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New Info Emerges on Mattis Departure; Another Migrant Child Dies in U.S. Custody; Trump Continues Blasting Fed Chair, Vows to Build Wall. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired December 25, 2018 - 15:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Brief CNN fact-check here on a border wall stopping drugs into the U.S. Both the DEA and Homeland Security officials say drugs mostly enter through legal ports of entry. So, it's doubtful a border wall would have a major impact on drug flow.

But the president not only insists the wall is needed. He added this:


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yesterday, I gave out 115 miles worth of wall, 115 miles in Texas.

And 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. So, 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, and we gave it out at a great price.


BASH: Let's get straight to CNN's White House correspondent, Abby Phillip.

Abby, do you have any more information from anyone at the White House about what the president is talking about when he talks about the great price that he got for 115 miles of new border wall that he's planning to visit next month?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Dana, we have been asking the White House, and we haven't heard anything at all about what he's referring to.

I mean, we should start by saying that usually this is not how that would work, that if there was a contract being given out to build border wall, there would be a bidding process. It's a government-run process. It's usually not something that the president just signs off on, like he might do if he were running his private business.

But President Trump seemed to lay it out, almost as if he just decided in the Oval Office who was going to get this contract. And we still don't know what exactly he's referring to. But all of this is just part of what has been happening over the last several days, which is President Trump trying to lay out the argument for his border wall, both saying that there is already wall being built, but also demanding more money for a new border wall.

In fact, he added one element to this today. He said he wants to build new wall or renovate wall by the next election. So, President Trump really shifting his language on so much of this conversation around the wall, trying to gain the upper hand over Democrats as the government remains partially shut down.

Nowhere in this 10-minute diatribe from the president in the Oval Office today, on Christmas Day, did he talk about where the compromise might be that might bring an end to this shutdown. In fact, he actually claimed that he had spoken to federal workers who wanted him to keep the government shut down because they understand the need for a border wall.

And that's another thing that we don't really have much of an idea of what he's referring to.

Where this leaves us, Dana, is that day four of a government shutdown, there does not seem to be any end in sight. And President Trump is digging in his heels on this issue, blaming Democrats, and implying that the border wall is going to be the fight that he's going to have perhaps until Nancy Pelosi takes over the gavel of the House of Representatives in January.

BASH: And perhaps he loses leverage when that happens, when the Democrats take over the House.

Before I let you go, Abby, again today -- yesterday, the president on Christmas Eve fired off many, many tweets, including one going after his own Fed chair, the man he put in this role, nominated, and clearly has made clear publicly and privately that he has some regrets about doing.

He went after the Fed chair again on camera in the Oval Office on Christmas Day.

Do you have any sense from people you're talking to that they're trying to get him to stop, given the reaction and the effect that it had yesterday when the markets were open? Today, it didn't have an effect because the markets are closed.

PHILLIP: Well, clearly, in this administration, folks are worried.

There was an attempt over the weekend by Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, to tweet out a quote that he attributed to President Trump, saying that -- quoting President Trump, saying: "I don't believe I have the power to fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell."

President Trump was basically asked to instill some confidence in his Fed chairman today in the Oval Office. And he declined to do that. Now, it's clear that there's a disconnect between the president and his aides, who have been advising him behind the scenes repeatedly, we don't believe you have the power to do it. And even if you did, it would be catastrophic, not just to your electoral prospects, but to the economy of the United States.

But the president did not take an opportunity today to really calm markets that have been roiled over the last several weeks, in part because of his policies on the trade war, but also because he has been so frustrated with Powell behind the scenes.

That frustration has boiled over into the public. And while he voiced some support for Steve Mnuchin today, he did not voice any real support for Jerome Powell. He's still saying that he thinks interest rates shouldn't be rising and that the Fed needs to stop -- Dana.


BASH: Yes. And the irony is, he had to voice support for his treasury secretary, after he, it looks like at the behest of the president, tried to calm markets, putting out a statement on Sunday saying that the six big banks are liquid, raising questions about whether there was a problem with their liquidity, when nobody was asking that question.

PHILLIP: Exactly.

BASH: It just seems as though it's a circular problem, let's say, keeping it simple on Christmas Day.


BASH: Abby, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Let's dive deeper right now on this and more.

Conservative writer and CNN political commentator Matt Lewis joins me.

Matt, merry Christmas. Thanks for joining me today.


BASH: Give me your take, first of all, on the strategy, if you even think there is one, at the White House with this shutdown over the border wall.

LEWIS: Well, look, I think fights happen when both sides think that they can win. That's true in politics. It's true in the schoolyard.

And I think that's why this could really be a protracted, long-term thing. Democrats clearly believe that they're on the right side of public opinion, and that Donald Trump has said, hey, blame me if there's a shutdown. Republicans usually do get blamed in most cases for shutdowns, regardless of the merits.

In this case, Trump has invited, I think, that attack. But Donald Trump, for him, I think it's about pleasing his base. And he made this promise many times in the campaign, that he was going to build the wall. And he's shown that he cares mostly about satisfying his base. And this is the time to do it.

So where does that end? I don't know.

BASH: Matt, have you ever seen a president elected with just a base, meaning...

LEWIS: Only one time, in 2016, so...

BASH: Well, no, but he had a lot of independent support and he had other support from people who -- I guess maybe it's -- I guess what you're saying is people who became his base who weren't naturally Republicans before.


BASH: But my point is that, at some point, what -- since he's looking at the calendar and looking at the fact that he's going into an election season and cycle, is this really going to swing it?

LEWIS: Well, first of all, I think reelection isn't his only consideration here. It's investigations that may be coming and possibly impeachment.

And when those are factors, having a very strong base actually really does matter, because you're going to need them to stick with you, especially if things get really dicey.

Going into the reelection though, I think Trump has made this really weird calculation. Any normal, rational politician would try to expand the base and try to win over people. Trump has never done it.

BASH: Right. That's my point.

LEWIS: And so the only theory, I guess, is that you plan on losing the popular vote and running that straight flush, winning the Electoral College again.

BASH: Do you see a scenario, you know, having covered these before where, in what -- next week, I guess, the House is going to be Democratic-controlled. Do you see a scenario where he actually gets a win here, particularly when his cards are going to be worse at that point?

LEWIS: I -- I have a hard time imagining that Nancy Pelosi -- because, remember, she has a base to satisfy too and she needs to be elected speaker. And so I find it hard to believe that she's going to back down.

She's holding some pretty good cards right now herself. I think it's also unlikely that Donald Trump is going to marshal the rhetorical ability to change minds over this, because he has an argument about the border, but I don't know that he has the eloquence to change minds.

My guess is, if that segment you were just talking about -- it looks like he is moving the goalposts a little bit. He's talking about, well, we don't need a 2,000-mile border. We can just have fencing in certain areas.

It seems to me like he is maybe setting things up to declare victory without actually getting a victory.

BASH: Over the weekend, Bob Corker, who's the outgoing, retiring, outgoing chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, obviously, has tangled, tussled with the president, he said that this whole thing is phony.

And it reminds me of something that Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who -- a Democrat -- she was defeated -- said to our Manu Raju about, more broadly, what she hears from Republican colleagues behind the scenes.

I want you to listen.


SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: They're keeping their head down. And here's what they're rationalizing in their heads.

Now, they will tell you, if it's just the two of you, the guy's nuts. He doesn't have a grasp of the issues. He doesn't -- he's making brash decisions. He's not listening to people who know the subject matter.

But, in public, if they go after him, they know they get a primary, and they know that's tough.


BASH: Your reaction?


LEWIS: Yes, I think she's absolutely right.

Most Republicans think that, on some issues, Donald Trump is completely out to lunch. I mean, look at firing James Mattis, withdrawing from Syria. Forget the border. Those are areas where mainstream conservatives and Republicans think he's really out of touch.

But they can't say it, because he's really popular, again, with the base. And, ultimately, that has been the story of the last couple of years.

BASH: Yes, it certainly has. And it's hard to see it changing going forward, when all the House Republicans who are left are going to be on the ballot once again, with the same political complicated situation that he just described, never mind more Republicans in the Senate.


LEWIS: And Mitch McConnell, for example, is going to be on the ballot, for what that's worth, if he runs for reelection in 2020. So there's a lot going on.


BASH: I remember going down to Kentucky when he had a primary six year -- I guess four years ago.

Anyway, we're going to have to leave it there. Merry Christmas. Thanks again for coming in, Matt. Appreciate it.

LEWIS: Thank you.

BASH: And we do have some breaking news.

For the second time in a month, we're learning a child has died while in Border Protection custody. This time, it's an 8-year-old boy.

More on what happened just ahead.



BASH: Breaking right, now an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy has died while in U.S. Customs and Border Protection cut -- custody, rather.

He started showing signs of illness on Christmas Eve and died this morning in New Mexico.

Joining me now is CNN's Jean Casarez and attorney Raul Reyes.

Jean, let's start with you.

Tell us what you know about what happened.

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dana, we're just getting the same thing in. And they have confirmed that he was an 8-year-old Guatemalan national who crossed with his father over into New Mexico.

And shortly after that, when they were in the custody of the Customs and Border Patrol, an agent yesterday afternoon, Christmas Eve afternoon, notice the little boy, that something was wrong.

So, immediately, he and his father were transported to the Gerald Champion Regional Medical in Alamogordo. They originally thought the little boy had a common cold, but then they were assessing him further, and realized he had a fever. So they prescribed him with antibiotics and ibuprofen.

He was released with his father. And then it was hours later, last night, Christmas Eve, that he started throwing up. So he was transported immediately back to the medical center and died shortly after midnight this morning on Christmas Day.

Now, I'm sure you remember, the beginning of December, a little girl, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, who was actually from Guatemala also, her father took her over into New Mexico, she began to vomit. And 48 hours after entering the United States, she died.

Now, there is not an official cause on either one of these deaths, but the arm of the professional responsibility of Border Patrol is now conducting an investigation on what caused this little boy's death.

A lot of similarities there. Both had made the 2,000-mile journey to come to this country, and more questions I think now than answers, but two children are now deceased.

BASH: It's just absolutely horrible. Thank you so much for that report.

Raul, I'm going to turn to you now.

Second child to die in Border custody in a month. What are your thoughts on that, based on your firsthand knowledge of what's going on in some of these facilities?


Well, I want to condition whatever I'm saying, per your reportage, is that it's too early in this particular instance to speak to the circumstances that led to this child's death.

BASH: That's very important.

REYES: Who is at fault, who is to blame. We won't know any of that until there have been -- has been a thorough investigation by the CBP and likely an outside agency. So, until we know that, it's too early to say what happened and who was to blame.

However, what I can speak to is that, in this country, we have two realities when it comes to our immigration detention system. We have the legal reality, which says that the government must provide migrants like this young child and like Jakelin Caal with a hot meal, with medical attention, with adequate shelter and potential access to counsel as soon as they encounter them or as soon as possible.

But the reality on the ground is often quite different. These detention centers are in remote locations. Virtually every one of the detention centers along our southern border has faced allegations, credible allegations, of things like denial of medical care, allegations of physical assault, allegations of sexual violence against women and LGBTQ people.

And, in fact, last year, when the DHS inspector general, when they examine their own facilities, they found that 85 -- 80 percent of them did not meet their own internal standards for just the basic -- for guaranteeing the basic health and well-being of these migrants.

And, also, we have to remember, when we're looking at these detention centers, they were designed primarily for young men, because that's who traditionally came over the southern border up from Mexico and Central America.

Now we are facing, at this border, an influx of families, mothers, young children, many people who are already in a vulnerable physical condition due to the trek. And, quite frankly, the system is just not designed to handle them. And, tragically, we see results like Jakelin Caal and this young man who died on Christmas.

BASH: It's just so awful. It is important, though, to underscore what you said, which is that we have more questions than answers at right point.

REYES: Right.

BASH: And you mentioned the medical situation there. Jean's reporting is that this little boy did get medical attention.



BASH: We're going to hopefully learn a lot more about the circumstances around that visit and why he was sent home.

REYES: But I do think one other thing, just in terms of the facts that -- as we know them, that should be sort of something that people should think about and possibly even worry about going ahead, is, right now -- I mean, these are isolated incidents. And we don't know the circumstances.

But, right now, our U.S. government has a record number of migrant children in their care, 15,000. And worlds away in Washington, politically, the president keeps talking about the wall and how he wants to build a wall and what it would do.

It would likely not prevent tragedies like this, because people, the families of Jakelin Caal and these young men and this child, they were coming over the border to present themselves for asylum. So even if the wall were in place, we will still likely see horrific outcomes like this.

BASH: Raul Reyes, thank you so much for joining me...

REYES: Well, thank you. My pleasure.

BASH: ... on this horrible story.

Coming up: Outgoing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis addresses the military one last time, as we're learning new details about his relationship with the president.

Plus, a sobering look from inside the White House about how national security decisions like the one to pull out of Syria are being made.



BASH: Secretary of Defense James Mattis' resignation triggered anger and anxiety in the military and beyond. He had received kudos and praise for his bravery and his judgment. But CNN has learned some defense officials are expressing some frustration with him.

With me now to talk about that and more, CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, I know you're hearing some new information from sources about the strongly held views that Mattis has and how that led to a final clash with the president.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, now that several days have passed and people have had a chance to chew it all over, I think what you're beginning to see is, everybody has an opinion about what happened and what maybe should have happened, in their view.

So, talking to some defense officials, they're raising the question, he had been sidelined by the president. They weren't getting along. Trump was not paying attention to his advice on any number of issues.

If -- and who knows, Monday morning quarterbacking, but if the secretary had resigned sooner, could they have gotten someone else in who might have been more influential with the president? But that is to say one does not understand who James Mattis is, because he's not a quitter.

So it makes it all the more interesting that he finally came to that breaking point to say he had to go, knowing that in his own mind, over the question of withdrawing troops from Syria, he couldn't, by all accounts, really support the decision, because it would leave the Kurdish fighters that he had promised to keep backing, it would leave them abandoned -- Dana.

BASH: Yes, absolutely. And you're exactly right. I mean, he stuck with it for a long time, clearly having some battles internally.

There was something that struck us that was in a newspaper in Seattle from the secretary's brother, General Mattis' brother. I wanted to read it to you and get your thoughts on it.

Here's what he told "The Seattle Times": "He was very calm about the whole thing, very matter-of-fact, no anger. No one should assume that his service to this country" -- excuse me -- "service to his country will end. And the manner of his departure is yet another service to the nation. It is the very definition of patriotism and integrity."

A lot of things to unpack there, but the thing that really is interesting is, "No one should assume that his service to his country will end."

What do you think that means?

STARR: Well, I think his brother Tom probably knows him very well.

This is a family with a long, many-decades record, including his mother, who worked at the Pentagon, of serving the country. And Jim Mattis had done that his whole life, becoming an adult and joining the Marine Corps. So it's really kind of hard to fathom that he would just fade away. There's -- when he retired from the Marine Corps, he went out to

California. He worked at the Hoover Institution as an analyst. And he kept very active in national security circles.

One suspects that he will probably start that way. He may rejoin some of the corporate boards he was on. But don't expect to see Jim Mattis completely fade away. For now, it's our understanding he doesn't want to take on President Trump either publicly or privately. He wants to let some time pass.

But we will have to see whether he writes a book or comes out and starts speaking much more publicly about his experience as defense secretary.

BASH: Yes, well, it's hard to top the way he came out against President Trump in his resignation letter, in a very policy-oriented, very direct, very matter-of-fact way.

Barbara, thank you so much for that reporting. Appreciate it.

STARR: Thank you, Dana.

BASH: And with Democrats taking the gavel in just nine days, many are promising to rein in the president.

Today, the president said that could amount to a -- quote -- "presidential harassment." Is that even a thing?