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Trump Defends Syria Decision Amid Bipartisan Backlash; Trump Discards Advice from Allies, Officials on Syria Withdrawal; Trump's AG Pick Says Mueller's Obstruction Inquiry was "Fatally Misconceived"; All Eyes on Market After Fed Hike Sparks Selloff; Disgraced Movie Mogul Harvey Weinstein Arrives for Pivotal Day in Court; U.S. Futures Slightly Lower After Dow Slides to 2018 Low, Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired December 20, 2018 - 09:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Thursday morning to you, I'm Jim Sciutto, Poppy is off today. He has just lost what may be his final chance to get Congress to pay for his wall. And his move to pull out of Syria has infuriated some of his strongest republican allies, so naturally President Trump is on the attack again this morning of, "putting politics over country."

The president vows not to sign any of "their" legislation without, "perfect border security," and that leaves the fate of a stop gap spending bill that needs to be signed by midnight tomorrow, and is supported now by both republicans and democrats very much in doubt.

On Syria the president claims, among other things that the U.S. gets nothing for being, "the Policeman of the Middle East." Hours earlier a bipartisan group of Senators warned that a pull out of U.S. forces would be a premature and costly mistake that not only threatens the safety and security of the United States, but also emboldens ISIS, Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia.

They are all celebrating this decision today, CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House. See now is there any understanding of what lead the president to make this surprise decision? A decision that frankly surprised his commanders here, his commanders on the ground, his senior most national security advisors -- what is the why?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Jim, this is something that President Trump sees as a fulfillment of a campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home from conflicts abroad, reinvesting those resources here in the United States. But as you pointed out, republicans on the Hill see this as a major blunder, perhaps the biggest one so far of Trump's administration.

Now the question as to why the president made this decision at this particular time is really one that is -- it is in the minds of everyone here in Washington. President Trump recently had some phone calls with foreign leaders, including Turkey's President Erdogan on Friday. And while the White House hasn't said what the subject of that call

was, it is clear that Turkey is very happy with the U.S.'s decision to pull out of Syria, and President Trump is now facing criticism that frankly is unprecedented so far in his administration. Listen to what some republican senators, including some of his biggest supporters have been saying on Capital Hill in the last day.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R) FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: It's a terrible mistake and unfortunately I think we're going to pay a price for it if it's not reversed.

SEN. BOB CORKER, (R) CHMN.,FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: 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.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, (R) INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Pulling the plug on these troops without giving due consideration to the consequences, I think is something that I don't think any of us want to do.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: To say they're defeated, is an overstatement and is fake news. We have been dishonorable, this is a stain on the honor of the United States.


PHILLIPS: And a senior administration official tells our Jake Tapper this, "it is a mistake of colossal proportions and the president fails to see how it will endanger our country."

In addition to those republicans on the Hill, the president's National Security Advisor John Bolton, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Defense Secretary James Mattis all opposed this decision but the president made it anyway. It remains to be seen whether or not he will try to temper what will happen now, in an effort to cool some of this discomfort over on Capital Hill here in Washington, Jim.

SCIUTTO: And the president of course criticized Barack Obama for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Abby Phillip, thanks very much. I'm joined now by CNN military analyst and retired Army Major General James "Spider" Marks. And CNN political analyst and "Washington Post" columnist Josh Rogin.

Josh, if I could begin with you, because you wrote what is really a devastating piece on reaction to this. Forget democrats but from the president's own advisors and republican lawmakers here. And doing this over the advice of Mike Pompeo, Mattis, Bolton, commanders on the ground. Does anyone you speak with have an explanation as to why the president did this?

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST, "WASHINGTON POST" COLUMNIST: Good morning, well there's a lot of speculation as to why the president did this, we know that he has long wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, but there's no explanation that I've heard from people in the administration that explains why he did it this way. Why he did it without consulting the commanders on the ground, why he

cut the joint chiefs chairman out of the process -- why he didn't plan for a withdraw that's responsible and measured.


Why he didn't contact the coalition to tell them what happens to them where our partners on the ground who are now going to be abandoned. I was talking to a lot of the officials who were dealing with this on the logistical and military level and they were all freaked out and pissed off, OK?

They feel that they are now being ordered to implement a policy they believe will harm U.S. national security and credibility, and diplomacy -- and they're not happy about it and they have no choice. So we can have a debate over whether or not we should stay in Syria, whether or not ISIS is defeated or not. It's not, by the way.

But the manner in which the president has gone rogue on his own advisors, tossed allies and partners under the bus and then thrown open this issue to unanswerable questions -- is simply unexplainable even by the people who are now forced to actually do the job.

SCIUTTO: General Marks, you commanded forces in battle in Iraq -- tell me what the effect is on those units, those commanders on the ground who have been risking their lives to fight ISIS, making progress -- that mission not complete, to be pulled out in short order?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well good morning, Jim. Yes, the issue really that I would call the ground level is that when you're giving an order like this which is an immediate change and ostensibly was done very precipitously in that there was no lead-up to this, there was no horizon where the troops would be deployed.

You need to execute a task like withdraw very, very quickly because you're very vulnerable. When you have this immediate shift you're going from operations where you are engaging, and you're very vulnerable. You're exposing troops, you're in a support position, you're engaged in different levels and now that stops and you've got to get out of town -- that puts everybody at risk.

So any withdraw that needs to take place, has got to take place very, very quickly. And if I could, Jim what this really is -- this isn't a strategy stated by the president. This is a tactic, and so the confusing thing for my perspective is what's the strategy that we're trying to achieve?

What Josh has indicated is there's a level of unpredictability here that puts friends, allies, partners -- at risk because they don't know what the next steps are. If it was far more predictable it'd be better. So what is the strategy? I simply don't know, I hope we can hear that shortly.

ROGIN: I just got back... SCIUTTO: Josh...

ROGIN: On this idea that we have to withdraw really quickly. When I talked to the actual military commanders who are dealing with this, they say, "no, no, no -- we have to withdraw deliberately because we have a lot of equipment to get out, we're creating a vacuum we have to tell our partner forces on the ground how they're supposed to survive after we leave." How our capabilities are going to be fixed, so I think quickly is absolutely the wrong way to go about that, you know? And...

MARKS: Deliberate and quickly, Josh can go hand in hand, I mean...

ROGIN: Yes, but I'm just saying...

SCIUTTO: Let's set that aside for a moment, because I want to get at the big picture what the effect is here but also the president's claim. The president claimed yesterday that ISIS is defeated, that is not U.S. Intelligence assessment on the ground, in fact his -- the official overseeing -- the mission there the day before said that the mission still needs to be completed. The U.S. conducted 208 airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria days before this decision. Josh Rogin, is the president lying when he says that ISIS is defeated?

ROGIN: Well he's spinning, for sure and without attributing an intention (ph), he's wrong, OK? And this gets to "Spider" Marks' question about strategy. We had a strategy, OK? The strategy according to every official in the U.S. government was three-fold -- defeat ISIS, push Iran out of Syria, and find a political solution.

Now the president had unilaterally tossed out the last two things of that without telling anybody why, OK? And there's no information at all, even on a conference call by the NSE as to what about those other two parts, which the president has now undermined.

So and then if you think about the larger strategy, well why would any country negotiate with the United States over troops when the president is just pulling troops out of countries willy-nilly.

You think about the implications for Afghanistan, for North Korea -- this has really undermined U.S. diplomatic efforts and strategy on a range of issues and we're only -- it's going to take months, if not years to figure out the real damage that President Trump...

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, General Marks because Josh Rogin raises an important question there. I've been speaking to military folks both current and former who are concerned now about Afghanistan.

The president has been noncommittal on the mission there, "Spider" Marks, in your view is it conceivable? Is it perhaps even likely, now that the president might do the same with the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, end it?

MARKS: Well it's certainly conceivable, I wouldn't want to conflate the two -- the conditions are entirely different in Syria vis-a-vis what they're like in Afghanistan. Our commitment to those two different locations and those two fights are significantly different, so I wouldn't want to draw this causality between we're leaving Syria we're now going to leave Afghanistan -- but it's not implausible.


But also at least we've had 17 years, albeit far too long -- we've had sufficient time to begin to create conditions in Afghanistan where governance can approve security force development and training, can approve law enforcement, can approve et cetera. We haven't done that in Syria, so I don't want to equate those two but I could see if there's an emotional connection, why would we not see the same thing occur in Afghanistan?

SCIUTTO: Josh Rogin, "Spider" Marks -- thanks very much.

ROGIN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: The shut line deadline (ph) -- other major story we're following, that's tomorrow. And the future of a short-term spending bill passed by the Senate, not clear anymore.

President Trump taking aim at democrats this morning saying that he will not sign any of their legislation unless it has, "perfect border security," of course the agreement was pushed by republicans as well, this has conservative allies in the House are making an 11th hour plea to the president to not sign anything that does not fund his promised border wall.


REP. MARK MEADOWS, (R) NORTH CAROLINA: They know that he's promised not once, not twice, but three different times that he would get border wall funding and here we are about to punt, and I would argue it's not a punt. A punt actually helps improve the field advantage, this is a fumble and we need to make sure that the president stays firm and a lot of people are very nervous this morning about whether the president will cave or not.


SCIUTTO: Let's discuss now with CNN's political analyst Rachael Bade, and Alex Burns. Rachael, I don't have to remind you the president and this border wall, this is a signature issue for him. Defining issue really since the start of his entrance in to the campaign in 2016 -- let's remind our viewers, have a listen...


DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: It's going to be a very tall wall, very strong wall, very powerful wall.

It's going to be such a beautiful wall, it's going to be so big -- it's going to be so powerful. It's going to be as beautiful as a wall can be. And who is going to pay for the wall? Who is going to pay for the wall? Who? Mexico's going to pay for the wall, and they understand that. We need security, we need the wall -- we're going to have it all.


SCIUTTO: Rachael Bay, does the president risk losing his base if he can't deliver on this?

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, the base is going to be with Trump no matter what, but certainly this is going to upset a lot of his biggest fans, a lot of people wanted him to make this stand and let's be clear here -- the president, this is his last, best opportunity to follow through on this campaign promise.

When democrats take the house next year, the republicans are going to lose significant leverage. And the only way the president would actually get his wall, would be if he was willing to cut a bipartisan, massive immigration bill that would also mean protections for dreamers, and doing these immigration changes that democrats want -- that I don't think the president is going to be too keen on doing as he looks toward 2020 and trying to rev up his base.

So this would be a big loss for him. I do think it's interesting that this morning he's blaming democrats on Twitter. Because really this is a lot of republican leadership that is also sort of throwing in the towel here -- they had promised the president before the midterm election that they were going to fight for his wall, even to a shut- down after the midterm elections.

And they kicked the deadline to right before Christmas when they knew everybody would be tired and want to go home, it's almost like they set him up for failure on this. I think he's probably mad at his own party as well.

SCIUTTO: So republicans came to an agreement they could pass yesterday on this continuing resolution, but the president in his Tweet making that pledge again, he won't sign -- even as he blames it on democrats, actually a republican resolution here. Is that a signal to you, Alex Burns that the president might just say no, I'll take the shut-down?

ALEX BURNS, "NEW YORK TIMES", POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He certainly might do it, Jim. But he's also threatened so many times to go in a shut-down direction and has ultimately balked at actually doing it, that -- from the folks I talk to in Washington there's not a great deal of confidence or fear that the president is actually going to follow through and pull the trigger on this one.

And I do think to Rachael's point when you look at the back and forth that you've seen, not just between republicans and the two chambers of Congress but between republican leaders and democratic leaders who know that their political and legislative position is about to change drastically, you do start to see the beginnings of what could be a really frustrating scenario for the president next year if pragmatic democrats in the house and pragmatic republicans in the senate who don't ever, basically want to ride this thing over a cliff -- basically cut the president out of the conversation. SCIUTTO: Rachael Bade, on to the Syria decision because the president

surprised virtually everyone here it seems, including his own senior most national security advisors. But also the right-wing media, right -- conservative republican law makers who've been supporters of the president, what is the political gain for the president -- if any, or what's the political calculus for the president in making this decision?


BADE: Yes, I think the timing is really telling, you know, the president, it sounds like he knows he's going to kick the can on the border wall and potentially never be able to fulfill a massive campaign promise that he ran on in 2016.

And consequently was perhaps looking at something he could check off his campaign promises to-do list. He ran on a platform of America first, and that he would withdraw U.S. troops from various areas in the Middle East. And you know, his top advisors said don't do this, you know, this is not the time to draw back in Syria.

But you know, clearly he wanted to say he got something done amid these headlines that he is totally caving on the border wall. Obviously, there was a huge pushback on Capitol Hill.

Senate Republicans like Lindsey Graham, who are some of his top allies were fuming in a private meeting with Vice President Mike Pence just yesterday, saying they were personally affronted that he did not talk to them first and they basically want him to change his mind and reverse course here.

SCIUTTO: Well, I mean, you can't put too fine a point on it. The president making a short-term political judgment here over the national security advice of all of his national security advisors. It is worth noting. Rachel Bade, Alex Burns, thanks very much.

Just months ago, the president's pick to oversee the Russia investigation called the probe, quote, "fatally misconceived". What this means for his path forward. Plus, stocks rocked on the Fed interest rate hike, we're going to be on Wall Street with the latest reaction.

And the disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein about to arrive at court for a pivotal day for him. A judge set to rule on a motion to dismiss motion by his lawyers. Five counts against him -- we'll be live outside the court.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back. It's just moments ago, disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein walking into a New York City court, this morning he will try to convince a New York Supreme Court judge to dismiss five felony charge -- sexual charges.

This is now a live picture of him inside that courthouse. His lawyers trying to get the judge to dismiss all five of these felony counts. If convicted on all those charges, Weinstein could face up to life in prison. Cnn national correspondent Jason Carroll is following this. Jason, what are the ranges of things that could happen today in that courtroom?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, everyone waiting to see, Jim, what the judge in this case, James Burke will decide. Will he dismiss all of the charges against Harvey Weinstein? Certainly, this is what the defense are hoping for.

I spoke to a member of a Harvey Weinstein's team late yesterday, they know that's a long shot, a legal long shot here, but again, this is what they are hoping for. Harvey Weinstein facing five criminal charges of sexual assault and rape, including two counts of predatory sexual assault, one count of criminal sexual act in the first degree, one count of first degree rape and one count of third degree rape.

He is facing two accusers, one of his accusers, Mimi Haleyi; a former production assistant is here in court today with her attorney Gloria Allred. The defense says all of these charges should be dropped because they say they have evidence which shows that the sex was consensual. What type of evidence? Well, they say they have e-mails which they say show friendly correspondence between Harvey Weinstein and two of his accusers after the alleged incident took place.

So what could the judge do here today? He could -- theoretically, he could and legally dismiss all of the charges. Again, that seems to be pretty much of a long shot. He could set a court date later on down the road, this is what the prosecution wants or he could do something sort of in the middle, put things on pause and call for an evidentiary hearing.

This is what most sides are saying. This is what they expect to happen in court today, but it's anyone's guess quite frankly, as to what the judge will end up doing. This of course all happening under the umbrella of the Me Too movement.

A number of representatives are here, including actress Marisa Tomei. She is not part of this criminal case, but she says like so many other actresses that Harvey Weinstein acted inappropriately towards her. So again, waiting now to see what the judge will decide. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Jason Carroll, we know you'll bring those developments as they happen. We are just moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. U.S. Futures down again slightly this morning, this after the Fed raised interest rates again yesterday.

The Dow tumbled to the lowest level of the year following that news. We will be at the New York Stock Exchange next .


SCIUTTO: A newly surfaced memo is sparking concern over President Trump's new pick to oversee the Russia investigation. Attorney General nominee William Barr, he wrote the memo back in June and called the probe, quote, "fatally misconceived". Laura Jarrett joins me now. And Laura, I understand you have new reporting. LAURA JARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. Barr hasn't

shied away from defending the president's firing of FBI Director James Comey. But this memo that's been recently now takes it a step further and concludes because Trump was allowed to fire Comey in the first place as the head of the executive branch, therefore the firing could not constitute obstruction of justice.

Now, of course, that's a conclusion that would come as a pleasant surprise to the president, whose lawyers have been making this argument for months. And I'm told by a source familiar with these discussions that Barr actually raised the issue with the president, they've discussed it.

And he told him this was likely an issue that could come up at his confirmation. Now, the deputy Attorney General who received that memo in June of 2018 actually said in a statement last night, that Barr's memo had quote, "no impact on the investigation."

But the larger question is how did this come about? Barr was a private citizen at the time, and it raises the question of whether he was acting as some sort of informal adviser on the Russia investigation, of course weighing in on such a sensitive issue as obstruction that is obviously still under investigation by the special counsel, who if he is confirmed, Barr will supervise him.