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Trump Signals He Won't Sign COVID Relief Bill; Researchers Think "Hundreds" Of People In U.S. Could Have New U.K. Coronavirus Strain; Pfizer, Moderna Testing Vaccines Against New COVID Strain; Trump Pardons Two Involved In Russia Probe: George Papadopoulos, Alex Van Der Zwaan; Private Banker To Trump, Kushner Resigns From Deutsche Bank; Michigan A.G. Weighs Professional Sanctions Against Trump Associate Sidney Powell. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired December 22, 2020 - 20:00   ET


SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Russia, Russia, Russia was Trump's obsession at the beginning of his tenure, it appears that it is at the end with these pardons, denying Russia's interference. It's the theme.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: It is. It is strange how it is ending and how it began as well.

Thank you both. I appreciate it.

And thank you all so much for joining us this evening. "AC360" starts now.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: It's a good night to be a corrupt Republican congressman or a confessed liar from the Russia probe or a convicted murderer of Iraqi civilians. John Berman here in for Anderson.

Breaking news tonight with 29 days left in office, the President issues the first big wave of what could be a tsunami of pardons. Now, this batch includes former Republican lawmakers to Russia probe figures and four military contractors involved in a massacre of civilians in Iraq. All this coming out of a day that began with the headlines speaking to what else the President is doing when not handing out pardons, "Trump turns on everyone." The AXIOS piece from Jonathan Swan is titled, quoting now, "Trump thinks everyone around him is weak, stupid or disloyal and increasingly seeks comfort only people who egg him on to overturn the election results."

The passes continue and we cannot stress enough how unnerved Trump officials are by the conversations unfolding inside the White House. Top officials there telling AXIOS the President is raging at Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and also now at long last, the Vice President.

We will talk about that as well as the potential impact of a new COVID strain as we pass the 18 million case mark and headed to what Dr. Fauci warns could be yet another surge on top of the one we're suffering through now.

President-elect Biden addressed the topic today.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: One thing I promise you about my leadership during this crisis, I'm going to tell it to you straight. I'm going to tell you the truth and here's the simple truth.

Our darkest days in the battle against COVID are ahead of us, not behind us. So we need to prepare ourselves, to steel our spines, as frustrated it is to here, it is going to take patience, persistence and determination to beat this virus. There will be no time to waste in taking the steps we need to turn this crisis around.


BERMAN: A lot to get to in the hour ahead. First, the pardons. CNN's Pamela Brown who broke this story for us. Pamela, this is quite a list. Who is on it?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is quite a list. There are 20 pardons tonight announced by President Trump including several of his allies and past associates.

Those include George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty in the Mueller probe to lying to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Russians. He's the fourth person, John, that the President has granted clemency to in the Russia probe so far, clearly sending a message with this latest pardon with Papadopoulos.

Also on the list, two corrupt G.O.P. allies who were early supporters of President Trump, Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter. Hunter who was sentenced to 11 months earlier this year for misuse of more than $200,000.00 in campaign funds will now not serve any time behind bars with this pardon.

And then you have Collins, who was sent to prison in October of this year for insider trading activity that he engaged in while on White House grounds according to investigators.

Other controversial names on this pardon list from the President are four Blackwater guards involved in war crimes, the massacre of Iraqi civilians, including one, Nicholas Slatten, who had been convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

So those are some of the key names that we have been -- that are on this list, John, and there are many others we should mention of non- violent drug offenders that are also on here, about half of the list on this pardon sheet. This press release from the White House are those nonviolent drug offenders -- John.

BERMAN: You know, Pamela, I think the Collins and Hunter were literally the first to House members to endorse then candidate Donald Trump, that's quite a return on an investment all these years later. BROWN: Quite a return in investment, and you also have to think about

that in terms of the Russia probe. You have -- now you have George Papadopoulos, who investigators said was not cooperative during the probe.

They passed clemency for Roger Stone, and of course, Michael Flynn, and also Alex van der Zwaan is on here, too. He was also convicted in the Russia probe for lying to the F.B.I., and so this could be seen as a way of the President returning the favor for their loyalty, for not cooperating with investigators as well, as you mentioned, the two G.O.P. allies who were early supporters of the President.

They were two people in Congress who came out very early on to throw their support behind the President. What's also interesting, this list here, John, I want to point out of these two former Border Patrol agents, who were sentenced to prison in 2005 for shooting an unarmed undocumented immigrants, they were hailed as heroes basically and right-wing media at the time. And so they are also on this list.

That is also a common thread among some of the more high profile pardons on this list. The fact that many of them were heralded as heroes by right-wing media in many of these cases. And we know the President is unorthodox in the way he has gone about pardons.


BROWN: He has watched media, FOX News, other outlets, to get ideas of who he should pardon, along with Members of Congress, and his own attorney, Rudy Giuliani and many others. He's gone about this in a very different way.

And we know that from past pardons, he has not gone the traditional route of having it go through the D.O.J. system. It's all been going through the White House for the most part -- John.

BERMAN: Yes, this is part pardon list, part conservative TV lineup on one of these conservative networks. Pamela Brown, thanks so much for being with us tonight. Appreciate it.

More now from CNN White House correspondent, John Harwood. John, what are you hearing from the White House tonight about these pardons?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're not hearing anything from the White House. The President hasn't tweeted on that subject. But I think we need to step back a little bit and put this in the context of the other things that we've been seeing from the White House over the last several days.

You know, there's part of President Trump that is delusional. He is psychologically unbalanced. He clearly cannot process the fact that he lost the election.

But there's another big part of him, which is very laser focused on abusing government power to his personal benefit. Of course, he got impeached for that, with respect to Ukraine. And what we see in these pardons, as Pam was just outlining is an

attempt to erase the Mueller probe. He's already tried to do that with Mike Flynn. He's tried to do that by commuting the sentence of Roger Stone. He may give Stone a pardon as well in addition to van der Zwaan and George Papadopoulos, I think people are expecting that he'll try to pardon Paul Manafort.

Now, what does that do for him? Well, first of all, reputationally, if he can try to show that the Russia probe was a hoax -- it was not a hoax -- if he can show that that benefits him. But secondly, some of these people, especially Manafort and Stone, may know things that are detrimental to President Trump.

And so by protecting people involved in those -- in the Russian activities, he is protecting himself. One other thing to note is on those pardons of the Blackwater guards. The chairman of Blackwater at the time those murders took place in Iraq was Eric Prince, who is the brother of Nancy -- of Betsy DeVos, his Education Secretary.

Eric Prince was also caught up in the Mueller probe because of a meeting that he had in the Seychelles with a Russian businessman who was an intermediary to Vladimir Putin. Now, it appears that that was not part of the campaign activity, it was about something else.

Nevertheless, that was part of it, and I think it is worth noting, in this context that we're ending the administration, John, with a massive hack of the U.S. government and U.S. business by Russia that the President is trying to absolve Russia for.

There is a very clear pattern in his relationship with Russia. Russia was his financial benefactor. He had Putin aligned campaign chairman. He is now trying to wipe out legal cases. And look what Russia is doing to the U.S. right now.

BERMAN: Look, he is pardoning confessed liars, corrupt politicians and convicted murderers, all on the same day where he is taking meetings to overturn the election. That's quite an agenda, John. What's the latest on the overturning a democratic election part of it?

HARWOOD: Well, he is not going to overturn the election, but in a House of Representatives where 126 Republicans signed on to this crazy lawsuit that the Supreme Court laughed out of court to try to overturn the results of swing states, he is going to get more than one member willing to try to challenge the certification of electoral votes on January 6th.

There's an open question as to whether or not he can get Republican senators because Republicans don't want to be forced into an embarrassing vote.

It's not going to change the situation. Joe Biden is going to become President on January 20th, we know that, but the President is choking psychologically on his defeat. He is thrashing about looking for any kind of scheme that any of the kooky people around him can convince him to pursue to try to overturn it.

They're not going to work, but he can't stop doing it.

BERMAN: John Harwood, thanks so much for being with us tonight.

Perspective now from CNN political analyst and "New York Times" White House correspondent, Maggie Haberman who has been reporting on the pardons for weeks now. Also with us, CNN senior political analyst, David Gergen, who watched it all come unglued during Richard Nixon's final days and also CNN contributor and former Nixon White House Counsel, John Dean.

Maggie, I want to start with you, you and Michael Schmidt tonight in "The Times" moments ago, you posted your story and you call this quote, "an audacious pre-Christmas round of pardons." What's the theme that you see in this list of names?


MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The main theme, John is people who are close to President Trump or people who he thinks will help absolve him of any implication in the investigation into possible conspiracy between his campaign and Russian officials in 2016, then you throw in, you know, I don't think this is getting enough attention, frankly, these Blackwater pardons of four men who were convicted of a massacre of Iraqi civilians in 2007, including two children.

So that's the one that thematically is not specific to the President, other than the fact that Blackwater was founded by Eric Prince who is a Trump ally, and his sister is the Education Secretary. So that is the theme overall.

But on the one hand, you have the President talking about it -- is not unusual for Presidents to wield their pardon power in their final days. It's not unusual for controversial pardons to happen. Bill Clinton, famously pardoned Mark Rich, a financier at the end of his term in in 2000.

But what is different here is number one, the scope of these and number two, the fact that you know, the President on the one hand is talking about draining the swamp. But on the other, these are three congressmen who were convicted of corruption charges. And in one case, he is commuting the sentence. But in the other two, he is just issuing full pardons, one of whom has no time served and these were early backers of his, so key is that they were lying throughout.

BERMAN: Hunter and Collins both pleaded guilty. They were the first two members to endorse him. Like I said, quite a return on the investment. As for the Blackwater convicted killers, we're not overlooking that at all. Maggie, I spent a lot of years in Iraq. That is a heinous crime that they were charged of and convicted of, to say the least.

John Dean, where does this all fall on your radar? Your first take?

JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: My first take was to look at the statement that came along and accompanied the issuing of the pardons and it's kind of a stunning statement.

When you look at the Russian investigation part of it, Papadopoulos for example, the statement flat out goes -- he calls it a process crime to lie to the F.B.I., but says the pardon helps correct the wrongs the Miller team or the Mueller team inflicted on so many people. That's really quite a remarkable statement to have with this pardon. It's more than a slap. It's an attack, John.

BERMAN: Yeah. Look, there's another word for a process crime and that's just crime. It's a crime. Right?

DEAN: Exactly.

BERMAN: It's a crime.

DEAN: All of Watergate was basically process crimes.

BERMAN: David Gergen, obviously the President, he has the right to issue these pardons. He has the unencumbered ability to pardon people. But what do they say to you about where his head is with 29 days left in office?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: One more sign that he just doesn't give a damn how he changes our traditions and overrides our norms.

Yes, the President has enormous authority to pardon. But traditionally, the pardon has been seen as something to take one last look at a case that seemed to have a meritorious case and has justice truly been done? That's quite come through the Justice Department to screen what possible people should be pardoned. That's not what's going on here.

This President is using the pardon power to help his allies. I think it is almost going to be conclusory now that the fix was in when Manafort and others kept their mouth shut, that they were promised. You keep your mouth shut. You don't say anything? Yes, you go to the clinker for a couple of years, but we'll get you out. We'll pardon you and life will be fine. Just protect our President. I think that's what this is all about.

One last point, to go to Maggie -- to underscore what Maggie said and it was an article -- I had known this. Jack Goldsmith who is at Harvard Law, a faculty member there has just completed a survey of the 45 pardons or commutations Donald Trump had made up until today, 45, up until today, 88 percent were for Trump allies, almost all of them were used for political purposes.

BERMAN: Maggie, it also might be an understatement to say this is just the beginning. I mean, I've read your reporting on this. It seems like we're going to see a lot more. What do you expect?

HABERMAN: I think there are going to be a lot more and I should note that there were a number of them, just over 10 pardons or commutations that related to acts of clemency, that they're related to, you know, nonviolent drug offenders or people who had committed a crime and done their time 50 years ago.

It was -- it's a little whiplash-y that you have on the one hand pardons like that, and then these. What it tells me is that I think the President is not done trying to chip away at the Mueller probe. You know, his folks have derisively said over and over again, as John said, that these are process crimes and that therefore these don't really count.

And I think that the President sees it that way. I think you saw pretty clearly the President putting his stamp on how he views that investigation. I think it remains to be seen whether he pardons Paul Manafort. He commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, but he could still pardon him.

It seems a lot less likely they will pardon Rick Gates who cooperated with the investigation. He almost definitely will not pardon Michael Cohen. But that's where I see this going. I see it going to an ongoing mix of traditional pardons. People have gone through some form of a process and then others who are coming in through these various means in the West Wing.


BERMAN: Yes, I mean, CNN's reporting is the phone is ringing off the hook and this is one of the few things the President is doing when he is not taking on coronavirus and thousands of Americans dying every day.

John Dean, you brought up process crimes here and I really don't want to make light of this. Murder is not a process crime. I mean, these four Blackwater security agents were convicted of murder one for life in prison and the three Members of Congress, securities fraud is not a process crime, either.

So how does this square -- you know the Republicans run a campaign on law and order. So how do you square that with murder?

DEAN: I don't. And to be very specific, the reference to the process crimes are the Russia related investigation. He says there's no -- in the press statement -- there's no collusion that was found. Therefore, Mueller proceeded to, in an essence charge all these people with process related crimes, and those are the ones he pardoned.

But I would remind him that all of Watergate was basically process related crimes. They were obstruction of justice, they were perjury, those are all process related crimes and their crimes, rest assured.

BERMAN: David Gergen, what do you expect to hear from Republican lawmakers? As we said, the President has the power to do this. But there have been times in history where at least pardons have been investigated. The Mark Rich pardon was investigated after Bill Clinton left office.

GERGEN: John, I think in a larger context, so we've got 29 days now before Joe Biden is inaugurated. We're entering some kind of the most dangerous days of Donald Trump's presidency. He is erratic. We don't know how he is going to reach out. And I think pardons are going to be part of that mix.

He is going to inevitably come down very hard on the side of pardoning himself and his family, and unless he is talked out of it at the last minute, you're going to see a number of things now, which I think are going to be alarming and could be increasingly dangerous for military reasons if we're not careful here.

I think the Republicans need to have an intervention. It is not enough to send six or seven quislings out as they had yesterday. You need to come down. And as with Nixon, Dean will remember this so well. And Barry Goldwater led a small delegation from the House and the Senate to tell Nixon time was up, he had to go and Nixon resigned the next day.

People -- there needs to be an intervention by Republican leaders in the Congress to go to the President and say the time is up, you have to accept that there is a change of power here. It has to be peaceful. Otherwise, we're going to oppose you for the rest of your life.

BERMAN: Maggie, one quick question on another subject, Jonathan Swan reported this morning that the President has turned some of his ire and attention to Vice President Mike Pence. You and I had a long conversation about Mike Pence yesterday; and yesterday evening, Mike Pence was at the White House in this meeting with these dissident members of Congress who want to try to object to the Electoral College count on January 6th.

So what do you think the state of their relationship is? And how much pressure do you think the President is putting on Mike Pence?

HABERMAN: I think he is putting some pressure on Mike Pence and I think that the President, John, I think correctly reported that the President has turned on basically everyone who has given him some answer that he doesn't want or who is not going on television defending him or who is acknowledging Joe Biden as the President- elect. Mike Pence falls in that category.

He's not on television, and he is going to oversee this procedural moment in certifying the vote or ratifying the vote in Congress in early January. People have gotten in the President's head that there's something Pence could do there. There really isn't, but that is playing a role here too.

BERMAN: Maggie Haberman, David Gergen, and John Dean, thank you all for being with us tonight. I do appreciate it. As we said, a lot going on.

Next, perspective on what the President has just done and could be about to do from Congressman Jim Himes, as well as former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.

Later, the second COVID vaccine, a new COVID strain and the likelihood of another Holiday surge just weeks from now. That plus more breaking news, the President now signaling he might veto the COVID relief bill.


BERMAN: More breaking news that could mean a lot to millions of Americans suffering right now. Moments ago, in addition to issuing a wave of new pardons. The President also seemed to issue a veto threat for the $900 billion stimulus relief bill that has passed both Houses of Congress and he was expected to sign. John Harwood back with the latest.

John, what's the President doing here?

HARWOOD: You know, John, one of the things that I've wondered since the election is that with Donald Trump having lost and as I mentioned in the last block, he is choking psychologically on that defeat. He can't handle it. It's a blow to his ego and his reputation the idea that he was the loser to Joe Biden, I wondered whether he was going to try to bring -- to burn the house down on the way out of office.

He of course has done nothing on the coronavirus. He has basically vacated the Oval Office for most purposes. In this case, you finally had both Chambers of Congress coming together on a $900 billion compromise.

The President has put out a statement tonight, a videotaped statement, completely dishonest. He read a bunch of provisions and said they were in the COVID relief bill. That's false. They were in the Omnibus spending bill which was attached to the COVID relief bill. They move together as one piece of legislation so he was dishonestly suggesting that Congress had put these wasteful items in.


HARWOOD: But he was suggesting by so harshly criticizing the bill that he would veto it. If he vetoes it, I think it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that Congress would alter the bill to his liking.

Congress might override the veto, because there were more than enough votes to pass a presidential override. But if he vetoes the bill, many of these Republican congressmen who were so scared of him, may not vote to override the veto of the bill that they had just supported.

So it's possible that he could kill this bill. If he kills this bill, I think that would be a terrible blow to those two Republican Senate candidates in Georgia who Mitch McConnell was trying to help with this bill.

And, you know, the President after the election when he was asked about Republicans down valid doing well, and him losing, he said, you know, all these Republicans won and I'm the one who lost? That offended him.

It is possible that he is embarked on a course where he's trying to take other Republicans down with him by criticizing the bill that they just voted for.

BERMAN: John Harwood. Thank you so much for that. We get Maggie Haberman on a short lease, given all the breaking news. Maggie, I listened to this video from the President. It's not clear to me first of all, that he understands the legislative process. Let's just stipulate.

I'm not a hundred percent sure he actually gets it when he says he wants to see the bill amended has been passed by both Houses of Congress at this point that's just waiting for his signature.

But that aside, what do you think we're seeing here?

HABERMAN: I think what we're seeing, honestly, John is somebody who has watched a lot of FOX News today, where there were people talking about the amount of foreign aid that was in this bill.

I mean, the President basically tipped his hand in this video, where he is reading through this list of foreign countries, and specifically what they got, because that is something that is very pleasing to his base of supporters is to object to foreign aid being stuffed in bills that are supposed to, you know, supposed to be a stimulus package.

Now, obviously, these bills are complicated. These bills involve a lot of different issues and a lot of different matters and a lot of different funding streams.

But that is what he is pointing to. I don't know that he'll actually veto it. I think that that would be pretty detrimental. I don't entirely share John Harwood view that this would really sink the Republicans in Georgia, I think it would impact some voters, a lot of voters are going to do whatever the President says in that race.

But I do think that he has put Republicans in a bad spot who voted for this bill, and Americans who are expecting checks, albeit, these are not huge checks. This is not an overwhelmingly popular bill, but it is the bill that passed.

BERMAN: I will note, Maggie, the President was not really involved in this at all. Steve Mnuchin was on there.


BERMAN: I mean, so for the President to give this this bizarre video address tonight with no one in the room. Now, you know it, saying it calling it late to the game doesn't even begin to cover it?

HABERMAN: No, and look, it really underscores, John, something that has been a theme, frankly, in almost his entire time dealing with Congress with the exception of the tax bill, which he was very involved in, you know, and that the failed healthcare repeal efforts, but you know, he has become more and more distant from the legislative process.

As time has gone on, he has acted more as a spectator and he has really been a spectator to governing over the last six, seven weeks since the election and this really reminds people just how uninvolved he is.

He is reading this information off, it comes off as if he is reading it for the first time.

BERMAN: John Harwood, I will note Maggie Haberman told me this was a possibility before. Now CNN tonight is also reporting that right now the President going to Mar-a-Lago for Christmas is like 50/50. Not sure he's going to leave at this point.

So given that, what do you expect to happen here? What's the next step? If the President sticks around, what more does he do? Which Republican is going to stand up to him, if any?

HARWOOD: That's going to be very difficult? And look, I think Maggie makes a good point, I think there is a chance that the President is just performing in this video, and that he will not end up vetoing this bill, but he certainly held out that possibility.

Look, this is a President who is in a mood to do whatever he wants in the moment. He's an impulsive person, he doesn't control his impulses very well and he is very wounded, and so he is lashing out in various ways, lashing out at Congress for this bill.

And, you know, when I talked about the president potentially being destructive and sort of burning the house down, remember this would be burning the house down for millions of Americans who are depending on this relief, the extension of unemployment benefits, the paycheck protection for small businesses, and the $600.00 stimulus payment.

The President said in that video, oh, I want it to be $2,000.00 per person. There's not support to do that. His own party will not vote for that provision.

And so the President is setting impossible terms and why would a person set impossible terms on a piece of legislation that is desperately needed that awaits his signature right now and Congress is done for the year? It is very difficult to know what his true intention is here, but it is not -- certainly not beneficial to the American people.


BERMAN: Maggie, the President is picking fights with Republicans and key Republicans like Mitch McConnell now and he's attacking Mitch McConnell by name. He's attacking John Thune. McConnell's Lieutenant by name. Where do you think this goes?

HABERMAN: I mean, honestly, I think that the -- I don't mean to throw cold water on this. But I find the President's attacks and Mitch McConnell to be somewhat passive aggressive. I mean, I think that they are definitely escalating, and he is definitely dealing with frequency.

And he started telling the water and the world and blow up so he's doing it again. But Mitch McConnell has typically been somebody who the President is, is somewhat intimidated by and there's not a ton of people in Washington, you can say that about.

So, I don't know where it goes other than the president forcing McConnell's hand to have to try to intervene in some way in these efforts that are being put in place to try to disrupt the ratification of the election in early January in Congress, it would put as Mitch McConnell has said his caucus members in a real bind. But that's where it's gone, McConnell's not going to get into a back and forth with the President this way.

BERMAN: No, but I will say we talked about where it goes, Maggie, there are 29 days left in every day, every day. But no, no, but I'm not disagreeing. I'm just saying every day the volume gets turned up. I just don't necessarily see what stops this from spinning even more and more out of control.

HABERMAN: But here's the thing, if what's spinning under the controller tweets and graphics showing when Donald Trump back Mitch McConnell, that doesn't have a ton of consequence. If it spins out of control, and the signal to noise ratio becomes closer and something is actually happens.

If he's taking actions that are problematic, then I think that's in a different place. But I do think that when I come back to these conversations I have with people about, you know, he -- this is different.

What we are seeing of him is different than what we've seen before. And this is the problem with so many, four alarm fires over almost everything he did that weren't always justified, because now he is doing something different.

But the question is, what can he actually do? He's clearly controls nuclear codes. He is president, but I actually think there are certain guardrails he puts in his own brain even as he runs roughshod over institutions and norms.

BERMAN: All right, Maggie Haberman, John Harwood I got to let you both go to sleep because you're supposed to both be on TV with me tomorrow morning. So, rest up. I have a feeling we're going to have. We're going to have a lot to talk about there.

We also have breaking news on the virus itself. CNN's Elizabeth Cohen reports that hundreds of Americans could already have the variant of the disease first acknowledged first noticed in the United Kingdom. She quotes researchers are saying it could have arrived here in the U.S. last month.

And Dr. Anthony Fauci says, and unless Americans heed warnings about curtailing holiday travel, there may be another surge superimposed on one we're all witnessing now. This is the latest number show more than 162,000 new coronavirus cases today, almost 3,000 new deaths.

Tonight, more than 117,000 people are hospitalized with the virus. That is a new record. President-elect Biden acknowledged all this with some Stark words today about the days and weeks ahead due to the pandemic and talked about whether he would impose a travel ban on people coming from the United Kingdom.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF UNITED STATES: One of the things I'm waiting to get a response from my COVID team is whether or not we should require testing before they get on an aircraft to fly home, number one. And number two, when they get home, should they quarantine. That's my instinct. But I'm waiting to hear from my experts right now.


BERMAN: I want to bring in Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC for perspective and how we should treat this new strain and how the rollout of the two vaccines is going.

Dr. Frieden, thanks so much for being with us. My colleague, Elizabeth Cohen has reported that researchers think that quote, hundreds of people in the U.S. have or have already had the new strain of COVID since November. What do you make of that?

THOMAS FRIEDEN, FORMER CDC DIRECTOR: ell, the frank fact is we don't know. The United Kingdom has much more complete genomic sequencing. So the fact that they identified it there first doesn't mean it started there first. They've had it there for a while. There's a lot of travel back and forth.

So it's certainly quite possible that it's been spreading here. There's still a lot we don't know about this. It does appear to be more infectious. It doesn't appear to be more lethal. It doesn't seem likely that it will evade the vaccine. It wouldn't resist the treatment with dexamethasone, which deals with the inflammatory reaction.

So we're really going to be learning more over the coming days and weeks, but certain things don't change. I would say the three W's. Wear a mask, watch your distance, and wash your hands. And I'd add to that the two V's, increased ventilation and when it's your turn get vaccinated.


BERMAN: I understand that it isn't more deadly inherently, we think the vaccines work against it, we think or we hope, but the fact that it is more contagious, especially with record numbers of people hospitalized, just the very idea that more people might catch this, in this near term when there could be a surge upon a surge upon a surge. Isn't that in and of itself, something that should be of concern?

FRIEDEN: This is the way viruses work they outnumber us. And the strains that are more adaptive that are more fit that reproduce more rapidly, the spread more readily. They're going to predominate in society, unless we control it, and controlling it by staying indoors away from others, increasing ventilation, wearing masks, getting vaccinated when it's our turn. That's how we can get the upper hand on the virus.

BERMAN: Never had the windows open so much in December, I will tell you that. If you were advising President Trump tonight, or President- elect Biden, what would you be telling them when it comes to travelers coming from the United Kingdom?

FRIEDEN: Well, first off, the fact that it was found in the United Kingdom doesn't mean it's only there. And what we haven't done in this country is what more than 100 countries around the world have done, which is put in place, a whole program where people get tested before they get on a plane.

So they don't, they're less likely to spread it on the plane. And they go into some form of quarantine when they arrive, so they don't bring it to another place. When people travel, the virus travels. And when people share air, the virus spreads.

BERMAN: So, both Pfizer, Moderna testing their vaccines against the new strain. Do you imagine the results will be positive successful?

FRIEDEN: I think we can anticipate that the vaccines will most likely work well against this virus, this strain. What's really interesting about the mRNA vaccines is that they're highly adaptable. So it's possible if not this strain, but another strain did evade this vaccine that they could tweak it and optimize the effectiveness, we'll have to see these are new vaccines, new things we're learning.

The only slight wrinkle we've seen so far is that eight or nine people with allergic reactions, and that's going to have to be studied further. So we make sure those are all credible. But it's important to keep that in mind with 500,000 to a million people vaccinated. That's not a small number. So that's something that we will have to treat -- to track. It's one bump on the road.

But still, vaccination is our strongest tool against this. And the sooner especially we can get people in nursing homes and who work in nursing homes vaccinated, the better off we'll be.

BERMAN: We got to get this process moving quickly. Probably more quickly. Doc, thanks so much for being with us. I really appreciate your expertise on this.

FRIEDEN: Thank you.

BERMAN: Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper joins us after this bumpy day inside the White House the pardons, the presidential behavior, where it could go from here. Congressman Jim Himes from the Intelligence Committee joins us as well.



BERMAN: The White House a busy place tonight when it comes to pardons, executive clemency, veto threats, not to mention presidential scheming to overturn the election and presidential seizing at henchmen who aren't in his eyes hedging hard enough.

Joining us now Connecticut Democratic Congressman Jim Himes, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks so much for being with us. I want to get your initial reaction to this list of parts. What do you think about them?

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): Well, John, I have a shallow thought and a deep thought. The shallow thought is that a flurry of pardon suggests that at some level, Donald Trump knows that he is going to not be president in less than a month. The deeper thought is, you know, I'm appalled. Right? I there's a line of scripture that means a lot to me.

It's Micah 6:8, people know what it says that what does the Lord require of you, but that you do justice, love, mercy and walk humbly with your God. And I love that because it recognizes that justice is sometimes really harsh and unmerciful. You know, parents steal for their children, people commit violence to defend the vulnerable. And the whole idea of a pardon is that we can inject some mercy into justice.

And when the President does it, he does it on our behalf. And instead of, instead of elevating mercy and making us better people, he has pardoned a bunch of murderers and grifters and liars, most of whom have nothing in common other than the fact that they somehow express their loyalty to Donald Trump. And so, I'm not surprised we knew this was coming. But it's even after four years, it's dispiriting.

BERMAN: Yes, corrupt politicians, can best liars and convicted murderers. The confessed liars are connected to the Russia probe, you, of course, are on the Intelligence Committee, which worked very hard on that for years. This is a big chunk of your life over the last four years. So when you see these two figures, including George Papadopoulos receive a full pardon, what's your reaction to that? And do you ultimately think this leads to Paul Manafort that he'll be next?

HIMES: Well, I have no reason to believe the President isn't going to pardon everybody who demonstrated loyalty to him. And I take some comfort in the fact that Donald Trump is going to be a unique president to effectively give people get out of jail card, so long as they fight for him. I can't imagine Joe Biden ever doing that.

But, you know, this sends up there's this theory out there a bunch of my Republican colleagues, that because the Mueller investigation didn't find a chargeable crime. Now, never mind that it bought it found all sorts of ridiculous behavior, you know, the president's son meeting with Russians to get dirt, the campaign manager sharing polling with known Russian intelligence agency, despite our people.

Despite the fact that it showed a lot about bad behavior because there wasn't an indictable crime, somehow lying to the FBI in those circumstances is OK. Imagine the signal that that sent, there is no circumstance in which lying to law enforcement is OK. But the President and too many Republicans believe that it is. And that is a lesson that will not be lost on our children, on other people in public service. And it's a terrible erosion of the values that this country stands for.

BERMAN: I got to let you go. But the President released a video tonight where he seemed to issue a veto threat to this $900 billion stimulus relief bill that passed both houses of Congress. How concerned are you that he won't sign this?

HIMES: Well, I don't know what he's going to do. He's erratic. What I can tell you is that what is at stake here is millions of Americans who really need that $600 who really need the unemployment insurance, food stamps that are going to make for a brighter Christmas for a lot of Americans.

And the President on the day he pardoned murderers and liars is saying, I'm going to deny millions of Americans, the food and the sustenance that they need. This is the end of the Trump administration. Thank goodness.

BERMAN: Congressman Himes, we appreciate you coming on the show tonight. Thanks so much.

HIMES: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: Joining us now James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence and author of Facts and Fears Hard Truths from a Life and Intelligence. Director Clapper. He look at this round of pardons, what's your feeling about them in terms of national security given that there are two people with ties to the Russia probe who lie to investigators?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, first I completed align myself with Congress in Jim Himes comments about this. And it shows once again not that we need proof of it, where the President's head really is and all this. And it's not on national security, not on the pandemic, not on the massive Russian cyber espionage.

But rather on, I think the common denominator here is pleasing the base, and reinforcing his grip on the base at writ large and on Republican political figures, specifically.


So it's very, you know, it's disturbing, but we're going to have more breaking news about this sort of thing in the next month or so.

BERMAN: We mean, you think we're going to see a lot more of this. You think this is just the tip of the iceberg?

CLAPPER: Oh, I do. I can't concede that with these pardons that the President is all done with exercising and abusing the power of his office. So, I think there's more to come. I can't tell you specifically what that's going to be. But it's going to be a concerning period, no question about it.

BERMAN: You spent your life in the military before you worked for the administration's intelligence capacities. There are these four Blackwater contractors. They weren't part of the military, but they were over there in a security role who were convicted of murder of murdering Iraqi civilians, the President granted pardons to them. How does that hit you?

CLAPPER: Well, it's despicable. You know, I am out adjectives, but it's just, it's terrible. These were convicted. They clearly, I mean, they were contractors, abused, the, you know, the -- their availability of the weapons that were available to them.

And so as someone who's spent about 34 years in military before my civilian capacities, this isn't a direct assault on the values of this country that that I and many others defended. So it's, as I say, it's despicable.

BERMAN: Now, in terms of the Russia investigation, again, George Papadopoulos who admitted to lying sort of time now granted a full pardon. What do you think the President is trying to do in terms of the Russia probe?

CLAPPER: I think he's trying to erase any vestiges of as much as he can of culpability that people that were caught up in this investigation, and whether or not there was a indictment for conspiracy or not, and we can argue to the cows come home, whether there was or not, I think there was, but the effect of this and I think in his mind, he thinks this is a tremendous injustice that by granting these pardons he somehow is erasing the record of the crimes that these people committed.

BERMAN: I do need to let you go in about 30 seconds. But two of the pardons went to members of Congress again, who confessed to their crimes. So we're the first two House members who endorse President Trump. That seems like a return on an investment, doesn't it?

CLAPPER: So paying back a favor. And again, as I mentioned before, the common denominator here is pleasing the base. I don't think he pardoned any Democratic members of Congress. So it's, again, it's all about the base and keeping his grip on it.

BERMAN: Now certainly didn't this time, he did pardon Rod Blagojevich before who had been a Democratic member of Congress and Democratic governor but only after Blagojevich and his wife had been gushing over President Trump for some time that happened before. James Clapper. Thanks so much for being with us. And I'd really appreciate it.

CLAPPER: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: Another piece of breaking news now as you know, the Trump Organization is under investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the New York Attorney General and both agencies has subpoenaed Deutsche Bank about its lending relationship with the company. Now today to private bankers responsible for lending to the President and Jared Kushner, resigned from the company.

CNN's Kara Scannell did the reporting on this. She joins us now. Kara, what are you learning about these bankers and their relationships with President Trump and Jared Kushner?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Yes, that's right, John. So, two long term bankers for the president at Deutsche Bank, Rosemary Vrablic and Dominic Scalzi resigned. Now, Vrablic is about 60 years old, and she said she is retiring from the bank next week. But you really can't understate how important these two have been to

the Trump Organization. Vrablic was introduced to the president by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, she'd been his private banker. And she really took over this relationship at Deutsche Bank.

You know, at a time and advocated for the Trump Organization at a time when other divisions within Deutsche Bank no longer wanted to do business with the Trump Organization. I mean, that in part had to do with a history of delinquencies and litigation which she advocated for this relationship.

And ultimately Deutsche Bank has lent the President more than $300 million. The President has personally guaranteed those loans and those loans. And those loans will begin coming due in the next four to five years after the President is out of the White House.


So, with his key bank are no longer at Deutsche Bank it certainly raises a lot of questions of who will step in that void and be the President's lender once is at the White House, John.

BERMAN: Now let's make clear the investigation is going on in New York or beyond the President's power reach their state and local investigations. Is there any sense of what this could mean for those investigations?

SCANNELL: Well we do know that both those investigations you mentioned the criminal and one in the civil one have been ongoing for quite some time. And they're looking into allegations made by the President's former personal attorney Michael Cohen, who said that the President and his executives had inflated the value of certain of their assets when they went to Deutsche Bank and other banks to receive loans. So that's something that these authorities are investigating.

Now, the prosecutors and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office recently interviewed two Deutsche Bank employees, they were not involved in the Trump transaction, they were getting more general information.

However, a person familiar with the investigation told me that it is expected that the DEA will want to interview people who had direct contact with those loans and were directly involved with those loans. So it's really no one other than Rosemary Vrablic who had such an intimate relationship with the Trump Organization, the President and knows a lot about the communications that have taken place.

Now, we asked her attorney if she had been contacted by prosecutors. He gave me a statement he said, Ms. Vrablic is committed to cooperating with authorities if asked. So, John, we'll have to stay tuned on that one.

BERMAN: Yes, to be continued. Kara Scannell, terrific reporting. Thanks so much.

Just ahead, the attorney who seems to have the President's ear when it comes to trying to overturn the election, Sidney Powell now facing possible professional sanctions in Michigan. That state's attorney general who made the announcement joins us next.


BERMAN: So, it's been quite the day and here's another piece of it. Remember Sidney Powell, the President's one time election lawyer who was kicked off the team for her crackpot conspiracy theories and courtroom failures. The same Sidney Powell who paid at least three visits to the White House in recent days reportedly pushing to be named some kind of election special counsel.


Well, today Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced, she will be seeking professional sanctions against Powell for some of her antics.

Attorney General Nessel joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us. You announced today you're seeking these sanctions against Sidney Powell. Can you explain what you mean by that? And what exactly is the action you're taking?

DANA NESSEL, MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, we actually made that request and one of our court filings in response to one of her lawsuits today. And it means several things, firstly, in terms of the cases themselves, which have proven to be meritless and frivolous, and frankly, just embarrassing for our profession and really undermining in every way the judicial system.

We'll be asking for court costs, we'll be asking for attorney's fees. But moreover, when we talk about sanctions, she and many of the other lawyers involved in some of these lawsuits on behalf of the Trump campaign, have violated rules of professional conduct for every state in the union and according to the American Bar Association. So, we'd be asking that there be disciplinary action taken against her law license, including potentially disbarment.

BERMAN: What rules did she violate?

NESSEL: How much time you got John? She's violated so many different rules. You know, firstly, every lawyer in order to become a licensed professional takes an oath of office, which they swear to uphold the constitution. Instead, Ms. Powell has done nothing but undermine it. But there are so many particular rules of professional conduct.

You cannot bring frivolous lawsuits that are not based on fact, or the law, you cannot engage in conduct that involves dishonesty or fraud or deceit, or deception or misrepresentation or that is prejudicial to the administration of justice, you cannot knowingly present evidence that is false or misleading or make misleading claims. She has broken each and every one of these tenants in every single one of her cases. And if you just take the Michigan cases alone, she has breached each and every one of these codes of conduct.

BERMAN: One of the things that's peculiar now is it's not clear who Sidney Powell is serving at this point and in what capacity. Even Rudy Giuliani says that she's not part of the campaign legal team, and doesn't speak for the President, or the administration, notwithstanding the part that she's been at the White House three out of the last five days. How much does that matter?

NESSEL: Well, this legal team, the representation of the President and his campaign, it's not exactly a well oiled machine, I really wouldn't call it Bush v. Gore on either sides of the v. I mean, I it's been kind of a mess from the very beginning. So yes, it's unclear to me, I don't know, if he's doing this at the behest of the President.

I don't know really what the situation is. All I can tell you is that it's incredibly unprofessional. And these are flagrant lies that Ms. Powell is admitting to of all places, the United States Supreme Court in some instances. And it's disturbing, and I think that it undermines our entire profession, and she has to be held accountable.

BERMAN: What does it tell you that someone like this, or someone you're describing has been invited to the White House three times in the last five days?

NESSEL: I mean, is it really surprising in light of all the other news that you're broadcasting tonight? You know, this is a president who, you know, surrounds himself by people who are wholly and completely lacking in integrity of any kind. So it wasn't surprising to me? No, nothing that this President does at this juncture actually surprises me anymore segue for our country, for our nation.

BERMAN: And again, we began this broadcast and you waited patiently to speak to us until the end of it with the news that the President has issued all these pardons, including to convicted murderers, confessed liars and corrupt politicians. Your reaction to that?

NESSEL: Well, as a prosecutor myself, who has an entire division that is devoted just to Public Integrity cases, where we hold public officials accountable when they reach the public trust, all I can say is it's incredibly disturbing. And there's really no way to overstate that.

All I can think about is not even the millions, probably the billions of dollars that went into the investigations and prosecutions of these cases, simply to be wiped away by a President who will do anything and everything for anyone who has even some semblance of having supported him at some point.

BERMAN: Attorney General Dana Nessel, we really appreciate your time tonight describing the actions you're taking. Thanks so much for being with us.

NESSEL: Thanks for having me.

BERMAN: And a reminder, do not miss "Full Circle". That's Anderson's digital new show. You can catch it streaming live at 6:00 p.m. Eastern at circle, or you can watch it there on it -- and on the CNN app at any time On Demand.


As we said, there is a ton of breaking news tonight. So let's hand it over to Chris, for "CUOMO PRIME TIME".