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AT THIS HOUR

Interview with Rep. Lee Zeldin; Interview with James Clapper on Mattis Resignation; Military Official: Mattis Letter a "Dog Whistle," Officers Should Resign If Don't Agree with President; Acting A.G. Whitaker Bucks DOJ Ethics Officials, Refuses to Recuse from Russia Investigation; How the Trump/Mattis Relationship Fell Apart. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired December 21, 2018 - 11:30   ET

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


[11:30:00] REP. LEE ZELDIN, (R), NEW YORK: No, there's too much punting that goes on here in the capital.

(CROSSTALK)

ZELDIN: I have just finished up my fourth year here in Congress. When you're talking about these really important issues that impact us today, or maybe more importantly, my daughters, they're 12-year-old, their entire generation, punting it for them to have to deal with many years from now. I think we are elected with a responsibility to take tough votes, tackle tough challenges today. There's too much punting. By the way, sometimes the punting happens on third down where we don't even engage in a conversation to try to work things out. So, no, I think the tough work is for us to be here, talking to each other, and working through these issues.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: I want to ask you about Secretary Mattis. You applauded him as a warrior. What does it say that he says he can't work with the president anymore because their views don't align and we know that the president is rejecting his advice?

ZELDIN: So Secretary Mattis, decades of amazing service to our country, to his core. The man bleeds red, white, and blue. He's going to be sorely missed. The good news about our great country -- and this has happened through the generations -- and I know right now, I'm still in the Army right now as a reservist -- there are a lot of great generals, admirals, sometimes secretary of defense appointments don't even have that level of military experience. And they come on. So I'm confident that there's -- that there are a whole lot of great candidates to pick to be the next secretary of defense. Whoever the next president is for them to pick one. So there's a difference of opinion. There should be good chemistry between the secretary of defense and the president.

The secretary of defense makes recommendations, sometimes will make strong recommendations to the president of the United States. But the president, whoever it is at that time, decides, makes the call on whether or not to take that recommendation. And decisions made by Secretary Mattis to move on. Hopefully, we get the right secretary in next who has many of the great leadership traits of Secretary/General James Mattis. But you know, I do agree there needs to be good chemistry. And I don't know all of the exchanges that have taken place over the course of the last couple years between the two, but obviously, there's a pretty strong difference of opinion on some of the issues that matter most, and that's important.

BOLDUAN: I mean, I just got back from Afghanistan, and this is a man, Mattis, who is revered by so many in the military. I met a pilot on his sixth deployment. He had a picture of Mattis hanging in the flight deck because he told me that it brought him comfort, being away from his family, knowing that Mattis was in charge. What message does this send to him?

ZELDIN: Yes, well, again, there are a lot of amazing generals, great leaders in the military, and that's why it's really important to have an exceptional nomination and exceptional replacement for Secretary Mattis. Because, as you point out, there are men and women all throughout the ranks, many in harm's way, some might be on their tenth deployment, who want to know that everyone all the way up the chain of command has their back. The good thing about the reputation, the legacy of James Mattis, is that you can be a private, you can be a junior officer in harm's way, and you know all the way up to the top of the food chain at the highest levels of the Pentagon that you have a secretary who had your back. And that's why you need --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: And with that, and Mattis in doing that. He was vehemently against the decision that the president then announced. He was vehemently against the decision to pull troops out of Syria. Do you agree with the president on that decision?

ZELDIN: As far as Syria goes, I believe two things are really important that may have been missing here. One is, from my understanding, from past briefings, that we have counterparts, Russia is one of them, engaged in Syria where, if we are willing to make the move of taking all of our troops out of Syria, that's a major strategic operational tactical decision for those 2,000 troops to be leaving, that we should be getting something for that. Now, I have not yet been briefed on being wrong in my assumption that we did not get anything in return for pulling those 2,000 troops. I would love to be wrong. But my understanding is that we just made a decision to pull them out.

Secondly is that you don't want that vacuum to be filled by aggressive adversaries' threats to the United States. You don't want --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: So what you know right now, is this a good decision? ZELDIN: Well, no, these are the two reasons why I have an issue with

the decision that was made. And that second part being I don't want to read a few weeks after those troops pull out of the Turks coming in and wiping out Kurds. I don't want to see stories of ISIS filling that void and returning to their bad tactics of the past. Whether it's local governance, the Kurds, it's a coalition force, my second point that I'm concerned about is that I'm not seeing a transition that I would want to see in Syria.

BOLDUAN: And that's just one area that we need to be talking about today.

Congressman, thank you for your time. I appreciate it.

ZELDIN: Thank you, Kate.

[11:35:00] BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, President Trump is going to be speaking from the White House. Will he respond to Secretary Mattis? Will he bend on the border wall? And what does this chaos mean for everyone not in Washington, everyone outside of Washington? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:39:50] BOLDUAN: The abrupt resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis is sending shockwaves through the country and around the world, quite frankly. Now CNN is reporting a military official, who regularly talks to Mattis, called the letter of resignation a, quote, "dog whistle" to anyone in uniform, but particularly through the general officer corps, that they should resign if they have if they have issues with President Trump's policies. So what does that now mean for the U.S. military?

Joining me now, the former director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Director, it's great to have you here. Thanks for coming in.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Your reaction last night to the news of Mattis' resignation was that the country is less safe without Jim Mattis. Why is that the case?

CLAPPER: Well, I think Dan Coats' release, public release, in which he characterized Jim Mattis as a national treasure kind of says it all. Jim is unique. Somebody will follow him, but I think it's going to be very difficult to replace him. The country has been blessed for two years to have him in that position.

I found his letter stunning, but not surprising. I'm not an intimate of his, but I knew from the get-go this wouldn't last and, at some point, because Jim Mattis is a very principled man, that he would have to leave. BOLDUAN: And I just had a Republican Congressman on, Director, who

said there are a lot of -- the good news is there are a lot of great generals, a lot of people who can serve and be a great secretary after Mattis, and who should hold up the ideals and leadership qualities of Mattis. But after reading Mattis' resignation letter, I wonder who you see taking the jobs, because whose views are going to more align with the president, who is akin to a Mattis?

CLAPPER: That's exactly the point. And you know, the typical Beltway game here of speculating on who might replace him has obviously already started. But my concern, and I think the fear of a lot of people, is that we'll end up with an echo chamber for the president, who does not like dissent, apparently. He wants complete compliance. And that is not a good -- not a healthy thing. And I think Jim, of course, provided -- who has a completely different set of values and different world view, provided that contrarian view, which is extremely important. And I fear that, yes, there are a lot of great people, but I'm not sure who would want to take this on unless they're going to be an echo chamber for the president.

BOLDUAN: And what Mattis said in his resignation was jarring enough. Why do you think that what the letter doesn't say is just as important?

CLAPPER: Well, it was very compelling letter, both by what it did say - it was a tactful and classy rebuke of the president, was respectful and all that. It omitted, at the end, the typical line about what an honor it has been to serve in this administration and to work for you, Mr. President. I thought that was a very glaring and telling omission. And it said a lot.

BOLDUAN: That is interesting, because I'm sure you know very well how to write a letter when you're leaving such an important and high- profile post.

CLAPPER: Yes. Yes, I have done it myself.

BOLDUAN: Exactly.

On Ryan Browne's reporting, I was saying in the lead-in that at least one military official is calling his letter a dog whistle to anyone in uniform that they should resign if -- this should be an opening for them to resign if they don't agree with Trump's policies. Do you see it that way? Do you think that's what Jim Mattis would have intended?

CLAPPER: I think -- I don't know about being a dog whistle, but I think it serves as a model, a template, for someone with principles to express his concern and his unwillingness to serve further. And so it's not just a message for the military, but I think it's a message for anyone in this administration, notably, other cabinet officials. So to me, even in departing, Jim has set the model. And I think others need to think about that.

Now, I have to say, you know, that what precipitated this was a withdrawal from Syria. That's a lawful presidential order. But I served as a general officer for about 13 years, and you know, you do think about that. Can I serve an administration where I can't agree with the principles? And I think a lot of generals and admirals, I think, are thinking about that.

BOLDUAN: Do you think when it comes to the decision in Syria, and it comes to kind of the shockwave that Mattis' decision has created, can the president -- could the president unring this bell? Can he settle things down with an announcement of another secretary? It seems new times in an already chaotic era.

[11:45:16] CLAPPER: Well, I guess it's theoretically possible but extremely unlikely that the president would do anything that would even infer he made a mistake in judgment.

BOLDUAN: Right.

CLAPPER: Now, my comment, you know, a lot of people talked about the implications of this. The previous segment made a good point about we didn't get anything for this, not unlike moving our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, where we didn't get any benefit from that. And this has global implications. I would just cite the example of North Korea. Why should North Korea believe anything we say to them about assurances of their security if they denuclearize after watching this decision?

BOLDUAN: That is a fascinating perspective that I think a lot of people will now be considering after you mentioned it.

Director, thank you for coming in. Great to see you.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Still ahead for us, the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, bucking ethics officials over at the Justice Department who advised him to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation. So if he bucks their advice, what does this move mean for Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Russia probe?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:50:58] BOLDUAN: New details on Matthew Whitaker and rejecting a top official's advice that he should recuse himself, he should rescue himself, the advice was, from overseeing the Russia investigation. Why is he disregarding that advice and what does it mean for the special counsel's investigation?

CNN's justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, joins me now with more on this.

Jessica, what is the advice that Whitaker got and why isn't he following it?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Kate, probably the reason he is not following it is we've learned Whitaker never sought a formal recommendation on whether he should recuse. Instead, got guidance on his options. That's according to a source. As part of that guidance, a senior career ethics official told Whitaker he should recuse himself because of his extensive public comments disparaging the Mueller probe right before he joined the Justice Department. And the reason they suggested he recuse is people might question his impartiality. That was an opinion that was not binding. And ultimately, Whitaker's own advisor, they recommended he not recuse, especially because there was no actual legal conflict, nothing like a personal relationship like Jeff Sessions had with the Trump campaign, and no family member that was involved in the Russia probe. Those were the reasons for not recusing. Matthew Whitaker decided since it was a close call here and he didn't want to bind any of his successors by such a precedent of recusal, he decided he would continue overseeing the probe.

The DOJ sent a letter, Kate. This is it right here. They sent it to Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi, explaining why Whitaker decided not to recuse. Of course, that decision really drawing the ire of Democrats. Ad leaving that question open, what will Whitaker do when it comes to at this time Russia probe, if anything?

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. You know he has already become a focus of Democrats in the House when they take over. We will see what happens in January.

SCHNEIDER: Yes.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much, Jessica. Great to see you.

SCHNEIDER: Thanks.

BOLDUAN: Up next, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says his views are not aligned with President Trump's. What does the stunning resignation say about the current state of the White House? We will discuss, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:57:50] BOLDUAN: In a tumultuous White House plagued by firings and defections, the departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is different. Shockingly so. A career military man revered by troops and respected by peers could no longer stand by the side of the commander-in-chief. And the retired general said so in a stunning rebuke over President Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond is joining me now with more on the inside story of how that relationship fell apart.

Jeremy, everyone can remember that Trump could not say enough good things about Mattis when he was nominated and early on. What happened?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was "Mad Dog" Mattis, right? The president always relishing in the storied career of this retired four-star Marine Corps general. Perhaps what the president did not realize early in the relationship was how different the two men were as far as their moral compass is concerned and their policy beliefs are concerned. But it was yesterday at about 7:30 in the morning the defense

secretary realized he need to speak with the president. The Turkish defense minister was threatening to put the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in ditches once the U.S. pulled out of Syria. The defense secretary made a last-ditch effort to appeal to the president in the Oval Office to try to get him to reverse course. That was something that the president would not do, and so the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned on the spot.

It was a culmination of all the various policy differences the two men had over Defense Secretary Mattis's tenure there. And aides began to fear that it was when Rex Tillerson, former secretary of state, and H.R. McMaster, the former national security advisor, that it was at the time when they were ousted from their positions that aides felt Mattis's relationship with the president was also going to be on the decline. That was because those three men frequently teamed up together to work to try to dissuade the president from certain policy beliefs that they felt were unwise and rash. It was Jim Mattis, the last bulwark, and now he is announcing his resignation. He will be leaving at the end of February -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: With Jim Mattis gone, who is left with that kind of a position? Maybe that is the whole point.

Jeremy, I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

And thank you all so much for joining me.