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Trump Administration Changing U.S. Asylum Policy; Bipartisan Criticism Grows of Trump's Decision to Pull Out of Syria; Trump Threatens Government Shutdown Over Wall Funding. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired December 20, 2018 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:03]

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hour two now. I am Pamela Brown, in for Brooke Baldwin.

Chaos on Capitol Hill, where the threat of a government shutdown is growing after President Trump told House Republicans this:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The president informed us he will not sign the bill that came over from the Senate last evening because of his legitimate concerns for border security.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: So, now lawmakers are back at square one. After securing what Republicans in both chambers thought was a done deal just 24 hours ago, House leaders say they will add the president's original $5 billion request for wall funding into a revised bill.

But there's one big unknown: Will a new bill even pass Congress? Right now, we're waiting to see the president at a bill signing, where he could take some questions about all of this.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also in the room there.

CNN is covering all the angles for you.

CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta is at the White House. And CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju is on the Hill.

So, Manu, bring us up to speed on where the negotiation stand right now.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Republicans are trying to move forward with a bill that would keep the government open past Friday and satisfy President Trump's demands by adding $5 billion for funding for border security, including the president's wall.

And they're trying to entice some members to vote for this proposal by adding money for disaster relief as well. They're not sure they have the votes to pass the House for a variety of reasons. Some Republicans are planning to vote against this, including Carlos Curbelo, who was defeated in his race, who told me just moments ago he would vote against this.

There are number of members who are not around. Roughly 40 or so have missed the last vote series. Several others I just talked to are on their way out of the airport as we speak. So, getting the votes out of the House is a big question.

But even, Pam, if they were to get this out of the House, the chances of passing the Senate are zero. There is no chance this gets approved by the United States Senate. And most senators, virtually all of them, are gone because they thought the president was going to sign this short-term deal to keep the government open past -- up until February 8.

Susan Collins, this Maine Republican, just told our colleague Ted Barrett, she said, "Ugh, are you trying to ruin my life?" after she was informed that the president was not going to sign this bill. She was on her way to the airport. But other senators have left.

One senator described it as a ghost town over there. So that means the only vehicle really to keep the government open past Friday is that clean spending bill to keep it open past February 8. That is if the president signs it, and already saying no. So does he change his mind, leading to a lot, a lot of uncertainty on Capitol Hill and a very increased likelihood of a shutdown, a partial government shutdown at the end of the day tomorrow.

BROWN: All right, so, Jim, on that note, why the change of heart from the president?

Last week, of course, he said he'd be willing to shut down the government over the wall. Then the White House signaled that the president was sign this. Now he's back to where he was last week. What's going on?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Pam, it sounds like the president was not hearing a whole lot of holiday cheer from members of his base.

There are members of the conservative movement, whether they were on social media or on the radio or on a conservative television outlet, they were all giving the president a very hard time. He was also hearing from House members, like members of the House Freedom Caucus, who were saying that, Mr. President, don't back down on this wall.

And it seems all of that collectively has forced the president to change his mind on all this. And, as you mentioned, Pam, in just a few moments, the president is going to be making some remarks as he signs this farm bill over here at the White House.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who thought he had a deal last night, as Manu was saying, is going to be over here. So I would expect that there's probably some kind of conversation going on between those two men about what's going to happen next. But I will tell you, having talked to a senior administration official earlier this morning, Pam, the Office of Management and Budget, which is always involved in these shutdowns, notified agencies earlier this morning to notify their employees whether or not they fit into the category of being furloughed or accepted in the event of a lapse in funding, a government shutdown.

And so the mechanics of a government shutdown are starting to grind into motion. And the question is whether or not they can avert all of this just five or so days before Christmas.

One thing we should note, Pam, is that it is 82 degrees and partly cloudy down at Palm Beach in Florida, where the president's resort Mar-a-Lago is located. I think one of the big questions for this president is, does he want to delay his departure down to Mar-a-Lago to deal with the government shutdown, one that he told the Democratic leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, he would own if this government shuts down?

And so the president at this point, who doesn't play a whole lot of three-dimensional chess when it comes to politics in this city, he likes to tweet and then see what happens next, is going to have to determine just whether not he wants to take this government shutdown to fruition, all for this wall that he's been telling his voters, telling his base for sometime now that he's going to deliver on.

[15:05:09]

And it seems like the White House isn't giving a direct answer on whether the president is willing to delay his trip over a government shutdown.

BROWN: All right, Jim Acosta, Manu Raju, you thank you very much.

And joining me now is former Republican Congressman and CNN political commentator Charlie Dent.

Here's the first question. Bottom line, what are your former colleagues thinking right now?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, this is simply insanity. Bottom line is this. It shouldn't be so hard.

There are 12 appropriations bills. Five of them have been signed into law, one of which I worked on when I was there, military construction, VA. Those are law. It's the other seven.

Six of them are teed up and ready to go. There's one, the Homeland Security appropriations bill, with -- that has the so-called border funding wall funding. That's what the hangup is. They should simply pass the six appropriation bills as is and then do a continuing resolution for the Homeland Security bill into the new year.

That's the easiest way out. But the president has to get his head right on this. He can't, on the one hand, say two days ago that he wants -- he will take $1.6 billion, and now today saying he wants $5 billion.

We have been through this before. Remember, back in March, Congress passed an omnibus bill, which we negotiated at the time with the president and the Democrats in the House and the Senate. Everything was agreed to, passed, and he said he was going to veto it, after he got everything he wanted. Then he ended up signing it.

But the problem is, the president's very mercurial, and he's going to own this shutdown. The party that is making the demand on the policy issue, in this case $5 billion for the wall, that's the party that's going to own the shutdown, plain and simple.

Merry Christmas in Washington.

BROWN: So what would the political fallout be then for the president and for Republicans if the shutdown does happen? Because it seems like members of the president's base wouldn't mind it, wouldn't mind if the government shutdown when it comes to the border wall funding.

DENT: Well, yes, I'm sure the hardest elements of the Republican base will be just fine with a partial government shutdown. The problem is, it's the broader American public that may not be so happy about a shutdown. We have been through this before in 2013. Remember, we were going to shut down the government over defending Obamacare.

Republicans owned that shutdown. Their numbers tanked. Democrats more or less in the Senate owned the shutdown when they wanted to tie DACA to spending bill. The Senate Democrats kind of took it on the chin on that one.

So this is going to be very bad for Republicans. And, truthfully, it's only going to get tougher in the new year, once Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats take over in the House. They're less likely to get what they want.

And the president has also made some other absurd claims, saying that the Defense Department's going to be able to build this wall. They can't build the wall. They only have jurisdiction on about 37 miles of the southern border at the Goldwater Range. That's it. They can't.

So I don't know where the president's coming from on this. He's going to own the shutdown. And, frankly, he needs Democratic votes to pass whatever's going to happen. Even if they get this bill out with $5 billion out of the House today or tomorrow, it goes to the Senate, and it will never pass the Senate.

So I'm not sure what the point is here. They're going to their heads...

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: I was going to ask you. Manu Raju laid it out. He said there's zero chance it would pass in the Senate.

So sort of what is the plan B? Say the government is shut down, the president doesn't sign the C.R. What would happen next?

DENT: Well, what I believe would happen is, there would be a partial shutdown, so certain aspects of the government would be closed.

And I don't see a real resolution for this, if the president doesn't get off this position. I don't see a resolution to this until the Democrats come in and take over the House. Then the first thing they will do is probably pass a continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels.

That is what will happen, in all likelihood. So it could be a miserable Christmas.

BROWN: So then these next few hours really are President Trump's last chance for wall funding, unless he gets reelected.

Do you think that is why these next 30 hours are so critical?

DENT: Yes.

I mean, the president realizes he is not going to get a better deal for his so-called wall with the House controlled by Democrats. He knows, if he's going to have any shot at getting close to $5 billion, he needs to do it now. But he's failing to recognize a basic reality. He needs 60 votes in the U.S. Senate to pass this.

And from what I can tell, the Senate Democrats are not going to budge. They're not going to provide votes for something close to $5 billion. It sounds like they're ready to go at $1.6 billion for various border security measures, but they're not going to go to five.

And so I think if the president doesn't move off this position, there will be a shutdown. And it will only end when the president backs off. And I just don't -- I don't know. And your guess is as good as mine as what's going through the president's head right now and if when he is capable of actually coming to a position that can actually pass both chambers.

[15:10:10]

BROWN: And you wonder, when he said last March, he said never again -- he was upset about having to sign the omnibus.

Do you think that that has sort of come back to haunt him this time around?

DENT: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

He -- the president of the United States should never make a statement like that, because he will always have to sign an omnibus bill. And in that case, the president negotiated -- or I should say his administration, his people negotiated that bill.

His secretary of defense, James Mattis, got everything he wanted in that bill, $700 billion. And then the president said he was going to veto the bill because he didn't like some of the other spending? Well, he got that because of his demand on defense. But he agreed to it.

So then to say that you would not sign another omnibus, I mean, it just defies -- you just don't have the words to explain this. I would rather not do an omnibus either, but the Congress, particularly the Senate, is incapable of passing these bills one-off. You would have to pass all 12 of them individually. But that's not likely to happen.

So, of course the president has to deal with omnibuses. And it was a reckless statement. He signed an omnibus back a few months ago, the five bills that came through, if you call that an omnibus. He signed that. I didn't hear any declarations that he would never sign another one at that time.

BROWN: All right.

Well, the president is getting ready to sign the farm bill. We're watching, monitoring to see if he makes any other statements about the government shutdown. So we will have to wait and see.

Congressman Dent, stay close. Thank you so much for providing your perspective.

DENT: Yes. Will do.

BROWN: And up next: President Trump and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham in a very public war of words over the decision to pull troops out of Syria.

We're watching live pictures at the White House, where, any moment now, as I pointed out, the president may address this chaos at that bill signing event.

Plus, the homeland security secretary getting an earful from lawmakers, after the Trump administration announces a major policy change for migrants seeking asylum. What will happen to them now as they wait for their day in court?

And then later, a conservative who had one said she had blind loyalty to President Trump now says his presidency is a joke, and it's all because of the border wall battle.

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[15:16:38]

BROWN: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham ramping up the growing GOP criticism of President Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, and voicing concern for U.S. allies the Kurds.

Here he was this morning on CNN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Most of the fighting to destroy ISIS in Syria has been done with the Kurds. So 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?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Trump tweeting moments ago in response: "So hard to believe that Lindsey Graham would be against saving soldier lives and billions of dollars. Why are we fighting for our enemy Syria by staying and killing ISIS for them, Russia, Iran and other locals? Time to focus on our country and bring our youth back home, where they belong."

So there is a lot to digest with this story.

And joining me now to discuss, Aaron David Miller. He is the Middle East program director at The Wilson Center and a CNN global affairs analyst. And we also have CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon, who has done extensive reporting in Syria.

Arwa, on that note, I want to go straight to you first.

Washington wasn't only caught off-guard, but so were our key allies, the U.S.' key allies. What are you hearing from your sources in that region?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this really sent shockwaves and quite a bit of surprise to just about anyone when they first heard the news.

And that even includes U.S. military units who are on the ground inside Syria. It seems as if just about no one had any advanced warning. Key allies in Syria, such as the Brits and the French, also were caught off-guard. And now we're beginning to see various different reactions coming in from different countries.

The French and the Brits are saying they're not going to withdraw their forces from Syria at this stage, recognizing that ISIS still does pose a major threat. Turkey has welcomed this development, however. It will be able to observe even more influence inside Syria without America acting as a protector of the Kurds.

And, of course, the Iranians and the Russians are really hailing this as being a great decision. It serves their interests as well.

BROWN: OK.

So, on that note, Aaron, critics are saying this emboldens Iran and Russia. The president's says Russia, Iran and others aren't happy about this decision because now they will have to fight ISIS, even though he said yesterday ISIS was defeated.

What do you think? AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Look, the Russians

and the Iranians and the Assad regime, and the Turks, frankly -- I think Arwa is right -- are going to benefit from this.

But the notion that somehow the who lost Syria debate is going to be pinned on the Trump administration to me makes no sense. Over the course of the last three years, we have seen three powers, three core powers take the lead in dominating the future of Syria, Turkey, Russia and Iran.

We have never during the Obama administration or the Trump administration had the will or the skill or the determination to commit the resources on the ground necessary to seriously challenge any of those parties.

And, as a consequence of this, the fact that everybody is surprised by this -- I understand that the tweet and the way it was done is surprising -- but s policy under the Trump administration has been living, Pam, on borrowed time.

[15:20:03]

We have seen the movie twice before, when the president has indicated a strong desire to withdraw American forces. And just like the withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement or recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel, he's been wanting to do these things over the last 18 months.

And he remains in the agreement until he's not in the agreement. And we're in Syria until we're not in Syria.

One final point. I'm not entirely persuaded that we are going to withdraw. I think the Pentagon will slow-roll this, to the degree that they can. And it may well be that, like the previous two times, we don't see a full and rapid withdrawal from Syria, that this is slow-rolled and we're talking about a decision that could still be months away.

And I think the Pentagon probably will work toward that end, if they can.

BROWN: Yes. And it's interesting, because Secretary Mattis, Bolton, Pompeo, our reporting indicates they were all against this decision.

And the White House really couldn't give reporters any answers on how many soldiers have returned, how many will return, what's the time frame? So there are a lot of unanswered questions on how this is going to play out.

But, Arwa, I want to go back to what Senator Graham pointed out. He mentioned the Kurds. What happens to them once the U.S. withdraws?

DAMON: And that really is one of the key issues here. And the Kurds do potentially stand to be the losers in all of this.

And there's a couple of repercussions to this decision that may not necessarily have been all that anticipated. Look, first of all, the Kurds historically have been abandoned by the U.S., whether it's in the Iraqi or the Syrian battlefields.

But, that aside, the Kurds have also learned from that history. And they do have the option of reaching out to other allies. And that could be the Syrian regime. They could possibly end up striking some sort of deal with the Syrian regime. They could then turn to the Russians and even the Iranians to form some sort of an allegiance, so that they can hold on to the territory that they have gained.

Now, that might end up serving their own interests, but might not necessarily play into America's interest at this stage, because the Kurds really do need to protect themselves from Turkey. Turkey has repeatedly threatened the Syrian Kurds because they view them as being a terrorist organization.

And Turkey is not going to hesitate, once the U.S. is gone from the Syrian arena, to move in and push the Kurds out of key territory that they control in Syria.

BROWN: And that has been part of the tension between Turkey and the U.S. over the Kurds and the different viewpoints.

All right, Arwa Damon, Aaron David Miller, thank you so much.

And up next: tense moments on Capitol Hill, as the homeland security secretary gets grilled over a new migrant policy. See what happened right before one Democrat walked out of this hearing.

And we will go live to the White House, where any moment now the president may take questions on a potential government shutdown.

A lot happening today. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:28:42]

BROWN: New today, a major change in the Trump administration policy on asylum-seekers trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

They will now be forced to wait in Mexico until their immigration case is heard before an American judge.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defending that new policy on Capitol Hill and facing significant pushback from Democratic lawmakers.

Here's a fiery exchange between Nielsen and Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. 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.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The time of the gentleman has expired.

If the secretary would care to respond to any of that.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Only then to say that calling me a liar are fighting words. I'm not a liar. We have never had a policy for family separation.

I'm happy to walk the gentleman through it again. 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 we prosecuted those who choose to come here illegally.

As far as not being compassionate, let me just tell you what I have done. And, of course, he couldn't be bothered to stay. So I'm happy to tell the rest of the committee.

What we have done is we have worked extensively with the Northern Triangle countries to find ways to help vulnerable populations as soon in their journey as possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: So, Nielsen also gained a warning from the incoming chairman of that House Judiciary Committee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Members of the committee have written dozens of letters to you, many of which have received little or no substantive response.

As we move into the next Congress, I want to put you and the department on notice. The time for accountability has arrived.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: All right, I want to bring in CNN's Leyla Santiago, who traveled with the recent caravan of migrants moving toward the border.

And, Leyla, this new Trump policy, what does it mean for people trying to seek asylum? And how is Mexico responding?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Mexico put out a press release saying that, at 8:00 in the morning, they received notification from the U.S. that they were moving forward with this new policy.

So, I'm not sure that they really had much of a dialogue before this -- this came out.