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Trump Defends Decision to Withdraw U.S. Troops from Syria; Death of 2nd Child in U.S. Border Patrol Custody Prompts DHS Action; Congress Returns but Still No End in Sight to Shut Down. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired December 27, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Right now the system making its way across the plains and upper Midwest with more than a foot of snow expected in parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Kansas. Thanks so much for joining me today. I'm Jim Sciutto, wishing you and

your family very happy holidays.

"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. From his first trip to a combat zone to his gazillionth trip to his

comfort zone, President Trump is back at the White House and back on Twitter after his secret unannounced visit to U.S. troops in Iraq. The trip coming during an uncertain time at the Defense Department, just days after the president decided to push out his defense secretary two months early and after his controversial decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria. While on the ground, the president defended that decision. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price. And sometimes that's also a monetary price. So we're not the suckers of the world. We're no longer the suckers, folks. And people aren't looking at us as suckers.


BOLDUAN: That's one way to put it.

Visiting troops abroad is a tradition of presidents from both parties. That tradition also includes being careful to keep politics out of it. But as is tradition with President Trump, he did not stick with tradition. Listen.


TRUMP: I don't know if you folks are aware of what's happening. We want to have strong borders in the United States. The Democrats don't want to let us have strong borders. Only for one reason. You know why? Because I want it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BOLDUAN: The president and first lady are back at the White House now this morning.

So let us go there. CNN's Boris Sanchez is joining me live from the White House.

Boris, he defended his Syria decision and he explained how he says he reached that decision. What did he say?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Kate. Yes, President Trump defended his decision to withdraw American troops from Syria while visiting a country that has felt the ramifications of a hasty American withdrawal the way that few have on the planet. In Iraq, he suggested that the United States is no longer the suckers of the world. He said that the American operation in Syria is not a nation- building one. And he added, if necessary, if there was a resurgence of ISIS, the U.S. could always re-enter the country through a base in Iraq. He suggested there was no plans for a troop withdrawal from that country.

He also shed some light on the conversation that led to this decision, the ultimate decision to remove American troops from Syria. Listen to how he described his interactions with top military leaders.


TRUMP: One years ago, I gave our generals six more months in Syria. I said go ahead, get them. And it turns out it was really a year and a half ago. I said, go get them. We need six months. Go get them. And they said, give us another six months. I said go get them. Then they said can we have one more like period of six months? I said, nope, nope. I said I gave you a lot of six months. And now we're doing it a different way.


SANCHEZ: That sort of shed some light on where we are now. It is possible that those types of conversations are what led to the departure of the defense secretary, James Mattis.

The president was asked about a replacement yesterday. He effectively said there's a long list of candidates, that everybody wants that job. More broadly speaking, the president also talked about the government shutdown, repeating that refrain we have heard from him before, saying the shutdown will continue until he gets his border wall -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: So there's a lot to get through today.

Boris, thank you. I really appreciate it.

Joining me to discuss, CNN military analyst, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton, and CNN global affairs analyst and executive editor of the "New Yorker" Web site, David Rohde.

It's great to see you both. Thank you for being with us.

Let's talk about the president, his trip overseas and his decisions with Syria. Colonel, when it comes to Syria, if that is how it played out, in what

the president just said in that sound bite that we ran, which is I gave them time, they asked for six more months, I gave them more time, so on and so forth, what do you think of that decision-making process by the president? The generals were saying they need more time, and he says no.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, sometimes it happens, Kate, that the president steps in and says, no, you've had enough time. You know, this is not the only administration to do that. But in this particular case, I think that the nuances of the Syrian operation are probably lost on President Trump in the sense that there's a lot of stuff that's happening on the ground. There's so many competing factions, as we know so well. And the fact that if we unilaterally pull out, like he's demanding, then we leave a vacuum there. And in essence, what we're doing is ceding Syria to a Russian, Iranian, Turkish sphere of influence. And I think if we haven't made that decision to do so, we either have to revisit what the president did or we have to acknowledge the fact that we're not going to be in Syria in any meaningful way.

[11:05:06] BOLDUAN: Yes. Sphere of influence, I don't know if the president gets that. It doesn't seem that he cares.

I was struck, David, when the president said -- and we played it -- we're no longer the suckers of the world. He was talking about Syria when he said that. So of course, I mean, logic leads you to wonder, does he think that the U.S. military, the United States and the U.S. military were suckers for going into Syria to fight ISIS. Does that mean that he thinks that they're suckers for going into Afghanistan after 9/11 to take on the Taliban and al Qaeda? Does that mean he thinks the U.S. is suckers for being part of any coalition around the world?

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: To be fair, he's asking a legitimate point, how long are we going to be in the wars? But the way he acted yesterday, it's almost tragic. He asked a fair question. The point is he is sort of disparaged the generals with that comment. We're not suckers. Over 1,000 Kurds died in 2017 fighting the Islamic State. Last year, one American died. A thousand to one. Four Americans have died since U.S. troops went there four years ago. The overwhelming number of people who are dying are local fighters. In Afghanistan, it's worst. Afghans took over security four years ago, and 28,000 people have died. In the same period, about 60 Americans have died. That's nearly 500 Afghans for every American. So this is not how you keep allies. This isn't how you get moderate Muslims to fight terrorism by disparaging them.

BOLDUAN: David makes such an important point, Colonel. You hear this from the president in how he talks. I just got back from Afghanistan. When I was at Resolute support headquarters in Kabul, I was sitting at dinner next the Lithuanians, the Belgians, the Germans. This is not the United States alone, as David is pointing out, in any of these fights that we're talking about. Even in the case of Afghanistan -- and in Afghanistan, it's not even the United States leading the fight in taking the brunt of the casualties at this point. The president doesn't note that.

LEIGHTON: Right, and that's very disappointing. And as David correctly pointed out, these allies are really taking the lion's share of the burden here. And you know, to expect a country like Afghanistan or some of the forces in Syria to, quote, "pay for," unquote, these operations, U.S. military operations is just impossible. It doesn't work that way. They're doing us a favor by helping us in places like Afghanistan and Syria. And the fact is that these are all either actual or potential launching points for terrorist attacks. That's the reason we went in on 9/11, as David knows so well. And one of these key things is that if you don't allow your forces to learn the geography, the human terrain, all those kinds of features of places like Afghanistan and Syria, you're going to lose out. That's a real danger here. BOLDUAN: I want to play one more thing, something else the president

said, David, when he was speaking to the troops about the Syria withdrawal. Let's play that.


TRUMP: There will be a strong deliberate and orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Very deliberate, very orderly. While maintaining the U.S. presence in Iraq to prevent an ISIS resurgence and to protect U.S. interests and also to always watch very closely over any potential re-formation of ISIS and also to watch over Iran. We'll be watching.


BOLDUAN: I was struck by that language, in him saying we will be watching and also the deliberate and orderly withdrawal. That seems different. He was reading those words. That does seem different from his announcement, which was we have beaten ISIS. It's time to come home. And he even specifically said, and our troops are coming back and they're coming back now, which was his original announcement. Do you think there's wiggle room there? Do you see that in that statement?

ROHDE: It did seem more scripted. And what's dangerous is by declaring we're just pulling out, it's a political win for the president. Whenever you sort of politicize the use of the military, it's dangerous. He's taking a big risk by pulling the troops out of Syria and even reducing them in Afghanistan. Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush were very afraid of a major terrorist attack in the United States because that's a massive blow to any American president in terms of their public support. This is a very dangerous thing he's doing. He might be right. There's a real question of, how long should we stay. It's just the way he does it, the abrupt announcement.

And this is a big propaganda victory for the Islamic state and for Iran. They have outwaited us since we ran out of patience in Syria, and the Taliban will also -- we started peace talks with the Taliban.

BOLDUAN: Especially at this moment. ROHDE: Yes. For both of these groups they have, in a sense, defeated

the United States. This is a big plus for them. This is risky but a I think it's a fair question, how long do we stay?

[11:10:11] BOLDUAN: Especially in Afghanistan. I was speaking with the ambassador. This is a crucial moment, is how he was painting it, in getting the Taliban to the table and speaking with the Afghans and what a drawn means. We didn't know it at the time that it was being discussed, but that's top of mind.

Great to see you, David.

ROHDE: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Colonel, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

LEIGHTON: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, after a second child dies in Border Patrol custody, the Homeland Security secretary says she's headed to the border to see things for herself and the new measures they're putting in place. Will it be enough? I'll talk to the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics. That's next.

Plus, Congress is back in session. Back at work, but not really. Still no end in sight to the partial government shutdown. The president vowing to do whatever it takes to get his wall funded. Are we in this for the long haul? If so, what does that look like?

We'll be right back.


[11:15:18] BOLDUAN: The head of U.S. Border Patrol says his agency needs a complete overhaul to adequately handle families coming across the border, and that includes more funding for medical care and mental health care for children. This comes after an 8-year-old boy from Guatemala died on Christmas eve. That's the second death of a migrant child in U.S. custody this month. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said she's going to travel to the border to personally review the conditions at the Border Patrol facilities.

CNN's Dan Simon is joining me from El Paso, Texas, with much more on this.

Dan, what is being done to make sure migrants are getting the medical attention they need? What is happening down there right now?

DAN SIMON, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, first of all, obviously, with two children dying in less than a month, there's obviously a major concern about whether or not Border Patrol is equipped to handle the surge of central American migrants coming into the country and whether or not these children are being cared for properly. Obviously, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is facing this fresh crisis. She said she's going do order her agency to do enhanced medical screening on children in their facilities, specifically children under the age of 10. And she said they're going to be subjected to fairly rigorous medical screening, whether or not their parents even ask for it. So obviously, you know, this is all coming about because of the death of these two children.

And in terms of what we know about this 8-year-old who died, we don't know how this 8-year-old became sick, whether it was a result of this very dangerous journey or just from being in custody. But what is clear is you do have really an unprecedented amount of migrants coming into this country. Just last month, you had 25,000 families who were arrested. So obviously, the system is at maximum capacity. And that's why you have what we saw here at the bus transit just a few days ago, with hundreds of migrants simply being dropped off here at the bus station with no apparent plan for them. That practice is now apparently stopped because of the P.R. fallout there, but it just goes to show you how overtaxed the system is -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes, another example of how overtaxed it is.

Dan, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Joining me now for more perspective, Dr. Colleen Kraft. She's the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Thank you for coming in again.


BOLDUAN: So as we're hearing from Dan Simon, the Homeland Security secretary has put in place new rules in light of this boy's death on Christmas eve, ordering -- calling it a secondary medical screening for all of the children taken into custody. Is that a fix for the problem at the border?

KRAFT: Kate, what's really needed is pediatric expertise and oversight and monitoring of the health of these children and the conditions in these facilities. It's really important to understand and differentiate adult care from pediatric care because children get sick very quickly. And it takes a trained eye to know the difference between a child who is well, a child who's mildly ill, and a child who is severely ill.

BOLDUAN: What is the difference that a pediatrician can bring that any other -- like, I'm not knocking any other doctor, right, or any other pediatrician, but what can a pediatrician bring, what can they do that another medical professional won't be able to do when it comes to these kids?

KRAFT: That's a great question. The difference is our training is with children all the time. We get to see what happens between the time a baby or a toddler or a young child is born and how they get sick. A child who's mildly ill may actually have some signs that they're going to be severely ill. It may be increased respiratory rate or heart rate or decreased capillary profusion, but a pediatrician knows what these signs are and they know who is sick and who has something mildly ill. BOLDUAN: So the head of Customs and Border Protection, I was struck,

in an interview yesterday, acknowledged these holding facilities they have, that they aren't meant for children. They aren't meant for families. Let me play what he said to CBS.


KEVIN MCALEENAN, COMMISSIONER, CUSTOMS & BORDER PROTECTION: What we're seeing with these flows of huge numbers of families, with lots of children, young children, as well as unaccompanied minors coming into Border Patrol custody after crossing the border unlawfully, our stations are not built for that group crossing today. They were built 30, 40 years ago for single adult males. We need a different approach. We need help from Congress. We need to budget for medical care and mental health care for children in our facilities.


BOLDUAN: Doctor, what are the risks of keeping children in these places?

[11:20:09] KRAFT: What we know about these detention facilities is they are not built for children. And we do not recommend that children even be present in these facilities. They are cold. Lights are on 24/7. There are open toilets. A child who's well might get sick in this facility, and a child who is sick can get much worse in these facilities.

BOLDUAN: When we talked over the summer, you said that the separation of children from their families amounted to the clinical definition of abuse in what we had been seeing over the summer. Knowing what you know about the facilities, what would you call this, holding these children with their families in these facilities?

KRAFT: We call it not good for children. We call this a way to make children much sicker than they are, and something that's going to hurt the health of all of these children coming into our protective custody.

BOLDUAN: You said yesterday that you have talked to the head of Customs and Border Protection and that you also have reached out to DHS to offer some help. Have you heard back?

KRAFT: I spoke with Commissioner McAleenan yesterday, who is very interested in what Customs and Border Protection can do to remedy this situation. And the American Academy of Pediatrics has offered our expertise to him as well as to the Department of Homeland Security. We know how to take care of children, and we know what the environment needs to be like to keep children well and keep them healthy while they're in our custody.

BOLDUAN: Was he open to that?

KRAFT: We had a good beginning conversation. And that's the good news.

BOLDUAN: That's the good news. We'll leave that one there in hopes there's more to come from it.

But I have heard from former heads of Border Patrol saying that the reality is -- and it's a tough reality -- is that these children, by and large, they aren't well when they arrive after this dangerous journey. And that their medical exams they receive after crossing sometimes are the first check-ups they ever had. If that's the case, Doctor, how much can a pediatrician do for these children with just these screenings?

KRAFT: The pediatricians can do a lot for these children. Because if they are seen by a pediatrician or someone who is specially trained by a pediatrician, they can tell what their vital signs are, if they're mildly ill, if they're severely ill. And they can really be triaged to important treatment if these kids are having difficulty when they come to the border.

BOLDUAN: Regardless, it's always important to have your voice in this conversation.

Doctor, thanks so much for coming in.

KRAFT: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Still ahead for us, Congress is technically back today. But with only congressional leaders on Capitol Hill, will there be any progress on a deal to end this partial government shutdown? We'll get a gut check on this next.


[11:27:40] BOLDUAN: Welcome to day six of the partial government shutdown. And Congress is back to work kind of sort of. The House and Senate will gavel into session briefly, but lawmakers are still out of town, save for congressional leaders. So we ask again, something has to give here, but what is it?

CNN's Phil Mattingly has been following all the action, or I guess we should say in this case, the nonaction or inaction.

Phil, what are you hearing?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Nonaction is probably the best descriptor as to what's going on right now. There's not a lot happening. As you mentioned, Kate, while Congress will gavel back in, the Senate and House briefly today, I was at the capitol earlier today, the hallways are empty. Most lawmakers still at home with their families. They were informed last night, the House and Senate, they didn't need to come back. There weren't going to be votes scheduled. And both leaders -- or leadership in both chambers said they'll give 24-hours-notice before any vote is scheduled. What are those contingent on? A deal, or progress of any kind. What I'm told behind the scenes by aides working on this is there's no progress. There hasn't been progress over the Christmas holiday. And there's real question if there will be progress anytime soon. That's the position everyone is in. Everyone is frozen, everyone is entrenched, and no one is moving closer to opening the 25 percent of the government currently shuttered.

BOLDUAN: I asked Ben Cardin last night if he thinks at this point basically it's a forgone conclusion that nothing is going to happen until the new Congress comes and the Democratic House majority, and he basically said yes. Is that what you're hearing?

MATTINGLY: It really is. Caveat that with, when things happen on Capitol Hill, they can happen quickly. Particularly if everybody agrees and they want to reopen the government, a deal could come together. If one side or the other budges, things could move. But really the posture in both chambers right now, in both parties right now, is nothing is going to happen before the new year. Nothing will happen before the next Congress. And I'll add one more thing. Nothing will necessarily happen because Democrats take the majority.

Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker designate, has made clear she'll pass a short-term clean funding bill to reopen the government for a short period of time right after she takes the gavel, but there's no certainty the Senate will move on that. The wild card has been the president. If the president is going to veto something, which he made clear he would veto any stop-gap bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans won't put it on the floor knowing it will be kicked back to them. So everything stays the same. And just because the majority shifts in the House doesn't mean it necessarily changes on January 3rd. The real question is not will this wait until the new year. It's how long after the new year could it go?