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Top U.S. General Stays Trump Did Not Consult Him Before Syria Withdrawal Announcement; Lawmakers Demanding Answers After CNN Exclusive Report Shows U.S. Weapons Falling Into Enemy Hands; Interview With Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA). Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 5, 2019 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:01]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Not consulted. The general in charge of the U.S. military operations in the Middle East says President Trump didn't talk to him before announcing plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. And he warns that, despite what the president claims, the fight against ISIS is not over.

And CNN gets answers. An exclusive report that first aired here in THE SITUATION ROOM just 24 hours ago has senators demanding action and seeking answers about American guns, armored vehicles and even missiles falling into the hands of enemies, including Iran.

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: The breaking news tonight, new details emerging on the president's State of the Union address that he will give in just a few hours. It was postponed by the last government shutdown. It's being delivered with another one, though, looming.

Sources tell CNN the president hopes to hit the reset button with a bipartisan appeal for unity. But his standoff with Democrats over funding over his border wall certainly continues.

Also breaking, CNN has learned federal prosecutors are now seeking interviews with Trump Organization executives, and they have subpoenaed the Trump inaugural committee at the same time.

We will talk about the breaking news and more with Congressman Ted Lieu of the Judiciary and Foreign Affair Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

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

Jim, the State of the Union address is now less than three hours away.

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

It's closing in fast. And aides say President Trump will deliver a State of the Union speech that is aimed at restoring some unity to a deeply divided Washington. The president will make another pitch for his border wall tonight, an issue that has divided Republicans and Democrats almost like nothing else.

Mr. Trump is so fixated on his border wall these days, I'm told he he's even talked about painting some of the fencing that already exists.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Still licking his wounds after the government shutdown, President Trump will try to hit the reset button with a State of the Union address that calls for unity at a time when the nation is in a serious state of disunion.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: He is in the way that he's calling for bipartisanship and unity and more compromising cooperation and less divisiveness, retribution politics, as he calls it. And so that implicitly addresses the fact that there's a divided government.

ACOSTA: But hours before the president's speech, he was already fighting with the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The president will say the state of our union is strong, but the American people know the state of the Trump administration is in chaos.

ACOSTA: The president fired back, tweeting: "I see Schumer's already criticizing my State of the Union speech, even though he hasn't seen it yet. He is just upset that he didn't win the Senate after spending a fortune, like he thought he would."

Mr. Trump's other sparring partner, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will be seated right behind him during the address, with all eyes watching to see if he will show the same respect that was on display when George W. Bush was president.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Tonight, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ACOSTA: The deep divide can be seen in the guests attending tonight's speech, with the White House inviting families of victims killed by undocumented immigrants.

Pelosi invited chef Jose Andres, who provided food a federal workers during the government shutdown, and Fred Guttenberg, the father of a child killed in last year's Parkland school shooting.

One of the flash points of the night may be over the president's quest for a border wall. As he tweeted earlier in the day: "Tremendous numbers of people are coming up through Mexico in the hopes of flooding our southern border. We have sent additional military. We will build a human wall if necessary."

The president is so fixated on his wall that he told a group of surrogates he wants to paint a section of border fencing where it meets the ocean and San Diego. Mr. Trump complained he was told by a general that painting that area could harm the environment. The White House vows, the president is determined to get his wall.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As the president said, you can call it a wall. You can call it a barrier. That's something that we have to see happen. And that's something the president's not going to stop until he does.

ACOSTA: As for the president's threat to declare a national emergency to get his wall, a growing number of Senate Republicans are raising concerns.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I am concerned about it. I think it's of dubious constitutionality.

ACOSTA: The president is also expected to devote up to half of his speech to foreign policy on topics ranging from the crisis in Venezuela to Syria and Afghanistan. Some clarity may be helpful over at the Pentagon, as one top general told Congress, military commanders were unaware of the president's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: We were not. I was not consulted.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Also tonight, the president is expected to call for new efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs and improve the nation's infrastructure.

[18:05:00]

The White House hopes those kinds of measures will bring Democrats back to the bargaining table. As for the president's wall, we're told he's been meeting with contractors over here at the White House to discuss that idea.

The wall is likely to be one of those topics, Wolf, as you know, that's on the table when the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, he's expected to host a group of bipartisan lawmakers up at Camp David this weekend. It's unclear whether or not a speech tonight or a meeting at Camp David this weekend will get the president that wall he wants -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is unclear.

All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.

From the White House, let's go up to Capitol Hill.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is joining us. Manu, we know the president isn't planning to declare a national

emergency in the speech tonight. That's what we have repeatedly been told. But Republicans are concerned that the order could come sometime after the speech if there's no deal on a border wall. What's the latest?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right.

And there's bipartisan concern tonight about the possibility of a national emergency declaration by this president. Republicans and Democrats alike are worried about the precedent this would set. Democrats in the House today circulating a set of talking points, raising concerns about how they believe that it could violate federal law going forward, also outlining the procedures that would need to be taken and that would likely be taken to try to get Congress to block this from going forward, not to mention the legal fight that could -- that could also ensue.

Now, Republicans on the Senate side, Wolf, also have been pushing back. John Thune, the number two Republican, making it very clear that he does not support this effort going forward. And neither does John Cornyn, another influential member of that conference.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has made it very clear that this could open up a hornet's nest on Capitol Hill if the president were to go this route, because he could not stop a vote from going forward.

Ultimately, Wolf, it's a question about whether Republicans would vote to block this from actually moving forward. Separately, though, those talks to avert a government shutdown by February 15 still moving forward.

Members who are negotiating, Wolf, tell me tonight that they are optimistic that they're moving closer to what they can ultimately reach a deal on how to secure the border. But Democrats still say there's going to be no money for the president's wall in that demand.

And will the president ultimately except what Congress reaches, a deal that they reach, that's also a big question tonight. So we will see if the president lays out any more clarity about what he could ultimately support from this bipartisan negotiation that's happening and whether he signals that he's going to make that national emergency declaration -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Manu, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, she will be standing right over the president's shoulder later tonight. Tell us about the optics of this year's State of the Union address, how it will be different for the president.

RAJU: Yes.

And you are going to see a lot of members, particularly Democratic members, try to make political points with the guests that they are planning on bringing, even the members who are running in 2020, the Democratic members, people like Kirsten Gillibrand. She's bringing a decorated transgender Navy member as her guest. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren bringing a furloughed employee who is the victim of the most recent 35-day government shutdown.

But Republicans too trying to make that point. Melania Trump in her box is going to invite a kid who his last name is Trump who has been bullied by -- because of the fact that his last name is Trump.

So you are going to see members on both sides try to make their points and women wearing white in solidarity with other women in the suffragette movement. So we will see Nancy Pelosi sitting behind the president.

The question, Wolf, how often will she get up and applaud this president? And how often will she be sitting down as the president faces a divided Congress before a State of the Union address for the first time in his presidency, Wolf?

BLITZER: I'm sure somebody will be counting all of that and noticing all the symbolic moves indeed.

Manu, thank you very much. Manu Raju is up on Capitol Hill.

There's more breaking news right now. CNN has learned that federal prosecutors in New York have requested interviews with top executives over at the Trump Organization -- that news coming just hours after we learned they have also subpoenaed the Trump inaugural committee for documents related to donors, vendors and finances.

Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is working the story for so. She's here with me.

Sara, what's the latest?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we have obviously heard President Trump complain about the Mueller investigation. He's called it a witch-hunt a number of times.

But now he may have additional legal headaches on his hands, as prosecutors in New York look into not one, but two Trump-related entities.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Federal investigators from the Southern District of New York are asking to speak with top executives of the Trump Organization, sources tell CNN, another sign President Trump's legal woes may not end with the special counsel.

It's not clear why investigators from the U.S. attorney's office want to talk to people inside the Trump Organization. But, in recent months, CNN has learned federal prosecutors have taken up at least two investigations into Trump-related entities.

The focus on the president's business comes at the same time federal prosecutors in New York are scrutinizing the committee that planned the events around his inauguration. A sweeping subpoena aimed at the committee calls for documents related to virtually every donor, donation and even the possibility of donations made by foreign nationals.

[18:10:10]

It also calls for information about attendees at committee events and vendors the committee worked with. A spokeswoman for the committee said it would cooperate with the inquiry. The subpoena shows prosecutors are investigating a laundry list of potential crimes, conspiracy against the U.S., false statements, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, disclosure violations, contributions from foreign nations and contributions from straw donors.

The committee has already come under public scrutiny for how it raised and spent an eye-popping $100 million on Trump's inaugural festivities. And Mueller's team previously struck a plea deal with a Washington lobbyists who admitted to illegally procuring inauguration tickets for a Ukrainian oligarch.

The lobbyist, Samuel Patten, appears to still be cooperating. The subpoena from New York prosecutors targets only one person by name, Imaad Zuberi, and his investment firm Avenue Ventures LLC.

CONWAY: I saw there was one individual named, a gentleman who apparently had been a fund-raiser for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, President Obama and Secretary Clinton. And he was trying to -- according to the reports I read, trying to get inroads into the Trump inaugural.

MURRAY: After backing President Obama and Hillary Clinton, Zuberi's firm donated $900,000 to Trump's inaugural fund, according to federal election records.

But the subpoena doesn't reveal why prosecutors may be interested in his donation. A spokesman for Zuberi said he's unaware of this subpoena aside from news reports. "If in fact he is named in this subpoena, never mind somehow named alone, he is bewildered why," adding: "Imaad has always gave only his own money from his own resources."

Today, the White House distanced itself from the investigation.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: What I do know at this point is this has nothing to do with the White House. And for anything specific and further, I would refer you back to the Trump inaugural committee.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Wolf, obviously, Sarah Sanders can say that this has nothing to do with the White House, but it clearly has a lot to do with President Trump.

The fact that investigators are digging into the Trump Organization, that could be potentially more dangerous to President Trump, to his family members than anything we have seen from the Mueller probe. And it's the kind of inquiry that could stretch on for years, potentially for as long as Donald Trump is president, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the Trump Organization, the Trump Foundation, the Trump inaugural, they're looking into a lot of stuff, various investigators.

Thank you very much, Sara, for that report.

Let's get some more in all of this.

Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California is joining us. He's a member of both the Judiciary and the Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, so what do you think? These federal prosecutors, they're now requesting these interviews with top Trump Organization officials.

What and who do you think they're investigating?

LIEU: Well, let me first say that the level of corruption associated with Donald Trump and his associates is extraordinary.

It looks like virtually every organization Donald Trump has touched is now under investigation. We know that these are prosecutors that are separate from special counsel Mueller's office. They all took an oath to uphold the Constitution. They did not take an oath to the president. They're going to do their job.

And we will see what happens with these investigations. It's hard to tell at this point exactly what they're going after. But we do know that Michael Cohen in federal court, under oath, basically said that Donald Trump directed him to make payments that turned out to be felony campaign finance violations.

I'm sure prosecutors will want to know who else in the Trump Organization knew about that.

BLITZER: How do you think the president will react, Congressman, if his children are drawn into these investigations?

LIEU: It is a matter of debate whether or not the president of the United States can be indicted.

There's no debate whether the president's children can be indicted or his son-in-law. They absolutely can. And so we're going to wait and see what happens with these investigations.

BLITZER: We can see from the subpoena of the Trump inauguration committee that investigators are looking into various subjects, including foreign money.

But this investigation is separate from Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. What does that tell you?

LIEU: That Americans understand the one thing that makes America great is the rule of law.

And we have investigators, law enforcement personnel and prosecutors that take their oaths very seriously. They're going to investigate and go where the evidence leads them, even if this is the president of the United States or his family.

BLITZER: Have you seen any evidence at all that President Trump's inaugural committee actually broke the law?

LIEU: I personally have not.

But what we do know is that this president and some of his family members do not seem to care at all about the Emoluments Clause, or having foreign influence affect their decisions, or using taxpayers' money to benefit themselves personally.

So it would not surprise me that part of the inaugural committee may have violated crimes.

BLITZER: Only one person in this subpoena is named, a man by the name of Imaad Zuberi. We heard about him. He's a former Obama and Clinton fund-raiser.

[18:15:03]

Are some of these issues under investigation of concern for both political parties?

LIEU: It certainly could be, based on public reporting.

It looks like what they're looking at are activities associated with the Trump inaugural committee. What made this different is a huge amount of money was raised, but only part of it was spent.

And so I think prosecutors trying to figure out, well, where did the other millions of dollars go? Did they go to enrich Donald Trump or his associates, or would they legitimately spent on legitimate activities?

BLITZER: The acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, as you know, he's agreed to testify publicly before your committee, the House Judiciary Committee, this coming Friday.

So why has the chairman, Jerry Nadler, prepared a subpoena for Whitaker if he's voluntarily going to appear?

LIEU: Because, in the past, we have seen administration officials say that they're not going to answer a question by saying that they're thinking they might actually use a White House privilege, but not actually go ahead and use it.

You can't do that. You have to either answer the question or exercise your privilege. So if Matt Whitaker simply says he's not going to answer the question and doesn't exercise a privilege, we will subpoena him on the spot and compel him to testify.

BLITZER: That hearing will be open to the public, right?

LIEU: Yes. It will be this Friday. It will be open to the public in the House Judiciary Committee.

BLITZER: The window, meanwhile, is narrowing to try to reach a deal on border security. Is there anything the president could say in his address to Congress tonight that would move you towards a compromise, including some funding for some sort of steel barrier, at least along part of the border with Mexico?

LIEU: It would be helpful if the president actually acknowledged basic facts.

So last year, Donald Trump's own words, he said that border crossings were at a 45-year low. We know from the latest FBI statistics that violent and property crime are down across United States. And study after study shows that immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans.

If we can agree on those facts, then we can move forward and look at the border and say, OK, what discrete areas might actually need some physical barriers? And, by the way, have you seen a map of the administration that they have shown you with a border wall across the southern border?

They haven't shown such a map, because most of the border, in fact, doesn't need a wall.

BLITZER: If the president does go ahead and declare a national emergency and decide to go ahead, find money elsewhere, build the wall on his own, without formal congressional appropriation, what will you and your fellow Democrats do?

LIEU: We will see the president in court.

I note that, if there was a national emergency, Donald Trump would not have golf this weekend, nor would he have waited over two years before declaring a national emergency.

When Congress writes laws, we expect the words being what they say, national emergency. And you don't wait over two years and say it's a national emergency. And, clearly, there is none.

BLITZER: Congressman Ted Lieu, thanks so much for joining us.

LIEU: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The breaking news continues next, as we learn new details tonight about the State of the Union speech and what President Trump will be saying.

Also breaking, CNN has learned that federal prosecutors have requested interviews with top executives at the Trump Organization.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:22:52]

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, as we count down to President Trump's State of the Union speech tonight.

CNN has learned federal prosecutors have been seeking interviews with top Trump Organization executives. The news comes just after we learned that federal prosecutors also have subpoenaed the Trump inaugural committee.

Let's dig deeper into all of this with our experts and our analysts.

And, Susan Hennessey, what does it tell you that federal prosecutors want to talk to these Trump Organization executives?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Look, I think it's unequivocally bad news for the president.

We have all been really focused on the Mueller probe. But I do think that this illustrates the degree of risk that the investigations in the Southern District of New York might pose to the president. The Mueller investigation has a limited mandate.

The Southern District of New York does not have that mandate. So whenever Trump talks about looking into the Trump Organization as being a potential red line, that just doesn't apply for these prosecutors.

I do think it's really, really telling that we don't even know which of the investigations into the president this might be related to. Is this related to the campaign finance violations as revealed by Michael Cohen? Does this have something to do with the investigations into the inaugural committee? Or does this have something to do with some other line of inquiry that we don't even know about?

So it does sort of illustrate just really the sprawling and enduring nature of...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: We have no way of telling, Jeff, how the president is going to react to federal prosecutors potentially looking into the activities of his children.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I think we have a good idea. And I think he won't like it.

I mean, as Susan said, he has talked about that red line of, of course, his finances. But there is no one who is closer to him, that he tries to protect more than his children. So we know, up until this point, his children were involved in the campaign, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, his daughter Ivanka Trump at the White House, as well as the campaign.

So I think we do know how they will react. The question is, he can't really do much about it, because this is not the special counsel. This is the Southern District of New York. I mean, he appointed the person leading that office. So the reality here is, we don't exactly know where this is going.

If -- you have to put in context everything that has happened so far. I think that this investigation is the one that could worry them the most. This is why, because it gets to the closest inner circle of his orbit, his actual friends.

[18:25:01]

Some of the campaign people that have been charged, they weren't that close to him. These people and his family, so close to him.

BLITZER: And, Gloria, addition to investigating the Trump Organization, federal prosecutors are also looking at the Trump inauguration committee. And they're looking at these potential crimes.

And I will put them up on the screen, conspiracy against the United States, false statements, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, disclosure violations, contributions from foreign nationals, contributions in the name of another person.

That's big league.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it is. All of this is big league, even the fact that people from the Trump Organization, as we're reporting, have been called in.

I think, if you take a step back for a minute, the Mueller investigation may be winding down, but the Southern District of New York seems to be just revving up at this particular point.

And I think that that does pose perhaps the biggest risk to the president. What does he care about the most? He cares about his business. What does he care about also the most? He cares about his family.

And those are two things that could be in jeopardy as a result of these investigations. We don't know where they're going. We don't know what they have. But we do know that Mueller was pretty smart. And what he did was he, he looked at his -- what he's assigned to do, which is the Russian hacking of the election. He said, this is my mandate.

But when he came across things, he referred it. And that is exactly what we're seeing right now. So those investigations can continue while the president is president.

BLITZER: And take a look at this, David Swerdlick, the inaugural committee funds that were raised by the Trump inauguration, as compared to other presidents.

And we will put them up on the screen. Take a look at this; $107 million was raised by the Trump inauguration committee in 2017. But if you take a look at what Obama and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton raised, that's twice as much, if not more, than they raised.

And that's raised some questions.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: It's raised some questions. We still need to know more.

As everybody has said, with each thread of these investigations, with each story that comes out about this administration, just on a political level, whether it's inappropriate behavior by Cabinet officials, whether it's the Trump Hotel, the inauguration, the bigger investigations, Stormy Daniels, you have a much more difficult situation for the president, for the people around him, to say that all of this is a witch-hunt, that they're being unfairly targeted either by the Southern District of New York or by the special counsel's investigation, if these things are weaving closer and closer into the president.

BORGER: Yes, there's one more thing I want to add here, which is we should not be shocked that people were trying to buy access to a new administration or to the president of the United States through the inaugural committee.

ZELENY: Especially one they didn't think he would win.

BORGER: Right.

ZELENY: Those others, the Obama campaign and the Bush campaigns, people largely knew where these were going, at least the second one.

BORGER: Right.

ZELENY: But the Trump was a surprise, so people wanted to send in checks.

BORGER: Right. Exactly.

So we weren't born yesterday. This happens, but not at this particular level, because people weren't betting on Donald Trump, as you were saying.

ZELENY: And his inauguration was smaller than all of those.

BORGER: I heard that, the picture.

BLITZER: Susan, look at look at this, these various investigations involving Trump and various aspects of the president's life.

Even if the Mueller investigation wraps up, the Trump Organization being investigated, Southern District of New York, the Trump Foundation, the New York state attorney general's office. Trump campaign, the special counsel and Congress is looking into it. Trump transition, the special counsel. That's Mueller.

Trump inauguration, the Southern District of New York. The Trump administration, special counsel and Congress.

It suggests that this is going to go on and on maybe throughout the next two years.

HENNESSEY: Right.

The remarkable common denominator there is Trump. I do think that it illustrates that this is virtually guaranteed to sort of go beyond the Mueller probe. And I do think it's important to keep in mind that these are just the criminal investigations, right?

We also have a whole other set of congressional investigations. The HPSCI, the House investigation, has been now been revitalized. The Senate investigation is ongoing. That Senate investigation report, from the time the investigation concludes -- we don't even know that it's about to conclude -- but from the time it concludes, it's going to take another six months to go through a really onerous clearance process.

So, as the president is facing all of these -- all these various issues, there's going to be more and more and more shoes to drop, because these other big Senate reports are also looming out there.

ZELENY: But I think, politically, though, a lot of that becomes sort of common noise, if you will, up on Capitol Hill.

That's why I think these investigations with the Southern District of New York are so different, that they could agitate the president. This is not -- I mean, we should be very clear about this. This doesn't mean the president's base is going to depart him.

Politically speaking, they almost certainly will not. What it means is his reaction. How does he react to all of this? And what does it cause him to do? That is the open question here.

And imagine what's in his mind tonight, his mind-set, as he's about to give his State of the Union address. The timing is not great, if you want a president sort of calm and collected and focusing on the matter at hand.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's a distraction.

[18:30:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM: And a lot of investigations, including investigations of his children, which is clearly what once was thought to be a redline, Gloria, that these investigators should not cross.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN : Well, and the children and his business are of the same thing in many ways. And don't forget, the Trump organization, like the Trump campaign, was not run by a lot of people. It's a very small sort of nuclear hierarchy with his children, used to be Nichael Cohen, Allen Weisselberg, the Chief Financial Officer who has gotten limited immunity to testify. So there are - and there are other people. But I would say, you know, it's less than a dozen. Donald Trump knows all of them very well. He clearly has some indication that something is going on here and it would bother him because instead of one witch hunt, as he calls it, he is going to say, there are many witch hunts.

BLITZER: And Matt Whitaker, the Acting Attorney General, is going to testify before the House Judiciary Committee Friday. And who knows, the democrats, the democrats and the majority, how that is going to potentially explode.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right. This is going to be one of these first tastes of democrats having control of these committees and being able to ask questions that republicans perhaps didn't ask in the last Congress. And it will be interesting to see whether Whitaker provides new information or if he tries to sort of stick with the line that has been out there from the Trump justice department.

BLITZER: And you heard the Congressman said, look, you know, Susan, say that if he doesn't answer certain questions that the democratic majority thinks he must answer, they'll immediately, on the spot, file some sort of subpoena.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right. So this is going to be an illustration, as David, of the power of oversight. We have seen witnesses that have come before the committee and cabinet members sort of try and play a cute game in which they basically say they are not going to answer our question without formally asserting their privileges. So this is - the Congressman is indicating that the democrats are really going to hold their feet to the fire. They're going to say, "Look, if you actually want want to assert the privilege in a manner in which we can litigate if we don't think it's appropriate, then you have do so. But we're not going to sort of back off in the way that our republican colleagues were inclined to in the past.

BLITZER: It's a whole different world in the House of Representatives right now. Everybody stick around, much more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:35:00]

BLITZER: And we're back with our correspondents and experts. And, Jeff Zeleny, we're hearing the President will try to appeal to the democrats tonight on the issue of immigration. But he seems to be writing off the possibility of a deal for border wall funding with the democrats. Do you think he has already resigned to this notion that maybe he's going to go ahead and declare a national emergency? We're told he has been meeting with contractors over at the White House today.

ZELENY: He has been. By all indications, everyone we talked to at the White House and in his orbit, they do believe he is going to do this, not tonight. We do not expect him to declare this national emergency tonight in the House Chamber. Of course, he could always make that change, call an audible, if you will. But people expect that to happen and here is why. It's one of the only ways that he can at least politically speaking save face among his base and among some of his supporters on the right, but people who believe he hasn't been strong enough.

So he is going to walk a line, we're told, during the speech night. He is going to call for unity. I'm told by people who have seen this speech, there are several examples and calls for unity. There were last year as well. I think they will probably ring more hollow this year. The credibility factor is not high on either side.

We talk about how much democrats are going to applaud. I'm going to be looking at republicans tonight as well because there are a lot of republicans who do not want him to call for a national emergency. They think it's the wrong choice. But all indications are, eventually, he will do that.

BLITZER: Do you think, Gloria, the speech tonight will change the needle at all as far as the border security negotiations are concerned?

BORGER: Well, you know, our Hill team is reporting that behind closed doors, the border negotiations are going very well, if you left it up to members of Congress, republicans and democrats, maybe they could cut a deal. The big question mark, as ever, is what is Donald Trump going to and what would he sign on to. It seems to me that he is in a box. There's a wall or slats or whatever you want to call it. But that's what he wants. And if those negotiators don't come out with $5.7 billion for what he wants, he's kind of dug Himself in.

And that's the big question here, will he sign on to something or will he declare this national emergency, which by the way, can be disapproved by Congress, including many of his republicans in the Senate, and that's a risk for him.

BLITZER: Yes. It would need resolutions of disapproval in the House and the Senate. But he could veto, then you would need two-thirds to override.

BORGER: Yes. But what would happen is he would force republicans to go on the record on this, and they don't want to. They don't want to.

BLITZER: It's a serious problem right now, you know, David. Is there a face saving option available for the President, let's say, he doesn't get all the money for a border wall or a steel barrier that he wants?

SWERDLICK: I think the problem for the President and for republicans is that the face-saving option is declaring a national emergency. Because even if he loses a legal challenge to it, down the road, at least he can take that fight back to his base, back to the 40% of people who are behind him, back to conservative pundits and say, "I did everything I could do. I tried to fight. Congress and the courts thwarted me.

But in these negotiations that are going on, like Gloria is say, right, people can make a deal in Congress. But can Trump accept a deal that doesn't include funding specifically for a wall, probably not for his base.

[18:40:05]

And democrats can't give that to him unless they want to go crossways with their base. And that's where we are.

BLITZER: You know, Susan, we're told that a big chunk of the speech tonight, it could go on for an hour with the applause, sitting, standing up and all of that. It will be on foreign policy, national security, whether North Korea, whether China, whether Iran, U.S. Troops in Syria, U.S. Troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, that's going to be a big chunk of the speech. What are you listening for?

HENNESSEY: Yes. So I think if the past, if there's any indication, we're going to hear the President try and claim a lot of victories. And, frankly, we're going to hear him potentially make a lot of stuff up. So it actually took many months after his prior State of the Union through Freedom of Information Act requests sort of nail down some of the claims he made about federal agencies making representations to him. You know, it might even be more of a fact checking challenge this year because he has arguably less good news on the foreign policy front. North Korea nuclear program is continuing. ISIS is not defeated. NATO allies continue to be incredibly spooked.

And so usually whenever we look at sort of a coherent foreign policy vision from a President, the really unusual thing about Donald Trump is he doesn't usually talk about policy at all, he usually talks about himself. And so whenever we've seen him discuss foreign policy in the past, it's usually through the lens of who has been nice to him, who is fair, who is unfair, and it isn't really about policy at all.

BLITZER: And he really wants to get those troops out of Syria and Afghanistan. He thinks both have been a disaster for the United States. The U.S. has wasted trillions and trillions of dollars, he says. And look what the U.S. has gotten for it, basically nothing.

ZELENY: And I think that that's the argument he is going to make. And I think that that argument will find a welcome a receptive audience by some Americans who are seeing the longest war in history.

But up until this point, he has not really brought the country along to this idea. He has Tweeted his ideas. He's not fully explained it. So tonight, he does have the opportunity, as the country watches, to make this case. We'll see how much he dwells on that because we know it was a bit of a spur of the moment decision. People in the chamber know that ISIS has not been defeated. The republicans and democrats know that. So he faces a bit of a challenge on that.

But we should remember, in these nights when he gives big speeches on a teleprompter, he is generally far, far, far different than when he is Tweeting or when he is talking off the cuff on the South Lawn or in the Oval Office. So expect a more restrained President and someone who is speaking, you know, a prepared speech. The real question, what comes tomorrow morning and the days after?

BLITZER: The President will speak for about an hour, David Swerdlick. After he leaves the House of Representatives, there will be a five- minute break. And then we'll hear from Stacey Abrams, the - from Georgia. She narrowly lost the Gubernatorial Contest there.

SWERDLICK: Yes. And that does a few things for democrats. First, it's just an out of the box pick, not a back bench congress member but someone from one of the states where democrats want to make gains, Georgia, they're not giving up on that. It also reminds people of voter manipulation in that way. It reminds voters that Stacey Abrams, even though she lost her race, is someone who the party wants to push forward, perhaps in a senate race, a Yale law grad, a former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, sort of a fresh generation X phase. They are saying, look, we have not - we're still invested in Stacey Abrams as a candidate.

BLITZER: She's got a tough challenge. It's not easy giving that response to the President of the United States, as we all know from history. Everybody stick around, there's more news.

We're following a top U.S. general, says President Trump never spoke to him about withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria and that the fight against ISIS is not over.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:48:35] BLITZER: The general in charge of U.S. Central Command overseeing military operations in the Middle East says president Trump did not consult with him before announcing plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Let's go to our own Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, how out of the ordinary is it for a commander not to know about an announcement like this?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is extraordinary. He may not have heard it from Trump himself, but remember, Trump didn't even consult Defense Secretary James Mattis who would have been the one to tell General Votel. Mattis, of course, resigning at the end of December when the announcement was made. He felt he was not consulted on all of this.

As General Votel testified today on Capitol Hill, more and more emerged about his view of ISIS, the threat it poses and what he really thinks is going on.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: General, were you aware of the president's intention to order the withdrawal of our troops from Syria before that was publicly announced?

GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: I was not aware of the specific announcement. Certainly, we are aware that he expressed a desire and intent in the past to depart Iraq.

KING: So, you weren't consulted before that decision was announced?

VOTEL: We were not -- I was not consulted. (END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: And maybe the president might have wanted to consult Votel because Votel's view right now is that ISIS is not defeated. And he has a lot of evidence to back that up.

[18:50:01] Sure, this physical caliphate almost gone, ISIS down to 20 square miles.

But, look, the intelligence community says there are thousands of ISIS fighters still out there. They are going underground, clandestine, regrouping, networking, they have cash, they have organization staging guerrilla attacks, this is an organization very far from gone, regardless of what the president says -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, the British government meanwhile is saying that it believes one of ISIS's high profile hostages is still alive. What's the latest?

STARR: This is the British journalist John Cantley who disappeared in Syria back in 2012, over the years emerged several times in videos believed to be made by ISIS, being held by ISIS, a very difficult case because he clearly has conditioned degrading in these conditions where he's been held. Has not been seen or heard from in some time.

A British minister today told reporters in London, they believe he's still alive, which so hard to fathom of why he would have said this so publicly, because if ISIS still holds him, it could make ISIS move him to a different location, make him more difficult to find or worse.

U.S. and British Special Forces very experienced in these matters. They keep watch around the clock for all hostages that they may be tracking in any country, looking for any clues about where they are, and when they might be able to stage a raid to try and get these people back. Today, this British minister making it very public and perhaps a very unfortunate way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Let's hope for the best, though.

Barbara Starr, thank you very much.

Just ahead, senators seizing on an exclusive CNN report about American weapons falling into enemy hands.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:27] BLITZER: An exclusive CNN report that first aired here in THE SITUATION ROOM last night is now prompting very serious questions up on Capitol Hill about U.S. weapons in Yemen falling into enemy hands.

Our senior international correspondent Nima Elbagir is joining us with a follow up.

Nima, tell us about the impact that your exclusive reporting is now having? NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A member of the

Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Wolf, Senator Chris Murphy has now called for the U.S. to withdraw from its support for the Saudi led coalition in the war in Yemen.

And U.S. Central Command General Joseph Votel had this to say to lawmakers today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D-NH), ARMED SERVICES: A recent CNN report that suggests that weapons that have been provided to UAE and to Saudi Arabia have wound up in the hands and been traded and been used on both sides of that conflict.

VOTEL: I am aware of the references that you're making to that, and we have not authorized Saudi Arabia or the Emirates to retransfer any of this equipment to other parties on the ground in Yemen. The recipients do have to agree to certain stipulations on the use of those and that we do have monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ELBAGIR: But he did go ton to extrapolate that perhaps this is a situation, as had been experienced in the past, where perhaps enemy combatants has got hold of this U.S. technology as spoils of war. But, of course, that's not what we witnessed on the ground, Wolf. What we saw was U.S. military hardware that had been transferred from U.S. allies, from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to proxy militias that operated alongside the coalition on the ground, which by the general's own profession is in violation of the arms sales agreements, Wolf.

BLITZER: And you reported, Nima, that some of this equipment, this U.S. equipment which was transferred to the Saudis, the Emiratis, eventually wound up not only in the hands of Houthis but also the Iranians.

ELBAGIR: Absolutely, Iranian intelligence were given access through a Houthi unit called the Preventative Security Force and they were able to go over, as we understand it, every inch of those MRAPs, essentially reverse engineering U.S. military technology but not just the hands of Iranians, also in the hands of an al Qaeda-linked militia which operates under the aegis of the coalition.

These are very concerning, concerning findings as we're being told by many U.S. military sources who are telling us that the Department of Defense is currently putting in place an investigation to look into this, Wolf.

BLITZER: How quickly, potentially -- Nima, you have done excellent reporting of this -- could all of this be stopped?

ELBAGIR: Well, there is a ticking clock here, Wolf, because by a bill that was passed through Congress. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to certify to Congress regarding the conduct of the UAE and Saudi- led coalition in the war in Yemen, not just with regards to protection of the rights of civilians, but also specifically whether they are adhering to those arms sales agreements with the U.S. That is due by February the 9th and our understanding from congressional staffers is that they are now putting up, ramping up the pressure on Mike Pompeo in the light of our findings, Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you're going to stay on top of this amazing reporting. Nima, thank you very much to you and your team for all of that.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.