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Trump Relies on Erdogan to Eradicate ISIS; Should Witaker Recuse? Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired December 24, 2018 - 14:30   ET


SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISOR TO NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER IN OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: Listen to this. He tweeted, President Erdogan of Turkey has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria and he is a man who can do it. Plus, Turkey is right "next door," in quotes. Our troops are coming home. Your reaction, general?

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS: Erdogan is not our friend. Turkey is our ally in NATO, yet it is a very tenuous position that they've taken on over the course of frankly many, many years. The op- ed and/or, really, the picture that comes to my mind is, here's Erdogan and Putin and Rouhani in linked arms, and then we have following that, meeting of several months ago, Turkey buying S-400s from the Russians, which is a surface-to-air missile capability. I'm very concerned we're going to rely on Turkey to eradicate -- quote, "eradicate ISIS."

Look, ISIS is an ideology. It's a form of virulent extremism that's really not going to go away. It's going to stick around for years. So there has to be constant pressure at all times and this maybe our generational fight, let's be frank about that. But we can't rely on Turkey to get that done. Plus, the heavy lifting against ISIS has been done by Kurds. Turkey has absolutely every interest to try to eliminate the Kurds. This is a problem for the United States to walk away from.

BASH: And Sam, it's a problem for the United States to walk away from, but you know, this is an area where some Republicans, more populous Republicans, President Trump, Rand Paul, maybe is the soul Republican who believes that a lot of the Democrats believe that it is not America's place to be fighting another war overseas, and it is not a bad thing to pull troops from the battle in Syria and Afghanistan. How do you see that from your perch as a Democrat, but also a national security expert?

VINOGRAD: Well, I think it's very important to aggregate Syria and Afghanistan, because they are such different fights. But the fact of the matter is that both in Afghanistan and in Syria, we have troops on the ground, not because we're defending another country, but because we're defending ourselves.

The Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS in Syria, from an analytic perspective, have the proven intent and capability to strike the U.S. homeland, not some other country, but the U.S. homeland. And by removing troops from Syria and potentially allowing ISIS to regain territory in Syria, if we allowed the global coalition to crumble with Brett McGurk's resignation from the global coalition to combat ISIS, ISIS could radicalize more people online and we could have more ISIS- inspired attacks in the United States.

We are really saying that we are pulling back from addressing a threat that again, directly addresses the homeland. And in Afghanistan, Dana, it's a different enemy, but it's the same story. We are there because of attacks on the United States. We are not there policing someone else's country to protect someone else's citizens.

BASH: Sam Vinograd and Major General Spider Marks, thank you so much, especially on this Christmas Eve. Appreciate it.

MARKS: Thanks very much.

BASH: Thank you. And up next, the president's new target, he's lashing out now at his own acting attorney general over Michael Cohen. Just inappropriate or could it be obstruction? We're going to talk to experts.


BASH: It appears President Trump has a new target to vent his displeasure over the ongoing Russia investigation. Multiple sources tell CNN Trump has ripped into his acting Attorney General, Matt Whitaker, at least twice in recent weeks. Now, the sources say the president is upset that federal prosecutors under Whitaker filed charges against his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, charges that implicate the president himself. Now, to be clear, none of these sources suggest the president directed Whitaker to do anything about it. But the incoming head of the House Intelligence Committee says that the discussions may have crossed the line.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D) CALIFORNIA: The president of the United States is discussing a case in which he is implicated with the attorney. That is wrong at every level. And of course, it will taint anything that this acting attorney general does, any role he plays in this investigation. This is a real assault on the rule of law. And we are going to scrutinize every single action by Matt Whitaker to make sure that the public knows just what he does.


BASH: With me now is Elie Honig, who is a former assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York and a CNN legal analyst. First Elie, I should note that the president sent out a tweet shortly after a segment that CNN did earlier on this Whitaker story. The president said, I never lashed out at the acting attorney general of the U.S., a man for whom I have great respect. So Mr. President, thank you so much for watching, I hope you're still watching. And Elie, if he is, tell us why you agree or disagree with what Adam Schiff said about just having a conversation with an attorney general, acting or not, about what your former employer, the southern district of New York, has done with Michael Cohen?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Hey, Dana. Yeah, it doesn't matter if the president lashed out or if he asked really nicely. The bottom line is, it's -- it's patently obvious what his message was to Matthew Whitaker, which was, get the southern district off my back. You need to make sure the southern district doesn't do things in the future that reflect poorly on me. Maybe he didn't say, make sure they don't, but if he said, I'm angry that this happened, any boss giving any subordinate that message is entirely clear what he means. He means don't let this happen again.

The southern district, look, I'm an alum, as you mentioned, is famously independent. And I worked under a Republican administration for four years, Democratic administration for four years; it made zero difference to us who was in the White House. The southern district is completely apolitical. And to have the president leaning on the acting attorney general to back the southern district down is right on the border, perhaps, over the line of obstruction.

BASH: OK, so let me ask you about that. Because every time I speak to one of the president's attorneys or people in and around the president, they argue to me that a president can't obstruct in issues like this, because his job or the rules allow for him, as president, to oversee the executive branch, which includes the Department Of Justice. What's your response to that?

HONIG: I completely disagree with that. I've seen that theory voiced by Rudy Giuliani and others that, well, he's in charge of the executive branch, he can do whatever he wants. The counterexample I give is this, what if the president offered to get rid of investigations for $20,000 each. What if he put out a tweet that said, under investigation? Send me $20,000, I'll make it go away; I'm allowed, I'm in charge of the executive branch. Obviously, that would be a crime, obviously that would be bribery. I don't think anyone would defend that position. And so if that's a crime, it's a crime of obstruction of justice to try to squash an investigation for corrupt, self-protectionist reasons.

BASH: So let's just continue on your point of view, your legal point of view that obstruction is possible and that a president can be found to have obstructed an investigation. How do you prove it?

HONIG: Oh, well, here we have a lot of different sources of proof. First of all, we have all sorts of eyewitness. If I was putting this case together, I would want to talk to James Comey about the case where the president told him to lay off, go easy on Flynn. Very similar to the conversation we're hearing now with Whitaker and the southern district. I'd use his tweets. Those tweets are great evidence of the president's state of mind, his intent.

Judges commonly tell juries, there's no real way to look inside someone's mind, so you have to look at circumstantial evidence. Twitter's actually a pretty good way to do that. The president is quite explicit about what his motives are on Twitter. And I think those prove the angry tweets against Jeff Sessions. Lashing out at Sessions for failing to recuse himself and letting this investigation run its course. The tweets where he tries to intimidate cooperating witnesses. He used the term "rat" last week, referring to Michael Cohen. I think all of that pulled together can be quite a compelling case for obstruction.

BASH: Elie Honig, thank you so much, appreciate it. And up next, 2018 is coming to a chaotic close. Why not? It's not the entire year, yet (ph), but just look at those numbers on the screen. Wall Street biggest Christmas Eve percentage decline ever, down 653 points. Can things get better in time for the New Year? Stay with us.


BASH: The president's incoming acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is warning the shutdown, at least the partial shutdown, could go into the New Year and the new Congress. With me to discuss that, the economic and political fallout is our friend Margaret Talev, senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg news and CNN political analyst. Margaret, thank you so much for coming on. Big picture, I'm sure you hear what I hear, as well, that in private conversations, what the president is most concerned about, rightly so, is the economy going into his re-election time, 2019, 2020. And that, for him, is the stock market and gas prices. Maybe even more in terms of his focus than the unemployment numbers. What are you hearing?

MARGRET TALEV, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. Any president running for re-election knows that the economy is almost always the biggest domestic issue, and by virtue of that, the biggest issue, barring some sort of unanticipated, you know, event. And so this would be any president's concern, but particularly this president.

He's staked so much on kind of a dual track strategy of both appealing to the base on some of these issues like immigration, trade, while trying to hold together the center or kind of old-school Republicans by hitting on both, you know, judicial nominees who are conservative and then the economy. And it is that economy that is the underpinning of that. When you look at the past year, it's all looked really good; those GDP numbers were 3 percent, probably unemployment historically low.

But look at what's happening now with the market, where just after this very rapid decline, now in the worst position since April 2017, since basically when he took office, the benefits of that tax cut may be running out fairly quickly, and with the markets dipping and the long-term implications of his tariff and trade policies, 2019 could like a very different year. And that could hurt both his political posture in terms of leverage with Democrats taking over the House and his standing with voters heading into what could be a tougher re- election.

BASH: No question, very different. And he blames -- in fact, Stephen Moore was on with me earlier this hour, admitting that the president does privately just as publicly, blames the Fed chair whom he put in the job, Powell, for what's going on with the markets right now. You first reported that the president has asked privately if he can legally fire the Fed chair. And now, there are ramifications in the market, you know, for that, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

TALEV: Look, you're right. This was the president's choice. He didn't have to make a move on the Fed when he did. This is who he chose and he chose Jay Powell at Steve Mnuchin's recommendation. And that's why you see also the president venting and very frustrated privately now with the treasury secretary, as well.

Part of this is -- part of the president's pattern, is when things aren't going well, he looks for an adviser around him to blame. But part of it also is that he disagrees with the Fed chair's approach to this. Now, you can argue whether or not that should be the Fed chair's approach, but there -- a lot of economists and members of the Fed who agree with the track he's pursuing and almost all agree with the idea that it's essential for the Fed to remain independent.

And so, but, certainly, behind the scenes, the president has been not just venting, and trying to test this idea with some members of his, sort of, kitchen cabinet of advisers of, is he really stuck with this man who he's chosen for the job. What could his recourse be? And it's some of the alarm about that, that led to the fact that we were able to report on Friday that he was trying to figure out how far he could take this.

Now, you've seen two happen since then. First of all, his very swift effort to shut down speculation that this could happen, both by Mnuchin and Mick Mulvaney, but it has helped to accelerate some of the uncertainty that set the stage for what happened today with the market. It's a combination of the shutdown, also, and concerns about the path forward with China and tariffs, but certainly this uncertainty about whether the president would actually test the independence of the Fed chair that has contributed to the uncertainty.

BASH: Margaret, remember when Christmas Eve, working in the newsroom was more about talking about what happened over the year, looking at the nice things happening around the world. Not in the Trump years, it is all about news, news, news, news, especially if he's home alone with his phone in his hand, as he is today. Margaret, thank you so much. Merry Christmas to you.

TALEV: Same to you.

BASH: Up next, breaking news on Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American student tortured to death in North Korea. We're learning about the judge's order for the country to pay $500 million. Details, coming up.


BASH: Some news just into CNN. A federal judge has awarded the parents of Otto Warmbier $500 million in their lawsuit against North Korea. The judge found the North Korean regime liable for the torture and extrajudicial killing of the American college student. Warmbier was arrested while touring North Korea in 2016. He was detained for more than 17 months after being convicted for stealing a painting off a wall and Warmbier died shortly after returning to the U.S. in June of 2017. In a family statement, his father thanked the United States judicial

system for all of those who have supported him, people and also the judge. But it is unclear at this point whether or not the ruling is symbolic or if there's any chance his family will be paid any money from the Hermit regime.

Up next, a look at today's Christmas slide. The stock slide was the biggest on Christmas Eve ever. It came after Trump's latest attack on the Fed. We're going to go live back to the stock exchange, next.

Plus, home alone at the White House? How President Trump spent much of his Christmas Eve in the middle of a shutdown. Back in a moment.