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Trump to Speak to with Reporters Before Meeting with Congressional Leaders; Trump Fires Back at Mitt Romney Op-Ed Criticism; RNC Chair Scolds Uncle Mitt Romney, Defends Trump; U.S. Granted Access to Former Marine Arrested by Russia for Spying; Bill Browder: Whelan Arrested for Putin Leverage After Butina Plea. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 2, 2019 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] CHLOE MELAS, CNN ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER: I think we will see maybe some justice for a lot of the men and women that spoke out about this misconduct.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Chloe, thank you. It's a great project. Where can everyone see all of it?

MELAS: They can go to under the entertainment section.

HARLOW: Important reporting. I appreciate it very much.

MELAS: Thank you.

CABRERA: Thank you for being with me today. I'm Poppy Harlow, in New York. I will see you back here tomorrow morning.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts now.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Ana Cabrera, in for Kate Bolduan. Happy New Year to you.

A big day at the White House. Kicking off just moments from now, President Trump will hold his first cabinet meeting of the New Year amid a government shutdown with no end in sight. We expect that the president will speak to reporters on camera for the first time in six days.

Soon after that President Trump will have the congressional leadership, including Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, at the White House for a meeting being held in the situation room. This is supposed to be a briefing on border security. Funding for the border wall is the central issue right now that is keeping the two sides from really cutting a deal to end this partial government shutdown.

This all coming on day 12 of the shutdown with 800,000 federal employees not knowing when they will get their next paycheck.

Let's go live to CNN's Boris Sanchez at the White House for us.

Boris, what do you know about this meeting? What can we expect? BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Ana. Happy New Year

to you. Likely fireworks at this meeting between congressional leaders and the president. Eight lawmakers in all invited to the White House, four Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer expected to attend. The last time they were here at the White House, we saw how that turned out live with them having a very public disagreement with the president, no common group on both sides regarding how to figure out border security and reopen the federal government.

The difference this time, the meeting taking place in the situation room, a room that is usually reserved for observing military conflicts or managing international crisis. It sort of gives you an idea of how this administration feels about the issue of immigration. The president often referring to immigrants as invaders. Democrats don't feel that way. That's part of the reason why, tomorrow, we are expecting Democrats will vote on the bipartisan package of six bills that will reopen the federal government, maintaining spending on border security at current levels through February. Zero dollars in that package for the president's long promised border wall.

The president has already shaked at the idea that he would sign it. Late last night, the press secretary put out a statement blasting Democrats. In it she writes, quote, "Speaker designate, Nancy Pelosi, released a plan that will not reopen the government because it fails to secure the border and puts the needs of other countries above the needs of our own citizens. The Pelosi plan is a nonstarter because it does not fund our Homeland Security or keep American families safe from human trafficking, drugs and crime."

That meeting expected for 3:00 p.m. today. You mentioned we may hear from the president before then. He has a cabinet meeting scheduled for just before noon. Cameras will be allowed in there. A couple of things to listen for, today's officially John Kelly's last day as chief of staff. We will see if the president has words for him especially in light of the "L.A. Times" interview over the weekend. And secondly, whether the president mentions this op-ed that Mitt Romney published in the "Washington Post," a scathing one. We know the two men have exchanged words before. We'll see if it happens again today on camera -- Ana?

CABRERA: We will talk about that now.

Thank you Boris Sanchez at the White House.

That is the other big story this morning, the blistering attack on President Trump's character coming from a new Republican Senator Mitt Romney. His comments made more interesting given Romney was the party's 2012 nominee for president.

Here's part of his opinion piece in the "Washington Post," quote, "The president has not risen to the mantle of the office."

President Trump firing back just a short time ago.

CNN congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is joining us with details. Sunlen, what is the president saying?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ana, President Trump responding over Twitter and making it clear that he is not happy about the harsh words of the incoming Senator Mitt Romney, that harsh op-ed published last night. In his tweet, Trump said, quote, "Here we go with Mitt Romney, but not so fast. Question will be, is he a Flake? I hope not. I would much prefer that Mitt focuses on border security and so many of things where he can be helpful. I won big and he didn't. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a team player and win."

That in reference to the outgoing former Republican Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona, who, at times, really took the mantle of the chief critic of President Trump among Republicans. So certainly that is a big question mark here especially in light of the op-ed by Mitt Romney, will Mitt Romney take over that role when he comes here to the Senate and is sworn in tomorrow -- Ana?

CABRERA: We are getting reaction from Republican Party chairwoman, Ronna Romney McDaniel, Mitt Romney's niece. What is she saying this morning?

[11:05:08] SERFATY: That's right. Certainly a family feud in addition to this feud between Mitt Romney and President Trump. The RNC chair, Ronna Romney McDaniel, tweeted out a defense of President Trump, essentially scolding her uncle for writing the op-ed. She says, quote, on Twitter, "POTUS is attacked and obstructed by the mainstream media and Democrats 24/7, For an incoming Republican freshman Senator to attack Donald Trump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and it's disappointing and unproductive."

Those are just remarkable striking words from Ronna McDaniel, the niece of Mitt Romney, and really shows that this chapter, especially as Mitt Romney comes here into the U.S. Senate, potentially speaking out more against President Trump, opens up a new chapter in their storied relationship -- Ana?

CABRERA: Sunlen Serfaty, on Capitol Hill for us, thanks.

Joining us now to discuss, CNN's political director, David Chalian, and CNN political commentator, Doug Heye, former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

David, Trump's Twitter reaction, how he is responding to Romney. Would you consider it a measured response?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I would consider it a totally unsurprising response. I'm sure Mitt Romney won't be surprised a bit. He knew he would draw the president's reaction when he published this op-ed. You can determine if it is a measured response or not. It clearly he is a bit perturbed in realizing, straight out of the gate, he'll have a potential new thorn in his side in Mitt Romney. You got to remember, he is probably entering the United States Senate tomorrow and probably maybe the most well-known Senator of all of them and will garner a ton of media attention and will have the ability, when he does want to critique the president, there's no doubt the press will jump on that and bring that critique to the president and the White House and try to see if they will respond. He clearly understands that Mitt Romney can be a potential ally there. That's clear in the president's tweet as well. You can see it got a little under his skin.

CABRERA: I noticed you didn't go after him personally. And Mitt Romney's words in this op-ed were a little more personal going after the president's character, saying he hasn't risen to the mantle of the office.

Doug, it is interesting, they have a funny history. They hit each other and then they seem to make nice. This past summer, we had Romney saying Trump was a shoe in to win re-election. This is how Trump responded.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me tell you, it is easy to win again.

Well, we are doing well. Mitt is a straight shooter. Whether people love him or don't love him --


TRUMP: -- Mitt Romney is a straight shooter. And, yes, he had some very nice things to say. I appreciate that. That's good.


CABRERA: What do you think is Mitt Romney's goal writing this op-ed right before taking office? Was he trying to pick a fight?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR; It certainly was a straight shot, if Mitt Romney is a straight shooter, as Trump said. It's not clear what the ultimate goal is here. When I saw the op-ed, I tweeted, "Thank you Mitt Romney." There's not a word that he wrote that I disagree with. I'm glad he's saying it. But there's a challenge that comes with that. One is while a lot of colleagues in the Senate and House Republicans would privately agree with everything Mitt Romney said, it may be lonely in that a lot of Republicans may not join him publicly in saying things like that. At the same time, whatever Romney does will not be enough for the Democrats. We are seeing Democrats criticizing Romney for talking to talk and not walking the walk. In other words, if you agree with the portion of the Trump administration's agenda, then you are complicit in all things Trump. It is a difficult position. It does make clear that Mitt Romney is going to arrive in Washington hitting the ground running. We already knew he was going to get a lot of attention anyways. This is going to cement that and make sure that whenever he is in the hallways in the Senate or in the Senate underground passage way that every microphone will be brought to him for everything that Trump says. CABRERA: David, if there's question about whether Republicans will

follow Romney's lead, I guess look to his niece's tweet. in which she picks sides and it is not with her uncle. She is picking the president's side. Do you think that she was pressured into making a public statement about this?

CHALIAN: Well, I don't think she was pressured. I would be surprised if she was pressured. She is a total loyal supporter of the president and has indicated the organization she runs which the president handpicked her for is part and parcel of the Trump reelection campaign. I think it is probably going to make difficult family reunions.


CABRERA: They got through Thanksgiving and Christmas.

[11:10:01] CHALIAN: -- as incoming freshman Republican. It might be a bit awkward there. I think she is doing what you would expect her to do there.

I do think Doug is right to question sort of when the op-ed came out, you thought what is the end game here? President Trump is still wildly popular with most Republicans. He is 80, 85 percent approval in the country. We saw the late John McCain or Corker or Flake before they left the Senate unable to sway their colleagues into their criticisms of the president. So will Mitt Romney have a different ability because of his stature? I don't know. I'm skeptical of that. Is he holding out some potential option of a 2020 challenge by laying down this marker?

CABRERA: Interesting.

Let's talk about the shutdown. The last time President Trump met with Democratic leaders it was that confrontation in the Oval Office.

Doug, what do you expect?

HEYE: I don't know what to expect. There could be more fireworks. It won't be televised since it is in the situation room. Ana, I worked in the 2013 shutdown working with House leadership. Things are wildly different between now and then, not just because Trump is president. For the past 12 days, we have had absolute silence from both sides. In 2013, on the Republican side, we were doing events every day that some journalists might have called political stunts. They would be correct because they were political stunts. But every day, Republicans were and Democrats, too, trying to fill the space, drive the conversation, win news cycles. Both sides have almost been to some extent at a quiet detente here. It's a different place we've seen typically in shutdowns.

CABRERA: David, given neither side has really budged since the shutdown began, what is the compromise that gets them to a deal?

CHALIAN: Well, I mean, the compromise may be numerically somewhere between the 1.3 billion offers and the $5 billion request that Trump has made for a wall. I think with the Democrats taking charge of the House, Nancy Pelosi made clear the president is not going to get funding for a wall. I think it is why you start seeing the language changing out of the administration. What you will see today I think is you will see Republicans trying to find a clever way to get Donald Trump out of the corner that he painted himself in on this issue that led to the government shutdown. So that is what I'm looking for today. How do the Republican congressional leaders, who obviously were blindsided by the president sort of flip-flopping them, how do they get him and their party out of this bind that they find themselves in.

CABRERA: David Chalian, Doug Heye, good to see both of you. Thanks for being here.

HEYE: Thank you.

CABRERA: Stay tuned. This afternoon, Mitt Romney gives his first interview after that op-ed he wrote. He will join Jake Tapper on "THE LEAD" at 4:00 eastern only on CNN.

Coming up for us, for the first time since the former U.S. Marine was arrested in Russia on suspicion of being a spy, U.S. officials have been granted access to Paul Whelan. It comes as we learn new details about Whelan's military record.

Is Joe Biden running for president? A new report says he is being very careful ahead of a potential announcement. We have details. Stay with us.


[11:17:44] CABRERA: New developments this morning in the case of the American accused of spying in Russia. After spending days in detention, Russia has allowed Paul Whelan to communicate with U.S. government officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the U.S. is prepared to demand his immediate return.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: We made clear our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he is accused of, and if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return.


CABRERA: Whelan's family says he was in Russia for a wedding and claims his innocence is undoubted.

CNN correspondent, Martin Savidge, is following the story from Whelan's home town, Michigan.

Martin, what else are we hearing from U.S. officials about Whelan's case?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is officially known as consular access. It's something that is guaranteed as far as agreements between the United States and Russia when it comes to those who have been detained. This is something that the family has been desperately waiting for. They haven't had any contact or had no knowledge since he was taken into custody on December 28. Their initial fears were that perhaps something terrible had happened to him. Being arrested for espionage is not a good thing but they thought he had been killed in some way.

So what they are waiting for is for the State Department to report to them and say, hey, how does he look physically? How does he seem mentally? And above all, what were the circumstances surrounding his arrest? This is what he would be telling American officials. And what possible evidence could Russia have against him, to charge him with spying? These are critical questions. But above all, for the family what they want to know about their son and brother is how is he and if there's any indication of when he may be sent back home. That's what they're hanging on now. They hope to get an update later today.

CABRERA: As we look into his background, Martin, we are learning more about his military record, which is raising new questions. Tell us about that.

SAVIDGE: Just so people understand, Paul has served in the U.S. Marines. He was born in Canada, but he is an American citizen. He served two terms in Iraq. He has been in a war zone twice. It was actually during his tour of duty in '06 on leave that he made his first visit to Russia and, apparently, liked the place a lot. He has been back there multiple times. He did get what was called a bad- conduct discharge. Now, that should not be confused with a dishonorable discharge. Regardless of how he separated from the military, it is clear he is still very proud of his military service -- Ana?

[11:20:36] CABRERA: Martin Savidge for us. Thank you.

For more on this, let's bring in a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bill Browder.

Bill, great to have you with us.

Your insight and understanding of what happens in Russia is invaluable in the circumstances, somebody who has had the ire of Putin in Russia for a long time. What is your reaction to the charges against Whelan?

BILL BROWDER, FOUNDER & CEO, HERMITAGE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT: In my opinion, based on what I know, this is a hostage situation, Paul Whelan I believe was taken as a leverage for Vladimir Putin in response to the Maria Butina prosecution in Washington. Vladimir Putin very much doesn't want her to talk to U.S. authorities. He was in a very weak position. He needed to change that negotiating position. So he looked for a hostage. I believe that this Paul Whelan arrest fits right into that pattern of behavior.

CABRERA: So what do you think Putin wants to get out of this? What is his end game? BROWDER: Well, Putin is in a pretty bad position. There's a woman

who has pled guilty to trying to disrupt the U.S. political process. That woman is connected to a man named Torshin. Torshin was a Russian government official who worked for Vladimir Putin. So this is the most direct evidence yet that Vladimir Putin was trying to influence the outcome of the U.S. elections. Putin doesn't want that to go to fruition so he needs to try to create some type of counter point. The best counter point is to take a former Marine, who is visiting Russia for a wedding, grab him, accuse him of espionage and create a negotiating position out of that.

CABRERA: I know you believe the U.S. needs to react decisively and quickly. What should the response be?

BROWDER: The response should be that there will be hell to pay for the Russian government if they don't release this man. And there are lots of different tools, sanctions tools, economic tools, there are tools where the United States, if necessary, could disrupt Russia's access to the international banking system. There are a lot of things that the U.S. can do if they want to do. It's very important not just for this case, but if this man is allowed to be effectively taken hostage, then other dictators around the world will say, look, America's got a weak hand. We can take people hostage for all sorts of different political situations and other Americans will be at risk. This is not just for Paul Whelan. It's for the safety of all Americans in the world.

CABRERA: I want your take on Whelan's Russian social media account, which he apparently has had since 2006. Is it odd that he had one? Will that raise red flags to the Kremlin in.

BROWDER: I think it gives them more information in which to come up with a Trump espionage case. I lived in Russia for many year years. I know many Americans and Brits and other nationalities that have social media accounts in Russia and so on. That doesn't make anybody guilty of anything. But it gives the FSB, the Russian secret police, access to information in which to construct a narrative. By the way, the next thing that is going to happen is they will come up with a crazy narrative about this man.

CABRERA: Do you think it was the social media account that led to him being targeted? Or could it have been something else? I keep asking myself, why would he be picked? If the charges are totally bogus, why would they specifically target him?

BROWDER: It's not the social media account. What would have happened is that everybody who wants to go to Russia has to fill out a very detailed visa application form where you put in information about your job, previous jobs, connections. They would have looked at this -- let's say they were looking for a target, they would have looked for somebody who had government contacts, law enforcement contacts, various types of potential contacts that would have made a plausible case for an espionage allegation. This guy falls right in the center of that with his military background and with his law enforcement background. CABRERA: You're familiar obviously with these tactics from the

Russian government, charges being drummed up. What is your advice to Whelan?

BROWDER: I can't give him advice but I can give his family advice, which is this is not going to be solved on a legal basis because there's no law in Russia. The courts report directly to Putin and Putin wants to create leverage. This will be resolved on a political level. The United States has to be extremely tough on Russia and make it cheer that this is totally unacceptable.

[11:25:16] CABRERA: Bill Browder, thank you for being with us.

BROWDER: Thank you.

CABRERA: Coming up, if Joe Biden isn't about to announce a 2020 run, he sure is acting like it. There's a new report on the great length Biden is going to avoid missteps of other Democratic candidates. That's next.