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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Says It's Time for Others to Finally Fight ISIS", After Declaring ISIS was "Defeated"; Sources: Admin Officials Worried Trump May Soon Announce Withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Afghanistan; North Korea Won't Give Up Nukes Until U.S. Ends "Nuclear Threat"; Secretary Pompeo: "We are In A Better Place Today" With North Korea; Watchdog: Trump's Commerce Secretary Making Money Off Stocks After Claiming (Twice) He Sold Them. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 20, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:30:33] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: In our world lead today, President Trump is now calling upon other countries to step up and fight ISIS in Syria, and the president is warning ISIS not to attack the United States.

This might confuse some of the president's supporters because just yesterday, the president declared that the U.S. had defeated ISIS and abruptly announced the U.S. withdraw American troops stationed there. It all comes as exclusive new video from inside Syria shows American- backed troops fighting ISIS just a few days ago, a clear sign that the combat there against the estimated tens of thousands of ISIS terrorists continues.

CNN's Barbara Starr joins us now live from the Pentagon.

And, Barbara, it's probably not a good sign when the most enthusiastic support for a foreign policy comes from Vladimir Putin.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, and think of it this way: no enthusiastic support even 24 hours later from the Pentagon. No officials have come out in public and endorsed the president's decision even as the war goes on.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): New proof emerging today that U.S.-backed Syrian fighters are still locked in heated battle with ISIS, even as President Trump has ordered more than 2,000 U.S. ground troops to come home.

Some GOP lawmakers remain furious, including a close Trump ally.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The only reason they are not dancing in the aisles in Tehran and ISIS camps is they just don't believe in dancing. This is a big gift to them, and this is a devastating decision for our allies.

STARR: One U.S. defense official telling CNN operational commanders are concerned about the future for Syrian fighters backed by the U.S. of whom 1,600 have already been killed. If the U.S. pulls out, those Kurdish fighters face a potential bloodbath from both ISIS and a Turkish invasion, and the ISIS threat is likely to skyrocket, with thousands of suspected ISIS operatives now in custody, possibly getting released to fight again.

: We have, to be clear, the highest concentration of jihadists anywhere in the world in Syria.

STARR: General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs, and General Joseph Votel, head of Middle East operations, are now talking to allies in the region about what will happen next. But there are no reassurances to be had.

Defense Secretary James Mattis still has not issued the formal withdrawal order to the field, officials tell CNN. It should spell out a withdrawal plan, but commanders say it could take weeks, if not months, to get all U.S. weapons packed up and air shipped out of Syria.

If Trump demands a speedy exit, the typical procedure would be to bomb the equipment and destroy it. Mattis may be chocking up as a major loser in all of this. Senator Lindsey Graham spoke to him.

GRAHAM: He thought that the time was not right to leave. He's very worried about the Kurds.

STARR: Mattis' influence with Trump had diminishes over using troops on the border and keeping Korean war games going, but this time Trump overruled Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton.

Possibly, the only person aside from Trump who thinks getting out of Syria is a good idea, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): As far as ISIS is concerned, I agree more or less with the president of the U.S.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And for Mattis and Pompeo, it is far from over. Both are likely to face a series of furious congressional hearings about all of this -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

We have some breaking news now for you in the world lead. In the wake of the president's announcement to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, multiple sources tell me that the Trump administration, Trump administration officials, are now bracing for President Trump to soon announce the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, though sources warn that the president has not yet made any final decision on the matter. Right now, there are roughly 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Joining me now to talk about this breaking news as well as the news

about Syria is retired Four Star General John R. Allen. He helped lead the fight against ISIS under President Obama as a presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS.

General, thanks so much for being here.

GENERAL JOHN R. ALLEN (RET), FORMER DEPUTY COMMANDER OF U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Thank you.

TAPPER: What do you make of the people throughout the Trump administration, especially in the military, prepared and frankly concerned that President Trump is going to make the same announcement about Afghanistan that he made about Syria?

ALLEN: Well, it's going to be a real crisis for us, Jake. We've got coalition obligations there. The Afghan people have depended on us for some period of time, to be ultimately prepared to deal with the Taliban over a long period, to make peace, to create a credible system of government there, to get the economy on its feet again.

Pulling out right now, just the announcement would create chaos within the strategy, so we need to be very, very careful about how we announce this.

TAPPER: All right. So, that has not yet been announced, and like I said, the president has not made a final decision. People are bracing for it.

ALLEN: Sure.

TAPPER: The Syria announcement has come.

ALLEN: That's right.

TAPPER: How would you characterize -- what do you think of the president's decision to announce that he wants all U.S. troops in Syria back in the United States?

ALLEN: Look, we all thought at one point that they would come home, but a precipitous departure of our troops could create a military disaster --

TAPPER: A disaster?

ALLEN: -- in Afghanistan -- sorry, in Syria.

Look, it has the net effect of turning the war over and turning our leverage over to Bashar al Assad and to Vladimir Putin. It will empower I believe the Iranians, and the administration has talked about ensuring that they check Iranian movements throughout the region. When it empowers the Iranians, and if that strengthens the Bashar al Assad regime which creates a pass-through for weapons to Hezbollah which threatens our Israeli allies, it undercuts our allies on the ground. It undercuts the Kurds who we realize, and you and I talked about this

on the show once before, we found the Kurds to be reliable partners, and an American strategy at that time was to empower indigenous forces and we did that, and we defeated the Islamic state in many respects in that part of Syria, but there's still a very volatile force at this particular moment there.

TAPPER: So what happens if the U.S. does -- I mean, they are. The U.S. military is going to withdraw the troops. He's the commander in chief.

ALLEN: Sure.

TAPPER: What then will happen? Will we see villages that normally, there are -- I mean --

ALLEN: Well, sure, look, it was we know from the regime. When the regime ultimately takes charge of a village or a population center that stood against the regime, the retaliation is almost immediate, and the deaths and the retaliation and the retribution are enormous as the regime metes out punishment against those people that oppose the regime.

Russian firepower is used indiscriminately. We can expect that the Russians would provide firepower and immediately attack those centers of resistance that we have created. There's no telling what the Turks will do. We hope that some part of the conversation of the president with Erdogan was that the United States would hold the Turks responsible for treating the liberated populations of northeast Syria with some level of humanity.

But there's no telling what the Turks will do. We hope that they won't retaliate against those groups, but by pulling the rug out from under and abandoning our Kurdish and Syrian allies, it also strikes a blow on American credibility in the region. Part of our strategy in the future in dealing with these kinds of threats is to empower the indigenous populations, to train them.

Yet here we do -- here we have empowered this population. We have given them the capabilities to deal with ISIS. Now we're in the process of stabilizing that population so is doesn't back flash in our faces and their faces, but at the very moment they need us the most, we're pulling out.

TAPPER: So, I want to ask you about something that was extraordinary. It was a video released by the White House. Yesterday, President Trump defending his decision, and he did so by invoking American soldiers and troops, service members, who had been killed fighting ISIS. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They are all coming back, and they are coming back now. We won, and that's the way we want it, and that's the way they want it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So I -- first off, I'm struck by the "we won" language, but then I've also never seen a president or even a general or any public official talk about what KIA service members would want.

As somebody who served, who has --

ALLEN: Yes, it's stunning, Jake. Look, our magnificent troops have served overseas year after year after year dealing with these real threats to American national security, and many of them have given the last full measure of their devotion. They have paid with their lives. Their families have paid in a very substantial way.

To politicize that sacrifice to support that decision I think is very wrong-headed, frankly.

TAPPER: President Trump tweeted this morning, quote, it's time for others to finally fight. I want to play your reaction from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham who is with you and disagrees with this decision.

ALLEN: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GRAHAM: If you do not want to fight this war alone, how do you justify leaving Syria at a time when those who helped us, the Kurds, are certain to be overwhelmed and slaughtered.

[16:40:04] And if we do this to the Kurds, who is going to help us fight in the future?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, President Trump's response to that, and to Graham's opposition in general, is I can't believe Lindsey Graham wants more troops to die and more money to be wasted. I'm paraphrasing, but that was essentially what he said.

What's your response to the president?

ALLEN: Well, Lindsey Graham is absolutely correct on this. And the president ought to listen to Lindsey Graham rather than criticized Lindsey Graham on this issue. And what has not had a lot of play here beyond the face that we should be, every day, thanking our magnificent troops for their sacrifices all around the world to keep enemy at bay from the United States and our coalition is the coalition itself.

The previous administration, the U.S. leadership, Obama leadership called for a global coalition. Over 70 nations answered that call. Did we consult with any of them before we made this decision? Probably not. I know a lot of coalition partners are deeply concerned about this decision.

And so, if the United States wants to be able to empower indigenous forces for the next war, they're going to think twice about putting their future in our hands only to have us abandon them at the moment of their greatest need and a global coalition will think twice about coming to help the United States if we need to in a great emergency because they know we won't consult with them when the time comes. So, the president ought to listen to Lindsey Graham rather than criticize him.

TAPPER: General John Allen, thank you so much. Appreciate your time, sir, and your service, as always.

ALLEN: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: President Trump touted it as the handshake that changed everything with North Korea. It does seem Kim Jong-un might not see it that way.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: In our World Lead, President Trump tweeted in June, that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat. That was not true then. It is apparently even less true today. Today, North Korea's state-run media announced they are not giving up their nuclear weapons until the United States gets rid of its own, "nuclear threat" first.

CNN's Will Ripley joins me now. Will, I guess, the simple question is did President Trump get played by Kim Jong-un?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you can almost make the case that he got played by himself, because President Trump overhyped the results of his diplomacy with Kim Jong-un. There is no written agreement with the United States for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

And yes, they haven't launched a missile, conducted a nuclear test in a year, but in that year, they likely produced six to eight new nuclear warheads, according to South Korean intelligence. They expanded key missile bases, they have better relations and more trade with key allies like China and Russia, and Kim Jong-un got something from President Trump, arguably, even more valuable, which is legitimacy on a global stage.

He could probably drag out diplomacy for years, long after Trump is out of office, keep his arsenal pretty much intact and never fully return to that maximum pressure campaign that we saw a year ago, Jake.

TAPPER: And will this all, obviously, is coming, as the U.S. has come to something of a stalemate over negotiations with North Korea.

RIPLEY: Yes, I mean, the problem is that what they signed in Singapore was just so vague that both sides walked away thinking something else was going to happen, so the main sticking points for the North Koreans, U.S. sanctions are still in place.

That is hurting the North Korean economy, and they also say that the U.S. nuclear threat, which is military assets in South Korea, the U.S. nuclear umbrella that protects South Korea, those are still in place. Also, Kim Jong-un probably thought that he'd start getting sanctions relief right away.

Trump probably thought that North Korea would start happily dismantling its nuclear arsenal that it has been developing for decades, right away. So neither side is really getting what they want here, but at the moment, Kim Jong-un is probably getting more than what President Trump is.

TAPPER: All right. Will Ripley who has been to North Korea, 19 times, thank you so much. Appreciate it. I want to bring in the CNN's Counterterrorism Analyst Phil Mudd. Phil, when President Trump and Kim Jong-un met back in June, they agreed to "work towards complete denuclearization of the North Korean -- I'm sorry, of the Korean peninsula."

Does this demand from North Korea, surprise you? It seems like this is what they have been saying all along for decades.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: This is not that complicated. Look, you walk in and the North Koreans are sitting there, saying you've got to give to get. The President has already given something. You'll recollect that he said we're going to stop exercises without getting a lot from the North Koreans.

Kim Jong-un is also looking, saying he just withdrew, that is the President just announced the withdrawal from Syria without getting too much, obviously, from the Russians or Syrians. What's the cost for Kim Jong-un to walk in and say, I want more? I want you to get your nukes off the peninsula. What's the downside? I don't see it.

TAPPER: So, the administration, the Trump White House will say there haven't been any missile tests in the last year, there haven't been any nuclear tests in the last year. Is that something that the North Koreans have given up, or is that nothing really comparatively to what the U.S. could or should have gotten?

MUDD: No. Look, let me give you what we've seen over the past 20 plus years. Presidents repeatedly have tried to control the North Koreans. They develop missiles and they develop nukes. One reason this is different today is, they have evidently a usable nuclear arsenal and they have usable weapons. That is ballistic missiles.

So, it's not like we're in the same place we were 10 years ago. They can threaten us. I tell you, the one thing to look for as they develop these capabilities, will they ever give us a verifiable list of what they have? Until you see that list, this is all nonsense.

TAPPER: So, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who's been a big part of the negotiations, he was asked today if the U.S. is in a better position now, with respect to North Korea than the U.S. was, a year ago. Take a listen to some of his response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Undoubtedly. No more missiles being tested, no more nuclear testing. We're in a better place today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: But when you hear Will Ripley talk about it, he talks about how Kim Jong-un is there's more money coming in and out of North Korea, how there's more acceptability for North Korea and Kim Jong-un on a global stage, is the U.S. in a better place when it comes to North Korea today, than a year ago?

MUDD: No. Let me give you two reasons why.

First, if you look at North Korean development of missiles and nukes that is the nukes and the capability to deliver them to U.S. shores, do you want to tell me that the testing they undertook hasn't been successful? That they aren't more capable of delivering a weapon than they were five years ago? Of course, they are.

[16:50:20] I think that's one reason they've stopped. How much more do they need to test? Let me give you one other issue that I've looked at, the President hosting, Xi, that is the Chinese leader, at Mar-a-Lago.

How would you like to talk to the Chinese right now, with the tariff differences with the United States about saying hey, President Xi, what kind of pressure can you bring to bear on the North Korean's press by the Chinese? I'd say, really? You're asking me this now? No.

TAPPER: So, what does the U.S. need to do next here? Should the U.S. act in good faith, pull nuclear bombs and bombers from the region? I mean, is there -- is there a step that the U.S. should take, or is it basically just a loss and the U.S. should walk away? What do you think?

MUDD: No, it's not a loss. You shouldn't walk away. There are a couple of questions you're going to have. You've got to the sit down at the National Security Council and say what are the vulnerabilities of Kim Jong-un and how do we squeeze those vulnerabilities?

And the second, as we're doing with Syria, what do we want to pay and how painful will that be when we go to the North Koreans and say that's what we're going to pay, pulling out troops, pulling out nukes.

But I mentioned earlier, let me be really clear, until the North Koreans tell us what weapons they have including nukes and missiles, and until they tell us, this is how we will verify a process with inspectors, including the U.S. to destroy those, this is a game.

TAPPER: Considering that the President abruptly announced this withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, considering that the President is talking about and the administration is bracing for him to make a similar announcement, a significant troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, should the South Koreans be worried that the President actually might start removing troops from Japan and South Korea?

MUDD: Sure. I mean, how do you not think about it, how do you not prepare for that? When the President was talking about South Korea in the past, he said we're going to halt operations and these exercises with the South Koreans. That appears to have been a surprise, like the Syrian withdrawal, for the Pentagon.

So, regardless of whether you think it's a 90 percent probability or 10 percent probability, if you're in South Korea right now, you've got to say, what's he going to do?

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mudd, thank you so much. A member of Trump's cabinet, accused, of lying not once, but twice. Does it take three strikes and you're out, in the Trump administration? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: In our Money Lead, it's time for another conflict of interest watch. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has twice asserted that he sold tens of millions of dollars' worth of specific stocks related to his current day job, but a watchdog group says that isn't true. And the Center for Public Integrity says it obtained the financial forms to prove it.

In the past, Ross brushed off not selling as a mere mistake, but CNN's Tom Foreman wonders if that excuse will continue to be enough for President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WILBUR ROSS, U.S. SECRETARY OF COMMERCE: All of my activities have been governed by the ethics rules.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When questioned about conflicts of interest, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, always has the same answer, he gave up a fortune in personal business to fulfill his public duty.

ROSS: I've thought and agreed with the OGE that this is the right thing for me to do.

FOREMAN: But it now appears Ross has repeatedly told the Office of Government Ethics that he has dumped stocks only to be still secretly holding them months later. The latest alleged incident discovered by the Center for Public Integrity, almost two years into his term.

Ross was supposed to divest himself of up to $15,000 in BankUnited stock, by May of 2017 and swore he had. But the Center says, in truth, he held it until October. In a statement, he says he mistakenly believed his agent had sold them, and an earlier case involved Invesco stock, valued between $10 million and $50 million.

The Commerce secretary held that until December 2017. According to the Center, possibly pocketing an additional $1 million to $6 million, as the stock rose that year. There are other allegations about other stocks, and since Ross negotiates massive deals on behalf of taxpayers, it's all making some lawmakers twitching.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: You don't need a thick government rule book to recognize the flagrant conflicts of interest when they are brought into public view.

FOREMAN: Other members of the Trump cabinet have also been dinged over possible conflicts, their handling of money, transparency, but the commerce secretary who famously calculated the pennies it cost to make a soup can during the tariff debate.

ROSS: There's about 2.6 cents, 2.6 pennies worth of steel.

FOREMAN: Says all of these incidents around him, involving hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, are simply oversight. He is called an inadvertent error in complex investments. He says he is not deceived and has no conflicts of interest.

ROSS: There's no there, there.

FOREMAN: So, if the Democrats investigate, bring it on. Is that what you're saying?

ROSS: Well, they will have subpoena powers, the heads of the committees, and if they subpoena, we'll be responsive.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: Again, the secretary says there are no secrets here, and on this latest matter he says, I previously reported selling the shares on May 31st, 2017, based on a mistaken belief that the agent executed my sell order on that date.

But the fact that this has happened several times, versions of this, Jake, that's the reason Congress, is paying so much attention.

TAPPER: Well, you had a graphic in there with the price, Zinke and Pruitt, as well as Ross.

FOREMAN: Yes.

TAPPER: Those other three guys.

FOREMAN: Yes.

TAPPER: They're gone.

FOREMAN: They're out the door. So, you're going to wonder.

TAPPER: All right. Tom Foreman, thanks so much. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @jaketapper, you can tweet the show @theleadcnn. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks so much for watching.