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CUOMO PRIME TIME

Trump Turmoil: Defense Secretary Quits Amid Shutdown Battle Market Free Fall DOJ Controversies and Russia Probe; Partial Government Shutdown Could Come Tomorrow Night; McConnell "Distressed" Mattis Out Over Differences with Trump. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired December 20, 2018 - 21:00   ET

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


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR, "COUMO PRIME TIME": All right, thank you, Jamie. I am Chris Cuomo and welcome to Prime Time.

We are having a day that this President will not want to remember. And it is one that we can never forget. The man charged with keeping our country safe, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is out. Not retiring as the President claims. He quit in protest of the President of the United States. A four-star general is here to help make sense of the moves.

Mattis exit comes on a day of epic uncertainty. The President blowing up the deal that keep the government open, insisting on the wall in a House vote when many in the Senate have already left.

Border politics boiling over today. Did you see Democrat Luis Gutierrez stormed out of the House hearing. He called the DHS secretary a remorseless liar to her face. He's here and so is the one Republican Trump supporter in Congress that I could get to come on.

Has Matt Gaetz gotten a wakeup call about this presidency? The time is now, my friends, let's get after it.

You know, no less than Republican Senator Bob Corker once said, there were three men separating our country from chaos. Rex Tillerson, John Kelly and James Mattis. All three gone or going. Just think about the last 36 hours. Early yesterday morning in a surprise to his own state department and the Pentagon, the President decided alone to pull our troops out of Syria, falsely declaring the war against ISIS there won. The only person happy about the decision, Vladimir Putin. Republicans raked their President over the coals.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we're going to pay a price for it if it's not reversed.

SENATOR BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: It's hard to imagine that any president would wake up and make this kind of decision with this little communication, with this little preparation.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: To say they're defeated is an overstatement and is fake news.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: And that was just the beginning.

Later yesterday morning, the President seemed to choose workers over that imaginary wall and backed out of the shutdown. But then he reversed course today. Really catching senators in the lurch. And in this moment of crisis, who makes the case to the country about ending two major military actions? A shutdown looming over Christmas and a border crisis? This guy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN MILLER, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: Right now as we speak, there is a surge of illegal immigration heading towards our country that presents a national crisis now. Not a month from now, not a year from now, right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: On a day like this you send out the man who is the metaphor for what people question about your judgment? Thank god the markets were closed by then. By 4:00 p.m. Eastern, another 464 points knocked off the Dow. The Nasdaq down some 20% below its highest ever point in August flirting with bear market territory now, then came 5:21 p.m. Eastern, the gut punch, the real wall, the man who stood between the President and his petulance resigned out of protest.

How did it go down? Well, we hear General James Mattis went to the h White House to discuss his concern about Syria, literary saying to the President, you have to listen to me, you can't do that. But he was unable and in that moment, he decided. This is as good as it gets. He left, he put out a scathing letter a total rebuke of the President's world view saying in part, "My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear eyed about maligned actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of emersion in these issues, because you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position."

CNN learned late this evening that once again this President will double down on a controversial decision. The U.S. military has also been ordered to withdraw half the troops in Afghanistan. If your head's not spinning, you're not listening. I want to bring in General Wesley Clark and Phil Mudd.

Thanks both of you gentlemen. For tonight, we need to steady the ship. General, give me a sense of the proportion of what's going on in our government right now?

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK (RETIRED), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, I think the -- this is a really dangerous time for the U.S. government, because it's Christmas holidays. You have a lot of snap decisions being made by a President who is famous for snap decisions. These are very consequential decisions. He's under tremendous pressure, obviously from the Mueller investigation. The rumor is coming out of the Middle East are astonishing, when you listen to them, that he's looking for a way out. That he's taken huge bribes from foreign countries and Mueller has some or all of this in the works, and -- that his children are in danger. So I mean, Trump's head is spinning, you have to look at these decisions as not only dangerous in themselves, but probably part of his bargaining strategy for how he wants to exit the U.S. government and try to avoid impeachment or criminal indictment for himself and his family. So this is a really dangerous time.

[21:05:17] CUOMO: Keeping it to the specifics of the impact of the military moves, the idea of the war being over in ISIS. The idea of pulling out half the troops in Afghanistan, what's the risk and the reality?

CLARK: Well, the war is not over in ISIS, and you handed the field to Russia and the Iranians which is odd considering that President Trump has been so hard on the Iranians, so that's clearly a bad move. In Afghanistan, we've been -- we've never put the resources in there from the beginning to try to really work that mission. I don't know who's coming out, we'd have to look at what the structure is, can you do? How much can you do with half the troops gone? You can still do something. I always felt that Vice President Biden's plan was a workable idea back in 2009, we went the other way with trying to reinforce it, but we never put enough troops and to really to do a good job. So the Afghanistan is a question mark. But I do think that Secretary Mattis did the right thing for himself and for the country.

He's been disempowered by having been ignored, and his advice ignored by the President. And so he can't be effective in that role, he can't be effective with allies, he can't be effective with the White House. And so it's the -- he's doing the smart thing and the right thing. I know it's upsetting for the country. The country has to face the consequences of the election of 2016 and deal with the reality of the man that's in the White House.

CUOMO: All right, so let me bring Phil in here, let me read another excerpt of the letter and get your take on whether or not you agree with the general that, this might be a little frightening in the moment, but somehow might be cleansing overall. One core belief I've always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interest or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.

It's pretty thinly veiled message to a president who is been treating his allies rougher than his enemies. Phil, your takeaway?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: This is not too thinly veiled if you're in the business I'm in. And this is a message to the President that says, I'm out and you're dead wrong. Look at the three basic pieces of that letter. Number one, you just mentioned on alliances, World War I, World War II ancient history. How about Afghanistan, how about Iraq, how we counter with NATO, Russian activities in places like Eastern Ukraine and Crimea? The President went out of his way publicly to embarrass NATO, publicly to embarrass NATO. So I think if you look at NATO and the alliances as historical, they're not. We use them in places like, after 9/11 and Afghanistan, and we might use them in the future against Russia.

Two quick comments in addition to that, Chris. The former secretary of defense or soon to be former secretary of defense also said, forget about our allies, what about our adversaries, I also disagree with you about how you deal with potential adversaries, including China and Russia.

Final thing in that letter, find me the sentence in that letter where the former four-star general tells his command in chief, I appreciate the opportunity to serve you personally, the President of the United States. He doesn't say it. That letter is tough.

CUOMO: Let me ask you something, the Democrats want to get out of Syria, they want to get out of Afghanistan. One of the big surprises in Barack Obama's election was that he ran on getting out of Iraq, and then he went into Afghanistan. How do you think this plays with them or how should it?

MUDD: I think we're asking two different questions. Should we get out of these places eventually? We've been at war in Afghanistan for 18 years, my question would be yes. Let's talk about style for a moment. Transgender policy in the Pentagon, exercises with the North Koreans, retreating from Syria and Afghanistan. Can you explain to me what the process was to coordinate with the secretary of defense and the National Security Council about how to talk to people like the Turks, the Jordanians, our Kurdish allies in the Syrian fight? I think part of the question here and I can't speak for the secretary of defense. Part of the question here is not just what we're doing, but how do we do policy by tweet? How do we coordinate this? That's what I would ask.

CUOMO: I'll tell you what, you know, General Mattis reportedly was not in favor of that big meet and greet with Kim Jong-un, he said, this is not the way you got these guys to do anything. And sure enough, just today they said, we're not giving up anything until the threat is gone literary back to where you started there. So the big concern is, security. Are we going to be OK? Kelly is gone, McMaster is gone, Flynn is one, all of the people that the President pointed and now Mattis is saying, look at all the generals I have around me, we'll be find don't worry about anything. Well, now what?

[21:10:01] CLARK: We're in a new world here, but Mattis is not gone for another six or eight weeks, so the Congress has its say. And we've got to come to terms with the character of the President and how he makes decisions. And Congress has to assert itself. The Democratic leadership in the House will assert itself, will the Republican leadership in the Senate assert itself?

CUOMO: That's the big question, general.

CLARK: Because this is the time where we need help. CUOMO: They have been sitting back and watching. You know, even on

the House side, you had Paul Ryan, you know people had such great ambitions for him. He said yesterday I always remained myself, and that's my tip to everybody else. No, he didn't. He sat back and he watched this President do things that he used to call out even in President Obama. He call them out and he's not alone. Do you think this is a tipping point? Do you believe that Republican men and women of good will who raise their hand and took an oath are going to step up?

CLARK: Well, I think it's the start of the tipping point. I mean, it's really two things, it's the behavior of the President, and then it's the information that's continuing to leak out through court indictments and hearings and other things like this. So our President Trump is being slammed from both directions here. And he's fighting back, and this is his nature. But this is the time that -- especially the United States Senate has to step up its responsibilities.

CUOMO: Well, with all due respect to you both. If he were a real fighter, he would be where you are right now, addressing the American people, he would be going through the media and he would be saying, hold on, everything's fine. Let me tell you why I did what I did. And how it fits in and what it means. I am your President, I will reassure you. He did the opposite today, Phil. He put out that guy today who's a part of a real extreme part of Trumpism. And he showed why today, instead of doing it himself and owning this situation he put out a proxy who is not his best foot forward. So the question becomes, the stock markets, border politics coming over, you may have a shut down over Christmas, now you have these military moves. Do you believe that this is bottom for this presidency, Phil?

MUDD: I do not. When I'm looking at the congressional response today, including the congressional response on issues like funding on the border wall. You still see this evening, how many people are out especially from House Republicans saying, I disagree with the President giving us a bunch of sort of moving around on the issue of how we're going to fund the government. I see very little response over the past two years from Congressional Republicans on everything from the President lying to us on Air Force One about how he funded a pole dancer for $130,000.

Clearly he lied, to whether we were safe in North Korea. I don't care about what he did, in terms of his payment to somebody he had a relationship with. I care about moving forward our congressional -- Republicans are going to say, his judgment is appropriate when we deal with issues like North Korea and Iran. And the answer is, they're not going to do it.

CUOMO: Right. So despite his best efforts, the government and its institutions are bigger than any one branch. Even the presidency but it is interesting to see whether or not this will be the moment that you heard men and women on both sides say quiet, no more. General, thank you so much. Phil Mudd, I appreciate your perspective.

MUDD: Yup. CUOMO: As always, it's a very important night to have you both. We have much more on what this Mattis exit and the troop exit from two major theaters means for our collective safety. And also the border war is raging, and there is no solution in sight. The lawmaker who called the DH secretary a liar to her face is here to tell you why, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:17:25] CUOMO: While the Trump administration is on the brink of shutting down the government, the politics of the border are boiling over, the death of a 7-year-old girl a flash point. You remember her, Jakelin, 7-yars old from Guatemala. She died this month while in U.S. custody. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen explained it this way.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey. This family chose to cross illegally. It came in such a large crowd that it took our border patrol folks a couple times to get them all.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: Pointing the finger of blame at the family. Today she felt the heat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPRESENTATIVE LUIS GUTIERREZ (D), ILLINOIS: Shame on everybody that separates children and allows them to stay at the other side of the border fearing death, fearing hunger, fearing sickness. Shame on us for wearing our badge of Christianity during Christmas and allow the secretary to come here and lie.

NIELSEN: Calling me a liar are fighting words. I'm not a liar. A policy of family separation would mean that any family that I encountered in the interior, I would separate. It would mean that any family that I found at a port of entry I would separate. It would mean that every single family that I found illegally crossing, we would separate. We did none of those. What we did do is uphold the laws that Congress has passed and prosecuted those who choose to come here illegally.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: That's not a time lapse. That was Congressman Luis Gutierrez walking out on Nielsen. And he joins me now.

Welcome to Prime Time, Congressman.

GUTIERREZ: My pleasure to be with you tonight, Chris.

CUOMO: All right, let's deal with the urgency and then we'll get into the context of the overall political plan. GUTIERREZ: Sure.

CUOMO: So the President says, forget what I said, I'm not going to have a CR if there's no wall attached to it, the House gives him the vote. You have a Freedom caucus come strong on that. The Senate side, a lot of them are gone, so where do things stand? Is there going to be a shutdown or not?

GUTIERREZ: I believe there is going to be a government shutdown. I think it's unfortunate and totally unnecessary. The Senate made a proposal and let's remember the Senate is controlled by Republicans. And we were ready to work, Democrats were ready to bite the bullet today, we might not have been happy with the total context of the bill coming over, but we were ready to keep the government open, I think it's kind of sad, Chris, that you have members of the Republican Party in the House saying, well, you know, those government employees, it comes with the territory, when they take a government job that they should expect to be on furlough from time to time, when the government closes.

Yeah, well, Mr. Congressman, lady Congressman, you get your chuck check, you're going to have a wonderful Christmas. And guess what, you're going to have your health care.

You know, again the callousness with which we treat our fellow Americans, is really repugnant.

[21:20:05] CUOMO: So Luis, what's the brass tax here though? Like, you know, what would you have to give to get it done?

GUTIERREZ: Look, we already said that they could have a couple billion dollars in border enforcement, right? Smart border enforcement. Border enforcement that's going to help keep America safe. Everybody knows you can't use the technology from the Chinese in order to get a solution today. So look. It's old technology, let's use modern technology, smart technology. So we are putting on the table $2 billion for border security so that we can continue to protect --

CUOMO: And what do they want?

GUTIERREZ: They want a wall, and I just want to say this, Chris, we've been on the program before talking, do you remember the hostage taking of the dreamers and the Democrats response was $5 billion?

CUOMO: Right.

GUTIERREZ: And then they increased and so we said, how do -- what do we do with the kidnappers of our dreamers? What is the ransom, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin progressive Democrats went and offered this President $25 billion? What did he say? No. Because it isn't about the wall, it's about destroying our immigration system. It's about destroying and stopping this being a nation -- a welcoming nation. They want to destroy immigration as we know it, the foundation of America, that's what they want to destroy. And until they destroy it, they will not be happy, the wall is simply one element. One symptom.

CUOMO: So what got you going today was the secretary proposed a plan where you can come here and apply for asylum, but you will stay in Mexico pending the review of the application. The policy judgment being there if they get inside this country, there's going to be an attrition rate, catch and release is what it's called colloquially that you're not going to be able to find these people again. Why don't you like that solution?

GUTIERREZ: Look, we have asylum laws, refugee laws, those are the laws of our nation, those are the laws well established and I think that this new criteria being proposed of saying to people fearing, fleeing violence, death, gangs, murder, god, why should they have to wait on the other side of the border, when they can be victimized once again when they are 1,000 -- you know what we're going to have there, you're going to have illness, right? You're going to have more murder, more rape, more harm coming to people that are fleeing. And so I guess today, Chris, you know, look, I'm a catholic, right? So, you know, I went to my first communion, my confirmation. Maybe they didn't religiously teach us the bible all the time, but you know, there was something fundamental, it's Christian, don't call it that, oh don't say happy holidays, say Merry Christmas, because they want to emphasize their Christianity.

CUOMO: But you have reason --

GUTIERREZ: You know what, it's Christmas.

CUOMO: But Luis, look, I hear you. I get the idea of what the spirit of the season is, the reason for the season, I get it. But, you know, compassion can also have an integrity to it, and the laws have enabled something that we've never seen before. These mass caravans are being organized by some good people, some bad people. And they are telling people go with your kids you will get in. Go in big groups you can get in. Our system cannot handle the flow. The rules have to change to enable people to be able to treat others humanely. They can't do it right now. That's what that little girl's death tells you. All my reporting does not suggest that the border patrol did anything wrong to her but the system did, they can't handle the flow. You have to do something, Louie.

GUTIERREZ: Yes. But here's -- but Chris, understand something, so what does the richest, most powerful nation in the world do with the resources and the abundance that we have? What do we do? We say only 100 people can come at each point of entry. You're really telling me that's the capacity of the United States of America? That that's our humanity.

CUOMO: You'll have backlog for years?

(CROSSTALK)

GUTIERREZ: I disagree with you respectfully, there are people there and it is part of a process that has been engineered to make the crossing of the -- OK, Chris, when are we going to deal with the fact the debilitation of Honduras, of El Salvador, right, Guatemala is directly linked with the consumption of illegal drugs in the United States? That, we here in the United States through our consumption of those debilitate those economies, shouldn't we be working on both sides of the border to establish countries in which --

CUOMO: Yes.

GUTIERREZ: Look, Chris, you know what is here? Everyone thinks you dial 911, Chicago it may take 20 minutes.

CUOMO: Yes, you guys should -- you should be taking on all of this stuff.

GUTIERREZ: So that is the kind of comprehensive plan that we need to engage in. We need to open up offices in each one of those countries at our embassy, and say, if you fear and have an asylum case you'd like to bring, bring it to us and prepare it.

[21:25:05] CUOMO: Fair. Bring it in. Good, change the rule.

GUTIERREZ: We can put the kinds of outposts. We can say to the government of Mexico, listen, we're going to help you.

CUOMO: Good.

GUTIERREZ: Because this is the United States of America, and we're going to put a place where people can be treated humanely. I'm sorry, Chris, but they keep telling us, oh, stop saying happy holidays, it's Merry Christmas. During the Christmas season what would have been a baby Jesus if we have built the wall and he couldn't flee Bethlehem and flee to Egypt.

CUOMO: The moral imperative, Luis, is action. You can have the spirit of Christmas in your heart, but you guys have to come together and do more than just fight about it, Luis.

(CROSSTALK)

GUTIERREZ: But that's what you're saying that we're fight about it. What we have done -- you know this better than most, the speaker of the house was a chief proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, a chief -- was a chief proponent, he came to Chicago with me, stood with me at the city club to say we need a comprehensive. He signed on the bill that I introduced in 2004, and then he becomes speaker, and he says, here is my promise you, my nation of America, not to end hunger, not to end on employment, not end poverty, I promise you I will never bring up a solution to our immigration issue. That is what they are doing. And then we have a President --

CUOMO: You got the ball now.

GUTIERREZ: We do, you know something, and we're going to use it. And we are going to use it constructively. It's sad that we have lost the John McCain's. It's really sad, and you know what, I still remember working with President Bush the son. I remember working with him and bringing down his secretary. That does not exist any more.

CUOMO: It's got to. That's what I hope today means to you guys.

(CROSSTALK)

GUTIERREZ: Ronald Reagan in 1984 was the pro immigrant force. What's happened to this Republican Party? They have used immigrants as a scapegoat and a tool for their own political gains. And that's unfortunate.

CUOMO: All right, what we're going to stay on it, I wish you the best for Christmas.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you.

CUOMO: And I hope everyone remembers the reason for the season.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you.

CUOMO: Be well, God bless, Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you.

CUOMO: Thank you.

All right, now, I keep asking, is this bottom for the President? Everybody tells me no, by the way. General Wesley Clark said, wait until Russia enters Ukraine, if that happens, then you have a big shoe to drop. All right, so we know where we are. We know what's not good. The question is where do we go from here. How do we get the cooperation that Louie was just talking about? That's the start for the great debate next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:30:22] CUOMO: New information on this day of disruption. It's time for our leaders to stand and be counted. And one more just has. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says this. I believe it is essential that the United States maintain and strengthen the Post World War II alliances that have been carefully built by leaders in both parties. We must maintain a clear eyed understanding of our friends and foes

and recognize that nations like Russia are among the latter.

So I was sorry to learn that Secretary Mattis who shares those principles will soon depart the administration. But I am particularly distressed that he is resigning due to sharp difference with the President and on these and other key aspects of America's global leadership, it's regrettable.

And then, he goes on say, you got to pick someone else, and when he does pick someone else, hopefully the guy's like Mattis.

All right, so there is Senate Majority Leader McConnell weighing in. This is pre-step (ph) language for him. He's been at the head of the stand by parade when it comes to watching what President Trump does. This is a little different. Let's debate where we are, and where we're going to go. Paul Begala, Mike Shields, thanks for to both. Mike, is this a little moment for you guys on the right seeing the fruits of disruption? The hope was that, Trump being disruptive would help shake up the system and bring about something better. What's going on with this potential shutdown over Christmas, what's happening with withdrawing the troops this way, what's happening with the markets, you can't be happy?

MIKE SHIELDS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, you know, I think what you're seeing is, people that have followed the President would tell you that there's a lot of things he issues that are not top of the list for him. Health care, taxes are not the things that he's really talked about for years. When he ran on what he really deeply believes, what he and Steve Bannon worked together on and when they both believed was changing our trade policy, changing our immigration policy and changing our policy overseas.

And they knew that they wouldn't be able to do it without massive disruption and people saying it's chaos. I think they expected this and they think what you're seeing is the President finally getting to the point in this presidency where he sort of like, look, I'm going to carry out the policies that I ran on. And I don't really care how much chaos you think there is, we're going -- that's what's going to happen when you're changing things.

And so that's not even necessarily even Republican or Democrat thing, right? There's Republicans that are more for involvement in the Middle East. It was Barack Obama who ran for president on bring all the troops home and all the wars, and so that's not even necessarily Republican or Democrat thing that is a populous nationalist presidency that is finally doing the things that he always said he was going to do. And we're seeing the consequences of what he's keeping his promises on.

CUOMO: So it's all going according to plan, Begala? Are you OK with that?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I wish, I would sleep so much better if I could believe that the President had a strategy at all, even the strategy I disagree with. This is a guy who runs on impulse and grievance and whatever he saw this morning on Fox and Friends.

The government is about to shut down because the President, who a day or two said he was OK with continuing the current funding until February 8th, now all of a sudden has flip-flopped on that, it's the chaos that causes these crises. And it's not that he has a strategy, I wish he did, Mike. I think he has impulses and he has grievances. And he's acting on them. And the notion that he has these grievances against men like General Mattis, is particularly upsetting.

I was happy to see Senator McConnell stand up on his hind legs, guy who is here to force, know fine as if he didn't run a co-equal branch of the government. But maybe this is a bit of a turning point. You have -- there's the Mueller investigation looming. You have the government about to shut down. You have the stock market really dropping dismally in the last five sessions. And the government's going to shut down now, maybe -- maybe you'll see Republicans on the hill begin a check and a balance on this unchecked and unbalanced President.

CUOMO: We've never seen a resignation like this, this way for these reasons, Mike. What does it mean to you?

SHIELDS: Look, I share the concerns, because I'm an air force brat, I have a tremendous amount of respect for General Mattis. I think that he served the President well. I think if the President brings in someone like Mattis, it will calm everybody down and make them not as worried about it. But I do also believe there's a difference in policy here, and the policy difference is, that General Mattis and people like Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell and lots of Republicans are more in favor of our alliances overseas, and here's a populous sort of movement in the country that President Trump represents that says that we should disentangle ourselves from those alliances, and focus on spend that money at home. There's actually plenty of Democrats as well as Republicans at the populous level that agree with that.

[21:35:02] CUOMO: What I don't like is, I don't like that Mattis and McConnell both took time to mention Russia in their letters and that they don't think the President gets it, about Russia. That's always been the central question, Paul, and now to hear someone like McConnell bring it up, because they had nothing to do with Russia, other than Putin liking us getting out of Syria, and that being a strategic advantage for him. But they both went out of their way to mention the President's obvious point of disagreement with them on Russia?

BEGALA: And Russia is a threat. Back, way back, I owe this to our audience, in 2012. Mitt Romney said Russia was our greatest strategic threat. Barack Obama --

(CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: Yes.

BEGALA: I jumped on his back as well, I was wrong. Mitt was right. He was coming into the Senate and he is -- I hope he continues his focus on Russia, what you're seeing today is Vladimir Putin gloating. Now, Vladimir Putin's economy is a tenth the size of ours. His military is a tenth the size and strength of ours.

CUOMO: A lot of it is lined up on the border of Ukraine right now.

BEGALA: Yes, it is but he is running us around the post with -- I'm not wish enough to know we should do in Syria OK, but I look and I see that Israel is angry and Russia is happy. And I start to think -- I'd much rather be allied with Israel than Russia. Israel is our allied or a democracy, they share our values. Russia is none of those things, and yet -- that suggests to me that this very impulsive policy is really bad.

CUOMO: Mike.

SHIELDS: Let's not get too carried away, and I think that's why it's really important to see who does come in to lead the defense department, because the policies of this administration have been stronger against Russia than Obama's policies against Russia. We armed Ukraine, we have armed Ukraine to fight them with weapons, deadly weapons which Russia didn't want. Whereas Biden said to the Russians, said to the Ukrainians, come into Crimea, don't fight. We put sanctions on the Russians, we kicked out all their diplomats when they poisoned someone in London. So there's been a pretty harsh, you know, sort of policy agenda to push back on Russia, it's not the same as the rhetoric that we hear. And a lot of that has come possibly from the defense department. It would be very interesting to see how much you have a strong anti-Russia person put in --

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: You dropped the sanctions.

CUOMO: Yes, he dropped the sanctions yesterday, he was forced to do the sanctions by Congress, he didn't want to. He complained about it, privately and publicly. And he will not say a negative word about Vladimir Putin, when the guy insults everybody else on the face of the planet?

SHIELDS: Look, I've been on the air and said I disagree with the tone and the rhetoric of the Helsinki conference, but I focus on -- in the press conference, but I focus on the policy. The policy has been much more aggressively anti-Russian than Barack Obama's policy was where he did a --

CUOMO: Not leaving Syria. How is leaving Syria being tough on Russia?

SHIELDS: I'm sorry.

CUOMO: How is leaving Syria being tough on Russia? You're did giving them the playing field.

SHIELDS: Look, I don't agree with it. I think that we are -- we should -- the President's been successful in Syria up to this point, that's what's amazing about this, he has done things. We bombed a portion of Syria directly against the wishes of the Russians and we went right against them and carried out the mission anyway. We have put troops on the ground in Russia. We did bomb the Syrians when they used chemical weapons, which President Obama would not do when they cross the red line. So up until this point he's been strong on his Syria policy. And I think that's the right policy.

CUOMO: So you don't see this, Mike, as a bottom? You don't see this as a point where your party is going to have to make a judgment about what it is and what it isn't?

SHIELDS: What I'm trying to say it, if you sit back and look at this analytically, there's a movement of people that have a populous nationalist agenda, they elected the President to carry out that agenda. And they always knew that people like us would be on here saying, this is chaos and it's crazy and why this is happening because that's exactly what they wanted to see happen. They wanted the system of the way things were done on trade, immigration and foreign -- and putting our military needs to be blown up, to be changed, to be done differently, and the President is carrying out exactly what he ran on.

CUOMO: Choices create opportunities and they're going to fall right on your plate coming in, in January, Paul. So, you know, there's a plus/minus to that. You guys are coming into power at a good time, in terms of having a table set with problems, we have problems here. What you'll do about it, what choices you'll make, we'll see. What do you think the biggest ambition will be for Democrats?

BEGALA: Well, I think the very first bill they're going to introduce is on voting rights. And I think that's the most -- and cleaning up the corruption, by the way, the President promised to drain the swamp. He just filled it with bigger, fatter, uglier alligators. I think reforming that system first to actually make it work for the middle class is really important. Then they're going to move to things like health care, the President says he wants to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, he's done nothing about it. I think Democrats should call his bluff on that.

I think that, what you're going to see, it's really interesting, Mike, you're going to see the Democrats controlling the House, passing bills that help the American middle class, that help them get to work easier. Help them pay their prescription drug bills, help them pay their insurance bills. And then they're going to kick it over to the Republicans, and they're either going to pass it or wish they had. The Democrats just won the biggest landslide in a midterm that they've won in 40 years, and they won it because they ran on middle class economic issues because Donald Trump betrayed that middle class. So many people who had faith in him have been conned by Don

[21:40:15] CUOMO: All right, last word, Mike.

SHIELDS: Chris, here's what their agenda is. Investigate and impeach, and a lot of establishment Democrats I believe are naive. We've been through it in our party. They're just now starting to see what happens when the left wing of your base pushes you to the place that you can't go back from. And when you have presidential candidates in Iowa being asked, hey what about this investigation, what should we do? They're not going to be able to avoid impeachment and they're going to overplay their hand just like they did in the Kavanaugh hearings.

CUOMO: Well, we'll see.

BEGALA: This I know more about than Mike. Mike's pretty much smarter than me on everything. I actually know what the Democrats plans are better than my Republican.

SHIELDS: I think you do. I just think you guys might be naive. We've done through -- we've lived through the changes that you haven't lived through yet.

BEGALA: -- working people in this country who Donald Trump has betrayed with all of his policies.

CUOMO: Well, look, you're both right in one way, right? Paul, you have to see which ways you guys are going to evolve on this. Mike, you're saying that you guys have seen it. I don't know that you've lived through it. You got to figure out what you're doing right now. Who you are and how you move forward. That's going to be enough challenge for both sides.

Paul, Mike, best, if I don't hear from you before that, Merry Christmas to both of you.

(CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: All kinds of chaos erupting in the season finale of the 2018 version of the Trump show. Will his base continue to stand by him if he doesn't get the wall? Is it so important that it's worth risking everything? We'll see, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CUOMO: The President's abrupt withdrawal from Syria has General Mattis walking. He is no longer the secretary of defense. And now a defense official with direct knowledge tells CNN that the military has been ordered to withdraw half of our troops from Afghanistan. Even before we get to whomever the President picks as the next secretary of defense, there are questions about Congress's role in all of this. Let's get to that with Congressman Matt Gaetz who sits on the Armed Services Committee. Good to have you back. Merry Christmas to you and the family.

REP. MATT GAETZ (R) ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Merry Christmas to you too, Chris.

[21:45:00] CUOMO: So today, scary day for you?

GAETZ: Not a scary day. I think it's always concerning when there's a major change in an area as volatile as Syria. I think we should be concern that we've only trained up 20% of the forces necessary to secure the northern portions of the country and then in southern Syria, I don't know what the answer is to ensure there's not permanent Iranian presence that threatens our ally Israel. So Syria has been a powder keg, we've been successful in driving out ISIS, but, you know, you got Turkey there, you got Russia there, and I think it's a difficult situation.

CUOMO: Given our past conversations, I'm betting President Gaetz doesn't make this move? You don't leave Syria right now because you don't think ISIS is over. You don't think that war is over. And you think there's a lot of wood left to chop. So how do you explain this?

GAETZ: I would not remove U.S. influence in Syria. I think there are ways we can exercise that influence that don't necessarily require a tremendous troop deployment there, I think the utilization of contractors to engage in more of a train and equip mission for local forces working with our allies to set up safe zones for people that are really trapped in a humanitarian crisis. Those are things we can work with our allies on, work with the international community on. But look, I mean, when I'm with the President, Chris, I can tell you, he is not someone who wants to maintain a foreign presence that is outsized for the United States of America. I think he wants to see more of America's moms and dads at home, and less of our treasure being spilled just decade after decade in the Middle East with little to show for it over the last --

CUOMO: The concern is about whether or not leaving means that have you to go back in an even bigger way. I mean, right, we've lived this story now twice. Obama made a mistake doing this. President George W. Bush made a mistake doing it this way. And it seemed that Secretary Mattis didn't want to be part of not learning that lesson. How concerned are you that he's leaving?

GAETZ: Look, Jim Mattis is a great American, he's a patriot. I've enjoyed working with him. The Department of Defense was operating effectively and efficiently under his leadership. I think the President will find, you know, there are other folks who can be secretary of defense. We'll find other capable person. So I'm not scared or frightened that he's leaving. I think that the President is entitled to a secretary of defense that shares his world view and it's not as globalist of world view that we saw reflected in Secretary Mattis or Secretary Tillerson or even John Kelly.

CUOMO: Well, the generals are gone, and they've been such a big selling point for the President, that don't worry, we'll be fine, look at all these generals I have around me. Now there are literary none left.

GAETZ: I think there are few generals that work for the President of the United States.

CUOMO: Well, no, all of them work for the President of the United States right as commander in chief but I'm saying those who are close to him, close advisers. We'll have to see who replaces them now, having Stephen Miller come out to calm the American people on a day like today. It was not the best foot forward in my opinion. But let me ask you this, the shutdown is also royaling things, are you comfortable with a shutdown over Christmas, because of a wall that really comes down to a dollar amount?

GAETZ: I don't think that this is really a debate about the wall or even nearly go immigration. I think it's about depriving the President of a win on a campaign issue that was central to his election. The hypocrisy among Senate Democrats is ridiculous. 10 Senate Democrats have already voted for the Homeland Security appropriations package that includes $25 billion for border security.

CUOMO: Right.

GAETZ: Like, it's not that they're ideologically opposed. In 2006 Chuck Schumer said that our local governments we had to save them from being overrun as a consequence of illegal immigration and the cost drivers.

CUOMO: It's true.

GAETZ: So like, again, I don't think this is really even about immigration, I just think here at the end of Republican control, the President wants to squeeze out another win, his base expects that reasonably. And I think that Democrats just one of the problem of that one.

CUOMO: But, you know, I think you got to be honest about what's happening, though. The wall is a farce the way it's presented by the President. As you know, you've done your homework on this. You know, I've been down there. They want more barrier systems. Sometimes it's that big fence with the slots, other times it's masonites, sometimes it's different kinds of wire, different kinds of technology. They need different things in different places. They want more of all of it. Fair enough, that's what they need.

But the cell on the wall, Matt, was a brand new wall, the whole stretch of the thing and Mexico's going to pay for it. That was never ever going to happen. Doesn't he have to let that dream die and replace it with the reality of getting as much money as you can to secure the border?

GAETZ: If you've heard the President's comments this last week, he's focusing on the results and the impact of border security for the American worker that needs rising wages, for the American family that needs to feel safe in their communities. And so look, if the Senate will pass what they passed out of committee with 10 votes, 25 billion more for border security, 1.6 billion of that for wall funding, I would encourage the President to take that.

CUOMO: Why won't he?

GAETZ: Well, look, that has not been offered. I don't think the Senate is willing to do that DHS package with the full 25 billion for border security. If they're willing to do 25 billion for border security I think, you know, that something --

(CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: They brought that to him and he backed away because Republicans wanted to tack on more different types of aspects of legal immigration curtailment as well. He had that deal.

GAETZ: Look, there are elements of legal immigration that still need a great deal of reform, increasing in some areas, and decreasing in others, what's less strategic for the American economy.

[21:50:15] The question is whether or not you view immigration as some social engineering project or whether immigration ought to be an economic development tool for the country. I think for Democrats it's more about the social engineering, for Republicans we want the folks here that we need to have a thriving dynamic --

CUOMO: What does that mean, social engineering --

GAETZ: Well, I'm talking about the chain migration where we're not necessarily bringing the most qualified, competent people --

CUOMO: You mean the way the first lady got her parents into the country?

GAETZ: Look, I'm not saying that people who followed the laws as they were written did anything wrong. I'm saying that's not the most strategic economic development path. I know plenty of people who've come here from chain migration. That doesn't mean it was the best choice for the country.

CUOMO: Right. But as a policy -- what you've done right now is we have a stalemate, right? On the border. You have a flow that the system can't handle. And you're now all caught up in the politics of a wall which is at best one part of a very complex set of solutions.

GAETZ: No, that's not true. We've tried to pass e-verify. The Senate won't take it up. We've tried to change the country caps so that people from one country aren't penalized because not enough people from another country have been let in the country --

CUOMO: McConnell runs the Senate.

GAETZ: Yes, well, I mean I don't think he's running it all that well. If he were really serious about delivering on this we'd take the votes we have over there, we've pass this bill --

CUOMO: So what's going to happen if it shuts down? What are you going to tell people over Christmas?

GAETZ: I think we need to give the American people a sense of comfort that in January, in 2019 the government will be open. I think the President could make that assurance if he chose to. But that he could keep every senator and every member of the House here over the break, over Christmas, working to do everything we possibly can in these final moments to use your favorite sports metaphor, run through the tape or go through the echo of the whistle to make sure we get the most out of the Republican majority we have. I know this, Chris. From the standpoint of my voters we're not going to get a better deal when Nancy Pelosi is speaker. So we're invested in trying to get the most border security we can.

CUOMO: I tell you what. It's an interesting solution about forcing their hand to keep them. The problem you have is everything that's happened like today, this President doesn't have the ability to keep your party in town in the Senate. They left. They left with smiles on their faces.

GAETZ: I think they're coming back.

CUOMO: We'll see. Matt Gaetz. The best to you for Christmas. I'll be talking to you soon.

GAETZ: All the same to you, Chris.

CUOMO: All right. Be well. The dysfunction that we're seeing goes far beyond any of the President's decisions. It is time for the people in Congress to do the job they were put there to do. We're going to give you a closing argument on that. That's the solution. Next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [21:55:50] CUOMO: All right, let's do it like this. Let's be clear about where we are and then we can see where we go. This is been a day of unparalleled disruption. Even the most ardent Trump folk are a little quiet. Many of you said you liked idea that Trumpism would shake things up, mess with the system. Dynamic disruption. Well, this is what that looks like. Happy? The moment as metaphor. In the dark hour as economic and foreign and domestic policies implode in support of Trumpism, among Republican ranks goes quiet, who comes out to represent the White House, to address this anxious country?

This guy. Stephen Miller, a young man who has come to represent much of what people reject about Trumpism. Why him? The President should have been out there. He should be out there right now. And you know what? He knows it. He knows that the President should be talking to me. He should be talking to all of you. And telling us why this will be OK. What his plan is. That he has an explanation. Instead he posted a video of himself singing "Green Acres" just minutes before Mattis resigned.

A shutdown over the wall, the stock market plummeting certainly in part because of Trumpism. And then came the big quit. The break point for Mattis deserves notice. The President cuts and runs in Syria, reportedly as Turkey told him to get out of the way and as Putin gave him a pat on the ass on the way out. Trump's response? I think I'll do it again.

In Afghanistan. Didn't you see what happened with Bush and Obama? You really think we've won the war against ISIS? There are tens of thousands of them still out there. And more importantly, it's in the vacuum of our presence. When we're not there. That's when we've seen Taliban, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the weak and the marginalized fall under their control. Just like in Iraq after "Mission Accomplished." like in Afghanistan with the Taliban.

So where does it all leave us? The generals are gone. The real wall, the one between this President and his poorest instincts is gone. Who now? Who do we look to? The new chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, sturdy conservative from Congress, but also the man who referred to our President as a demagogue, who embarrassed him during the election and gave childish and simplistic answers. That man is now arguably his closest counsel. How long can that last?

But here's the part too many are missing in all this Trump mania. Our government does not begin and end with the presidency. Certainly not this one. This is the moment for Congress, left and right, to take back the power and start doing its job.

Standing back, watching, has not served you or your constituents well. You can pass laws. You can do it veto proof. Budget issues, immigration. Is it really so far-fetched, so hard to imagine that 2/3 of you can agree on what America is about? I

Issues like Syria, Afghanistan, they're actually easier. We all believe it's all about the President because you've led us to that misbelief. You have surrendered your power to this President and others. The constitution gives you the duty to declare war, not the President. You've run from it. Because you're afraid of what happened when you voted for the war in Iraq. You don't want to own it. And frankly, it was going on before that.

Do your duty. Stop talking about it and do it. Review the authorization for the use of military force. Demand that the President come to you as the law and the constitution commands.

This moment is a low point for this President. But his inadequacy is not your excuse. This moment means something for you, congressmen and women, as well. You are on notice that you must do more. I know you're all leaving to go be with your family. We'll see what happens with the shutdown. But that's the way it looks. While you're there, think about what they expect. Just shaking your head and those uneasy laughs that we all have these days about how crazy everything is in D.C., it's not enough. You wanted power. You have it. You raised your hand. Now use it. And get things done.

History is being written and you are wrong to think that the beginning and end of the story will be President Trump. What will history say about you in this moment?

Thank you for watching. CNN Tonight with D. Lemon starts right now.