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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

How Far Will Trump Push Government Shutdown Fight?; Interview With Utah Senator-Elect Mitt Romney. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 2, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:15]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Everyone in D.C. is talking about Romney taking on Trump.

Romney is here for his first national interview as senator-elect Romney.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Putting up his mitts. Senator-elect Romney unloading on President Trump, saying he's not what presidents should be made. Is Romney the new leader of the Republican resistance? We will ask the incoming senator in our live interview coming up.

With hundreds of thousands of Americans beginning 2019 without a paycheck, President Trump huddling with his Cabinet and inviting congressional leaders to the White House. Is it a reality show or a real negotiation?

Plus, forget 2019. Bring on 2020. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and 30 others, who has the best chance to beat Trump? What are their messages to voters?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead.

A full-bore criticism of President Trump's perceived lack of character from the U.S. Senate's newest, Mitt Romney. It's not how President Trump wanted to start the new year. And Romney will be joining us in just minutes.

The Republican-on-Republican attack came as the government shutdown entered its 12th day, stretching into 2019. And right now, President Trump is holding a meeting with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders in the Situation Room.

It's the first time the incoming likely speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have been at the White House since President Trump declared this:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Well, that didn't last long.

Many Hill Democrats tell CNN they're skeptical this meeting will be more than a White House stunt, instead of a serious attempt to come to an agreement to end the shutdown.

Going into this meeting, President Trump refused to say whether he would accept a deal that included less than $5 billion of funding for the border wall. And he declared the shutdown would continue for a long time -- quote -- "as long as it takes."

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled House is expected to pass its own plan to fund the government just hours after the new Congress is sworn in tomorrow. The White House called that plan a nonstarter.

CNN's Jessica Dean is at the White House.

And, Jessica, it's clear the president is trying to make the case that this border wall is a national security issue. Indeed, this meeting is being held in an unusual location, the Situation Room.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly right, Jake. You will remember the last time Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were here, they were in the Oval Office. And today congressional leadership meeting with the president, as you mentioned, in the Situation Room.

We're also told that they're getting a briefing from the Department of Homeland Security, that meeting starting around 3:00, and we're waiting for people to come out and hear a little bit about what went on in there.

The big question is, will any actual negotiating take place in that meeting? All of the players are there for the first time in a really long time. But it's unclear at this point if any deals will be being made inside.

Now, earlier today, President Trump convened his Cabinet for the first full Cabinet meeting of 2019. And, again, top of mind inside that Cabinet meeting was border security. We heard from every Cabinet member that spoke. They were on the White House's message speaking about the border wall, border security, immigration, how it affects their different agencies.

And, again, as you mentioned, the president did take some questions, and he was asked if he would accept less than that $5.6 billion he's been asking for, for the wall, but refusing to say if he would accept anything less.

Of course, Mike Pence offering the Democrats $2.5 billion several days ago, the Democrats not taking that deal. So it remains to be seen, Jake, but right now still a pretty big ocean in between the Democrats and Republicans when it comes to this shutdown, which now continues to drag on, 800,000 people either furloughed or working without pay right now.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica Dean at the White House, thanks so much.

A reminder that we're just minutes away from our live interview with senator-elect Mitt Romney.

But before we get to that, let's discuss the potential ways out of this shutdown with my experts.

Take a listen to the president defending the wall.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: The $5 billion, $5.6 billion approved by the House is such a small amount compared to the level of the problem, when you see that the Democrats want to give away $12 billion extra, and we're giving away $54 billion in foreign aid.

So we give money to countries, but we don't give money to our own country, which is another thing that I have been complaining about. And we're cutting that back. It's very unfair.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What's the holdup here? Why won't the Democrats offer enough to make the White House satisfied and reopen the government?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They're willing to offer more when it comes to a broader border security package. But the wall and the wall that the president -- that the president wants has become this moral issue for the Democratic Party.

[16:05:05]

They see it as a sign of something that America just shouldn't be. So they're not willing to fund that part of what the president is calling for. And the two sides -- while in dollar sense and budget sense, they may not be too far apart, just if you look at the broader, just the sheer size of the federal budget, the president is not willing to budge from the $5.6 billion the House passed last year.

And what was interesting to me in that long pool spray that we saw earlier today is that the president rejected his own -- the offer that his own vice president, his own acting chief of staff had made to Democrats.

Pence and Mick Mulvaney had offered a $2.5 billion package to Democrats as a show that, you know, we are willing to compromise. But the president went out there again and said that's not enough. So it's another warning sign for Congress. You know, you have to negotiate with the man himself and not his deputies. TAPPER: It's the second time this has happened, Rick Santorum,

because, earlier, a few weeks ago, Vice President Pence told Republican senators, just pass a clean bill and we will discuss the border wall later on.

They did that. The Senate passed it, and the president pulled out the rug from under him.

RICK SANTORUM, CNN COMMENTATOR: Donald Trump realizes this is not an issue of substance. This is not an issue that Democrats -- yes, they can say it's a moral issue, or they can say we think it doesn't work and all of these things.

This is a purely political issue. The Democrats do not want to give Donald Trump a win, because they think they will be punished by their base if they do so. And Donald Trump recognizes that, and so he's going to draw the line.

And I think that that's not an unreasonable position. This is not about money -- $5 billion in a $4 trillion, this is nothing when it comes to money. This is a rounding error when it comes to money.

It is a rounding error when it comes to policy. I mean, this is not a big, you know, something fundamentally different that we're already doing. This is pure politics, and Donald Trump recognizes that, and he's going to play the card.

TAPPER: So, Nancy Pelosi, the likely speaker, says that she will introduce a clean bill. It will have the $1.3 billion in border security funding, not for the wall, but for other elements of border security. They will send that to the Senate and it will likely die.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right, because Mitch McConnell has said he won't support anything or put anything forward that President Trump won't sign. So that's pretty bold and brave of him, certainly.

Look, I think I agree that this is a very political issue. That's the core of what it is. But if you're Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, why are you going to -- you have all the leverage at this point in time. Nancy Pelosi is about to be elected speaker of the House tomorrow. She's not going to fold now.

And you have -- they have the majority of the public with them that does not think that President Trump should be shutting down the government over the wall. So there's not really incentive for them to give him the money he wants at this point.

And I certainly don't think coming out of this meeting that they will.

TAPPER: Yes, Jeremy, the president says he's not budging, $5.6 billion. That's what he wants. And yet he also tweeted of Pelosi: "Border security and the wall thing and shutdown is not where Nancy Pelosi wanted to start her tenure as speaker. Let's make a deal?"

So he's trying to make a deal at the same time he's saying he's not budging from $5.6 billion and undercutting Vice President Pence when he offers $2.5 billion.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Right. And with undercutting Vice President Pence on that offer, what we see there is what we have seen throughout Trump's presidency, is what he likes to be. He likes to be unpredictable.

He likes to maintain this kind of flexibility and uncertainty that goes everywhere. You know, when he's dealing with China, for example, the Chinese have similar questions. You know, you have different views within the administration on trade. The Chinese aren't quite sure what the Trump administration position is.

Democrats are perhaps feeling a little bit of the same kind of whiplash now, where they have one word coming from Vice President Pence and the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and then another from the president himself.

Will the president ultimately be willing to fold, to compromise in some way? That is ultimately the question, because I think, as Jen said, the Democrats feel they have an extremely strong hand to play right now. It's a unifying issue for them as a party coming into this majority.

And, again, what we saw today, Lamar Alexander, Republican senator, he put forward three options that could move past this shutdown impasse. None of those involved what the president is asking for, $5.6 billion.

So I think among Republicans who are not necessarily in the president's base and his core constituency, there is certainly an acknowledgment that the $5 billion of wall funding or perhaps even less than that is just not possible.

TAPPER: And, Seung Min, we shouldn't forget, of course, there are almost a million Americans who are either furloughed, so they're not being paid, or they're working without pay, many of them government workers who don't really make all that much money and some of them do live paycheck to paycheck.

And it's unclear when and if and how this is going to end. Take a listen to President Trump asked how long the shutdown might continue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: How long are you willing to keep the government shut down?

TRUMP: As long as it takes. I mean, look, I'm prepared. I think the people of the country think I'm right. I think the people of this country think I'm right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[16:10:00]

TAPPER: Is there any polling to support that the people of the country think he's right? I know that polling supports the idea that they oppose the border wall for a large part. KIM: He's clearly looking at his own political base, because

shutdowns are never popular.

And also I think the other thing to remember too is that while federal workers, a lot of them, who may live paycheck to paycheck, could forego their first paycheck as they come in every two weeks or so, there are also going to be federal contractors who aren't going to be guaranteed the back pay either.

Generally, with past shutdowns, we have seen that Congress does restore federal workers' back pay, but not necessarily for contractors. There are a lot more people affected than just the 800,000 out there.

But the president, I mean, the fact we don't know how long this is going to go on for -- I was thinking about the last couple of shutdowns. And the shutdown in 2013 over defunding of Obamacare, what really got everyone together was that there was a debt limit deadline that really members of Congress did not want to broach.

They could -- they could stomach a shutdown for, you know, 15, 16 days, but once that X-date hit for the debt limit, they're like, all right, we will make a deal.

There is kind of no forcing mechanism like that now. And both sides are very dug in and willing to ride this out for as long as it takes.

SANTORUM: The president is not long on empathy. So I don't think that any of the stories about people not getting their -- I don't think that's going to have any impact on him.

TAPPER: But it affects people like you who, you know, except when you were an officeholder, senators, members of the House, who start getting besieged with please just end the shutdown, I support the wall, but I need a paycheck, and then all of a sudden, you know, he's getting...

(CROSSTALK)

SANTORUM: That's going to happen on both sides. It's not just going to be Republicans. Democrats are going to feel it.

TAPPER: Right. True.

SANTORUM: And a lot of them are their constituency, if you will.

So I think the president feels like he can weather this storm, because he's not really concerned about the people calling him and saying, you know, I can't pay, you know, can't pay my bills, or I'm going to lose my house. Again, he's not very long on empathy.

And so I don't think that's going to matter. I think he feels like he's going to -- he's going to -- this is the issue. He wants to set the template for how this Congress is going to work with the Democrats in charge. I don't think he's going to back down.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around.

Today, the president said he hopes that senator-elect Mitt Romney will be a team player. But after Romney's scathing op-ed slamming the president's character, or lack thereof, will the incoming senator ever play nice with Mr. Trump?

Senator-elect Romney is here. He will join me next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:26] TAPPER: President Trump has not, quote, risen to the mantle of the office, unquote. That critique coming from incoming Republican senator and 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, finding fault with the president's honest and integrity or lack thereof.

In a "Washington Post" op-ed, Romney writing, quote: With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent's shortfall has been most glaring.

Joining me now exclusively is Utah's newest Republican senator-elect, Mitt Romney, who will officially be sworn in tomorrow.

Senator-elect, thanks so much for being here.

ROMNEY: Thanks, Jake. Good to be with you.

TAPPER: So why write this op-ed and why do it now?

ROMNEY: Well, I actually wrote a very similar op-ed before I got into the primary in Utah and laid out my views with regards to the president and his presidency, and noted that I will work with the president, as I would, frankly, with any president, which is on those areas where I'm in agreement, we'll be able to work together. Where I disagree, I'll point that out.

But in matters that relate to the divisiveness that's been part of our political environment, I'll speak out if I feel a need to, if there is something significant. And I think it's important, as I begin this new job, to make it very clear where I stand. And I also note that the departure of Secretary Mattis and the decision to pull out of Syria and the abrupt way it was done was a precipitating event for my finally going on this record.

TAPPER: I want to talk about Syria in a minute. But I do want to focus on the op-ed for a second. A senior White House official told me today that the president was disappointed that you, even before you were sworn in, would go after him instead of joining him and going after Democrats in the shutdown. What's your response to that?

ROMNEY: Well, with regards to the shutdown, I'll be with Republicans on that front, which is -- I think it's important for us to secure the border. At the same time, what I did in my op-ed was not just talk about the president and my relationship with him and how we'll work together, but also I laid out my perspectives and priorities in a very broad basis, on everything from trade to China to our allies around the world, immigration and so forth.

So I think it's important as you begin a new job to describe exactly what you hope to accomplish, and that's what I did.

TAPPER: The president mentioned you in his cabinet meeting today. Here's just a little bit of what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wish Mitt could be more of a team player. I'm surprised he did it this quickly.

If he fought really hard against President Obama, like he does against me, he would have won the election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What's your response? What's your thought when you see that?

ROMNEY: Well, the president, of course, is entitled to his perspectives, his own views. And I respect his right to express those things. Just as I do. And we'll work together on things that I think are in the best interest of the country and my state. And where we disagree, well, we'll just have to disagree.

TAPPER: He seemed to note that other senators who had come before you to criticize him, Jeff Flake from Arizona, Bob Corker from Tennessee, suddenly aren't in the U.S. Senate any more, even though they wanted to be there forever. It seemed to be like a vague threat, not that he would necessarily get rid of you, but that the base would abandon you if you're not with him.

ROMNEY: You know, I think if people come to Washington with the expressed hope of staying in the job forever, they're making a huge mistake. The idea of this democratic republic is that people would come representing the people that elected them and also representing the views and values that they have. And I come to Washington with that perspective. And I'm really not looking for the next election and the next spot. I'm looking to try and represent things I think our country needs at a critical time.

And I do believe that a president like any leader in a home, in a church, in a school, in a business, a leader has an impact, not just on policies, but also on the character of the people who get to watch that person.

[16:20:09] And I think that's an area that the president needs to focus more attention and hopefully make some changes there. And, by the way, I expect people will have some suggestions for how I could do a better job, too, and I'm open to that.

TAPPER: When you say you have issues with his character and that he lacks integrity and honesty, the suggestion being that he lacks integrity and honesty, what specifically has he done that has bothered you? What is the rhetoric that has come from his mouth, his actions, that trouble you the most? ROMNEY: Well, over the course of the last two years, I have put out a

number of statements that relate to things that were of great concern to me. The Charlottesville response by the president was something that gave me great concern. The support for Roy Moore in the Senate race was something I was very, very concerned about, his attack on the media.

I wrote an entire piece about that. So I've laid out time and again places where I disagree with the president. And I think it's very important for a president to demonstrate the qualities of integrity and honesty forthrightness, empathy and respect for the institutions of our democratic republic. I think those are all parts of the job.

And while I agree with them on a lot of policy fronts and salute the work that's been done by the Republican leadership in Washington, there are places that relate to the -- if you will, forming of national character that I think we could do a better job.

TAPPER: Well, you've called him a fraud. I mean, in 2016, you gave a very strong speech in the -- was it in Utah or Arizona, calling him a fraud.

Some people who are allied with the president, some people who are not allied with the president, say, hey, you know, the president endorsed you in your Senate race, and you accepted the endorsement. The president pointed that out today. You interviewed for a job with him to be potentially secretary of state.

What changed? Why were you willing to talk to him and accept his endorsement when you have all these reservations about him?

ROMNEY: Well, you know, after he was elected president, it was very much my hope that he would rise to the occasion, rise to the mantle of the office. After all, becoming president of the United States is quite an elevation for anybody. And he has said during the campaign that he could be extraordinary presidential. When I hear that, I think of Washington and Lincoln and Jefferson and Roosevelt and Kennedy and Eisenhower, and I think of those qualities.

And I think that while he spoke of that, and while that was my hope, I don't think he's followed through on that front the way he's followed through on some of his other promises.

TAPPER: Do you regret accepting his endorsement when he sent that tweet during your Senate race?

ROMNEY: Well, he was endorsing me. I wasn't endorsing him. And I haven't decided who I'm going to endorse in 2020. I'm going to see what the alternatives are.

TAPPER: So, you're not on board, because the senior senator from Utah, Mike Lee, said he's likely going to endorse the president.

ROMNEY: I think it's early to make that decision and I want to see what the alternatives are. But I pointed out, there are places where we agree on a whole series of policy fronts, but there are places that I think the president can -- if you will, elevate his game and do a better job to help bring us together as a nation.

TAPPER: Is there any chance you might emerge as an alternative to President Trump and run against him for president in the primaries in 2020?

ROMNEY: No. You may have heard, I ran before. I've had that experience. And, by the way, I acknowledge the president was successful. And I was not. He did something I couldn't do. He won.

And I recognize that and appreciate that. But no, I'm not running again. And we'll see whether someone else does in a Republican primary or not. But time will tell.

TAPPER: You said in March of 2016, because there was a whole big thing in 2012, kids out there might not remember this. But when you ran for president, Donald Trump wanted to endorse you, you wanted him to endorse you. And there was an event in Las Vegas. And you accepted his endorsement.

And then in March 2016, you wrote in a tweet, if Trump had said four years ago the things he says today about the Klan, Muslims, Mexicans, disabled, I would not have accepted his endorsement. Now, some people point out, OK, he hadn't said those things, but he was the nation's leading birther, pushing the lie that Barack Obama, the first African- American president, was born in Africa. Again, a lie. And you accepted his endorsement even though that was his political claim to fame.

Was that a mistake?

ROMNEY: You know, I'm sure I've made a lot of mistakes.

TAPPER: Is that one of them?

ROMNEY: And I'll let the people make the assessment of which things were mistakes and not. But when the president of the United States, frankly of either party were to say I'm endorsing your candidacy, I think you would say thank you very much. But I have pointed out I think pretty consistently throughout the years, the places where I've disagreed with candidate Donald Trump and now President Trump. And I'll continue to do so.

And hopefully, there will be fewer of those occasions. I don't tend to be a daily commentator, to be someone who stops every evening in the hall of the Senate and looks for the nearest camera and says what I think about the president's tweet or fault of the day.

[16:25:03] But if there is a matter of great significance, I'll speak out on that. And sometimes, it's a difficult call.

TAPPER: Yes, how do you decide that?

ROMNEY: And you have to make that decision. And people will say, well, this is different than the last time. It's like, well, you make your decision as best as you possibly can. But I know what my principles are, what I think is right for the

country. And I know that right now the country is as divided as I've ever seen it. People in many respects are angry and resentful. And they want to see leaders who can unite us and push through those things and deal with the challenges we have, with our excessive spending, the budget being out of alignment, the immigration mess we have, our education challenges, our health care needs.

There are so many things they want to see us do that these other things get in the way, and I would like to be able to focus on the things that are most important and remove some of the divisiveness and anger and bitterness that exist in politics today.

TAPPER: I want to move on to some of the substantive issues, but I do have to ask you. The chairwoman of the Republican national committee, Rona Romney McDaniel, who is your older brother Scott's daughter, she tweeted about your criticism.

And she wrote, quote, on Twitter: For an incoming Republican freshman senator, that's Uncle Mitt, to attack @RealDonald Trump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and is unproductive.

Were you surprised? I know you gave her a heads up that the op-ed was coming. Were you surprised that she publicly criticized you?

ROMNEY: No, she's the chairwoman of the Republican Party. She has a responsibility. I respect her right to express that viewpoint.

It's probably more -- if you will, civil than it might have been across the -- Thanksgiving dinner table, because we, of course, have disagreements in our family. But she's a very loyal Republican, loyal to the president. And she's doing what she thinks is best for him and for the party.

TAPPER: One of the criticisms -- this is my last Trump question. One of the criticisms about people who have come before you, Republican senators, consciousness of the party, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, is that generally speaking, there would be tsk-tsking, but no action.

There is one -- a couple of exceptions. Bob Corker pushed forward some sanctions against Russia as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And Jeff Flake stopped voting for judges until Mitch McConnell would bring forward the bill to protect Robert Mueller, which Mitch McConnell never did. So, he ended up putting a hold on judges indefinitely.

Are you prepared to take actions as opposed to just expressing dismay if the moment calls for it?

ROMNEY: Well, the answer is, I will support those positions that I agree with, and I will oppose and vote against things I disagree with. But I don't think you go to Washington saying, well, I'm actually going to cut off my nose to spite my face. I'm going to vote against people who I actually would support, just to be tough on the president. That doesn't make any sense.

TAPPER: No, but if there is a moment. If you want the Mueller protection bill to be voted on. If you want sanctions against Russia passed.

ROMNEY: Well, you look at items that you actually think are right, as opposed to things that are just symbolic or punitive to the president. There is no reason to poke anybody, Republican or Democrat, in the eye, just to make a statement.

We're in Washington after all, to try and make a difference for the American people. And just doing things symbolically that hurt someone you're opposed to doesn't make any sense, in my opinion. I could express my viewpoints. But if there are places that the president wants one thing and I think that's wrong, I'll vote with my conscience, not with his.

TAPPER: All right. The substance is coming up. We're going to take a quick break. You have a lot to say about the president personally, but you agree with him on policy. We have the border wall, pulling American troops out of Syria. We're going to get to that next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)