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President Trump This Morning Digging In On His Surprise Decision To Pull All U.S. Troops Out Of Syria; With A Partial Government Shutdown Set For Tomorrow, President Trump Now Has A Major Choice. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired December 20, 2018 - 10:00   ET

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


JEAN CASAREZ, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: It was like a verdict. I mean, all around the courtroom, you can hardly see to where the judge was standing.

JIM SCIUTTO, ANCHOR, CNN: Trial moves forward, no charges dismissed. Jean Casarez, thanks very much. Top of the hour now. I'm Jim Sciutto. President Trump this morning digging in on his surprise decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria. This in spite of loud indignant opposition to that move from lawmakers of both parties, even some of the President's closest supporters. Even some of his own officials.

The President declaring, and I quote, "Time for others to finally fight," to which GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, typically among the President's most ardent supporters responded, "When it comes to fighting ISIS, I do not believe it is wise to outsource the fight to Russia, Iran, and Assad. They do not have America's best interests at heart."

The President also lashing out this morning at Democrats who he is blaming again for not funding his wall. He appears to be warning that he might not sign a short-term spending bill that needs to be in place by Saturday to head off a partial government shutdown. I'll remind you, that's a spending resolution supported by Republican senators as well. Much more on that in the hour ahead.

But we begin with the battle over Syria, which our Abby Phillip is watching from the White House. Is there any sign, Abby, of wavering from this President in the face of really this broad and vocal opposition?

ABBY PHILLIP, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Well, Jim, by the looks of it, President Trump is on the defensive. He sent out that series of tweets this morning defending his decision by saying that this was a campaign promise that he's simply fulfilling, to bring U.S. troops back home from foreign conflicts and letting those regional countries deal with their own issues.

But the problem has become that back home in Washington, there is widespread backlash, frankly of the kind that we have not really seen before in this administration. Republicans warning President Trump that this could be perhaps the greatest blunder so far of his administration. Listen to some of what they had to say in the last day.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARCO RUBIO, U.S. SENATOR, FLORIDA, REPUBLICAN: It's a terrible mistake and unfortunately, I think we're going to pay a price for it if it's not reversed.

BOB CORKER, U.S. SENATOR, TENNESSEE, REPUBLICAN: 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.

JOHN CORNYN, U.S. SENATOR, TEXAS, REPUBLICAN: 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 what to do.

LINDSEY GRAHAM, U.S. SENATOR, SOUTH CAROLINA, REPUBLICAN: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIP: The President's decision did catch a lot of people here by surprise, both in the administration and outside the administration. There was a widespread view that there was lack of consultation among military leaders and also the relevant chairman on The Hill, including Bob Corker, who was actually here at the White House yesterday to meet with President Trump and had hoped to talk to Trump about Syria, but that meeting was abruptly canceled.

Meanwhile, a senior administration official tells our Jake Tapper this about the President's decision. "It is a mistake of colossal proportions and the President fails to see how it will endanger our country." That view apparently was shared by several other senior administration officials including National Security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Defense Secretary James Mattis, all of whom cautioned President Trump against an abrupt decision to pull out troops.

So it remains to be seen, Jim, whether President Trump will try to moderate this decision, maybe explain a little bit more about what exactly is his strategy in Syria. So far, we have only had these defenses on Twitter that he is in the right about fulfilling what he says is a campaign promise -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, there is a shorthand for that group, virtually every or every one of the President's senior most security advisers. Abby Phillip, thanks very much. U.S. Military officials also calling the President's decision on Syria a massive strategic blunder. Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon with more reaction.

This is not a position, as you know better than me, that military officials like to be contradicting their President on a key national security issue, but that appears to be what's happening here.

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Well, I think it's also very important to note, none of them have come out in public, none of these sources and the Pentagon have come out in public and put their name to it. You know, their public position is, this is the President's decision to make. They are the military. They will carry it out. But behind the scenes, many are deeply troubled. But not in public just yet. So we are going to have to see how troubled they may really be. Where are we today?

There is an execute order being worked. That is a piece of paper that Defense Secretary James Mattis has to sign to carry out the President's orders. That is a military order that will begin the process of identifying how this withdrawal will take place.

[10:05:00]

STARR: How troops will be protected during the withdrawal? How the 2,600 or so U.S. troops and their weapons and equipment will come out of Syria, and the timeframe for doing that? One of the key interesting things that's beginning to emerge, the U.S. would realistically continue air strikes over Syria as long as U.S. troops are on the ground to protect them.

But once U.S. troops are gone, will air strikes against ISIS targets continue? It may be very tough because there will be no military spotters on the ground, if you will, from the U.S. that can identify those ISIS targets. It may come down to a handful of drone strikes, the same kind of thing we see the military carrying out in places like Yemen and Somalia -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: But Barbara, let me ask you this. It does take time to move boots from on the ground to off the ground. Does that conceivably offer an opportunity for the President to reverse this decision if he's convinced by his senior most military commanders, advisers, et cetera?

STARR: Well, when I asked that question, what I was told is, you know, right now, there's no indication anybody really is trying to change his mind. The pressure may come mainly from those Republicans that we're hearing from in Congress who are so vocal about this. Because consider this. We're coming up on a series of wintertime public hearings on Capitol Hill.

Jim Mattis, General Joe Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Secretary of State Pompeo, the intelligence community, they are all going to be up in front of television cameras on Capitol Hill throughout the winter. They're going to be in the position of trying to defend this Trump decision in front of Congress, and they may find their toughest going from what they thought were their Republican allies -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, that would be the opportunity to stand up and be counted. Barbara Starr, thanks very much. I want to speak now to John Kirby, CNN military and diplomatic analyst, former spokesman for both the Pentagon and the State Department, of course, also a longtime serving member of the U.S. Navy.

John, thanks for taking the time this morning.

JOHN KIRBY, MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST, CNN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: So let's talk about this Syria decision. I want to ask you as someone who served and had constant frequent contact with commanders, troops on the ground, in war zones. What effect does this have on them, whiplash in effect, the day before the man in charge of the U.S. mission in Syria said, a lot of work to be done. We are committed to the mission. Then the President by tweet reverses that. What's the effect on them?

KIRBY: It can have a deleterious effect on troops on the ground when they don't perceive that the Commander-in-Chief actually supports the mission that they have been sent in to do. A mission that has been very successful. You reported on this well, Jim, the fact we have really decimated ISIS in terms of territory and geography in Syria and in Iraq.

And so at the cusp of all this success, now is the moment that you want to press that advantage and completely eliminate any ability for them to come back and use Syria as a safe haven and just when they're at that moment when we can press that advantage, the Commander-in- Chief is pulling out the rug from underneath them, and I suspect that that's having quite a negative effect on their morale.

SCIUTTO: Just moments ago, Senator Lindsey Graham, of course, a Republican senator, frequent defender of the President, tweeted at the President that in fact Iran, Russia, and Syria, in his words, will be ecstatic at this. Explain why this serves their interests and not U.S. interests?

KIRBY: Because their main interest is in propping up the Bashar al- Assad regime so that they have a client state in Syria. The Iranians want to use Syria as a throughway for them to continue to support Hezbollah's terrorist activities. Russia wants to keep their foothold in Syria. Syria has been for decades, Jim, their only foothold, geographic foothold in the Middle East, and they don't want to lose that. That's why they have been propping up Bashar al-Assad.

They are not really interested in fighting terrorists. I sat through two years of meetings with Secretary Kerry and the Russians and the Iranians and the Turks and Saudis to try to bring a diplomatic solution to the conflict there. I can tell you that they just pay lip service to fighting ISIS. The Russians and the Iranians and the Syrians have no interest really in seriously going after ISIS.

Their interest is in ending the Civil War, quashing the rebellion, so that Bashar al-Assad can remain in power and they can continue to use Syria for their own interests.

SCIUTTO: For folks at home to understand how this affects them, they might think, well, Syria is a million miles away. It's only a couple thousand U.S. Troops. I might just remind that when ISIS had its caliphate, had a big ground presence in Iraq and Syria, that ISIS' attacks abroad were more frequent, it appeared.

Having a base of operations there, does that make Americans, whether traveling in Europe or here in the U.S. less safe? KIRBY: Yes, absolutely it does. Remember back in 2014, Jim, when

ISIS really got going, and they really started to advance their narrative and their territory, it started in Syria. Syria was where they fed themselves, where they resourced themselves, where they funded themselves, where they trained themselves.

[10:10:07]

KIRBY: That was where it all started. And if we yield back ungoverned space to them in Syria, I can tell you they will resurge there. Now, it may take some time. It's not going to happen all the way, but their aspirations are not just there. They use Syria to base a global set of operations and to advance a global ideology.

I suspect they will cheer this decision and absolutely want to find ungoverned space in Syria with which to operate.

SCIUTTO: Final question. The President, of course, is the Commander- in-Chief, can Congress in any way tie his hands to reverse or minimize this decision?

KIRBY: There's a limit to what the Congress can do. I think they can certainly hold hearings and they can try to apply the power of the purse onto the military on this and maybe tie it to legislation -- funding legislation. But remember, our actions in Syria were, and this was a long-standing problem under the current agreement to use force going after Al-Qaeda targets.

So the President has wide powers inside that authorization to use military force, to operate inside Syria. He therefore has wide powers to withdraw that force if he deems that that fight against Al Qaeda derivatives is no longer necessary. So I think they have the power of the purse. They certainly have the power of subpoena and hearings. It would be interesting to see, as Barbara notes, how they use that power come wintertime.

SCIUTTO: Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, thanks very much.

KIRBY: You bet.

SCIUTTO: Will President Trump keep his vow to shut down the government over his border wall? House conservatives are telling him to do just that. Don't abandon your promise.

And now reporting this morning, a source tells CNN, the acting Attorney General has been advised he does not need to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation, this despite repeatedly criticizing the probe in the past.

Plus, a California utility company that has been linked to more than a dozen wildfires there is now under scrutiny as investigators search for what sparked the deadliest fire in state history.

[10:15:00]

SCIUTTO: With a partial government shutdown set for tomorrow, President Trump now has a major choice - stick to his long running promise to shut down the government over his border wall, or sign a short-term spending bill that has no new funding for it, may punt it into time when the Democrats controlled the House, may be a lot harder.

Many conservatives in the House are pleading with the President not to cave, arguing that when the Democrats do take control, his plans for that big, beautiful wall, as he has called it, will circle down the drain. CNN's Ryan Nobles on Capitol Hill with the latest now. What's the state of play here between those folks on one shoulder urging the President not to give in and the others saying, listen, we have lost this?

RYAN NOBLES, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Yes, Jim, I think it's pretty clear understanding here on Capitol Hill that this decision lies with the President right now. If the government gets shut down it's because he does not plan to sign this continuing resolution, which has already passed the Senate and there are more than enough votes in the House to get through.

But the President sending signals that he may not be comfortable with signing that continuing resolution. Let's read a tweet he put out early this morning. Doesn't specifically talk about the CR, but you can kind of interpret it for yourself, "The Democrats who know steel slats, (wall), are necessary for border security are putting politics over country. What they are just beginning to realize is that I will not sign any of their legislation, including infrastructure, unless it has perfect border security." Then he put in all caps, USA WINS.

The President had signaled that he was prepared to sign this clean CR to keep the government open through the new year. In fact, he sent Vice President Mike Pence up here to Capitol Hill yesterday to tell Senate Republicans that he would sign that legislation.

But then some conservatives on the House side started warning the President that that was a bad idea. Take a listen to what some of them had to say yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM JORDAN, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE, OHIO, REPUBLICAN: You've got to be kidding me. Really? I mean, February 8th when Nancy Pelosi is speaker, do we really - I'm supposed to believe, we're supposed to believe that we're then going to build the border security wall and keep our promise from the 2016 campaign?

MARK MEADOWS, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE, NORTH CAROLINA, REPUBLICAN: Mr. President, we're going to back you up. If you veto this bill, we'll be there, but more importantly, the American people will be there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOBLES: Now, House Republicans did huddle this morning to talk about exactly what is going to happen with the CR and we're told that the speaker informed that group that the President does plan to sign the continuing resolution. Jim, it will be an anxious few hours here over the next couple of days to see whether or not this bill passes, and then whether or not the President signs it.

Of course, if he does not, the government will shut down on Friday -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Ryan Nobles on The Hill, thanks very much. Let's discuss with David Gergen, CNN senior political analyst, former adviser to only four Presidents. David, thank you for joining us.

DAVID GERGEN, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: Good to see you, sir.

SCIUTTO: So, this is a pickle for the President. A push from both sides here. How devastating a loss would this be for him, for his base, for his conservative backers on The Hill, to give in?

GERGEN: If he gives in and says I don't need the wall, I'm going to go ahead and sign the continuing resolution, keep the government open until February, everyone will know he's lost the wall. And what we're seeing already is the biggest break of Republicans away from the President since he was inaugurated.

I can't remember a time when, you know, you have the hard liners on the conservative side coming after him from the right about the wall. You have got the more mainstream Republicans like John Cornyn coming after him about Syria.

The President, I don't think, has any easy escape routes here. He put himself in a corner. When he had the meeting with Nancy Pelosi and she kept baiting him and he put himself right in the corner with no escape route.

[10:20:10]

SCIUTTO: So the alternative, of course, is digging in and then shutting the government down.

GERGEN: Then he's going to own -- the Republicans are going to own the shutdown.

SCIUTTO: Right, and there is polling that shows that most Americans would blame the President than the GOP for that. What is the worst loss for him?

GERGEN: He's going to lose either way. He's going to get hurt. I don't see how he gets out of this without getting hurt. I just - listen, if he shuts down the government, he's going to get blamed. But then how does he reopen the government? What deals are out there that allows him to say okay, enough, we have got what we want? I don't think there is one. I think he's better off cutting his losses.

SCIUTTO: And his leverage weakening, right, over time because soon Democrats will control the House. You talk about a break with conservatives, with the Republicans on this issue of the government shutdown. The other very public break is over his Syria decision.

GERGEN: Yes. Exactly. SCIUTTO: Where you have such a unified front from folks like Graham

and Cornyn who have been some of his staunchest defenders. I got a comment a short time ago from a GOP congressman who used the phrase, "I'm effing distraught at this," and that's genuine.

GERGEN: Yes, they're deeply troubled by this. Because, you know, what they see is a President in retreat. He's retreated on Syria. He's taking the rug out from under our troops. He's abandoning and he's betraying the Kurds. They may get slaughtered after this. Longtime friends there in that area, as you know so well.

And he's been in retreat on the border wall. Does anybody really know his position now on what he wants to do on this budget? He's changed position two or three times. That in and of itself for a President, Jim, as you so well know, is that substance matters but so does the process.

And if you're seen as unable to come to a decision, indecisive and you're squirmy, people see weakness. That's exactly what Donald Trump hates.

SCIUTTO: Beyond the politics of this though, by withdrawing from Syria, he takes pressure off ISIS, he gives Russia what it has wanted, which is free rein there. He gives Iran, who of course is the President's number one target now, effective free rein there as well as Turkey.

In the simplest terms, it's not just about politics, is it not? This endangers U.S. National Security interests.

GERGEN: Absolutely. It's worth remembering that the Russians had a major place in the Middle East for a long time, and U.S. foreign policy in the area, especially with Henry Kissinger and others in the Republican side, was to get them out of the Middle East, because they were threatening so many things that were going on.

And Kissinger got them out. They have now gotten back in. And that's dangerous to what we're trying to pursue. The Iranians will draw strength from this. They'll be seen as more important in the area. You know, I don't see how we go forward with a Middle East peace plan very easily now in the area because we're seen as an unreliable partner.

SCIUTTO: That's an important point because it's another priority for this President.

GERGEN: It's a very important priority.

SCIUTTO: David Gergen, thanks very much. As always, very happy holidays to you. Major concerns surrounding a memo sent by President Trump's pick to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Meantime, the acting Attorney General has gotten advice on whether he should distance himself from the Mueller investigation after he repeatedly publicly criticized the probe.

[10:25:00] SCIUTTO: Two major developments this morning regarding the Russia

investigation. Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker has been told he does not need to recuse himself from the probe.

A source tells CNN that Whitaker consulted with do ethics officials. They advised him that he does not need to step away from the investigation despite the fact that Whitaker argued in a CNN op-ed last year that the probe was going too far.

Meanwhile, Bill Barr, the man the President has picked to be his permanent Attorney General, is facing backlash over his own comments, a memo he wrote criticizing the Russia investigation as asinine, parts of it at least. We have learned that Barr and Trump have talked about that memo.

CNN Justice reporter Laura Jarrett joins us now. Laura.

LAURA JARRETT, JUSTICE REPORTER, CNN: Hey there, Jim. We're waiting here at the Justice Department for officials to come out to talk about very different subjects having to do with a national security issue, but certainly sure to be asked about all of the developments surrounding this newly unearthed memo from the President's pick to lead the Justice Department, Bill Barr, writing nearly 20 pages to Justice Department official Rod Rosenstein, who has up until recently led the investigation, managing it day to day.

Writing in part that the President could not obstruct justice in asking James Comey to let go of the investigation of his former National Security adviser Michael Flynn as well as the firing of James Comey. Barr concluding essentially that to do that would cause lasting damage, not only to the department, but to the Presidency, and we already knew that he had sort of an expansive view of executive power, but this takes it a step further and has already riled up Democrats with Chuck Schumer saying that this is disqualifying, and I'm sure we're certain to hear from others in the coming days -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Laura Jarrett there, we'll check in with you as the news develops. Right now, there's a plan to keep the government open. The Senate passed it. The house likely will, too, but will the President sign off without the $5 billion he has demanded for his border wall?

[10:30:00]