Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin; Bush 41 in Hospital; Cabinet Showdowns; President Obama Holds Final News Conference; Disaster Could Put Obama Cabinet Member in Oval Office. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 18, 2017 - 18:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: closing arguments. President Obama takes reporters' questions in the White House for the last time, talking about Russia, voter fraud, and his controversial decision to commute Chelsea Manning's sentence. What did he say about the man poised to replace him, Donald Trump?
Nominee showdown. Confrontations at the confirmation hearings for would-be members of the Trump Cabinet. Democrats lob hardball questions and accuse Republicans of trying to jam through the nominees. Why are Trump's picks to lead the Health Department and the EPA under especially intense scrutiny?
Hospitalized. Former President George H.W. Bush is in intensive care, and now his wife, Barbara Bush, is hospitalized as well. It's the latest in a series of health scares for the former first couple. What's their condition tonight?
And designated survivor, it's not just a popular TV series, but a real-life concern, rebuilding the government if the unthinkable were to happen during the inauguration. Who would be in charge in a worst- case scenario?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories this hour, including President Obama's final White House news conference. He strongly defended his decision to commute Private Chelsea Manning's sentence for leaking military documents and he called allegations of voter fraud fake news.
Mr. Obama leaves office with a near record 60 percent approval rating, according to our brand-new CNN/ORC poll.
Also breaking, heated confirmation hearings for top Donald Trump nominees, including his picks to lead the Health and Human Services Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Under tough questioning from Democrats, some nominees are distancing themselves from some of Donald Trump's more controversial positions.
We're also following the health scare surrounding former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush. They're both hospitalized tonight in Houston, with Mr. Bush sedated. He's in intensive care.
And we're all learning new details tonight in the disaster plan in place for the inauguration. An Obama Cabinet secretary will not attend, and would assume the Oval Office in a worst-case scenario since no Trump nominees have been confirmed yet.
We're covering that, much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Joe Manchin. He's a member of the Intelligence Committee. And our expert analysts and correspondents are also standing by.
Let's begin with President Obama's wide-ranging and final news conference over at the White House as commander in chief.
Our White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is on the scene for us.
Michelle, the president had some advice for the president-elect.
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it was clear he wanted to send some final messages to the incoming administration, starting with right off the bat, standing there in front of the White House press corps and lauding us as absolutely essential to democracy itself and saying, you know, you're not supposed to be a bunch of sycophants. You're supposed to be skeptics. You're supposed to hold the people in power accountable, and that's what you have done.
In the same way, he seemed to be warning Donald Trump about who you surround yourself with as president. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think a lot of his views are going to be shaped by his advisers, the people around him, which is why it's important to pay attention to these confirmation hearings.
I can tell you that -- and this is something I have told him -- that this is a job of such magnitude, that you can't do it by yourself. You are enormously reliant on a team, your Cabinet, your senior White House staff, all the way to fairly junior folks in their 20s and 30s, but who are executing on significant responsibilities, and so how you put a team together to make sure that they're getting you the best information and they are teeing up the options from which you will ultimately make decisions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KOSINSKI: The president also had one of these warnings for Americans, that you have to participate in democracy, can't take it for granted. You have to fight for what you believe in.
He indicated that if certain things happened that he, himself, even as a former president, wouldn't be silent. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: But there's a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.
I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion. I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise.
I would put in that category institutional efforts to silent dissent or the press. And for me, at least, I would put in that category efforts to round up kids who have grown up here, and, for all practical purposes, are American kids, and send them someplace else.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KOSINSKI: The president ended with a message that he thinks we in America are going to be OK.
That's an attempt at an upbeat, optimistic message, even though it in itself is not hugely optimistic. Also, he wouldn't weigh in directly on what he thinks about all of these Democrats in Congress who are now boycotting the inauguration. His administration has said that they don't think that they're contributing to division or that they're harming a smooth transition, but the president just wouldn't comment on that at all -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski at the White House, thanks for that report.
Up on Capitol Hill right behind us, some of Donald Trump's nominees for top positions are being hammered in their confirmation hearings by Senate Democrats.
Our senior political reporter, Manu Raju, is joining us from Capitol Hill. He has the latest.
Manu, there were some pretty contentious exchanges today.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Wolf.
And, tonight, Senate Democrats are warning Republicans that they may drag out the proceedings on the floor of the Senate because they do not believe there's been enough time to question a number of Donald Trump's nominees, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer warning of extensive debate on the floor, Republicans firing back, saying that is not a standard that they followed in 2009, when they allowed seven of President Obama's nominees to get confirmed on Inauguration Day.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) RAJU (voice-over): President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet picks on the Democratic firing line in contentious hearings today, starting with his choice to lead the Health and Human Services Department. At issue, Congressman Tom Price's stock trades, while pushing legislation that could benefit those companies, including the medical device firm Zimmer Biomet.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Did you buy the stock, and then did you introduce a bill that would be helpful to the companies you just bought stock in?
REP. TOM PRICE (R-GA), HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY NOMINEE: The stock was bought by a -- directed -- by a broker who was making those decisions. I wasn't making those decisions.
WARREN: Do you decide not to tell them, wink, wink, nod, nod, and we're all just supposed to believe that? Did you take additional actions after that date to advance your plan to help the company that you now own stock in?
PRICE: I'm offended by the insinuation, Senator.
RAJU: Price traded roughly $300,000 worth of shares in health care companies over the last four years. And Democrats targeted a stock tip he allegedly received from New York Congressman Chris Collins.
Price defended the investment.
PRICE: By definition, I believe that's the nature of a private placement offering. What I said to you and what I have said to others is that I paid exactly the same price as everybody else.
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: It really begs credulity, sir, when you say you did not know that you got a discount on this. These sound like sweetheart deals.
RAJU: But Republicans came to his defense, calling the Democrats hypocrites.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: He has abided by the rules. Disclosures were always made in the House of Representatives. And this is a big, phony, stupid issue to try and smear a fellow who is probably one of the best nominees for this position in history.
HATCH: Let me just say this. Can you confirm that you have always followed the law relating to trading in stocks while serving as a member of Congress?
PRICE: Thank you, sir. Everything that we have done has been above- board, transparent, ethical and legal.
RAJU: The battle overshadowed Price's main job if he's confirmed to the post, to repeal and replace Obamacare. Price said that replacing the law would take time.
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), TENNESSEE: We don't believe in replacing a failed Washington, D.C., health care plan with our own failed plan. We want to work on it step by step, large piece by piece. Is that a -- how do you respond to that?
PRICE: I think that's fair. I think that for individuals to -- the American people need to appreciate that the last thing we want to do is go from a Democrat health care system to a Republican health care system. Our goal is -- would be to go from what we see as a Democrat health care system to an American health care system that recognizes the needs of all.
RAJU: Three other Trump nominees also faced tough questions from senators, including billionaire businessman Wilbur Ross to lead the Commerce Department and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.
SCOTT PRUITT (R), ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ADMINISTRATOR NOMINEE: Senator, as I have indicated, the climate is changing.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: But you haven't told me why you think the climate is changing.
PRUITT: Well, Senator, the job of administrator is to carry out the statutes as passed by this body.
SANDERS: I'm asking you a personal opinion.
PRUITT: My personal opinion is immaterial...
PRUITT: ... to the job, to the job of...
SANDERS: You are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feelings about whether climate change is caused by human activity and carbon emissions is immaterial?
RAJU: But Pruitt broke with the president-elect, who has called global warming a hoax.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, Donald Trump is wrong?
PRUITT: I do not believe that climate change is a hoax.
RAJU: And in South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's hearing to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she took a tougher line than Trump on issues like Russia.
GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: And Russia is trying to show their muscle right now. It is what they do. And I think we always have to be cautious. I don't think that we can trust them. (END VIDEOTAPE)
RAJU: And, tonight, Wolf, one other of Donald Trump's nominees in hot water. That is Mick Mulvaney, the nominee to head the White House Office of Management and Budget, he acknowledging in a questionnaire to the Senate earlier today that he did not pay taxes on one of his household employees for four years in the early 2000s.
Now, he -- a transition source telling our colleague Deirdre Walsh that he actually had hired a babysitter at the time to look after his newborn triplets, and he wasn't aware that he had to pay taxes on that sitter, Democrats saying that he should step down, similar to the way that Tom Daschle, as the health and human services nominee under President Obama, had to withdraw when he had a tax issue, but tonight, Wolf, the Trump team standing behind Mick Mulvaney, suggesting he's not going anywhere -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill with the latest, Manu, thanks very much.
Let's get some more on all of this.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is joining us, a member of the Intelligence Committee.
Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Thanks for having me, Wolf.
BLITZER: What do you think of these nominees so far? Is there anyone that has raised alarm bells in your mind so far that you might vote not to confirm?
MANCHIN: Well, I have two that's concerning that we have talked about tonight and they have gone through this hearing process.
And Betsy DeVos is basically -- the Education -- West Virginia is a rural state. And West Virginia, basically, public education is everything we have. To go down the path where I think she comes from, the more the privatization, which would be the vouchers and...
BLITZER: Charter schools.
MANCHIN: ... charter schools, West Virginia, our sparse population and how we're spread out, doesn't work.
BLITZER: But she said she supports public schools. She also supports options giving parents a choice if possible.
MANCHIN: Yes, but when you don't have a population base and you have such limited resources, you know who pays the price is your rural public education.
And I don't think we can -- I just don't think that works in West Virginia.
BLITZER: So, you might vote against her?
MANCHIN: I'm very troubled by that. And I have got to basically look at that and look at West Virginia and our values and what it could do to harm our children. So I'm concerned about that one.
What I'm concerned about, Congressman Price.
BLITZER: Who has been nominated to be the secretary of...
MANCHIN: Yes, my concerns I have there is, I know his longstanding -- on Medicare. That's concerning to West Virginians. We have an older population.
These are people that paid, paid for Medicare, and now his longstanding position has been privatization. And then he wouldn't commit to opiate funding for treatment centers. He would not commit to the funding that we need, and our state has been devastated more than any other state. It's an epidemic.
And these people need treatment. And we don't have treatment centers now. We're trying to build up to that, and him not committing the funding there, his long, long stance on Medicare, privatizing Medicare, are things that bother me.
BLITZER: But the president-elect during the campaign repeatedly said he's not going to touch Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Bernie Sanders was questioning Price about that today, and he said, are you with the president-elect on that? Because the president-elect, Donald Trump, he repeatedly said, I'm the only Republican who is promising not to touch any of that as far as reduced funding.
MANCHIN: And I appreciate that from president-elect Trump. And I thank him for that, but, basically, the values that we have as West Virginians, the people that have the services that they're receiving, and in jeopardy from a person who has basically been on the line and basically is public in putting a budget together when he was budget director, that shows where his intent is.
BLITZER: Trump also makes a big issue of dealing with the big problem you have, opiates, the disease that is caused by that in West Virginia, among other states.
MANCHIN: And that troubled me more about Mr. Price, basically.
BLITZER: But don't you think the president would be able to dictate what the policy is going to be?
MANCHIN: Well, I sure would hope so, but still yet we have to go through this process, and that's what really the nomination process is all about.
BLITZER: But the other nominees, you're pretty much online with, but these two, you have questions, you haven't made yet a final decision?
MANCHIN: I haven't made a final decision.
I have said this, first three things. You have to do three things. You have your FBI background check. You have to have your financial disclosures and you have to have and ethics. Those three things come back clean, then, basically, does that person fit in to represent the people that I represent?
Can he identify or she identify? And could it be harmful if they had to make decisions? I have got to look at it from that standpoint. And that's what I'm doing right now.
BLITZER: All right, Senator, there's more to discuss.
BLITZER: So, I want you to stay with me.
We're going to continue our conversation with Senator Manchin, as we get more information coming into the THE SITUATION ROOM.
We will be right back.
BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, contentious confirmation hearings for some of Donald Trump's Cabinet picks.
We're back with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He's a key member of the Intelligence Committee.
What do you make, Senator, of this feud that has developed, this really ugly -- of the outgoing CIA chief, John Brennan, and the president-elect of the United States? I have covered the intelligence community for a long time. I don't remember something like this developing before, but maybe you do.
MANCHIN: Let me just say, this morning -- I'm on Intel this year -- it's my first year on Intel.
So, this morning, I went out to the CIA for my first briefing. So, I had all the top-level people who came to brief me, and Brennan walked in.
BLITZER: You were out at CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia.
MANCHIN: Langley. Yes, Langley. And Secretary Brennan came in. And I thanked him for his service,
because he truly has done a remarkable job in the most difficult times. And I can only tell you I was briefed by some of the most outstanding professionals that basically are career.
They're committed to the welfare and well-being of each and every citizen of this great country, and to keep us safe. We have to look at it from this standpoint, what type of assistance, or we make sure we get them all the resources they need to do the job, because it's becoming much more complicated.
So, I would like to say that I believe in this intelligence community. I trust them. There's going to be mistakes made. I'm sure of that, but we can always get better. But we have got to work with them and support them.
These people are doing one heck of a job under the most difficult of situations. So, Secretary Brennan, I thanked him for that on behalf of the Senate. We're very appreciative, from Democrats and Republican that basically do trust the information we receive to make the decisions we need to know to keep the security of this nation and the safety of every individual.
BLITZER: So, when you hear Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States, make a comparison between the CIA, the career professionals, acting like they are in Nazi Germany, that's a pretty horrendous comparison, and especially to you, someone who goes out to CIA headquarters and gets these briefings.
MANCHIN: I'm very hopeful that's going to change. I'm very, very hopeful that's going to change. That's all I can say, is that, you know, president-elect Trump is our president. He's going to be my president.
I'm going to do everything I can to support and make him the best I possibly can, because if he does well, our country does well. My great state of West Virginia will do well. And the bottom line is, I think that when he gets into the bowels of this thing, it will be a lot different.
BLITZER: And the new CIA director, assuming he is confirmed, and I assume will be confirmed.
MANCHIN: I think he will be.
BLITZER: Congressman Pompeo.
MANCHIN: Solid man.
BLITZER: I think he's pretty highly respected.
BLITZER: And I know you know him well. One final question. Today was President Obama's last news conference.
He's wrapping up eight years at the White House. What do you see, and very quickly, as his lasting legacy?
MANCHIN: He really brought a lot of dignity to the office.
When you look at basically his family life and how he raised his two wonderful daughters and his wife with so much grace and charm, and when you look at all of that -- you know, he and I had our differences on the policy, because my state is in a different position than where he was going.
And with that, we have had our challenges there, but, basically, when you look overall, representing the United States of America, and the dignity that he brought to that office, and the way he came in and the way he's going out, without any mars to it, without any blemishes, without any scandals, I think that's something to be proud of, and I'm sure he is proud of that.
We are in better shape right now. The thing that bothers me most is we have about a $20 trillion debt. Now, if we can just get that under control, with the growth and prosperity, I think this country, this economy will take off like a rocket.
BLITZER: Easier said than done.
MANCHIN: I know.
BLITZER: All right, Senator Manchin.
MANCHIN: Thank you. Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: It's interesting what you said about his legacy, very similar to what we heard in the last hour from Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He made a similar point.
BLITZER: About the dignity that this president brought.
MANCHIN: Well, he's a fine man.
BLITZER: Thanks very much.
MANCHIN: Thank you.
BLITZER: There's more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.
Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, they are both being treated in a Houston hospital tonight.
Our special correspondent, Jamie Gangel, is here with the latest.
Jamie, the former president was hospitalized. There's deep concern. What's the latest? JAMIE GANGEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So he came in suffering from a
cough, shortness of breath over the weekend. They put him on I.V. antibiotics and you know what? He was doing very well for a couple days. They even thought this morning he would be going home.
And then his situation changed. And he was clearly having a lot of trouble breathing, and we are now reporting that he's been put in intensive care. He was sedated. He was intubated, meaning that a tube was put down his throat to help him breathe.
We're told that he is at last report in stable condition and resting comfortably. But this is much more serious than when he went in this morning.
And unfortunately, former first lady Barbara Bush was also admitted to the hospital today. She is not in intensive care. She's there as a precaution, suffering from fatigue, just not feeling well.
So, we wish them both our best. I saw them both several times this summer, and they were in great shape. He even said to me, "Jamie, I'm going to live to 104."
But he's had problems with these kinds of bronchial infections before. And when you're 92, Wolf, you know, it's serious.
BLITZER: We wish him and Barbara Bush only, only the best. I covered him when he was president. And we hope he does a complete recovery.
BLITZER: Thank you very much to Jamie for that.
Just ahead: President Obama hints he won't be silent on hot-button political issues after he leaves office.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: This whole notion of election or voting fraud, this is something that has constantly been disproved. This is fake news.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, President Obama's final White House news conference. Our political experts are here to discuss that and more. [18:30:55] Gloria, let me start with you. How much of the president's
commentary in that one-hour news conference at the White House do you think was directed at the American public, as opposed to the president-elect of the United States?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think an awful lot of it was directed to Donald Trump. And I think it was very clear that the president was trying to figure out what line he's going to walk as a former president. We know that he all admired George W. Bush, because he didn't get in the way, didn't get in his grill on policy.
And what the president was saying today was, "Look, there's a difference between normal politics and moments where our values, our core values are at stake." And I think what he was saying to the president-elect is "I'm not going to get involved in the debate on tax reform or even Obamacare."
But he did outline issues that he will get involved with, which he called systemic discrimination, as in perhaps a Muslim ban or voting rights or freedom of the press. You know, or DREAMers was another point.
And I also think he was giving the president-elect some advice here when he was saying as a president, if you find yourself isolated, don't just listen to the people who agree with you. Listen to a broader range. So he put down a warning, and he was also giving him advice, which I think he's probably given to him privately, as well.
BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny, I'll play the clip, because the president made it clear that, even though he's leaving office, certain issues like voting rights, voter I.D., he's going to speak out. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This whole notion of election or voting fraud, this is something that has constantly been disproved. This is fake news. The notion that there are a whole bunch of people out there who out there and are not eligible to vote and want to vote. We have the opposite problem. We have a whole bunch of people who are eligible to vote who don't vote.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So how forceful do you think he'll be after he leaves office?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I think in some respects, he doesn't know yet. This is going to be a work in progress, because we do not know exactly what is coming after noon on Friday.
But I did -- I was struck by when he says, "I want to have some quiet. I want to do some writing and not hear myself talk so darn much." I think that is a sign -- listen, Barack Obama, as we all know, is someone who likes to be left alone. He likes to be left to his writing and his thoughts. That said, I think Gloria is right. I think long-term things. He's
going to have a longer view. Redistricting, things that have really shaped the politics in the country going forward.
And he was limited in doing a lot of things as president. His hands were tied in some respects. They will not be in this case. So look what he does on social justice and race. But I think in terms of bigger things.
And he mentioned fake news. That is also a passion of his. He wants to work with Silicon Valley, other things, to kind of change that. So he's a writer at heart. So I think he'll spend most of his time doing that. But he will not be as quiet as George W. Bush.
BLITZER: He'll be writing his memoirs, and I'm sure he's going to get a huge advance...
ZELENY: No doubt.
BLITZER: ... for that, as well.
You know, David, take a look at these numbers. We'll put them on the screen. This is our final job approval rating number for the president as he leaves office: 60 percent approval. And take a look at the comparison to some other presidents at the end of their terms. If you take a look, Ronald Reagan was at 64 percent. President Obama, 60 percent. Bill Clinton was at 66 percent. So he's up there. He's near the top.
DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Right. Yes, President Obama has this style, right? Sort of part swagger, part professor, part the dad from "Leave It to Beaver," and I think over time, people have come to appreciate this, especially sort of in contrast to Trump, who's more like the people's champion or the people's tribune style. And that has resulted, I think partly, in that contrast. And we see it in the poll numbers.
So he's going to have that as political capital, as a way of speaking when issues are near and dear to him. He's going to be able to weigh in, because people have come to rely on that.
BLITZER: Yes, 60 percent is a pretty good number to leave office.
You know, Ryan, later tonight, CNN will air a special documentary, 9 p.m. Eastern, on these final days inside the Obama White House. And there's a lot of tension, obviously, after the election, but there were also some funny moments, including some moments where speechwriters had an opportunity to talk about Thanksgiving and the turkey. Listen to this.
[18:35:19] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you get some sleep?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. We landed at about 2:30.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's brutal.
Last flight, man.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it was pretty -- a lot of cheers, a lot of toasts. It was pretty sentimental.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How was he at Gravelas (ph)?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was awesome. He was, you know, in his element. It was a good trip. I mean, obviously, every question at every press conference was about events back home.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, hey.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who's -- who's out Wednesday?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm out Wednesday.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Which is fine. I actually think everybody should watch the last turkey pardon and then take off.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. One of the weirdest weeks of the year. Thanksgiving week.
Should we start with turkey jokes? The eighth and final year of turkey jokes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The eighth and final one. A cornucopia of corny jokes, including maybe that one. All right. You're crying fowl on that one. I get it.
He also talks every year about generosity, and making sure that everyone can eat on Thanksgiving. Except for the turkeys, because they're already stuffed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then we also want to give a shout-out to all the brave turkeys who met their fate with courage. They're not chicken.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Followed up with they're delicious. They're not chicken, they're delicious.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the last time I will ever have to pardon a turkey, which means the next time I cross paths with a turkey, it better run.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like that there's this underlined promise that the president just wants to kill turkeys. So the next time I see one, look out.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's unexpected, too. That will really sell it. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have an idea for a joke, but not an actual joke yet. Like something with the peaceful transition of power, you know, I'm committed to a peaceful transition for turkeys across America.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's how democracy works.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Right.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Something like how he's more than happy to hand this off to Donald Trump. I briefed the president-elect on everything that this job entails, you know, the nuclear codes, pardoning two turkeys every Thanksgiving, you know, the important stuff.
Next year, Donald Trump gets to do this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's OK.
BLITZER: The Obama White House speechwriters, a little joking about Trump's victory. What was the reaction?
RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I think some of those jokes actually did make it, if anyone watched the actual turkey pardoning. A few of those jokes did make it into the final version.
I don't know what the rest of the documentary looks like. But...
BLITZER: It's really good.
LIZZA: It sounds like it's very good.
LIZZA: But it looks like maybe there wasn't as much to do after the election, if that's sitting around making turkey jokes. But it looks like great access that they got.
BLITZER: Yes. They really did.
And I just want to alert our viewers, stay with us, CNN tonight, for the CNN film special presentation "The End: Inside the Last Days of the Obama White House." That will air tonight, 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, only here on CNN.
There's more coming in. I want everybody to stay with us right now. One of the most heated confirmation hearings so far, so why do Democrats believe Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary is unfit?
[18:43:31] BLITZER: Donald Trump's pick for education secretary has had one of the more arduous confirmation hearings so far. Our senior White House -- Washington correspondent, I should say, Jeff Zeleny is joining us, soon to be our White House correspondent. Jeff, give us some details on how it all went down.
ZELENY: Wolf, Democrats make the case over and over again about how she didn't attend or appreciate public schools, and she has limited experience leading such a big agency. Even some Republicans believe she had a rocky hearing. That doesn't mean she won't be confirmed.
ZELENY (voice-over): A bruising confirmation hearing for Donald Trump's pick for secretary of education. Betsy Devos is a Michigan billionaire. For decades, she's been a vocal advocate of charter schools, investing time and money trying to overhaul America's classrooms, believing that tax dollars should be diverted from public schools in favor of school choice.
BETSY DEVOS, EDUCATION SECRETARY NOMINEE: It's time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect, and deserve.
ZELENY: Republicans argue she's committed to reform, but she was on the defensive from Democrats, who called her unfit for the job. Senator Elizabeth Warren questioned her qualifications to oversee the student loan program.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Mrs. Devos, have you ever taken out a student loan from the federal government to help pay for college?
DEVOS: I have not.
WARREN: Have any of your children had to borrow many in order to go to college.
DEVOS: They have been fortunate not to.
ZELENY: Under persistent questioning, she at times stuck to her script.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will you insist upon that equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program?
DEVOS: I support accountability.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Equal accountability for all schools that receive federal funding?
DEVOS: I support accountability.
ZELENY: On protecting the civil rights of students with disabilities, Devos said she favored...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will you insist upon that equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program?
[18:45:04] BETSY DEVOS, EDUCATION SECRETARY NOMINEE: I support accountable. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Equal accountability for all schools that receive
DEVOS: I support accountability.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On protecting the civil rights of students with disabilities, DeVos said she favored local control, before being told it was a federal law to provide all children access to a public education.
DEVOS: I may have confused it.
ZELENY: Trump aides believe she will ultimately be confirmed, but two top Republicans on Capitol Hill told CNN, DeVos had a rough day and were surprised at how she was thrown off on basic questions. One comment about grizzly bears and guns went viral.
SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: Do you think guns have a place in our schools?
ZELENY: Senator Chris Murphy, a leading critic of gun policy in the wake of the Newtown school shooting, pressed her about guns in public schools.
MURPHY: You can't say definitively today that guns shouldn't be in schools?
DEVOS: I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there's probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.
MURPHY: DeVos was Trump's first nominee to sit for a confirmation hearing without completing a full review of potential conflicts of interest. Hers is still pending, in part, because her Amway fortune, estimated at $5 billion, is a complicated portfolio.
Senator Bernie Sanders zeroed in on her family's wealth and political contributions.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Would you by so kind to tell us how much your family has contributed to the Republican Party over the years?
DEVOS: I wish I could give you the number. I don't know.
SANDERS: I have heard the number was $200 million. Does that sound in the ballpark?
DEVOS: Collectively between my entire family?
SANDERS: Yes, over the years.
DEVOS: That's possible.
SANDERS: OK. (END VIDEOTAPE)
ZELENY: The biggest concerns of Democrats are rooted in ideology. They simply disagree with her support of vouchers and school choice. The Democrats are still raising questions about her financial disclosure and ethics review, Wolf, which is still not submitted tonight.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's pretty complicated when you have that much money, I assume.
All right. Don't go too far away. David Swerdlick, the Tom Price, the nominee to become the secretary of health and human services, he also faced a pretty serious grilling from Democrats over ethics issues.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, absolutely. I don't see his confirmation as being in jeopardy yet, but he still has another committee to go through, the Senate Finance Committee. What I see as the problem for Congressman Price, for the sort of shaky performance of DeVos and also Rex Tillerson, is that it's giving the Democratic senators their footing in terms of how they're going to sort of attack and push back on the Trump nominees and the Trump program. It's not a good roll-out overall, that I think is the bigger issue.
BLITZER: You know, Gloria, one theme that seems to be coming through these confirmation hearings, lot of these cabinet nominees, they really haven't had substantive serious discussions with the president- elect on some of the most important issues that they will face.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: And I don't know whether they have done that to keep their distance, give themselves some credibility and the president deniability, perhaps, as these issues progress. I mean, you had Nikki Haley saying that, you know, that she hasn't discussed Russia or China, and that in fact, she wouldn't cut back U.N. funding. We know that Donald Trump has talked about that. We have had Price saying he hadn't had a recent discussion with the president-elect about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, what would happen to those programs. Tillerson, of course, famously saying that he hadn't discussed China with the president-elect.
So, I have a question, which is, how do you not have that conversation, and if you don't have it, why?
RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.
BLITZER: What do you think?
LIZZA: Well, look, with Nikki Haley, she's going to be the U.N. ambassador. She's widely supported in Congress.
LIZZA: She's going to be confirmed. She was asked if she believed that Russia committed war crimes in
Syria. And she answered affirmatively, right? So, now, you have the incoming U.N. ambassador from the United States branding Vladimir Putin a war criminal at the same time that you have the president- elect saying, putting Putin on the same level as Angela Merkel, one of our closest allies in Europe.
So, there is major dissonance here between the U.S. ambassador and the president-elect and at the same time in Mattis' hearing last week, he also was a strenuous defender of NATO and the traditional Western alliance and very, very critical of Putin.
You know, some people might argue, maybe this is just -- this is a strategy. I don't think it is. I think these people all have their own views. They're not getting guidance from the president-elect specifically, and they're going up there and speaking their mind, which Trump has tweeted, he has said, he wants them to just say what they believe.
BLITZER: Yes, he says, even if you disagree with me, speak out, it's a good idea.
General Mattis, he was confirmed by the Senate Armed Services Committee today, what, 26-1.
BLITZER: Only Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York voting against him, presumably because he's only been out of the military three years instead of the required seven.
[18:50:05] Is that right?
LIZZA: That's right.
LIZZA: And I think -- that's right. She was one of the few that decided that she did not want a general in a traditionally civilian position. From the perspective of most Democrats up there, Mattis is a sigh of relief. He's someone that ideologically they think will be a good person to have around Trump, much more in line with his views, than someone like Flynn, the national security adviser.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It's the question, at least different view, is what are the allies thinking about all this?
BORGER: Right, they don't know what to believe.
ZELENY: They're confused about the U.S. policy is starting Friday at noon.
BLITZER: Well, get used to it.
LIZZA: Yes. BLITZER: We'll see what happens.
All right, guys. Don't go too far away.
Just ahead, how an Obama cabinet member could wind up in the Oval Office if disaster were to strike at the inauguration.
[18:55:13] BLITZER: It's a worst-case scenario. The United States has never faced it before, but prepares for nonetheless. What if an incoming president and his immediate successors were wiped out on day one?
CNN's Brian Todd has details now of the doomsday plan in place.
Brian, it contains some surprises.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Surprises, quirks, and a lot of intrigue, Wolf. Since the Cold War and the Soviet threat of nuclear attack, America's leaders have had plans in place to have a president and to stand up a government if catastrophe struck.
What they haven't done is streamline the process or made it very clear to understand.
TODD (voice-over): Just about every measure of America's security apparatus, including 28,000 law enforcement personnel will be on the ground in Washington when President Obama hands off his office to Donald Trump on Friday. A near army in place to protect the leaders of all branches of government gathered in one place outside.
And while officials stress there's no specific credible threat to this inauguration, tonight, due to a quirk in America's rules for succession, questions remain about just who would be in charge if an attack hit the incoming president, vice president, and congressional leaders just as the transfer of power is under way.
JOHN FORTIER, FORMER DIR., CONTINUITY OF GOVERNMENT COMMISSION: Here you have a very confusing line of succession.
TODD: According to the Constitution, if the president and vice president are killed or incapacitate incapacitated, next in line is the House speaker, then the president pro tempore of the Senate.
But what if something happened to them at the inauguration too?
After that, it goes down the list of cabinet secretaries starting with secretary of state. On the day of the inauguration, as a precaution, a cabinet secretary called the designated presidential successor will not attend the inauguration, ready to step in if something happens. But it won't be a Trump cabinet secretary since none of them have been confirmed yet. It will be an Obama appointee. No word from the White House on who that will be on Friday. Does the line of succession switch to the new president's line up at
FORTIER: In the inauguration you have two lines of succession, one for the Obama administration, which is still in place, and one which really won't be in place until Donald Trump is inaugurated, comes into office actually formally nominates and the Senate confirms his people. You might actually end up with the president from the prior administration because of the tragedy.
TODD: Adding to the confusion, by noon Friday, all of Obama's cabinet secretaries are expected to resign. John Kerry, the current secretary of state would be the first cabinet secretary in the line of succession, but he's out of office by noon.
Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, may not be confirmed for another week or two. So, who would be secretary of state on Friday afternoon?
According to State Department sources, the job would fall to the highest ranking nonpolitical official in the department, the undersecretary for political affairs, Tom Shannon.
FORTIER: One of the most obscure possibilities is that someone who is an acting secretary of state, someone lower down the line in the secretary of state, State Department today, assumes the acting secretary of state position, is in the line and the worst happens and that person becomes president at least for a while.
TODD: The uncertainty creates the potential for chaos, high theater, or a hit TV drama.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, you are now the president of the United States.
TODD: In ABC's "Designated Survivor," Kiefer Sutherland plays an obscure cabinet secretary unexpectedly thrust into the presidency after an attack at the capitol during a State of the Union Address.
Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman once played that role in real life. In 1997, during an address by President Clinton to Congress, he was the designated survivor. He left Washington and went to his daughter's apartment in Manhattan.
But he wasn't alone. The role is a serious one and he says he was accompanied by a doctor, a military officer with access to the nuclear codes and the Secret Service. But once the president's speech was over, Glickman declined a ride from his security detail. The security personnel left. Glickman had to hail a cab in bad weather.
DAN GLICKMAN, FORMER AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: I couldn't escape the irony that three hours before, I had the potential of being the most powerful person on the face of the earth and now, I was in a situation where I couldn't even get a cab.
(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD: Now, of course, how all of this plays out changes from administration to administration and the White House isn't saying exactly how this is going to be handled on Friday and the inauguration. Now, if the unthinkable were to happen during the inauguration and the designated survivor had to take over, experts say that person could be sworn in pretty much right away unless there was some uncertainty. They would first need confirmation that the president, vice president, or anyone else in the line of succession were really incapacitated -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And very quickly, Brian, these days after 9/11, can a designated survivor go anywhere they want during a big event like Dan Glickman did?
TODD: Yes, when he went to Manhattan, we're told by people who know about this, Wolf, they really can't do that these days. They're very likely placed in secure, undisclosed locations, bunkers in some places, all of them within a reasonable distance from Washington.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting. Thanks very much.
That's it for me. Thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.