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Donald and Melania Trump Visit U.S. Troops in Iraq in Christmas Trip; Assessing The U.S. Military Mission In Afghanistan; School District Backs Wrestler Forced To Cut Hair; American Man Completes Solo Trek Across Antarctica. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired December 27, 2018 - 02:00   ET




ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us here in the United States and all around the world. I'm Rosemary Church, you're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

Ahead this hour, Donald Trump surprises troops with an unannounced trip to Iraq but couldn't resist mixing a little politics into what are normally non-partisan visits with the U.S. military.

Plus Wall Street whiplash: after taking a beating on Christmas Eve, the U.S. stocks rebounded with their biggest point gain in history.

Tragedy near the border: calls for an investigation after a second migrant child dies in U.S. custody.


CHURCH: President Trump is on board Air Force One after doing something he's never done before. For the first time in his presidency, Mr. Trump visited a war zone for some three hours. He was on the ground in Iraq.

There he visited with troops and military leaders and he defended the pullout from Syria and said the U.S. cannot continue to be the world's policeman. He said that he came to share the country's gratitude for, among other things, everything the troops do to keep America safe, strong and free.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The other reason I'm here today to personally thank you and every service might be through the region for the near elimination of the ISIS territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Two years ago when I became president, there was a dominant group. They were very dominant. Today they're not so dominant anymore.


CHURCH: Joining me now is retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, who served as State and Defense Department spokesman during the Obama administration.

Thank you so much for being with us.


CHURCH: This is Trump's first visit to a war zone since being elected.

Why is a visit like this so critical for troop morale at this time?

KIRBY: It is always critical for morale during the holidays. It is a tough time to be in the service and be separated from your families. It is also important for the families themselves to see that the commander and chief and the first lady understand the sacrifices they all make, all military family members.

So that's important, too. But it also is great opportunity for the commander in chief to learn more about the fight. To show the troops that he actually supports the mission they're on and he wants to get it right and he's looking to the future and taking the time to really understand from a tactical perspective, not just about morale but from a tactical perspective what they're going through.

CHURCH: This visit comes after President Trump made it clear he intends to pull out troops in Syria and Afghanistan. While in Iraq, he emphasized there was no plans to pull troops from there. But Iraq could be used as a base to still have a presence in Syria.

What is your reaction to the new military strategy on this?

KIRBY: A couple of thoughts. First, I believe that his decision to just uniformly extract forces from Syria was a reckless mistake. It is not at all in keeping with our national security interests. We now have ISIS on the run in Syria. Now is exactly the time to press the advantage.

There's not that many of them there, there are some and they don't have as much territory as they had. Now is the time to carry that all the way through. So it is a terrible mistake.

I think it is also important to remember Iraq's role in this counter ISIS fight since the beginning. If you go back to 2014 and 2015, it was from Iraq that we started to launch strikes into Syria. So what he's proposing is not new. We've done it before. It will be a little bit more difficult now and probably less effective now because the ISIS targets inside Syria are not as overt.

There's no infrastructure to hit anymore. They have been reduced now in size and scope so they're almost under the radar if you will. They have gone to ground. Targets there are much harder to hit. They're more dynamic. They need more time-sensitive intelligence that you're not going to get now because you won't have those boots on the ground to actually see what's going on and provide that very dynamic intelligence, that intelligence they need.

CHURCH: You mentioned ISIS. The president also apparently said this about ISIS.

"We have knocked them out. We knocked them silly."

Is that true?

KIRBY: It is true to a point. I mean, he does get credit for accelerating the fight against ISIS --


KIRBY: -- over the last two years. He has loosened up some of the constraints that our military commanders were under, both in Iraq and Syria and, I do think he deserves some credit for that.

But he's overstating the case in the extreme. ISIS is not destroyed in Syria. His own special envoy, who just resigned in protest, said that not two weeks ago. And so has his Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, who also resigned in protest over this decision.

Let's look at Iraq, where he was today, the Iraqi special forces are still hitting one to two targets on ISIS every week now. And the new prime minister doesn't agree with his predecessor, that ISIS has been defeated and very much is concern about their ability to maybe resurge there inside Iraq.

So the fight is very real and it's very much in the Iraqis' face. And I think they were really hoping to hear from the president about how he is going to help them complete the task there. He didn't have a chance to even meet with the new Iraqi prime minister, which I think was a missed opportunity.

CHURCH: Yes, that was interesting indeed. While the president was visiting these troops he raised political issues and also signed some of those red make America great again hats and there's the pictures there. You called this inappropriate.

Why is that?

KIRBY: It is absolutely inappropriate. The military serves the people of the United States and the Constitution, not a party, not a president. They obviously -- he's the commander in chief. And they obey his orders. But it is an apolitical body.

And I said back in November that if he couldn't keep from making a visit to the troops political, he shouldn't go. And I'm really sorry to see that happened today. I mean, I guess I'm not all that surprised, given his past performance when he's in front of a military audience and he tends to politicize things.

But I'm very disappointed it happened today. Frankly, it just puts the military in a very difficult position. They want to support their commander and chief. They're glad he came and excited about it. But they don't want to be dragged into the politics here at home.

And I just don't know that Trump completely understands that. I think he -- I think he assumes that their obedience and their loyalty is really about political support for his policies and his administration. That's absolutely not the case.

CHURCH: Retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

KIRBY: You bet.


CHURCH: A huge rally on Wall Street is carrying over to Tokyo but not all of the markets in Asia are following suit. Japan's Nikkei with a big surge, closing up nearly 4 percent. Australia's ASX finished nearly 2 percent higher.

In New York, the Dow set a new record Wednesday for the biggest one- day point gain. Blue chips soared more than 1,000 points or 5 percent. Tech stocks led the way to a nearly 6 percent gain for the Nasdaq. But as Alison Kosik reports, investors still have some major concerns.


ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there. Investors dipped their toes back into the water after Wall Street had its worst Christmas Eve trading ever. Today's trading was volatile with the Dow moving between gains and losses before settling on a positive finish. Still, the Dow has a long way to go before it's back to its peak in October.

Since then, the Dow has lost thousands of points. The same worries remain; the Federal Reserve's pace of interest rate hikes is more aggressive than what Wall Street hoped for. The higher interest rates could slow down the economy, make borrowing more expensive and eat into corporate profits.

Unresolved trade situation between the U.S. and China still lingers and is ramping up concern that the uncertainty could affect corporate earnings and slowing economic growth in Europe, China, Germany and Japan is a concern as well.

Finally political risk is now part of the playbook on Wall Street, where once it was just background noise it's now driving the trade. President Trump's tweets and statements attacking Fed chair Jay Powell have rattled the markets as has the move by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to call CEOs of America's biggest banks to ask about their liquidity.

Wall Street sees those moves as erratic and unpredictable, which can undermine confidence as seen from the historic trading day on Christmas Eve -- Alison Kosik, CNN, New York. (END VIDEOTAPE)


CHURCH: So joining me now from Los Angeles, global business executive, Ryan Patel.

Great to have you with us. After the markets' worst Christmas Eve in history, a record rebound Wednesday and the Dow soaring more than 1,000 points.

What do you think is behind this impressive comeback?

RYAN PATEL, GLOBAL BUSINESS EXECUTIVE: Santa Claus showed up with the presents this year and Wall Street loved it. I think the whole day, the cooldown and the world is not ending piece.

Hopefully this is not a trend. You and I talked about a few days ago on Christmas Eve is still there. People are still concerned. It was a little bit overboard of --


PATEL: -- what they saw in the market. Today was a day you mentioned earlier, nobody was talking about the Federal Reserve, there was nobody tweeting at the market. It was just today.

Everyone looking at tech stocks leading the way. The S&P 500, all but one stock was up by a lot today. So it was not just a few stocks. It was through the whole market. And I think to have a day like this and a day like Christmas Eve is going to tell you what will happen in 2019. We're going to be on a roller coaster ride.

CHURCH: SO what you're saying, though, is the president stays quiet and the market does well. If we can keep that going then things should look good.


CHURCH: Is that what you're telling us?

PATEL: Well, like I said, the concern had been just to let the markets play out. You know, not to get involved. I think the bank CEOs said the same thing. They don't want phone calls from the administration. Just leave it alone and let it be. Obviously, the president and the administration still has a lot of work to do. They can't just be quite on going to the markets, when it comes to global markets, they'll have to do their part to make sure the U.S. trade policy is there, too.

CHURCH: I know it is tough. I want you to get out your crystal ball. There have been rumors about a possible recession in 2019. When you see a rebound like this, you get excited. You look at your 401(k) and you think everything is going to be fine.

How possible is it that we could see a recession in the next 12 months?

PATEL: You still look at your 401(k). You look Tuesday. Don't look at it today. Stop looking at it.

I think people are -- and analysts agree that later in 2019 and 2020, that's is where the people are looking at the recession. The numbers, like I said, in the first quarter, second quarter, strong profit earnings will come out. They will be fine.

What really is going to push this to the other side is the cost of profits decreasing. How is that going to -- with rising wages. This retail this month was great. It was one of the top retail months in the six, seven years. Low gas prices, higher wages so people were spending money.

But when that changes over the next quarter and we get into this -- this aspect of -- of trade wars and, too, things becoming more expensive, the consumers will be passed on to it.

CHURCH: We'll see if a deal can be done with China. That could change everything. Ryan Patel, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

PATEL: Thanks for having me.


CHURCH: The U.S. government shutdown in also playing into the market uncertainty. The partial shutdown is now into its sixth day. There are no signs that either the president or Democrats in Congress are willing to budge on the $5 billion Mr. Trump wants for his border wall.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How long do you think the shutdown will last, Mr. President?

TRUMP: However long it takes. We're going to have a wall and we're going to have safety. We need safety. We need safety for our country.


CHURCH: Joining me now from Brussels, "The New York Times'" chief diplomatic correspondent, Steven Erlanger.

Thank you so much for being with us.


CHURCH: President Trump is giving every indication he'll keep the government shutdown until he gets the border wall. But the Democrats say he won't get the wall.

If neither side blinks, the government will be shut down for a long time.

What are the ramifications of a long-term shutdown and who gets the blame?

ERLANGER: In the end, the people that get hurt the most are the government employees, who don't get paid tons of money. This does not include the military that Mr. Trump went off to see finally in one of his more presidential acts of the entire month.

I think there's a blame game that always goes on. The Democrats are really waiting for January when they will take control of the House. I don't think they want to give in to the White House before then.

I think the White House is pushing this now because they still control the House. Mr. Trump originally said, oh, he would be happy to take the blame for the shutdown to get his fence, wall, whatever the hell it is.

And the Democrats are saying fine, it is your fault.

Now Mr. Trump is saying, no, it is not my fault, it is your fault.

So this is American politics at the end of 2018. I suspect it will continue early next year as well.

CHURCH: It looks that way. President Trump is now trying to pit Democratic leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, against each other. Let's take a listen.


TRUMP: Here's 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's calling the shots.


CHURCH: How much traction will comments like that from the president likely have in --


CHURCH: -- forcing the Democrats' hand on this issue of a shutdown over a border wall?

ERLANGER: One of the things tries to do, Trump does this, too, is divide the opposition. He's very good at trying to blame individuals for policy issues. The big question is, you know, first -- first we were going to have a wall that Mexico is going to pay for. Now apparently Mexico is not going to pay for it.

Now he wants the American taxpayer for pay for it. The border is not unguarded. Let's be honest. He sent troops down there before the midterms, which was one of the reasons Mattis resigned.

I think this is going to go on. This is just politics. At some point the Congress is probably going to throw a little bit of money at him and it'll be over and Trump will declare it, as he always does, the most important victory since Eisenhower became head of Allied Supreme Forces.

CHURCH: All right. On another issue, President Trump traveled to Iraq Wednesday. His first war zone trip since taking office. This is what he had to say in defense of his decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Let's listen.


TRUMP: If they want to do the fighting, they also pay a price. 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 don't look at us as suckers. And I love you folks because most of you are nodding your head this way.


CHURCH: So does the U.S. president have a point on this issue?

Will his critics come around to his way of thinking?

ERLANGER: Well, who -- we invaded Iraq. We got a certain amount of revenue from Iraq.

Do you know how many troops involved in Iraq and Syria?

About 7,000. There's 1.8 million Americans who work for the military -- 1.8 million. We're talking about 7,000. So I don't think money is the big issue here. It is more Trump playing politics and saying that, you know, as he promised in his campaign, we're not going to be the world's policeman.

But as you know, his top advisors urged him not to do this, not to pull out of Syria and now he's saying he will do it more gradually. So we'll see what happens.

CHURCH: We certainly shall. Steven Erlanger, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

ERLANGER: Thanks, Rosemary.

CHURCH: Next here on CNN NEWSROOM, a new mission for Border Patrol agents after the death of two young children in U.S. custody.

And following word of a U.S. troop withdrawal, a renewed look at the mission in Afghanistan. We're back in a moment.





CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone.

The head of Homeland Security says it is heartbreaking that a second migrant child died while in U.S. custody. In response to that tragic death, Kirsten Nielsen said all children in Border Patrol custody have now gone through medical screenings. An autopsy will determine the cause of death of the 8-year-old boy from Guatemala, who died on Christmas Eve. Nick Valencia has our report.


NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a matter of three weeks, it happened again, this time 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 a common cold and given Tylenol. But under an hour, later his fever reached 103 degrees. By 3:00 pm he was released from the ER anyway and prescribed an antibiotic and ibuprofen.

Around 10:00 pm the child was so lethargic and nauseous (sic) 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, Kirsten Nielsen, faced blistering questions about the detention process following the death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, also a migrant from Guatemala.


REP. HANK JOHNSON (D), GEORGIA: 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: I will get back to you on that figure.

What I can tell you is that we have saved 4,200 migrants who were in distress due to their --

JOHNSON: Approximately how many have died?

NIELSEN: I understand your question, sir. I will 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 is beefing up its medical screenings with a focus on migrant children under 10 years old. Others question the effectiveness of President Trump's much touted wall for stopping migrants from crossing the border.

VERONICA ESCOBAR (D-TEXAS), U.S. REPRESENTATIVE-ELECT: I want to point out that Felipe and his father were apprehended in the El Paso sector where a wall already exists. This tragedy should be a wake-up call to folks who believe that mythology about walls. They just do not work.


CHURCH: U.S. Immigration agents will be dropping off more than 500 migrants at various shelters in El Paso, Texas, but this time, unlike earlier in the week, the process is expected to be orderly and it was planned in advance. An organization that helps immigrants has 11 different sites available to offer shelter and food and medicine.


CHURCH: On Sunday and Monday, agents dropped off hundreds of migrants at a bus station. Police say the people were simply left there with no one to help them until volunteers and churches stepped in.

A surprise visit: for the first time in his presidency, Donald Trump visits a war zone where he defends his Middle East policy. His trip to Iraq just ahead.




CHURCH: Welcome back to the viewers in the United States and all around the world. Thanks for joining us.

U.S. president Trump and the first lady are on the way back to Washington after visiting troops in Iraq. It is the first time that Trump visited a war zone during his presidency and it comes at a tumultuous time back home, where he's coming under fire. CNN White House correspondent Abby Phillip reports.


TRUMP: Great job.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a surprise holiday season visit, President Trump and first lady Melania Trump landed in Iraq to visit with troops stations at Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad.

Leaving the White House under the cover of darkness on Christmas Day, the trip marks Trump's first trip to a war zone as president. It comes less than 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 5,200 U.S. troops are still stationed, the president defended his decision to leave Syria, a call he made without consulting military advisors earlier this month.

TRUMP: I think that a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking. It's time for us to start using our head.

PHILLIP (voice-over): As Trump seeks to boost morale among soldiers and commanders stationed abroad, uncertainty remains about the U.S. strategy in the Middle East combat the terror group ISIS. Two years after he falsely claimed that President Obama was responsible for ISIS' rise.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He's the founded of ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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 insist they have already been defeated telling reporters --

TRUMP: We've knocked them out. We've knocked them silly. Today, they're not so dominant anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about the fed chairman?

TRUMP: Well, we'll see. They're raising interest rates too fast. That's my opinion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A source familiar with the matter says Trump has blamed Treasury Secretary Steven 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 --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you still have confidence in Secretary Mnuchin?

TRUMP: Yes, I do. Very talented, yes, very smart person.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mnuchin is still is still under the gun and his job maybe in serious jeopardy that source says.


CHURCH: All right. Joining me now from Los Angeles, CNN's Senior Political Analyst and Senior Editor at the Atlantic, Ron Brownstein. Good to have you with us.


CHURCH: So President Trump had originally told Democrat leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer that he would take full responsibility for this government shutdown over the border wall. But he's now trying to shift the blame back on the Democrats. How long do you think this shutdown will last? Who will blink first? Who will ultimately get the blame and what damage will be done in the meantime?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, first of all, the, you know, the history of the shutdown is fascinating because it's easy to forget that last year there was a deal on the table for the president in which he would have received his full funding that he's requesting for the border wall in exchange for legal protections for the so-called Dreamers. The young people brought to the country illegally by their parents. That deal seemed to be on track until the hardliners on immigration in the White House demanded that Democrats also agreed to the largest cuts in legal immigrant since the 1920s and then it all fell apart.

And so, here we are now with the president in essence demanding from Democrats the money for the wall without anything on the other side. The longer term history of this is that twice vote in 2006 and 2013, the Senate passed legislation and included substantial increases in border security as part of a comprehensive package however that included a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country presently. Again, each time Republicans said no.

Given that history, I think it is very unlikely the Democrats are going to agree to this border wall without getting some of the changes they want to see in the immigration assistance particularly given that there has never been a majority in public opinion for building the wall. Lastly, (INAUDIBLE) only a couple of weeks ago, only 38 percent of the country supported building the wall and that dropped to 33 percent if Mexico was not going to pay for it which is of course the condition we're in.

CHURCH: Right. And we'll just have to see how long the shutdown lasts. So President Trump made a surprised visit to Iraq Wednesday and this is what he had to say in reply to criticism from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and others about the president's plan to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: I think a lot of people are going to come around to my way of

thinking. It's time for us to start using our head.


CHURCH: OK. So with every military expert advising against the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, is it even possible that everyone will suddenly agree with Mr. Trump's strategy here on Syria?

BROWNSTEIN: Probably not obviously. But in anyways the process of this decision, it was more alarming than the or at least as alarming as the outcome of the decision. There is a legitimate debate about how long American forces need to be in Syria on this mission.

[02:35:00] But I think there's no debate, I mean really from all points on the political spectrum that this was a process in which not only the advice of allies was short circuited but the input of the military was preempted. And it was an example of the volatility that the president has introduced into really all aspects of national policy making by doing this so abruptly, so unilaterally, and not only in terms of international lines, but within his own government.

And at the same time that he has precipitated these other kinds of circles of instability around the government shutdown and what has been happening with the turmoil in financial markets. So I think the process here was at least as alarming as the conclusion.

CHURCH: Right. And you mention the markets and of course after they experienced the worst Christmas Eve in history, U.S. stocks soared Wednesday to the best day of the year. The Dow breaking a record adding more than a thousand points and this happened while President Trump was on his way to Iraq silent and not tweeting. How big a role did politics play in this market rebound do you think?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. I think, well, look, I don't think this is the end of the gyrations to the market. I don't think anyone would expect that this is the last word and we are back to the clear sailing. I mean it has been striking to see how many financial analysts, and strategists, and traders in the last month have said something to the verdict -- to the version of, you know, in the past we tweeted the president's Twitter tirades and his press conference from (INAUDIBLE) and his attacks on the fed has background noise behind policies that we like.

And now, we see that there is a concrete consequence to them. And I think that is I mean the market may be the most powerful force that we have seen so far that has the capacity to force to pressure him to temper his behavior. But I don't think anyone expects it will be powerful enough particularly because Congressional Republicans have been continued really since the election (INAUDIBLE) after the midterm election which they lost 40 seats, lost the popular vote in the House by more than Democrats did in 1994 and 2010 really no concerted pressure on the president to change the way he is behaving.

Some grumbling about the Mattis departure. Some grumbling about Syria. But a real kind of party wide reluctance to face the implications of that decision after the broader way the president is operating. And as long as that is the case, I think the markets are going to have to brace themselves from more of what they have seen in terms of the destructive behavior of President Trump

CHURCH: Ron Brownstein, always great to get your analysis. Thank you so very much.

BROWNSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

CHURCH: And we'll take a short break here. Still to come, they have been a presence in Afghanistan for 17 years, days before word of a partial withdrawal, U.S. troops discuss their mission. We're back in a moment.


[02:40:54] CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone. Well, Donald Trump returns from Iraq to a Washington that's about to change dramatically. One week from now, Democrats retake control of the House of Representatives armed with enforcement powers to investigate every aspect of the Trump presidency and his business empire. Here's CNN's Randi Kaye.


RANDI KAYE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Is the Trump Organization mixed up in money laundering? That's what some members of Congress want to find out. Deutsche Bank has a history of illegally laundering Russian money and a relationship with the Trump Organization.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: They paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines to the State of New York because they were laundering Russian money and this apparently was the one bank that was willing to do business with the Trump Organization. Now, is that coincidence?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here he comes. Here he comes.

KAYE: There's also the Michael Cohen problem. The Trump Organization's longtime lawyer pleaded guilty in August to eight counts including campaign finance violations tied to his work for Trump which Cohen says included payments designed to silence women who claimed they had affairs with Trump which Trump has denied.

MICHAEL COHEN, LAWYER: He directed me to make the payments. He directed me to become involved in these matters.

KAYE: Voters were kept in the dark as they headed to the polls yet Cohen admitted in court filings that in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office he kept information that would have harmed Trump from being made public during the 2016 election cycle.


KAYE: And what about that proposed Trump Tower in Moscow? Cohen had previously said talks about the Moscow project ended in January 2016 before the Iowa caucuses. It turns out that was a lie. According to Rudy Giuliani, the talks continued into November, the month of the election. In court, Cohen admitted he made his false statements consistent with individual one's political messaging and out of loyalty to individual one. Just who is individual one? Donald Trump.


KAYE: All of these matters because if it's true, it could prove Trump was seeking business with Russia while Moscow was secretly working to get him elected. And speaking of hotels, attorneys general for Maryland and D.C. have filed a lawsuit and subpoenaed financial records from the Trump Organization and the Trump International Hotel in D.C.

TRUMPO: This is the most coveted piece of real estate in Washington, D.C., the best location.

KAYE: The hotel plays hosts to foreign officials and leaders from around the world. The lawsuit suggests the president breached the emoluments clause of the constitution which prohibits the president from accepting payments from foreign powers while in office. All said, at least five committees in Congress now poised to probe the Trump Organization on everything Trump's touched including his yet to be released tax returns. Randi Kaye, CNN New York.


CHURCH: The daughters of a New York podiatrist say their father diagnosed Donald Trump with bone spurs back in 1968 as a favor to Trump's father, Fred. Now, according to the New York Times, the diagnosis helped the 22-year-old Trump avoid serving in the Vietnam War. He had already received four deferments, so he could finish his education. One of the women says what her father got was access to his landlord, Fred Trump.

She goes on to say if there was anything wrong in the building, my dad would call and Trump would take care of it immediately. That was the small favor that he got. No comment from the White House yet. Well, 17 years in U.S. soldiers remain clear on what their mission is in America's longest running war. The U.S. has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. Last week, a defense official said the military has been ordered to withdraw about half of them.

Kate Bolduan travelled to Afghanistan just to speak with the troops and the new top commander of U.S. and coalition forces there.


[02:45:12] LT. COL. KEITH BENEDICT, BATTALION COMMANDER, UNITED STATES ARMY: We truly believe that we're here defending the homeland by preventing a safe haven for terrorist organizations here in this region.

PFC. BRENNEN BLEDSOE, UNITED STATES ARMY: The training we get, the mission we're on, it's just I feel like I'm actually doing something for my country.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Two different soldiers, to different stories. Lieutenant Colonel Keith Benedict, he joined the military on month before 9/11.

BENEDICT: This is my fifth deployment, fourth to combat. I went to Iraq in 2006 to 2007, and then in Haiti in 2010. And now, three times to Afghanistan.

BOLDUAN: Private Brennen Bledsoe, was three years old when the 9/11 attacks happened. Now, on his first deployment.

BLEDSOE: This is why I sign up for. As long as I have a good head on my shoulders, and I stay on my task and do what my job is, I know I'll be fine.

BOLDUAN: These soldiers say, they know what their mission is. But now, 17 years in, what about the overall mission today? I asked four- star General Scott Miller, the new top commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

You've been in command for a few months now. We've seen other top military officials of their assessment that things here are essentially the stalemate. I want to know you're assessing, though, at where things are right now.

LT. GEN. SCOTT MILLER, COMMANDER, UNITED STATES AND COALITION FORCES, AFGHANISTAN: This fight will go to a political settlement. And this is a -- these are two -- these are two sides that are fighting against one another one, which neither one of them will achieve a military victory at this stage. I liked this -- I liked how the Afghan National Security Forces are performing.

BOLDUAN: 17 years on. Why is the United States don't care?

MILLER: This is ultimately about national interests. Not just for the United States, but its vital national interests. 9/11 terrorist groups came from here. And today, there's other terrorist groups that could affect external to Afghanistan and homeland.

BOLDUAN: Our exclusive sit-down came after General Miller briefed U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on a trip there to visit the troops.

BOLDUAN: Ambassador, the political solution is the reality in the end. How do you get there?

JOHN BASS, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN. We've got an opportunity today that we didn't have six or twelve months ago. To see if it's really possible to achieve that political settlement that General Miller indicated is the only way this conflict ends.

We don't know if we're going to be successful. I think what we have to see is whether the Taliban is interested in responding to the deep desire of the Afghan people for peace. BOLDUAN: When you look at the over 17 years, the troop levels. Over 100,000 at one point down to just over 10,000 now. Do you have enough? Can you be successful with the U.S. mission with even less troops?

MILLER: We have the resource we need. The Afghans -- this is an Afghan fight. A resolute support provides support, and we enable them when able but make no mistake. The Afghans are in the lead in this fight, and you can see that through the casualty figures but it's their fight now.

BOLDUAN: You mentioned 9/11. You are one of the first troops into Afghanistan after 9/11. Do you want to be the commander who ends U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan?

MILLER: What I tell people is, when I leave Afghanistan this time, and I tell this to the Afghan people. It would be my last time as a soldier and what I'd like to leave is a country that's peaceful, and unified. That's a tall order, but that's what I -- would be my hope.

BOLDUAN: With confidence, you can accomplish that?

MILLER: We'll keep working at it. Again, that will keep supporting the political process, will keep supporting the Afghan Security Forces, all designed to support the political process, and so I do -- I do see some pathways of hope.

BOLDUAN: Until then, it's another holiday season with U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan. Another holiday, 14,000 service members are spending away from their families. Like Major Isaiah Thomason, a father of two with twins on the way.

What is it like being away for another holiday?

MAJ. ISAIAH THOMASON, DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, AIR NATIONAL GUARD, COLORADO: It's tough. When you know, like I said, now, with kids -- you know, Christmas is a lot more important to them. So, it becomes a lot more important to me.

So missing their faces -- you know, FaceTime helps a lot. But still, you can't make up for it.

BOLDUAN: How many Christmases have you been away from your family?

THOMASON: Oh, I -- probably five.

BOLDUAN: Yes, you can't even count of anymore.

THOMASON: No, its past counting there.


CHURCH: Kate Bolduan, reporting exclusively from Afghanistan. Next here on CNN NEWSROOM. The haircut that's led to cries of racial bias. A school district is standing behind a young wrestler forced to cut off his dreadlocks before a match. We'll back with at the moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[02:53:49] CHURCH: Welcome back everyone. Well, a controversy is growing in New Jersey, where a 16-year-old wrestler was forced to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match.

The boy is African-American, and the referee who made him cut his hair is accused of racial bias. Now, the boy school district, says it won't send sports teams to any events where that referee is officiating. CNN's Miguel Marquez has the latest.


MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's the haircut sparking outrage and investigation into the white referee who insisted on it. The Civil Rights Division of the New Jersey Attorney General's Office and the state's Athletic Association looking into whether race played a role into the decision to offer 16-year-old varsity wrestler, Andrew Johnson, a stark choice, cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit the match.

The state's governor Phil Murphy tweeting, "No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity and playing sports."

Johnson's parents in a statement say, "Their son was visibly shaken by the incident." They also say the ref was late to the match, he had no issue with their son's hair when he finally did arrive and only once their son was on the mat that he threatened disqualification.

The parents saying the referee said, Johnson's hair wasn't in its natural state, referring to the dreadlocks as braids.

The rules indicate, "A wrestler's hair cannot fall below the top of a shirt collar in the back, below his earlobes on the sides, or below his eyebrows. For longer hair, the wrestler has to braid his hair or hide it beneath a hair cover attached to his ear guards."

None of which the referee allowed, say the parents, despite multiple pleas from the athlete, his coach, and trainer. The state's Athletic Association says the referee will not be assigned to moderate matches pending its investigation.

Its executive director adding, "As an African-American and parent, as well as a former educator, coach, official, and athlete, I clearly understand the issues at play, and probably better than most. I asked that everyone respect the investigatory process related to all parties involved. Miguel Marquez, CNN.


[02:56:06] CHURCH: And it's worth pointing out that young wrestler went on to win his match. So, congratulations to him. And finally, an American man just made history in the Antarctic. Colin O'Brady is the first person to complete a trek across the continent alone and without any assistance.

The 33-year-old adventure athlete ended his epic trip with an incredible effort. Covering 77 miles or 124 kilometers in 32 hours. O'Brady, says the last stretch was a challenge but also some of the best moments of his life.

And you are watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Rosemary Church. I'll be back with another hour of live news right after this. Stay with us.