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Trump Lawyers to Meet with Mueller and Team; GOP Final Tax Bill; Jerusalem Controversy; Trump Impacting Central American Migration; North Korea Nuclear Threat; South Africa's Ruling Party to Choose New Leader; Trump Nominee's Embarrassing Lack of Experience; First Fans See "The Last Jedi." Aired 4-5a ET

Aired December 16, 2017 - 04:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): It's his go-to response. "We'll see." U.S. President Donald Trump used it again responding to questions on whether he might pardon Michael Flynn.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): U.S. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson says the U.S. will hold talks with North Korea if the regime stops its threatening behavior. We'll tell you how the North is responding to that.

HOWELL (voice-over): And the verdict is out, the numbers are in. How "Star Wars" episode 8 "The Last Jedi" is faring at the box office.

ALLEN: I'm going to guess it might be doing OK.


HOWELL (voice-over): Welcome to CNN NEWSROOM from around the world, I'm George Howell.

ALLEN (voice-over): And I'm Natalie Allen from CNN World Headquarters. NEWSROOM starts right now.


ALLEN: Our top story, attorneys for the U.S. President Donald Trump are expected to sit down face to face with special counsel Robert Mueller and his team next week.

HOWELL: The president's attorneys hope it means the investigation into the election Russian meddling is nearing an end. They say all the requested documents have been turned over. They say all requested interviews have been completed.

They also point out there's been no request for the president to be interviewed. However, it is still possible that could be ahead.

ALLEN: Other lawyers in the case warn the investigation could drag on for some time and all of this coming as the president took more verbal shots at the FBI, moments before praising them. Here is CNN's Jim Acosta at the White House.


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.


HOWELL: All right, Jim, thanks for the reporting.

Now in the meantime, Republican lawmakers believe they have the votes to get a major tax reform bill to the president by next week.

It would be the first significant overhaul of the U.S. tax code since the Reagan era and the first significant legislative victory for Mr. Trump saying taking office. CNN's Phil Mattingly explains what's in it.


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.


HOWELL: All right, Phil, thanks.

Still ahead here on NEWSROOM, President Trump's new Jerusalem policy is creating more protests. The latest on the deadly clashes there.

ALLEN: Also, the White House is dropping hints at its vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Why that might stir up more controversy. We'll have that for you ahead here as we push on with CNN NEWSROOM.





ALLEN: And welcome back. The U.S. secretary of state says North Korea must earn its way back to the bargaining table.

HOWELL: Rex Tillerson spoke on Friday during a U.N. Security Council meeting on Pyongyang's nuclear program. His North Korean counterpart in the same room listening to him. Here is what Tillerson had to say.


REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: 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.

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.


HOWELL: North Korea's U.N. ambassador calls its country's nuclear program an inevitable self-defense measure and blames the U.S. for tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

ALLEN: Let's break it down now. We're joined by Ivan Watson from Seoul.

Ivan, certainly both sides pointing the fingers at each other for the tension. But at least, perhaps, they're talking about talking.

Is there anything positive from this?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You had Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, and the North Korean ambassador to the U.N., they both stayed in the same room and stayed around the same circular table as they engaged in what is otherwise the usual finger pointing over who's responsible for the tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But in the past, you would have easily had one or the other walk out

in protest rather than sit and listen. And so at least that's one step forward.

But otherwise, both sides kept to their positions. Both sides continued accusing each other of being responsible for the tension. Take a listen to an excerpt from what the North Korean ambassador had to say.


NORTH KOREAN AMBASSADOR: Our possession of nuclear weapons was an individual step separate defensive immediate of defend our sovereignty and right of resistance and development from the U.S. -- from the U.S. nuclear threat and the blackmail and if anyone is to blame for it, the U.S. is the one who must be held accountable.


WATSON: Now the U.N. secretary-general and the U.S. allies in the room, Japan, South Korea, they highlighted the fact that, hey, --


WATSON: -- this year, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. It fired at least 20 missiles, all of which are banned under multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.

If there was one big question, it was about some comments that Rex Tillerson made last Tuesday, where he suggested that there could be talks with North Korea without preconditions.

And that was basically applauded by Beijing, for example, because, in the past, the U.S. has said, we're not going to sit down with the North Koreans unless they first pledge to do away with their nuclear weapons, which North Korea has said is just not negotiable.

That comment on Tuesday raised some hopes, that maybe there was a way forward on Friday at the U.N. Security Council.

Rex Tillerson did not repeat that statement. Instead, he tried to put it on North Korea, saying North Korea cannot impose preconditions, North Korea cannot ask us to stop our military exercises with South Korea and they cannot ask for sanctions to be lifted before we sit down at the table.

So diplomacy, that's a good thing but a lot of the same finger pointing that we've heard for years, if not decades -- George and Natalie.

ALLEN: Yes. And Ivan, Russia and China will continue likely what they too give the U.S. pushback especially since they're the ones also saying that the U.S. is sort of the aggressor, as it continues its war games there with South Korea, which it always does.

So any chance of any kind of breakthrough there? WATSON: Well, there were some testy exchanges because Rex Tillerson did essentially accuse Russia of allowing North Korean laborers to work in Russia under what he described as slave-like conditions.

Now a recent series of United Nations Security Council sanctions calls on all parties to stop war contracts, stop importing more North Korean laborers. This practice of bringing in these workers is highly criticized because it's assumed that a great deal of the money that's earned by the workers goes directly to the North Korean regime rather than to North Korean workers.

The Russian diplomat objected to that characterization coming from Rex Tillerson. And if anything fired back and said, how are these military exercises that the U.S. is conducting in recent months, some of which have been on a bigger scale than we've ever really seen before, three U.S. aircraft carriers in the region simultaneously, for example, how are they contributing to try to bring peace to the region? -- Natalie.

ALLEN: All right. We'll wait and see where it goes from here. Thank you so much, Ivan Watson for us in Seoul.

HOWELL: The White House is signaling it wants peace between Israel and Palestinians but a key Jerusalem site would have to be part of Israel. A senior U.S. official said Friday that Israel probably wouldn't sign a peace deal if it didn't get the Western Wall.

ALLEN: That area is considered holy by both Jews and Muslims. President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital earlier this month, sparking a wave of protests. For the latest now, here is CNN's Arwa Damon in 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 --


DAMON: -- 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.


ALLEN: People in Indonesia are surveying the damage after a 6.5 magnitude quake rattled the island of Java. At least three people were killed, seven others injured. People in the capital, Jakarta, also felt the ground shake. That's about 300 kilometers or 186 miles from the quake's epicenter.

HOWELL: Hundreds of buildings were damaged, including a hospital that moved 70 patients to safer locations. Officials say aftershocks are being felt throughout the region.


ALLEN: Lawmakers in Peru voted overwhelmingly on Friday to begin impeachment proceedings against the president, Pedro Pablo Kucyznski. The final vote, 93-17. Mr. Kucyznski faces bribery and corruption allegations involving a --


ALLEN: -- Brazilian construction company. The scandal has ensnared a number of Latin American politicians but the Peruvian president calls the allegations false and says he will not resign. He's expected to appear before lawmakers on Thursday.

HOWELL: Two months after Austrians went to the polls, the country has a new coalition government which includes a far right party. The anti-immigration Freedom Party struck the deal, a coalition deal with the conservative Austria People's Party on Friday. The two parties last ruled together in 2005. This deal makes Austria the only country in Western Europe with a far right party in government.

Sebastian Kurz of the People's Party is set to become Austria's chancellor. He will be Europe's youngest leader at just 31 years old.

ALLEN: Police in Toronto are investigating the death of one of Canada's wealthiest couples. HOWELL: The bodies of billionaires Barry and Honey Sherman were found in their mansion on Friday. Police called the deaths suspicious but are not describing them as homicides, at least so far.

ALLEN: CNN partner network, CTV, also reports they're currently not seeking any suspects. Sherman founded the generic drugmaker, Epotex, in 1974 and was widely praised as a general philanthropist. So a mystery there.

Coming up here, South Africa's ruling political party is choosing its new leader. We'll tell you why this could profoundly impact the country's future.

HOWELL: Plus, the danger of becoming too powerful in North Korea. We look at the circumstances behind the disappearance of the country's second most powerful official.

CNN NEWSROOM live from Atlanta, Georgia, this hour, simulcast on CNN USA here in the states, CNN International worldwide. Right back after the break.





ALLEN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you this hour.


HOWELL: With regard to North Korea, those -- a list of those provocative acts, it is a long list if you ask the United States and its allies. But there may be other things going on at high levels, things that we don't know much about.

ALLEN: There usually are. No one, for example, has seen the second most powerful man in North Korea for months. And that's leading to speculation he's been executed by the first most powerful man in North Korea. Here's CNN's Brian Todd.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Intelligence officials from Washington to Seoul are paying closer attention to Kim Jong-un's inner circle. General Hwang Pyong-so, believed to have occupied a position second only to Kim himself, has been out of public view for about two months. KEN GAUSE, NORTH KOREA LEADERSHIP EXPERT, CNA: He or he could be being sent to detention, he could be retired or he could be executed. All of these things are on the table.

TODD: He also could be under-going so-called re-education. Time in a prison or labor camp to brainwash him into towing the party line.

Could Hwang have been purged?

There's no shortage of entry surrounding him. A South Korean lawmaker recently told CNN, it was for "impure behavior." Hwang Pyong-so directed North Korea's General Political Bureau, which makes sure every soldier in North Korea's massive army is properly indoctrinated.

Hwang had already disappeared when a North Korean soldier made a dramatic defection across the border in mid-November. But analyst says, he could still be taking the fall for that.

BRUCE KINGNER, FORMER CIA DEPUTY DIVISION CHIEF FOR KOREA: It really was quite an embarrassment for the North Korea regime. So, someone had to pay for it and it may have been Hwang being a senior official.

TODD: But analysts say, Hwang was also involved in a brutal power struggle with a man named Chae Long-hae, who has close ties to Kim Jong-un's family. Chae is believed to have orchestrated General Hwang's removal and has taken over his job. Experts say it's likely a revenge plan for a move Hwang made three years ago.

GAUSE: We know Hwang Pyong-so replaced Chae Long-hae as the head of the General Political Bureau in 2014. If you look at the formal leadership lineups of the two -- of the North Korean leadership, the two have interchanged places on a number of occasions, which would suggest a possible rivalry.

TODD: Analysts believe it's also possible that Hwang Pyong-so simply amassed too much power, which threatened Kim Jong-un. U.S. intelligence official telling CNN tonight, Kim demands absolute loyalty from his subordinates and has a history of punishing officials who he views as seeking personal gain or prestige at his expense. Experts say, Kim also loves to pit his top aides against each other.

KINGNER: It's sort of like a lion tamer in a cage with lions. They can take him out, but if you have each of the lion standing on a very small platform, they're more focused on maintaining their balance on that platform rather than lashing out at the lion tamer -- or the North Korean leader.

TODD: Tonight, the only person expert sees as truly safe inside Kim's regime, his younger sister, Kim Yo-jung. Her star has been rising recently. Kim did execute others in his family, his uncle, his half- brother, but Kim Yo-jung is a direct blood relative, who Kim Jong-un completely trusts. One analyst says she is bunker safe -- Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


HOWELL: Brian, thank you.

Attorneys for the U.S. president Donald Trump will meet with special counsel Robert Mueller and his team as soon as next week. The president's attorneys hope it might be a sign that the investigation into Russian meddling is almost over. But other lawyers involved dismiss that.

In the meantime, just down the street from the White House, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are just steps away from handing Mr. Trump a major legislative victory. Republicans believe they have the votes to get a major tax reform bill --


HOWELL: -- to the president's desk by next week. It would be the first overhaul of the U.S. tax code since the Reagan era.

Gina Yannitell Reinhardt is a senior lecturer with the Department of Government at the University of Essex in the U.K. and joins from Essex.

It's good to have you with us to talk about what's happening here with the U.S. president and tax reform. This is very important.

But first of all, do you see any hurdles ahead, as this bill moves forward or is it poised to get over the hump?

GINA YANNITELL REINHARDT, UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX: I think it's about to get over the hump. At this point, the Republicans have fallen into line and the holdouts have stopped holding out. So there really doesn't seem to be anything that's going to hold this back.

HOWELL: This tax plan comes off the heels of what happened in Alabama. This came off as a loss to the president, for sure, this loss of Roy Moore to Doug Jones.

How important is it for Mr. Trump to get a win with tax reform?

REINHARDT: This is vitally important. At this point, this is basically the chance for the Republicans in Congress to either endorse or defect from his presidency. And it looks like they're going to endorse it.

This would be his first major policy win. It would happen right before the end of the year and it would allow him to really sort of ignore the Roy Moore situation and triumph this accomplishment. And it really does mean that the Republicans are linking and attaching themselves to him. They're not going to be distancing themselves.

HOWELL: All right, Gina, let's talk about the Mueller investigation into possible collusion, into Russian meddling. His team is set to question the president's attorneys next week. Some see this as a sign that investigation is reaching its final stages. Others believe it could still go on for months.

What's your read on this? REINHARDT: I think it's going to go on. I think that some questioning doesn't really indicate that it's the end; although it does, I would imagine, indicate that a lot of evidence has been amassed at this point.

But I don't expect Mueller's team to do anything without the utmost preparation and evidence on their side. But I think that at this point we're talking about some conversations. Mueller's team is well aware of how this looks to the Trump administration and how it has looked, not communicating with him directly so far.

And so I really think it's just an information gathering meeting. I don't think we're going to see an end to it anytime soon.

HOWELL: Also we talked about this earlier in the show. The comments from the U.S. president, "we'll see," regarding Michael Flynn and the possibly of a pardon. The White House dismissing this.

But do you see this as a subtle cue to Flynn and to others that they don't have to cooperate with this investigation?

Or are people just reading too much into that comment, "we'll see?"

REINHARDT: I think that it is very difficult to read a lot of definity (sic) into anything that the president says because he often says one thing one day and then says something else another day.

For example, with Flynn, he has gone back and forth, talking about what a good person he is and how he wasn't really a part of the administration, et cetera. So I think that a "we'll see" from President Trump is just something that he says, sort of a cast-off comment and that anything that he meant by it could change.

HOWELL: And with regard to how this pay off politically, down the road, here's the question, the tax bill, that's something that is front and center as we move into this next week.

Will this play off as far as voters see it as a tax cut for the rich, that forgot about the middle class?

That's how Democrats describe it.

Or will it have a significant impact, as you see this bill, for all across the board?

REINHARDT: Well, it's going to have an immediate impact that is beneficial or seems beneficial for a lot of people and a long-term impact that is much more harmful for the economy at large and for individuals.

But most people see the short term first. And some people are going to see more money in their pocket as of April. And that's going to change their perceptions of what this bill does.

The fact is that the bill is creating tax cuts that are much, much larger for people in higher tax brackets than they are for the middle class. But the middle class isn't going to see that very much and so they're going to be looking at their actual changes.

Smaller families will get larger breaks than larger families will. So they're going to be seeing the biggest difference.

HOWELL: Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, we appreciate the insight today. Again, looking ahead to what happens with this tax reform bill here in the United States. Thank you so much.

REINHARDT: Thank you.

ALLEN: South Africa is facing a pivotal moment. The ruling political party is voting for a new leader at its national conference. The ANC, African National Congress, has run the country --


ALLEN: -- since apartheid ended in 1994, when its leader, Nelson Mandela, became the country's first black president.

HOWELL: The ANC helped lead the resistance movement against apartheid. President Jacob Zuma is currently in power. But he is in trouble over allegations of corruption and has been at the center of an ANC declining reputation. Thousands of delegates at the conference will be voting for his successor.

ALLEN: CNN's David McKenzie is at that conference in Johannesburg, joins us now live.

Hi, there, David. Let's talk about this moment for South Africa. The front-runners, there are two, one advocating for an end to corruption and the other, the former minister and the president's ex-wife.

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Natalie. This isn't just about a ruling party conference. It's much more than that. This ANC Elector Conference really will chart the way forward for South Africa.

To many people, it's a referendum on the embattled president, Jacob Zuma, who has been hit with corruption allegations and scandals over several years. Now already the conference is being delayed because of court challenges and trying to figure out which of these some 5,000 delegates will vote to chart that future for him.

And as you say, the two front-runners are the deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Many people see him as potentially being tough on corruption, and the former minister and head of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Now she has said less about the president and the allegations of corruptions. But the jury is still out on what direction she will take this country.

But the stakes are incredibly higher. The economy in this country is suffering. There is a huge level of unemployment, particularly amongst the youth. And people want solutions. They don't necessarily want politicking. But it will be ultimately up to those delegates singing and dancing behind me to make those decisions. But it will be a very contentious vote, indeed -- Natalie.

ALLEN: So how will you be watching what happens, as far as what their decisions are, their moves are, to signal which way they're going to want to take this country, once President Zuma is out of the way there?

MCKENZIE: It's a good question and, ultimately, one of the key points is what will happen to president Jacob Zuma?

Depending on who comes through, you might have a situation that he is either forced out of the national presidency or he voluntarily leaves the stage. He faces multiple charges of corruption in this country on multiple fronts.

And this battle in this rather drab conference center behind me will be a fiery one to decide what happens to the president. And a lot is at stake with the economy and with ratings agencies and others, who are looking at this moment to see whether now is the time to reinvest in South Africa or if the country is heading in a direction that they don't want to see -- Natalie.

ALLEN: We'll be watching this closely. David McKenzie, covering it for us in Johannesburg. David, thank you very much.

HOWELL: Still ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM, one of President Trump's nominees for a federal judge admits he has zero experience. Stay with us.





ALLEN: A move on guns in the United States. The U.S. Justice Department has opened the door for regulating certain bump fire stock devices by redefining them. That's the piece of equipment used to modified rifles so they can fire rapidly, much like a machine gun.

Bump stocks are currently considered firearm parts and not regulated under U.S. gun laws.

HOWELL: But legislators have been calling for a fix since the Las Vegas massacre, that's when a gunman opened fire on concertgoers, that gunman killing 58 people. Investigators say he equipped his rifles with bump stocks to be able to shoot 1,000 rounds in less than 10 seconds.

The Trump administration has been slow to fill many vacant government positions but not when it comes to federal judges. There has been a White House full speed ahead strategy on that.

ALLEN: Maybe too fast. One of its nominees to the federal bench came up embarrassingly short as he was grilled from a Republican legislator about his qualifications. Ariane de Vogue has our story.


ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN U.S. SUPREME COURT CORRESPONDENT: It's not often that a confirmation hearing for a district court judge grabs anyone's attention. But on Thursday, a Republican senator grilled nominee Matthew Peterson.

He's up for a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and the video of his testimony went viral. He stumbled on basic legal questions. Take a listen.


REP. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: Have you ever tried a jury trial?




KENNEDY: Criminal.




KENNEDY: State or federal court?

PETERSEN: I have not.

KENNEDY: Do you know what a motion in limine is?

PETERSEN: I would probably not be able to give you a good definition.

KENNEDY: Do you know what the Younger abstention doctrine is?

PETERSEN: I've heard of it, but I -- again --


KENNEDY: How about the Pullman abstention doctrine?

You're going to see -- you'll all see that a lot in federal court. OK.


DE VOGUE: What's interesting here is the outrage of a Republican senator and it comes as Senator Chuck Grassley, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the White House earlier in the week to withdraw two nominations. One of the nominees had expressed early support for the KKK.

But here is what is significant. Despite this misstep, all in all, they have had an unprecedented success. They've put through 12 appeals court nominees. And that's a record. So they might be losing the battle with these few nominees. But they're winning the war to reshape the judiciary.


ALLEN: The Republican senator doing the questioning, John Kennedy, later explained he wasn't trying to embarrass the nominee but he also suggested that the candidate probably should not have been nominated to the federal bench in the first place.


KENNEDY: I have to do my job. I sit on the Judiciary Committee and I don't think that, the first time that you've ever stepped foot in a federal courtroom, ought to be as a federal judge.

I read Mr. Petersen's FBI background check. I feel badly for him. His background check is voluminous. You can stand on the thing and paint the ceiling.

Everybody in his background check says that Mr. Petersen is smart and honest and capable --


KENNEDY: -- but experience matters. And my job, under our separation of powers doctrine inspired by Madison, is to sort of be a check on nominees.

The president doesn't interview these folks. He interviews folks for the U.S. Supreme Court, but he doesn't interview these nominees below the Supreme Court. He has staff to do that and others. And sometimes, mistakes were made. And we're supposed to catch them. And that's my job.


HOWELL: Speaking of mistakes made and catching them, a producer just caught a mistake that I misspoke with regard to bump stocks. It enables a weapon be able to shoot a thousand rounds in less than 10 minutes, not 10 seconds. I misspoke on that.


Well, coming up here, the latest "Star Wars" movie is out and we'll check in with the first fans to head back to a galaxy far, far away. Their take on the film, coming right up.





HOWELL: The reviews for the latest "Star Wars" movie are, well, you could say, are out of this world.

And so are the ticket sales. "The Last Jedi" episode 8 in the saga made $45 million on its opening night in the U.S. worldwide. That number $105 million.


ALLEN: Fans and critics alike say the force is strong with this film.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Written well, acted well. The special effects of course were off the meter. It was just a great movie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The graphics, the whole plot, you know, it was funny.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was a roller coaster, let me tell you. I mean, you think things are good and then they're bad and you think they're bad and then they're good.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm like flabbergasted right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got here at about, what, David?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About 4:15. yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): They already had tickets but earlier fans waited hours in the cold for the best seats at 9:20.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're here for the long haul.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Doing everything from "Star Wars" games...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, my Mace Windu is here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): -- to some homework.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is absolutely exciting because it's something --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a blessing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- yes, it is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Brian Rudolph (ph) saw the original "Star Wars" here at the Uptown in 1977. He brought his son, Daniel, and two buttons the theater gave him 40 years ago. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they gave both these out. So it's kind of neat to come back to the theater and see the movies here, the "Star Wars" movies. And that's kind of our tradition. I hope he does it with his kids.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Well, if "Star Wars" is still going on, which I'm sure they will.


HOWELL: A lot of tradition around "Star Wars".

ALLEN: Love it.

Well, a big reveal in Beijing Friday, the logos for the 2022 Beijing Olympics and the Paralympic Winter Games were unveiled. The Olympic emblem is named "Winter Dream" with a wisp of Chinese calligraphy, a skater and a skier.

HOWELL: The emblem for the Paralympics is called "Flying High," an abstract image of an athlete fighting for victory.

ALLEN: There you have it, 2022.

That's our first hour. We're not going anywhere, though. I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell. Natalie and I will be right back after the break with your world headlines here on NEWSROOM.