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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Bipartisan Criticism Grows of Trump's Decision to Pull Out of Syria; Trump Threatens Government Shutdown Over Wall Funding. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired December 20, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:15]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Merry Christmas, everyone.

Four hundred and twenty thousand federal employees in the U.S. are possibly about to be deprived of their paychecks for the holiday.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump, hoping to make things right with the far right, deciding not to sign a bipartisan deal to keep the U.S. government open after all, this after conservative critics accused the president of caving on his biggest campaign promise, the border wall.

Now Congress is scrambling to come up with a way to keep the U.S. government open.

Speaking of scrambling, the Pentagon feeling the effects of Trump's abrupt decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, a decision even the president's top national security brass disagrees with.

I will ask a general who has helped lead the fight against terrorists how dangerous Trump's decision might really be.

And, what, me worry? Cabinet Secretary Wilbur Ross accused of flouting ethics rules again, claiming in a sworn statement to have divested of stocks, when in fact he held on to those stocks. And this hasn't happened once. It's happened twice.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in our politics lead. It looks as though the U.S. is headed towards a government shutdown the day before President Trump leaves Washington for his 16-day holiday trip to Mar- a-Lago, Florida.

Right now, the markets are reacting, the Dow closing down 469 points, plunging as low as 679 points earlier today. And it's not just the markets on a roller coaster, of course. Seems as though it had been communicated to senators that the president planned to sign the government funding bill. Yesterday, after meeting with Vice President Pence, Republican Senator John Cornyn told CNN that the president -- quote -- "will sign that legislation."

But today the president himself told outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan he will not sign it. Why? Though Speaker Ryan did not use the word wall, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders issued a statement suggesting the president would not sign the government spending bill because -- quote -- "We urgently need funding for border security and that includes a wall" -- unquote.

President Trump has been on the receiving end of relentless criticism from conservative allies in the Congress and the media who have been assailing him for failing to deliver on his signature campaign promise of a border wall before the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in the new year.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House for us now.

And, Kaitlan, it looked like this was a done deal yesterday. Vice President Pence seemed to think it was a done deal, but, as always, the president is unpredictable and some would even say erratic.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But he doesn't think he's unpredictable, because just a few minutes ago, while he's signing the farm bill, he says that his position has been very clear, that any measure to fund the government must include money for border security.

But then, Jake, minutes later, he said you don't have to call the wall a wall. You can say that they are steel slats in order to give the Democrats a way out to fund it. Not a lot of clarity here, but there is one thing that does seem to be sure, and that's that Washington could be headed for a Christmas shutdown.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): Washington on the brink of a government shutdown today after President Trump told House Republicans he won't sign a short-term spending bill to keep the government open that doesn't include money for his border wall.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The president informed us that he will not sign the bill that came over from the Senate last evening because of his legitimate concerns for border security.

COLLINS: A conservative revolt in recent days getting under the president's skin after his reliable allies turned into scathing critics.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: You have got to be kidding me. Really? February 8 is when Nancy Pelosi is speaker. Do we really -- I'm supposed to believe, we're supposed to believe that we're then going to build the border security wall and keep our promise from the 2016 campaign? No way.

COLLINS: Sources telling CNN the president was fuming over the criticism, lashing out at aides and telling them to fix this, even unfollowing Ann Coulter on Twitter after she said she wouldn't vote for him in 2020 without a wall.

ANN COULTER, AUTHOR, "IN TRUMP WE TRUST": It will just have been a joke presidency that scammed the American people.

COLLINS: The administration also appeasing far-right critics by announcing that asylum seekers will be sent back to Mexico to sit and wait for their immigration hearings, leading to several heated exchanges between the homeland security secretary and House Democrats.

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ (D), ILLINOIS: Shame on everybody that separates children and allows them to stay at the other side of the border, fearing death, fearing hunger, fearing sickness. Shame on us for wearing our badge of Christianity during Christmas and allow the secretary to come here and lie.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: calling me a liar are fighting words. I'm not a liar.

COLLINS: This as White House officials are having flashbacks to the massive spending fight last March, when aides fought tooth-and-nail to get Trump to sign a spending billing he thought didn't include enough money for the wall.

[16:05:03]

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again.

COLLINS: Amid questions about whether the president will keep one campaign promise, another causing bipartisan backlash, after Trump abruptly announced he will withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: This is just a disaster in the making.

COLLINS: Even the host of the president's favorite morning show ripping him for the -- quote -- "irresponsible decision."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's doing exactly, if not worse than President Obama did.

COLLINS: As the program aired, Trump defended the move in a slew of tweets, asking: "Do we want to be there forever?"

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, earlier today, Lindsey Graham said he hadn't spoken with President Trump directly about Syria, but it looks like the two of them are communicating via Twitter.

The president fired off this tweet not long ago, saying -- quote -- "So hard to believe that Lindsey Graham would be against saving soldier lives and billions of dollars. Why are we fighting for our enemy Syria by staying and killing ISIS for them, Russia, Iran and other locals?"

Now, Jake, just yesterday, the president said that ISIS had been defeated in Syria. Now he's saying that why should we stay there and fight ISIS in Syria, Jake?

TAPPER: Yes, that's something of a contradiction. Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

I want to turn to CNN's Ryan Nobles, who is on Capitol Hill for us.

Ryan, what does the House do now?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, they just released in the last hour this new language in the continuing resolution that would allow for this $5 billion in border security that the president asked for.

It doesn't say anything specifically about a wall, but, Jake, this is what the language says exactly, $5 billion, a little more than $5 billion for Customs and Border Protection for the procurement, construction and improvements that the agency needs.

So that's not a wall specifically, but you did can see how that agency might end up using that for a wall if they are giving this appropriation. The problem now, Jake, is this vote is scheduled to start around 5:30 this afternoon, and even on the House side, Republicans aren't 100 percent sure that they have the votes necessary to pass this legislation.

Many members of Congress are gone already for the holiday vacation, many of them retiring Republicans, so this by no means is a slam dunk, even though House Republicans seem confident that they can pass it, at least in the House -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, so that's the House, but what about the Senate?

Because, obviously, it's a higher hill to climb. They need 60 votes and they only have I think 51 Republicans.

NOBLES: Yes, that's right, Jake.

And you can't find anyone on Capitol Hill that believes that there are enough votes in the United States Senate to pass this continuing resolution in this form. There is also a numbers problem for Republicans. There are many senators that have gone home as well, and as you point out they need 60 votes.

They are nowhere near that. I asked Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, about that problem, that numbers problem that the House had. He said, well, I'm in the House, not the Senate. If we get it to the Senate, it's basically their problem -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Ryan, thank you so much.

So, let's talk about this with the experts.

Let me start with you.

I mean, yesterday, it sure sounded as though, at least senator -- Republican senators like John Cornyn thought Vice President Pence was saying, sign it, we're going to pass it, done deal. Not a done deal.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: And it's very clear what happened, is you saw the president's conservative base revolt against him over this idea that he would cave to Democrats over this border wall funding issue.

You heard him speak yesterday with Congressman Mark Meadows. Jim Jordan was on FOX News last night, on the floor of the House as well, making this case to him.

It's clear that the president heard an earful from his supporters, and he's decided to flip on this, because he did indeed flip, because earlier in a day when you saw Mike Pence telling senators he will sign the C.R., and, frankly, it's because it's the only way that this actually gets done. It's the only way that the government does not shut down is if the president does indeed -- if the House takes up this continuing resolution that the Senate passed and if the president signs.

Otherwise, there's really no path here for the government to stay open past tomorrow night.

TAPPER: Take a look at some of these headlines from typically Trump- friendly media.

Breitbart called it Trump's cave. Trump said "Trump in Retreat." "The Washington Examiner" had an op-ed saying "Trump has screwed his supporters."

And then right-wing pundit Ann Coulter blasted the president as gutless. And then after she did that, according to the Trump Alert Bot on Twitter, he unfollowed Ann Coulter.

I mean, the base is revolting, at least the media.

AYESHA RASCOE, NPR: Well when he unfollows Ann Coulter, you know it's serious.

But issue is, his base is right. This is an essential promise that he's made, and the White House has said this is an essential promise, but how does he deliver now? Now, maybe there was a way to deliver on this earlier on, before this election, before you had a lame-duck Congress, but now, how do you deliver on this when you know that Democrats are going to take over the House in February?

What leverage does the president have? I think right now it seems like what the White House wants to do is show that the president is doing everything that he can. He's throwing down a marker and then he can kind of say maybe, Democrats, they just wouldn't give it to me.

[16:10:00] But he's still going have to deal with the fact, why don't you have a wall after two years of Republicans controlling the House, the Senate and you in the White House?

TAPPER: So, you know what this reminds me of? This reminds of Obama with closing Gitmo. He wanted to do it. He truly wanted to do it. He made a promise, and then he couldn't do it because Congress wouldn't let him.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, I don't disagree.

I think that's a spot-on analysis. The president wants to do it. We saw him sit in the Oval Office with Schumer and Pelosi and said, listen, I will take it, I will take the mantle of closing the government down, bring it on.

And I think he's spoiling for a fight to prove to everybody back home that supports the president that I'm not going to get rolled here. I'm willing to take the fight. I'm willing to take it on the chin.

And at the end of the day if he ends up lose he goes down swinging on at least on this, and I think that's the analysis.

TAPPER: The truth of the matter is the this might be his last chance, because Democrats are going to take over the House in January, and he's never going to get border wall funding after that, not according to Nancy Pelosi at least.

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, that's right, Jake. And for him, it's all about his reputation among his base, and I get that from a political perspective, but there are lots of other variables here.

You talked about the furloughs, the people who will not get paid if the government shuts down. So while the president can have a very cavalier attitude because Ann Coulter called him out and his folks are calling him out, as the commander in chief, it's not just about him being called out, but it's also about the impact that this decision that he has just made at the last minute because he was called out by his base will have on other people, namely, people who serve the American public as public servants for the U.S. government.

TAPPER: And talk about -- you say the president's influenced by these voices on the right, or the far right, depending on your point of view.

Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio giant, said on his radio show this afternoon -- quote -- "The president has gotten word to me that he's either getting funding for the border or he's shutting the whole thing down."

Limbaugh, of course, had been one of the biggest media critics of the president for backing down on this, but that's interesting, the formulation that the president has gotten word to me, meaning the president or somebody called Limbaugh and said, hey, Rush, we're going to do this. URBAN: But, to be fair, listen, the president said that in the Oval

Office before all these folks started saying that.

Then you had some people going to the Hill, saying, look, Mr. President, we have got to get this done and kind of talk him off the ledge on this.

Look, I know throughout this entire thing, he's not backtracked. He's always been 50/50 whether it was go through 100 percent or not.

DIAMOND: But at the same time, the president has been all over the map on this over the last two weeks. He's been consistent on the one point, yes, he wants the border wall funding, he wants the $5 billion.

But then he's also said, oh, I could get the money through the military, we could do it this way. He gave up his leverage in that meeting with Chuck and Nancy in the Oval Office where he said, I will take the burden for this.

How can you possibly go into a negotiation giving up already your central point, which is, I will blame you for this if this doesn't happen?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: He was going to get blamed no matter what. Right? If it got shut down, the president was going to get blamed, so he just put it out on the table.

DIAMOND: But this is the game that politicians play every time there's this border wall or this government shutdown deadline. They try and blame each other.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Schumer got blamed last time.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Schumer got blamed very briefly.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Because it was a very brief threat of a shutdown.

TURNER: But for him being called out in this very moment, I don't think he would have done this. He's ready for that 16 days, but because his people called him out very harshly, he had to backtrack yet again.

(CROSSTALK)

TURNER: Does he serve the American people or does he serve Rush Limbaugh?

(CROSSTALK) RASCOE: They were definitely giving mixed signals, because, as you said, they were saying, well, we will get just it done one way or the other.

They were sending these signals, we can get border security, but not really being very clear on, this is what we want in the bill. We must have the $5 billion. They kept throwing it back on Congress, saying we will see what they can pass and then we will see decide what we can do.

So even when they make these statements, when they have been very clear, it hasn't really been.

URBAN: As I say, look, I know there was talk of in the FIRST STEP Act, right, this was moving, this was a vehicle.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Criminal justice reform.

URBAN: Criminal justice reform, very popular, both sides of the aisle. There was talk to add the border wall in there, right? And the administration decided to take it out because it probably would have blown up the deal at the end of the day. And they didn't want to the scuttle this important piece of legislation.

(LAUGHTER)

URBAN: Yes, but my point is, there are other vehicles the president could try to attach this to, right, that are going to be moving down and moving in the future as well.

TAPPER: You talked about President Trump being all over the map or giving mixed signals.

It's not clear from Speaker Ryan's statement whether the president is insisting the money be spent on a big concrete wall or for broader -- quote -- "border security."

Neither Ryan nor the incoming House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, used the word wall when they delivered the news. But the president, he said -- he first tweeted today that the Democrats who know steel slats (wall) are necessarily for border security are putting politics over country."

And then 11 minutes later, he tweeted: "With so much talk about the wall, people are losing sight of the great job being done on the southern border. Border is tight."

You can understand why people might be confused, including perhaps even Vice President Pence.

TURNER: Right, because he doesn't -- he just goes out and does these things.

I mean, he -- I don't know if he's confused, but he's definitely confusing everybody else, even the people who are closest to him.

And tomato, tomato, what's in a name, a rose by any other name smells just as sweet, to quote Shakespeare. I mean, that's really how the president is really the handling the situation, and he leaves everybody dizzy in his wake. He is hurricane Trump.

[16:15:00]

TAPPER: You're shaking your head. But, obviously, Cornyn thought that Pence had told him, just hand over the bill, we're going to sign it.

URBAN: And, look, we work to this town a long time, right? The fact that the members of Congress went home, I mean, that's insane. Members of Congress come back, right? Come back.

I've been here -- I've worked on the Hill for many years, and stuff goes back and forth and back and forth, down in Pennsylvania Avenue, back up to the Hill repeatedly before you get out of this town. So the notion that somehow it was a done deal. It's never a done deal until it's a done deal

TAPPER: I hear what you're saying, but we shouldn't act as though the way this is proceeding is routine.

TURNER: That's right.

TAPPER: It's not routine.

URBAN: You know what it is routine, that Congress passes bills, spending bills, right? There's a way that our government is supposed to work, right?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: That's my point. Why aren't we calling that out as abnormal, right?

TAPPER: Because this has been going on for a decade.

URBAN: There's something broken, right?

TAPPER: Absolutely. Long before President Trump, but this process -- I mean, usually when a vice president goes on Capitol Hill and says if you send this up the president will sign, it usually, the vice president knows what he's talking about.

RASCOE: And you had Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying, guaranteeing that there was not going to be a shutdown, and it doesn't seem likely that McConnell would have brought that bill up and had his members vote on it if he thought that President Trump wouldn't sign it.

TAPPER: There's one other thing I want to bring up before we go. Democrats haven't even taken control of the House and yet already there was some really ugly words between Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Let's play that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JERRY NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Many members of the committee have written letters to you, many of which have received no substantive response. As we move into the next Congress, I want to put you and the department on notice. The time for accountability has arrived.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I mean, that's a warning shot across the bow.

DIAMOND: It is, and this is going to be the reality that this president is going have to confront. I think that's part of the reason also why they -- the president decided let's have this border wall fight now because he can make it about the politics and Democrats are going to make it about the politics now for the next two years as well as they try to hold this administration accountable. How the president deals with that we haven't quite seen yet. We've seen both this week the bipartisan criminal justice reform that the president is expected to sign tomorrow.

TAPPER: Yes.

DIAMOND: A huge bipartisan achievement, and then we've also seen this bickering.

TAPPER: Then let's point out that this threat of a government shutdown is coming with Republican control of the House, Republican control of the Senate, Republican control of the White House. One can only imagine what it will be like in the future when Democrats control the House.

Thanks one and all for being here.

Up next, several top lawmakers calling for President Trump's pick for attorney general to step aside, even before his confirmation hearings have begun.

Plus, North Korea's new message to President Trump: We will not denuclearize until you lose the nukes on the Korean peninsula. It doesn't sound like the deal Trump claims he had made with Kim Jong-un.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:22:09] TAPPER: In the politics lead today -- today, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee called on President Trump to withdraw his pick for attorney general. Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said the unsolicited memo that Bill Barr sent to the Justice Department earlier this year disqualifies him from managing Bob Mueller's Russia investigation. In his memo, Barr argued against the special counsel building an obstruction of justice case against President Trump, a man that CNN's Jessica Schneider reports, Barr's words set up controversial confirmation hearings if the process even gets that far.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The president's attorney general pick making clear his conclusion about the special counsel's obstruction of justice investigation way before his confirmation hearings even start. In a memo from this past summer, Bill Barr called the obstruction inquiry, quote, fatally misconceived with disastrous implications for the presidency saying Trump's firing of former FBI Director James Comey was within the powers of the president.

Barr's memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and another DOJ senior official was unsolicited but Rosenstein said Barr didn't have all the facts.

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: He shared his personal opinion with the department, lots of people offer opinions to the Department of Justice, but they don't influence our own decision- making. I didn't share any confidential information with Mr. Barr. He never requested that we provide any non-public information to him, and that memo had no impact on our investigation.

SCHNEIDER: Barr wrote the memo speaking as a former attorney general under George H.W. Bush. Sources tell CNN Barr discussed the memo with the president, pointing out it could be a sticking point for his confirmation.

Now, top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer is calling on the president to change his pick and a chorus of other Democrats say they are concerned Barr believes the president is above the law.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), VICE CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: It appears that the number one qualification Donald Trump is looking for in an attorney general is someone that will try to undermine the Mueller investigation. To me this is -- this makes this individual disqualified for the position.

SCHNEIDER: Meanwhile, the Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has decided to continue overseeing the special counsel, even though a senior DOJ official fells CNN while it was, quote, a close call, a department's ethics officers believed Whitaker should step aside.

But because Whitaker never sought a formal recommendation from them and his own advisers recommended against recusal, Whitaker chose to remain in charge despite repeatedly disparaging the Mueller probe before joining the Justice Department in October 2017, echoing the president's words of witch hunt and speculating how any replacement to former A.G. Jeff Sessions might try to shut it down.

MATTHEW WHITAKER, THEN-CNN COMMENTATOR: I can see where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces the budget so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt. [16:25:03] SCHNEIDER: But today, Rosenstein who rarely talks publicly

about the Mueller probe offers words of assurance that the process is untainted.

ROSENSTEIN: Bob Mueller or Rod Rosenstein or Matt Whitaker or Bill Barr, that investigation is going to be handled appropriately by the Department of Justice.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And now that Matthew Whitaker has officially decided not to recuse, it's expected he'll be briefed on the Mueller probe since he was never updated during the ethics review process. But, Jake, we do know that Whitaker was given a heads up just before the president's former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty up in New York a few months ago.

TAPPER: All right. Jessica Schneider, thanks so much.

Trump says we've defeated ISIS one minute and next minute, he says other countries are going to need to fight ISIS instead of the United States. So which is it? The general who helped lead fight against ISIS joins me next.

Stay with us.

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