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Top U.S. General Disagrees With Trump on Syria Troop Withdrawal; General Joseph Votel: Iran is a Growing Threat to U.S.; Trump to Declare National Emergency Over Border Wall; Interview With Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY); Amazon Scraps Plans for New Headquarters in New York City; William Barr Confirmed as New Attorney General. Aired 9- 9:30

Aired February 15, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:29] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Friday morning to you. It's going to be a busy one. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. And one hour from now the president is set to avert one crisis but spark another one.

He is expected to sign the border deal avoiding another shutdown but at the same time declare a national emergency. The president using executive action to spend $8 billion on border barriers, bypassing Congress. And in doing so, violating a fundamental principle of the Constitution that Congress and only Congress can decide how to spend the nation's money.

Note that this is a step many Republicans have repeatedly and consistently opposed. And we should emphasize that the president himself opposed it when President Obama wielded executive power during his terms in office. In 2014, Trump tweeted, quote, "Republicans must not allow President Obama to subvert the Constitution of the U.S. for his own benefit and because he is unable to negotiate with Congress."

Sound familiar? Well, brace for the constitutional battles. Democrats are vowing to challenge the declaration immediately in court. They may also do so in Congress where they may find Republican support.

The concern among many on both sides of the aisle is precedent. Will this empower future presidents to simply declare a national emergency about anything -- climate change, gun violence, health care -- when he or she cannot get approval from Congress for legislation or spending?

We should also note that after declaring the emergency, President Trump is set to head to his vacation home in Florida. That's right. Later today.

Let's get to CNN's Joe Johns who is live at the White House with more.

How will the president try to justify this, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly he's going to justify it as a national emergency, among other things. But look, this is one of those situations where the good news first is that there will not be a government shutdown. And barring a presidential change of mind. which has happened before, we do expect him to do a couple of things.

First, we expect him to sign that big spending bill that's just been passed by the Congress and over to the White House. And we expect him to move to some type of emergency action. In other words, he's going to try to cobble together from a variety of different sources about $8 billion to build that wall on the southern border.

So now let's just look at the graphic we put together to give you some idea of what he's doing. $3.5 billion of that is the Defense Department's military construction budget. That is the part of all of this that requires an emergency declaration from the president and we have these other sources, $2.5 billion. That's the Drug Interdiction Program. The president doesn't need to declare an emergency for that. That $1.375 billion that is inside the bill that's coming down from Capitol Hill. And then there is an extraneous $600 million, the Treasury Department's forfeiture fund.

So that tells you where this money is coming from. We expect the president to sign off on all of this in the Rose Garden in just a little while ago and as you said there's a lot of concern on Capitol Hill about the president doing this because a Democratic president in another situation might be able to come in and sign off on, say, a whole bunch of gun control legislation which Republicans would not like.

Back to you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Or anything. Republican or Democrat.

Joe Johns, at the White House, thanks very much.

So let's go to Capitol Hill now where lawmaker reaction is pouring in from both parties. Lauren Fox is there.

Lauren, what are you hearing? And crucially from Republicans. Because leading up to this you had a lot of Republicans, you know, use that typical language as this is not my preference or I'm uncomfortable with that. Are you hearing any firm opposition from Republicans now as this emergency declaration is imminent?

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, there is some relief on Capitol Hill that there won't be another government shutdown. But with it comes some anxiety about this idea of a national emergency.

You know, we do know that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for a long time was trying to compel the president not to do this, in part because it divides the party. Here's what a couple of rank-and-file members said about declaring a national emergency and what it means for the precedent of future presidents.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I continue to believe that this is not what the National Emergencies Act was intended to be used for. It was contemplated as a means for responding to a catastrophic event like an attack on our country or a major natural disaster.

[09:05:09] SEN. MIKE ROUNDS (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: What about if somebody else thinks that climate change is the national emergency and then what will they do and how far will they go?


FOX: You know, we do know that Democrats in the House of Representatives are preparing to take action. They'll have a resolution of disapproval of this national emergency. And then because it's privileged when it passes out of the House there will be a vote in the Senate.

The key thing to be watching of course is how many Republicans vote with Democrats against the president's national emergency. That's the key question that we still don't know the answer to. But if they don't have enough votes for a veto-proof majority so that two-third, then the president can still veto it, Jim.

So there's a lot of questions here about how Republicans react. Again everyone is relieved that there's not going to be a government shutdown today. But a lot of questions still left -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Lauren Fox, thank you very much.

Let's discuss now with Steve Vladeck. He's professor of law at the University of Texas Law School and Molly Ball, national political correspondent for "TIME" magazine.

Thanks to both of you. There -- of course there's the law and there's the politics of this decision. And both crucial.

But, Steve, I want to start with the law here. Tell us what national emergency legislation says specifically about a declaration like this. And does it provide any definition, any parameters to define what a president can call or what he needs to say to call it a national emergency?

STEVE VLADECK, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I mean, Jim, the short answer is no. When Congress passed the National Emergencies Act in 1976 the idea was that there would be political checks on presidents declaring national emergencies that a large percentage of the American people did not actually think were emergencies. The statute doesn't define the term emergency. Instead the real fight I think is going to be over the specific authorities that the president will unlock by declaring a national emergency.

We heard Joe Johns talk about military construction. There is a very specific statute that authorizes the use of funds for military construction, but only for specific purposes. I think we're going to see litigation on the question of whether that statute is actually being satisfied to build a border wall.

SCIUTTO: And before I go to Molly on the politics, Steve, if there is a -- rather, arguments in the court, is it likely that activity is stayed in the meantime? In other words, it's blocked while the court considers it or it's allowed to proceed while the court considers it?

VLADECK: Jim, it's hard to say for sure. But one of the things courts look at in that context is the likelihood that the challengers are going to succeed on the merits. So the weaker the president's statutory claim is, the stronger the challenges are, the more I think we will see courts block preliminary enjoined anything the president is going to do for the duration of that litigation.

SCIUTTO: OK. Fair enough. So now let's talk about the politics, Molly, if I can with you. Because also in this 1976 National Emergency Act is a provision that allows Congress to seek to terminate a president's declaration. We know that Nancy Pelosi is talking about invoking that very clause. Of course the question is, does she get Republican support? Because of course she can get it through the Democratic-controlled House. Can you also get it through the Senate? What are you hearing?

MOLLY BALL, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, TIME: Well, we have already heard a lot of Republicans express misgivings publicly. And the question is going to be, as always, with the Republican Senate where many Republican senators have voiced misgivings about various things the president has done over the last couple of years only to completely fail to rein him in in any way for whatever reason.

This may be different I think for a couple of reasons. Number one, it is very unpopular. The shutdown was very unpopular and you saw Republican senators start to rebel against the president when that was going on. This is also a very unpopular move only supported by about 30 percent of the public in most polling that has been done so far. Of course that was before the president decided to do it which may change the equation a little bit.

Bu that's even more unpopular than the idea of the wall itself which is also not a popular position with the public. And the other thing is, I think, as the president enters the second half of his term you have seen Republicans more and more willing to buck him, usually quietly and usually on foreign policy and national security. But they have now done this repeatedly going against the president, voting against things the president wanted to do, seeking to check him on matters of national security.

And so I expect to hear also especially, you know, with the military construction piece you're going to hear members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- worry about what that was going to be for before the president took it. What was going to be built, how that could impact military readiness and American troops.

SCIUTTO: You know, it's a great point, Molly, because this has been happening. It's something of an underwritten or under discussed story where you do have Republicans bucking this president on support for the Yemen war, the Saudis and, frankly, on this very issue that they did not give the president -- Republicans -- what he wanted in term so funding for the wall.

[09:10:04] So that at least presents the possibility, and again it's another issue to directly defy a president he wanted and, again, it's another issue to directly defy a president when he declares a national emergency.

BALL: That's right. I mean, you have to remember this is a bipartisan agreement. It passed overwhelmingly in the Senate. Of course first they waited for the president to say it was OK, but this was negotiated by a group of Democrats and Republicans. This is not a deal that Nancy Pelosi came up with unilaterally. This is what Republicans agreed to in the House.


BALL: And Senate in that negotiating committee. It wasn't enough for the president. But it was something that Republicans -- this is the deal that Republicans wanted. So that's another factor here.

SCIUTTO: Final question just quickly, Steve Vladeck. Is it true when you hear folks say, Democrats and Republicans. We heard them and Mike Rounds say that before that this would be precedent that then a future president could say, hey, I can't get my piece of legislation through Congress on health care reform or on gun legislation. I'm going to declare a national emergency, you know, and just see what happens. Is it correct that that would be a precedent?

VLADECK: Absolutely. And I think that's the right fear. I mean, in 43 years it's been on the book we have not seen the National Emergencies Act used as such an obvious naked end run around Congress. It's a pretty dark day for the separation of powers. I think that's the exact precedent that everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike, should be deeply concerned about setting.

SCIUTTO: Naked end run around Congress. I like that phrasing.

Steve, Molly, thanks very much.

BALL: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: We are of course staying on top of all the breaking news out of the White House where the president is set to sign the border deal but crucially declare a national emergency before going off on a long weekend.

Plus, the top U.S. general leading the fight against ISIS disagrees with the president on withdrawing troops from Syria. More on the stunning interview and disagreement with the commander in chief.

And former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe now claiming that the president pushed back, rejected U.S. intelligence on North Korea. Why? Because he believed Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence community.


[09:15:00] JIM SCIUTTO, HOST, NEWSROOM: This is first on CNN. The top U.S. General fighting ISIS is disagreeing with the president on Syria. General Joseph Votel; the commander of Central Command says that it is not the right time to withdraw U.S. troops. He's warning that ISIS is far from defeated and says the U.S.-backed Syrian forces are not ready to handle the ISIS threat on their own.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr sat down with the General this morning. Barbara joins us now live from Muscat, Oman. Barbara, you know better than I that U.S. uniformed commanders do not like to make public comments, particularly when they effectively contradict the commander-in-chief. So these were quite strong and remarkable words from General Votel.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is exactly as you said, Jim. A disagreement, that's probably the right word to use. And keep in mind, General Votel was not consulted by the White House or the president when the president made this decision last December.

So where are we? Now, General Votel expressing his opinion, but very strongly also saying that he is carrying out the president's orders. He's serving the commander-in-chief, that's what a general does. That's what the military does.

And those troops will be withdrawn unless the president were to issue new orders. But make no mistake, his language about the announcement last December by Mr. Trump at the White House, well, his language was very blunt. Have a listen.


JOSEPH VOTEL, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: It would not have been my military advice at that particular time. And I think the capabilities, the pressure, the approach that we've had in place has been working. And so we were -- we were keen to kind of stay along that track.


STARR: And what he is also saying is, you know, it's not that he's looking for a forever war against ISIS, but that ISIS still has a capability, it has plenty of fighters, organization, resources, they are far from gone. A lot of concern as they go underground in this region. They'll come back, possibly take -- retake territory and be a new insurgency here in this region -- Jim?

SCUITTO: You know, it was interesting phrasing too, that would not have been my advice, he says. In fact, we know he was not asked for his advice before that decision. General Votel also expressed concerns over Iran specifically. What did he tell you?

STARR: It's very interesting. He is saying that Iran remains the greatest threat in the Persian Gulf region to the Middle East. And that is because of the weapons they're developing advanced capabilities in ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, ship systems, all of it.

He takes it very seriously as U.S. commanders out here do. They are very closely watching Iran, they are very closely watching to see if some of those missiles are being developed with more accuracy and longer ranges that could eventually some day in the future carry some kind of weapon of mass destruction warhead. These are the kind of concerns they have. What we are hearing out

here from officials generally is, you know, this could all change the way this region operates. But General Votel says, yes, he has options, military options to deal with Iran. But right now, he believes that the economic and diplomatic pressure is really the way to go, barring some unforeseen change. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Barbara Starr, great to have you on the story, thanks very much. Soon, President Trump is expected to declare a national emergency here in the U.S. to get money for his campaign promise of a border wall. But he is facing backlash inside his own party. We're going to speak to one Republican who says this is a bad move.


SCIUTTO: Thirty minutes from now, President Trump will appear in the Rose Garden where he's expected to sign the compromised funding bill and crucially announce a slate of executive actions including a plan to declare a national emergency to re-allocate money that Congress did not approve to pay for his border wall. Joining me now for his reaction is Republican Congressman Tom Reed of New York. Congressman Reed, always good to have you on.

REP. TOM REED (R), NEW YORK: It's great to be with you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So you and even on this broadcast in the past have opposed an emergency declaration as the president prepares to do this at the top of the hour, what's your reaction?

REED: Well, I continue, it's not a done deal in regards to that, and I encourage the president not to go down that path. But it appears that's the path that he's chosen.

[09:25:00] I mean, I understand the argument, I understand the legal basis for doing it. But I think the better approach is force Congress to do its job. Force Congress to step up and get this issue addressed once and for all.

SCIUTTO: As you know, Democrats are already preparing for the possibility of blocking the president's action which Congress can do under this 1976 law. Will you vote with Democrats to block an emergency declaration?

REED: Well, let's see what the actual proposal is, and what it's based upon, and actually what the emergency declaration and what money they're talking about. Because there's a difference between transferring from one silo to another silo or moving money from within a silo on an emergency declaration.

So we want to look at the details, but I just encourage the president, you know, let -- don't let Congress off the hook. Congress has failed here. Congress needs to solve this problem, and that's where the problem is, and it should be rightfully focused on us to get this done.

SCIUTTO: OK, but to your point, we're just putting the numbers as we understand them, up on the screen here. I know you are at a disadvantage, you can't read them, but I will read them to you. It's 1.3, just under $1.4 billion for the Homeland Security Appropriations bill, that's congressionally approved funding.

But then moving $3.5 billion from military construction for the Defense Department, $2.5 billion from Defense Department's Drug Interdiction Program, $600 million from the Treasury Department, I mean, this is money and this is a constitutional issue, is it not?

This is money that Congress allocated for other things that the president unilaterally is moving for something that he couldn't get congressional approval for, right?

REED: Right --

SCIUTTO: Is that -- is that what the constitution -- how is that not a violation of the constitution?

REED: Well, first of all, because Congress has approved this spending. Congress has approved this type of spending. And so --

SCIUTTO: But not for the border wall.

REED: Well, but that's just the -- that's the issue. Is where is the money going? And that's where we've got to see, is it going to border security enhancements outside of a border barrier? Is it going to port of entry type of strengthening? And that's where -- looking at this pot of money, I've always seen the argument, transferring money from one account to another account is a routine thing that occurs here.

And it's just recognizing the circumstances that have changed from when the original dollars were approved to where --

SCIUTTO: Clearly --

REED: We are today, and that makes some sense --

SCIUTTO: It's not routine --

REED: But --

SCIUTTO: It's not routine --

REED: Oh --

SCIUTTO: You know this as well as me as well as I do, it's not routine for a president to take money that Congress approved for something else to use that money for something that Congress didn't approve. I mean, these were big votes --

REED: Yes --

SCIUTTO: In both the House and the Senate to not give the president the money that he was asking for --

REED: Yes -- SCIUTTO: I mean, Congress has made its position clear on this.

REED: Well, Jim, let's be very clear, I know it does happen on a regular basis each and every year. This is that transfer authority. This is reprogramming where you have similar dollars that are sitting out here for eight, six, seven years. That because the projects have changed or they timed out, you have this money that's been approved and it happens routinely.

They go back to the appropriations process and they say, look, circumstances have changed, let's deploy, we have a priority here. Similar to what the money was approved for, not exactly the exact same project, but a similar project. And that's where this money that ICE have supported him, having the ability to transfer arrests.

SCIUTTO: But if it's so routine, why did the president himself repeatedly attack President Obama for taking executive actions without congressional approval. But Vice President Mike Pence, many Republicans and you yourself opposed a national emergency declaration --

REED: Yes, because exactly the point. I mean, I agree that when we talk about the executive branch in Congress, Congress needs to do its job. And for an executive order just to kind of go around Congress is not the appropriate way to do business.

Because as you've seen before, President Obama was president and I told folks back then on Democratic side, said, oh, this is great, be careful, he's not going to be president forever, and now you have President Trump and now you're going to have a future president that is going to use this authority.

And that is a fundamental flaw in our system that Congress has failed to address. And that's why it's Congress' fault.

SCIUTTO: Final question, just on another topic because you are from New York State, we had the news yesterday that Amazon pulled back from placing a new headquarters in New York due to opposition to the tax breaks he was getting from a number of state politicians. What's your reaction to that decision?

REED: Well, you know, obviously, losing an economic project like that is something I'm concerned about. But I do hear the argument, when you have a sweetheart deal in New York of $3 billion because of political connections and elsewhere, it begs the question, why do you need that size of a break?

Why do you need that sweetheart deal? I am of the mindset, we need Republican leadership in New York State that will lower taxes and lower regulations. So New York residents, New York businesses, first and foremost thrive, and then new businesses come in because of the environment that we've created. This is just a sign of the policies in Albany that are killing our state.

SCIUTTO: Congressman Tom Reed, always good to have you on.

REED: Good to be with you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Enjoy the weekend.

REED: You too.

SCIUTTO: Coming up, it is Bill Barr's first full day as the new Attorney General of the United States. So what does that mean for the future of the Mueller probe? There are some real questions being raised today, stay with us.