25:06] And so, what they're going to try to do, they argue, is bring down Donald Trump whichever way they can. And some of it will be these rumors and unsubstantiated information, compromising information, et cetera. Others might be the hacks. It could be anything.

But what they will do, and this is the idea again, the Kremlin's idea, Russia's idea, is that these forces are going to try to subvert Donald Trump. So, if he doesn't win, I should say if he doesn't deliver what the Kremlin is hoping he will deliver, there is some type of excuse, which is, you know, the system that corrupt American system brought him down.

HOWELL: It is interesting here in the U.S., though, to see the divide. There has been a divide between the legislative branch and the incoming president-elect. But now seeing a divide, in fact, between the president-elect and many of his nominees, Trump's pick for CIA director, Republican Mike Pompeo was asked about the alleged Russian hacking. Jill, take a listen to what he had to say. We can talk about it here in a moment.


POMPEO: With respect to this report in particular, it's pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy.

This was an aggressive action taken by the senior leadership inside of Russia.


HOWELL: Taking a very strong position there. Jill, seemingly stronger than the person that he will soon serve.

DOUGHERTY: Absolutely true. Examine if you listen to Rex Tillerson who is Trump's nominee for secretary of state, or his nominee for secretary of defense, General Mattis, you're hearing much the same thing. You know, a pretty hard line on Russia. And you'd have to scratch your head and say, why is that?

Now, it's not clear why it is. Obviously I think if you get experienced people from those areas, they tend to think that way. They are much more suspicious of Russia. But also I think it raises issues now as President Trump begins or soon to be President Trump begins to put together his national security council. How is this going to work? Will he listen to them? Will he change his mind or will he listen and ignore them? That's one of the questions.

HOWELL: One of many, many, many questions. Jill Dougherty, thank you.

Still ahead here on CNN Newsroom, a French far right politician has been spotted in New York at Trump Tower. What Marine Le Pen in New York, what that trip might mean for the French presidential race.

You're watching CNN Newsroom.


HOWELL: And welcome back to our viewers around the world. You are watching CNN Newsroom. It's good to have you with us. I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you this hour.

U.S. officials tell CNN it was FBI Director James Comey who briefed President-elect Donald Trump on unsubstantiated claims that Russian operatives have compromising information on him.

Vice President Joe Biden says that he was also briefed as well as the President of the United States, Barack Obama.

The U.S. president also ending the long-standing U.S. policy of granting asylum to Cubans without visas who make it to the U.S. soil. The so-called 'wet-foot, dry-foot' policy has been in effect now for more than 20 years. Havana says that it welcomes this change in policy. Syrian state media is accusing Israeli jets of hitting a military

airport near the capital. They reported loud explosions near the airport near Damascus, but CNN has not confirmed these blasts or where they came from.

In France, the left wing candidates in the presidential election squared off on Thursday, their first televised primary debate. Here are some of what the two top left -- leftist candidates had to say. The former economy minister, and the former prime minister.


MANUEL VALLS, FRENCH PRIME MINISTER (through translator): I want to very honestly say that I have no opponents in this room. Let alone, enemies. That we came to debate in front of the French to convince them that the left is still useful. Useful to France, and that it is great and beautiful when it speaks to everyone.

ARNAUD MONTEBOURG, FORMER FRENCH MINISTER OF INDUSTRIAL RENEWAL (through translator): Who will oppose itself if not the left, the shameless hunt of civil servants which was launched by the right, who will oppose an amplification of austerity, who will oppose the way some are building a society of suspicion? It's our responsibility.


HOWELL: Four more on the debate in France, let's bring in CNN's Jim Bittermann live in the French capital. Jim, always a pleasure to have you with us. The socialist party is facing some real challenges with French voters. The party itself is quite divided. How did this debate go?

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, George, I think you could have had it in those two sound bites right there. The fact is that a lot of people who watched it said it was kind of lame. Basically there were no blows struck. It wasn't very exciting. And the candidates are suggesting maybe they'll try a little harder to go at each other on Sunday night when they have their next debate.

But the fact was people just walked away from this thinking that it did not appear that any one of the candidates had really won significantly. It looks like the top two seemed to be Manuel Valls who was the former Prime Minister and Montebourg who is the former Finance Minister.

And, in fact, they came out sort of as the most credible and the favorite after listening to the debate. But it's Valls who really has the front runner lead in terms of being the socialist candidate when the primary voting actually starts.

But having said that, George, even he, when you look at the national picture and you look at all the candidates, even he would come in, according to the public opinion polls at this point, three and a half months before the election, he would only come in fifth in the first round of the national election. So, the socialists have got a lot of work to do after five years of President Hollande. George? HOWELL: All right. Let's talk about another party, Marine Le Pen, the

leader of the far right National Front. I want to show you this image and to show our viewers because she was in New York. There was an image taken where she was at Trump Tower, if we have it. This image taken. Was she there for the famous Taco Bowl, Jim? Why was she there?

BITTERMANN: George, it's sort of like that line from Casa Blanca, you know, of all the Jim joints and all the chance in all the world, she walks into mine. The, both the Trump people and Le Pen people are saying that there was no meeting between the two parties, even though she is known to share a lot of viewpoints of Donald Trump.

[03:35:09] In fact, this is what she told my colleague Melissa Bell here in an interview a couple days ago.


MARINE LE PEN, NATIONAL FRONT PARTY PRESIDENT (through translator): His willingness to break with the idea that the USA has to police the world and the dramatic consequences this brings about in terms of migration flows which we are suffering from.

Also his vision of an economy it will be more protectionist, and his stance against the Trans-Atlantic free trade agreement which I am opposed to. He is the entire system candidate, the entire system was against him and wanted Hillary Clinton. This victory shows that the people are taking their future back.


BITTERMANN: So, obviously an affinity between the two, but no meeting. And she was seen, however, meeting with someone who lives three floors below Donald Trump in Trump Tower, and that's well known Italian businessman who was trying to bridge the gap across the Atlantic and the various populist parties both in Great Britain and elsewhere, in Europe, including France and in the United States. George?

HOWELL: But the cameras were there. The intrigue as well for sure. People were curious as to why she was in New York at the Trump Tower. Jim Bittermann, live for us in beautiful day there it seems to be in Paris, France. Jim, thank you for your time.

Now, many of Trump's picks, his cabinet picks have stressed stronger views on Russia than their future boss and the nominee for the secretary of defense, retired General James Mattis followed suit.

CNN's Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has this report for us.




Corps James Mattis wasted no time making clear he has no rose colored glasses about Russia or Vladimir Putin.


MATTIS: I would consider the principal threats to start with Russia.


STARR: Mattis now a civilian looking for Senate confirmation as defense secretary appears much more skeptical of Russia than President-elect Donald Trump. Especially on NATO.


MATTIS: The most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with Mr. Putin, and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.


STARR: Just hours before Mattis testified, the Kremlin spokesman told journalists the arrival of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe for exercises was a security threat. Mattis says he isn't sure where his views on Putin differ from Trump's.


MATTIS: But I can tell you that my view of Putin is that he has chosen to be both a strategic competitor, to quote the chairman's opening statement, "and an adversary in key areas."


STARR: Mattis says he agrees with Trump it's important to engage with Russia.


MATTIS: But I have very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin. We have a relatively short list of successes in that regard.


STARR: The new administration, Mattis says, has to recognize the reality of what Russia is up to.


MATTIS: There is a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia.

(END VIDEO CLIP) STARR: Mattis renowned for his plain talk says he believes he can talk to Trump candidly.


MATTIS: I would not have taken this job if I didn't believe the president-elect would also be open to my input on this or any other matter.


STARR: General Mattis appeared to disagree with Trump on yet another national security matter. General Mattis said regarding the Iran nuclear deal now that the U.S. has signed it, it has to stick to it.

Barbara Starr, CNN, The Pentagon.

HOWELL: Barbara, thank you for the reporting. Still ahead, health concerns over a popular treat that may very well may be in your home. Up next, why Europe is shining the spotlight, that's right, on Nutella. Stay with us.


HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN Newsroom. Nutella is fighting back against the European Food Safety Authority. The agency says that palm oil used in the highly popular spread, that it could cause cancer. Palm oil is what gives Nutella its creamy texture. It's used in a variety of foods around the world.

Nutella's parent company says the product would be inferior without it. It uses about 185,000 tons of palm oil a year and the company is not alone.

To talk more about this let's bring in CNN medical analyst. Dr. Seema Yasmin in Washington this hour with us. Seema, it's good to have you with us. So, doctors, a lot of people hear this news. Their kids eat Nutella all the time. How big of a risk is it in fact to eat Nutella?

SEEMA YASMIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It actually probably is quite low risk and here's why. This report that came from the European Food Safety Authority talks specifically about one ingredient in Nutella. They talk about palm oil. And what they have found is when this ingredient is heated to 200 degrees Celsius, that's around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, what happens is a particular chemical is formed. It's called a GE.

And this European agency went back to the research and they found that in some studies it looks like GE is linked to certain kinds of aggressive cancers. And most of these studies are done in mice. So, their conclusion in the report was we're not going to ask the Nutella to be pulled off the shelves. We're not saying nobody should eat it. And they actually ask for more research and that's where we are. We need more evidence before we say it's safe or not safe to eat.

HOWELL: Now, it's not just Nutella that uses palm oil, though. I mean, a lot of other products use it. But part of the issue is how it's processed, correct?

YASMIN: That is absolutely right. And I challenge you, George, and everyone watching this, start looking at labels of food ingredients and you'll be surprise to see that palm oil is in everything from ice creams, cakes and pastries, sandwich spreads and chocolates.

So, it's really interesting that the headlines have been generated focus very specifically on Nutella. And actually Ferrero, the Italian company that makes the chocolate spread has said is that they don't heat the palm oil to 200 degrees Celsius. They say they use a difficult he rent process to refine oil that involves keeping it cooler and using higher pressure, in fact, to refine.

And the reason that anyone would refine the oil is because naturally it's kind of reddish orange, and it has a smell. And food makers want to get rid of that.

HOWELL: Nutella obviously, they're out defending their product. They have a new ad campaign out insisting that Nutella is safe to eat. So, the burning question again, though, is how sure are European health experts in their assessment about this?

YASMIN: Well, they're sure enough to say that it should not be pulled from the shelves and no government agencies or any health authorities have asked the palm oil products to be pulled or to be recalled.

[03:45:03] What we have seen, though, in Italy is one really major food super market chain actually pulled the product from its shelves and pull other products, too, that contain palm oil.

And we've also seen other food manufacturers put labels on their food, kind of bragging in a way saying our product is palm oil free. But again, it comes down to this issue of has the palm oil been processed in a certain way.

And even then we still don't know that even if it is heated to 200 degrees Celsius, exactly how much of this potentially harmful chemical is produced. We don't have the answer to that. And we don't even know exactly how much of that a human would have to be exposed to before they're at risk of becoming unhealthy.

HOWELL: We talk about Nutella, I mean certainly iconic in Europe. But what is the stance of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on this? Do they consider it safe, or are they also issuing concern?

YASMIN: So, they haven't said anything too specific yet. And in fact, public health agencies around the world are quite vague in their guidance on this because it comes down to the fact that we need more research into palm oil and into GE before we can say for sure that it's a carcinogen and that it shouldn't be in food.

What is interesting, we have seen Nestle, which is Ferrero's rival say that they would now like to fund research into GE and palm oil and that's interesting because as a scientist and a doctor, I certainly want more evidence and more clinical studies done on these compounds. But we don't want it being done by food manufacturers who rely on

using hundreds of thousands of tons of palm oil. We need independent agencies and sources to do this research for us. It's a really important question.

HOWELL: Dr. Seema Yasmin, a CNN medical analyst, we appreciate you being with us to explain this concern on Nutella.

YASMIN: Thanks, George.

HOWELL: The reservoirs in the U.S. State of California, they are swelling. The Sierra snowpack, it is growing. So, the big question now, is this the beginning of the end of that terrible drought in that state?

Let's bring in my colleague meteorologist Allison Chinchar to tell us more about that. Is this the case?


HOWELL: Really?

CHINCHAR: Especially in northern California where they actually received the bulk of the rain.


CHINCHAR: Now, we have two million people in the exceptional drought category. That seems like a very high number, but keep in mind during the peak we had 27 million in that category.

So, we've made huge improvements. Now the drought is not necessarily over per se, especially in Southern California. But what we got in the last week has really helped to minimize the drought especially in northern California.

Take a look at some of these numbers. Again, we're talking snow fall. Picked up over 360 centimeters of it total and then just the rainfall, especially in southern California where they mainly got rain. We're talking nearly 900 millimeters.

Now this is in the past seven days. They didn't get all this at once. But even still it just goes to show you what a significant improvement we've made. Now again, here's the before and after where you can see this water has risen several feet into one of this, this is the Folsom Lake, again, where it's risen about 28 feet in just five days.

And here's another picture. Watch these boats rise up here. Again, the bridge, you could really see we're talking meters of visible -- invisible now compared to when the water has finally risen.

Now, here's a look at the California drought. OK. This was the monitor as of a week ago. The latest one just came out yesterday. We've made significant improvements and even just year over year. Look at this, January of last year to January of this year, going from 45 percent exceptional to only 2 percent in the exceptional category. And it hasn't just been rain.

We've seen pretty significant amounts of snow and even elsewhere outside of California. This is in Portland, Oregon. Mind you they average only 11 centimeters for the entire year. In just two days they picked up 30 centimeters, more than tripling their amount.

And elsewhere, we could be looking at some snow folks waking up in England this morning to some new snow fall. This is on top of what we had yesterday. In fact, Heathrow Airport had about 80 cancellations yesterday at the airport due to the snow.

Now, Albeit, London, only really got technically a dusting. But elsewhere especially Wales and further north as you went into Scotland we were able to pick up more significant amounts of snow.

And that system is going to be making its way east in Europe, we're talking countries like Germany, Poland, Slovakia, those are going to be the areas that are going to be picking up some snow.

But, George, unfortunately those areas have had plenty. And then back behind the system we're talking incredibly cold air.


CHINCHAR: Not good for a lot of those migrants that we know that are really in just kind of makeshift camps now having to deal with another round of incredibly cold temperatures.

HOWELL: Bitter cold. Allison Chinchar, thank you.

CHINCHAR: Welcome. Thank you.

HOWELL: Still ahead here on CNN Newsroom, the U.S. first lady says farewell to Late Night TV as only Michelle Obama can do.





HOWELL: Well, this was billed to be just another ceremony at the White House. That is until the U.S. President Barack Obama surprised his vice president with an honor that garnered some tears from Joe Biden.


OBAMA: For the final time as president, I am pleased to award our nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


(END VIDEO CLIP) HOWELL: The vice President there genuinely overcome with emotions at times. Biden says he had no idea that he was getting that award. His staff kept it secret from him. The president and the vice president, they had poked fun at their very well known 'bromance' for many years now.

Michelle Obama is also getting a lot of attention as her time in the White House comes to an end. She is no stranger to late night TV, but her final farewell, it got just a bit emotional.

Jeanne Moos takes a look at the first lady's memorable moments.






JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Her days of dancing across our screens are numbered.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How cool is the first lady.


MOOS: Cool enough to run a potato sack race in the White House with Jimmy Fallon. And now she's reached the first line as the lady of late night.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is not I feel like crying right now and I didn't think that...


MOOS: The last talk show appearance featured her surprising people as they delivered farewell messages.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To continue to go high even when the challenges of life make us feel low. Thank you so much.



MOOS: She was even serenaded by Stevie Wonder who adjusted his lyrics. It won't be easy to follow in her dance steps. Without further ado, we present the greatest hits of the comedy styling of Michelle Obama.

Of course, there was the evolution of mom dancing alongside Jimmy Fallon in drag. Followed by the evolution of mom dancing, too, with classics like getting a bag from your collection of plastic bags under the sink. She did car pool karaoke, went shopping with CBS on Ellen.


MICHELLE OBAMA, U.S. FIRST LADY: We need help on our, too.

This is hard.


MOOS: She was always promoting.




[03:54:58] MOOS: Her let's move campaign. She even beat Ellen who gave up after 20 pushups. No wonder Stevie is singing in tribute.

Here's the first lady's favorite singer. But not for much longer is she ours.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

HOWELL: Jeanne Moss, thank you. Now to a city in eastern China that's getting ready to celebrate a very special birthday for this. Take a look.

He's about to officially become the world's oldest panda ever. But he still looks pretty chipper, you could say, for 37 years old. His handlers say that's about 140 years for people, but he's not above sharing the spotlight. Some humans born in his birth year, 1980, were also invited to his big party.

Elsewhere in China, scientists are naming a new species of primate after a "Star Wars" character. The 'Skywalker hoolock gibbon' was discovered nine years ago, but researchers only confirmed it recently as a new species.

It is endangered and facing extinction with fewer of 200 of them in the wild. It ape is named after the "Star Wars" hero Luke Skywalker because of the way gibbons moved through the top of the trees.

Thank you for being with us for this hour of CNN Newsroom. I'm George Howell at the CNN center in Atlanta. The news continues here on CNN with my colleague Max Foster live in London next.