Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Trump Talks Border in Christmas Call to Troops; Mattis Delivers Final Christmas Message as Defense Secretary. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 25, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:26] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. And welcome to this special edition of AT THIS HOUR. We should keep this music going the whole time. It might make us feel better about the world. Merry Christmas, everybody.

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers, they may be celebrating the 12 days of Christmas but they're facing the reality of a fourth day of a partial government shutdown. Negotiations between the president and members of Congress have hit a wall, very specifically a border wall. So, how close is the government now to reopening? We ask it almost every second.

Are there any signs of hope? Don't look to the White House for that. Here's what the president said minutes ago after his Christmas call to U.S. troops overseas.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can't tell you whether the government is going to be open. I can tell you, it's not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they would like to call it, I'll call it whatever they want, but it's all the same thing. It's a barrier from people pouring into our country, from drugs, it's a barrier from drugs.

You know, there's problem in this world today, it's called human trafficking. Human trafficking is one of the hard to believe problems. And we're not going to let that take place.

We're working so hard to catch these traffickers. They're bad people. We can't do it without a barrier. We can't do it without a wall.


BOLDUAN: CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House for us today.

Abby, a day after he spent the whole day tweeting, which we discussed, the president had a whole lot to say today. It sure as heck sounds like this shutdown isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, definitely not, Kate. It sounds like President Trump has a lot on his mind this Christmas morning, most of it was the same stuff he's been talking about for days. What's been interesting to what he say this morning was that he claims the federal workers understand what he's doing, but they want him to keep the government closed in order for him to get money for this border wall.

But the question is, what is the wall? What -- he said you can call it whatever you want. He's also reducing the size of the wall, saying he wants 500 miles of wall, that's down from 900 miles a year ago today. So, President Trump is going all over the place about what he wants in terms of the border wall but making it clear that he has to have something that he can call a wall for his supporters, whether that'd be fence, those steel slats, or something else.

In the meantime, he was also asked a very important question about his confidence in his Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and also confidence in the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell. Now, the president didn't really have much praise for Powell, who he claimed is still raising interest rates too high and too fast. But he did have praise for Steve Mnuchin, his treasury secretary, who has been trying to calm markets over the last few days but that may have backfired.

Finally, Kate, President Trump is once again talking about this idea that Democrats once they take over, if they start investigating him, he calls that presidential harassment. He even brought up James Comey, unprompted, to point out how Democrats are really attacking him for what he says is no good reason. So, we are really heading into the New Year, heading into this new Congress with all the same old fights brewing in the background, and President Trump not taking a single day off from airing his grievances and complaints from the White House, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes, and to sum up his final message, when he was speaking with reporters, it's a disgrace what's happening in our country but other than that, I want to wish everyone a merry Christmas.

So there you have it, Abby. Thank you so much. My goodness. Let's see what happens next.

Joining me right now, CNN political commentator Hilary Rosen, CNN political commentator and Republican strategist, Alice Stewart.

It's great to see you both. Thanks for joining me today.



BOLDUAN: Thank you so much.

Hilary, so he's very clearly digging in when it comes to the wall, when it comes to the shutdown, he's not budging on the wall. What's going to be different when Congress heads back on Thursday? I venture to guess, nothing.

ROSEN: I have to say how nauseated I am by the president's behavior in that interview. Not an ounce of compassion for the many, many people suffering through this holiday grudge match that he's created.

You know, there are stories all over social media about they're calling them hashtag shutdown stories about families that can't pay the rent this month, that are in trouble. We have still hundreds of kids separated from their families at the border. That, you know, are in federal custody. There's just -- this country is in strife because this president has too many temper tantrums.

[11:05:04] So, I think what happens this week, when Congress comes back, is that they try and figure out a way to work around his, you know, behavior, his emotional outbursts, because somebody's got to be the grownup in the room. Unfortunately, you know, it's not going to be the president this week. And so, Congress I hope will come back and say, you know, we're going to give you, as they have before, a portion of the wall to fund, as long as you commit to some comprehensive immigration reform.

The Democrats thought they had a deal to pass, you know, support for DACA, the Dreamers. They were willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt on this wall before, as long as the president understood that this is a fairly complicated problem, not just solved by building a wall.

BOLDUAN: And he also, in his remarks to reporters earlier, Alice, he contradicts himself on the wall, saying the border wall is being built, but he needs money to build a border wall, that he's dealt with the crisis at the border as he sees it, but that he needs the wall to deal with the crisis at the border.

I mean, if he can't get his story straight on where he is, where he thinks the state of play is, how are they going to be able to negotiate a deal?

STEWART: Well, this is not unusual for us to have contradictory statements out of the White House. But I think that we're seeing is some slight progress with regard to the wall. I always thought this is the way it would start out, he would be the "Art of the Deal" maker and he would say I want $5 billion, the Democrats would say I want $3 billion, and slowly they would find some common ground in the middle. I wish this had happened before the federal government shutdown and 800,000 people were without work paychecks over the holidays, but that didn't happen.

But I expect the president, to be clear, he will follow through on some portion of his promise to build the wall because he has to for his base, but he has to come down off that $5 billion number and give the Democrats something. I would like to see protection for Dreamers in this agreement, DACA protections would be critical. And we have to come off the idea of it has to be a wall and nothing else.

We need to look at comprehensive immigration with regard to boots on the ground or drones, because it's not just about illegal immigrants coming into this country. This is also about drugs coming into this country, human trafficking, those are serious issues that all need to be addressed and oftentimes that gets lost in the very emotional aspect of illegal immigrants coming into the country.

BOLDUAN: One of the more I think maybe more telling lines today might be what the president said, I think for the first time about the timing of how he wants to see things play out, Hilary. He said, my goal is to have the wall renovated, the way he put it, renovated by -- renovated or brand-new by election time. He said that today. Did he just make clear what this is really about, his reelection?

ROSEN: You know, sometimes he, you know, blunders by actually telling people what he really thinks, which is insightful and frustrating. But I think the biggest problem is, is that he doesn't really level with the American people about the complexity of the problem. He does see this as a political issue. We know that he was close to a deal with the Democrats and with the Republicans last week in Congress.

And instead, what he got was, you know, hassled by right wing media, saying you're going to blow your election chances if you don't, you know, stand up to people and get 100 percent of what you want. So that is what is driving him this week, is his fear that, you know, the very people who he's counting on for reelection are going to abandon him.

BOLDUAN: And also I think it's important that we offer a reality check on one of the things that he said, because he's said it in the past. One of the claims he made today about federal workers and their support for a border wall. Listen to this.


TRUMP: Many of those workers have said to me and communicated, stay out until you get the funding for the wall. These federal workers want the wall. The only one that doesn't want the wall are the Democrats because they don't mind open borders. But open borders mean massive amounts of crime.


BOLDUAN: I talked to one of the heads of the largest federal employee union in the country yesterday, and she said -- I mean, they're like 700,000 federal workers I think. Her message was quite the opposite, Alice. It was, the border wall and basically nothing is worth shutting down the government.

And to add to that, if you look at where the polling has been on where Americans feel about the wall, 50 percent say it shouldn't be a priority at all. So, there's -- I mean, you've got room in there, but it's not everybody who says this.

[11:10:03] That's the state of play in America today.

The facts don't hold up to what the president is saying.

STEWART: They don't. And look, what is the reality is that his base strongly supports the wall.


STEWART: We can all remember during the campaign, we're going to build a wall and Mexico will pay for it. I never thought that was going to happen but I still felt, though, that he was going to make building a wall a key priority. His base strongly wants that.

But the public sentiment really is leaning towards, with regard to this immigration issue, providing protections for Dreamers, as I mentioned. That's something both sides can come to an agreement on. So, I would like to think everyone can put something on their Christmas wish list and get together and drink eggnog on Thursday and --

BOLDUAN: I totally hear what I totally hear what you're saying. I think you're absolutely right. It comes to, though, Hillary, I think you would agree, he's got to move off the rhetoric of wall or nothing. The wall conversation has got to change to, as you've been trying to hear others say, border security, which could include renovating existing portions of the wall. They're already for that. They've already given money for that.

But if he doesn't, and quite frankly, Democrats don't get off the talking point of the conversation over this four-letter word of the wall, then this is really going to go nowhere.

I want to get on one other topic because it's so important, because the Dow tanked over 600 points yesterday, Hillary. I want to play you what the president said about the economy and the Federal Reserve.


REPORTER: What about the Fed chairman?

TRUMP: We'll see. They're raising interest rates too fast, that's my opinion. But I shouldn't have confidence. But I think it will straighten. They're raising interest rates too fast because they think the economy is so good. But I think that they will get it pretty soon.


BOLDUAN: I found that he is a little bit in the same place as he is with the wall.


BOLDUAN: Go ahead.

ROSEN: Is this the president we want if we actually enter a financial crisis? Do we feel confidence about this? This is a deadly serious question.

BOLDUAN: I will say many Republicans like what he's done with the economy so far. I don't know about right now and taking on the Federal Reserve chairman --


ROSEN: I beg to differ when you think about what's happened to the economy in the last two months of slowdown and Wall Street tumbling. This is the problem. This has nothing to do with the Fed and how

responsibly they are managing interest rates. This is because markets around the world do not like the uncertainty and the spontaneity with which this president makes policy. They don't trust that stability will be there. And markets and economies like stability.

And until this president realizes that and stops attacking people and stops, you know, making things be about his personal political vendettas, we're going to be in market turmoil. And that is something that will affect us globally, not just here in the U.S. and that affects jobs, and it affects homes, and it affects savings, and real lives.

STEWART: I think his frustration with the Fed is, he's telegraphed to them to please not address or change the interest rates at this point and they went ahead and did so, and he felt rebuffed by them by doing so, because he feels --


BOLDUAN: Well, guess what? That's one of the great things about the Federal Reserve is that they're independent of political will.

STEWART: Exactly. And they did what they felt was right and I think in the long term that will help. The other day he tweeted, mentioning the fed is like a golfer who can't make a putt. I think this is not helpful.

He would be much more well-served if he would, instead of attacking the Fed, which is doing what it needs to do to help the economy, and really look at some of the successes of this administration when it comes to jobs and the low unemployment, the lowest it's been in decades, and focus on the positives as we head out this year instead of harping on the negative aspects, because there are some things to celebrate with regards to the economy and it would be more helpful if he would focus on that instead of attacking people that are doing what they're for.

ROSEN: The markets started to tank several weeks ago when the president threatened a trade war without any substantive policy or solutions around that. This kind of government by Twitter is charming when it comes to sort of his personal piques but it's not charming when it comes to actually managing the global economy.

BOLDUAN: If you're even looking at just the raw politics of it, I do wonder what the win is, how it helps the president to make the Federal Reserve chairman his latest boogieman. He appointed him, it's his decision, Jerome Powell is in there. I just don't see it, because there are going to be a lot of people who are saying, Jerome -- who is Jerome Powell and how is he the bogeyman now?

Anyway, great to see, guys. Thank you.

STEWART: Thank you, Kate. Merry Christmas.

BOLDUAN: Really appreciate it. Still ahead for, more on President Trump's message to the troops. Why

that message also includes the wall.

Stay with us.


[11:19:14] BOLDUAN: President Trump taking part in a presidential tradition this morning, calling troops to thank them for their service. For a second holiday in a row, taking that tradition and throwing politics right into it. Here, I want to play for you, the president speaking with a member of the Coast Guard stationed in Alaska.


TRUMP: Now we'll go to the Coast Guard. We just ordered a Coast Guard cutter, an icebreaker the likes of which nobody has seen before, right? It can be good technology but you need thick steel. It's like, uh, the border wall, matt, would you like to say something, Matt?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, good morning, President Trump, and merry Christmas. And we're just here and we're ready for any unplanned events that could be occurring.

[11:20:00] TRUMP: The country is doing well. We have a little bit of a shutdown because we believe in walls and we believe in borders. And the military built some very effective walls for me over the last four weeks.

I know the work you do and it's been amazing. But it's my honor to send you all that brand-new equipment.


BOLDUAN: This is the first call from the president to service members since pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria and also planning for dramatic drawdown of troops in Afghanistan.

Joining me right now, CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, and retired Little Colonel Rick Francona, former U.S. Air Force Intelligence officer, a military attache in Syria.

It's great to see both of you.

Barbara, it is a tradition that president calls members overseas. And now, for the second holiday in a row, President Trump called the troops but inserted politics into his conversations with them. Nothing what happened over thanksgiving, but today he did as well. What kind of response is this likely to get from the Pentagon?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think from senior officials, there's a bit of normalization of it, this is now Donald Trump, isn't it, that may be sad to say, but they're not going to get terribly fussed about it. What they don't want to see is the president take it too far and put service members on the spot, the rank and file, because the military does the no serve politics, of course, it serves the country. And it puts those young troops in a very tough position, especially, you know, on a live broadcast, if the president starts suddenly asking them about politics, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes, no kidding. I mean, Colonel Francona, the fact that it was just announced that he's just announced that he's pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria, considering a drawdown in Afghanistan, is it noteworthy to you that he wasn't speaking with anyone in Afghanistan?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), FORMER U.S. MILITARY ATTACHE: Yes, I think he wants to skirt that issue, because you would have to be absolutely, you know, walled off from the world to know that this really did not go down well at the Pentagon or with the troops in the field. Nobody that I have spoken to thinks this is a good idea. And it's reverberating throughout the Department of Defense.

Barbara has talked about that, everybody seems to be on edge about this, because everybody believes we're on the precipice of making a really, really bad decision in the Middle East. This is not going to serve us well.

BOLDUAN: Barbara, this comes at the same time as General Mattis is being forced out earlier than he had wanted, two months earlier. You're learning more about the reaction inside the Pentagon to his resignation. What are you learning?

STARR: Well, I think there's a lot of regret about Secretary Mattis resigning. He was well-liked. People think very highly of him and continue to think highly of him.

But, you know, none of these things are completely black and white, are they? There are people who would tell you that Mattis had very strongly-held views and he should as secretary of defense, and when he saw a series of events where the president did not take his advice, including on withdrawal of troops from Syria, he may simply -- and we believe this is the case -- come to the point on the road where he felt he had no option but to resign, but to step down, because he couldn't support what the president wanted.

And if you cannot support the commander in chief, you really do have an obligation to step down from office. That's what Mattis did. It raises some interesting questions. If all of this was building up, how long had he been thinking about stepping down and, you know, might he have done it sooner? We may not know the answer until he either decides to talk or writes a book, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes, no kidding.

Colonel, where are you on this one?

FRANCONA: Yes, that was really -- what Barbara said really I think is the key here. It's not just what Mattis was doing at the Pentagon. It's the impression that he gave to the rest of the world, to the rest of the country, and more importantly to the troops in the field. They actually believed they had a leader in him. You know, too many times in the past we've had managers as secretary

of defense. This was the first time in a long time that we've had a real leader in charge. And they felt that Mattis could stand up to the president and make sure he was getting the wise counsel that he needs.

If the president chooses not to take that, Mattis had no choice to resign. And I give him the credit of having the courage of his convictions. Personally, I would have wished he would have stayed and tried to change the future of what's going to happen in Syria from within. That's not going to happen.

So, as Barbara said, we won't know what happened in those discussions until the secretary decides to speak. But I'm very concerned about the future. Who are we going to get to replace? I've seen some names. But again, we're going back to that manager and not that leader.

You know, look, we're fighting wars in different parts of the world. We've got some real challenges ahead with China and Russia.

[11:29:00] We need somebody in there that can exhibit the leadership we need inside the department of defense, not some -- I don't want to say a pencil pusher, but a manager.

BOLDUAN: I hear what you're saying. And it's not even in the far-off future, but in the immediate future, Barbara, General Mattis is the one that signed the orders to pull troops out of Syria in the last couple of days. It also struck me, listening to President Trump in the call with troops today, the president himself even notes that he hasn't been to any of these places that he was speaking to these service members. He was talking to a service member in Guam and in Qatar saying, I would like to get there some day, I've heard it's really nice.

Making these decisions, and he's never been -- if you're looking at Afghanistan and Syria, making these decisions, he's never been to any combat zone yet, Barbara. What do you hear about that around the Pentagon?

STARR: Well, I think that senior commanders would like him very much to go, meet troops, meet commanders, see what actually goes on in the field, see what the troops are dealing with. I mean, it's tough for a president to get to these places. But, you know, going all the way back to George H.W. Bush and Desert Storm so many years ago, he got himself to the war zone with Mrs. Bush. President Clinton, George W. Bush, President Obama, they've all gone. So it can very much be done.

And I think that top commanders would very much like to see him do it. You know, is it going to change his thinking? Perhaps not. But if you are commander in chief, you do have a responsibility to meet your troops.

BOLDUAN: Yes, and, Colonel, I want to get your take, because I just got back from Afghanistan, and this fact that Barbara is laying out, it's not lost on service members on the ground. Do you think a president needs to see a combat zone firsthand to make the decisions, to make the decisions like the ones he is making?

FRANCONA: Well, when you're making a decision to completely stop an ongoing military operation before you've achieved your goal, yeah, I think it's important. Had he taken the time to go there to Iraq, to Syria, to see what's going on, rather than just relying on a phone call with what I'm going to call an unreliable NATO ally, the Turks, is a mistake.

He's going to regret this. And I'm going to go out here, this is probably the biggest blunder he's made in the military realm so far. And I think we're going to pay a tremendous price for this down the road, not just on the ground but in our relationships with our allies for years to come.

BOLDUAN: You talk about that one is his biggest blunder in Syria, I was following Senator Lindsey Graham in Afghanistan, and he says depending on what the president decides there, that could then become the biggest mistake of this presidency or any presidency is how Lindsey Graham put it.

Thank you both, I really appreciate seeing you. Great to see you, guys. Thanks, Barbara.

U.S. troops have also received a holiday message from outgoing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, that we've been discussing, his final holiday address to the troops written just before he resigned. He offers an important message. It is an important message and one that I think everyone should hear. And I want to read it to you.

General Mattis says this: We in the U.S. military are privileged to defend America especially at this time of year, for we ensure our fellow Americans celebrate this season of hope and peace and safety. We know our freedoms are not guaranteed by themselves. They need defenders.

This month many in our military will be serving far from their loved ones. It is difficult work. But this is nothing new.

Since Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas day in 1776, American troops have missed holidays to defend our citizens' experiment in democracy. To those in the field or at sea, keeping watch by night this holiday season, you should recognize that you carry on the proud legacy of those who stood watch in decades past.

In this world awash in change, the secretary says, awash in change, you hold the line. Storm clouds loom yet because of you, your fellow citizens live safe at home. Most don't know your names but all are confident their freedoms and their families will be kept safe.

Far from home, you have earned the gratitude and respect of your fellow citizens. Merry Christmas and may God hold you safe.

That from the outgoing secretary of defense Jim Mattis.

And during my trip to Afghanistan last week, I spoke with the troops about this holiday and they light up when they talk about their families. And I want to bring you some of their messages throughout the hour. Here is one of their messages home. I want to bring you Private Brennan Bledsoe (ph).


UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Thanks for your support. Thanks for all the packages I've been getting, we're losing count. Mom, dad, family, friends, Jamie and Jeff, love you guys, sorry I can't be with you. I'll see you.