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EARLY START

President Obama Lands in Athens; Transition Team in Turmoil?; Trump Critics Outraged Over Some Cabinet Picks; Obama Urges Country to Give Trump a Chance; Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired November 15, 2016 - 04:00   ET

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


[04:00:11] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news. President Obama lands in Europe. His new mission, reassure America's allies about President-elect Donald Trump.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Power struggle at Trump Tower. Top aides at odds over key Cabinet positions and confusion about who is charge.

ROMANS: Top secret controversy. If Trump gets his way, his adult children would get top level security clearance.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: Nice to see you today. I'm John Berman. It is Tuesday, November 15th, 4:00 a.m. in the East. And the breaking news.

Air Force One just has landed in Athens carrying President Obama on the last scheduled foreign trip of his presidency. You see the pictures right here of him here descending the plane. This is part of a three-nation tour that will also take him to Germany and Peru. And whatever the initial purpose of this trip was, the goal now is far, far different. To ease global concerns over President-elect Donald Trump. The current president suggests he will serve as somewhat unlikely ambassador for the next president to deliver the message that the United States will honor its commitments including to NATO.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In my conversation with the president-elect, he expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships. And so one of the messages I will be able to deliver is his commitment to NATO.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Safe to say this is not the trip that President Obama had initially planned. International diplomatic editor Nic Robertson live for us this morning in Athens where the president just arrived with the very latest.

Good morning, Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes. Good morning, John. Well, when President Obama came down the steps a little ironing out in international diplomacy, if you like. The red carpet a few feet to the right of the steps. A little piece of red carpet laid in to get right to the bottom of those steps as President Obama came down. Just showing the international diplomacy all wrinkles can be ironed out and that certainly will be the tone of this trip.

Meeting today with the prime minister, with the president here in Greece, but of course going on to Berlin later in the week where he'll meet with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Francois Hollande, Matteo Renzi from Italy, the prime minister, Spanish prime minister as well. And there in Berlin, you could really expect the focus to be on what can the Europeans expect from Donald Trump, and that's where President Obama's reassuring message about the importance of NATO to the United States and to Donald Trump's view of the United States going forward.

That's where that will be keen. But here in Greece, of course, the economy is in a tough situation and they'll be hoping to hear words of wisdom from President Obama about debt relief and they would then hope that Donald Trump as president, might echo some of that in his policies going forward. But really for Europeans right now, that message of stability going forward, the relationship, the defense relationship, NATO with the United States, that's what they always need to hear here -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Nic Robertson for us in Athens. We will hear from President Obama. He does hold a news conference in Athens in just a few hours. And we will bring that to you when it does happen, live.

Thanks so much, Nic.

ROMANS: All right. So here at home, Vice President-elect Mike Pence heads to Trump Tower today to go over the list of top contenders for Cabinet positions with Donald Trump. They'll be looking at possible picks for the Department of Education, Commerce, Treasury and State. Some of whom could be named as soon as today.

Now the meeting comes amid what one insider called a knife fight over key appointments to the Cabinet, West Wing and national security posts. A transition source tells CNN the sharp split pits tradition Republican operatives like party chairman and Trump's new chief of staff, Reince Priebus, against outsiders like Steve Bannon who will be Trump's chief strategist.

Division of power among Priebus, Bannon and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, so far unclear, resulting in one another source calls buffoonery.

Let's bring in CNN's Jim Acosta for the latest on the transition. He is at Trump Tower in New York City.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John and Christine, later on today, Vice President-elect Mike Pence will be here at Trump Tower to meet with transition officials to begin the process of narrowing down the names that will be filling some of the most important Cabinet positions in the new Trump administration.

Among the names being talked about, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani for secretary of State and Alabama senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general. Meanwhile, top Trump officials are defending the selection of Steven Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor to President-elect Trump.

Kellyanne Conway, the former Trump campaign manager, says Bannon will make an excellent chief strategist. Here's more of what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: And I worked very closely with Steve Bannon through the general of this campaign and frankly, people should look at the full resume.

[04:05:06] He's got a Harvard business degree, he's a naval officer, he has success in entertainment. I'm not sure if you're aware of that. And he certainly was a Goldman Sachs managing partner. A brilliant tactician.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: But the opposition to Bannon is building. A number of House Democrats have begun circulating a letter using Trump's own words against him, noting that the president-elect has called for unifying the country and asking how Bannon fits into that picture -- John and Christine.

BERMAN: All right, Jim Acosta, thanks so much.

New outrage this morning over the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist and senior counsel to the president. And there could so be some fuel added to this fire, maybe in just a few hours. Sources say the president-elect is strongly considering the media bashing conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham to be his press secretary.

Senior media correspondent Brian Stelter has more.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good morning, Christine and John. Every incoming presidential administration makes controversial appointments. But Donald Trump going several steps further, picking downright incendiary people to fill some of these key positions.

Of course Steve Bannon is the best example of this. Bannon, highly criticized ever since he was appointed chief strategist on Sunday night. We've heard from people who believe his Web site Breitbart has white supremacist views. That it is a home for white nationalist. That is a view that Breitbart and Bannon reject.

In an interview with the "New York Times," Bannon says the movement that supported Trump and led him to victory is a populous movement made up of patriots who wants to see the country made great again. He says there might be fringe elements who hold racist views, but that is not what it's about.

So we know Bannon is on board and there might be another incendiary appointment on the way. Laura Ingraham, the conservative talk radio host, well known for her support of Trump in recent months, in talks with Trump for the White House press secretary job.

Now we've had talk radio hosts to have this job before. Tony Stone during the Bush administration was behind the podium for about a year. But Ingraham would be different. She has been a much more vocal critic of the mainstream media, a critic of the very press corps that she would then be working with at the White House. So if indeed she is chosen, and so far she hasn't confirmed or denied it, these sources seem to be suggesting it's happening. If it happens it's another example about this White House and this press corps are in unchartered territory together -- John, Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Brian. Thank you for that.

So at the top of Donald Trump's short list for Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin. He spent 17 years at Goldman Sachs. His father was a father there as well. Then he was off to Hollywood where he became a producer. His recent hits include "Suicide Squad," "American Sniper" and the "Lego Movie." In May he joined the Trump campaign as finance chairman.

Sources tell CNN he made it known early that he wanted the Treasury secretary post. He is already vetting and recruiting deputies. The Treasury secretary overseas of course, financial markets, banking regulation, government debt, the IRS, but Mnuchin has a controversial past. He was sued by the trustee trying to recover money for victims of Bernie -- Bernie Madoff's, rather, Ponzi scheme. The court eventually blocked that move. He also led the group that bought failed subprime lender IndyMac, remember that? After the financial crisis. After millions in fines for the company's foreclosure practices, he sold it for $3.4 billion.

And that Madoff thing was sort of interesting, John, because he had -- he and I think his siblings had managed to cash out their mother's estate from Bernie Madoff years before the scandal was known. Later, the trustee tried to, you know, reel back in money that had been cashed out of it but the court just said, look, it's been too long ago. So just sort of an interesting side note there.

BERMAN: Mnuchin is part of the global finance power structure that Donald Trump campaign against at the end right there.

ROMANS: Right.

BERMAN: But it will be hard to escape it completely.

All right. Questions about lines this morning between the nation's business and family business. Word that Donald Trump is considering asking for top security clearance for his three grown children, Eric, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, as well as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who really, he is one of the powers behind the scenes here. According to a source in Trump's transition team, the president-elect

has not formally made the request and none of Trump's children have filled out the necessary paper work. Critics say granting the clearance raises questions about conflict of interest since the Trump children will, as far as we know, run their father's corporation.

ROMANS: I think it also just shows how tightly held this family is quite frankly in terms of decision-making and in terms of their father's run for the White House.

The Mexican government is working on a plan to deal with a possibility of mass deportations from the U.S. under President-elect Donald Trump. A spokesman for Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto telling reporters that any sharp increase in deportations will be part of future discussions between those two leaders. Trump said on "60 Minutes" Sunday that his priority was locking or deporting up to three million illegal immigrants with criminal records.

BERMAN: A new face in the relationship between President-elect Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin which until now had been a mutual admiration society from afar.

[04:10:05] The Kremlin says the Russian leader congratulated Trump by telephone and assured the president-elect that he is ready for a partnership based on mutual respect.

The Russians also report the two men discussed the need to work together in the struggle against international terrorism and mutually agreed relations between the two nations are, quote, they said, "unsatisfactory."

ROMANS: Mutual respect. That's always one of those early --

BERMAN: Mutual respect.

ROMANS: Early volleys into diplomacy. All right. After tearing into Donald Trump on the campaign trail, President Obama toning down the rhetoric. His message, though, for the president-elect's harshest critics, that's next on EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: After months of blasting candidate Donald Trump as unfit for office, President Obama is urging Americans to give President-elect Trump a chance. In his first news conference since the election the president spent most of the hour fielding questions about his successor and answering in for the most part complimentary terms.

[04:15:02] CNN's Athena Jones was there for us. She brings us the latest.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine and John. President Obama spent much of his press conference here touting his administration's achievements on everything from the economy, to the Iran nuclear deal, to health care and climate change. And after months spent slamming President-elect Trump as unfit to be commander- in-chief, the president declined to continue to question his qualifications. I asked him if he still thought that Trump was unfit to lead. Here's part of what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The people have spoken. Donald Trump will be the next president, the 45th President of the United States. And it will be up to him to set up a team that he thinks will serve him well and reflect his policies. And those who didn't vote for him have to recognize that that's how democracy works.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JONES: I also asked the president what sort of message he thinks that President-elect Trump is sending by tapping Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News head, to be a chief strategist and senior adviser in the White House. Breitbart News has championed white nationalist themes. Here's part of what the president had to say in response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Campaigning is different from governing. I think he recognizes that. I think he's sincere in wanting to be a successful president and moving this country forward. And I don't think any president ever comes in saying to himself, I want to figure out how to make people angry or alienate half the country. I think he's going to try as best he can to make sure that he delivers, not only for the people who voted for him but for the people at large.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JONES: The president also offered Trump some advice, saying that because of the nature of campaigns and the bitterness and ferocity surrounding the campaign, it's important for Trump to send some signals of unity and to reach out to minority groups or women or any other voters who may not have been Trump supporters and may be concerned about the direction the country is going.

I should say he also sounded a hopeful note, saying that he found Trump, during his 90-minute discussion with him in the Oval Office last week, to be non-ideologue, to be pragmatic. Something that he thinks could serve Trump well. Back to you guys.

BERMAN: Athena Jones, thanks so much.

All right. We're hearing from Michelle Obama for the first time since the presidential election. The first lady spoke at a conference on Veterans Homelessness. She offered up a message of bipartisanship in the wake of Donald Trump's victory.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: I just want to take a moment to echo what my husband said last week about the results of our election. He said that we are all on one team. Not Democrats first or Republicans first. But we are Americans first. A country first.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: The first lady plans to spend her final days in office attending several events designed, we are told, to cement her legacy.

ROMANS: All right. Violence breaks out at an anti-Trump protest at Ohio State University. Watch as a student in the striped shirt rushes down the steps yelling, "You idiot." Before forcefully tackling a demonstrator. Ohio State Police moved to intervene, taking the Trump supporter into custody. The crowd began chanting shame as he was ushered out of the campus building.

BERMAN: In Connecticut, two men were arrested for hopping out of their car and punching and kicking a Trump supporter. Police say the men attacked the unidentified victim as he was waving an American flag and holding a Trump election sign. The victim told police he exchanged words with the attackers before they went after him.

ROMANS: All right. She's been hailed as a trailblazer and a role model for children. And the tributes keep pouring in this morning for journalists Gwen Ifill. A remarkable look at her life and reaction to her stunning death. Next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[04:23:32] BERMAN: So journalism had lost a giant and a really terrific person. Gwen Ifill, one of the nation's most prominent and respected political journalists died of cancer at the age of 61 surrounded by family and friends. President Obama called her a powerful role model who did her country a great service. Former President Bill Clinton wrote, "Gwen Ifill was a trailblazer and a bright light in journalism. She informed and challenged us and did so with grace. I will miss her."

House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote, "I'm saddened to learn about the passing of Gwen Ifill, an incredibly talented and respected journalists, and from Trump campaign executive Kellyanne Conway, "This is shocking and incredibly sad. Condolences to her family. God bless your soul, Gwen."

ROMANS: Really a fixture, you know, in Washington and for journalists. Especially young women. But all journalists really. We've really looked up to her. You know.

BERMAN: At times, she wrote for "The Washington Post," she was in NBC News and of course PBS. She did it all. And she was just a good person to boot.

ROMANS: All right. Paul Ryan expected to be reelected as speaker when House Republicans hold their leadership elections today. Ryan is seeking a second term as speaker. The Wisconsin lawmakers clashed quietly with Donald Trump during the campaign. But he's now pushing for the Republican Party to unite behind President-elect Trump.

BERMAN: On the Democratic side, Nancy Pelosi faces a potential challenge in her bid for another term as minority leader. A group of House Democrats is seeking a delay in House leadership elections set for Thursday. Nearly three dozen lawmakers reportedly signed a letter asking Pelosi to give members more time to digest the election results before voting on leaders for the next Congress.

[04:25:10] ROMANS: Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison emerging as the favorite to head up the Democratic National Committee. He announced his candidacy on Monday insisting the party must begin the rebuilding process now. Ellison, the first black Muslim elected to Congress, is backed by Bernie Sanders and outgoing Senate minority leader Harry Reid. Top challengers to Ellison for the post former DNC chairman Howard Dean and former presidential candidate Martin O'Malley.

BERMAN: A bunch of other names could get in there as well.

ROMANS: Yes.

BERMAN: But that will be interesting to watch.

All right. Four key Cabinet positions in the new Trump administration up for grabs. Could be named as early as today. Some sources describe the whole selection process as a knife fight. I don't think it's the kind of, you know, positive knife fight that you never read about. Who's got the inside track? That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)