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GOP Hours Away From Passing Tax Reform; CNN Poll: 59 Percent Disapprove Of Trump's Handling Of Job; Amtrak Train Going 80 MPH In A 30 MPH Zone Before Crash; WAPO: Trump Considered Pulling Gorsuch's Nomination; WAPO: Mueller's Russia Probe To Continue Into 2018. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 19, 2017 - 11:00   ET



ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Erica Hill in for Kate Bolduan. We begin with what President Trump calls a big, beautiful Christmas present for America. The tax cut bill that most Americans don't approve of.

In just a few hours, House lawmakers are set to start voting on the Republican tax bill with the Senate following close behind. By all accounts Republicans do have enough votes to get this legislation passed and on President Trump's desk before Christmas. A new CNN poll shows a whopping 55 percent of you oppose the bill.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty joining us now from Capitol Hill. So, walk us through, first of all, Sunlen, what we can expect today?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're going to see them move quickly through all of this, Erica, because Republicans have the support they needed in the House and Senate and it's a matter of timing before this essentially finally gets done today.

The House will vote likely in the 1:00 hour and will pass through and send it over to the House where they'll have 10 hours of debate. They may or may not be able to move a little quicker on that schedule, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this morning, announced that, yes, we are going to have a vote on the Senate side later tonight that could be, of course, potentially very late tonight.

All this boils down to this bill will be on President Trump's desk for his signature on Wednesday where he will sign it into law. Certainly, a big win not only for Republicans but the Trump White House, the first legislative accomplishment of his administration -- Erica.

HILL: And that we will be hearing a lot about in terms of the accomplishment but, of course, there's this new CNN polling we've seen, only 33 percent favor this Republican tax bill. Is there any sense, any discussion there at the White House or rather among Republicans that this may be a gamble?

SERFATY: It certainly is and that certainly is a discussion that's being had in the halls of Capitol Hill as they barrel towards passing this bill. They have made an incredible amount of promises for what this bill will do and how average Americans will see their paychecks better and wages better.

And that's something that they have to deliver on. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaking moments ago was asked about how this bill is, as of now, wildly unpopular and here's how he pushed back on that.


REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI), HOUSE SPEAKER: When we get this done, when people see their withholding improving and the jobs occurring and see bigger paychecks, fairer tax system, simpler tax code, that's what's going to produce the results. Results are going to make this popular.


SERFATY: So, the Republicans there are really betting big that the results will, indeed, happen and certainly that sets up an interesting dynamic given the fact that Republicans wanted this tax bill through not only because of the legislation, but for giving them something to run on when heading into next year's midterm elections, betting that's going to be a good result that the American people will embrace.

HILL: We'll be watching for that. Sunlen Serfaty, thank you.

For more now on this and that poll, specifically, let's bring in CNN politics reporter, Dan Merica, and CNN political analyst, Alex Burns. So Dan, first to you as we look at this, there is the messaging here that is so important and then we see the polling.

Sarah Sanders was asked specifically today on her way out how do you respond to the charge that it's a hookup for the president. She said it's a hookup for America. This is a tax package that prioritizes helping the middle class and yet it's tough to disregard what we're seeing in the polling there. Is the White House acknowledging at all that there may have been a messaging disconnect here?

DAN MERICA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: No, they're not. They're saying that this is a bill that will get more popular as time goes on, as Speaker Ryan said, they seem to agree on that. As Americans begin to see the benefits of this tax plan not only in places like the stock market but more hiring, in their tax returns, they think it's going to grow more popular.

But what that means is that the president after passing this bill, that's not the end. He will have to continue to sell why it benefits companies and Americans and that's what you're going to see going forward from this White House. That's certainly an area the president is comfortable with.

He has today himself as the salesman in chief in the past and that will have to continue. The problem is that his approval rating has suffered while trying to pass this tax plan. CNN's poll put out today finds him at 35 percent, the lowest we've had him in that poll and the lowest a president has been at the end of his first year in office.

So, that will also play into the fact of how he can sell this bill. If he is -- if he doesn't have a high approval rating it will be difficult to convince especially Democrats that this is something that benefits most Americans.

HILL: In terms of that sales pitch, we can't ignore, though, the fact, Alex, that this does fulfill a campaign promise, of course, of the president, but using part of that as the sales pitch, going out in 2018, are either of those things enough? The results could be far off and may not be there in time?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure. And look, Dan alluded to the reality that this not a popular president, right.

[11:05:02] So, going out there and saying I, Donald Trump, have fulfilled a campaign promise to you, doesn't necessarily change the minds of people who dislike him even more according to CNN's polling than they dislike the tax plan itself.

The real challenge for these members of Congress and these districts that are going to decide the next election is, convincing people not just that this is a useful economic driver in the macro sense, but to show their constituents that it's actually affecting their daily lives and that may be difficult in the extremely short term.

People may receive modest tax cuts up front, but in terms of the large-scale economic growth, I don't know how quickly people are going to see, you know, renewed hiring in their neighborhoods, neighbors going back to work that haven't been at work in a while.

HILL: On the flip side, they may see more though of what Democrats are warning about, what we are hearing from, not just Democrats, but taxpayers in general in certain states obviously, New York, New Jersey, California, but New Jersey is an important state moving forward here. Where else could we see the real impact of this tax plan when it comes to 2018?

BURNS: Well, those three states that you mentioned, New York, New Jersey, California, in theory have enough House seats, Republican-held House seats, to nearly flip the majority to the Democrats and those are the states where people have high local taxes, high home expenses, and will probably suffer somewhat under this bill.

So, the members in those states are -- they make up the lion share of the folks in the House that oppose the legislation so far. That is not the only area where you will see voters feeling uncomfortable with this bill.

Basically, any high-cost suburb in the country where people take advantage of extensive mortgage interest deduction, extensive itemized deduction, you will see people, even if they receive a tax cut overall, people don't like change.

People don't like -- didn't like change in the health care system and they tend to not like change period and so if suddenly they feel their taxes are getting scrambled, you are looking at an environment of confusion. And that's where you need to see a sales pitch from Republicans, including the president, but more importantly members of Congress themselves going out and explaining how this is supposed to work.

HILL: Well, and to your point too, it may be more important to come from other members of Congress because, Dan, as we were talking about in terms of those approval numbers, this could really hurt the president if he's trying to go out there and sell it. Is there any acknowledgement of those numbers at the White House? Is it a concern at all?

MERICA: I think, you know, maybe in private it is more of a concern than they would make in public. You heard Sarah Sanders' response, of course, but this is going to be a political problem, as Alex said, going forward.

As the calendar turns to 2018, more of the focus here at the White House and D.C. is going to be on how Republicans can win those contested raises in places that he mentioned like California, New Jersey, other places.

The president will be spending more time focusing on that, we're told, and it's going to be difficult at times for those House Republicans to decide whether they want to kind of wrap themselves in the White House and have President Trump possibly campaign for them, do things like robocalls, digital advertising, that sort of thing, or if they're going to have to run away from the president.

Obviously, that's very difficult for a Republican to do, especially a Republican here in Washington. The president has made it very clear that he's going to come out against Republicans who are distancing themselves from this White House.

So, while this is a policy issue right now, it will definitely be a political issue going forward and I think as time goes on as the calendar flips to 2018, you will see more Republicans having to decide am I going to stand with Trump on issues like this when it comes to running for re-election or run away from him and that could be a very difficult decision for Republicans here in Washington.

HILL: Which Alex is nodding his head in agreement there, as you alluded to earlier, it's also as you were reporting earlier this week, a lot of 2018 will also focus on the suburbs and where feelings are changing there in terms of what people want in their elected officials.

BURNS: That's absolutely right. These are places that by and large have been Republican in the past. Some of them voted for President Trump by very, very narrow margins over Hillary Clinton, who they also did not care for.

But when you walk down the streets of these basically ritzy suburbs across the country, we are not just talking about the coast, not just talking about New York and California, you are talking of places like Salt Lake City and Kansas City and Lexington, Kentucky. You don't hear a lot of affection for the president and that's why it's going to be important for Republicans to have people making the sale on this policy who are not just President Trump because these are places where the president's association with the legislation almost certainly makes it less popular.

HILL: Alex Burns and Dan Merica, I appreciate it. Thank you both.

Nearly three times the speed limit with nothing to slow it down, and that is the key detail here as we learn more this morning about the Amtrak train that derailed on Monday between Seattle and Portland.

A data recorder from that train shows that it was zooming through a 30-mile-per-hour zone going 80, 80 miles per hour when it left those tracks. The technology that's designed to slow the train down in this case was not activated.

[11:10:04] At least three people were killed in that crash, more than 100 injured. Investigators are hoping to finish interviewing the crew within the next day or so, we're told.

CNN's Stephanie Elam is live in Dupont, Washington, with more of the details here. What are we learning about what happened in those moments, Stef?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. So, a key part of that what you're talking about, Erica, is this idea that there is this control that would be on the track and it also has to be on the trains. From what we understand it is on the tracks here, the company that owns the tracks, it is there.

However, it hasn't been activated on the train. That was planned for this upcoming spring. It's supposed to be interacted on all railways in the country in December of next year. But this is some technology that has been around for several decades.

It's not new and according to one official from the NTSB they believe that it's because of political power as well as money that this hasn't happened yet. I just want to show you, though, what's happening out here right now.

If you take a look out here, they have actually been working overnight to remove the train cars off of the overpass where it was dangling. Took down one, put it back on the train tracks and now they have moved one on the southbound lanes of the Interstate 5 Freeway as you can see there.

Continuing this breakdown of what has happened here, to figure out what has gone wrong, Erica, but as you can see, it doesn't look like any time soon that the southbound lanes here in Washington State will be open.

HILL: Wow. We mentioned, of course, investigators will be speaking with the crew, but we're also hearing from survivors sharing their own stories and they are harrowing, to say the least. ELAM: Imagine, Erica, you're excited about the new train run going from Seattle to Portland. You book tickets for you and your wife and this happened. That's exactly what happened to Charlie and Beverly Heebner. They are 78, 79 years old. Take a listen to what they say it was like being on the train when it derailed.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was like being inside an exploding bomb.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All of a sudden it was just crash and there I was down. The train went like this. There was this body lying there. I mean, it was -- he hardly had any clothes on. The clothes had just been ripped off him. He was obviously dead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we were lucky to be getting out of here alive. Then I decided we're fortunate, not lucky. I don't think luck had anything to do with it.


ELAM: And if you think about the fact that more than 70 people were taken to hospitals, 10 in serious condition, those two people, that couple there, very lucky to be alive today -- Erica.

HILL: Absolutely. Stephanie, thank you.

Also with us, Larry Mann, who is an attorney, and also a congressional staffer and the principal author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970. Larry, as we look at this, a major question for a lot of people is, how is anybody doing 80 in a 30-mile-per-hour zone here, especially when there's a turn? Is there no sort of warning or signage there?

LARRY MANN, PRINCIPAL AUTHOR, FEDERAL RAILROAD SAFETY ACT OF 1970: One issue, of course, is whether or not the signals were operating properly. Another issue would be aware the brakes operating properly? One of the overriding issues that the NTSB will certainly look at is the training of the engineer. Was he qualified over this territory?

Many railroads simply put an employee inside a simulator and classify the employee as qualified over the territory. The NTSB will certainly look at this issue and make that determination. Another issue in my mind is, in the rail industry primarily in the freight industry, the issue of fatigue is a major issue in causing accidents and injuries.

I would like for them to investigate this issue. It should not be an issue in the passenger service issue because the employees know when they are to go on duty, but it's something that should be looked at.

I want to clarify something that the prior person stated that positive train control will be on all railroads at the end of the year. The regulations mandate that the positive train control system will be in effect on only about 30 percent of the railroad industry.

HILL: And what do you see as the hurdle? As we heard from Stephanie, you know, you will hear that it's politics from some, money from others. What's the real hurdle there in terms of that positive train control?

MANN: Well, we need to go back maybe 30 years, the rail industry from the very instance that the NTSB made a proposal for positive train control, the rail industry opposed that safety device. What has happened over the years is that the rail industry has said they can't afford it.

[11:15:13] But the railroads, particularly the freight railroads, are making significant amount of money and they can't complain that they can't afford positive train control. The railroad industry, of course, Amtrak is another issue. Congress doesn't adequately fund Amtrak. If they would, then we wouldn't have this issue on the passenger side, but we do.

HILL: Let me stop you there for a second because even if this had been in place, could this have stopped the accident that we saw yesterday?

MANN: Theoretically, yes. The equipment is such that its global positioning satellite technology which will stop a train if it is exceeding the standard mileage requirement of that track.

HILL: But it has to be activated, obviously, and has to be there so that it can be used. Larry Mann, appreciate it. Thank you.

MANN: Thank you.

HILL: Is the special counsel's Russia probe coming to a close? The White House sure thinks so. Sources close to Bob Mueller's team however say the investigation is far from over. Details ahead.

Plus, President Trump slamming a new report that says he considered pulling the nomination for Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch. The reporter who broke that story is with us next.




DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I have no doubt you will go down as one of the truly great justices in the history of the United States.

Justice Gorsuch, who is doing a great, great job at the Supreme Court.


HILL: For months President Trump has touted his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court as one of his signature accomplishments. According to the "Washington Post," however, the president actually considered pulling Gorsuch's nomination. One of the "Post" reporters who broke that story, Josh Dawsey, joins me now. So, I mean, this has been such a big point for the president, which he has continually sought to drive home and yet it almost didn't happen. What have you learned?

JOSH DAWSEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": Right. So, as you said, conservatives have loved this appointment and it's been one of his signature accomplishments for first year in office. After he nominated Judge Gorsuch to the court, back in early spring, the president grew frustrated when in meetings with senators, Neil Gorsuch distanced himself from some of the president's comments.

And he began to see the judge as insufficiently grateful and began to see the judge as maybe not his perfect nominee. As he learned the judge was criticizing him and he told some of his advisors in very sharp terms maybe we should have picked someone else. I don't know if this is the best guy for the job.

HILL: You also talk a lot in your reporting about loyalty and brings back into focus the president's concerns, something we have heard from him not just in terms of Gorsuch but over the years about loyalty. For this president, what does, quote, "loyalty" look like in a Supreme Court justice?

DAWSEY: Well, loyalty means that you agree with him, that you are simpatico on the issues, that your philosophy mirrors his and that you will not be publicly critical of the president. A number of folks who we talked to in our reporting of all sorts of stories about the president say that, you know, the president hates public criticism.

If you have a problem with him, he wants you to tell that to him privately. He does not like public criticism. In this case I think the president was pretty unnerved that Judge Gorsuch when he went on the Hill was being critical of him.

HILL: The president is weighing in now on your reporting in a tweet calling it fake news, saying I never even wavered and am very proud of him and the job he's doing as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The unnamed sources don't exist. Your response?

DAWSEY: We stand by our reporting. You know, we took this to the White House for comment as you saw in the piece, you know, we allowed them to make their points as we always do. We fact checked the story and we stand by our reporting.

HILL: I do want to move on. There's another piece you have out there that I want to talk to you in terms of the investigation with Robert Mueller. White House lawyers set to meet with Mueller's team later this week clearly hoping for some good news to share with the president out of that meeting, but your reporting points to a different outcome?

DAWSEY: Right. The lawyers have told the president for several months now that this probe could be wrapping up and the cloud that has hovered over his head related to Bob Mueller's investigation could be ending. What we're learning is that this probe is likely to stretch far longer than the president's lawyers hope and that it could go far into 2018. They're saying, listen every White House witness you've wanted to talk to we've given you and cooperated with the inquiry and like it to be expedited so the president can go back to governing the country without worrying about this.

But one of the lawyers and other folks involved in the case say it's highly unlikely that Bob Mueller would say to the president's team we're done already. It's just not really practical at this point.

HILL: Highly unlikely that Mueller would say that and we have the attorneys for the president saying look first it was Thanksgiving and Christmas and now it's early next year. This thing is going to get wrapped up. It seems odd that an attorney would offer this to their client. In many ways attorneys are supposed to measure the expectations here. Is this placating the president? What is the sense that you're getting?

[11:25:03] DAWSEY: I think part of it is tempering the president's expectations, but I think the president's attorneys also have regular conversations with Mueller's team and have told the president repeatedly they believe he is in the clear and he has nothing to worry about.

That said, there was an indictment of -- I mean, a guilty plea of Mike Flynn just earlier this month where he's a continuing cooperating witness. That Mueller's team is continuing to ask for new documents and continuing do new interviews and these probes often take a long time.

Here we have several veins. You have the Paul Manafort vein, the Flynn vein, potential obstruction in the White House. You have campaign activities. There's just reams of evidence for Mueller's team to examine and they seem to be nowhere near done yet in looking through it.

HILL: Josh Dawsey joining us from "The Washington Post," appreciate it. Thank you.

DAWSEY: Thank you.

HILL: It's $81 billion, that's how much the House is requesting for a massive disaster relief package after a series of hurricanes and wildfires hit the U.S. this year. Will it be enough? We'll discuss.