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Questions About Disgraced Trump Adviser's Russia Contacts; Interview with Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 19, 2018 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tom Foreman, thank you so much.

[17:00:03] You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter, @JakeTapper. You can tweet the show, @TheLeadCNN. Our coverage on the cable news network continues right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now. Breaking news. Mission not accomplished. President Trump makes a stunning and surprise foreign policy reversal, ordering U.S. troops out of Syria and contradicting his own commanders by claiming ISIS has been defeated.

Removing sanctions. The Trump administration planning to lift sanctions on two Russian companies, including one whose oligarch owner is tied to the convicted former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Border backdown. The president appears to change course after saying he'd be proud to shut down the government over a funding for his border wall. Now lawmakers are scrambling to pass a temporary spending bill they're hoping the president will sign.

And Russian friends. As former national security adviser Michael Flynn remains in sentencing limbo, we're learning new details about his Russian contacts, how he cultivated them, and how they were likely using him.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. President Trump blindsiding the U.S. military, key U.S. allies and Congress by ordering U.S. troops out of Syria, claiming that ISIS has been defeated. But the Pentagon estimates as many as 30,000 ISIS fighters remain in the region, and even some of the president's closest congressional allies are blasting his decision, which many believe simply strengthens the positions of not only the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also Russia and Iran.

I'll discuss that and more with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of the Judiciary Committee, and our correspondents, analysts and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's get some more on the breaking news. Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is standing by. Jeff, the president appears to have made this very controversial

decision unilaterally.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good evening. We know the president did not consult his defense secretary. We know he did not consult his secretary of state on this. So it does appear that he did make this decision on his own.

And since then, the entire town of Washington, from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill, have been trying to figure out what led the president to do this.

But the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, Republican Senator Bob Corker, he expressed big concern about this earlier on Capitol Hill directly to the vice president. So he came over here a short time ago for a meeting with the president.

But Wolf, that meeting never happened. The president apparently did not meet with Bob Corker, he told reporters on Capitol Hill. The White House has no explanation for why that meeting didn't go forward.

Wolf, all of this is coming as the president made this major announcement, a reversal in U.S. policy this morning around 9:30 here in Washington, in a tweet, 16 words. The White House held a conference call about six hours later that didn't answer anything.


ZELENY (voice-over): Under fire on multiple fronts in Washington, President Trump suddenly changing the subject tonight, announcing a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria. Blindsiding the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and countries in the region, the commander-in-chief delivering his decision in a tweet, saying, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency."

The president has long been wary of American troops on the ground in Syria.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.

ZELENY: Yet his declaration that ISIS is defeated was roundly rejected, even by some of his closest allies like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who blasted Trump's decision as weak and dangerous and compared him to President Obama.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I don't think General Trump is going to be any better than General Obama.

ZELENY: Graham later told reporters, "If Obama had done this, we would be going nuts right now."

Senator Marco Rubio saying the U.S. will lose influence in the region.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I just think it's a bad decision that eventually will lead to greater risk for the United States. ZELENY: The president has wanted to make the move for months,

repeatedly clashing with his national security advisers over Syria.

TRUMP: We have just absolutely decimated ISIS.

ZELENY: But the decision still catching nearly everyone off-guard. A stunning reversal of U.S. foreign policy with little to no advance warning.

On Capitol Hill today, Vice President Pence heard the rebukes firsthand at a lunch meeting with Republicans, with one GOP senator after another telling him the president's decision was wrong.

All this tonight as the Federal Reserve raising interest rates for the fourth time this year, ignoring calls by the president to avoid making what he called yet another mistake.

"Feel the market, don't just go by meaningless numbers," he said on Twitter as part of his unprecedented and unsuccessful campaign to influence the Fed. The jump in interest rates comes as the president is bristling once again, being denied money to build his border wall after promising this last week.

[17:05:04] TRUMP: I will shut down the government, absolutely. And I am proud, and I'll tell you why.


TRUMP: I am proud to shut down the government for border security.

ZELENY: Aides say the president has little choice but to sign a bill extending government funding for two more months, averting a Christmas shutdown. Conservative commentators like Ann Coulter blasting the president for blinking.

ANN COULTER, WRITER (via phone): It will just have been a joke presidency that scammed the American people, enraged the -- you know, amused the populace for a while. But he'll have no legacy whatsoever.

ZELENY: The president, offering no other solution, seemed prepared to grudgingly sign the bill to fund government until February 8.

But tonight, the White House has achieved a rare bipartisan victory, with the president poised to sign a major overhaul of the justice justice and sentencing system, approved by wide majorities of both parties.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: The net result last night is nothing short of an historic vote that really changes our outlook on our system of justice for the first time in decades. And it's a dramatic change.

GRAHAM: I hope this moment here, where we all feel good about each other, that maybe that's a sign that 2019 might be OK.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ZELENY: So even as senators and members of Congress in both parties were praising the White House for their action on that criminal sentencing reform, Wolf, so many questions tonight about this Syria decision, and those questions have remained unanswered at this point.

Senator Lindsey Graham, of course, a key ally of this president, voicing some of the loudest concerns again, seemingly trying to get the president's attention, comparing this move to something that Obama would have done. Certainly, that's not a compliment for this president -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the Republican reaction has been intense, very angry indeed. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on the president's sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, with us. She's reported extensively from inside Syria.

Also with us, our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, the president is withdrawing the all U.S. troops from Syria, despite ISIS still mounting attacks in the country. So is this really mission accomplished?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone at the Pentagon saying that it is. The mission had been to defeat ISIS, tough as that may be, given that ISIS is essentially an ideology.

Officials will tell you, there are still thousands of ISIS operatives and loyalists, especially in Eastern Syria, where the U.S. has been trying to push back against them, and trying to push back, to a large extent, by training local forces.

And this is now one of the major questions. What will happen to the thousands of local forces that have been trained once those 6,000 U.S. troops on the ground are withdrawn? Are they simply going to be abandoned? Will they be isolated? What will happen as the Syrian forces, potentially, move into these areas and operate against them? What if ISIS resurges on the ground, as is well expected they might?

All of these questions tonight, but certainly one common thread. There is perhaps no one but the president that believes ISIS has been defeated -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Barbara, the Pentagon where you are, U.S. allies, they were all caught by surprise with this announcement. What are you learning?

STARR: Caught by surprise indeed. You know, and caught by surprise across Washington. We are seeing rapidly both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as you have pointed out, Wolf, voicing their opposition to all of this.

That is essentially going to put Defense Secretary Mattis in a very tough position in the coming weeks and months as he prepares to execute this order to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops.

He will have to work with Republicans and Democrats. They are going to be very unhappy about all of this. And work with those allies, allies in the Middle East region who had bet everything on the U.S. effort to defeat ISIS. And also with European allies. Everyone who is part of the anti-ISIS coalition.

The U.S. had been planning to stay in the region to help try and stabilize Syria after the fighting ended. Now that is just another question: what money will be available, what troops, what equipment, what capability will be available to even try and stabilize Syria? Will that even happen at all -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Arwa is with us here and all of our viewers know Arwa. You've risked your life many times going into these very dangerous parts of Syria. How risky is this decision made by the president today?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very risky, Wolf. It risks just about all of the gains that have been made so far, especially against ISIS. Not to say that it also adds onto that by allowing Iran to potentially have a stronger presence that plays straight into Russia's hands.

Russia has already welcomed this decision, saying it could potentially lead the way to a political -- process of political solution. That is going to be a negotiating table that America already has not had a seat at and certainly is not going to.

Turkey also has welcomed this. The Turks are saying that this is basically a byproduct of the most recent phone conversation between Erdogan and Trump that took place just a few days ago, that's fallen within that framework.

[17:10:12] But Turkey also wants to go after the Syrian Kurds that the Americans were backing, because it views them as being part of a terrorist organization that Turkey has been fighting for decades. The potential for even more chaos after all of this is so high, and we all know what chaos in this region looks like.

We saw it in Iraq. We saw it after every single previous incarnation ISIS was declared defeated, how a vacuum was created a force on the ground weren't able to hold the gains and how another entity emerged that was even more dangerous and deadly than before.

Why should America care about all of this? Let's look at what America has lost both in Iraq and Syria over the course of more than a decade now.

And let's look at ISIS's capabilities when they are strong. Let's not assume that this is an organization that has been defeated and that is not capable of striking. I'm not talking about striking just in Iraq and Syria. But anywhere in the world.

BLITZER: And the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad is very pleased right now. What, a half a million people have been killed over these past several years in this bloody, bloody war. Arwa, thank you very much.

Barbara Starr, thanks to you, as well.

Russia clearly welcoming not only the U.S. withdrawal from Syria but also news today that the Trump administration plans to lift sanctions on two Russian companies.

Our senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez, is joining us right now now.

Evan, the administration plans to lift sanctions on these two Russia companies, but still keeping them in place on a Russian oligarch tied to the Russia investigation. Could this be significant, potentially, for the Mueller probe?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it could be, Wolf. Oleg Deripaska is the oligarch you're talking about. He's very close to the Kremlin, and of course, he was in business with Paul Manafort, the chairman of the Trump campaign, who obviously has now pleaded guilty to charges here in the United States.

And so the significance of this is that there's been a lot of pressure on the administration to lift the sanctions on Rusal, which is the second-largest aluminum producer in the world. And so that's what the Treasury Department is doing. They're lifting sanctions on Rusal, as well as a related company that holds Oleg Deripaska's stake in the company.

What the Treasury Department says, is that they're not lifting sanctions on Oleg Deripaska. As a matter of fact, they're increasing pressure on people around him. They've added another member of the company to the U.S. sanctions list. And they say that they are not reducing any pressure on him. This is costing him millions and millions of dollars. And they say that really, what this is all about is trying to fix a problem that was being caused in the global market for aluminum, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, another key part of the Mueller probe right now, Evan, involves the discussions about a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign. The president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as you know, he's denied that Donald Trump signed a letter of intent for the project.

But CNN's Chris Cuomo obtained the letter -- we have it right here -- with Donald Trump's signature on it. How significant is it that Trump's team was negotiating with the Russians on a potentially very lucrative business deal during the campaign, and that his legal team continues to tell completely different stories about the president's involvement?

PEREZ: Well, let's take the first part of that question, Wolf. I think it's very significant that the president was telling the American public, the American voters, that he had nothing to do with Russia. No business interests in Russia, rather. That he had no business interests in Russia, he was not pursuing any business in Russia, while at the same time his personal attorney was working on this project, Michael Cohen. And the special counsel has now said that they believe Michael Cohen's version of this event, right?

And obviously Rudy Giuliani over the weekend told Dana Bash that this was never a deal that was going to be done, never signed. And, of course, you've shown the picture of the agreement that was signed. Not only was it signed; it was signed by Donald Trump himself.

But, of course, Wolf, right after this story broke last night, Rudy Giuliani went and talked to other media, and I think he talked to the "Daily News" in New York, and here's a quote he gave them. He says, "I don't think I said nobody signed it. How could you send it? But nobody signed it." Of course, Wolf, we know that he told Dana Bash exactly the opposite this Sunday. So Rudy Giuliani is now on all sides of this very one question of whether or not the president signed this document.

BLITZER: Yes. We have a copy, clearly, of the document, as well. All right. Evan, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of these developments. Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is joining us. He's a key member of the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks so much. I want to begin with President Trump's surprise announcement this morning that the United States will now immediately and rapidly draw down, withdraw all its military presence in Syria, 2,000 U.S. troops. Do you believe that's the right decision?

[17:15:04] SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Well, clearly, it's not clear yet how this is all going to shake out. But what is clear is that this was a rash decision, this was an unexpected decision. This was an ill-coordinated decision. And it is good for the Russians and bad for U.S. credibility. How bad remains to be seen.

BLITZER: The president is getting hammered, as you know, by some of -- several of your Republican colleagues for this decision, and for tweeting that ISIS and Syria has now been defeated. Do you see comparisons to President Bush's "mission accomplished" moment during the Iraq War?

WHITEHOUSE: Yes, I think obviously, the overstatement of the level of success compares with that Bush statement.

I think the longer-running piece of this is going to be that from the -- you know, America tries to do things through coalitions. And to make coalitions effective, you have to be creditable. And whether your coalition is at the international level, and you're dealing with other sovereigns or whether you're at the local level and dealing with local fighters and leaders who have come to trust our soldiers, all of that got disrupted today, and we'll just have to see how bad the consequences are.

BLITZER: Some lawmakers are applauding the president's decision. Senators like Rand Paul, for example, they worry about the U.S. military maintaining an indefinite presence in the region. They're happy to see some troops coming home. So if not today, when should American troops withdraw from Syria?

WHITEHOUSE: I couldn't say that. But I can say that, even if you are planning to withdraw from Syria, there's a right way to do it and there's a wrong way to do it. And this appears to have been very clearly the wrong way to do it.

BLITZER: Let's not forget, the U.S. still has 5,200 troops in Iraq and some 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as you can see over there. We'll see what the president decides to do about those military personnel.

Let's turn, Senator, to the Mueller probe right now. I want your thoughts on the rather mysterious case of this unidentified company owned by an unnamed foreign government that a court just ordered to comply with a grand jury subpoena. You're a former prosecutor. What can you gather from the limited information the U.S. government, the prosecution, the Mueller probe, has put forward?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, I think the obvious thing that one can glean from all of this is that the early reporting that the Mueller probe is nearly finished are a long way from being accurate. I think there is a lot left to go. And clearly, the sentencing memorandum for Flynn and now this activity shows a very active continuing investigation.

To me, the biggest shoe that has yet to drop is what Mueller is doing and what they are going to do about the change, the pro-Russia change in the Republican Party platform relative to our national position on the Ukraine.

And when you consider this Trump business deal that was going on in and around that time period, when you consider that Manafort and Flynn were both engaged in those conversations, that Manafort was leading his team through that convention, that Manafort had his own interests, pro-Russian interests in Ukraine, and it's perhaps one of the most transactional people ever born on the planet, the idea that that all happened without there being quid pro quos and nefarious behavior seems very unlikely.

And so that's the big next piece that I am expecting to drop, based on what we already know. I wouldn't put it past Mueller to indict the Trump campaign. We're circling that wagon pretty closely, too.

BLITZER: I suspect you're right. This looks like it's going to go on and on. You see no end, at least right now, right?

WHITEHOUSE: Not immediately. And I honestly don't see how Bob Mueller or any prosecutor could walk away from that Ukraine plank switch at this stage. I think there's very likely something chargeable in all of that mess. So I think until that shoe falls, we know that the investigation will continue.

BLITZER: And on your suggestion that that's possible, that Mueller might actually indict the Trump campaign, what do you know about that? WHITEHOUSE: Well, I don't. I'm just drawing conclusions. Mueller

has done -- unlike Kavanaugh and Starr back in the Clinton investigation, Mueller has done a very professional job of not litigating his investigation in the media and in public. So we really don't know much about this.

But when you see the indictments of Manafort and look at his at least temporary period of cooperation; when you see Flynn's charge and sentencing coming up and his cooperation; when you look at some of the threads that connect into the Trump campaign, it's easy to imagine an indictment of the Trump campaign as a corporate entity. And then that would create further activity in the investigation.

BLITZER: But it doesn't exist anymore, that campaign. How do you indict an entity that really, at least for now, doesn't exist?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, it existed at the time, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were some lingering corporate presence that could be indicted and you worked through that to get to other people. I think that it's a credible thing for them to be looking at.

[17:20:08] BLITZER: Senator Whitehouse, thanks so much for joining us.

WHITEHOUSE: Glad to be with you.

BLITZER: All right. Up next, the changing story on the letter of intent for Trump Tower in Moscow. Rudy Giuliani insists the president never signed it. CNN now has proof that the president did sign it.


BLITZER: The breaking news this hour. President Trump facing very sharp criticism from many in his own Republican Party for what appears to be a unilateral decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Let's get some more with our correspondents and our analysts. And John Kirby, the president tweeted, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency." Give us your analysis of this sudden decision.

[17:25:03] ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Clearly, a reckless decision. Now is exactly not the time to be rapidly pulling troops out of Syria.

It is true that ISIS has been decimated in Syria in terms of their territory, where they possess. Now is the time to press that advantage forward.

Remember, our troops are not there to fight ISIS directly, necessarily, but to advise and assist Syrian democratic forces. Indigenous forces that you need for sustainable security. So this is exactly the wrong time to do it.

It was a decision recklessly made with very little coordination in the inner agency, and it looks like no coordination with members of Congress or our international allies and partners. We run the coalition of more than 70 nations fighting ISIS. No coordination done.

Finally, I think it's a big gift to Russia, who would love nothing more than to have us out of there.

BLITZER: A big gift to Bashar al Assad, as well.

KIRBY: Absolutely.

BLITZER; You cover the White House, Abby, for us. Take us behind the scenes. What happened?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, it's not entirely surprising that this White House would have done something like this without informing most anybody in Washington. It's actually pretty typical of how they operate.

But this sounds very much like something that President Trump decided to do and decided to do on his own, leaving White House aides to try to explain it to the rest of the world and to the rest of his party.

Now, the question is, what -- why now? Why at this very moment did President Trump decide to do something that he's frankly wanted to do for a long time? Is it because he feels like he needs to bring an end to a conflict he feels like we should never have been in, in the first place?

But at the same time, this is a president who for most of his presidency, deferred to his generals and his military officers. This time he hasn't done that, and he's done, really, what a lot of people are characterizing as a rash decision. And it's a complete turn- around for him, I think, when it comes to how he deals with his military.

So this could be a kind of turning point for President Trump. But one that might end up being quite damaging to him.

BLITZER: A lot of Americans will be happy. Troops are coming home. Why should Americans care if troops remain in Syria? It's a very dangerous operation.

KIRBY: Because a group like ISIS, they thrive on ungoverned space. That's why they are predominantly in the northeast area, eastern Syria, because Assad and his troops and the Russians haven't been there. So they thrive on that ungoverned space.

Now with ungoverned space now to go back in, they'll fill that vacuum, and they have global aspirations. This isn't just a group that is focused on Iraq and Syria. They have global operations. They are willing and able to conduct attacks elsewhere and to plan and resource them from Syria, which is where -- what they did back in 2014.

BLITZER: I need to get a quick break in. We have a lot more to discuss right after this.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with our experts and analysts.

[17:32:19] And Jeffrey Toobin, this document that we now have to go ahead and consider building a Trump Tower in Moscow, Trump Acquisition, LLC, signing on behalf of the Trump Organization was a guy by the name of Donald Trump, October 28, 2015. This is several months after he announced he was running for the Republican presidential nomination.

It happened to be October 28, 2015, the same day as there was that CNBC Republican debate in Boulder, Colorado. We're showing our viewers some pictures of that. And then he goes ahead with this letter of intent to go ahead and plan for a Trump Tower in Moscow. How big of a deal do you think this might be?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I just think it's extraordinary. When you consider that Donald Trump has spent now years saying he has no business with Russia, he didn't have anything to do with Russia. That here we have in October of 2015, at the peak of the campaign, just before the voting starts, you know, right before the Iowa caucuses in January, he signs this letter doing business with Russia.

Now, the project did not come to fruition. But isn't this something the voters want to know? And doesn't this explain, at least in part, why he was so solicitous to Vladimir Putin, why he wanted to ingratiate himself with the man who could give thumbs up or thumbs down to this project?

I mean, you know, this is not criminal in and of itself. But it just demonstrates how much Trump has lied about his relationship with Russia since this investigation began.

BLITZER: And Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, said he never signed anything. But now we have, thanks to Chris Cuomo, the actual document showing Donald Trump's signature.

TOOBIN: Well, charitably, I think, you know, Rudy Giuliani may have been clueless. I doubt he lied outright. But it just shows that no one in the Trump orbit really knows the full facts here. Perhaps Robert Mueller does.

BLITZER: Rebecca, you know, what do you think of the way Giuliani, for example, has handled all of this?

REBECCA BUCK, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's obviously shifted what he's saying about this. And he's put the president in a very awkward position by saying that he hadn't signed such an agreement, and now we know that he did. And so it makes them look very shifty. We ask why was Giuliani trying to conceal this fact.

And it just -- once again, raises questions about the credibility of Giuliani and the person he is speaking for, the president of the United States, on these very important questions in this investigation. ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But I do think we need

to kind of call a spade a spade here. This is a knowable thing. It is not something that should have come as a surprise to someone who is technically the president's lawyer. It's something that has been known for now more than two years.

[17:35:08] And so when Giuliani goes out on a Sunday show and says, this document was never signed, it basically doesn't exist, that -- and it does exist, that's clearly an attempt to lie about the facts of the case, to shift public opinion in the president's direction. And I think that is plain for everyone to see.

I mean, this is not by accident, and it's not the first time that this has happened.

Giuliani has a responsibility to tell the truth about this and not to mislead the public. And when this happens, I think we should call it for what it is, which is an attempt to misdirect, in this particular case, about what we know and what is true and what is false.

TOOBIN: The person who really has the obligation is Donald Trump.

PHILLIP: That's true.

TOOBIN: He's the one who has been saying all along, "I have nothing to do with Russia." And here's a signed document to build Trump Tower in Moscow. I mean, what more do you need to show, to show that he had business interests in Russia?

Now, he may say that, well, the tower never got built and he never got financing for it, but how many of us have signed contracts to build buildings in Moscow? I would say not many. And all of the people who do have those contracts do have business in Moscow.

And the fact that Donald Trump has spent now years lying about his relationship with Russia is just extraordinary. Now, as Rudy Giuliani may point out, we haven't seen him lie under oath about it. But just as a political matter, it's just a shameful, shameful thing.

BLITZER: John, the document, and we got a copy of the document right on page 1, when describing what they had in mind, I'll read it to you. "Proposed development of a first-class luxury mixed use, to be known as Trump Moscow or such other name as mutually agreed upon by the parties and located in Moscow City, also known as the project."

ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I don't know how you get away from that and say that you don't have any dealings with Moscow. That you don't have any -- that you don't know anybody there and you're not doing anything. It absolutely just flies in the face of everything that he said on the campaign trail and quite frankly, after he got elected. And I think he should obviously be held accountable for that.

PHILLIP: It is striking, Wolf, that the fact that this was a lie in the -- in and of itself, I think, is something that is worrisome, politically for the president, because it means that Vladimir Putin knew it was a lie. And people in Russia knew that it was a lie. And it's something that clearly influenced the president's foreign policy for much of the last two years of his presidency.

And that's the core of the concern about it. Maybe it's not illegal, but certainly raises a lot of questions about where are the checks and balances to prevent this sort of situation from happening in the future?

TOOBIN: And this is precise --

BLITZER: You know -- Rebecca, at a minimum, it's so embarrassing.

BUCK: Right, Wolf. And now Rudy Giuliani is commenting to our Dana Bash, a new comment, saying that he was wrong if he said the president didn't sign this letter. He said, "I haven't seen the quote. But I probably meant to say that there was never a deal, much less a signed one." So some very, very confusing statements from Rudy Giuliani.

How he could say one thing and then now say that he was completely wrong to have said that? You don't want a lawyer, especially one working for the president of the United States, who is going to say two things completely opposite of one another. That's what he's doing right now.

BLITZER: Yes, it's embarrassing at a minimum.

Everybody stand by. There's more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM from Capitol Hill, where there's a last-minute deal to avoid a looming government shutdown. But it doesn't -- repeat, doesn't -- include President Trump's key demand for spending billions on a border wall. Will the president go along with it?


[17:43:21] BLITZER: There's breaking news up on Capitol Hill, where new road blocks are preventing lawmakers from passing a deal to delay a government shutdown, currently set to begin at midnight on Friday.

Let's check in with CNN's Ryan Nobles.

Ryan, the deal ignores President Trump's key demand for billions of dollars to build a border wall. What's the latest?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. In fact, behind me just down the hall, in Senator McConnell's office, a group of Republican senators are huddling behind closed doors, trying to iron out some details having to do with a group of land use bills that they'd like to attach to this continuing resolution that would pass and keep the government open at least through February.

That's a technical hold-up on this bill, but most here on Capitol Hill believe that ultimately, the bill will get passed. The government will stay open through the Christmas holiday, and into the new year. All the key players seem to be on board with that idea of passing a clean, continuing resolution. Of course, that means that the president's key holding point, the

thing that was holding up this process, funding for the border wall, will not be a part of this package. The president conceded that point, his advisers saying that he believes that that's not necessity point.

And now the White House is, to a certain degree, shifting their attitude as it relates to this, not talking about a specific line item in the budget in order to get that border wall funded. Instead, being creative with budgeting. Perhaps getting money from other departments, or getting some sort of budget line for just border security in general that they can then use for the border wall.

Of course, Wolf, that becomes much more difficult for the president in the new year with Nancy Pelosi becoming the speaker of the House and the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives.

But that appears to be a fight that the White House is willing to take on. They're just going to wait until the new year to begin that process. So as it stands right now, Wolf, there is hope that this deal will get done, and the government will stay open.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we'll see what happens. Ryan, thanks very much.

Coming up, new questions emerging right now about one-time Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn's contacts with the Russians, including a man who used to be Vladimir Putin's top diplomat here in the United States.


[17:50:03] BLITZER: Tonight, as former national security adviser Michael Flynn waits in a legal limbo before finding out whether he'll go to prison for lying to the FBI, there are some new questions emerging about his Russian contacts.

Our Brian Todd has been looking into this for us. Brian, what are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've investigated Michael Flynn's contacts with the Russians, his efforts to work with them, and we've looked into what appears to be a very carefully crafted operation on the Russian's part to cultivate him. It's a story of miscalculation and ego that brought down a very ambitious man.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, Michael Flynn sits in legal limbo, his sentencing delayed and his cooperation with the Special Counsel now being questioned by a federal judge in large part because of his relationship with this man -- Sergey Kislyak, the well-connected, gregarious former Russian Ambassador to the United States. STEPHEN SESTANOVICH, DIRECTOR OF THE INTERNATIONAL FELLOWS PROGRAM,

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: You could hardly imagine a more cuddly, jovial Russian diplomat than Sergey Kislyak.

TODD (voice-over): CNN's Fred Pleitgen caught up with Kislyak, who is now back in Russia earlier this month.

SERGEY KISLYAK, FORMER AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION: I would say that the Russian-American relations have become hostage of your internal debates.

TODD (voice-over): Flynn is reported to have first met Kislyak in 2013. But Flynn, a former Army intelligence officer who was tapped to run the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2012 before being fired by President Obama two years later, was known for building relationships with foreign intelligence services to fight terrorism, even traveling to Russia in 2013 for an unprecedented visit with Russian intelligence chief, Igor Sergun.

JOHN SIPHER, FORMER SENIOR EXECUTIVE IN NATIONAL CLANDESTINE SERVICE, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: I think Mr. Flynn, you know, because of his time working in Iraq and working on, you know, the sort of military victory, was someone who thought that he could just sort of push through these things. That his -- by force of personality and perhaps, you know, an overactive ego, that he could make these things work.

TODD (voice-over): In 2015, Flynn visited Kislyak at Kislyak's Washington home and also traveled to Moscow and sat next to Vladimir Putin at a gala for Russian T.V., which earned him tens of thousands of dollars.

Sources have told CNN Russian officials bragged to each other during the 2016 presidential campaign that they had cultivated a strong relationship with Flynn and could use him to influence Donald Trump, even calling Flynn an ally. Although some former officials caution that the Russians could have been exaggerating the relationship.

What is clear is that in December 2016, shortly after the election, Flynn met with Kislyak at Trump Tower and later exchanged text messages and phone calls with him during the transition.

It was Flynn's conversations with the then-Russian Ambassador later in December which got Flynn into legal trouble when he asked Kislyak not to sanction the U.S. after the Obama administration sanctioned Russia for interfering in the election.

Flynn has now admitted to lying to investigators about his discussions with Kislyak, but experts say that outreach probably didn't start from scratch. Kislyak was, according to analysts, the ideal Russian to get next to Flynn.

MICHAEL CARPENTER, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR RUSSIA/BALKANS/EURASIA, DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: I think Kislyak cultivated Flynn rather than vice versa and certainly wanted to have the new national security adviser sympathetic to the prospect of sanctions relief.

TODD (voice-over): Kislyak has become a central character in the Russian investigation, present at so many crucial moments.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions interacted with Kislyak during the 2016 campaign. Revelations of that eventually culminated in Sessions recusal from the Justice Department's investigation into Russian election interference.

And one day after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Trump told Kislyak in the Oval Office that Comey was a, quote, nut job and that the firing had relieved pressure from the investigation.

All along, a key question has kept popping up. Was Sergey Kislyak a Russian spy?

CARPENTER: Not a spy. However, did he oversee a massive spying operation from his embassy? Of course, he did. And he probably knew a lot of the elements of that operation but perhaps not everything.

TODD (voice-over): Russian officials strongly deny Kislyak was a spy or a recruiter, but intelligence analysts tell CNN the Russian Ambassador's role is often to serve as a spy overseer.

LEV GORN, ACTOR (through translator): Has he told you he loves you?

ANNET MAHENDRU, ACTRESS (through translator): He hasn't said it yet.

TODD (voice-over): A job illustrated in the popular F.X. show, "The Americans."

Former spies say Sergey Kislyak would have likely been given an important task with Michael Flynn.

SIPHER: I would be certain that he would have a psychological profile of Mr. Flynn and would be told by the Kremlin to develop that relationship.


TODD: Former intelligence officers tell us there is a cautionary tale in the Michael Flynn case for any U.S. officials at Flynn's level or who have sensitive security clearances.

They say the caution is that in dealing with the Russians, don't tip them off that you have an ego. They'll exploit that. And always realize the extent of the Russian intelligence operation inside the United States.

Former CIA Agent John Sipher says the Russians now have more intelligence officers inside the U.S. than they ever had at the height of the Cold War -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Excellent report, Brian Todd. Thanks very much for that.

[17:55:00] There's more breaking news coming up. Republican lawmakers stunned and outraged by President Trump's surprise decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Withdrawing backlash. Top GOP senators are slamming the President's surprise order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, saying his claim that ISIS has been defeated is wrong and dangerous. Why is President Trump doing this now?

Trump's lawyer backtracks. Rudy Giuliani is now changing his story again about a letter of intent for the Trump Tower project in Moscow and whether the President signed it. This after CNN exclusively obtained a copy of the letter and confirmed the facts.