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INSIDE POLITICS

McConnell To Introduce Funding Bill; U.S. Withdrawal from Syria; Giuliani Reverses. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 19, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:00] PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Eastern Time. "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

President Trump claims victory over ISIS in Syria and orders a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops there, but the Pentagon and some in Congress pushing back, arguing the fight is not won and that leaving is a gift to Russia and Iran.

Plus, an up but also a wait and see morning on Wall Street with the big Fed decision on interest rates due a couple hours from now. Investors want clues about the Fed's path in 2019. The president is complaining the dicey markets are messing with his path in 2020.

And, with a deadline looming, is the president about to blink again? Just days after saying he would proudly shut down the government to get his border wall, the Senate's top Republican offers a plan with no new wall funding.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY": So you're saying you don't think there will be a shutdown at this point?

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: No, I don't think so.

BERMAN: All right.

KINZINGER: I think -- and especially a shutdown over Christmas would be kind of dumb.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And we begin there today with a plan, finally. Senate Republicans planning to unveil a stopgap funding bill to prevent a government shutdown that would take effect on Friday. Here's the majority with a bonus parting shot at the Democrats for good measure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: We will turn to a clean, continuing resolution later today so we can make sure we don't end this year the way we began it, with another government shutdown because of Democrats' allergy to sensible immigration policies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Democrats had a quick response saying we don't love that plan but we'll probably support it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: I'm glad the leader thinks the government should not shut down over the president's demand for a wall and Democrats will support this CR. The president and the House should follow that lead because shutting down the government over Christmas is a terrible idea, one of the worst to come down the pike in a very long time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So there you have it, Republican leader check, Democratic leader, check. Just one problem with the plan, we're still not certain the president will accept it. His aides are Signaling the president gets the math and is ready to accept the short-term plan with no new border wall funding. But we also know his aides often say things that soon get wiped out in a tweet storm. And we know the president often takes cues from conservative talk radio where already there are complaints he's about to cave again on this signature campaign promise.

CNN's Phil Mattingly joins me live from Capitol Hill.

Phil, Leader McConnell would not have done this unless he had some confidence the president would go along. Does he have full confidence?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, look, I don't know that anybody has full confidence in anything when it comes to the president, just because, as you laid out, he can change his mind. And, frankly, when it comes to spending issues specifically, until pen hits paper with his signature on the bill, nothing is a done deal.

That said, you make a good point, John, and that is that the majority leader and the president speak regularly, almost daily I've been told, over the last couple of weeks. And Mitch McConnell has been very careful not to undercut the president in any way over the course of this week, even though his own members have been very frustrated that the White House hadn't really given them much semblance of a plan.

That said, Mitch McConnell is also keenly aware they are running out of time. This is really the only option on the table now. It was time to move forward. The Senate is clearly going to pass this, likely in a couple of hours. The House will come back tonight, probably in the next 24 hours. They will move it as well.

The president is expected to sign. Remember, he's supposed to leave for Mar-a-Lago later this week. Every lawmaker in town is ready to get out of town. We'll just have to wait and see if the pen actually gets to paper. If you think, just real quickly, John, where we were one week ago

yesterday in the Oval Office, on live television, with the Democratic leaders and the president and his bold proclamation about taking the blame for a shutdown to where we are today, it's quite a shift. There's no question about it, it's quite a shift.

KING: Quite a shift, which is why you very smartly had the word "expected" in your sentence. The president is expected to sign. We will see as this plays out. Phil, appreciate the live update from The Hill. Keep in touch.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Margaret Talev with "Bloomberg," CNN's Kaitlin Collins, Sahil Kapur, also with "Bloomberg," And Tamara Keith with NPR.

So this is about to move in the Senate. Nobody loves it but that's how these things work. Nobody loves it, they vote for it, it move forward.

I want you to listen here. This is Ann Coulter on the radio. Now, just one voice, a constant critic of the president, who likes to tweet today's border wall update, zero progress. But listen -- this is her -- we've seen the president do this in the past, say, OK, fine, I'll eat my peas, but then has a day of Mark Levin and Rush and Fox News saying things like this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANN COULTER, COMMENTATOR: They're about to have a country where no Republican will ever be elected president again. Trump will -- it will just have been a joke presidency that scammed the American people, enraged, you know, amused the populous for a while, but he'll have no legacy whatsoever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[12:05:02] KING: Let me start with the White House reporters at the table.

If that continues, and that gets amplified, in the echo chamber the president listens to for the next 24 to 48 hours, will he sign this?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's a big question because the last time the president signed a spending bill, it was a fight to the last second to physically put the pen on the page for him to sign that for those White House aides. And that is why they are saying essentially what Phil just said there, that they will not go as far as to promise that the president is going to sign this because they know when he hears criticism like that, as he did with the last spending bill from a slew of his allies, not only on TV and radio, but also the people who call him and tell him, hey, you shouldn't be signing this, he knows that he's going to get that criticism and he knows that he has promised this border wall time and time again and again this seems pretty much like the last time he could ever fight for it, if he really could fight for it here. So certainly it is not a shut door thing that he is going to sign this. KING: It's a great point. The math's not good now. The president

doesn't have the Republican votes, let alone the Democratic votes. But the math's about to get worse. They'll pass this -- this short-term bill kicks this to February. Then the Democrats will be in charge of the House. The Democrats are in no mood to give the president wall money. And if they were to give him wall money, they would have a giant ask in return.

Which begs the question, what happened to that guy we saw a week ago? Look, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi baited him to say, I would be proud -- I will proudly shut down the government to get my wall. But he did say that one week ago. His base can replay that over and over and over again. Where'd he go?

TAMARA KEITH, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NPR: Well, so, yesterday, I shouted a question to him and he said -- I asked, are you willing to shut it down for the $5 billion? And he said, we need border security. So that seems like where that guy is going is that the wall is kind of a state of mind, that the wall could become just border security or fixing fences or that the president -- the president is in the process of finding a way to declare victory without, strictly speaking, having the wall that he's been talking about forever.

MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "BLOOMBERG": Well, and I think it's not a total coincidence that he declared victory on another front today with ISIS and tried to turn the page to this. I mean the truth is that it may be harder for him to get wall funding in February than it is now, but he's not getting it now. And what is the end goal of the shutdown if you can't win in the end? At least in February he can blame Democrats or seek to cobble together some sort of bipartisan compromise, float the idea of a DACA deal again and see if he has any better luck this time around.

I think the criminal justice reform package that is being -- in the process of passing now, that's going to go to him for his signature, is going to be another example of bipartisanship that the president is going to want to promote and share going into the new year. And on this shutdown related fight, the bottom line is that he doesn't win with the math either way.

KING: But he could win -- he -- a, he could have won last year. He could have had a deal on the wall funding and a DACA deal. He could have had that. He walked away, in part because of conservative criticism.

You're absolutely right, everybody's right, that the president could declare victory. He's on very safe ground politically talking about border security. It tests off the chart. The wall, not so much, but he could very clearly say, look, we have drones, we have fencing, I have my wall, I have my version of the wall and if it doesn't work in two years we'll come back and ask for tougher. But he doesn't do that. He refuses to change his vocabulary. This is his own Twitter feed. Mexico is paying indirectly for the wall through the new USMCA. That's the trade deal, the replacement for NAFTA. Far more money coming to the U.S. The United -- now the United States military will build the wall. No, they won't. They can't, number one. They won't and they can't and

to say that the money coming from trade is going to pay for the wall is crazy.

Just one more here. The Democrats are saying loud and clear they do not want to build a concrete wall, but we're not building a concrete wall. We're building an artistically designed steel slats so that you can easily see through it. It will be beautiful. It will go up fast.

They're not building any wall right now. They're repairing a few existing pieces.

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG": Right.

COLLINS: And USMCA has not passed Congress yet either, and that's also not how trade deficits work. That's not going to pay for the wall. So the president is sitting there twisting it because he wants to be able to deliver on that promise.

But I think even Ann Coulter and some of the president's biggest supporters back during the campaign will say an artistically designed wall with beautiful slats is not what they expected when the president was chanting at rallies "build the wall." That is not what they wanted from the president. So when he's making arguments like he did on Twitter last night or when he says they're going to have barbed wire plus as the wall, that is not the wall that Trump supporters were expecting.

And I think the president is becoming increasingly aware of the fact that this wall is not going to be built. He's not going to have the funding for this. And that's why we're seeing, with the tweets that he's saying, saying that the military is going to pay for it and all of this, because he's going pretty much in every which way so he can say he fought for this promise, he tried to deliver this promise.

But if you looked at the Trump campaign -- and so many politicians always make promises on the campaign that they do not follow through on. President Trump, every single day of the campaign said he was going to build the wall. So that is why it is so sensitive, not only for the president, but for his supporters because this is the one thing he promised every single day and now it's increasingly looking like he's not going to deliver on it.

KAPUR: It's -- and it's going to be a grievance of his nationalist and nativist base for many years to come that an all-Republican government could not deliver on this because, as you mentioned, just in a few weeks, Nancy Pelosi is going to take over the House. There's no path to get this through a Democratic controlled House.

[12:10:07] And you're absolutely right, John, that the president did have this on the table. He could have taken this in February of 2018, earlier this year, when there was a bipartisan deal, a number of Republicans were on board, Senator Rounds, Senator King came together and said, we'll give you $25 billion for the wall. He could have had $25 billion signed, sealed and delivered to build the wall if he had given up a path to citizenship for the people eligible for DACA and a few other things. Some cuts to family based immigrations for people who have green cards who are currently here legally. It was a modest deal, it was a bipartisan deal. He emphatically rejected it. It got 54 votes in the Senate while having strong White House opposition and opposition from the Republican leadership. This could have passed. He missed his best chance to get the wall.

KING: But in his echo chamber, there was a backlash --

KAPUR: Right.

KING: Which is why he didn't do it. Which is my question to be, see if this one, the Senate's going to go, and the House is going to go. The president's supposed to go to Mar-a-Lago is that tomorrow?

COLLINS: On Friday.

TALEV: Friday.

KING: Friday. On Friday. So a couple of days. We shall -- we shall see. Strap in.

Up next, the president makes a big decision on Syria, this after he promised an update in the fight on ISIS. That was 18 months ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're doing very well in the fight against ISIS, as General Mattis has just explained, and we're going to be having a news conference in about two weeks to let everybody know how well we're doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:15:22] KING: Some stunning news today in the U.S. military's role in the fight against ISIS. A defense official telling CNN, the Pentagon preparing for rapid withdrawal of all U.S. forces in Syria. The president tweeting this morning, quote, we have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.

About 2,000 U.S. troops are still on the ground, mostly helping train Kurdish rebels. And while ISIS has been diminished, the militants still control considerable territory.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins us now.

Barbara, we know the generals don't believe this fight is fully won but the commander in chief disagrees.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you would be hard pressed, John, to find a top U.S. commander who's going to come out and say that ISIS is defeated. In fact, just a few days ago, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said only a small number of the U.S.- backed forces in Syria had been trained. They had a long way to go. A big question now is if in fact the troops all come out, what will happen to those backed militia forces that are left behind the ones that the U.S. had supported in the fight against ISIS? That is one question.

The other question, what about Russia and Iran? Now unfettered, they can go and try and control any territory in Syria that they might wish to.

This is a stunning reversal of just a few days ago because just on Saturday, the U.S. coalition in Iraq, which was overseeing operations in Syria, had issued a statement and I want to read it to you because I think it's instructive about the level of confusion about what is happening now. The coalition issuing a statement saying, the coalition mission in northeast Syria remains unchanged. We continue our normal operations, including observation posts in the border region to address security concerns of our NATO ally Turkey. We remain committed to working with our partners on the ground to ensure an enduring defeat of ISIS. Any reports indicating a change in the U.S. position with respect to these efforts is false and designed to sow confusion and chaos.

Except, of course, that was Saturday. Now it's Wednesday. And it is not false. What the president wants is all troops out of Syria. The Pentagon trying to come up with a plan to make that happen.

John.

KING: That's remarkable. Barbara Starr with the breaking news at the Pentagon, thank you.

Let's continue the conversation with CNN's Arwa Damon, the former State Department and Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Arwa, a lucky day to have you here in the building in the sense that you've been on the ground. Is ISIS defeated? Is it fine and dandy for U.S. troops to get out?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is so risky at this stage. We just need to look at the history of ISIS' previous incarnations to see what happens following a premature U.S. withdrawal when you have a vacuum that is created because there is no force on the ground that can handle the security situation.

There is still very fierce fighting taking place in the east carried out by the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, the SDF. You also have another part, such as the province where I was just last month, where commanders, local commanders on the ground there, are very concerned about ISIS sleeper cells who they say will really capitalize on any sort of opportunity to reemerge and re-manipulate the population in their own support.

So it's incredibly risky. And no one can really make sense of it at this stage. Not anyone that we're talking to inside Syria or to a certain degree outside.

KING: Well, let me take the president's position for a minute. Even if he understands that, say, OK, it's risky but it's been risky for the last two years and the two years before that and the two years before that and nothing's getting any better. Assad's not going anywhere. The hell with it.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, not true. I mean things have been getting better. I mean even Bret McGurik (ph), the special envoy to the ISIS coalition, just about a month ago said that -- actually this month said that in Syria they've been reduced to about 1 percent of the territory they once held.

But Arwa brings up a good point, this is about ungoverned spaces. And one of the reasons we had that small number of troops on the ground was to help develop indigenous forces, the SDF in this case, to provide some measure of sustainable security. So you pull those advisers out, that sustainable security lapses and then you have ungoverned spaces again, which not only ISIS but al Nussra and other groups, which are more than happy to fill that vacuum, will fill.

KING: This is a statement just coming out from the chief Pentagon spokeswoman. The coalition has liberated the ISIS held territory but the campaign against ISIS is not over. We've started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign. For force protection, operational security reasons, we will not provide further details. We'll continue working with our partners and allies.

That strikes me, forgive me, that's bureaucracy in the sense that we're not going to say we disagree with the president and we're not going to tell you how quick we're pulling the troops out. So this is the State Department cancelled its briefing today.

[12:20:02] From a geopolitics, Russia wins anytime the U.S. pulls out of anywhere, but especially Syria. Iran wins if the United States pulls out of Syria. Will Turkey be happy or unhappy here? I suspect happy.

DAMON: Turkey's position is going to be quite interesting. Yes, this does play in Turkey's favor, especially since Turkey has been greatly concerned about America's support, of course, for the SDF because it views the Kurdish fighting forces as being one in the same as the terrorist organization, the PKK. And they have been threatening to go into an area called Minbej (ph) to try to push the SDF, the Kurds, out of there because it's so close to the border.

But this also is going to put a huge burden of responsibility on Turkey to then have to somehow secure this territory. Now, it has been increasing its footprint. It is supposed to be the protector of this demilitarized zone in areas like Idlib province, but can Turkey move in and accurately, adequately fill that vacuum that is going to be left by the U.S.?

KIRBY: That's exactly right. They --

KING: Or when the administration says, look, we still have troops in Iraq. We can pull back. We can do what needs to be done with air strikes, and, if necessary, targeted, you know, re-engagement. KIRBY: Yes, potentially, look, John, I mean now everything has to go

now to Iraq, right, because if you're going to pull everything out of Syria. And that's really an interesting case because last December Prime Minister Abadi said we've eliminated ISIS, we've defeated them, and the Pentagon shortly after that said, well, then we're going to rejig the number of troops we have in Iraq since the mission is essentially over, we'll move to stabilization, which requires fewer numbers. And, John, the numbers haven't changed since December. We still have more than 5,000 troops in Iraq.

So it's interesting the prime minister of one of these two countries has said it's over and we still have 5,000 troops there. And here in Syria, the president's just uniformly --

KING: I just -- just want to listen to a little flavor of this because we're seeing it play out today. Surprise at the Pentagon. Surprise and the State Department. Surprise if you talk to U.S. allies in the region. It's not a surprise, though, the president has had different opinions than many of his advisers on this for a long time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (November 23, 2017): They say we've made more progress against ISIS than they did in years of the previous administration and that's because I'm letting you do your job.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N. (February 20,2018): They've been dealt severe setbacks in Iraq and Syria, but they are not completely yet destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (April 3, 2018): We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission. And that mission isn't over. And we're going to complete that mission.

TRUMP (April 6, 2018): By the way, we're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.

TRUMP (April 12, 2018): We have just absolutely decimated ISIS.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Is there an impact beyond Washington politics of the mixed signals in terms of -- whether you are friend or foe around the world of trying to figure out, what is the United States position and how deep are the roots?

DAMON: Of course there is. I mean people's heads are spinning. But they've pretty much been spinning since this administration took power.

But when it comes to talking about a war zone like Syria or Iraq, it's not just about heads spins at the greater political level, it's about, what does that do to the populations on the ground? I mean just for a purely American perspective, America has lost so many of its own people inside both Syria and Iraq. To see history repeat itself with a premature potential withdrawal, without an adequate force on the ground, just really lends itself to have ISIS very easily to a certain degree be able to reemerge.

We saw this when they were al Qaeda in Iraq back in 2006. We saw this when they became the Islamic State of Iraq back in, you know, 2010. And now we're going to be seeing this again?

KING: That's an ominous question. We leave it there for now as we watch this play out.

Arwa, Admiral Kirby, we appreciate you being here.

Up next, back to domestic politics. A new document obtained by CNN proves Rudy Giuliani doesn't really think you need to know the truth.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:28:20] KING: Today, new and undeniable evidence the president pays liars to be his lawyers. The former lawyer, Michael Cohen, you'll know, admitted lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project and how long, how late into the 2016 campaign those negotiations lasted.

His current attorney now, Rudy Giuliani, also telling what's an obvious lie about that same project. Quote, there was a letter of intent to go toward, Giuliani told CNN's Dana Bash just Sunday. But, quote, no one signed it.

Here it is. There's the letter, right here. We'll put it up on the screen for you, dated October 28th, 2015, obtained by CNN's Chris Cuomo. That is then candidate Donald Trump's signature on that letter Rudy Giuliani said nobody signed. Below it, the signature of a Russian real estate developer.

Last night, Giuliani didn't attempt to explain the contradiction. Instead he called the letter BS. Of course then candidate Trump signed it, Giuliani told "The New York Daily News." How could you send it but nobody signed it?

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz joins our conversations.

In terms of what Robert Mueller is investigating, so what, who cares, he's worried about the substance, not the public lies. But what does it tell us that the president's lead attorney emphatically tells our Dana Bash on Sunday, nobody signed it, so therefore it's not a big deal and then says, oh, who cares, so I lied?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: It's a problem. And though we may think that Robert Mueller doesn't care about this, but it goes to the overall narrative that they're building in terms of why do people who speak for the president, who work for the president, who worked for the president, who were involved in the campaign all seem to have one thing in common is that they lie, and they continue to lie to protect the president.

[12:29:55] We know obviously from Michael Cohen, he has said the whole purpose in lying to Congress about this project, about what Giuliani claims the president didn't sign but said, yes, he did sign it, it was about the Moscow project and it was about protecting the president.