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Graham: Trump to Slow Troop Withdrawal from Syria; Kelly: Sessions' Announcement about Zero Tolerance Policy at U.S. Border Caught White House by Surprise; Bangladesh Prime Minister's Party Easily Wins Disputed Election; Kim Jong-un Takes World Stage in 2018; 2018 on Pace to Be Fourth Hottest Year on Record.. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired December 31, 2018 - 00:00   ET

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


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NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A top U.S. Republican says the U.S. president still wants to pull troops from Syria but may slow down the withdrawal.

Opposition parties in Bangladesh are alleging vote rigging after the country's controversial prime minister wins a third term.

And as the new year approaches, we take a closer look at one of the biggest stories of 2018 and if it became a tipping point for climate change.

These stories ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM. Thank you for joining us. I am Natalie Allen.

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ALLEN: It's all but guaranteed the U.S. will ring in 2019 mired in a government shutdown all because of the budget battle that is hinging on Donald Trump's border wall.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pitched a plan to Mr. Trump Sunday, Graham told reporters the president did not commit but was open- minded. But any deal still needs at least some support from Democrats. For more about it, here is CNN's Sarah Westwood at the White House.

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SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump is holding out for funding for his promised border wall as the partial government shutdown drags into its second week.

Now, the president's allies have tried to muddy the waters about how much funding the president wants for a wall versus border security. It's also not clear at this point what the president considers an actual wall. Outgoing White House chief of staff John Kelly said that this administration actually abandoned the idea of a concrete wall along the southern border early in Trump's presidency.

He told the "Los Angeles Times," "To be honest, it's not a wall. The president still says wall. Oftentimes, frankly, he'll say barrier or fencing. Now he's tended toward steel slats. But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration."

Senator Lindsey Graham came to the White House on Sunday for a two- hour lunch and said he pitched the president on what he described as a potential breakthrough should it gain traction and that's a deal that would trade $5 billion in wall funding for temporary protections for the so-called DREAMers -- the young, undocumented immigrants protected by DACA.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.), MEMBER, ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: The president didn't commit but I think he's very open-minded. I know there's some Democrats out there who would be willing to provide money for wall border security if we could deal with the DACA population and TPS people. And hopefully, we can get some serious discussions started maybe as soon as next week.

WESTWOOD: But keep in mind that Mick Mulvaney, the incoming acting chief of staff-budget director, has already signaled that the president is willing to back down off that $5 billion number. In fact, Vice President Mike Pence, last week, offered something in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion -- half of that -- and Democrats rejected it.

Now, keep in mind that Democratic congressional leaders haven't been invited back to the White House for further negotiations, so talks do still appear to be at a standstill -- Sarah Westwood, CNN, the White House.

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ALLEN: Also relating to the border situation, Arizona officials will decide whether criminal charges will be filed in a case of alleged abuse of migrant children. This stems from video "The Arizona Republic" newspaper obtained. And we warn you, it is disturbing to watch.

The video shows staffers at the shelter in Youngtown, Arizona, pushing and dragging migrant children. This happened in mid-September. Southwest Key operated the shelter, the shelter which is now closed.

Southwest Key is the largest provider of migrant children shelters in the country. We learn more about the story from CNN's Nick Valencia.

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NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We see at least three children being shoved, pushed and even dragged by staffers at what was once called the Hacienda del Sol shelter run by Southwest Key. As you noted, "The Arizona Republic" was the first to report this. They got it from an open records request from the State Department of Health Services. As we understand it the Southwest Key facility that oversees the Hacienda del Sol shelter reported this to local law enforcement as well as federal officials.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's office did investigate and at the time decided not to pursue criminal charges. But overnight we got a new statement here from the Maricopa County Sheriff's office.

"Based upon the evidence gathered during this thorough investigation, MCSO executive command has made the decision to submit the case to the --

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VALENCIA: -- Maricopa County attorney's office for its review and determination of criminal charges. The case will be submitted Monday and further questions about this matter should be directed to the county attorney."

We should mention that the Hacienda del Sol shelter has since closed at it was at the time in October when they announced that it was being closed that the Southwest Key spokesman said that he welcomed the decision by the Office of Refugee Resettlement but they wouldn't go into details.

Now looking at this surveillance video, we can tell why. It's just another dark stain on the story of migrants here being held in the United States. We should also note that two of those staffers as well as a third was disciplined. Two of them were fired. But this is just really awful, awful news coming out of Arizona.

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ALLEN: CNN has reached out to Southwest Key and state and federal officials for comment. CNN also filed a freedom of information request to obtain the videos.

President Trump's surprise decision to pull out of Syria has been widely criticized but that may soon change. Again, Senator Lindsey Graham telling reporters the president has agreed to slow down the withdrawal of troops from the country. Graham says commanders have informed the president that ISIS is still a threat there.

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GRAHAM: I think the president has come up with a plan with his generals that makes sense to me. The goal is to make sure ISIS doesn't come back. We left Iraq too soon, we had them on the ropes in Iraq and left too soon. I think the president is very committed to making sure that, when we leave Syria, that ISIS is completely defeated.

And we are inside the 10-yard line. And the Iran-Kurd situation has to be dealt with. So I think we are in a pause situation. We're reevaluating what's the best way to achieve the president's objective of having people pay more and do more.

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ALLEN: I spoke earlier with law professor Jessica Levinson about the repercussions of Mr. Trump's Syria decision.

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JESSICA LEVINSON, LOYOLA UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL: Well, I think what Mr. Trump did is he did what has served him well a lot of times, which is say I just want to pull troops out of Syria.

Now as we know, for the Secretary of Defense, this was just the last straw. He said this goes against the advice of everyone in your administration -- or almost everyone. This goes against the advice of all our allies.

And he says I need to work for someone who is a player on the world stage, who is an honest broker. I think what has happened a number of times in the Trump administration and what we're seeing happen with respect to this decision for the Syria troops is that someone said to President Trump, it's not feasible. You can't do it. You cannot just announce that we are pulling troops out. It would be a disaster.

And I think that he has now come to the conclusion that, that's right, we cannot pull troops out. And that's why we see surrogates like Lindsey Graham saying, maybe there is another road.

And we have seen this with respect to a number of different positions that the president has taken, where he goes out, kind of guns blazing and says we'll take this really aggressive step and then later he pulls it back. And I think that's what we are seeing with Syria, too.

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ALLEN: We'll see next what the president says about his new position on Syria according to Senator Graham there.

Opposition parties are challenging Sunday's election results in Bangladesh. They allege vote rigging after what appears to be a sweeping victory for this leader, right here, prime minister Sheikh Hasina.

Officials say her alliance won the majority of seats and she is likely headed for a third straight term. She is accused, however, of human rights abuse and a crackdown on her critics. But she's also credited with improving the economy.

For the latest on this election, CNN's Nikhil Kumar joins us live from New Delhi.

Hello to you. The opposition says it wants a new election.

Is there any chance that could actually happen here?

NIKHIL KUMAR, CNN NEW DELHI BUREAU CHIEF: Natalie, there is no indication of that this morning. The results, as you say, suggest an overwhelming victory for Sheikh Hasina and her party. This would set her up for a third straight term, her fourth term overall in office as prime minister of the country.

The opposition as you point out, has been questioning these results. And this comes really after concerns raised by human rights organizations in the run-up to the poll. Human Rights Watch, ahead of the poll, said there was a climate of fear in the country as her government was accused of cracking down on dissenting voices.

But as the results stand today, show that she has won the third straight term. And, you know, in the whole process, throughout the whole process, even as people have raised questions about the credibility of the ballot, there has been this other story that you also touched on, which is the story of the booming economy.

You know, Bangladesh has done very well in recent years in cutting down poverty and making progress on a whole host of development indicators --

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KUMAR: -- and the question always was, would voters reward her for that?

Or would they vote against the authoritarian tendencies that many activists have been pointing out in recent years?

If you just take the results at face value, they seem to have rewarded her for the economy. But, of course, the caveat there, are these questions, very serious questions about the credibility of the outcome -- Natalie.

ALLEN: And what are the issues driving the violence that has been reported in the streets surrounding this election?

KUMAR: So we had at least 15 people dead yesterday during the day of polling, Natalie. And this was despite a very, very heavy security presence around the country. The military was out in force and they were all out in force to stop a repeat of the violence that we have seen in previous polls, where the numbers and fatalities have been much higher.

We have seen lower levels of violence so far, but we have to wait and watch because there still remains a fluid situation because, with the opposition questioning the credibility of the ballot, we have to see how this plays out in coming days.

Right now, Sheikh Hasina looks like she's won a third straight term. But we'll have to see how the opposition respond.

You know, will there be street protests, will there be ground action to challenge this?

We'll have to see -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Nikhil Kumar, thank you for us in New Delhi.

Well, it is the last day of the year for many people right now. And the new year symbolizes a fresh start. It always does.

And Vladimir Putin may be indicating that he wants another chance with Washington. We'll share with you the Russian leader's holiday message next.

Also, Kim Jong-un seemed to show his softer side in 2018. Now the world waits to see what his message will be for 2019. We'll have a report.

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ALLEN: 2019 not here just yet but Russia's president is out with his new year's message and a special announcement for Washington.

Vladimir Putin says he's open to dialogue with Donald Trump. Mr. Putin stressed that Russian American relations are essential to international security. The U.S. president, you may recall, canceled a planned meeting with his Russian counterpart at last month's G20 meeting after Kremlin forces opened fire on Ukrainian naval ships.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sent a warm personal letter to South Korea's Moon Jae-in, sharing hopes for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.

According to Mr. Moon's office, Kim said the three face-to-face meetings between the two leaders showed a bold effort to overcome the longstanding Korean conflict. On his social media account, President Moon said, if we meet together with sincerity, there is nothing we cannot achieve.

Kim Jong-un seems to have transformed his --

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ALLEN: -- image this year from a nuclear tyrant to something of a global statesman. Now as CNN's Will Ripley reports, the world waits to see what he has in store for 2019.

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WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's surreal year began seemingly on the brink of war, battered by sanctions over his nuclear program.

Kim refused to back down, ordering the mass production of nuclear weapons in his new year's speech, warning that he was not afraid to use them. The speech came weeks after Kim test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, a weapon believed to be capable of striking the mainland U.S. It was an ominous message to president Donald Trump. After months of

"fire and fury" rhetoric and the growing threat of military conflict...

TRUMP: Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself.

RIPLEY (voice-over): -- but the 2018 winter Olympics in South Korea provided a rare diplomatic opening. Kim sent his younger sister with a message to South Korean president Moon Jae-in, "Let's talk."

In April, the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade, a made for TV meeting and a chance for Kim to project a surprising new image, from dangerous dictator to smiling statesman.

Until this year, the 30-something leader had never even met another head of state. Almost overnight, a whirlwind of diplomacy, from smiling photos with Chinese president Xi Jinping to this historic summit in Singapore, the first ever meeting between a sitting U.S. president and North Korean leader.

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TRUMP: I was really being tough and so was he, we would go back and forth. And then we fell in love. OK?

No, really, he wrote me beautiful letters.

RIPLEY (voice-over): But letters can only go so far. Denuclearization talks have stalled. Tensions with the U.S. are rising. And North Korea is believed to be quietly expanding its nuclear program.

All of it raising the stakes for a planned second summit with Trump and Kim early next year. In 12 short months, a surreal transformation for Kim, from global pariah to the global spotlight, all without giving up a single nuclear weapon.

But he will begin 2019 locked in a diplomatic standoff with the U.S., sanctions still crippling North Korea's economy. Kim Jong-un's biggest test may lie ahead -- Will Ripley, CNN.

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ALLEN: From deadly heat waves to crippling droughts, record temperatures impacted the lives of millions in 2018. Ahead we look back at one of the hottest years on record.

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ALLEN: Global temperatures continue their upward trend this year, the record heat is expected to make 2018 the fourth warmest year on record. As for recent weather across the world, heat waves affected millions.

In Pakistan, high temperatures killed dozens in the month of May. And in Sweden droughts fueled wildfires that burned across the arctic country. Earlier this month --

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ALLEN: -- nearly 200 countries agreed on a rulebook to curb global warming but the strongest voice from that summit came from a 15-year- old girl, who scolded adults, leaders, for not doing enough.

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GRETA THUNBERG, 15-YEAR-OLD ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST: You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don't care about being popular, I care about climate justice and the living planet.

Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.

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ALLEN: Very wise young woman there. Greta's generation faces a bleak future if things keep going as they are. A U.S. government report warned climate change could lead to even more natural disasters and deaths.

Joining me now is atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, she's also director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and helped author the climate report commissioned this year by the White House.

Katharine, thank you so much for joining us.

KATHARINE HAYHOE, ATMOSPHERIC SCIENTIST: Thank you for having me.

ALLEN: Sure thing. We are almost saying goodbye to 2018. So let's talk about this year, "The New York Times" used an entire editorial this week, entitled, "Trump Imperils the Planet," regarding climate change.

It's not just that the U.S. president won't acknowledge climate change; his administration is reversing rules to help clean up the air for all of us and for the health of the climate, just this week announcing the EPA could allow coal plants to release more mercury into the air.

What would that do?

HAYHOE: Mercury has a tremendous impact on our health, especially the health of the most precious of us, the unborn and young babies. Mercury is a pollutant that is released directly into the air when it's burned in coal.

And so it's absolutely right; these rollbacks threaten our health. They threaten the health of every single person who is exposed to these toxins.

ALLEN: And the reason is, well, it's just too expensive. And some of these initiatives were Obama era that the Trump team is walking back. But we have heard over and over again, just from your climate report in the past few weeks, that we either pay for it now or we really pay for it later.

What happens next year if the U.S. under this president continues to be disengaged in a universal climate solution and solutions that help clean up our air?

HAYHOE: From the perspective of health impacts alone, not even looking at climate change, coal has not been economically viable for over 20 years. But here is the problem: the people who pay the price are not the people who reap the profits.

And so when you say coal is cheaper, it isn't cheaper. But it's cheaper for people who have the coal and want to sell it.

Here in Texas, where I live, wind and solar is already far cheaper than coal, so you can't even make that argument in many states in the U.S.

What will happen if we continue on this current pathway?

As you said, we are not just seeing standards kept in place instead of being advanced as they need to be, we are seeing them literally rolled back, as if we are trying to return to the 1800s instead of moving forward in to the 21st century.

And that is actually going to have a big impact on U.S. competitiveness in the future, because energy is the lifeblood that keeps our economy running. In the new emerging economies, like China and India, though they certainly burn their share of coal, they are going gangbusters after these new types of energy, especially wind and solar energy.

ALLEN: I hear what you are saying but there are signs that without the U.S. other countries are still falling back in regard to coal which you just mentioned. Here is a quote directly from "The New York Times."

In Australia, a prime minister was kicked out of office because he wanted to reduce the use of coal, which Australia produces in abundance.

China, despite admirably aggressive investments in wind and solar power, has yet to get a firm grip on its emissions from coal fired plants.

The new president-elect of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, not only named an outspoken climate change denier as his foreign minister but also reversing his predecessor's policy pledge to open up the Amazon to mining and farming.

2018 does not lack good for this climate. HAYHOE: It does not. And it's so discouraging when we see these things happen. Especially, as a scientist, when we look at what happens to our planet, we see the impacts are ever more serious year by year.

We are seeing how climate change is loading the dice against us, making our summer heat waves stronger and more intense, increasing our heavy precipitation events, super charging hurricanes, leading to, in the U.S., approximately double the area burned by wildfires than if climate --

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HAYHOE: -- were not changing.

So at the same time, when in 2018 we saw what climate change means to us in the places where we live, we also see national and international policy specifically aimed at rolling back the very things that we need strengthened to keep us all safe.

ALLEN: Well, one can only hope something will start to turn in 2019. Certainly the young people of the world are being outspoken; people are protesting all over the world. But somewhere at the top, people are only listen to the almighty dollar, aren't they?

HAYHOE: It certainly seems that way.

ALLEN: Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist, we always appreciate your insights, thank you.

HAYHOE: Thank you for having me.

ALLEN: As 2018 winds down, people around the world are getting ready to bring in a new year.

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ALLEN: Of course, everyone can stay inside and ring in the new year with CNN and watch what happens in New York. CNN New Year's Eve with Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen starts Monday at 8:00 pm Eastern, that's 1:00 am in London. We'll be live from Times Square in New York, whether it rains or not.

Thanks for watching. I am Natalie Allen. Our top stories right after this. Happy New Year.

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[00:30:00] ALLEN: Our top stories here at CNN, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham saying President Trump now understands what's at stake in Syria and has agreed to slow down the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The President's surprise decision to pull out of Syria has faced widespread criticism and Graham says commanders have informed the President, ISIS is still a threat. Outgoing White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, is opening up just days before he is set to leave his post. He told the Los Angeles Times newspaper, it was Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions who instituted the zero tolerance policy at the U.S. border. Kelly said Sessions' announcement about the policy that came back in the month of May, caught the White House by surprise.

Bangladesh held elections Sunday and there are disputes and controversy over the results. The prime minister's party won easily as expected, giving her a third straight term, but there are allegations of vote rigging and the opposition is calling for new polls, at least 15 people were killed Sunday, in multiple election- related violence.

A Tokyo court has extended the detention of Former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn until January 11th. He's accused of financial misconduct to breech of trust, for making Nissan take on nearly $17 million in personal investment losses and for underreporting his salary.

That is the latest news. Next, it's "TOKYO: TWO SIDES."

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