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Senate Republicans Meet with Trump as Shutdown Looms; Whitaker Rejects Ethics Official's Advice; CEO Shares $4 Million in Bonuses with Employees for Holidays. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired December 21, 2018 - 10:30   ET

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


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POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Take a look. I think there are some images. Moments ago, Republican senators arriving at the White House. The president summoned them there this morning. There you see Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell trying to find a way to avoid a looming government shutdown. The president, just last week proudly proclaimed that he would own a shutdown, and the American people would be supportive of it because it is for border security. That same president, who said that, just moments ago, wrote this on Twitter. "The Democrats now own the shutdown!"

Ryan Nobles joins us on Capitol Hill this morning for more. Walk me through what could happen behind closed doors at the White House today. In the Oval, the president meets with these Republican senators. They explain to him that there's no way to get 60 votes in the Senate for a bill with $5 billion in border wall funding. There's no way the nuclear option happens, McConnell has made that clear. So where is the deal here?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, in many instances like we have seen like this in the past, Poppy, Mitch McConnell has attempted to be the voice of reason through these negotiations with President Trump, kind of trying to explain to him the reality of the situation, especially as it relates to the Senate. The Senate is a much different body than the House. You know the strong conservative voices in the House have much more power and sway on the House side than they do on the Senate side. So the president might have maybe an overestimation as to exactly how popular his legislation is because it passed the House easily, it may not have a full understanding of what's happening here in the Senate. And you know we know there's going to be at least 10 Republican senators that will be in this meeting with President Trump, presumably, there will be some from the more conservative wing of the party that may encourage the president to continue with this standoff, but you know, we expect Mitch McConnell to make it very clear to him that, a, this legislation has no hope of getting the 60 votes necessary, and that b, the nuclear option is in no way possible and that the president better come up with another plan.

[10:35:00] HARLOW: By the way, why are you asking for, you know, the nuclear option on this one? If you said you would proudly own a shutdown a week and a half ago, Mr. President, right? I mean if the American people are so supportive of that, as he said, then why would he be asking for McConnell to do that?

Ryan Nobles, thank you. Update us when you get some Intel from what's going on in this White House meeting.

Meantime, the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, defying the advice of his own Ethics Department at the Department of Justice, saying that he should recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe. It is a stunning move. What are the implications? Ahead.

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[10:41:11] HARLOW: Welcome back. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has decided to completely ignore the advice of his own Ethics Office at the Department of Justice. They recommended that because he's been so critical of the Mueller probe, that he recuse himself from overseeing it. Let's remind you, one of the criticisms that Whitaker had of the Mueller probe back in July of 2017, on this network, let's roll it.

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MATT WHITAKER, ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and the attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller but he just reduces the budget so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.

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HARLOW: Our justice reporter Laura Jarrett who broke the news joins me now. He is that replacement, for now. Until William Barr is, you know if he's confirmed by the Senate, that's him. So he has the power to do so much when it comes to the Mueller probe. And he ignored, after multiple meetings with the Ethics Office, their advice to recuse himself. How big is this?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: It's significant, Poppy. And the Justice Department is trying to quell the concerns that we're now hearing on Capitol Hill about this entire situation, sending a letter to lawmakers late last night saying that Whitaker has no plans to fire the special counsel, pointing out that Whitaker things he's, quote, "a good man, a professional," and that he would only go after legitimate targets. But of course, this is doing little to sort of quell the troubling comments that he said in the past about undercutting Mueller and the ways that he could sort of undermine the probe.

And so, Democrats on Capitol Hill are also pointing to how this process played out, and what really happened here is although the senior ethics official found that he had no legal conflict, meaning that he didn't have a personal or business or financial interest in any of this, he did have an appearance of conflict based off what he said on CNN and other networks in his past writings and because of that appearance of conflict, that ethics official said if you're asking me what I would do, I would step aside. Whitaker disregarded that advice and he instead relied on his own panel of advisers who recommended that he not step aside, Poppy.

HARLOW: It's significant. Now the question is what will he do, right, with regard to the Mueller probe? Because he's the one in charge of it all. Laura, thank you very much. We'll be right back.

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[10:48:00] HARLOW: All right, new details this morning on the hugely consequential resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis and how it all went down. Mattis was livid after President Trump's stunning decision to unilaterally pull troops out of Syria. But now we have learned that it was the threat by Turkey's defense minister to level a brutal assault on U.S. allies, the Kurds, and "put them in ditches." That's in quotes, once the U.S. pulled out. It's that that really set Mattis off.

Our White House reporter Jeremy Diamond has been breaking this news, reporting on the timeline of how this all happened, and that's important. You know Mattis was able to stomach a lot that he didn't agree with, with the president. But it was the abandoning of our allies, right, the Kurds, and knowing what Turkey would do in response that was the red line for Mattis.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. It was that comment from the Turkish defense minister that set Mattis off. He was livid at this notion that U.S.-backed forces in Syria could face a deadly assault from Turkish forces as a result of this U.S. withdrawal. And so what the defense secretary did was he went to the Oval Office for one last time yesterday afternoon to try and convince the president to cancel his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, but when he was unsuccessful during this very brief meeting, the defense secretary did what he had left to do, which was to pull out this two-page resignation letter and offer it over to the president.

But this had been a long time coming, as you mentioned. Defense Secretary Mattis and the president have had policy differences on a number of issues. But those policy differences largely stayed behind the scenes for much of Defense Secretary Mattis' tenure at the Pentagon. But it was when the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster were ousted in March, that's when aides began to suspect that Mattis' relationship with the president would begin to degrade. They had been, the three of them, urging the president against certain policies. But now it was just up to Mattis. He was the only remaining buffer and that obviously drew the president's ire leading to that relationship to degrade over the last several months.

[10:50:09] HARLOW: Yes. All right, Jeremy Diamond, important to know what the red line was for him. Thank you for that reporting.

Meantime, right now, Senate Republicans are arriving - they are arriving at the White House to meet with the president. There's been a hang-up, though. A source tells CNN, quote, "things are so chaotic at the White House that some Republican senators can't get in because the Secret Service didn't even have time to clear them while the staff was driving them there." Wow. All right, we'll see how this goes. Meantime, it's been called the e-mail killer. Slack is a chat application that has become critical in many offices. The company started out making video games. Watch this.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was an accident that we kind of found the Slack product. It was born out of the way that we collaborated and worked together while making a video game. After four years, it was really apparent that the game wasn't going to work out. That it was never going to be a commercial success, so we went back to our investors and said would you like your money back? And they decided to take a gamble on us and instead said, keep that money. Let's see what you can do with it next.

Slack is a collaboration hub for a workplace. A tool that ties together all the other tools you use to get work done. Most organizations are still using e-mail and isn't really designed for the way that teams work together and collaborate. We saw that collaboration gap. And so we went to our friends at other companies in the bay area, and basically begged them to use this product, to give it a try. People would see the team next to them using this new thing, being more productive, being more engaged, getting more done, and it grew like wildfire.

It's been really important that we have supported things like emoji's and GIFs. People are using those when they talk informally to their friends and family. The idea that you should have to switch to a whole different way of thinking and communicating just because you're in the workplace seems wrong. If we can make people more productive while enjoying themselves, then that's a huge win.

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[10:56:54] HARLOW: All right. Are you ready for some good news? I certainly am. On the eve of the holidays, employees of a family-owned Michigan company getting the holiday bonus of a lifetime. The owner of FloraCraft, they make foam products for the floral and craft industry, decided to give each employee a share of $4 million. This is how the CEO broke the news.

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LEE SCHOENHERR, SHARING $4 MILLION WITH EMPLOYEES: What I'm going to do is I'm going to make available $4 million to be paid out in a couple ways. Part cash, part your profit sharing, part in your 401(k).

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HARLOW: That man who made the decision, Lee Schoenherr, aka, Santa Claus, joins me now. Oh, my goodness. I have been so excited to have you on all week after I saw this story. Thank you for doing nice things for your workers. I was reading an average of $20,000 is the bonus that they're getting, some longtime workers there, $60,000. Is that right?

SCHOENHERR: That's right. Probably averages more than $20,000. Well, that's about right. Yes.

HARLOW: Why? Why are you doing it and why now?

SCHOENHERR: Well, my wife Joan and I have spent the last 45 years in Ludington. It's a little town. In fact, I was born there. Through those years, we made various contributions to organizations and causes. And recently, when we have done this, I have reminded myself that the reason that we're able to do this is because of the success of the company and a great deal of success of the company is due to my employees. I hate to call them employees because actually they're more to me than just employees. But through their hard work and loyalty, it has made it possible to make these kinds of donations. So I thought I wanted to do something just for them.

HARLOW: There you go.

SCHOENHERR: So they understand I really do appreciate their efforts.

HARLOW: What is the most touching thing one of them said to you?

SCHOENHERR: Well, I've got to be careful here because I don't want to say something that maybe the person wished I hadn't. But I had an individual come up to me at a Santa's workshop, a thing we hold on Saturday after the announcement, and she thanked me very much. And she pointed to her face, and she said, I have wanted to have my teeth fixed for years. And now I have the money to do it. So there were other stories like that, but that really hits home.

HARLOW: 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?

SCHOENHERR: No, I haven't -