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Kelly on Border Wall: "To Be Honest, It's Not a Wall"; Ex- Russian Spy Reportedly Pressured Manafort to Pay Back Billions During Campaign; Graham: U.S. in Pause Strategy on Syria Troop Withdrawal; House to Vote Thursday to End Shutdown. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired December 31, 2018 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] MOLLY O'TOOLE, REPORTER, LOS ANGELES TIMES: I think what was really illuminating about what John Kelly said about the wall is that beyond a campaign promise early on in Kelly's tenure at Homeland Security, he asked the people on the ground who are really on the front lines, on the borderer every day, what they needed, and what they said they needed was a barrier in some areas, but it would look not like a concrete wall but would be steel slats, a combination of fencing, but along with more personnel and technology. That goes to show that distance between rhetoric and reality. And potentially, how difficult it's going to be for whoever comes next as chief of staff or anyone, any official on immigration and border security to really succeed when the president in fact ran and won on some pledges that he may not be able to carry out.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, I think it's interesting because there seems to be a lack of clarity on Capitol Hill as to exactly what President Trump is looking for. The president seems to have a different interpretation about that all the time. But from your conversation with General Kelly, he seemed pretty clear about it.

O'TOOLE: Right. And I think, again, that distance not just between rhetoric and reality but the distance between key officials. In the middle of a government shutdown, there's no sign of ending any time soon, and if his allies on the Hill who are going to need to be the ones negotiating whatever deal comes out of that, aren't clear on in fact what the president wants, then I think that indicates that there's sort of more trouble to come. Certainly more impasse between the White House and the Hill and really many branches of government.

NOBLES: Yes, one of the things I was most struck by, by your piece, was General Kelly told you his tenure at the White House would be best measured by what the president did not do as opposed to what they accomplished. What did he mean by that? What specific examples did he point to of things he actually prevented the president from doing?

O'TOOLE: I mean, this was sort of the essence of his argument in our conversation as he sort of defended his very clearly rocky tenure in the White House. But the examples that his defenders will give, and I think that are fairly clear to see, tend to be in the realm of the sort of America First isolationism that the president did clearly run on and win on. So Kelly went into this job with his eyes wide open. But people will point to, for example, the president expressing his interest or his consideration of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Syria. He even potentially talked about bringing U.S. troops back from South Korea, pulling out of NATO. And in many of these examples, Kelly and others would suggest that he didn't pursue those things, at least under Kelly's watch. Because he was getting a lot of information from Kelly but also others that Kelly brought in as part of this sort of interagency process that he instituted to give him information that led him to hold off on those decisions. And then we see about a week after the confirmation that Kelly would be leaving the White House, we see the president announce that he was going to be pulling troops out of Syria and that he was going to be withdrawing about half the troops from Afghanistan. So I think that's a really key example. But then on other issues, it is notable that where people thought Kelly would differ from the president, perhaps pull him back from the brink, he clearly didn't.

NOBLES: Yes. But that is kind of an odd place for a chief of staff to be, right? Preventing things as opposed to accomplishing things with the president. Do you think that might be in part why the Kelly tenure as chief of staff was so rocky?

O'TOOLE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think there can be arguments certainly made. Obviously, it's in Kelly's interest to defend his record. I think many people would say, well, the things that did happen, you clearly didn't stop. Other people raise questions about whether he should have resigned if he didn't agree, necessarily, with what the president was doing. But I think part of the limitations of Kelly's tenure, part of the cause of some of this tension between him and the president and other of the president's aides in the White House that have been well documented were this attitude that Kelly was supposed to be the adult in the room managing a clearly mercurial President Trump. It was clear from the beginning that President Trump didn't like the idea of being managed and it didn't quite fit his style. And whether or not this sort of more military attitude, that he was serving a commander-in-chief, that there was a chain of command, and that when the president made a decision, it was his job to implement it, whether he agreed with it or not, that may not have served either Kelly or the president very well.

NOBLES: All right, Molly O'Toole, terrific reporting. Mick Mulvaney signaled perhaps he'll take a different approach. We'll see if that works. Much more coming up in 2019 for sure.

Molly O'Toole, from the "Los Angeles Times," thank you very much.

Coming up, it sounds like something straight out of a spy thriller. Why was an ex-Russian spy reportedly pressuring Paul Manafort to pay back billions during the 2016 campaign?

But first, this programming note, on New Year's Day, CNN will premiere a new film about the life and work of comedian, Gilda Radner. Tune in to "Love, Gilda," at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Tuesday night.


[11:35:02] GILDA RADNER, COMEDIAN: Hi, I'm Gilda Radner. And -- OK, now. (CHEERING)

RADNER: People want to know what made you funny. From the time I was a kid, I loved to pretend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was the very first performer chosen for the cast of "Saturday Night Live."

RADNER: Rosanne Roseannadanna.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They loved her.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I basically stole all my characters from Gilda.

RADNER: I can do almost anything if people are laughing.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Gilda was just not quite herself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One morning, she just said, I don't know what's wrong with me.

RADNER: For a comedian, it's the most unfunny thing in the world.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She felt that she could be of help. And that's exactly what she did.

RADNER: How often do we get to know exactly how brave we are?

I always felt that my comedy was just to make things be all right.

ANNOUNCER: "Love, Gilda," New Year's Day at 9:00 p.m.



[11:40:35] NOBLES: A new report says there's an alleged tie between a Trump campaign chairman and a former Russian spy. "Time" magazine is reporting that ex-spy, Victor Boyarkin, pressured Paul Manafort to repay debts he owed to Russian billionaire, Oleg Deripaska, who has close ties to the Kremlin.

A spokesman for Manafort declined to talk to "Time" or CNN about the report. Boyarkin told the magazine he was in touch with Manafort during the campaign when Manafort was Trump's campaign chairman. He said, quote, "He owed us a lot of money and he was offering ways to pay it back."

"Time" magazine is the only media outlet he's spoken to about his ties to Manafort.

And joining me now is the journalist who wrote that report, "Time" correspondent, Simon Shuster.

Simon, thank you for being here.

Boyarkin has been pretty quiet about his association to Paul Manafort. How did you get him to talk to you, and what surprised you the most about what he had to say?

SIMON SHUSTER, CORRESPONDENT, TIME MAGAZINE: Well, it took a whole lot of reporting. As we write in the piece, the investigation we're working on took about seven months in total that I was working on it. We talked to a lot of sources in the U.S. and Eastern Europe and Russia and Ukraine.

Our main aim was a baseline for the story was to figure out in those now infamous e-mails that Paul Manafort was sending during the presidential campaign to his contacts in Ukraine, who was this mystery person that they were referring to as V. or Victor. And it was clear that this was a very important contact of Manafort's in Moscow. But his identity wasn't known. Some sources said it was an adviser or an assistant to a Russian oligarch, but we set the goal of figuring out who this was. From sources in the U.S., we got his name.

NOBLES: Wow. I mean, Victor Boyarkin is a mysterious figure. He's a former Russian intelligence officer. What more can you tell us about his background?

SHUSTER: Yes, he does, as you said at the top, have the kind of background that reads like a spy novel. He served, as he told me, in the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., as an assistant naval attache, and his name is in U.S. government archives under that title, but that title is often used by many countries as a cover for an intelligence agent. He also served in Mexico, in the Russian embassy there, and then moved into the arms trade. In the early 2000s, he was involved in selling warships and gunships for Coast Guards and navies in various countries, especially in Africa and other parts of the developing world. And then he went to work for this Russian oligarch as a kind of all-around fixer, special projects operative for this oligarch. He's had quite the illustrious career.

NOBLES: And that oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, could be the key to how this tracks back to Paul Manafort. We know Deripaska has close ties with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin in particular. What do you know about his relationship with Deripaska and how it could connect to Paul Manafort?

SHUSTER: Well, the relationship between Boyarkin and Deripaska was clear. Boyarkin was an employee of Deripaska for around a decade. He worked sometimes free-lance, sometimes focusing on special projects, but they were a team in Russia and working internationally for Deripaska's business empire.

Now, around 2006, Manafort got in touch with Deripaska and they began working on projects, essentially lobbying deals and various kinds of consulting and political influence in Eastern Europe. And that's where the three of them kind of got to know each other and began working together. Remember, this is 10 years before the U.S. presidential elections of 2016. So they have known each other for a long time. They have a lot of business ties going back years. And they have some failed business ventures that led them to accuse each other of owing each other money. And that situation with the debts seemed to come to a head right around the time of the U.S. presidential elections.

What I learned most importantly from Boyarkin when I spoke to him is that they were putting pressure on Manafort, including during the election campaign, to pay back the money that Deripaska says Manafort owes him. So that was the kind of key information, as I saw it, because it showed that powerful figures in Russia had significant leverage over the chairman of the Trump campaign in 2016.

[11:45:29] NOBLES: Now, this has not been a part of the Mueller investigation that we have seen at least publicly. It was not part of the charging documents against Paul Manafort. And Boyarkin told you he was approached by the special counsel's office, which is investigating the ties, and he told them to go dig a ditch. Are there other ways for Mueller to connect the dots without specifically talking to Boyarkin or Deripaska directly, because it appears they're not willing to play ball?

SHUSTER: That's -- it's very hard for me to say what Robert Mueller does or doesn't know. He runs a tight ship and there have been very few leaks if any from his office. It's clear that Boyarkin is certainly on the radar now of the U.S. government. He was put on a sanctions list, a very strict kind of financial sanctions list on December 19th. That is what led also our editors and myself to kind of accelerate the publication. Because now he was in the public eye and we felt it was very much in the public's interest to know who this person is. So I think we're going to be hearing more about him. But again, I have no idea what Mueller is considering vis-a-vis Boyarkin or Deripaska.

NOBLES: It reads like a spy novel. This is real life. Really incredible reporting, Simon, by you and your team.

We so appreciate you coming on to share your insights. Thank you very much.

SHUSTER: Thank you.

NOBLES: Still to come, Senator Lindsey Graham says when it comes to the president's plan to withdraw troops from Syria, the U.S. is now in a pause situation. So is the president changing his strategy? We'll have more on that next.


[11:51:34] NOBLES: President Trump is defending his plans to get out of Syria. Earlier this month, the president announced he was pulling troops out of Syria. A defense official told CNN at the time the withdrawal would be full and rapid.

But in a series of tweets, the president said ISIS is mostly gone. He is slowly sending troops home while fighting ISIS remnants. Joining me to discuss this is CNN national security analyst, Shawn


Shawn, you have an extensive military background. What type of impact could a quick and unexpected withdrawal from Syria have on the region?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It could have significant impact on the region. We have to think about what we know about ISIS. Under the previous and current administration, our military and Intelligence Community made significant strides in the effort to destroy ISIS, but we know the job is not done. For a lot of ISIS fighters, they have gone to ground. That is to say they have faded back into the population and they are still there. We also know a lot of the ISIS ideology and ISIS movement exists online and in virtual space. We have a situation in which ISIS fighters and the ISIS movement is lying in wait for the United States to withdraw. There's no scenario in which we can completely withdraw from Syria and not see a resurgence of ISIS in the region and see significant impacts across the area.

NOBLES: Shawn, Senator Graham has been very upset about the president's plans related to ISIS. He was highly critical and flew up to Washington and had a lunch with the president and emerged and said he felt better about things. He didn't say that the president changed his mind, but that he liked his plan. What could the president have said to calm Senator Graham's nerves to such a great degree?

TURNER: That's what a lot of people in the national security space are concerned about. If the message from Senator Graham and the message in the president's tweets that seem to imply that the president is going to slow down and he will listen to his advisers and that he is going to assess the situation here, if that's what the president actually does, this is a step in the right direction. My concern here is that the president is doing one of two things with regard to this withdrawal. He is either keeping a campaign promise or he is doing what's in the best interest of U.S. national security. Hopefully, those things are consistent and that's why he is doing this. The national security advisers and others are concerned that may not be the case.

NOBLES: Looks like we will have to wait and see how this plays out.

Shawn Turner, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

TURNER: Thanks.

NOBLES: We have breaking news related to the shutdown. A Democratic aide confirms House Democrats will vote Thursday on a series of bills to reopen the government.

Let's bring in CNN's Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill.

Suzanne, what do we know about the situation?

[11:54:29] SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ryan, this is one of the plans we talked about before. We have confirmation that it is the plan that is going to be brought to the House floor Thursday for a vote. This is what Nancy Pelosi has been discussing. And essentially it's a six-bill package that would fund the government through September. And also Homeland Security department would be a stop gap measure for that, specifically separately funding it until February 8th. It kicks the can down the road a little bit trying to resolve some of those issues. But what is critical is $1.3 billion is the current level they are offering for Homeland Security Department. It does not have money for the president's wall as he has demanded.

Essentially, what this does is sets up pressure on the Senate side. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he is not bringing anything to the floor until they have the 60 votes and the president's approval. It's far from certain whether the president will sign off on this -- Ryan?

NOBLES: Suzanne Malveaux, thank you for that update.

They are sure to talk about it on "INSIDE POLITICS" with Phil Mattingly, which will start after this short break. Have a happy New Year.