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Markets Rebound After Nightmare Christmas Eve; There Are New Border Patrol Policies After Second Migrant Child Dies; Volcano That Triggered Indonesia Tsunami Still Erupting; Assange Has A Rocky Relationship with Ecuador; Trump and First Lady Make Surprise Visit to Iraq. Aired 3-4p ET

Aired December 26, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] HANNAH VAUGHN JONES, CNN HOST: This hour U.S. markets are back in the green after a serious case of the Christmas blues. Is President Trump helping or hindering their recovery?

Also, tough questions are being asked tough questions are being asked after an 8-year-old boy dies in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. We are live in El Paso, Texas, with the latest.

Major moves inside Syria. We will have the latest on how countries are jockeying for position after the U.S. announces a troop pullout.

Hello there. Thank you so much for joining me this Boxing Day. I'm Hannah Vaughn Jones live in London for you. This is "CNN NEWSROOM."

On Wall Street, with just two hours until the close, stocks are rebounding sharply on the first trading day after a nightmare Christmas eve. You can see currently there just knocking up to 600 points. U.S. financial markets haven't seen a December this bad since the great depression and President Trump is looking for someone to blame while also talking up cheap stocks. We are heading to the New York Stock Exchange shortly but first Washington, Sarah Westwood standing by for us at the White House. Sarah, President Trump has ever with a very busy entry of things to do and venting his fury on Twitter. Publicly at least, fuming at the Fed and Fed chair and privately might be unhappy with members of his own cabinet. Tell us more.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right. Sources say the President is privately frustrated with Secretary Mnuchin's with the inability to reassure investors on the slide and he did try to calm fears telling the banks not to be worried about liquidity and no one was until he started to talk about and caused fears as well as the President's constant attacks on the Federal Reserve. The President has criticized Fed Chair Jerome Powell repeatedly for the decision to raise interest rates and claimed Powell did so too quickly and risked undercutting economic growth. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Raising interest rates too fast. That's my opinion. But I certainly have confidence. But I think it'll straighten. They're raising interest rates too fast thinking that the economy is so good.


WESTWOOD: A source tells our colleague that the President could be meeting with Powell in the new year. Aides hope that meeting would help ease tensions between the two men and that sort of meeting would not be unprecedented but rare given most administrations want to preserve the independence between the President and the Federal Reserve chair but the tensions between the two men obviously spilling out into public view as the President vents his frustration about the market volatility, Hannah.

JONES: And, Sarah, just stand by for a second because President Trump we know often vents his fury or what's going on in his mind on Twitter. He is curiously quiet today and quiet day drew to a close the President elaborated on an earlier tweet simply wishing people a merry Christmas. He shouted out to the media and talked up the achievements of his administration and tweeted this. "I hope everyone, even the fake news media, is having a great Christmas. Our country is doing very well. We are securing our borders, making great new trade deals and bringing our troops back home." We are finally putting America first. Merry Christmas. Different from the poor me I'm lonely in the White House tweet before that but talk us through the sort of successes that he's claiming there in that tweet. Border Patrol, we don't know whether that's sorted or not. And I guess bringing troops back home, he can say he's doing that.

WESTWOOD: All of -- many of the things he listed are also areas where he's been criticized. For instance, the decision to pull the troops out of Syria, something for when the President is taking heat, especially because he criticized his predecessor President Obama for swift withdrawal of troops from Iraq and claimed that the vacuum that American troops left behind gave rise to the Islamic state so now he's facing criticism for sort of doing the same thing in Syria before the terrorist group is fully eradicated. On border security, we are on day five of a partial government shutdown because of the President's demands for funding for his border wall and both sides appear to be entrenched. There's no end in sight to the shutdown. Perhaps progress could be made tomorrow when the house and senate come back to Washington but the President standing firm on demands for money for the border wall saying the government wasn't reopen until the wall is paid for. Hannah?

[14:05:00] JONES: Sarah, thank you.

Now a closer look at the markets and happening there on Wall Street. Alison Kosik is at the New York Stock Exchange. Good to see you. So, from the big board we were showing our viewers earlier, up some 600 points, this kind of rebound after a horrible Christmas Eve, explain it for us.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Looks like investors are dipping their toes in the water. Looks like those losses could be wiped out if the gains hold to the end of the trading day. We have another two hours left in the trading day. So, you know, the realities weighing on the market exist today. The worries about how the Fed is handling the interest rate hikes, concerns of slowing global growth, worries about the U.S./China trade situation. It is still unresolved and concerns how that impacts earnings. We are getting a new rash of earnings reports coming out in January and the concern is that corporate America may start to show how those tariffs, how that trade situation is impacting their business. And finally, the political risk. That' this still exists. You know, this market is still reeling from what Treasury Secretary Mnuchin did over the weekend calling up six of the big CEOs of U.S. banks, asking about their liquidity issues. Something that's usually only reserved for crisis situations. Making the market wonder if the administration may know something that's going on that the market may not know about. The market still reeling from that and still concerned about the unpredictability and the erratic nature of President Trump when he is having tirades against Fed Chief Jay Powell so that is still a real risk now that is on the table for Wall Street. Hannah?

JONES: Yes. Interesting then, Alison, about the political interference then and what impact that has on the markets. Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve Chair, is he safe in his job at the moment? Is he safe in his job right now?

KOSIK: You know what? The head of the Economic Council said today he'll 100 percent be able to keep his job and if you ask anybody here on the floor of New York Stock Exchange, there is still skepticism that may be in two weeks, you know, President Trump may change his mind and try to figure out how he can somehow get that legal authority to fire Jay Powell. That is something that could cause chaos here on Wall Street and not -- certainly could undermine confidence. We saw that as President Trump had certainly rallied against the Fed chair over the past couple of days. Hannah?

JONES: All right. Alison Kosik live for us there at New York Stock Exchange, thank you.

To other news now. We could soon learn more of the death of an 8- year-old Guatemalan boy. The boy died late on Christmas Eve at a New Mexico hospital just days after he and his father were detained after illegally entering the United States. He is the second migrant child to die in U.S. custody just this month. Let's get more from CNN's Nick Valencia. The autopsy due to take place and the results later. What do we know that happened to this little boy?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Officially no cause of death from authorities but we expect that to come with the autopsy which could take weeks, Hannah. What we officially know according to a statement is that this 8-year-old boy from Guatemala was diagnosed with a common cold admitted into the hospital. He was given a generic antibiotics and ibuprofen and released despite a 103-degree fever and we know that he did -- he was administered medication, did accept that and within hours of receiving that his condition worsened. He became nauseous, started vomiting, lost consciousness and taken back to the hospital but within 14 hours of the CPB agent initially noticing that this child was sick within 14 hours this child passed away. A lot of questions coming from the Guatemalan authorities. They have asked for the medical records of the child and we're seeing now changes being implemented by the Commissioner of Customs And Border Protection which include medical screenings. They're going to thoroughly and have secondary screenings for all children in the custody with the primary focus on 10 years and younger and asking for more resources including from the coast guard and the CDC from what Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen said is an uptick of sick migrants crossing into the United States. Hanna.

[14:10:00] JONES: Any official word yet from the White House on this case in particular? Is there any concern that the impact of it could be detriment to sourcing out the shutdown and getting the border wall money?

VALENCIA: Well, we certainly, you know, seen that affect take place. The shutdown, the partial government shutdown for a group that is tasked, customs and border protection, with solidifying the U.S./Mexico board border and keeping illegal immigration. An organization that's stretched thin bursting as seams in some cases and the facilities overcrowded. You know, we haven't officially heard, you know, a pointed statement released by the White House just comments from members of the cabinet, department of homeland security secretary, as well as the commissioner of customs and border protection giving come don ell -- condolences but we reported on the death of another migrant who died in U.S. custody and another death of a child and still a lot of questions to be answered. Hannah?

JONES: Nick, live for us there in Texas, thank you.

Still ahead tonight, forces from three different nations on the move around Kurdish held areas in northern Syria as the major players get into position, ready, of course, for that U.S. withdrawal from the region.


JONES: Welcome back. The death toll from the Indonesian tsunami has now reached 430 and the volcano that caused it is still erupting and spewing a column of ash up 10 kilometers and eruption over the weekend triggered an underwater landslide that likely caused the tsunami and there are fears it could happen all over again. Officials are promising to upgrade an early warning system. Meantime, or the torrential rain is compromising the rescue efforts.

Syria and Russia are reinforcing the troops near a Kurdish-held town in northern Syria. Kurdish-led Syrian militia liberated the town of Manbij back in 2016 from ISIS. Turkish-backed forces are massing in the area days after U.S. President Donald Trump announced American forces are leaving Syria.

Gul Tuysyz has more now from us from Istanbul.

[14:15:00] GUL TUYSUZ, CNN SENIOR PRODUCER: There is movement on the ground after the decision of withdrawing of the battlefield of Syria. We have been seeing regime forces, Syrian regime forces and the Russian backers reinforcing positions in a little town on the outskirts. Some 40 trucks were seen going in to that area. Carrying military personnel as well as military equipment. At the same time, you have turkey's proxy on the ground amassing on the border in the Turkish-controlled part of Syria. Basically, looking like they're getting ready to go in to the town. The complicated factor is that it is controlled by the Kurds backed by the U.S. while they have said they're going to be pulling the troops, there is still U.S. personnel on the ground, as well. We are seeing a lot of movement now in the heels of this decision by the U.S. to pull its troops out. The question, of course, now is what happens to the fight against is? Because those 2,000 or so U.S. troops were there on the ground in an effort to beat back ISIS. Now, they have lost a lot of their territory but there are still remaining pockets in Syria that's down along the Syrian/Iraqi border. Will the U.S.'s decision to pull out, turkey vowed to take a much more active role in the fight against ISIS and the main priority has always been the presence of those Kurdish fighters. Turkey views them as an extension of what they call a terrorist group here at home and they have been threatening over the last couple of weeks saying they're ready to expel them away from their borders. But now the scope of turkey's operation has grown. They're saying that they're going to be going after the remnants of ISIS to ensure that there is an enduring defeat of the ISIS group. But how effective will turkey be when it's going to be trying to both ouster the Kurds from along its borders as well as go after is something that we will be watching to see. CNN, Istanbul.

JONES: Now, a short distance where I'm sitting here in London, Julian Assange spent a seventh Christmas holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy. Assange says he won't leave because he fears extradition to the United States of the work with WikiLeaks. Wikileaks published hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. CNN Nima Elbagir reports that Assange's hosts are losing patience.

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The heart of Knight's Bridge in central London in the holiday season. A few meters away from the famous Harrods, the Ecuador's diplomatic mission gave refuge to WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. The scenes outside while the building is under renovation are different from the ones that we saw in 2012 when Assange surprised everyone by seeking refuge.


JULIAN ASSANGE, FOUNDER OF WIKILEAKS: A courageous Latin American nation took a stand for justice.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ELBAGIR: But after more than six years of co-existence with his host this relationship has deteriorated. Although Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno reiterates his government is looking for a diplomatic solution to end his stay, he says Assange is an inherited problem.


LENIN MORENO, PRESIDENT OF ECUADOR (through translator): If the British government guarantees his life, I think it is in his interest to hand himself over to British justice.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ELBAGIR: Moreno's government imposed new rules to his guest as a condition to continue his asylum. Assange's visitors have been restricted, and need to be authorized by Ecuador. He is also required to pay for his own food, laundry and medical care. Along with having to take better care of his cat. The cat has since left. And the WikiLeaks founder must not interfere in country other's matters. Assange's legal team answered with a legal action against Ecuador arguing it violates his fundamental rights. After months of isolation, the founder appeared in court hearings in Quito via video conference. Assange accused the government of preparing to revoke his asylum and claimed his stay inside the embassy has become a solitary confinement.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The new regulations that are trying to impose on Julian only look for -- to break Julian Assange's will. So, he can leave the embassy voluntarily.


[14:20:00] ELBAGIR: Assange remains the subject of an arrest warrant in the U.K. for violating the bail conditions. The WikiLeaks founder and supporters say he would be extradited to the U.S. and face charges as retribution of work with the WikiLeaks. U.S. Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia mistakenly revealed references to possible secret charges against Assange in a court filing. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office said it was made in error and called the mention an administrative error.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: Wikileaks for what it really is.


ELBAGIR: Trump's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called WikiLeaks a non-state hostile intelligence service and then U.S. Attorney General Sessions said the arrest was a priority. A deteriorating relationship that has sparked speculation over Assange's fate. CNN, London.

JONES: Stay with us here on CNN. This Boxing Day, plenty more coming up after this break.


RYAN NOBLES, CNN HOST: Has landed in Iraq. The President making an unannounced trip to the war zone and more than 5,000 American troops are deployed. This trip amid controversy over the President's decision to order the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. He's also considering a similar decision in Afghanistan. Let's go live now to the Pentagon. Barbara Starr standing by with the very latest on this breaking news. Barbara, significant. The President making his first trip to a war zone since taking office.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely correct. There are now pictures appearing on social media showing that he has landed at the air base west of Baghdad. And perhaps operationally significant. It is an air base that's quite large that can handle Air Force One and the entire traveling party and it avoids him landing in Baghdad and helicopter to the green zone to the embassy. That would be potentially a very difficult maneuver to have the -- any President of the United States make. So, some pictures are beginning to emerge. We'll bring -- I see we have some of them there. Of the President meeting troops at Al Asad. There's some 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq. They're working on trying to help get Iraqi forces completely trained up. That's been going on for some time. There are also U.S. forces there engaged in counter terrorism missions. Still going after the remnants of ISIS and the other 2,600 troops in addition to the 5,000 that are across the border in Syria, those are the ones, of course, that the President has ordered to come home. I think it's very important to say while this comes at a very unique time for the President, this trip would have been in the planning stages for some time. It would be for any President of the United States you know. The Secret Service is very involved and the U.S. military in Iraq. They have to secure the air space he travels through. They have to have intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance.

[14:25:00] They have to have air defenses essentially if in the unlikely scenario somebody tried to engage, fire rockets, fire something at the Al Asad base, they have to have all of their military assets and radars up and running. All of this would have taken some weeks to fully plan out. The military, the Secret Service, they know how to do it. President George W. Bush, President Obama traveling both to Iraq and Afghanistan many times. So, they know how to do the security but for a given visit on a given day this has to be well planned out long in advance and I think we safely assume it was.

JONES: Barbara, to that end, if it was planned not long ago that means that the current defense secretary, outgoing James Mattis to a certain degree at odds with Donald Trump must have been in the planning, correct?

STARR: I think he would have absolutely been extremely aware of it. Secretary Mattis himself was scheduled to be overseas making a holiday trip to visit troops and that was canceled some days back perhaps. We don't know. Perhaps because it became clear that the President was going and then quickly, of course, Secretary Mattis resigned his position in protest over the withdrawal of those troops from Syria. So, we have had a lot of events unfolding all at the same time. And what we don't have yet is any video. We have some stills.

JONES: Right.

STARR: You see the troops, you know, smiling, very happy to see the President. This is a very typical, respectful response from U.S. troops. This is their commander in chief. They are going to be very pleased to see that he made the effort along with the first lady to come visit them at the holiday time. I think we have to wait and see the video to see precise reaction from the troops. We know, we absolutely know that the troops are well aware of the withdrawal orders. They're well aware of Secretary Mattis resigning in protest. These are political matters to some extent they're aware of and make no mistake. They will be respectful. And they will give any President of the United States in office the respect of the office of the presidency. So that's what we'll be looking for when the video emerges from all of this. And we'll have to see and get more details about whom exactly the President met with. Did he meet finally with the top U.S. commander and the British deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve which is the operation there? Because those two key commanders, they're waiting still to get their orders about the withdrawal from Syria. This is the next really critical step. The President ordered the 2,000 to be out of Syria. When you get down to the last troops, they are at risk and a very particular plan to get them out of there and what to do - next. The pictures are nice. Meeting the troops is nice. It is the holiday time. But there certainly would be business that should be conducted here of meeting with the commanders, giving him his -- giving them his views about what he wants to see happen.

JONES: OK. Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon, stand by. We'll come back to you with more questions in a moment. Let's get the view from the White House. Abby Philip is standing by. I was watching the pool reports from the White House this morning and certainly a lot of suspicion going on there as to what the President was up to. The Marine normally posted in front of the west wing was not there all morning long. Give us an idea of what you are hearing from the perch on the north lawn.

ABBY PHILIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is quiet here. In some ways unusually quiet at the White House the day after Christmas and the day after the President had spent much of the week tweeting a lot. Talking a lot. The silence was really pretty conspicuous and leading people here to speculate about what was going on behind the scenes and no sightings of staff here at the White House and that's because the President since last night has been gone and as Barbara pointed out, these trips are shrouded in an enormous amount of secrecy and under those circumstances even the traveling press that's with him are not able to talk about this until they're given the clear from the White House, from the people really working to kind of protect the entourage around a trip like this. The fact that President Trump woke up and didn't issue a single tweet and the Twitter account is silent for some 19, 20 hours, that's a cause of suspicion for some people and it shows that the President was about to be at the point where he would have been the first sitting President not to make a visit to the troops during the holiday season. But in fact, planning this trip for some time. The President said over a month ago he did expect to visit the troops soon and didn't say when and we expected in the coming weeks or months and we know it's happening right now. The day after Christmas and also amid a lot of turmoil, back home, turmoil here in Washington. Remember, the government is still partially shut down and a trip happening at a time when the government isn't even running on full cylinders but it's clearly President Trump doing this part of the job that I think he would have gotten some criticism for had he not made a trip some point in his second term to see a war zone and especially planning to re-evaluate the commitment in the region.

JONES: Right. Abby Philip, thank you for that update. Now perspective from someone who spent quite a bit of time in the military and that's Admiral John Kirby. Admiral, I wonder from your perspective, down to the soldier level here, we see them posing with the President and the first lady. What does it mean for them especially over the holidays?


What is it mean for them, especially over the holidays when they're away from their families to get a visit from their commander in chief?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: It's a big shot in the arm, Ryan. No doubt about it. He's the commander in chief and it's sort of a validation of their service and their sacrifice. It's also a validation of the service and sacrifice of their families who were missing them at the holiday time.

Plus, you also just want to know that the boss cares about what you're doing and he cares about the mission. So there's no question that this will be a big morale boost for these young men and women as they continue to serve the national security interest over there.

NOBLES: All right. Admiral Kirby, thank you for that. We're going to get in a quick break now. But 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 from overseas to this breaking news when we come back.



NOBLES: That 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.

[14:35:09] Ivan, let's start with you. I just want to point this out from one of the pool reporters from Reuters, Steve Holland, who's traveling with the president. Apparently, he's using this trip to defend his decision to pull out of Syria which is, of course, receiving a lot of criticism here in the United States, not just from Democrats but from 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, you know, obviously that decision by the president did rattle a lot of nerves in the region. You know? How is this going to be interpreted now against the backdrop of the president's visit?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, 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 also plans afoot to try to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan down by half. He's not visiting troops, U.S. troops deployed in those two conflict zones. He's visiting Iraq where there is also a U.S. military presence and the U.S. troop presence in these countries has vacillated so dramatically over the course of the past decade and a half as U.S. military fortunes have ebbed and flowed in these countries.

Recall that the U.S. had a massive deployment troops in Iraq. President Obama drew that force down and then 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 and 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. troop presence there drawn is down from some 14,000 and cut in half.

The implication that could have on the Afghan government there and which has been losing territory to the Taliban and on NATO partners that are part of a coalition there in Afghanistan, some 41 countries contributing to that multi-national effort.

So now you have President Trump 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 backdrop of a real concern about ongoing stability in these other conflicts that the U.S. is embroiled in. Ryan.

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

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely not. And it's incredibly telling that 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 are along the western border, Anbar Province, where they remain pockets of ISIS. They're also along the north close to Syria. Some of the areas where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS has been reported to be able to move around.

It is incredibly, incredibly telling that he has chosen to go and bolster the morale of these specific troops because these are the troops that will have to bear that burden, bear the burden of his decisions to pull those 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 those back home in America, perhaps it is just a morale boost. But for people in the region who see America as such an uncertain ally right now, they are reading the tea leaves for everything they can and they're already asking me, and I obviously know no more than they do, whether this is a prelude to any other kind of announcement.

It speaks volumes that President Trump has refused to back down from his decisions regarding the troops in Afghanistan and Syria. And yet, has visited the troops that will be at the front line of dealing with the ramifications of his decisions. Ryan.

NOBLES: Yes. And then telling those troops, defending that decision to pull out of Syria while speaking to them in this unannounced visit.

All right. Ivan, Nima, thank you so much for your perspective. We appreciate you being there.

We are going to take another quick break but we'll have more reaction to this breaking news. We're learning of what President Trump is saying on the ground in Iraq. We'll have more on that in just a moment. Stay here.



NOBLES: That 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."

All right. 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 have visited Iraq. You've actually lived in Iraq and served during your time in the Obama administration. From your perspective, how important is a visit like this by any president, not just President Trump?

[14:45:06] SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: These visits are key because they obviously help make or we hope that they help to make the troops presence on the ground particularly during the holidays a little bit easier. President Obama went to Afghanistan three times. He went to Iraq two times and President Bush made similar trips.

But, Ryan, these trips are not just feel-good opportunities for the troops or the president. They're not there to check box.

In this particular case, President Trump's message while he's on the ground both to troops and to their commanders is critical. Anything that 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 troop presence in Syria based upon a phone call with Erdogan. They know that we may be withdrawing 7,000 troops from Afghanistan.

So one of the key question is what he says about these troops ongoing mission in Iraq while he's on the ground.

NOBLES: And we know that he's already had been talking about it. He's defended the 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? I mean, is that customary for a president to basically make this argument to the troops that are going to be on the front lines of this?

VINOGRAD: Well, it sounds like the president is developing his argument based upon his particular audience. We've obviously heard him say that ISIS is defeated then ISIS is largely defeated. And it seems to change based upon who he's speaking to.

But, no, presidents typically don't try to garner support for their military decisions from the troops that are implementing them and the troops that are away from their families.

What is more customaries for the president to sit down with commanders while he's on the ground, get an update on what's actually happening in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, for example, while he's there and then to develop talking points that actually reflect reality versus his political agenda at the time.

NOBLES: Now, you know this region well from your time serving there. Obviously, this is a decision -- he's making two decisions, the decision to pull completely out of Syria, some 2,200 American troops in that region but he's also talking about significantly reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan.

He's not in either of those places. He's in Iraq. Well, I mean, what is the significance of him choosing to go to Iraq versus -- I mean, and probably would be very difficult from a security perspective to go to Syria. But why there instead of Afghanistan?

VINOGRAD: Well, not having access to classified intelligence right now, I don't know what the security landscape looks for executing a presidential trip into Afghanistan right now.

I do think optically be very 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 that they're executing is actually working.

They're making gains against the Taliban because the president crossed up resources. The political track is going better because the Taliban is under pressure. So I'm not sure what exactly he tell them to try to explain the decision to change course at this time.

NOBLES: All right. Let's bring in Elise Labott now and get her perspective on all of this.

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 all of this based on these decisions that he's made about troop withdrawals? How do you think, you know, 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's 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. If you -- we haven't talked that much about what's going on in Iraq right now.

Yes, ISIS has been severely degraded in Iraq. But this is not -- this ISIS conflict is not about an Iraq conflict or a Syria conflict. It's a problem with ISIS. And if you look at what's going on in Iraq right now, the government is really in shambles. There's a lot of chaos because of parliamentary fighting. They still haven't seated a government.

And that's the kind of vacuum. There's no reconstruction really to speak of. It's very slow. People don't have services. They don't have electricity and this is kind of the situation that allowed ISIS to flourish. And 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.

And if you look at, you know, the president is not going to Afghanistan most likely and it's very dangerous there. There's been several horrible attacks in the last couple of months. Just one yesterday in which 40 mostly innocent people were killed at a government installation for disabled people.

So 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, Sam Vinograd, thank you.

We are 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 will go live to Moscow.



NOBLES: That 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 that he plans to pull all Americans out of the conflict zone in Syria.

[14:55:11] Let's go now to Moscow. That's where our correspondent, Fred Pleitgen is standing by. Fred, obviously, there was a strong reaction from the Kremlin when President Trump made the announcement that he planned to pull out of Syria

You know, I'm just wondering what the thought process is there now with the president visiting Iraq and defending that decision.

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And 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.

But the fact of the matter is that 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 that he said is that he believes that 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, you know. It's been very interesting since President Trump announced that Syria pullout.

But we've been hearing from the Kremlin, I was actually just at Vladimir Putin's year-end press conference a couple of days ago and he was asked what do you make of the Syria pullout, what Vladimir Putin said was, we don't know if this is real yet. He said, look, he'd heard from the Americans time and again, for instance, if they want to pull out of Afghanistan and they never did so.

So he was saying they want to check if this is really the real deal and it seems as though to them, certainly, hearing from President now -- Trump now tonight that this is something that is cementing, that this is not a decision that's going to be rethought or a decision that's going to be reversed.

And one of the things that's clear is that 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 right now in Syria are already, by far, the strongest foreign nation that's operating there in many ways.

It's up to the Russians 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.

And, of course, one of the big power struggles that could ensue when the U.S. pulls out of that part of Syria, would be between Russian- backed Syrian government forces and then the Turkish forces, as well, who both obviously want to move into the area and there's already signs that both those sides are already amassing forces.

So for the Russians, it's going to be highly interesting to see. And I think one of the things that they're going to be doing is they're going to be watching very closely the words that they hear from President Trump.

But 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 things that we're hearing now is exactly that. It's telegraphing to the Russians. This decision is President 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 try and really latch on to more power there in Syria and obviously help the forces that they're backing there, the Syrian government forces possibly move into some of those areas where the U.S. and its allies used to hold sway. Ryan.

NOBLES: And let's talk about the optics of this, Fred. I mean, you mentioned just a couple of days ago Vladimir Putin saying he was concerned that maybe President Trump wouldn't follow through on this promise and now he makes this trip to Iraq and it comes after a week of Republican members of Congress, Lindsey Graham, is one of the president's closest ally, 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. I mean, that's got to be something that satisfies the Kremlin to a certain extent.

PLEITGEN: Oh, 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 at especially towards pretty much the time that President Trump took office, one of the things that 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, in many different spheres, but then it was other, what they call forces in Washington that were trying to prevent that, for instance, members of Congress, for instance, the Mueller investigation.

But, generally, they believed that President Trump was a guy that wanted to work with them and that could work with them, but there were other forces trying to prevent that. And I think there were many folks here in Moscow who are beginning to question that, especially after President Trump canceled that G20 summit meeting with Vladimir Putin. They were sort of starting to lose faith in President Trump.

One of the things I actually heard from Russian, members of the Russian Senate where they were saying, look, we don't believe that there can be better relations between the U.S. and Russia until there's another election in America.

But I think now the Syria decision, the Russians sort of are feeling that President Trump really is someone that is making policy in a way that the Russians feel benefits their interest.

Certainly they've said, without a doubt, that they believe that the United States should leave Syria. They're in for a long time, so that they believed that America is the one that's in Syria illegally because, obviously, 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.