Return to Transcripts main page


Awaiting Senate Vote On Tax Bill: House Must Revote; Don Trump Jr. Strokes Russia Conspiracy Theory; Pres. Trump Disputes Report About Rescinding Gorsuch Nomination; NTSB Examining Whether Train Engineer Was Distracted; Texas, Florida Rebuild After Devastating Storms; New York Times Reveals Pentagon Study Of UFOs. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired December 19, 2017 - 21:00   ET


[21:00:02] JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: -- boost which remains to be seen for a number of reasons. One, new CNN polling showing the president's approval rating at 35 percent, a new low for the survey.

And take a look at this. The president has the lowest job approval at this point in office going all the way back to December 1953. Now as for the tax plan that he will sign tomorrow, whatever you think on the merit, it too is strikingly unpopular, just one in three Americans support it right now, which no doubt makes for interesting uncertainties to head for a White House that's about to celebrate its first big legislative victory.

More now from CNN's Jeff Zeleny who joins us from the White House. Jeff, what is the latest from there tonight? Still confident on how this all will play out?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, good evening. The White House is very confident how this is playing out. They are watching this debate, of course, unfold on the Senate floor. But an aide told me short time ago, that this is largely just a pro forma. They are watching this but they are not worried at all. They know they have the votes that they need.

It's interesting, though, John, a few weeks ago President Trump talked again and again about getting Democratic support on this, Democratic votes on this. That will not happen. We do know the Democrats are opposing this lock step.

Republicans, though, they do believe they have enough votes on this and one reason we know, I'm told by an official here that they are planning a celebration ceremony tomorrow afternoon here at the White House. They've invited Republicans from Capitol Hill up here to celebrate the passage of what is going to be the biggest legislative.

Now, of course, they have to go back to the House and have a vote tomorrow morning if it passes the Senate tonight. But all that is just procedure. The White House is intending to take a victory lap tomorrow. The president will not sign this bill at that time. It won't be a quite -- a complete. He will, at some point -- if not, before the holidays, right after. But tomorrow afternoon, Republicans are expecting to be here for what will be a celebration, John.

BERMAN: So they will get to celebrate tomorrow, the question is will they be celebrating 11 months from now? Any worry inside the White House about fallout in the coming election year?

ZELENY: Look. That is the central question here. We now know that this will be the sound track of the 2018 midterm election campaign without question. The race to define this bill is already under way. And it's going to center around the president. Will he benefit more than middle class Americans?

Now, he has not released his tax returns, as we know, so that is something that is preventing this White House for saying definitively if he's going to be better off personally or not. But the White House is hoping to get that increase support number up. We saw the poll there a second ago, 55 percent opposed it, 33 percent support it. They believe with -- promoting this, the president plans to travel next year in the early part of January selling the benefits of this. They believe that will come up.

But John, the reality here is, some people are going to be affected by this in negative ways here. So it's a very open question here next November by that midterm election time if this will be seen as a good thing or mistake tonight, John.

BERMAN: By the way, I don't think there's any debate about whether or not the president will be better of from this tax plan. He will be. He will make money.

ZELENY: As a businessman for sure.

BERMAN: As a businessman for sure. All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks so much.

As we did say, the bill hit a speed bump late today in the Senate. CNN's Phil Mattingly joins us now with the latest on that and what it changes. So, Phil, even though this is essentially a done deal or looking at Democrat Bob Casey of Pennsylvania on the floor tonight. They're going to take this to the math (ph) late into the evening, correct?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question. This is their last shot. They know the writings on the wall. You can talk to Democrats and this is the same for the House and Senate. They know that there's no stopping this, unlike the health care effort. Their ability both from the grassroots side of things and from the lawmaker side of things to kind of pull Republicans away from the rest of their conference, get them to oppose this, didn't work out. They are unified and they are set to pass this with zero "no" votes. However, Democrats continuing attacks about the merits of the bill, and now somewhat personal attacks. Take a listen to what Senator Sherrod Brown had to say on the floor just a short while ago.


SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO: So, this tax cut -- follow it simply. This tax cut raises -- it causes a huge budget deficit to give money to the wealthiest people in the country, creates a huge hole in the budget. And who's going to fill the hole in the budget? Not the lobbyists walking in and out of Senator McConnell's office 1 100 feet down the hall. They're not going to pay for it. They're not going to have to pay for it.


MATTINGLY: And John, I can tell you Senator McConnell's office didn't appreciate that. One of his top advisers tweeting out shortly after Senator Brown's comment, "Dear Senator Brown, apparently decorum escapes you." Again, Republicans know where they are on this bill. They are very confident about what happens next. But the frustration you've seen from Democrats about the partisan process, how this is all played out, certainly being laid bare on the Senate floor right now.

BERMAN: So what does happen next procedurally speaking, Phil?

MATTINGLY: So the Senate should pass the bill -- will pass the bill in a couple of hours, likely around 11:00 - 11:30 p.m. Again, it's a foregone conclusion in terms of where they are in the votes. But, as Jeff noted, procedural issues have popped up because of the budget rules. Republicans are using just to pass this by a simple majority. There will be specific provisions non that will -- have attack the core of the bill, but small provisions that will be stripped out because the House passed a different version, that means the Senate will have to send the bill back to the House. The House will then pass the bill again tomorrow morning.

[21:05:14] Again, at this point it's just adding a couple hours to where everybody know this is going to end up. But for Republicans who were planning on celebrating tonight, they have a couple more hours to wait, John.

BERMAN: All right, Phil Mattingly, up in the Senate. Thanks so much, Phil.

I want to bring in our money and power panel, Marc Lotter, Dylan Ratigan, Kirsten Powers, and Matt Lewis. I want you guys decide, who is money and who is power?

Kirsten, I'm going to start with you. This is the first major piece of legislation that the president will get passed, so in that sense it's a win. They will celebrate tomorrow at the White House. But how long will this celebration last given the unpopularity of this bill at least as we sit here tonight?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the Republicans would say it's unpopular because the Democrats have demagogued the bill and that when people get their paychecks and they realize they have more money that they'll be happy with it.

But the reality is, you know, whether you're ideological or not, there's a lot to be concerned about in this bill. And I think that -- while there will be tax cuts for pretty much everybody in the early days of this, you know, the only ones that are permanent are the ones for people who are well off. So over the long term, I think that, you know, people are going to sort of see what's really in the bill. They're also going to see a disruption in the health care market because the individual mandates is going to be repealed.

And I think that people can see what's going on here which is that -- you know, this is a deficit-busting bill that's going to be paid for, you know, pretty much by the middle class.

And so, you know, I don't think over the long run they're probably going to fare very well. Maybe in the short run, you know, they can do OK, but I think over the long term this is not going to be a great idea for them.

BERMAN: You know, Matt Lewis, not only is the bill itself unpopular right now, but the president is unpopular. I mean, historically unpopular, epically unpopular, 35 percent approval rating right now.

Again, Kirsten was just talking about the short term. In the short term, do you think this gives him an opportunity to redirect the trajectory of his presidency?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely, in a short term, you know, as points on the board. He goes from having what looked like a horrible year especially if you talk about tweets and chaos to having a pretty good year. If you look at the metrics, if you look at the points he puts on the board. Was it Cain (ph) who said in the long run we're all dead? This is the short term. Donald Trump needs popularity now. Republicans need success in midterms. It's not too soon to start thinking about Donald Trump's re-election.

And, look, anybody, anytime, any political party has ever done anything worth doing, certainly, in this political environment that's highly partisan it's going to be unpopular. It's very difficult now. It would take tremendous political leadership to do something of this magnitude. I mean, look at Obamacare. Look at the effort of George W. Bush to fix social security. If you want to change something, if you want to use your political capital and implement your party's agenda, and they do believe that tax cuts are going to stimulate the economy, there's going to be backlash. There's going to be some pushback to that.

BERMAN: And it cost both George W. Bush and Barack Obama politically.

POWERS: But tax cuts -- when the tax cuts ever been unpopular? I mean, I don't -- this is kind a little bit unusual, actually. I mean, --

BERMAN: Yes, Paul Ryan claimed today --

POWERS: -- if you're cutting taxes for people --

BERMAN: Paul Ryan claimed today that the Reagan tax cut was unpopular at passage. We got to back and look at that.


BERMAN: But by and large they are wildly popular when they go through.

You know, Marc, to you, we've listened to Republicans for years talking about how increasing deficits is a terrible thing. Debt is bad. Deficits are bad. Yet now the Republicans are pushing through this bill which will add anywhere between a trillion to $1.5 trillion to the debt over 10 years. So what about all that talk about deficits being bad? Is this just Republicans saying never mind?

MARC LOTTER, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, no, I think those are the facts that are ignoring that this is going to grow the economy.

BERMAN: But -- how do you know that? How do you know -- because there's no --

LOTTER: Look at -- if you look at history, --

BERMAN: -- you look at history, that hasn't been the case.


LOTTER: -- let's go back to the Reagan tax cuts. Eight (ph) to the next 10 years, government revenue was higher after the tax cuts than it was the year that the taxes were cut. You had 15 million jobs created per capita.

BERMAN: The deficit --


LOTTER: -- spending problem that was not. That was not a revenue problem.

BERMAN: It's a money problem.

LOTTER: We can control the spending if you keep Republicans in control. You'll control the spending. But this is coming down to the fact that you're going to have Americans getting more money in their paychecks in February. They're going to see it. Anywhere from $150 to a couple hundred bucks for the average family of four starting in February, they're going to be able to spend that, they're going to be able to put that towards their kids' education, take a vacation, whatever it is that they feel like they need to do for their family. And that is something that the Republicans can run on. If the Democrats are going to turn around and go on we're going to raise your taxes, which is what they're talking about. They're going to lose in 2018 and in the future.


BERMAN: Go ahead, Dylan.

[21:09:57] RATIGAN: Here's where this tax bill loses credibility and this is why I believe it's so unpopular. There's an extremely sound argument to increase the available pool of money in the private sector, whether it's wealthy females, small businesses, corporations. Understand, money moves down the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance is where the taxes are the lowers, and where the benefit to the person with the money is the highest.

If you really want to have money flow into the economy, you will create a tax benefit for the investment in new business formation, for the investment in capital expenditures, equipment, for new hiring. Absent a specific incentive to invest the capital in jobs, capex (ph), and new business formation, the path of least resistance for new money in the private sector is into the bank of those who get the money, into stock buybacks and executive compensation.

And so, where this loses credibility is you're saying I want to raise the taxes on the blue states by reducing the state and local income, which reduces budgets for schools, reduces budgets for infrastructure. And Marc and I talked about that in the other night.

I'm going to raise the deficit, but the reason I'm willing to tolerate the reduction in the budget for schools and the reduction into budget for infrastructure, to increase the deficit is because there's going to be so much private capital flowing into the economy, it's going to create jobs, it's going to be invested in capex (ph), it's going to be invested in new business formation.

However, that is not what the policy does. The policy instead enables the path of least resistance for the capital to flow into the banks, into stock buybacks, into executive compensation. And if you really wanted to do something interesting, what you would do is you would actually look at the marginal increase and the amount of private capital that's going to be now available because of this tax reduction. And look at the percentage of that capital that gets distributed through buybacks, executive comp, and the banking system as opposed to that which gets invested into new business formation, capex, and job creation which is the basic conservative thesis that I completely agree with.

BERMAN: And Marc.


LOTTER: Let's not forget that this bill --


BERMAN: Hang on, Marc. Hang on, Marc. Hang on, Marc. But we have corporate CEO's, Marc, when pulled by Gary Cohn, among other people. He asked CEOs to raise your hands if you are going to do anything other than reinvest these wages, you know, and buyback dividends and things like that, and no one raised their hand. No one as he we heard from substantial yet, is saying this is necessarily going to back into the economy in the form of wage.

RATIGAN: Because it's missing the final piece, John, --


RATIGAN: -- which is the incentive to invest the money. LOTTER: Remember this tax plan also includes an incentive that allows companies to write off all their capital expenditures in the coming years. It closes and penalizes executive compensation and abuses of that. There are many factors in this tax bill which aren't getting a lot of coverage, but that due encourage companies to put this into new equipment that will raise wages. And that's why we're confident the Council of Economic Advisers says just the corporate reform is going to increase wages about $4,000 in the coming years. So on top of the tax cuts, you're also getting increased wages.

BERMAN: Kirsten, again, that remains to be seen. That will have to be proven.

RATIGAN: -- that's why it's so unpopular, John. People can buy the theory of private capital, but they want to know that the private capital will be driven into hiring in capex (ph).

BERMAN: Kirsten, one of the issues that came up today at the White House briefing was, how this affects the president directly, though, the White House is continuing to make this claim. Because the president said all during the campaign and during the fall when he was trying to sell this, I'm going to be a big loser here. This is not going to help me. That's really just not the case, is it?

POWERS: No, it's very clear that the people -- are going to do, well, on this, are people who have a lot of money. And by all accounts, he has a lot of money. So I think he's going to do well.

I think -- the problem here is that the economy is doing well already. Companies already have -- are sitting on a lot of cash. So the argument that we need to somehow do something for these companies so that they have cash doesn't really make sense.

Just to be clear, I don't have a problem with that. I actually don't are have a problem with lowering the corporate tax rate, any sort of ideological opposition to this. I do have a problem with blowing up the deficit in order to help people who already have cash get more cash. It just doesn't make sense to me, you know.

And again, the fact that they made the tax cuts permanent for the very wealthy people, but guess who's tax cuts aren't permanent and expire. It's the middle class people. So this just looks like something that has been done to help rich people and -- you know, put us in a bad position in terms of the deficit, which we saw this all with Reagan. I mean, you were talking about Reagan earlier but we know what happened. He left us with a massive deficit.

LEWIS: We beat the Soviet Union, that's what happened.

POWERS: By tax cuts? I mean, the tax cuts --

BERMAN: There were tax cuts during --


BERMAN: There were tax cuts during the Bush administration and the deficit and the debts went up.


BERMAN: There were extraneous circumstances there, but that is what history has shown. Matt Lewis, --

POWERS: And we had a recession.

BERMAN: I want to leave this with you, Matt Lewis, because you talked a lot about politics and perception here. And I know as conservative Republican you support the idea of tax cuts, you know, in general and much of what is in this bill.

[21:15:00] However, you know, is there a perception problem baked into the cake right now that $900 for the middle class if they're lucky enough not to live in California, New York, or Maryland, you know, might change for voters going forward?

LEWIS: Yes, look, I think -- what's the old (INAUDIBLE), first win the argument, then you win the vote. Republicans have won the vote here but they didn't win the argument with the American public.

Now, I do think that -- again, once people start seeing personally that they're going to get some extra money back, and once -- if the theory holds through the supply side theory holds through and the economy is stimulated, and there's more growth, then they'll win the argument, right?

So this is actually a great test, if Republicans are wrong, if this theory of supplies at economic is wrong, it worked for Reagan, it worked for Kennedy, but if it doesn't work this time, they deserve to lose. But I think that there's a shot. I am worried about the deficit. I think Kirsten is absolutely right about that. That is a legitimate concern. But this stuff about class warfare, about worrying that some rich guys are going to -- bigger tax cuts can be -- I think that's overwrought and I think it's -- the media has helped sort of spur that along.

BERMAN: -- if that's true, you would think the White House would just say, yes, the president is going to save some money on taxes here.

LEWIS: Of course he is.

BERMAN: -- he's got a lot of money --

LEWIS: Of course he is.

BERMAN: Guys, thanks so much. Good discussion. I appreciate it. As we continue to follow the developments late into the night on the Senate floor, we're going to speak with a top member of the House Intelligence Committee who is worried about what he see is growing efforts to stymie the Russia investigation.

Later, breaking news to the deadly train derailment in the Washington about -- where one key crew member was and wasn't and crucial safety equipment that could have been there, but wasn't. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Full throttle pushback in the Russia investigation, attacks on Special Counsel Mueller, attacks on the FBI, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Now add the president's eldest son and namesake to that list, Donald Trump Jr. This evening in West Palm Beach, referring to those FBI personal texts, the Steele dossier and slamming what he seems to think is a double standard where his father is concern.


[21:20:07] DONALD TRUMP JR., PRES. TRUMP'S SON: Imagine what would happen if we rolled back the clock to 2008 and a conservative director of the FBI and high-up people in the FBI that were leading on this investigations wrote an e-mail about an insurance policies, the dossier, in the unlikely event that Barack Obama was elected president. What do you think would happen? Do you think the media would cover that? Yes. You would think it would be brush under the rug like, it's nothing, it doesn't mean anything. There would be revolution in the streets.

So I'm glad this is coming out now because it is good, because real people have to see this. You know, my father talked about a rigged system throughout the campaign. And people are like what are you talking about? But it is, and you're seeing it. There is and there are people at the highest levels of government that don't want to let America be America.


BERMAN: People who don't want to let America be America. Joining us now, Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thank you for being with us. What's yours reaction about what Donald Trump Jr., just said?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, he apparently forgets the fact that in realtime what happened last year was the director of the FBI talked about an investigation into Hillary Clinton, even 10 days or less before an election, but did not tell the country that there was also an investigation going on of the Trump campaign over a far more serious matter, that is, whether individuals in the Trump campaign had been suborn (ph) essentially as agents of a foreign power.

So for the most consequential difference between how these investigations were handled, it cut very much in Donald Trump's favor, and that seems to be something that Donald Trump Jr. would rather ignore.

BERMAN: He says there are people who don't want to let America be America, suggesting there's kind of conspiracy perhaps to undermine his father's administration. Is there any conspiracy like that?

SCHIFF: No, but you have to realize this is, I guess, a Trump family characteristic, and that is to always view themselves as the victim of something, victim of a rigged system, victim of an unfair FBI, victim of unfair press coverage. This seems to be a genetic trait.

But the reality is that I think our FBI and our Department of Justice have a lot of really dedicated public servants, whose work is being maligned right now because there are some efforts to tear down those institutions, to tear down what Bob Mueller may find to discredit it in advance by casting doubt on the integrity of these institutions. In the meantime, of course, they do enormous damage to our democracy and undermine public confidence in the administration of justice.

BERMAN: Trying to undermine Robert Mueller's investigation. There are questions that you raised about whether there are Republicans in a way trying to undermine what's going on even in the House Intelligence Committee. You often say (ph) in "The Wall Street Journal" today, where you say you made progress, but you also Republican members opposed challenges. Explain that.

SCHIFF: Well, there are a number of steps the Republicans are taking which don't make sense from an investigative point of view, and their departure from how we've operated in the past. Probably, the most graphic example, they scheduled key interviews out of state, including one tomorrow when we have another vote on the tax bill. And we have a vote potentially tomorrow to keep the government open, so why would they be scheduling interviews out of state if they simply didn't want us to be present during the interviews? Now these interviews and witnesses that we've been asking them to bring in for months and they've sat on.

So, what is the headlong rush to do it now if not to try to end the investigation and that's my fear. We saw on display the Judiciary Committee last week an effort to discredit Mueller, discredit the FBI, discredit the Justice Department to shut down Mueller. We're seeing in our committee, in the Intelligence Committee an effort to bring the Congressional investigation to a premature conclusion and that ought (ph) concern all Americans who want to get to the truth.

BERMAN: Is this something that either the Chairman of the committee Devin Nunes, who I know was involved with the Russia investigation or Mike Conaway who is running the Russia investigation for committee, have either them said to you that they are trying to shut this down soon?

SCHIFF: Well, they've been, I think, fairly vague when I ask, why are we scheduling witnesses three a day when it took months for you to schedule some of the witnesses we've asked for a long time ago? Why don't we have these witnesses that you're scheduling out of state come before our committee after the holidays? Why are we not scheduling any interviews for the New Year when there are dozens of interviews to be scheduled? I can't get an answer, and that tells me that there may very well be marching orders from the top, that I think going to bring this into an end.

[21:25:00] And we have seen Steve Bannon, the president, and others amp up the heat on Congress to shut us down. Now the Republican senators have acknowledged the president weighed in with them to try to get them to shut down the investigation. The House members have not been willing to comment about whether they received similar pressure from the White House, but they're certainly see to be acting that way.

BERMAN: They're acting like they are being pressured from White House.

I want to play you something that we heard from the former director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, obviously, the entire Russia investigation at its core is a question about whether Russia tried to influence the election, whether Russia has undue influence on the Trump campaign and maybe at the beginning stages of the Trump presidency. This is what DNI Clapper -- Former DNI Clapper said about phone calls between Vladimir Putin and President Trump over the weekend.


LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER (RET.), CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset. And that's what he's doing with the president.


BERMAN: Do you think President Trump is an asset to Vladimir Putin? He's treating him like some kind of intelligence asset?

SCHIFF: Well, I think the president is allowing himself to be manipulated by Putin. Putin knows because the Kremlin does a psychological profile, I'm sure, of world leaders, what the president's strengths and weaknesses are, and knows because this is sort of plain (ph) sight that flattery will get you just about everything with this president.

And so in his year-end comments, Vladimir Putin talks about how great the American economy is and why are some people in the United States questioning the legitimacy of his election when, of course the Russians would never interfere in our affairs.

Here's the talking points that could have been written by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president of Russia, Putin understands how to push this president's buttons, how to get this president to do effectively his bidding and praise is the way to do it.

So in that respect, it is a bit like the relationship between a case officer and asset. You need to know the motivations of your asset, what will get the asset to do the things you want, I wouldn't push that analogy too far, but the reality is I think Putin is using all of the tactics you would expect him to use. The only surprising thing is how well they seem to work with the president.

BERMAN: Congressman Adam Schiff, we know you have an unexpected tax vote tomorrow morning. So we'll let you go and get some sleep. Thanks so much for being with us.

SCHIFF: Thank you.

BERMAN: Right, speaking of buttons and pushing and presidential psychology, today on Twitter, the president took on "The Washington Post" with another claim of fake news. The reporting question, did president consider putting Neil Gorsuch's nomination on the Supreme Court over his private criticisms of the president's attack on the Judiciary. I'll talk this over with Maggie Haberman next.


[21:30:36] BERMAN: So this morning the president tweeted yet, again, that a story he didn't like in "A story in the @washingtonpost that I was close to 'rescinding' the nomination of Justice Gorsuch prior to confirmation is FAKE NEWS. I never even wavered and am very proud of him and the job he is doing as Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The unnamed sources don't exist!" Well "The Washington Post" reported the president was so angry with Neil Gorsuch after he privately criticized the president's tax on judiciary that he considered withdrawing the nomination altogether. But reports said he was venting angrily, the president was to advisors worrying that Gorsuch would not be, "loyal." That's the keyword here.

CNN Political Analyst, New York Times White House Correspondent, Maggie Haberman joins me right now. Maggie, that's the bigger issue here. We know that loyalty is something that is of the utmost importance to this president.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, look, I mean, especially to the issue of his tweet that sources don't exist. I've worked with two of these reports. I'm confident the sources exist.

BERMAN: Right.

HABERMAN: And this is often what he says, these people aren't actually real. Look, as you say on its own -- we knew at the time that he was unhappy with what Neil Gorsuch had said and what leaked out about what he had said. We knew the president was frustrated. This takes it a tick further but I think your point that there's a larger issue of how the president views relationships, right? Everything is sort of this one-way street of loyalty toward him. I mean the way he views loyalty isn't even that, you know, he'll be loyal back because he gets (INAUDIBLE) all the time.

It's that he expects people to pay some sort of unending price if he gives them something. And this is where we he can (ph) inflates himself with the institutions he serves. Making an appointment for a Supreme Court justice is certainly something that I suspect justices feel gratitude toward the president who does it, but it is not supposed to be something where you have some personal filthy. He was actually preserving the institution, Neil Gorsuch, by saying what he said. And the president just can't see it that way.

We heard this word loyalty come up repeatedly in the campaign. We heard it come up repeatedly in the presidency. My colleagues and I heard about it when the president was looking for replacement for James Comey, the fired FBI director. He asked people about potential placements. Will this person be loyal? That was the word. He clearly views Jeff Sessions' recussal -- the attorney general, from the Russia related probes as disloyal to him. He described it as unfair to the president, an interview with me and my colleagues over the summer. But this is the continuum -- which is all (INAUDIBLE).

BERMAN: (INAUDIBLE) because if Jeff Sessions is not loyal enough, you know, James Comey obviously wasn't and got fired. But, you know, Rex Tillerson reportedly called him a moron, right? Gary Cohn criticized him quite publicly for the Charlottesville speech. I don't consider those to be acts of blind loyalty necessarily, yet those guys are still around.

HABERMAN: Well, I think let's get (ph) together again in February and see if those guys are still around. I mean, in all seriousness, look, the relationship with Tillerson has never been good. At least it was good very early on for a limited amount of time and I think it was not very good.

The relationship with Gary Cohn was never repaired. And did Gary Cohn get the job that he wanted which was the Fed chair? He did not. So, I mean, I just think that these things have some nuance and gradation. I think it was important to John Kelly, the Chief of Staff, to keep a continuum of top advisers in cabinet positions filled throughout the first year. I think that once we get pass the first you will see some change. I think the president is aware he can't just get rid of everybody. And again, to be clear, he didn't pull back the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.

BERMAN: Correct.

HABERMAN: He vented about it to somebody. He vents all the time about all manner of things. Part of this, asking people questions about whether he should have done something, sometimes it's venting, sometimes it's just how he processes something. Sometimes he actually is thinking of undoing what he did. And you almost never know exactly what he's thinking.

BERMAN: Which is why you get all the kinds of rumors that have been going on for months --

HABERMAN: Correct.

BERMAN: -- about Robert Mueller and what not. These discussions may very well be happening.

HABERMAN: Correct.

BERMAN: You may not mean, you know, going to the full extent on them --


BERMAN: -- or not. We are at a key point in this presidency right now. You know, it's almost the end of 2017. He's going to get this tax bill through. He will sign his first major piece of legislation. And one could reasonably ask the question, well, is this a pivot point? Is this a chance for the president to change how he behaves?

HABERMAN: I mean we've had so many pivot points that we've gone in circles, right? I mean he's not going to change how he behaves. I think that we have -- I would -- let me rephrase that. I think it's very, very unlikely that he is going to change how he behaves. I cannot see this being what gets it done. If anything, he takes things that are perceived victories as confirmation that his approach worked. So I don't see why he would change how he's doing things from this.

[21:35:06] And this still -- we got to be really clear about this. The main reason this bill got done, I realize that there are a lot of victory laps being taken by various people at the White House. And to be sure, the president should feel happy this is major legislation that got through, whether it's a problem for Republicans down the road, I don't know. But Republicans on Capitol Hill acted out of essentially fear and self-preservation. They needed to have something done so they could go to the midterms saying look what we did. That's the main reason this cut done.

BERMAN: Because the president in some ways --

HABERMAN: Correct.

BERMAN: -- he needs something independent of him even though he needs to sign (ph). One of the things we often see before the end of the years in news conference, right, it's very possible the president will answer questions from the press in a very public way. This could be interesting this time. There's a whole a lot of Russia to ask about. There's a whole lot of Roy Moore you could ask about. There's a whole lot of sexual harassment stuff to ask about here. I'm very curious to see how he handles that.

HABERMAN: I think that he will probably -- if he does do it, I think that he will handle it the way we have seen him handled similar lengthy news conferences. Remember there was that one that he did very early on against his aide's advice --

BERMAN: Right.

HABERMAN: -- where he took questions for almost an hour. He loved it. It felt to him like a venting session. I think some of what -- what he does here will depend on where things are with this investigation. And how much he's buying into the strategy that his legal advisers have prescribed (ph) at this point?

BERMAN: Maggie Haberman, great to see you. You just said a day. We have to get back together --

HABERMAN: February.

BERMAN: -- February to talk about who's --

HABERMAN: And not a moment before then. That will do it.

BERMAN: All right. We're taking a break. Maggie thanks so much. We appreciate.

HABERMAN: Thank you.

BERMAN: Up next, new details in that deadly train derailment in Washington State. Today we now know how much the train was speeding when it hit that curve, but there are still many safety questions that don't have answers. That's the latest, next.


[21:40:37] BERMAN: All right, looking at live pictures from the Senate floor right now. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the number two ranking Democrat in the Senate speaking right now. Democrats are debating this and pushing this vote as late as they possibly can. But within the next few minutes the Senate will vote and will pass this bill, which will be celebrated at the White House at some point tomorrow.

In the meantime, tonight, both black boxes have been recovered from the deadly train derailment in Washington State. Three people were killed and more than 100 hurt when an Amtrak train went off the rails speeding around a curve. It was a first new run of this route in a technology called positive train control was not activated on this brand new passenger rail line. We're also learning where the crew was when the train derailed. Kyung Lah joins us now with more.

Kyung, the NTSB says the lead conductor wasn't at the controls, is that right?

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he wasn't there. He was in the passenger section of the train. We're not exactly sure which car. But we're told that he was somewhere in the passenger section not the cab. Here's what the NTSB says.


BELLA DINH-ZARR, NTSB: Yes, there were two people in the cab, the engineer and a conductor who was getting experience and familiarizing himself with the territory. The actual conductor, as there is one on ever train, was in the actual passenger section at the time of the accident.


LAH: It's hard to know exactly what all of this means. We are told by NTSB in that same news conference that the engineer is allowed to control the train. But we did also learn that the engineer, the crew, didn't hit the emergency brakes, John. The emergency brakes were automatically activated. Again, we're still, you know, just -- a little more than 24 hours after this accident, still very difficult to know what all of this means as of yet, John.

BERMAN: So Kyung, there's also cameras that record inside and outside of the train. So what will they be looking for?

LAH: Well, specifically they're going to want to know what was happening in the cab at the controls, what was happening inside between that engineer and this extra conductor that they just referred to. Was there any distraction going on? How did they not know that this curve was coming? They were speeding at 80 miles per hour. Again, those emergency brakes weren't activated, so did they not know that it was coming, why didn't they slow to 30 miles per hour? A lot of questions about what was happening that lead up to this derailment.

BERMAN: Kyung, I understand the two of the three victims were named today. What can you tell us about them?

LAH: It's very important to remember that, while we talk about all this technology, semantics, the investigation that three lives were lost here. There were a lot of passengers aboard. Many injured. And today two of these people have faces. One of them, the first one, his name is Jim Hamre. He is a rail enthusiast. He was aboard this maiden voyage for this Amtrak train. He was joined by someone he's associate with in the Rail Passengers Association, that second man is Zack Willhoite. They're both train advocates. If there's anything awful about these particular men's deaths, they wanted to advance rail throughout all of our lives. That they felt trains were really the way to move forward, John.

BERMAN: Our thoughts are with their families. Kyung Lah thanks you so much.

Up next, our Bill Weir returns to the hardest hit areas of Texas and the Florida Keys for an update on the recovery from this year's record-breaking hurricane season.


[21:48:16] BERMAN: Months after a string of record breaking hurricanes, people in Texas and the Florida Keys still slogging through the hard work of rebuilding their lives from splintered homes and broken roads. Our Bill Weir traveling back to some of the hardest hit areas for an update on the recovery. This is what he found.


BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Most folks who remember Harvey, for the water. The boats on boulevards as Houston became a giant concrete bowl for the rain. But on the coast, they remember the wind. How a storm stalled here for 13 hours, spat out dozens of tornadoes, and took apart a town devoted to birds, art, and the sea.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The aquarium doesn't exist anymore. The Rockport (ph) for the arts not exist anymore.

WEIR: One of these trucks holds 100 cubic yards of broken lives, (INAUDIBLE) 200,000 loads. There's not a single habitable apartment in town. The schools are 2/3 full and the mayor worries this town could actually die.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we had over 1,300 businesses operating in the community as of last week we had 360 that reopened.

WEIR (on camera): That's your tax base too.


WEIR (voice-over): There's a big FEMA tent downtown, but the Rockport relief camp -- (on camera): How are you doing this morning?

SAMANTHA, RELIEF CAMP OWNER: I'm good. Have a good Thanksgiving?

WEIR (voice-over): Is really just Samantha's backyard.

SAMANTHA: This is donated furniture. This is more donated supplies.

WEIR: Where she housed, fed, and supplied, dozens of families with only private donations solicited on Facebook.

SAMANTHA: This is our diaper barn.

WEIR (on camera): Look at this. That's the generosity of strangers there, right?

[21:50:01] SAMANTHA: Right. And I want to make sure that everyone understands. We have received no state, county, national, no government assistance at all. We got denied by FEMA three times.

WEIR: How do you feel about that?

SAMANTHA: Oh, it pisses me off.

WEIR (voice-over): But just five minutes away, Bo and Rene could not be happier with FEMA, because they just received their brand new three bedroom, three bath home way more than one couple needs but FEMA insisted.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I got a call about this I was kind of shocked.

WEIR (on camera): You won the FEMA lottery.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But I didn't sign up for this.

WEIR (voice-over): Meanwhile back at Samantha's relief camp, a family of six shares an donated RV and a woman nine months pregnant lives in a tent.

(on camera): It seems like the aid is -- as tickle (ph) as the storm as to --


WEIR: -- who is touched.


WEIR: And if you could talk to the head of FEMA, what would you say?

SAMANTHA: Pull your head out of your ass.

BROCK LONG, FEMA ADMINISTRATION: Listen, I identify Samantha's frustrations. I mean when you've lost -- not only you, but your neighbors have lost everything you've worked for it's an incredibly tough situation.

WEIR (voice-over): Brock Long knows something about frustration and baptism by fire, wind and water. Since taking over FEMA in June nearly 5 million people have registered for disaster aid more than Katrina and Sandy and Wilma combine.

LONG: But you have to understand we don't have tens of thousands of manufactured homes and travel trailers just stored somewhere and ready to go. We have to buy these things.

WEIR (on camera): One FEMA trailer like that from (INAUDIBLE) costs, what?

LONG: Anywhere between $200,000 and $300,000. And then when it's done, I'm not allowed to reuse that trailer. I can't refurbish if we used it. We have to dispose it.

WEIR: I mean, look at this. This is everywhere on Big Pine Key, just mountains of plastered (ph) appliances and mattresses. Look at this, trash, jet skis over there.

(voice-over): Meanwhile, the Florida Keys are providing another lesson in how FEMA dollars are spent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In fact, Key West is close to perfect.

WEIR: While they try to salvage the tourist season in Key West, the drive to Key Was is far from normal. And it's all thanks to messy (ph) local politics. Even though Monroe County had clean up contracts in place before the storm, Florida gave out emergency contracts two days after when demands for men and machinery was sky high. Before the storm, a contractor would have charged $3,200 to haul away a wrecked boat like this --

(on camera): Or $1,000 for a refrigerator that should cost $100.

LONG: Right.

WEIR: Meanwhile you can't pay your guys overtime.

LONG: Right.

WEIR: Should we be outraged about that?

LONG: FEMA doesn't do debris. You know what we do? We coordinate the grant down to a governor, to the local communities to help them pay for those debris. I don't think FEMA should dictate the market rate to the private sector.

WEIR: Here at Snappers, in South Key Largo, they're partying. Everybody here staying, right?

(voice-over): But maybe the best recovery lesson comes from a foul- mouthed bar owner.

PETER ALTHUIS, OWNER, SNAPPERS KEY LARGO: We are not leaving until it's really the shit (ph) hits the fan. Sorry.

WEIR (on camera): OK, you can't -- to say that.

(voice-over): Peter went viral by mocking the storm with two s-bombs right before Irma turned Snappers to drift (ph) wood.

(on camera): It's completely gone.

(voice-over): But thanks to decent insurance and devoted regulars who helped him cleanup, --

(on camera): What's up, guys?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you doing?

(voice-over): They were open within days.

(on camera): Look at this, it's a party.

ALTHUIS: It was a very positive energy right after the hurricane. And everybody's helping each other out. And the government is not doing anything. And you should expect that the government stands up, and the government helps and only help and only don't be in our way. Just do it. Make it happen. Make it happen.


BERMAN: So bill, FEMA gives these huge chunks of money to the states for cleanup, but then it's up to governors to decide which contractors get the bids, correct?

WEIR: It really is. You know, it is federal money. It's your tax dollars if you live in Maine and Wisconsin going down to help these folks. But it's really up to the governor of the particular states or Puerto Rico to use that money wisely. You know, the Governor Greg Abbot in Texas is getting pretty high marks for making sort of the head of Texas -- these are rebuild Texas project, he's really owning it. It's a bit more controversial in Florida, as you saw by the cleanup there. But there's a ton of money needed. And Congress now put that emergency bill. They want to double the amount of money that the Trump administration asked for, $80 billion or so, and that will frankly just scratch the surface.

BERMAN: All right, Bill Weir, thank you so much for reporting.

WEIR: You between

[21:54:55] BERMAN: Coming up, the truth maybe out there after all. "The New York Times" revealed they once classified Pentagon project researching reports of UFOs, and they have pictures.


BERMAN: So moderate (INAUDIBLE) may have really been on to something obviously. A once classified Pentagon project to study UFO sightings has been revealed. "The New York Times" report the project started in 2007 study video and audio recordings. In an interview, people who said they had close encounters.

CNN's Randi Kaye joins us now with the latest on whether the truth is really out there after all ready.

So what's going on with the secret program?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, now you mentioned some of the details there. But this was a $22 million program. Part of the Defense Department budget that was designed really to investigate these reports of unidentified flying objects or UFOs. It's actually known as the Advance Aviation Threat Identification Program.

Now the Pentagon kept this program a secret. It was run by a military intelligence official who told CNN recently that they found compelling evidence and I'm quoting him here, "that we may not be alone," John.

BERMAN: So (INAUDIBLE) we have not -- may not be alone. Did they found anything else (INAUDIBLE)?

KAYE: It seems so actually. One eyewitness saw what he described as an object that look sort of white in color, resembling. The way he described it was a 40 foot long tick tack. That is just one of the many encounters of the program had looked up between unknown objects in American military aircraft. In the case of that so-called 40 foot long tick tack, two Navy FA team fighter pilots actually chased after it, but it sped away. The pilot of one of those aircraft Commander David Fravor spoke to CNN about that earlier tonight.


COMMANDER DAVID FRAVOR, U.S. NAVY PILOT (RET.): As we both look up the right side of our airplane we saw a disturbance in the water, like a sea -- or the waves are breaking over the top, so white water. And a white object oblong, pointing north, moving radically left, right, north, south, up, down, all around. (INAUDIBLE) about an 8:00 o'clock position and the other, and the tick tock is about two. I cut across the circle, so across the middle, and as I got close to it, probably within a mile, through half mile. It rapidly accelerated to the south and disappeared in less than two seconds. It had no wings, so you think -- OK, it's a helicopter. When helicopters move to a side to side they kind of slow and then they pick up speed going on the other way.