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THE SITUATION ROOM
Trump Plays the Victim in Russia Probe, Accusing Democrats of "Presidential Harassment" Ahead of Their House Takeover; Hundreds of Migrants to be Released in El Paso Tonight; Interview With California Congressman John Garamendi; Trumps Visit Troops in Iraq. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired December 26, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump is vowing to hold out for border wall funding, regardless of how long it takes. Will he eventually blink if he's unable to dodge the blame?
A thousand-point surge. After a Christmas Eve debacle for stock prices, the Dow Jones industrials make a stunning comeback. But given the extreme volatility on Wall Street, will this suddenly bullish outlook last?
And claiming harassment. The president goes off on a rant about the Russia probe, as Democrats prepare to take over the House, the Trump team buckling up for a new year of investigations and Robert Mueller's long awaited report..
We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
ACOSTA: And we are following breaking news on President Trump's first trip to a war zone at a time of turmoil back home and with his military decisions under fire.
The president and the first lady have wrapped up a holiday surprise visit to U.S. troops in Iraq. The commander in chief defended his widely-criticized plan to withdraw forces from neighboring Syria, claiming ISIS has been knocked out -- quote -- "silly."
The president says he is in no hurry to find a permanent replacement for Defense Secretary James Mattis, who quit in protest. Mr. Trump suggests he is not in a rush to end the partial government shutdown here in the U.S. as well.
This hour, I will talk with a key Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman John Garamendi. And our correspondents, analysts, they are also standing by at this hour.
And, first, let's go to our White House correspondent, Abby Phillip. Abby, there was growing pressure on the president to finally visit troops in a combat zone, and today he did it. And today was the day.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Today was the day, Jim. President Trump two years into his presidency finally leaving the United States and heading to a combat zone where U.S. troops are stationed, but this is one of those conflicts that President Trump has been talking about for many, many years, calling it a waste of U.S. blood and treasure.
But, today, the task was different. He spent three hours on the ground with the first lady, meeting with troops, aiming to boost morale and delivering about 20 minutes of a speech. The message, though, that he delivered to reporters and to the troops abroad was that the U.S. still is not going to continue to be the policemen of the world under his watch.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Great job.
PHILLIP (voice-over): In a surprise holiday season visit, President Trump and first lady Melania Trump landed in Iraq to visit with troops stationed at Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad.
TRUMP: And I'm here because of you.
PHILLIP: Leaving the White House under the cover of darkness on Christmas Day, the trip marks Trump's first visit to a war zone as president. And it comes less than a week after Trump ordered a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and a partial drawdown in Afghanistan.
On the ground in Iraq, where some 5,200 U.S. troops are still stationed, the president defended his decision to leave Syria, a call he made without consulting military advisers earlier this month.
TRUMP: I think that a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking. It is time for us to start using our head.
PHILLIP: As Trump seeks to boost morale among soldiers and commanders stationed abroad, uncertainty remains about the U.S. strategy in the Middle East to combat the terror group ISIS.
Two years after he falsely claimed that President Obama was responsible for ISIS' rise...
TRUMP: ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS.
PHILLIP: Trump is now facing criticism that he has abandoned U.S. allies in the region who are still fighting to crush the terror group, even as he insists they have already been defeated, telling reporters:
TRUMP: We have knocked them out. We have knocked them silly. Today, they're not so dominant anymore. PHILLIP: All of this unfolding amid an avalanche of problems on the
home front, including a partial government shutdown that the president isn't backing down from. Trump telling reporters in Iraq that the border wall must be funded.
TRUMP: Whatever it takes. I mean, we're going to have a wall.
PHILLIP: While 800,000 federal workers spend the holidays in uncertainty due to the partial government shutdown, the president complained that he was all alone in the White House after he canceled plans to travel to Florida for Christmas.
Trump's sour mood was fueled by steep losses on Wall Street this month, caused by his own trade war and his sharp criticism of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell.
QUESTION: What about the Fed chairman?
TRUMP: Well, we will see. They're raising interest rates too fast. That's my opinion.
PHILLIP: A source familiar with the matter says Trump has blamed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for the decision to recommend Powell for the Fed job and his failure to calm markets.
And despite Trump's praise of his treasury secretary yesterday...
QUESTION: Do you still have confidence in Secretary Mnuchin?
TRUMP: Yes, I do. Very talented guy, very smart person.
PHILLIP: ... Mnuchin is still under the gun, and his job may be in serious jeopardy, that source says.
PHILLIP: Now, Steve Mnuchin may have received something of a Christmas miracle today, as stocks rebounded, more than 1,000 points, after some steep losses on Christmas Eve. It is not clear what that means for his job, but for a president who is very sensitive to the stocks going up or down, this is good news for Mnuchin and for President Trump.
And as it relates to that government shutdown, President Trump is not backing down for his demand for a border wall. In fact, he's saying he plans to go to the border to visit parts of the wall in January just before he delivers a State of the Union address -- Jim.
ACOSTA: OK. We will be watching that one as well. Abby Phillip, thank you very much.
Let's bring in CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, and CNN global affairs analyst and correspondent Elise Labott. Barbara, the president's trip comes -- the one that happened today to
Iraq comes just days after the president announced the complete withdrawal of troops in Syria. The president said that the U.S. has knocked ISIS out, but he wants to keep U.S. troops in Iraq to strike targets in Syria just in case.
What do you make of this? He is announcing policy while he's on the ground with troops in Iraq.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, he is. And it is a very interesting wrinkle. The president perhaps hedging his military bets, saying that some of those troops in Iraq could be used to conduct missions across the border into Syria if ISIS rears its head again.
Did anybody think ISIS was really defeated? Not really. So how would this even work? This is going to be very tough. ISIS right now, the targets are very difficult. There are just a few. They are not very visible. This is not back in 2014, when there were convoys of ISIS fighters rolling through cities and towns in Syria and Iraq.
They very much have gone to ground. So if you want the intelligence to be able to conduct either airstrikes or ground missions across the border in Syria, you have to have people on the ground. And that is what will not happen. The U.S. will not have people on the ground.
They have done airstrikes from Iraq before into Syria, but this is when ISIS was really a formidable, very visible force. That is not what they are today. The intelligence will be very tough to collect.
ACOSTA: And, Jim Sciutto, the Syria withdrawal has been described as sudden, made after Turkey's president pushed for it over the phone, as you know. We have all been covering this. How are these national security decisions being made? I mean, you hear the president today saying, well, we can always strike ISIS from Iraq.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The way it was described to me by a senior administration official is they're made on a whim, on a phone call.
And the evidence we had of that was that this official told me that in the weeks prior to this surprise decision, that John Bolton, of course, the president's national security adviser, dispatched senior officials to go meet with partners, allies on the ground there to deliver a very firm message that the U.S. would be in Syria until Iran is out of Syria, to give them a message of confidence, which, of course, the president reversed with that decision.
So there was no consultation with senior advisers, and there certainly was not preparation for your partners on the ground who are risking their lives. I mean, there's enormous fear in particular for the Kurdish allies on the ground, right, because they're left in the lurch. You even hear the phrase genocide uttered by some folks, concerned that they will now be swallowed by ISIS, at a point when the U.S. and its allies really had ISIS in a pincer movement, right, kind of focused in a tiny pocket of North Syria, described to me as a Tora Bora-like situation, remember, after 9/11, where they had bin Laden.
Then they went away and he got away. And that's the fear now with ISIS in Syria.
ACOSTA: And, Elise Labott, what does all of this communicate to the rest of the world? What are the allies thinking when they hear all of this, especially after the president slammed Barack Obama for being the founder of ISIS during the campaign?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right.
The suggestion was that by pulling out of Iraq he allowed ISIS to flourish. And there's a concern now that if there's a precipitous withdrawal from Syria, the same thing could happen or even worse, and ISIS, you know, 2.0.
And if you look across the border in Iraq, the government is still in shambles. It was -- you know, there were elections in May. They still don't have a government seated. There's no budget. Reconstruction is very slow and there's not a lot of services or electricity, and this is exactly the kind of vacuum that allowed ISIS to gain so much strength in the first place.
So a lot of concern about that. And then to Jim's point about the Kurds, he's also leaving Turkey very vulnerable, because now, you know, the U.S. had kind of checked the Kurds in a way from going across the border into Turkey. But now that the U.S. is not going to be there anymore, it does leave Turkey quite vulnerable for the Kurds. Some say they will make a deal with Assad and go after Turkey.
ACOSTA: And, Barbara Starr, we saw some of this video earlier today. We don't have all of the video from the president's trip to Iraq at this point. But some of the video, very interesting, signing red MAGA hats there with the troops.
And I suppose folks out there are watching this, and they might say, well, the soldier might have had this in the locker, he ran over, saw the president, wanted to get it signed and so on.
But this is unusual, is it not, for the commander in chief to sign what is essentially campaign memorabilia with the troops during an official commander in chief trip to a war zone?
STARR: Unusual for maybe any other president.
The problem here is that Mr. Trump whenever he is with the troops basically embarks on a political agenda, and that's what U.S. military forces are not supposed to be part of. The pool reporters say that their information on the ground is that the troops did, in fact, bring the hats with them.
But the question, of course, is the commanders, the enlisted and the officer commanders who were there. How did they allow this to happen, because it is not supposed to happen? And if Mr. Trump doesn't know that, certainly, they do. So, yes, it is unusual, maybe not in the Trump administration, but the troops, the commanders probably should have known better.
This is a political tinge, if you will, on what should be a presidential event -- Jim.
ACOSTA: Not supposed to be a rally.
And, Jim Sciutto, the president said today he's not in a hurry to appoint a new defense secretary, to tap a new defense secretary, saying that the acting secretary could serve for some time. What do we make of that?
SCIUTTO: Well, listen, maybe the president is aware it is a hard position to fill, right, because when this was discussed before, who would replace a Jim Mattis, there were names presented, even Tom Cotton and others, who seem to have taken their name out.
And this is, as you know better than me, a consistent problem this president has had filling some of these positions. How many folks actually desire those positions? Now, to be fair, the deputy defense secretary, soon to be acting -- or I guess currently acting as of January 1, is experienced Boeing executive.
The rub you will hear is that someone who doesn't have military experience for that role, but wouldn't be the first civilian to occupy that position. Maybe the president is happy with him, is happy with him going forward, but when you look at the larger pattern, here is a president having difficulty filling some of the positions because, listen, you could very easily find yourself out of those positions if you get on the wrong side of the president.
And that's a risk they would have to take.
ACOSTA: And we certainly know that. He's been an acting defense secretary, acting attorney general, acting chief of staff and so on.
All right, guys, thank you very much. Appreciate it.
Joining me now, Congressman John Garamendi, a Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
And, as you saw today, the president visiting those troops in Iraq, I suppose better late than never. He said: "We have knocked out ISIS. They have been knocked out. They have been knocked out silly."
What did you make of the president's comments, when you saw him make those comments today? He also said that the U.S. could use Iraq as a base to launch attacks against Syria. The suggestion, I suppose, would be, ISIS may not exactly be knocked silly in that country.
REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, I think you're exactly correct. Just last week, before the president decided he would pull out, the
military was saying there's some 20,000 to 30,000 active ISIS soldiers or militants operating in Syria.
Now, if that's the president's notion of being knocked out, well, I don't think he's been in a real battle. This battle against ISIS is going to continue for some time. Moving out of Syria totally, which is apparently what he wants to do, will leave a very, very serious vacuum that will be filled by Iran, by Assad, Syria, and by Russia, as well as Turkey, all of which is bad news for the United States.
With regard to operating from Iraq, yes, we have been doing that regularly from the airfields in Iraq, targeting various ISIS formations in Syria. We know of those formations because of our 2,000 troops that are on the ground that are able to identify targets, able to coordinate the air and ground activities. That will not be available.
And then there is the issue of, what will Turkey do with the Kurds? All of this is chaotic, and the president's arrival in Iraq is just one more bit of chaos and all of the things that go with it.
We really need to calm down here. Let's get a strategy in place. Let's understand what it is we're trying to accomplish, and then put in place plans to get it done, rather than helter-skelter.
ACOSTA: And, Congressman, a senior administration official has told CNN that the national security decision-making process has basically stopped working.
And this is happening as the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, his departure date has been moved up to January 1, and the president has said today that he may just have this acting secretary serve in that role for who knows how long.
Are you hopeful that the president will approach some of these decisions, this decision-making process, which is so vital to the security of the world, differently now that he's visited a war zone?
GARAMENDI: Well, this is precisely the big, major problem confronting, frankly, the entire world.
The United States is the strongest, most influential and most lethal country in the world. We need to use our military with extraordinary wisdom. We need to use our diplomacy and our international relations, similarly, with wisdom, with long-term thought and plans and strategies, none of which this president seems to have.
He seems to have just ignored all of his advisers. He has no use for the intelligence organizations, consistently trashing them, trashing the FBI, going after -- and I don't know if he's paying any attention to the State Department right now, but he certainly didn't pay any attention to Mr. Bolton, as well as to the military.
All of this means this entire thing is coming out of his mind. Now, there is a scary thought.
ACOSTA: And, Congressman, let me turn to the shutdown. When asked about the government shutdown today, the president said he's willing to do whatever it takes to get a wall.
Let's listen to the president speaking earlier today in Iraq.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Whatever it takes. I mean, we're going to have a wall. We're going to have safety. We need safety for our country, even from this standpoint. We have terrorists coming in through the southern border. We need a wall.
So when you say, how long is it going to take, when are they going to say that we need border security? When are the Democrats going to say? Don't forget, the Democrats all agreed that you need a wall, until I wanted it. Once I wanted it, they didn't agree.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Your response to that?
GARAMENDI: It is a little more complex than that.
Yes, the Democrats and the Republicans agreed to a major, some $40 billion border security plan back in 2013. That passed the Senate. It had all of the elements necessary. It had DACA, it had immigration reform, it had border security, it had drones, it had walls, it had improved ports of entry. All of that was in it.
Unfortunately, Speaker Boehner and the Republicans in the House refused to even take that issue up. Since that time, the Democrats have repeatedly said that we will support border security. We will support all of these elements, including fences where useful.
Now, the president has yet to describe any plans whatsoever as to where he's going to build a wall or the fences or the spiked steel rails. None of that has been given. We would not allow the military -- and I'm on the Armed Services Committee, responsible for this -- to even build a garage for their tanks unless they told us where, when, why it was needed and how much it would cost. Then we would appropriate the money.
ACOSTA: So when the president says that he will have the military build the wall for him down on the border, your response to that, then, is what?
GARAMENDI: Won't happen. It won't happen.
The military has no authority, no authorization, no money to build a wall, and they won't get it. We're not going to use the U.S. military to build a wall for this president. We need the military to be, frankly, in Syria. We need the military
to be able to carry out its tasks around the world and all of the various functions that it has to keep this nation and, frankly, the world in a peaceful situation.
ACOSTA: OK. Congressman John Garamendi, thank you very much for coming on. We appreciate it. Happy holidays.
GARAMENDI: Thank you.
ACOSTA: And it was good to see you. Thank you, sir.
GARAMENDI: Thank you.
ACOSTA: All right, and just ahead, as the president has been visiting Iraq, did he offer any clarity, or more confusion, about his military strategy in the region?
This as Mr. Trump has been lashing out at Democrats and the Russian investigation. Will voters buy his claim that he is a victim of presidential harassment?
ACOSTA: And we're following breaking news on the substance and the timing of President Trump's surprise visit to Iraq, the commander in chief doing something he had sidestepped for nearly two years, meeting with U.S. troops on the ground in a war zone.
He says American forces will remain in Iraq, even as he is moving to withdraw them from Syria and Afghanistan, against the recommendation of the Pentagon brass.
Let's bring in our CNN analysts to talk about all of this.
And, Sam Vinograd, how important -- I mean, I suppose, you know, folks can stop knocking him for this, right, that it took him this long to get to a war zone. He has done it. What benefit do you think he will take away from this?
SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Jim, he can certainly check the box that he physically made it to Iraq, but what he actually did on the ground while he was there is just as important.
Presidential trips like this are often to tell the military how much their service matters to the country and why their ongoing mission is so critical to the safety and security of the American people.
This was a little bit different. The president seems to have confused in some way this troop deploy -- this troop visit with a campaign rally by raising things like the border wall and things that he has done for them. What he really failed to do, at least as far as we know right now, is
really make very clear why their ongoing presence in Iraq, Syria aside, is critical to the safety and security of the American people. There was a lot of gaslighting about what U.S. forces are doing in other theaters and less of a focus, frankly, on the ongoing stabilization mission and counterterrorism mission that the forces in Iraq are performing.
ACOSTA: And, Shawn Turner, I want to look back at the president's surprise announcement last week on Syria, saying he is going to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.
Listen to how the president described the fight against ISIS just last week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: We have won against ISIS. We have beaten them, and we have beaten them badly. We have taken back the land.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: So, last week, he says, we have beaten ISIS, we're going to take back the land -- or we have taken back the land.
But, today, in Iraq, he said that, well, we could use Iraq as a base to strike Syria -- or strike at ISIS targets if Syria if we need to.
It doesn't sound as though they have been defeated, or knocked silly, as he said earlier today.
SHAWN TURNER, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL MEMBER: Yes.
And I think, if the president is listening to his national security adviser, then one of the things we know he knows is that ISIS has not been decimated the way that he says they are. I thought it was very interesting he said, we have beaten back ISIS, we have taken back the land.
But one of the things that everyone who works in national security knows is that ISIS exists really in two places. There's the physical existence of ISIS. That is the land that they have taken. That's the people that go out and do the horrible things.
But we know they also exist in the virtual world. And even though they have gone to ground right now and they have been -- we have made a lot of progress both in the previous administration and in this administration with regard to going after ISIS, we know that there are still the seeds of ISIS ideology that are out there.
So, for the president to make this decision at a time when we know that there are still some targets there in Syria, and we know they still exist in the virtual world, sends a clear message that we're kind of stepping away from this problem before we have actually solved it.
ACOSTA: And, David Swerdlick, the outgoing defense secretary, James Mattis, he was not on this trip. Would he have played a role in the planning of this? Does that overshadow this trip somewhat?
We saw some pictures earlier today where the national security adviser, John Bolton, was on the trip. But here we have the president making a trip to a war zone, a conflict zone, and he doesn't have a full-time defense secretary as of January 1.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Jim, in this, Secretary Mattis' last week on the job, essentially, I think it is fair to say that he would have played some role. I don't know how much of a role, or perhaps less of a role than if he had been allowed to stay on, as he planned, for a couple more months, or if he had not resigned in the first place.
I think what is more clear is that he did overshadow this trip, both by his absence, not traveling with the president, as he might have if he was planning to stay in the role, and because President Trump not only having not visited the troops prior to this, troops -- forward- deployed troops prior to this, but also this visit now winds up being almost a response to what happened last week, the criticism over the precipitous Syria announcement of a pullout and the decision to let Mattis go -- or Mattis' decision to go in protest of that Syria decision.
ACOSTA: And, Ron Brownstein, does today's trip solve some of the lingering political problems this president has as of this moment when it comes to calming jitters on the market in New York, calming jitters over his command of national security policy?
We have a source who has told CNN in recent days that the national security decision-making process has basically stopped working. Does a three-hour stop on the ground in Iraq take care of all of those concerns?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The question kind of answers itself, right?
I mean, look, I think the broad expectation in the diplomatic world, in the financial markets and in the political world is that 2019 will be even more chaotic and tumultuous, in all likelihood, than 2018.
I mean, the president approaches the new year with three distinct circles of instability, all of his own instigation and ignition, really. You have got the governmental insecurity and instability from the shutdown precipitated by his demand for the funding on the border wall that, you know, until recently, the administration acknowledged they could not move through the Senate.
You have got the financial market instability, even with today's recovery, rooted in the shutdown, the trade wars, and the attacks on the Fed chair. And then you have the diplomatic insecurity, you know, triggered by the abrupt decision to pull out of Syria and then compounded by Mattis' decision to resign in response to that.
All of that is swirling around him, and the likelihood is that, as soon as Democrats take over the House next week, you will have a whole new arena of instability, with the administration response to what are going to be a large series of issues to be investigated, plus Mueller one step behind that.
So I think that most observers on all fronts really expect more, rather than less, kind of waves of chaos lapping against this White House in 2019.
ACOSTA: And, Sam Vinograd, I mean, the president was very critical of Barack Obama during the campaign, called him the founder of ISIS, claimed that he didn't have a plan for dealing with ISIS, and just pulled troops out of Iraq.
Do you see the president, do you see the administration putting forward a plan to stop ISIS from reconstituting, growing stronger, developing somewhere else, with this pullout plan in Syria and with what appears to be a pullout plan, to some extent, in Afghanistan?
VINOGRAD: Jim, the administration already had a plan for countering ISIS in a meaningful way.
It was staying engaged with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS that Brett McGurk was leading the girl (ph) was leading for the United States. And working with their partners around the world to actually do things like stabilize areas once terrorists have been removed from the battlefield. The same thing is true on Afghanistan. We have troops on the ground in Afghanistan not just to remove the Taliban from specific targets but to make sure that they don't come back. So I don't see the administration, trumping Trump, if you will, and coming up with a new strategy on top of the ones that they just rolled out a few months ago.
The President does not excel at self-reflection, we know that. So, I think it is very unlikely that he's now going to admit that maybe he got ahead of his skis and announced withdrawals that are directly counter to his own administration's policies.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And Sean, how much do you think the President took away from this trip today? Because I mean I would think, even though it was only three hours, a very brief visit, he would have talked with commanders. He would have said, "OK, tell me, do we really have ISIS defeated over in Syria?"
You know, what do you think? Do you think the President is just not curious enough to engage in those kinds of conversations with those commanders? One would have to think he is taking something away from this trip that he didn't have going in.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. And I think -- we all hope that the President took some time to sit down and talk to the commanders and get their take. Look, it's important for the President to meet with the troops, you know, around the holidays. You know, it can get very lonely in Iraq. You know, I was there between 2005 and 2006 when, you know, after the gifts come and everything settles down, it can get pretty lonely. But it's great that the President went and he did this, and -- but I think what's really important is if he sat down and talked to commanders and if commanders were honest with him, if they were candid with him.
And if the President it comes back and, as Sam said, if he takes some reflection on this decision and if he determines that based on everything that he's learned that this is not a decision that is in the best interests of U.S. national security, it's not in the best interests of what's best for our partners and allies, then, you know, what we would hope is that he would make an adjustment here.
I think what we all fear is that the President made a promise when he was on the campaign trail, and now that he's won and he is the President of the United States, what we all fear is that he's not doing what most Presidents do, and that is to take a step back and with the benefit of full knowledge, to make decisions, to be -- to have the courage to come forward and say, you know, I made a promise and a now that I know everything that I know, I need to pull back on that promise. I need to go a different direction.
Let's hope that that's not why the President is doing this and that he is going to listen to what the commanders say.
ACOSTA: Governing is not campaigning. All right. Well, stand by, everybody, we're going to get more of your thoughts on all of this in just a few moments.
We'll be right back to talk about that. And what the President had to say about the government shutdown. That's coming up in just a few moments.
[18:37:21] ACOSTA: And we're back with our analysts and more breaking news from the President's trip to Iraq in the midst of the partial government shutdown here in the U.S. And I want to go back, Ron Brownstein, to something the President said earlier today about the government shutdown. He said essentially that, well, Nancy Pelosi is running things when it comes to the negotiations on when we might reopen the government from being partially shutdown. Do we have a little bit of that audio? I think we have some of that audio.
If we have it, let's play a little bit of that how Nancy Pelosi says is calling the shots in the shutdown fight.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: Here is the problem we have. We have a problem with the Democrats because Nancy Pelosi is calling the shots, not Chuck. And Chuck wants to have this done. I really believe that. He wants to have this done, but she is calling the shots and she's calling them because she wants the votes.
And probably if they do something, she's not going to get the votes and she's not going to be Speaker of the House and that would be not so good for her.
ACOSTA: The President going back to this talking point that he's used before that Nancy Pelosi is basically only doing things because she has to hang on to her speakership or incoming speakership. What are your thoughts on that, the President saying, well, Nancy Pelosi is kind of in charge here?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, first of all go back to last year. The President had a deal where Democrats would have accepted funding for the wall in return for, you know, legal status for the DACA recipients, but the White House blew up that deal because they insisted. As you know, Jim, on adding the largest cuts illegal immigration since the 1920s as a gesture towards the most, I think, nativist elements of the Republican base. I mean that is the backdrop here.
And the reality is that the President is using a tactic that is historically very unpopular shutting down the government in advance of a cause, building the wall, that has never attracted majority support as far as I know in any poll that has been taken in the Trump presidency. In fact, in the last CNN poll, only 38% of the country said they supported building a wall, only 33% said they supported building it if Mexico was not going to pay for it.
And in particular, and particularly noteworthy of the President's comments, at least 60% to 65%, sometimes over 70% of all of the groups that power the Democratic gains in the midterm, young people, Hispanics, African-Americans, college-educated whites, opposed the wall.
I mean there's -- the thought that the first act of a Democratic Congress would be to abandon the preferences of the people that established their majority on something as, I think as -- which is much a line in the sand as the wall seems to be utterly incredible and it's why the White House until recently recognized that they really had no way forward on this demand.
[18:40:04] ACOSTA: And David Swerdlick, I mean we may be going into a situation here in the beginning of the year where they hand the gavel to Nancy Pelosi, she becomes the Speaker of the House and the government is still shutdown over all of this.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's right. And what will change on January 3rd is that Democrats will take control of the House. The President statement that you just read there was a high word-to-content ratio, but what he seemed to be saying if you boil it down was that it will be status quo, anti in the Senate. He wants to put pressure on Charles Schumer, the Senate majority leader to -- minority leader excuse me, to make a deal because he'll still be the minority leader. What changes is the power in the House, and he is saying Speaker Pelosi or incoming Speaker Pelosi has the power to make a deal now and acknowledges that she has the power potentially to make a better deal later. Democrats will have to make a deal at some point. But to Ron's point, there was a comprehensive deal on the table before. Republicans didn't take it. Now, this deal is about not just getting what the border funding, but Democrats trying to bring Republicans to heel.
ACOSTA: Yes. He is looking at a situation where he could potentially get a very tiny fraction of what he could have gotten had he struck a deal sooner.
Guys, thank you very much for all of that. We appreciate it and happy holidays.
And just ahead --
BROWNSTEIN: Happy holidays.
ACOSTA: -- the President is back home soon after this visit to the war zone as he braces for Robert Mueller's report and new hostility in the House of Representatives with Democrats preparing to launch new investigations.
Mr. Trump is accusing them of presidential harassment or are they just doing their jobs?
[18:46:17] ACOSTA: And breaking news, as President Trump makes an unannounced visit to superintendent troops in Iraq, it may have been a welcome respite from multiple problems back home, including the Russia investigation. During a holiday tweet storm, the president suggested that Democrats preparing to take control of the House may be guilty of what he called presidential harassment.
Let's bring in CNN's senior legal analyst and former U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara.
Preet, thanks for joining us. Happy holidays.
PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Sure. Happy holidays to you.
ACOSTA: Obviously, it's a bit of a loaded term, presidential harassment. What kind of message do you think the president is sending when he says that? Is he trying to do to the Democrats in the House essentially what he has done to Robert Mueller, which is kind of work the refs in all of this?
BHARARA: Yes, and I guess a little bit. I mean, it is a loaded term because of the allegations made against Donald Trump in a different context. So, it's an odd term to use. Obviously, it's a strategy of containment and public relations, not a legal strategy.
A lot of his legal strategy, matter of facts, with respect to the Mueller investigation given his employment of Rudy Giuliani and the airwaves largely amounts to a PR strategy as opposed to legal strategy, and the attacking of Mueller is part of that as well. You rarely hear well-set out, profound, you know, authoritative legal arguments in response to the theories being propounded against the president, what you hear instead is character assassination, sloganeering and the like.
And here, by suggesting, talking points others pick up on, I think members of the House and Senate of his party have said the same thing, to brace folks for the idea any kind of natural oversight that's a part of the responsibility of the Congress, that is the Article One branch of government, is a form of harassment. I think he is sort of setting the table to be able to argue they're being unfair.
ACOSTA: And these comments come as the Democrats are poised to take over the House, as you know. How do you imagine Democrats will try to assert this new-found power? I suppose some of it is a political calculus on their part, how much they want to appear to be investigating the president while doing other things, but there's a lot that can be done, hearings in front of the cameras, subpoenas and so on.
BHARARA: Yes. So it is fraught. It is a tricky thing. A congressional investigation is different from a prosecutorial investigation. I was in position to do both. I worked on an investigation, led one, when I was in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and also, obviously, as U.S. attorney.
But I think the best advice you can give is to say that the members of Congress who are engaging in investigations, that is their right and their responsibility and their duty as members of Congress, if it is done appropriately, is to take some lessons from how prosecutors, apolitical prosecutors go about doing their job. It is not a terrible thing to decide to go after things where you think there's real malfeasance. If you go down a road, a congressional committee decides they're going to investigate a certain kind of corruption or some kind of collusion or whatever the case may be, and it's not yielding fruit, you know, then abandon that line of inquiry.
Or if you get some sensational documents, don't talk about them. Don't overstate what you found until you actually have, you know, real proof that there was some kind of bad conduct or misconduct. The problem that politicians sometimes have -- and I respect them and I used to work for one -- is they're in the moment and they're thinking about the 24-hour or even hourly news cycle as opposed to trying to build a case with respect to some bad conduct over a period of time.
ACOSTA: And which of these methods do you think will be the most effective for incoming House Democrats? I mean, televised hearings, they come with some risk, subpoenas also, if you subpoena that maybe the public thinks is overreach, to subpoena, for example, a member of the president's family and so on.
BHARARA: Yes, I think a minimum of grandstanding would be helpful.
[18:50:03] Going down lines of inquiry that are actually bearing fruit, not gilding the lily. You know, obviously, hearings are part of it. Some work happens behind the scenes. When I ran the investigation with respect to the Justice Department
ten years ago when I was in the Senate, a lot of the work was done, I was a staffer for a member of the subcommittee and I took a lot of depositions and look at the documents and made recommendations. And then you have -- so you had a lot of work on a bipartisan basis that was done behind the scenes by professional staffers, former prosecutors, people who have litigated and have experience and some understanding of the craft of investigation. And then the members would have public hearings based on recommendations and based on, you know, evidence that was brought to bear during the behind-the-scenes sessions.
So, I think it would be effective for them to have a good staff. My sense is the Democratic new chairmen are going to be amping up their staffs, having people with real experience, who are not necessarily politically minded but people who are after getting the truth, and I think former prosecutors are good sources of that kind of expertise. So I think if they do that and they stick to the facts and they don't overstate and they go after things that are really significant that the public is going to care about, waste, fraud, and abuse, I think they'll be on the right track.
ACOSTA: OK. Preet Bharara, who has experience in doing this investigation in political realm and in the courtroom -- all right, thank you very much, Preet. Good to talk to you and happy holidays. We appreciate it.
BHARARA: Happy holidays.
ACOSTA: Just ahead, we're getting breaking news on the release of dozens of migrants at the border. This coming shortly after we learned that another migrant child has died in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol. We'll be back in a moment.
[18:56:16] ACOSTA: And we have breaking news from the southern border where more than 500 migrants are set to be released.
CNN's Nick Valencia is in El Paso, Texas, where this release is going down.
Nick, what more can you tell us right now?
NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, I just got off the phone with the director of Annunciation House. His name is Ruben Garcia, and he is in charge effectively of a number of refugee shelters and migrant shelters in and around this area. He tells me that there is a coordinated and planned release between the government and these local sites that they're in charge of, most of them, connected by churches or two churches. A total of 11 sites will receive 522 migrants in the next hour.
All of this is happening as we're hearing news of yet another child in U.S. custody to die.
VALENCIA (voice-over): In a matter of three weeks, it happened again, this time it happened on Christmas Eve. Eight-year-old Guatemalan migrant Felipe Alonzo Gomez became the second child this month to die while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. No official cause of death has been given, but the child died about 14 hours after a CBP agent first noticed he was sick, according to a timeline provided by the federal government.
Alonzo Gomez was picked up on December 18th after crossing the border with his father in El Paso, Texas. In the following days, he and his father were shuffled between CBP facilities, at least one of which was overcrowded.
On Christmas Eve morning, Alonzo Gomez was taken to the hospital after showing possible flu symptoms. He was diagnosed with the common cold and given Tylenol. But under an hour later, his fever reached 103 degrees. By 3:00 p.m. he was released from the E.R. anyway and prescribed a generic antibiotic and ibuprofen.
Around 10:00 p.m., the child was so lethargic and nauseous, he was taken back to the hospital. Alonzo Gomez lost consciousness on the way to the hospital and was pronounced dead shortly before midnight.
Last week, the head of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, faced blistering questions about the detention process following the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, also a migrant from Guatemala.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many children 17 years old or younger have died in DHS, ICE or CBP custody since you took office?
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We'll get back to you on that figure, what I can tell you is that we have saved 4,200 migrants who are at distress --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Approximately how many have died?
NIELSEN: I understand your question, sir, I'll get back to you.
VALENCIA: The intense scrutiny surrounding the deaths of two children in CBP custody this month is forcing changes at CBP, which has said it's beefing up its medical screenings with a focus on migrant children under 10 years old. Others questioning the effectiveness of President Trump's much-touted wall from stopping migrants from crossing the border.
VERONICA ESCOBAR (D), TEXAS CONGRESSWOMAN-ELECT: I want to point out that Felipe and his father were apprehended in the El Paso sector where a wall already exists, and this tragedy should be a wake-up call to folks who believe that mythology about walls. They just do not work.
VALENCIA: These as other group of migrants were dropped off at a bus stop in El Paso, Texas, after being held in CBP custody.
(END VIDEOTAPE) VALENCIA: In that group, we saw a dozen of migrants who were dropped off who was just released from custody. Half of them were children under the age of 10 years old from what we could tell. It's a mixture of asylum seekers, those that will inevitably be reunited with family members here in the country. But in least one case, an adult male who I talked to, he said he's not getting or seeking asylum but he's being released anyway.
President Trump has said that catch and release is effectively over, but if we take that man's story as truth, it seems it's not entirely over at all -- Jim.
ACOSTA: All right. Nick Valencia, thank you very much. And, of course, following the latest on the death of that 8-year-old down at the border, just a terrible shame. Thanks so much, Nick.
And I'm Jim Acosta. Thanks very much for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.