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Government Shutdown Continues; Elizabeth Warren Launches Presidential Exploratory Committee: New Year's Celebrations Begin; Mattis Takes Perceived Dig at Trump in Goodbye Letter to Troops; Trump Defends Eventual Troop Withdrawal from Syria. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 31, 2018 - 16:00   ET



PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: It's not 2019 just yet, but 2020 is under way.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump holed up in the White House and popping off tweets like New Year's confetti, calling the southern border an open wound and saying it's wall or nothing.

Warren is in. The senator becomes the first Democrat to make a presidential bid, and she's not the only one making noise.

Plus, 2019 coming around. It's now midnight in Moscow, as Vladimir Putin celebrates the new year by detaining an American citizen. Is this Putin's payback for the U.S. nabbing one of his agents?

And welcome to this special holiday edition of THE LEAD. I'm Pamela Brown, in for Jake Tapper.

And we begin this New Year's Eve with our politics lead. Let the countdown begin, no, not until Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper pop that bottle of bubbly, but rather until nearly one million federal workers can start getting paid again.

Day 10 of the government shutdown, and there is no deal in sight. President Trump spending this holiday alone at the White House and telling aides he will not budge on funding for a border wall and border security, this as the president is publicly rebuking his outgoing chief of staff, who claims the Trump administration gave up on building a concrete wall a long time ago.

I want to bring in CNN's Boris Sanchez at the White House.

Boris, what is the president saying now about the wall?


Yes, President Trump loud and clear on Twitter, saying that he wants a concrete wall, at least on some sections of the U.S. border with Mexico. The president saying that border security is impossible without a strong, powerful wall. The president very busy on Twitter this weekend, even as the government shutdown nears 2019.


SANCHEZ (voice-over): President Donald Trump home alone on New Year's Eve, and setting off fireworks on Twitter. Trump taking aim at his own generals, the Russia investigation and even blaming the deaths of two migrant children on Democrats over the weekend.

The president also correcting his outgoing chief of staff, John Kelly, who, in an interview with the "L.A. Times," tried to redefine the president's long-promised border wall with Mexico.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are going to build a great border wall.

SANCHEZ: "To be honest, it's not a wall," Kelly told the paper. "The president still says wall. Oftentimes, frankly, he will say barrier or fencing. Now he's tended toward steel slats. But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration."

Trump responding on Twitter this morning. "An all-concrete wall was never abandoned."

Kelly also blasted Jeff Sessions, saying the former attorney general's zero tolerance policy, which led to families being separated at the southern border, caught administration officials off-guard, trying to defend a policy they claimed did not exist.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Not a liar. We have never had a policy for family separation.

SANCHEZ: Kelly, who leaves the administration this week, defended his tenure as chief of staff, saying it should be measured not by what was accomplished, but by what Trump did not do.

Meantime, the president continues stewing over the government shutdown. Trump telling aides he will reject any bill containing the $1.3 billion Democrats have offered for border security, while demanding lawmakers return to Washington immediately to hammer out a deal. Some are optimistic the shutdown will end soon.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: He's got to deliver on the promise of securing our border, and he's very open-minded about combining wall funding with other things to make it a win-win. I have never been more encouraged. If we can get people talking, we can find our way out of this mess.


SANCHEZ: Now, Lindsey Graham says he tried to sell President Trump on the idea that he could get funding for his border wall from Democrats in exchange for a legal status, a pathway to a legal status, for dreamers, those DACA recipients.

It's an idea that's been tried before and has failed. Perhaps not surprising that the senator from South Carolina said the president was not committed to that idea, Pamela.

BROWN: All right, Boris Sanchez at the White House, Boris, thank you so much.

Both sides seem to be at an impasse, meaning this could be the first government shutdown to extend into two different congresses.

Phil Mattingly joins me now.

So, Phil, Democrats will take control of the House come Thursday, and they have now settled on their proposal to reopen the government, is that right?


House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has made no secret about the fact that when Democrats take control of the chamber on Thursday, they will move very quickly to try and reopen the government. How they're going to do that will work like this.


There are now currently seven appropriations bills that have not been passed. That's the 25 percent of the government that's currently shut down.

Democrats will package six of the bipartisan Senate bills and send those over to the Senate. They will do the seventh, the Homeland Security Bill, which is the one that's the most contentious, could include wall funding, on a short-term basis through February 8, send that over to the Senate as well.

But, Pam, it's worth noting, this is not the end of the story. Senate Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have made very clear, unless the president signs off on something, they are not willing to move forward on it. That means Democrats might do something legislatively in the House, but the pathway to ending, that is still very much, Pam, an open question.

BROWN: Very unclear at this hour. Phil Mattingly, thank you so much for bringing us the latest there.

And I am joined by my wonderful panel here to discuss all of this. A lot of news for a New Year's Eve. Typically, it's a slow news day. Not today.


A. SCOTT BOLDEN, FORMER D.C. DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIRMAN: Trump is the president, you know.


BROWN: Trump is the president. That's right. That's right. And we're in day 10 now of this government shutdown, as Phil just pointed out. Both sides at an impasse, no end in sight. Senator Graham, Bill, now saying the Democrats may be interested in

making a deal. He brought up the idea of DACA. How do you see this shutdown resolving itself, and when?

BILL KRISTOL, FORMER EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I mean, it's now, what, the third largest, I guess, in 30 years or something like that.

And the previous two that went this long were about serious issues. In 2013, we had a big shutdown on Obamacare, basically. And in 1995, '96, on Medicare entitlements after Gingrich and the Republicans had taken over Congress, a showdown with President Clinton.

Presidents won, it's generally thought, those first two shutdowns. Clinton and Obama prevailed, I think, in terms of at least public opinion and to some degree in terms of substance. And that was because you have a big advantage if you're in the White House.

You can control the message. If your party works with you, you hang together. These parties in Congress are always hard to keep together. You have dissidents in your party and suddenly you lose control.

But that's not happening this time, because Trump doesn't really control. If you had a normal White House and normal relations between the White House and the Republicans in Congress, I think Trump would have the upper hand. But that's not the case.

I think Pelosi has much more control over House Democrats than Trump does over Senate Republicans. And I think Pelosi has an intelligent strategy. She's going to pass these other appropriations bills, which will fund every part of the government but Homeland Security, and tell the Republicans, what, you're not going to pass these bills, which you passed? These are Senate versions of the appropriations bills.

BROWN: Right.

KRISTOL: And you're going to not pass them, why? Because Donald Trump wants a wall? What's the rationale for not funding Agriculture or Interior?


BOLDEN: Yes, but, Bill, Donald Trump has controlled the message.

In that very public debate with the leaders, he told us that he was going to shut the government down, he was going to own it and not blame the Dems. Now, he's walked away from that, like a lot of other presentations he makes.

But he's walked himself into this box. He's turned around, locked the door and sat there and stewed in that box with that White House and says I'm not coming out until I get my wall.

Well, border security is more likely than a wall, if you will, because there's no empirical data to support it's going to stop what he wants it to stop. And so the president has controlled this message, but the power in the vote lies with the Democrats right now, and you're right, that strategy makes sense.

The reality is, though, what happens with that seventh bill on Homeland Security? Do they pass it without the -- with the funding? Does it go to the Senate? What does Mitch McConnell do? And then what do they send to the president or not? Does he veto it? If it comes back, what does Congress do because of ongoing pressure from the public?

BROWN: Right. And McConnell has said that he won't bring anything to the floor unless he knows what the president will sign. And we don't know what the president will sign. It seems like no one knows.

I want to get to this sound from former Virginia Governor and potential 2020 candidate Terry McAuliffe, speaking on "STATE OF THE UNION" yesterday. Let's listen.


DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: What should Democratic leaders in Congress do?

TERRY MCAULIFFE (D), FORMER VIRGINIA GOVERNOR: Not give an inch. Democrats should not give an inch.

Donald Trump owns this.


BROWN: So is that the right message, Scott?

BOLDEN: I think it's the only message there, because, as I said...

BROWN: But isn't this what people outside of the Beltway, what they find so frustrating about Washington, that both sides sort of dig in their heels and they're playing politics?

BOLDEN: But the Democrats aren't digging in their heels. They have offered $1.3 billion on border security. Can you honestly say and look to the American people and say I give you another $1.3 billion on border security, where border security on the southern border factually and statistically is down over the last 10 years, that the borders aren't going to be safer?

There are no terrorists coming over on the southern border. There are no gangs. I think 0.3 percent of 1 percent was the last study of gangs coming over. Drugs aren't coming over that southern border, because they're being smuggled in at legal ports of entry. And immigrants, the majority of the illegal immigrants...

BROWN: I think the other side would contest some of the claims that you made.

BOLDEN: But those are facts, though. These are facts.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN ANALYST: But to your point, when you're talking about what the public thinks, I think a couple weeks ago, there was a Marist/NPR poll ahead of the shutdown that said that people did not want the shutdown.

But when you drilled down on the numbers a bit, it was the Republicans who were saying, yes, shut it down. Hold firm to President Trump.


And that's what he's looking at. The further we get along in 2019 and 2020, we're going to see this president become even more political, because it starts becoming about his reelection, rather than those of Congress.

And we know this is the president who said he was going to run the day he was inaugurated. So, this is clearly something that he...

BOLDEN: With a committee and everything.

KUCINICH: Exactly. And that is not -- that's very unusual. So that's where his head is.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: To that point, I spoke with the head of the Border Patrol agents union a couple a couple of weeks ago.

And he told me about an interesting conversation he had with the president in the Oval Office some time November. And he said, look, if this comes to a shutdown, and nobody likes a shutdown, but if it comes to a shutdown over a border wall, we will support you, Mr. President, over it.

So he does have the support of the Republican base. He does have the support of the Border Patrol agents. And that's what the president is looking at here, rather than the broader population.


KRISTOL: But ,again, Senate Republicans get a say here. The president cannot shut down the government if he doesn't have the support of enough Republicans to sustain a veto or to block the bill coming to the floor.

McConnell says, for now, I will do what the president wants.

It's kind of pathetic, honestly. You're the majority leader of the United States Senate. You represent 53 people elected by voters, and you just follow the whims of one person in the Oval Office?

KUCINICH: Well, it's because they don't know what he's going to do.


KRISTOL: All the more reason not to follow him. Why doesn't McConnell sit down with Pelosi? They could cut a deal in about 10 minutes. And dare Trump to veto it and override the veto?

BOLDEN: Because they're walking away from him, and that's going to be a real issue for...


KRISTOL: Trump is leading the party down the tubes. Why don't they want to walk away from him?

BOLDEN: They should. Listen, I'm a Democrat. Don't get me wrong.


KRISTOL: Yes, what are you, defending Trump here?


KRISTOL: You're going to ruin your reputation.

BOLDEN: They've been hesitant to walk away. And I think, in 2019, whether the Senate GOP walks away or not is going to be a huge issue if they really want to move the country forward and work with the Democrats.

They have had it for two years, I guess, controlling all three houses, and haven't made much progress in leading America or moving us forward, beyond the tax cut that's really cost us a lot more than what they said.

BROWN: So much to discuss. We didn't even get to John Kelly's remarkable interview in the "L.A. Times." My goodness. All right. Thank you, guys.


BOLDEN: That's another thing.

BROWN: Yes, and another thing. Way too much to discuss today. Stick around. Lots more to talk about.

Well, he quoted Lincoln and possibly needled Trump -- what Defense Secretary Mattis said as he bid farewell to the Pentagon.

And an American ringing in the new year in Russian custody. Did Vladimir Putin nab a spy or grab a bargaining chip?

And here's a look at more of the celebration from Moscow as the clock crossed midnight moments ago.

Stay with us.


[16:16:57] BROWN: And welcome back.

Turning to our world lead now, change in course? President Trump may be preparing to slow down the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, but defended the pullout, saying he's fulfilling a campaign promise. This comes as Defense Secretary James Mattis bids farewell to all Pentagon employees today. Mattis wrote, quote: I am confident that each of you remains undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution while protecting our way of life. Our department is proven to be at its best when the times are most difficult.

CNN's Barbara Starr with the latest from the Pentagon.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Before the stroke of midnight, the Pentagon will make a classified phone call transferring the power of defense secretary from James Mattis to acting secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan. Before leaving, Mattis sent a final message to the troops, including what some see as a last dig at the president's isolationism, telling the nation's warriors to keep the faith in our country and hold fast alongside our allies aligned against our foes.

Shanahan takes over Tuesday with perhaps his first task, sorting out what President Trump really wants to do about withdrawing troops from Syria. Just today, President Trump signaled a change in the speed with which the U.S. is with drawing troops from Syria, tweeting: We're slowing sending our troops back home. A change from what Trump said in a White House video posted nearly two weeks ago.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They're all coming back, and they're coming back now.

STARR: He also today tweeted that ISIS is mostly gone, a change from a few days ago, when he declared: We have defeated ISIS in Syria.

Military leaders say that is not the case.

The tweets coming on the heels of a lunch with one of the president's closest allies, Senator Lindsey Graham, who's adamantly opposed to a rapid withdrawal.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: The president is thinking long and hard about Syria, how to withdraw our forces but at the same time achieve our national security interests, which are to make sure that ISIS is destroyed. They never come back. That our allies, the Kurds, are protected. And that Iran doesn't become the big winner of our leaving. So, I think we're in a pause situation.

STARR: But it is not clear what happens now.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: In this particular situation, it sounds like Senator Graham is basically saying, hey, I got to the president, and I'm hoping he rethinks his decision.

STARR: It's leaving allies and enemies confused.

HERTLING: The problem is, the president already announced it to the world. And there are both friends and foes alike who are taking his last announcement of over a week ago, thinking that's what we're going to do. (END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, President Trump is insisting, he's just doing what he campaigned on, getting out of America's wars -- Pamela.

BROWN: Well, Barbara, there was also this tweet that caught our attention from U.S. Strategic Command, which controls the launch of U.S. nuclear weapons. Tell us about it.

STARR: Well, on this New Year's Eve, it certainly did catch our attention.

[16:20:02] Let me start with the tweet. And we'll get to some video in a minute. But U.S. strategic command tonight has tweeted the following. And I quote. Times Square tradition rings in the New Year by dropping the big ball, if ever needed, we are ready to drop something much bigger.

They say watch to the end. They have a video attached. Let's show that video to everybody.

This is video of a nuclear-capable B-2 bomber they put out that just a few weeks ago dropped conventional weapons, not nuclear, but they test-fired two of America's largest 30,000-pound bombs, quite to some effect. And tonight the U.S. strategic command is basically saying, our bombs are bigger than the other guys' bombs.

It's a little peculiar, I suppose, on New Year's Eve when the world is hoping for very calm, peaceful New Year across the globe, the U.S. military says it's just trying to communicate that it is always ready -- Pamela.

BROWN: And it's an unusual tweet, as you point out. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you for bringing us the latest there.

Back with my panel.

All right, so let's break this out, Jackie. Just last week, you had the White House saying -- calling for this rapid withdrawal of troops from Syria. The president tweeting ISIS is defeated. Now, it seems not so fast. There's been sort of a shift. What do you make of this conflicting messaging about Syria?

KUCINICH: Well, this is what happens when you don't let stakeholders know what -- or members of Congress or anyone, really, about what your plan is. You know, he also sent the vice president into Senate lunches to try to explain this. And Vice President Mike Pence was hit with a lot of angry members of Congress. Allies weren't informed. Because of the random -- seemingly random nature of this, he really found himself getting a lot of blowback, frankly, as to why and how this was going to happen.

BROWN: But normally, you get that before you come out and announce the decision. But the president, he's defending his action, Bill. He tweeted: I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places, just doing what I said I was going to do. Does he have a point?

KRISTOL: Well, it would be nice if he made a strategic argument for why it's a good idea. I think it's not. I think that's the straw that broke the camel's back in the case of Secretary Mattis.

His letter is worth -- his memorandum is really worth reading. I think it's a model of dignity and sort of decision and sense of honor and public services. And other people who'd be well-informed by it. Kind of different from the spirit of Trump's tweets.

I'm a little rattled. I haven't seen the tweet that Barbara reported about from U.S. I mean, that is not -- I mean, I have pretty good credentials as being for military and I'm not exactly a passivist, but I'm a little shock. I mean, really, U.S. Strategic Command is like sending childish videos, boasting about how big our bombs are? I mean, is that really appropriate?

It makes you wonder. I'll tell you one thing, one reason Mattis left, his choice for chairman of the chiefs was not approved by Trump, which is unusual. Secretary of Defense usually has often a lot of leeway on that way.

He knows these people the best, he's worked with all of the chairmen, all of the chiefs of staff, he wanted the air force chief of staff, Mattis wanted General Milley, army chief of staff. I think that's one of the things that led Mattis to feel he didn't like Trump's confidence and couldn't make things happen. But I'm struck by that. That is not the spirit of the high of the uniformed military, especially at that four-star level. They are not really into this kind of childish bravado most of the time, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think Trump got hold of that twitter account, and they're just not saying so. But the reality is, it's not a peculiar video. It's really crass, if you think about it.

And you know what? In my neighborhood where I grew up, if you were the biggest and the baddest, you never had to tell anybody. People just knew it, right? And so, that type of promotion of our military might, maybe it was in response to Russia's announcement that it's got this undetectable super missile.

BROWN: We just don't know, right. It's just coming --

KUCINICH: I'm sure the YouTube video of dropping bombs is going to make Putin go, oh, man. You see this?

BROWN: My behavior. Really quick, I want to bring you in, as we wrap this up, to get your thoughts on this idea that Senator Graham seemed to influence the president's decision on Syria when you had the president's top national security advisers, Mattis, Bolton and Pompeo, who were adamantly against it, the president did it anyway, saying we're going to rapidly withdraw. But then things changed after he talked with Graham.

KIM: Well, this has been Senator Graham's strategy for some time. We remember three years ago when the two were opponents in the Republican primary, Trump reading out his cell phone number on the stage at campaign rallies. But Graham has learned to work the president a little bit by, you know, just pushing back what he knows he really needs to push back.

[16:25:07] I think Graham knows how to pick his battles and that's why he's transformed from someone who may have been a Jeff Flake and criticized everything that he may have disagreed with, but he knows in order to gain influence with the president and administration, you can't do that. So I'm really interested when Graham -- Senator Graham came out of the meeting yesterday and said, I feel better about the Syria decision, I'm just curious what exactly happened in that lunch that made Graham change his mind and perhaps the president's.

BROWN: All right, everyone. Hang on tight. More to discuss.

2019 may almost be here, but we're already talking about 2020. Today, a presidential hopeful threw her name in the ring, the first to challenge Trump, up next.