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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

U.N. Vote On Israeli Resolution Expected This Afternoon; Trump Says "Let It Be An Arms Race"; Hijackers Surrender To Police In Malta. Aired 12"30-1p ET

Aired December 23, 2016 - 12:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:30:02] ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORESPONDENT: Now we understand New Zealand, who's also been very involved in this, Malaysia, Venezuela, Senegal, others countries that supported this resolution have re-introduced it. I took a look at the text just a short time ago and it seems to be exactly the same. Those very controversial provisions that call Israeli settlements a flagrant violation of international law is still in there. And we understand that the U.S. is reviewing this new text, even though it's the same. They're being a little coy about how they're going to vote. I think it really depends on what the conversations were, overnight between Israel, the U.S. and possibly the Trump administration about what Israel has been arguing that a resolution of this nature is really going to tie the next president's hands and whatever he would want to do in a negotiation between Israel and Palestinians. That's something President-elect Trump said he would like to do, and that's why I think you saw the Israelis reach out to the president-elect, say, listen, this could undermine anything you want to do when you come in the door, and you saw the president-elect get intimately involved in this yesterday.

JOHN VAUSE, CNN ACNHOR: He did in a very unusual way. Also unusual here, are virtually unprecedented, if the United States did not vote, Israel's wishes did not veto this resolution that would break precedent. I mean the United States has always stood by Israel in this way in the U.N. Security Council that would be very different. That said the Obama administration has been very clear how it feels about the expansion of settlements.

LABOTT: That's right. Look, this was, you know, we know that President Obama was prepared to let this resolution pass yesterday. Kind of a parting shot, not just to the Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu, who he had a very rocky relationship with, at best, but also to the policy of settlements. You remember even from his very first term this issue of Israeli settlements has always been an issue between Israel and the United States, and so I think the administration did want to put its finger on the scale on these settlements, but you saw the reaction yesterday. Not just from Donald Trump and from Republicans in congress, and from the Israelis, but also from Democrats who did reach out to the administration and say, please don't do this. So whether the administration has changed its mind, whether it now will veto, I suspect that they might let it go ahead. It's been really hard. Everybody's been in meetings this morning John, and figure out what they're going to do now that it's been introduced, but I think it would be -- it's all highly unusual John, not just the president-elect getting involved but also for a resolution to be introduced and taken out. It's really, a, real high drama at the U.N. which you don't see that often.

VAUSE: No. And we've about 90 minutes and a lot more could happen in the next 90 minutes and frankly ...

LABOTT: Stay tuned.

VAUSE: ... we don't know which way this is going to go. Elise Labott, thank you very, very much.

Up next, is Donald Trump trying to escalate or is Donald Trump trying to get the United States in a nuclear arms race parsing the president- elects words and policies, that's just ahead.

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[12:36:19] VAUSE: This morning President-elect Trump declared, let it be an arms race. This was to clarify previous statements he made about expanding U.S. nuclear capability and then just moments ago, the Trump transition released what Donald Trump called a very nice letter from Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, offering warm holiday wishes and calling for cooperation. We have a lot to talk about today. Let's bring in Democratic Strategist Matt Bennett, CNN Political Reporter Republican Strategist Alice Stewart also with us is Editor and Chief of the Hill Bob Kuzak. Alice, let me start with you. If someone asked you what's Donald Trump's nuclear policy, how would you respond?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, clearly, he wants to remain strong. And clearly the United States is the strongest in the world when it comes to nuclear capabilities, but he wants to maintain that status as the front-runner, and with regard to this and his statement yesterday with response to Vladimir Putin, was simply to say, look, we are going to continue to focus on keeping our nuclear arsenal strong, and that was part of his policy as we will continue to see a peace through strength. And that's just the first step in a long process, and as this has continued to escalate with letters and tweets throughout the last 48 hours, he continues to show that he wants to remain strong with regard to Russia and the world and specifically in terms of nuclear arms.

VAUSE: I'm not sure there has been a U.S. president who did not want the United States to remain strong. I mean, that's a fairly consistent policy from one administration to the next, to be sure. The question is, is he changing nuclear policy? Is he calling on the United States to expand the number of nuclear weapons? That is unclear. We don't think so. At least his aides tell us that is not what he was saying. He was talking perhaps about strengthening the force, modernizing the force, but Bob Kuzak, this gets to the point of the limitations of Twitter? Where Donald Trump started this, right? Where he started this conversation about nuclear weapons and left it open to interpretation and explanation from all of his aides.

BOB KUZAK, EDITOR IN CHIEF, THE HILL: Yeah and I think that he's going to be continuing to use Twitter, because he's gone after the media and blamed the media for not getting his message out. But it does, there's only so much you can do in 140 characters on Twitter. So it's a very interesting question that you ask, John, about what his policy is, because he mentions this issue about arms race and obviously since the cold war we've been trying to reduce nuclear weapons have enough to blow the earth over 1,000 times, but at the same time he has this kind of bromance with Putin. And I think this relationship is going to be one of the most fascinating story lines of 2017, and you know that Trump has had good relationships with people like Ted Cruz and all of a sudden is goes sour and maybe this one could go sour.

VAUSE: No. It's an unusual relationship, but it's a relationship, Matt that seems to have changed, I mean developed, evolved, as many relationships to. This relationship has evolved in the last day because there's this back and forth over nuclear weapons, were both countries say they want to strengthen or enhance their nuclear capabilities and then there this exchange of letters. Where Vladimir Putin wrote a very nice letter saying he wants to qualitatively change the nature over the relationship with the United States and he's looking to restore the framework of bilateral relation and Donald Trump gushed back and said, yes, I hope this is the case you received a very nice letter but he did warn that he hopes we don't have the to travel an alternate path. All of a sudden the president-elect seems to be setting some parameters with Russia.

MATT BENNETT, SENIOR V.P. AND CO-FOUNDER, THIRD WAY: I mean maybe or maybe not. As you pointed out at the beginning of the segment that the tweet from this morning was intended to clarify a tweet from yesterday which didn't clarify anything at all.

[12:40:01] And this is precisely the problem with Trump generally and with Trump on Twitter in particular. Which is, it's completely open to interpretation, what he's talking about, it doesn't seem often that he knows what he's talking about and we don't have any idea whether he was drawing some kind of light line in the sand for Putin or whether he wasn't. It's just a complete mystery and that's really going to be a problem going forward if he continues that as president.

VAUSE: Matt, but there are people who are discussing and there are articles written in the "Washington post" about this, this week, that maybe what Donald Trump is doing is to deliberately create a certain amount of uncertainty. When Richard Nixon didn't it, it was known as "The madman theory," make North Vietnam think you might do anything so you're never quite sure so it enhances your negotiating position. Is it possible he's trying to at least keep people, keep other nations on their toes here, Matt?

BENNETT: I guess so, and he certainly has Americans off balance. So perhaps he has the Russians off balance, too. Although this one line in his response was the first time we've seen him say anything ever negative about Putin. He has consistently denied that the 17 intelligence agencies who have concluded the Russians were trying to get involved in our elections, he's always said, that, you know, if he says nice things about me I'm going to say nice things about him. And so he's responded in this kind of narcissistic way to Putin's flattery and we've never heard anything like this before, so we don't really know what to make of it now.

VAUSE: And Alice, I mean I was struck by that language. Hoping we don't have to travel an alternate path, because it is different than what Donald Trump had to say about Vladimir Putin for 16 months of the campaign and really up until it was born in the transition where, you know, he won't even acknowledge that Russia was behind the hack into the DNC which is something that intelligence officials they're all agreed on?

STEWART: Clearly, I think the words "Alternate path" are a sign that he is willing to take action if necessary, and look, no one is mistaken by reading between the lines of Vladimir Putin's letter that it was an attempt certainly to be friendly to Donald Trump, but it was also his desire to put the nuclear weapons conversation on the table and get a response from Donald Trump, and that's exactly what he did. Donald Trump made it quite clear that he hopes for the same thing. He hopes that there are peaceful relations moving forward, but if not, he made it quite clear he's willing to take an alternate path, which we -- no decision right now what that would mean, but it's clear he's not going to be a doormat for Vladimir Putin like a lot of people have been saying all along. I think that, as I have said, when someone is a threat to him as I learned with Ted Cruz, when someone's a threat to him, he punches back. And we might be beginning to see the first steps of that with Putin.

VAUSE: It well to see on that. Bob Kuzak, let me ask you about what's going on right now with the current White House, the future White House, Israel and the United Nations because there's been a number of developments over the last 24 hours. The U.S. Security Council first was going to vote on a resolution condemning Israeli settlements and they pulled back and we're going to vote now, they're going to vote in less than two hours we believe on Israeli settlements. We don't know if the current White House will veto that, will get in the way of this resolution, or not. In Israel, they're Israeli officials saying that the United States is behind the whole thing accusing the U.S. they say of shameful activity. This is an unusual place for an outgoing administration to be. Trying to make a statement this big potentially on its way out?

KUZAK: Yeah. And they have been this has been a bone of contention for years, that Hillary Clinton in 2010 criticized Israel for the settlements. So did Joe Biden, both in 2010 as well as this year. So I think this is a remark well, not a new issue but as far as the president-elect and Israel contacting the Trump administration, what as you mentioned, the Obama administration will do on its way out on this very, very riveting vote I think it's fascinating, but clearly there has been tension between the Obama administration and Israel and that Netanyahu is, as he says, a friend of Trump. And we're going to see different policies coming from the Trump administration on Israel than we did from the Obama administration.

VAUSE: You know, Matt Bennett, one president at a time.

BENNETT: Right.

VAUSE: I mean that's the classic phrase. And for the president-elect to get involved and lobby Egypt and get involved with a public statement on this kind of policy is unusual. It's not the type of thing you normally see in a transition. I think equally unusual though, is what would be a break from tradition for the United States at the United Nations with just 28 days left to go in the administration?

BENNETT: Well, unusual maybe, but not totally unprecedented. And the bush administration abstained six times on U.N. resolutions that were critical of Israel. So it's not t like we've never seen this before, and the Obama administration from the beginning as Bob points out, has been very, very clear about its position relating to the settlements which is what this resolution is about. So it wouldn't be a total break. But to your point about one president at a time, I mean we have never seen anything like this having the president-elect making foreign policy and intervening in real, realtime foreign policy questions before their sworn in.

[12:45:04] VAUSE: All right. Matt Bennett, Alice Stewart, Bob Kuzak, thanks all so much for being with us. Have a great holiday, really great to see you.

BENNET: Thank you John.

SEWART: John, thank you. Merry Christmas.

VAUSE: All right, we'll be right back.

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VAUSE: All right, more breaking news now from overseas. A commercial airliner was hijacked and forced to land in Malta. Right now everyone onboard has been released, they are safe. For the man who forced the plane to divert, they are on custody. CNN's Ian Lee is following this developments for us from London, Ian what are you learning?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John we are learning everything about the mode -- except the motives behind this hijacking right now. We heard from the prime minister earlier today saying that when security forces were able to go onboard the plane, they found a grenade, they found a couple of pistols and right now they are interrogating those two hijackers. But at a press conference, when asked what were the motives behind them? He said they don't know yet. So they said they weren't going to negotiate with these two hijackers until they have let everyone was off the plane and they surrender to authorities.

This plane took of from Sabha in southern Libya going to Tripoli. That's when it was high jacketed, diverted to Malta. And there was some tens (ph) hours on the tarmac there as 111 passengers were being held hostage, but eventually we did see some of them let go. First, it was women and children and then men, until it was just left with the hijackers and the crew of the plane. At one point, though, we did see one of the hijackers leave the plane and wave a green flag. Now, that is the flag of the former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was ousted in 2011. So that might be a hint of maybe some of the motivation behind this hijacking, but right now we're still waiting to hear from the Maltese government about what drove these men to hijack that plane, John.

[12:50:06] VAUSE: Of course, the good news, everyone there safe. Ian Lee, in London thanks so much.

All right, with our reporting on the U.N. Security Council voting perhaps on a resolution today condemning Israeli settlements, we've been reporting that President-elect Donald Trump got himself involved in this in the last 24 hours, and this is counter to a tradition in American transitions where people say there's only one president at a time. Let's talk about this now. Joining us is Historian and Professor of Princeton University Julian Zelizer. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

JULIAN ZELIZER, HISTORIAN AND PROFESSOR, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: Thanks for having me.

VAUSE: One president at a time, it is something that generally speaking most president-elects who come into this transition all declare right at the outset. Why is it important?

ZELIZER: Well, it's important so that there's clarity on who the leader is, and where the policies are coming from. So what we have now is a situation where if you're overseas and the leader of another country, you're getting mixed signals on some issues about what U.S. policy is. And so that could create tension. And it could create dangerous situations.

VAUSE: You know, it's interesting, because particularly were talking about Israel here. Donald Trump's opinion on these subjects is no mystery, right? We know exactly where he stands on settlements, for instance. You see the renamed he's been nominated to ambassador, is extremely pro settlement, right? And we know also where President Obama stands on this. So what's wrong with stating your well-known view, even if it is in the transition, even if it is counter to the current administration?

ZELIZER: Well, it is true that views are stated. So in 1980 people knew that Reagan was unhappy how Jimmy Carter was handling the hostages in Iran. And that was not a secret what his position are and he was more hawkish in terms of how he wanted to handle it. But here I think in part with Twitter and part the ease through which President- elect Trump can communicate, it just becomes more confusing about where American policy is going, not just what it is in between these two leaders.

VAUSE: You know, and it's interesting here. There's another player in this drama, too, which is Israel. Israel, trying to exploit, perhaps, the transition. Not getting what it wanted from the current White House, deciding to call the president-elect to get him involved.

ZELIZER: That's not unusual to have countries overseas trying to figure out the politics of the United States. We saw that in 1968 with Vietnam and the transition from Johnson to Nixon. We saw it with Reagan, Carter on Iran. That's what countries overseas do. But, again, the lack of clarity about what the leadership is here in the United States right now, because of the constant vocal nature of President- elect Trump, I think creating more ambiguity and then very different views they have on this issue.

VAUSE: Yeah, so there's no question. It's unusual. I mean it's unusual, people use the word unprecedented. Virtually unprecedented and we really haven't seen this type of thing before. Likewise, I'm not sure that is equal to see -- we don't know what's going to happen, at the U.N. Security Council, who's vote is scheduled now for a little bit more than an hour from now. Yesterday, it was canceled, so it's possible it gets canceled again, we don't know. We don't know how the U.S. will vote. Whether it will veto it, whether it will abstain or whether will, you know, voice its support for the idea of condemning Israeli settlements, but if the United States doesn't veto it, if it supports the condemnation of settlements that would be a shift in policy at the United Nations. Shall we say, not standing beside Israel at the united nation would be a big difference from what we've seen in the past. How unusual is it to see a departure from precedent for an administration in its closing days?

ZELIZER: I'm trying to think on the spot, and I can't think of one that would be this dramatic. Of course, President Obama's not switching his positions. He's been very vocal against this, and so there's a consistency. But changing the position at the U.N. would be a difference, a dramatic one. And part of this is the transition. So I'm sure the administration is trying to anticipate where this is going to go in the Trump administration.

VAUSE: And it really is interesting, right? Because what it's doing is stating the U.S. position, but it's only the U.S. position today. It won't be the U.S. position on January 21st.

ZELIZER: Right. And President-elect Trump through his appointments has made clear this is not what he will support. So this is a very short time span, and look, a lot of the things that President Obama has fought for, right now might be in a moment of transition, from the Iran nuclear deal to the Paris climate change agreement, to this. So I think he's trying to make a statement in the closing days, rather than cementing policy.

VAUSE: In making a statement, is an interesting way of phrasing, right? Because, yes, it would break precedent at the United Nations, but it isn't different than what his stated policy is. He in some ways, is trying to lay down a lot of markers in these closing weeks?

ZELIZER: Well, I think the Obama administration fundamentally believes the intensification of settlement is actually not in the interests of Israel. And I think there's a concern that that's what the signal the Trump administration is going to send. So he is trying to actually send a signal to Israelis as well, don't go down this route.

[12:55:01] VAUSE: And also I think he's trying send a message about how he feels about this. Laid out a marker before it goes -- and look, I just want history to know this is where I stand on this. Likewise with the NSEERS program which was this program that was created to monitor immigrants from largely Muslim countries to the United States. It was dormant, but yesterday we learned that the White House was getting rid of it all together. It has a negligible -- technical effect other than to prevent the next administration from using what it seen as an Obama program, so again laying down a marker saying, you know, it's not my program that he'll be using because I'm getting rid of my program.

ZELIZER: Well, the practical effect is also -- it will make President- elect Trump start a new program rather than make the excuse I have this registry in effect. I'm going to put it into place. We've used it before. I'm just going to keep using it. Now he has to start something new and the politics is very different. And this is one of the most controversial issues from the campaign from Donald Trump. So I think here the president also wants to take away a tool and force him to go to the shop and build his own system, if he's going to use this.

VAUSE: All right, Professor Julian Zelizer, Princeton University. A very, very busy day for the day before, the day before Christmas all of a sudden. Thanks so much for being with us, I really appreciate it.

ZELIZER: Thank you.

VAUSE: President-elect Donald Trump he just released the letter he received from the Russian President Vladimir Putin. What does it reveal about the relationship between the two men? Between the two countries? All of details, right after a quick break.

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[13:00:13] JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Jim Acosta. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington ...