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Trump at Cabinet Meeting: I Wish Romney Were "More of a Team Player;" Trump Stands by $5 Billion Demand Ahead of Meeting with Democrats; Trump at War with Generals in His Administration. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired January 2, 2019 - 14:30   ET

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


[14:30:00] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They say I'm the most popular president in the history of the Republican Party. You see the same news I do. How do I get these numbers when -- people see gasoline is way down. I called up some of the OPEC people. When you look back a few months, gasoline was at $83 a barrel.

That was going to be bad. It was going to some people were saying $125, Rick. I made calls and I said you better let that gasoline flow. And they did. Now it's down to 44. And I put out a social media statement yesterday. I said, do you think it's luck that that happened? It's not luck. It's not luck. I called up certain people and I said, let the damn oil and gasoline, you let it flow, the oil. It was going up to $125. If that would have happened, then you would have had a recession, depression like we've had in the past when that happened.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE QUESTION)

TRUMP: I don't know if he's going to become a team player. I hope he does. If he does, I think it's going to be better for him. I think people are very upset with what he did. He hasn't even got into office yet. He hasn't even got into office. And he was very happy when I endorsed him.

So I don't know what changed, other than we've succeed in many of the things I said we were going to do. Let me tell you, we're succeeding in things that people thought were impossible to do. So I think that Mitt Romney hopefully will be a team player. And if he's not, that's OK, too. Look, I handle it. I just got rid of -- they say they're retired.

They say that Bob Corker retired. They say that Jeff Flake, wonderful guy. I never even met him and he's hitting me. He was going to tell people how to win in 2020 because 2016 can't -- he wrote a book about it. Didn't work out too well that book because we won in 2016 because we didn't want to wait till 2020. So Jeff Flake is now selling real estate or whatever he's doing. He'll probably go to work for CNN. That's my prediction.

Bob Corker, unfortunately him and I had a good relationship and then he thought he was going to get some publicity for himself and his ratings tubed where he couldn't have come in fourth in the primary. He was going to be a Senator -- Bob Corker was going to be a Senator for another 20 years. And then for some reason he hit me because he thought it was going to be good publicity.

It didn't work out too well. So with Mitt, I hope he's a team player. If he's not, that's OK, too. We have some great Republicans. If you look at the way they're standing up for border security, you'd be very proud of them, if you're a Republican or a person that loves our nation.

Thanks very much, everybody. Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Thank you.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. A lot to unpack there. The president speaking during this cabinet meeting at the White House in this new year. It was a wide-ranging discussion.

Take a look here as we see a bigger screen shot with this poster, I believe, saying sanctions are coming in front of the president there at the table. Really remarkable this wide ranging, at times, rambling interaction with reporters in front of his entire cabinet. Clearly, the president had a lot on his mind. He talked about being alone over Christmas in the White House. And he seemed to be stewing over a lot of issues.

Let's break them down for you. He's standing by his demand for a $5 billion border wall ahead of this high-stakes meeting with Democrats today. He made clear that he will keep the shutdown going for as long as it takes.

And he fired back at Mitt Romney's criticism, wishing he was a team player. And he also says he essentially fired Defense Secretary James Mattis as he defended his decision to exit Syria. As we know, James Mattis resigned in protest.

Let's talk about all of this with our panel. I want to bring in CNN White House Correspondent, Kaitlan Collins, and CNN Political Analyst, Joshua Green, and Karoun Demirjian.

Kaitlan, first to you.

What stood out to you with all the various headlines you just heard from the president?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The president said he was virtually alone over Christmas and that's why you saw that meeting drag ought over an hour and a half with the president going around the room. We are essentially at a stalemate with this government shutdown and we're nowhere closer to getting any kind of solution in sight.

That's what the president made clear at the end when you saw him say he would not accept $2.5 billion for security. He seemed kind of surprised by that number, Pamela, even though that is the exact number that Vice President Mike Pence and several other White House officials actually offered to Chuck Schumer when they met with him on Capitol Hill, something that Democrats turned down. But now Democrats is saying, no, 2.5 would not be acceptable.

That's going to put the White House in a tougher position as they move forward trying to negotiate with Democrats because essentially neither side is going to get their way here. Someone is going to have to compromise to get the government to open again. But the president saying he would not accept less than $2.5 billion when Democrats were not on board with $2.5 billion to begin with is going to set us up for a pretty interesting meeting with the congressional leaders at the White House this morning. The White House predicting they were not going to make a whole lot of progress.

[14:35:46] BROWN: Kaitlan Collins, thank you for breaking it down for us.

I want to bring in our CNN political analyst.

Just following up on what Kaitlan said, Josh, basically the president undercut his own vice president. You think about Mike Pence. He was the one that told Congress that, look, the president will sign a C.R. The Senate passes it and then the president said he won't. And Mike Pence tried to negotiate a deal with a proposal for $2.5 billion for the wall that was rebuffed by Chuck Schumer the president seemed surprised and said I don't want to accept anything less than $5 billion is what he was saying. What do you think of all that?

JOSHUA GREEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think you get a good illustration of why it so difficult to bring a shutdown to the end. Democrats realize when they're negotiating with Pence or McConnell, they're not make anything head way because the only person who matters is Donald Trump. He seemed surprised to hear the number $2.5 billion, how small it was.

This is why when you talk to Democrats they say we're not going to have a deal until Trump tweets to it on Twitter, agrees to it and then agrees to it publicly so he can't back away. Every indication we got is we are nowhere close to Trump agreeing to anything publicly or privately and the shutdown is probably going to continue for quite a while.

BROWN: It just seems like there's none in sight. This is nearly a million federal workers not getting a paycheck.

Of course, there's a meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders at the White House. But after seeing that, does it seem as though any compromise will be reached?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No. It doesn't seem that the president in a bargaining mood. If he's not going to stick with them on the number, why should he stick with them on the terminology on the wall or anything else? Democrats are buying to buy some time and get most of the unfunded part of the federal budget up and running, sending most of the furloughed workers back to work and leave the Homeland Security department funded for the month they think they can take to negotiate.

Otherwise this is going to be going on for several weeks. It was the holidays, people were home. It's very difficult to have the shut down during a holiday because of financial implications to individuals. In a way, people aren't watching close live but it's a time when people are not planned to be at work because the particulars of the shutdown, the we didn't see it being quite as powerful as it was when we had a full government shutdown a few years ago.

I would have said before this press conference it's anybody's guess as far as who is going to take the blame for that but if the president decides to keep going out and saying, no, I'm not going to take that deal that my people negotiated, the blame is probably going to come back on him in greater measure if this continues.

BROWN: All right.

I want to talk also about the president's response to new Senator Mitt Romney and the scathing op-ed he wrote for the "Washington Post."

Kaitlan, the president seemed pretty restrained compared to what we've seen in the past. Is this because he needs Mitt Romney's vote?

COLLINS: I think it because the president doesn't see Mitt Romney as threat. That is why you saw such a muted response to the president, when you can really tell how the president typically feels about something. Look at the way he talked about former defense secretary James Mattis compared to the way he spoke about Mitt Romney there.

He talked about the fact that Mitt Romney accepted and touted the president's endorsement when he was running for Senate. You've got to look at what Mitt Romney actually wrote in that op-ed. He said it was a December when everything changed for him when he argued that the president did not take the mantle of the presidency.

That's something that White House aides have kind of scoffed at in recent days or recent hours since that op-ed came out last night saying not much changed for President Trump, he did not change who he is from November to December so it's a change now. But as you saw today with Mitt Romney's niece, the RNC chair, clearly siding with the president over her own uncle in that tweet saying that an incoming freshman Senator should not be siding with the Democrats and the media, in her opinion, with his criticism of the president.

President Trump was relatively restrained there when he talked about it saying he hopes he comes on to a team player but also playing out the fact that Mitt Romney did accept his endorsement.

[14:40:43] BROWN: All right. Kaitlan, thank you.

Josh, what is your reaction to the president's response?

GREEN: I was surprised it was muted. But when you stop and think Republicans still have a fairly small majority in the Senate, a little bit bigger than it was. But when you have voices like Mitt Romney, who might be willing to break off and vote against the president, it's important to keep them in the fold. You hear Trump talk about I need a team player, maybe that's something lurking in the back of his mind. And who knows if we ever wind up in a situation where the House

impeaches Donald Trump, maybe after Mueller's report comes out and goes to the Senate, Trump is going to need every Republican Senator to stick with him and protect his presidency. Maybe that's lurking in the back of his mind.

BROWN: And the reaction beyond just the president's reaction has been really interesting. You saw the RNC chair, whose uncle is Mitt Romney, come out and criticize it. Rand Paul actually has come out and criticized Romney for this.

But what do you think? Do you think Mitt Romney will be sort of the enough face of the Republican resistance, similar to what we saw from Jeff Flake?

DEMIRJIAN: The comparison I would make is a little different than Jeff Flake. I would say Romney is trying to be the next John McCain. If you're Mitt Romney, it makes sense that the RNC would fall in line with the president. They're worried about there being a rupture in the middle of the party. There's real frustration with Trump and they don't agree with his trade policies and I think Romney has shown he is what really the heart and the gut of the GOP would be on those kind of issues absent President Trump.

He's potentially threatened, though he is a very back bencher in terms of his rank in the Senate. He was the party's political nominee. He's known as a face, even if he is a freshman Senator from a state that is not, you know, that is -- excuse me, a freshman Senator who is kind of at the back of the line for the rest of the Senate.

But why do you play nice if you're a Senator who a freshman? Because you want to rise through the ranks to become a committee chairman and Mitt Romney doesn't need any of that. But he can be a foil to that. And Romney could just be something bigger than his position. And I think that if Trump and his advisers look at that, the smart thing to do is say don't provoke it. And he's saying inning me up to the foil. Thankfully, there's a vacuum for that. McCain was the critic and he's gone now. So there's that opening for somebody to take that on.

BROWN: It's just interesting to look back at their tumultuous relationship. Mitt Romney went after Trump during the campaign, then he sort of pulled that back in when he was in the running for secretary of state, and he accepted Trump's endorsement to become Senator. But now clearly he is going after him once again. So much to discuss.

Stand by, everyone.

More on the president's remarks, saying he essentially fired Defense Secretary James Mattis, even though Mattis resigned in protest. My next guest says this shows the president is at war with his generals. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:48:23] BROWN: An administration in limbo. The president's first cabinet meeting of 2019 showcased just how much turnover this White House has seen just in the past year. At least seven people are serving as acting secretaries or department chiefs until permanent replacements are named. Two of them with front-row seats, replacing Jim Mattis for now acting secretary of defense, Pat Shanahan, to the president's right, and filling Ryan Zinke's post, Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, to his left.

John Kelly and James Mattis join two other military generals who left the Trump administration. Generals who the president often called his most treasured advisers. But after two years in office, the president seems eager to minimize those military minds, ignoring Kelly's advice.

And listen to what he said about Mattis moments ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: You can talk about our generals. I gave our generals all the money they wanted. They didn't do such a great job in Afghanistan. General Mattis was so thrilled. But what's he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good. Not too good. I'm not happy with what he's done in Afghanistan. And I shouldn't be happy.

As you know, President Obama fired him and, essentially, so did I.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: To be clear, James Mattis resigned in protest.

With me is Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst, who has an op- ed on CNN.com about the president's war with his generals.

Peter, thanks for coming on.

Clearly the president is peeved over Mattis' departure and how it all went down with that resignation letter. They were not able to see eye to eye on Syria or Afghanistan for that matter. But what do you make of the president's criticism?

[14:50:07] PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's startling because go back two years, Jim Mattis, a retired four-star, secretary of defense, John Kelly, was four-star, secretary of Homeland Security and chief of staff, Mike Flynn, retired lieutenant general, was national security adviser when he left. McMaster, also a three- star general, hired as national security adviser.

The place was rife with the kind of leading military figures of the generation. Now President Trump has really attacked Mattis personally in his press conference, saying he fired him, which is true. He essentially got rid of John Kelly and getting rid of James Mattis. He's had a spat with Admiral McRaven, the architect of the bin Laden raid.

And it's hard to think of a leading military leader that he hasn't been in a war of words with in the last several months, which is so strange because, even in this press conference, he was saying that he thought of himself as potentially a great general. This is a guy who went to a military boarding school, avoided service in Vietnam, taking five deferments. But he does seem to have a great respect at least in theory for the U.S. military but that respect when it comes to particular personalities seems to have evaporated.

BROWN: Let's listen to more of his remarks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We have an area that I brought up with our generals four, five weeks ago where Taliban is here, ISIS is here, and they're fighting each other. I said, why don't you let them fight? Why are we getting in the middle of it? Let them fight. They're both our enemies. Let them fight. Sir, we want to do it. They go in and end up fighting both of them. It's the craziest thing I've ever seen. I think I would have been a good general but who knows.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: All right. So you go from a president who wants love surrounding himself with generals and then mocking the generals seemingly. What to you make of the shift?

BERGEN: I'm not a psychologist so I don't know. President Trump has said many times various versions of I know better than anybody else. During the campaign, he said he knew how to fight ISIS better than anybody else fights is. He denigrates people. There's sort of a bromance, these are bromances, not romances with so many members of his cabinet who are men and then the bromance fades and they're gone. That's a pattern we've seen repeatedly, which is why you've pointed out there are so many acting people at this meeting today.

BROWN: It is interesting talking to White House officials, they do say that they've noticed the president relying more on his own instinct, his own gut rather than listening to advisers like his former chief of staff, outgoing today, John Kelly. And that was really frustrating to I know Kelly and Mattis as well.

Peter Bergen, thank you for coming on and sharing your analysis.

BERGEN: Thank you.

BROWN: The president says the government shutdown will last as long as it takes. Moments from now, he and congressional leaders will hold a high-stakes meeting as neither side appears ready to budge. We'll take you there.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[14:57:59] TRUMP: I was surprised at Mitt Romney, but I just hope he's going to be a team player. If he's a team player, that will be great. I will say this, if he fought really hard against President Obama, like he does against me, he would have won the election.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BROWN: You heard the president firing back against Mitt Romney for questioning his character.

Joining me to discuss, Ryan Williams, former spokesman for Mitt Romney and a Republican strategist.

Ryan, your former boss and the president have had sort of an on-and- off again relationship. There was this op-ed from Romney criticizing the president, the president coming back at him saying he should be a team player. Why did Romney do this now in your view? Why do you think?

RYAN WILLIAMS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST & FORMER SPOKESMAN FOR MITT ROMNEY: If you follow Senator Romney's campaign in Utah, he has consistently been saying he's going to be with the president when he supports him but he won't hesitate to speak out when he doesn't agree with him. The governor is a conservative Republican.

He'll be with the president on much of his agenda, as he pointed out in the opinion piece today. But he will speak out when he thinks there's an issue. As you pointed out at the beginning of that piece, he thought December was a particularly rocky month and a time for him to speak out and reflect on some changes and upheavals we've seen in the administration over the last several weeks.

BROWN: What do you say to the White House officials who say, what are you talking about, what we saw in December was the president we have known since the campaign?

WILLIAMS: As Senator Romney pointed out, the dismissal of General Mattis and General Kelly caused, in his view, some upheaval that is not less with people in the administration but less experience. And the governor found that particularly troubling. That's why he wrote the piece. But the governor is going to be with the president when he agrees with him. If they can find common-ground on issues, the governor will support him. If he thinks things are going awry, he speaks out. That's how he will approach things in the Senate.

BROWN: There are critics that say Senator Romney now is being an opportunist. He was positive about Trump when he was in the running for secretary of state, when he accepted his endorsement during his Senate race, and that he just does this when it's convenient for him or he's being an opportunist.