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Trump to Meet Senators Prior to Vote to Avoid Government Shutdown; Trump Urges Mitch McConnell to Use Nuclear Option on Votes; Mattis Quits After Trump Decides to Pull U.S. Troops from Syria; Trump Wants to Reduce Troops in Afghanistan Which Lindsey Graham Says Could Lead to Another 9/11; Interview with Rep. Lee Zeldin. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 21, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: It really hits home. It's a big gift.

Quickly, 10 seconds left, have other CEOs reached out to you about this? Might they do it, too?

LEE SCHOENHERR, CEO, FLORACRAFT: No, I haven't heard anything from other CEOs.

HARLOW: All right. Well, maybe, maybe they should take a page out of your book on this.

I'm really happy for all of your employees, Lee. Definitely Santa Claus to them this holiday season. So thanks. Thanks for passing it along, and thanks for being with me.

SCHOENHERR: All right. Thank you for having me.

HARLOW: Of course. Happy holidays.

Thank you all for being with me today. I'm Poppy Harlow. I wish you a great holiday. I'll see you in a week.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

A sign of the times. Unless something dramatic happens, the government is about to shut down by the end of the day, and that's not the only crisis facing the White House right now. Not even close.

The secretary of defense, seen as the last adult in the room, abruptly resigning after the president rejected his advice and decided to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria. In his resignation letter, Secretary Mattis spelling out his world views this way: "My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed are strongly held." And in a direct rebuke of the president, Mattis adds this: "You have a right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours."

So what will the president's reaction be to this stunning rejection today? We may soon find out. The president will be facing cameras for the first time since Mattis' shocking announcement any minute now. Will he address this? Will he address the other crisis, the fast- approaching government shutdown to hit tonight? We'll bring you his remarks when they happen.

CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House watching all of this along with us.

Abby, President Trump is set to be meeting with Senate Republicans right now. What are you hearing?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, this hastily called meeting is supposed to be happening as we speak, although it's not clear exactly if they started on time. We saw Mitch McConnell coming in around 10:30. But we did hear reports, according to our Ted Barrett on Capitol Hill, that some Senators and their staff were having trouble getting into the compound because they didn't have enough time for the Secret Service to clear them into the building. That just goes to show just how quickly all of this is unfolding. President Trump is trying to get Republican Senators on the same page as him about the plan to move forward. They passed a bill earlier this week that did not have border funding in it. And now President Trump is demanding that any bill that comes to his desk has that money. The problem is, he may not have enough votes to pass it. Not only will he need 60 votes, which includes some Democrats, to pass it by the end of the day, but he would also need Republicans to be onboard. This could be an effort for President Trump to really convince his own soldiers to get onboard with this plan.

Meanwhile, President Trump is also pressuring Mitch McConnell to end the filibuster. He's saying this in a tweet this morning: "Mitch, use the nuclear option and get it done. Our country is counting on you."

Again, Kate, this is something President Trump has been talking about for so long. Mitch McConnell keeps batting it down. But even if he got rid of the nuclear option, are there 50 votes to pass this in the Senate? We don't really know yet. But the fact this meeting is happening is a sign the White House feels there's more work to be done.

President Trump was supposed to leave this afternoon for Florida, for a 16-day vacation. The White House has said that if the government shuts down, he's not going to go. That being said, President Trump has already predicted that if there's a government shutdown, he says it's going to last for a long time.

There's a lot of pessimism in the air right now, Kate, but we'll find out more about what happens once the meeting is over shortly.

BOLDUAN: No kidding. And if it is even started. First and foremost, Mitch McConnell, we need to get you through security and into the Oval Office. We'll see. We'll watch it play out.

Abby, thank you so much.

So with just hours until the shutdown, and critical votes about to start in the Senate, President Trump wants Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to use the nuclear option when it comes to votes. What is happening?

CNN's Manu Raju is following all of this from Capitol Hill.

Manu, what are you hearing now about the status of things?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Republican Senators are trying to convince the president to go back to the initial position that they had earlier this week when they voted overwhelmingly by voice vote to keep the government open until February 8th, punting that fight over the wall into the new Congress. They left town, most of them did, after Wednesday, believing that the president was going to sign that into law. But when the president yesterday had a change of heart, decided to dig in and told his colleagues that he would not support any measure or sign any measure that does not include his wall money, that put things into serious, serious flux, as Republican Senators are trying to figure out what to do next.

After the House passed the bill last night, the Senate will probably take up this afternoon that bill or try to take it up, but the problem is there aren't the votes to advance that measure. If it doesn't fail on the first procedural vote, it's definitely going to fail on the second procedural vote when they'll need 60 votes to break a Democratic filibuster. That's where the president is now coming in saying, well, why not use what's known as the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster and make it 50 votes to overcome the filibuster. Here's another problem, Republican after Republican are coming out strongly opposing that idea, Lamar Alexander, Orrin Hatch, Jeff Flake. Even if Mitch McConnell were to go that route, which he opposes, he wouldn't have the votes to change the rules.

[11:05:39] All this points to the fact there really is no strategy at the moment to avert a shutdown. And Republicans hope that at this meeting they can convince the president to back off and endorse some short-term measure to keep the government open. Otherwise, we could be staring at a shutdown at the end of the day. And Chuck Schumer moments ago, Kate, tweeted this, that, "You own the shutdown. Your own words, Donald Trump. The Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan solution to avoid a shutdown. Then you threw another temper tantrum and convinced the House to ignore that compromise."

So it looks like things are no closer than they were last night -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Regardless of tweets flying back and forth, you own it, no, you own it, the fact of the matter if the votes aren't there, the votes aren't there. And that is, as you said, plain and simple reality that the Republicans and the president are talking about or need to be talking about right now.

Manu, stick close. Long day for you. We'll get back to you. I really appreciate it.

Joining me now to discuss this and the state of play and crisis on, I don't know how many fronts now, CNN political director, David Chalian.

David, let's talk about where I was just discussing with Manu, the number-two Republican in the Senate this morning, he retweeted an excellent point by the "Washington Post," Paul Cane (ph), which was also the excellent point by Manu Raju. Paul Cane (ph) writes this, "To be clear, going nuclear in the Senate isn't something McConnell could do alone. He would need at least 50 of 51 GOP Senators. The votes aren't there." John Cornyn retweeted that. Is that everything that the president needs to know about this one?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: John Cornyn's job is to count the votes in the Republican conference. That's his actual job as the number two. And yes, he's there retweeting, affirming -- I know sometimes people say retweets don't equal endorsements -- but the guy who counts the votes is affirming the facts the votes aren't there. Donald Trump knows this. As you're saying, the votes aren't there, so you can do the blame game all you want, but without the votes, you actually need to get some sort of compromise in place in order to keep the government open.

BOLDUAN: Yes. And I mean, can we -- I just want to play out a little bit if I could in summary of what's happened this week. The president gives on the border wall, and he faces backlash from conservatives. He then makes this surprise announcement about pulling troops out of Syria, and he faces huge backlash from that. Maybe the most huge of that would be Mattis resigning. So then he goes back to the border wall. And now he's not only facing a shutdown, he has his defense secretary resigning. All these two crises, of the president's own making, are they connected.

CHALIAN: Good question. They're certainly of his own making, but they're both in pursuit of policies that he long campaigned on and told us about. He's informed the country for years, right, he wants that border wall, no matter what, he wants it. He told us Mexico would pay for it. Now he's fighting for the U.S. Treasury to pay for it first, taxpayers, and then maybe get reimbursed down the road, even though Mexico said it's not happening. And on Syria, he said his plan is to pull troops out. He doesn't want to be involved in the Middle East, in the areas of the world where U.S. troops are that other presidents have had there. He's made that clear.

But in the way in which he's gone about pursuing these two policies of his, he has been all over the map, as you indicate. You said he gave on the wall first. He certainly indicated enough for Mike Pence to give the impression to all the Republican Senators up there, he was going to sign a government funding bill and live to fight the wall fight another day. He had indicated that perhaps there was, you know, last spring there was a moment with Syria, and he indicated perhaps there's a different way to go about this. Now he just tweeted it out. He's doing this in defiance of his secretary of defense, who clearly now resigned in protest.

It's the manner in which he's going about the policies that seems to upend the world around him.

BOLDUAN: In the politics of a shutdown, we have seen this before. Insert different issue. A balanced budget agreement or Obamacare, we have seen this under other presidents and other Congresses. The politics over the Syria decision we haven't seen necessarily. I haven't heard a Republican that's backing him on this. I mean, who is then he trying to keep happy?

[11:09:58] CHALIAN: Well, I think he believes, and he may have some -- you know, there may be some truth to this, that it is a potentially popular position with the American people to bring troops home. To not have them involved in somebody else's civil war or somebody else's mess. He tapped into a vein of support across the country with that kind of world view, Kate, so I do think he sees some appeal there to voters. But you are right, you don't hear any support for the way in which he's done this and the policy announced from Republicans. And to now have -- and this is what is so different. Mattis' resignation and protest, it's not just about Syria, Kate. This is about America, and President Trump's world view that General Mattis can no longer support after four decades of service.

BOLDUAN: And I think -- I mean, we have been saying it since it came out, but the fact that Jim Mattis, who is not a blowhard, he would come out with that rebuke in that letter so publicly, it's a huge statement. He was long seen as a central figure, if you will, in kind of the narrative of an axis of adults around the president. The keepers from chaos that were kind of keeping the president from his most extreme impulses. Now, Mattis is out. And he was seen at the last one there. Is the president without guardrails?

CHALIAN: It seems to be he is. Or at least the guardrails that many Republicans inside the administration, as you know, and on Capitol Hill, had been relying upon. And so he is without those guardrails now. He probably is a bit more untethered in many ways. And that is why you hear more concern now from Republicans than we have heard in, you know, in the entirety of the two years of his presidency thus far.

BOLDUAN: Bad headlines is one thing, and one thing the president has seen a lot of in two years, but what is the impact of real decisions like this in Syria, potentially, in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis saying I can no longer be here. We'll see.

Great to see you, David. I really appreciate it.

CHALIAN: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

With all of this, we're keeping a close eye on the White House where any moment we could hear from the president. President Trump is supposed to be meeting with Republicans. He also has a bill signing that's supposed to be happening. Timing is, as always, TBD. We'll bring that to you when it begins.

Plus, it's not just Syria. Secretary Mattis is also fuming over the president's desire to cut troop levels in Afghanistan as well. I just returned from Afghanistan, following Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Why Graham now says pulling out of Afghanistan right now could lead to another 9/11. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:16:53] BOLDUAN: Just a day after the shocking announcement that President Trump is pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria, CNN learned the president also wants to see plans to withdraw about half of the almost 14,000 U.S. troops serving right now in Afghanistan. A premature withdrawal of troops there's one of Senator Lindsey Graham's biggest fears.

This week, I traveled to Afghanistan with Senator Graham. And he had a very clear goal, thank the troops, of course, and also make the case to President Trump that, after 17 years, a secure Afghanistan insures a more secure United States. And Graham isn't pulling any punches, colorful language and all.


BOLDUAN (voice-over): Senator Lindsey Graham is on a mission. A mission to connect with the troops but also a mission to convince a president that, after 17 years, Afghanistan is still a fight worth fighting.

(voice-over): You have been here so many times. Why come back this time? What's this visit about?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, I always come back as much as I can. One, if you're sending people over here to fight for your country, you at least owe it to them to kind of check in on them.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): We had exclusive access to follow Graham on a whirlwind tour.

He's been to the region more than 40 times but this marks his first trip back to Afghanistan without his closest friend and confidante.

GRAHAM: This is the first trip without John McCain. This is a tough one. Just think there a minute ago how many times I have been there, but just almost all the time with John. And the president's going to make some decisions about Afghanistan soon. I hope he makes good ones.

BOLDUAN: From Kabul to Kandahar, his message to the troops -- we've got your back.

GRAHAM: How long have you been here.


BOLDUAN: But Graham doesn't seem so sure President Trump feels the same way. For one, the commander-in-chief has yet to visit any combat zone.


BOLDUAN: Including where the fight against al Qaeda after 9/11 began. GRAHAM: I would hope the president would come over here. I know he

loves the military. I would advise him to come over here and say thank you. Sit down with the president and the Afghan partners and tell them what you would like them to do better. Understand Afghanistan being in Afghanistan is a completely different experience than talking about it in Washington.

BOLDUAN: And by being in Afghanistan this time, the Senator says he received critical status updates from the top Afghan commando.

GRAHAM: A good outcome in Afghanistan is important to the United States.

BOLDUAN: And also the top American commander of U.S. and NATO forces there. Both saying ISIS is on the rise.

GRAHAM: The ISIS threat in Afghanistan is far greater than I thought it was. If you get a peace agreement tomorrow between the Taliban and the Afghan government, that will not solve the threat to our homeland.

BOLDUAN: Yet, President Trump has made no secret he has little interest in committing U.S. troops to conflicts overseas. Look no further than his announcement to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now we have won. It's time to come back.

BOLDUAN: Even before that announcement, this was Graham's greatest fear about Afghanistan.

GRAHAM: The bad news, if we leave this place, it will go to shit in a year.

BOLDUAN (on camera): Seriously?

[11:20:07] GRAHAM: If we pull out, if we go to zero, this place will fall apart very quickly, and we'll regret that decision at home. The people that were holding it at bay over here want to hit us again at home. People understand these soldiers you see around and you have talked to, they're a virtual wall against radical Islam coming to America.

BOLDUAN: What do you say to a president who ran on we're not the policemen of the world?

GRAHAM: I know what you're being told, President Trump, about what will happen in Afghanistan. Here's the difference. This is the center of gravity. This is the place where it all started. If we're driven out of Afghanistan, if America is beaten after having spent all these years and this much blood and treasure, every jihadist throughout the world will be on steroids.

BOLDUAN: What would happen if President Trump decides to pull everybody out tomorrow?

GRAHAM: You need to ask that question to our military leadership. I have asked that question. And they have given me a very blunt answer. This place would fall apart. We could, if we make the same decision we did in Iraq, leave too soon, set in motion chaos that would make Iraq look like a walk in the park. And I think one of the most likely outcomes would be a second 9/11 coming our way.


BOLDUAN: All of this, remember the timing. Lindsey Graham told me all of this before President Trump announced he was withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria and said that he is doing so because ISIS was defeated. And before CNN reported the military is being told to draw up plans to cut U.S. troops in Afghanistan by half. One of the experts, if you will, Graham is relying on, is a top U.S. commander in Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO forces, General Scott Miller. We'll have my exclusive interview with him and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, for you next week. Their assessment and outlook on where things stand even more important today.

We have that. But also we're keeping our eye on the White House. Any moment now, we could hear from President Trump amid the most chaotic of chaotic weeks. And that's saying a lot these days. If he starts talking during the break, we'll come recognize back and bring it to you. Stand by.


[11:27:03] BOLDUAN: We are watching the clock and the nation's capital because, unless something gives between now and midnight, parks and federal government will be running out of money and shutting down.

President Trump tweeting just a short time ago, the following: "The Democrats now own the shutdown."

But I think we're all old enough to remember that the president saying this is actually all on him.




TRUMP: I'll tell you what. I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.

I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it.


BOLDUAN: That's correct. That was literally 10 days ago. Example 459,000 at this point that the president often does not say what he means or means what he says. Which leaves everyone else wondering if they can trust anything that's coming out of his mouth.

Joining me right now, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin, of New York. He's a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thank you for coming in.

REP. LEE ZELDIN, (R),, NEW YORK: Happy to.

BOLDUAN: Do you think the government is going to shut down?

ZELDIN: We'll see. I mean, the House passed a bill that's over in the Senate. We'll see what the move is here on the Senate side over the course of the next couple hours. But being able to answer that question, maybe a couple hours from now, I could give you a more concrete answer. I don't know what the next move is going to be.

BOLDUAN: What you say is maybe the most important statement, it is that tenuous of a situation, it's changing really minute by minute.

ZELDIN: Yes, sure. So you have a House-passed bill that Senate Schumer says is dead on arrival in the Senate. You have a Senate- passed bill that the president is saying is dead on arrival in the White House. So I think what is most important is for, whether you're a Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, the White House, a member of Congress, leadership, rank and file, now is time to talk, to compromise, to reach an agreement, to keep the government open, and to find a way for the government not only to stay open but for Republicans and Democrats to all be able to vote for it.

Listen, you're not going to be able to get a unanimous vote. You don't need one. You need 60 votes in the Senate. If people are just staying in their corners and talking to their base, not talking to each other, we'll have a partial government shutdown at midnight.

BOLDUAN: To that point, I have seen -- I think it was on Twitter -- you criticizing Democrats for holding out for 100 percent of their demands. Where things stand, isn't that what Republicans are doing as well?

ZELDIN: I'm willing to compromise. I'm willing to vote for different versions of legislation, whether we're talking about funding the government, whether we're talking about immigration, talking about health care. I think that's the attitude that my constituents back home want. I think that's what Americans all across the country want. It's not about getting 100 percent of what you want. But --


BOLDUAN: In the absence of that, we were talking about, would you be more in favor of punting, right, a continuing resolution of exactly the funding as is to have that debate later on?

ZELDIN: No, there's too much punting that goes on here in the capital. I have just finished up my fourth year here in Congress.