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Forced Mueller Report Release; Whitaker Rejects Ethics Officials; Indonesia Tsunami Deaths Rise; Mattis Signs Order to Withdraw. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired December 24, 2018 - 09:30   ET

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


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[09:32:47] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: This new year could publicly expose and detail the mounting legal troubles for President Trump. Incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, says that he is prepared to force Mueller's report on the Russia investigation to go public if the White House tries to block its release.

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REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), INCOMING CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I'm prepared to make sure we do everything possible so that the public has the advantage and as much of the information as it can.

Now there may be parts of the report that have to be redacted because they involve classified information or they involve grand jury material.

This case is just too important to keep from the American people what it's really about.

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SCIUTTO: Joining me now to discuss, Jim Schultz. He's former attorney for the Trump White House.

Jim, thanks for taking the time on this Christmas Eve.

JAMES SCHULTZ, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: So, first question, in your view, is there any compelling legal reason for the White House to block the public release of the special counsel's report?

SCHULTZ: OK, so the -- Schiff had it right in that, you know, the report is going to go over to Congress, presumably. It doesn't have to. But presumably it's going to go over to Congress. I think it will be politically detrimental to this administration to hold it back for any reason from going over to Congress. Certainly there are reasons why portions of it will be redacted. Remember, this is a counterintelligence investigation. There are likely to be -- there are likely classified information. There's likely to be grand jury information there that will need to be kept secret.

But that being said, I think it will -- a report would likely go over to Congress. I don't think the administration will try to stop that. One way they could is by way of executive privilege. Remember, the department -- the Mueller team reports to the deputy attorney general, who reports to the attorney general, and they're part of the executive branch of the administration, so executive privilege could be asserted in this case, but I just don't see it happening.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you, because you bring up the acting attorney general. We learned a lot about Matt Whitaker just in the last week. we learned that DOD ethics lawyers, who are non-partisan career professionals there, recommended that he recuse himself from oversight of the Russia investigation because -- in large part because of his public comments criticizing the Russia investigation before he took that position.

We also learned that the president scolded his acting attorney general for not reigning in federal prosecutors here in New York for pursuing criminal charges against Michael Cohen that he actually pled guilty to because the president felt that that made him look bad.

[09:35:13] Is that the way a president should treat his attorney general? And is that the way an attorney general is meant to operate, in your view?

SCHULTZ: Look, I don't believe that it's going to impact Whitaker's decision making one way or the other on this, the fact that the president may have scold him. What the president said to him. Apparently the president did not give him any directive as it related to any of that.

And I know I think that Whitaker's going to do the right thing and continue down the road he's gone down in terms of the way he's been conducting himself and I don't believe it's going to have any impact.

SCIUTTO: You remember the reaction among Republicans to the famous tarmac meeting between President Clinton and then Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the midst of an investigation involving Hillary Clinton. Here you have, and we don't really know what happened in that discussion, but just the appearance was one that Republicans, rightfully, questioned and were very publicly critical. We know that the president reached out to his acting attorney general, complained about the independent actions as they're designed to be of federal prosecutor pursuing crimes. Why is there not a similar outrage from Republicans today for a very similar kind of interference?

SCHULTZ: Again, this is the executive branch of government. Last time I checked, I don't think Bill Clinton was the president of the United States at the time he was having that discussion with Loretta Lynch. So certainly that was -- that was a different, different situation.

In this case, it's the executive branch of government. The president of the United States heads the -- heads the executive branch of government. (INAUDIBLE) the president -- SCIUTTO: Well, arguably, worse, isn't it, because the president --

Bill Clinton -- but it's arguably worse, is it not, because -- because Trump is the president today. He's not a former president. He's a president who appointed Whitaker, directly criticizing Whitaker for not keeping him shielded from an investigation that might hurt him. That, arguably, is more concerning, isn't it?

SCHULTZ: The president should not be getting involved in these investigations.

SCIUTTO: OK.

SCHULTZ: He should not be publicly scolding or privately scolding the attorney general in connection with these investigations. That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that Whitaker is going to do the right thing and do the right thing as the attorney general of the United States. I don't think it's going to have any impact.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you then because there's a --

SCHULTZ: But there is a -- there is a striking difference between a private citizen going in and having a discussion with Loretta Lynch, if that discussion had something to do with the investigation of his wife.

SCIUTTO: Sure. Understood. Although you could argue that a sitting president has more power over the attorney general he appointed, could you not, than a former president? I mean the point -- the point -- listen, you've already made the point. You're saying it's not interference that the attorney general should listen to. I think I hear you correctly.

SCHULTZ: Correct.

SCIUTTO: OK.

Jim Schultz, wishing you and your family the best on the holidays. Thanks for taking some time out. I hope you don't get too much grief when you go home.

SCHULTZ: No, thank you. Take care.

SCIUTTO: All right.

There is fear in Indonesia right now that more tsunamis could strike in the next few days. Hundreds have been killed. But the death toll continues to rise there. And the volcano that apparently started it all shows no signs of stopping.

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[09:42:17] SCIUTTO: In Indonesia right now, authorities are warning people to stay away from beaches. They're worried that more, deadly giant waves, tsunamis, could strike. The death toll climbing from Saturday's disaster. Almost incomprehensible how many people have been killed. At least 370 now confirmed dead. A ten-foot high wall of water pounded Indonesia's coastline, crushing homes into pieces, taking people by surprise. No one got any warning at all the tsunami was coming. Indonesia's president now wants to make sure that doesn't happen again. CNN's Ivan Watson in Hong Kong.

Of course, just a horrible history with Indonesia going back to that massive tsunami in 2004. They -- you know, early warning system, et cetera. What do we know about what happened?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, terrible. And this is a country that's prone to these types of natural disasters, sadly. But you've had a surge on Monday in the number of people killed and injured and still missing after Saturday night's deadly tsunami. It hit a stretch of the coast that was packed with Indonesian tourists for the Christmas weekend holiday. And it's believed that it was triggered by this volcanic eruption, an island in the Sunda Strait that's called Anacracatel (ph). That translates to child of Krakatoa (ph). Some of our viewers may recognize that name, Krakatoa. Very notorious.

And it sent about 150 acres of mountain sliding into the sea, according to Indonesian authorities, and then created this tsunami on what was a night with a full moon and it had been high tide at the time. Some of the survivors that we've talked to say there was no warning whatsoever and the waters didn't recede before the tsunami struck, as you sometimes get in other cases. And that's part of the why the results were just so devastating.

This band that we've seen, this Indonesian pop band 17, their lead singer has announced on his social media accounts that all three of his band members were killed by the wave that tragically interrupted their concert.

Jim.

SCIUTTO: I mean that video, we just showed it again there, just shocking. Shows the surprise.

So they put in these buoys after the 2004 earthquake, which kind of rise and fall, I guess, with sea rise. I know that in the last quite -- just a few months ago, many of them weren't working. What's happened? Why not? And what is the government going to do about it?

WATSON: Yes, that's what's really stunning about this. I mean the Indonesian president was touring the disaster zone. He said, we need to install an early warning system. But Indonesia got one installed with these deep water buoys, deep sea buoys, after that horrific tsunami in 2004. It killed hundreds of thousands of people across Southeast Asia.

[09:45:04] Well, there was another tsunami just last September after an earthquake in another part of Indonesia. It killed about 2,000 people. And they didn't get warnings. And at that time, Indonesian officials were saying, you know that early warning system, a lot of it doesn't work anymore. It's fallen into disrepair or it's been vandalized. So some big questions about how to protect this country, more than

17,000 islands, Jim, more than 125 active volcanos, a lot of vulnerable coastline.

Jim.

SCIUTTO: And the people pay the price there.

Ivan Watson, thanks very much.

Just days before heading out the door, the defense secretary signed an order pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, as the president demanded. Coming up, how America's allies are responding.

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[09:50:17] SCIUTTO: Outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis has now signed the order to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Of course, an order that he opposed. President Trump's decision last week to pull them out has garnered bipartisan backlash.

Joining me now, CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger, and retired General Wesley Clark. He's the former NATO allied commander under President Clinton.

Thanks to both of you on these holidays.

General, if I could begin with you because you're someone who knows the importance of alliances. We have a president here who has questioned or outright abandoned a number of them in the span of weeks and months. He certainly questioned NATO. He's leaving Syria. He's cutting the commitment to Afghanistan. He has threatened to alliance with South Korea by suspending exercises there in the midst of the threat from North Korea. He's made the Japanese nervous in terms of that defense agreement. Of course he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, which he signed with several close U.S. allies

Are all of U.S. alliances now in question in the view of the world, in the view of our allies, but also crucially in the view of our adversaries?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, I think that the allies are going to be looking for reassurances in the days and weeks ahead. They're probably calling in right now.

They all had respect for General Mattis. They know what he stood for. The -- Trump is an uncertain player still. And the strategic rationale behind the pressure on the alliances really -- and the cozying up to adversaries really has never been articulated, doesn't make sense. Not in the president's own national security strategy that was released last year. Adversaries, of course, would be -- they would welcome this inconsistency and unreliability because it creates an opening for them. There's an opening in the Middle East for Russia and Iran, an opening for China in Asia, an opening for Russia in Asia. So when the United States pulls back and creates a vacuum, others step forward and often not to our liking and interests. SCIUTTO: David Sanger, you know this well. In the midst of these

decisions, the president is ignoring assessments by the intelligence community and overruling his commanders really across the board on a lot of these decisions there, while focusing on this perceived threat at the southern border. What do U.S. intelligence officials tell you about what is on the list of top threats to the U.S. today and what is not on that list?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Jim, there's nothing secret about what's on their list. Every year they have to give Congress a ranked order. The past five years it started with cyber threats to the United States and its infrastructure. It's moved on to the threat of terrorism, Russia, China. You have to go pretty far down the list, fi you can find it at all, to see any significant threat to the United States from the southern border.

And the president's doing this completely in reverse, as General Clark suggested, alliances, the border, all seem to him to be the much greater threats. And if you're really concerned about keeping some intelligence on the possibility that terrorists could come out of the Middle East and hit the United States, withdrawing what's really a token force in Syria that is your early warning system is getting -- making a lot of military intelligence people scratch their heads.

SCIUTTO: No question. You have ISIS still present in Syria despite the president's false claim that it's been defeated. Al Qaeda still present in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are. And he's now having the U.S. presence there.

General Clark, big picture, because I imagine folks at home, they hear these headlines every week, you know, crisis reaction from Democratic and Republican senators to decisions that the president made. Bring them together for us big picture, in terms of what this means for U.S. national security right now, how much of a threat? I mean you said that allies will be looking for assurances. I wonder who's going to give that assurance because I've been speaking to allies for the last two years who said they accepted the word of Mattis when they were nervous about what the president said. So is there anyone who could deliver a credible message of assurance when the president might reverse that in a tweet, as he did with Syria?

CLARK: Well, Jim, this is the problem, of course, that if you look at the big picture, I mean, for 70 years, since the end of World War II, the United States has built its security around alliances. We're a continent separated by two oceans from theaters of conflict. Those oceans kept us safe. We learned in World War II they didn't. We said we'd never be caught alone, isolated again. That structure mostly kept the peace. We won the Cold War. We were able to advance our values and interests after the Cold War. We were struck at 9/11. We went beyond where we had been before. We engaged in some operations in the Middle East, like the invasion of Iraq that our allies didn't support but they hung with us.

[09:55:12] Now Russia and China are challenging the American structure that emerged at the end of World War II that we've sustained. And President Trump, instead of re-enforcing the structure and working within that structure, seems to be questioning it as well. He seems more cozy dealing with President Putin than he does dealing with, let's say, Angela Merkel. And this is really at the heart of the concern about Jim Mattis' departure.

It's not Jim so much. He did a fine job as secretary of defense. It's people knew that he was holding the line. And with Jim gone, the question is, just as you posed, who's going to hold it? Is it Josh Bolton -- John Bolton? Doesn't look like it. Mike Pompeo? He's been pretty supportive of the president. Who's going to come in there? Is it going to be the Republican Senate, but there's no John McCain in the Republican Senate right now. So I think our allies are going to be very anxious and our adversaries are, frankly, gratified.

SCIUTTO: It is a test. It's a test for U.S. national security today.

General Wesley Clark, thank you very much.

David Sanger, thanks very much.

SANGER: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: We'll be right back.

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