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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Fireworks Blast Kills At Least 29 Near Mexico City; ISIS Says It Inspired Christmas Market Murders; Massive Manhunt for Christmas Market Killer; Access for $500,000 Donors?; The New Normal?; Report: Fundraiser Offered Access to Trump & Sons For $500K. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired December 20, 2016 - 21:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:00:09] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening again. Topping the hour, the tragedy unfolding in Mexico, after the worst thing possible happens really in the worst place imaginable, explosions rocking a fireworks market north of Mexico City.

A stunning images there. Now, when these explosions finally did stop, but it took such a long time, dozens of people were dead or injured. This is new video from Twitter @Periodico Excelsior are showing what it looks like on the ground there. You can see the devastation. At least 29 people were killed and it does seem that number could rise.

CNN's Ed Lavendera, monitoring the developments for us. He joins us now with the very latest. Ed, what are you learning?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a staggering scene that rescue crews are still trying to work through and sift through to find if there's anymore people who have been wounded or killed in this series of explosions. As you mentioned, at least 29 dead. That death toll could continue to rise. We're told by government officials there in the town of Tultepec which is just north of Mexico City, that there were more than 70 injured. We're also told by the governor of that state where this town is, is that three young children will be flown to a hospital in Texas to reserve -- to receive treatments for their burns. So you can imagine that the burn injuries will be significant for many of victims who were trying to survive these explosions here tonight. But this isn't the first time that this is actually has happened in this open air market.

Tultepec is basically known as the fireworks capital of Mexico. The pyrotechnic industry in this town is a huge event and a huge industry for this small town, and it is a problem that happened back in 2005. No one was killed in that series of explosions but it did cause a great deal of damage as well as injuries back in 2005.

The images from the ground, John, Really leaving tonight, the vivid images of the scorched fireworks stands. You can imagine how frightening and horrific this must have been for people trapped inside all of this area as these series of explosions went on uncontrollably.

BERMAN: Yeah, help us understand the market itself there. As you said, there's been an incident before back in 2005. What is it this, an open air market which is stall after stall, stand after stand, selling fireworks? It looks like a huge place.

LAVANDERA: Right, John, and just so people understand, this is a huge elaborate firework industry that exists here in this town. This is a part of the culture and the mystique for this town. Every March, they hold a national pyrotechnic festival. Tens of thousands of people show up to this area to come see the elaborate firework displays and systems that are built. So this is very common especially this time of year as you head into the festive Christmas season as well as New Year's celebrations as well. Coming to this open air market would be something that would be extremely popular. That's why you see so many people there in the video images that we're seeing of these explosions. John.

BERMAN: All right, Ed Lavandera, thanks so much.

Again, the death toll right now stands at 29. Those numbers did rise over the course of the evening so we're watching that closely. And as I said, we keep getting new video in as well as some eyewitness accounts so we're going to stay on this throughout the night.

We do have more breaking news now. The hunt for whoever drove the heavily loaded truck through a Berlin Christmas market. This time last night, police, they had a man in custody. What they did not have, they say, was the evidence to keep him.

Joining us again tonight from Berlin, CNN's Frederik Pleitgen, and Fred, what's the latest on the investigation?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the police is now essentially saying that that man that they had in custody was essentially exonerated. They say what they've did is they went into the cab of that truck that was plowed through that Christmas market, John, and they said the forensics that they found there, all the evidence including DNA and of course fingerprints as well, none of it matched the suspect that they had in custody.

So at this point in time, the presumption for the Berlin Police Department is that whoever was driving that truck is still at large and is probably also still armed because keep in mind that there was a second person who was found dead on the passenger seat with gunshot wounds but never a weapon recovered by the authority. So they still think that there is great danger of someone still running around, obviously, someone who is very dangerous.

[21:05:04] Now, ISIS has come out and claimed responsibility for all of these, saying they were the ones who inspired whoever did this. They say that they put out a call earlier this year to attack places like this, using vehicles or using any means possible. And so therefore, they believe that they were the ones who sparked all of this. They didn't offer up any evidence to back all of this up.

Essentially, for the Berlin police department what they're trying to figure out right now is two things, John. First of all, who was behind this? Second of all, how many people were possibly behind this? Was this someone acting alone or was this a larger group that possibly had bigger logistical support, as well, considering the fact that they hijacked this truck and then drove it into there. There are some who believe that it would be some that would be very hard to do that, on their own especially since of course there's a gun involved as well and someone who have need to acquire such a weapon, John.

BERMAN: You know, Fred. Given that, there is still a killer on the loose right now. What are authorities telling people? Are people still out on the streets at other markets?

PLEITGEN: Yeah -- yeah, you know, that's actually one of the things that's been quite surprising for us, being here is that there were a lot of people who came out, even after the police put out that notice. That the most probably they have the wrong person and that the actual person behind this was still at large. There were still a lot of people who were actually out. There were a lot of people coming to that market, there were a lot of people out in the rest of Berlin. In fact, in the rest of Berlin, you hardly felt that anything had changed. There were some Christmas markets that were closed.

And even now, I was actually driving out on the streets here just a couple of minutes ago. We really, don't see that much of a police presence. Where if you'll recall the attacks at "Charlie Hebdo" in Paris or the Paris attacks in November of 2015. There was a lot of police presence and a lot of raids going on. We haven't seen any of that here just yet. What the police is saying, it's calling on people to be vigilant and saying if you do see anything suspicious, then certainly call the police rather than trying to act on your own because obviously the person who drove that truck through that Christmas market is someone who is very, very dangerous.

BERMAN: Yeah, the lack of activity may show they have simply no leads at this moment. Frederik Pleitgen thanks so much.

Back now with the panel, joining us again, Paul Cruickshank, Michael Weiss and Peter Bergen. And Paul, you know, along those lines even working your sources, your contacts throughout European security. And they do tell you they're essentially back to square one?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: That appears to be the case. That they have no big leads right now. You're not seeing raids for example across Germany, which would perhaps signify some progress in the investigation. So they're going to have to rely on the forensics from the cab of the truck. They're going to have to try and match that up perhaps with some databases. Of course, the popularity (ph) may not be on those databases. They also asked the public to share any video that they shot from around the scene of the crime, during the scene of the crime, perhaps they can get some visuals on the attacker that way. If they have managed to get that so far, they have not shared that with the public. They have not asked the public to sort of crowd source the investigation in that kind of way, like we saw with the Boston investigation.

BERMAN: Yet and notable, that they haven't done it yet, but it could be, as you said, they simply have no evidence at this point to go on. Peter, now if the attacker put any forethought into an escape plan or if he had any help, he could be really far away right now. There's a train station nearby. You know, when (inaudible) their open borders. And this person could be in any number of countries, let alone any place in Germany at this point.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yeah, that's correct. So, you know, this that they've -- we don't know the motivation of this guy. We don't know who this person is. It's possible the Germans, you know, have something that they're keeping to themselves. We saw in the case of Boston that it took, you know, at least 48 hours to kind of go through all the footage to find the two suspects who were not known to the police and who, you know, were at based essentially identified by putting their pictures out in public.

So, let's see, you know, let's see. And of course, if we look at the Boston marathon as a sort of an interesting analog, of course, the two perpetrators, the Tsarnaev brothers, didn't stop with just the attack on the marathon. They also killed a police officer at M.I.T. in the process of kind of their escape. So I mean it will be, I think, rash to presume that whoever has done this isn't planning some other kind of incident, somewhere.

BERMAN: You know, it's good though the council some patience as you said. In Boston, it took days in France for at least some of the suspect it took months. Michael Weiss joins me here in New York. And Michael, ISIS, you know, claimed a connection to this attack. You know, it said that the person who did it was a soldier of the Islamic state. So how do we know that that claim is authentic?

MICHAEL WEISS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE DAILY BEAST: Well, we don't. I mean, it will probably know when he turns up dead as a corpse at being shot by German police or by some other European security service. Or if he's captured alive. The one thing that's giving me a little bit of pause here is, if you are an ISIS-inspired terrorist, you are meant to declare your allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pledge by out as its numb, filthy, loyalty to ISIS.

[21:10:11] We saw that in the Orlando attack just with the 911 call. We store that -- saw that in this San Bernardino attackers, based on a social media commentary that the wife had put out. We haven't seen anything like that yet. I mean -- again, we don't know who this assailant is or if it's multiple people. And I, you know, I keep coming back to this idea that maybe there's a getaway plan. And before he is, you know, in safe ground and outside of that, perhaps Germany or even Europe, I mean, could go back to the Middle East if he's from Middle East, then he will kind of declare his allegiance.

BERMAN: You know, Paul, German officials, German intelligence, German security, even on alert. They've been on the lookout for this type of event for a long, long time right now. Give me a window into frankly how good they are. How strong their investigative services are and whether or not they simply drop the ball here with the man they had in custody for 24 hours?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, you have to say that there has not been a single fatal Islamist terrorist attack in Germany since 9/11. So, that's just a fact and so they've had quite a lot of success in breaking up plots over the last decade and a half. But I'm told by German officials that they are really over stretched at right now, because of the scale of this threat that there are of more than 800 people who traveled from Germany to Syria and Iraq. About a third of them have come back. They're dealing with thousands of radical extremists on German soil. And then the biggest concern avoids is if the fact that you had a million refugees come into Germany. And among them, many young Sunni men who are dislocated and struggling to integrate in Germany. And there's real worry that extremists already present in Germany that are radicalize some of those people, as well as worried that ISIS are trying to infiltrate operatives into Germany, into Europe through the refugee flows.

In fact, back in September, there were three ISIS operatives who were arrested in Schleswick Holstein in northern Germany, who were part of the same network as the Paris attackers, answering and in touch with the same people in Syria. They were part of the ISIS external wing there.

One other big concern is the fact that with these encrypted apps, they're able to communicate very securely with operatives or sympathizers in Germany and to try to encourage them to launch attacks. So lots of challenges for investigators in Germany, despite the fact that we haven't seen a fatal Islamist terrorist attack since 9/11.

BERMAN: And the encrypted apps, I know that has been a concern of yours over the last year, a very difficult, to correct just one note, I want to make here is the man they did have in custody was believed to have been a refugee from either Pakistan or Afghanistan, which did lead to extreme politicization in just the last 24 hours. However, that doesn't appear to be the man behind it. So we don't know if the person who did this was involved with the inflow of refugees inside Germany.

Peter, I want to ask you, you know, from what you know about radical ideology, does whoever did this, does he want to get away? Does he want to go back to Syria? Or do you think his plan would be to kill more, to lash out while on the run?

BERGEN: Well, I mean, he did get away, so, you know, and I think, you know, returning to Michael's observation, I agree that, you know, in the cases where, like Orlando or San Bernardino, the perpetrators very quickly, you know, pledge their allegiance in a public manner on Facebook or in a 9/11 call-- a 911 call. I mean in this case, you know, he hasn't said anything. Right. And so, you know, in the case of the Orlando and San Bernardino, they were, they fact to suicide attacks.

So this guy hasn't made a pledge of allegiance, has disappeared, didn't seem to intend to commit suicide, at least from the facts that we know now, and that would imply, you know, that he may well conduct another attack. I mean, he may eventually commit suicide at the end of this after a series of attacks.

BERMAN: Put the manhunt very much underway at this moment. A lot more to talk about. Gentleman, thank you so much. Next, more on what Paul just mentioned, all those immigrants. Was Europe's mass influx of Syrian refugees a factor in the attack on Berlin? We're going to dig deeper on that.

And later, Donald Trump's two eldest sons. What exactly is their connection to a fund-raiser that initially appeared to offer access to their father for big money? We're going to speak to "The Washington Post" writer who's got all the details. That's ahead on "360."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:18:20] BERMAN: Paul Cruickshank brought it up before the break. The role, if any, that immigration from Syria may have played in the Berlin market attack. This morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying it would be, "Especially hard to bear if the killer turned out to be one of the nearly 900,000 people whom Germany has taken in this year." Certainly something, to talk about starting with the big picture now from CNN's Tom Foreman. Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. The European commission has very frankly called this an unprecedented refugee crisis, with roughly 65 million people pushed out of their homes worldwide by wars or natural disasters in recent years. Some find ways to stay generally in their regions, but in 2015, more than a million of them made their way to Europe. And hundreds of thousands of more have followed this year. We don't even have a total count.

So where are they coming from? Well Kosovo with big economic problem is one source through Afghanistan and Iraq with their continuing conflicts, be and rest of plenty -- produced plenty of refugees. But by far the single biggest source is Syria. Last year alone, more than 350,000 refugees sought asylum in Europe, hoping to escape the brutal civil war raging in their homeland. And where are these refugees going? Well Hungary and Sweden and Italy and France and Austria have all has pick in thousands, but Germany has welcomed more than any other nation by far. At least a half million officially last year or roughly equal to the entire population in Sacramento, California, John.

BERMAN: And Tom, we know tension has risen in Germany as these numbers have mounted. How is this playing out politically there this in election?

[21:19:58] FOREMAN: Well this is producing immense pressure on those public officials, like Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has argued that it continue to open door policy needs to stay in place. She said this refugee crisis is something that Europe needs to deal with. Must help within a big way for practical political and moral reasons. But with each terrorist incidents and as you note, we have no idea yet if this was tied to anybody who was an immigrant, but every time something happens, there are people who raise up and they say, wait a minute, are we vetting all of these immigrants adequately? Is there any way of knowing where their sympathies lie? And most importantly, no matter how they feel about it, is there any end in sight for this tide of refugees? John?

BERMAN: Tom Foreman, key questions. Thank you so much. Back now with Michael Weiss and joining us, "Hindustan Times" Chief Editor Bobby Ghosh.

You know, Bobby, we got to taste of it -- a very small taste of it here in the Unites States during the election. The argument over whether the Unites States or how many Syrian refugees and refugees from other countries the U.S. should accept in Europe? You know, the numbers they have accepted already are exponentially higher. And there's a debate there as well, between what many see as their moral obligation to help and security.

BOBBY GHOSH, EDITOR IN CHIEF "HINDUSTAN TIMES": Yeah, in Angela -- and Germany as well, a lot this, the debate is taking place right now. Angela Merkel was the champion last year of the side of Europe that says we have to take more of these people and it's part of our responsibility, it's part of what we must do, and it sort of, this is true to our European values. Now she's under tremendous pressure. She has an election coming up next year. She's under tremendous pressure from right-wing forces, even before this attack, who have been saying, we've gone too far, we've got to get these people out of the country.

In fact, a few days ago, before this attack took place, she, herself, seemed to be sort of backpedaling just a little bit by suggesting, "OK, we've taken these people in, but they're not going to be here forever. We've got to start figuring out how to move them on or send them home." So she's clearly feeling the pressure. And this attack in Berlin is going to just exponentially increase the pressure.

BERMAN: You know, she said, as we just reported, that if it turns out to be a refugee who carried out this attack, it would be especially hard to bear. Michael, you know, it sort of a double a ton, it would be hard to bear for the national psyche and it be very hard for her to bear politically right now with this election coming up.

WEISS: She could lose power. I mean, AFD, the alternative for Germany, which is this far-right anti-immigrant political party, already said that this is Merkel is that, that the 12 people who were killed so far and that the dozens other who were wounded. You have PEGIDA which is virulently anti-Muslim. I mean, not even a political party. So much as a movement. And keep in mind John, ISIS -- part of its intention is to foment the rise of xenophobic, anti-immigrant, far right politics ...

BERMAN: I want to get to that in just a second, that's fascinating point right there. But security, in terms of screening going into these European countries like Germany, does it compare to what goes on in the Unites States?

WEISS: No, I don't think it does. In Unites States, it is pretty difficult to come. And even if it's difficult to come here as a legal immigrant. You know, I mean, talk to anybody who tries to come from a stalwart American ally like Great Britain, for instance. And remember, the Paris attack, it was interesting, there were two guys who were going to join the 10 man attack ring. They didn't make it, they got interned and I think Cyprus, in a refugee camp. One of them was from Arapahoe, the other was from Pakistan.

The Pakistani couldn't speak Arabic claimed that he was from Iraq. So that was an easy one. The Moroccan, claimed he was from Aleppo, but couldn't find Aleppo on a map.

BERMAN: Right.

WEISS: So that's why these two were detained.

BERMAN: But otherwise, you get that a lot, do get in and you can move around freely once you're there.

Bobby, to the point that Michael was making because this is fascinating. Germany has been so welcoming of refugees. You know, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. Germany not involved in the fight against ISIS, at least directly inside Syria. So why then would ISIS want to attack Germany?

GHOSH: Well, it's not particularly to do with Germany, as the point Michael was making at. They want to create, they want to foment this idea of a big war between Islam and the west. And Germany goes against that narrative by saying, we welcome Muslims, we welcome refugees. And that really doesn't work with the ISIS narrative. They need the narrative to be us against them. And so if they can take down a liberal champion like Angela Merkel, if they can in so doing, if they can empower the right-wing forces in Germany that are anti- Muslim, just as we've seen forces like that in all over the western Europe. That would suit them very well. They could go back and say, look, we told you all along this, you cannot trust the west, you cannot trust these Europeans. They may talk about welcoming you, but in reality, they hate you, they hate Islam. Islam is under threat. Your job is to defend Islam. And that's part of their recruitment.

BERMAN: Right.

GHOSH: Both for money as well as for people. Come and protect Islam. Come and save Islam. That's what they did ...

BERMAN: Right, we're seeing the evacuation of Aleppo right now happen before our very eyes.

[21:25:00] You know, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn areas. What happens if countries do shut down and do close their borders? What happens to the innocent people?

WEISS: They suffer and die, or they go elsewhere in Syria, which is going to be -- such as and leave in province. Which I think the Russians and Iranians and the Assad did they want to turn into a kill box. That is a province that is governed largely by Salafi Jihadi groups including the al-Qaeda franchise. So bundling all of these thousands of civilians in there just means annihilating a Jihadi enterprise or Jihadi emirates in northern Syria. Look, I mentioned last night, Aleppo is going to be a rallying cry, a lightning rod for generations of Sunni Jihad.

The former Secretary General of Hezbollah who was actually sympathetic to the Syrian revolution came out and said that this is essentially another Karbala. For Shia to say that it's Karbala, which is one of the most sort of venerated scenes of tragedy ...

BERMAN: Mining wars.

WEISS: ... yes, because he realizes, it's going to -- here's to blow back, it's going to be severe. Shia have got to prepare priceless, because they have the minority among the global Muslim population, but Sunnis will also going to pay a price for two, because Sunnis tend to be the first victim of Sunni Jihadis.

BERMAN: All right, Michael Weiss, Bobby Ghosh, you know, a bleak situation playing out right now in realtime thanks so much for being with us.

Coming up, are these terror attacks the new normal in Europe? So says former extremist Maajid Nawaz. We're going to hear from him, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: The attacks in Germany and elsewhere in Europe are the new normal. That's according to Maajid Nawaz, a former extremist who is now an activist. He founded the counter extremism think tank "The Quilliam Foundation" and is the author of "Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist extremism."

[21:30:15] I spoke with him shortly before airtime..

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Maajid, ISIS is claiming responsibility for this attack. Now there is no suspect in custody at this point. So it's an exactly of clear who did it. But it was ISIS or even Islamic terrorists, this would be the first major Islamic -- radical Islamic terror attack inside Germany, significant events.

MAAJID NAWAZ, FORMER MEMBER OF HIZBUT TAHRIR: Unless and in that sense, it becomes more relevant if it is was ISIS. What becomes more relevant are the consequences of the attack. And let's not forget Angela Merkel in Germany had the famous or infamous, depending on one's perspective, open door policy with Syrian refugees, welcoming them into Europe after that terrible civil war in Syria.

Now, what I think I'm particularly worried about is if this does turn out to be either a Jihadist attack. Or more specifically, a refugee or somebody who's used the refugee channels to attack Germany. Then the negative political consequences of the back of this considering that Merkel is up for re-election next year. And considering that at the moment, it looks like one of her biggest competitors are the right-wing anti-Muslim, yu know, this an entire PEGIDA organization. And those who put Germany first they call it, who are anti-Muslim, and they are on the rise.

BERMAN: You know, German troops, German equipment not involved in anti-ISIS operations directly inside Syria. Does that matter to ISIS, if this was ISIS, does it matter to them that Germany is not necessarily fighting them in Syria?

NAWAZ: Well, no. And I think this is an important point for those on the political left to remember that we often talk about offer in policy mistake and how they've contribute to the rise of Jihadist terrorism abroad. And yes there it -- that is a factor, but actually from the Jihadist perspective, you know, see that's a factor only for in that it makes other people angry and more susceptible to recruitment. But for the hardened Jihadist ideologue, that has never been a factor. They always seek to exploit any opportunity they can to polarize societies. What do they get out of this been in attacking Germany? Well, across Europe right now, we see the division and polarization of society. We see Muslims retreating into a form of Muslim identitarianism.

Muslims in a sense like the opposite of Muslims white supremacism. Muslim saying that, you know, we need to place an exclusive place just for Muslims. And then of course on the right wing, you've got the same with white supremacist identitarianism. Now the more that happens the more extremist groups of the only ones would then can say, we're the only one who speak for you. We represent you. We claim those rights you say you're not getting so come and join us. And that's exactly why ISIS seeks to divide society.

BERMAN: Now one of the things that's been said in writing about ISIS. And ISIS says itself as they want or eliminate the gray zone. Take away, basically, the middle ground there. What does that mean?

NAWAZ: Well the middle ground is this kind of conversation where I won't assume your cultural or religious background, but I'm a British Pakistani Muslim. I happen to be many other things as well. I mean liberal and, you know, many other things. But that part of my identity, the fact that I've even couched it among many other forms of identity, British, liberal, maybe a father that's a gray zone, it's the multiplicity of identities being comfortable with pluralism.

And what ISIS says when they say we want to eliminate the gray zone, they want me to reduce my identity first and foremost, I don't need to being a Muslim. And have my life dictated primarily by that identity alone. And that leads to the form of governance that we know as theocracy. Likewise, they would want somebody like you to reduce your identity just to being say white or whatever. So that you have a form of governance that just represents you.

See, how do they advantage -- how would they benefit from that? Of course, any fascism, any form of extremism, any form of even theocracy. It for it to survive, it must divide people along those lines. And that's why you see, whether it's the holocaust, whether is the Rwanda genocide, you always needed that enemy to sort of then have a propaganda against. So that people who were scared, you build that fear, they flock to you for protection.

BERMAN: And finally, you know, over the last 24 hours the attack in Germany is not the only attack. There were other horrific killings all around the world. But especially you look what happened inside Turkey. You take those in combination, the assassination of the Russian ambassador there, the attack in this Christmas market in Berlin. What does it say about the state of the world right now?

NAWAZ: Well, unfortunately, this is the new normal. And I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but this won't be the last attack in Germany nor will it certainly be the at last attack across Europe. Europe is in dire straits right now. And I think one of the negative consequences as these attacks continue to unfold, is Europe will become more and more divided. There is a strain a huge strain on the project that is the European Union and we are going to have to work out a way to deal with this. And these sorts of attacks are completely unpredictable.

So the only way really is a part from resilients is to start to looking at long-term strategies to prevent the division and the further polarization of our societies. Which the only on a long-term basis is the only way we're going to deal with this.

[21:35:09] BERMAN: Naturally and ISIS or these terrorist groups keep on trying to provoke these divisions. All right, Maajid Nawaz thanks so much for being with us.

NAWAZ: Pleasure.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Coming up, late new word on a huge explosion in Mexico also, a private reception with the president-elect, the hunting trip with one of his sons. That was reportedly the promise of an invitation of donors willing to spend a half a million dollars or more for a post- inauguration event.

David Fahrenthold of "the Washington Post" just wrote a detailed piece about it all and he joins us next to explain

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: We have a late update now on that huge and deadly fireworks exploitation north of Mexico City. We are just learning that three children hurt in the blast will be taken to a hospital in Texas to be treated for what is being described as extensive burns. New video shows what can really only be described as chaos in the ground in the aftermath as people try to get away. But as you can see, it really be hard to know even where to run. 72 people were injured in this awful, awful, awful accident. At least 29 people have lost their lives. And that death toll did rise throughout the evening. So we're keeping a very close eye on that.

Breaking news as well tonight on the political front. It concerns a planned fund-raiser or an apparently planned fund-raiser that promised a private reception with president-elect Donald Trump at a hunting or fishing trip with Eric Trump or Donald Jr.

[21:40:06] That reportedly was the offer dangled in front of people willing to spend $500,000 or more camouflaging camp links being fundraiser to the day after the inauguration. TMZ got a draft to that invitation. Now a spokesperson says the President-elect and he's sons aren't, they're not, involved in planning the event.

David Farenthold of the "Washington Post," he wrote about this story just a short time ago and he joins me now.

David, so help me understand here what exactly was initially offered? $500,000 in exchange for what?

DAVID FARENTHOLD, "WASHINGTON POST" REPORTER: Well, there were two offers. You get that $500,000 and get a hunting trip with Donald Trump's Jr. and Eric Trump or you could pay $1 million and get a sort of a private reception for you and 16 guests with the actual president, with Donald Trump, the day after he was inaugurated.

BERMAN: And to be clear now, the Trump transition team are now saying the brothers are not involved in any way?

FARENTHOLD: That's right. So the people who were organizing this are friends of Donald Trump Jr. And they had actually gone so far as to incorporate a non-profit in Texas called the Opening Day Foundation to run this event and take the money from it. And Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are listed in the paperwork as leaders of that foundation and it was listed as co-chairman or honorary chairman of this event.

Now we're being told all they had and nothing to do with it. They had no knowledge of it before and they're not involved. So either that -- this whole thing was done by their friends without their knowledge or we're not getting the full story.

BERMAN: The organizers, though, didn't they say the brothers took part of discussions about the fund-raiser and they are or remain honorary chairman of the whole thing? Could it possible they're not involved in any way?

FARENTHOLD: It certainly could be. So this bigger take away is that Trump has really avoided drawing any sort of lines between himself and his business, which Don and Eric are supposed to run, and drawing any lines between himself and his family. And I think Trump believes that maybe there's no cost to that. But the cost to it is something that matters even to him. And that is, he's losing control of his own reputation. And so there are apparently third parties out there who are taking advantage of the idea that you could buy the president's time and they're going to try to sell it. And it seems like by the Trump family's telling of that, that's what happened here. The Trump sons' friends went out there and sort of used that idea to try to sell the president's time.

BERMAN: For a charity that they set up, apparently, just very, very recently. So as of now, to be clear, there's no hunting trip or no official meeting with President-elect Trump, so whatever was going to happen, if it was going to happen, is not going to happen now?

FARENTHOLD: Well, what it is, that the event is still going on, Toby Keith is still going to perform, and now, if you pay $1 million, you get a meeting with a "Special guest", or you go and to hunt a $500,000 is a hunting trip is with members, you know, people close to the event. They're not spelling out that it is Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. It could very well be. But they're not being cagey about it. Certainly, f I'd paid $1 million to meet the president and I met somebody else, you think that person would be pretty unhappy. So, but they're certainly, they're not saying it explicitly now.

BERMAN: And of course this comes after, you know, Ivanka Trump was on that fund-raising solicitation, that auction offering a 45-minute private audience with her. So, there are other things not completely dissimilar that have gone on.

FARENTHOLD: Right. And this is in addition to things like Trump continuing to own a stake in his businesses, to own his hotel in Washington, D.C., that foreign governments have begun spending a lot of money to rent out the rooms and stay in and helps of influencing Trump. So, you know, we have thought there will be questions from day one about whether Trump's businesses were being used as a conduit from other people, other companies, other countries, trying influence Trump. But now we're seeing that the Trump family at least this, this copy (ph) from the Eric Trump Foundation and this thing, whatever it was, with the two sons, they're just literally selling time with the first family or with the president.

It's a very direct pay to meet the president. That's something we haven't really seen before and it's going to be a huge distraction if Trump doesn't find some way of cutting himself off here.

BERMAN: Made to me, it's interesting phraseology. You did speak to some watchdog groups about this. What are they saying?

FARENTHOLD: Well, they're saying that, you know, this is something that we obviously, there's been situations before where big donors give a lot of money to go to inaugural balls. And the president's going to show up at those events.

But to say, if you pay me $1 million, which is a huge amount of money for this thing. You give me $1 million, I'll get you time with Donald Trump. Or you pay me $60,000, I'll get you time with Ivanka, who is going to be sort of the de facto first lady. That very direct, here's the exact price tag for some portion of the first family member's time, that's what's new and that's what's corrosive. If the idea is to get on the president's agenda, you just have to out bid somebody else. I found the way that the president is supposed to work.

BERMAN: All right, David Farenthold, stay with us. Back now with our panel, joining us "Washington Post" political writer Philip Bump, Trump supporter Kayleigh McEnany, "Daily Caller" senior contributor Matt Lewis, and Democratic strategist, Maria Cardona.

You know, Kayleigh, this confusion speaks to the issue that we've been having since the presidential election. The idea that there is no, as of yet, clearly defined firewall between Donald Trump and his sons and the businesses.

[21:45:12] KAYLEIGH MCENANY, TRUMP SUPPORTER: Well, this event isn't happening. To me, this is a lot of nothing to see here. Because you have the event holders who are saying one thing and then campaign and the former poll typically saying, that they had nothing to do with this fund-raiser. They are not involved with this at all. It is the organizers who conceived to this idea.

And what I think we're seeing is on the part of the left, there's a desperate effort to try to make Donald Trump into Hillary Clinton, the person with ethical issues when it comes to charitable foundations is not Donald Trump, it is in fact, Hillary Clinton, and there's a effort to make him into that and he is not in fact that.

BERMAN: To be clear, you're absolutely right. The Trump transition team denies that the sons knew anything about it. But David Fahrenthold points out, what that means though, if they have nothing to do about it, they had friends who thought they could raise some money for this charity using access to the Trump kids and the president-elect himself, you know, as a hook. So that in and of itself is interesting. And in and of itself has nothing to do on its face with Hillary Clinton. And I don't know whether TMZ is left, right, or center. I don't know that they have any political affiliation at all. And I know that the empirical was simply just reporting on the facts of what was going on.

So, I haven't heard from the Clinton team or any Democrat about this story which just broke over the last few hours. So it's not just about the Clintons.

Matt Lewis, let me ask you, you know, half a million dollars, is a lot of money. $1 million is a lot of money. Does it pass the smell test?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: A million here, a million yeah, they are eventually are talking about some money. Look, I think the problem with this is the hypocrisy. Donald Trump ran to drain the swamp, ran against this sort of cronyism. Having said that, I would actually push back a little bit and say, you know, that this is actually standard operating procedure. You know, people give money all the time for access to politicians. When somebody gives money and Barack Obama comes to a fund-raiser, they are paying -- now, maybe they agree with him on the issues, maybe they want to support him or the candidate he's endorsing or maybe they want access to the president. So this is actually, I would say, not abnormal, maybe it's all too normal.

BERMAN: No, but manybe it is the swamp, right?

LEWIS: Exactly.

BERMAN: It is the swamp, that's being drained?

LEWIS: But in this case, I would say the one caveat in addition to that would be, ostensibly, assuming this is even happening or was even part of the deal, this would be for charity. Not for a political campaign, not to elect Donald Trump, but for conservationism.

BERMAN: And I do want to talk about charity just in a moment. But David Farenthold, I want to get your take right now on that idea, the idea of the swamp and all of this.

FARENTHOLD: Well, I just wanted to, through (inaudible) that was saying. The charity angle in this is really interesting. Because this was originally sort of sold as, it's going to a conservation charity, so it's going to this Opening Day Foundation, the thing that just got started. We we're told today that's actually that's wrong. The Opening Day Foundation is just going to be an arm of that something called the Boon and Crockett Club, which is a conservation group that keeps big game hunting records.

But the Boon and Crockett Club tell us actually, we're just considering whether we're participating in this. So there's so far a veneer of charity or an idea that charity benefits here. But we haven't actually figured out if there is a charity that benefits or what it is. So that's an extra sort of level of oddness about this.

BERMAN: That's interesting, and obviously that's a scenario which needs to be look out much more. And it does seem there's something chaotic or poorly planned about this. At a minimum, right that we need to find out more about.

You know, Maria Cardona, you heard about the pushback from Kayleigh McEnany right there talking about the idea of well, isn't this just what the Clintons did? If this is for charity, you know, asking for donations to charity so you can be close to the Clintons?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: First of all, the Clinton Foundation is an actual charity that actually does charitable work, that actually saves lives around the world. So first, you know, it wasn't a charity that was created as a front to then sell access to the president.

MCENANY: It was. After the meeting she took a Secretary of State, then pay out bid government (inaudible) donors. You went actually as you go to in ...

(CROSSTALK)

CARDONA: And secondly, let's just say, OK, the hypocrisy here? That is exactly what Donald Trump ran against.

(CROSSTALK)

CARDONA: That is exactly what Donald Trump said in terms of draining the swamp, he's filling the swamp.

BERMAN: Philip Bump, the question for you for after the break is this.

PHILIP BUMP, WASHINGTON POST POLITICAL WRITER: Yeah.

BERMAN: When will we here -- will we ever hear about how Donald Trump will separate himself from his sons, from his business interests, and doesn't just beg for a greater explanation. Think about your answer.

MCENANY: He gets time to think?

BERMAN: We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [21:53:15] BERMAN: We've been talking about a story in the "Washington Post" jut out tonight describing what could have been a fundraiser, at least with the authority of Donald Trump, Jr. and Eric Trump, the promise access to Donald Trump sons and perhaps the president-elect himself. Back now with the panel.

Philip Bump, you know, December 15 was supposed to be the day that Donald Trump was going to tell us how he was going to separate himself from his businesses. He either canceled or postponed that revelation, that news conference, and when you hear about this fundraising attempt by his kids, if in fact, that was whether what is, it just illustrates, we still don't have the answers about how he is going to separate himself.

BUMP: Now, that's very true. And I think we should start off and say that it is absolutely hypocritical for at least the example of Ivanka Trump meeting with Ivanka Trump in exchange of $60,000 that's exactly what he was saying, Hillary Clinton was doing at the State Department getting money at the Clinton Foundation or to have access to Hillary Clinton. It's important to note, Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump and Donald Jr. all part of the transition team. These are folk who are extensively in charge to figure out if who's going to be the next administration. Who's going to be the staffing it. And it seems as though Donald Jr. actually have a hand in picking the next secretary of interior.

That said, there's a difference between getting this money to charity and giving this money to line the Trump's pockets. And that's the bigger question, that's what you're asking about here.

Trump himself tweeted after that press conference was canceled. There is a very simple matter, the media is making a lot out of it. Although his staffers said it's very complicated, and that's part of what the problem is. The big question is, on January 20th when he becomes the president of the United States, here's this hotel that's literally half mile down the street from the White House. At that hotel, as you mentioned before, there are countries that are getting rooms and holding banquets there because they know that's the right thing to do to have that Trump name on what they're doing. And there's a clause in constitution which, everyone is here about a million times. A lot of people will argue that is in violation of the humulins (ph) clause just as soon as he becomes the president of the Unites States.

[21:54:59] MCENANY: I do think there is a missing piece to the formula, though, when we talk about, let's say, the coffee with Ivanka which didn't happen. That's a donor giving money which would have gone to the Eric Trump Foundation and gone state Jude. The missing component here that Hillary Clinton had that is noticeably absent here is the government access, it's the favors, it getting 20 percent, the 30 percent U.S. uranium. It's being important ...

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: Again, we're talking about the Trump family here, the issue is access. If you get access to Ivanka Trump who we believe is going to perhaps have an office in the White House and be working on issues of state, that's access to the government right there.

MCENANY: But a tangible favor. Where -- for instance, in the case of Hillary Clinton, you donate to Clinton Foundation. That was never paid by the advisory board.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: That's the quo in quid pro quo which is oftenly our (inaudible) ...

CARDONA: And that was always circumstantial and never proven.

(CROSSTALK)

CARDONA: No, the timing did not work.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: Hang on, hang on. Matt Lewis, you're going to be the last (inaudible), based on the appearance of impropriety, the faintest whip, that is what draining the swamp is supposed to be.

LEWIS: Right, but I think at the end of the day, that Philip is right. The business side of it is what bothers me the most because that is about using the power of government and access to lives.

BERAMN: Do you have any explanation, hint about what he'll do?

LEWIS: No. We need him. And if you like Donald Trump and you're rooting for Donald Trump, he needs to fix this for his own good.

BERMAN: Watch these base.

CARDONA: I agree. Instead, hunt his president.

LEWIS: Absolutely.

CARDONA: And ultimately bring it down if he doesn't do anything about it.

BERMAN: Watch this base, we bring when it happens. Thanks everyone, we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[22:00:07] BERMAN: That does it for us. "CNN TONIGHT" with Don Lemon starts now.