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White House Looks for Bipartisan Support on 2018 Agenda; Obama Warns against "Irresponsible" Socia Media Use. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired December 27, 2017 - 10:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: OK. We'll be watching, Chad. Thank you very, very much. Have a good one. The next hour of NEWSROOM starts right now.

Top of the hour. 10:00 a.m. Eastern. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow. John Berman has the morning off.

As for the White House this morning, the president is not there. He's on vacation in Florida. But he and his team says this is a working vacation and so one of the big questions this morning is, can the president get it done without Democrats in the new year? The White House is gearing up for a major infrastructure push, set to release a proposal in just a few weeks. But can the president get the bipartisan support he's going to need on this one and with a critical election year kicking off in just days, backing an unpopular president, not exactly a popular move for Democrats.

Let's go to our Abby Phillip. She joins me from Florida, where the president is spending the holiday week. So this next push is infrastructure. And it is the lesser, I guess, of the controversial moves you could make or choices you could make, on what to push forward on, but it's really unclear if the president is going to get Democrats behind him on this one.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. I mean, some people would argue that infrastructure was one of the things the president should have done first, because it's the one thing the Democrats have been saying since the campaign, they would be interested in working with him on. But the White House is saying, they're going to try again in January, after this big tax cut push was such a success, the president wants to work on something that he thinks can get Democrats to the table.

They're planning on rolling out a big infrastructure plan mid-month, in time for him to give a big push for it during the State of the Union Address. It's going to be about $200 billion in spending over 10 years. That is far less than the $1 trillion in spending that he proposed during the campaign. And of course, Democrats are saying, it's simply not enough money. But the president seems insistent on pushing for this next priority, especially as he's trying to tick off more and more items off of his to-do list before these midterm elections next year, Poppy.

HARLOW: Abby Phillip in Florida with the president. Thank you very much.

Meantime, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee wants answers on these controversial text messages sent about President Trump and sent between two top FBI employees. Senator Grassley is asking for those answers by today. And one of those exchanges, one of the top FBI agents called then-candidate Trump an idiot and awful in an exchange with the top FBI lawyer.

Our legal analyst, Paul Callan, joins me now. So, Paul, you've read through this letter. It came a few weeks ago from Senator Chuck Grassley who heads judiciary to the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein asking for a number of answers here. Let's just talk about how legitimate you think his questions are, first, and then we'll dive into your op-ed about the broader issues here that the White House sees with the agency. What do you think, Paul?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know I started writing this piece about the whole situation that was raised by Grassley. And originally, I was angered at the president's attacks on the FBI. I thought they were unjustified. But when I started to delve into the facts, boy, there's some really disturbing stuff here.

I mean, what Grassley is talking about is this agent, his name is Strzok, and he's a counterintelligence agent for the FBI. He's exchanging text messages with his girlfriend, Lisa Page, which just trashed the president. They called him an idiot, and you know that language we've put up on screen was the mildest of it. But essentially, the two of them, the lawyer and the agent agreed that the president is a threat or would be a threat to the country if elected.

Now, he's in a central role in the Hillary e-mail investigation. And as a matter of fact, Strzok was the person who went to James Comey, just before Comey had that famous press conference, where he kind of let Hillary off the hook and said the investigation is going to be dropped into criminal charges. Strzok was the guy who changed the language, which originally was that she was grossly negligent in her handling of classified material. And he softened it to say, extremely careless, which is not criminal. This is the same guy who the inspector general now has exchanging these e-mails, you know, showing that he has a personal bias against the president. So that's what Senator Grassley wants a close look at. And I think it's legitimate to look at the bias of the investigators.

HARLOW: So let me ask you this, because then Republican Congressman, Representative Francis Rooney, who we have on this show a lot from Florida, went further than Grassley has. And he said in an interview just yesterday on MSNBC, what's needed is a purge - his word "purge" of the FBI and the DOJ because of it. Just listen to him.


REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R), FLORIDA: I'm very concerned that the DOJ and the FBI, whether you want to call it deep state or what, are kind of off the rails. I don't want to discredit them, I would like to see the directors of those agencies purge it. [10:05:03] And say, look, we've got a lot of great agents, a lot of great lawyers here. Those are the people that I want the American people to see and know that good work is being done. Not these people that are kind of the deep state.


HARLOW: A purge of the agency?

CALLAN: Well, I think Rooney has a legitimate point about the leadership of the Department of Justice and the leadership of the FBI. We're not talking about field agents, but we're talking about leadership positions. And I'll give you another example that has come up, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. A huge controversy about his involvement in these Trump investigations, because his wife was taking almost 700,000 in contributions from friendly Democratic sources, friends of Hillary Clinton, while he was in the chain of command also of the Hillary investigation and later, the Trump investigation. So, it just looks like, from an appearance standpoint, that there's bias at the top levels of the FBI.

HARLOW: But, Christopher Wray, you know, who's leading the agency, there have not been complaints from the administration about him.

CALLAN: Well, no, why would there be? It's not really the same thing. And I'll give you -- here's the way I look at it. I'll tell you, when I started to look into this and write about it, I was very anti- President Trump on this.

HARLOW: You're seeing the Mueller team. You're separating the two here?

CALLAN: Well, I think they all kind of merge together, ultimately, because if we talk about the McCabe situation, he's the deputy director of the FBI, or at least was the deputy director of the FBI. And he -- his wife was running for a Senate seat in Virginia and she took $700,000 in contributions from Terry McAuliffe and passed control by him to support her in that campaign. And he then is in the chain of command of the Hillary e-mail investigation.

Now, that would be like if the FBI, let's say they were investigating a bank and, do you think they'd let an agent investigate a bank if his wife was taking a $700,000 loan from the bank? No! They'd pull the agent from that investigation.

HARLOW: Let me ask you. So you know the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testified before Congress just a few weeks ago. He was asked and really hammered on questions over political bias within the agency. Here's one of his answers. He said, quote, "It's important to recognize that when we talk about political affiliation," he went on to say, "The issue of bias is something different." So, what he's saying is there can be a line there. These are humans who can have beliefs, et cetera. That does not translate into bias. Where is that line in your opinion? And is there anything that clearly, do you think clearly outlines that? CALLAN: I think there's a clear line and it's a common sense line. If your wife is taking $700,000 from the Democrats, maybe you shouldn't be handling the investigation of who's going to be the next president of the United States. That's a clear line, in my view. There's even a federal law, the Hatch Act, by the way, while a federal employee can be registered and vote with a particular party, he can't be active with a particular party under the Hatch Act.

Now, that doesn't apply to his wife, but common sense would say, if a wife is taking a lot of money from a Democratic Party or a Republican Party, anybody who's under investigation, it may be best to put a different agent in the case. Now the FBI didn't do that. As a matter of fact, this is the person in charge of making these sensitive decisions, and he's -- he doesn't have the common sense to see that he's in a conflict situation, himself. So I think there's legitimate criticism of the FBI here. I'm talking about the leadership, not the field agents.

HARLOW: We will see if Senator Grassley gets those answers from the deputy attorney general today, he certainly put a deadline of today on those questions. Paul Callan, appreciate it. You can go to and read your opinion piece.

Joining me now, a trio of our political commentators, Scott Jennings, Brian Fallon, Matt Lewis, nice to have you all here. And Matt, you would agree with Paul Callan, and you say, look, the FBI has invited this new scrutiny. But at the same time, if the -- if the White House here, the president had nothing to hide on this, why ramp up the criticism of the investigation of the agencies, tweet in all caps just yesterday that the FBI is tainted. Why accelerate it?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I mean, if we want to be cynical, let's assume that Donald Trump, you know, he's either guilty of some sort of, you know, working with the Russians or he knows that this is just bad, right? It's not good for his administration to be hanging under this cloud, even if Donald Trump himself is completely innocent. You know, surely, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn and others have been in some ways implicated in this investigation. So this is just not good for Trump. So maybe Donald Trump wants to delegitimize the FBI as an institution. That's a problem, right? But here's the bigger problem is, I think, that the FBI, as CNN's legal analyst was just describing, has actually aided and abetted him in this process.

[10:10:06] I think that, you know, look, I don't know if this is a systemic problem, or if this was just a few bad apples in leadership positions, but liberal democracy is very fragile and I think our institutions really need protected. And part of the job is for those institutions to behave in a matter that is beyond reproach. The FBI -- and I would add the media into this, as well, and our zeal to hold Donald Trump accountable, I think has occasionally aided the attempts to delegitimize these institutions. I think it's very damaging for our civilization, actually.

HARLOW: Brian, you heard what Paul Callan, our legal analyst, who's just arguing about Andy McCabe and the political contributions from affiliates of the Clintons. You worked on the Clinton team in the last election. Weigh in on that. Is he correct in saying, look, this just looks bad and tainted for the deputy director for the FBI, Andy McCabe?

BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I have a lot of respect for Paul, but I have to disagree quite strongly with some of the comments he just made. First of all, in the case of the agent who sent some of these bad text messages and I agree that they are bad text messages and are grounds for removing him from the investigation. But from Paul's comments was the fact that Bob Mueller himself kicked Mr. Strzok off the investigation back in July.

So the fact that this has continued to be talked about, I think, is an example of what Matt was talking about, which is, Trump trying to delegitimize the investigation. Strzok is off the case as of July as I understand it so is his girlfriend who he was exchanging the text messages with. So Bob Mueller himself has already deemed this inappropriate, and taken corrective steps.

Secondly, with respect to Mr. McCabe, this was aired fully during the 2016 campaign. And what was omitted from Paul's comments was the fact that this occurred, these donations to Mr. McCabe's wife, who was then a candidate for the state Senate in Virginia occurred in 2015. Terry McCauliffe, who was then the governor of Virginia, still is actually, was raising money for a range of Democratic state Senate candidates because he was trying to take back the state Senate in Virginia, expand Medicaid. So he donated to a raft of candidates.

Mr. McCabe was not in the position that he currently holds overseeing the investigation in the same way that he was in 2015. So Terry McAuliffe would have had to have been able to see in the future and predict that Andy McCabe was one day going to be overseeing the Hillary Clinton investigation in a way that wasn't true in 2015. So the facts here don't merit these exaggerated claims that are coming from the Trump camp.

And I think that if you look at people like Christopher Wray, who's had a history of giving donations to Republicans, Rachel Brand, the number three at the Justice Department, also giving to a slew of Republicans, no one is calling them biased or saying that they're going to be overly protective of Donald Trump. We believe that they're professionals that can do their job the same courtesy should be extended to Bob Mueller, who's running his investigation. --

HARLOW: And as I get Scott in here, the argument is also that, as you know, Scott, a number of the key people on Mueller's team have donated much more to Democrats than they have to Republicans. What do you make of the read from Paul and the read from Brian?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think Paul Callan is right. I think the appearance of a conflict should trigger some common sense into people who are involved here, that they should not have taken these positions in these investigations or step aside. At the end of the day, to me, this is a lot about the crisis of confidence in institutions we have in this country. Right now, the American people are willing to look with a skeptical eye on every major institution.

You can see it, our government, big businesses, the media, and in this particular case, enough information has come out that's extremely troubling from the FBI and as Matt pointed out, in the media's attempt to discredit Donald Trump, a lot of botched things have happened. When you have got all of this sort of botched attempts and conflicts of interest and all of this information, it does make people say -


HARLOW: Wait, you're saying it's the media's -- hold on. Hold on. Scott, you're saying it's the media's fault?

JENNINGS: No, I'm not saying it's the media's fault. I'm saying that right now, there are two things that are a dark cloud over Donald Trump's presidency. This investigation and frankly, the media coverage of his administration, I think we would all agree, had been pretty terrible. And so when you're looking at how the American people are viewing these things -

HARLOW: I don't -

JENNINGS: -- they are looking at these institutions and asking themselves, are there motives at play here? I'm not saying there are, but right now in this country, we are inclined not to believe in institutions and these two are under the microscope in my opinion.

HARLOW: Hold on, I would say I don't think everyone would agree with that. Hold on, you guys are staying with me over the break. I would just say to the media pointed, I don't think everyone would agree, Scott, with that assertion. And it would be nice if the president sat down for an interview with us, so that a lot of the members of the media could ask him direct questions. Stay with us. We have a lot more to get to on the other side. We appreciate it very much, a lot ahead for us this hour.

This morning, a new interview and a new warning from former President Obama, his message for social media users in this interview with Prince Harry.

Also, imagine being on a flight for eight hours, ending up in the same city where you took off from. It just happened. We will tell you why.


[10:18:53] HARLOW: The White House is planning to unveil a big infrastructure plan in just a few weeks. The catch, can they get any bipartisan support? My panel is back.

And Scott Jennings, let me pick up with you. You worked with McConnell, right? And we heard McConnell say, look, we're not going to tackle entitlement reform in 2018 because there are no Democrats behind it. You think infrastructure seems a whole lot more palatable to Democrats. But when you're looking at a midterm election year and you're lacking at the president's approval rating among Democrats, it's politically risky for them. Which way does this thing go? JENNINGS: Yes, I think McConnell is right about entitlement reform. We have to remember that in 2017, we spent a lot of time in the Senate trying to count to 50, because they were using reconciliation. That process more than likely won't exist in 2018, so we have to now count to 60. The question is will Democrats want to give Donald Trump and the Republicans a big win on something like infrastructure?

My bet is no. I think it's politically smart for the president to talk about it. I also think on his right flank, whether they spend $200 billion or $1 trillion, whatever the number is. There are going to be a lot of conservatives in the Congress who want to know, how are we going to pay for this? They don't want to spend that extra money without a pay for it. So -


[10:20:04] HARLOW: They didn't want to know that so much with the tax bill, Scott.

JENNINGS: Well, they believe on the tax bill that the estimations on economic growth are very, very conservative. They believe, as Republicans, and as conservatives, that lower taxes will spur a lot of economic growth. There were conservative estimates on that. Most Republicans I know believe this thing is going to pay for itself payoff is increased growth in the economy.

HARLOW: They hope so. Sort of a finger crossing and hoping that history -

JENNINGS: We believe. We don't hope. We believe.

HARLOW: I hear you. I think every American believes. Matt Lewis, to you, where does this thing go?

LEWIS: I think Scott's probably right. It doesn't get easier in 2018. Republicans spent 2017 trying to do everything via reconciliation. To some degree, that may poison the well. Democrats say you didn't need us last year, now all of a sudden you need us. Well, maybe you could argue, yes, but Democrats like spending money, they like infrastructure, they should be for this. That's going to have to be balanced, though, against the desire to beat Donald Trump. And why would you let him put more points on the board in 2018 going into a midterm? So I'm not saying it's impossible, but I don't think it gets easier than 2017, certainly.

HARLOW: Is there nothing, Brian Fallon, from the Democratic viewpoint? Is there nothing that is above politics here? How about bridges collapsing, roads with huge potholes? Is there nothing that is above how it looks, politically?

FALLON: I think there's a window where it would have been quite tempting for Democrats to work with Donald Trump on an infrastructure package. The problem is that was last year or right on the heels of Trump's inauguration. But he decided on a go-it-alone path on partisan priorities like health care repeal and this tax package that just happened. So I think the incentive for Democrats will be quite low. Trump, to be quite frank, is not even making it very tempting to them. The proposal I think is running around $200 billion. That's about a fifth of what he promised during the campaign and what most Democrats would like to see. And if you look at a bunch of these red states where Democrats are facing re-election in places where Trump won in 2016, people like Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp are more popular than the president, and that's why they felt no obligation politically to vote for his tax package last month. They're certainly not going to feel any need to cooperate with him on infrastructure.

I think this is a metaphor for the lack of agenda that you'll see in 2018. I think that it's going to bring even more attention to the Russia investigation, as there's stalled priorities on Capitol Hill. So I think more and more likely, we're going to learn in 2018 all the developments about whether Bob Mueller intends to charge Jared Kushner, whether he thinks there was obstruction of justice we the president, whether Trump decides to hand out pardons to silence people like Michael Flynn. I think that stuff is what's going to really capture news attention in 2018 compared to 2017, where you had some priorities on Capitol Hill that were providing some kind of political distraction.

HARLOW: Scott, you have predicted that this will be a tough midterm for Republicans. Of course, history would show you that for any sort of party in the White House, that the midterm election that follows is rough. But there's really -- and you've said, look, if Democrats take over both chambers in November, it could be the end of this administration. Those are your words.

But there's a fascinating headline and piece in "The Washington Post" this morning that I'm sure you read. The headline, to beat President Trump, you have to think like his supporters. And the argument here is that, quote, "Normal politicians collapse in the face of scandal, because the scandals show them dozing on the job or falling back on their promises. Trump voters didn't vote for silence. They voted for a bang. Scandal is no threat to populism. Scandal sustains the populism." Is that right?

I don't know if that's true or not. I mean, I do think that the Democrats, I mean, you brought up the word impeachment. Clearly, this is where they are headed. I think the leadership in the Democratic Party is going to try to say, well, we don't have that on the agenda, but the rank and file -


HARLOW: I didn't say -

JENNINGS: -- if they get control of the house. They are going to go down this road, absolutely.

HARLOW: I didn't say impeachment.

JENNINGS: Well, I was -- I thought you were referencing what I have said earlier about it will be the end of this presidency if they get control of one or both chambers because they will move to impeach the president. That's been my point all along.

HARLOW: I see.

I follow your argument. OK, go ahead.

FALLON: Poppy, one thing I think that bears noting, for months we've heard, that well, you know, a lot of Republicans will probably abandon the president once they get tax reform through. That the reason that they're looking the other way on some of these Russia allegations and the Bob Mueller probe is because they don't want to alienate the president ahead of getting tax reform pass.

I think this was a mistake and naive view and you're seeing it now because tax reform has happened and you're still seeing people like Chuck Grassley sending letters, complaining about malfeasance at the FBI, basically toeing the Trump line, trying to discredit the Mueller investigation. I think you're going to see Republicans try to run interference for Donald Trump all the way through 2018. Because it's not just tax reform that they were doing this for, they really, legitimately feared Donald Trump's base.

You're seeing a lot of disaffection among ordinary rank and file establishment Republicans that are turned off by the Trump presidency. And so Republicans are looking at the midterms next year and saying the last thing we can afford to do is also afford Trump's element of the Republican Party. So I think they're going to run interference for him all the way through November 2018.

[10:25:01] And I think it's premature to talk about impeachment now. But I do think in light of letters like the Chuck Grassley one that opened the last segment, if you really want to see any meaningful oversight imposed by the legislative branch, it's going to probably take a flip and control of Congress.

HARLOW: Scott Jennings, Brian Fallon, Matt Lewis, we are out of time. Gentlemen, thank you very much. We'll have you all back.

So a deadline fast approaching for new sanctions on Russia to kick in. The question is, will they? And if they do, what will they be? Next.


HARLOW: The clock is ticking for the White House to roll out another round of sanctions on Russia. This comes as former top intelligence officials say that Russia continues its cyberattacks that it is far from having ended a former CIA operative and CNN intelligence and security analyst, Bob Baer is with us, nice to have you here, Bob.