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Trump & First Lady Make Surprise Visit to Troops in Iraq; Trump Pulling U.S. Troops in Syria, Reducing Troops in Afghanistan; Russia Reacts to Trump Pulling Troops Out of Syria. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired December 26, 2018 - 14:30   ET

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


[14:30:00] RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANCHOR: And let's get some perspective from someone who spent quite a bit of time in the military, Admiral John Kirby.

Admiral, from your perspective, right down to the soldier level -- we can see these soldiers posing with the president and the first lady -- what does it mean to them, especially over the holidays, to get a visit from the commander-in-chief?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: It's a big shot in the arm, Ryan, no doubt about it. He's the commander-in- chief. It's a validation of their service and their sacrifice. It's also a validation of the service and sacrifice of their families who are missing them at the holiday time. Plus, you just want to know that the boss cares about what you are doing and that he cares about the missions. So there's no question this will be a big moral boost for these young men and women as they continue to serve the national security interests over there.

NOBLES: Admiral Kirby, thank you for that.

We're going to get in a quick break now. When we come back, more on this breaking news. President Trump making his first visit to a war zone. He and the first lady in Iraq as we speak. We'll have reaction overseas to this breaking news when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

NOBLES: The breaking news, President Trump making his first visit to a war zone since taking the oath of office, visiting troops in Iraq with his wife, the first lady, Melania Trump.

Let's get the view on this breaking story from overseas. Our Ivan Watson is in Hong Kong. Nima Elbagir is in London, I believe.

Ivan, let's start with you.

I just want to point this out, from one of the pool reporters from Reuters, Steve Holland, who is traveling with the president, apparently, he's using this trip to defend his decision to pull out of Syria, for which he's receiving a lot of criticism in the U.S., not just from Democrats but Republicans as well. The president, saying, quote, "Our presence in Syria was not open ended. It was never intended to be permanent."

Ivan, from your perspective, that decision by the president did rattle nerves in the region. How is this going to be interpreted now against the backdrop of the president's visit?

[14:35:46] IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I do find it fascinating because in the last week we've heard that President Trump intends to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and there are plans afoot to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan down by half. He's not visiting U.S. troops deployed in those two conflict zones. He's visiting Iraq where there's also a U.S. military presence. The U.S. troop presence in these countries has vacillated so dramatically in the past decade and a half as U.S. fortunes have ebbed and flowed. You'll recall the U.S. had a massive deployment of troops in Iraq. President Obama drew that force down and ISIS emerged in a vacuum and took over the city of Mosul and put a real threat to countries in the region and the U.S. had to intervene once again. Then it drew the U.S. into Syria. Afghanistan has also seen ebbs and flows and there are real voices of alarm, worried about the potential instability of Afghanistan, already a war that's not going well. If the U.S. troops presence there's drawn down from some 14,000 and cut in half, the implication on the Afghan government there, which has been losing territory to the Taliban, and NATO partners that are part of a coalition there in Afghanistan, some 41 countries contributing to that multi-national effort. Now you have President Trump, who has visited the one country of these three, where he's not currently talking about drawing down troops. It's a morale-boosting exercise. But it comes against a back drop of real concern of ongoing stability in the other conflicts the U.S. is embroiled in -- Ryan?

NOBLES: Nima, President Trump has described ISIS as defeated, has said the United States involvement from that perspective is no longer necessary, almost to a certain extent, painting a picture of stability to the American public when he makes this decision. From what you've seen in your reporting, is "stable" a word you would use to describe what's happening there?

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely not. It's incredibly telling he's visiting the American troops stationed in Iraq. These are the troops that will have to pick up the slack if and when that withdrawal from Syria is complete. American troops along the western border, Kandahar Province, where there remains pockets of ISIS also along north, where the leader of it is has been reported to move around. It incredibly telling he's chosen to go and bolster the morale of these troops, because these are the troops that will have to bear the burden of his decision to pull some 2,000 troops out of Syria. Already, we've been receiving messages from contacts in the region incredibly concerned about what it means to have President Trump out there. For that, back home in America, perhaps it is just a morale boost, but for people in the region who see the U.S. as such an uncertain ally, they are reading the tea leaves for everything they can. They're already asking me -- and I obviously know no more than they do -- whether this is the prelude to another kind of announcement. It speaks volumes that President Trump has refused to back down regarding his decisions about the troops in Afghanistan and Syria, and yet is dealing with the troops who will be at the front lines of dealing with the ramifications -- Ryan?

NOBLES: And telling those troops, defending his decision to pull out of Syria in the unannounced visit.

Ivan, Nima, thank you for your perspective. We appreciate your being there.

[14:39:35] We'll take another quick break. We'll have more reaction to this breaking news that we're learning of what President Trump is saying on the ground in Iraq. We'll have more of that in a moment. Stay here.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

NOBLES: The breaking news, President Trump visiting a war zone for the first time since taking the oath of office. The president in Iraq right now visiting troops, this during the Christmas week. and shortly after he made the decision to pull troops out of the Syrian conflict. In fact, the president, during his speech to troops there in Iraq, said the following, he defended that decision to pull forces from Syria saying, quote, "It's time for us to start using our head. We don't want to be taken advantage of anymore."

Let's talk about this important development. Let's bring in Elise Labott. And Sam Vinograd is with me here in New York.

Sam, let's start with you.

You lived in Iraq and visited Iraq and service during your time during the Obama administration. How important is a visit by any president, not just from President Trump?

[14:45:05] SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: These visits are key. We hope they make the troop's presence on the ground easier. But, Ryan, these trips are not just feel-good opportunities for the troops or for the president. They're not there to check a box. In this particular case, President Trump's message is critical. Anything he says about Syria and whether a mission against ISIS is accomplished directly impacts the troops on the ground. They know the president changed his mind about our presence in Syria based upon a phone call with Erdogan and we may be withdrawing 7,000 troops in Afghanistan. So it's key what he says when he's on the ground.

NOBLES: We know he's defended his decision in a speech to the troops. Is that surprising to you that the president would be so vocal about this decision, specifically to these troops on the ground? Is that customary?

VINOGRAD: It sounds like the president is developing his argument based upon his particular audience. We heard him say that ISIS is defeated and then largely defeated and it seems to change depending who he's speaking to. No. Presidents typically don't try to garner support for their military decision from the troops implementing them and the troops away from their families. What is more customary is for the president to sit down with commanders on the ground and get an update on the fight against ISIS, for example, while he's there and develop talking point that actually reflect reality versus his political agenda at the time.

NOBLES: You know this region well from your time servicing there. He's making two decisions, the decisions to pull completely out of Syria but also pulling troops out of Afghanistan. He's not in either of those places. He's in Iraq. It probably would be difficult from a security perspective to go to Syria but why there instead of Afghanistan?

VINOGRAD: Not having access to classified material right now, I don't know what the security landscape looks at for executing a presidential trip to Afghanistan. I think optically it would be difficult for the president to travel to Afghanistan today and to try to give a message about what our mission is going forward, based upon the fact that his own military commanders have said very publicly that the mission they're executing is working, they're making gains against the Taliban. The political track is going better because the Taliban is under pressure. I'm not sure what he'd tell them to try to explain the decision to change course at this time.

NOBLES: Let's bring in Elise Labott.

Elise, from a diplomatic perspective, how will this play in the region for the president to choose Iraq as a place to visit, the timing of this based on the decisions he's made on troop withdrawals, how do you think our partners and our enemies in this region will respond?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, as we've talked about, it customary for a president to go visit troops. Usually they'll meet with some Iraqi commanders or Iraqi leaders and talk to them about the situation on the ground. We haven't talked that much about what's going on in Iraq right now. Yes, ISIS has been, you know, severely degraded in Iraq, but this is not -- this ISIS conflict is not an Iraq or Syria conflict. It's a problem with ISIS. If you look at what's going on in Iraq right now, the government is in shambles. There's a lot of chaos because of parliamentary fighting. They still haven't seated a government. And that's kind of vacuum. There's no reconstruction really to speak of. It very slow. People don't have services. They don't have electricity. And this is kind of the situation that allowed ISIS to flourish. So we haven't really heard a lot about that. I think that that's really what's the concern when you talk about pulling out of Syria that there's going to create this vacuum for ISIS to reconstitute. Or one general once told me, I'm not necessarily worried about ISIS but ISIS 2.0, something even more difficult. If you look, the president is not going to Afghanistan most likely. And it's very dangerous there. There was one yesterday in which 40 mostly innocent people were killed at a government installation for disabled people. When you talk about going out, taking troops out, it doesn't really seem to be done in a thoughtful way based on the situations on the ground. I know the president campaigned about getting the troops out, but he certainly doesn't want to be blamed later on for a precipitous withdrawal allowing the Taliban to grow or ISIS to grow.

[14:50:10] NOBLES: All right. Elise Labott and Sam Vinograd, thank you.

We're going to take another break. Next, as Trump defends his decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria, how Putin is reacting to this. We'll go live to Moscow.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

NOBLES: The breaking news on the day after Christmas, President Donald Trump visiting troops in Iraq with his wife, the first lady, Melania Trump. It is the president's first visit to a war zone since taking office. And it comes just after the president announced he plans to pull all American troops out of the conflict zone in Syria.

Let's go now to Moscow where our correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is standing by.

Fred, there was a strong reaction from the Kremlin when President Trump made the announcement he planned to pull out of Syria. Just wondering what the thought process is there now with the president visiting Iraq and defending that decision.

[14:55:32] FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think that's absolutely key, Ryan. The fact that President Trump went to Iraq, obviously, didn't go to Syria. I don't know how dangerous it would be for him to go there. The fact of the matter is he is in Iraq. And I think the key thing is that he defended that decision to pull out of Syria. I think one of the things he said is that he believes other people might get to that thinking very soon as well. And certainly that's something that I believe the Kremlin will be quite happy to hear.

It's been very interesting. Since President Trump announced that Syria pullout, we've been hearing from the Kremlin. And I was just at Vladimir Putin's year-end press conference a couple days ago and he was asked, what do you make of the Syria pull-out? Vladimir Putin said, we don't know if this is real yet. He said he heard from the Americans time and again they want to pull out of Afghanistan and they never did so. He was saying they want to check that this is really the real deal. And it seems as though to them, hearing from the president, Trump, tonight, that this is something he's cementing, that this is not a decision that's going to be rethought or reversed.

One thing that's clear, is if and when the United States does pull out of Syria, that's going to be handing a lot of power to the Russians. The Russians in Syria already the strongest foreign nation that's operating there in many ways. It's up to the Russian as to what the future of that country is going to be. They have relations, obviously, with Israel. They're already planning a lot of the future of Syria, for instance, with the Turks, trying to come to terms there.

One of the big power struggles that could ensure when the U.S. pulls out of that part of Syria would be between Russian-be backed Syrian government forces and Turkish forces who both want to move into that area. There are signs both those sides are massing forces. For the Russians, it's going to be highly interesting to see. They're going to be watching very closely the words that they hear from President Trump.

It's so interesting because, remember, one of the things that President Trump used to say is that he believed that President Obama was telegraphing some of the moves that the U.S. was making in Syria to America's adversaries, but a lot of the things that we're hearing now is exactly that, it's telegraphing to Russians, this decision is Trump's decision, he's sticking by that decision, it's not going to be reversed. And that's going to open a key door, especially for the Russians, to latch on to more power in Syria and help the forces they're backing there, the Syrian government forces, possibly move into those areas where the U.S. and its allies used to hold sway -- Ryan?

NOBLES: Let's talk about the optics of this, Fred. You said, a couple of days ago, Vladimir Putin saying he was concerned President Trump might not follow through on this promise. Now he makes this trip to Iraq. It comes after a week of Republican members of Congress, Lindsey Graham, one of the president's closest allies, hammering this decision to move out of Syria. Now the president goes to Iraq and tells the troops on the ground that he's sticking with this decision. That's got to be something that satisfies the Kremlin to a certain extent.

PLEITGEN: I think you're absolutely right. And we've really seen an interesting development here in Russia over the past couple of months. If you look especially towards pretty much the time that President Trump took office, one of the things we've been hearing a lot from the Russians is that they believed that President Trump was trying to make better relations between the U.S. and Russia happening on many different levels, but others, what they call forces in Washington that were trying to prevent that. For instance,, members of Congress, for instance, the Mueller investigation. But they believe that President Trump was the guy that wanted to work with them and that could work with them. But there were other forces trying to prevent that. I think there were many folks here in Moscow beginning to question that, especially after President Trump cancelled that G-20 summit meeting with Vladimir Putin. They were starting to lose faith in President Trump. One of the things I heard from members of the Russian Senate where they were saying, we don't believe there can be better relations between the U.S. and Russia until there's another election in America.

I think now with the Syria decision, the Russians sort of are feeling that President Trump is someone that is making policy in a way that the Russians, it benefits their interests. They've said without a doubt that they believe the U.S. should leave Syria. For a long time they said they believe that America is the one that's in Syria illegally. There's no U.N. resolution that would allow the United States to be there. And they believe the United States should leave. They've said that. The Assad government has said that as well. So this is something they would really like to hear and something that they've been wanting to hear for a very long time.