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235,000-Plus Displaced in Northwest Syria as Violence Escalates; Navy SEALs Paint Disturbing Picture of Eddie Gallagher; Trump Policies Spark Resignations of Immigration Judges. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired December 27, 2019 - 13:30   ET



ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And the problem is that as that space shrinks, Brianna, there's nowhere for them to go. They can't go into other parts of Syria. Turkey's border has been closed for years, with Turkey saying it can't handle another humanitarian influx.

Aid organizations are warning about an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.

We're hearing a lot of threats and warnings being issued to Damascus not to kill any more civilians, but all of that is just rhetoric at this stage.

When you talk to Syrians, they tell you, out of everything they've been through, all that they've lost, all of the trauma, one of the more painful aspects of it is the apathy.


Arwa, thank you so much for bringing their story to us. Arwa Damon, reporting from Istanbul.

Coming up, Navy SEALs who served under disgraced SEAL Eddie Gallagher, describing in terms like "psychopath and toxic" in newly leaked videos.

And find out why dozens of immigration judges quit over the past year in the heat of the border migration crisis.



KEILAR: The Navy SEALs are known to be an incredibly insular group of operators, and it's highly unusual when their unspoken code of silence is broken. Members of SEAL team Seven Alpha Platoon describe the actions of their commander, Eddie Gallagher, as "evil." They called him "toxic, a psychopath."

The "New York Times" obtaining these interviews, which were part of the U.S. military's investigation into possible war crimes by now- retired Special Operations Chief Gallagher. The men offered up a disturbing picture of him.


UNIDENTIFIED NAVY SEAL: The guy got crazier and crazier.

UNIDENTIFIED NAVY SEAL: He would tell you he's perfectly OK with killing anybody.


KEILAR: Gallagher was tried for and acquitted of war crimes this year after President Trump vocally supported him.

Chief Gallagher responded to the newly reporting from "The Times" this way:

He said, quote, "My first reaction to seeing the video was surprise and disgust they could make up blatant lies about me, but I quickly realized that they were scared that the truth would come out of how cowardly they acted on deployment. I felt sorry for them that they thought it necessary to smear my name but they never realized what the consequences of their lies would be."

"As upset as I was, the videos also gave me confidence because I knew that their lies would never hold up under real questioning and the jury would see through it. Their lies and NCIS's refusal to ask hard questions or corroborate their stories strengthened my resolve to go to trial and clear my name."

Joining me now, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, a former press secretary at the Pentagon and the State Department under President Obama, and Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, who is the former Army commander general of Europe and Seventh Army.

We knew that members of his platoon turned him in. And we also know he was acquitted after another SEAL said, and really changing his story at trial, actually he, not Gallagher, killed the ISIS militant he took this photo with.

I wonder, General, what's your reaction to these leaked videos?

MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I had a negative reaction to it, Brianna, truthfully. This was, I believe, part of the pre-trial inquiry.

This is raw data coming from the questioning of those members who had suggested what Eddie Gallagher had done to their commanders. This is what drives the referral to court martial.

So this is really raw, pre-trial information that is important for a commanding general, like myself, or in the case of the Navy admiral, to say, yes, there's enough evidence here to refer this trial to court martial.

But then when you get into the court martial, though, you have rules of evidence, procedures that are important, the ability to cross- examine witnesses. We don't know what happened in that trial. The jurors do.

And we do know that a lot of this damning evidence -- and it took a lot of courage for these SEALs to come forward and turn their brother in for some of the what they perceive to be crimes in combat.

But when it gets to trial, then it goes through an entirely different process. And we have to depend on the outcome and have trust in the system and the processes to determine guilt or innocence, and that's what happened.

KEILAR: It was a controversial outcome, important to point out, and poorly handled by the prosecution team. I think a lot of people can agree on that.

What did you think when you saw that these videos were out there?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Certainly a lot of refuted details out there. And Gallagher has refuted the context of those interviews.

But a couple of things struck me. One -- and the general sort of hit on this -- there's a code in the SEALs. Yes, there's a code of silence but there's a code of honor they believe in. And these six colleagues of his were willing to come forward and say what they saw, to talk about what they saw. The stories were pretty well collaborated even though there was no prior coordination.


KEILAR: Even though he says they weren't corroborated.

KIRBY: Exactly.

But they corroborated each other --


KIRBY: put a lot of distance between their accounts.

Number two was just the issue of the leak itself. Very troubling and interesting timing here. Gallagher goes down to Mar-a-Lago and he shows up at a Trump fundraiser and now these videos come out, and I think that's unfortunate.

And it's unfortunate in particular -- the third reaction I had was this isn't going to make Admiral Collin Green's job any easier. He's the commander of the special warfare community out in San Diego. He's trying to get a grip on some conduct issues they've had in the past. This isn't going to make his job easier.


KEILAR: It's almost as if someone, General, saw Gallagher on what kind of looked like a media blitz victory lap.

But I also wonder, even though you talk about having faith in the system and the outcome, in the end, this has split a community.


KEILAR: And this has split a lot of people on how they view the military. And President Trump interjected himself into this and politicized things.

How does an elite military organization recover from this?

HERTLING: I tell you, Brianna, you introduced me a while ago as a former commander. As a commander and a flag officer, you have court martial convening authorities.

I have referred many a case to court martials. Most of them turned out to be very viable and the right action was taken. There were many, frankly, that turned out not the way I wanted them to turn out.

The important part -- and I think Admiral Kirby backed me up on this -- is once you turn them over to the military justice system, you stay out as a commander, all levels of command. It's something called command influence and that didn't happen in this case.

There were commanders, in fact, the commander-in-chief, who kind of put himself in the middle of this case not only during the trial, but post-trial during the administration discussion. And that's unfortunate.

You have to trust in the system to make things occur the right way. And any time you have command influence or interference in a trial, it makes things bad.

And that's like the comment you just made. This is going to make it very tough for the SEAL community to get their discipline back. And it's going to cause questions among the ranks in terms of what's right and what's wrong.

KEILAR: You brought this up a little bit. They've already been struggling with their issues. You had the question of a death of a Green Beret in Bali and was there SEAL involvement. You had a unit of SEALs pulled out of the Middle East because their commander lost faith in them, and part of it was for drinking on the job, which they're not supposed to do, and a rape allegation.

They have a lot to fix.

KIRBY: And we need to remember that the vast majority of Navy SEALs, just like a vast majority of any of our military members, act with character, integrity and good conduct.

But there have been some very prominent issues about ethics and standards of conduct in the Navy SEAL community, which is why Admiral Green, when he first came in, said I'm going get my arms around this and we're going to fix this, and was trying to do that. In fact, he's still trying to do that.

The Gallagher case, I think, has made it more difficult for him to be able to do that, because now there's a message being sent by the commander-in-chief, not just to the Navy SEALs but to anybody who may be in legal trouble. All I have to do is get on FOX News, get somebody to pay attention to my case, get the president's attention, and I'll get clemency and get exonerated. That's not good order and discipline going forward for the rest of the force.

But, yes, they have issues they're trying to deal with. And I think it's important that we as a country give Admiral Green and the Navy a chance to deal with those issues fairly and equitably without outside interference.

KEILAR: We'll see if that's possible.

Rear Admiral John Kirby and General Mark Hertling, thank you so much to both of you. We really appreciate your perspective on this important story.

A bill signed by President Trump will give military members the largest pay increase that they've seen in a decade. This is according to the "Military Times" who reports the pay bump will start in January.

This deal is part of a sweeping $1.4 trillion spending allotment which includes a 3.1 percent military pay raise and also a raise for several federal civilian workers and an increase of $22 billion in defense spending.


Up next, dozens of immigration judges heading out the door. They're fed up with new White House policies. One of those judges joins me next.



KEILAR: There's been a very noticeable exodus of immigration judges this year adding more pressure to an already overburdened system.

At the start of the year, President Donald Trump called the crisis at the border a national emergency and, in effect, the administration carried out sweeping and often controversial universal policies.

Many judges put in place to enforce those policies have called it quits.

And one of them is Judge Lisa Dornell. She's joins us now.

Thank you for coming in to talk about this.


KEILAR: When we look at the numbers over the last year, it's been 45 judges that have left for various reasons, but in the prior year it was about half that. Clearly something is going on. You were part of that. You decided, after making judgments under the

policies of three previous presidents, Obama, Bush and Clinton, that, in part, you couldn't do it under President Trump's policies. Explain that to us.

DORNELL: I wouldn't do it under President Trump's policies. And I've worked under a variety of administrations. And each administration has, as their prerogative, to implement certain policies.

However, interference with judicial independence is not acceptable under any circumstances. There was a pattern of increased interference with the ability of immigration judges to make independent decisions and that was just unacceptable.

KEILAR: What did that look like? What did that interference manifest itself as?

DORNELL: There was the removal of an immigration judge from a decision. As immigration judges, as jurists, we try to get it right. Sometimes we don't get it right. But there are specific provisions in place to address that. Removing an immigration judge from a case is not the answer.


KEILAR: What does that signal to other judges when that happens?

DORNELL: It's an incredible lack of respect and a lack of confidence in the judicial core which undermines morale and which undermines the ability of judges to do what we're charged with doing, to provide due process of law to every person who appears before our courts.

The reality is that not everyone who comes before the courts can be given permission to stay, but the law requires that everybody be given a fair opportunity and due process of law.

KEILAR: Jeff Sessions was really the early implementer, as the first attorney general, and really kind of put exerting pressure on judges about how they should be deciding cases.

He actually said the system encourages -- we've heard this from a lot of people who defend Trump policies -- that the system encourages migrants to make baseless asylum claims.

We've seen asylum claims jump, as it was families not generally single men come across or through the border. And when he made that claim that this was encouraging baseless asylum claims, what did you think of that?

DORNELL: That's based on a misunderstanding of what our asylum laws are developed to address. There's a clear distinction that is to be made between immigration claims, asylum claims that are lacking in legal merit and those that are fraudulent.

The misperception on the part of this administration is that just because desperate people who are seeking haven don't have a viable claim under the law, that they're perpetrating fraud. That's just not true.

KEILAR: There was also an elimination of some protections. They removed asylum protections for victims of domestic and gang violence. As things like that happen, how did you react to that personally?

DORNELL: With horror. Because asylum cases under the law are to be decided on a case-by-case basis. And any efforts to interfere with that ability on the part of immigration judges is unprecedented and unjust interference in judicial independence.

That's why, for years, immigration judges have been pushing for an independent immigration court, an Article I court, that would remove us from and protecting us from the political winds that blow as administrations come and go.

KEILAR: We're hearing you today say this was an unprecedented interference in the courts, that you had the likes of which you hadn't been seen before. Other judges have said this destroys the immigration court system, that that's really the effect of what the Trump administration is doing.

And then we're also seeing, with the crisis of so many people wanting to come into the U.S., that courts are just backlogged. What is the status right now of the courts? And -- I mean, can they be effective?

DORNELL: I can speak to the situation when I left.

KEILAR: Yes. In April, right?


DORNELL: -- under-funded, understaffed. And what we need is an administration and a Congress to work together to solve this immigration problem. It is a solvable problem.

And you don't solve the problem by separating children from their parents. You don't solve the problem by keeping people in an unsafe situation on the other side of the border.

Congress needs to step up, the administration needs to step up and get serious about doing our duty to protect people who come to our nation and who deserve the protection and the rule of law.

We need an independent immigration court, adequate funding and adequate staffing.

KEILAR: Judge Dornell, thank you so much for coming in. Appreciate this.

DORNELL: Thank you very much for having me.

KEILAR: On New Year's Day, be sure to check out the new CNN film on the life and career of pop icon, Linda Ronstadt.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She came to Los Angeles.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Linda Ronstadt.


LINDA RONSTADT, SINGER: I was 18 years old and we formed a little band called the Stone Ponies.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole damn thing broke loose.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was rock music, folk music commingling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How can we define what this is going to be?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Linda was the queen, like what Beyonce is now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was the only female artist to have five platinum albums in a row.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You" was a hit on the country charts. "You're No Good" was a hit on the R&B and pop chart. She became the first artist to have a hit on three charts.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was the first female rock 'n' roll star.







KEILAR: We're following a developing story out of Wichita, Kansas. Fire crews on the scene of a reported explosion at an aircraft plant. This plant was shut down for the holidays and officials saying they are hoping that, quote, "the injuries are going to be -- injuries will be minimal." And it is not known yet what caused this explosion.

That's it for me.

Our coverage continues on NEWSROOM with Jessica Dean. And that starts right now.