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Lindsey Graham Returns from Afghanistan As Trump Plans Drawdown; Mattis Reported Livid Over Trump's Move to Pull Troops from Syria; Whitaker Rejects Ethics Official's Advice to Recuse Himself; Pence, Kushner, Mulvaney Meeting Now in Schumer's Office. Aired 3:30- 4p ET

Aired December 21, 2018 - 15:30   ET

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


[15:30:00] PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: It's something Republican Senator Lindsey Graham warns would be a catastrophic mistake. He just returned from Afghanistan and CNN's Kate Bolduan was allowed exclusive access to travel along with him. Here's her report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: Senator Lindsey Graham is on a mission. A mission to connect with the troops but also a mission to convince the President that after 17 years Afghanistan is still a fight worth fighting.

You've been here several times. Why come back this time? What is this about?

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

BOLDUAN: 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 friend and closest confidante.

GRAHAM: This is my first trip without John McCain. This is a tough one. I was just thinking there a minute ago how many times have I been here? But just almost all the time with John. The President is 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 have your back.

GRAHAM: Outstanding, how long have you been here?

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: About two and a half years.

BOLDUAN: But doesn't seem so sure that President Trump feels the same way. For one, the commander-in-chief has yet to visit any combat zone including with 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 President Gahni and the Afghan partners. 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 said he received critical status updates from the top Afghan commando.

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

BOLDUAN: And also, the top American commander of U.S. and NATO forces there, both saying that 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've 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 (bleep) in a year.

BOLDUAN: Seriously?

GRAHAM: If we pull out and go to zero, this place will fall apart very, very quickly and we'll regret that decision. The people that we are holding at bay over here want to hit us again at home. I hope people understand that the soldiers that you see around here and you talk to, they are 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, about what will happen in Afghanistan. And here is the difference. This is the center of gravity. This is 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 will happen if President Trump decides to pull everyone out tomorrow?

GRAHAM: You need to ask that question to the military leadership. I've asked that question and they gave me a very blunt answer. This place will 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. I think one of our most likely outcomes would be a second 9/11 coming our way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: All right, that was Kate Bolduan reporting there in Afghanistan. Joining us now former deputy secretary of state and former deputy national security adviser under President Obama, Tony Blinken. So much to discuss here. There was a imagine withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. He saw troops decline from 100,000 service members to less than 10,000. How is President Trump wanting to remove troops any different from Obama's withdrawal? Could it arguably have less of an impact?

TONY BLINKEN, FORMER DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE AND FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: There's the fact of removing troops and then there's how you do it, the way you do it. I think what we're seeing with President Trump is a tremendous mistake in strategy.

[15:35:00] Even if you believe we should be drawing down in Afghanistan and that's a very justifiable argument, the way we do it matters. At the same time that we have this announcement about drawing down, we're negotiating with the Taliban for peace. What does the Taliban most want? Their number one demand is to get the United States out. The idea that we're giving that up for nothing, that we're not getting them to the peace table and negotiating is really terrible negotiating, no matter what you think about whether our troops should go or stay.

BROWN: I want to get your response on what we heard from Senator Graham saying it's important for the President to visit the war zones. What do you think about the President making the decision before visiting Afghanistan?

BLINKEN: I think it's very unfortunate. I think he's exactly right, that it's really hard to fully understand it until you've been there. Now granted, for a President it's kind of tough. Security situation is such that he can't really move around a lot, but you get a feel for something even if you're there for 24 hours, talking directly to the leadership in Afghanistan and especially to our military and commanders. That's really important. I wish he had done that before making these decisions.

BROWN: To be fair, General Mattis said there are certain places he doesn't want the President to go out of safety concerns. As you know, Secretary Mattis resigned yesterday in protest over Trump's policy. He was said to be livid over Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria as well as Afghanistan. What do you make of Mattis's departure? This appears to be unprecedented to have a defense secretary resign over policy.

BLINKEN: Pam, it is deeply concerning first and foremost because Secretary Mattis has been a voice of reason and experience for a President who really lacks both. The fact that he's going, the fact that someone who has been a check

on some of the President's less fortunate impulses, I think should give everyone pause and be a source of concern. For Secretary Mattis there was the substance of the decision on Syria that he clearly objected to. There was also the way it was made without consulting the President's senior military leadership. To put Mattis in a very difficult position. It really undercut his own authority over the men and women he was commanding, not to be fully consulted in the decision that involves those man men and women.

BROWN: Just very quickly. I hope my produces don't kill me but I want to ask you, Mattis had said the President should find someone with views aligned

with his. Will that be a challenge?

BLINKEN: You know, look, whoever the President finds, I hope it someone who, like general Mattis, was willing to tell the President on issue after issue, you're wrong or this is not the right way to do it or we should rethink this. Secretary Mattis played a critical role. I think this is a story that will be told in the months and years to come, things that haven't come out about how Secretary Mattis pulled the President back from making bad decisions. Whoever he picks I hope will play that same role. If not, we'll have a lot more problems. We've had a crazy 24 hours of shutdowns and drawdowns and put down if there isn't someone in the administration who is going to tell him when he goes in the wrong direction.

BROWN: We're following breaking news in the Senate where a vote is happening. That could avoid a government shutdown. We've learned Vice President Pence and incoming Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Jared Kushner are now on Capitol Hill. This is the Dow is now sliding ahead of the closing bell. Stay with us. A lot happening, a very fluid situation at this hour.

[15:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker has rejected advice from a justice department ethics official and decided not to recuse himself from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation but CNN is learning more about why that is. Before he was appointed by President Trump, Whitaker publicly criticized the investigation on CNN last year. The ethics officials concluded his potential for bias was a quote, "close call" and recommended that Whitaker recuse himself. But a tight group of Whitaker's own advisors who were engaged in the ethics review did their own assessment and advised him not to step aside.

Joining me now, CNN contributor Garrett Graff, author of "The Threat Matrix, Inside Robert Mueller's FBI" and Jamie Nawaday, she is a former federal prosecutor. Jamie, I want to go to you first. The ethics official involved said that Whitaker should recuse himself out of an abundance of caution. He decided not to, how significant is all of this?

JAMIE NAWADAY, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: I think it's very significant because when you join the Justice Department, you learn that it's not about you, it's about the mission. It's about the mission of the justice department and it's about protecting the reputation of the Justice Department and protecting public trust and the integrity of the Justice Department. [15:45:00] And it seems that Whitaker has simply lost sight of that

and he's made a decision that's really about what he wants in this particular case. And I think whatever this decision may mean in terms of its impact on the Mueller investigation, this is a very disappointing decision just on a fundamental level in terms of what it may mean for public trust in the justice department, and it has to be incredibly disappointing, too, for people within the Justice Department. I mean, he is held and should be held to the highest ethical standards and he should be a role model for the entire department. And to be advised that in an abundance of caution you should recuse yourself because a reasonable person could question your impartiality and to say essentially, thanks, but no thanks is very troubling.

BROWN: But, Garrett, do you find is surprising? I mean after all we know the President would not want him to recuse. He was so upset Jeff Sessions, the former A.G. did. Does it surprise you he went against the advice of the ethics officials?

GARRETT GRAFF, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, AUTHOR OF "THE THREAT MATRIX, INSIDE ROBERT MUELLER'S FBI": I don't necessarily know that it surprises me. It's certainly disappointing and not in keeping with the traditions of the justice department by any stretch, but it seems very clear that the only reason that Matt Whitaker was ever appointed to this role was specifically to oversee the Mueller investigation. This is an appointment that was out of left field. It has no precedent in American history. Let's remember the larger question, which is there's even questions about whether his appointment is constitutional and legal to begin with. That's just how much of an odd appointment this was. When the Justice Department went to justify this, the best that they could come up with was an example from the mid-1800s about a counsel who died in Siam and had someone step in for them during the months of time it would take them to get someone to Siam in the middle of 1800s. This is a very strange appointment start to finish. This is not at all surprising that Matt Whitaker would disregard the tradition of the Justice Department since it's clear he's not there in keeping with the tradition of the Justice Department.

BROWN: All right. Garrett Graff, Jamie Nawaday, thank you so much for coming on.

We have some breaking news coming in. Vice President Mike Pence, Mick Mulvaney and Jared Kushner are now in Senator Chuck Schumer's office as they try to avoid a partial government shutdown. We are going to go back to the Capitol right after this quick break. Stay with us.

[15:50:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: A flurry of last-minute negotiations happening on Capitol Hill right now as the Trump administration tries to avoid a partial government shutdown. We go straight to Ryan Nobles on Capitol Hill. What's the latest.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Important developments just in the last few minutes. Right now, Vice President Mike Pence, Mick Mulvaney, incoming acting chief of staff for President Trump and Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law and one of his top advisers, are in the office of the minority leader, Chuck Schumer. We don't know exactly what they're discussing, but the optics of the situation would certainly indicate that they have come from the White House, looking for some sort of a deal with the Democrats to push this continuing resolution over the finish line with the hope of keeping the government open past that shutdown deadline of midnight.

Now, up until this point, Pam, we should point out that Chuck Schumer has been insistent that Democrats are not interested in a deal. That they had already cut a deal with the White House for a clean CR and the White House backed out on that so why would they trust the White House at this stage? They have also been insistent they're not going to include any additional funding for a border wall or even border security, to that point. So, it's not exactly clear what this conversation is all about. But if you're hoping that the government doesn't shut down, I would imagine most people are hoping it doesn't shut down, the fact that they're even talking is a good sign that was something we hadn't seen happen much in the last 48 hours. Pam?

BROWN: And if the government does shut down, it's all up in the air right now, Ryan, is there a plan B? I mean, what's next?

NOBLES: I guess there really isn't a plan b, Pam, in terms of legislation. To a certain extent, they're right back at the drawing board. Do they attempt yet another run-through with a clean continuing resolution? The President has said under no circumstances is he going to sign that again. They essentially do have to come up with some sort of a deal between now and midnight or even if they pass that midnight deadline, they have to come up with some sort of an idea of a deal over the next couple of days. We should point out, though, Pam, the Vice President is one of the negotiators in this room. The Vice President was on Capitol Hill just a few days ago and promised Republican Senators that if they passed a clean, continuing resolution, that Donald Trump would sign that bill, keeping the government open. And then the President pulled back on that promise. So, you have to wonder, you know, how much can you trust the Vice President in these negotiations, given what he carried down from the White House just a few days ago. So, we'll have to say how this all plays out, Pam. An important development, though.

[15:55:00] BROWN: Absolutely. Ryan, thank you very much. And our breaking coverage of a possible government shutdown continues. We'll take you live to the White House, up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Well. Here's the silver lining. Today is the shortest day of the year. The LEAD starts right now.

Drama and trauma on Capitol Hill. Eight hours away from a government shutdown, the Senate scrambling to come up with a solution. The White House sending the Vice President and the President's son-in-law and the incoming chief of staff to try to figure it out. As President Trump changes his tune, again, and says the looming shutdown, the one he said he would proudly own, it belongs to the Democrats, he says. All this as Washington is dealing with the hangover of Defense

Secretary James Mattis' surprising and rather scathing resignation letter. New details emerging about the closing minutes in the oval office when Mattis decided he was going to quit.

And breaking news from the Supreme Court. A surprise move, the now majority solidly conservative court or so we thought, handing the President a big legal loss in his fight to keep asylum-seekers out of the U.S.