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Lawmakers Meet Trump over Government Shutdown; Pence Meets with Schumer to Negotiate Ending Shutdown; Trump Vented at Whitaker After Exposure in Cohen Revelations; Whitaker Refuses to Recuse from Russia Investigation; William Barr Faces Scrutiny over Mueller Probe Criticism; Trump's 1st Twitter Guru Recalls "Oh, No" Moment; How U.S. Allies View Mattis' Resignation Amid Trump's Decision to Withdraw from Syria; Mattis and McGurk Resign over Trump's Decision to Pull Troops Out of Syria; N.J. High School Wrestler Forced to Cut Locks or Not Compete; Justice Ginsburg's Health Scare. Aired 3-4p ET

Aired December 22, 2018 - 15:00   ET


[15:00:00] ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: And we are not just cruising into the holidays this weekend. No way. In fact, right now, the usual Washington turmoil has spilled into literally the entire country. President Trump in his latest dispute with Democrats in Congress is insistent on money to build a wall on the U.S./Mexico border. His stare down with House leaders and Senate leaders is no longer confined to the capitol because the stubbornness, the inability to make a deal, the American people are without a fully functioning government right now.

Hundreds of thousands of working before Christmas without being paid. TSA screeners not being paid at the airport, not being paid, hoping their paychecks will catch up with them later. Amtrak trains running but the staff is also not being paid. A lot of national parks are closed. NASA is operating on a skeleton crew. And the Coast Guard, more than 40,000 men and women, they're working today, protecting our water ways. But because the president and key members of Congress refuses to budge, they are not being paid.

The most powerful Senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, says nothing will happen in the Senate until President Trump and Senate Democrats reach some kind of an agreement.

So that's the state of the country three days before Christmas, the government partially shut down, with the people able to restart it not blinking. They're arguing over money to build the president's wall.

But overseas, an entirely different level of chaos and crisis. U.S. allies and, of course, adversaries reacting to the sudden resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis. He quit. He says he can't agree with the president.

Also, today, the man in front of the U.S.-led war against ISIS, presidential envoy, Brett McGurk, he is also out. He says he can't agree with the president.

Now, if all of that was not traumatic enough, this has been the worst week on the American stock markets since the financial crisis that crippled economies around the world 10 years ago.

CNN's Sarah Westwood joins us at the White House. And CNN's Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill.

Sarah, let me start with you.

Tell me what is happening in the House behind you, because the president tweeted a few hours ago that he is there instead of visiting his Florida resort like he originally planned.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Ana. President Trump is still not signaling exactly what he would be willing to negotiate in order to get a spending deal that could get 10 Senate Democrats on board and open this partially shuttered government. The White House officials are saying that President Trump is still not budging off of that $5 billion number in funding for the wall that he has demanded. And they're saying that Trump wants it for the construction of a physical barrier along the border, not just for border security. That's been floated on Capitol Hill as a potential compromise.

And make no mistake though, the president has been all over the map when it comes to the funding fight. Starting last week when he said he would be proud to shut down the government over funding for the border. Fast forward to the middle of this past week, when his aides were signaling that he would be willing to entertain a temporary spending deal that would have kept the government open through February 8, but by Thursday, he had summoned House Republicans to the White House, and informed them he would be rejecting that temporary deal, that he wanted to stand firm on $5 billion for the wall. Sources say the president had become increasingly sensitive to criticism of what they saw as a surrender on the wall and his last best chance to fulfill a campaign promise with House Democrats coming into power.

But the president being all over the map, having no clarity on what he would or would not sign, has caused headaches for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. There's no point in them winding up behind a deal that he won't sign.

The president just finished a lunch here at the White House with Republicans only, including some allies, like Congressman Mark Meadow, Congressman Jim Jordan, Senator Lindsey Graham. Not the Democrats he needs to be negotiating with. He sent Vice President Mike Pence and incoming chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to Capitol Hill to continue with negotiations but, Ana, both sides appear to be very entrenched.

CABRERA: Let's go to Capitol Hill.

Phil, we heard the vice president is where you are on Capitol Hill meeting with the Senate minority leader, perhaps. What is the expectation here that the two of them can break this log jam and get the government fully started again?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ana, to be blunt, the expectations are very low. Going into that meeting -- and it is happening right now -- Vice President Mike Pence, incoming chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, are currently meeting with the Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. In advance of that meeting, a Schumer aide told me that they expect a readout from that White House lunch that the president had with his conservative allies and that Schumer plans to reiterate that any proposal that includes any money for funding a border wall cannot pass the Senate because of Democratic opposition. Basically, underscoring that both parties are currently still very much entrenched in their initial positions.

I talked to Senator Richard Shelby, who was at that lunch meeting, the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and he was also blunt about the status of things. When asked if he thought a deal could come together in the near term, he said, it is not imminent. Basically, people are waiting and seeing what is going to flush out over the course of the next couple of days.

[15:05:06] Sarah alluded to the fact that proposals have been traded back and forth over the course of the last 15 hours or so between the White House and Democrats. But those proposals I'm told are still billions of dollars apart in terms of the top line number. And as both sides have alluded to, Democrats have made clear none of that money, even if they come closer on the dollar figure, can be used for a border wall, and the White House has made clear, that is a red line for them. So how do you bridge that gap? To be frank, when you talk to both Republican and Democratic aides on Capitol Hill right now, they're not talking about the length of the shutdown in terms of hours. They're talking in terms of day, multiple days, maybe even longer than that. Ana, if there's a break through coming, nobody sees it at this moment.

CABRERA: It doesn't sound like the divide is a river. It sounds like it is more like an ocean at this point.

Phil Mattingly, Sarah Westwood, thank you so much for helping us to know the very latest.

Let's talk more about it with congressional reporter for the "Washington Post," Karoun Demirjian, and Republican strategist, Doug Heye.

Doug, I'll start with you.

President Trump had a working lunch on border security today but not a single Democrat attended. The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wasn't there. Instead, some of the most far-right members of the party, like Congressman Jim Jordan and Matt Gates. Is this productive?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The short answer is no. And we know that Mitch McConnell now feels that he can't negotiate on behalf of this president and know that the president is going to be where he was an hour ago, or even a day ago, which is part of why we're here. And ultimately this will have to be sorted out with Senate Democrats coming to some kind of an agreement that everybody can live with and it is clear that this is not going to happen any time soon.


CABRERA: Let me stop you there for a second though. Why is it, on the Democrats? We heard McConnell says it is up to the Democrats and Trump to make this deal.


CABRERA: But -- but why aren't Republicans stepping up? There were plenty in the Senate willing to pass a clean C.R. to avoid a shutdown. Given all of the other hits the president has taken this week, wouldn't it be a good time for those GOP lawmakers to have a little bit of leverage if they wanted to push back against the president?

HEYE: I think it is on the president. And you're seeing more and more Republican Senators, members of Congress, speaking out, not just against this, the frustration for Mitch McConnell was palpable, but also on issues whether it is General Mattis, or other resignations, we certainly, Lindsey Graham, who is a big supporter of the president, has been very critical. There has been a lot of Republicans speaking out more vocally than we've seen in the past. But ultimately, to get the Deal done, it's clear that this is going to have to start with the president, and we're nowhere near that.

I can tell you, having lived through and barely survived the last, or the 2013 government shutdown, this is a very negative thing for the workplace of Capitol Hill. And I understand that Capitol Hill staffers are not necessarily the most sympathetic bunch in the country but they're forced to do a job that is almost impossible, and it turns what is already a negative and poisonous environment into that much worse. It makes it harder for good things to happen in the future.

CABRERA: We're looking at live pictures right now, from Capitol Hill. And you can see Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is there. We're told this is regular business that they're doing right now on a Saturday? No movement on breaking the shutdown showdown, so to speak.

Karoun, let me ask you, you've been in touch with a lot of these Republicans. You wrote a piece talking about how they're abandoning the president on the issues of Syria and James Mattis, his leaving the Defense Department. Why aren't Republicans breaking from the president on this issue of the shutdown and the border wall?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's become an issue that they have rallied behind the president on, that they have been speaking in terms that are similar to the president's, even if they don't put everything down by the wall. But they would like to talk about border security and kind of how the party position is on that. You didn't have enough Senate Republicans yesterday willing to actually take the vote, exclusively with the president, and stop this whole thing in its track. So there's a split between Republicans in the House who are a little bit upset about having lost the majority and are refusing to take a vote on the cleaner package the Senate passed before. And you have a little bit more discord in the Senate.

But it seems like the Republicans on Capitol Hill, when the president is not involved, are willing to put their demands for border security slightly to one side, at least in terms as it comes to these billions extra that the president is asking for this wall. But when they all get together again, they are not willing to completely buck the president. And the point is, if he is not going to sign a bill like that, they don't really have the numbers to have a veto proof majority in both chambers because of the mixed feelings on the GOP side. So you have this kind of perilous situation happening right here, where on the questions of the basic funding issues -- remember, the Defense Department isn't up in this debate about the shutdown. This is a partial shutdown. So it is not as big of a deal. It is a big deal, but it is not quite as existential feeling as it was in 2013, when I was there, too, on New Year's Eve, and waiting for the final votes to happen, at 3:00, 4:00 in the morning. We're not in that sort of spirit right now. Both because we have a change of leadership coming in are the House and also because this isn't the entire government. So you have this parallel reality, where you've got the cohesion in the GOP that's letting the shutdown go forward, when it comes to the funding issues that are more domestic, and then the absolute breakdown. And it is not so much abandoning the president but more losing their patience with him at this point. They have waited through many unorthodox things that he has said on foreign policy but not this one.

[15:10:19] CABRERA: But he got them right in line with this issue, regarding the border wall.

Now, the interesting thing here is, again, this is the third government shutdown we've seen this year alone. You have to go back to the '70s to see another time where we've had three in one year. And as you pointed out, Karoun, it is about 25 percent of the government that is technically shut down this time.

But again, it is over the wall. And the president has been offered money for his wall this year, several times. And in January of last year, in fact, there was a bipartisan offer, going back over a year ago, and which it would have funded his wall for at least a year. Again, in January, Chuck Schumer offered Trump $20 billion in funding in exchange for a pathway of citizenship for DACA recipients. A month later, another bipartisan offer, $25 billion. Again, this was in exchange for the pathway to citizenship for DREAMers. A compromise.

Doug, why is Trump willing to shut down the government now over just $5 billion? That's enough to build maybe 100 miles of the new border wall?

HEYE: I think he is trying to demonstrate some toughness here, however you define toughness. And for Trump, standing up and saying no and taking action, even if is a negative action, helps define that toughness for him and certainly riles up his base. And if you want to know why Republican members are not standing up to Trump, it's because the Republican base voters still support him on this.

And what is frustrating to me, I started on Monday, I was in Boston at an event where Congressman Joe Kennedy, a Democrat, and Congressman Mark Wayne Mullen, a Republican, and another Republican and Democrat were talking about how we can get solutions. And we lose sight this week, we passed the First Step Act, which was a big bipartisan win that everyone can take credit for. And this morning, I was at Pete's Diner two blocks away from the capital and there was Congressman Kennedy and Congressman Mullen having breakfast together with a wounded soldier, somebody who lost both legs in the war. That's what we need to get to. And we have this constant brinksmanship -- and we had over the past year with the previous shutdowns under Trump, we've had them before under President Obama and the Republican House and the Democratic House and so forth -- if we can get back to that spirit that Kennedy and Mullen are pushing, we will get back to a much better place. It is just very hard to get there.

CABRERA: Karoun, it does cut both ways. No side has no blame. Democrats supported earlier this week $1.6 billion in border funding. Trump wants just another $3.4 billion. If a year ago, as we pointed out, Democrats were willing to offer up to $25 billion for, again, a tradeoff, getting some pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, why not just pony up the $3 now and end this shutdown?

DEMIRJIAN: Well, I don't think they want to do that without a valuable tradeoff. And right now, the tradeoff is not really up for discussion so much as the president's demands for the extra money. Also, there's no more faith really between the two sides. We've been talking about that in various ways. But the president, for a while -- remember the good old days of, you know, him wanting to work with Chuck and Nancy, that doesn't exist anymore really. They have been beating each other up for the last two years. They don't really have very much faith that the other person is going to negotiate in good faith.

And also, we are heading toward a political change. In a few more days, you are going to have a different balance of power on Capitol Hill. That means a different leveraging, a different leverage with the White House. And potentially more bickering in fact. But a different calculus. And everybody knows that's the reality. Everybody wanted to go home and spend the holidays at home. When it comes to a bunch of House Republicans that don't have to answer for this down the line because there's a shift of power and a shift of seats. And Senate Republicans kind of in a bind not knowing what to do, and again, like we've said, not the entirety of the government actually getting this far, and feeling in a way that people have felt it closer to home in past shutdowns, there just isn't the will to overcome those bad feelings, those bruises, and actually offer anybody out of the goodness of their own heart and the spirit of the holiday season anything at this point because it will weaken your position for the next time. And they know they have serious fights coming over the next two years.

CABRERA: It doesn't sound like we will have a break through any time soon with that kind of analysis.

Doug, Karoun good to have both of you with us.


CABRERA: And thank you for taking the time on your holiday weekend to be part of this discussion. And a reminder for our viewers about public support for this wall. A

CNN poll just last month found 38 percent of Americans support building a wall along the entire southern border. Nearly six in 10 do not support Trump's border wall.

There's still more adding to the chaotic week in the West Wing. CNN learning President Trump has been lashing out at his acting attorney general over the Michael Cohen case. And the acting A.G. is facing criticism on another front.

[15:15:07] You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM. Don't go anywhere.


[CABRERA: Welcome back. New Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is already feeling the wrath of President Trump over the Russia investigation. CNN has learned the president has lashed out at Whitaker at least twice in the past few weeks for information that has become public in the Michael Cohen case that implicates the president. We are told the president thinks Whitaker should have done a better job reining in the prosecutors he oversees.

And meanwhile, Whitaker is raising some eyebrows for not recusing himself in the investigation.

CNN justice reporter, Laura Jarret explains.


LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER (voice-over): New details 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 has never been briefed on the Mueller investigation, is expected to start getting updates now that he isn't recusing himself.


[15:20:10] JARRETT: 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: We've continued to manage the investigation as we have in the past. And it is 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.

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

JARRETT: Even echoing President Trump's words, saying the special counsel investigation could become a, quote, "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's 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."


JARRETT: That appearance of a conflict not enough to convince Whitaker to recuse.

The Justice Department outlining his reasons in the same letter, saying ethics commercials could find no personal or financial interest that would require recusal, that Whitaker had not made comments about the investigation since rejoining the DOJ to work for Jeff Sessions, and 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 for Bill Barr, the president's permanent pick for attorney general who is also a Mueller critic.


JARRETT: 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, quote, "fatally misconceived," with potentially disastrous implications for the presidency. Saying Trump's firing of former FBI Director 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: Laura Jarrett, CNN, Washington.


CABRERA: By now, we all know a Trump tweet can send shock waves. Long before they were part of the national archives, someone had to show him how to tweet. Up next, I will take you back to 2013 and the first time Trump personally fired off a tweet, which his social media guru at the time called a "Jurassic Park" moment. We will explain.

You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM. Don't go anywhere.


[15:27:36] CABRERA: Breaking news. Right now, the Senate just adjourning for the weekend. So little expectation of passing a deal any time soon to reopen the government. This meeting that took place between the vice president and Chuck Schumer has ended as well. As the vice president left, the Senate majority leader's office, Chuck Schumer's office, he told reporters that, quote,, "We are still talking. That's the update from Capitol Hill as Senators now go home for the day.

One moment can change the world. Just ask the man who taught Donald Trump how to use Twitter. Justin McConney was just 24 years old when he became Trump's first-ever social media adviser. He is speaking out now for the first time and recalling his "oh, no" reaction to Trump's first solo tweet. McConney compares it to a "Jurassic Park" moment, when the humans realize the velociraptors can open doors.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Yes, he must have figured out how to open doors.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It is a velociraptor.


CABRERA: Joining us, "Political reporter, Ben Schreckinger, who interviewed Trump's first Twitter guru, Justine McConney.

Ben, Trump has had his account since 2009 but you report the shackles really came off in 2013 leading to this so-called "Jurassic Park" "oh, no" moment. What happened?

BEN SCHRECKINGER, REPORTER, POLITICO: So it was a moment many years in the making. As you mentioned, way back in 2009, to promote a book, he opened a Twitter account. He tweeted two or three times a week. Pretty bland promotional fare. Things like "happy holidays." Not the sort of Trump that we have come to know on Twitter.

That really started around 2011, when a 24-year-old kid named Justin McConney made a promotional video for Trump's golf courses that the future president liked a lot. And had the kid into his office and the kid said, you should start a YouTube channel and you should really think about using Twitter more and showing your personality more on Twitter. Over those next couple of years, Trump became addicted to that platform. But he still had to phone in his tweets or dictate them to staffers.

[15:30:00] BEN SCHRECKINGER, REPORTER, POLITICO: And had the kid into his office and the kid said, you should start a YouTube channel and you should really think about using Twitter more and you should really think about using Twitter more and showing your personality more on Twitter. Over those next couple of years, Trump became addicted to that platform. But he still had to phone in his tweets or dictate them to staffers. Finally got an Android around late 2012. And in February of 2013, we had his first ever tweet. It was thanking an actress for saying something nice about him on "The View," a lot more civil than many of the tweets that were to come. But certainly, in hindsight, an historic moment.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: That's when they realize he had done that without consulting anybody, without somebody else actually typing it in, and so again, the shackles came off.

Justin McConney, 24 years old at the time, I understand he worked with the president then for several years, but he is no longer part of the president's team anymore? Is that right? And why?

SCHRECKINGER: That is right. So he worked at the Trump Organization as director of social media from 2011 to 2017. He did help out with some of the political stuff early on in the presidential campaign. Actually, I wrote about him in 2015, but he wasn't able to speak to me because he was still working at the Trump Organization. He had never went full-time on the campaign. He says he was never really interested in politics. Finally left the Trump Organization last year. And was able to go on the record and tell me this full story just a couple of weeks ago when I called him.

CABRERA: He is such a prolific tweeter, the president. And there was an interesting moment, this week, where he tweeted out a video from his performance in the Emmy's back in 2005. And it is sort of one of those moments where people were like, what, that was weird. Well, the president actually addressed this tweet, at the start of the farm bill signing. Watch.




I sang "Green Acres." And received a very nice award that night. That was really great. So we had that, somebody had that. I said, put it on. Not too much of it but put it on.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CABRERA: Ben, often times, you may think Trump is firing tweets blindly, but I thought it was interesting, you report there's actually serious strategy.

SCHRECKINGER: That's right. And that's been long a topic of debate, if there's a method to the madness. It varies to a certain extent from tweet to tweet. But certainly, at the outset, Justin counselled his boss, future President Trump, to use social media to tease exclusive comments, exclusive bits of insight that would then earn coverage from traditional media, things like television and newspapers, that the president instinctively values more because that is what he grew up on. He's obviously not a digital native. They first found success with that way back in 2012 when the president took Sarah Palin out for pizza and ate with a fork and knife, his pizza. And that received a lot of commentary in the media coverage of that event. So he decided to take to YouTube and to Twitter to explain why he had done that. He saw that that explanation then got picked up again. And he saw that he could get on TV using YouTube and Twitter. And he didn't look back from there. He was all in on social media from that moment on.

CABRERA: And some of the other details in your piece, when you talk about how he would call McConney at 2:00 in the morning, I have an idea, and he started readily taking over Twitter as if it were his own sort of pet project. Really fascinating.

I do want to get to this point, which is that McConney is now critical of how the president uses his social media. So even if it seems like he's got the Twitter thing down, McConney says he needs to up his game. What does he think the president needs to do differently?

SCHRECKINGER: He thinks that the president should pay attention to platforms like Instagram and Facebook more than he has been. He thinks, on Instagram, particularly, the president's presence, his feed is bland and impersonal. He uses the third person. He wants to see the president engaging more with his fans on social media.

And he also says he wants to see the president show more of a sense of humor, be a little bit less angry. I will note that advice came out in this "Politico" story on, what was it, Thursday morning, and Thursday afternoon is when he tweeted out that tweet where he is singing at the Emmy's dressed up as a farmer, it is possible that the president and his social media team have already started listening to his advice.

CABRERA: So interesting.

Ben Schreckinger, thanks for sharing with us.

And do check out ben's piece in "Politico." It is a good one. A fast read.

Speaking of Twitter, it was the tweet that shook the world. President Trump this week vowing to pull U.S. forces from Syria. But it was what happened after that that has allies really worried. Details on the dramatic exit of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis when we come back. [15:35:00] You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


CABRERA: President Trump is claiming victory in the fight against ISIS, tweeting, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency."

Choosing not to join in that celebration, however, secretary of defense, James Mattis, who quit Thursday after unsuccessfully trying to change Trump's mind from withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria.

And just in to CNN, we are learning the special envoy in charge of fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk, is heading for the door, specifically because of Trump's Syria decision.

[15:40:10] Meanwhile, Mattis's resignation stunned many in Washington. Sources say Trump and Mattis clashed in recent months.

Now, Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. from Syria angered not only Mattis, but also stunned many others in his administration, including his own top national security advisers.

And joining us now to talk more about all of this is CNN senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon.

Arwa, how are U.S. allies viewing Mattis's resignation amid Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPODNENT: I really think that it is. And we do know that it is causing quite a bit of confusion in the sense of unease, because, remember, this was up until this point, a U.S.-led coalition. Now, the other coalition members, the French, the Brits, they are not going to necessarily be withdrawing from Syria. But it really calls into question how valuable of an ally America is and can be under this administration. And what representatives of the Trump administration overseas, whether it was, you know, Secretary of Defense Mattis, whether it was Brett McGurk, what their word is actually worth. Which is part of the reason why McGurk himself was resigning. But just imagine being in a position where you're hearing from top administration officials that America's strategy is one thing only to have that completely and totally flipped on its head. On the other side of the equation, of course, there's the reaction of America's adversaries in the region, namely the Syrian regime, the Russians, the Iranians, and they're all welcoming this decision, and that speaks for itself.

CABRERA: No doubt.

What exactly does the U.S. role in Syria look like going forward then?

DAMON: If the Americans are completely withdrawing from the military battlefield, it is really hard to see what kind of role America is actually going to have, or at least what kind of a productive role it can have. Look, America, a long time ago, took itself out of the political solution equation when it came to Syria. The more significant negotiations when it came to some sort of a political solution were really just being held between the Turks and the Russians and the Iranians. And now America is effectively, to a certain degree, is taking itself out of the military battlefield. Could this decision be reversed if say, for example, there was as many are predicting some sort of re-emergence of ISIS? Yes, it could. But this is all about trying to prevent that worst-case scenario from taking place. And to withdraw without proper measures being put into place, a proper handover to other coalition members, the training of forces on the ground, that can actually hold the ground, so many people will tell you, it is just irresponsible.

CABRERA: We know the situation in Syria is already dire. They have been involved in this ongoing civil war. The U.S. has been focused specifically on ISIS. And not necessarily on making huge inroads into the civil war there. But help us understand what is at stake for the Syrian civilians on the ground if the U.S. is pulling out.

DAMON: Look, to a certain degree, Syrian civilians, especially those that have been living in opposition-held areas and up to very recently under this constant bombardment by the Syrian regime and by the Russian, they had essentially lost hope that America was going to come in and somehow save them. But that being said, they still fundamentally want to have faith in the United States because of the principles that America is meant to uphold. By completely and totally extracting itself politically and militarily from Syria, America does lose, to a certain degree, some of its standing when it comes to not just Syrians, but the region. And perhaps, more broadly speaking, and you know, if people can't turn towards America and its so-called principles and morals that it is meant to be upholding, who are they going to be turning to? Add, you know, to all of that, the fact that this abrupt irresponsible withdrawal plays, to a certain degree, straight into the narrative that entities like ISIS are trying to push forward, that narrative being, look, you should go out, you should attack America, and the West because, look, they're going to betray you and they're going to abandon you.

CABRERA: All right. Arwa Damon, thank you for your perspective. We appreciate your reporting.

[15:45:21] Cut your hair or don't compete. The high school wrestler forced to make that choice during a competition. More on this controversy, next.

You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


CABRERA: Cut off your dreadlocks or forfeit your wrestling match -- that demand coming from a high school referee this week in New Jersey. And the video of this player submitting to the impromptu courtside haircut has since gone viral. It happened Wednesday in New Jersey. And while the student athlete has maintained a low profile, staying quiet, we have heard from officials in his school district as well as the state athletic association.

Polo Sandoval is joining us with more details. Polo, what are the officials saying?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As we are seeing some of the pictures, Ana, it is very important to also understand what happened before this. The school district there laying out basically a time line, aside from saying this referee is not expected to officiate any matches until this situation is reviewed, the New Jersey attorney general Civil Rights Division says it is looking into the possibility of bias being a factor during this incident. According to the school district, the varsity wrestler you see here stepped on to the mat on Wednesday to compete before the referee told him that his hair length and his head gear were just not in compliance with the regulations. So faced with the option of forfeiting the match, the school district saying that the wrestler then agreed to have his haircut on the spot. And the district then also explaining that none of its staff influenced the student to make this decision.

[15:50:15] The district also pointing out that the referee does not actually work for them, but instead is part of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the NJSIAA. Who are they? Basically, the governing body that we see in other states as well that oversee high school athletics.

So a question now that the school district, that the NJSIAA and mainly the state A.G. Civil Rights Division will have to answer here, was this a case of bias? Usually, the athletic authority leads these kinds of investigations involving players and coaches. However, the referee is technically a part of this association. So it cannot investigate itself. And that's why the state is leading this investigation.

I should note, there was an interesting statement added by the head of the athletic association, namely, Larry White, who wrote, in part, "As an African-American and parent as well as a former educator, coach, official and athlete, I clearly understand the issues at play and probably better than most. The NJSIAA takes this matter very seriously and I ask that everyone respect the investigatory process related to all parties involved."

Again, this coming from the head of the athletic association in the state of New Jersey saying we need to have all of this play out.

CNN has actively reached out to not only the parents of the player but also the referee in question but have not heard back from either party this morning.

CABRERA: That's wild. I'm curious to know if this has happened before or if this is a one-time thing and how unusual it really is.

Thank you, Polo.

SANDOVAL: What the state will rule.

CABRERA: We'll see.

SANDOVAL: Thanks, Ana. CABRERA: Thank you very much.

We'll be right back.


[15:57:01] CABRERA: "Super human, like a cyborg, machine-like" -- not a typical description of an 85-year-old woman. The exception, though, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she recovers from surgery to remove two malignant nodules on her lung. The people who know her best say her extraordinary strength and determination will pull her through.

I spoke to CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta about the procedures.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: There were two nodules they found. They were in one of the left lobes of the lung. And by removing the entire lobe, they're confident that they got the nodules and anything else that may have been surrounding that.

The second point they make is there was no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body scans. And the reason they point that out, Ana, is when you see something in the lung, the question you ask, did it start in the lung or start somewhere else in the body and spread to the lung. She's had colon cancer in the past, early pancreatic cancer in the past. It's a question they had to answer, is this metastatic disease? It doesn't appear to be. They don't know for sure until they get a definitive finding on those nodules. But it appears to have originated in the lung and stayed in the lung.


CABRERA: Joining us now is Betsy West, one of the directors of the "RBG," the CNN film documentary, on the short list for Academy Award.

Betsy, congratulations.

BETSY WEST, DIRECTOR: Thank you very much, Ana.

CABRERA: I know and your co-director, who I've also spoken to here on the show, you guys have spent a lot of time with Justice Ginsburg, three years, observing her, spending time with her. What was your reaction when you learned about this new diagnosis?

WEST: Well, obviously, like everybody else, it's very concerning. But Justice Ginsburg is a very strong and determined person. I mean, she has survived two other bouts of cancer. It seems almost every year, 2009, colorectal -- 1999, colorectal cancer and, in '99, early stage pancreatic. She is today, we are told by her office, she is doing well. She's up and working. She's expected to go home in a few days. And I'm glad you have a doctor on. I am not a doctor, but everybody seems to be very optimistic. And certainly that's been her approach to her life in general. She's a glass-half-full person. I'm sure that's how she will tackle this. CABRERA: One of the most memorable parts of your document is the

scene where she is working out.

WEST: Yes.

CABRERA: I just want to play a quick clip.


UNIDENTFIED FEMALE: They're real pushups, right? They're not girl pushups?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've heard the she does 20 push-ups three times a week or something. We can't get off the floor. We can't get down to the floor.



GINSBURG: I always feel better, no matter how tired I am. At the end of that hour, I'm ready to go again.


CABRERA: I love that.

Betsy, you write for this weekend that she is tough enough to survive this. You touched on some of her toughness in terms of her resilience following other cancerous battles. But in the day to day, talk more about her toughness.

WEST: Well, she has extraordinary stamina for an 85-year-old woman. Julie and I and our camera crew were following her around the country. I have to say, there were several times when she really outpaced us. At one point, we had spent some time filming in her home, and the day before, we have done that memorable scene filming in the gym. Then as she said good-bye to us, she said, yes, now I have to go put some finishing touches on a descent that I'm writing. We were ready to go home and go to sleep.

So she's a night owl. She's a very hard worker. She is very determined, as you see in this, to keep herself in shape. You know, she started working out again when she fell down and broke those ribs, which --