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Trump Lashes Out at Dems, Threatens to Close Border with Mexico; Dems Repeat Demand for Trump to Endorse Any Deal to End Shutdown Before Approving Money; House Dems Seeking Staff, Lawyers for Trump Investigations; Trump Calls Dems "Obstructionist" And Threatens To Close Border Until He Gets Money To "Finish The Wall"; Trump Threatens To Call Border "Entirely" And Cut Aid To Honduras, Guatemala And El Salvador; Homeland Security Secretary Meeting With Health Officials Border Patrol Agents During Visit To Texas And Arizona; Militia Backed By U.S. Asks Syrian Forces To Retake Key City; North Korea Accused Of Hacking Info On Hundreds Of Defectors. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 28, 2018 - 17:00   ET


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Tune in Sunday for "STATE OF THE UNION." Our guests will be Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.

[17:00:18] JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Happening now, walled in. President Trump says he's staying in Washington over the New Year's holiday and is threatening to close the entire border with Mexico if he doesn't get his money for the wall. As the Trump team fires a new broadside at Nancy Pelosi, is there any hope for behind-the-scenes talks to end the nearly week-old shutdown?

Lawyering up. "Help wanted" notices are going out as House Democrats prepare to take control. They're seeking lawyers and staffers for multiple investigations into the Trump administration. What are they targeting?

Closing in. Just a week after President Trump blindsided U.S. allies by announcing he's pulling troops out of Syria, there are disturbing new indications Syrian forces are closing in on a key city. Has U.S. credibility in the fight against ISIS been eroded beyond repair?

And defectors hacked. Hundreds of people who escaped from Kim Jong- un's brutal regime learn they've been targeted by North Korean hackers. Are their lives, as well as their personal information, at risk?

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Jim Acosta, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, as the government shutdown heads into its second week, President Trump has cancelled his plans for a New Year's get-away in Florida and is hunkered down at the White House. Throughout the day, he sent a series of threats via Twitter, including threats to close the entire border with Mexico and cut off aid to Central American countries.

Meanwhile, top members of the Trump team are targeting soon-to-be House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and seem to be trying to drive a wedge between House and Senate Democrats.

We'll discuss the situation with Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono and Republican Senator Jeff Flake. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists, they have full coverage of the day's top stories.

But let's begin at the White House and CNN's White House correspondent, Abby Phillip.

Abby, there is a lot of finger-pointing from President Trump and members of his team today, isn't that right?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. Seven days into this shutdown, the blame game is in full force, and the White House unveiled a new strategy today, which relies squarely on trying to divide Democrats by blaming Nancy Pelosi.

But the two sides don't even seem to be talking, and President Trump remains sequestered in the White House, issuing tweets and new threats from his Twitter feed aimed at upping the pressure on the Democrats.


PHILLIP (voice-over): In a bid to gain the upper hand in negotiations over the government shutdown, President Trump is resorting to old threats, insisting he will close the southern border until he gets his border wall and cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, countries he says have been taking advantage of the U.S. for years.

The president also resurrecting talk of a new migrant caravan forming in Honduras, tweeting, "Word is that a new caravan is forming in Honduras, and they are doing nothing about it," though there is no evidence that one is heading for the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump had ramped up talk of the migrant caravans coming from Central America just before the midterm elections, hoping to energize his base.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They've got a lot of rough people in those caravans.

PHILLIP: But after the election, mentions of the caravan nearly disappeared and as recently as this week, the president said the problem had been solved.

TRUMP: The military built some very effective walls for me over the last four weeks on the southern border. And we've held them -- we had caravans of people coming up. You've been seeing it, and we stopped them. We stopped them cold.

PHILLIP: The president's threat to pull foreign aid from Central American countries also apparently contradicting his own administration's policy. Just last week, the State Department said the U.S. would continue its strategy of aiding Central American countries through $5.8 billion in public and private investments.

Meantime, as the president's tone on Twitter ratchets up, the White House is dramatically ratcheting down expectations for Trump's biggest campaign promise, turning "Build the wall" --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Build the wall! Build the wall!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Build the wall! Build the wall!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Build the wall! Build the wall!

TRUMP: And we will build the wall.

It's not a fence. It's a wall. You just misreported it. We're going to build a wall.

PHILLIP: -- into "Build the fence."

MICK MULVANEY, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF: The president is not willing to give up on the southern barrier. Keep in mind, that steel-slat fence that he sent the picture of, that is the ideal border barrier. It's what CBP wants. It's what everybody says will actually do the job best.

So we are not giving up on that. It's why the government is closed.

PHILLIP: White House aides taking their lead from the president, who has been eager to rebrand his wall.

TRUMP: I can tell you, it's not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they'd like to call it. I'll call it whatever they want. But it's all the same thing.

PHILLIP: All of this as the White House seeks to drive a wedge between House and Senate Democrats, fixating on Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's bid to be House speaker, which Trump aides now say is at risk if she strikes a deal with Trump over the border wall.

MULVANEY: The vice president and I met with Leader Schumer last Saturday, the last time we sat down face-to-face. And my gut was that he was really interested in doing a deal and coming to some sort of compromise, but the more we're hearing this week, is that it's Nancy Pelosi who's preventing that from happening.

PHILLIP: But as the blame game gets hotter in Washington, a new crisis is unfolding. Two migrant children now dying in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen traveling to the border Friday to meet with health officials and Border Patrol agents. The visit coming as CNN has learned an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy who died on Christmas Eve in CPB custody had contracted the flu.


PHILLIP: And Jim, President Trump is back home alone in the White House. First lady Melania Trump returned to Florida yesterday, and the president has now cancelled his plans to return to Florida for the New Year's Eve party that he holds every year at Mar-a-Lago. Those tickets sold for over $1,000 a pop this year, but the president, according to his aides, is staying here to deal with the shutdown. At the same time, it's not clear, though, if any progress at all is being made on that front, Jim.

ACOSTA: OK. Home alone, but the phone is on. Abby Phillip, all right, thank you very much.

Is there any hope for negotiations to end the shutdown? That's the question at this hour. Let's go to CNN congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, up on Capitol Hill.

Phil, what are you hearing?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim, in a town and right now building that's really devoid of action. The only thing that's really happening is Leader Nancy Pelosi's belongings and her staff's belongings are currently being moved into Speaker Paul Ryan's office, showing that there is going to be a transition in just about a week. And that at this point is what everybody is pointing to for the next legislative action.

Soon-to-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi making clear that, as soon as she takes the gavel, she will quickly move to pass, potentially, a series of bills to reopen the government. One that might reopen it until February 8, something the Senate passed before the president rejected it. Another that might bring together a number of funding bills, package them all together and send them over, try and separate the Department of Homeland Security bill that has the wall issue inside of it for a shorter-term extension. A number of different options.

But the reality right now, Jim, is even though there may be legislative action shortly after Democrats take the majority in the House, there's no sense that it's necessarily going to go anywhere.

Senate Republicans feel very burned by what happened last week when the president decided not to sign something that had been agreed to unanimously in the chamber. And they have made clear, they don't want to move forward on anything until the president signs off. And that basically puts everyone in the same place they've been for a matter of days: entrenched in their current positions.

The president making clear, he wants billions of dollars for a border structure or border wall. Democrats making clear they're not willing to give it. Is that dynamic going to change?

Well, Jim, we're going into a weekend, and the aides that I'm talking to now say, no, at least not any time in the near term. The big question now is what could change that, and nobody seems, at least at this point, do have the answer, Jim.

ACOSTA: No answers, and the shutdown continues. All right. Phil Mattingly, thank you very much.

Also tonight, there are strong new signs Democrats are gearing up for an intensive series of investigations targeting the Trump administration once they take control of the House of representatives next week. Let's bring in CNN's senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez.

And Evan, we've learned that House Democrats are looking to hire lawyers and double the number of people on their committee staffs. It sounds like they're gearing up for battle.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think that's right. And I think once they -- once they take over, we expect that there's going to be subpoenas issued.

And you can look at the type of job offerings that they posted. These are for people who have investigative skills. People who have experience in money laundering investigations and contracting.

So this tells us a lot about what the agenda -- even though the Democrats claim that they're going to be looking at legislative priorities, we expect there's going to be a lot of investigative work.

And look, the White House is anticipating this. You know this. They've been hiring up lawyers. We expect that the White House counsel's office is going to add as many as 30 lawyers before this is all -- before this is all done.

ACOSTA: And we also learned that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, may have collected some very interesting evidence as part of the Russia investigation. A selfie -- a nude selfie? What are we talking about here?

PEREZ: Right, exactly.

ACOSTA: Bring this up on a family program like this.

PEREZ: I know, exactly, right? I mean, it would -- it would figure that this would eventually make its way to a nude selfie, but that's exactly what this company that's involved in this Russian troll farm that was indicted by the Mueller investigators this past year. They're saying that in the terabytes of information that the government has shared with them, is a nude selfie.

Now, we don't know the provenance of this. We don't know who it is. We don't know where it's from. But you can see part of what they said in their filing.

They say, quote, "Could the manner in which he," Mueller, "collected a nude selfie really threaten the national security of the United States?

What they're talking about is this. That the special counsel says that you could -- there's certain information, restrictions on the ability to share certain bits of information from the investigation, because they're concerned that this information is going to make its way back to the government of Russia. And that's what they do not want. They don't want the sources and methods of U.S. intelligence to fall into the hands of the Kremlin.

[17:10:06] Obviously, the troll farm and their lawyers say not so much.

But, you know, in addition to this court filing, we're also keeping an on the mystery subpoena fight that's been going on. It's made its way, all the way up to the Supreme Court. We expect that on Monday, the government has a deadline to provide information to the Chief Justice Roberts, who is trying to figure out whether or not the Supreme Court is going to take up this challenge.

There's a company -- we don't know the name of the company; we don't know where it's from -- that is basically fighting a subpoena that's been issued by Robert Mueller.

Now, the courts in the lower part -- the lower courts have enforced this subpoena, which is now up to Chief Justice Roberts to decide whether or not the Supreme Court is going to hear this challenge. We do not know a lot about it, what type of information is being sought. But we do know that it's a foreign company. It's a company that is owned by a foreign country. And we'll see whether the Supreme Court takes action on this.

ACOSTA: OK. And there's so much of this investigation we don't know about heading into this new year --

PEREZ: Exactly.

ACOSTA: -- with Democrats poised to take control in the House. Evan Perez, thank you so much.

Let's talk about all the day's developments with Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. She's a member of the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees.

Senator Hirono, thanks for joining us.


ACOSTA: You're one of the few lawmakers that we see in the Capitol as we head into the new year.

HIRONO: I haven't run into anybody else yet.

ACOSTA: Well, that's -- we're glad to have you and happy holidays.

HIRONO: Thank you.

ACOSTA: Let me ask you this. The White House says Senate Democrats will be ready to strike a deal to end this shutdown but have been reluctant to do so in order to help Nancy Pelosi secure the speakership over in the House. Are Senate Democrats ready, in fact, to strike a deal? Are you being held up in some way?

HIRONO: No. In fact, Nancy -- I'm pretty sure, already has the votes. If there is somebody who knows how to count, it's Nancy Pelosi. But it's another example of how Trump wants to lay the blame on everybody else. And today and yesterday, I guess, it's blame Nancy. When the shutdown came about, because the president basically went

back on an understanding that both the U.S. House and the Senate had, when the Senate voted to keep government running until February in a voice vote, no less. That vote went to the House and suddenly President Trump watching FOX News and listening to the very loud voices of FOX News, got afraid, basically, and said, "I'm not -- I'm not going to do this." And notice that he's not accepting responsibility for the government shutdown, which he said he would.

So to me, it's sad. But it's par for the course. And who's paying the price for all of this? Eight hundred thousand federal employees and all of the people who contract with government who probably will not be made whole.

And so it continues. And if there's anybody who should take responsibility and come up with a way to shut -- to begin the government running again, it is the president.

ACOSTA: Let me ask you this, though. As we head into the new year and the Democrats take control in the House, won't the shutdown at that point represent a failure of the entire government? Won't Democrats share some of the responsibility at that point?

HIRONO: There are already bills out there. You know, there's the bill that we passed in the Senate, and if the House passes that, and the president wants to -- to veto that bill, then he can do so. Because he's not getting his vanity wall.

And so with the House in Democratic control, I wouldn't be surprised if they decide to pass the bill that was already passed out of the Senate to keep government running.

ACOSTA: And so at this point, what you're saying is that, when Senate Democrats come back, when House Democrats come back and they start talking about a package to send to the president to reopen the government, there won't be wall funding in that legislation. He's not getting his wall, as Senator Schumer said.

HIRONO: Well, another way that it could happen is there already is, as you know, some money for the wall in the homeland security appropriation bill that had been passed. So that could be another scenario.

But be that as it may, if the House passes the Senate-passed bill, then it just goes to the president for his signature. And it does not have funding for the wall, because it only takes us to February. And we're going to have to come back and discuss and renegotiate everything.

ACOSTA: How long are you -- how long are you willing to hold out? If you're not offering money for a wall and the president says, "Well, I'm just going to hold out, as well," how long could this potentially last?

HIRONO: I think it's really clear that the president should take responsibility for it. All he has to do is tell the House, "Go ahead and vote on that bill that I, the president, was going to sign" until he started listening to FOX News. And he should just tell them that he can end the shutdown today. Tomorrow.

So I just really think that it's so terrible that everybody keeps putting all the blame on everybody else, when, you know, let's face it. We wouldn't be in this situation were it not for the president, who continues to change his mind. And this is what he did with DACA

when we were working on that.

[17:15:10] ACOSTA: And let me ask you this. The president says he's considering closing the entire southern border. I'm sure you saw this earlier today.


ACOSTA: Unless a wall is built. This wall that you've now referred to as his fake vanity wall. Your response to that threat, that he would try to close the entire border with Mexico. Is that even feasible?

HIRONO: That's a really good question. I -- I don't know that it's very feasible. I don't think it is, because we're talking about, what, 1,100 miles of border? What's he going to do, place an agent every two feet? I really don't know.

But then he's also today talking about how Mexico is actually, in effect, going to pay for the wall, because of the great, great deal that he got in NAFTA, which wasn't a total redoing of NAFTA, by the way.

And so the president says all kinds of things, and the bottom line is that this is all part of a huge anti-immigrant posture that the president has implemented, starting with, of course, when he started talking about a Muslim ban and going on to the separation of children at the border. And the tragedy of two children dying in the custody of government and Secretary Nielsen being there.

You know, this is all part of a total anti-immigrant screed that the president has been on for two years now. And as far as I'm concerned, it should stop, and I'm really glad that the House is now in Democratic hands so that we can have some checks and balances to what I would consider this out-of-control president.

ACOSTA: All right. And this debate will start all over again in the new year. Senator Mazie Hirono, thank you very much.

HIRONO: Take care.

ACOSTA: We'll be watching to see if you can solve that shutdown in the new year. Thank you. You take care, as well.

HIRONO: Happy new year.

ACOSTA: You, as well.

And coming up next, how long will it take to end the government shutdown, and is there any room for compromise? We'll get a Republican perspective from retiring Senator Jeff Flake, and also ask him to look ahead. Are any Republicans willing to challenge President Trump in 2020?


[17:21:24] ACOSTA: Now that the government shutdown is heading into its second week with no end in sight, President Trump cancelled his plans for New Year's Eve and is staying at the White House, tweeting threats and blaming Democrats for the stalemate.

This is the Washington that Republican senator and soon to be former senator Jeff Flake is leaving behind. He joins us from much warmer Phoenix in Arizona.

Senator Flake, thanks so much for joining us and happy holidays. We appreciate you coming on.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Thanks for having me on.

ACOSTA: How long do you predict -- you are skilled in the ways of Washington. You've seen this happen before. You've seen this movie before. How long do you predict this shutdown will last, and how do you see it ending?

FLAKE: Well, my guess is probably a couple of weeks after the -- this Senate and the House reconvene on the 3rd. So probably mid-January would be my guess. And I think it will end --

ACOSTA: That's a long shutdown.

FLAKE: -- probably -- yes, it is. It is. And fortunately, it's only a quarter of the federal government. It's not a full shutdown. But it's still significant, particularly for those who aren't getting paid.

Obviously, the federal government will likely backfill the salaries and the payments that were missed. That always happens, as it should. But still, it's a bad thing. It shouldn't be happening at all.

But my guess is it will go until mid-January, and then they'll settle on some figure close to $1.6 billion, what was offered or close to what was offered already. And both sides will declare victory somehow and move on.

ACOSTA: And you heard the president say a week or so ago THAT he would own this shutdown and THEN lately, as you've noticed, he's been shifting the blame to Democrats.

FLAKE: Right.

ACOSTA: In your view, does President Trump still own this shutdown?

FLAKE: Oh, any time that you stand and say, "I own the shutdown," then you own it. I mean, politics -- you know, Shutdown 101 tells you, shift the blame if you can. And when the president immediately said, "I'll take the blame," then he's got it.

And so that's why the Democrats have felt no need to really come to the negotiating table. So I think that the president, you know, he said he'd own it, and he does.

ACOSTA: And if the president is threatening to close the entire southern border if he doesn't get this wall, what does that mean to you? You represent a border state. Does that idea even make sense? Could he feasibly shut down the border or close the border without a wall? I suppose he would do it with manpower of some sort. What do you make of that threat coming from the president today?

FLAKE: Well, it's highly unlikely, gratefully, that he would do that. I suppose he could if he claimed some national security prerogative.

But let me just tell you what it would mean just in one area. You take Yuma. There are a couple of entries into the country, legal entry points. About 10,000 people cross that border legally every morning. About a quarter of them are U.S. citizens who live in Mexico. They come and work in the fields. A lot of the fresh produce that's consumed here is grown in Yuma in the wintertime.

So you'd have 10,000 people or so who could not come and work the fields. Many of them, up to a quarter, like I said, are U.S. citizens. That's what it would mean in just a couple of entry points. And we have hundreds of entry points across the southern border.

So it's not likely to happen. It would shift -- it would stifle commerce, significant commerce, between our two countries. It benefits both of us. And so I just don't think that he'll follow through. I hope not.

ACOSTA: And as we learn more details about the death of an 8-year-old boy in custody, this 8-year-old Guatemalan boy, can people trust the Trump administration when it comes to immigration policy? And can the Trump administration be trusted with the lives of these children that they're taking into custody?

[17:25:16] FLAKE: Well, it's a tragedy when anyone dies, particularly those that seem to be so unavoidable like this one. But let's get real. There's a possibility that this could happen under any administration, given the number of kids that are crossing and the policies that we have. But, I mean, you can't avoid every tragic situation.

But we can have better policies. And those are going to be bipartisan. Those solutions are going to be bipartisan. I hope the president will sit down, now that we have divided government after January 3, and work on some of these issues that we've worked on before on a bipartisan basis.

If the president wants significantly more funding for barriers on the border, then he'll likely have to give on issues like DACA. Those are the kind of compromises that can be struck, that should be struck. And hopefully, with divided government, that's what we'll get. ACOSTA: And let me ask you about the president's trip overseas. As

you noticed a couple of days ago, he went to go visit the troops in Iraq. And during that visit, he brought up this issue of a government shutdown. Blamed it on Democrats. Also went after the Democrats on border security, basically saying that they didn't want border security. And this was all during a visit with U.S. troops in a conflict zone. This was a big commander-in-chief moment for him.

Do you -- did that strike you as being overly politicized? Did he politicize that trip to see the troops, do you think?

FLAKE: Well, I'm glad that he went to see the troops, regardless of what was said there. I'm glad that he did. That was a good thing for him to do, and I know that they appreciated it.

The president, not just there, but other places, has talked about the Democrats being solely to blame for our immigration problems. That's just not the case.

I was part of a group that negotiated the deal that we had in 2013, which would have provided about $42 billion in added border security measures, whether it's fencing, manpower, technology, and every Democrat in the Senate, every one of them, voted for it. So Democrats are willing to vote for border security, as long as it's tied to other things that we need to do with regard to immigration reform, like a solution to the DREAMers, like a solution to our guest worker issues.

ACOSTA: It sounds like you'd like to see some sort of DREAMer for border wall or border structure compromise.


ACOSTA: We've people -- you've had some people advance that here in Washington. You'd like to see that.

FLAKE: Yes. And I think that that is a deal that could be done, and frankly, will be more easily done with divided government, where no party thinks that they can push something through on their own. So divided government is typically the best government, where parties -- you know, there's no illusion that they can push anything through; and they sit down and negotiate and work something out.

ACOSTA: We're going to get our fill of that very shortly.

Let me ask you this. As you're leaving Congress, as you're leaving Washington, you've said a Republican needs to challenge Donald Trump in 2020. Is that going to be you on the Republican side, Senator?

FLAKE: You know, I -- there are others that seem more willing than I am. I've been doing this for 18 years now. It's -- it's nice to look forward to a little break. But somebody does need to challenge the president. I think --

ACOSTA: Will you think about it, do you think?

FLAKE: -- someone needs to remind Republicans around the country -- ACOSTA: Will you consider it?

FLAKE: Like I said, I haven't ruled it out. I'm a long way from there. But -- but somebody needs to. And I think that the country needs to be reminded what it means to be conservative, certainly, on the Republican side. And what it means to be decent, as well. Because we need a lot more of that in our politics.

ACOSTA: And seems that, as you leave Washington, there's an absence of that in this city. Isn't that right?

FLAKE: That's certainly the case. I think that it's -- we, for whatever reason, have kind of resigned ourselves to two political parties in this country. And as long as that's the case, both parties need to be rational and sane, and try to govern, rather than simply put forward the politics of resentment and anger. That's not a good recipe for Republicans moving forward.

And I fear that the Republican Party is on its way out if we don't realize that we need to appeal to a broader electorate and not just continually drill down on the base, because that base is diminishing. And so I hope that we can see a different kind of politics moving forward. We certainly need it.

ACOSTA: All right. And we certainly do need that.

All right. Senator Jeff Flake, thank you very much for coming on. We appreciate it. Good luck in your life outside of Washington.

FLAKE: Thank you.

ACOSTA: I'm sure it will be a whole lot better, a whole lot happier. All right, Senator, thanks very much for joining us. We appreciate it.

FLAKE: Appreciate it.

ACOSTA: All right.

FLAKE: Thanks.


ACOSTA: All right, coming up, House Democrats looking to beef up committee staffs for new investigations of the Trump administration; will the new year bring accountability or even worse gridlock?


ACOSTA: And we're following the latest stream of threats and finger- pointing coming from the Trump White House as the government shutdown nears the end of its seventh day -- and let's ask our reporters and experts about today's developments. And Rachel Bade, one thing we just heard from Senator Flake a few moments ago and it kind of took us all by surprise as we heard him say it, as he thinks that this government shutdown -- and he's seen a few of these -- could last until the middle of January.

[17:35:18] RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, yes. I think a lot of sources on the hill are telling us the same thing -- from both parties. I mean, right now, there's a lack of urgency. Nobody's on the hill. Everybody is on vacation. And I think the reason for that is because it's only a quarter of the government, 800,000 employees. They haven't had that first furloughed paycheck. And from my understanding, the first furloughed paycheck were people who are basically going to lose their pay or are working without pay, is on January 11th. And so, a lot of people are looking at that as, sort of, the soft deadline.

But I think very quickly, once Nancy Pelosi, you know, takes the gavel, she's going to put a bill right away on the house floor to reopen the government, and she's going to continuously do this until Republicans feel this pressure to sort of cave. And I think that, you know, we've heard time and time again that if you're the party making the demand in a shutdown fight, often you lose. That was the case with Democrats last year when they demanded a fix for DREAMers. And right now, the rules are reversed. And so, I think Republican leaders privately know that there's no good landing for them here, but the president is obviously doing a lot of blame-shifting right now to find a way out.

ACOSTA: And April Ryan, you saw the president's tweets today. He's talking about shutting down the border with Mexico and going back to what he called a pre-NAFTA economy. That's bluster. I mean, as we know, he can't feasibly do that. And Senator Flake and Senator Hirono were essentially saying, no, that's not really possible. Senator Flake said, well, maybe he came up with a national security reason or something he could do it. Obviously, an impasse over government funding isn't a national security catalyst. But what did you make of the president's bluster today on shutting down the border if he can't get his wall?

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Can't get his wall and can't get his way. Jim, as you know, this president likes to see what sticks and tries to rally his base. You know, the economy is teetering right now with this wall issue. Everything is not great, the way the president says. And this is -- there is a shallow economy right here -- and left to his own devices. And if this goes very long, it will mess with GDP. We saw that. In 2013, GDP -- there were negative effects on GDP with that 13-day government shutdown in 2013.

Consumer confidence is already being knocked with the possibilities of more days coming. You know, there are so many different things that come along with a government shutdown. Small businesses. This president is trying to rally the base, and he just can't seem to do that. As he said, a couple of weeks ago, he will carry the mantle for a government shutdown. Now, the White House is trying to also fight back. This is not just about the president's tweets.

The White House is saying, look, we gave the Dems something seven days ago that was less than $5 billion and they have not come back with anything. So, right now, the president is very concerned about his image, about the economy. This does not bode well for him. But it looks like the Dems, you know, just as Rachael said, you know, January 3rd will be when they begin to look at issues and bills and ways to stop the stalemate.

ACOSTA: They're going to have the leverage. And John Kirby, the president also threatened to cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador as part of this, you know, brinksmanship that he's engaged in. Obviously, the president sees immigration as a winning issue: he campaigned on the caravans and stoking fears of migrants and so on heading into the midterms. But this is shaping up to be, potentially, a humanitarian crisis. If he can't get his way on the wall, and he does all of these draconian things down on the border, there could be some far-reaching national security implications.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: No kidding. I mean, potentially very significant humanitarian crises here. I mean, the aid that we give those three countries, we call them the northern triangle, it represents 0.1 percent of all the foreign aid that we give globally. Something like -- last year, $555 million -- it's not a lot of money but it goes precisely to the kinds of conditions ameliorating the conditions that cause the migration crisis: security, poverty, energy, agriculture, good governance. I mean, I think you could actually make a case we should increase that money, not decrease it. Because if you'll just pull it away, you're simply going to exacerbate all of the conditions that are forcing these people to flee.

ACOSTA: And Joey Jackson, Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security Secretary, she went down to the border today to see the medical conditions at some of these facilities where the second child died in American custody. I'm just wondering what the legal implications are for this administration. If you have children that they're not equipped to handle and deal with and care for when they come into the custody of the United States and the president seems to want to put some of these kids, you know -- detain many of these children rather than release them into the community with trusted relatives or other people. What is the legal exposure for this administration when it comes to this sort of thing?

[17:40:06] JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, Jim, it's a great question. And the unfortunate answer is, I don't know that they care. This administration is about putting politics above people. Let's address first as it relates to the government shutdown. There are people in Washington that don't have Mar-a-Lago residences to go to, that don't have retreats around the country to go to. They're depending upon the paychecks. But the president doesn't want to do it; hiding behind border security, build the wall, while people are in peril.

So too, as you relate to the immigration policy itself, and you look at children, and you look at ripping kids away from their mothers, and you look at ripping children and children dying. The fact of the matter is, it's about politics. The legal implications are slow and coming. Why? Because it's about a court action. It's about taking the president to court. And while you do that in that slow pace, you have people who are affected. I think at the end of the day, you know, let's give George Bush his

props in death, right, and give him the credit he's due. When I remember during that inauguration in 1989, he said something very compelling, Jim, and that was you may not have voted for me, but I want to be your president too. 20 years later, in 2008, Barack Obama, the same thing: I want to be your president too. It's about the president's base. And so, yes, you can look at the issues of going to court, but it's a slow way to move, as people are really suffering.

ACOSTA: All right. And let's stand by, everybody, and talk more about all of this on the other side of the break. We'll also get to the Mueller investigation and what the Russians may be up to that -- there's some interesting evidence in that case that we haven't talked about in full. Let's talk about that in just a few moments. We'll be right back.


[17:46:11] ACOSTA: Tonight, there's an important fallout from President Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, although the U.S. military is questioning the claim. The Syrian army today has said, it is entered into a key city after being invited in by Kurdish militia fighters who have been allied with the U.S. Let's get the insights of a former Pentagon and States Department Spokesman, John Kirby, is with us. John, this is a pretty stunning development. Walk us through this just a little bit here. The Kurds, that the U.S. has been training and working with to fight ISIS have now asked Syrian forces under the command of Bashar al-Assad to come in and help them now because they're worried about what they considered to be a Turkish invasion, tell us about this.

KIRBY: What they're specifically doing is asking Russia to lean on Assad to provide help in (INAUDIBLE). It's very significant, and you're seeing in real-time now, Jim, the ramifications of the president's decision to abruptly withdraw those troops. Now, everybody is trying to fill that vacuum, the Kurds specifically. And it says a lot that they'd rather see Syrian-backed forces, Syrian regime forces in (INAUDIBLE), protecting those citizens than they would the Turks coming across that border. So, you're seeing this all play out now in real-time.

It means a couple of things. One, it means the end of our credibility and any leverage we might have had in figuring out the future of Syria. Number two, it's pretty much a good signal that Assad is here to stay, he's not going anywhere. The UAE just re-established their embassy in Damascus. That's really significant. And number three, it means Russia's influence over Assad in Syria and the future of Syria has now come full circle. This is Putin's play.

ACOSTA: So, as the U.S. pulls out, Russia moves in, essentially. All right, John Kirby, thank you very much for that. We're going to move ahead. Coming up, Kim Jong-un's hackers are accused of brazen cyberattack targeting hundreds of defectors who have fled his oppressive regime and they thought they had reached safety.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:52:35] ACOSTA: Tonight, despite President Trump's claims of improving relations with Kim Jong-un, North Korea is being blamed for hacking the personal information of hundreds of defectors. CNN's Will Ripley is monitoring the story from Hong Kong. Will, tell us more.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jim, this is a very disturbing development for nearly 1,000 North Korean defectors, people who snuck out of North Korea, thinking that they would have freedom from the North Korean regime in South Korea, but now we're learning that their personal information, including where they live, where they work, it's all been stolen. Hackers targeted a computer at a non-profit in South Korea; it's a place that helps defectors resettle in that much more prosperous capitalist country. Centers operated by the Hana Foundation, an organization that was set up by the South Korean Unification Ministry back in 2010.

The big concern here is that North Korea and I've been to the country many times and have been told many times by officials they consider defectors, people who escape from the country scum. They actually call them the scum of the Earth. And there are legitimate concerns amongst people who have escaped from North Korea, that this information could: one, be used to track them down somehow but perhaps also, more frightening for them, the information could be used by the North Korean government to put their families under monitoring and surveillance.

We know that sometimes, defectors in South Korea send messages back to their families in the North, but they're not supposed to do that. It's technically against the law, and there could be very serious repercussions from the fact that these people are now identified, their homes, their businesses, perhaps their phone numbers, all sorts of information that could be used potentially by North Korea. Although we need to be clear, we don't know for sure that North Korea was actually behind this, but, of course, that is the suspicion. One defector said that he thinks North Korea might try to kill him.

Now, a ministry spokesperson in South Korea from the Unification Ministry is telling CNN that so far at least no harm has been observed due to this leak. And, again, while we don't know that North Korea is behind this, we know that North Korea has a long history of hacking, and they've gotten pretty good at it. I mean, you remember back in October, you know, a report claimed that hackers tried to steal more than a billion dollars. The cybersecurity from Fire Eye accused the North Korean government of using a state-sponsored hacking group to successfully steal more than $100 million in a particularly aggressive attack on global banks. And now, you have this, the information of people who escaped that country out in the open and they don't know who has it or what they'll do with it. Jim.

[17:55:10] ACOSTA: Will Ripley, thank you very much. Coming up, anger and frustration as congressional Democrats and the president blame each other for the government shutdown. Is there any sign of a compromise?


ACOSTA: Happening now, "Home Alone 2" in a sequel to his Christmas Twitter rant, President Trump is heading into the new year stuck at the White House and on the attack. Will his new threats help break the shutdown standoff or make it worse?

[18:00:00] On the fence. As the president refuses to back down from his border wall demand, he can't seem to decide whether to call it a wall, a fence or a bunch of beautiful steel slats. Will the definition matter to Democrats?