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Trump Gets Political on Call to Military on Thanksgiving; Trump Throws CIA & Intelligence Community Under Bus on Saudi Khashoggi Killing; Trump Gives OK to Lethal Force as Border but Mattis Contradicts; Trump Addresses U.S. Coast Guard in Florida; Trump Administration Will Force Asylum Seekers to Wait in Mexico; Trump Responds to Chief Justice John Roberts. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired November 22, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: There are tens of thousands of you, we're aware of, and honor your sacrifice and wish you safety.

I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts right now.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Pamela Brown, in for Kate Bolduan on this Thanksgiving Day.

President Trump, a man who revels in the unconventional, shatters yet another tradition. In a Thanksgiving phone call with military serving overseas, the president goes off script, way off script. Within minutes, the show of gratitude turned political and angry. He bragged about wall security at the U.S./Mexico border and attacked a court that ruled against his latest immigration policy. Then, after that call, he let loose again, even discrediting the CIA.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is traveling with the president. He joins us from West Palm Beach, Florida.

Jeff, President Trump seems to be firing back in a number of ways this morning. What did he say?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Pamela. The president certainly did. He was at his Mar-a-Lago resort, certainly feeling comfortable in his surroundings there. You saw him for a long time on the phone, making a phone call to members of the armed services from different branches who are serving, indeed, in different parts of the world. Then the president decided to use this moment here on Thanksgiving to get some political points in as well. Coming in, you know, essentially expounding on things he's been saying all week long, particularly about the border.

Pamela, take a listen to what the president said about troops at the border and that controversial decision he's been blasting all week from the Ninth Circuit.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're doing very well at the southern border. We're very tough. We got a lot of bad court decisions from the Ninth Circuit, which has become a big thorn in our side. We always lose, and then you lose again and again, then you hopefully win at the Supreme Court, which we have done. But it's a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services, when they tell you how to protect your border. It's a disgrace.


ZELENY: So certainly unusual that the president is talking about this in that forum when he is, indeed, talking with members of the military, even putting several of them on the spot, talking, directing asking them about their views on the border, their views on other matters.

It's not necessarily what the president said that was unusual. We have heard him say most of these things. It's where he said it, speaking with members of the armed services as the commander.

So the question here is, Pamela, I'm not sure the president shed that much more light on these things he's been venting at all week long, going -- doubling down and defending his decision on Saudi Arabia earlier in the week as well. But again, defying and some may even say throwing his own CIA and Intelligence Community under the bus, essentially saying they have not made a ruling on that brutal murder of the "Washington Post" columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.

So, certainly, Pamela, so much to chew over there what the president said. As we speak now, he's going over to see members of the Coast Guard here in south Florida for Thanksgiving as well. We'll see if he keeps talking today, Pamela. He seems to have a big appetite for that -- Pam?

BROWN: I was going to say, he seems to want to continue that conversation, reiterating some of the talking points we have been hearing. Remarkably, does so in this forum on Thanksgiving Day.

Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

Joining me now, I want to bring in CNN national security analyst, Shawn Turner, a former director of communication for U.S. national intelligence.

All right, Shawn, what is your reaction to this phone call that the president had with U.S. military, greeting them initially, and then sort of turning it into a political event?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, thanks for having me, Pam. First, I think it's important to point out that I give the president credit for making the phone call. It's the right thing to do. He needed to call troops. He needed to thank them on Thanksgiving Day. Like is so often the case, when the president goes off script, oftentimes he goes off script in ways that are particular harmful, particularly unfortunate. I think that's what happened in this case. You have servicemembers who are serving overseas on Thanksgiving Day. They are in harm's way. And the one thing that the president should not do is he should not seek to bring politics to that. That's not where they should be focused. It's not what their mind should be on. Pam, I served 21 years in the Marine Corps. I can honestly say that having been on the receiving end of some of these calls, I never felt as though the president, whether it was Republican or Democrat, was bringing politics into the work that we were doing on behalf of the country.

BROWN: Well, and just to sort of set the stage here, this was live. He's talking to members of the military in a teleconference. How do you think they felt as he was asking them questions and bringing politics into it? Try to put yourself in their shoes as someone who served in the military?

TURNER: You know, this had to be extremely difficult for those servicemembers. Look, when you make a vow to serve your country in uniform, you agree to do that because you love your country. You agree to work for the commander-in-chief, to work for the people in this country, and you agree to do that without bringing politics into the work you do. We do it for love of country. For the president to put military servicemembers on the spot, to ask them directly whether they agree with issues that are politically tinged in this country and issues that deal with kind of the back and forth between Republicans and Democrats is wholly inappropriate. For those servicemembers who were on the receiving end of that, you know, look, the president has to understand that while they will serve him because he is commander- in-chief, and they will serve their country, he has to understand he's putting them in a very difficult position. It's inappropriate for a commander-in-chief to do this kind of thing.

[11:05:40] BROWN: I want to bring in my colleague, White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, what are you hearing about what was behind turning this scripted call into a political event and essentially an impromptu press conference?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Essentially, Pam, it's just President Trump being President Trump. He started off scripted. He made the typical remarks, thanking them for their service, saying he wished they could be with their families on this holiday, then he went off script, as he often does. It was during that point that it strayed from the typical military comments, thanks and words of gratitude on a day like today, and it turned into him not only making political remarks about the border and about the wall, which he referred to as barbed wire-plus, and comparing one servicemember's recent achievements to going to the Wharton School of Finance, which some members of the Trump family have done. But also, he turned into potentially breaching some sensitive information and making it more like a private call than the commander-in-chief would have with troops, asking why certain ships were only in certain areas and how many troops were being commanded by certain people. But then the president started taking questions from reporters after he hung up the phone with those military members. And it really got interesting only more from there.

Two big things I do want to point out, Pam, is one, the president said he shut down parts of the border, the U.S./Mexico border, two days ago. Now, he didn't offer any evidence. He didn't elaborate on what it was he was saying he shut down or which parts of the border. Of course, we cover this White House, and the White House has not made any announcements about this, and neither has the Department of Homeland Security. We asked about that. We'll let you know if we find out what the president was referring to when he said he shut down parts of the border and could threaten to shut down the entire U.S./Mexico border.

And then the president also ignored his intelligence agencies once again, saying the CIA has not concluded that the crown prince, the Saudi crown prince, ordered the killing of that journalist when, in fact, we have reported that the CIA has assessed that MbS did order the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Now, the president disagreed with that, but then he also said essentially that if the crown prince had ordered it, he wasn't going to disrupt a relationship with the U.S. ally, which he called a strategic partnership, just because of that -- Pamela?

BROWN: And let's actually go to that sound that you just pointed to, Kaitlan, with the president basically going against the CIA assessment. Let's take a listen.


TRUMP: You know, they didn't conclude. They did not come to a conclusion. They have feelings certain ways but they didn't -- I have the report. And you can ask Mike. They have not concluded. Nobody has concluded. I don't know if anybody is going to be able to conclude that the crown prince did it.

The CIA doesn't say they did it. They point out certain things. And pointing out those things, you can conclude that maybe he did or maybe he didn't.


BROWN: All right, so let's unpack that statement.

I want to bring you in, Admiral Kirby, because as we all know, the CIA doesn't offer conclusions. The CIA offers assessments and assigns a confidence level. Do you think the president is sort of using that as a way out of putting the blame on the crown prince here in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, I do. He's absolutely looking for whatever wiggle room he can. He knows darn well the CIA is not going to come down conclusively and say 100 percent one thing or another, that they do pride -- they have to provide all of the context around what they know. Some of the context isn't as firm as other pieces of it. He's using that as a fulcrum to avoid taking any measures strongly by the administration against Saudi Arabia.

But Pamela, this isn't just about him trying to absolve the crown prince. This is about him trying to absolve himself of having to do anything more. He knows Congress is going to act. This allows him to look at the crown prince and say, hey, man, it wasn't me, I didn't want to enact these sanctions, I didn't want to put you under the Magnitsky Act, I got forced by Congress. It allows him in his mind to keep his relationship strong with the kingdom.

BROWN: Shawn, very quickly -- I'll go back to you Kirby -- but, Shawn, as someone who worked in the Intelligence Community, do you see this as the president once again going at odds with the Intelligence Community, and do you see this as a slap in the face?

[11:09:59] TURNER: Yes, it absolutely is. John is absolutely right. Look, this is a high-confidence assessment. And as you have with any assessment, and as you have with any assessment, you're going to have intelligence agencies who look at the intelligence through a different lens and may see things different. They may not be as high in confidence as one agency but, in the end, you put together a product that gives the president decision advantage that tells him what the I.C. assesses happened to the best of their ability. For the president to once again do, as he has done in the past with everything from the election assessment through other behaviors on the part of Russia, he once again suggests that he's going to look to others, in this case, foreign leaders, and he's going to take their word over his own Intelligence Community.


TURNER: And look, these people will continue do their job, but that's very difficult for people in the Intelligence Community to deal with.

BROWN: There is a pattern where he kept saying the crown prince has denied it, he strongly denied it. We heard him say that about Vladimir Putin as well.

John, I want to play you something else the president said about the U.S. policy at the southern border. Let's listen.


TRUMP: If they have to, they're going to use lethal force. I have given the OK. If they have to. I hope they don't have to. But you know, you're dealing with a minimum of 500 serious criminals. So I'm not going to let the military be taken advantage of. I have no choice.


BROWN: But yesterday, Secretary Mattis said that those troops won't be using lethal force. So how does that square?

KIRBY: It doesn't square. That's exactly the point. He's trying to use the military as sort of this deterrent and to convince his supporters he's actually putting the military at the border to throw back these hordes of invaders coming, and that is not what they're going to be doing. Secretary Mattis was very careful, very caveated in the way he described the mission. Any use of force by our troops to protect the Border Patrol would be in an extreme case. It would be the last choice, it would be the last choice. And most likely, talking to the Pentagon officials I have, it would be non-lethal force they would use. Even Mattis said most of them won't be armed. So the president is conflating this. He's trying to make more red meat for his supporters to think he's got the military down at the border. But I'm telling you, there's a real --


BROWN: I'm going to interrupt you here because the president once again is speaking.

TRUMP: Enjoy the sandwiches. They look like pretty good sandwiches. They look big. I don't want one.


They look big. Very big. Gain about five pounds when you eat one.

I just want to thank you all very much. Let's go take some great pictures. We're just celebrating the Coast Guard because it has to be celebrated. I made the little speech up at your Coast Guard Academy. How many people went to the Coast Guard Academy from here? Where are all the Coast Guard Academy people? OK, now I feel better. We did a big speech up there. And we met some tremendous people. I'm surprised. I figured this whole ground would have their hands up. You went to a lot of other schools, great schools. That's good, really good.

It's an honor to be with all of you. Thank you very much. Let's go have some fun.

Where do you want to take them?




TRUMP: You tell us when you're ready. We have plenty of time.

I bet he takes a better picture. I bet he takes a better picture.





TRUMP: So how many went? We opened up our club to you. Who went last year? Want to go again?



We'll work that out. Is that OK?


TRUMP: Anybody wants to go, you go. And if you break par, I'll give you $100.




TRUMP: Thank you, fellas.


[11:15:22] BROWN: Meeting with members. There you saw President Trump meeting with members of the U.S. Coast Guard there in Riviera Beach, Florida, on this Thanksgiving Day.

Much more breaking news just ahead.


[11:19:55] BROWN: Well, President Trump talking about a wide range of political topics during his Thanksgiving call with U.S. troops. One of those topics -- immigration. He said some people at the border are bad people, slammed the Ninth Circuit Court for shooting down his asylum decree, and said he actually shut down parts of the border and authorized the military to use lethal force if they had to.

All of this follows a "Washington Post" report that the Trump administration plans to force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed.

A lot to unpack here on this Thanksgiving Day. I want to bring in our panel, Bill Press, host of the "Bill Press Show," and former head of the Trump Hispanic Advisory Council, Steve Cortes. He's now a CNN political commentator.

Gentlemen, great to see you.




BROWN: I have a feeling this is going to be an interesting conversation.

I'm going to start with you here, Steve. The president used his conversation with the U.S. commander in

Afghanistan as an opportunity to tout his border security policies. Let's listen.


TRUMP: Large numbers of people and, in many cases, we have no idea who they are. In many cases, they're not good people. They're bad people. But large numbers of people are forming at our border. And I don't have to even ask you. I know what you want to do. You want to make sure we know who we're letting in and we're not letting in anyone essentially because we want to be very, very careful.


BROWN: All right, so just to fact check quickly, there's no indication that most of these people are bad people. And he said there in that call, Steve, "I know what you want to do." Is he putting words in their mouth? Could that put members of the military in an awkward position?

CORTES: You know, I don't think so, Pamela. But also to fact check you, the Department of Homeland Security tells us there are hundreds of known criminals among the caravan that's approaching the United States. It's not true to say there's not bad people. I'm sure there's very great people.

BROWN: There's thousands of people, and there's women and kids. He's trying to paint a picture that a majority of them are bad people. There's no indication that a majority of them are bad people.

CORTES: I don't know how we subjectively determine bad versus good, but Homeland Security --


BROWN: OK, so why is he saying that if


CORTES: Homeland Security --


BROWN: -- you can't subjectively determine it?

CORTES: Homeland Security tells us, as a fact, tells us there are hundreds of known criminals. We also know that there has been a terrorism problem in some of these very Central American countries, both non-Latin American terrorism as well as transnational gangs like M.S.-13, which have started to unfortunately terrorize American Hispanic communities. We know there are a lot of risks. We know tht. Now, what percentage, and again, how do we determine bad versus good.


BROWN: Is that irresponsible for the president to say bad people if you can't determine it, as you said in your own words?

CORTES: Well, OK, here's what we do know, Pamela. We don't know who they are. That's important. That is what is known. Is that it's totally unknown who are they. What we know is they are marching toward our border, waving foreign flags, demanding entry into our country. And that is not how our system works. We love immigration. And on Thanksgiving, a day in which we celebrate what was asylum for the Puritans -- it's important to know that America has always been a refuge for the oppressed, and it will continue to be, and the persecuted. This country, we have almost 50 million non-citizens right now living in this country. That's one out of five immigrants in the world live in America. We love immigration. It has to be legal. And we have a process.



CORTES: And it's not up to people to trespass our --

BROWN: You're not answering the core question, Steve.

CORTES: -- border and determine on their own.

BROWN: Bill, I'm going to bring you in because what Steve isn't answering here is the fact that brought this up to members of the military. Do you believe that put them in an awkward position?

PRESS: Thank you for pointing out that Steve didn't even come close to answering your question. Let me say first, Pam --


CORTES: Just because I don't answer the way you want doesn't mean I'm not answering.

PRESS: I'm sorry. It's my turn. I did not interrupt you.

CORTES: But you addressed me, Bill. If you're going to address me, I'm going to respond.

PRESS: I did not interrupt you. I will take my turn --


CORTES: You addressed me and criticized me, and I'm going to respond to criticism.

PRESS: Please, please.

Pam, if I may.


PRESS: First of all, I would like to point out, I think it's jarring to see. I remember President Bush on Thanksgiving visiting the troops in Iraq, serving Thanksgiving dinner. I remember President Obama doing the same thing. It's jarring to see the president for the second year in a row celebrate Thanksgiving at his gold-plated resort in Mar-a-Lago, and then try to cover up by making a phone call to troops on duty or to their commanders. I think it was highly inappropriate to do that. I think it was also highly inappropriate for him to raise political issues and try to get them to comment on his political agenda. I think it put our military commanders and the service people in a very, very tough spot. I think it was unfortunate.

BROWN: Steve, I want you to respond, was it highly inappropriate?

CORTES: Look, this president is incredibly unorthodox. I'll be the first to say that, and gladly concede that point. He speaks his mind in a way that is not lawyerly, not scripted, not political. It's one of the reasons he's the president, quite frankly, one of the reasons he won. Does he break convention? Absolutely. I'll be the first to say that.

[11:25:06] As far as the military, the idea he's disrespectful to the military, that's absurd on its face. And the military, in fact -- and this is true by polling, not just my opinion -- very thoroughly supports this president. And the thing is when he's talking to commanders in the field, the risk to America are not just in Afghanistan. There are certainly dangers there. Not just in the far parts of the world. They're also a porous southern border, which has been an enormous risk to this country and was a foundational reason why President Trump won in 2016. He was not at all nebulous on this issue of strengthening our southern border. I think it's totally appropriate as a security concern when he's talking to the people who secure our country.

BROWN: OK, I also --



BROWN: Let me -- there's so much on what he said, so I want to go to the next issue.

PRESS: Sure.

BROWN: That is talking about the sort of response with Chief Justice Roberts, the Ninth Circuit. Here's what he said about the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Take a listen.


TRUMP: Chief Justice Roberts, John Roberts, has been speaking a little bit about it. And I think -- I have a lot of respect for him, I like him and respect him, but I think we have to use some common sense. This Ninth Circuit, everybody knows it, it's totally out of control. What they're doing, what they're saying, the opinions are very unfair to law enforcement, very unfair to our military, and very unfair, most importantly, to the people of our country. Because I'm keeping them safe.


BROWN: So let me actually go to Steve first, and then I'll go to you, Bill.

What is the value in the president going after the chief justice of the Supreme Court? Is he basically trying to paint the court in a partisan light here?

CORTES: Well, no, he's not trying to. The courts have done that themselves. They have inserted themselves into partisan politics through judicial activisms and, I would argue, even judicial tyranny where they're legislating from the bench. Again, this is one of the reasons Trump was elected. If the late Antonin Scalia hadn't died in such an untimely manner, I'm not sure the president would have won. But that crystalized that issue for the American voters of how activist and unfair our courts have been. And I think the president -- by the way, the idea he can't push back against the courts is really quite absurd. Just because they put on black robes does not make them saints. Does not turn them suddenly into impartial angels. There are a lot of terrible judges and there have been awful decisions in our past. We only need to look at things like Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, there are many cases where the courts are enormously wrong. And in my opinion and certain in the presidents, the Ninth Circuit is enormously wrong right now trying to intervene in his very lawful protection of America at the southern border.

BROWN: Bill?

PRESS: Pam, look, at least certainly you can disagree with decisions that judges make. We all do. But the president has gone far beyond that. He's treating it as political enemies just because he doesn't agree with their decision. The first case, you remember, was this judge on Trump University that he said could not reach a fair decision because he was of Mexican dissent.

BROWN: Judge Curiel.

BROWN: Judge Curiel. And then he called another judge a so-called judge. Now he's attacking this judge because he said the president acted beyond his authority in that order he signed calling him an Obama judge. Do we all realize how unusual it is for the chief justice of the Supreme Court --

BROWN: Unprecedented.

PRESS: -- to even mildly criticize the president of the United States. For John Roberts, a Republican and a Bush appointee, to do that just shows how far over the line President Trump has gone. He said in his last tweet this morning, you know, something like, about the Constitution, we have to keep the Constitution. I don't know whether he's read the Constitution. There are three branches of government. The judicial branch is equal to the executive branch. And he ought to have respect for it and stop, again, attacking them as political enemies. It's way, way over the line. CORTES: Presidents -- you know, honestly, that's just ignorant of

history. Presidents have been arguing -

PRESS: It is not.

CORTES: -- with the Supreme Court and with justices with all of our history, from Andrew Jackson to FDR, who tried to pack the court, to now Donald Trump. What is unprecedented, and I agree with you, is John Roberts responding. What he's showing there, unfortunately -- and I'm glad you mentioned he's a Bush appointee and you think he's supposedly relevant that he's a Republican. What he's actually showing us is he's part of the crony establishment Washington scene, this very system which Donald Trump ran against. And judges --


CORTES: And judges have been absolutely critical to upholding that system.


BROWN: OK, you made a lot of claims there.


BROWN: Unfortunately, we have to go, Steve.

PRESS: -- in the Trump era in calling him a crony political -- that's what's wrong with you and the whole Trump operation. You cannot accept any criticism.

BROWN: OK, I did predict accurately it would be an interesting discussion, and it sure was.

Thank you for delivering on that, gentlemen.

PRESS: Thank you.

[11:30:09] BROWN: Bill Press, Steve Cortes, thank you.

PRESS: Happy Thanksgiving.