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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Source: "Knife Fight" Over Trump's Top Cabinet Posts; Ben Carson Declines Trump Administration Post; Obama Seeks to Calm Allies On Trump In Overseas Trip; Cabinet Drama: Trump's Top Staff Picks Coming Soon; Ex-Condi Rice Aide: Trump Team Told Me "You Lost!"; Paul Ryan Downplays Backlash Over Trump Aide; Trump Seeks Top Secret Security Clearance For Kids. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired November 15, 2016 - 11:00   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- Berman. All eyes on Trump Tower this morning maybe for white smoke signaling maybe we have a secretary of state or secretary of defense or an attorney general. You'll get a live picture right now from Trump Tower.

We are expecting President-elect Donald Trump to announce key cabinet selections soon, maybe even today. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, he's expected to arrive at Trump Tower shortly.

He is now leading that transition process. A process now described as a cluster mess, but with different words. An insider describes a knife fight over key appointments and others call it buffoonery.

BOLDUAN: As of this week, the power players working with Mike Pence on these key decisions, the establishment Republican insider, Trump's new chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is closely link to the ultraconservative so-called "Alt-Right Movement."

Then there's Trump's other right hand man, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. A key question at this moment is, how much are these men working together versus butting heads over all these appointments and the big decisions to make.

Let's go to CNN's Sunlen Serfaty. She's taking a look at all of it. Hard to keep track. Sometimes you need a flowchart.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONENT: That's right. You do. Certainly has not been smooth sailing for this team so far. Mike Pence, who is expected to show up at Trump Tower in the next few minutes, certainly arriving at a time where there has been a lot of reports and anecdotes of infighting throughout the team about who is going to get some of these top spots.

One of the most buzzed about spots is secretary of state where we know on the short list Rudy Giuliani, also former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, and Rudy Giuliani really has been almost lobbying and campaigning for this job. He was at an event last night.

He said, look, many times I would really like this job, and talked about how he thinks his foreign policy vision really does align with Donald Trump. John Bolton also out talking about his chances for this job earlier this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BOLTON, FORMER UNITED NATIONS AMBASSADOR: It's been an honor to serve the country. I've said and I'll say it again, it would be an honor to serve the country again. But ultimately, this is the president-elect's decision. I don't think it's appropriate to talk about it in public. In God's good time, he'll make his mind and then we'll all move on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you talked to him about it, sir?

BOLTON: I have not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: Now, there has already been a flurry of activity outside Trump Tower this morning. A short time ago, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions arrived. He of course being on the short list for not only secretary of defense but also attorney general as well.

It was interesting, he was just peppered with questions by reporters standing out there. Will you consider any of these top jobs? You know, John and Kate, he would not engage at all about what his potential future is, although he said good things are happening all around about the transition at large.

BERMAN: Good things are happening all around. All right, Sunlen Serfaty. We just did get some news while you were doing a report right here about soon who will not be in the cabinet apparently.

Dr. Ben Carson, who is a key adviser to Donald Trump after he was an opponent of Donald Trump in the primaries apparently now saying he does not want a cabinet position. This comes from Armstrong Williams, his close associate. People had suggested maybe Ben Carson could end up as secretary of HHS.

BOLDUAN: Or even the Department of Education at one point was being discussed and they turned it down. Armstrong Williams telling me and Malika Henderson that he's never run an agency and it's a lot to ask. So that is the very latest. There you go.

BERMAN: There you go.

BOLDUAN: That is the very latest with the president-elect. We'll talk about the current president, President Barack Obama, he has just kicked off his final foreign trip of his presidency. Right now, he's in Greece, where he and the prime minister there just spoke with reporters.

BERMAN: CNN White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, traveling with the president. She joins us with, again, the president keeps filling in more feelings and emotions about this election every time he speaks, Michelle.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, it's about time considering the first time we heard from him extensively after the election was just yesterday. So yesterday it was interesting to see his tone be optimistic and wanting to give Donald Trump a chance even though he didn't agree with him on so many things.

Based on the questions that he was asked, he was much more critical. The president was asked point blank, do you feel like you in some ways contributed to the environment that led to the kind of election that we had and that led to Donald Trump being elected.

And President Obama didn't really answer that question, but he said he did understand that there was the feeling of anger and dissatisfaction out there. Listen to how he portrayed it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Did I recognize that there was anger and frustration in the American population? Of course, I do. First of all, we have to fight back from the worst of the recession since the great depression.

And I can guarantee you if your housing values have crashed and you've lost most of your pension and you've lost your job, you're going to be pretty angry.

[11:05:01]And so we fought back and recovered, but that left I think fear and anxiety in a lot of people since that the economy was uncertain as it could be and maybe the game was rigged on Wall Street or by special interests in Washington or what have you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KOSINSKI: So we saw him being critical of the kind of rhetoric that was on the trail saying that it played into people's fears and fed on that fear. But he also seemed to be critical of voters at some point.

Talking about how people don't always know exactly what they want but they want to shake things up. He seemed to be saying that that's what many people were doing, just trying to sort of blow up the establishment and the institutions, and go for something else not quite knowing the outcome.

I don't know if that will sit well with all the voters out there, but the president also used this opportunity to set up a contrast, saying that he knew the anger was out there. He believes the best way to handle that is to aggressively address it in ways that are going to be effective.

Talking about his policies, wanting to, for example, raise wages, contrasting it with an ideology that leads to deeper divisions in America. So this wasn't him saying let's give Donald Trump a chance. Let's see how things go.

Even though he still feels that way, I mean, that's the kind of reassurance he wants to put out there as he's meeting with world leaders who he said, remember, were rattled by the prospect of a Trump presidency. This is him talking about what was at the core of this and still having some real disagreements with how it happened and what the outcome can be -- John and Kate.

BERMAN: All right, Michelle Kosinski for us in Athens, where the president spoke just a short time ago. He will continue on this European trip.

We did just get word that the Vice President-elect Mike Pence is due any minute now in the lobby of Trump Tower. We'll get those cameras back up so we can see his arrival when that happens.

Let's bring in our panel right now while we wait, Dana Bash, CNN's chief political correspondent, Alex Burns, CNN political analyst and national political reporter for the "New York Times," Alex Conant is former communications director for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign and now a partner of Firehouse Strategies, and "Washington Post" opinion writer, Dana Milbank, who wrote a really fascinating column about President Obama and what he is saying right now whenever he speaks.

Let's start with the transition which we're in the midst of. Dana Bash, how would you describe what's happening in Trump Tower now?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Somebody described it as "Game of Thrones." I don't watch it, but I don't think that was a compliment.

BOLDUAN: Clearly is not.

BASH: OK, but having said that, you've covered transitions before, you know, we all have, this is what happens. People feel that they've earned the right to plum positions and they fight for it. So I think a lot of that is pretty typical.

What is not typical is that -- I think it's very fair to say that most people in the Trump team starting with the president-elect himself didn't actually think that a week after election day he would be the president-elect.

He would be going back on his merry way to run the Trump Organization and others would do their own thing as well. So I think that's a big reason why. The fact that Mike Pence is now running the transition is very telling.

First and foremost, he has a job so he's not jockeying for one and also because he does have experience in government, relationships with people, and he -- to the point where it's not just about helping to choose somebody, it's also about having the relationships to bounce ideas off of trusted Republicans, both in and out of government.

BOLDUAN: A lot of people -- there's a lot of kind of read between the lines and read between the leaks that are coming out, Alex. When you see that Chris Christie, Mike Pence moves in, Chris Christie pushed out. Now the latest that we're hearing is also Mike Rogers, who is close to Chris Christie, an establishment guy, if you will, he's being pushed out.

Does that indicate to you the direction that Donald Trump, Mike Pence, his transition is leaning away from establishment Republicans when they're looking to make these decisions?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think what it indicates to us is he is leaning towards sort of continuing the management style he's had all along, which is centralizing decision making around the president- elect himself and his family and people who he's sort of personally intimately close to.

That, you know, I was talking to someone last week who said even before the election members Trump's family were putting out word that the real transition starts on November 9th. Whatever those folks are doing in Washington right now.

That's pretty unusual. That is a way in which this is really different from a normal transition where it's true they didn't expect to win, but usually you have at least some kind of snap operation in place so that you can start filling out the bureaucracy really fast.

Right now, you talk to Republicans in Washington and this is really more even than the establishment versus grassroots tension.

[11:10:05]The big concern for a lot of people who are in the main stream party, who are just sort of more intimately committed to government, their concern is, are we going to spend the next two years just staffing up?

And if you do, if you spend all this time just hiring people with internal fights and confirmation battles, when do you actually get to governing?

BERMAN: I'm not sure there will be confirmation battles based on the gushing praise that you're getting from Republicans on Capitol Hill right now.

BURNS: Logical lines, right, but when you see the way the transition works right now, how many of these people have been vetted? How long will that take? Are we really confident that you'll have a 100 percent scrub and no surprises? Even the Obama transition was surprised by some of the things they found out about their nominees.

BERMAN: So one of the names being mentioned right now for a big job is Rudy Giuliani as potentially secretary of state being mentioned by Rudy Giuliani among other people, but it's all over the papers today. He was at an event last night with "The Wall Street Journal" and he's sort of narrows down.

The reason people are talking about this is he basically said I'm not getting that job, but I'm sort of up for this job. Let's just listen to that quickly.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER NEW YORK MAYOR: First of all, I won't be attorney general. I can escape that one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I should ask Jeff Sessions that question, should I?

GIULIANI: It wouldn't be a bad idea, but I don't know who's going to be attorney general.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: I guess you can applaud the frankness of the discussion right there. Talk to me about Rudy Giuliani, obviously the former mayor of New York City is someone who stuck very close to Donald Trump during this general election, even when many others did not. Mayor Giuliani is a guy who used to be close to a lot of establishment figures in the party.

ALEX CONANT, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, MARCO RUBIO FOR PRESIDENT: Yes, that's absolutely right. Donald Trump is unique in that he comes to Washington, D.C. with an immense amount of political capital. He doesn't owe his election to anybody but the American people.

And as a result, the few people who were early supporters of him like Jeff Sessions, like Rudy Giuliani, like Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, are going to have a lot of influence in this administration as they should.

I mean, people who have proved their loyalty, who Donald Trump trusts, those are the sorts of people we want him to surround himself with because they're the ones most invested in his success.

So far I'm very encouraged by everything I've heard coming out of the new administration. As Alex, there's always going to be some ups and downs. I remember eight years ago a lot of Barack Obama's nominees didn't get through.

We all thought Tom Daschle was going to be HHS secretary and he didn't make it through vetting. But so far I'm very emboldened by everything I've heard coming out of the president-elect and his transition team.

BOLDUAN: We're continuing to watch kind of an interesting shot. There you see on the right your screen. Waiting to see Mike Pence, the vice president-elect, come through. Maybe we'll just give you a beautiful rainy day in New York City. Regardless, we're keeping an eye on that.

Since Alex mentioned Barack Obama, Dana, I want to ask you about your column. You wrote a fascinating column here about basically wondering what is Barack Obama doing right now. You ask a very simple question. Why is this man smiling? What is your issue, Dana Milbank?

DANA MILBANK, OPINION WRITER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Oh, there's so many issues I have right now. BOLDUAN: We only have one hour.

MILBANK: It would take more than that. Look, the president as well as Hillary Clinton was rejected in this election. More importantly, his legacy is in tatters when you look at Obamacare and what he's done for the country when you look forward to what's going to happen with the Supreme Court.

So, you know, basically you have half the country celebrating that Donald Trump is about to undo everything that Barack Obama did in office. The other half of the country is sort of reeling about what's going on in Hillary Clinton's loss.

And then you had him walk into the Brady press briefing room yesterday saying aren't things dandy and what a bunch of fine achievements we had. Yes, Hillary didn't run a very good campaign. She didn't reach out to the way I did.

It seemed to me this was a president saying, well, too bad for this, I'm going to try to stake the claims to my legacy now and hopefully history will judge me well.

So, I mean, I think a lot of people were startled to the extent with which he has withheld his criticism of President-elect Trump and really tried to say, you know, he's a very successful and capable man and let's get behind our new president.

BERMAN: He actually, you know, he says it's not a rejection of him. That's his feeling. He noted today once again in Greece that his approval ratings are very, very good. So he thinks that the American people didn't turn their back on him so it will be interesting to see if that changes I suppose after inauguration when he feels perhaps more free to speak his mind.

I do want to talk about a tweet that came over a little while ago from Elliott Cohen, right, who worked in the State Department for Condoleezza Rice and was a "Never Trumper" for a long time. Let's establish that.

[11:15:05]But then last week basically wrote a column saying, "You know what Republicans should go work for Donald Trump as long as they go with open eyes. Now he says don't do it. He tweeted today, after exchange with Trump transition team, changed my recommendation, stay away, they're angry, arrogant, screaming, you lost. Will be ugly.

Dana, I'm wondering, I mean, first of all, you know, this guy's got a lot of gripes with the Trump team. So take it with a grain of salt, Dana Bash, but still, if the Trump team isn't reaching across to "Never Trumpers" or people who had reservations that leaves a huge number of Republicans sort of in the wilderness.

BASH: Especially in the national security and foreign policy world. I think that was the biggest most vast area of opposition to Donald Trump, that continued, that didn't waver, even after he became the nominee. There was letter after letter, the people we covered in the Bush administration especially, obviously that was the last Republican administration that was filled with national security types saying no way.

And they were early in their opposition and they were strong in their opposition. Now, having said that, Donald Trump has, if you believe everything he's done in the campaign trail, a very different world view than George W. Bush did.

So in theory, he wouldn't want to have the people who worked with George Bush with him because he wants to have a very different approach to not only the adversaries around the world but allies.

CONANT: John, can I add to that?

BOLDUAN: Go ahead.

CONANT: I know Reince real well. I know key members of Pence's transition team. So far, their very open to input. I think Paul Ryan's statements in the press conference we had on just before this segment, he was very excited about Donald Trump because Donald Trump's in close contact with House and Senate leadership about vetting -- moving the agenda forward.

So I don't know what Elliott Cohen's tweet was referencing, but I can just tell you that is not the experience that most Republicans including myself are having with the Trump/Pence team as they get ready to take over the White House.

BOLDUAN: Do you think maybe what Elliot Cohen might be tapping into is something we're hearing towards the end of the campaign, which is -- and you've heard it from Donald Trump and people who are close to him. Loyalty above all else. Loyalty matters to him. Maybe what they're sensing is get to the back of the line because you weren't with us and that's what we've got to deal with now?

BURNS: What I've heard from folks at least around the transition, right, is that there is a willingness to work with people who were not necessarily Trump cheerleaders all along, but that there is a group of national security folks, particularly people like Elliot Cohen who signed that letter over the summer saying he's too dangerous, unfit to be president.

They're not particularly interested in working with. Just as a political matter, as a legislative matter, Trump absolutely has to work with people who were fundamentally against him because they are the balance of power in the Senate.

The 52 seats Republicans control include a whole bunch of people who were absolutely under no circumstances never Donald Trump.

BOLDUAN: Right, but the sense I'm getting now from those people is they only want to talk about areas where they could work with Donald Trump. They do not want to talk about -- BERMAN: Paul Ryan and, Dana Milbank, Paul Ryan literally said I'm

going to work to make Donald Trump the best greatest president of our lifetime. This was Paul Ryan who a month and a half ago, would not appear on stage with Donald Trump.

MILBANK: That's true, but this is exactly what Paul Ryan should be doing. All Republicans and all Democrats should be applauding that. Mike Pence should be doing the same thing as well. I mean, just as there was an argument for discouraging people from going into the Trump or getting involved with Trump during the campaign, the opposite is true.

Now all of the best minds in the country should be behind making Donald Trump a success because if he fails, well, the country fails as well. What you see happening here is, yes, he's bringing all of his loyalists in, but they're different types of loyalists.

Reince Priebus is diametrically opposed to what Steve Bannon is about. So not only is there conflict within the transition, he's setting the stage for this conflict throughout his administration. Between business as usual and the alt right which could be a really incendiary, even if they all have Donald Trump's interests so far.

BOLDUAN: What you're saying right there, Dana Milbank, you probably did not mean to, you offered the counter arguments to your entire column. This man smiling? Because he wants the republic to endure. That's why Barack Obama is helping with the people --

MILBANK: We all want the republic to endure. I think mostly what President Obama's about is having his legacy endure, which may be good in the long run, but it's not very helpful in this moment.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, guys. Thanks very much for being with us.

BASH: I want to say I'm impressed both of you got Dana and Dana right the entire time.

BURNS: And two Alexes.

BASH: And two Alexes.

BOLDUAN: See, this is -- well, because we worked together long enough on the Hill and enough people mispronounced it, Dana, but I know you get it right or --

BASH: You're looking at raw talent.

BERMAN: All right, go ahead.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, a reflection on the election's outcome. Did President Obama throw shade at Hillary Clinton? The president's carefully crafted words in the last 24 hours and what people are hearing and reading into them this morning.

BERMAN: I'm going yes on that. Plus, Donald Trump has said his kids will run his business, but there will be no conflict of interest. That's what he said. So why is he now asking if they can get top security clearance? We will discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: All right, you're looking at live pictures right now. Rainy Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower where any minute now, we are expecting Mike Pence, the vice president-elect to arrive and hold key transition meetings with President-elect Trump and the whole transition team.

We could get some cabinet selections as early as today. As we are waiting for that, they already have keys to Trump Tower, but could Donald Trump's kids get the keys to some of America's secrets?

A source tells CNN the president-elect is considering trying to get three of his children and his son-in-law top secret security clearance.

[11:25:09]BOLDUAN: Let's discuss. Let's bring in right now, Josh Rogin, our CNN political analyst, Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, former Homeland Security official under President Barack Obama. She supported Hillary Clinton in the election.

Guys, thank you so much for being here. Josh, I'm seen when this reporting has been described, I've seen this would be an unprecedented move if the kids would get security clearance. How unprecedented would it be?

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. It would be completely unprecedented and for a very good reason. It's completely a conflict of interest and potentially against the law. We have something in this country called the nepotism law.

That means the president cannot hire direct family members to serve in the administration. If you're not a government employee, you have no need for a security clearance. We also have a potential conflict of interest here. You know, if Trump --

BOLDUAN: But Josh, if they weren't hired, if they were advised, unpaid close advisers, that would not violate nepotism rules, right?

ROGIN: That's a legal dispute. Most experts I talk to think it still would. Regardless, it's a conflict of interest in the purest sense. You have Trump's children running their businesses. If they have inside information government actions and policies, they could use that to the advantages of those businesses.

If they have access to the president and his decision making, they would be able to influence government decisions to benefit those businesses. So both ways it's a total conflict that only a complete separation of government and Trump Organization businesses could prevent.

BERMAN: So Juliette Kayyem, what kind of secrets are we talking about? If they were to get this top secret clearance, what information would they be privy to? JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: All of it. I think Josh is right. There is just -- once you have that clearance, it would just let you be in the room so to speak. You would be privy to information regarding sources and methods so that the deep dark intel information.

But also information about potential sort of policies that the U.S. might take. So just on Josh's point of the conflict to just bring it down to how it could work.

So let's say there's a discussion going on about potential sanctions against country x and the Trump Organization has financial dealings in country x. The Trump children will have both pieces of knowledge.

We live in a country of laws of which you would hope that benefits or rules would apply also to the children. That's a kind of conflict that we're worried about. That the Trump Organization and the monetary benefits would conclude that way.

It's also just consistent with your previous segment, if I could just say, you know, Trump does not have a team for good or for bad, and they are very loyally focused.

I supported Hillary Clinton. My goal now is to support this nation and a smooth transition. I went through Obama's transition. The Trump Organization needs to get over itself. It won.

It needs to fill people who are experts in the safety and security of this nation and so going to the children makes no sense in that regard either.

BERMAN: We still have no idea how he's going to separate his business empire --

BOLDUAN: We don't know how far along this request is. There hasn't been any paperwork filed, you know, people close to the organization say it might not be likely. Still interesting that it's being floated at this moment.

BERMAN: Very interesting discussion. Juliette, Josh, thanks so much for being with us, really appreciate it.

We've got some high drama on Capitol Hill today. Paul Ryan, will he keep his job? Nancy Pelosi, will she keep hers? We've got some new information on developments inside the Democratic caucus. We will take you there live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)