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AT THIS HOUR

Trump Indicates Uncertainty on Signing Off on Short-Term Bill to Avoid Shutdown; Trump Faces Criticism for Decision to Withdraw U.S. Troops from Syria; Interview with Sen. Lindsey Graham Who Just Left Afghanistan; Sanders: Trump Not Prepared to Back Short-Term Funding Bill; House Intel Committee Votes to Send Roger Stone Transcript to Special Counsel. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 20, 2018 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:00]: JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: It's possible no one.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Exactly.

SCIUTTO: David Gergen, thanks very much.

Thanks for joining me today. A lot of news this hour, but a lot more to cover. I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" will continue to cover all the news. That starts right now.

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

We begin with breaking news. President Trump injecting some uncertainty on whether he'll sign off on the short-term funding bill to avert a partial government shutdown. And the fight is all over Trump's promise to build a border wall. House Speaker Paul Ryan just canceled a press conference on Capitol Hill right before the House was scheduled to take a vote to keep the government open. And now, a senior White House official telling me that it's possible that President Trump will decide not to support the C.R.

I want to bring in CNN's Abby Phillip at the White House.

Abby, House Speaker Paul Ryan just canceled his press conference, and President Trump is keeping everyone guessing on the short-term funding bill. What can you tell us about what's unfolding right now?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Pam. It's such a fluid situation that is unfolding right now on this cr. The president just moments ago spoke to Paul Ryan on the phone. In an unscheduled phone call, and then moments after that, he issued a tweet that seemed to suggest he was considering not signing that C.R. that would fund the government temporarily. He says, "When I begrudgingly signed onto this bill, which is a bill spending for the government back in March, I was promised the border security by leadership would be done by the end of the year. It didn't happen. We foolishly fight for border security for other countries but not our beloved USA. Not good." Back in March, the president did sign that bill. But he did so reluctantly. Aides were worried he wouldn't sign it, sending government into a full-blown shutdown. Now we're in that predicament again. Everything is on hold here. Aides are waiting to see what President Trump will do with this bill. And as your sources are telling you, President Trump is seriously considering not signing it because of a lot of pressure coming from his conservative backers in the House who took to the floor yesterday to complained to the president, if he doesn't get border wall funding now, he may never get it again -- Pam?

BROWN: That's right. Officials in the White House say they basically just don't have any idea of what the president will do. But what is clear to officials is that the president really is bothered by this criticism from conservatives. About the idea that he could sign this continuing resolution that would not include border wall funding. What are you hearing about that, and the president's reaction to this growing pressure from conservatives?

PHILLIP: Well, the president is clearly bothered by it. He understands, especially, Pam, the context here. The president is going into his third year in office, going into a major re-election fight, and yet again, he faces the prospect of a revolt from the conservatives who have backed him all along. President Trump said the last time, he went on camera to say that he does not want to be in a position where he's doing this again, signing a big spending bill with no border wall funding. But the reality is, Pam, in January, Democrats are taking over the House of Representatives. They pledged not to fund anything basically that the president wants as it relates to the border wall. And President Trump is backed up against the wall. Tomorrow, he's expected to go to Florida for his Christmas vacation. Will he go if he doesn't sign the bill, or will he sign the C.R. and push this fight into the new year?

BROWN: And also, if he does sign the C.R. without funding for the border wall, it flies in the face of what he said just last week, saying that he would be OK with a government shutdown over the wall.

PHILLIP: And that he would -- he said so many things in the last week, Pam. He said both that he would be OK with the government shutdown for the wall. He said he was happy to shut down the government in order to get border security. But then he also has said in the last several days that he would simply have the military build the wall. He said that he would find funding from government agencies to fund the wall. So the White House, the president has been all over the map on this issue. There's an underlying sense of chaos here, a sense of uncertainty about what direction they want to go in. And it's all riding on President Trump, who ultimately is the decider here. What will he decide about his own political fortunes, and what kind of deal he believes he can get in the future? It certainly does not seem like there will be a prospect for a better deal next year, which is one of the reasons why we're at the point of looking to a February C.R. funding bill.

BROWN: So the president facing criticism on this. He's also facing criticism on his decision over Syria to withdraw troops. It appears all sides are up in arms over the decision to pull out of Syria. The president weighing in on that this morning as well. Tell us more.

PHILLIP: Just, on a second front here, Pam, the president facing really blistering criticism from conservatives, but on a different issue, on this pull-out from Syria, a decision he made this week without consulting a lot of individuals who would have had a role in this decision. Military officials as well as the relevant chairmen in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, caught blindsided by this.

President Trump on Twitter this morning has been defending himself. He said this, "Does the USA want to be the policeman of the Middle East, getting nothing but spending -- getting nothing but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who in most cases do not appreciate what we're doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight."

[11:05:37] So President Trump is framing this as a fulfilled campaign promise. But Republicans on the Hill are saying we do not want to leave the fight with ISIS to Iran, to Syria, and to Russia. And that is really the predicament President Trump is in.

There are a lot of people waiting to see if President Trump will add some meat to the bones about what exactly the strategy in Syria actually is. It does seem like this was a decision that he made in an effort to bring those troops back home, to say he's withdrawing from unnecessary conflict. But the fear here is that there's a vacuum being created, that the fighting is still ongoing against ISIS. ISIS is not defeated, many Republicans are saying.

Meanwhile, we haven't heard much from President Trump. He issued a video explaining his decision yesterday, but he hasn't addressed the country about the strategy. There's so much pushback. You have to wonder, within the next day or so you'll see more or hear more or perhaps will he roll it back in an effort to tamp down some of the criticism coming from his own party -- Pam?

BROWN: As you were talking, we're taking a look at this exclusive video in to CNN showing joint fighting just this week on the ground there in Syria. So this is clearly still something that is on top of many people's minds.

And especially Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been very outspoken about this.

Abby, thank you so much from there.

He had some sharp words for President Trump on the Senate floor over the president's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

One of the reasons I'm filling in on the show for you, Kate Bolduan, is because you have been on assignment this week traveling with the Senator.

You join us now. Tell us about this.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Pam, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

I have been traveling this week oversees with Senator Graham. This is one of the big issues we have been talking about.

Senator Graham is joining me now so we can talk about this.

Senator, we just got back from Afghanistan. This was one of your key questions while we were over there. What if the president pulls all the troops out of Afghanistan? You land back in the United States with him doing exactly that in Syria. What's your message now today for the president?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, that if you do this in Afghanistan, according to our military commanders and everybody I know, we want to withdraw from Afghanistan with honor and do it based on conditions on the ground. Based on my assessment in Afghanistan, if we withdrew anytime soon, you would be paving the way for a second 9/11. The president said he wants others to fight. Since August of 2017, 5600 Afghans have died fighting the Taliban and ISIS, 18 Americans killed in combat, four killed through accidents. God bless the 22. You say you want others to fight. Most of the fighting to destroy ISIS in Syria has been done with the Kurds. My question to the president: If you do not want to fight this war alone, how do you justify leaving Syria at a time when those who helped us, the Kurds, are certain to be overwhelmed and slaughtered? And if we do this to the Kurds, who is going to help us fight in the future?

BOLDUAN: Have you spoken to him directly about his decision in Syria?

GRAHAM: No. No. I was shocked when I got home. The first thing I saw coming back from the airport was this announcement that he's going to withdraw immediately from Syria. I have done a lot of work since then. I can assure you, it was done not based on sound military advice. All the advice the president received from his national security team was it's not time to withdraw from Syria. That ISIS will come back. They have not been defeated. Most importantly, the Kurds who have helped us so much, been such good allies, are now exposed to be taken over by Turkey, Assad, Syria, or maybe become victims of ISIS themselves. They're almost 700 foreign fighters and Syrian forces hands. The Kurds and the Arabs have been helping us. They'll get out of jail or -- this is just a disaster in the making. I'm urging the president to reconsider withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan, when conditions warrant. You're right to want a wall on the southern border, Mr. President. You should fight for that wall, but we can't build a wall between us and the Middle East. Taking our forces out of Syria, the 2200, would be akin to tearing down the wall along the southern border. We're more exposed with withdrawing our forces because they're a virtual wall to protect us against the rise of is and radical Islam.

[11:10:15] BOLDUAN: Two important questions. If you say he's not basing this on sound military advice, you're saying he's not listening to the generals, if you will, on this. He's not taking your advice on this, though he has on many issues, especially pertaining to foreign policy.

GRAHAM: Yes. Right.

BROWN: Who is he listening to? Where is he getting this?

GRAHAM: I think this is a view that he has, and he's frustrated, and I get it. We have been over there a long time. We spend a lot of money. I wish we could bring our troops home, and I want to, I really do, but I think the troops understand why they're there. This is a very small footprint.

And President Trump has done a lot of good things. We are taking the fight aggressively toward Iran. Getting out of the Iran nuclear deal was the right move. We have hurt ISIS mightily, changing the rules of engagement in Afghanistan has got the Taliban now maybe to the table. He's done a lot of good things, but this decision in Syria is going to undo a lot of those good things. The biggest winner, I think, will be Iran over time. And ISIS has not been defeated. They have been hurt, and they will certainly come back if we leave too soon. We learned that in Iraq.

So I am basically pleading with the president to reconsider, postpone this withdrawal, make it conditions-based. I think you'll have a lot of support, Mr. President, to keep our presence in Syria, to stand by our allies, the Kurds, and make sure ISIS doesn't come back. You'll have a lot of bipartisan support if you change course.

BOLDUAN: But can he unring this bell? I do wonder that.

GRAHAM: Yes.

BROWN: Once he's made this announcement, yes, he can change his mind, but is damage already done by what he has already announced?

GRAHAM: Good question. The worst is definitely yet to come. I talked to the Secretary Mattis yesterday. The traffic, the chatter out there, is pretty devastating. When the president suggests that Assad and Iran and Russia are not happy, they are very happy. The biggest winner of this could be the Iranians to have a corridor now from Tehran all the way to Lebanon. They could use the space we occupy to get more weapons to Hezbollah. It's certainly putting the Kurds at risk. We see a lot of chatter. So, yes, he could. And all I would ask him to do is reconvene his national security team, listen to what's going on. And postpone this decision and make sure it's based on conditions on the ground when you withdraw.

I said the same thing to President Obama. I said, Mr. President, I'm a Republican. I will support a continued presence in Iraq no matter how popular it might be at home because it's the right decision. He went another way. The results are in about our withdrawal from Iraq. And I fear our withdrawal from Syria is going to even be worse. It will be hard to sign up people in the future to fight with the United States if we abandon the Kurds.

BOLDUAN: If he doesn't change course, if he doesn't listen, if he doesn't listen to you, what are you prepared to do about it?

GRAHAM: Well, I have a resolution that is bipartisan already. We have about 30 co-sponsors, asking him to reconsider the decision. Make it a conditions-based withdrawal.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: At this point, is this one of those things where, like --

GRAHAM: Just advice.

BOLDUAN: -- hold up judicial nominations until he listens to you?

GRAHAM: No, what I want to do is let him know that there are a lot of Republicans and Democrats who will stand with him to see this through. That bringing our troops home from Syria is the goal. You just have to do it smartly. Getting other people to fight more and pay more is a worthy goal. And actually, it's working. He's getting NATO to pay more, and people in the region need to do more. We can't -- he's the commander-in-chief. I couldn't make President Obama listen to the generals. I advised him to. I can't make President Trump listen to his national security team. I have advised him to. But what we can do in Congress is hold presidents accountable. There's a historical record that the decision to withdraw from Iraq was not based on sound military advice. Then all of the concerns came true. We'll make the same record in Syria. And President Trump has done a lot of good things on national security. This dramatically undercuts those good things.

BOLDUAN: Senator, is something bad going to have to happen before that backlash really sets in?

GRAHAM: That's a really good question. President Obama wound up sending troops back in to Iraq. He wound up doing things to undo the damage caused by withdrawing. President Trump will have to do the same thing.

But here's what the president has done. There's not a ground swell of political pressure to get us out of Syria. I think most Americans know that some of our troops over there preventing the rise of ISIS is probably smart. It's 22,200, very small footprint. I think most Americans know when you get somebody to help you like the Kurds, you owe to the team to see it through. There's not a groundswell of support.

[11:15:09] Senator Paul is an outlier. I like him, but I think his view of the world is dangerous. And his world view, we just leave everybody alone, they'll leave us alone. That didn't work in Afghanistan. We had no troops, not even an ambassador in Afghanistan, on September 10th. We got hit anyway on September 11th. This radical Islamic movement won't leave us alone. You might be tired of fighting them, but they're not tired of fighting you.

So I think there's a lot of support for the president to reconsider this. If he presses forward, he's going to own it all. If the Kurds get decimated, he'll own that. It would be hard to sign up people in the future. If ISIS comes back the way I think they will, you'll own that. This is a gift to Russia and Iran, and that's not a good thing.

BOLDUAN: You have become -- over time, you have become an important ally to the president on many issues and you said you work with him where you can and stand up when you can't. Does this singular decision have the potential to change all that?

GRAHAM: Well, that would be up to the president. I'm not going to change being me. The president has been very gracious toward me as an individual. I have played golf with him. I like his company. He does listen. I respect the fact that I have access to the president. I cannot be any good to him if I don't tell him what I honestly believe. I tried the same thing with President Obama. We had a different world view, different political parties. I'm aligned with President Trump on a lot of things. but I would say as to Syria, do not expect me to tell you something I don't believe. It's just not me saying this, Mr. President. It's everybody around you. So leadership is adjusting. You know, president Bush understood we needed the surge. Probably made a mistake going into Iraq, but you have to adjust. This is your time, Mr. President. This is the Trump presidency. It's not the Bush presidency. It's not the Obama presidency. You have a chance to change things in the Mideast. You have done so in many good ways. This is a giant step backward. I would ask you to reconsider. There will be a lot of support if you do.

BOLDUAN: Real quick, you mentioned something that I want to make sure we hit on. You said you spoke with Secretary Mattis yesterday.

GRAHAM: Yes.

BOLDUAN: And his assessment is that the chatter is pretty devastating. Obviously, you can't go into details, but safe to say that General Mattis did not suggest this to the president? And what does that chatter mean right now?

GRAHAM: Well, it's safe to say that I don't think anybody -- I talked to Pompeo yesterday. You know, Mr. Jeffries, the special envoy to Syria, who was a great pick, the former ambassador to Iraq, just 48 hours ago, 72 hours ago, announced that we're not going to leave. You had Brett McGurk, the guy in charge of Syria and Iraq, said that even though the space has been taken back, the land has been taken back, ISIS is not yet defeated. There are 20,000 to 30,000 fighters. They have been hurt mightily because of President Trump's change in strategy, but they're not defeated. So Secretary Mattis is firmly in the camp of the job in Syria is not yet done. That abandoning the Kurds now will hurt us down the road. That ISIS could and probably will come back. I think that's the universal view of Bolton, Pompeo, and Mattis. The president has the right to do what he would like. He is the commander-in-chief. So did President Obama. All I am saying, if you don't trust these people's judgment, find somebody you do trust. General Obama turned out not to be such a good general. I don't think General Graham is going to be a great general. I don't think General Trump is going to be a great general. The people around him are the most talented people I have met in the last 20 years. I would ask the president to reconsider, come up with a plan to withdraw that's conditions-based.

BOLDUAN: One final thing because it's happening right now. There seems to be a lot of concern over the stop-gap funding bill, passed the Senate. Seems to be heart burn over it in the House. Trump even tweeted something that even seems he could be wavering, if he would go along with it. What's your message to the president on this one, and your House colleagues, quite frankly?

GRAHAM: I have been consistent. I think the idea of not giving the president more money for the wall and securing the border after the caravan is unreasonable by the Democrats. Almost every Senate Democrat voted for $25 billion in wall and border security funding in February. To say that we don't need $5 billion versus $1.3 billion is ridiculous, particularly after the caravan. So I encourage the president to dig in and force the Democrats and Republicans to help him better secure the border. If I were him, I would stand firm. I can understand --

BOLDUAN: Not sign it.

GRAHAM: -- not sign it. I can understand picking a fight on border security to get more money at a time we need it. That's a fight worth having. I do not understand withdrawing the 2200 troops from Syria that protect our nation from the rise of ISIS yet again and will stand by our allies. That's akin to tearing a wall down. I understand wanting to build a wall along the Mexican border. I don't understand wanting to tear the wall that we have in place, which is our forward deployed forces, to protect us against radical Islam. I would stay firm to get more money and re-evaluate my decision to withdraw from Syria.

[11:20:29] BOLDUAN: Senator, thank you very much. Appreciate the time. Thank you.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much.

Pam, as we mentioned, we have just returned from traveling to Afghanistan following Senator Graham, as he was visiting with top military officials and visiting with soldiers, visiting with the troops. I'll have much more of that, much more on the trip in the coming days.

BROWN: The timing couldn't have been better to be with him on the trip, as we're now facing this news from the president that he wants to rapidly withdraw troops, something clearly the Senator does not agree with.

Great interview, Kate Bolduan.

We're also going to have much more on the shutdown fight after a quick break. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:25:27] BROWN: Just moments ago, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders releasing a statement saying President Trump is not prepared to back the short-term funding bill to keep the government running until early February. In the statement, she's saying, "The president is having a meeting with Republican House members at noon today. At this moment, the president does not want to go further without border security, which includes steel slats or a wall. The president is continuing to weigh his options."

I want to bring in CNN's Manu Raju, who has been following all of these developments on Capitol Hill.

Manu, we saw a change in tone, a shift from President Trump not long after his phone call with Speaker Ryan.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. The president shifting again, sending the capital into a tailspin, uncertain how Congress is going to get out of this Friday deadline to avoid a government shutdown for a significant chunk of the government.

This statement from Sarah Sanders, very significant, saying at the moment the president does about want to go further without border security. That is not the message that the White House sent to the Senate yesterday when the president essentially made it clear through his emissaries that he would sign a short-term C.R., known as a continuing resolution, to keep the government open up until February 8th. The Senate last night passed it by voice vote. Essentially almost unanimously supported it. The House still has to approve it, and there's a lot of pushback from President Trump's conservative allies in the House who are concerned that the president will give in to Nancy Pelosi if he does this. This is the final days of Republican control of the House. So they're asking him to dig in. And, Pamela, at this moment, House Republican leaders are huddled behind the scenes debating adding more money to that spending bill, perhaps wall money, perhaps disaster aid as well, things that would need to be approved over here. If they did that, it would have to go back to the Senate. The question is, can the Senate pass more border security money? Already, Democrats are saying no. So the president's last-minute demands here throwing things into a rather uncertain position as we head into a possible shutdown tomorrow -- Pamela?

BROWN: And White House officials I have been speaking with say the president is really feeling the heat from conservatives from those within the Freedom Caucus who are telling him that if he doesn't get the funding for the border wall now, then it won't happen in the next Congress with Dems taking over the House. So a lot of drama here at the 11th hour, as so often is the case with these funding bills to keep the government open.

Also, Manu, we also learned just a short time ago the House Intel Committee voted to send Roger Stone's transcript to the special counsel. What can you tell us about that and the significance of it?

RAJU: That's right. We understand the special counsel made a request to the Intelligence Committee for a transcript related to Roger Stone. Roger Stone, of course, testified back in 2017, and there have been questions about his truthfulness in the testimony, particularly from Democrats, who say he may have misled the committee about his contacts with WikiLeaks that occurred in the 2016 campaign. Now we understand that Mueller has asked for that transcript. And just today, behind closed doors, the House Intelligence Committee voted, by voice vote, essentially unanimously to send that transcript over to Robert Mueller. So that raises the pressure and legal stakes for Roger Stone as he's faced enormous scrutiny as part of the special counsel's investigation -- Pamela?

BROWN: That's right. It shows the investigation into him is not over yet.

Manu Raju, on Capitol Hill, thank you for bringing us the latest there.

We'll have much more on the dramatic shutdown fight just ahead.

Plus, breaking news this morning. President Trump's acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, has been told by ethics officials at the Justice Department that he does not need to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia probe.

Stay with us. We'll be back.

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