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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump's Syria Decision Rattles Allies. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 24, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:55]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Turning to breaking news now in our world lead, stunning, just sobering new details about the rash decision by President Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, which, of course, led to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis.

A senior administration official telling me a short time ago, it was -- quote -- "a complete reversal without deliberation and no consideration of risks," leaving U.S. allies stunned, shocked and bewildered. This senior administration official says that this goes to the whole national security decision-making, saying that that decision-making has basically stopped working, that decisions are made on a whim, on a phone call by the president, and this, the same official saying that ISIS and its current leadership, including al- Baghdadi, may be cornered now in a small pocket in Northern Syria, similar to the Tora Bora situation.

This, of course, a reference to U.S. forces closing in on Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan back in 2001. Part of this based on the vigorous defense of this northern pocket in Syria with the deployment of suicide bombers along the front lines, as U.S.-back forces approach.

A series of alarming details there.

We have our own Barbara Starr at the Pentagon with more on this decision and the departure of Jim Mattis.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Since Washington crossed the Delaware at Christmas in 1776, American troops have missed holidays at home to defend our experiment in democracy.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Defense Secretary James Mattis recorded this holiday message to the troops the day before he resigned. Mattis had planned to be in the war zone over the holidays.

Instead, he's packing to leave by January 1, the date the president ordered him out of office, following his resignation in protest of Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria.

In Syria, a new reality already is emerging, fulfilling Mattis' fears the U.S.-backed Kurds are facing a possible bloodbath at the hands of Turkey. In a phone call, Turkey's president promising President Trump to fight ISIS.

"In fact, as your friend, I give you my word in this," a senior White House official quoted President Erdogan as saying. "OK, it's all yours, we are done," Trump told Turkey's strongman.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: This is a very low-cost situation for us to continue to rout out Syria and to rout out ISIS, but also to keep in check what's happening there with Russia and Iran.

STARR: It's those concerns that prompted Mattis to resign with a scathing letter to the president. The fallout from the letter caused an angry Trump to move up Mattis' departure, announcing Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will become the acting secretary.

Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, with no foreign policy or military experience, will now deal with a sudden troop withdrawal from Syria and possibly Afghanistan.

Shanahan had a rocky start in Washington, clashing with the late Republican Senator John McCain at his confirmation hearing over a nonanswer on arming Ukraine.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Not a good beginning. Do not do that again, Mr. Shanahan, or I will not take your name up for a vote before this committee. Am I perfectly clear?

PATRICK SHANAHAN, U.S. DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Very clear.

STARR: Not everyone disagrees with the president's decision. Some Republicans favor pulling out, saying the U.S. has been at war for too long in too many places.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Leaving our troops there is sort of like a trip wire to a much larger war. The war has every danger every day of becoming an explosive, expansive war. And so I think the president is doing the best thing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Other military leaders traveling in the war zone this holiday are hearing a lot from the troops, questions about what will happen next, when will they go home, what will happen in the combat zones they leave behind, a lot of uncertainty and unease -- Jim.

[16:35:10]

SCIUTTO: And that's no fun for troops deployed abroad in war zones.

Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

To the panel now.

Again, you heard that reporting. And just have another detail from the senior administration official describing the decision-making, that John Bolton dispatched senior officials around the region to speak to partners, to speak to coalition allies in recent weeks to tell them the U.S. is not leaving Syria until Iran is out of Syria.

Then, of course, the president makes this decision. How jarring is that at home, domestically, for our partners abroad, but just for decision-making process, if it exists, here in Washington?

JENNICE FUENTES, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, I think we should all be very worried. And I think that it's OK -- a lot has been said about, he's the president, and he can do whatever he wants. Yes. That is correct, to some extent.

But when you follow your instincts, it should be based on some foundation, some groundwork of knowledge and experience. There's a reason why the people are doctors. There's a reason we have lawyers. There's a reason we have brokers. Sometimes, they can follow their instinct. A broker may say to you, I think it's going to go this way. That's fine.

When you have a man who is wild, who is basically unhinged, and who doesn't really have that self-awareness to say, OK, maybe I don't know as much, but let me rely on my team of experts, and then maybe then I will make the decision, that conversation is totally missing in the Oval Office, I'm sure of that. And then we all pay the price.

SCIUTTO: That's exactly what this official says, Bill Kristol, says that this is not a one-off, that there is no more decision-making process in this White House.

No -- remember the interagency, phrases like that where you would sit around and you would have proposals. They would be debated by folks with knowledge on the ground and consideration of risks, reaction of allies. It appears the president makes decisions like that, and everybody follows.

BILL KRISTOL, FORMER EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": And I think we have underestimated, or some of us have, probably, just how many bad decisions were stopped by John Kelly as chief of staff, Jim Mattis as defense secretary, by, to some degree, Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, and by H.R. McMaster, when he was national security adviser

McMaster, Kelly and Mattis were a powerful trio, able to contain this president. As some of us would say in those first two years, well, the good news is, the institutions are constraining him or his Cabinet to some degree is constraining him, Sessions, on the rule of law issues.

Think of it. They're all gone. They're all gone. Sessions and McGahn, the White House counsel, not a perfect White House counsel, but a serious guy, as we know from some of the reporting, able to stop Trump from doing what he wanted to do on Mueller.

In the foreign policy sphere, we're seeing it now, and in economics, Gary Cohn, who restrained the trade warriors.

So, in all these areas, the barriers are gone. And we're seeing the effect. SCIUTTO: And you have had the case -- was it Gary Cohn who took papers off his desk to keep the president from -- the thing about these decisions is that they -- you can call the shutdown just a political drama, although there are 800,000 people not getting paid these holidays, which is a big deal for most people, but you pull out of this country, you can't easily reverse that decision in Syria.

You cannot easily reverse a drawdown troops from Afghanistan. There are questions among allies as to whether you're going to back up alliances.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Exactly.

And that's why there was this deep sense of panic that set over Capitol Hill, particularly among Republicans, when we learned of the Syria decision last week. I mean, there are some of the few lone more dovish voices, such as Rand Paul.

But the vast majority of congressional Republicans are alarmed by this decision. They say it's wrong. And Lindsey Graham, who is one of the president's most stalwart allies, has pushed back vigorously on this decision.

And Senate Republicans are not without power here. Obviously, they will be in a position to confirm Mattis' successor early next year. I found what Mitch McConnell said after Mattis' departure pretty striking.

He said that he agreed with Mattis' philosophy on the importance of global alliances and he urged the president to nominate someone in the mold of Mattis. The problem there is, Mattis precisely got canned because his world view clashed with that of the president.

And that's what's really worrying congressional Republicans right now. Senate Republicans are already lobbying for a potential successor, such as Heather Wilson, the Air Force secretary. But who is someone that is going to really give confidence to Senate Republicans on the military and defense level and still satisfy the president?

That is a big question we're going to be watching.

SCIUTTO: You could pick AAA, right? If the president is going to make his own decisions over the recommendations, as he did with Jim Mattis, on a series of things, because Mattis, by all accounts, you know, this was the straw that broke the camel's back on Syria.

He was not comfortable with the deployment of troops on the border. He was not comfortable with the cancellation of exercises in South Korea. And the president is commander in chief.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And this reporting is astonishing, that Erdogan just in a phone call with this authoritarian leader, yes, a NATO ally, but not someone that you want calling the shots for the commander in chief in the United States, that he was just so easily -- that Trump was so easily, frankly, manipulated, right?

[16:40:01]

Why is it that the worst authoritarians in the world are the ones who kind of have Trump's number? They understand him psychologically. They understand how to push his buttons, whether it's Putin or Erdogan or some of the Middle East leaders. They're the ones that have been able to cultivate Trump in a way that, frankly, is not always in U.S. interests.

And the people who were the barrier to that in the administration are gone, and Trump seems more confident than ever that he can do this on his own.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: What Jim just said, I think that was a very good, very interesting report, that John Bolton, apparently, the national security adviser, sent emissaries out to tell people that we were staying there.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

KRISTOL: It's one thing if you're going to -- I would very much disapprove of withdrawing. But if you had a three-month strategy of telling your allies why you're doing it, getting your allies to step up, making sure people understand what comes next, you could maybe pull it off.

But to do it -- I mean, allies really will be now freaked out by this. So, as you say, think of whoever they want as secretary of defense. If the president can send someone or Bolton can send someone out to say one thing, and then they just reverse themselves, what can you count on?

SCIUTTO: Yes.

Jennice, final word to you.

FUENTES: Well, to Ryan's point, I think the president always needs to be told maybe what to do.

You think in his past in his career, when he was a developer, it was his father propping him up. And I think throughout his life, he's had people who propped him up and kept him there. And maybe Ann Coulter maybe and Rush Limbaugh are doing that job, or maybe it's Erdogan.

But it's almost like he needs to be propped up, to be told what to do by people he admires.

SCIUTTO: We're entering or have entered a very uncertain period.

Thanks to all of you.

FUENTES: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: One potential 2020 candidate is so confident in his possible campaign platform that he says he does not need to consult with strategists and pollsters.

Take a guess.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: All right forget what they say about not bringing up politics during your family's holiday dinner. This Christmas Eve it's going to be all about 2020 and a potential run for president for a handful of high profile Democrats, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Cory Booker among the possible candidates who are reportedly meeting with their families this holiday break to mull a possible campaign. Back with the panel now.

We tease someone who's not going to talk to their strategists about their message some of you guessed wrong. But anyway, I'm going to read of quotes. I'm going to give you the answer. BuzzFeed interviewed Cory Booker about a possible 2020 run. He said, where other potential candidates have sought advice on messaging, Booker has told strategists that he already knows exactly what he'd run on in 2020. A campaign about love and inclusion, the ideal as he sometimes describes it of radical love. Is that a winning message?

JENNICE FUENTES, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: You know, we all know that Corry Booker --

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: You're the radical love expert on this panel. I don't do radical love. I don't do radical love.

FUENTES: On radical love, I'll tell you. We all know that Cory Booker is very media savvy. We all know -- we watched and him into justice reform passage, how he was basically straddling all the worlds. He was -- he was telling Jared Kushner how this couldn't have been impossible without you. Obviously, we know his interest on that. And we know he is the most liberal of the members of the caucus. So I think he has every reason to believe in himself and his ability to perhaps be the second African American president.

SCIUTTO: Bill Kristol, who should Republicans be concerned about -- I mean, you heard the list there but you got Beto O'Rourke. He was down by the southern border over the weekend issuing a very strong rebuke of the President there, I mean, something you do if you're thinking of showing up in Iowa.

KRISTOL: I mean, I think right now Trump would lose to almost all of them. Somebody who Republicans should do better than Trump. OK, that's my advertisement. For getting rid of Trump on the Republican side from a political point of view, I don't know, honestly. I think my sense is Democrats would like a younger person and a fresher face and Beto O'Rourke among others, Kamala Harris, they'll fill that bill. Cory Booker, one of the governors Steve Bullock.

I keep -- every Democrat I run into, mostly green rooms here at CNN and elsewhere, so you know, these are savvy Democrats.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Yes, exactly. And mingling with the people, the Republicans. And -- I say well, who do you think. Every time we get a different name. I mean it really is unusual that usually the political class coalescence between -- by two or three and then there's an outsider or something, but they're serious you know, very savvy political operatives who like very different senators, governor's, congressmen, ex-vice presidents etcetera.

SCIUTTO: Yes, Harry Enten our election forecaster says that Kamala Harris is showing potential 2020 strengths right now. And obviously, a name that is frequently mentioned as well.

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Exactly. I think Kamala Harris, her starring role questioning Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh really did help her kind of propel herself to the top of the national spotlight. I will say I just -- I mean, besides the fact that Chuck Schumer probably going have a lot of attendance problems next year for the next couple years among Senate Democrats, obviously way too early to know who that person will be. I do think though that if you look at the candidates in the Midterms who really did seem to gain a lot of traction and motivated, grassroots supporters, and voters and the base, I mean they were they were fresh faces.

You look at Andrew Gillum in Florida who fell short of the governor's race there and obviously the aforementioned Beto O'Rourke in the Texas Senate race which is why there seems to be a little bit of skepticism about the name such as Joe Biden even though he does seem to be topping a lot of the polls. That does seem to be more name I.D. than anything else. And I think that Democrats it would probably try to look for that pressure.

SCIUTTO: Ryan, you the final word. It's all on you.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, who knows, of radical love is -- if radical love is the right message but it's going -- you know I sat down the other day and made a list. You could easily get to three dozen Democrats who are plausible and likely to run. I don't make any predictions. It's going to be a huge wide-open field and it will be filled with surprises.

But one piece of advice. If you're if you're someone like Beto, the history of people like that is strike while the iron is hot. And that's why even though he lost that Senate races, he's got something right now that doesn't stay with him, right? That was Elizabeth Warren's problem. She probably should have run in 2016 to a certain extent she's yesterday's news now.

[16:50:09] SCIUTTO: All right, well, we might keep talking about this, I'm just going to guess in 2019. What parts of the country will wake up to snow on Christmas morning? Will anyone? The forecast is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: In our "WORLD LEAD" today, just stunning news from Indonesia where hundreds are dead, dozens missing towns in ruins wiped away after a devastating tsunami struck with no warning. And today as rescue crews search for survivors, new concerns that another tsunami could strike at any moment. CNN's Ivan Watson joins us now live.

Ivan, there are systems set up that are supposed to warn people of incoming tsunamis going back to of course the wake of 2004 there, devastating tsunami. Why didn't they work this time?

[16:55:18] IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Indonesian authorities, Jim, they say that there simply isn't a system for this unique scenario, a volcano that led to an underwater landslide and then to this deadly tsunami.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WATSON: Child of Krakatoa, that's the name of the volcanic island that erupted on Saturday triggering a tsunami that killed hundreds, the death toll still climbing. Indonesian authorities say more than 150 acres of mountainside tumbled into the sea creating this deadly tsunami.

It slammed into a coastline packed with tourists on Christmas vacation. And days later rescue workers are still picking up the pieces. Their search for survivors complicated by fears the volcano could trigger a second tsunami.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): This is an unexpected natural phenomenon. I encourage the public to remain vigilant and refrain from going to the beach.

WATSON: In a hospital packed with injured survivors our team finds this fisherman whose boat was capsized by the waves. He says he and his son were later rescued at sea but three crew members are still missing.

This woman Nordiana says there was no advance warning, not even receding waters which can signal an approaching tsunami. Her husband who's still missing was the organizer of this pop concert tragically cut short.

Hours later the singer of the Indonesian pop band Seventeen posts this heartbreaking message.

RIEFAN FAJARSYAH, SINGER, SEVENTEEN: I just want to say that our bass player Bani and our manager Oki Wijaya passed away. I also asked for prayers for my friend Andi, Herman, and Ujang who is still missing at this time. Also my dear wife is still missing.

WATSON: Then today he announces more tragic news. All of his band members are dead and his wife still missing. On a tour of the disaster zone, Indonesia's president orders government agencies to install a new tsunami early warning system. After hundreds of thousands of people across Southeast Asia were killed by a tsunami in 2004, Indonesia put in a network of deepwater buoys designed to detect unusual wave activity. But officials say it fell into disrepair and did little to save some 2,000 Indonesians killed by an earthquake and tsunami that hit another part of Indonesia just three months ago.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATSON: Jim, protecting this archipelago nation will not be easy. It is made up of more than 17,000 islands. It's located on the ring of fire so Indonesia is home to more than 125 active volcano. That's a lot of vulnerable coastline and it can go from being a tropical paradise to a natural disaster without any warning. Jim?

SCIUTTO: A lot of us remember that Christmas 14 years ago. Ivan Watson, thanks very much. In our FAITH LEAD now. Pope Francis delivering a stark warning against greed in his Christmas message at the Vatican today. The Christmas Eve Mass going on right now. These are live pictures. The Pope lamenting that "a few dine luxuriantly while all too many go without the daily bread needed to survive."

The Pope also encouraged Christians to be selfless and focus on love instead of material objects. Quite a Christmas message there.

In our "NATIONAL LEAD now, he checked his list twice and now he is making that oh so important journey around the globe. You are looking at the official NORAD Santa tracker and Saint Nick arrives now in Poland with over three billion presents already delivered, just a few hours till Rudolph, Dasher, and Dancer guide him toward the U.S. But will Santa deliver a white Christmas. Tom Sater is in CNN's weather center tracking the chance of snow this Christmas. Is anybody going to get it, Tom?

TOM SATER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Some people will. Typically this is where we find it. If you're traveling over the river and through the woods, typical white Christmas with snow on the grown in the central northern Rockies, Sierra, northern tier states. Most of the travel map looks good. A lot of green. We've got a little bit of light snow in the Great Lakes in the northeast, but more of a travel problem in the west. Light lake-effect snows from Buffalo to Syracuse, Hartford, Boston, nothing major, just to get you in the festive spirit. But we've 30-minute delays, Jim, in San Francisco under heavy amounts of rainfall.

This is the storm to watch, blanketing heavy amounts of snow in the Rockies as it slides into the desert southwest. So those hoping for a white Christmas, not going to get it to the south. Maybe a little too naughty this year.