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The Situation Room

Interview With House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer; Interview With Maryland Senator Ben Cardin; White House in Chaos?; Trump Forcing Government Shutdown?; Growing Anxiety Over Looming Shutdown & Mattis Resignation; Stocks Suffer Worst Week in a Decade; Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Asylum Restrictions; Russians File New Charges Against Prominent Putin Critic; CNN in Afghanistan with GOP Senator Lindsey Graham. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 21, 2018 - 18:00   ET



REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD), MINORITY WHIP: Nobody knows, because, again, we remember, some 72 hours before, maybe 96 hours before, the vice president came down to the United States Senate and said that the bill that Mitch McConnell passed through the Senate would be signed by the president.

Twenty-four hours later, he changed his mind on that. So you asked me a question I don't know the answer to. I hope that the president will agree to an agreement that can get 60 votes in the Senate and a majority of the House and be sent to him, so that we would avoid shutting down the government, at least for any extended period of time.

It looks like we may not be able to avoid midnight, but, unfortunately, we haven't seen the president stick to the agreements he has made. So I can't answer your question whether he will.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You can see there's six hours to go before midnight.

Is there anything, Congressman, that President Trump and the Republicans could offer the Democrats in the Senate and the House that would get you, the Democrats, to compromise on border wall funding?

HOYER: Look, I think that we have offered numerous times to make more extensive investments in border security. We want border security. We're for border security.

We don't think the wall works. Clearly, the Mexicans aren't going to pay for it, as was the president's claim. But when you ask me that, yes, I think we could support enhancement to border security, but we don't think the wall is the answer. And we're not going the agree to that.

But that does not mean we don't want stronger security. If the president has some stronger border efforts he wants to make, I think we could support those. BLITZER: What do you think of his proposal? Instead of a wall, he

calls it a steel slat barrier. And he tweeted a picture of what he has in mind.

We will put it up on the screen right now. What do you think? Is that a promise?

HOYER: Look, we need to be serious, Wolf.

We're about to shut down the government of the United States -- well, actually, a portion of the government of the United States, because we have passed with overwhelming Democratic votes 75 percent of the funding for government, and the president signed that bill.

We ought not to kid one another. I presume these discussions are going to be serious. I presume when Senator Schumer says they're not going to get 60 votes for a wall, they're not going to get 60 votes for a wall

But I think they will get 60 votes and they will get Democratic votes, if we are talking about enhancing security through other means, technical means, personnel and other aspects.

BLITZER: Are members of the House going to stick around tomorrow, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Christmas, until you guys figure it out?

HOYER: Well, I had a colloquy with the majority leader just a few minutes ago. What the majority leader said, he did not expect any votes tomorrow, and he would give sufficient notice to members if the Senate acted and they were going to take action.

So my -- what I take from that is, because there's nothing to do, and as you just heard, the Senate is going to be in negotiations and try to come to an agreement on an arrangement that possibly could pass the Senate and the House, I think the majority leader is saying, look, it is not going to happen in the next 12, 24 hours. So if you need to go home, go home and we will send you notice as to when we need to take action. And we will give you sufficient time to get back.


BLITZER: You're talking about Kevin McCarthy, the Republican majority leader.


HOYER: Thank you.

BLITZER: And so what he is basically telling members, you want to go home, at least tomorrow, maybe for the weekend, go home.

So it sounds to me like there's not going to be a deal. At least the earliest there could be a deal would be tomorrow or Sunday.

HOYER: Well, if there's a deal, if the Senate reaches a deal tonight -- I think that's probably unlikely, but if they reach a deal tonight, and were prepared to pass something tomorrow, I think most -- almost -- I wouldn't say all of the members, but most of the members are still here, and they will stay here if there's to be a vote which will open up government and a deal that is acceptable to them, them being the Republicans, and acceptable to us and acceptable to the president.

I think they will be available to vote. And I think what the majority leader said, he's going to give them sufficient notice if they have gone home, because there are no votes and the Senate hasn't reached a deal tomorrow. They will be ready to come back and vote when it's appropriate to do so.

And they want to open up the government as soon as possible.

BLITZER: You represent a congressional district in suburban Maryland outside of Washington, D.C. A lot of federal workers in your district are going to lose their jobs. They are going to be furloughed. They're not going to get paid.

Others will have to continue working in law enforcement and other national security areas, but they're also, at least for the time being, not going to be -- to get paid. Is it worth it to the Democrats to see that happen? You could simply say to the president, we accept the $5 billion, and then everybody continues working.


HOYER: Look, let me say again, we have agreed on approximately 97 percent of the Homeland Security bill and 100 percent of all six of the other bills.

So the president saying, if you don't agree with 100 percent, that's not a compromise. That's not working together. The president needs to understand and we understand there are two parties here, and we need to come together to get something done.

Frankly, we don't agree with everything that's in all of these bills. However, we understand this is a process of compromise and agreement. And that's what the Senate is going to try to agree to, but, again, I stress, Wolf, that Senator Schumer said, look, there are no votes on the Democratic side for a wall, but there are votes to open up the government, agree to the Republican bills that have been passed and fund the government, which we ought to do.

And you're right. I have a lot of federal employees, and they're put at risk too often. This -- using government shutdowns as a lever is bad for government. It is bad for the country, and it is bad for our respect around the world. This should not happen.

Senator Alexander was absolutely right. It is not the correct way to do appropriations, nor to threaten one another with taking captive and giving a lot of angst to our federal employees, on whom we rely for so many things.

BLITZER: Yes, especially coming just before the Christmas season. If some of these lose their jobs or don't get paid or have to work without a paycheck... HOYER: Nobody is going to lose their...


BLITZER: ... it is a horrible situation at any time, but especially right now.

HOYER: Yes, look, I want to make sure, they're not going to lose their jobs. They will be furloughed.

And I will tell you, as the majority leader starting January 3, I will have a bill on the floor to make sure that they are compensated, because they are leaving or being furloughed through no fault of their own. And that's what we have done historically.

BLITZER: Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

HOYER: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, to our viewers, I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We are following some truly fast-moving developments as the clock ticks and ticks down toward a partial government shutdown at midnight. We just saw a dramatic announcement by Senate leaders.

Let's go to Capitol Hill. Our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is standing by.

So, Phil, walk through what we just heard, because potentially there could be a dramatic development.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, look, if you take what happened on the Senate floor, you know that at least something is moving in some kind of direction, which is better than both Republicans and Democrats were standing just a couple of hours ago.

But let me explain what just happened, because it is important here. As you recall, Wolf, yesterday, the House Republican Conference passed a bill that included a stopgap funding measure until February 8. It included $5 billion for a wall. It included just short of $8 billion in disaster relief.

They kicked it over to the Senate with full knowledge that, because anything that moves forward in the Senate needs 60 votes total, and the Republicans currently control only 51 seats, it could not pass the Senate.

What the Senate did is they started the process of taking up that measure, but the vote on taking up that measure had been open for hours. Here is the reason why. Behind the scenes, there were conversations ongoing between Senator Bob Corker, Senator Jeff Flake, two Republicans who are retiring, won't be here anymore in a couple of weeks, also Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. During those conversations, three White House officials, the vice

president, incoming Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Jared Kushner, also came up to Capitol Hill to begin conversations with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and with House Republicans as well.

Here is the agreement they reached, and it is important to note this is not an agreement to end the shutdown. It is not an agreement on a very, very clear chasm, if you will, on policy. It is an agreement on process, and this is what was just announced on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

What McConnell announced on the floor is there will be no more Senate votes until an agreement is reached between Democrats and the White House. What McConnell said is, he wants to give the Democrats and the White House, to quote him, maximum flexibility to reach some agreement on the very, very wide divide between their current levels.

Remember, the baseline here is, President Trump has asked for $5 billion to fund a wall. Democrats have agreed to keep the government open, the stopgap funding resolution that includes $1.3 billion for border security. How do you bridge that gap?

That is what they cleared the path to have discussions on. Now, this seems like a minor step forward, maybe an inch, maybe a little more than that, but it is something.

Now, top line, what does it mean, given the government is going to shut down in less than six hours? Given how the Senate moves and the fact that the House would still need to vote on whatever the Senate came up with, it is a pretty good chance right now, when you talk to aides in both chambers, that the government is going to shut down.

The question is going to be, how long will it be shut down for and will there actually be productive discussions between Democrats and the White House, given how far apart they have been over the course of the last couple of days, particularly in the last 36 hours or so?


What I'm told behind the scenes is the White House has signaled they're willing to come down off the top-line $5 billion number. The question becomes, how far will they come down? There's been talk perhaps that they would move over to what the Senate passed in a bipartisan manner, considered in a bipartisan manner, which would have been a Department of Homeland Security funding bill that set a level at about $1.6 billion.

However, Democrats had taken that off the table earlier in the discussion. So the question is, would they be willing to accept that and would they be willing to accept anything else the White House decided to add on to that?

What I'm saying right now, Wolf, is on the actual policy, on the actual agreement to either stop a shutdown or end a shutdown once midnight passes, there's not a ton of progress forward. What there is progress on at this moment is that there's now space for discussions and negotiations to begin.

And given the president's position that he was ready for a shutdown, that he was accepting of a shutdown and a shutdown would absolutely be a blame point, what Republicans have been telling me is, this is a sign the White House is willing to talk. And that, at least compared to where they were a couple of hours ago, is better than nothing, Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see what they can do. Talking is certainly good. Let's see if they can come up with some sort of deal. Phil, stand by.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is over at the White House.

Jim, just saw some dramatic announcements on the Senate floor. What are you hearing right now about the president's willingness to sign some sort of compromise in order to keep the government open?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, no official reaction yet to what the senators just spoke about there on the floor of the Senate, but I will tell you, I did talk to a senior administration official in the last several minutes and asked whether there is some hope that we will avert this shutdown later on tonight.

And this official said, well, you always have to have hope, but not really tipping any kind of hand as to where this thing might be headed. But, Wolf, talking to sources over here this evening, it does sound at this point the president is cool to the idea, maybe ice cold to the idea of tabling his demand for a wall in exchange for keeping the government open.

But, Wolf, that means the president will have to have a shutdown that he will own, as he said he wanted to do 10 days ago.


ACOSTA (voice-over): In Washington, it is a chaos Christmas, as President Trump warned he is ready to shut down the government if Congress doesn't give him the billions of dollars he's demanding for a wall on the border.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The chances are probably very good.

ACOSTA: Instead of taking responsibility for the shutdown, the president took to Twitter to blame it all on the Democrats.

TRUMP: It is up to the Democrats, so it is really the Democrat shutdown, because we have done our thing.

ACOSTA: But watch out. With 800,000 federal workers impacted by the shutdown just before Christmas, the president is pulling a fast one; 10 days ago, Mr. Trump told Democratic leaders he was willing to own a shutdown.

TRUMP: I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn't work. I will take the mantle of shutting down. And I'm going to shut it down for border security.

ACOSTA: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told the president it is time to give up.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: President Trump, you will not get your wall. Abandon your shutdown strategy. You are not getting the wall today, next week or on January 3, when Democrats take control of the House.

ACOSTA: Some Republicans conceded they weren't really sure how to end the standoff.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: We're trying to work it out right now, mostly through trial and error, more error than trial.

ACOSTA: Even one of the president's top advisers, incoming Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, once conceded a border wall or fence is hardly the only way to solve the immigration issue.

MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: The fence doesn't solve the problem. Is it is it necessary to have one? Sure. Would it help? Sure. But to just say, build the darn fence and have that be the end of an immigration discussion is absurd and almost childish for someone running for president to take that simplistic a view.

ACOSTA: Much of Washington is still reeling from the sudden resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, seen outside the White House today shaking hands with outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly.

CNN has learned the president is angry over the secretary of defense's resignation letter, which took issue with Mr. Trump's go-it-alone foreign policy. A source close to the White House says the president hates the letter, but hates the news coverage of the letter even more.

That's in part because of the conventional wisdom that Mattis served in the administration as a check on the president's impulses.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I'm very concerned about Secretary Mattis' decision to leave the administration. He brought a wealth of knowledge and understanding to the position.

ACOSTA: Lawmakers from both parties are raising serious concerns.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: It feels like the wheels are coming off, and I think a lot of that may be due to the fact that the Mueller investigation is getting closer and closer.

ACOSTA: Mattis left in part over the president's sudden decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, a move that didn't go over well on one of the president's favorite TV shows.

[18:15:00] QUESTION: Sarah, he is giving Russia a big win. Vladimir Putin praised him. He is also doing exactly what he criticized President Obama for doing. He said President Obama is the founder of ISIS. He just refounded ISIS.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Brian, Brian, I have to respectfully and vehemently disagree with you. The idea that the president has had anything to do with helping ISIS reemerge is absolutely outrageous.

QUESTION: Leaving is helping. Leaving is helping.


ACOSTA: Now, in just the last hour, Wolf, as we have been showing our viewers, the president tweeted out what he hopes to be some kind of compromise or perhaps the makings of a compromise.

He tweeted out this image of what he calls a steel slat barrier. Wolf, after months and months on the campaign trail of hearing the president saying he is going to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it, this is where we stand tonight just before a government shutdown, the president saying he is willing to accept this steel slat barrier, which looks like something out of medieval times.

It is sort of a strange concept there, but the president is saying he won't obviously demand at this point a physical wall, that he could go with this steel slat barrier instead. At the same time, Wolf, we should note Chief of Staff John Kelly just ran into our Jeremy Diamond a few months ago and told him that he believes -- and, of course, this is the outgoing chief of staff, but he has been talking to various officials, including those who have been up on Capitol Hill, like the incoming chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

And Kelly told our Jeremy Diamond that perhaps something might work out tonight, that they're trying to work on some kind of compromise. We don't have any more details than that at this point. But, Wolf, it is hard to imagine the president backing down tonight, after he essentially dug in his heels earlier today and said he is willing to have a shutdown if he doesn't get some kind of barrier on the border with Mexico.

And the president just tweeting out that image a few moments ago, seems to be where he stands in the negotiations. He wants something physically standing up on that border in exchange for ending this standoff with both parties of Congress at this point. Both parties wanted to end this, at least over in the Senate, and it seems the president is digging in his heels tonight, though Jeremy Diamond, talking to General Kelly over here at the White House, indicating perhaps something might be in the works.

We will just have to keep you posted on that, Wolf.

BLITZER: And the president tweeted that that so-called steel slat barrier would be totally effective, while at the same time beautiful. That's what the president says. All right, we are going to get back to you. I know you are working

your sources, together with our colleagues over there.

We are keeping our eyes on developments at the White House and on Capitol Hill, but we are also learning right now more about President Trump's reaction to his defense secretary calling it quits and why James Mattis was so public in exposing his serious disagreements with the commander in chief.

I want to bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, the president's surprise order to withdraw troops from Syria clearly seems to have been the last straw for General Mattis.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Listen, by all accounts -- I have spoke in the last day with a senator and a former defense secretary, both of whom spoke with Mattis in the last 24 hours.

And by their accounts, General Mattis bit his lip through a number of decisions by this president that he either violently opposed or was not comfortable with. That goes back to the president's slowness in calling out Russia, really hesitance to call out Russia for interfering in the election, talk of reducing troop presence in South Korea, canceling key exercises there, deploying U.S. troops on the U.S. border, all decisions he was comfortable with, but the decision on Syria, the one that went too far.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Defense Secretary James Mattis surprised President Trump when he handed him his resignation letter, according to sources.

CNN has learned that Mattis showed up at the White House to make one last attempt to change the president's mind on withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. When the president would not relent over the course of a 45-minute meeting, Mattis resigned.

It is a departure that has sent shockwaves across Washington and the world. His resignation came just one day after Trump announced a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and the same day sources told CNN that Trump is also planning to withdraw thousands of service members from Afghanistan.

Secretary Mattis losing on two major military decisions. In his stunning letter, Mattis wrote -- quote -- "One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships."

Specifically, Mattis was livid about the abandonment of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria, who are still battling ISIS and who could face a bloodbath from a Turkish invasion, according to sources.

TRUMP: General James "Mad Dog" Mattis. He doesn't lose.



SCIUTTO: The rift between the president and Defense Secretary Mattis had been building for some time.

According to a senior defense official, some in the Pentagon say the president had stopped listening to Mattis a long time ago.

In his letter, Mattis brings up -- quote -- "China and Russia," writing -- quote -- "I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours."

The president, seeming to rebut that line this morning via Twitter, writing -- quote -- "There has never been a president who has been tougher, but fair on China or Russia, never. Just look at the facts."

TRUMP: If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.

SCIUTTO: The American troop withdrawals, along with Mattis' resignation, have left America's allies in Europe and across the world stunned.

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: This is a day that America's allies had been dreading and fearing and hoping wouldn't come.

SCIUTTO: And even some of the president's staunchest allies at home not pulling punches.

REP. JIM BANKS (R), INDIANA: Secretary Mattis' departure, obviously, that is devastating news to our national security and to the Pentagon.

SCIUTTO: As for Mattis' potential replacement, finding someone for the job on the same page as the president could be difficult.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: There are talented individuals that will come forward. The real essence of the question is, are they going to want to raise their hand and say, yes, I will take this job?


SCIUTTO: One of the biggest sources of outrage, surprise at this decision has been from U.S. forces currently deployed in these fights in Syria and Afghanistan. I have been getting them by text and e-mail over the last 24 hours.

And I just want to share one of them, Wolf, because it gets to a point that you hear broadly. This is coming from a special operations commander who was just in Syria two weeks ago. And he said: "There is no logical way for our commanders in the fight

to explain this to our partners. We just lost all our influence. We just surrendered all our initiative."

That's coming from folks in the midst of this fight. And those are the consequences that they see from the decisions like this.

BLITZER: Yes. The president has made no secret he would like to see U.S. troops come home, not only from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, but I think from other places as well.

SCIUTTO: Talked about reducing the force footprint in South Korea, a decision that General Mattis vehemently opposed. Of course, Mattis is gone now. Is that, after Afghanistan, the president's next target?

BLITZER: Let's see what happens to U.S. troops in Japan and Germany as well, lots potentially going on.

All right, stick around.

Senator Ben Cardin is joining us right now. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

I want to get to Secretary Mattis and the Syrian withdrawal in a moment, but first your reaction to this last-minute attempt at a deal by your Senate colleagues on the looming government shutdown. Tell us about that. What are you hearing?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, it is good to be with you.

I think at least we have a process where we're talking and hopefully will bring about a solution. But make it clear, there's no justification for any shutdown. I don't care if it is for an hour, a week, or two weeks. It is going to cost taxpayers money. It is going to inconvenience the public.

Our federal employees will have this uncertainty and may have to work without getting paid or may be on furlough. We should at least pass a continuing resolution to keep government open and not have this continued threat of a shutdown.

I was pleased to see that some of the senators who did not favor the wall were able to leverage their votes, so we have a process where we should next vote on a resolution. I hope it comes tonight and I hope we don't have a shutdown.

BLITZER: Yes. A lot of people are hoping that, but we will see.

As you know, the president earlier in the week had agreed to what was eventually unanimously passed by the Senate. And everyone assumed it would immediately go to the House and be passed there, he would sign it into law, what was called this clean continuing resolution to keep the government open at least until February 8.

And then all of a sudden, overnight, he changed his mind.

So, why do you think he might be willing to compromise now?

CARDIN: Wolf, you are exactly right, though, about changing his mind. We passed what we thought he was going to sign. Members left Washington.

We have one colleague that went all the way to Hawaii. He had to turn around and come back home. We were under the impression the president was going to sign this continuing resolution. Why he changed his mind, who knows.

There's a lot of rumors that he responds to outside commentators. That may be one reason. I don't know. But it defies logic, and it is certainly something that is not in the interests of the American people.

BLITZER: He just tweeted out a picture of what he described as a steel slat fence, a steel slat barrier, he actually called it in his tweet.

Do you think that's a potential compromise, if he's no longer calling it a wall?

CARDIN: Well, you know, the president has this fixation on a physical barrier. We want to use technology. We want to have border security. We want to know who is coming into America. We want to be able to protect our borders, but we want to follow smart technology.

That's what the border security people want. What the president is talking about right now is to try to save face to say he has a wall. Look, we will call it whatever he wants to call it, but let's follow professional advice as to what is needed on our border.


BLITZER: The president also said, on the wall -- and I'm quoting him now -- he said: "Whatever you want to call it, it is all the same."

Whether you call it a barrier, a wall, steel slats, would you be willing, Senator, to give the president something closer to $5 billion if he shows that type of flexibility on what the border security actually entails?

CARDIN: I think I have a responsibility on behalf of the taxpayers of this country to support a proposal that makes sense for border security and not to waste any of their taxpayer dollars.

So we will certainly evaluate it. I have been to the border. I have talked to the border security people. I know they need help on the border. They need resources. I'm prepared to make those resources available, but let's use it the most effective way to keep America safe.

BLITZER: Is there anything President Trump and the Republicans could offer you and your fellow Democrats to get Democrats to agree on additional funding for a border wall or border security?

CARDIN: Absolutely, they can get additional fund for border security. We believe in border -- I believe in border security. I believe most our Democrats believe in border security, yes.

But let's make sure it is tailored to what is needed on the border. Look, when you build a physical barrier, people can tunnel under it, they can take a ladder over it, they can use drones to penetrate it. We need technology to protect our border.

BLITZER: All right, so let's talk specifics. Right now, you guys seem to be willing, the Democrats, to go about $1.6 billion, which was in last year's budget.

Are you willing -- if you forget about the wall, are you willing to go closer to $5 billion on border security?

CARDIN: Last year's budget was $1.3 billion. That money has yet to be spent. We have agreed in the Senate to $1.6 billion for this year. I think that number is a reasonable number. I don't know whether the administration can effectively spend more than that in the next -- this fiscal year.

I am certainly willing to allow our budget people to take a look at numbers that could be spent appropriately. I don't know what the exact number is, but that is something that should follow what is needed at the border, not the president's whims.

BLITZER: But here is what your critics say, that a prolonged government shutdown, a week, two weeks, three weeks, would end up being a lot more expensive for the American people than the $5 billion that the president wants for border security.

CARDIN: I think it is absolutely correct. A shutdown in government will cost our economy, will cost taxpayer money, no question about that. So it makes no sense to have a government shutdown.

I guess I return the question. Why not pass what we call a clean C.R., keep government open, and we can continue to negotiate these issues? Am I willing to compromise? I'm willing to compromise on numbers, as long as they make sense, but I don't think we should waste taxpayer dollars.

BLITZER: Let's turn back to the resignation of the defense secretary, James Mattis, in reaction to the president's decision to withdraw troops from Syria and cut in half the number of troops in Afghanistan.

How concerned are you by that decision?

CARDIN: Oh, I put, on a scale of one to 10, probably a 12 or a 14. It is a major national security problem for America.

General Mattis had the respect of Congress, of the American people, of our allies. He was looked at as one of the most effective individuals in the White House on the national security team that could influence the president when his policies were moving in the wrong direction. He was a -- he spoke his mind. He was very effective at that. He is

a person who just has great credibility with our troops. The way that he has left, the reasons that he has given, it is a major security problem for America and credibility problem for America.

And I know our allies around the world are questioning the reliability of America.

BLITZER: Well, do you think there's any chance the president could be convinced to reconsider?

CARDIN: The president is not reconsidering General Mattis. It is whether he will reconsider the policies.

Clearly, the way he announced the policy to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan was not done with the right manner. We have coalitions. We're working with alliances. When we were attacked 9/11, NATO came to our rescue. They sacrificed over 1,000 lives.

We just can't pull out of an area without talking to our allies. So it requires the president to understand that we need to work with our allies, those who share our values, when we make these types of decisions. They can't be made in a unilateral manner in which the president just announced it.

BLITZER: Senator Ben Cardin, thanks so much for joining us.

CARDIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our analysts to assess what is going on.

And, Jackie Alemany of "The Washington Post," what do you make of these last-minute efforts to avert a government shutdown?

And we just got a statement. The Senate majority leader, John Cornyn -- the majority whip, I should say, John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, just told our Manu Raju that negotiations will continue through the night, but -- but Cornyn told Manu, quote, "There's not going to be a vote tonight. You could take it to the bank."


JACKIE ALEMANY, ANCHOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST POWER UP": A shutdown at this point seems pretty inevitable, Wolf. And we are really back at square one, which is the leaders and the president need to stake out a deal with each other before there's going to be some sort of vote.

But I think the problem that we keep returning to here and we keep hearing both Democrats and Republicans returning to is that this -- there's not a shared agreement on a set of facts here.

And you just had Will Hurd on an hour ago, a Republican who represents 800 miles along the border, who doesn't believe that a wall is the most effective way to stop the humanitarian crisis that's unfolding at the border.

And so I think what we're seeing here is that it's really difficult to legislate when people are trying to make decisions on a set of facts that the majority of people don't necessarily agree on.

And you know, Republicans for months now have never completely bought into Trump's idea of the wall and think that the money can be used in other ways.

BLITZER: Because we've heard, you know, Laura, from a whole bunch of Republican analysts, Republicans in general this week, that it's been a week of what they're describing as political malpractice, the level of chaos that's unfolding in Washington right now.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, think about everything that we saw this week, right? It started with the news of the withdrawal of troops from Syria and then, of course, the resigned -- the forced resignation, really, of the secretary of defense.

We learned more and more about the president's pick for attorney general, Bill Barr, and what the person who's currently at the Justice Department, Matt Whitaker, has been doing in terms of not recusing from the Russia probe.

And so I think it's the unpredictability that has got people nervous. It's the idea that you can't see what's coming next from the White House, and the idea that this is all being done on a whim instead of thought through.

BLITZER: Let me show our viewers. The president just tweeted a picture of himself signing legislation into law in the Oval Office, and he writes this. Phil, he said, "Some of the many bills that I'm signing in the Oval Office right now. Canceled my trip on Air Force One to Florida while we wait to see if Democrats will help us to protect America's southern border."

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Can you -- are you kidding me? I mean, this is a propaganda tool. The president of the United States is complaining because he can't go on vacation? Is that the deal here? This is comical.

Look, look at the size of the American budget. The president's asking for $5 billion. According to what I see, as a non-political guy who's been watching this for 35 years, there's been an offer of $1.6 billion. My simple math tells me these guys can't figure out, particularly with the president, who's refused to sign a bill approved by both Senate Republicans and Democrats, can't figure out how to bridge $3.4 billion, which is a decimal point in the budget?

It's not just about the wall. It's about leadership, and this is comical leadership.

BLITZER: You know, a big picture, John Kirby, take a look at this. The defense secretary of the United States has resigned in protest to what the president is planning on doing in Syria and Afghanistan. The markets have had their worst week here in the United States since

the financial crisis, the worst week in ten years, the worst December since the Great Depression.

Federal workers are going to be without paychecks if this government shutdown takes place during this holiday season, this Christmas season. How bad is this situation?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, it gets to what Laura was talking about, was uncertainty. And on foreign policy and defense policy, uncertainty is not a good thing. And you're going to have adversaries who will want to take advantage of this. The Russians have already praised the decision to pull out of Syria. I guarantee the Taliban now has no interest in negotiating with the United States and the Afghan government, now that we aren't going to be having our troops there.

So this makes all of the other problems that much worse when we have this much churn and chaos and uncertainty going on right here at home.

BLITZER: It's interesting because right now we're going into a holiday season, Christmas and New Year's. The threat level usually is higher in the United States during a period like this. Should the American public be concerned if there's this partial government shutdown?

MUDD: They should be concerned about chaos in government because of what the admiral said. Things like how are you going to talk to partners about what you're going to do in the future in future conflict zones. They should not be concerned about how the government deals with threat.

Let me tell you, behind the scenes, and I've dealt with shutdowns. The admiral has. The people who are responsible for looking at things like the stream of threat reporting on New Year's Eve, they don't go home. They will be in the office.

BLITZER: They certainly will be. You know, Jackie, the president seems to have made the calculation, though, that he can't afford to take a position that would anger that base of his. He flipped as a result of the criticism he was getting from Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter among others. Do you think there can be a deal?

ALEMANY: You know, you really never know with this president until he actually signs something and agrees to something himself. I don't think we can trust at this point what others -- what his closest aides, what John Kelly told Jeremy Diamond, that a deal is going to be hashed out until he signs something.

But yes, what you just said, the president has dug in and is playing politics. What we've seen in the past week is him trying to check off those campaign promises before the end of the year, from Syria to Afghanistan to this wall.

[18:35:12] You know, two-thirds of his base are in favor of the wall. And I think he's thinking about 2020 here. How is he going to go back out on the campaign trail and tell his base, "You know, actually this wall that I built my whole campaign on, we didn't get it, but we'll keep trying"? So that's really what he's pushing for here.

JARRETT: Wolf, on the same day that we're having this important debate, it's hard not to miss the fact that the Supreme Court, the court that Trump always points to as the one that comes through for him, actually had a pretty severe rebuke of his policies today. And John Roberts sided with the liberals --

BLITZER: The chief justice.

JARRETT: The chief justice. And remember, they got into a pretty rare tit-for-tat and a fight over this very case regarding the president's asylum ban. And in a 5-4 decision, Roberts actually sided with the liberals to say, "No, you have to actually keep the block on that asylum ban." We haven't actually seen the reasons for this decision; it was only an order.

But the fact that Roberts had rebuked him earlier this year and said "There aren't Obama judges," as the president had alluded to with this, "There aren't Trump judges. There are only judges who are actually trying to do their jobs."

It's an amazing moment to be having the Supreme Court rebuke him right when we're having the debate on the border wall.

BLITZER: Yes. Significant setback to the president's amnesty, so- called amnesty initiative in dealing with all of that.

Everybody, stick around. We're continuing to follow the breaking news. Much more right after this.


BLITZER: We have more breaking news right now. The United States Supreme Court is refusing -- refusing -- to allow President Trump to restrict asylum for people who cross the border illegally. The Supreme Court chief justice, John Roberts, siding with liberals in a 5-4 ruling. This as we learned that Supreme Court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had two cancerous -- cancerous growths removed from her lungs.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider. Jessica, first of all, tell us more about today's ruling on immigration. Seems like a pretty serious blow to the president.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It really is, Wolf. You know, the president has blasted those lower courts that initially blocked his asylum ban from going into effect, and now the Supreme Court has refused to step in to unblock the ban.

So this was a ban that was ordered by the president back in November. It would bar migrants who cross into the U.S. illegally from seeking asylum. And when the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court blocking the ban from going into effect, that's when the president lashed out, calling the judge in the California court an Obama judge. [18:40:10] Well, that triggered a rare public rebuke from the chief

justice, John Roberts. He said this in a statement at the time. He said, "We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for."

And it really -- it turns out the chief justice was the one who made the difference today. He sided with the liberal justices in that 5-4 vote to let this block of this Trump policy remain in effect, continue to be blocked.

So really, Wolf, perhaps Justice Roberts is sort of stepping into this more moderate role that we saw from retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. Of course, this was just an order on procedural issues. This doesn't go to the merits of the asylum ban, but that will be working its way through the lower courts. It could eventually, again, make its way up to the Supreme Court.

BLITZER: Ruth Bader Ginsburg voted with the majority in this case, but she also today had surgery on her lungs for these cancer -- that were cancer.

SCHNEIDER: Exactly. We found out around noon today that she had undergone that surgery this morning. It was at a cancer center in New York city. Surgeons there removed two cancerous nodules from her left lung they discovered after Justice Ginsburg actually fell back on November 7 and fractured her rib. So this was a pre-planned surgery.

And doctors say there's no evidence of remaining disease, and no further treatment is planned. And in fact, just days ago the 85-year old was in New York City. That was over the weekend. And she attended a screening of the new movie that documents her life, and she actually said at a separate event that her health was just fine.

So really, Wolf, for this justice, 85 years old, she's known for this strict workout regimen. She says she is at the gym working with her trainer every after that fall. So she seems to be tough in this, and she's going to be in the hospital a few more days recovering.

BLITZER: We wish her a speedy recovery and only the best.


BLITZER: Jessica, thank you very much.

We're going to have much more on the breaking news right after this.


[18:46:54] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Tonight, Russian authorities are targeting one of Vladimir Putin's most prominent political enemies who is an American.

CNN's Brian Todd spoke with him today. Brian is with us. Brian, tell us more.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this American-born financier Bill Browder has been in Vladimir Putin's sights for years because Browder exposed Putin's alleged corruption. Tonight, Putin is taking steps to try to capture Browder and bring him to Moscow.


TODD (voice-over): Vladimir Putin's relentless pursuit of one of his most bitter enemies is in full swing tonight. Russia state run TASS news agency says a court in Moscow has charged American-born financier Bill Browder with organizing a crime syndicate. Browder who lives in London has been charged in absentia.

He talked to CNN.

WILLIAM BROWDER, LED SANCTIONS CAMPAIGN AGAINTS PUTIN: This is a personal vendetta from Vladimir Putin. He would like to get me back to Russia through extradition. Once I'm back in Russia, they'd like to torture and kill me in a Russian prison.

TODD: Browder is a hedge fund manager who was once the largest foreign investor in Russia's stock market. He angered Putin when he hired a lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed a $230 million fraud scheme benefitting people linked to Putin, a scheme which Browder says ripped off his firm.

Magnitsky was arrested and jailed and later died in Russian custody under suspicious circumstances. Browder has since made it his life's mission to expose Putin's alleged corruption which Browder believes has made Putin the richest man in the world.

BROWDER: Vladimir Putin has been stealing money every day that he has been in power since he showed up as president in the year 2000. I would estimate since then, he has stolen from the Russian government and from the Russian people $200 billion.

TODD: Browder spearheaded the passage of the Magnitsky Act, an American law which sanctions powerful Russians, many close to Putin, for alleged human rights violations and prevents them from getting to the money they've stashed outside Russia.

PROF. LOUISE SHALLEY, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: Putin and his cronies want to enjoy the fruits of their looting of the Russian system. Because of the Global Magnitsky Act, they are cut off. They often cannot get visas.

BROWDER: Vladimir Putin is furious with me. You can see his body language when he describes me publicly. He furls his forehead. He gets very focused and angry.

TODD: When Putin met with President Trump in Helsinki, he publicly proposed that Russian officials should be able to interrogate Browder.

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): We can bring out Mr. Browder in this particular case. Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned more than $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country.

TODD: An accusation Browder denies. In return, Putin offered to allow Americans to question Russian suspects in election meddling.

President Trump called it an incredible offer from Putin, but according to a cable hacked from the European Union obtained by "The New York Times", the Americans quietly reassured the Europeans it would not be followed through, saying it would be, quote, nipped down.

Still, Browder says Putin's government has tried to get him arrested at least seven times outside Russia.

[18:50:00] SHALLEY: I think that he always has a threat, and living in London where there has been the both poisoning case and the most recently, the Skripal case, there's no assurance of security there.

TODD: Now, we tried to get response from Russian officials at the Kremlin and here in Washington to Bill Browder's claims. They have not responded to that. Those claims especially that Putin and his cronies are trying to kill Browder. But Putin has called Browder's assertion that Putin amassed great personal wealth through corruption, quote, garbage -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting.

Much more on the breaking news coming up right after this.


[18:55:16] BLITZER: Senator Lindsey graham is urging President Trump to rethink his plans for a partial troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

CNN's Kate Bolduan just traveled with Graham to Afghanistan, she's back.

Kate, you were given exclusive access. Tell us what you saw?


We were. And a premature withdrawal here, so one of the major goals (VIDEO GAP) was convincing Donald Trump.


BOLDUAN (voice-over): Senator Lindsey Graham is on a mission, a mission to connect with the troops but also a mission to convince a president that after 17 years, Afghanistan is still a fight worth fighting.

(on camera): You've been here so many times. Why come back this time? What is this visit about?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, I always come back as much as I can. One, if you're sending people over here to fight for your country, you at least owe it to them to check in on them.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): We had exclusive access to follow graham on a whirlwind tour. He's been to the region more than 40 times, but this marks his first trip back to Afghanistan without his closest friend and confidante.

GRAHAM: This is the first trip without John McCain. This is a tough one. I was just thinking how many times I've been here, but just almost all the time with John, and the president is going to make some decisions about (VIDEO GAP). I hope he makes good ones.

BOLDUAN: From Kabul to Kandahar, his message to the troops -- we've got your back.

GRAHAM: Outstanding. How long have you been here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About two and a half years.

BOLDUAN: But it's not clear the president feels the same way, given his announcement to withdraw troops from Syria and possibly doing the same in Afghanistan. Add to that, the commander in chief has yet to visit any combat zone, including where the fight against al Qaeda after 9/11 began.

GRAHAM: I would hope the president would come over here. I know he loves the military. I would advise him to come over here and say thank you, sit down with President Ghani and the Afghan partners and tell them what you would like them to do better. Understand Afghanistan being in Afghanistan is a completely different experience than talking about in the Washington.

BOLDUAN: And by being in Afghanistan this time, the senator says he received critical status updates from the top Afghan commando.

GRAHAM: A good outcome in Afghanistan is important to the United States.

BOLDUAN: And also the top American commander of U.S. and NATO force there. Both saying ISIS is on the rise.

GRAHAM: The ISIS threat in Afghanistan is far greater than I thought it was. If you get a peace agreement tomorrow between the Taliban and the Afghan government, that will not solve the threat to our homeland.

BOLDUAN: Yet President Trump made no secret he has little interest in committing U.S. troops to conflicts overseas. Look no further than his announcement this week.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now we've won. It's time to come back.

BOLDUAN: Even before that, this was Graham's greatest fear.

GRAHAM: The bad news, if we leave this place, it will go to shit in a year.

BOLDUAN (on camera): Seriously?

GRAHAM: If we pull out, if we go to zero, this place will fall apart very, very quickly, and we'll regret that decision at home. The people that we're holding at bay over here want to hit us again at home. So I hope people understand that these soldiers that you see around and you talk to, they're a virtual wall against radical Islam coming to America.

BOLDUAN: What do you say to a president who ran on "we're not the policeman of the world"?

GRAHAM: I know what you're being told, President Trump, what about will happen in Afghanistan. Here's the difference, this is the center of gravity. This is the place where it all started.

If we're driven out of Afghanistan, if America is beaten after having spent all these years and this much blood and treasure, every jihadist throughout the world would be on steroids.

BOLDUAN: What would happen if President Trump decides to pull everybody out tomorrow?

GRAHAM: You need to ask that question to our military leadership. I've asked that question. And they gave me a very blunt answer. This place would fall apart.

We could, if we make the same decision we did in Iraq, leave too soon, set in motion chaos that would make Iraq look like a walk in the park and I think one of the most likely outcomes would be a second 9/11 coming our way.


BOLDUAN: And with all that, remember the timing. Senator Graham told me all of this, said all of this, warned all of this before President Trump made the announcement about Syria, before reporting a drawdown could be coming in Afghanistan.

Another key voice especially now in this conversation is a top U.S. commander in Afghanistan General Scott Miller. My exclusive with him and the U.S. ambassador there we'll bring you next week, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Kate. I'm glad you went. I'm especially glad you're back safe and sound. I was worried when you were told me you were heading to Afghanistan.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that report.

And thanks to our viewers for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.