Return to Transcripts main page


U.S. Troops Remain at Border; White House Chaos?; What Happened to Trump's Migrant Caravan Warnings? Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 14, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Could there come a time when we look back at the first two years of the Trump administration as the calm before the storm?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Annoyed, angry, frustrated, lashing out. Stunning brand-new details of the president behind the scenes ever since a blue wave in the House hit him with a new reality.

Purely political. President Trump has sent a total of zero tweets since the election about that migrant caravan. So what does Defense Secretary Mattis on the border today have to say about this so-called invasion?

Plus, he called himself a meth-smoking, pipe-bomb-making alt-right guy, a man with ties to the synagogue killer now thankfully under arrest after he terrified his own family about what he might do.

Did the U.S. just dodge another massacre?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in the politics lead and what aides are describing as a darker-than-normal cloud hovering over the Oval Office. A White House official saying of President Trump -- quote -- "He's pissed at damn near everyone" -- unquote.

With Democrats having recaptured the House and the Mueller noose presumably tightening, few Trump aides feel any sense of job security these days. The president today confirming what many have speculated, he's looking to make major changes.

The two at the top of his list, apparently, Chief of Staff John Kelly and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. The president telling a supportive conservative Web site The Daily Caller this afternoon that he's looking at a lot of options as he contemplates his next purge, but he has not yet major a decision.

This as CNN is learning from White House sources about the president's intense and bitter mood, which escalated after the midterms with stumbles during his trip abroad, including that no-show at the World War I armistice centennial ceremony, punctuated yesterday by the first lady calling for a top national security adviser to be fired.

President Trump himself caught off-guard, sources telling us, and feeling backed into a corner.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House for us.

Kaitlan, you're learning these extraordinary new details, including that President Trump was furious over the first lady's move yesterday, thinking it made it look like a bossed-around husband.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. That's what the president is saying, because he feels these aides who don't report to him have thrust this internal staffing matter into public view and it has dominated headlines now, something the president doesn't like.

And he also feels that by this statement coming out calling for the firing of a top national security aide, the president feels backed into a corner. And, as we know, that is a position that President Trump least likes to be in.


COLLINS (voice-over): The revolving door at the White House is spinning faster tonight, as sources telling CNN a major staff shakeup is on the horizon and President Trump is growing more isolated by the day.

Trump has been in a dark mood since he returned from Paris, berating aides over a decision to cancel a planned visit to a military cemetery due to the rain. But his fury hasn't stopped there.

Sources say the president is also weighing several major staffing changes and has his sights set on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who traveled to the southern border earlier today.


COLLINS: Trump telling aides he's made the decision to replace Nielsen, though it's still unclear who with. Nielsen's imminent departure raising questions about the job security of the man who brought her into the White House, Chief of Staff John Kelly, amid whispers he could be replaced by the vice president's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, though some White House officials have threatened to quit if Trump does.

And one day after first lady Melania Trump issued a scathing statement calling for the firing of John Bolton's number two on the National Security Council, Mira Ricardel returned to work today. And her fate remains uncertain.

Sources say Bolton, who is 10,000 miles away from Washington on a work trip with the vice president in Singapore, is scrambling to save her. And the episode is setting the stage for a showdown between the national security adviser and the first lady, who says she has always been candid with the president.

MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: I give him my honest advice and honest opinions.

COLLINS: But Trump was said to be blindsided by the first lady's statement Tuesday, feeling backed into a corner and complaining he looked like a bossed-around husband. Whether Ricardel stays or goes will be a test on the limits of Melania's influence and the extent of Bolton's.


COLLINS: So, Jake, the president's frayed relationships are essentially being laid bare for everyone to see, not just with John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen, but apparently with his own wife and her staff as well.


We haven't seen or heard from the president yet today, but he is scheduled to make an appearance here in the next half-hour, where he is going to be voicing some support for some bipartisan criminal justice legislation, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us.

We have a lot to talk about here.

Ryan, even in a White House that has been known to have chaotic days, sense -- this seems a little extraordinary.


I mean, it's not unusual for a White House to make major staffing changes after a shellacking in the midterms, right? In 1994, President Clinton made a lot of changes after that loss. 2006, Bush made a lot of changes. 2010, Obama made a lot of changes.

What is unusual about this White House is everything is sort of battled out in public. Right? So you have the first lady tweeting about staffing changes, right? You have the president in these sort of stream of conscious press encounters talking about it. So I think it's maybe a little bit more than those other examples, but also the Trump White House, you know, he governs in a very chaotic style, and everything is for public consumption.

And he lets people twist in the wind, like Kelly has for months now. And there's just not an orderly process that you normally would find after a big midterm loss for staffing changes.

TAPPER: Symone, what do you make of Kaitlan Collins' reporting that President Trump really didn't like what happened yesterday with the first lady calling for this deputy national security adviser to be fired because it made him look like a bossed-around husband?

The woman, the deputy national security adviser, is still at work today, apparently.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I don't like -- I'm not married and I don't have a boyfriend, Jake.

And if I did, I don't want people in my business. And so I would hope that the president and the first lady could work out their, you know, home business at home. But, unfortunately, the first lady has drug us into a spat with her husband. That's exactly what this is. And, frankly, I don't want any parts of it.

TAPPER: Well, you tell us, because you know personally a lot of these players. You ran the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania. What's going on here?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I don't have a clear picture of what's going on.

It's not unusual, like you have seen and has been reported, for the first ladies to be involved in personnel decisions, right, obviously in the Reagan administration, Nancy Reagan.

TAPPER: That was behind the scenes.


URBAN: Well, behind the scenes to a certain extent.

TAPPER: It leaked out, apparently.


LIZZA: She wasn't active on Twitter.

URBAN: Well, Twitter didn't exist. Right? It's a different world.

Can you imagine the Kennedy administration or lots of other administrations with the news cycle and the media onslaught we have today would be laid bare. Look, it not a good look, right, to have this kind of played out in public. I'm not quite certain as what is happening and how it's going to end up.

The reporting is that Mira Ricardel is still at the White House and maybe moved to a different spot. And so if that's the goal, it probably should be done kind of behind the scenes and, you know, as a subtle personnel move. But we will wait and see.

This president -- there is no lack of transparency, right? No one ever says tell us what you're thinking or what's on your mind? You get to find out. And so we find out. And so hopefully we will see.

The president -- and, again, like John Kelly, John Kelly has been around for a long time. He's been on the chopping block many, many times.


TAPPER: Right.

But the reason the story keeps getting fed is because President Trump keeps asking people who would be a good replacement, who should I have as chief of staff?

President Trump also today in that interview with The Daily Caller lashing out at how elections take place in this country. He blamed Republican losses on this fantastic, in the true meaning of the word fantastic, unbelievable, nonsensical story.

He told The Daily Caller: "Republicans don't win, and that's because of potentially illegal votes, when people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles. Sometimes, they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again. Nobody takes anything. It's really a disgrace what's going on."

To be very clear, and I just want to make sure everybody at home understands, there's no evidence of that story. It's a fever dream. It's like it never happened. There aren't people who are not allowed to vote putting on different shirts and running around in different cars so that they can vote.

And yet this is from the president of the United States.


And it's an echo of what we have heard before. A, we know that the president is a conspiracy theorist, right? He was a birther for a time, he came into the White House citing another conspiracy theory, this idea that three million people voted illegally. I think he...


TAPPER: That's a lot of hats and shirts.

HENDERSON: Yes, he's suggesting, I guess, they were also illegal.

It's also this idea that, do people want to vote that badly? If they did, I think our participation rate would be much higher. It's not. But, yes, I think the thing when you look at the circumstances that have happened over these last couple of days in the fury that it's in, it's not clear that it's going to end.

It seems like this might be a preview of what we're going to see for these next two to six years, however long he's in the White House. If you think about it, legislation, that whole process isn't going to get any better. There is going to be some more gridlock. You have got the House now in the hands of Democrats, with Nancy Pelosi presumably going to be the speaker of the House.


As you said, the Mueller investigation, at some point, it will end. But it probably won't be good news for this president. The staffing problems, he will bring new people in, but at some point

he's going to be calling around to replace those people and get in a fury with those folks.

So that's what I think is troubling. For the next couple of years, he's going to be brooding in this way in a job he really hasn't quite gotten the hang of and also doesn't really seem to enjoy.

TAPPER: Symone, I want to read one more quote, just because I really want to know what you think about this.

He's talking about the need for a voter I.D. And the president said, "If you buy a box of cereal, you have a voter I.D. Then they try to shame everybody by calling them racist or calling them something, anything they can think of when you say you want voter I.D. But voter I.D. is a very important thing."

Do you know what he's talking about with the box of cereal?

SANDERS: I'm not sure, because I buy cereal, Jake, and I don't have to present I.D. to buy my cereal from the local Harris Teeter.


LIZZA: Wine.

SANDERS: Box of wine, probably, my little..



SANDERS: But not my cereal.

This is an issue. I do not think the president understands the gravity of his words. To be clear, voter I.D. laws, laws that require exact match, these are things that have been put in place, getting rid of same-day voter registration, these are things put in place to disenfranchise and curb access to the ballot box.

And these are things that have overwhelmingly been put in place by Republican state legislators across the country. That is a fact. I work on these issues, so I can say that.


URBAN: Look, there's obviously a big disagreement about this. Right?

You can get I.D.s for lots of other things in the world. You get I.D. on a plane. Look, voting means to be reformed in America. I said this last night. It's a shame you can go put $100,000 in an ATM and transfer it anywhere in the world or $10. Everybody in the world relies on their banking system and it doesn't get hacked. It's very instantaneous.

Yet we have this voting system that's like out of, like, horse and buggy, right? And there should be I.D.s, you should be able to go vote, get it done. Everybody knows within minutes. You should be able to do it.


SANDERS: The reason some folks have an issue with requiring I.D.s at the polls is because it likens itself to a poll tax. Unless you're making the form of I.D. free and easily accessible to get, you are blocking a certain number of people from getting there.

URBAN: We should do it. It should be free and easy.


SANDERS: There was a time in this country, I have just got to remind people, because folks' memories are short, where people that look like me, people that look like -- if you were a woman, if you were a person of color, if you were just a white man -- only white men could vote.

So that is why conversations about curbing access to the ballot box are not only dangerous, but antithesis to our democracy says it stands for.

TAPPER: One thing we can all agree on is, you don't need a voter I.D. to buy cereal. I think that's one thing.


SANDERS: Not at all.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Lots of things have changed since the midterm elections, including what President Trump is tweeting about and what he's not tweeting about. Whatever happened to that caravan he called an invasion?

Stay with us.


[16:16:47] TAPPER: While visiting the U.S./Mexico border today, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urged service members to ignore the news and stay focused on their mission. But it is difficult to escape the growing questions about their mission, including were they sent to the border for purely political reasons? And since the election, what happened to all of President Trump's urgent warnings about a migrant caravan invasion? He hasn't tweeted the word caravan since the midterms, compared to 45 mentions in the three weeks before Election Day.

Let's bring in CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

And, Barbara, in the weeks before the election, the president painted a stark picture, he sent thousands of potentially armed troops to the border, kind of suggesting he was doing so to fend off an invasion of dangerous migrants. What's actually going on, on the ground down there?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's going on on the ground today where the secretary of defense was, not a migrant to be seen. No price tag attached to this mission. And Jake, that's just the beginning of some of the questions.


STARR (voice-over): Defense Secretary James Mattis checking up on the troops at the bare bones military camp on the Texas border with Mexico. Fifty-nine hundred troops deployed to stop caravans of migrants, still hundreds of miles from the border.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because you look up what's marching up, that's an invasion. That's not -- that's an invasion.

STARR: But on the ground, the reality is different. Mattis reiterating, the military will not be confronting the migrants as he defended the mission.

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Obviously, a moral and ethical mission to support our border patrolmen.

STARR: Thirteen hundred of those troops in Texas, largely tasked with putting up concertina wire without weapons in hand, part of their orders to barricade the Texas border where migrants coming north may try to cross.

MATTIS: The troops doing that obviously are not armed. They don't need their weapons. The engineers to lay the barbed wire, the soldiers and marines doing that are overwatched by MPs who are armed.

STARR: Mattis, well aware of the political firestorm surrounding the deployment, now telling American forces to ignore the news media.

MATTIS: There's all sorts of stuff in the news and that sort of thing. You just concentrate on what your company commander and your battalion commander tells you. If you read all that stuff, you'll go nuts.

STARR: But the question of President Trump's political motivation for sending troops is not going away. From October 16th to November 6th, midterm election day, 45 tweets mentioning the border. But since then, zero.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I think that strengthens the argument by those who believe that this was a politically motivated mission in the first place.

STARR: And in a bizarre moment, Mattis insisting, there is precedent for forces on the border, actually citing Pancho Villa, the famed Mexican revolutionary leader.

MATTIS: I think many of you are aware that President Wilson 100 years ago -- a little over 100 years ago, deployed the U.S. Army to the southwest border. That's over a century ago. The threat then was Pancho Villa's troops, a revolutionary, raiding across the border into the United States, New Mexico in 1916.

[16:20:08] STARR: The difference being Pancho Villa led a group of revolutionaries with guns while the current group of migrants includes men, women and children who are mostly escaping violence in their own countries.


STARR: One soldier asked Mattis if they're all going to have to go back and pick up all that concertina wire they laid. He did not have an answer for that. There is no answer how many troops, if any, will make it home for Thanksgiving. But the secretary of defense talking about Pancho Villa, and an incident on that border back in 1916 -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks so much.

Take a listen again to something Secretary Mattis said today about the mission.


MATTIS: We were asked by the secretary, due to the number of people coming this way, to back them up. What does that mean? It means that her people do all the work, but we're standing behind them as a confidence builder, and that sort of thing.


TAPPER: So the Department of Homeland Security is in charge, and the Customs and Border Patrol and presumably other agencies are there providing the security. And the troops are there as a confidence builder? What does that --

HENDERSON: Yes, I didn't know that that's what American troops did. I thought -- you know, and if you listen to what the president was saying, he was saying this was an invasion and they would be there and be armed and presumably he said that they would be shooting at some of these folks if they threw rocks.

You know, I'm not a military person, but I didn't realize that you deploy maybe 5,000 or the president said 15,000 --

TAPPER: Fifty-nine hundred, yes.

HENDERSON: Fifty-nine hundred people sort of as a confidence booster to the folks who are already there. And remember, I mean, they're going to not -- they're not going to be home with their families. This is a force that has been deployed for years and years on end and all of the foreign wars we've had. So, yes, I mean, if that's a sort of new direction for this military, that's something different.

TAPPER: Let's go to our West Point guy.

URBAN: A guy who has spent a little time.

TAPPER: You served. You were in the Gulf War, the First Gulf War. What do you make of all of this?

URBAN: Look, there is historical precedent for this --

TAPPER: Pancho Villa, we heard.

URBAN: Since Pancho Villa as well, right? I mean, president, you know --

TAPPER: President Bush sent some --

URBAN: President Bush sent, you know --

TAPPER: Nine thousand, was it?

URBAN: A giant number. So did President Obama send about 2,000 troops down to the border. And they provide a wide range of services, logistical. They can lay barbed wire. They can lay concertina. They can do lots of things to help secure the border.

It's about securing our nation's border. The other thing is also just -- is providing support. Logistical

support. Not necessarily emotional support. And the notion --

TAPPER: Well, confidence building sounds like emotional support.

URBAN: And I don't know what to -- to address Nia's point, I don't know if these folks have been in a rotation, have been deployed before, if they're back home. You know, lots of times folks -- this could be part of their training, part of the deployment. They do peacekeeping missions all over the world.

So, getting out and doing this stuff is not necessarily counter to their mission. They may be home, rotating through. I don't know the exact specifics. But it's not without precedent.

TAPPER: So, Ryan, it's true that Bush and Obama did send troops to the border, but didn't do so in the closing weeks of a midterm election while making a big case out of it. And that's what a lot of the critics are seized on.

LIZZA: Yes, and to someone who serve, I didn't serve in the military, but if I had, I can't think of anything worse than being suspicious that I'm being used as a political pawn before the election, right? And, look --

TAPPER: Hardly the first time that's happened with troops. I mean --

LIZZA: Right. Imagine being one of those troops down there and having to wonder, is this a real mission? Or is this just for a show in the run up to the midterms? And I don't think we fully have the answer for that. I think there are a lot of important questions. And I can tell you that the Democrats who take over the House next year will be investigating this and will try to get to the bottom of it. TAPPER: Yes.

SANDERS: It sounds like a show. Look, for president Trump always likes to talk about how much he loves our military and how President Obama didn't care about the military, which is absolutely not true. But these are things he says. And I care about our military, I make sure they're paid. But he is absolutely using the military as a political pawn. And, again, was trying to scare people in the closing days of a midterm election so they would go out to the polls and vote for Republicans.

And I think in large part, that backfired, in many places across the country. And so I do not -- I think the president needs to be held accountable and this administration needs to be held accountable for this. Is this what we're spending our tax dollars on?

I think the issue with the politicization of this and now we don't hear about the caravan. Where are the news articles? Where's the caravan? Did the caravan leave? Are they still on the border?

LIZZA: Is it a little suspicious to you?


HENDERSON: You know, the notion that if the troops should be down on the border and he didn't even bother to show up. Maybe at some point he'll go down and visit there. It was interesting to have Mattis and Nielsen down there talking about this mission that the president basically said --

URBAN: Listen, the question is, again, do we believe in secure borders or not believe in secure borders?


[16:25:07] TAPPER: We all believe in secure borders.


URBAN: Listen, we have porous borders. How about that?

TAPPER: So, I just want to show one quick thing, a map of the election results, and look at the border. And if you look at the borders, a lot of those borders are blue. I mean, not all of them. But a lot of those borders are blue and that's because there are a lot of Latino voters and some didn't think that President Trump was -- his message was effective.

Let's take a quick break.

Wild claims about Florida votes from both parties. Will we ever return to reality with the Florida recount?

Stay with us.