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Interview With State Department Spokesman John Kirby; Terror Investigation; Turkey Assassination Probe. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 20, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Just five more days until Christmas, and the Christmas market terrorist still on the loose.

The lead starts right now. They had the wrong guy. Berlin police saying that the suspect who drove a tractor-trailer through a crowded Christmas market, that person is still on the loose, as ISIS claims he is one of their -- quote -- "soldiers."

Donald Trump saying attacks around the world are a wakeup call in the war on terror. But will president-elect Trump be ready on day one to do more than tweet about it?

Plus, Boston strong. From the blasts that terrorized a city to the 102-hour manhunt that froze it to its core, actor Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg join me to talk about honoring Boston's finest in the new film "Patriots Day."

Good evening, afternoon. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Our world lead today, ISIS says one of its -- quote, unquote -- "soldiers" was at the wheel of the truck that rampaged through a West Berlin Christmas market, murdering 12 and injuring 48 more, some of them quite seriously. The terrorist group published the claim minutes ago on its media channel.

German authorities right now are in the middle of a manhunt for the terrorists or potentially terrorists responsible for the carnage. Hours ago, officials released a suspect after forensic evidence failed to link him to the truck used as a weapon of mass murder.

CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is in Berlin for us at the site of the terrorist attack.

Fred, this morning, it seemed as though Berlin police were fairly confident they had their man. But now they say no. Do they have any leads, any description of the terrorist, any surveillance video?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, they say they're getting videos from several people who were actually there. And they say that every single video, every photo that they get from people is valuable to them.

However, so far, we can't say that they have come out and said that they have any sort of leads or that they know whether or not this was someone who acted on his own or whether or not there would be some larger group behind all this.

In fact, the German federal prosecutor's office put out a statement earlier today when it sort of became clear that they had the wrong guy in custody, saying, look, at this point in time, we simply don't know who is behind this. We don't know how many people. We don't know what sort of ideology might have been behind this.

And then of course, in the late afternoon hours, you had ISIS come out and claiming whoever is behind that, without offering any details, it was -- quote -- "a soldier of the caliphate." Here's what happened.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): ISIS now says it was the inspiration behind a deadly attack in Berlin, where this large black truck plowed through a holiday market, killing at least a dozen people and injuring nearly 50 more on Monday.

Now German officials say the driver and others could still be on the loose, possibly armed and willing to kill.

HOLGER MUNCH, GERMAN FEDERAL CRIMINAL POLICE OFFICE (through translator): We do not know if there was one perpetrator or several perpetrators yet. We do not know if there was support given to the perpetrator. We possibly need to assume that we have not arrested the right one, but we have not fully clarified this.

PLEITGEN: Police had detained a foreign national who entered the country as a refugee last summer. But according to the prosecutor, that man has now been released because the investigations -- quote -- "have not produced imminent suspicion against him."

With no one in custody, clues inside the truck raise even more questions. The body of a Polish man was found shot in the passenger seat. The truck company's owner fears it is his cousin, the truck's regular driver.

ARIEL ZURAWSKI, TRUCK COMPANY OWNER (through translator): They did something to him, God forbid, so it looks. My wife spoke to his wife. She could not get through to him. Something was wrong.

PLEITGEN: The gun is nowhere to be found. Investigators are interviewing witnesses for more leads.

The scene is reminiscent of the deadly ISIS attack in Nice, France, last July; 86 were killed there when a truck plowed through the promenade. Just last month, the U.S. State Department warned travelers of an ISIS threat in Europe, writing -- quote -- "U.S. citizens should exercise caution at holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets."

ANGELA MERKEL, GERMAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): You must as things stand now assume it was a terrorist attack. PLEITGEN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a visit to the

silenced holiday market today. She is facing increased criticism since the attack for Germany's wide acceptance of refugees. More than 890,000 asylum seekers have been accepted into German in the past year.

MERKEL (through translator): We don't want to live with the fear of evil paralyzing us. Even if that's difficult right now, we will find the force to live the life we want to live in Germany, free, together and open.


PLEITGEN: At the same time, of course, Jake, the Germans are very much aware that they need to try to catch whomever was at the wheel of the truck.

However, so far, we really haven't heard very much in the way of any sort of raids going on or other police action outside of this area here in central Berlin.


At the same time, however, the Berlin authorities are telling people here in the city to remain vigilant, and if they do see anything suspicious to not act on their own and certainly call in the authorities, because, of course, they believe that whomever was at the wheel of that truck and obviously escaped is most probably still armed and most certainly still very dangerous, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Fred Pleitgen in Berlin for us, thank you so much.

As we said earlier, ISIS put out word minutes ago, a claim that one of its "soldiers" drove the truck through a crowded Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding dozens more.

CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank is live in Poland for us.

Paul, ISIS issued the claim via its semi-official media or news agency. Does the language they used in the announcement indicate that this was ISIS-directed or ISIS-inspired?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: It's more ISIS- inspired. They're not saying explicitly about directed, that they trained or sent back an operative or operatives to launch task.

They're saying more that whomever the individual was responded to their calls for attacks in the West. They're claiming that they inspired this. But they're claiming that, Jake, with absolutely no evidence to back up the claim.

In fact, the German investigators, as far as it's been publicly articulated, have not yet found any connection whatsoever to Islamist terrorism, to an Islamist motive in this attack. Now, ISIS may know something that the German investigators don't, because we have seen in some previous cases where similar language has been used in similar claims that the perpetrators were actually in touch with ISIS and were even then able to upload a video claiming responsibility to ISIS.

We saw that back in July in Germany with the attack on a train that didn't lead to fatalities, but led to injuries in Bavaria. That was an Afghan refugee in that case. We will have to wait and see.

It might turn out ISIS will look really foolish here. It might turn out that they know something that even the German investigators don't know.

TAPPER: Paul Cruickshank in London on this developing story, thank you so much.

Joining me now to discuss terrorism abroad and the U.S. response to these attacks, State Department spokesman John Kirby.

Sir, thanks for joining me, as always. Appreciate it.

JOHN KIRBY, U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: You bet. Glad to be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: ISIS issued the statement claiming one of its "soldiers" purposely drove this truck through the Berlin Christmas market.

Does the information the U.S. government has, does it match up with our reporting that this seems to be ISIS-inspired, but not ISIS- directed?

KIRBY: We don't have enough information right now to back up the claims by ISIS that they inspired or directed or were in any way involved in this.

We think it's prudent for the Germans to treat this as a plausible terrorist attack. We think that makes sense. But as you have heard yourself, there is no direct evidence here, even a tie to a specific terrorist group or network.

Clearly, though, Jake, it does bear the hallmarks of what happened back in Nice in July. And so we think it's prudent, obviously, to go forward with that at least being one plausible explanation. But we just don't have any information -- we don't have any more information, certainly, than the Germans do, and nothing that we have seen on our side tells us that the ISIS claims of responsibility are backed up right now.

TAPPER: John, as you know, the State Department on November 21 issued a blanket travel warning for Americans traveling in Europe, saying -- quote -- "Credible information indicates that ISIS, al Qaeda and the affiliates continue to plan terrorist attacks in Europe with a focus on the upcoming holiday season and associated events."

The warning also said U.S. citizens should exercise caution at holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets. This incident sounds exactly like what the State Department was warning about.

KIRBY: Yes. Sadly, it sure does, Jake.

This is not the kind of thing that you want to be right about, that's for sure. It was the prudent thing to do at the time. It wasn't based -- when we issued that back in November, it was right before Thanksgiving. It wasn't based on any specific threat stream, just the knowledge that we had through the interagency and the intel community that we knew these groups were thinking about those kinds of soft targets, particularly during the holiday season, that it would be attractive to them.

I would remind you we did one back in May, as you might remember, for summer travel, for people going on holiday in Europe back then. It is something that we're constantly talking about, thinking about, analyzing. This wasn't based on a specific threat and, as I said, this is not the kind of thing you want to be right about.

TAPPER: President-elect Trump put out a statement yesterday alleging that radical Islamists were behind the truck attack in Berlin, saying the horror at that Christmas market was -- quote -- "part of their global jihad" -- unquote.

Does that comport with any intelligence or any direct information from the Germans or U.S. intelligence about this incident?

KIRBY: Well, as I said earlier, Jake, we don't have any more information than the Germans at this point.


And nothing that we do have seen that we do have tells us definitively that this was an act of terror, specifically an act of terror, even more specifically by violent extremists.

Now, that could turn out to be the case. And I can't speak for the president-elect or what information they may have had to base those comments on. It could actually turn out to be exactly that, but we think it's important to let the investigation run its course and not jump to conclusions.

That's why we took a bit of a cautious approach yesterday. That's why today we are certainly going to be following the lead of the Germans in terms of what they're learning in real time.

TAPPER: Let's turn to another tragedy, the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey. We have already seen some allies of Vladimir Putin in the Duma in Russia trying to imply that the West is somehow responsible. Why would that be? Why would Putin's allies be suggesting that the West played a role in this assassination one way or another?

KIRBY: Well, it's hard to say. I have no idea. I dealt with this a little bit ago in our daily press briefing.

Any claim that the United States or the West was involved in this or supported it or encouraged it or was in any way at all involved in such a despicable act of murder and assassination is ludicrous. It's obviously ridiculous and not true.

What we want to do is offer -- we offer support to the investigation that the Russians and the Turks are doing. If they need it, we're certainly willing to help it. We obviously condemn this incredible, unspeakable act of violence.

And what we want to see is everybody focus on obviously -- obviously whatever terrorist threats are out there, that we do so in a cooperative way. So I can't justify the comments by members of the Duma or some of the rhetoric we have seen coming out of Turkey, too, that this might have been tied to the fact that Gulen is here in the United States. There is simply no basis for that.

TAPPER: Well, let me ask you about that, because Turkey's foreign minister told your boss Secretary of State John Kerry that this Muslim cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen, that his movement was behind this attack.

Turkish officials have long wanted Gulen extradited, returned to Turkey. Have they reiterated that request since the assassination and is Secretary of State Kerry considering the extradition of Gulen from Pennsylvania back to Turkey?

KIRBY: As far as I know, that process is still ongoing. It has to be fact-based. It has to be evidence-based.

They have made no bones about their concerns over extradition. So, it's something that they repeatedly raise in various forms. We understand their concerns in that regard. But it has to be an evidence-based process. As far as I know, no decisions have been made on extradition to this point in time.

I would add that, in the conversation today with Secretary Kerry and the foreign minister, the secretary raised his concerns over the rhetoric coming out of Turkey with respect to ties to the U.S. and Gulen with respect to this assassination, which obviously are not founded.

TAPPER: All right, John Kirby, thank you so much. Appreciate it, sir.

KIRBY: Pleasure. Thank you.

TAPPER: CNN has asked, but Trump's transition team will not say whether the president-elect has gotten classified briefings from U.S. intelligence officials in the wake of these attacks abroad. We do know his own national security folks are in his ear. Is that enough? That part of the story next.



[16:16:17] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Our politics lead: President-elect Donald Trump weighing in on the horrific attacks in Turkey and Germany and a shooting in an Islamic center in Switzerland, all over the last 24 hours. Sources telling CNN that Trump has been in touch with his national security team and is being briefed by them on the unfolding event.

CNN's Jessica Schneider is covering the Trump transition in New York.

Jessica, this comes as President-elect Trump is also being engaged in a war of words with former President Bill Clinton?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you got it, Jake. As we know, Donald Trump does not discriminate on Twitter. In fact, just hours after his stern message condemning those attacks overseas, he lashed out at former President Clinton, disputing the details of a personal phone call between the two and then criticizing Hillary Clinton's campaign strategy.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The president-elect spending the week in Palm Beach, but taking to Twitter to condemn the attacks in Europe and Ankara, Turkey. "Today, there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany and it is only getting worse. The civilized world must change thinking."

Trump terming terror, despite officials yet not tying the attacks to a group or motive, Trump's team says he's conferred with his national security advisers.

SEAN SPICER, RNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: He's closely monitoring and being briefed on this rapidly unfolding event.

SCHNEIDER: But no word if he has received recent briefings from U.S. intelligence. Nevertheless, the incoming president doubled down in his statement saying, "ISIS and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad."

Trump's team also going further, saying using the term "Islamic terrorism" is necessary even though President Obama has refrained from using it.

SPICER: Mr. Trump has made it very clear, he understands the threat that radical Islamic terrorism poses to our nation and frankly to our friends and neighbors around the globe and that we've got to be able to call it what it is and root it out. We cannot be politically correct.

SCHNEIDER: Trump's tweets also turning on Bill Clinton after the 42nd president's comments to locals near his Chappaqua, New York home were published by a local paper. "He doesn't know much. One thing he does know is how to get angry white men to vote for him."

Trump retorting. "Bill Clinton stated that I called him after the election. Wrong. He called me, with a very nice congratulations. He doesn't know much, especially how to get people, even with an unlimited budget, out to vote in vital swing states and more. They focused on the wrong states."

Clinton conceding one point to Trump, tweeting, "Here is one thing @real Donald Trump and I can agree on. I called him after the election."

Even as he laments the outcome --

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT: At the end, we had the Russians and the FBI deal, and she couldn't prevail against that. She did everything else and still won by 2.8 million votes.


SCHNEIDER: And that back and forth aside, questions still loom about how Trump will frame his foreign policy. Trump tweeting just a few minutes ago about an unexpected meeting at Mar-a-Lago this past weekend. Trump has now confirmed he sat down with the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, a man who had previously cut business ties with the president-elect because of Trump's inflammatory comments about Mexicans -- Jake.

TAPPER: Interesting. Jessica Schneider, thank you so much.

President-elect Trump was quick to call the attacks abroad acts of terror even though U.S. officials are not quite there yet. What kind of message does it send? We'll discuss, next.

Plus, the investigation that followed the pain pills, then followed the money and uncovered one state's alarming trend that may explain why so many people in that state are addicted to opioids.

Stay with us.


[16:22:50] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with politics now. In just 31 days, Donald Trump will be sworn in as our nation's 45th president.

Lots to talk about with my panel, Dan Balz, chief correspondent for "The Washington Post" joins me now, Heidi Przybyla, senior politics reporter for "USA Today", and Anna Palmer, senior Washington correspondent for "Politico".

Thank you all for being here.

Let me play some unusual sound. This is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talking to Diane Rehm about any ethics concerns that President Trump might face in the White House.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: In the case of the president, he has broad ability to organize the White House the way he wants to. He also has frankly the power of the pardon. I mean, he -- it's a totally open power, and he could simply say, look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anybody finds them to have behaved against the rules, period. And then, technically, under the Constitution, he has that level of authority.


TAPPER: That's quite a statement.

DAN BALZ, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: Quite a statement. We have never heard one quite like that.

TAPPER: No, not really.

BALZ: But this -- I -- Jake, I think this is an issue that's going to be with us throughout the presidency. I think -- I think the issues are very difficult to resolve. He seems determined not to want to resolve them cleanly or clearly certainly at this point. Everything we know about him based on what he did or didn't do with his tax forms during the campaign is to resist, you know, kind of his -- the convention. And so, I think that there will be an ongoing battle and ongoing questions about it and he'll resist.

TAPPER: And, I think, Anna, I think one of the things from President- elect Trump might not fully understand is that a lot of the people calling for him to really wall off his business interests from his White House and these include the "Wall Street Journal" editorial page, plenty of Republican officials, these are people a lot of them whom actually want his presidency to succeed and think that all these potential conflicts of interest are going to hurt him.

ANNA PALMER, SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: It's just a constant drip, drip, drip, right? I mean, every single day, whether it's the "New York Times" or us at "Politico", there are new reports of conflicts of interest of what his children are doing, who they're meeting with, is he going it divorce himself actually from his businesses or not in terms of the technicalities.

[16:25:00] And, you know, if you are a Republican on Capitol Hill, you want to actually have his agenda move forward, this makes it really hard to do.

TAPPER: Let's talk about the terrorist attacks and how President- elect Trump has been dealing with them. He's been calling them "radical Islamic terrorism". Obviously, the attack in Berlin sure looks like it probably is. And I'm not entirely sure if it was radical Islamic terrorism or just anti-Russian terrorism in the incident in Turkey.

There have been critics, Heidi, who say, you know, he shouldn't be making these statements right now. He is not yet president. President Obama should really be the one talking about this, not the president-elect.

What do you think?

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, SENIOR POLITICS REPORTER, USA TODAY: It was the same thing with China and the drone. But that doesn't stop him from saying it. What I think what you're seeing here is the very different approach, at least rhetorically, between the outgoing administration and the incoming administration.

Trump was quick to judge this as terrorism. He was also notably quick to define this very differently from Obama who defined this as an attack on nation-states by an external enemy, whereas Trump defined it along religious lines. He talked about an attack basically implying on Christians by Islamic radical terrorists. So, that is the big distinction.

In terms of tactical differences, though, and this is where the rubber meets the road, we never got to that in this campaign, Jake -- what the actual tactical differences are going to be between the strategy of the current administration and the new one. Because as ISIS loses ground in the Middle East and Iraq, we're down to Mosul, you are fighting an ideology and terrorism, you know, radical terrorism, that has spread all over Europe and potentially in the United States. You can't, quote, "bomb the hell out of that." There's got to be something different.

TAPPER: And when you ask -- Sean Spicer, spokesman for the transition, was asked how Donald Trump will be different in dealing with radical Islamic terrorism or ISIS, and he said he won't be hung up on political correctness. He'll use the term "radical Islamic terrorism".

But beyond that, and that is something a lot of his voters will care about, but beyond that tactically, what will he do differently, do we know?

BALZ: No, I don't think we do know. I mean, he's not really laid that out. He's been rhetorically different than the president as everybody knows. He's been quick to declare certain things when terrorist activities occur. He's in the sense still in campaign mode. I mean, he's operating as he did during the campaign. He will, once he's become president, he'll be asked, what are you actually going to do? And so far, we don't really have a clue on that.

Whenever he was pressed on that during the campaign, I mean, his rhetoric was very strong. I mean, I thought of him as a kind of muscular interventionist. I mean, he is somebody who talks a good game but he has resisted the application of U.S. force. So, we don't know exactly what he wants to do.

TAPPER: Interesting development that the "New York Times" mentioned and it's on the Facebook page of the far right Austrian Freedom Party. They claim that they have met with General Flynn, Donald Trump's designated national security adviser at Trump Tower. Flynn denies meeting with the head of the party, but in terms of whether Flynn met with other representatives of the party or people from the party met with representatives of the Trump transition team, we don't know. We just know that Flynn denies having met with the head of the party.

There is a lot of concern people have about these alliances that Bannon and others are forming with these far right parties in Europe. PALMER: Well, it's just different. I mean, they're taking a very

different tactical, you know, strategy in terms of how they're going to deal with either the official governments or are they going to try to have these alliances with these kind of far-right groups that have really moved to alliances with Russia and Moscow. And you see that, happening right now.

So, I think when you look at and we talk to foreign policy experts, I think there is a lot of concern about what does this mean for where his foreign policy is going to go.

TAPPER: Why are people so concerned, Heidi? Why are people so concerned about Steve Bannon reaching out to the La Pen family in France?, representatives of the Trump transition meeting with representatives of the far right Austrian Freedom Party if, in fact, that meeting happened? Why?

PRZYBYLA: Well, that party, it was formed by ex-Nazis. That's why. And because the Trump -- incoming Trump administration has tried as much as it can to distinguish -- to separate itself from the same kind of far-right Nazi, you know, fringe movement here. But that is the connection. And it's also the influence of Russia.

I do -- I think this really flew under the radar during the campaign, these connections that were taking place. When you have Nigel Farage fly across the ocean and go into the spin room to talk to the media on behalf of Donald Trump.

And the one thing that you see is the Kremlin, in different ways, exerting itself across Eastern and now Western Europe and in the United States, because this Austrian party, for instance, one of the things that you see happening there is talking about easing sanctions. Well, what is the discussion right now about what Trump might do despite the hacking that has been taking place? Is to come in and ease sanctions on Russia.

TAPPER: Heidi, Dan, Anna, thank you so much. I appreciate you being here. Merry Christmas if I don't see you before Saturday.

Next up, profiting from addiction? A new report accusing big pharmacy companies of making money off an epidemic that's killing more people than gun homicides. Stay with us.