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THE SITUATION ROOM

Angry Backlash as Trump Claims ISIS Defeated in Syria, Orders U.S. Troop Withdrawal Slammed by GOP Senators as "Dangerous"; CNN Investigates California Power Company Under Scrutiny in Probe of State's Deadliest Wildfire; Mueller Turning Attention to Roger Stone?; Interview With Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes; Federal Reserve Ignores Trump Warnings, Raises Interest Rates. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 19, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: This after CNN exclusively obtained a copy of the letter and confirmed the facts.

Empty threat. After the president said he would be proud to shut down the government over the border wall funding issue, he's backed down on his demand. Will a deal be sealed as the deadline nears?

And fed up. The Federal Reserve raises interest rates for the fourth time this year, ignoring the president's attempts to influence the decision. Strong reaction tonight on Wall Street and at the White House.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the angry backlash over President Trump's surprise declaration of victory over ISIS in Syria and his plans for a full and rapid troop withdrawal from that country.

Tonight, top Republican lawmakers are blindsided and fuming. Senator Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, is calling the move weak and dangerous.

Mr. Trump contradicting assessments by top his military commanders, he is now giving Russia and Iran and the brutal remember in Syria, they say -- what they have been hoping for, potentially strengthening their power and their influence.

GOP Senator Bob Corker says he believes the president made that consequential decision on the spur of the moment without consulting anyone.

This hour, I will talk with Congressman Jim Himes. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee, and our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, we have breaking news coming in right now unfolding in the Russia investigation.

I want to bring in our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, and our CNN chief political correspondent, Dana Bash.

Dana, first of all, what are you learning?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is coming from "The Washington Post," Wolf, breaking just moments ago, a story that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has formally requested transcripts of Roger Stone's testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.

Why is this important? What does this tell us? Perhaps, perhaps that after months of waiting and wondering what is going to happen with Roger Stone, of course, a longtime ally, sometimes adviser of President Trump, then candidate Trump, that perhaps they are going to make a move inside the special counsel's office to press charges against Roger Stone, perhaps for lying under oath to members of Congress, perhaps, Wolf, for more than that.

BLITZER: We know that, you know, Roger Stone, Shimon, he has been a very central part of the Mueller investigation, even though he hasn't been charged with anything, at least not yet.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: No, he has. And when you think about all of the people that have come, have been subpoenaed or been asked to come before the special counsel and grand juries, all certainly in the last several months have been all about -- it has all been about Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, of course, the former madam in New York.

So many people now have come before the special counsel, have been asked questions about Roger Stone. The other thing that's probably significant here is that maybe there was an actual referral from some members of Congress to try to look into whether or not Roger Stone lied to them.

This is significant because that means there is something in this testimony that the special counsel now wants access to, now wants to review, wants to have a better understanding of what he said to them, and perhaps it could be the first steps into bringing charges against Roger Stone for lying.

As we saw in the Michael Cohen -- there has been a mystery. There's been this question, will the special counsel, will Bob Mueller and his team go after people who have lied to members of Congress in this investigation?

And as we saw in the Michael Cohen case, that is going to happen. And that could be where Roger Stone is heading right now.

BASH: And Stone is not shy about talking to the press, and he has said he expects he will probably be indicted by the special counsel.

One thing that we don't know, which is kind of at the core of the special counsel's investigation, is how this relates to conversations that Roger Stone had with people in and around WikiLeaks and what conversations he then took to then candidate Donald Trump.

We could know the answer to that when Democrats finally do take over, because Adam Schiff, who is going to chair this committee, the Intelligence Committee, has said that he's going to release the transcripts relating to those very questions.

BLITZER: Because I assume they're going to want to look at the transcript of his testimony before the Intelligence Committee to see if he lied.

PROKUPECZ: Yes, it is clear that that's probably what is going on here. Obviously, we don't have any inside information that he actually lied, but maybe there is something that has come up that the special counsel knows about, that the lawyers and the FBI agents there know about, and they're like, well, we need this evidence now to present it to a grand jury, which will formally bring charges.

It is interesting that this is coming so late in the game, that this is coming now. You would have thought that this would have already happened. It is surprising, and I think it does tell us something is going on now here, that that should concern Roger Stone, as much as he has said, special counsel, FBI, no one has reached out to me.

[18:05:14]

It is never a good sign when people are talking about you in an investigation and no one has reached out to you.

BASH: Because it generally means that you're not just the subject -- I mean, you're not just a witness, you could be the target or even subject.

BLITZER: Because if you lie under oath to Congress, that's perjury.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: That's a crime.

BASH: I mean, just look at Michael Cohen.

BLITZER: And give our viewers just a little bit. Roger Stone and Donald Trump, they have been pals, allies for a long time, not just a couple of years, but for decades.

BASH: For decades. Look, and they have gone in and out of favor with one another, and that certainly was the case at the beginning of the Trump campaign, that he was involved, and then he was very much told that he was not going to be involved anymore.

But like so many other people who are in the Trump orbit, the now- president tends to cut ties, but then go back and have conversations with people, and that certainly was the case, it seems to be , with Roger Stone. So one of the questions has been whether or not maybe people in and around the president didn't know about this warning that may or may not have come from WikiLeaks to Roger Stone, but maybe Stone told Donald Trump directly. BLITZER: I want to stay on this.

Jim Himes, Congressman Jim Himes, is joining us right now. He is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is a Democrat.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

And I will read to you the lead in "The Washington Post" story. I want to get your reaction.

"Special count Robert S. Mueller III asked the House Intelligence Committee," your committee, "on Friday for an official transcript of Trump adviser Roger Stone's testimony, according to people familiar with the request, a sign that prosecutors could be moving to charge him with a crime."

Your reaction?

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, Wolf, I can't confirm that one way or the other, in the interest of sort of making sure that this process remains one of confidence.

But I can tell you that, personally, you know, having listened to Roger Stone's testimony, I certainly have my concerns about whether he was truthful. And, of course, this goes back to the issue, you will remember, of him predicting essentially that John Podesta's e-mails would be released.

He said it is soon to be Podesta's time in the barrel right before, of course, his e-mails were released. And he has denied having any contacts with WikiLeaks. He has denied that he had any role there. But the more we learn, the more we -- I at least become concerned that he wasn't being honest with the committee.

BLITZER: There's a suggestion, Congressman, that Mueller probably already has an unofficial transcript of Roger Stone's testimony before your House Intelligence Committee, but now wants an official transcript. What does that say to you?

HIMES: Well, again, I am not -- I don't know if, in fact, that has -- if that has happened, but, obviously -- and I'm not quite sure where he would get an unofficial transcript.

But if that is true, and if an official transcript has been released, this, of course, would potentially form the foundation of then going back to Roger Stone and saying, you said this to Congress, and we know that not to be true.

We learned something in the last couple of weeks, Wolf, which is -- and Mueller showed this -- that lying to Congress is going to be an offense for which he will -- he will make an indictment. So, again, without confirming any of this stuff, I certainly have concerns and have had for some time that Roger Stone wasn't honest with the committee when he came and testified in front of us.

BLITZER: How could this help the special counsel investigate possible communication that he may have had directly or indirectly with WikiLeaks?

HIMES: Well, to make the obvious point, if Mueller has concerns that Roger Stone is not being honest, he knows a lot more than we know and probably that Roger Stone knows.

So, if he has evidence that Roger Stone lied to Congress -- and just in the last couple of weeks, he has brought charges to people for lying to Congress -- what that gives him is real leverage with Roger Stone to say, OK, now is the moment where you come clean. You might have said you would never testify against Donald Trump, but look at the charges we have here and think about spending the rest of your days in prison. And if you don't like that prospect, we have some questions for you.

So, if this all turns out to be true, it could be a real element of leverage for Mueller on Roger Stone.

BLITZER: Can you confirm, Congressman, that Mueller has asked your committee for an official transcript?

HIMES: I can't, Wolf. And I'm not sure that any committee member can.

As you know, Mueller's investigation has been known for its operating in secrecy, and I think I'm going to respect that and not confirm or deny either way.

BLITZER: But without confirming or denying that -- and I understand the element of confidentiality you have to maintain as a member of the House Intelligence Committee -- is there a procedure in place for the special counsel to get that kind of official transcript?

HIMES: The way it would work, Wolf -- and it probably bears watching, since we're only in town, if the rumors are to be believed about a budget deal being done by Friday -- the procedure for the release of the transcript, that would require a committee vote.

[18:10:07]

So, in other words, the committee would come together. Presumably, the Republican majority could deny a request like that to Mueller. But the committee would have to come together to vote on the release of that transcript, if Mueller, in fact, had made that request.

BLITZER: Are you going to have a vote on it tomorrow?

(LAUGHTER)

HIMES: Nice try, Wolf.

BLITZER: You can't tell us?

HIMES: Again, I don't want to get into what Mueller -- if that has happened, you will -- people will know about a meeting of the committee before too long. I don't at this point want to get out ahead of what either Bob Mueller or the committee is doing. BLITZER: Does the committee, your House Intelligence Committee, has

to -- do they have to inform Roger Stone's attorney that all of this is unfolding and they're going to make the official transcript available? Would that be the normal procedure?

HIMES: No, I don't think there's any obligation to inform anybody.

Again, this was testimony that was offered to the Congress. Because it was done in executive session, it is not a public document. Now, remember, Wolf, the other thing I would add here is that the intention of the committee was to release all of the transcripts.

And the only reason they haven't all been released is because they're going through a process of declassification, showing the transcripts to the intelligence community to make sure that there isn't classified information.

But one way or the other, that information, those transcripts are going to be public very soon, either because these stories are true or because that process is done and all of the transcripts will be released.

BLITZER: And, as we have been reporting, Congressman -- I will read the second sentence in this "Washington Post" story -- "It is the first time Mueller has formally asked the committee to turn over material the panel has gathered in its investigation of Russian interference of the 2016 campaign," according to the people.

But that was a surprise to me, that only now, that Mueller and his special counsel team, they're beginning to ask your committee, presumably other committees, for official transcripts.

HIMES: Yes. Yes. There has been almost no communication, and I don't think that's an accident, between the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and certainly on the House side. I can't speak for the Senate.

But, remember, the House Intelligence Committee investigation was badly damaged from the start, when the chairman of the committee, Devin Nunes, used the committee as a platform to defend the president.

You may recall that the House Intelligence Committee's report said that the intelligence community was wrong that the Russian interference was designed to help Donald Trump. That, of course, was the finding of the intelligence community, but the House majority report denied that.

Well, now, there are two Senate reports out that say, in fact, the Russians were trying to help Donald Trump. And so that is just yet another example of why the House Intelligence Committee's investigation was pretty badly hindered from the start, and I think Bob Mueller deliberately kept his distance.

BLITZER: I want to move on to some other issues.

I will just read another sentence from the article: "Securing an official transcript from the committee would be a necessary step before pursuing an indictment that Stone allegedly lied to lawmakers, legal experts said."

Let's move on to something else that's emerging right now, very sensitive information. Just a year before he won the presidential election, President Trump signed off on this plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Is that something the American people should have known about during the campaign?

HIMES: Well, I mean, I think there's two things that are important about that, Wolf.

Number one, the president very clearly lied about this, and you can go back and run the tape. He said, I have no deals, I have no prospects of deals, I have no nothing.

In fact, he had a signed letter of intent. And, of course, just, was it yesterday that his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said, well, there was a letter of intent, but it wasn't signed?

Well, lo and behold, it turns out to have been signed by Donald Trump. So, once again -- and this seems like a daily occurrence -- we are finding that the president and the president's people cannot be honest on the subject of Russia.

And, of course, that raises the question that has been with us for a year-and-a-half from now, which is, why can't you be honest about the interactions of the campaign and the president with Russia? There are people going to jail because of that dishonesty. That doesn't happen because you make a mistake. That happens because you have something to hide.

BLITZER: If there was never a deal, as Rudy Giuliani initially suggested, why was all of this kept so secret during the campaign?

HIMES: Well, exactly. Why was it kept secret? Why did the president lie about it? Why did Paul Manafort lie about it? Why did everybody lie about -- Michael Cohen lie about it? That is the question.

Again, most people only lie if they have something to hide, particularly if that lie is going to put you at risk of spending significant time behind bars.

So, this is why it is so important for this investigation to be allowed to run its course. There are too many people lying too often about this very narrow question of, what was the contact, what was the deal, what happened with Russia?

At the end of the day, we need to know why so many people were willing to risk going to jail and, in fact, are going to jail because they lied about the campaign and the president's contacts and deals with Russia.

[18:15:02] BLITZER: And we have a copy, thanks to our Chris Cuomo, of the actual document, the proposed deal.

And it is described on page one, "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." It was called the project.

The president, then the candidate, signed it October 28, 2015, the same day, by the way, that there was presidential, a Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado that CNBC was hosting, and months after he declared his intention to seek the Republican presidential nomination.

Just give me your bottom line on all of this.

HIMES: Well, again, what -- the headline here is that you had Russia working very hard both to create uncertainty, divisiveness within the body politic of United States of America, and working very hard to elect a president of the United States, Donald Trump.

Why? Why did they do that? They did that because they knew it would be divisive, but they may also have done it -- and here is why the investigation must be allowed to run its course -- because, for example, Paul Manafort changed the Republican platform at the Republican Convention, because, apparently, there were business deals involved, and who knows what else, because Michael Flynn in his conversation, for which he may go to prison, with Ambassador Kislyak, suggested that there would be a rethink of the relationship with Russia.

So, anyway, all of those lies are designed to hide those things and probably to hide things that Mueller has not yet told us are out there. And we are talking about the fundamental credibility of the president of the United States here and whether the president of the United States is, in fact, being blackmailed or being -- or whether something is being held over his head in a way that might not be in the interests of the American people.

BLITZER: We will watch you and your colleagues on the Intelligence Committee to see what is going on tomorrow.

Congressman, thank you so much for joining us. Always appreciate your spending some time here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much.

HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We have a lot on the breaking news that's unfolding right now.

Much more coming up, Preet Bharara, our legal analyst, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, there, you see him. He is standing by. He is going to weigh in.

Much more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:21:51]

BLITZER: We're following breaking news.

"The Washington Post" reports that Robert Mueller has formally, officially requested an official transcript of Roger Stone's testimony in the House Intelligence Committee, suggesting the special counsel is near the end of his investigation of the longtime Trump ally and adviser.

We are joined now by our senior legal analyst, former U.S. attorney. Preet Bharara.

Preet, thanks for joining us.

Do you think this is a sign that potentially we could soon see Roger Stone indicted by the special counsel?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, I think it is the latest sign.

I mean, Roger Stone himself, along with one or two other people, have said publicly, I guess to get ahead of the story, that he expects to be indicted on some, I think as he put it, collateral matter.

Obviously, if you are thinking about charging someone with lying to Congress, as we have seen done by prosecutors in recent times relating to the Trump sort of orbit, you want to make sure you have the absolute, final, most updated transcript of that person's testimony.

I'm a little surprised that that request would have been made so late in the game. I think one of the other people, Shimon, said this earlier on the program, and I agree. It may be, you know, they had some version of a transcript that was not absolutely current, because people are typically allowed in court cases and presumably in congressional environments to make corrections to their testimony, along with their counsel, to make sure that they didn't misspeak.

But, yes, I agree with your assessment.

BLITZER: Is the special counsel, Robert Mueller, trying to determine if Roger Stone lied under oath to Congress, which would be a felony?

BHARARA: Yes, it seems so, given that there has been a lot of focus on lying. And, as we have seen, there have been charges relating to lying to Congress. The special counsel brought that charge against Michael Cohen just in the last few weeks.

It also may be -- not to underexcite people, but it also may be that that's just something they're checking the box on, and they don't think they have that case, and they're wanting to make sure that they get the final transcript to see if their conclusion about a lack of lying is true.

I just want to hold out -- open that possibility. I think it is more likely, just given the swirl of activity, Roger Stone's own statements, and the history and track report of what the Mueller folks have been doing, that it is the first possibility, that they're likely, you know, putting together a charge of lying to Congress.

But the other possibility is also there.

BLITZER: The -- Roger Stone, by the way, tells "The Washington Post" -- and I will read precisely what he says -- "I don't think any reasonable attorney who looks at it would conclude that I committed perjury, which requires intent and materiality."

Your reaction?

BHARARA: I mean, that's what you would say, wouldn't you, if you are trying to get ahead of the story that you might be charged for making a false statement.

It always comes down to the devil in the details. It depends on what the particular statement was. It does depend on whether or not it is easily provable that the person knew that statement was wrong, and what the intended circumstances were.

And so until we see a charge and know what precisely they might be claiming about lies, we won't know. But that's another sign, that statement from Roger Stone, that your first question was right on the money, and that the special counsel folks are looking precisely at that question.

BLITZER: Given your enormous legal experience and background, Preet, do you think Mueller would try to win Roger Stone's cooperation, or you think that's simply out of the question, considering how Roger Stone has spoken about the Russia investigation so far?

[18:25:13]

BHARARA: Yes, so I think that's very, very tough.

We have seen now a parade of characters in the Russia investigation and the SDNY investigation who are pretty -- I don't know these people personally, but they're pretty unsavory.

And one of the ways in which they're unsavory is they lie. They lie a lot. They lie to Congress. They lie to investigators. They lie to the public. They lie to opposing counsel. Sometimes, they admit those lies, and, sometimes, they don't.

Sometimes, they go to trial, like Paul Manafort, who I would put into the sort of shady category, given his conviction -- it's not a character assassination on my part, he was convicted of a lot of bad things -- chose to cooperate.

And the special counsel team must have made a decision that we have this unsavory person who is going to be a difficult witness, but he has important information that he could substantially assist on.

And then they ripped up that cooperation agreement because they had gone down the wrong road, and Paul Manafort continued to lie, even after making the decision to flip.

So, against that backdrop, and given how they have been burned before, and given how, I think, assiduous they want to be about these kinds of things, the idea of having Roger Stone as a cooperator that you can rely on to make cases against other people strikes me as kind of farfetched.

BLITZER: And, as "The Washington Post" notes, this is the first time Mueller has actually made a request like this one from one of the key congressional committees investigating the Russia involvement in the U.S. presidential election. How significant is that?

BHARARA: You know, it is hard to tell.

I think it is significant it is the only time he has asked, and I think it goes back to the original point, that they must be looking very, very carefully at whether or not Roger Stone has said different things in different places and has lied to Congress, and has perhaps lied in other contexts as well.

And, you know, we don't know all of what the Mueller team has. It could be that this is, you know, one of 15 things they're looking at and it is the last thing that they want to cross their T's and dot their I's on.

But there may be many, many other things, too. We just get snippets of things as they get reported, and we sometimes tend to overlook the fact that there may be many other things that they're looking at that we're not aware of.

BLITZER: I totally agree. We know only a small, small percentage of what those guys are doing in the Mueller team.

Preet, thanks so much for joining us.

BHARARA: Sure. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We are going to stay on top of the breaking news.

Much more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following the breaking news in the Russia investigation. A new indication that Robert Mueller's scrutiny of long-time Trump ally Roger Stone may be nearing a conclusion.

[18:32:19] "The Washington Post" now reporting that the special counsel made a formal request last week to obtain the official transcript of Stone's testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

Let's bring in our analysts and our correspondents. David Swerdlick, it is your newspaper, "The Washington Post", with this very significant story, an official -- because it sounds like, according to "The Washington Post," they have an unofficial transcript; but they need an official transcript.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. My "Washington Post" colleagues reporting tonight that they've requested this official transcript, presumably to proceed to a filing in court to charging Roger Stone or some other furtherance of the case in the special counsel probe. They probably have information about what's in the -- in the transcript or maybe have a copy of the transcript but would need an official transcript to proceed legally.

BLITZER: I'm surprised he waited so long to get this, Laura.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It is interesting. No. 1, in the article, it mentions this is the first time Mueller's team has made such a move. So you can imagine, they wouldn't do it without a reason.

And we don't know exactly what he's scrutinizing in the testimony, but of course, the big question with Roger Stone has always been how did he predict with such immaculate accuracy that the WikiLeaks were going to dump the Podesta e-mails, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman's e- mails ahead of time?

And so if there's any evidence that conflicts with what he said to lawmakers on that point, and Mueller has evidence that shows that something else is actually the truth, then that could be a real problem for Roger Stone. And as he has telegraphed forever, he is expecting to get indicted here.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Hold on just a second here. Let's -- let me look inside the brain of Robert Mueller. This is an m and "M and M" moment; that is methodical and Mueller.

Let's not assume he doesn't have a transcript already that's unofficial. If there's a single word difference between an unofficial transcript and what he gets stamped by a congressional committee, if I know director Mueller, he's going to look at that and say, "I want every 'T' crossed, every single stone turned over."

This, to me, doesn't indicate that he hasn't seen a transcript before. It indicates that, before he goes through with the process, maybe including an indictment, he wants to make sure every methodical step is stepped through. I think that's what we've got here.

BLITZER: I would assume there would be an audio tape of that Q&A with Roger Stone before the House Intelligence Committee, from which they would have the official transcript.

MUDD: I would assume there's an audio tape. When I used to testify, you have somebody sitting there typing in. So this is not sort of a semi-formal transcript. This is somebody typing away at what the actual words were that Stone was speaking.

Just a quick comment, if I were Director Mueller, I would want to ensure that no defense attorney could ever walk in and ask a simple question: Is that the transcript that was given to you formally by the committee or is that a transcript you just acquired as a photocopy? You don't want that.

[18:35:02] BLITZER: Dana, how significant is this?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, we'll see. You're exactly right. The open question has been what has been taking so long with Roger Stone? Because he has been very open about the fact that he thinks he's going to get indicted. We'll see if that actually happens.

But, you know, maybe you as a lawyer and you also, Phil, as somebody who's done this kind of investigating before, what does it mean to leave him for, potentially, one of the last? And is it that he is the biggest fish?

Or is it still an open question about whether or not there is a connection between, as you laid out so well, the communication that he had with WikiLeaks and the prediction that he made publicly and anybody in the Trump campaign or the candidate himself.

BLITZER: Quickly, you had a conversation with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, today about this document CNN obtained involving a letter of intent that the president, then the candidate, wanted to have a Trump Tower project in Moscow.

BASH: Right. The whole -- what he said to me over the weekend, and others, was on this letter of intent, that the president didn't sign it, that it wasn't signed.

Well, I talked to him tonight and he basically said, he said flat out, "I was wrong if I said that. I haven't seen the quote," meaning what he said to me and others over the weekend, "but I probably meant to say there was never a deal, much less a signed one."

So he's walking it back. He realizes that he was wrong. Chris Cuomo obtained that last night, and it's there in black and white, Donald J. Trump's signature.

It's still a very open question how many conversations he had with Cohen and others and whether it's significant to his stance on Russia during the campaign and now.

BLITZER: He's got a very distinctive signature.

BASH: He sure does.

BLITZER: Donald Trump as we know, right there. He did sign that document.

Everybody stand by. Much more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:41:34] BLITZER: We're following major breaking news tonight on the Russia investigation, as well as the president's surprise declaration of victory over ISIS in Syria and his order for a full and rapid troop withdrawal. The president posted a video on Twitter just a little while ago. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And we have won against ISIS. We've beaten them, and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land, and now it's time for our troops to come back home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, update our viewers. Very surprising and dramatic developments unfolding.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, no question. It took everyone by surprise from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill and the president did have time to record that message on the South Lawn of the White House, giving his side of the story, but he did not have time, apparently, to take questions from some of his top allies on Capitol Hill.

Extraordinarily, Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was so concerned about this decision he came here to the White House to have a meeting with the president. One was scheduled, but the president was apparently unavailable, so he did not meet with him. The White House will not say why that was.

But Wolf, so many other Republicans are asking questions about this, as well. The biggest outrage coming from Senator Lindsey Graham, a key ally of the president. He called this weak, dangerous. He said it was an Obama-like decision.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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.

TRUMP: 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.

Senator Bob Corker suggesting the president didn't give the decision any thought at all.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I doubt there's anybody in the Republican caucus in the Senate that just isn't stunned by this precipitous decision that just like you woke up in the morning and made it.

ZELENY: 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 come as the president is bristling once again, being denied money to build his border wall after promising this last week.

TRUMP: I will shut down the government, absolutely.

SCHUMER: All right. Fair enough. We disagree.

[18:45:00]

TRUMP: And I am proud.

SCHUMER: We disagree.

TRUMP: I'll tell you what: I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Aides say the president has little choice but to sign a bill extending government funding for two more months, averting a Christmas shutdown. The president offering no other solution, seemed prepared to grudgingly sign the bill to fund government until February 8th.

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

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.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I hope this moment here where we all feel good about each other, that maybe that's a sign that 2019 might be okay.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So, Wolf, what started out as a day here at the White House, the White House sort of basking in the glow of the sentencing reform bill which the president plans to sign before leaving for his Florida holiday break, ended with deep and serious questions about the abrupt about face in the move in foreign policy. Senator Lindsey Graham, again, a top ally of the president, saying he believes this was done without sound military advice. He said he will be calling military leaders to the Pentagon and others to Congress to answer questions about it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It was a great, great surprise today when we heard this very significant development. We'll ill what happens.

Jeff Zeleny, thank you.

Now to the pentagon where we are told planning for U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria is under way despite very grave concerns in Congress and likely inside the U.S. military as well.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, lots of confusion about how all of this will play out.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Wolf. Now, the president says that ISIS has been defeated, that the U.S. has won. I think one would be hard-pressed to find a top military commander that publicly will agree with him on this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Devastation and ruin for miles in eastern Syria, seen in exclusive video obtained by CNN as ISIS fighters make their stand. Still, despite the reality on the ground, President Trump says ISIS is defeated and ordered the surprise withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. ground troops stationed mainly in eastern Syria where is still controls territory, leaving the Pentagon, which does not believe ISIS has been completely defeated, scrambling to devise a way to safely get troops and their equipment out of harm's way, and a suddenly reshaped Middle East. SETH JONES, HAROLD BROWN CHAIR, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL

STUDIES: This clearly sends a message both to Moscow and Tehran that Syria and, frankly, bigger parts of the Middle East are yours.

STARR: There is confusion on all fronts. Several allies were caught unaware. On Tuesday, the State Department was adamant the ISIS fight is not done.

ROBERT PALLADINO, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESMAN: We have made significant progress recently in the campaign and -- but the job is not yet done.

STARR: An official DOD estimate says there may be up to 30,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. Just days ago, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the U.S. was not close to finishing its task of training local forces to fight ISIS.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: We estimate, for example, about 35,000 to 40,000 local forces have to be trained and equipped in order to provide stability. We're probably somewhere along the line of 20 percent through the training of those forces, but with regard to stabilization, we still have a long way to go. So I would be reluctant to affix a time.

STARR: The planned pull-out comes a day after the U.S. announced it was selling Turkey a Patriot missile defense system, something Turkey wanted. And now, it's raising questions whether Trump's decision paves the way for Turkey to move against their long-time rival the Kurds who have been allies of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

PALLADINO: Erdogan has been asking the U.S. to leave so he can deal directly with his Kurdish problem. And in return, the U.S. may be pushing for something including greater arms sales, maybe a way to balance against Turkey's relationship, which has grown stronger with Moscow.

STARR: Though a State Department spokesman tells CNN it has no connection to other policy matters.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And now, with both Democrat and Republican opposition mounting in Congress, Defense Secretary James Mattis is likely to face a very tough road ahead in the coming days and weeks, Wolf, trying to explain all of this and trying to explain how this coalition to fight ISIS can possibly endure -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us. Thank you.

There's more news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:54:33] BLITZER: Tonight, an investigation in the leading suspect of the probe of the deadliest wildfire in California history.

Our senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin is joining with us his report.

Drew, this suspect, isn't an arsonist, it's California's largest utility, is that right?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: PG&E, Wolf. The company, of course, is not suspected of intentionally causing any fires. Rather, it's under scrutiny for how it maintains its sprawling infrastructure that delivers electricity to some 60 million Californians, much of it the above-ground power lines running right through heavily forest and public land.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NORMA QUINTANA, NAPA, CALIFORNIA RESIDENT: This area is my studio.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): This is all Norma Quintana has left at the home she lived in for 30 years. A macabre reminder, her physical world turned to ashes.

QUINTANA: The fire was behind us.

GRIFFIN: She and her family had five minutes to escape the Atlas Fire in the fall of 2017. When they returned, it was all gone.

QUINTANA: I couldn't negotiate the loss. I couldn't negotiate the loss of a home. Couldn't.

GRIFFIN: Across northern California, the fires in October of 2017 fuelled by high winds and drought would kill 44, burn 8,900 homes and other buildings. As the burning ended, the burning question began, how did this happen?

DEPUTY CHIEF JAMES ENGLE, LAW ENFORCEMENT, FIRE PREVENTION, CAL FIRE: We had fires, there was some type of ignition from power lines.

GRIFFIN: Cal Fire investigators concluded that 17 of the 18 fires in October of 2017 were caused by equipment from Pacific Gas & Electric, the multibillion dollar power company. In 11 of those fires, investigators found evidence PG&E violated state law. James Engel oversees fire investigations for Cal Fire.

(on camera): Is PG&E doing enough in your mind?

ENGLE: Well, that's not my call to make. In the case of those particular fires, they were referred to the district attorney and if there's violations of law.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): It's actually been going on now for years, 1994, '99, 2004, the Whiskey Fire in 2008, the deadly Butte Fire in 2015. Fire after fire that investigators found were caused by a power company failing to follow state regulations to trim trees or maintain equipment.

JOHN FISKE, ATTORNEY, BARON AND BUDD: You see a pattern and practice that PG&E is not willing to step up to the plate to do what it needs to do to prevent these utility-caused wildfires. GRIFFIN: Attorney John Fiske has built a practice suing power

companies and specifically PG&E for causing fires that are destroying Californians' lives. He is doing it, he says, because the state of California won't.

FISKE: If you had a company that was out in the Atlantic and it kept starting hurricanes and the government just kind of continued to let it start hurricanes, again you'd consider that behavior to almost sociopathic because people's lives are absolutely devastated.

GRIFFIN: PG&E was convicted of six felonies because of a gas pipeline explosion in 2010. Just last month, the president of California's Public Utilities Commission announced a new review of PG&E, telling "The Wall Street Journal" he was very concerned they, P&GE, still don't have accountability in place.

(on camera): Is PG&E getting the message do you think? Are any of the power companies getting the message to change behaviors so we don't have their particular fire starting?

ENGLE: I think you're going to have to ask them.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): We tried, but the company declined. It instead sent a lengthy statement saying it expanded its community wildfire safety program, improving real-time monitoring, enhancing vegetation management efforts, conducting accelerated safety inspections, installing stronger and more resilient polls.

Critics point the to the way PG&E has spent its money, awarding its CEO salary and stock with $8.5 million in 2017 and spending another $8 million lobbying lawmakers in Sacramento to get a law passed that allows PG&E to pass some of the cost of the fires on to customers. Now, PG&E is dealing with this. Last month's Camp Fire in northern California killed 86 and destroyed the town of Paradise. Equipment from PG&E is being investigated as a possible cause.

Attorney John Fiske says it has to stop.

FISKE: You know, these wildfires, often times the most vulnerable members of our community are affected because they're immobile and cannot get out. That's how devastating these wildfires are. That's why it's so important these companies change their practices. It's a matter of life and death

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN: And, Wolf, we specifically asked PG&E about the state investigative reports that found the company violated state law in 11 of this those deadly fires last year. The company would only say it's looking forward to reviewing those reports.

Prosecutors are reviewing them, too, and deciding if they will again pursue criminal charges against this massive power company.

In the meantime, thousands of homeowners like Norma Quintana in our report, they are suing PG&E -- Wolf. BLITZER: And our hearts go out to those homeowners as well. What an

awful situation those fires were, and lessons have to be learned to try to prevent them down the road.

Drew, thanks for that excellent, excellent report

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.