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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

U.S. Navy Ship Fires Warning Shot at Iranian Boats; Saakashvili Talks Trump, Hacks, Russia's Putin; Tough Confirmation Hearing Expected for Jeff Sessions. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired January 9, 2017 - 11:30   ET

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


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[11:32:43] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: More breaking news this morning. A U.S. Navy ship fired warning shots after a confrontation with Iran. U.S. officials say, on Sunday, Iranian vessels approached a U.S. ship several times at high rates of speed near the Strait of Hormuz.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get the details on what happened.

CNN pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, joins us.

Barbara, what do you know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORERSPONDENT: Good morning. The U.S. Navy is offering few details but is saying there were half a dozen encounters with five or six Iranian boats on Sunday as three ships were entering the Strait of Hormuz going up the Persian Gulf. Not unusual for the Iranians to shadow the U.S. Navy. This time, it lasted some nine hours. And at one point, four of the Iranian boats came so close, so fast to the "USS Mahan," a U.S. Navy destroyer, that the "Mahan" issued several warnings and then fired warning shots to make the Iranians back off. And, indeed, they did. Before it was all over, a helicopter dropped smoke grenades into the water. The Iranians, on their side, flew a UAV, and unmanned drone, near the U.S. Navy. A long period of harassment over a nine-hour period. Nobody hurt, no injuries. But it just really underscores the level of tension on the high seas, especially when they encounter the Iranians -- John, Kate?

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Barbara, thank you so much. Barbara is working on more details on what went down there. Barbara, thanks.

STARR: Sure.

BOLDUAN: Coming us for us, Donald Trump gets ready to face the press. His cabinet nominees get ready to face the Senate. Which one will have an easier go of it?

Ahead, warnings from the Government Ethics Office and why they have "great concern," in their words, about the vetting the Donald Trump's picks.

BERMAN: Plus, Vladimir Putin hates our next guest. In fact, Putin once said he wanted to, quote, "hang him by the balls." That was said.

BOLDUAN: Did you just say that on TV?

[11:34:36] BERMAN: I just did.

The former president of Georgia joins us on set, live next. Hear why he has met with Donald Trump and what he thinks now of the Russian hack into the election season.

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BERMAN: Just this morning, both WikiLeaks and the Kremlin slammed the U.S. intelligence agencies' reports that concluded Russia hacked into the U.S. election season in order to help elect Donald Trump. WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange called the report "embarrassing to the reputation of U.S. intelligence services." A kremlin spokesman echoed the words of Donald Trump, calling it a, quote, "full-scale witch hunt."

BOLDUAN: Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, and opposition leader now in Ukraine, is a bitter enemy of Vladimir Putin's. He was the president of Georgia during Georgia's five-day war with Russia in 2008. He also considers Donald Trump a friend.

For a unique perspective, he is joining us now.

Mr. President, thank you for being here.

SAAKASHVILI: Thank you for inviting me.

[11:39:54] BOLDUAN: Thank you.

On the intelligence report that we've talked so much about, that is very important right now in terms of the conversation leading up to the president-elect's inauguration, do you believe the U.S. intelligence report that points the finger not only at Russia but directly at Vladimir Putin for being behind the hacks?

SAAKASHVILI: First of all, one has to see, obviously, the whole report. I have only seen part of it. I have no doubt that Putin is enacting intelligence operations. I some problems with one part. They talk a lot about, for instance, Russian television, RT, but then the question I have, if everybody knows that RT is not real media but actually is an instrument for basically dirty tricks, and war kind of propaganda, why don't they put them on the sanctions list? That's about sanctions.

The second question I have, if Vladimir Putin directly ordered it, which he did, and everybody acknowledges that, more or less, why doesn't the administration go directly after Vladimir Putin? One thing, the U.S. expelled diplomats but Putin has cash in the U.S. Putin has lots of personal interests in the U.S. There are lots of leverages, how the United States can get Vladimir Putin. Why these methods were not used in retaliation of what was acknowledge as direct involvement of the Russian president? BERMAN: So you think the repercussions should have been harsher, they

should respond more harshly. You've been a friend of Donald Trump a long time. Can you explain then, if you're calling for an even harsher reaction, why the president-elect of the U.S., a man you know, hasn't even condemned the hack?

SAAKASHVILI: Donald Trump's response about the cyber protection of the United States is the right one. And the other thing is that --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Don't you need to acknowledge it before you stop it from happening?

SAAKASHVILI: He did acknowledge it.

(CROSSTALK)

SAAKASHVILI: It depends on how you look at it. The problem is people were saying these hacks and Russian interferences influenced the U.S. elections. It's not only about hacking into the elections system. I don't imagine under any circumstances KGB tricks swaying the United States public opinion. I don't see it. I don't think Putin has that kind of leverage, to really convince U.S. people toward this or the other way. And that's why, in that respect, I also have my reservation. I know Putin -- we in the Ukraine are fighting, we're on the front line of fighting for freedom. Our soldiers have sacrificed lives to basically keep away this threat from the Western civilization. So, I know what I'm talking about. The only thing is that I know what Putin is capable of. He can kill people. He can also, of course, have an influence on the world, as he did in Georgia's case, in Ukraine's case, in a very adverse, bad manner. I don't see him swaying U.S. public opinion.

BOLDUAN: It can be two things, though.

SAAKASHVILLI: Yeah.

BOLDUAN: You can have these two thoughts in one head, right, that they tried and successfully hacked into systems. But the intelligence community was not concluding -- there was no conclusion that it changed votes in the United States. You can have those two things. And that seems to be -- there's hesitancy amongst Donald Trump and his team of being able to even accept that, that those had to two things are separate.

SAAKASHVILI: When I look at harsh measures applied in the late stages of the administration, whether it's too little, too late. Because I've seen the other approach as well. Back in 2012, when the Russians heavily intruded in our elections, the same director of National Intelligence, Clapper, basically, when asked about it, he never mentioned it, but he said there was other kinds of threats --

(CROSSTALK)

SAAKASHVILI: -- then it would be a source of tensions for the Russians. I see here some kind of double standard approach.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: Mr. President, can we talk about the future going forward, what has happened, what will happen. What's your advice to Donald Trump, again, someone you know very well, in dealing with Vladimir Putin going forward? You just called Vladimir Putin evil on this show. So, what do you tell Donald Trump to do?

SAAKASHVILI: First, Donald Trump has to see for himself. We have experienced of previous U.S. presidents. Putin lived through Clinton, then George Bush, my good friend, looked in his eyes and saw his soul. We somehow demonstrated something in a bad manner later. And then, George Bush clearly was on the right page on that one. Then the president started with the reset. We in the neighborhood suffered a lot initially from the perceptions that Russia got from out of this reset. So, the thing is that, you know, we should -- I understand that every president gives benefit of the doubt to the Russians. The main thing here is that --

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BOLDUAN: Should they?

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SAAKASHVILI: Well, not to be based on the emotion of fear, that's very important. They should be approached -- they should be approached right now the whole fuss -- Vladimir Putin loves it. He loves it. He gets a kick out of the fact that everybody is talking about him.

(CROSSTALK)

SAAKASHVILI: How powerful he is. That how he can --

BOLDUAN: But wouldn't he also love this? Donald Trump, over the weekend, he sent out a message saying this, "Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only stupid people or fools, would think that it is bad."

SAAKASHVILI: Good relations with Russia can only be based on America being strong and resolute and decisive. And I think what we need now is Reagan-style strength of conviction, and Reagan-style approach that, you know, you believe in something very strongly --

(CROSSTALK)

[11:45:18] BERMAN: Do you see that coming from Donald Trump right now?

SAAKASHVILI: Donald Trump has very strong convictions. Donald Trump is a strong personality.

I know Putin. He likes to --

BERMAN: About Russia?

BOLDUAN: He seems misguided on Russia. From where he is -- from where you're at.

SAAKASHVILI: The experience I have with Donald Trump, I never detected any particular weakness with Russia. And this was a period when, after we had war, after Vladimir Putin --

(CROSSTALK)

SAAKASHVILI: -- as you rightly said on your show, managed to hang me by the balls. Then he came to Georgia and praised our reforms, called on Poland, U.S. to adopt the Georgian tax system. So, he had no problems with dealing with a so-called enemy of Vladimir Putin. From that standpoint, I believe he has strong convictions. Most importantly, he can't manipulate. He can't be cajoled into something that would be is against the U.S. interests. I strongly believe that. In that respect, Putin might have much bigger problem than he imagines.

Right now, in the short term, he looks like he projects, I'm so important, everybody is only speaking about me, I'm great, all the neighborhood is scared. Vladimir Putin can influence even the United States. What about us? But on the other hand, if you look carefully at long term, Russia has less than 3 percent of the world's GDP. He can only play a spoiler. And to think that, if he gets a strong personality, he's getting a strong personality, the White House. In the long term, it will be a huge problem for somebody who likes to manipulate people.

(CROSSTALK)

SAAKASHVILI: I don't think Donald Trump will be easy prey for him to manipulate. I feel he would be a very difficult case for him to manipulate, impossible, basically.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: An interesting relationship to watch.

President Mikheil Saakashvili --

SAAKASHVILI: Thank you.

BERMAN: -- thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate it, sir.

SAAKASHVILI: Thank you very much.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much, sir.

Coming up, breaking news out of Florida. We're continuing to follow the massive manhunt under way for this man suspected of shooting and killing an Orlando police officer. You are just heard the horrible story of her death this morning. We'll have details on the manhunt, ahead. BERMAN: Plus, the insults and threats are flying on Capitol Hill

ahead of cabinet hearings for President-elect Trump's would-be nominees. Senator Mitch McConnell says Democrats need to grow up and accept defeat. But Democrats say they're still missing basic paperwork from some of the nominees. We have details ahead.

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[11:51:46] SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R-KY), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Everybody has been properly vetted, as they have been in the past, and I'm hopeful that we'll get up to six or seven, particularly national security team, in place on day one.

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BOLDUAN: That is Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, leaving Trump Tower just now, speaking to the controversy kind of surrounding some of Donald Trump's pick and their confirmation right now.

Less than 24 hours to go until the first round of hearings for the cabinet nominees kicks off on Capitol Hill. The battle to stall, though, the process is underway after the Office of Government Ethics told Democratic leaders in a letter that several of Trump's nominees have not been properly vetted.

BERMAN: Joining us now is Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. He is a surrogate for Senator Jeff Sessions, who obviously served with Senator Sessions in the U.S. Senate as well.

Mr. Attorney General, thanks so much for being with us.

We should say Jeff Sessions does have his paperwork in, so the ethics office is not speaking about Senator Sessions here, in this regard.

But beyond that, by most accounts, he is due for a tough hearing. What's he prepared for?

MIKE DEWINE, OHIO ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, you know, I have a unique view of Jeff Sessions because I served with him for a decade on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And I think I know his heart. I think I know what kind of person he is. He is a very, very good person. Frankly, he is going to be, I think, a great attorney general. He really understands what's going on back in the communities. One of the things that I know he is going to do is put an emphasis on the violent crime that we're seeing in our cities and be a real partner with local law enforcement.

BERMAN: Mr. Attorney General, this is likely to come up also during the hearing, we're told. During the campaign, Donald Trump had said quite often that he is going to put a special prosecutor in place and, ultimately, jail Hillary Clinton. He has backed off of that since the election. But the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee where Jeff Sessions will be facing -- will be having his hearing, Dianne Feinstein, she told "The New York Times" that she is going to ask Jeff Sessions about that because the attorney general, ultimately, would have the decision on whether or not to put in place a special prosecutor. Where does Jeff Sessions stand on that?

DEWINE: He will answer that question and many other questions. You know, what's so interesting about this is Jeff has been on this Judiciary Committee. The same Judiciary Committee members who are going to be asking him questions, of course, have served with him, some for the entire 20 years that he has been on that committee. They know him very well. I think you'll have -- you know, any confirmation, you have tough questions, and Jeff Sessions is prepared for tough questions.

BERMAN: You know, you made a point of saying you know his heart, and he is a good person. That seems to be in reference to troubles he has had in the past. He was denied a federal judgeship in the U.S. Senate in 1986 because there were allegations that he had made jokes about the KKK, the NAACP. And there have been accusations he had made a racial slur about a lawyer he was working with back then. He said some of those were jokes. He said others that he denied.

But my question to you is does he need to apologize for these things? In this hearing? The things that didn't get him confirmed, do you think he needs to apologize before the Senate this week?

[11:55:04] DEWINE: Well, as you know, they are some of the same people who were there were there 30 years ago, when that occurred, or more than that when that occurred. I certainly was not there.

I would just tell you that this is a man who is not biased or prejudiced. This is a man who understands the Constitution. Every time I saw him approach an issue -- and we didn't always agree on every issue, no one ever does -- but I thought he always did it very deliberately and with firm, firm conviction.

You know, any allegations about this man is a racist or anything like that, it's just simply not true. I know his heart. I've seen him, I've talked with him day after day after day. You get to know someone after 10 years when you're sitting right beside them on the Judiciary Committee as he and I did.

BOLDUAN: You support Jeff Sessions. He's facing a Republican majority in the Senate. Do you think there is anything at this point that will derail his confirmation?

DEWINE: No, I don't think there is. You know, this is someone who that committee knows very well. You know, he has been on that committee for several decades, so it's not like, you know, this is someone they've never seen before. I think Jeff will be confirmed.

And I think the allegations and any slowdown we might see is exactly what the American people were saying --

BERMAN: Mr. Attorney General -- DEWINE: -- in November they were sick of as partisan politics.

BERMAN: Mr. Attorney General, Mike DeWine, from Ohio, thank you for being with us. Appreciate it, sir.

BOLDUAN: Thank you, sir.

DEWINE: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: President Obama preparing to deliver his big farewell speech tomorrow night in Chicago. We're told he will likely target his successor, Donald Trump, offering some admonitions. Details ahead.

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