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Zoo Tragedies; Romney Blasts Trump. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired January 2, 2019 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:00]

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: That he was positive about Trump when he was in the running for secretary of state, when he accepted his endorsement for -- during his Senate race, and that he just does this when it's convenient for him or he's being an opportunist, what do you say to that and the notion that he is trying to be the new face of the Republican resistance?

RYAN WILLIAMS, REPUBLICAN CAMPAIGN CONSULTANT: Well, again, if you followed Governor Romney's for Senate, you would see that in June of last year -- this -- 2018, he wrote a very similar opinion piece outlining the same things.

If you followed his tweets, you will see the governor has consistently disagreed with the president on his attacks on the media, on his approach to many issues, but he supported him on others.

This is the way Mitt Romney has approached this for months, for years now. He is with the president on issues, but, when he disagrees, he's not going to hesitate to speak out. And in terms of being the face of the resistance, I don't think so. Mitt Romney is going to be Mitt Romney. He wants to get things done in Washington.

He wants to find common ground with the president, with both parties and get results for his state and for the country.

BROWN: OK. Ryan Williams, thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

BROWN: Appreciate it.

And don't miss senator-elect Romney in a live interview with Jake Tapper at 4:00 p.m. Eastern on "THE LEAD."

And top of the hour now. I'm Pamela Brown. You are watching CNN right now.

Well, the first meeting is scheduled between Republicans and Democrats since the government partially shut down 12 days ago. A source says the president invited these lawmakers to the White House. And minutes before the gathering is taking place, the president sent a big sign that the situation will get worse before it gets better. In his first Cabinet meeting of 2019, the president stood firm that

the government should spend $5 billion to pay for a border wall, a no- go for Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Would you accept anything less than $2.5 billion?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, 2.5, no. We're asking for 5.6. And somebody said 2.5.

No, look, this is national security we're talking about, just like we talked about the military, just like we're talking about Syria or Afghanistan or all these different places. I mean, we spend in Afghanistan more in one month than what we're talking about for the wall.

What I'm talking about is the $5.6 billion that the House approved. The 5.6 billion is such a small number, literally. It's a month -- it's one month in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: How long do you think government is going to stay partially shut down?

TRUMP: Could be a long time and it could be quickly. Could be a long time. It's too important a subject to walk away from.

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.

Again, I could have done nothing. I could have had a lot easier presidency by doing nothing, but I'm here. I want to do it right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: So the president hit a variety of topics, explaining his troop withdraw from Syria, slamming his ex-Defense Secretary James Mattis and responding to Mitt Romney's condemnation of him.

And we're going to get into all of this, a lot to discuss.

Joining me now, Gabriella Orr, White House reporter for Politico, and Jeff Mason, Reuters White House correspondent.

Thank you both for coming on.

Jeff, you were in that room as lawmakers arrived for this meeting. It sure sounds like both sides are digging in.

JEFF MASON, REUTERS: It certainly does. I mean, the president made very clear in his remarks that the wall was his top priority.

He did indicate that he's willing to see what the Democrats come to the table with. He did say he thought that they could make deals in 2019 and work together. But then he just doubled down on that wall. And he said that, as in the clip that you just played, that the government could stay shut down for some time.

He went over and over again with Secretary Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, as well as the attorney general and the acting secretary of defense, for information and sort of justification for needing the wall.

He talks about how it's a major security issue. And so that's the message he's going to bring into this meeting with Democrats and Republicans this afternoon, which is in the Situation Room, which sort of adds another element of secrecy and importance to that -- to that topic.

BROWN: Clearly, the president wants to infuse a sense of a national security crisis as it pertains to immigration when he meets with the leaders in the Situation Room.

But what is your reaction to what we heard from the president? And do you think anything will actually be accomplished in this meeting at the White House right now?

GABRIELLA ORR, POLITICO: Pam, I think three things became clear today.

Number one, this dynamic of the good cop/bad cop at the top of Democratic leadership that the president has sort of insinuated was going on is not happening. In fact, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are very much on the same page heading into this 3:00 p.m. meeting today at the White House.

That makes it more difficult for the president to get a deal. Number two, I think it became clear today that congressional leaders want to be negotiating with nobody but President Trump himself. We heard during that pool spray in the Oval Office -- or -- I'm sorry -- during the Cabinet meeting earlier today that President Trump's still wants that $5.6 billion figure, even though his Vice President Mike Pence offered $2.5 billion just days ago.

[15:05:05]

So the White House isn't even on the same page at this point. And, number three, I think that this meeting that's going to take place, it's just sort of offering President Trump cover to say, we have had a briefing on homeland security, we have laid out all of the things that are happening at the border.

And Democrats after this meeting will likely go to the sticks, talk to reporters about what happened, but then he will be able to say they still don't want to cut a deal.

And I think what we learned today is that this shutdown is going to go on for longer than 11 days, it's probably going to drag on to mid- January, and that the president is not able or even willing at this point to negotiate down from that $5 billion figure. BROWN: And while all of this is going on, of course, there are nearly

a million federal workers who aren't getting a paycheck.

But it is interesting to see the president undercut his own vice president in that meeting. I mean, this is the second time that the vice president has tried to talk to lawmakers about the government shutdown, first reassuring them that the president would sign the C.R., which didn't happen, then the $2.5 billion, which was rebuffed by Chuck Schumer.

So it is no surprise that lawmakers want to go directly to the president.

ORR: Absolutely. I mean, he dispatched Mike Pence to Capitol Hill last weekend to sit down with Chuck Schumer to talk about this. No deal was made out of that.

And even then, Senator Schumer's spokesperson for him told Politico that they didn't necessarily feel as though Vice President Mike Pence was representing the views of the president, that they weren't convinced that President Trump really was OK with that $2.5 billion figure, that he was still very much settled on getting the full $5 billion.

So I do think that this is creating even more frustration not just for Democrats, who are trying to negotiate with this White House, but also for Republicans.

BROWN: And, Jeff, I want to bring you back in focusing on the White House meeting this hour.

Trump tweeted: "Mexico is paying for the wall via the reworked trade deal."

This tweet is not accurate at all. First, the trade deal with Canada and Mexico still has to be approved by Congress. Jeff, is he right about how much of the wall is being renovated or built? I mean, what what's your take on that?

MASON: Well, that -- whether he's right or not, that's something that the White House has to prove. And they haven't -- they haven't given evidence for some of these -- these claims about the wall.

But I think it goes back in general into what he said now and what he's been tweeting about. He's trying to put focus on that. The wall was the promise that he made in 2016 as a candidate. He feels that now is the time, is the chance for him to get funding for it and to make clear that that's an issue that he's going to fight for, even if it means leaving lots of government workers without paychecks.

So, he's drawing a line in the sand. He's showing some willingness to talk to Democrats and to work with Democrats if he can, but whether it's undermining his vice president or whether it's going over the funding that he wants over and over again, or at least right now the signal that he's sending is, he's not willing to compromise on that wall. BROWN: And he may have under cut himself today with that tweet, Gabriella, because let's just pretend for a moment that it is true that through this reworked trade deal Mexico is paying for the wall. Then why would he need the $5 billion?

ORR: It's a good question, to build those steel slats that he's now been talking about, apparently.

I mean, there is so much that is wrong with this tweet. Not only is it factually incorrect. This trade deal hasn't even been approved by Congress yet, so, therefore, it cannot possibly be being paid for by Mexico.

But, at the same time, this is just another attempt to convey to his supporters, to his base that he's following through on a campaign promise that is imperative to him getting reelected in 2020, even if, on the surface, it's not factually accurate.

The White House has talked about taxing remittances. They have talked about this trade deal, all different types of things that would somehow get Mexico to pay for this wall. But we all know that's not happening at this point. And President Trump is just looking for more ways to convey that that is somehow happening, even though it's not.

BROWN: All right, Jeff, I got to ask about this movie-size poster on the table at the Cabinet meeting. What was that all about?

(LAUGHTER)

MASON: I don't know the answer. I saw that.

BROWN: What does it say, sanctions are coming?

MASON: Yes.

And I think it said I think it had a date, November 4. I don't know why that was there. I saw it when we were in there with the press pool and took a picture of it and send it out on Twitter. But I haven't spoken to anyone at the White House about why it was there or where that came from.

But it did sort of underscore the reality TV sense of being in that room, being in that -- I think the press, we are in there for about an hour and 45 minutes listening to the president, listening to Cabinet officials, and seeing that poster.

BROWN: Yes.

One thing was really clear is that the president was looking forward to this. He wanted to be talking today after being in the White House over the holidays. He made mention of being there alone.

So, all right, thank you so much, Gabriella Orr, Jeff Mason. We do appreciate it.

MASON: My pleasure. BROWN: And President Trump also responding moments ago to the scathing op-ed about him from incoming Republican Senator Mitt Romney.

Romney saying Trump has a glaring shortfall of character, and it has created a heated debate inside the party today.

Also ahead: the Supreme Court getting involved for the first time in a case that has come out of the Mueller investigation. We're going to explain what's at stake.

[15:10:03]

And then later, Senator Elizabeth Warren heading to Iowa this weekend to kick off her presidential bid. But two other Democrats are scoring better when it comes to electability. Find out who.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Well, a day before he officially joins the Senate, Mitt Romney is already in a war of words. His opponent? President Trump.

In a scathing op-ed, Romney rips Trump for, his view, not rising to the mantle of the presidency.

And he writes in part -- quote -- "A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership and qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent's shortfall has been most glaring."

[15:15:12]

Now, for his part, President Trump said Romney should be a team player. And while you might think that his words would anger a few members of the Republican Party, you might not think that his niece is among them. But she is.

RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel blasted her uncle on Twitter, saying -- quote -- "POTUS is attacked and obstructed by the MSM, mainstream media and Democrats 24/7. For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realDonaldTrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and it's disappointing and unproductive."

Joining me now to discuss all of this, Michael Smerconish, host of CNN's "SMERCONISH" and CNN political commentator.

So, we're going to talk about more of the Romney family feud in just a moment.

But, first, let's take a look back at this roller-coaster relationship between the president and Utah's newest senator.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: It's my honor, real honor and privilege to endorse Mitt Romney.

MITT ROMNEY (R), UTAH SENATOR-ELECT: Being in Donald Trump's magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight.

TRUMP: I like him a lot. He's a friend of mine. I like him a lot.

ROMNEY: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.

TRUMP: Mitt is indeed a choked artist. He choked, and he choked like I have never seen anyone choke. He was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, Mitt, drop to your knees. He would have dropped to his knees.

ROMNEY: These discussions have been enlightening and interesting and engaging. I have enjoyed them very, very much.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: OK, so, Michael, clearly, they have had an on-again/off-again relationship. Why do you think Mitt Romney wrote this op-ed?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think he wanted to lay down a marker, Pam. As he's coming to Washington, D.C., to be sworn in tomorrow, I think that he saw a vacuum, given the passing of John McCain, given the fact that Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are no longer in the United States Senate.

And let's be fair. Individuals like us are all too willing to afford a platform to someone within the GOP who's willing to call out the president of the United States. So I think he saw that opportunity and wanted to serve notice as to the type of U.S. senator that he seeks to be.

I had wondered, was he going to be the more moderate Mitt who governed Massachusetts, or was he going to be the self-described -- quote, unquote -- "severe conservative" that he introduced to the country in 2012? I guess the answer is more the latter. He wants to be perceived as a principled conservative willing to take on his own president.

BROWN: And what is interesting is, he said in the op-ed, look, I agree with many of the president's policies, but I just think that he's amoral, essentially.

The president's response, though, is interesting, Michael. It was pretty muted by comparison. The president came out and said that he hopes he will be a team player and that he thinks he will be. What's your reaction to that?

SMERCONISH: Yes, it was interesting, right? He started to give him a moniker. Wanted to see -- what did he say, whether Mitt Romney is going to end up being flaky or a flake.

But he didn't quite go there as calling him out, the way he has so many others. And that was a surprise from the president, because we're used to him, if he's crossed, giving you a nickname. And then that's the end.

BROWN: So, what do we make of that me? I know we can't get inside the president's head. But do you think that that's a reflection of the president knowing he's going to need Romney's vote moving forward in the Senate or not thinking that Romney's a threat?

SMERCONISH: Well, I would like to tell you that maybe it's a kinder, gentler Donald Trump in 2019, but, of course, I don't believe that. I really can't explain why he went soft on him.

But I don't think it'll continue if Mitt Romney continues to call them out.

BROWN: All right. So, as I said, Romney made clear in this op-ed that he has issues with the president's morals, something that we heard from others recently.

Today, Harry Reid said Trump is amoral. Last week, retired General Stanley McChrystal said he thinks Trump is immoral. And then there is this anonymous "New York Times" op-ed last fall where a senior administration official said -- and I quote -- that the root of the problem is the president's amorality.

What do you think? Is this a line of attack that we should expect to hear more of in the coming months?

SMERCONISH: Well, I don't know that it's been all that successful. It's been successful in those who are already predisposed against President Trump.

But you also heard President Trump's response today, which was to say, I'm essentially the most popular Republican president in the history of mankind.

And there's no denial that his approval numbers within his own party -- got to give him credit for this -- are incredibly high. So these skirmishes don't seem to have put a dent in the support that he enjoys, at least among his own base.

[15:20:08]

BROWN: OK, so on that note, it certainly raises the question, how effective is Romney in his criticism of the president? He is not the only one whose opinion of the president has shifted over time.

Rand Paul is defending him today, defending the president today. But listen to this exchange from a 2015 CNN debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I think, really, there's a sophomoric quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump, but I am worried, I'm very concerned about him having him in charge of the nuclear weapons, because I think his response, his visceral response to attack people on their appearance, short, tall, fat ugly, my goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that? Would we not all be worried to have someone like that in charge of the nuclear arsenal?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Mr. Trump?

TRUMP: I never attacked him on his look, and, believe me, there's plenty of time subject matter right there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: All right, so, will Paul's defense and Romney's critique both be viewed skeptically by other Republicans in Congress? Will they have any impact at all, in your view?

SMERCONISH: I'm caught up in all of this, in the same way that I'm sure you're caught up in all of this as political junkies or political animals.

I think that to much of the country it's all just spectacle now. And that's a shame. The whole process has been debased. So I don't know that the back and forth, frankly, matters all that much. That clip that you ran at the outset is stunning in terms of the on-again/off- again nature of the relationship between the president and Mitt Romney.

How in the world can you take either of them seriously when they have been on all sides of just the issue of their own relationship? Really.

BROWN: All right. I want to talk about Romney vs. Romney before we wrap this up.

The RNC chairwoman publicly attacking her uncle on Twitter and siding with the president. What is your take?

SMERCONISH: My take is that it looks like the Romney family is much like the Smerconish family and a lot of other families, in that a butter knife away at the Thanksgiving table, you have got somebody who disagrees with you politically.

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: All right, but would you actually go after a family member on Twitter?

SMERCONISH: Not on Twitter. Maybe at the Thanksgiving table, but not on Twitter, no.

BROWN: All right, Michael Smerconish, thank you so much for coming on. Happy new year to you.

SMERCONISH: Thank you. You too.

BROWN: And, again, Mitt Romney joins Jake Tapper for a live interview at the top of the hour. So you don't want to miss that. Well, up next, an intern killed by a lion, a toddler rushed to the

hospital after a rhino encounter. We're going to take you live to the Miami Zoo to hear from an expert about what can be done to prevent these types of accidents.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:27:32]

BROWN: Well, two recent tragedies are fueling a growing concern over the safety of visitors at U.S. zoos.

In Florida just yesterday, a rhino injured a toddler who somehow managed to squeeze through a railing and fall into the animal's pen. And then on Sunday in North Carolina, a lion roaming outside its enclosure at a wildlife center mauled an intern to death.

The 911 call has just been released.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

911 OPERATOR: Nine-one-one.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the Conservators Center on East Hughes Mill Road.

We have had a lion attack.

911 OPERATOR: A lion attack?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes ma'am.

911 OPERATOR: OK, the person that was attacked, how bad are they hurt?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They are incapacitated.

911 OPERATOR: They are incapacitated?

If you can find out any more about the patient, call us back and let us know, because we will have EMS first-responders on the way. My partner is already dispatching them.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BROWN: That is just chilling to listen to that.

I want to bring in CNN's Miguel Marquez.

Miguel, I want to start with the toddler who ended up in the rhino enclosure. What exactly happened?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are still investigating that.

That enclosure, as well as similar ones, are closed at the Brevard Zoo right now to investigate how exactly this happened. It appears that this 2-year-old little girl got through those bars. They are about 11 inches apart. This is part of a rhino encounter.

They have several of these sort of encounter-type areas in the Brevard Zoo there where people can actually brush or touch the animals.

The zoo in a statement says that the father was grasping the child the entire time. So it's not like she went all the way into the cage. Both the child and the mother were both injured. It sounds -- the family has just released a statement a short time ago. It sounds like the child is still in the Arnold Palmer Hospital, where they say that she's getting great care. The mother has been released.

The other thing that the zoo has said is that first that this -- it was two female rhinos that walked up to the 2-year-old. They were curious. One bumped her, they said in their first press release. Today, they have sort of changed that and said, well, it touched her.

But it's not clear how she got injured, if it was the parents perhaps yanking her back, and she hit her head, and now she's in the hospital to just -- to be observed to make sure that everything's OK. But it goes without saying that, if you are around while animals, be careful -- Pamela.

BROWN: And, of course, this follows the lion mauling in North Carolina that happened at this wildlife center.

MARQUEZ: Yes.

BROWN: What are you learning about how the lion got out of its enclosure?

MARQUEZ: This is even more of a mystery.

This is an enclosure, a place, the Conservative Center -- Conservators Center in Burlington, North Carolina.