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Trump Threatens to Close Southern Border Entirely; Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen Heads to Border After Second Migrant Child Dies; Interview with Representative Gerry Connolly; Democrats Retake Control of House Next Week, Promise New Probes; House Democrats Scoop Up Staff and Lawyers to Power Investigations of Trump Administration; A Watergate Journalist Says Trump's Impeachment Seems Inevitable; Electrical Arc Turns New York City Skyline Blue, Lights Up Social Media. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired December 28, 2018 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Very good Friday morning to you. Three days after Christmas. Three days to the New Year. I'm Jim Sciutto. Poppy has the day off.

We are fast approaching the one week mark of the government funding standoff which is showing no signs now of ending. 800,000 federal workers are spending the holidays either furloughed or working without pay. And though the paychecks they're getting today do not yet reflect that, the next pay cycle will.

President Trump now threatening to close the southern border entirely if Democrats do not fund his wall. And it appears that neither Democrats nor Republicans are eager to do so to his satisfaction.

In the very few minutes, the House and Senate were in session yesterday. A Democrat did try to move a bipartisan bill to end the partial shutdown, previously supported by Republicans as well. But Republicans did not allow him to speak. The next real chance for a breakthrough may not come until the new Congress convenes next Thursday with Democrats now in charge of the House.

That brings me to CNN's Boris Sanchez at the White House.

Boris, judging by these tweets this morning, the president threatening to close the border and to cut off aid to Central American countries, he appears to be digging his heels in.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. No small threat here from President Trump to shut down the southern border entirely. We should point out for a very short amount of time earlier this year a small portion of the southern border in the San Diego area were shut down as part of that migrant caravan arrived. But that was for a very short amount of time and a very small section of border.

Shutting down the entire southern border would have enormous ramifications on the American economy and on that volatile stock market that we've been seeing that we know the president has been watching closely.

Also included in these tweets, a suggestion that the U.S. should return to a pre-NAFTA era. Unclear if the president meant undoing that USMCA agreement that he's dragged about brokering with Mexico, the United States and Canada.

I did want to update you on where things stand on the shutdown here. Incoming acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney spoke to reporters a short time ago here on the South Lawn essentially saying that things were at a standstill. He revealed that Republicans offered Democrats a deal that would contain a figure short of the $5 billion that the White House has been demanding for a border wall funding. He did not specify what number that would be.

That goes in line with what CNN reported recently that Republicans had offered Democrats a deal that contained somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion for border wall funding. He says he does not believe Democrats will try to strike a deal until after Nancy Pelosi, the likely incoming House speaker, is sworn in -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Boris Sanchez at the White House today.

The Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, she will head to El Paso, Texas, to get a firsthand look at the medical screenings and conditions at Border Patrol stations there. The deaths now of two migrant children in U.S. custody this month prompted that visit. And this morning we're learning new information about the condition of one of those children, 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo, from Guatemala.

Let's bring in CNN correspondent Dan Simon, he's in El Paso.

So, Dan, what have we learned about what led to this boy's death?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, it's been determined now that the 8-year-old boy has the flu. He tested positive for Influenza B. Of course this is going to raise more questions about the medical treatment that he received. Keep in mind, when he went to the hospital, he was told that he had the common cold and was given antibiotics, which would not be effective against the flu.

In the meantime, you do have White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders talking about these incidents in the wake of two children dying within the past month. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We are doing everything in our capacity to make sure that when people do come that they're taken care of so that we don't have these type of instances. In many cases they show up extremely dehydrated without food and they're seeing the doctor for the very -- a doctor for the very first time in their lives, both adults and children.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SIMON: And we're also gaining some new insight as to why the 8-year- old boy and his father made the journey in the first place. The boy's mother speaking out saying that her husband wanted to find work and they just wanted a better education for their son.

But one thing that she also said is that they were under the impression that when you bring a child across the border that you would have better access into the U.S. In other words, you would have a better chance of gaining entry into the United States, which is going to be exhibit A for critics of U.S. immigration policy who say that it's a policy that incentivizes bringing children across the border -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: So the secretary is going down to the border. Unusual about this visit, is it not, that there is no press allowed? It is closed press. What can we expect from her visit? What does she hope to accomplish there?

[09:05:02] SIMON: You know, quite frankly, we don't know a whole lot about her itinerary, Jim. We were told that she is ostensibly coming so she can inspect and see first-hand some of these medical screenings that are taking place. She has ordered her agency to perform enhanced medical screenings. We know that she is going to be in El Paso today going to some of these controlled cities and then headed to Yuma, Arizona, tomorrow -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Dan Simon at the border. Thanks very much.

I'm joined here now in Washington by Congressman Gerry Connolly, he's a Democrat from Virginia.

Congressman, thanks for taking the time.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: Great to be with you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So your district includes many federal workers, some of whom I imagine are furloughed or affected by this shutdown.

CONNOLLY: Absolutely.

SCIUTTO: And what are they telling you? And I want to ask you, honestly, do they blame Democrats as well? Do they believe that Democrats share the blame for this for not keeping the government funded and running?

CONNOLLY: I think most people affected by the shutdown directly aren't in the blame game. They just want the government re-open. And they are anxious about the future. So it's not like this is their first rodeo. There have been a number of government shutdowns under Republican rule, since the Republicans took over Congress in 2010. But they are worried about longevity and uncertainty. And what do they do in terms of their household finances.

SCIUTTO: Yes. No question.

CONNOLLY: Their planning. And by the way, they take pride in going to work and doing the work.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

CONNOLLY: On behalf of the American people.

SCIUTTO: Listen, holidays are an expensive time.

CONNOLLY: Absolutely.

SCIUTTO: And that first -- that check coming up, I imagine, for a lot of folks is going to make it hard to pay the bills. I wonder, though, when folks who aren't following the news every day, aren't following every presidential tweet, may not even know that the president took ownership of this in that famous Oval Office meeting with Pelosi and Schumer. That at the end of the day, they just say, listen, Congress, take care of it.

Are you aware that as Republicans, the president, and Democrats play political chicken on this, in the end that there are dangers for Democrats as well?

CONNOLLY: Not really, because, and certainly for my constituents, they're pretty highly educated, discerning, well-informed group of people. They did all see the clip of the president in the Oval Office arguing with Nancy and Chuck, and saying, I'll take responsibility for it. I will shut down the government. And we're seeing more temper tantrums today. I'll close the border. I'll cut off aid to Salvador, Honduras and other countries, because we don't get anything out of it.

This is a very troubling moment, frankly, in terms of the president's behavior.

SCIUTTO: I want to ask you specifically about that threat to close the border. The president has done this partially before. He may very well do it. What would your reaction be to the president of the United States shutting down the Mexico border over this funding fight?

CONNOLLY: I think the president lives in this delusional world fed by FOX News and a couple of right-wing talking heads and does not connect actions with consequences. So if you close the border, you're going to re-invite huge swings in the stock market. You're going to jeopardize the economic progress we've made, and you're frankly going to do a lot of damage to your own prospects for 2020 by inviting a recession.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this. The "Washington Post" has an editorial today saying that the solution to this standoff is obvious and it's been obvious for a number of months. And that is a straight-up quid pro quo. Give the president some money for his wall and the president and Republicans make a deal on Dreamers, giving legal status to Dreamers.

This has of course been presented months ago and has shown some bipartisan support. The president is not talking about it now. Do you see that as a solution to this? CONNOLLY: Well, it was a solution, as you said, Jim. In fact it was

the solution at hand. Once again it was the president that vetoed that. He indicated that was a deal he would accept then because right wingers got to his ear in the White House, Steve Miller and all, basically he walked away from his own deal. So we don't know who we're dealing with.

SCIUTTO: Right.

CONNOLLY: Who is the negotiator on the executive branch of government that we can deal with? It's not the vice president. It's not the chief of staff. It's not the OMB director, and apparently it's not even Trump. He'll change his mind on a dime.

SCIUTTO: Well, let me give you an opportunity here. Trump does, although he takes shots at us, he watches CNN. If you were speaking to the president right now, would you be willing to say, listen, you make a deal on DACA, you'll get some money for your wall.

CONNOLLY: You know, I can't presume to speak for the Democratic majority that's coming in on January 3rd. I do think the president might spend less time on the blame game and on Twitter and actually have serious in-camera negotiations with the incoming new leadership to see if there's some kind of ground here.

The object here is to get the federal government up and running, it is to secure the border and it is frankly to regularize the status of Dreamers.

SCIUTTO: Democrats have an ambitious legislative agenda as they take over the House. Anti-corruption legislation to support voting rights.

[09:10:01] Are you concerned that that agenda will be hijacked by an ongoing funding battle?

CONNOLLY: There is speculation that that's sort of the method behind the madness coming out of the White House. But no. One way or the other, we're going to do that because there has been voter suppression going on in state after state that Republicans took over. That has to be reversed. The franchise is the most sacred right Americans have besides life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we can't allow it to be compromised. So we're going to work on that.

SCIUTTO: You're of course on the Foreign Affairs Committee. I want to ask you about the president's summary decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. It's happening as we speak. Damaging to U.S. national security in your view?

CONNOLLY: Very. I think it's one of the most sordid acts by a president of the United States in terms of foreign policy in living memory. The Kurds worked side by side with the United States. They were the only group willing to fight ISIS on the ground, and they won. They won. They sacrificed thousands of lives. And for us to pull out and put them at the mercy of, you know, other troops, other interests in the region that wish them no good, I think it's just a craven act. And there are also 50,000 refugees under our control and the Kurdish

control. What happens to them? Do we leave them to the tender, loving mercy of the Assad government? And oh, by the way, the only person who praised this move ironically was Vladimir Putin.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes. Despite --

CONNOLLY: Because he's the biggest beneficiary.

SCIUTTO: Despite the fact that President Trump claimed that they would not welcome it.

I spoke to a senior administration official of this administration in the wake of this decision who said that there was no longer a national security decision-making progress in this administration. That those decisions are made on a whim by the president himself often on a phone call. That's been the reporting. Speaking to the Turkish president made the decision.

What can Congress do? Because this has become a pattern with this administration. What can Congress do? And do you have any support from your Republican colleagues to try to solve this, to reign in the president's worst impulses?

CONNOLLY: You know, we have already passed legislation on a bipartisan basis with respect to sanctions and some other areas of foreign policy. And I think we have to up that game. You know, there are vast powers that are implied in the role of commander in chief. But I think we now need to look at the powers implied in Article I because the founders certainly saw Congress as playing a much more critical role in the issues of war and peace than in the last 50 years we have played.

So I think we're going to have to re-examine what powers, we're going to have to re-examine our role in overseas missions and our obligations to allies like the Kurds who have actually done the fighting on the ground and been successful at it.

SCIUTTO: That will be a test for the new Congress.

Congressman Connolly, thanks very much for taking the time.

CONNOLLY: My great pleasure, Jim. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this hour, New Year, new problem for President Trump. House Democrats now bulking up ahead of what's sure to be a number of investigations into the commander in chief.

Also, a strange blue light glowing in the sky over New York City. That is real video there. It's not Hollywood. And no, we're not being invaded.

Plus, coming home from the holidays will not be easy. Severe storms and heavy rains hitting as many as 60 million travelers today. The last thing they needed or wanted. We'll have more.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00] SCIUTTO: In just six days, Democrats take control of the House, and for President Trump that means a new year, new problems and a new way of doing business on Capitol Hill. Democrats have made it very clear they are ready to launch new investigations of the president and his administration.

Joining me now is senior columnist at "The Daily Beast" Matt Lewis, and assistant editor for "The Washington Post" David Swerdlick. Matt, Cnn has learned that House Democrats out there scooping up staff and lawyers. They are staffing up for a series of investigations of this president. How bad could this get for Trump and Republicans?

MATT LEWIS, SENIOR COLUMNIST, THE DAILY BEAST: Yes, well, I mean, first, I mean, this is what you probably expect them to be doing --

SCIUTTO: Right --

LEWIS: It's not terribly abnormal. But I think that you could have an administration that is basically playing defense all the time, that is inundated with investigations. There's also a danger for Democrats here though of course. And I think that oversight is a totally legitimate responsibility of Congress to do.

But you can imagine a scenario where they become obsessed with this, and that -- as opposed to legislating would be a mistake.

SCIUTTO: Right, and David, fair criticism, is it not? Because Democrats conscious of that. I mean, the way they ran the midterms was about agenda, not just investigation of the president. And they have an ambitious agenda, voting rights, anti-corruption. How do they get that balance right, or will they?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: So I think all these things go together. I think investigating the president shows the Democrats base that they're serious about holding President Trump accountable. I think the shutdown is about saying, look, we're going to be the other branch of government that keeps the executive in check and forces the executive to negotiate.

And then those things come together with asserting their power and then pushing for healthcare, campaign finance reform, infrastructure --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

SWERDLICK: All of those things policy-wise that Democratic voters want.

SCIUTTO: Elizabeth Drew; famous Washington journalist, she covered Watergate, she's got some history. She wrote quite a strong piece, suggesting this morning that impeachment of this president is now inevitable.

Quoting here now, "Mr. Nixon was pardoned by President Gerald Ford, and despite suspicions, no evidence has ever surfaced that the fix was in. While Mr. Trump's case is more complex than Mr. Nixon's, the evident dangers of keeping an out-of-control president in office might well impel Republicans in both parties not without controversy to want to make a deal to get him out of there."

You know, it's interesting, she makes a case here, and that the conventional wisdom around Washington is yes, you might be able to impeach the equivalent of indicting in the House with a simple majority, but getting to two-thirds to convict in the Senate, particularly with a Republican advantage just ain't going to happen.

[09:20:00] Virtually, whatever you see, even from the special counsel, she says don't be so sure. I wonder what you think --

LEWIS: Yes, well, first, I would say, as a columnist, I admire this. Because to take something that really doesn't specifically have a news peg, and to write a column that sparks interest and drives coverage, I think it's a talent.

I don't know if this -- but this is her imagining a scenario, and I just think she has a point in this. We tend to assume that things move along in a linear progression --

SCIUTTO: Right --

LEWIS: And we tend to think, well, because something hasn't happened yet, it's not going to happen in the future. But really, if you read Malcolm Gladwell's book "Tipping Point", sometimes things happen all of a --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

LEWIS: Sudden, right? And so, we don't see the cumulative of impact and all of a sudden things change. Is there a scenario where something happens? I mean, we just saw with Jim Mattis, right? That could be a costly example --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

LEWIS: With something we may not be fully appreciating, I think the media's focus very much on the shutdown, it could be that the Republican base in the Senate at least is much more upset over Syria. Maybe ultimately, steps like that lead to them abandoning Trump.

SCIUTTO: See, that's the point because there is a broader issue here beyond the investigations both personal and political of this president is general mismanagement or the allegation of general mismanagement of the job of president.

And the Syria decision was one of those points because I'm sure you heard the same thing from left and right. You saw that in public comments, even folks who have been very reluctant to criticize this president like Lindsey Graham, you know, going ballistic on this decision. And that raises larger questions, does it not?

SWERDLICK: It does, and I think this is one of those issues where you've finally seen some voices on the Republican side and the Democratic side questioning the president over this decision at a minimum because of the way it was handled and rolled out in conjunction with Secretary Mattis' abrupt resignation --

LEWIS: Yes --

SWERDLICK: As Matt pointed out. And then you also have people who go another step and say, look, on the policy, we got --

LEWIS: Yes --

SWERDLICK: This wrong, whether it's because they think we abandoned the Kurds or because we think it's bad for counter terror. But this is a difference in policy, and I think it will be a stretch for Democrats or Republicans to lump this in with any kind of impeachment push.

There are grounds potentially for impeachment. A policy difference is another thing. Even if a policy is completely wrong --

LEWIS: Right --

SWERDLICK: Headed, I do think it's wrong-headed, that's not the future --

SCIUTTO: But it's more than a policy difference --

SWERDLICK: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Is it not? Because I spoke to a senior administration official in this administration who said, Matt Lewis, there is no national security decision-making process whatsoever, not in --

LEWIS: Right --

SCIUTTO: Consultation with your senior advisors. That the president got on the phone with the Turkish president and on a whim, on a phone call markedly changed U.S. policy. And that's not an isolated --

LEWIS: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Situation with this president.

LEWIS: This is the kind of thing that you can't have investigations into. I don't -- I agree though with David. I don't think that Trump would ever be impeached or that what happened in Syria would be listed in the articles of impeachment. I do think that it could be one of the developments that starts to peel away --

SCIUTTO: Right --

LEWIS: The Republican support in the Senate. And remember the world -- I think part of her column is that the world is dynamic. What happens if the Kurds start getting -- if there's a genocide now against the Kurds, right? We saw that a 100 years ago --

SCIUTTO: Something of concern, yes -- LEWIS: Armenians, it could happen again, what does that look like for

Donald Trump? What happens if ISIS starts to make a comeback?

SWERDLICK: We can't sit in --

SCIUTTO: Or --

SWERDLICK: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Stages another attack as a result now that they have --

SWERDLICK: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Their base re-established.

SWERDLICK: Jim, I just want to make a quick point which is, yes, just to be clear. I think this was a terrible decision. But even if President Trump was sort of spun by President Erdogan into making precipitous decision, 63 million people voted for someone who likes to turn over the apple cart.

They didn't vote for someone who was a deep policy thinker. President Trump's approval rating is barely below what it was when he was inaugurated.

SCIUTTO: It's fair point --

SWERDLICK: People --

SCIUTTO: It hasn't moved a lot.

SWERDLICK: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Matthew, David, thanks very much. A lightening strike, a massive explosion, a visit from aliens? Looked like it. The internet was in a frenzy last night trying to explain a brilliant blue light that lit up the New York skyline. Cnn's Cristina Alesci, she is live in Queens.

Listen, you know, Cristina, I could not believe these pictures when I saw them. At the end of the day, it was a transformer at LaGuardia Airport.

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN BUSINESS & POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, we spoke to Con Ed this morning and they clarified a lot of the confusion last night. That blue light, the source of it was actually a malfunctioning piece of electrical equipment in this sub-station right behind me.

That piece of equipment had 138,000 volts attached to it, so when the malfunction happened, it created a huge ark of lightening that was described to us as a lightning strike, if you will. And it created temporary power outages, including at LaGuardia, in terminals there which grounded flights for about an hour.

So it was definitely impacted. But most of the attention was on this blue light emanating, really illuminating the New York City skyline and also sparking speculation of an alien invasion, which the NYPD had to quickly dispel on Twitter.

[09:25:00] But luckily, Jim, no one was hurt in all of this and Con Ed, this and the power company is still investigating. They don't know what actually caused the spark or the ark of light to begin with, but what they're saying -- what authorities are saying is that it's non-suspicious or unsuspicious which suggests that there's no foul play here, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, when the end -- when the New York Fire Department has to say, no, it's not an alien invasion, that's quite a night during the holidays. Cristina Alesci, thanks very much. Just moments from now, Wall Street will begin the last day of what's really been a wild week.

So what kind of swings could we see today? It's been that kind of week.

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