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Congress to Vote on Tax Reform Bill; President Trump's Lawyers to Meet with Special Counsel Robert Mueller; Police Announce Suspects in Murder of NBA Player Lorenzen Wright; Wildfires in Southern California Continue to Grow; New "Star Wars" Movie Opens; Man Who Suffered Spinal Cord Injury Start Foundation to Raise Money for Those with Similar Injuries. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired December 16, 2017 - 14:00   ET



[14:00:29] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again, everyone, and thank you so much for joining me this Saturday. Happy Hanukkah. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

In a matter of days, President Trump's massive tax reform plan is expected to be voted on in Congress and then head to the president's desk for final approval. More last minute changes were made after some holdouts threatened to derail it. Some of the key details include no reduction in the number of personal income tax brackets, there will still be seven, despite a pledge by the president to have fewer. 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. Individuals will also be able to deduct up to $10,000 in state and local taxes, and the exemption for the estate tax will be doubled. A short time ago the president explains why he thinks this bill be good for the middle class.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This will be great for jobs. It will be fantastic for the middle income people and for jobs. If will also benefit lots of other things. If you look at the whole thing, everybody is going to benefit. But I think the greatest benefit is going to be for jobs and for the middle class, middle income.


WHITFIELD: CNN's Boris Sanchez is in Washington at the White House. Boris, the president making defense of this bill but not quite doing a victory lap.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Fred, not a victory lap. He's still kind of selling this bill. You could hear it from the details that he's pushing out, they're touting the benefits to the middle class of this bill. The White House, though, is cautiously optimistic that this is going to be their first major legislative victory in 11 months. A major tax reform bill is something that hasn't been passed in more than 30 years, so this is something that Republicans and this president have a lot riding on.

Part of the reason that the White House is confident is because of the Republican senators that have gone from the no column to the yes column, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio. On Thursday he drew a red line essentially saying that he would not vote for the bill if there wasn't an increase in the child tax credit. He got it on Friday, and so he shared a congratulatory phone call with the president yesterday.

Remember, this is something that is personal for Donald Trump. His daughter Ivanka for months has been working with Senator Rubio and others to boost the child tax credit. Beyond that you had Senator Bob Corker who at one point said he was a no because of the potential ramifications of this bill and the consequences that it could have on the nation's deficit. He's apparently overcome those reservations because now he's in the yes column as well, sharing a congratulatory phone call with the president yesterday too.

You then also had other senators that were undecided or on the fence making comments that made it clear that they were likely going to vote for this bill, like Mike Lee and Susan Collins. But the real question now comes to attendance when this vote takes place, either late Tuesday or on Wednesday for the Senate. You'll recall that there are two senators that have had health issues. Thad Cochran, for one, his offices says that he's going to be there. The other is John McCain who of course is being treated for brain cancer. His office says that he will be there, but sources tell CNN that his health is still very frail, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, Boris Sanchez, thank you so much.

Let's talk more about this. I want to bring in Congressional reporter Lauren Fox in Washington. Good to see you again, Lauren. So how much confidence is there that the votes are there?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, leadership is very confident that the votes are there. And as Boris said, there are still some concerns about who will be able to attend the vote. But even if those members were unable to attend, there's a feeling that there is momentum on Capitol Hill, that this bill is going to get done. And there were some key compromises made. We already talked about Senator Marco Rubio who got an expansion of the refundability piece of child tax credit. That's something he said would help lower income Americans.

Then President Donald Trump even had to increase the corporate tax rate a little bit beyond that 20 percent that was in the original version of the House and Senate bill. That was in order to pay for a repeal of the alternative minimum tax that corporations have.

And there's one more piece that House and Senate Republicans had to compromise on, and that is the ability of giving individuals the opportunity to deduct some state and local taxes. That's something done in order to win over some House Republicans from expensive states like California, New Jersey, and New York. And of course we can't forget that the president himself is from the state of New York.

[14:05:00] WHITFIELD: All right, Lauren Fox, thanks for that reminder. Appreciate it from Washington.

All right, the Russian investigation could be headed for a pivotal moment next week. Sources say a key meeting is to take place between President Trump's private lawyers and the special counsel. Meanwhile, the president's team is hoping the investigation is coming to an end. CNN Justice Correspondent Evan Perez has more.


EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Sources tell us that the president's lawyers are planning to meet with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team we're told as soon as the coming week for what the president's lawyers hope will be a chance to find out the next steps in the Mueller investigation.

The Trump legal team led by John Dowd and Jay Sekulow is hoping that they can see signs that the end is near in Mueller's investigation. Now they've had other meetings, but here's why this one is of significant. The White House says that everyone who works there and who Mueller has asked to interview has now gone in for an interview. One of the last happened earlier last week when White House counsel Don McGahn sat down for his interview. The White House has also finished turning over documents requested by the special counsel.

There's been no request to interview the president or the vice president, we're told. We have a statement from Sekulow, and he says, quote, "We do not and will not discuss our periodic communications with the special counsel." Of course Trump lawyers know that Mueller could still come back to ask for more interviews and for more documents. And it's important to note that there's no requirement for Mueller to give them any information. They're hoping he's going to show his cards. And there's a chance he won't do that.

The Mueller investigation is actually moving relatively quickly compared to typical white collar criminal investigations that often stretch into years. He's been on the job seven months or so and already Mueller has brought charges against four people including two who have pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. But that's not fast enough for the president and his supporters. The bottom line is that the president and Republicans want the cloud of this investigation lifted.

Evan Perez, CNN, New York.


WHITFIELD: A wildfire in California could become the biggest the state has ever seen. Why the next 24 hours are so crucial in the fight against this massive fire straight ahead in the Newsroom.

And an NBA star murdered. It was a cold case for seven years, but now police think they have solved this mystery.


[14:11:14] WHITFIELD: Welcome back. 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. Barry Sherman was the founder of the largest Canadian owned pharmaceutical company. Friends describe the couple as, quote, "incredible philanthropists and great leaders," quote, "who made their community a better place to live."

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 in connection with the basketball star's death along with a second suspect, a man identified as Billy Ray Turner. He was arraigned earlier this week and is being held at the Shelby County jail in Memphis. The district attorney spoke about the charges earlier today.


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, on Tuesday, the Shelby County grand jury returned indictments against Sherra Wright and Billy Turner for conspiracy to kill Lorenzen Wright Wright and first-degree murder of Lorenzen Wright. They are presumed innocent until proven guilty.


WHITFIELD: When police were asked about the relationship between the two suspects, police said, quote, "It's safe to say they knew each other."

A former high school coach in Florida has been arrested with a missing student and charged with unlawful sexual activity with a minor. Rian Rodriguez and 17-year-old Caitlyn Frisina were the subjects of a nationwide search after her parents discovered she was missing from their home. Authorities determined that she had left with Rodriguez. Police in New York State spotted them in a car earlier this month and took Rodriguez into custody. The judge set bond for Rodriguez him at $125,000 and ordered Rodriguez to surrender his passport and have no contact with Frisina.

And firefighters in Southern California are continuing to battle the third largest blaze in state 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 forecast through Sunday. The massive blaze, which broke out 12 days ago, has killed a firefighter and a woman trying to evacuate. CNN Meteorologist Gene Norman joining me now. So Gene, what is the big difference between the progress of the fires that we've seen between weekends now?

GENE NORMAN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Fred, last weekend we were watching this fire. It was half as big as it is now. I pulled up Google Earth so you can really get a sense. See this yellow line here. That's the division between Ventura County and Santa Barbara County. Last weekend everything you see red where the fire was impacting, that was Ventura County. Now it has spread into Santa Barbara County. That is really the big difference what's going on with this fire.

The threat, the red flag warning, meaning that we have dry conditions and those strong winds, is impacting 19 million people. Even though the Thomas fire is down here, the threat could expand because we could see new fires depending on conditions because they're so dry. And today, because of high wind gusts already, a high wind warning is in effect for the eastern part of Santa Barbara County. There have been reports of 65 mile an hour wind gusts in Montecito Hills. We could see those kind of high sustained winds.

The other difference between last weekend and this weekend is the position of high pressure that was producing those winds. Last week the Santa Ana winds, high pressure here in the Rockies pushes the winds down along the coast, but now the high has retreated and a different jet stream is bringing winds in from the north.

[14:15:14] And that's a different kind of problem. You see the highest winds now are really offshore though we have seen a couple of high gusts. As I mentioned, the Montecito Hills, Bishop 61, Santa Barbara 31. Even up by San Francisco, some high wind gusts near there of 61 miles an hour.

The problem tonight, Fred, is that a lot of people may not realize that while they're sleeping the winds are expecting to pick up again. Look here, Simi Valley, 43 miles an hour, and that's at 1:30 in the morning. And that will continue to the early part of tomorrow morning. The good news is hopefully by the time we get to the later parts of the morning and the early afternoon, the wind should begin to die down.

But Fred, there's also no rain in sight for a long time. It's the third largest fire, and if it keeps growing, it could be the largest ever.

WHITFIELD: Gosh, all right, thoughts and prayers out to our friends and family there in California. Gene Norman, thanks so much.

And then there's this frightening incident at a ski area in Pennsylvania. Several skiers became stranded after a chairlift malfunctioned at the Tussey Mountain during its opening weekend. One chair slipped and hit one right behind it, which in turn hit another chair. Five chairs with people in them actually became stuck. No one fell off the lift thankfully, but all were evacuated or they were rescued in some capacity. Emergency crews used ropes to lower the skiers down. What an incredible moment. Only minor injuries were reported. No word on what led to that malfunction.

The new "Star Wars" movie is destined to make a bundle at the box office, but is it as good as the rest? Critics apparently love it, but then there are fans who say it's fallen to the dark side. The story on that straight ahead here in the CNN Newsroom. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:21:20] WHITFIELD: All right, lots of excitement for "The Last Jedi," and it has been out of this world. But the force is apparently not so strong with some "Star Wars" fans after seeing the eighth now installment. Rotten Tomatoes users are giving it a 57 percent rating, but guess what. The critics, they love it. They're rating the movie at 93 percent. "The Last Jedi" has the second biggest Thursday opening ever, second only to its prequel, "The Force Awakens." So despite some mixed reaction, the film is looking like a big win for Disney's expanding empire.

Kaylee Hartung is joining us now from Atlanta after talking to Chewbacca today, R2-D2, they were all out.

KAYLEE HARTUNG: That's right, Fred. I can confirm from my conversation with R2-D2 and Chewbacca that excitement for this film is off the charts. You mentioned the mixed reaction to "The Last Jedi," but if there's anybody who doesn't like it, I can't find them here in Atlanta. The reaction I have gotten has been much the opposite. Take a listen.

So this family I spoke to, this gentleman bringing his two children to the theater, it was such a special experience for them. This dad told me he grew up watching the original films and wanted to share this insurance with his two sons. I asked his 12-year-old how old he was the first time he saw his first "Star Wars" movie. He said he was three years old. His dad corrected him and said he was actually three months old. He took him to the opening of the third episode because he didn't know if there would be another film to have that experience with his son. Take a listen to their review of this one.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Amazing. It was fantastic. So lifelong fan of the movie series and everything else, when I was their age grew up 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: You said it was the best.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. It's the best one so far.



HARTUNG: This movie has already taken in $104.7 million since it opened, Fred, second only, as you mentioned, to its prequel, "The Force Awakens." And if you want to think about how much this money could take in worldwide over the weekend, compare it to what "The Force Awakens" did. That movie took in $528 million worldwide two years ago. I think it's a safe assumption this movie will rival those numbers.

WHITFIELD: Fans say it's a winner. I'm soon to check it out myself. Kaylee Hartung, thanks so much. Good to see you.

Thanks so much for joining me this Saturday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. "Newsroom" continues at the top of the hour. But first here's Dr. Sanjay Gupta with this week's "Turning Points."



TRAVIS ROY: Many of my earliest memories are of playing hockey. I had some big goals from an early age. When I first got a scholarship to Boston University, they were the power house of the country in the mid-90s. The first game was the best day of my life. By the time it was over, it turned into the worst.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a BU player down in the corner. It's Travis Roy.

ROY: My body, it wasn't responding. I exploded my fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. The recovery was tedious and slow. I just had a little bit of my right bicep. Figured I've got to move on and establish this new life and new identity.

[14:25:00] I graduated in 2000. I was on that rehab floor and see other families going through this, it turned out I had great insurance, but there are families that didn't have any of that. So that was when I thought, well, maybe we can raise some money and help cover some of the expenses for spinal cord injury survivors. We started the Travis Roy Foundation.

There's times in our lives when we choose our challenges and there's other times when the challenges simply choose us. And it's what we do in the face of those challenges that really defines who we are.