Return to Transcripts main page


Trump To Declare National Emergency Over Border Wall; Justice Ginsburg Returns To The Supreme Court; Top U.S. General: Iran A Growing Threat to U.S., Allies. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 15, 2019 - 10:00   ET



TEXT: BORDER BARRIER FUNDING. $8 BILLION. $1.375 Billion - Homeland Security appropriations bill - Funds can be used for barriers, not a wall. $3.5 Billion - Defense Dept. military construction budget - Requires national emergency declaration. $2.5 Billion - Defense Dept. drug interdiction program. $600 Million - Treasury Dept. drug forfeiture fund.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: -- of a national emergency, and we have $2.5 billion for drug interdiction, $1.375 billion that, of course, is in the big spending bill that's coming over, and $600 million from Treasury Department forfeitures.

There's a lot of opposition to this. It's also very important to say even some Republicans on Capitol Hill concerned that when the tables get turned, another president from the other party could do this in a way they don't like at all. And, the other thing, too, Jim, and I think we have to re-emphasize is, there's also a potential for the House and the Senate to vote against emergency declarations by the President of the United States. But, he gets the opportunity to veto that.


In just a few moments for now, the president will appear, make that declaration we believe. Let's bring back our team of experts now. Among several, we got Abby Phillip, Kirsten Powers, Charlie Dent, Jeffrey Toobin, David Gergen, just a little bit of experience there.

David Gerken, I want to start with you, because you served four presidents. The White House now saying this is nothing new. Presidents have declared national emergencies before. What's different about this one?

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR: There's no emergency. You know, it's a fake, and everybody knows that, and it's all about politics. Any other emergencies, other presidents did and declared have true roots in national security and a real threat to the country.

And I think it's not at all clear to me, Jim, that -- I know Jeffrey believes that the Supreme Court is likely to uphold this. But, you know, many conservatives believe, and constraints on the executive, they do not like to see a president go beyond the bounds of the Constitution. And, under the Constitution under Article 1, the power to appropriate money, the power of the purse belongs to Congress not to the White House.

SCIUTTO: It's pretty clear in Article 1, and let's be clear that Congress is voting today. I mean, they voted already to not give money for this wall. They've made their opinion clear as to whether this is an emergency.

We have some news just into CNN. This from our Manu Raju who, of course, covers the Hill for us. He says that House Democratic leaders are now considering their options for challenging an emergency declaration if the president goes forward with that.

Charlie Dent, you served a few terms in Congress as a Republican from Pennsylvania. What are the options on the Hill to block the president's potential action here.

CHARLIE DENT: CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, there'll be a resolution of disapproval no doubt. They'll be developing a legal strategy. I'm sure the appropriators will also be already writing their bills, and they're going to further restrict transfer authority. They'll be doing all sorts of things that torture the administration.

But, you know, Jim there's another issue here. That if you're going to declare an emergency, your remedy, in this case, building a wall has to address the underlying emergency. I can make a very strong case. As David Gerken said, there's no emergency, and building a wall won't stop poor migrants from Central America, who are trying to come through, in many cases legal ports of entry. You can build it fast enough. There are political ramifications here too.

Just on the military construction side. Where does he plan to take the money from? Camp San Diego in Puerto Rico, there's hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the National Guard facilities. There's hundreds of millions of dollars going to Alaska for vital infrastructure projects. A new hospital to take care of our wounded troops, in the Middle East and elsewhere, being built in Germany. European reassurance initiative to protect our Eastern allies from Putin. Korea moving our troops out of a line of artillery fire. You know, the big relocation there like Camp Humphreys.

These are questions that I mean, I would, politically this is terrible. I would never argue with Jeffrey Toobin on the legal aspect. So, I can't imagine a court approving this type of blatant usurpation of congressional authority. I hope Jeffrey's wrong, and if he's right, I'll buy him dinner.

SCIUTTO: Jeffrey, response.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, can I just say. I have a lot of experience being wrong. So, you should not exactly take to the bank my prediction about this. You can just ask president Hillary Clinton, because I predicted she was going to win too.

SCIUTTO: Yes. TOOBIN: So, I, you know, I'm just doing my best here. But, you know, this is an area where courts have shown a lot of deference to the presidents, especially in an area of national security where they say, you know, it is not our place. We don't have the resources to determine whether there's an emergency. That's a job for the Executive Branch. That's not a job for the Judicial Branch.

You're right, this is a reordering of the constitutional system that, you know, the power of the purse is a bedrock power that belongs under Article 1 of the Constitution to the Congress. But, the lines between the branches have not always been clear. This is one area where, you know, there is some play in the joints, and the courts are going to have to resolve it. I'm just doing my best out here so --


SCIUTTO: Kirsten Powers, short of, you know, this going all the way to the Supreme Court. You do have, I mean, Democrats are certainly going to challenge this on the Hill. And, you have the possibility that a number of Republicans joined them. Do you get to two thirds? I mean that's quite a big standard to override a potential presidential veto of that. Looking at that playing field, how likely do you think that this stops on the Hill?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't predict the future, but it does seem, if we look at the way the Republicans have behaved under Donald Trump, that they're not super eager to challenge him.

SCIUTTO: That's changing though a bit. Is it not? I mean, that they've disagreed with this president on the US support for Saudi at war in Yemen.


SCIUTTO: They disagreed with this president on lifting of the sanctions against all in there, PESCA, on Russia sanctions. They've shown greater willingness to challenge, well frankly to contradict the president.

POWERS: OK. So, greater willingness than where it was zero willingness.


POWERS: Right. So, it's very incremental, and so I think that the question is, whether or not -- it's not just that the precedent issue, and because -- I think the administration is making this argument, right? That this actually fits with the precedent in the sense that this is a national security situation. And so, past presidents have invoked a national emergency and a national security situation.

The problem is, what has been identified here. Which is, this is not a crisis. It's a manufactured crisis. And if you look at where he went to make his case, in El Paso, you had pretty much every elected official there including the Republican mayor say, this isn't -- like everything you just said isn't true.

So, the place that he went to, to make his case they're all saying, the fence here did not do the things that you said, the way you've described the crime did not occur. And so he -- So the underlying facts of this, are the problem, I think. I don't think there's a real dispute that the president has the authority to declare a national emergency. You just make up an emergency.

SCIUTTO: In El Paso, he repeatedly used a falsehood about the crime rate in El Paso being impacted by a wall, when in fact the crime dropped many years before, and it increased a little bit at the beginning of the wall.

Abby Phillip, tell us how the White House is processing all this.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think they're just in a wait-and-see mode. One thing we really need to be careful about as we watch what happens over the next hour is, in what order is the White House going to do all of these things? Is he going to declare a national emergency first, or is he going to pull money from some of these pots that are easier to acquire without delaying the national emergency until the politics of it are more clear?

I think for Republicans, the White House has reason to believe that on this issue on the wall, Republicans are less likely to bulk against President Trump, because unlike a lot of foreign policy issues, the wall is kind of like a central political issue that the president has organized the Republican Party around. And I think that they believe voters are much more motivated by those issues than they are by Russia.

SCIUTTO: Well, look at -- Remind us, CNN's polling the opposition to the wall. If we could put that up. It's two to one against this being a necessity, if we can get that up.

PHILLIP: Republican voters support the president on the wall.

SCIUTTO: Sixty six to 31, and those numbers, those are national figures. Independent voters have a very similar ratio against the wall.


POWERS: He's created this problem for himself, because he is the one who has demagogued this, and convinced the conservative base that this is a crisis.


POWERS: So, now you do have what, as Abby's saying, like you have the voters are the most engaged, who are going to make the most noise, and a hundred percent believe that this wall is going to solve the problem.


SCIUTTO: And his strategy has consistently targeted --

David Gergen, if I could ask you, the president has been sitting on this for months. We should note, he's leaving for a long weekend after declaring a national emergency. Presumably if it was a national emergency, he would have declared it months ago, rather than waiting, and hemming, and hawing, and having all these various debates on the Hill. Is that relevant to how both the courts and the Hill react to this?

GERGEN: Yes. I do think it's relevant especially for the courts that he has subjected this to the congressional process. I went through a shutdown, and basically the political system came back and said, we're only going to give you a paltry amount of money, and he's going to these emergency powers

That shows that politically -- he tried to solve this as a political problem. He saw it as a political problem, not a national security problem when he started. You know, going to the courts, by definition, is going to take months and months.

And so, I think that diminishes or weakens the argument. Well, we've got this thing on the border, that if we don't shut it down tomorrow, you're going to have people running through this country, screaming, and crying, robbing you. And that's simply not the case.


GERGEN: Jim, one other question I would be curious about, and others may have a view on is, what kind of barrier does he now envision with this extra money? Does he envision to go back to the idea of a concrete wall. You know, some large 30-foot wall. Is what that why he envisioned?

That, I think, would be a huge turnoff for the country. If it's more like the kind of fencing we've heard about with the previous administrations, I think he's got a, you know, it's potentially will go down better.

SCIUTTO: Open question. We have a lot more questions, please stay with us as we wait for the president's announcement coming in moments from the Rose Garden at the White House.

Also this morning a split over the decision to pull US troops out of Syria. Why the top general leading the fight against ISIS says that he will carry out the president's order though he disagrees with him. And this, just into CNN. CNN learning that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is back in court today. We'll have a live update.


SCIUTTO: This just in to CNN. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has returned to the Supreme Court for the first time this year. Let's bring in CNN Supreme Court Reporter, Ariane de Vogue. This, of course, after health issues. What do we know? ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: Right. We've learned that she is going to be back at court today for the closed-door conference. This is the regular conference that the justices, they sit around the table, and they talk about cases that are pending.

Now, the court is also meeting for arguments after a long recess on Tuesday. We don't know if she'll attend. That the court won't say so. We expect that she will, but this is the first time we've seen her. She's been back at the court since her cancer surgery. And also, we know that she went out a couple of weeks ago, and she watched a concert, but she hasn't been back at the court since she made that announcement.

SCIUTTO: Do we have a sense of her health status now?

DE VOGUE: We don't have a sense of it right now, but we know that this was caught very early, right? She had this cancer surgery, and they only found it after she fell in her office back in November, and she cracked a couple of ribs. When they were looking at that, they found this very, very early. So, that's what we know now. We'll see if we actually see her on the bench next Tuesday, but she is at the court today.

SCIUTTO: Perhaps the most closely watched Supreme Court justice. We know you're going to stay on top of it. Ariane de Vogue, thanks very much.

This also first on CNN. The top US general fighting ISIS disagreeing with President Trump on the withdrawal of troops from Syria. General Joseph Votel, the commander of Central Command, warning that ISIS is in fact far from defeated. He says that US-backed Syrian forces on the ground are not ready to handle the ISIS threat on their own.

CNN Pentagon Correspondent, Barbara Starr, sat down with General Votel this morning. She joins us now live from Muscat, Oman on her continuing trip there. Good morning, these are remarkable words to hear from a uniformed officer. Are they not?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: They are indeed Jim. Important words to say right off the bat. General Votel, hastened to add he is following those orders. He's a serving military officer. He is carrying out President Trump's orders. That's what military officers do. If the president was to make a decision to change the orders, and leave some troops somewhere in Syria, well then, he'll follow those orders.

Right now, he is talking about the fact that when the president first announced this withdrawal back in December, he was not consulted. He's already said that, but he really didn't agree with the president's decision. Have a listen.


GENERAL JOSEPH VOTEL, US ARMY, US CENTRAL COMMAND (on camera): It would not have been my military advice at that particular time. STARR (voice-over): The top US commander in the war against ISIS flatly disagreed with President Trump's decision to pull out of Syria. In an exclusive interview with CNN, General Joseph Votel says it's too soon to bring US troops home.

GENERAL VOTEL (on camera): I would not have made that suggestion frankly.

STARR (voice-over): President Trump announced in December he would pull more than 2,000 remaining troops from Syria.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have one against ISIS. We've beaten them, and we've beaten them badly.

STARR (voice-over): Votel aligning himself with the US intelligence community assessment, that despite significant advances, there are tens of thousands of ISIS fighters spread across Syria and Iraq. And, the decision to pull out of Syria, leading Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign last year. Last week, Votel made a stunning revelation that the president did not consult him on the decision to withdraw.

GENERAL VOTEL (on camera): Certainly, we are aware that he has expressed a desire and intent in the past to depart Iraq.

SEN, ANGUS KING (I)-MAINE (on camera): So, you weren't consulted before that decision was announced.

GENERAL VOTEL (on camera): We were not, I was not consulted.

STARR (voice-over): Nonetheless, Votel emphasizing he is carrying out the president's orders. This morning Votel stressed military pressure must be maintained and success relies on the US allied Syrian democratic forces.

GENERAL VOTEL (on camera): When they are capable of handling this threat on their own without our assistance, that will be another key criteria indicating to me, that we have accomplished our mission of defeat of ISIS.

STARR (voice-over): And as you sit here today?

GENERAL VOTEL (on camera): No, we're not there, no. We're not there on the terms that --

STARR (voice-over): Votel adding that he believes Iran still remains the biggest long-term threat to the Middle East. He sees indications that Iran's advanced ballistic missile technology could be a precursor to a more significant weapon.

GENERAL VOTEL (on camera): It shouldn't be lost on anybody that an advanced ballistic missile program could also be used to move weapons of mass destruction or do things. I could very easily be converted over for that.

STARR (on camera): So, Iran at the end of the day still the major threat in this region -- Jim.



SCIUTTO: Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

Just any minute now the president expected to appear in the Rose Garden where he's expected not only to sign a compromise funding bill, but also to announce executive actions, which may include declaring a national emergency in this country to reallocate money for his border wall. That announcement just seconds away.

Jim Acosta live from the Rose Garden where the president is about to speak Jim. Jim, do we have confidence now as to what action the president's going to take here?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We do Jim. We do believe that the president is going to announce that we heard yesterday, that he is going to sign this budget agreement, that was reached by members of both parties up on Capitol Hill.

That he is going to declare a national emergency down on the border. And, that he's going to announce just how they're putting together this $8 billion that the president is going to use to try to construct that wall that he wasn't able to get through Mexico, that he wasn't able to get through a trade deal, that he wasn't able to get through a government shutdown, forcing Congress to do it.

So, he's going to try to do it on his own. And Jim, this is sort of a little bit of a bake sale budgeting, under the seat cushion budgeting. They've had to scrounge around in the administration to find various sources of funds to draw from.

Of that $8 billion, as we were saying, $1.3 billion coming from that Appropriations Bill, $600 million from the Treasury Department's Asset Forfeiture Fund, $2.5 billion from the Pentagon's Drug Interdiction Program, and $3.6 billion via military construction projects.

Some of that is going to involve the national emergency declaration. And, that is why we're going to be hearing the president talk about that. And Jim, as you know, we've been talking about this over the last 24 hours. Ever since Mitch McConnell went out on the Senate floor and made that stunning announcement that the president is going to be doing all of this.

They are prepared for legal challenges over here at the White House. I talked to a White House official last night who basically quipped. This was a little bit tongue-in-cheek that just about every attorney working for the administration has reviewed all of this. And, that yes, they do think that Democrats up on Capitol Hill will hear what the president has to say, decide to go ahead, and mount a legal challenge. And, that this is going to get tied up in the courts

And so, while the president has been sort of on this quest to get money for his wall down on the border, it may not happen as quickly as he would like. Now I do understand Jim, earlier this morning, there were some White House officials holding a surrogate call.

This is one of those conference calls that they have with surrogates for the administration allies. The administration to go on cable news, and so on. Laying out some of all of this, some of the strategy behind all of this. And, from the sound of that call, it sounds as though officials here are pretty confident that they can get this done.

Of course, we've seen them confident about wall construction before, and it hasn't come to pass. But, a little a little bake sale budgeting, looking under the Oval Office, a sofa cushion budgeting. The president's been scrounging around for money to build this wall. And I think we're going to be hearing about that just a few moments Jim.

SCIUTTO: That's right. The president again going to make this announcement very shortly. You see the picture there in the front row. Bill Barr just confirmed as Attorney General of the United States. I imagine that he was among the lawyers consulted on this declaration.

Let let's go to Capitol Hill where Sunlen Serfaty is, and we understand that Democrats are already planning their response. What do you know Sunlen?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. They are, and I think this event today, really sets the stage for the next battle that is very clear ahead. A battle that could get very ugly. We have already heard from Democrats up here on Capitol Hill that they intend to pursue not only legal challenges in court, but up here on Capitol Hill as well.

The House and Senate will very likely move very quickly to take up a joint resolution of termination to end, and to essentially block President Trump's move on the national emergency. We know from our colleague Manu Raju. He's reported this morning that House Democratic leaders, they are already in talks to make this a top priority, as soon as they get back from recess. They're on recess for about the next 10 days.

So, very clear this storyline will not end with President Trump declaring this national emergency. And that is the next big battle ahead. Democrats, of course, railing against this move, but notably Republicans here too. We have heard from many Republicans calling this a bad idea, a mistake, violates the Constitution.

We have heard that from many Republicans, key here, who are discussing this next steps. This move towards a resolution of disapproval, essentially do they have two thirds of a majority to override a presidential veto? That many steps down the line. Well, of course, important to figure out in the days and weeks ahead as this battle continues. How many Republicans here will cross ranks and vote with Democrats, essentially sending a very stern message to President Trump that we are trying to stop this move? Jim.

SCIUTTO: That's right. There's a big gap between expressing reservations about a national emergency declaration, saying it's not their preference, and standing up, and voting against this president. Again the president just moments, perhaps seconds, away from this announcement


SCIUTTO: Jim Acosta, there in the Rose Garden for us. We saw people leaving the White House there with with photos. Do we know who they are?

ACOSTA: Jim, we believe those are some of the angel moms that the president has talked so much about out on the campaign trail at rallies and so on. These are these are parents of victims who were allegedly killed by undocumented immigrants. The president likes to point to these folks who have been just through some terrible experiences as evidence that a wall is needed down at the border.

Now, of course, you know we've talked about this on numerous occasions. There are lots of different reasons for why there is crime committed by undocumented immigrants in this country. But, of course, multiple studies have shown that undocumented immigrants commit crimes that are incarcerated at lower levels, the native-born Americans and so on.

And, the president, I suspect if he's going to be drawing on that sort of emotional energy to make this announcement. Jim, you know, we have to point out that border crossings are at near historic lows right now. That most of the drugs that come in to this country go through ports of entry and so on.

And so, the president, you know, we may be hearing, and we saw this a few weeks ago, when he ended the government shutdown, and was talking about people coming in to the country with tape over their mouths, and so on. He sort of draws on some of this anti-immigration mythology to try to sell this wall on the border when we know that the facts, in many cases, fight against what he has to say.

And so, I suspect Jim, if we're seeing some of the angel moms coming in, the president's going to be trying to, sort of, drum up some emotional energy on this occasion here to try to sell this wall. we've seen him do it before, hasn't convinced the Congress, hasn't convinced the country. But, it sounds like he's going to try to do it again Jim.

SCIUTTO: It bears repeating, the president has repeated falsehoods not backed up by the facts. As Jim mentioned there, border crossings, in fact, down. Crime rate among undocumented immigrants versus native-born, actually lower. And, in fact, that the crime rate, he made this claim last week again in El Paso, dropped long before a border barrier was up there, and when the decision that was made to put that barrier. In fact, there was a slight uptick for a little bit of time.

And yet, the president continues to make those claims. If he makes them again here we, of course, fact check them. We have our team of experts here as we are awaiting the president's comments.

David Gerken, I want to ask you. Will the president change anyone's mind today on this?

GERGEN: I seriously doubt it. He has had an address from The Oval Office to try to persuade people and it was a dud. And, he went up to the Congress floor to give the State of the Union. Devoted to, you know, big chunk of the State of the Union address, some 16, 17 minutes to the wall to try to scare people. That didn't move the needle either.

So, I think this is unlikely. If anything, the tension is now going to switch over to these emergency questions. And, you know, in a sense, coming from the left, that this evoking this emergency is really a direct attack on the democratic traditions and mores of the country.

Now, and if anybody's going to stop it, it has to be the Congress. After all, if you're in Congress, you're pledged to preserve the authority of Congress. And when the President of the United States encroaches upon that authority, and does it arbitrarily, unilaterally, they've got every reason to stand up and fight against that.

SCIUTTO: Kirsten Powers, that the president lost on the border wall in terms of a government shutdown. Shut down the government did not get what he wanted here. With this declaration, in light of the opposition from Democrats and Republicans, is he setting himself up for another loss?

POWERS: I don't know, because I mean, if he ends up being successful in the courts, which Jeffrey see,s to think is a possibility, then no, I don't think it is a loss for him. I think it's a -- in the end, he'll have grabbed a whole bunch of power. And, I doubt this would be the last national emergency that we see, which I think is the kind of frightening idea.

To think that this speak could become the new normal, regardless of who's president frankly. That they could, whenever they don't get what they want from Congress, or think they can't get what they want, that they'll just declare a national emergency, backs me down.

SCIUTTO: Right. Abby Phillip.

PHILLIP: The White House is looking at this, both from what they can do right now, but also the idea of having the wall as a political issue for the president, is not a bad one. The president is running for re-election in two years. This is something that really motivates his supporters and his base. And, even if there is a protracted legal fight, the president can keep talking about it.

We saw just earlier this week, he did a campaign rally and the massive signs that were up there were not about the economy, it was finished the wall. So, that's the chant that the president wants to continue into his re-election campaign.

And, I just want to say one thing about what we are likely to see just a few minutes ago, because I think it's important to, kind of, make sure we have the facts around this. The White House is talking about a crisis at the border, which in many ways is true. There is a crisis of family units coming across the border into the United States. So, that's the problem that we're facing, and the White House is claiming that the wall is going to fix that. But, in some ways, it's not responsive to the problem that these Angel Families legitimately have about their children, or family members being killed by criminals.