Return to Transcripts main page


Interview with Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA); Military Commander Questioned on Capitol Hill; Iraqi Leaders Reject Trump's Suggestion; Potential Trump-Kim Summit; Trump Organization Fires Undocumented Workers; Battle to Replace Kavanaugh. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired February 5, 2019 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: You received saying in return permanent protection for dreamers?

SEN. BOB CASEY (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Well, I think most of the negotiation there is going to be between and among the appropriators. And that's the way it should be.

But I do think that when you look at what both sides have said about border security, I think there's a lot we can agree on. But this has to be real border security. And when you have 90 percent of the cocaine and 80 percent of the fentanyl coming through ports of entry, we've got to stop the drugs. And the illegal crossings are at a 40 or 50-year low. So we have to recognize what works on border security and what doesn't. And I think there's a lot of compromise within the negotiation.

But -- but I -- it's not going to help matters if the president just tries to demonize and divide. He should try to unify.

SCIUTTO: Understood. But as you know better than me, legislation is about compromise here. And the president is very committed to money for a barrier, in addition to money for the other forms of security you're talking about, more border patrol officers at those key points of entry, et cetera.

CASEY: Right.

SCIUTTO: I'm just curious on that sticking point. What is proven the sticking point, which is -- which is money for the border wall, which many Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, have said not a single dollar. Would you vote for something that included money for the barrier if, in Washington style, there was something in return, like -- like protection for dreamers?

CASEY: As I said last week, I -- I voted for -- and many of us have voted for fencing. But just since I talked to you last week, the president's back to wall, wall, wall. So, I mean, if he wants a concrete wall over more than 1,900 miles, I don't think there's going to be much support for that.

But, again, we should focus on what will work, what's effective border security, and I think there's a lot of common ground on that. SCIUTTO: You know, infrastructure always comes up. It came up --

CASEY: Right.

SCIUTTO: It came up after the election in 2016 and said, well, you know, Democrats and Republicans can work together on infrastructure. It came up in the last State of the Union. It's coming up again here.

I'm curious how you -- how you get that together, particularly in light of the fact that the deficit has grown enormously since the Republican tax cut. Where is the money going to come from and what would that look like?

CASEY: Well, there's no question that if the president speaks to this, there's going to be tremendous support for it. I thought he should have started with this at the beginning of his administration. He actually admitted that. We were in a meeting back on October of '17 on tax reform and he said, I should have started with border security. I heard him say that. Or he should have started with infrastructure. I heard him say that.

In our state, for example, we've got more than 4,000 bridges structurally deficient. We've got roads, we've got high speed internet that's -- doesn't -- not deployed in rural areas. If he speaks to that, I think he's going to have a tremendous reception to that. Part of that -- in how you move forward, part of that is going to be how you finance it. You're going to have to borrow somewhat to leverage some of the other dollars.

But I think there's a lot of support for that. But, unfortunately, the president uses the word infrastructure, talks about it, then he moves on. He needs a sustained focus. He should travel the country talking about it and really make it a priority.

SCIUTTO: That has not been the president's style necessarily on issues like that.

CASEY: I know. I know.

SCIUTTO: On the issue of --

CASEY: I'm trying to encourage him here.

SCIUTTO: I hear you. I hear you. I hope he's listening.

On the issue of a national emergency, the president clearly has not taken that off the table. But you've heard some of your Republican colleagues in the Senate --

CASEY: Right.

SCIUTTO: Also in the House express very grave concerns about this. Even some of the president's closest supporters here.

If the president were to declare one tonight or later, do you believe that he would be overruled in Congress? CASEY: I think he probably would be. I don't know that the outcome --

the outcome in the courts. I haven't taken a review of that. But I think there's strong sentiment, just based on what we've heard from Senator Cornyn and others, even within the Republican Senate caucus that this is not the way to go.

To declare an emergency of that kind, you -- I think it's a very high bar and I hope he would think about that before he makes such declaration.

SCIUTTO: Final question.

On the State of the Union, I mean traditionally you will hear president's call for bipartisanship and unity. That's not a new message.

CASEY: Right.

SCIUTTO: And it's not a new message for this president because he called for very much the same last year. And you were around Washington for the last year.


SCIUTTO: You didn't see much bipartisanship and unity.

I just wonder, in your view, if the power of that message somewhat lost? Or do you hold out hope that perhaps this is a president who can use his State of the Union this time around to change the tone somewhat?

CASEY: We should never lose hope on that. It's essential. I think the American people want that. People in both parties. But the president has to lead it. The president has to not just say it once. He's got to lead it and demonstrate it. And he has an opportunity tonight. And we'll see what he does.

SCIUTTO: Senator Bob Casey, thanks very much.

CASEY: Jim, good to be with you.

SCIUTTO: Always appreciate having you on.

CASEY: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: A top U.S. commander is on Capitol Hill amid bipartisan backlash over the president's plan to withdraw troops from Syria. We're going to bring you the latest from those hearings.


[09:38:54] SCIUTTO: This is a live look as the head of U.S. Central Command testifies on Capitol Hill. Senators are expected to press General Joseph Votel on President Trump's plans to withdraw American forces from Syria.

This as we are learning that half of tonight's State of the Union Address will focus on the president's foreign policy decisions.

Joining me now, former deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser to President Obama, CNN global affairs analyst Tony Blinken.

Tony, thanks very much. Good to have you on, as always.


SCIUTTO: I mean it's quite a moment to have Votel on The Hill. See, he's the man who has to carry out the president's orders here, including on Syria.

BLINKEN: That's right.

SCIUTTO: Discussions of withdrawal from Afghanistan as well.

You know better than me, what is the reaction within U.S. military and the folks on the ground there to this decision? Do they think this makes the country less safe?

BLINKEN: So General Votel, who is a superb officer and leader, has his work cut out for him this morning because in both Afghanistan and Syria, arguably the president's decisions, which seem to have been impulsive, cutting our force in half in Afghanistan, pulling everyone out of Syria, have probably undercut our position in both countries. So he's going to have to explain why we're actually better off with the decisions the president made and not worse off.

[09:40:05] Afghanistan, there's, I think, widespread -- a widespread view that the president's desire to pull back is probably the right thing to do. But to do it in the way he did at the moment we're negotiating with the Taliban, undercutting the leverage that we have, basically giving them something for nothing, probably wasn't smart. And in Syria, these 2,000 guys are there that the president has now ordered out, we're leveraging about 60,000 local forces to keep the pressure on ISIL. That's a pretty small price to pay for keeping ISIL at bay.

SCIUTTO: The president has said that his plan b, in effect, is to keep ISIS at bay in Syria from afar.

BLINKEN: Yes. Yes.

SCIUTTO: Use forces based in Iraq to do that. What's the difference of having folks right on the front lines versus a couple hundred miles away?

BLINKEN: It's a lot easier and a lot less costly at the end of the day to keep a small presence there, to keep them down than to play Whack- a-Mole, and get out and then watch them come back, wreak a lot of havoc in the interim, and then have to come in, in extremous (ph), to deal with the fire instead of keeping the fire from erupting in the first place.

SCIUTTO: The president, as often happens, will make a public comment, which is out of line with his commanders on the ground --


SCIUTTO: Or other senior national security officials. And he did that on U.S. forces in Iraq, to say that he wants to keep them there in large part to keep an eye on Iran. That caused issues in those negotiations with Iraqis about keeping U.S. forces there.

BLINKEN: That's exactly right.

SCIUTTO: Explain why that is and how you get over that.

BLINKEN: So it's one thing to say you want to keep U.S. forces in Iraq to, again, keep an eye on ISIS or ISIL, whatever you want to call it. It's another thing to say that they're there to keep an eye on Iran.

The last thing that the Iraqis want is to be a battleground for a proxy conflict between the United States and Iran. Or a launching ground for some kind of U.S. attack on Iran. That's the best way to unite all the Iraqi politicians to say, we want the United States out. If you're focused on keeping -- dealing with Daesh, dealing with ISIL, Iraqis can support that. If it's about Iran, they won't. So this was really a mistake to capture it in those terms.

SCIUTTO: North Korean summit coming up. And there's some talk that the president might announce that tonight, the date and place of it. That may not happen. But all things indicate by the end of this month there will be another summit between Trump and Kim.

I was at the one last time around.


SCIUTTO: Since then there's been no discernible progress based on the administration's own standards of complete, verifiable and irreversible.

BLINKEN: That's right.

SCIUTTO: Why have another summit now?

BLINKEN: The president likes these big meetings, these big moments in the international spotlight. I think he thinks that the way to get something done is leader to leader, that it can't happen at a lower level. And there may be something to that.

The problem is, that first summit rally turned the art of the deal into the art of the steal. Everything accrued to Kim Jong-un's benefit. He got the international stage. He was put on par with the United States. The pressure that the administration had effectively built up, the economic pressure, was lessened. All of that accrued to his benefit and he really didn't give anything in return.

So I -- and here's the thing, Jim. Very little planning went into that initial summit. The president didn't really have a good game plan. He ended up basically giving away exercises in the region. He mused about pulling U.S. forces out.

SCIUTTO: A surprise to the South Korean allies at the time.

BLINKEN: Very much to the surprise of the South Korean allies and to Japan. So I hope this one's better prepared. And we need to know exactly what we want to get out of it.

SCIUTTO: You wrote an op-ed in "The New York Times" where you wrote that the Trump administration has not yet faced a real national security crisis and therefore, in a way, been lucky in terms of foreign policy. Where do you see the greatest danger in the next two years of the Trump presidency for such a crisis?

BLINKEN: So, look, we have been very lucky. We haven't had a major terrorist attack. We haven't had a major cyber conflict. We haven't had some kind of skirmish with China, with Russia, with North Korea, with Iran, that actually mushrooms into something bigger. We haven't had the outbreak of an infectious disease, like Ebola, although we're seeing that start to rear its head. And so the administration really hasn't been tested. We haven't been tested.

I worry very much that this administration, unfortunately, is probably the least prepared in modern memory to deal with an actual crisis. They don't have the three things that you need -- people to make sure the president has good ideas and dissuade him from pursuing bad ones, a process to actually bring everyone around the same table to make sure that we've got the right plan, and just a basic policy for anything that is your starting point so every one of the administration's talking off the same page, our allies know what we're about and so do our enemies. In the absence of those three things, when you get into a crisis, you end up flailing about.

SCIUTTO: Right. Clarify necessary.

BLINKEN: Very much so.

SCIUTTO: Tony Blinken, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

BLINKEN: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Our coverage of the State of the Union will begin tonight at 8:00 Eastern Time right here on CNN. This is must see TV.

Undocumented dilemma. The Trump Organization is under scrutiny now after firing more than a dozen undocumented workers. Some of them say they've worked, though, for the company for decades. Why? Taking action just now.


[09:49:28] SCIUTTO: A purge of undocumented workers at the Trump Organization? According to "The Washington Post," in the last two months the company has fired at least 18 employees without legal status.

Cristina Alesci is in New York. She's been following this story. Cristina, this is remarkable for a president who has made undocumented workers such a priority for him and yet they were working at his golf courses.

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN POLITICS AND BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: For many years, Jim. It's just incredible. Eighteen is the latest number that "The Washington Post" is reporting. That's across five golf courses in New York and New Jersey. And those firings have happened over the last two months.

[09:50:02] This is not the first story. Last week "The New York Times" came out and said that they knew of three golf courses. Now we have five golf clubs. So we still don't know the extent to which the Trump Organization relies on undocumented workers.

To you point, at the same time the president is out there blasting illegal immigration, trying to get border wall funding and opening himself up to criticism that this is just hypocrisy. So that is playing out. And we still do not know exactly how many workers in the Trump Organization are illegal. Part of the reason is we are in the winter season and some of them are seasonal. So they may be asked not to come back after this investigation, this review, this internal review happens.

Based on my reporting, I was told that the Trump Organization launched a review of the employment status of their workforce after some of the workers started going public and these stories began being published in "The Times" and "The Washington Post" and other publications.

SCIUTTO: I understand some of the workers are now speaking out, talking about their circumstances. What have they been saying?

ALESCI: Well, they're trying to raise the profile around this issue. Some of them are going to the State of the Union. Some of them are asking Congress for protection against deportation. And some of them are just really upset. We've heard, you know, story after story about workers being employed at the Trump Organization for years and years and now having to go out there and find other work, again, with employment status that's -- that's questionable, if not illegal.

SCIUTTO: So, final question, what does this mean for the Trump Organization and are there legal consequences for employing undocumented workers?

ALESCI: It doesn't seem like there's any legal trouble. Again, this is more of just a headline issue for the organization that has faced so many over the course of the last two years. It really is, according to my reporting and my sources, the organization has really ground to a halt in terms of deal making because it has had to deal with so many other issues from investigations on The Hill to providing documentation to investigators for possible criminal inquiries. So all of that is quite distracting.

And this is just another negative headline that the company has had to deal with. And part of it stems from the president's decision to keep ownership in the company. SCIUTTO: No question.

Cristina Alesci, thanks for following this story.

Tonight, President Trump will push his wall in the State of the Union, but will he risk losing support from inside his own party in order to pay for it? Minutes from now I will speak with Kellyanne Conway, she is President Trump's counselor, about this and many more issues.


[09:57:06] SCIUTTO: A new judicial confirmation battle begins today, this time over President Trump's pick for a powerful appeals court seat here in Washington. If confirmed, Neomi Rao would take the seat left vacant by Brett Kavanaugh when he became Supreme Court justice. But Rao is expected to face fierce opposition over her job as the president's czar overseeing regulatory rollbacks, as well as a decades old commentary that she wrote as a college student.

CNN's Supreme Court reporter Ariane de Vogue joins me now live from Capitol Hill.

So how contentious do we think this fight will be?

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: Well, Jim, you're right, it's a new Congress but these judicial battles are heating up again. Today it's for that powerful seat on the D.C. Circuit. That was the seat was vacated by Brett Kavanaugh when he was elevated to the Supreme Court. Neomi Rao is 45 years old. She's an Indian-American. And she serves, as you said, as President Trump's so-called regulatory czar. Remember, during the campaign, he vowed to cut back on the power of those federal agencies.

So her opponents will look at that and they'll attack it because they say there are times when the regulations coming out of those federal agencies are really important and they protect people in areas like the environment. But they're also looking carefully at some of the things that Rao wrote when she was back in college in her 20s. And she wrote commentary for "The Yale Journal" and "The Washington Times" about issues like multi culturalism. And she also wrote about a date rape that occurred at the time on the campus that had a lot of drinking involved. And she said in this Yale paper piece, it has always seemed self-evident to me that even if I drank a lot, I would still be responsible for my actions. And she went on to say, a man who rapes a drunk girl should be prosecuted. At the same time, a good way avoid a potential rape is to stay reasonably sober.

So, Jim, you can imagine some of her opponents say this comes just after these heated confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh where he was accused of some kind of sexual misconduct.

But her supporters say, look, this was written a long time ago and it's not totally out of the mainstream when discussing this issue to talk about blame, but also to talk at -- sometimes about responsibility. So they are definitely going to seize on that today, Jim. SCIUTTO: Quickly here, this seat on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals,

it's often been a breeding ground, has it not, for Supreme Court justices?

DE VOGUE: Well, you're absolutely right. And that's why her opponents look at it very carefully because Kavanaugh sat on that bench, as did Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas. They fear that she may be someday down the line, if Trump has another chance, a nominee for the Supreme Court. And that's another reason that they're opposed to her. And that will come up today.

SCIUTTO: Ariane de Vogue, always good to have you talking about the Supreme Court. Thanks very much.

[10:00:01] A good Tuesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto, in Washington, where tonight President Trump will carry out a political tradition that is also a constitutional