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Trump: I Can't Tell You When The Government Will Be Open; Mattis Delivers Final Christmas Message as Defense Secretary. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired December 25, 2018 - 10:00   ET

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


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[10:00:40] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good morning to you. And, of course, a very merry Christmas as well.

I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. Poppy Harlow has this morning off.

President Trump spending the morning at the White House and speaking out. He just took questions from reporters moments ago. We'll get the tape feed of that any minute now and bring it right to you.

Abby Phillip, she is at the White House today. It sounds like the president had some sharp woods today for a number of targets.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, the president not really holding back on a number of different topics. He talked Fed Chairman Jerome Powell who he's been attacking in recent days about his decision to raise interest rates. He also talks about the government shutdown and his need for the border wall, reiterating that he's not going to settle for simply border security, he still wants his wall.

And then he continued on to talk about a number of other topics, from James Comey to his favorite words, "no collusion." So, this is a president, even on Christmas morning, not letting go of a number of different topics that have been in the news in recent days. But here he is now, you can listen to him yourself.

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(INAUDIBLE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Very talented guy, very smart.

REPORTER: What about the Fed chairman?

TRUMP: Well, we'll see. They're raising interest rates too fast, that's my opinion. But I shouldn't have confidence.

I think they're raising rates too fast because they think the economy is so good. But I think they will get it pretty soon. I really do.

I mean, the fact is that the economy is doing so well that they raised interest rates and that's a form of safety in a way.

President Obama didn't do much of that, much easier to run when you have no interest rate, he had a very low interest rate. We have a normalized interest rate. A normalized interest rate means -- it's good for a lot of people. They have money in the bank, they get interest on their money. For many years, nobody got interest on their money.

So -- but I have great confidence in them. I have great confidence in our companies. We have companies, the greatest in the world, and they're doing really well. They have record kinds of numbers. So, I think it's a tremendous opportunity to buy. Really a great opportunity to buy.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE)

TRUMP: I can't tell you when the government is going to be open. I can tell you it's not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they would like to call it. I'll call it whatever they want.

But it's all the same thing. It's a barrier from people pouring into our company -- into our country from drugs. It's a barrier from drugs. It's a barrier -- you know, there's a problem in this world today, it's called human trafficking. Human trafficking is one of the hard to believe problems. We're not going to let that take place.

We're working so hard to catch these traffickers. They're bad people. We can't do it without a barrier. We can't do it without a wall. So, you have drugs, you have human trafficking, you have illegal people coming into the country, you can't do that. We don't know who they are.

In the caravan, 618 people were very bad, criminals. You saw the one man, he said he was wanted for murder. I don't want them in the country. The only way you're going to do it ask if you have a physical barrier, meaning a wall.

And if you don't have that, then we're just not opening. Yesterday, I gave out 115 miles worth of wall, 115 miles in Texas. It's going to be built, hopefully rapidly. I'm going there at the end of January for the start of construction, that's a big stretch, because we're talking about 500 to 550 miles. It's a 2,000-mile border but much of it has mountains and region where you can't get across.

So, we're looking at between 500 and 550. So, we gave out 115 yesterday. We gave it out at a great price. So we're going to have a great wall there.

We'll have other sections to give out. One other thing people don't understand or know or whatever but they might as well because they're not really told, we've renovated massive amounts of very good wall, wall that was good but was in bad shape.

[10:35:01] And so, you don't have to replace it but you have to renovate it. And we've renovated a massive amount of wall. And in addition to that, and I think very, very importantly, we've built a lot of new wall. So, it's all being built.

The new piece, the new section is very, very exciting, what's going on there. And you'll see it, because in January I'm going to there. We're almost having a groundbreaking, it's such a big section. It's probably the biggest section we'll get out.

So while we're fighting over funding, we're also building. And it's my hope to have this done, completed, all 500 to 550 miles, to have it either renovated or brand-new, by Election Day.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE)

TRUMP: Different people. Different people. Highly bid.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE)

TRUMP: Well, you have to understand, it's complicated, because we're getting $25 billion. It's already approved. But that's for everything. That's for homeland security.

That includes, as we say, the bells and whistles. We have a lot of drones, a lot of everything. Plus, we have some wall money in there. But we want the wall money to be increased, because I want to finish it.

But what people have to understand, it has been strongly started, a lot of areas, if you look at San Diego, it's now almost complete. And interestingly, it's California, which has been difficult to deal with because of the governor, very, very difficult to deal with. But the people of San Diego came and they wanted the wall built.

In fact, I was going to build it last but then I determined let's build it. They really wanted it built. If I built it last, they would all be screaming for a wall and you don't hear that.

But the wall is beautiful. The job they've done is fantastic. So, San Diego is largely built. It will be completed very shortly.

But they came to us, the people, and they were asking, they needed border protection. People were walking through Mexico right into San Diego, right over people's front lawns, by the hundreds and by the thousands. And they came to us, they asked for a wall.

The only thing that's going to stop that, a drone isn't going to stop it. High technology's not going to stop it. The only thing that stops it's a wall.

When the Democrats talk about a wall doesn't mean anything, well, in Israel, they had a big problem. They put up a wall, 99.99 percent of the people were stopped from coming in. And we'll have the exact same thing.

Now, we have a long, long border. But we'll have the exact same thing. Now, there may be the case of an Olympic champion who can get over the wall. But for the most part, you're not able to do it. Very high, it's going to be 30 feet. Much of it is 30 feet high, some of it's lower. In some areas, we have it as high as 30 feet. That's as high as a three-story building.

So we're making a great progress on renovation, on fixing, and we're making great progress on building new wall. Most excitingly, we gave out our largest section yesterday and that work is starting next week and we'll have it completed fairly quickly.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE)

TRUMP: Well, I think they understand what's happening. They want border security. The people of this country want border security.

You know, it's not a question of me. I would rather not be doing shutdowns. I've been at the White House, I love the White House, but I wasn't able to be with my family. I thought it would be wrong for me to be with my family, my family is in Florida, Palm Beach, and I just didn't want to go down and be there when other people are hurting.

But it's going to all work out. But many of those workers have said to me and communicated, stay out until you get the funding for the wall. These federal workers want the wall. The only one that doesn't want the wall are the Democrats, because they don't mind open borders, but open borders mean massive amounts of crime. I mean, the Democrats don't want it because they don't want open borders, and yet every one of those Democrats approved the wall or a fence or very, very substantial barriers, every single one.

I don't think there's one, but let's assume, let's use the word almost every one approved a wall or a fence or exactly what we're talking about as little as three years ago. But over the years, every one of them -- the only time they went against it, the only time they went against it, there was only one time, when Donald Trump said, we want to build a wall. As soon as I said I want to build a wall, they were all against it.

It's like, take another example.

[10:10:01] Take Comey. Everybody hated Comey. They thought he did a horrible job.

The Democrats hated him. They were calling for his resignation. They were calling for his firing, including Schumer, including Nancy Pelosi -- until I fired him.

And once I fired him, everybody said, oh, why did you fire him, why did you fire him? Take a look at some of these people. This is what we're doing now. Take a look at some of these people.

Literally, the day before I fired him they were saying he should be fired. As soon as I fired him, they said, oh, what did you fire him for, that was a terrible thing to do. It's a disgrace, what's happening in our country.

But other than that, I wish everybody a very merry Christmas. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Well, the president's Christmas message there, it's a disgrace what's happening in the country, he says, but other than that, he wishes all of us a very merry Christmas.

I'm back now with Abby Phillip at the White House, also joining us Ron Brownstein, senior editor at "The Atlantic", and "New York Times" politics editor, Patrick Healy.

Abby, help me out here, or just some fact-checking, because the president had what appeared to me to be a contradictory message, saying, one, the wall must be built, the government will not open until he gets the money open for it, but then saying the wall is already being built and that yesterday, he approved somehow singlehandedly a contract for 150 miles of border wall.

What's the truth?

PHILLIP: That's right, Jim. Other than all of that, merry Christmas to the United States right now.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

PHILLIP: I mean, there's been a lot in that message. But we've been hearing this from President Trump for several days now, he's been saying, there is no crisis at the border but there is a crisis at the border, he's dealt with the caravan but he needs the border wall to deal with the massive influx of immigrations coming to the southern border, the border wall is being built but he won't reopen the government until he gets $5 billion to build it.

So, they can't decide what exactly is the state of the border right now. But I think he did say something that I thought was quite telling. He said he wants this built before the next election, before the next election.

That really underscores why this is so important to President Trump. He wants it done before he is up for reelection in 2020. And that's why we're having this big fight. This is his last, best chance to get border wall funding.

But it might not even be his best chance. He might have missed his chance eight months ago when he had the opportunity to get $25 billion for the border wall in exchange for DACA. Now, it would be a surprise if he even got that $5 billion he's demanding. But clearly he's making it clear this is a political consideration. He wants it done for his base by the time he's up for reelection.

SCIUTTO: Patrick Healy, did the president just redefine the length of the wall there? Because as he noted, the border is 2,000 miles long but as many national security analysts and officials have said for months and years, much of that border is uncrossable, mountains, et cetera, you don't really need a wall in all those places. The president seemed to say there, he now only wants a 550-mile wall.

Did I hear that correctly? PATRICK HEALY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, a lot was changing here,

Jim. I mean, now, the border wall, it seems -- well, he called it at one point the wall or the fence, a strong wall. I mean, he was using a lot of different words. At one point he said, you know, they can call it whatever they want, I'll go along with it, which is certainly not what his political base wants.

But yes, he was sort of redefining his wall down to basically 500 miles and change. And he's doing something in recognition of the very dangerous political territory he's in right now. He has gone all in so strongly, again, on rallying his base.

The midterms showed him that independent voters, that suburban voters, that a lot of women who voted for him in 2016 because they hated Hillary Clinton, you know, basically turned on him and on the Republican Party in the midterms, and that Trump is now seeing a lot of those voters so disaffected with him that he's now going back to his base and basically suggesting that it's the wall or nothing. And today what was so strange was, again, he realizes, it's day three of a shutdown that he owns, and he seemed to be sort of suggesting that he would settle for 500 miles here or, you know, a fence there. And this can't be sort of good words for, again, his political base that kept rallying to him during the campaign because he said he was going to build a big, beautiful wall that would extend the whole border.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And, by the way, Mexico was going to pay for it, long ago debunked.

Ron Brownstein, the president says Americans want a wall. I just -- as Abby said, ultimately it's a political question here, right, the president is trying to win political points, Democrats calculating that they have this right. Who is right? Because polling does show Americans want and support better border security.

[10:15:04] Does that mean they see the wall as the equivalent of that? I mean, the key question here is, who has the politics right?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: That's the key distinction, right? So, American -- I've written about polling on immigration for 25 years. And the public has always supported strong border security as part of a comprehensive approach to immigration that includes majority support for a pathway to legal status for the undocumented. Those two pillars have always been there.

But they do not translate border security into a wall. The wall itself has never had majority support in public opinion. The highest support I've seen for it in a poll under Trump is 43 percent. In the last CNN poll, only 38 percent of the country said they supported the border wall. And, Jim, that dropped to 33 percent if they were told that Mexico is not paying for it. Only --

SCIUTTO: Which is a fact.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Right. And to Patrick's point, you know, this is really indicative of the Trump -- and not only Trump, but the entire Republican Congress essentially shrugging off the message of the midterm and focusing solely on speaking to their base, because all of the groups that turned against Republicans and delivered the Democrats a 40-seat gain in the House, the biggest majority in the history of the country, all of those groups are at 60 percent or more opposition to the wall.

So what you're doing is taking a tactic that's unpopular, which is shutting down the government, and applying it to a cause that's probably even more unpopular at this point, building a wall, all in the name of energizing what is this minority of the country that he defines as his base.

SCIUTTO: Those percentages there, 43 percent, 39 percent, it drops off, what's interesting is that's about in line with how Trump's base is quantified, right?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Certainly not a majority.

Abby, the other headline from this is the president's comments about the Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell. Asked if he has confidence in him, his answer, noncommittal, "well, we'll see." The markets clearly, based on their reaction yesterday, do not like the uncertainty about the Fed chairman's future, the perception of interference from the president. Listening to the president there doesn't seem like he got that message.

PHILLIP: No, not at all. And it seems very much that President Trump is unwilling to do what might be necessary in order to settle the markets. In fact when over the weekend, Steve Mnuchin tweeted out a quote that was supposed to be attributable to President Trump, most people seemed to think it was hard to believe, because if the president wants to say something, like for example that he doesn't believe he has the power to fire Jerome Powell, he would say it himself.

The fact that President Trump has unwilling to do that is extremely telling. And I think this is a dangerous time for this administration when it comes to the economy. Some of this confidence that the markets have had in the administration, they supported pro-growth policies, is wearing off, because it seems that President Trump is going his own way. He's pursuing a trade war with China that is dangerous, that is potentially damaging to the global economy.

And he doesn't seem to be willing to pull back from some of his instincts, his gut, which he tried to claim was better than the data that economists might have about what's actually going on in the economy. That's not settling to the markets.

President Trump today was clearly unwilling to do even a little bit of what it might take to give them a little more confidence that in the new year this would not be more of the same, more of the constant gyrations up and down of his moods and of his gut trying to rule the economy.

SCIUTTO: OK, Ron and Patrick, before we go, just in a word, your best guess as to how long the shutdown lasts. Patrick Healy, then Ron.

HEALY: You know, I think the Democrats are dug in, Jim, sorry to not be one word, but I don't think they want to give assent to the wall. I think we saw President Trump being willing to shift ground and name new numbers this morning. So, if he caves, it could be over relatively soon.

SCIUTTO: Ron Brownstein?

BROWNSTEIN: I don't think Democrats feel a lot of pressure, given the numbers I just described. It's striking that the final act of the Republican House was to enable a strategy of shutdown that they knew had no chance of success, really just a fitting cap to the way they've approached Trump over the past two years.

SCIUTTO: All right. Abby, Ron, Patrick, I hope you get some time off today. I'll try to get some too. I wish you a very merry Christmas, happy holidays and happy New Year.

Coming up, outgoing defense secretary James Mattis has a Christmas message for troops deployed abroad. We're going to play that for you, next.

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[10:24:07] JAMES MATTIS, 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. To all you lads and lasses holding the line in 2018, on land, at sea or in the air, thanks for keeping the faith. Merry Christmas and may God hold you safe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: There he is, outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis, sharing a holiday message with troops in his final days as a member of the Trump administration. He recorded that last week just hours before handing in his resignation to President Trump.

Let's bring in pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, not the only message from the former four star general to troops deployed these holidays.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, he sent out a worldwide cable to the troops thanking them for their service, and again, telling them to hold the line, keep safe.

[10:25:05] You know, when he made that recording, when he sent that cable out, there was a pretty good chance that James Mattis knew what would come in the coming hours. Officials are indicating that, you know, it really was the president's decision to precipitously withdraw troops from Syria that led the secretary to come to the final conclusion after months of thinking about it, trying to deal with the White House, that he would have to retire, that he would have to resign, essentially, and go.

So, you know, now we know that the deputy secretary of state, Patrick Shanahan, who will becoming acting on January 1st, cutting his holiday short, coming back to Washington to at least try and have a few days of transition with Secretary Mattis, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Now, I understand your sources have been telling you Mattis had very strongly-held views. How might those views have led to this final clash with the president?

STARR: Well, I mean, it goes to some of the reporting I know you're hearing as well. What is the national security decision-making process in this administration?

There had been a sense that Mr. Trump had wanted to get troops out of Syria, they knew that. But they had been talking to him about it and suddenly they essentially get a tweet that he's going to do it. There's a sense it was very precipitous, because now, they are scrambling with a withdrawal plan to try and figure out how to do it and how to keep U.S. troops safe as they pull them out of Syria.

You know, when you get down to those last few, it becomes a very dicey business for just a small number to be in the middle of a combat zone. So, it's that kind of thing that by all accounts led Mattis to just finally decide he had to go.

SCIUTTO: Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

STARR: Sure.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this hour, a senior administration official telling CNN that when it comes to national security decision-making, that process has basically stopped working. What impact could this have on U.S. relationships with allies but also U.S. national security? We're going to discuss that, coming up.

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