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Congressional Leaders Meet with Trump; Trump Fires Back at Romney; RNC Chief Slams Romney; No Deal in Sight to End Shutdown; Detention of American in Russia; Reid, Romney and McChrystal Call Out Trump's Morals. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 2, 2019 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:00] PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Brianna Keilar starts right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar, live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, new year, old drama. With no deal in sight to end the government shutdown, a high-stakes meeting underway soon.

New year, old beef. One of the president's biggest Republican critics comes out swings as he walking into the Senate.

Plus, Netflix under fire for yanking an episode of a comedian's show at the request of the Saudi government.

And from the world of Democrats, Elizabeth Warren to Iowa, Joe Biden's got the best case, says another, and Nancy Pelosi, she'll chop your head off, so says her own daughter.

But first, a White House sit-down in response to the government shutdown. President Trump will meet soon with leaders from both parties in the White House Situation Room. And the situation that they're facing is the partial government shutdown that is now into its 12th day. I want to bring in CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins on this story.

And, Kaitlan, a Hill source familiar with this meeting says it appears to be more of a stunt than a serious discussion. What are we expecting out of this?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's certainly what Democrats thing. But even people here at the White House do not think a lot is going to come from that meeting. They don't think that they're going to walk out of there and have this grand plan to reopen the government because essentially neither side is budging at the moment. So if they're being realistic, their expectations for that meeting are pretty low and they're essentially saying it's going to be more of a briefing than it is some kind of negotiating meeting where they're going to talk out of there with a solution.

Now, Brianna, the optics are certainly at play here because that meeting is taking place the Situation Room, obviously typically reserved for national security matters. But, instead, they'll be in there for this meeting, which makes us presume there will not be cameras like there were the last time Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi were here meeting with the president in that infamous meeting where they were essentially yelling at each other in the Oval Office.

Now, in this meeting today, White House officials want to get across the message that they believe what's happening at the border is so urgent that why it's being held in the Situation Room and that's why they're willing to keep the government closed as they try to fight for the funding that they want for the president's long-promised border wall.

Now, over the holidays, the president was essentially here at the White House virtually alone and he continued to dig in, calling allies and telling them he is not giving up on his signature campaign promise and that he wants $5 billion for the wall. Now, if you talk to White House aides, they say they do not believe that they're going to get that because Democrats aren't budging.

But essentially what will likely end up here -- with here is, Brianna, that both sides are going to have to give something up to get the government back open because President Trump is saying he will not sign a bill if it comes to the White House with only $1.3 billion allotted for border security. Now, if the president is saying he's not going to sign it, then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not going to bring it to the floor. So this impasse is going to continue. And White House officials believe it could stretch out for some time and they do not think today's meeting is going to move them any closer to coming up with a solution.

KEILAR: Well, that is depressing.

Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much. We're hearing that from both sides.

COLLINS: Happy New Year.

KEILAR: Happy New Year.

Let's get a fact check now.

The president tweeted about his wall, the cause for this shutdown, earlier today. He writes, Mexico is paying for the wall through the new USMCA trade deal. Much of the wall has already been fully renovated or built. We have done a lot of work. $5.6 billion that House has approved is very little in comparison to the benefits of national security. Quick payback.

OK, almost all of that is untrue, we should mention. The USMCA has not been ratified by Mexico and Canada or approved by Congress here in the U.S. Officials have not said how, if passed, this trade agreement will pay for the wall.

Also, construction has not started on the wall that Trump often describes. If it had, and if much of it was done, why would there be a government shutdown? Instead, some new and replacement fencing has been added as part of, but just a small part, of $1.6 billion in border security funding included in that big old omnibus bill signed by President Trump last year. A big old funding bill. And that is roughly the same amount of border security funding that Democrats have agreed to this time around. That is an amount right now that Trump says just isn't enough, doesn't go far enough from him.

Now to the verbal smackdown between President Trump and soon to be Senator Mitt Romney. This started with an op-ed by Romney in "The Washington Post." And in this he criticized President Trump's character and leadership. Romney writes, when he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion, but on balance his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.

CNN congressional correspondent Sunlen Serfaty is joining us live.

So, Sunlen, tell us about this back and forth between the president and Mitt Romney.

[13:05:03] SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's quite a back and forth, Brianna, and another chapter in their long and storied relationship.

But this comes one day before Mitt Romney will be sworn in as the next senator from Utah, potentially setting the stage for an even bigger battle ahead for them. That was a really harsh op-ed by Mitt Romney in "The Washington Post." And we saw President Trump really fire right back over Twitter and mock him essentially for losing the 2012 presidential election. Trump tweeting earlier this morning, quote, here we go with Mitt Romney but so fast. Question will be, is he a Flake? I hope not. Would much prefer Mitt focus on border security and so many other 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.

And a reference there in President Trump's tweet, of course, to the outgoing senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, who, of course, at times challenged President Trump and became something of the chief Republican critic of President Trump. A lot of questions up here on Capitol Hill, Brianna, whether Mitt Romney will assume the new mantle.

Also noting one person coming to President Trump's defense this morning is Ronna McDaniel, the head of the RNC. She, of course, is the niece of Mitt Romney, which makes this tweet something remarkable. She says, quote, 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 is disappointing and unproductive.

So certainly a remarkable statement there by Ronna McDaniel saying -- calling her uncle a freshman Republican senator.


KEILAR: It certainly is.

Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill, thank you. And this isn't the first time, as you heard Sunlen say, that Trump and

Romney have shared words, shall we say. Sometimes supportive. Sometimes cordial. Other times not so much. Let's take a look.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (February 2, 2012): Mitt is tough. He's smart. He's sharp.

MITT ROMNEY (R), UTAH SENATOR-ELECT (February 2, 2012): Being in Donald Trump's magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight.

TRUMP (February 2, 2012): I like him a lot. He's a friend of mine. I like him a lot.

ROMNEY (March 3, 2016): Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.

TRUMP (March 2, 2016): He was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, Mitt, drop to your knees. He would have dropped to his knees.

ROMNEY (JUNE 10, 2016): This is not a matter of just policy, it's more a matter of character and integrity.

TRUMP (April 12, 2016): The last election should have been won except Romney choked like a dog. He choked. He went --

ROMNEY (November 30, 2016): These discussions I've had with him have been enlightening, and interesting, and engaging. I've enjoyed them very, very much.

TRUMP: (June 8, 2018): Mitt's a straight shooter. Whether people love him or don't love him, Mitt --

REPORTER: But you called him a conman last time.

TRUMP: Mitt Romney is a straight shooter.


KEILAR: And we will hear from Mitt Romney again in just a few hours right here on CNN. He's going to be talking with Jake Tapper on "THE LEAD" at 4:00 p.m. Eastern, so make sure to tune into that.

I want to bring in CNN political director David Chalian, because Trump says that he hopes Romney isn't another Jeff Flake, but wouldn't that actually be the case in a scenario like this so -- where you have someone who's become kind of a thorn in the president's side, but it also makes you wonder if, like Jeff Flake, Mitt Romney might rhetorically be against the president but ultimately Jeff Flake would vote with the president's initiatives and Brett Kavanaugh, for instance, confirmation hearings.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, perfect example. To what end is this. It's a -- potentially a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. You know, I notice Jeff Flake actually retweeted or tweeted out the Romney op-ed. Cindy McCain retweeted it. To me it's just, here we are in 2019, new year but familiar patterns here.

You're noting, yes, there's a new, big voice who a lot of people in the country know coming to the United States Senate, that's Mitt Romney, but is he going to have any more of an ability than Jeff Flake or Bob Corker or the late John McCain, when he has a disagreement with the president to sway Republicans on The Hill or Republicans across the country to his side? I'm not sure that he will.

In fact, Rand Paul just announced he's holding a press conference to denounce this. You see what the chairwoman of the RNC is doing. You have the Trump forces of the Republican Party, which is the larger share of the Republican Party, Brianna, sort of gathering around the president here and pushing back on Romney's argument.

KEILAR: There's a point that Ronna McDaniel makes that I wonder about, though, where she says, this is the first act, right, of an incoming senator. What's this -- what's the strategy of, hey, I haven't even walked in the door and I'm already throwing out this missile before I do?

CHALIAN: Yes, I was really surprised when I saw this because my big question about Mitt Romney was, how is he going to use this new position? Does he want to be the most vocal sort of part of a resistance inside the Republican party to the president and guide in a way that he thinks is more appropriate, or is he going to, you know, vote with the president most of the time, go along, get along, and occasionally raise his vice? He makes clear in the op-ed, he's not going to comment on every tweet, he's not going to comment on everything the president says, but he does want to hold him accountable on this character and integrity issue.

It's a devastating op-ed. There's no doubt. I just don't know what it will amount to except this, it seems to me he's holding out the option that if Donald Trump continues to go in what Romney thinks is a bad direction, if he loses support among the Republican Party, perhaps Romney would be there standing at the end of the day to try and take up that mantle. Maybe he's holding out the option of a 2020 run. I'm skeptical of that. This is a president whose still quite popular with Republicans.

[13:10:22] KEILAR: Yes, good point.

OK, so shutdown meeting. This is what we're watching at the White House. We're not going to get to see it, like some of the, because it's in the Situation Room.

But there was something Nancy Pelosi, who is a part of this, her daughter said something I want to talk about. This is what she said about her mom's negotiating skills.


ALEXANDRA PELOSI, DAUGHTER OF INCOMING HOUSE SPEAKER: She'll cut your head off and you won't even know you're bleeding. That's all you need to know about her. No one ever won betting against Nancy Pelosi. She's persevered. You've got to give her credit. No matter what you think of her, you have to give her credit because she went -- think about it, think about all those presidents she's endured, right? She was the -- the Bush, the Bush, the Clinton, you know, she's been through it all. So she's been around. This is not her first rodeo, as your friend George Bush would say. So she knows what she's doing. And that should make you sleep at night.


KEILAR: That should make you sleep at night. What's --

CHALIAN: Will cut your head off and you won't know that you're bleeding.

KEILAR: I -- it's amazing. And you can see Alisyn and John responding to that as it happened.

So how is -- how is that going to apply to this?

CHALIAN: Well, listen, I think that she's already living up to that reputation a little bit in the sense that she appears that she doesn't want to budge at all. She believes she's got a new authority, a new power, which she does, you know, likely to be elected speaker tomorrow. She's planning -- they've announced the strategy -- to pass government funding bills to open up the government and throw that hot potato back into Republican hands.

And here's the catch, she's actually going to pass bills with the Democratic majority in the House that the Senate Republicans already unanimously agreed to before the shutdown. What happened was President Trump flipped. So what I think you are seeing here is that Nancy Pelosi is saying, you guys, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, need to figure out your strategy together going forward.

KEILAR: She's trying to draw that wedge between them.

So, so then Republicans, especially when we hear our reporters saying, guys, nothing's going -- no one expects on either side anything to come out of this meeting, what's the Republican strategy?

CHALIAN: So this is what I am most keenly paying attention to out of this meeting, Brianna, how are the Republicans in that meeting going to provide Donald Trump a way out of the corner he backed himself into? Mitch McConnell, as you know, he was ready. He passed these bills and he wanted to leave town. So now what we're going to look for is, what do the Republicans come out of this meeting and say that indicate the fig leaf that they are going to try to provide Donald Trump to get the government back up and running? Some compromise that they can point to for the president as a bit of a victory here. It will be tough.

KEILAR: All right. Well, we'll stay tuned. Weeks this shutdown could last is what we heard from some of the people we've had on in previous days.


KEILAR: David Chalian, thank you so much, as always.

CHALIAN: Thanks.

KEILAR: New today, the U.S. granted access to the American detained in Russia, but is this Moscow's revenge?

Plus, Netflix pulling an episode of a comedian's show at the request of the Saudi government. Hear why. We'll talk about the criticism.

Also, as Elizabeth Warren heads to Iowa, one Democratic star says Joe Biden has got the best case among everyone to be president. We'll discuss that.


[13:17:37] KEILAR: New today, U.S. officials have now been able to meet with Paul Whelan. He is that U.S. citizen arrested in Russia on spying charges according to that government. A spokeswoman for Russia's foreign ministry saying that. And his brother says that Whelan traveled to Russia just to help out a friend with a wedding.


DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF DETAINED AMERICAN PAUL WHELAN: He was visiting Moscow for a wedding for a friend and helping his friend because Paul had been to Russia before and could navigate Moscow and the sites and so he was helping to squire some of the American tourists around who were part of the wedding party.

We don't really know why he was picked up by the Russians, why he's being charged with espionage. So I'm not sure that -- we're worried about anything other than getting him out of Russia.


KEILAR: CNN intelligence and security analysts and former CIA operative Bob Baer joining me now on this.

Let's talk through this, if you can, with your expertise. He meets with consular officials. How does that go? Then what happens?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Well, they're going to ask him if he's being treated well. They're going to want to talk to the jailers. They're going to ask him why he thinks he's in jail. It's fairly normal for this. It happens in the first 72 hours, it's supposed to. And any time an American is arrested overseas, he's supposed to have access to consulate officials.

KEILAR: And why do you think the State Department is being pretty tight-lipped about this?

BAER: Well, I think it's a diplomatic crisis for Trump, for this administration, because, frankly, I believe this man's a hostage. And so they're asking themselves, why have the Russians at this point taken in an innocent American and holding him as a spy? It makes no sense.

KEILAR: Is it hard for you to believe that he is an intel agent of the U.S. knowing his background?

BAER: I know Russian operations and I know that they're run very carefully and they do not take contractors, send them to Moscow to commit an act of espionage. It just doesn't happen.

You know, we were talking, it could be a rogue operation, but I very much doubt that.

KEILAR: OK. So his arrest, it comes two weeks -- you can't ignore the timing here because it's two weeks after Russian spy -- alleged Russian spy, I should be clear about that -- Maria Butina pleads guilty in federal court to trying to infiltrate Republican political circles. We now know that she is cooperating with investigations into Russian interference in politics here in the U.S. into the election. Do you see the connection here?

BAER: Oh, I do. I think that Putin is furious about her. I think that Putin --

[13:20:04] KEILAR: Even though he claims he doesn't know who she is and know about her?

BAER: Yes, he claims. Yes. Well, that doesn't mean she wasn't an agent, so to speak, and she didn't have diplomatic immunity and she wasn't a proper spy. But, you know, and the relationship with Russian intelligence is tenuous and he's mad about it and he says do not -- do not arrest our citizens and put them in jail for espionage when they didn't commit espionage.

KEILAR: And when you read about -- now -- first we didn't know much about Paul Whelan. We know significantly more now, I would say. We've obtained his military record. He spent 14 years in the Marines. He was dishonorably discharged, convicted of -- at a special court martial on several charges related to larceny. That was back in 2008.

We do know that he was sort of this Rusofile (ph), right? He had a -- he's been to Russia many times. He's had this interest from the time back to when he was in the Marines that he would go and visit and he found it, according to social media posts, just really intriguing with Russia's background.

But knowing what you know about him being dishonorably discharged, is this someone who would even be entertained as someone to join the intel community?

BAER: Oh, absolutely not. He couldn't get a top secret clearance.


BAER: That's a bar, a larceny, dishonorable discharge. No way.

KEILAR: OK. So he's on this Russian social media platform. He's on it for the past 13 years. This is something where he would be in -- and he was in touch with a lot of Russians. He had friends who were in the military in Russia. What does that say to you?

BAER: I could see this guy going to Russia, meeting some officials, asking sensitive questions about the regime, about the FSB, anything that would alert the Russians. They put surveillance on him. He does a couple dumb things. They get enough evidence for a Russian court to haul him in. But at the end of the day, he's pretty much a hostage and the Russians know that.

KEILAR: And how does this end, do you think?

BAER: It doesn't end well. I mean this is a shot across Trump's bow from Putin saying, come on.

KEILAR: All right, Bob Baer, thanks so much.

BAER: Thanks.

KEILAR: Coming up, what do Democrat Harry Reid, Republican Mitt Romney and retired General Stanley McChrystal all have in common? They all say that Trump is immoral or amoral. I'm going to talk with a Republican congressman about this.

Plus, Elizabeth Warren is heading to Iowa as her campaign for 2020 kicks off, but are questions of electability already weighing her down?


[13:26:56] KEILAR: President Trump's character is coming under criticism from past and future leaders. In a "Washington Post" op-ed, former presidential nominee and soon to be Senator Mitt Romney wrote this about the president, 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.

Romney isn't the only one, though, questioning the president's character. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, perhaps less surprisingly, tells "The New York Times" magazine that the president, quote, is not immoral but is amoral. And when asked during an interview if he thought Trump was immoral, retired Four-Star General Stanley McChrystal responded, I think he is.

Joining me now is Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick.

Congressman, thank you so much for being with us.

I know that you've heard this criticism that's been going on here very recently. You have been an outspoken critic of the president. But do you think that he is immoral or amoral as some of these others say?

REP. BRIAN FITZPATRICK (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Yes, I haven't had a chance to read Mitt Romney's op-ed. I will tell you, he's a good man and I'm looking forward to serving with him in Congress. But, Brianna, what I have focused in on really, and I think this has been a concern for a lot of people, is the tone and the demeanor of the president. I think it's been unbecoming, quite frankly. And it detract on what he's trying to accomplish. And this is a natural phenomenon. And any relationship you're in, how you talk to people matters. The language that you use matters. And when -- and I've seen this play out in the last immigration debate, during the last government shutdown, where people came close to a solution, particularly the members of my Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of centrists in Congress, and the language was actually very, very counterproductive.

KEILAR: So you focus on the language and the tone. Do you think that weighing in, as Mitt Romney and Stanley McChrystal have done, as Harry Reid is doing, weighing in on the morality of the president is counterproductive or productive?

FITZPATRICK: Yes, I mean, getting into like, you know, psychological assessments or character, I think that's a vicious downward spiral. I think that if we focus on the tone, the language, which is certainly something that really needs to be improved, Brianna, it really does, and I think that's something we can all agree on, and the policies as well.

KEILAR: I wonder then what you think about Jerry Falwell Junior, obviously a prominent evangelist, president of Liberty University, he says that evangelicals may be immoral for not supporting Trump because his policies have helped so many people.

FITZPATRICK: Yes, and I think --

KEILAR: You're shaking your head. What do you think?

FITZPATRICK: I think -- I think that's ridiculous. You know, once we start questioning people's morals and character -- again, I mean I think what we really need to focus on, Brianna, is the way we talk to each other, civility. These things matter. And when we start going down this road of cutting right to the core of people's character and psychological assessment and morals, I don't think that's productive.

Now, does the tone and civility -- should that be questioned and held to the higher standard. You better believe it. Because that directly translates into the ability or inability to get things done, like immigration, which is what is front and center right now.

[13:30:00] KEILAR: All right, let's talk about the shutdown.

What do you think's going to come out of this meeting at the White House between the president and top Democrats and Republicans?