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Trump Refusing Measures Proposed to Reopen Government; Trump on Warring Parties in Middle East, Says He Told U.S. Generals to "Let Them Fight"; Trump: We'll Keep Government Shut Down for "As Long As It Takes"; Interview With California Congressman John Garamendi. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 2, 2019 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump shows no sign of budging in the shutdown showdown, as he summons congressional leaders to the White House Situation Room. Tonight, the crippling effects of the deadlock are intensifying a dozen days in.

Wouldn't it be scary? Mr. Trump compares his power to President Obama's, talking the ears off his Cabinet after being holed up in the White House over the holidays. The venter in chief targeting fellow Republican Mitt Romney and other critics of his character.

Secret Mueller filing. The U.S. Supreme Court could take action at any moment on a mystery case related to the special counsel's investigation. Will we learn more about the role of an unnamed company owned by a foreign nation?

And Russia prison visit. An American arrested on spy charges is allowed to see the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. We're learning more about Paul Whelan's background and what he supposedly was doing in Russia.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: President Trump and congressional leaders wrap up talks over at the White House without any breakthrough to end the government shutdown, the president standing firmly on his demand for $5 billion-plus to pay for his border wall, appearing to be in no mood for a compromise, a day before Democrats take control of the House.

Mr. Trump signaling the standoff could drag on for many more days or even weeks, as he spoke during an earlier Cabinet meeting. He rambled on a number of topics, including the exit of the defense secretary, James Mattis, the president twisting the facts, claiming he essentially fired Mattis, when he actually resigned in protest.

I will get reaction from Democratic Congressman John Garamendi, who serves on the Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents, analysts and guests are also standing by.

First, let's go to our White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, Democrats called tonight's White House meeting a stunt and nothing seems, at least for now, to have come out of it.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Nothing, Wolf. And aides weren't expecting much and they certainly didn't get much, with that meeting essentially ending in a deadlock with no sides being closer to any kind of compromise to reopen the government after it has been shut down for 12 days now.

And the White House is blaming Democrats, and Democrats are blaming the White House, and they're essentially going to put these talks off again until Friday after the House speaker race, which the White House is trying to tie to this thing, saying essentially that Nancy Pelosi is making these arguments because she wants to be able to win the race to be House speaker, though that is an idea Nancy Pelosi has rebuffed.

Wolf, what we do know is certain is that neither side is budging and neither side is closer to reopening the government.


COLLINS (voice-over): Washington in a stalemate tonight with no end to the government shutdown in sight.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States needs a physical barrier.

COLLINS: After President Trump rejected an offer his own vice president and chief of staff floated to Democrats just last week, a deal that would include $2.5 billion for border security, about half of what he is asking for.

TRUMP: No, not 2.5. No, we are asking for 5.6 and, you know, somebody said 2.5. No. Look, this is national security we're talking about.

COLLINS: That's a proposal Democrats later turned down, but the president's comments at his Cabinet meeting setting the tone for his sit-down with Democrat and Republican leaders from both the House and the Senate this afternoon, where no progress was made.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: We had a long discussion. The president asked us to come back on Friday.

COLLINS: Democrats emerging from the meeting to announce they will bring bills that would reopen the government to the House floor tomorrow, though it won't make of a difference since Senate Majority Leader McConnell has vowed not to bring a vote in the Senate unless the president has endorsed it.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: I said, Mr. President, give me one good reason why you should continue your shutdown of these -- of the eight Cabinet departments while we are debating our differences on Homeland Security. He could not give a good answer.

COLLINS: A Hill source familiar with the meeting calling it -- quote -- "more of a White House stunt than a serious attempt to have a discussion," as Trump spent the morning claiming Mexico is paying for the wall through the recently renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, an idea that has stumped lawmakers and aides alike since it hasn't even passed Congress yet.

Trump falsely claiming of the wall has been built, when in fact none of it has. The president's Cabinet meeting turning into a nearly two- hour affair after he spent the holidays virtually alone.

TRUMP: I was all by myself in the White House. It is a big, big house, except for all of the guys out on the lawn with machine guns. Nicest machine guns I have ever seen.


COLLINS: Trump starting the new year surrounded by a new staff, as seven of the 21 Cabinet positions are now filled by deputies or acting officials, including the chief of staff, attorney general and defense secretary.


The president falsely stating today that he fired his former Pentagon chief James Mattis.

TRUMP: As you know, President Obama fired him, and essentially so did I. I want results.

COLLINS: Mattis resigned in protest over the president's sudden decision to withdraw troops from Syria, saying as much in a scathing resignation letter that sources said Trump didn't realize was so critical. He blasted the retired general today.

TRUMP: General Mattis was so thrilled, but what has he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good.

COLLINS: Trump, who didn't serve in the military, but prides himself on being surrounded by generals, adding:

TRUMP: I think I would have been a good general, but who knows.

COLLINS: Though that's far from the president's only feud in Washington, with incoming senator Mitt Romney telling CNN's Jake Tapper this today:

MITT ROMNEY (R), UTAH SENATOR-ELECT: He was endorsing me. I wasn't endorsing him, and I haven't decided who I'm going to endorse in 2020.

COLLINS: That interview coming after Romney bashed Trump in a scathing op-ed in "The Washington Post," claiming the Trump presidency -- quote -- "made a deep descent with the departures of Mattis and John Kelly."

The president uncharacteristically restrained in his response.

TRUMP: I read his op-ed. I just hope he's going to be a team player.

COLLINS: But he seemed to be saving the fire for Mitt Romney's own niece, the RNC chair who was urged to stop using her maiden name last year. She didn't name her uncle, instead writing: "For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack Donald Trump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want."


COLLINS: Now, Wolf, Mitt Romney responded to that criticism. He said he didn't think the exchange between he and his niece would have been as civil if it happened at the dinner table during Thanksgiving, but he said she was simply expressing her viewpoint that she thought was best for the Republican Party and for the president.

But, Wolf, there may not have been as much distance between Mitt Romney as he's trying to put with the op-ed out there because he did say when asked about the government shutdown that he would, in fact, vote for the president's border wall -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you.

Let's go to Capitol Hill right now.

Our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is on the scene for us.

Phil, tonight, Democrats say the president is holding the government hostage with the shutdown. Is there any path that you see toward a compromise?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, the short answer is no.

In talking to lawmakers as they returned from this meeting and people who were familiar with what happened behind closed doors, they made clear that the meeting itself was civil, but the positions, they have only served to harden.

The president at the top of this meeting first bringing up concerns about his nominations not passing through, with Democrats in the Senate serving to block some of those, before moving on to a pitch to Democratic leaders about the need for the wall.

He then attempted to turn the floor over to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to give a presentation about border security that was intended, administration officials say, to paint the border as in crisis.

But before she could get into her presentation, Nancy Pelosi, the soon-to-be speaker of the House, interrupted and asked for Democrats to have the opportunity to present their proposal. After presenting their proposal, Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, asked the president if he had any good reason, one good reason to oppose that. The president didn't answer. Schumer later asked again. The

president again didn't answer. A person familiar says a third time when Schumer asked the question, Trump responded simply, "I would look foolish if I did that."

So, basically, Wolf, the takeaway coming out of the meeting is things aren't any closer to a resolution, but as Kaitlan alluded to, House Democrats, when they take power tomorrow, are immediately going to take action on their own.

Here is how Nancy Pelosi described it after the meeting.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: We're asking the president to open up government. We are giving him a Republican path to do that. Why would he not do it?


MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, that path will include two proposals, one that would package together six considered non-controversial bipartisan appropriations packages to essentially for a full year fund the majority of the 25 percent of government that's shut down, and then a second proposal that would be a short-term funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, basically give it another month to keep negotiating.

As Kaitlan talked about, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made very clear he will not, not just move forward on anything, even bring anything to the Senate floor without the president saying he would sign off. The president has clearly made clear that the House Democratic proposal, which Senate Democrats are also behind, will not do the trick.

And so now people wait. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when he came back to the Capitol telling my colleague Ted Barrett that it was a good discussion, no real progress made. He's hopeful that progress will be made in days or, as the leader said, potentially weeks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A short-term so-called clean bill to keep the government open for a month while negotiates over border security continue, that did pass the Senate unanimously.

What are whatever Republicans in the Senate saying why they wouldn't vote for something similar, get the government operating, get those workers, federal workers, back and continue negotiations until February?


MATTINGLY: Republicans in the Senate I'm talking to, their staffs, say it is actually a pretty simple calculation.

If the president is going to veto something, if the president doesn't support something, they're simply not willing to move forward on it, particularly given the fact that they're in the majority.

And the reason why, well, just look back to recent history. The Senate, as you alluded to, Wolf, unanimously approved a short-term funding bill that they assumed and were told implicitly that the president would support.

A day-and-a-half later, the president made clear he did not support that. So there's an element here. Republicans feel like they got burned, they don't want to get out in front of the president until he explicitly endorses something. As one Republican told me earlier today, I don't want to know what White House officials have to say, I want to know what the president has to say and I want to know what the president is going to tweet, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, they could override a presidential veto with, what, 67 votes in the Senate. They got a unanimous vote the last time, if they really wanted to go with that temporary measure and continue negotiations for a month while the government reopens.

Phil Mattingly, good report. Thank you very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California. He serves on the Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

So, the president said today he's going to continue the shutdown, in his words, as long as it takes. If the president refuses to budge on that $5.6 billion request he wants for border security, including funding for a wall, what are the Democrats going to do?

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, we're going to pass legislation tomorrow.

Really, moments after we begin the new session, after we have a new speaker, after we have the majority, we're going to pass bills to fund all of government for the remainder of this fiscal year.

That's until next September -- or this coming September, actually. And we will leave the Department of Homeland Security in which the border issue is found open for further in negotiations until February 8, with the continuing resolution for that.

BLITZER: But if Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, refuses to allow what you will pass -- it will clearly past the House of Representatives with the Democratic majority -- if he refuses to even allow that to come up for a vote because he fears the president could veto it, what do you do then?

GARAMENDI: Well, the ball is on his side of the tennis court. It's up to him.

Now he gets to deal with it. We're ready to fund the government. We're ready to do that. The issue is not the national parks. The issue is not the Department of Transportation. The issue is the Department of Homeland Security and the question about a wall. Now, let's keep one thing very clear here. The president has yet to

propose any specific plan about where this wall will be, what it will consist. Is it cement, concrete? Is it spikes of some sort, a cyclone fence?

Not one piece of information about that. And for the Congress to appropriate $5.6 billion so that he could have a slush fund to do something about a wall, no way.

BLITZER: The president said today -- and you heard him in that Cabinet meeting -- the $5.6 billion in his words such as small number when compared to the rest of the government, the billions and billions of dollars the government spends, including the tens of billions he says that's totally wasted on foreign aid.

GARAMENDI: Well, at one point, he would like us to think that's a small number compared to his own bank account.

But that also was a lie. The fact of the matter is, that's taxpayer money. That's $5 billion. That would fund all of the tuition for all of the students at the University of California and the state university system in California for one whole year. It is no small amount of money.

BLITZER: But if there's a government shutdown for a prolonged period of time, that's going to wind up costing taxpayers a lot more money, presumably.

GARAMENDI: No, what will cost the taxpayer money is if Trump doesn't understand that he is not the emperor. He is not the emperor of this nation.

He is the president, and he does have negotiating power. And let's negotiate. But we can't trust the man. We have seen him back away from every position that he's taken on this matter way back to the DACA issue, where he was going to do something beautiful for the DACA students. Didn't happen.

And here again, just a week-and-a-half ago, we saw the president's Saying or at least his staff saying the president we do something. The next morning, we found out the president would not do that.

BLITZER: You heard Phil Mattingly, our congressional correspondent, report that three times, the Democratic -- the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, asked the president why he wouldn't accept this compromise offer to keep the government open for another month, while negotiations over border security continue.

Finally, the president responded, according to Phil Mattingly's excellent reporting -- quote -- "I would look foolish if I did that."

What's your response?

GARAMENDI: This is not about ego. This is not about the presidency.

This is about the United States operating rationally, dealing with border security in a rational way, in which the money that we would appropriate is spent effectively.

We know that a border wall across 1,900 miles isn't going to solve the problem. We know that there needs be fences that need to be built. We know that there needs to be additional port of entry security and to increase that. We know that the Coast Guard interdicts 10 times the amount of drugs that the Border Patrol does.


So let's fund this program in a way that actually provides security for Americans.

BLITZER: What did you think of the president -- and you're on the Armed Services Committee -- saying that he -- quote -- "essentially" fired the defense secretary, James Mattis?

GARAMENDI: Once again, it's about ego. He doesn't want people to quit on him. He wants to be "The Apprentice." He doesn't want to be "The Apprentice." He wants to be the boss that does the firing.

Fine. The fact of the matter is Mattis' letter stands as one of the most important letters written to the president in this administration, because it lays out very, very clearly the problems that this president has created, both militarily and with our international relations.

BLITZER: Congressman Garamendi, thanks for coming in.

GARAMENDI: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: There's more breaking news just ahead.

An American man accused of spying gets a high-level visitor in a Moscow prison.

Plus, the U.S. Supreme Court poised to take action in a mystery Mueller-related grand jury case.



BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the shutdown standoff, as a meeting between the president and congressional leaders appears to have accomplished nothing.

Also this hour, we're keeping a very close eye on the Russia investigation and potential action at the United States Supreme Court. The court is reviewing arguments in a rather mysterious case involving a company owned foreign government.

Our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, is joining us right now.

Shimon, this foreign company, it's putting up a real fight.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: A real fight that's costing a ton of money.

I think that's one of the most interesting things in all this, is how much money this company is spending to try and keep itself out of really the Mueller investigation. They don't want to hand over whatever it is that Mueller is asking for.

Look, we could get a decision from Supreme Court at any point on this. This really has to do with the fact that this company has stopped paying these fees, the fines associated with the fact that they have been held in contempt because they have refused to hand over any of the information that Mueller has been asking for.

We have no idea what this information is. But the only thing we do know is that it's a foreign company owned by a foreign nation state. And their argument has been that it would violate the laws in their country, basically, if they had to turn this information over.

It seems like they're -- just keep on fighting. They have one last chance here of possibly winning anything, and that's now with the Supreme Court. What they will do, we don't, obviously, know yet. But the big thing that we're waiting for is a decision on whether or not the fees, the fines that they have been paying, if that's going to have to continue, or does that stop, and then the big decision whether or not they actually have to turn over the information.

BLITZER: Let's say the Supreme Court rules in favor of Mueller. At what point do we learn the name, the identity of this foreign company owned by a foreign government?

PROKUPECZ: We may never learn the name of this company or what this is about, because it's a grand jury proceeding. And because of that, there's so much secrecy surrounding it.

There could be a point where we never learn anything about this company, unless they're charged or somehow some of these documents are made public. But as we know with grand jury proceedings, usually, that stuff does not become public. But, again, we're dealing with a very different kind of situation, given who's investigating this, given who's under investigation.

So it could be that down the line we do learn who is behind this.

BLITZER: I'm impressed that they managed to keep all this secret.


PROKUPECZ: Even the lawyers. Like, we don't even know who the lawyers are that are representing this company.


PROKUPECZ: That's fascinating.

BLITZER: Pretty impressive. All right, thanks very much, Shimon, for that report.

We have other breaking news also coming out of Russia tonight.

The United States ambassador in Moscow, Jon Huntsman, has been allowed to visit an American citizen arrested by the Russians on spy charges, the U.S. State Department revealing that Huntsman met with Paul Whelan at a detention facility in Moscow.

Let's go to Moscow right now. Our senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, is on the scene for us.

Matthew, there are a lot of unanswered questions about Whelan's arrest, but we're also learning a lot more about his background.


We're building a bit more of a picture up about who this individual is. It seems that he's a -- obviously, we know this already -- a retired U.S. Marine who has a long history of contact with Russia. He has been traveling here for years for both business and for pleasure.

And we now know as well, thanks to U.S. diplomats who have told us this, that he is languishing at the moment in a former KGB prison on the outskirts of Moscow awaiting his fate.


CHANCE (voice-over): Russian and U.S. officials tell CNN consular access has now been granted to Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine, held at Lefortovo Prison in Moscow on charges of espionage.

But, so far, there's been no details on the circumstances of his arrest by the FSB, Russia's main counterespionage agency. Much of what we do know comes from his twin, David Whelan, who denies his brother is a spy.

DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF DETAINED AMERICAN: 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 are part of the wedding party.

CHANCE: It may have been Whelan's longstanding contact with Russia, including social connections to former or active members of the Russian military, that flagged him to the country's security services.


The security consultant regularly posted photos and messages, sometimes in Russian language on a Russian social media platform called VK, similar to Facebook.

CNN contacted one friend, who didn't want to be named, and asked about the allegations against Whelan, his friend for nine years. "I think this is some kind of misunderstanding," the friend responded. "Paul always spoke well of Russia and had many Russian friends," he told us. WHELAN: I knew over the years he'd met Russians. I don't know whether it was through work or through his Marine activity. But he'd met people while he'd been traveling around and he connected with them on social media. And he would tell us that, when he was traveling, he would go and visit those people.

CHANCE: More detail is now also emerging about Whelan's military service. His record obtained by CNN says he spent 14 years in the Marine Corps Reserve serving in Iraq and being discharged for bad conduct in 2008.

A military judge found Whelan guilty of attempted larceny, making false official statements, wrongfully using another's Social Security number, and making checks without having sufficient funds for payment.

It was at this upscale hotel in Central Moscow where Whelan was saying before his arrest on December the 28th. Hotel employees contacted by CNN confirm he was a guest, but said they were unaware of his detention.

But it's the timing that looks most suspicious. Whelan was detained just weeks after Russian gun enthusiast Maria Butina, held in the U.S., pleaded guilty to conspiracy after U.S. prosecutors accused of trying to infiltrate the NRA and the Republican Party.

There's no apparent direct link between the cases, just speculation that Whelan may be a useful negotiating chip for the Kremlin if some kind of prisoner swap is eventually agreed.


CHANCE: Well, we're still some way off, obviously, Wolf, from any kind of prisoner swap at this stage.

At the moment, we have just had the first consular visit. It's done, as you mentioned, by Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia. He has spoken with Mr. Whelan. He then later personally called the family of Paul Whelan to discuss his condition with them, a sign of just how seriously the United States is taking this case.

BLITZER: Well, very serious if the U.S. ambassador himself went and made this visit, as opposed to sending a lower-level consular or embassy official. That's very, very significant.

Matthew Chance in Moscow for us, thank you very much.

Just ahead, the president is keeping everyone guessing right now about what kind of compromise he would accept to end the government shutdown. As Democrats are just hours away from taking control of the House, is anyone going to blink?


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this hour, another sign that the president isn't willing to accept a compromise to end the government shutdown, a source telling CNN that Mr. Trump told Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that if he accepted the Democrats' latest offer, he'd, quote, "look foolish."

[18:333:01] Let's bring in our analysts and our experts.

And Jackie, how does this get resolved? The president says he needs $5.6 billion for border security, including for the wall. The Democrats say, "No way." What's going to happen?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, I think we're about to embark on a time-honored legislation tradition of the blame game, where each side is going to either pass legislation or try to figure out ways to make the other side look unreasonable.

Now, the difference is between, you know, some other versions of the blame game is this lies solely with the president. And right now the president doesn't seem to be listening to anyone but his right flank. He's already undermined his vice president, Mike Pence, several times since he was the one who was pushing this $2.5 billion compromise.

Now so, really, it lies with him. He is the only one who can end this.

BLITZER: The president -- go ahead, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Can I just -- Just like be Captain Obvious here for a second. You know, it's not the job of the president to worry about whether he looks foolish or not. His job is to do work for the American people. You know, it's not about how he's perceived. It is about what's good. It is about whether the government should be shut down, or a big part of it, for the next six months. I mean, that's how it's looking.

And you know, the narcissism implicit in saying, "I can't agree with you, because I would look foolish" is just amazing to me.

BLITZER: Yes, well, but you remember --

TOOBIN: I am amazed.

BLITZER: -- the history, Jeffrey, that the president and the White House gave signals to Mitch McConnell to go ahead and support a compromise, a temporary compromise. It passed the Senate unanimously, Republicans and Democrats, but he got a lot of criticism from some conservatives out there, and the next morning he changed his mind.

TOOBIN: That's right. Because Ann Coulter apparently is president of the United States. I mean, it was her criticism, and Laura Ingraham's, that turned this whole thing around. And all Nancy Pelosi is doing is agreeing with what the Senate passed, virtually unanimously.

[18:35:04] So I mean, the idea here that there is some big partisan difference is not true. This is just Donald Trump. He's the only person who wants this to go forward.

BLITZER: You know, David, what do you think about the president saying to Schumer in this meeting that they had in the situation room over at the White House, "I would look foolish if I did that" in accepting this compromise"?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So the president knows at a minimum that, at some point, even Democrats will want to end this shutdown, but in the short term, as Jackie said, Democrats have changed things. They have control of the House. They have that December 11 footage of the president saying, "I own the shutdown." And Democrats know that their constituents want them to stand up to Trump in the same way that Republican -- that the president's Republican supporters want him to stand up to Democrats.

One thing that the president, I think, has failed to demonstrate in his first two years as president is to understand that, just like he has his supporters, the Ann Coulters, the Rush Limbaughs, his core voters who want him to do certain things, Democrats have their core supporters, too. And if he doesn't want to make a deal with them, you're going to wind up in this situation with a protracted shutdown.

BLITZER: In this extraordinary cabinet meeting, Samantha, the president had today, and cameras were allowed in for nearly two hours as the president spoke, members of the cabinet spoke, the president raised a lot of eyebrows with this comment about the outgoing defense secretary.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What has 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, but he was very happy. He was very thankful when I got him $700 billion and then the following year $716 billion.

So, I mean, I wish him well. I hope he does well. But as you know, President Obama fired him and, essentially, so did I. I want results.


BLITZER: Now, we know James Mattis resigned in protest to the president's policies including his decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, one thing the president does excel at is reinventing history, and this is no different. We all know the truth about what happened with General Mattis.

And it's really unclear who, at this point, the president is convincing with his narrative, other than perhaps voices in his own head.

But if he is trying to hire a qualified secretary of defense, this entire press briefing did a major disservice. He not only undercut General Mattis -- he's done that before -- he also made policy statements that were wholly dissimilar from everything that his current officials are saying on Iran, on Syria, on Afghanistan and other issues. So if he's trying to recruit someone that actually wants to implement policy and really manage a workforce that is independent of the president's latest mood swings, he's going to have a very hard time finding people who fit that description.

BLITZER: He had the cabinet in the cabinet room at the White House for this -- this meeting today. Once again cameras were there. But seven members of the cabinet right now -- and we've got a graphic we'll show our viewers. There you will see the acting attorney general, acting defense secretary, EPA administrator, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., the White House chief of staff, the interior secretary, the OMB director, all either acting or temporary fill-ins. That's a problem.

KUCINICH: It's a problem for lots of reasons, and it's one of the reasons there's such chaos in a lot of these agencies right now, because there's no one to lead them in the midst of a government shutdown. So no one really knows what they're doing.

And not to mention, we're talking about people not getting paid, some are showing up to work and not getting paid to do their job. They're still doing their jobs.

So the morale in the federal government -- and, you know, I know it's the federal government and everyone likes to hate on the federal government. These are important jobs.

VINOGRAD: Can I say something --

KUCINICH: These are important jobs people are not getting paid to do.

VINOGRAD: -- about the acting officials, if they were acting, even if they were deputy secretary before or some other position, the president did not pick them to be secretary of the respective agency. He did not think that they had the qualifications to lead these agencies and department, to engage with foreign counterparts overseas and to manage in that kind of capacity.

So we have people in these positions that are not qualified to have them, and the president seems content with that for whatever reason.

BLITZER: Let me get Jeffrey to weigh in. Go ahead.

TOOBIN: Starting -- starting with the attorney -- the acting attorney general of the United States, who's never been confirmed for anything. I mean at least most of those other lower level officials had been confirmed by the Senate for deputy secretary or similar positions. Matt Whitaker is just some guy appointed by the president to run the -- to run the department, in defiance of the constitutional command that every leader of a cabinet department is supposed to be confirmed by the Senate.

BLITZER: He -- he was not confirmed as the acting attorney general. He was confirmed many years ago as a U.S. attorney in Iowa.

TOOBIN: But that doesn't count. That's a previous administration.

BLITZER: Well, yes, that was many years ago, but he did pass Senate confirmation then. But in order to be the attorney general right now, the acting attorney general, you're right, he has to be confirmed. But they've got a new rule saying he doesn't necessarily have to be confirmed, so he is the acting attorney general, at least for the time being. Right now, you wanted to weigh in, David?

[18:40:05] SWERDLICK: No, I was going to stay in addition to everything else, the fact that there are so many acting and interim people in senior cabinet level or White House positions suggests that the book is out on President Trump.

People know that, if you go into this administration with expertise in a particular area, there's no reason to think that the president will listen to your wise, experienced, expert advice. He's going to do what he wants, no matter what. Some of these top people like General Mattis, Secretary Mattis, will tell him behind the scenes, and that makes it unattractive to work in a cabinet level position.

BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey, this other story that's developed, the U.S. Supreme Court is now considering whether or not Robert Mueller and the Russia probe, they can continue to subpoena this mysterious foreign company owned by a mysterious foreign nation to cooperate with this subpoena, and the Supreme Court has got to make a decision, maybe as early as today.

TOOBIN: It really is a remarkable situation. You know, it's not unprecedented to have these kind of fights in the lower courts, even in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the caption on these cases is usually in re sealed case.

And the description in the opinions is usually so generic and abstract it is often the case, or it can be the case that we never find out what country this is, what company this is, who the lawyers are for the company involved.

So unless the company comes forward in some way or is later charged in some way, it may be that this whole thing remains a mystery.

What's so unusual about this is the U.S. Supreme Court is getting involved. Usually with these grand jury disputes, they get resolved at the circuit court level or certainly at the district court level.

Here, Chief Justice Roberts basically grabbed this case and said, "This is important enough for us to take," and we'll see, [erhaps, as you say, as early as today whether these fines will start to take effect for compliance with the subpoena while the appeal goes forward or whether the fines are stayed. That's the issue before the court now.

BLITZER: Right. What's impressive is we still don't know this mysterious company, this foreign company, the identity or the government that owns this company, still haven't -- that still has not leaked, at least not yet.

We have a lot more on the breaking news right after this.


[18:47:03] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our analysts. More on the breaking news on the president's rambling, one-sided conversation during a lengthy, nearly two-hour meeting with his cabinet.

Let's discuss.

David Swerdlick, not a traditional cabinet meeting. First of all, they allowed -- and we're happy about this -- cameras to be in there throughout the entire meeting. The president was clearly in a mood to talk. He has been home alone over the past several days during the Christmas, New Year's break.

Watch him, though, explain his concerns about American involvement in the Middle East.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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? I said, let 'em fight, they're both our enemies, let 'em fight. Sir, we want to do it. They go in and they end up fighting both of them.

It is the craziest thing I have ever seen. I think I would have been a good general, but who knows?


BLITZER: What's your reaction?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So, narrowly I think when the president is speaking there, he is missing the idea that presumably if somewhere in Afghanistan ISIS and the Taliban are up against each other, that if they just fight each other to the death that's going to solve the broader problems in Afghanistan. Clearly, that's not the case. Clearly, there are more than just combatants involved. There are civilians. There's the Afghanistan government to consider.

More broadly, Wolf, I think the problem is that the president again is addressing this as if things started when he became president. The reason that we're in Afghanistan -- and there are arguments for getting out, but one of the arguments for staying this is that if we could have gotten out, we would have gotten out.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, you think he would have been a good general but who knows?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: I would say I would be on the who knows part of that equation. You know, it is so unbelievable. You know, the -- it is not -- like most presidents have read a book before they became president and know something about the history of the region or they listen to people or they read briefing papers. The idea that the whole story there is ISIS and Taliban fighting each other and let's just leave is so incredible that it is really hard to know how to address it.

The other point though is, isolationism -- like letting the rest of the world go to hell, that has a deep and enduring appeal in the United States. A lot of people will listen to that very truncated history and think, you know what, the hell with them all, let's just leave. And that's a distinguished pedigree.

BLITZER: You worked in national security during the Obama administration.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, FORMER OBAMA ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Wolf, simply what the president is nonsense. We can sit here and try to ascertain some kind of logic to what he said, but what is very clear here is that he's not listening to anybody that works for him. We have a national security adviser that I hope is trying to brief him on the reality of counterterrorism strategy. He has a secretary of state that is just meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, assuring him we will continue to fight Iran even if we withdraw from Syria.

[18:50:02] And this whole nonsensical press conference, the president literally said the opposite of what his entire team is saying. So, at this point, it is unclear to me why the president holding a cabinet meeting, holding a Situation Room briefing if he's just going off and making stuff up.

BLITZER: And I want Jackie to weigh in on that exchange that Mitt Romney, the senator-elect, he's going to be sworn in tomorrow, the new senator from Utah, he wrote this very strong op-ed, very critical of the president in the "Washington Post." He spoke later in the day with Jake Tapper and had this exchange.


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

SEN.-ELECT MITT ROMNEY (R), UTAH: 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 wait and see what the alternatives are.


What do you make of that?


It really could -- there are a couple things. We could speculate and say that Mitt Romney is looking to carve a lane out for himself to run against the president and that speculation won't go away for Mitt Romney. That said, I think more likely he's carving out a place for himself in the Senate perhaps the place where Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, once held and now they are -- and the late John McCain. So, we'll see where he goes.

I think there's a lot of questions of what Romney is going to do if he disagrees with the president. Because there was a lot of criticism, particularly of someone like a Jeff Flake, that it was a lot of words and not a lot of action.


SWERDLICK: Wolf, can I just say, the president there in that -- I mean, excuse me, senator Romney in that clip there, he was backing off his own strong op-ed from the previous day. That statement there where he said, I -- he endorsed me, I didn't endorse him. It's like, taking back an endorsement or saying I -- you know, the president endorsed me before I was against it. It's this weird thing.

KUCINICH: Wait, are you saying he flip-flopped?

SWERDLICK: Yes, that is a long --


BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. I've got to take a quick break.

Much more on the breaking news just ahead. We're also following the potentially very dangerous situation as the partial government shutdown drags on. A visit to a national park could be hazardous to your health.


[18:56:47] BLITZER: Tonight, with no breakthrough on the horizon, the partial government shutdown is having more of a crippling effect on federal facilities 12 days into the standoff. That includes a health and safety emergency ongoing right now at a very popular national park.

CNN's Nick Watts reports from Joshua Tree National Park in California.


SETH ZAHARIAS, VOLUNTEER: And here's some trash bags that we can have. Do you guys need gloves?

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A small army of volunteers keeping Joshua Tree as clean as they can.

ZAHARIAS: We're operating now, but I'm working 11 to 13 hours a day running what I do for a living, running rock climbing trips, and maintaining the park, and yeah, what we're doing right now is not sustainable.

WATT: The toll booths are closed, no one's collecting 30 bucks a car, the park service limping along with absolutely essential staff only. This park is still open, but the deadlock in D.C. does mean that campgrounds are now closing in California.

(on camera): All the campgrounds here at Joshua Tree closing down and the issue, those toilet blocks. Now the volunteers can keep the toilets clean but not to be too gross about it, those blocked toilets are reaching capacity. (voice-over): Other parts of this more than 1,200-square mile park

also closing because of, quote, illegal activity. People apparently offroading, damaging the environment, bringing in dogs. Other remote parts also now officially off limits because of safety. Get into trouble out here, and there might not be anyone around to save you.

Over in Texas, Joshua Snider broke his leg Christmas Eve when he fell at Big Bend. His buddy and another family had to carry him out.

JOSH SNIDER, INJURED NATIONAL PARK VISITOR: When we were on the phone with the park, they told us that because of the government shutdown, there was limited rescue services available and that they were going to send one park ranger. You know, you think they would come with a stretcher or something.

WATT: Nope. Not right now.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Institution kept its 19 museums and the national zoo open over the holidays but today, they finally shuttered up, all now closed. Yosemite, the nation's third busiest national park, they're also having huge problems with garbage and toilets filled to capacity.

The Neblett family from Texas was planning this vacation to Joshua Tree for months. Now, they're cutting it short.

LORI NEBLETT, NATIONAL PARK VISITOR: It's impacted ours for fun, but it's impacted people's livelihoods and people's jobs.


WATT: Now, you know, this is normally one of the busiest times of the year here at Joshua Park. It's cold, it's crisp, it's clear, it's only 2 or 3 hours from Los Angeles but this year, they are really struggling, but the reason that those local people are mucking in is back in 2013, during another government shutdown, this park closed entirely and many of them nearly went bankrupt.

Now, the reason it's changed is last year, the National Park Service had a new contingency plan and what they do is they furlough about 85 percent of their employees, they keep only the absolute essentials, they say, to preserve property and life and they try to keep the parks open. But these local people, they're not sure how much longer they can muck in, so at some point, they might just have to close the place down -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Until the government reopens.

Nick Watt on the scene for us, thank you very much.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.