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Trump Lawyers to Meet with Mueller and Team; GOP Final Tax Bill; North Korea Nuclear Threat; South Africa's Ruling Party to Choose New Leader; Jerusalem Controversy; First Fans See "The Last Jedi." Aired 2-2:30a ET

Aired December 16, 2017 - 02:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): U.S. President Donald Trump will not rule out pardoning his disgraced national security advisor caught up in the Russia investigation.

South Africa's ruling party prepares to choose a new leader and a name that emerges will likely be the country's next president.

And Mr. Trump's go-to answer for tough questions?

"We'll see." The many meanings for those simple words.

I'm Cyril Vanier at CNN Headquarters. Thanks for joining us.


VANIER: Attorneys for U.S. President Donald Trump are expected to sit down face-to-face with special counsel Robert Mueller and his term early as next week. The president's lawyers hope it could signal the investigation into Russian election meddling is coming to an end.

They say that all requested documents have now been turned over and all requested interviews have been done. They also point out that there's been no request for Mr. Trump himself to be interviewed, although it is possible that could still come as well as requests for more documents and interviews.

All this coming as the president once again takes shots at the very agency investigating him, the FBI. Here's Jim Acosta.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The president is ratcheting up his attacks on the investigators who are investigating the White House and Trump campaign officials under scrutiny in the Russia probe.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, it's a shame what's happened with the FBI, but we're going to rebuild the FBI. It will be bigger and better than ever. ACOSTA: Mr. Trump seized on recent revelations that an FBI agent was removed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team after sending texts that were critical of the president.

TRUMP: It is very sad when you look at those documents; and how they've done that is really, really disgraceful. And you have a lot of very angry people that are seeing it. It's a very sad thing to watch, I will tell you that.

ACOSTA: The president then once again denied any wrongdoing.

TRUMP: They're spending millions and millions of dollars. There is absolutely no collusion. I didn't make a phone call to Russia. I have nothing to do with Russia. Everybody knows it.

ACOSTA: Before refusing to rule out the possibility of pardoning former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators earlier this month.

TRUMP: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens. Let's see. I can say this. When you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.

ACOSTA: The White House attorney Ty Cobb threw cold water on that, saying in a statement, "There is no consideration being given to pardoning Michael Flynn at the White House."

It's not the first time the president has slammed the FBI, tweeting earlier this month that the bureau's reputation was in tatters, its worst in history. The president made his latest comments about the bureau after hour before he praised federal and law enforcement officials at an FBI academy, where he again blasted the news media.

TRUMP: You see, there's the fake news back there. Look, everybody. Fake news. No, actually, some of them are fine people. About, let's see, who's back there? Yes, about 30 percent.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Robert Mueller's merry band of Democratic donors.

TRUMP: But the president appears to be echoing complaints on conservative media and from GOP lawmakers about the Mueller investigation.

REP. MATT GAETZ (R), FLORIDA: It's as if when Bob Mueller picked his team he was fishing in the "never Trump" aquarium.

ACOSTA: The attacks on federal law enforcement officials come little more than a year after then-Trump surrogate and now White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted, "When you're attacking FBI agents because you're under a criminal investigation, you're losing."

Democrats worry the groundwork is being laid for the president to dump Mueller. REP. DENNY HECK (D), WASHINGTON: I think the fact that Bob Mueller removed somebody for those text messages is, in fact, proof that Bob Mueller is committed to undertaking this investigation with the utmost of integrity.

ACOSTA: The president's intense focus on the Mueller probe is yet another distraction for GOP leaders who are trying to pass tax cuts before leaving for the holidays.


ACOSTA: Republicans want to move on the tax plan before incoming Alabama Senator Doug Jones is seated after defeating Roy Moore. Mr. Trump is ready for Moore to concede that race.

TRUMP: I think he should. He tried. I want to support -- always I want to support the person running. We need the seat. We'd like to have the seat. I think we're doing very well on the tax. We'll see what happens.

ACOSTA: While he was criticizing the FBI, the president had kind words for Russian president Vladimir Putin. One day after the two leaders spoke, Trump thanked Putin for praising Mr. Trump's performance on the U.S. economy -- Jim Acosta, CNN, the White House.


VANIER: Just down the road from where Jim was on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, lawmakers are steps away from handing Mr. Trump a major legislative victory.


VANIER: Republicans believe they now have the votes to pass a major reform bill. This would be the first overhaul of the tax code since Ronald Reagan in the '80s. CNN's Phil Mattingly tells us what the new tax plan would look like.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The 503-page, $1.5 trillion Republican tax plan, it is out, officially. Republican lawmakers can now read the thing that they are likely going vote on as soon as Tuesday next week.

The key provisions, we've known a lot of them. The corporate rate dropping from 35 percent to 21 percent. The child tax credit boosted from $1,000 to $2,000. Individual rate cuts across the seven brackets. A lot of things the Republicans have said will be crucial not only to economic growth but also, as they say, helping middle class families. This is something that the Democrats dispute, saying that this bill is far too tilted toward the corporate side, the idea that on the individual rate cut, taking the top income earners down from 39.6 percent to 37 percent is just nonsensical.

But here is the rub. Republicans both like this plan and, at this point, want to vote for this plan. Take a listen to House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady.

REP. KEVIN BRADY (R), HOUSE WAYS AND MEANS CHAIRMAN: We took the best of both ideas in here, in many cases, because we had a deliberate timetable we had announced half a year ago, to get this to the president's desk.

We took the text that was closest to where we thought we would end and from that standpoint it's sort of a mix of the House and Senate. It's the way it should be.

MATTINGLY: Now what is amazing is, on Thursday of this week, Republicans were scrambling, particularly in the Senate. They weren't sure how to deal with Senator Marco Rubio, came out as a firm no. Senator Mike Lee, who was with Senator Rubio on his concerns about the refundability of the child tax credit, didn't know where Senators Susan Collins, Jeff Flake were going to end up.

That is no longer a concern. Senator Rubio coming out as a yes because of changes made to that refundability piece. Senator Mike Lee not a full yes yet but definitely headed in that direction. Senator Susan Collins as well.

And what stunned some people on Capitol Hill, Senator Bob Corker, who was a no the first time around, he became a yes, even though no major changes were made to get his vote. That gives Republican leaders in the Senate a lot of breathing room as they have two ill senators right now who missed votes throughout the week, Senator John McCain, Senator Thad Cochran.

The reality is, at this point in the Senate, they can actually not have those senators attend and still pass this bill. As for the House, they feel very good about where they are as well.

Now what does that all mean?

On Tuesday of next week, the House will vote on this plan. Shortly thereafter, the Senate will take it up as well. Assuming the votes stay where they currently are, the president will have the first overhaul of the U.S. tax code in 31 years on his desk by Wednesday -- Phil Mattingly, CNN, Capitol Hill.



VANIER: Let's talk about this. With us now, political analyst Michael Genovese, the author of "How Trump Governs" and president of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University.

Michael, the president is just days away it seems from the major win that has eluded him since the beginning of the year.

How much do you think this will change the narrative of his presidency?

MICHAEL GENOVESE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He's counting on it doing that. He's had very a rough year. He's got nothing through the legislature. And if he goes a full year without any major victory, people, their views will be cemented as Trump being unable to govern effectively.

But, you know, to get this through, it costs a lot. 'Tis the season and there was a Christmas rush to give gifts out to members of Congress, who were on the fence, leaning against it. And so they gave a lot of gifts away in the spirit of the season but it was necessary to do that because President Trump is desperate for a win.

This may be very good politics for the Republicans and for President Trump. It may not be good policy for America.

And I think the impact is, will this allow Trump to transcend the kind of views that people have of him, to send a whole new message and get a whole new spirit involved?

Or are we so cemented in our views of the president that this won't change a lot?

VANIER: Look, I think for our international viewers, some of whom who see the tax code being reformed and tinkered with almost yearly in their country, they might not fully understand to what extent this is momentous in U.S. politics, hasn't happened in three decades.

Is this the kind of thing for a president, I mean, on which you get reelected?

I'm talking 2020.

GENOVESE: It's a long way away. But it is the kind of significant policy shift if, in the next three years, people perceive it to be effective and to their benefit. Right now general public opinion is 55 percent against this bill. Many Democrats have tried to make the case that it is a get-rich-for-the-rich program, not much for the middle class. The middle class tax cuts will end in a few years.

In the short run, I think he'll get a boost out of it. He'll get a pretty good sized Trump bump. But reform of taxes is so difficult in America because the interests are --


GENOVESE: -- so vested and the last time there was a major reform was during the Reagan years. In his first year as president, he had a huge tax cut, which contributed to his reputation and really aided him in governing.

Then in '86, we had to rescind a lot of those things by taking a lot of the loopholes away and, in effect, raising taxes. So you have to remember, when Ronald Reagan entered the White House, we were the world's largest creditor nation. When he left the White House, we were the world's largest debtor nation.

So these kinds of reforms, they're big packages but are they good packages? VANIER: And the next news of the day in Washington, Mr. Trump was asked whether he might pardon Michael Flynn. His answer, "We will see."

What's your reading of that?

GENOVESE: "We'll see."

He could do it. The president has almost absolute power to pardon. The only exception being in cases of impeachment, so that wouldn't apply.

It's a risky game. It's a very risky game because Democrats and a lot of independents and maybe even some Republicans would be persuaded that this might be a case of him obstructing justice.

Flynn has said he's going to talk. He has a tale to tell. He might have a number of people that he could bring down with him. And so the promise, the sort of luring Flynn with this promise or suggested pardon can be very powerful because, again, the president can get him off Scot free.

And so it's typical Trump. It's the Trump tease. He throws it out there, listens to our responses. And he can do it. He may not do it. But he loves to sort of stir the pot. And this is a case of him stirring the pot again with just a little comment, "we'll see."


VANIER: Who is this for, though?

Is this a message for Michael Flynn?

Does it send a message to Flynn that he doesn't need to cooperate with the Russia investigation, as he's currently committed to do, because the president will take care of him and pardon him, come what may?

GENOVESE: Well, a lot of people thought the Joe Arpaio pardon a few months ago was such a sort of message that the president was delivering. And even the hint now to Mike Flynn or to others, Paul Manafort, Gates, others who might be implicated in the future, if they think they're going to get off with a presidential pardon, what would they spill the beans for?

Why would they give up the truth?

Why would they sell out their president if that president is going to pardon them?

So it's an incredibly unique situation. These things don't occur very often.

But its potentially explosive because, if the president does this, people are going to say, why did you do this?

They're going to be suspicious and there's going to be a big outcry and he may not be able to survive that.


VANIER: Michael Genovese speaking to us from Los Angeles, thank you.

Just days after Rex Tillerson offered North Korea direct talks without preconditions, the U.S. secretary of state having to do some damage control, saying now that there's no rift between the White House and the State Department on the issue of North Korea because his offer of talks had raised eyebrows at the White House.

Rex Tillerson was speaking at a Security Council meeting on Friday that was focused on North Korea's nuclear program. Now the North's ambassador to the U.N. says the program is self-defense and he blames the U.S. for tensions in the region.

Tillerson, for his part, says that once Pyongyang's provocative behavior ends, then peace talks can begin.


REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We have been clear that all options remain on the table in the defense of our nation. But we do not seek, nor do we want, war with North Korea. The United States will use all necessary measures to defend itself against North Korean aggression, but our hope remains that diplomacy will produce a resolution.


VANIER: Coming up after the break, South Africa's president Zuma will speak soon to his political party, why the leadership vote at this conference of the ANC is crucial to his legacy and to the future of South Africa.

Plus a deadly earthquake rattles Indonesia, the latest on the conditions there after the break. Stay with us.





VANIER: Welcome back.

In a few minutes, South African president Jacob Zuma will be speaking at the conference of the African National Congress, that's the ANC, the ruling party in South Africa. And thousands of delegates there will choose who will replace Mr. Zuma as party leader. And this is a key test for the president, whose tenure has been mired in scandals and could face charges of corruption, racketeering and fraud.

So who are front-runners? One of them is Cyril Ramaphosa. He's the country's deputy president and he has been openly critical of the corruption plaguing the country.

Another is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, she's a former cabinet minister and Mr. Zuma's ex-wife, who many fear will protect him against prosecution. In the next hour, we'll have David McKenzie live from South Africa, bringing us more insights into that story.

Now to the Middle East, where there were more protests on Friday over the U.S.' decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Four Palestinians are dead and hundreds were wounded in clashes with Israeli troops. Palestinian officials also say that one of the people killed in Gaza was a wheelchair-bound double amputee.

CNN's Arwa Damon has more from Jerusalem.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There have been growing numbers of people taking to the streets throughout the Palestinian territories. And with that comes to a growing toll of those who are wounded and those who are killed in the Gaza Strip.

There was one 29-year-old man was shot in the scene of some of the more intense back-and-forth that took place between rioters and the Israeli Defense Forces. A 19-year-old university student stabbed an Israeli border policeman in the shoulder before he was shot and later died of his wounds.

There is a sense that, in the upcoming days and weeks ahead, things will become even more confrontational. And there is also a very intense conversation that is happening between the Palestinian leadership, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, various different regional leaders, as they try to figure out the best way forward and how to capitalize on this momentum that they believe they have, not necessarily talking about momentum in the streets but momentum on a global level.

Remember just a few days ago the Organization of Islamic Cooperation met in Istanbul in an extraordinary summit, where they then signed a declaration that they would be recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine, urging other leaders to do so as well.

Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying that they had already begun an initiative at the United Nations to try to nullify America's declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

They are also going to the United Nations to look for alternatives, other nations that could step in and take on that very, very challenging role of trying to mediate talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There is an underlying sense here of uncertainty; there is, of course, the growing concern of more violence -- Arwa Damon, CNN, Jerusalem.


VANIER: At least two people were killed when a 6.5 magnitude earthquake rumbled through the Indonesian island of Java on Friday. Residents of the capital, Jakarta, also felt the ground shake. That was about 300 kilometers from the quake's center. Hundreds of buildings were damaged, including a hospital that had to move 70 patients to safer locations and officials say aftershocks still are being felt in the region.



VANIER: Lawmakers in Peru voted on Friday to begin impeachment proceedings against President Pedro Pablo Kucyznski. The final vote in favor of impeachment proceedings, 93-17.

Mr. Kucyznski faces bribery and corruption allegations involving a Brazilian construction company. He calls these allegations false and says that he will not resign. He is expected to appear before lawmakers on Thursday.

President Trump likes to use a particular phrase when talking to the media.

Can you guess what it is?

Any guesses?

Stay tuned. We'll tell you after the break.





VANIER: And the force appears to be strong with "The Last Jedi," at least according to box office numbers. The latest installment of the "Star Wars" saga made $45 million on its opening night in the U.S. and ticket sales around the world now also reaching galactic heights, that film has made $145 million worldwide so far.

It seems to be U.S. president Donald Trump's go-to answer for pretty much any question. When we asked CNN's Jeanne Moos about it, she said, "We'll see what happens."


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It sure makes predictions about passing the tax bill less taxing.

TRUMP: I think we're doing very well on the tax. We'll see what happens.

MOOS: And you can't help but pardon the president for relying on it.

TRUMP: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens.

MOOS: When in doubt ...

TRUMP: We'll see what happens. We'll see what happens. So, we'll see what happens.

MOOS: It is the president's favorite answer deployed at the U.N.

TRUMP: As far as North Korea is concerned, I think most of you know how I feel. We'll see what happens.

MOOS: That was in September. Three months later we're still seeing...

TRUMP: We're going to see what happens with North Korea.

MOOS: -- from hurricanes ...

TRUMP: We'll see what happens.

MOOS: -- to health care.

TRUMP: We'll see what happens. No particular rush.

MOOS: It's perfect to fill time when the president's in no particular rush to answer. Or maybe he wants to build suspense.

TRUMP: Something could happen with respect to the Paris accord. We'll see what happens.

MOOS: As one critic tweeted, it's like he thinks every question is a chance for a teaser heading into a commercial break.

The phrase is so beloved by the president, that he's used it three times in a mere five-second answer. Again, on the subject of North Korea.

TRUMP: We'll see what happens. We'll see what happens. It's not our first choice, but we'll see what happens.

MOOS: Now, in a few cases, we've actually seen what happened.

TRUMP: We'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon.

MOOS: Three days later, Mr. Bannon went bye-bye.

As for then FBI Director James Comey ...

TRUMP: I have confidence in him. We'll see what happens.

MOOS: -- Comey was fired less than a month later.

So, when the president mentions seeing what happens ...

TRUMP: I'm very disappointed with the attorney general. But we will see what happens. MOOS: -- beware, your job could be eclipsed or, if you're lucky, you could get pardoned.

TRUMP: We'll see what happens. Let's see.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


VANIER: That's it from us. I might be back with headlines in just a moment -- or not. We'll see what happens.