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"New York Times" Reports Donald Trump made Controversial Comments on Immigrants During Oval Office Meeting; President Trump Considers Sending Weapons to Ukraine; President Trump's Personal Secretary Interviewed by Congress; SpaceX Launches Rocket from Southern California. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired December 23, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And according to one of the officials who attended the meeting, the document read Haiti had sent 15,000 people. The president then added they, quote, "all have AIDS," end quote. The article then said, quote, "40,000 had come from Nigeria." Trump then added once they had seen the United States, they would never, quote, "go back to their huts in Africa."

In the last hour I spoke with one of the "The New York Times" reporters who broke this story.


MICHAEL SHEAR, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it. My colleague Julie Davis and I both cover the White House, and we spent the last several months actually working on a very long piece about the president's immigration policy throughout the entire year. We tried to trace from the beginning of the year which started with it travel ban all the way through a lot of the different pieces of immigration policy that the president has tried to implement, a lot of which has been aimed at securing the borders, making sure that people don't come into the United States.

As part of that reporting we talked to several people who described this meeting in which the president came into the Oval Office, had a lot of his national security team there, and was essentially complaining, this is about halfway through the year in June, complaining that the steps that they had taken so far hadn't done enough to secure the borders, to keep people out, that people were still flooding in, in his words, as too many people were coming in and that they posed potentially a threat and other problems.

And it was in the course of the reporting for that, of that meeting, that we talked to people who described how the meeting went and what the president said. And as you described, that he read from a list of countries how many people had come into the United States from those countries. And that's when he made sort of derogatory comments first about the Haitians and then about the Nigerians and others.

And so we're confident. We stand by our sourcing. We're confident that that story is true. The White House did push back very aggressive late last night and early this morning, sending us a note that said that several of the cabinet secretaries were in the meeting at the time say that it didn't happen, not that the meeting didn't happen but the inflammatory comments weren't said. But we stand by our reporting.

And I think I would encourage people to look at the entire story because there are a many, many different aspects of this story. It's a long piece, and it talks not just about this meeting which I think is emblematic of his approach on immigration, but also about the rest of the year and all the different things that the administration did.

WHITFIELD: And you also write in your reporting that there's real consternation that apparently it elicited quite the emotional response from John Kelly who is now the chief of staff, at the time he was secretary of state, also Tillerson, Rex Tillerson who was in the meeting or at least listening to the comments, your reported comments from the president as well as this documentation. But that seems to really underscore some real fissures, too, in how they were handling what you reported to have happened in that meeting.

SHEAR: Right, this was essentially the president and most of the national security apparatus that deals with this issue, deals with immigration and border control. And it was described to us as very heated and a lot of back and forth, a lot of crosstalk. And at one point Mr. Kelly, General Kelly who is now the chief of staff, was then the homeland security secretary, and Stephen Miller, the domestic policy advisor, really did sort of gang up on Secretary Tillerson whose State Department, of course, manages the entry into the country. that's the consular affairs division of the State Department.

And so there was a lot of tension. At one point, Secretary Kelly sort of looked around the room, realized there were other aides in the room and said we should clear the room here. We're going to continue this conversation. And at that point many of the more junior folks left and it was just the cabinet secretaries who remained to continue the conversation with the president.

WHITFIELD: So this also indicates to in reading your article, the real differences of approach were apparent even then particularly with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kind of being on the outside of how he was digesting this kind of information. It almost sounds from this article that if taken offense is too strong of a language, that he seemed uncomfortable with this kind of response coming from the president as you report it.

SHEAR: Look, this ultimately wasn't a piece that was designed to look at the question of the fissures inside the administration. There's been a lot of other reporting in my newspaper and elsewhere about the differences between Secretary Tillerson and others on the president's staff, the president himself. So the idea of this article wasn't to sort of get at that.

[14:05:04] But, you know, it's certainly true that what was true about that meeting was there was a lot of frustration, a lot of raw emotion and a lot of raw feeling. And what we document in the rest of the story is that it took a while for the president's staff to kind of figure out how to maneuver the leverage of power in government to get the things done he wanted to get done on immigration. And so what didn't work as well at the beginning of the administration, we all remember the chaos of that first travel ban. When you sort of get to the end of the year, he's reduced limits on refugee entry into the country. He's ratcheted up enforcement and deportations inside the country.

And so you get this sense that regardless of what the disagreements and divisions were among some of the key players, by the end of the year the administration really has done a more effective job of implementing this sort of restrictionist agenda, this sort of keep people out agenda, which is what the president really wanted to do when we came into office.


WHITFIELD: All right, Micheal Shear of "The New York Times." The White House already pushing back. I was about to read to you this statement, but let's go now to CNN's Boris Sanchez who is joining us from near the president's resort there in Florida where he is golfing today. So what more if anything is being said from the White House, Boris?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, Fred. Yes, this started off as a relatively quiet, uneventful vacation for the president, and after the publishing of this explosive "The New York Times" article, the White House is now having to spend their first full day here in Mar-a-Lago refuting some of the claims made by the "New York Times" and some of the explosive comments that were attributed to the president through "The New York Times" various sources.

Again, the White House denying that the president made those comments very strongly, providing to CNN the same statement that they provided to "The New York Times." Sarah Sanders writing, quote, "General Kelly, General McMaster, Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Nielsen and all other senior staff actually in the meeting deny these outrageous claims. And it's both sad and telling that "The New York Times" would print the lies of their anonymous sources anyway."

Clearly the White House not wanting the focus to be on this reporting by "The New York Times" at this point. You'll recall that earlier this week, just yesterday, the president signed into legislation this major tax reform bill, something that he admitted that he would have preferred to have a large signing ceremony, a public signing ceremony for. But he opted to do it quickly before Christmas as a symbolic gift to the American people.

We also learned yesterday, sources telling CNN that the president wanted to have an end of year news conference but that he was ultimately talked out of it by advisers who feared the president might be besieged by questions about the Russia investigation and other distractions. This certainly classifies as another distraction for this White House to deal with at a point where they were feeling victorious about the tax reform bill. So we will see just what kind of expanded response we might get from the White House following this. But as of right now what we have is a statement from Sarah Sanders refuting all of the "The New York Times" reporting, Fred. WHITFIELD: Boris Sanchez, thank you so much there in Florida.

A warning from Russia to the U.S., why the Kremlin is concerned about new U.S. sanctions pertaining to Ukraine.


[14:12:25] WHITFIELD: All right, there's been swift condemnation from Russia after the U.S. announced that it is going to provide anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. Russia's deputy of foreign ministry said the deal, quote, "crossed the line," and warned it would create more bloodshed in the region. A USA Department official described the weapons as entirely defensive in nature, said the Russia annexed the Crimea region back in 2014. The Ukrainian government has been asking for these kinds of weapons. The move also comes during an uptick in clashes between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian backed separatists in the region.

CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott is following this story for us and joins us now from Washington. So Elise, should we expect more to come after this initial reaction from Moscow?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Fred, I think that this has really angered Moscow. I think they expected, and you heard President Trump's rhetoric on the campaign trail that he was going to lean into that Russian annexation of Crimea. He said that he might even recognize Crimea during the campaign. He said he might even look at lifting those sanctions that the U.S. imposed under President Obama against Russia because of its behavior.

And this now for the first time President Trump actually approving these lethal weapons to Ukraine. The Russian foreign minister saying that this crossed the line, that this would incur more bloodshed. And of course a lot of people are afraid Russia could use this as a pretext for further action in Ukraine. In his statement the foreign minister said right here that American weapons can lead to new victims in our neighboring country to which we cannot remain indifferent.

And of course, the State Department saying these are defensive in nature because the Ukrainian military has been facing aggression from Russian backed separatists. But this, for the first time, these lethal weapons being sold to the Ukrainian military by the U.S., Fred.

WHITFIELD: And now U.S. Senator John McCain who was in Arizona, he wasn't in Washington for the vote because of his treatment for brain cancer, he did comment on this arms deal, to what extent?

LABOTT: Look, lawmakers from both parties have been for many years looking to President Obama and now President Trump to start providing lethal weapons to the Ukrainians. And Senator McCain has really been one of the strongest proponents of that. This morning from Arizona he issued a statement, and I'll read some of it to you, Fred.

[14:15:00] "President Trump's reported decision to provide Kavelin anti-tank munitions," this is among those munitions being sold, "to Ukraine marks another significant step in the right direction and sends a strong signal that the United States will stand by its allies and partners as they fight to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. This decision is years overdue, but as Vladimir Putin continues to sew instability in Ukraine and Russian led forces escalate their attacks, it could not come at a more important time."

And you remember all this rhetoric on the campaign trail that President Trump would go in the opposite direction, that he might recognize the Russian annexation of Ukraine or lift those sanctions that the Russians faced because of their actions in Ukraine. He had said he would look at both of those. None of those has happened, and in fact now you see for the first time President Trump really affected by what's going on in Ukraine, officials say. And that's why now he is getting even tougher, providing those lethal munitions to the Ukraine military.

WHITFIELD: We'll see what's potentially next. Elise Labott, thanks so much.

In a harsh rebuke to North Korea the United Nations Security Council has voted unanimously to adopt tough new sanctions against the rogue state. They're designed to stop the use of North Korean workers overseas and chokes off the supply of industrial equipment and fuel. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley says the new restrictions are a direct response to North Korea's most recent ballistic missile test in November.

Still ahead, the woman at Trump's side for some 30 years is interviewed by the House Intel Committee in the Russia probe. What we know about Trump's personal assistant and why investigators wanted to talk to her, next.


[14:21:05] WHITFIELD: The Russia investigation is hanging over President Trump's Christmas vacation in Florida. Yesterday House investigators questioned the president's long time personal assistant Rhona Graff. And despite the president telling allies that he expects the special counsel to exonerate him soon, there's no sign the investigation is close to ending. Here's CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: President Trump's longtime Secretary Rhona Graff is the latest member of his inner circle to face questions from lawmakers in the Russia investigation.

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Rhona, come here, I'm going to make you a star.

SCIUTTO: Graff has been at Trump's side for decades, long considered his gatekeeper.

TRUMP: You got it. Good job. SCIUTTO: Including sending and receiving e-mails on behalf of Mr.

Trump who has avoided them. Graff was mentioned by name in the June, 2016 emails between Donald Trump, Jr. and British publicist Rob Goldstone in which the two discussed connecting the campaign with a Russian lawyer offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton, Goldstone writing, quote, "I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultrasensitive so wanted to send to you first."

Also this week lawmakers from three House committees questioning FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for more than 16 hours on a range of topics including the Russia probe of special interest to Democrats and the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state, notable for Republicans.

McCabe was also grilled on his interactions with fired FBI director James Comey who McCabe told lawmakers informed him of conversations he had with President Donald Trump soon after they happened, this according to three sources with knowledge of the matter. Democrats, meanwhile, are again warning President Trump not to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

SEN. MARK WARNER, (D) VICE CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Firing Mr. Mueller or any of the top brass involved in this investigation would not only call into question this administration's commitment to the truth but also to our most basic concept, rule of law. It also has the potential to provoke a constitutional crisis.

SCIUTTO: That is warning the White House quickly shrugged off.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I want to be very clear and make sure that I address Senator Warner's concern. For the 1,000th time, we have no intentions of firing Bob Mueller. We're continuing to work closely and cooperate with him. We look forward to seeing this hoax wrap up very soon.

SCIUTTO: Despite the reassurances from the White House, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi penned a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan Thursday, urging the senior Republican to protect Mueller. Pelosi writing, quote, "Democrats are deeply concerned by the majority's efforts to curtail the House Intelligence Committee's investigation and its overall failure to address Russia's meddling in the 2016 election."

Speaker Ryan's spokeswoman responded with a statement saying, quote, "to suit her political agenda leader Pelosi would like to see this investigation go on forever." That impatience with the investigation is shared by the White House.

Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.


WHITFIELD: All right, well, some folks are taking a double take, particularly when they looked into the skies over Los Angeles last night, and they were caught by surprise.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, do you see what's happening outside in the sky?


WHITFIELD: What would you do if you saw this? Well, they saw this and they had no idea what it was. We'll have some answers next in the newsroom.


[14:24:03] WHITFIELD: All right, welcome back. Hard to believe the Thomas fire is now the largest wildfire in California history. And nearly three weeks after it started the flames still are not under control. The fire has burned an area larger than New York, Washington, and San Francisco combined.

SpaceX lighting up the night sky and social media. The company launched a rocket from an Air Force base north of Santa Barbara last night, and the sight sent some people across southern California into quite the frenzy.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know how to use Twitter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, do you see what's happening outside in the sky? I seriously think it's a nuclear bomb.


WHITFIELD: What a crazy look that is. SpaceX CEO getting a good laugh out of the reaction and then tweeting this, "Nuclear alien UFO from North Korea." Well, the rocket carried 10 satellites into orbit.