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President Trump Departs Washington, Closing Out Historic Week; Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is Interviewed About the Stalemate Over Impeachment Trial; Editor-in-Chief of Evangelical Magazine Argues President Trump "Should Be Removed" from Office; "Putin Told Me"; Buttigieg Under Fire Over Fundraising At Democratic Debate; Controversial Mining Company Coached Alaska's Governor To Lobby White House. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired December 20, 2019 - 20:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: John Berman here, in for Anderson.

If these aren't signs of the season, they sure look like signs of something, perhaps something big. An influential Christian voice calls out the president for unchristian conduct, the first sign of stress between him and his base. It's been that kind of week.

There's been new reporting that says Vladimir Putin may be directly responsible for the president's Ukraine obsession. According to a former top official, the president believes what he believes, in the president's own words, because Putin told me. It has been that kind of week.

The kind of week that sees a president impeached for only the third time ever, that sees his trial delayed for the first time ever. A week that sees polling emerged showing that despite all of the above, Donald J. Trump is still a political force to be reckoned with.

A week like no other except now that the president heads for his Florida vacation, the fear is we may see one more.

We'll talk about all of it tonight and then some starting with new CNN reporting on concerns among people close to the president about what he might do next.

CNN's Jim Acosta joins us now with the very latest.

And, Jim --


BERMAN: -- what is the latest on how President Trump wants to handle the Senate impeachment trial?

ACOSTA: John, I've been talking to my sources. We've all been talking to our sources over here at the White House all day long.

And the latest is that it sounds as though the president is coming around to this idea advanced by Senate Republicans that a lengthy trial filled with witnesses is just too dangerous to his political future. You know, he's gone through this impeachment process, and as painful has it has been and as much as he wants to be exonerated and as much as, yes, he wants to bring in witnesses, he wants the whistle- blower, he wants Hunter Biden and so on, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, his allies in the Senate have impressed upon him and his top aides over here, people like Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, that that's too dangerous a road to go down.

And it sounds as though, tonight, the president is listening. The question is whether or not he's preparing to leave Joint Base Andrews, outside of Washington here, in just a few moments to head to Mar-a- Lago for the holidays, the question is, what happens when he gets to Mar-a-Lago because as we know he'll be meeting with friends, he'll be meeting with confidants, longtime outside advisers and so on.

And, you know, the Donald Trump that emerges from that period of time may be different than the one right now. But for right now, it sounds as though he is listening to these words of caution coming out of the Republicans in the Senate.

BERMAN: Yes, because people in the Senate don't necessarily want Mick Mulvaney or John Bolton there because who knows what they'll testify to.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BERMAN: As you noted, the president can get himself worked up into a lather down at Mar-a-Lago. Is the public posture, what's being said outside, the same thing as what's being said behind closed door?

ACOSTA: You know, the public posture is the president is not distracted by this, that he's focused on the work and so on. Baloney.

The president is obsessed with his impeachment. He is fixated on this. He is angered by this. His own daughter, Ivanka Trump, conceded to CBS in an interview earlier today that he's angry about all of this.

And so, yes, I mean, the president is looking for some kind of vindication at the end of this process. The problem for the president is he is not going to remove this stain from his legacy. He is not going to un-impeach himself, and that is why Republicans, his allies in the Senate and so on, have been trying to say, listen, just get through the Senate trial process, and you still have a chance and a good chance according to a lot of his allies and confidants in getting re-elected.

And that is where his allies and his advisers are hoping he will focus his energy on as we head into the New Year. But no question about it, John -- I mean, one of the things we've noticed all week long talking to our sources, talking to officials inside the White House and people who speak to the president is that he is unnerved by this. This is embedded in his skin, and he knows that history has rendered a very painful judgment, and it is one that is going to be attached to his name, you know, in the history books from here on out. The question is what -- how it all affects him and affects his psyche

moving forward, and I think at this point, he's trying to listen to these advisers saying, be cautious. You can make matters worse for yourself if you try to push this too far, John.

BERMAN: Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks so much for being with us.

More now on the maneuvering between the House and Senate, Pelosi and McConnell, and, of course the president. Joining us, a juror when and if it comes to that, Senator Richard Blumenthal, member of the Judiciary Committee and a Democrat from Connecticut.

Senator, thank you so much for being with us. Will there be a Senate trial?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT): There will be a Senate trial. It is required by the constitution. The issue of when the articles of impeachment will be sent to the Senate is a decision for Nancy Pelosi to make, and very understandably, she wants some assurance that it will be full and fair.


Not the sham and charade that Mitch McConnell is apparently going to give the president.

And what's striking about the report that you've just heard, excellent reporting by Jim Acosta, is the assumption by the president that he can set the terms of his own trial. And that assumption is well warranted by Mitch McConnell saying he's going to take his cue from the White House. He has said there's no chance that the president will be removed, and he in effect is making himself and his Republican colleagues complicit in the cover-up, the denial of documents and witnesses that are necessary for a full, fair proceeding. And that's why we are insisting that there be some agreement on those documents and witnesses before, not during the trial.

BERMAN: You're insisting, but what if Mitch McConnell does not agree? Would you support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holding on to the articles of impeachment indefinitely?

BLUMENTHAL: No one wants an indefinite delay. Neither I nor, I believe, Nancy Pelosi. There will be a trial.

But there is a court of appeals to this proceeding. It's the electorate, the court of public opinion. And right now, the numbers in your own polls are absolutely staggering, 71 percent of the American people want documents and witnesses as they would in any trial. More than 60 percent of Republicans.

So my colleagues are going to be going home these next two weeks, and they're going to be hearing, in effect, those numbers. And I believe they're going to have to think not only about the judgment of history but about their constituents' judgments, and I really feel they will be complicit in the continuing threat to our democracy, our democratic institutions if they fail to provide a full, fair hearing.

BERMAN: Have you heard from your colleague Susan Collins or Senator Cory Gardner or Mitt Romney, some of these Republicans who might be inclined to push for witnesses? Do you have any indication that they would side with Democrats in calling for a trial with witnesses?

BLUMENTHAL: There's no question, John, and that is the question of the day, that they are contemplating seriously and considering how this trial has to be conducted. Mitch McConnell is nothing without his enablers. He needs those 51 votes, and I've been talking to anywhere from five to ten of my colleagues directly or indirectly who are seriously considering how they will be haunted by this decision if they deny a full, fair trial.

And I'll just be very blunt. There's a saying that courage is contagious, and so is cowardice. They need to step forward, and I hope that they'll be hearing from their constituents over these next couple weeks.

BERMAN: But so far -- and I have to let you go here. So far you haven't seen any sign that one of them will step forward and say they will want witnesses, have you?

BLUMETHAL: I have seen signs that one or more will step forward. I hope that courage will be contagious. I've talked directly to a number who are seriously considering, without committing, that they will ask that there be witnesses and documents.

And remember, John, one last point. The witnesses that we have asked to testify have direct knowledge. They have the information and evidence that Republicans themselves have said they want to hear. These witnesses and documents were sought by the House.

As a prosecutor, I would say right now the evidence is overwhelming. I'd rest my case. But the American people deserve to hear these witnesses and documents.

BERMAN: Senator Richard Blumenthal, hope you have a wonderful new year. Thank you so much for being with us.

BLUMENTHAL: Same to you. Thank you.

BERMAN: More on what is next. We're joined now by senior political analyst David Gergen and a bona fide impeachment expert, Jeffrey Engel, who is founding director of the Center for Presidential History at the Southern Methodist University.

David, I want to start with you. You know, with Speaker Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, you really do have two of the preeminent masters of congressional strategy. I mean, they are at the top of the top historically speaking.

How do you think this ends?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, it's not clear. I think you're absolutely right about these two veterans. They're both wily, and very important and they're strategic and they're tough. They do not give in easily, and you've seen that this past week.

Mitch McConnell hasn't been moved at all, and Nancy Pelosi is hanging right in there. Both of them have a lot of support in their caucuses. How this ends -- listen, I do think there's legitimacy to what Nancy Pelosi is trying to do, certainly in the short term, it's to shine a light on the unfairness of the people on the Democratic side who have never been given access to documents, who have never been able to interview the key witnesses, that this should not -- this should not be resolved without those people coming forward.


I think they have a very good claim on that.

I also think, you know, it's important for Nancy Pelosi to know what the process is going to be because as someone pointed out to me today, a good lawyer pointed out to me today, if there are going to be witnesses, you want managers on the Democratic side who are good at cross-examination. If on the other hand, there are not going to be witnesses, then you want lawyers who can make powerful arguments because the oral argument becomes everything. So, that's one reason for waiting.

But in the long run, I think this has to come to a conclusion. I do not think the Democrats can stand out there for week after week. They're going to look too cute, and the country is going to want to wrap this up. I do think they've sacrificed -- if they're not careful, sacrificed some of the high ground.

BERMAN: They do have a couple weeks over the holidays where there won't be as much pressure.

GERGERN: A couple of weeks -- a couple of weeks to take a breath. You know, step back and take a breath.

BERMAN: Jeffrey, one of the things we've learned over the last few weeks and months is how few words are actually in the Constitution about how all of this is supposed to be done precisely. So, just hypothetically speaking, what if Nancy Pelosi holds on to the articles of impeachment and doesn't transmit them to the Senate? What happens then?

JEFFREY ENGEL, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Nothing. Nothing happens, which is to say we live in this perpetual limbo of knowing the president of the United States has been impeached. We've all actually seen it with our own eyes on two articles, but, of course, it would not go anywhere, it would move anywhere and we'd have this political albatross hanging over our heads, Republicans and Democrats, for at least the next eight, nine months until the election.

I think there's a real sense in which neither party wants to have this discussion going forward. The question is, if we're going to have to rip the band-aid one way or another, knowing the numbers really suggests that Donald Trump is going to be not convicted at this point, the question is which direction do you rip? Do you want one that actually shows the American people what a full trial looks like, or do you want one that gets over quickly knowing that the end result is going to be the same?

BERMAN: And, of course, there have been witnesses before. Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial, Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, witnesses on videotape. So, the precedent is there, but that doesn't always matter in these situations.

David, the president of the United States on his way to Mar-a-Lago, and as we've noted before, he can get himself worked up down there. What do you think happens to him over these next two weeks as he stares this in the face?

GERGEN: Terrific question. I think it's exactly the right question to pursue.

Listen, in the Nixon case and in the Clinton case, the past two cases of impeachment or impeachment proceedings, the proceedings brought an end to the controversy. Richard Nixon left office, and we opened a new chapter in American history.

And Bill Clinton essentially was very contrite. You know, he went back to work, and that ended the Clinton thing.

In this case, I think Donald Trump is going to emerge very differently from Nixon and Clinton. He's not going to be contrite. He's not going to take responsibility.

I think he's going to be embittered. He's going to be embittered for the rest of the time he is in office, and that makes it more difficult.


GERGEN: But I also think that if he comes out of this, you know, feeling vindicated, he's going to be emboldened, and he's going to be doing things and saying go away, I'm going to do what the hell I like right now. That might be more dangerous.

BERMAN: And that brings me to my last question for you, Professor, which is that he is the first impeached president to run for re- election. Any sense of how it will play into it? Will it even be an issue ten months from now?

ENGEL: Personally, I think it's actually not going to be an issue. I think we have to remember the American people are most likely going to make their decision on who the next president will be or whether Trump gets a second term based on things that happened in September and particularly October.

But this really does, I think, cast a real shadow over the entire election in both directions. If I could drill down for a second into the question of witnesses, which is clearly one that's going to be coming up as the Senate debates what the rules should be. There's a real fundamental difference between the witnesses that appeared in the Clinton case and the witnesses that we're talking about here because in the Clinton case, everyone agreed upon the facts and they were really there just to present the case to the senators in dramatic fashion, whereas in this case we don't know what all the facts are.

So, those witnesses are there to discover information, not just to present a case.

BERMAN: Jeffrey Engel, David Gergen, fascinating situation we find ourselves in. Thank you so much for being with us tonight.

GERGEN: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: Have a wonderful holiday.

Next, a rare dissenting voice in the president's base calls for the president's removal from office. That, the backlash to it including from the president to himself, and what it says about the president's political standing.

And later, new reporting on just how influential Vladimir Putin may have been on the president's thinking about Ukraine and all that it's led up to.


That and more when 360 continues.


BERMAN: President Trump spent the day not turning the other cheek. He lashed out several times at a magazine, which isn't exactly unusual for him except it wasn't "Time" magazine he was targeting for putting someone else on the cover, for instance. It was "Christianity Today," which is read by his white evangelical base, for calling for his removal from office.

Editor in chief Mark Galli writes, quote: To use an old cliche, it's time to call a spade a spade, to say that no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we're playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence.

Galli also writes: His Twitter feed alone with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies and slanders is the near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.


And as if on cue, the president responded. Quote: A far-left magazine or very progressive as some would call it, which has been doing poorly and hasn't been involved with the Billy Graham family for many years, "Christianity Today" knows nothing about reading a perfect transcript of a routine phone call and would rather have a radical left non- believer who wants to take your religion and your guns, than Donald Trump as your president. No president has done more for the evangelical community, it's not even close. You'll not get anything from those Dems on stage. I won't be reading ET again.

Now, by ET, the president apparently meant CT, but, hey, he was rolling. This afternoon, the president picked up with this: I guess the

magazine "Christianity Today" is looking for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or those of the socialist/communist bent to guard their religion. How about sleepy Joe? The fact is no president has ever done what I have done for evangelicals or religion itself.

And sure enough, big name leaders are circling the wagon, Franklin Graham, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, all speaking out in defense of the president and denouncing the magazine.

Mark Galli joins me now.

Mark, you have had one heck of a day. We spoke this morning. I actually had the pleasure of reading you the president's first attack on you. There have been many more as the day has gone on. What do you make of his response and the reaction?

MARK GALLI, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "CHRISTIAN TODAY": Well, I'm just trying to do my part so he doesn't talk about the failed CNN network, so I hope you'll appreciate my work here.

BERMAN: Why do you think --

GALLI: No, seriously --

BERMAN: Why do you think you got under his skin so much?

GALLI: Well, I think because he imagines that "CT Magazine" is attempting to speak for all evangelicals. One of the things he's mistaken about is what "CT Magazine" is and who it's read by.

So, for example, it is not a leftist magazine by any stretch of the imagination. It's a center magazine, center left. I happen to be the editor in chief, happens to be center right.

It's not a political magazine. It's a religious magazine. He was acting like we had a political vendetta against him.

You know, the whole point of the editorial was to raise the level of conversation above the political fray to try to talk about that in moral and ethical terms, terms like a magazine like "Christianity Today" knows something about. No, we don't enter the political fray when we don't have to. But every once in a while when the situation is grave and we think we need to speak out, we do so. But we're by far and away not a political magazine.

And we're also, just to be clear, we're not a magazine of the evangelical right. The people on the far evangelical right who are very much pro-Trump, they don't either us either. We don't get rid by the evangelical far left or the evangelical far right. As I said, we're centrist.

So he may be worried that we will influence the far right. I don't imagine that that's going to happen. But I do think -- one thing is clearly happening is that I'm encouraging readers in our orbit and around our orbit because they have vaguely sensed some of the things I've said in the editorial and they're glad there's someone in the public square saying them.

BERMAN: And it was the Ukraine situation. It was the actions that have led to his impeachment that pushed you over the line to call for his removal. Why? What about that do you find to be, as you say, not apolitical but immoral?

GALLI: Well, first of all, this is a cumulative effect of his presidency, and at some point -- and up to this point, the argument by the evangelical right, many of my good friends who are sincere believers and this is how they make their political judgment. They say, you've got to balance things.

On the one hand, Trump is strongly working for religious freedom, especially for Christians overseas. He's strongly pro-life, and the justices he's appointed. We can put up with or ignore his crazy tweets and his immoral actions because on balance, we're getting someone who's doing some good in the United States as far as we can tell.

For me, the impeachment hearings made that argument no longer valid in this respect. I mean the Mueller investigation, I found very confusing. I'm not a political animal, and I had a hard time following what exactly was going on half the time.

The impeachment hearings, it became crystal clear very quickly that Donald Trump, president of the United States, had used his authority to influence the leader a foreign nation to harass and harangue the president's political opponents. That's a violation of the Constitution. As such, that's immoral because the president of the United States has vowed to uphold the Constitution.

So that kind of clear instance -- I mean, there have been a lot of allegations about how the president uses his authority, and a lot of them are credible, but they're not -- they're not just unambiguous.


This one was unambiguous to me, and I felt that that turned me from a person who said -- was sympathetic to the balance argument to the one that said it no longer applies.

BERMAN: Well, Mark Galli, you've created quite a discussion today. I know it's been a very busy and long day for you. We appreciate you being with us and we wish you a merry Christmas.

GALLI: Thank you very much. Same to you.

BERMAN: "The Washington Post" says that President Trump's conspiracy theory that Ukraine somehow interfered in the 2016 election came from a unique source -- Russian President Vladimir Putin. That when 360 continues.


[20:30:10] BERMAN: If you're looking for the source of the president obsession with Ukraine, new reporting in "The Washington Post" points to Vladimir Putin. Putin told me is how a former senior official says the president put it. Some perspective from retired Army Lieutenant Ralph Peters, Strategic Analyst and Author.

Colonel Peters, the fact that the president believes this conspiracy theory about Ukraine not really surprising but if it's true that one of the reasons he believes it so strongly is because Putin told him it was true, Putin told him so, what's your reaction to that?

RALPH PETERS, STRATEGIC ANALYST AND AUTHOR: Putin knows what he's doing. Putin was an agent handler for the KGB. He's trained in identifying people's vulnerabilities, their weak spots and Trump is the perfect victim. The perfect recruit, as it were.

You have somebody who had financial problems, has interesting taste in women, has an ego that's easily played to, that craves praise. And so Putin undoubtedly has been able to work him just brilliantly, because if you're in the intelligence world or the espionage game, the best victim is somebody who wants to be a victim.

BERMAN: Best victim is somebody who wants to be a victim. Does that explain --

PETERS: And somebody, you know, who is just susceptible and Trump's praise. You know, we hear a great deal, John, about Trump won't listen to the facts. Won't is the wrong word. The correct word is can't. He cannot -- once Trump has settled on a line of thought, an idea, a concept or whatever you want to call it, once he's committed himself to something he has no reverse gear.

And so it's just impossible for him to admit he's wrong about anything. And you also hear about how he doesn't like intelligence briefings, definitely (ph) done down, doesn't listen to the briefers (ph). Again, it's a question of can't.

Trump and -- we've all run to these people in our lives. Trump has to been the smartest person in the room. And suddenly, in Washington, where he's dealing with genuine subject matter, experts, people who have committed their entire lives to studying Russia or India or China or whatever, he's so far out of his depth that he just can't bear it. I mean that's a guy with an egg shell ego, and again, back to Putin. Putin knew exactly how to play it.

BERMAN: Any thoughts about why he's so deferential to Putin?

PETERS: Well, I'm -- the minority that believes there's probably embarrassing tape, certainly financial issues. But again, he wants to believe what Putin tells him. And it's a fundamental issue here where -- in the beginning of Trump's campaign, when nobody thought he had a chance, no serious people in Washington or in the academic world would bother with him. So he gets tied in with people like Steve Bannon and Paul Manafort, you know, god help us, Mike Flynn, and all the acquaintance of mind. All of whom were very soft on Russia or even pro-Russian for a variety of reasons, also anti-Ukrainian. And so Trump who is never interested in foreign policy. Trump's view of the world was shaped by the likes of Manafort and Bannon and others. And so, he committed to this line of thought that, you know, Russia's not so bad. Russia should be our ally. Putin gets a bad wrap. The Ukrainians are the villains here. And he just cannot go back from there.

And John --

BERMAN: It is interesting. It is interesting, colonel, that talking about the president's allies that they are all in on some of his Ukraine theories given that they might be directly tied to Vladimir Putin.

PETERS: Yes, indeed. There's not -- but also -- Trump surrounds himself with third raters. Again, he has to be the big cheese. He has to be the smartest guy in the room.

So if you look at the people that been around him with a few notable exceptions that didn't last very long, they are people who aren't expert in anything except a bit of wheeling and dealing. People who embarrass the country every time they open their mouth.

But at the end of the day, the reason all of this really matters, why it's not just -- well, Ukraine wasn't perfect or whatever, it matters because the next year we have a presidential election. Vladimir Putin is going to pull out all the stops. You're going to see wide ranging and often innovative Russian strategies. And the Russians want Trump re-elected.

BERMAN: Colonel Peters, some sobering notions. Thank so much for your time. Have a happy holiday.

PETERS: Thank you, John. You too.

BERMAN: Up next, how wine caves became a hot campaign topic.



BERMAN: With the Iowa caucuses only weeks ago, just seven candidates made the cut for last night's Democratic debate. Smaller stage but a big moment when the topic of wine caves came up. Senator Elizabeth Warren calling out Mayor Pete Buttigieg for a lavish fundraiser at a California winery.


SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So the mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900 a bottle wine. Think about who comes to that. He had promised that every fundraiser he would do would be open door but this one was closed door.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, according to Forbes Magazine, I'm literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or billionaire. So -- this is important. This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass. If I pledge never to be in the company of a progressive, Democratic donor, I couldn't be up here. Senator, your next worth is 100 times mine.


BERMAN: Joining me now for their take in all this CNN contributor, New York Times op-ed columnist, Frank Bruni, and CNN senior political analyst and USA Today columnist, Kirsten Powers.


So Frank, the piece you wrote in the "New York Times" this morning, the first line says does the road to the White House run through a wine cave? I assume you didn't mean that literally, but as something of a metaphor for the state of the race right now. Why?

FRANK BRUNI, OP-ED COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK TIMES": I mean, that was the big, big moment or the big argument at the debate was Pete Buttigieg having held a fundraiser at a wine cave in Napa Valley. And Elizabeth Warren who sort of the purity candidate was saying that's not -- that shouldn't be permissible. You shouldn't be hitting up billionaires to win the Democratic primary or to win the presidency.

Pete Buttigieg was making the argument, you know, you don't disarm when you're about to face Donald Trump. You take every ally you can get. You take money where you can get it. You know, and that's the kind of bigger debate than just cabernet and cash.

BERMAN: What struck me, because I'm not sure this is the issue that's going to decide the Democratic primary, was the way they both, when added, and you note this in your piece too, they were both at the top of their game in that exchange.

BRUNI: They were. I mean, if you like Pete Buttigieg, you liked him doubly in that exchange, because he was under fire. And this 37-year- old mayor of this small Indiana City was as cool as a cucumber. If you like Elizabeth Warren already, you liked her triply because she was pressing the case that we cannot have a democracy that privileges people with money. And they were both making their cases I thought very sharply.

BERMAN: And Joe Biden was sitting there watching the whole thing, Kirsten. And he has not been seen as having had strong debate performance as at least by the political professionals until last night. But a lot of people look at last night and say, this was a different Joe Biden. What did you see there?

KIRSTEN POWERS, COLUMNIST, "USA TODAY": Yes. I think that he in the past has been criticized for being perhaps too rambling or not seeming enough on his game. And last night he was pretty much gaffe free. Also there often have been gaffes in the other debates. And so I think he was seen as gaffe free and strong and on his game.

And, you know, it couldn't come at a better time, right? I mean, this is really when people are just starting to focus. And I think he's still leading the polls. He's not leading in Iowa, but he's leading in the national polls. And I think it's -- you know, this is the perfect time for him to be turning in a really good performance.

BERMAN: Did he have that look and feel of a frontrunner, do you think?

POWERS: Yes. Yes, I think so. And I think that this is -- and I think the fact that he's been, you know, also so obviously and he took time to point this out, you know, the person that Donald Trump seems to be so concerned enough about that he would do the things that he did that led to impeachment right. So that also sort of builds up his position as the frontrunner by saying like, look, Trump is so concerned about me that he would actually, you know, get himself in this kind of trouble over me.

BERMAN: Frank, I know because we were talking about it make up. Do you think that Joe Biden had a strong debate performance as well? Who else do you think was a winner in?

BRUNI: I think Amy Klobuchar had a great night. I don't know if it will matter enough for her because she's really far back. But I think she made the case very sharply and repeatedly and she stressed that, you know, that she's someone who has won elections in the kind of state, in the kind of area that handed Trump the presidency for three years ago, four years ago. I think she was good with that.

I think Andrew Yang had a good night for Andrew Yang. But again, he's so far back. I don't think it's going to be candidacy change. I don't think he's suddenly going to --

BERMAN: You know, so many of these debates you come of, in the last few (ph), Amy Klobuchar has had great night, Andrew Yang has had a great night, yet, it only matters so much.

BRUNI: It only matter so much if you're outside of that top four, because that top four has been so distant from the rest and so firmly and sconce (ph). But I think the most meaningful night was Joe Biden's, because even though -- he's been a frontrunner almost consistently since he announced his candidacy in April. And yet we in the media have had this tendency to treat him as almost a hallucinatory frontrunner, like it's all going to disappear as soon as you touch it or get too close too it because he has so many gaps, because so much of it is built on name recognition and on and on.

I think it is time especially after this debate to accept that Joe Biden could very will be the nominee. And if you are a person making conservative bet and putting money on someone, you'd probably put it on him.

BERMAN: Kirsten, the polls have been fairly consistent. The new CNN poll shows Joe Biden up at the top. Bernie Sanders doing very well as -- very strongly as well. But in the head to head match ups with President Trump, there's been some slippage. Biden still leading outside the margin of error. Sanders barely. But no one else is. Why do you think that is? And what does that tell you? POWERS: Well, also in the poll, the numbers for, you know, what people think of the economy are incredibly high, historically high. And also in terms of how they feel the economy is going to be in the future. So people are not just positive about how the economy is doing now but they're actually very optimistic about the future. Those two things would always mean that the president's approval rating should go up.

I would ask why isn't his approval rating higher with an economy like that. With an economy like that you normally would be seeing sort of stratospheric approval numbers. And he's certainly not getting that. He shouldn't be in a, you know, loosen (ph) these matchups. So it's still a pretty tight race. I mean, we're talking about, you know, still within four or five points even the people, you know, who are -- who have lost a ground against him.


BERMAN: Kirsten Power, Frank Bruni, great to have you here.

POWERS: Thank you.

BERMAN: Have a lovely holiday.

POWERS: You too.

BERMAN: Still ahead, how a mining company secretly collaborated with a governor to lobby the White House, all at the expense of one of country's most beautiful and valuable wild habitats.


BERMAN: Let's check in with Chris to see what he's working on for "Cuomo Prime Time" at the top of the hour. C squared, what do you got?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: J.B., my man, we have some exclusive reporting about the money trail leading from one at least of Rudy Giuliani's associates through the Ukraine gambit. We're looking at fight manifest. And CNN has an exclusive on. We have a piece tonight from Drew Griffin. We have Vicky Ward with pick-up reporting on it about where Parnas got his money, what kind of oligarch, why did he get it, what questions it raises?


Again, my case on this show is that Giuliani may not be a subject of having done something wrong but used by people, which could be just as dangerous.

But I would be remiss if I did not say I love you and I wish you and your family the best for the holy days. You are model journalist and a model man. I am proud to call you a friend. You're a gift every day.

BERMAN: Happy holidays. You can unwrap me any time you want, Chris. Thank you very.

CUOMO: Naughty.

BERMAN: See you in a few minutes.

Next, exclusive new details in a story we've been following for months here, a story of natural beauty, corporate money and the question of political influence.


BERMAN: It's a story that 360 has been investigating and reporting on for sometime now, the battle over plans to build a copper and gold mine in one of Alaska's most pristine settings in area that critical to salmon spawning.


Now Senior Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin has uncovered evidence that Alaska's governor not only has embraced talking points written by the company wanting to build that mine, he's also sent them practically word for word to officials in the Trump administration. Here's Drew's report.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When the Trump administration's EPA removed the special protections on this pristine part of Alaska last summer, locals and environmentalists were shocked. The company that wants to build a copper and gold mine here was overjoyed.

Now, documents obtained by CNN reveal that the Pebble Mine Company was secretly coaching Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy's office in how to influence the Trump administration to make a decision in the company's favor.

In e-mail after e-mail, Pebble provides the governor's office with ghost-written letters, talking points for communications with the EPA, with the vice president's office and to a potential investor in the mine.

Joel Reynolds, with the Natural Resources Defense Council says Governor Dunleavy essentially became a lobbyist for Pebble Mine.

JOEL REYNOLDS, NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL: These are the kinds of activities that a company typically pays somebody on their staff to do. But in this case, they're working directly with the governor and his staff to accomplish the goals of the company.

GRIFFIN: Most striking of all, this April 26th letter sent by the governor to the Army Corps of Engineers, asking the corps to end a public comment period on an environmental study. Pebble's staff wrote it first, here is Pebble's ghost-written letter for the governor, right next to the letter the governor actually sent to the Army Corps. Compared side by side, the highlighted sections show the letters are nearly identical.

Reynolds, who represents one of many environmental groups suing to stop the mine, is appalled.

REYNOLDS: Essentially the governor has become a puppet for Pebble.

GRIFFIN: The documents also include two other examples, letters from the governor that appear to have been copied and pasted from language provided by Pebble. Pebble even dictated the talking points for the governor's staff to use in a meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency.

When CNN asked for comment, even their responses were similar, with Pebble saying "It's not unusual for interested parties to suggest language to elected officials", and the governor's office saying, "It is common practice for an administration to request briefing materials on a specific project".

Pebble's communication with the governor's office happened at a crucial time for the company. The company was desperate to overturn a virtual block on mining by the EPA to protect one of the world's last and largest wild salmon spawning areas. Pebble needed the Trump administration to remove that protection. And the company was so confident it was going to happen.

The day before the governor met with President Trump aboard Air Force One, it sent the governor's office this draft press release, which hailed the decision by the Environmental Protection Agency in advance, though Pebble says it did not receive any information about a pending EPA decision. The governor did meet with the President and they did discuss mining and the EPA did make an announcement on June 26th, but not entirely to remove the environmental protection.

And in furious e-mails, a Pebble official tells the governor's aide the EPA announcements sends the market a screaming message that EPA may still kill the project and that Pebble can't raise the money it needs. This announcement was worse than doing nothing.

Pebble asks for immediate intervention, a presidential tweet or try to get the EPA to reverse position, reminding the governor's staff in another e-mail, the EPA's lack of cooperation contradicts everything the governor was were promised last week by the President.

As CNN reported, the very next day, EPA Trump appointees did reversed course, told its top staff in Seattle the withdrawal of protections is a now a done deal, one top EPA official telling CNN, we were told to get out of the way and just make it happen. A month later, the EPA made that secret decision official, giving the mining company the win it needed.


GRIFFIN: In response, Alaska's Governor, John, didn't answer a single question, only giving us a statement saying he supports mining. But the CEO of Pebble Mine, Tom Collier, met with us personally to stress two things. First, that he and his company had no advanced knowledge of any decisions made by the EPA and, second, that in his view it is fairly normal to have communications with the governor, even to the point of writing draft letters for the governor to edit and sign. John?

BERMAN: Common. Is that so? Drew Griffin, thank you very much for that.