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Vote On Massive Tax Reform Bill Expected Tuesday; Tillerson: "All Options Remain On The Table" For North Korea; Senator Graham: 30 Percent Chance Trump Will Attack North Korea; Trump On A Flynn Pardon: "Let's See"; Vote on Massive Tax Reform Bill Expected Tuesday; Trump Talks Tax Plan Before Leaving for Camp David; Lorenzen Wright's Ex- Wife Charged With His Murder; Canadian Billionaire Couple Found Dead in Home; Powerful Winds Threaten to Fuel State's Third Largest Fire; "The Last Jedi" Has 2nd Biggest Thursday Opening Ever. Aired 12-1p ET

Aired December 16, 2017 - 12:00   ET



JOHN SARLAND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: -- now, will repeal of net neutrality lead to innovation or to a traffic jam?


WHITFIELD: All right. In the fast lane and the slow lane with John Sarland there. The next hour of the NEWSROOM starts right now.

Hello, again. Happy Hanukkah. Welcome this Saturday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. We're keeping our eye on the White House where President Trump is getting ready to depart for Camp David. He'll be joining Vice President Mike Pence and some members of the cabinet for the weekend.

Meanwhile, President Trump is on the verge of bringing up his first major political victory as a final deal for massive tax reform is now on the table. The U.S. Senate and the House coming to terms after some holdouts threatened to derail it.

House Speaker Paul Ryan saying the vote could come as early as Tuesday. Here are some of the key details. Despite a pledge to reduce the number of personal income tax brackets, this bill keeps all seven. Taxes will be lower for many in those brackets.

The biggest cut is being saved for corporations where the tax rate drops to 21 percent from its current 35 percent. Also, in the bill is a $2,000 child tax credit. That's important because it apparently was key in moving U.S. Senator Marco Rubio's vote from a no to a yes.

Individuals will also be able to deduct up to $10,000 in state and local taxes and the exemption for the estate tax would be doubled. Republican senators got their way and the Obamacare individual mandate will be eliminated.

I want to bring in congressional reporter, Lauren Fox, in Washington. So, Lauren, good to see you again. It was just six weeks ago that lawmakers got a look at this first draft. There was a lot of horse trading going on to get the votes that they need. Now feeling very confident. Senator Marco Rubio and Bob Corker on board. Are there other potential holdouts?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, when we talked to Republican leadership, they are feeling very confident about the fact that they will be able to deliver the votes on this signature legislative achievement for the year, something that Republicans have been trying to get to President Donald Trump's desk for several months and nearly a year at this point.

So, one thing to remember, Senator Bob Corker coming out in support of this bill was huge yesterday, a major surprise on Capitol Hill. He had previously expressed many concerns about the fact that the bill would add too much money to the deficit. So, the fact that he came out in support of the bill is major.

Now, we have to remember, there are some senators who have not said explicitly that they will be a yes. Senators like Susan Collins and Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Now, remember, they are saying they just need to read the bill, they're not necessarily nos. They definitely sound like they're leaning towards yes.

But they are not saying at this point how they're going to vote because the bill just came out last night. Obviously, this is a huge massive bill, more than 500 pages. And it takes some time to go through with your staff to make sure everything is the way that you want it to be if you're going to be lending your vote to it.

WHITFIELD: Yes. It takes time to read 500 pages. The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation says the bill would increase deficits by almost $1.5 trillion. You just mentioned Corker, you know, at first said -- adding to the deficit would be a big turnoff. He's changed his mind potentially. Are there other Republicans openly raising concerns?

FOX: Well, Senator Jeff Flake has said that this can be a concern for him, but he did vote for the bill the last time around and that was a similar estimate that we're seeing now. So, without Senator Corker and if Senator Flake does end up voting for this bill, it's very hard to say that there's anyone left who's scared this bill adds too much to the deficit.

It seems like that concern has really been put on the back burner. They really just need to get a major legislative win to the president's desk before the holiday.

WHITFIELD: OK, to make it that Christmas present. All right. Lauren Fox, appreciate it. We'll talk more about this with my political panel. Niger Innis is the national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality and Maria Cardona is a CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist. Good to see you both. All right, so Maria goes first.

Good morning. Some say it's not reform, but it is a new plan. But regardless, will it be considered a victory for the president if indeed it passes?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It will be considered a victory for the president I think in the short term. And let's be very clear, that's one of the reasons why they want to ram this bill through because they are desperate. They, the White House, and Republicans in Congress are desperate for legislative victory because they have had none.

And President Trump promised so many things to all of his supporters during the campaign trail and has not been able to deliver legislatively on one of them except for maybe the Supreme Court justice.

So, yes, they are desperate for this victory, but I think it will be a very short-term victory because going into the 2018 elections this, if it passes, this will have been the least popular bill that has passed in the last 30 years, Fredricka, and most Americans do not like this bill.

[12:05:05] Most Americans understand that it is a big wet kiss to corporations and millionaires and billionaires like President Trump and all of his friends and they don't believe they're going to see any tax cut whatsoever and some families, in fact, many families, are going to see a tax increase in the years beyond 2018.

WHITFIELD: It's curious, you know, Niger, because a lot of lawmakers are now trying to read through 500 pages this weekend. Maybe some citizens are also trying to do the same and try to understand.

And already if this is a very unpopular bill, very unpopular Congress and the latest approval ratings for the president, you know, at 33 percent, very unpopular president. You know, how will a win be gauged here if indeed it is passed?

NIGER INNIS, NATIONAL SPOKESMAN, CONGRESS OF RACIAL EQUALITY: Well, it's the first tax reform that has taken place in a generation, since 1986 --

WHITFIELD: If that's all unpopular for the American people --

INNIS: I think --

WHITFIELD: -- an achievement?

INNIS: I think the jury is out on if this is going to be popular or not. It's really going to depend on the results. I mean, what the bet that Donald Trump and the Congress is making is the same bet that John F. Kennedy made in the early 60s.

The same bet that Ronald Reagan made which is that cutting taxes is going to generate economic growth. And there's no question that simplifying the corporate tax by reducing it to 21 percent.

But also eliminating over a dozen loopholes that currently exist in our tax code is definitely the bet that they're making and the investment that they're making is that this is going to bring back jobs to the country.

That it's going to increase wages and if that comes to fruition, certainly before the 2018, I think the popularity of this agenda and the Trump economic plan will increase dramatically.

WHITFIELD: That's an oxymoron, you know, Maria, to say might there be any surprises. Of course, if you knew there was a surprise, it wouldn't be a surprise. But remember for the latest, you know, health care reform, you know, plan I just recall, you know, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, in the hallway, seemingly that they were unified in endorsing it and then it was John McCain who surprised everybody with a big thumb's down.

Might there be a moment like that or maybe the better way to phrase that question is, is there anticipation that there might be another moment like this -- on that on tax reform?

CARDONA: I know that clearly Republicans are confident that this is going to pass, but what we have seen about what has happened so far is that you never know what's going to happen on a minute by minute basis, and so anything could happen.

If I were to put money on it, I would say it probably will pass. But, you know, this is a bet that they're making, but I believe it's going to be a bet that is going to fall on its face. This is not the same economy that President Kennedy had. It's not the same economy that Reagan had.

And President Kennedy, yes, he passed tax cuts but guess what, his focus was on tax cuts for the middle class. This is not a focus on tax cuts for the middle class. This is a focus on tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations.

The other thing is corporations are making record profits. What makes us think that by giving them even more money they are going to invest those profits in jobs and in increased salaries. People who believe that have not seen the history of what corporations do when they have more money.

What do they do? They give it to their shareholders. They give it as top executive bonuses. Americans understand that. This is why trickle-down economics doesn't work. It didn't work in the Bush administrations.

And every time the past two Republican presidents that were in office drove the economy into a hole trying to focus on trickle-down economics and it took the two Democratic presidents that succeed them to get the economy out of the hole.

WHITFIELD: So, then, Niger, are there Republicans or lawmakers who are hoping that perhaps people won't either remember the trickle-down theory or perhaps they didn't experience it and so that's why they're on board with this?

INNIS: Well, I beg to differ with my colleague, Maria. John F. Kennedy's tax cuts were across the board as were Ronald Reagan's. When we were all in high school back in the late '70s and early '80s, we had this thing called the misery index, which combined inflation with the unemployment rate and which actually was closely correlated to crime rates.

Meaning if the misery index was very, very high, crime rates would go soon to follow. Ronald Reagan and Paul Volcker, the chair of the Federal Reserve at that time, broke the back of the misery index. At one time, the misery index I think under Carter was close to 19 percent.

It hasn't been above 10 percent since the close of the Reagan administration and that is because of the dramatic economic revolution that took place and the unprecedented basically 20-year prosperity economic boom.

[12:10:06] The biggest in world history and our country that took place from Ronald Reagan through Bill Clinton. So, I beg to differ. I think that there --

CARDONA: There was a huge recession -- I'm sorry, there was a huge recession after President George H.W. Bush. That's why Clinton got elected. You're forgetting history.

INNIS: There was a blip -- there was a blip of a recession, she's absolutely right.

CARDONA: Because of trickle-down economics.

INNIS: And I would argue because Bush raised taxes because he was blackmailed by a Democratic Congress.

WHITFIELD: There was not the winning argument nor evidence that these large corporations were actually creating more jobs at all. That's what is being promised this --

CARDONA: That's right.

INNIS: But what is -- Fredricka, what is evidence is our tax rate for corporations was making us uncompetitive with other industrialized nations that had their tax rate close rate closer to the 21 percent that we're going to get to right now.

CARDONA: Is that why our corporations --

INNIS: -- it's going to bring much more jobs back to the United States than overseas.

WHITFIELD: That's the slogan but, Maria, is that going to be the reality?

CARDONA: Well, look, if our corporations are at such a disadvantage, is that why they're making record profits? Wow. I mean, that's just -- this does not match the reality, Fredricka. The problem is when corporations make more money, they don't -- they have not shown recently that they invest them in making -- in either more salaries, raising salaries, which is what we need, or creating more jobs. INNIS: You and I would both agree that it's far better for corporations to be making money by providing jobs here in the United States because the tax rate is much more in line with other industrialized nations than it is for them to go to other countries like Ireland where the tax rate is the lower and then bringing --


WHITFIELD: -- by so many analysts that perhaps it's the shareholders that are benefiting from those new profits, but there hasn't been history that dictates or shows that it has created jobs and that's where we are. We'll find out if things change --

INNIS: We will see.

CARDONA: And we're at a 4 percent employment rate. That is almost, you know -- that is a historic low, thank you, President Obama.

INNIS: Yes, but the wages -- the wages have not gone up in a couple of decades for the American people.

CARDONA: That's exactly right.

WHITFIELD: Niger Innis, Maria Cardona --

CARDONA: By giving more money to corporations, there's nothing to say that they're going to --

INNIS: Making us more competitive, Maria. Keep in mind, it's our money.

WHITFIELD: Happy holiday, happy Hanukkah and soon happy New Year. Thanks to all of you. Appreciate it.

All right, straight ahead, North Korea firing back in a war of words with the U.S.

Plus, is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the same page as President Trump when it comes to North Korea?



WHITFIELD: All right. Welcome back. North Korea lashing out at the U.S. and President Trump today. State media referring to Trump as, quote, "an old lunatic" and claiming he was frightened by North Korea's latest missile test.

The state media report going on to say, "War maniacs of the U.S. are urging Congress to discuss the issue of preemptive attack on the DPRK, referring to the need to withdraw American citizens from South Korea, only to make a war against the DPRK an established fact."

The insult comes a day after a North Korean diplomat and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed the U.N. Security Council. Tillerson said North Korea must earn its way back to the bargaining table.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: As I said earlier this week, a sustained cessation of North Korea's threatening behavior must occur before talks can begin. North Korea must earn its way back to the table. The pressure campaign must and will continue until denuclearization is achieved. We will in the meantime keep our channels of communication open.


WHITFIELD: I'm joined now by Elise Labbot, CNN's global affairs correspondent. So, Elise, explain today's fiery rhetoric and the significance of that Security Council meeting.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Fred, I don't necessarily give much, you know, credence to that fiery rhetoric from North Korea. It's kind of typical fair of what we've seen before. You know, these barbs between President Trump and sometimes even Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea himself, it looks like those two leaders have really gotten under each other's skin.

But I do think yesterday's meeting at the U.N. Security Council was significant. The fact a North Korean ambassador -- I think it's been the last time that a North Korean ambassador was at the Security Council was ten years ago.

And it's unprecedented that he was sitting in front of a U.S. secretary of state at what we call a ministerial meeting of the council. So, even though there was a lot of rhetoric passed back and forth yesterday, I think the fact you heard the North Korean ambassador in the Council speaking in English is, you know, kind of unprecedented step.

I think we just have to see what follows from that. I think some of the rhetoric you see with the statements between President Trump's tweets and, you know, this kind of -- these statements from the North Koreans I think is a little bit more of noise.

WHITFIELD: And then on Tuesday, Tillerson said the U.S. was ready to start talks with North Korea without preconditions. Are there mixed messages being sent?

LABOTT: Well, I think this administration is not on the same page about how to solve the North Korean problem. I think the goal is -- everyone's goal is the same, which is to make North Korea what we call denuclearize, give up the North Korean nuclear program. How do they get to do that?

[12:20:03] Do you do it with, you know, rhetoric or a preemptive strike or do you do it with this pressure campaign and trying to get them to negotiate it. I think what we see playing out with Secretary Tillerson and some of these reports out there is that there is a difference in the administration on how to go about this and it's playing out in public. But I don't think the U.S., whether it's Secretary Tillerson or President Trump or anybody else, is going to just kind of sit down with the North Koreans and let them dictate the terms of negotiations. I think what Secretary Tillerson was trying to say is we need to start talking.

It doesn't necessarily have to be about nuclear negotiations at first, but let's kind of start a dialogue. There are other issues that the U.S. and North Korea have to discuss such as detained Americans. There are several Americans still being held by North Korea. Maybe that's a way to start talking.

But obviously if the U.S. and North Korea were going to start formal negotiations on that nuclear program like, you know, there's some serious conditions on what the terms of those talks would be.

WHITFIELD: All right, Elise Labbot in Washington, thanks so much.

All right. The U.N. secretary-general says the Korean Peninsula is the most tense and dangerous security issue in the world today. Let's bring in Congressman Brendan Boyle, who is on the Foreign Affairs Committee joining us live now from Philadelphia. Good to see you.


WHITFIELD: So, Senator Lindsey Graham offered a stunning prediction recently. He said there is a 30 percent chance that President Donald Trump orders a first strike on North Korea. How does that sit with you?

BOYLE: I don't think anyone could take that news and feel all too comfortable about it. The reality is we do not have a great scenario or great option in North Korea to choosing the best among a series of bad options, and that's really been the case since the early 1990s.

We've now had five different administrations, both Democratic and Republican, attempt to deal with the North Korean pursuit of nuclear weapons. We saw just in the last 24 or 48 hours Secretary Tillerson have two different positions.

One wanting to engage in bilateral negotiations and then immediately reversing himself and saying that there have to be certain preconditions met before we entered into those negotiations. So, this continues to be an enormous challenge.

When president-elect -- when President-Elect Donald Trump met with then President Obama, President Obama said that this would be the most challenging foreign policy issue we face over the next four years. I think he's been proven correct.

WHITFIELD: So, other countries have also warned the U.S. that the rhetoric coming from this president, and perhaps even some of the actions, is part of the problem. Do you believe this administration is stoking the fire? BOYLE: Well, I don't think that Donald Trump has handled this situation well. However, even though I've been very critical of President Trump in a number of areas, I will actually cut him some slack when it comes to North Korea and just point out this has not been just a problem under the Trump administration.

There are a number of foreign policy issues that Trump has created and just suddenly become problematic under his administration. North Korea isn't one of them though. This is one of these things that has been going on for 25 years and will continue until we figure out a way diplomatically to make it North Korea's interest to do what Libya did and that is abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

WHITFIELD: OK, let's switch gears and talk about the Russia investigations. You probably saw the president was asked on the White House lawn, you know, whether he would consider pardoning and he said he doesn't want to talk about pardons yet. And then also said kind of we'll see.

Trump's Attorney Ty Cobb said, you know, this is not a consideration, pardoning of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn who has offered a plea deal. So, what's your concern, if any, about the president saying yet?

BOYLE: It's chilling. Any discussion either of firing the Special Counsel Mueller which is -- would be an exact instant replay of what happened in the Saturday night massacre in October 1973. And led to the first impeachment charges being filed against Richard Nixon.

Either that or giving a pardon to, now, a convicted felon. The reality is that Flynn has pled guilty and is cooperating with the special counsel. So, the only reason why the president would pardon Flynn is presumably because he's concerned about what Flynn could be telling the special counsel.

Either one of those situations is chilling. It cannot happen, and we need Congress to speak up in a clear bipartisan voice and say no, that this will not be tolerated, the integrity of this -- the integrity of this investigation has to be protected.

The best way to do that is to, in my view, pass bipartisan legislation that was talked about this summer in the Senate that would say if the special counsel were fired by the president, immediately the next day Congress would hire him as an independent counsel and the investigation would continue. Congress has that power. It must do it.

WHITFIELD: Do you have an explanation as to why there haven't been more who have been outspoken?

BOYLE: You know, we're unfortunately in a highly partisan time and a number of my Republican friends really need to put country ahead of party, and really need to reject this sort of tribalism. Because what we're talking about frankly goes well above and beyond partisan politics. Putting the country first and the integrity of this investigation is what is needed now. WHITFIELD: We'll leave it there. Congressman Brendan Boyle, thanks so much, from Philadelphia.

BOYLE: All right, thank you.

WHITFIELD: President Trump could soon have his first legislative win. Congress is expected to vote on the GOP tax bill in a matter of days. We'll have the latest from the White House next.


[12:30:40] WHITFIELD: All right, hello again, thanks so much for joining me this Saturday. Happy Hanukkah. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

House Speaker Paul Ryan says there could be a vote as early as Tuesday on the final version of the massive tax reform bill. President Trump getting nearly all of the corporate tax cuts that he wanted. While some compromises were also made to get Republicans on board including adding a child tax credit Senator Marco Rubio wanted.

CNN White House Correspondent Abby Phillip is following the story for us from the White House lawn. So how safe is this vote for Republicans overall?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fred. Well, I think the White House and Republicans on the Hill are feeling pretty good about this vote right now. They got two key senators on board yesterday, Marco Rubio and Bob Corker. And the president just departing the White House a few minutes ago spoke to reporters for just a couple of minutes talking a lot about the benefits that he says the economy is going to get from this tax bill.

He's talking a lot about economic growth, and he was also asked a little bit about the impact on middle class families and whether or not they would benefit as much as high income earners. The president responding that he thinks middle class families are going to benefit a lot and that the biggest impact is going to be on jobs in the long term.

So Trump saying that the urgency is there for this bill to be passed as soon as possible. He wants it to be the biggest Christmas present for American families this next week, and he plans on signing it. They're planning on doing a vote probably as early as Tuesday. Plans on signing it as soon as it hits his desk.

WHITFIELD: And then quickly, Abby, you know, among those votes the president had been counting on, John McCain who is, you know, continuing to receive his medical care but we understand the president did reach out to John McCain or his family. In fact, we actually have some of that tape that you talked about. Here's the president. Let's listen in.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, this really will mostly benefit the middle class and jobs. Companies are coming in, they're pouring into the country, they've already started. And this will be great for jobs. It will be fantastic for the middle income people and for jobs.

It will also benefit lots of other things. I mean, we're looking to -- if you look at the whole thing, everybody's going to benefit. But I think the greatest benefit is going to be for jobs and for the middle class, middle income.


TRUMP: Well, this is going to bring money in. As an example, we think $4 trillion will come flowing back into the country. That's money that's overseas that stuck there for years and years. It was $2.5 trillion, it's probably over $4 trillion. This is money that's been stuck there for years and it's going to come pouring back into the country.

So that will be one. And I will say, because of what we've done with regulation and other things, our economy is doing fantastically well. But it has another big step to go, and it can't take that step unless we do the tax bill.


TRUMP: Well, we have a tremendous spirit for the tax reform. This is going to be one of the great Christmas gifts to middle income people. The Democrats have the, you know, the sound bite, the standard sound bite before they even know what the bill is all about. They talk about for the wealthy. This is going to be one of the great gifts to the middle income people of this country that they've ever gotten for Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, why are the middle tax cuts temporary?

TRUMP: Well, what will happen is at the end, whichever the administration is, in years from now, they'll make it and maybe can even make it more generous if we can get the economy like it should be. The economy now has hit three percent. Nobody thought it would anywhere close.

I think we can go to four, five, and maybe even six percent ultimately. Each percentage point is $2.5 trillion. We are back. We're really going to start to rock. We need this as our final push, and you're going to see some numbers that are great.

But most importantly, you're going to see great job numbers. Jobs are going to come pouring back into this country which we need very much. Thank you, everybody. We're going to Camp David now, thank you.


[12:35:01] WHITFIELD: All right, this was the president not long ago on the way to Camp David where he'll be meeting with the Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the staff ahead of what is expected to be, potentially a pivotal week, getting the vote that the president wants on that tax reform bill.

Abby Phillip back with us in Washington in front of the White House there. So the president underscoring and using the word, you know, middle class tax cuts and that they're the big winners a lot. Particularly after a lot of the criticism has been that this tax bill is really for the wealthy and the middle class only get to enjoy some of the benefits in a temporary. And you heard one of the reporters ask, you know, then why is this temporary? And he says, you know, it will be up to other administrations along the way to build on this.

So why was this moment important for the president as he embarks on a big meeting at Camp David to perhaps strategize for this week? Why was it important for the president to talk more about the middle class being the beneficiaries?

PHILLIP: Well, I think this is all about selling this bill going into the final stages. There is still a possibility that they could hit some snags here going into this last moment and the president needs to also sell this bill to the American people. It is not particularly popular at least based on what Americans have heard about some of the provisions thus far.

Now the final bill that we just got on Friday made a lot of changes to some of the most unpopular parts of the bill. Restoring some tax benefits for students, for example, teachers, you know, boosting that child tax credit. And so I think their job is right now both to get it through the House and the Senate and on his desk but also make sure that the American people actually think that they are going to benefit. And it's not just about the wealthy and not just about large corporations.

WHITFIELD: Really publicly didn't sound like the president was very worried about not having enough votes, sounding very confident that this will be a week where there will be an early Christmas present he says for the middle class.

All right, Abby Phillip, thank you so much, appreciates that. We'll have much more right after this.


[12:41:26] WHITFIELD: Seven years after former NBA player Lorenzen Wright was found murdered in a field in Memphis, Tennessee, a new twist in the case. His ex-wife, Sherra Wright Robinson has been arrested and charged with the basketball star's death along with a man identified as Billy Turner.


AMY WEIRICH, DISTRICT ATTORNEY, SHELBY, COUNTY: There are bits and pieces to this case that have been solved. But the defendants that have been indicted this week Tuesday, the Shelby County grand jury returned indictments against Sherra Wright and Billy Turner for conspiracy to kill Lorenzen Wright and first degree murder of Lorenzen Wright. They are presumed innocent until proven guilty.


WHITFIELD: All right, when police were asked about the relationship between the two suspects, police said, quote, it's safe to say they knew each other.

A tragic mystery in Canada where police are investigating the suspicious deaths of a billionaire couple. Government officials confirm Barry and Honey Sherman were found dead in their mansion, Friday afternoon. Police say right now they're viewing the deaths as suspicious, not homicides.


CST. DAVID HOPKINSON, TORONTO POLICE SERVICE: At 11:44 this morning, Toronto Police responded to a call that was a medical complaint and we had fire and ambulance contends as well. We've discovered two bodies of people inside the home here in the Bayview Avenue in Colony Road area. The circumstances of their death appear suspicious. We're treating it that way. Our investigators are inside investigating and taking apart the scene now.


WHITFIELD: Barry Sherman was the founder of the largest Canadian- owned pharmaceutical company. Friends describe the couple as incredible philanthropist and great leaders who made their community a better place to live in.

A wildfire in California could become the biggest the state has ever seen. So why the next 24 hours are so crucial in the fight against this massive fire. Straight ahead in the CNN NEWSROOM.


[12:47:53[ WHITFIELD: All right, welcome back. Firefighters in Southern California are continuing to battle the third largest blaze in the state's history. The Thomas Fire has now burned an area larger than New York City and at least 12,000 people are now being evacuated. The next 24 hours are critical with powerful wind gusts of up to 55 miles per hour.

And this -- these kinds of conditions could continue until Sunday. The massive blaze which broke out 12 days ago has now killed a firefighter and a woman trying to evacuate.

CNN Meteorologist Gene Norman joining me now. Gene, what's the big difference between the fires that we saw last weekend and now the situation this weekend?

GENE NORMAN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Fred, for one thing, the fire has nearly doubled in size from just a week ago. And the threat overall to the state continues to expand. The red flag warnings which mean the conditions are ripe, the dry conditions, the windy conditions for fires to spread not just Southern California but now moving up the coast. Sections of San Francisco, Sacramento, they could be impacted with those same kinds of conditions and fires could develop there as well.

Right now, we're looking at wind gusts potentially as you said high as high as 55 miles an hour. There is a high wind warning for a good portion of Santa Barbara County. Remember, the fire really started in Ventura County about a week or so ago and it started to shift more to the west and that's bad news.

Now, one of the reasons why we've seen a change in the growth of the fire is the change of the Santa Ana winds. Last week, high pressure was causing those winds to really come howling out of the mountains. And we saw earlier in the week that the high backed off. Good news at first.

But now low pressure's moving in causing those winds to increase once again. So, it's almost a can't win situation as far as those tricky winds in Southern California.

And tonight, Fred, really important that people pay attention out there. Things may not be so bad where you are right now, but the forecast shows these wind gusts are going to increase as you're sleeping. So overnight into the early part of tomorrow morning. And then maybe after that we might get a bit of a break, but it really is a dangerous situation.

[12:50:00] And just to put this all in perspective, 40 percent contained, now 259,000 acres, as we said, double from last week and that makes it approximately the size of the city of Dallas. And they say everything is bigger in Texas. California in this case begs to differ.

WHITFIELD: This is not a distinction that they want though and that's for sure. Well, sadly, at least for now, it's bad and potentially can get worse. All right, Gene Norman, thank you so much.

Still, so much more straight ahead in the Newsroom but first this time of year is all about giving back. The 11th Annual CNN Hero All-Stars tribute salutes 10 people who have put others first all year long. The star-studded gala airs live tomorrow at 8:00 Eastern Time. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are everyday heroes. They inspire and change lives every day.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We want to make sure that they make better choices when it comes to violence.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you lose your child, the love doesn't go away, it has to find a place. I'm lucky that I found a place to put that love.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are truly what it means to be a hero.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is people helping people the best way we know how. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When they see me, they always feel happy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just give them a chance. They can do anything you ask them to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This Sunday night, CNN presents a very special live event.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, I'm Anderson Cooper.

KELLY RIPA, ABC: And I'm Kelly Ripa.

COOPER: Join us live for CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute, live Sunday at 8:00 p.m. on CNN.



[12:56: 17] WHITFIELD: All right, the galactic height for the Last Jedi has been high. But the force is not so strong with some Star Wars fans after seeing the saga's eighth installment. Rotten Tomato users are giving it just 50 percent rating but critics, well, that rating high at 93 percent. The Last Jedi has the second biggest Thursday opening ever, second only to its prequel, The Force Awakens.

Despite some mixed reaction, the film now looking like a big win for the expanding empire in the immediate wake of the merger with Fox.

Kaylee Hartung joining us now from Atlanta,. After talking to Chewbacca and R2-D2 and yes, Kaylee, I could see you could have made a really good princess.

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, Fred, I appreciate that. You know, I had some really hard hitting questions for R2-D2 and Chewbacca. They both agree with a nod of the head if you will that the excitement is off the charts for this film.

I understand there's mixed reaction across the country but I have yet to find anyone here today who has a complaint to file about the Last Jedi. One of the things that's been so special to see today are the families that are coming to the movies together today. Parents who grew up with the original films now wanting to share the experience of the Star Wars franchise with their children, like this one family we spoke to right after they saw the film.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's amazing. It was fantastic. So a lifelong fan of the movie series and everything else. When I was there age, grew up, you know, seeing them in theaters and, man.

HARTUNG: So where does this one rank among the eight installments?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a tough one. Guys, they get first crack at this one.

HARTUNG: What do you think? You said it was the best?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it's best one so far.



HARTUNG: The best so far of the eight installments. That is strong praise for the Last Jedi, Fred. As folks are walking into the theater behind me, I asked one young man how high his excitement was on a scale of one to 10 for this one, he said it's an 11. Of course, a lot of questions fans want answered. Looking forward to get more reaction from people as they experience this movie today.

WHITFIELD: Oh my gosh, I'm so glad to see the people are still dressing up. I mean, you know, I remember way back when the first Star Wars and how people were all, you know, costumed out so it's kind of fun that people are still in the spirit. So when we talk about, you know, gangbusters, money making, overall the series, it's just off the charts, but why is this one? And what is the expectation for how much money potentially this one could make?

HARTUNG: Well, opening day, it was second only to its prequel. So you can only anticipate that this weekend will be off the charts. Again, with this mixed reaction, there could be some cause for concern but I don't think there is any doubt that this is going to be a tremendous, a hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the film this weekend and domestically. And that doesn't take into account what's happening worldwide as the film opened across the world on Wednesday, Fred.

WHITFIELD: Wow. I'm just enamored by that trailer. I could just see that one over and over again. OK, insomnia but I'll be checking it out soon too. All right, Kaylee Hartung, thanks so much.

So much more straight ahead in the Newsroom and it all starts right now.

All right, hello again, everyone and thank you so much for joining me this Saturday. And Happy Hanukkah. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

All right, in a matter of days, President Trump's massive tax reform plan is expected to be voted on in Congress and heading to the president's approval and his signature. Perhaps that early Christmas gift that the president had been promising for.

Here are some of the key details of this new plan. Despite a pledge to reduce the number of personal income tax bracket, they still keeps all seven.