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THE SITUATION ROOM

Syria Withdrawal Process Begins; Will Trump Declare National Emergency to Build Wall?; Interview With Thomas Friedman; Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard Tells CNN She's Running for President in 2020; U.S Begins Withdrawing Some Military Equipment from Syria; Michael Cohen Ready to Testify on Trump's Dark Secrets; Trump Not Declaring National Emergency, Says If He Did He Could Lose in Court. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 11, 2019 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Why is he hesitating to pull the trigger on his most extreme option for funding his wall and potentially ending the government shutdown?

No payday. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are seeing a bit fat zero on their pay stubs tonight, as the shutdown is breaking records and inflicting a new level of pain and suffering.

Spilling secrets. With Michael Cohen set to testify before Congress, we expect to learn new details about the president's alleged role in his former lawyer's crimes. Will Cohen open the door for testimony by Stormy Daniels and other blockbuster witnesses?

And pulling out now. After weeks on the confusion about the president's Syria policy, we're learning that the first stage of the U.S. military drawdown is now under way.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the president backing off of a potentially desperate bid to get his border wall built, as the government shutdown is about to become the longest in U.S. history.

He says he won't declare a national emergency at the southern border so fast, acknowledging it would likely be challenged in the courts. Instead, he is sticking to his demand that Congress agree to spend billions of dollars on the wall. But, tonight, the deadlock continues, taking a very painful toll on 800,000 federal workers. They're going without paychecks tonight for the first time since the shutdown began three weeks ago.

This hour, I will talk with "New York Times" columnist and author Thomas Friedman. And our correspondents are also standing by.

But, first, let's go to our chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president has been threatening this national emergency for days, but now he's saying, not so fast.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

Today, he talked about this situation the border as being a national emergency, a crisis and so on. But, for now, the president says he's not declaring a national emergency so he can build as wall on the border.

One thing that might be holding the president back, he conceded in front of reporters today, a national emergency declaration would likely be challenged in the courts.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): After hinting for days that he may declare a national emergency to force the government to construct his border wall, President Trump admitted there may be cracks in that plan.

A wall of opposition could be looming, Mr. Trump said, in the courts.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If they can't do it, if, at some point, they just can't do it, this is a 15-minute meeting. If they can't do it, I will declare a national emergency. I have the absolute right to do it.

I will be soon. It'll be brought to the Ninth Circuit and then hopefully we will win in the Supreme Court.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump's hesitation comes as he now presides over what's about to become the nation's longest government shutdown, with 800,000 workers impacted, many going without paychecks this weekend.

TRUMP: They're incredible people, federal employees that we're talking about. Many of them agree with what I'm saying and what the people in this room who are experts are saying. They don't want to see people killed because we can't do a simple border structure.

ACOSTA: Democrats are accusing the president of putting his quest for a wall over the needs of federal employees.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Today is the first day that federal employees are getting these pay stubs with a big zero on them, even though, as their pay stubs say zero, their bills keep coming in. And we have the same question on the Senate floor. Why don't we do what's in our power to reopen the government?

ACOSTA: The president is continuing to hype the situation down on the border.

TRUMP: A lot of people don't like the word invasion. We have a country that's being invaded by criminals and by drugs.

ACOSTA: He tweeted: "The steel barrier or wall should have been built by previous administrations long ago. They never got it done. I will. Without it, our country cannot be safe. Criminals, gangs, human traffickers, drugs and so much other big trouble can easily pour in. It can be stopped cold."

But during his trip down to the border, one law enforcement official told him migrants are already digging tunnels under areas where walls exist.

MELISSA LUCIO, U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION: This is just a couple of miles from here, from where we're standing. This is a tunnel. This is the second tunnel that recently that we have located. This is an area that we actually have wall.

ACOSTA: The president is being cheered on by fellow Republicans to take matters into his own hands, with Senator Lindsey Graham releasing a statement saying: "Mr. President, declare a national emergency now. Build a wall now."

But when President Obama used an executive action to shield immigrants from deportation, he was blasted by Graham and other GOP leaders.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: This is wrong, it's irresponsible and will do damage to our efforts to fix a broken immigration system. This is a tremendous presidential overreach.

[18:05:05]

I will try to defund the effort for him to go it alone. We will challenge him in court.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Imposing his will unilaterally may seem tempting, it may serve him politically in the short-term, but he knows it will make an already broken system even more broken. And he knows this is not how democracy is supposed to work.

ACOSTA: Despite a government shutdown that's now hurting American families and potentially damaging the economy, the president was joking Democrats can give him his wall, but call it something else.

TRUMP: They can name it whatever. They can name it peaches. I don't care what they name it. But we need money for that barrier.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: The president didn't say just how long he's willing to let this government shutdown grind on or what exactly will prompt him to declare a national emergency down on the border.

For now, the president appears ready to let this shutdown continue until he finally gets his way. The president said Democrats, as you heard a few moments ago, can call his wall peaches.

But, at this point lawmakers from both parties, Wolf, are treating this more like a lemon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim, thank you, Jim Acosta reporting.

Now that President Trump has pushed the pause button on declaring a national emergency, let's get an update from Capitol Hill.

Is there any hint of hope, any hope of a compromise to end this shutdown?

We're joined by our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly.

Phil, we heard the president say Democrats can call the wall whatever they want, even peaches, as you just heard, if they give him the funding for the wall. So what's the latest on Capitol Hill right now?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's not the name, nor is it the material. It's the broader policy goal that Democrats are opposed to, have been opposed to and say they will continue to oppose.

But also you're hearing more and more from Democratic lawmakers, including Democratic leaders, that it's the strategy. They don't want to give in at this point, because then the president would win, and then the president would possibly do this again anytime there's another funding deadline.

Essentially, as one Democratic lawmaker told me earlier, you can't negotiate with terrorists. They're not calling the president a terrorist. But they're making the broader point that negotiating at any point on any level, giving any ground at all would incentivize the president to come back to this strategy later.

You combine that with Republicans who, even though they are frustrated, even though they wish there was some pathway out of this, are not willing to leave the president behind, and you have a clear stalemate.

Look, we have seen throughout the course this week, Wolf, House Democrats have passed individual funding bills to reopen the agencies that are currently shuttered. But the dynamic on Capitol Hill remains the same. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, has said he will not put anything on the Senate floor until the president signs off.

The reason for that, I'm told, is twofold. First and foremost, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell thought he had an agreement with the White House before the shutdown started on a unanimous bill to reopen the government for a short period of time.

Second off, he's reflecting his conference. When I talk to Senate Republican aides, they say the majority of the conference is still firmly behind the president. Politically, there's no incentive to buck the president. And so here we are at an impasse, about to set a record for the longest shutdown, people missing paychecks by the hundreds of thousands.

Congress is currently adjourned. They won't be back until Monday. Right now, nobody involved thinks there's any hope for a deal anytime soon, Wolf. BLITZER: If the president were to declare a national emergency, Phil,

will the government reopen immediately?

MATTINGLY: I think this is a really important point. There's no switch that just gets flipped.

And when I talk to aides who are involved, including aides who are in regular communication with the White House, in terms of what would the next steps be if the government did declare a national emergency -- and keep in mind, the White House was briefing people on Capitol Hill about the ideas they were considering on that front.

What I'm being told right now is the White House has not given them the next steps. They have not told them, OK, if the president decides to do this, we will accept this package of bills or this short-term extension of funding to immediately reopen the government.

So, essentially, even if the president decides to declare a national emergency, Capitol Hill will still have to figure out the legislation to reopen the government. And as long as everybody still remembers the president deciding to change course, not sign the stopgap bill in December, everybody is very wary about moving forward on any possible option.

So keep in mind, as this national emergency, while it seems to be put off for now, when it or if it comes back to the table as this continues to drag on, it is not an immediate switch to flip the government back on. There is still legislative work to do on Capitol Hill, legislative work that at this point hasn't been outlined as to what would be acceptable, what would get the government back open, and what we get paychecks again flowing to federal workers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very important point, indeed.

Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.

Joining us now, the "New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman. He is the author of the very important bestselling book "Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations."

Tom, thanks very much for coming in.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Great to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, 800,000 federal workers are suffering right now, no paycheck. Their families are suffering.

What's your big-picture take now on the state of the country, the United States, right now in 2019?

FRIEDMAN: Wolf, we talked about a year-and-a-half ago, and I made the point. I quoted my friend Dov Seidman. He said, we have a president now who has formal authority, but no moral authority.

And the point I made then was, when you have a president with no moral authority, when it comes to a crisis, when he has to look in the camera and say, trust me, believe me, we need X, we need Y, we need to invade here, it's really going to matter.

[18:10:13]

And I think we're at that point. You heard in your correspondent's report, no one trusts this man. No one believes a word out of his mouth anymore. He had a deal with Mitch McConnell to open the government.

And I think we're at a point, especially for the next two years, where, if we do face a crisis, what does it mean to have a crisis when you have a president who has no moral authority?

We have never been there.

BLITZER: If there's a real national security threat...

(CROSSTALK)

FRIEDMAN: Right. Exactly. You can't believe a word out of his mouth.

BLITZER: Yes. I mean, that's a serious problem.

What we're seeing from the president right now -- and you have watched him very closely. Is this typical Trump?

FRIEDMAN: Yes.

I mean, I think that it's typical in this way, Wolf. We actually have a serious immigration problem. We have an immigration problem, because for the last -- for the 50 years after World War II, Wolf -- this is a book I made in my book -- it was really easy to be an average country.

There were superpowers giving you money, climate change was moderate, populations were under control, and China was not in the World Trade Organization. So everybody could be in the textile business.

What's changed over the last decade-and-a-half is it's actually now harder to be a country. They're being hammered by climate change. No superpower wants to touch them, because all you win is a bill. Populations are out of control. And China now can compete with anything they sell.

So the weakest countries are actually now either fraying or they're actually imploding. And for our hemisphere, they're in Central America. It's Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador. That's where this problem is coming from.

These countries are falling apart. So, if you actually had a comprehensive strategy, what would you do? You would have a population control strategy, you would have a climate strategy, and you would have a security strategy.

If the president were actually to come with that strategy, hey, I would support that. I would say, yes, we need border security. We also need these -- to address these other issues, because, Wolf, these countries, what we're going to witness, a lot more countries are going to fall apart.

We have seen it in Africa and the Middle East. They have been flocking to Europe. We have seen it in our hemisphere. This is a serious problem. We do not have a serious man diagnosing and leading us out of the problem.

BLITZER: The president's world clearly changed on January 3, when the Democrats became the majority in the House of Representatives. They won 40 seats in the election.

Do you think President Trump fully appreciates the enormity of what he's facing right now from Congress?

FRIEDMAN: No. And you have heard this in all your reporting, Wolf.

He's never been before. I mean, he enjoyed the first two years, a very unique thing for a president. He had the White House. He had the Supreme Court. He had the House. And he had the Senate.

And now suddenly he doesn't have the House, and it's a whole new world for him, and he's got to -- you got to navigate it. And he does not have the skill to do that. And he doesn't have the team to do it.

Wolf, he started with the B team. A lot of the B team left. Now he's got the C team. And if we face a crisis with a president who no one believes, who is surrounded by a C team in a dysfunctional White House, God save us.

BLITZER: You have got a lot of the members of the Cabinet who are acting secretaries, as opposed to full secretaries. They're filling jobs because others have left, including some very sensitive positions.

FRIEDMAN: And we have key ambassadorships. I know they have appointed an ambassador to Saudi Arabia, but I don't know that he's on the job yet.

For two years, we have gone with no ambassador for a pretty important...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: why is that?

FRIEDMAN: I think Trump actually believes, first of all, that he can do everything, he or Jared Kushner. They can handle Saudi Arabia.

And I don't think he has a real respect for government. When he gets in trouble, he impugns them as the deep state. He doesn't appreciate that these institutions, Wolf, they're what make us unique as a country. And he didn't respect them when he was a businessman. He tried to evade them.

And he certainly doesn't respect them as a leader. BLITZER: Has he finally met his match in Nancy Pelosi?

FRIEDMAN: I think he's certainly met a match in Nancy Pelosi. She is a serious person.

But I think the deeper problem, Wolf, is that he's told one too many lies. I don't know whether it was lie number 6,000 or 7,000. "The Washington Post" has been keeping a tab. But I felt that we're in a moment now where people simply don't believe a word out of his mouth.

When he can stand up and say, look, I never said Mexico would pay for the wall, I mean, we're through the looking glass, Wolf. We have a core problem. We have a president without shame, who is backed by a party without spine, that is supported by a network called FOX News without integrity.

And a president without shame, backed by a party without spine, and a network that amplifies it without integrity, and we face a crisis, fasten your seat belt.

BLITZER: Let me read a couple sentences from a column you recently wrote in "The New York Times."

"I believe that the only responsible choice for the Republican Party today is an intervention with the president that makes clear that, if there is not a radical change in how he conducts himself -- and I think that is unlikely -- the party's leadership will have no choice but to press for his resignation or join calls for his impeachment."

[18:15:01]

Do you see any sign at all that serious numbers of Republicans are beginning to think along those lines?

FRIEDMAN: I don't. And it's really sad.

This is a party that has simply laid down for a demented man. And they have been laying down for anyone who would energize their base, going back to Sarah Palin, and then the Tea Party, and now it's Trump.

And somehow, as a country, we have managed to stumble forward, but we're really -- we're really risking our luck here, I mean, how long this can go on, because we have a disturbed man as president, Wolf. I mean, that's very clear. And we have a party that is not ready to stand up to it.

And what worries me is, now we're threatening our institutions. Look what look he did, describing the judges in our judicial system as, they're Obama judges. And thank God John Roberts stood up and said, no, there aren't Obama judges and Bush judges. There are just judges.

Look what he's been doing with the military, saying that the people who are out of work now, government workers, well, they're mostly just Democrats.

These are our institutions. What makes us unique as a country, Wolf, is that we have a judiciary, we have a nonpartisan military, we have a true state, not some nefarious deep state. And the world envies those institutions.

Why do you think all those people are lining up to get into our country? Because they want to be in a place that has those kinds of institutions. And that's precisely what this president is attacking. And that is a threat.

The biggest crisis we have right now is in the Oval Office. We have a president who does not appreciate the institutions that make our country unique.

BLITZER: Is the Republican leadership, from your perspective, afraid of the president?

FRIEDMAN: Well, they're -- these are people who seem to be so obsessed with their $175,000-a-year job and free parking at National Airport that they will not stand up and actually speak out, not against -- for Democrats or some -- but on behalf of institutions.

When the president embarrasses someone like Defense Secretary Mattis the way he did, when he lies day after day, and you as a party say nothing, what do you think is the corrosive impact of that over time?

BLITZER: What did you think of the president's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the way he handled it, and, of course, the resignation that resulted in the defense secretary, James Mattis?

FRIEDMAN: Look, there is a case, Wolf, for actually withdrawing from Syria and withdrawing from Afghanistan.

But what would I have done? I would have -- the art of the deal. I would have come to the Russians and the Syrians and the Iranians and say, well, maybe you want us out, but here's the conditions we need.

I wouldn't have just pulled out. I wouldn't have just moved the embassy to Jerusalem and not asked for something in return from Netanyahu or the Palestinians.

This is the problem with Trump. He's an ignoramus, OK? He doesn't understand the sophistication, the subtleties of any of these policies. So he keeps giving stuff away. And that's really what's scary to me.

With Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, he gave him a complete pass. Well, the choice was not just give him a pass or break relations with Saudi Arabia. You could have made demands on him. He keeps giving stuff away because he doesn't understand things.

BLITZER: Do you see any prospect that it's going to change?

FRIEDMAN: I see no prospect of it whatsoever. I think it's only going to get worse.

I think the next few years, Wolf, are going to be one of the most destabilizing and unnerving times in our history, and for you and me in our journalism careers.

BLITZER: How do you think he's going to respond on February 7, when Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer, goes before the House Oversight Committee and testifies, presumably for hours, and makes very, very serious allegations, potential allegations that the president of the United States was engaged together with him in crime?

FRIEDMAN: It's so hard to tell.

But he's so adept, Wolf, at bald-faced lying, that he's capable of saying anything. I can't see him having some moral crisis over it. He will just tell another lie.

BLITZER: When the world -- and you travel all over the world. You're a foreign affairs columnist.

When the world is watching what's going on in the United States right now, friends of the United States, allies of the United States in Europe and elsewhere, what are they thinking?

FRIEDMAN: What they're thinking is, Wolf, that America is the world. We are the tentpole that holds up the world.

We are the people who invest in things, even when we don't get an immediate payoff, in order to promote global stability that ultimately is to our great benefit.

They have never -- most of them have never seen an America like this, with a president who doesn't appreciate allies, a president who does not manifest the very values that America -- that makes America so attractive for them, and a president who, simply, his word is not even remotely his bond. And so they are all basically -- they are all adrift.

[18:20:03]

It's not like China is going to lead the world. It's not like Russia is going to lead the world. What happens when we don't lead, Wolf, is that nobody leads.

BLITZER: Do you have any confidence in any of the president's top stop, his senior advisers, members of the Cabinet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example?

FRIEDMAN: No, none whatsoever. I think Pompeo is in a race with Tillerson for who is the all-time worst secretary of state. And Pompeo seems to be nosing him out

BLITZER: You think that Pompeo is a worse secretary of state than Rex Tillerson?

FRIEDMAN: I just read his speech from the Middle East.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: The one he delivered in Cairo. FRIEDMAN: The one he delivered in Cairo.

And if you think your job as secretary of state is to go to the Arab world, dump on, piss on the previous president while you are there, and proclaim that you have figured it all out, because you figured out that the really right U.S. policy is to support every Arab tyrant who has in jail thousands, of not Islamic radicals, but young democracy- advocating people, particularly in a country like Egypt, all right, if you think that's like the most brilliant policy, and that we're not going to pay for that down the road, then you are a complete idiot.

BLITZER: Yes.

I was sort of surprised that he went after President Obama. I could see him doing it here in the United States. But politics were supposed to stop at one point at the water's edge.

(CROSSTALK)

FRIEDMAN: And to praise Sisi, and we have figured it out.

We figured out that Iran is the bad guy and these Arab tyrants are the good guys. So, we're just support them all along. And all these Arab youth, who have always looked to America to be the voice and beacon of democracy and freedom, what do you think they're thinking?

And how do you think that's going to work out for all of them in jail when they get out of jail?

BLITZER: With his base, though, those who really loved the president, President Trump, he's still very, very popular with that hard-core Republican conservative base.

FRIEDMAN: I can't explain all of it.

I have always felt Wolf, that his base actually hates the people who hate Trump more than they care about Trump or his specific policies. I think there's a lot of resentment out there at elites and different people.

And also, in fairness to that base, I think there's a lot of people who are living in this moment of acceleration, again, which my book was about, and they find this moment very disorienting. And so a president who comes along and says, I can stop the winds of change -- the wall is a metaphor for a lot of things, not just the border and immigration.

It's, I can stop the winds of change. I can see how that appeals to some people. They're very disoriented. The fact is, though, he's telling them snake oil.

BLITZER: So where is this all heading? Because within the next few weeks, or maybe a couple months or so, Robert Mueller is going to come out with his report.

You hear the president say, almost on a daily basis, no collusion, no collusion, no collusion. Where's this heading?

FRIEDMAN: I think it's heading for a constitutional crisis, Wolf, a constitutional crisis in which people like John Roberts...

BLITZER: The Supreme Court.

(CROSSTALK)

FRIEDMAN: The Supreme Court, the chief justice, and people like ex- President Obama and ex-President Bush working together as one team, the three of them, I think, are going to have to play a very important role to speak up in a nonpartisan way, to present a nonpartisan front, I think, to defend and protect the Constitution.

BLITZER: When you say a constitutional crisis, explain what you mean by that.

FRIEDMAN: I think that we're going to -- we're going to probably as a result of Mueller have charges against the president that are certainly going to stimulate some people to want to bring about an impeachment.

God knows what kind of things Mueller -- I have been watching your show this afternoon -- the kind of collusion that might be involved, the kind of simply illegality that Trump may have been involved in. Who knows what happens when we get his tax returns.

This is going to be a gigantic mess, Wolf. And it's going to affect the authority of the president. And I think that, in this moment, we're going to so badly need nonpartisan people who stand up for American institutions and values.

And that's why I'm glad Obama stayed out of it. I'm glad President George W. Bush's stayed out of it. I have such respect for John Roberts, so he spoke up to defend the nonpartisanship of the courts.

I think these people who have been acting in this, trying to act in a nonpartisan way, they're going to become so important, Wolf, as we enter this crisis, because...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: So, you think we will actually hear from them?

FRIEDMAN: And I think we will hear from them, because we are going to so badly need people who are ready to stand up for what makes us unique as a country, the values, OK, and the institutions, because that's what's going to be required, because I think they are going to be threatened.

This is a man who will burn down anything and everything to save himself. We have already seen that.

BLITZER: Tom Friedman is "The New York Times" columnist, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, the author of the important book "Thank You for Being Late." You weren't late here today. Thanks for showing up on time.

FRIEDMAN: And I wore a tie.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: And you wore a tie. You look good. Tom Friedman, thanks very much for coming in.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Come a long way since both of us were White House correspondents during the first term of the Bill Clinton administration.

FRIEDMAN: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Spent a lot of quality time in those days.

(CROSSTALK)

[18:25:01]

BLITZER: Thanks very much for coming in.

We're going to have much more on all of the breaking news, including Michael Cohen's upcoming testimony before Congress, the secrets about President Trump that he might expose on national television.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the shutdown standoff, as President Trump decides not to declare a national emergency at the southern border, at least not right now.

As this crisis drags on, Mr. Trump is trying to downplay the potential damage he may face next month when his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen publicly testifies before Congress. But Cohen has years of dirt on his former boss and an ax to grind. That is clear.

[18:30:17] Let's bring in our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, CNN has learned that Cohen, what, is now ready to talk. We've got some information -- openly about several sensitive -- very sensitive subjects, including the hush-money payments, the Trump Organization, even the president's family.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And this is -- by all accounts is going to be a very big day, historical, of course. And really, what we're seeing is Michael Cohen is ready to go in and take down the president.

Quite simply, I think he has felt wronged by what the president has done to him. He has supported and protected this president. That's no longer going to happen. And from everything that we're hearing, that he's prepared to go in

and talk about the history, certainly, of these payments, the hush payments: how it started, who started it, how the president directed him to make these payments. And we're going to get, really, an inside look, I think, if he's asked these questions by members of Congress, about how everything went down, who directed it, how the payments were made, who came up with the plan to do this.

You know, I think for people, what they need to keep in mind here, and as the Department of Justice and the FBI has said this in court documents, this was almost kind of a fraud on our election. They hid -- the purpose of the payments was to hide this relationship with these women. And so that's a big deal. Certainly, the Department of Justice felt that it was a big deal.

Michael Cohen pleaded guilty and has admitted to all of this. It's going to be a devastating day for the president. And this hearing could go on for days. We don't know that there's any limits.

The one thing that there is going to be some limits on is Russia, in terms of how much he can talk about Russia. Because it appears the Mueller investigation may -- may still be ongoing. And therefore, he may be limited.

But really, everything we know right now, the president's biggest risk in everything right now is with these hush payments. We don't yet know enough about Russia to see or to say where his exposure is in that case.

BLITZER: The hush-money payments to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels.

PROKUPECZ: That's right.

BLITZER: And remember, Michael Cohen spent a decade plus working as a fixer and a lawyer to Donald Trump. So he clearly knows a lot.

PROKUPECZ: Yes. And in terms of the organization also, there's going to be a lot of information, certainly --

BLITZER: About the Trump Organization.

PROKUPECZ: -- about the Trump Organization.

BLITZER: Yes. Shimon, thank you very much.

There's more news we're following. President Trump backing away from declaring a national emergency to fund his border wall, at least for now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:37:22] BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, President Trump's sharp change of tone on his border wall after days of threatening to declare a national emergency to get the funding Congress won't give him. He's now saying he's not ready to act so fast, calling it, quote, "the

easy way out." He also admitted an emergency declaration would likely face some significant court challenges.

Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and our analysts. And Chris Cillizza, let me play a clip for you.

I moderated a Republican presidential debate back in 2016. And I had this exchange with Donald Trump when it came to his demand that Mexico pay for the wall.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: If you don't get an actual check from the Mexican government for 8 or 10 or $12 billion, whatever it will cost, how are you going to make them pay for the wall?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will, and the wall just got ten feet taller. Believe me. It got ten feet taller.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: I remember -- I didn't work here -- but I remember watching that debate and thinking, "Well, he didn't totally answer Wolf's question."

Never in my mind did I think that we would be having, two years on, a debate that Donald Trump says he never said Mexico would be paying for the wall, because he said it so many times.

That ten feet higher line was one of his favorites. Got a rise out of the crowd there. Got a rise out of the crowds when he was on the campaign trail.

Look, this is someone we know who tends to try to rewrite both long -- past history and recent history. He's doing a little bit of both here.

I'm fascinated that Donald Trump says that it's too soon to declare -- you know, it's not the best option to declare a state of emergency, candidly. Because where we are today in this, legislatively, in trying to solve this shutdown, is nowhere. I mean, we're nowhere better than we were the day the government shut down.

So you would think sometime in those interesting 20-plus days, if there was a better idea, it would have emerged. It hasn't.

I thought everything was pointing toward him declaring a state of emergency. Him saying no now puts us back at square one with no ideas.

BLITZER: Because he says, Pamela, that he doesn't want to take the easy way out and simply declare a national emergency. PAMELA BROWN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you're seeing him

back away from that. And there were a couple of reasons. One, he actually said today, in that he knows it would be challenged in the courts.

But also, some of his conservative allies have been telling him, on the airwaves and personally, that they don't want him do it, because they think it will set a bad precedent for when Democrats take over. Then they'll just do the same on Democratic agenda items.

And so now they're just sort of back to square one, as you said. No clear path ahead. And sources are telling me and my colleague, Sarah Westwood, that the White House has actively been looking at other places to get money, like the Civil Forfeiture Fund. We've talked about disaster relief funding, looking at whether they can take funding there.

[18:40:15] Because the president has sort of backed himself into a corner here, where there just are no good options at this point. And frankly, he does own the shutdown. He's on record saying it. He may not want to. He may want to put it on the Democrats. But he's the president.

BLITZER: Where do you see this heading?

REBECCA BUCK, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's the million-dollar question, Wolf, because Democrats have said they're not giving the president any money for the wall. The president said he is getting his money for the wall, and that's been the entire story of this shutdown.

Both sides have stayed in their corners, and there's no one meeting in the middle.

Of course, as you alluded, Pam, Democrats have all the leverage here. This is President Trump's shutdown. And they believe they have the upper hand politically and no incentive to meet him and compromise. And so for as long as Democrats believe they don't have reason to compromise and the president believes he is winning this politically, as well, we're going to have this stalemate.

CILLIZZA: Don't underestimate -- sorry, Pam. Just quickly. Don't underestimate the fact that the longer it goes -- to Rebecca's point, the harder it becomes.

I compare it to waiting in line at Disney World. OK? If you wait five minutes in line for a two-hour line, your willingness after five minutes to cut bait is not too high. "OK. We can leave. You haven't invested that much in the line. Right?"

You wait an hour and 45 minutes in that line, you're definitely waiting, even if it's a three-hour line, because you're already in line that long.

This is 21 days. It's going to be 24, 25, by the time there's even the conversation legislatively. Start getting 30 days, 35 days, 40 days, both sides get more and more entrenched, because the stakes just get higher.

BROWN: And I just talked -- talking to White House officials. Behind the scenes, there is a lot of concern, especially today, where the shutdown is poised to be the longest in history. But also, this is a day workers are not getting their paychecks. And sources I'm talking to in the White House say, "We believe we're losing this battle politically." There's a lot of concern.

BLITZER: Eight hundred thousand federal workers won't get a paycheck today. They will suffer. Their families will suffer the enormous -- the enormous problem.

You know, Joey, let's talk about the president, if he decides to declare a national emergency. He said it would go to the Ninth Circuit. He might lose in the Ninth Circuit. But eventually, it would wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Legally speaking, where is this heading?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, put it this way, Wolf. First, let's talk about the hypocrisy, and then let's address the issue of the law.

There has to be one standard. And that standard has to apply to everything. Right? You can't attack Obama if you're Lindsey Graham and you're Mitch McConnell, talking about unitary reaction and unilateral action, presidential overreach. But then when it comes to your party, it's perfectly acceptable. That's what make -- that's what makes people roll their eyes about politics, the hypocrisy.

On the issue of the law, I'm one that believes that a national emergency should be a national emergency. Right? It's -- I don't question the president's authority to do it. I question the rationale upon which it would be based. And that's what the court challenge would be based on.

By analogy, the president have the authority to fire Comey, but what was his intention in doing that? You don't declare national emergencies because you don't get your way; because you don't get your wall. You want to raid funds from other sources, so that you can say that, you know, you're the big person in the room; you have the executive authority. There has to be rational basis attached to it.

And so yes, there will be a challenge. And that challenge, as I mentioned, won't be predicated upon executive authority. It will be predicated upon whether there was a rational and reasonable basis for him to take that action.

And if it's such an emergency, why hasn't it been taken as of yet?

And it does set a dangerous precedent, indeed. And so I do see it going to the Supreme Court. And I do believe that the Supreme Court will analyze it, not consistent with whether they're Republican or whether they're Democrat, to quote Judge Roberts, but consistent with whether it is lawful and appropriate.

BLITZER: Very quickly, because you're getting some new information, Pamela. Michael Cohen, the testimony he's going to be delivering next month.

BROWN: That's right. This is going to be getting everyone's attention when he testifies. Of course, the president's longtime fixer, lawyer, going to be testifying to the Oversight Committee.

Those expecting him to reveal lots of details on Russia are going to be disappointed, though. We are told by sources, me and my colleague, Gloria Borger, that while he will stay away from talking about Russia, Michael Cohen is expected to talk about the president and his role in making those hush-money payments and how the election factored into that. Also, the Trump Organization and the Trump kids.

So we are told through sources that he is willing to talk about those things. This is Michael Cohen's opportunity to come back and really go up against the president in a public forum.

BLITZER: The president is not going to be happy --

BROWN: No.

BLITZER: -- during those hours and hours of televised testimony.

Everybody stick around. We'll have more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:49:30] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our experts.

And, Rebecca, Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has just told our Van Jones she will run for president of the United States. Listen to this.

(BGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VAN JONES, CNN HOST: Are you going to run for president of the United States and do something about it? Do you think she should? Do you think she should? Are you going to run?

(APPLAUSE)

(LAUGHTER)

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: I have decided to run and will be making a formal announcement within the next week.

(CHEERS)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[18:50:02] BLITZER: A lot of candidates, a lot of Democratic candidates who are running.

REBECCA BUCK, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: I mean, we're having more and more enter the race almost every week at this point, Wolf. And we have some more that we're expecting very soon as well. I mean, look, what that tells me, and what I've been hearing from

Democrats is that there is no clear favorite in this race. Even as we're looking at someone like former Vice President Joe Biden, potentially getting in. Someone like Bernie Sanders who ran and did well last time, people with much greater name ID than Tulsi Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii. There is no clear favorite.

And so, any Democrat who is on the Pence who is thinking about it is saying at this point, well, why not? I might as well give it a shot and see what happens.

KING: Congressman Steve King, Republican of Iowa, he told "The New York Times" this week, quote, white nationalists, white supremacists, western civilization, how did that language become offensive?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. Look, in a vacuum, this is a terrible comment that I think would leave to some calls for Steve King to resign. Unfortunately, he doesn't live in a vacuum. He's made a number of these comments over the years, in which he endorsed a candidate in Toronto that was a white nationalist. He said he didn't know that.

He retweeted a neo-Nazi sympathizer. He said he wasn't familiar with that. Look, at some point, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck.

Steve -- the problem for Republicans, Chuck Grassley told CNN's Manu Raju this today, he got elected. He won in 2018 with a lot of this stuff out there. There's a serious primary challenge next to him, but that's next summer. Steve King, unless they censure him or expel him, I don't think they're going to expel him. We probably will be talking about him again in not very positive --

BLITZER: Joey, what's your reaction?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: My reaction is that is deplorable. It's the whole tone set and it's set by the president to be clear. And that's what it's about.

It's not only about statements. But it's about policies. It's demonizing immigrants. And when did they become the enemy than anyone else. I thought we were a country that was founded upon immigrants and that was welcoming to immigrants.

It's about voting registration. And, you know, trying to get people so that they can't vote. It's about disenfranchising members of the community.

And so, the reaction is, is that it's not only in the language that many Republicans are speaking. It's in the actions that they are taking, the policies they are setting. And in the words, of course, to the president, because that's where it starts.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. There's more news we're following. We are also going live to Syria where U.S. troop withdrawal ordered by President Trump is now under way. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:09] BLITZER: President Trump's order to pull U.S. troops from Syria is now being carried out with the withdrawal of the first ground equipment.

Our chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward is on the ground for us in northern Syria right now.

Clarissa, how soon could we start seeing U.S. troops leaving as well?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's a million dollar question, Wolf. And we have been driving around this part of northeastern Syria for the last couple of days. We have seen a number of U.S. military convoys potentially carrying some of that military hardware that we're hearing from the U.S. military. They are starting to pull out.

Wolf, this is going to be a big operation. It is not going to happen overnight. There are at least seven substantially sized U.S. bases here, many more smaller bases, at least 2,000 troops.

And what the U.S. military saying they are actually going to have to bring in U.S. troops in order to help facilitate the move out of here. So, this is going to take quite some time. Unclear as of now as to when they will start moving U.S. troops out. But probably, we won't know exactly when that does begin for, of course, very real security concerns. But at the moment, as you said, we do know, the withdrawal, in essence has begun with the beginnings, moving that military equipment, that military hardware out of the country, Wolf.

BLITZER: Clarissa, as you know, Syria Kurds who have been close allies to the U.S., they will be the first to feel the impact of the U.S. troop withdrawal. What are you hearing? The latest on that front. It's a very sensitive issue.

WARD: Well, if you talk to Kurdish officials here, they are trying to put a brave face on it. They're trying to say that they are optimistic. They are trying to say that they believe negotiations with U.S. officials will bear out into some kind of agreement, some kind of a guarantee of their security from their neighbor in Turkey who view Turkish forces as -- Kurdish forces, rather, as essentially an existential terrorist threat.

We've talked to the people on the ground here, Wolf. That's where you get the real story. Almost every family in the town has lost someone in the fight against ISIS. This has been some of the steadfast U.S. allies on the ground.

And now, there's a real anger, there's a real sense of abandonment, a sense that the U.S. has essentially taken what they need from them and is now leaving them, leaving them to an unknown enemy in Turkey. There's fears of a blood bath, also fears of a potential resurgence of ISIS, and the million dollar question becomes, Wolf, what happens to the areas the U.S. officials or U.S. military is pulling back from? Could we see the regime coming back to these areas, taking control of

the vacuum with potentially Iran and their Iran-backed forces? A lot of questions. And for people here on the ground, Wolf, huge amounts of anxiety, concern and as I said, that feeling of abandonment, Wolf.

BLITZER: Be careful over there, Clarissa. One of our most courageous journalists, we appreciate your reporting so much. Thanks very much.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.