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Mattis Rebukes Trump's World Views in Resignation Letter; Interview with Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; Supreme Court Upholds Block On Trump's Asylum Ban; Any Moment: McConnell And Schumer To Announce Possible Way Forward To Avoid Government Shutdown. Whitaker Rejects DOJ Recommendation To Recuse Himself From Mueller Probe. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 21, 2018 - 16:30   ET



[16:30:41] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: In our world lead today, he may not have spelled it out on paper, but read between the lines of Defense Secretary James Mattis' resignation letter, and it's pretty clear. He thinks President Trump is fundamentally wrong on key national security issues. In fact, in his two-page letter, Mattis doesn't include one line of praise for his boss.

Sources tell CNN that Mattis was livid when he went to meet with president Trump yesterday after hearing that a Turkish official threatened to kill U.S.-backed Kurdish soldiers in Syria as soon as American troops leave the country. Kill them and put them in ditches, he said.

CNN's Jim Sciutto has the story.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Defense Secretary James Mattis surprised President Trump when he handed him his resignation letter, this according to sources. A letter that has sent shock waves across Washington and the world.

His departure came just one day after Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. And the same day, sources told CNN that Trump is also planning to withdraw thousands of service members from Afghanistan.

In his stunning letter, Mattis wrote, one core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.

Specifically, Mattis was livid about the president's abandonment of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria who are still battling ISIS and who could face a bloodbath from a Turkish invasion, according to sources. And when he was unable to change the president's mind, we are told that Mattis decided to resign.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: General James "Mad Dog" Mattis. He doesn't lose.

SCIUTTO: The rift between the president and Defense Secretary Mattis had been building for some time. According to a senior defense official, some in the Pentagon say the president had stopped listening to Mattis a long time ago.

In his letter, Mattis also brings up, quote, China and Russia, writing, quote, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly intentioned with ours.

The president seeming to rebut that line this morning via Twitter writing, quote: There has never been a president who has been tougher but fair on China or Russia. Never. Just look at the facts.

TRUMP: If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.

SCIUTTO: The American troop withdrawals, along with Mattis' resignation have left America's allies in Europe and across the globe stunned.

SUSAN GLASSER, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: This is a day that America's allies have been dreading and fearing. And hoping wouldn't come.

SCIUTTO: And even some of the president's staunchest allies at home not pulling punches.

REP. JIM BANKS (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Secretary Mattis' departure -- obviously, that is devastating news to our national security and to the pentagon.

SCIUTTO: As for Mattis' potential replacement, finding someone for the job on the same page as the president could be difficult.

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: There are talented individuals that will come forward. The real essence, are they going to want to raise a hand and say, yes, I'll take this job.


SCIUTTO: Jake, I spoke to a senator and former defense secretary who spoke with Mattis in the last 24 hours. And by both their accounts, the Syria decision was the straw that broke the camel's back. It was a series of decision by this president, the suspension of exercises with South Korea, the failure to call out Russia for election interference, the deployment of troops along the border that Mattis kind of bit his lip through, but with the Syria decision could not take it any more -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jim Sciutto, thanks so much.

Joining me now is former secretary of defense under President Obama, Chuck Hagel. He also served as Republican senator for Nebraska and combat veteran from the war in Vietnam. Secretary Hagel, good to see you, as always.

Mattis made it quite clear in his letter, he believes in allies and alliances, China and Russia are threats. He formed his belief through four decades of immersion in foreign policy and that Donald Trump doesn't view the world in the same way.

What was your reaction to the letter and to the news?

CHUCK HAGEL, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, Jake, Secretary Mattis had no choice but to resign. His letter was a -- I think, a very accurate assessment, summary, of the reality of what we're dealing with.

[16:35:03] He had no choice but to resign, because everything Trump has been saying and doing and the actions he's been taking violates Jim Mattis' career. Every principle and value he's held.

So, it had to come to this. He couldn't sustain any longer staying there or trying to influence the president, because that influence had eroded completely.

TAPPER: Now, I followed your career for quite some time, sir. And I think it's fair to say that there have been times that you have seemed skeptical of the bipartisan consensus in Washington of U.S. involvement abroad and the need for it at different times. Skeptical, not against it, necessarily, but skeptical of it.

If you were the defense secretary right now and president Trump said that he didn't want U.S. service members in Syria, and he wanted to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan, is that something you would oppose?

HAGEL: Well, first, I think we need a congressional national debate on that issue. Not just Afghanistan and Syria, but our role in that part of the world. What's the strategic objective? We've been in Afghanistan 17 years. Iraq 15 years. Where's this going? What do we hope to accomplish?

I think that needs to be aired out and the Congress needs to be part of that. But the way he did it and the timing of his decisions were disastrous.

TAPPER: So when you resigned in 2015 during the Obama years, you gave an interview and lamented what you called the lack of a clear, serious strategy by the Obama administration. Now, Secretary Mattis has quit, and one of the reasons is Syria. As you note, this does seem like a larger issue that the United States needs to have a discussion and debate about.

Why does that debate not happen? Why does Congress not want to have a debate over an authorization for a use of military force? Why did they always shirk responsibility to do so?

HAGEL: Well, you start with your point about using military force. The authorization to use military force go back to 2001 and 2003 resolutions that Congress passed. They're still using those 2001, 2003 resolutions. That needs to be updated.

In the process, we need to go back through what is the strategic objective? Where do we want to go? When you -- when you commit forces to war, Jake, that's the biggest decision a president of Congress will make.

We had better make damn sure we know what we're doing. We better make damn sure we know where it's going. What's the exit strategy? Where is this going to go? Five years, three years?

I know it's indefinite as far as the question of nothing is perfect. Nobody got that much clairvoyance. But I don't think we have paid attention to this way enough.

And, yes, I was not skeptical, but I asked tough questions during those debates on Iraq and Afghanistan. And I asked one principle question that must always be asked. What happens next?

We didn't get any answers. And we don't have any answers now. We still have no strategy. I don't think we have a foreign policy. But we surely do not have a strategy or a policy in the Middle East.

I hear John Bolton say, well, we should keep our troops in Syria there until we drive the Iranians out of Syria. Are you kidding me? Two thousand troops in a northeast corner of Syria isn't going to drive the Iranians out of Syria.

Let's face some realities here, and let's find some tough decisions that we're going to have to make anyway before we continue to lose more people and lose respect and what does to our budget.

TAPPER: One of your predecessors, former Defense Secretary William Cohen, Republican senator who served under a Democratic president, he told CNN he does not believe President Trump is fit for office. Take a listen.


WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The president has taken a wrecking ball to every pillar of stability and security we've erected over the past 60, 70 years. He's systematically demolishing that.

SCIUTTO: Is the president fit to be commander-in-chief, in your view?

COHEN: In my judgment, no.


TAPPER: What do you think, Secretary Hagel? Do you think the president is fit to be commander-in-chief?

HAGEL: Well, that's an interesting question, but it's not particularly relevant, at least right now, because he is president and he was elected. No, I don't.

He has never understood government, politics. This is not -- our government is not a one-man show. You can't run this like a real estate business, or any other business.

[16:40:03] This is not entertainment.

You can't govern by dividing our country and having us in constant conflict. It's too serious. He didn't understand any of that. No, I think Bill Cohen was right. He's just not equipped on any level to be president of the United States.

TAPPER: Former secretary of defense --

HAGEL: But he is president.

TAPPER: But he is president. That is true.

Former secretary of defense and senator, Chuck Hagel, thank you, sir. As always, thank you for your service and merry Christmas to you and your family.

HAGEL: Same to you, Jake. Thank you.

TAPPER: Thank you.

The shutdown, the markets, the secretary of defense, now the Supreme Court delivering President Trump a blow to his new asylum policy. This comes with even more uncertainty as we learn 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just underwent surgery to remove cancerous nodules from her lungs.

Stay with us.


[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Breaking news in our "NATIONAL LEAD." A blow to President Trump's asylum policy. The Supreme Court upholding a ruling to block President Trump from implementing new restrictions for asylum seekers. The policy would temporarily bar migrants who cross the southern border instead of presenting themselves at an official port of entry from being able to seek asylum.

It was a close ruling just five-to-four with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the liberal judges. CNN's Supreme Court Analyst Joan Biskupic joins me now. Joan, what does this mean for the future of this policy? This is a preliminary ruling or a permanent one?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SUPREME COURT ANALYST: No it's a preliminary order, Jake. And what it means is that the Trump administration cannot enforce that policy. It cannot say that condition of eligibility for asylum has to do with where you entered. What the Supreme Court did was endorsed what lower court judges had already said that if you're fleeing persecution and have a legitimate fear of that, the government can't look at exactly where you entered. So everything stays right now as judges will in the upcoming months look at the merits of the Supreme -- of the Trump administration's arguments here. TAPPER: And it was a 5-4 ruling with the four liberals on the court

and Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts who you've written a book about that's coming out in a few months, an excellent book. Is that surprising to you that Roberts sided with the liberal wing of the court?

BISKUPIC: Jake, I think it tells you the extent of this policy that the administration -- that the Supreme Court was assessing here. You remember now, he's now the center of the court with Anthony Kennedy gone. So I think we can anticipate him inching to the left a little bit and this case actually saw a preview of his sentiment about a month ago when Donald Trump scoffed at a lower court judge who had rejected the policy calling him an Obama judge. And Chief Justice John Roberts came back on this case and said wait a minute, there are no Obama judges, there are no Trump judges, there are no Bush judges.

So I think he wanted to send the signal here that the justices at this point at least, at this preliminary point cannot be divided in a partisan way, the way the entire country seems to be divided. And again, Jake, this all arises against the backdrop of the fight going on right now over the wall.

TAPPER: All right, Joan Biskupic, thank you so much. More supreme court news. in our "HEALTH LEAD" today, a scare for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, not to mention liberals who want her on the court for at least 25 additional years. Today we learned that the 85-year-old Ginsburg had two cancerous nodules removed from her left lung earlier this morning.

The doctors say there's no evidence of any remaining disease but let's bring in CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Sanjay, how serious of an operation is this?

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's a significant operation. I think anybody's age you know, it's you know, you're actually going under anesthesia. You're opening the chest cavity and in this case, removing one of the lobes of the lung. So at any age I think would be a pretty significant operation.

85 years old obviously a bigger deal. The anesthesia, Jake, almost as big sort of as a risk as the operation itself. But as you know, she's done with the operation. She's resting comfortably so it sounds like the procedure itself went well.

TAPPER: All right, that's great news. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thank you so much. And now we have some breaking news. There's been a potential break in the showdown of the shut down as we're hours away from a potential shutdown. Senator Bob Corker telling CNN that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are expected to come to the Senate floor any moment.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill. Phil, what are McConnell the Republican leader and Schumer the Democratic leader, what are they discussing? What's going on?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So at this moment right behind me in Statuary Hall, Vice President Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, future Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney are now walking from the house side back to the Senate side in the midst of their shuttle diplomacy. And part of that has been discussions about trying to find a procedural path forward.

This is not a deal on substance that could prevent a shutdown but what Senator Corker just told us as he walked out of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office is he believes there's a path forward to essentially continue talking. If you remember, Jake, there's actually still a Senate vote that's open on the Senate floor related to moving forward on the House-passed proposal that on its face doesn't have the votes to pass the Senate.

Now, Corker has not voted on that. And part of the reason why is because as we talked about early in the hour, he's been behind the scenes trying to negotiate some type of way out of this. Now again, on the substance, Corker made clear there is no deal to avert a shutdown. On the process, Corker said, he believes it's in short order Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer will come to the floor and announce there is essentially agreement to keep moving forward and keep talking as to what a possible deal could be to at avert a shutdown.

What I'm told from people that are involved in these negotiations, have been talking about these negotiations, there are no details yet about what could possibly be agreed to. In fact, a spokesman for Senator Chuck Schumer who obviously met earlier today with Mulvaney, Kushner, and Pence said that the Senator made very clear in that meeting that there are three proposals on the table. They are continuing resolutions, are continuing the current funding level for up until September. There's the deal that the Senate already passed and there is a shorter-term resolution as well. There is no opening for increased border wall funding on the table right now for Democrats.

So not necessarily a substantive breakthrough but on process at least conversations are still going and the Senate is still trying to work towards a path forward. Jake?

[16:50:49] TAPPER: All right, you're such an optimist, Phil. We're going to continue to follow the situation on the Hill. More on the breaking news right after this.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: We are closing in on just about seven hours before the federal government partial shutdown and we're continuing to follow breaking news on Capitol Hill where it looks as though the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are about to announce some sort of agreement on a process to "chart the path forward to potentially avoid a government shutdown." We'll bring that to you live when and if it happens.

The negotiations are ongoing on the House side as well. We just learned the Vice President Pence, soon to be Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and presidential son-in-law and top advisor Jared Kushner have just left a meeting at outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan's office. They earlier met with Chuck Schumer.

But let us turn now to President Trump getting his way on a different issue. He now clearly has an attorney general who was managing Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation who is very skeptical of the Russia investigation itself, acting Attorney General Matt Whittaker, has ignored calls for him to recuse himself even rejecting advice from Justice Department ethics officials to do so though he didn't ask for their recommendation. CNN's Laura Jarrett explains what this might mean for Mueller and the Russian investigation.


LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: New details today on Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker's role in overseeing the Russia investigation after he rejected the advice of Justice Department ethics officials who said he should step aside. Whitaker who's never been briefed on the Mueller investigation is expected to start getting updates now that he isn't recusing himself.

However, Whitaker was given a heads-up that President Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen would plead guilty before it was publicly announced. Meanwhile, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein promised the investigation would continue to be managed properly.

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL, UNITED STATES: We've continued to manage the investigation as we have in the past and it's being handled appropriately.

JARRETT: Rosenstein's office will continue to manage the Special Counsel investigation day to day but Whitaker can block any significant steps Mueller wants to take for now, an investigation that Whitaker long criticized before joining the Justice Department.

MATT WHITAKER, ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL, UNITED STATES: That attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller but he just reduces the budget so low that his investigation grinds to it absolutely almost a halt.

JARRETT: Even echoing President Trump's words saying the Special Counsel investigation could become a "witch-hunt in a CNN op-ed last year." Whitaker's decision not to recuse himself explained in a letter sent to lawmakers saying that an ethics official had told Whitaker staff he should recuse himself from supervision of the Special Counsel investigation because it was their view that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts likely would question the impartiality of the acting Attorney General.

That appearance of a conflict not enough to convince Whitaker to recuse. The Justice Department outlining his reasons in the same letter saying ethics officials could find no personal or financial interest that would require refusal, that Whitaker had not made comments about the investigation since rejoining DOJ to work for Jeff Sessions, and that Whitaker thought Mueller was quote a good man and would only go after legitimate targets.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was my first choice from day one.

JARRETT: The administration now about to face similar issues with Bill Barr, the President's permanent pick for attorney general who is also a Mueller critic. The former attorney general under President George H.W. Bush writing in an unsolicited memo this past June, calling the Special Counsel's obstruction of justice investigation "fatally misconceived with potentially disastrous implications for the presidency. Saying Trump's firing of former FBI James Comey was squarely within the power of the president.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: I find that very troubling as well. But we see this constant pattern.

JARRETT: Democrats now crying foul on the President's choices.

WARNER: It appears that the number one qualification Donald Trump is looking for in an attorney general is someone that will try to undermine the Mueller investigation.


JARRETT: Jake, the elephant in the room, of course, is if Whitaker had recused, the President would obviously have been furious as the whole reason for putting him there was to get rid of Jeff Sessions who had in fact recused from the Russia investigation. In any event, Democrats are going to get their crack at Whitaker come January when they take power in the House.

TAPPER: All right, Laura Jarrett at the Justice Department, thank you so much. I appreciate it. You can -- be sure to tune in this Sunday to "STATE OF THE UNION." We're going to talk exclusively with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Bob Corker. We're also going to talk to Republican Senator Rand Paul as well as the incoming House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Democrat Adam Schiff. It all starts at 9:00 a.m. and noon Eastern.