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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Dow Surges; Trumps Visit Troops in Iraq. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 26, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to a special edition of THE LEAD. I'm Dana Bash, in for Jake Tapper.

We begin this afternoon with major breaking news on two fronts.

Look at that. The Dow is up over 1,000 points, after a tumultuous Christmas slide, this as we are awaiting comments from President Trump, who is in the midst of his first visit to U.S. troops in a war zone.

The commander in chief, along with first lady Melania Trump, flew overnight and landed at 7:16 p.m. Iraq time, meeting with service members at Al Asad Air Base, just West of Baghdad. He was on the ground for around three hours, surprising troops with this secret visit, all of this happening, of course, while the government remains partially shut down over funding for the president's proposed border wall and a major shakeup at the Pentagon is under way.

Defense Secretary James Mattis will leave his post at the start of 2019 after clashing with the president on his order to withdrawal -- to withdraw, rather, all U.S. troops from Syria.

Let's get straight to Jessica Dean at the White House.

Jessica, the president using this visit to defend his decision to pull troops out of Iraq. And explain how -- excuse me -- pulled troops out of Syria, and explain how Iraq might play into dealing with Syria.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly right, Dana. We were hearing from the president, speaking to reporters who were traveling with him.

He talked both about Iraq and about Syria. As for Iraq, he said, we're not planning to withdraw any troops from here right now. In fact, he talked about using that nation as really a base to engage if they need to go back into Syria.

And then he really doubled down on his plan to completely withdraw troops from Syria, saying that -- quote -- "People are going to come around to my way of thinking." That's how he was explaining it when he was talking about it on his overseas trip today. Of course, the secretary of defense, James Mattis, resigning over that

decision, but President Trump saying, no, I'm sticking with it, and we're going to use Iraq as a place to operate out of, that we could do that.

Now, why did he choose to go to Iraq? We got a little bit more information about that as well. The president saying that it was a place he's talked about for a very long time, even when he was still a civilian. He said he really just wanted to get there to pay his respects to the troops who were serving there, especially at this time of year, the Christmas holiday, of course, just yesterday.

It's about 100 troops who serve in special operation combat missions in Iraq and Syria. That's who he was talking to today. He spent about three hours with them. The president was also scheduled to meet with the prime minister of Iraq, but that meeting, Dana, was ultimately canceled.

BASH: Jessica, thank you so much for that report.

Let's get to the Pentagon. CNN's Barbara Starr is live there.

Barbara, what more can you tell us about the troops the president visited and how this trip might play into, A, the morale, and, B, more information about the policy changes?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, this was a feel-good holiday visit. And there is nothing wrong with that. He's the commander in chief. The troops want to see the boss.

So this is what happened today, and it's good news for the troops and military families. It brings their sacrifice to the forefront of the American debate, if you will. We don't often see them these days, and, today, we did. So all of this is very good news for the troops, very good news for military families.

By all accounts, the president, any president of the United States, gets a respectful and a very happy reception from troops. That is what they do. But make no mistake, there are problems everywhere to be sorted out about the president's decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

Now, he said something very important today. He said that he might use Iraq as a staging base to try and deal with ISIS and Syria if it really does resurge. He thinks it's defeated. That may be very tough. Russian troops, Syrian regime troops, Iranian troops, ISIS, they are all present there in Syria.

And if the U.S. pulls out, as it is planned and expected, it may be very difficult for them to get the intelligence to be able to go back in -- Dana.

BASH: So fascinating. A lot to unpack. Barbara, thank you so much. If you get anything more, obviously, we will come back to you.

We have a great A-team here of national security experts. And, Admiral Kirby, I want to start with you just on the notion that

the president said that, instead of U.S. troops being in Syria, which, of course, has been a very controversial decision that he made, to pull troops out of Syria, that he would use Iraq, that -- right now, there are about 5,200 troops in Iraq, U.S. troops in Iraq, as kind of a staging area.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, it can be done. And if you remember, Dana, back in 2014-2015, before we had boots on the ground in Syria, that's, in fact, what we were doing.

[16:05:02]

We were flying missions from Iraq or from the region over into Syria and back again without any boots on the ground. That said, the situation changed. We were trying to get Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurds, to be more effective against ISIS. And so that did require presence on the ground.

And those troops not only were advising and assisting. They were helping in the geolocation of time-sensitive targets, being able to help, you know, give intel on dynamic targets that were on the move. That's all going to be gone now. So can they continue to strike ISIS in Syria? Yes. But it will -- no question, will be less effective.

BASH: Elise, something struck me in the pool report that we got from reporters who are on the ground or maybe now in the air with the president about why the president made this decision, per his description.

He said that he gave the generals -- quote, unquote -- "generals" -- multiple six-months extensions to get out of Syria. He said: "They said again recently, can we have more time? I said, nope. You can't have any more time. You have had enough time. You have knocked them out. You have knocked them silly."

Look, we have civilian leadership over the military for a reason. And, you know, it is important. But yet it's hard to imagine what would happen if a Democratic president said, I'm not listening to my generals. The Republicans and even some Democrats would go bonkers.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, there were a lot of complaints about President Obama when he wanted to pull out of Iraq or with the war in Afghanistan, that he wasn't listening to his generals, and he thought they were -- I think he said play rope-a-dope with me, that they were trying to keep forces in when he really wanted to get them out.

Certainly, you know, there's a tug of war. And John and others can talk about, you know, that tug of war. But you have the advice of your generals for a reason. And that's to explain to you not only the situation on the ground and whether that's -- a pullout is advisable, but also the consequences of that and how it should be done.

And right here, you have heard President Trump say, I know more than the generals, and, in this case, he clearly feels he does, because not only did he not consult them before he made this decision, but he's not talking about doing it in a deliberative way with the advice of his military advisers.

BASH: Peter Bergen?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, this is one of the commonalities between Obama and Trump. We tend to get kind of confused by the rhetoric around these things. But both...

BASH: Not to mention the style.

BERGEN: And the style. But both presidents felt that they were elected to pull America out of the foreign wars. Both have not. There's no demand signalled from the American public for large-scale conventional wars in the Middle East. They both relied on special operations forces, drones, cyber-warfare. That's the approach.

And it's kind of a limited approach. And the fact is, as Elise mentioned, Obama was going to pull down to zero in Afghanistan, and it was only the intervention of the military and also some people on the national staff that said, hey, wait a minute, we can't just have zero troops in Afghanistan. We have to protect our embassies. We have a counterterrorism platform that's useful in Pakistan, et cetera.

So Obama didn't go down that road. And, in fact, Trump is -- you know, if the reports are correct that we're going down to 7,000, that's not a particularly large force, obviously, but it's enough to protect the embassy, enough to carry out some kind of terrorism operations. And it is his purgative as commander in chief to do this.

BASH: Bob Baer, you're a former intelligence official, operative, however you want to call it. It's probably fair to say that, even if U.S. troops will not be in Syria, we will still have a quiet presence. We will know what's happening on the ground in Syria.

But is that enough?

BOB BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No. You can't collect intelligence from Iraq. You need people on the ground.

You need to work with the Kurds. They are the ones doing most of the collection. You need laser targeting for the ground for the Air Force or the drones and the rest of it. It can't be done. You can hit indiscriminately targets in Syria, but for taking out the continued presence of the Islamic State, it just won't work.

And it's -- frankly, it's one of the dumbest things I have ever seen, because this is the most successful counterinsurgency program we have run in decades. And why you would take these troops out that are doing so well at this time, when the Islamic State is still a threat, I don't understand.

BASH: Well, you mentioned the Kurds.

Admiral Kirby, one the reasons why General Mattis, Secretary Mattis, said "I'm out" is because he feels like he's breaking a promise, America is breaking a promise...

KIRBY: Absolutely.

BASH: ... to the Kurds, who have been helping America and all the coalition forces in this region to fight ISIS.

KIRBY: They have been an incredibly effective force on the ground for going after ISIS.

And we have also been, to some degree, a restraining influence on their other instincts, which is to go after Turkey. And so I think, you know, for Erdogan, he might be crowing right now, but, privately, I'm guessing he's a little bit concerned now.

BASH: Why?

KIRBY: Because the Kurds will now feel no constraint about targeting Turks and going across that border.

[16:10:03]

Remember back in Afrin about a year ago, the -- some of our Kurdish fighters decided that they weren't going to stay in the ISIS fight and they were going to go after Turkish forces who were attacking Afrin.

And it was all we could do to restrain even some of them from joining that fight. The other thing is, now the Kurds will look for another client. They have already asked France for help because they know we're pulling out. And there are some analysts that think that they might actually try to make a deal with Assad for some sort of...

LABOTT: Some of them are already making a deal with Assad.

KIRBY: Absolutely. So it's very shortsighted.

And back to Peter's point, there is no strategy here. He's just pulling it out because his instincts told him that he wanted to pull it out and it was a campaign promise. And the same with Afghanistan. This is the man who just last year ballyhooed an Afghanistan strategy that was going to be -- that was going to be conditions-based, not time-based, as opposed to what Obama did.

And here he is, without any justification, just saying, well, we're going to...

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Before we take a break, I want to go back in time not that long ago, when candidate Trump talked about President Obama and criticized him for pulling out of Iraq initially, which led to ISIS. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obama is the founder of ISIS, the founder. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: I mean, could he be the target of that exact criticism in the near future?

LABOTT: I think absolutely. Look, the implication there was he said that Obama pulled out of Iraq too soon.

BASH: Right. And he's obviously not the only one to say that.

(CROSSTALK)

LABOTT: No, definitely, definitely. And, look, there is a large section of the American public that thinks it's time to get out of these wars in the Middle East that the U.S. has been in for so long.

The thing is, if you look at what's going on in Iraq right now, it's a very precarious situation. The government is in chaos. They haven't seated a new cabinet since the government in may was elected. You know, there's not a lot of reconstruction. They haven't been able to pass a budget.

And it's that kind of vacuum that allowed ISIS to flourish in the first place. And so when you talk to people in Iraq and Syria, they're not only concerned about ISIS, but they're concerned of something that could come that's even worse. So before he says that they're decimated, which, you know, you heard the U.S. envoy to Iraq, Brett McGurk, who resigned for very similar reasons, to Secretary Mattis just a few days ago said that there are still remnants there.

I think, you know, you reap what you sow. And we could see something even more lethal than ISIS come back if those kind of reconstruction and that isn't paid enough attention.

BASH: We have to take a break.

But what you said, Peter, is also so right, that the similarities in policies between this populist Republican Trump and President Obama, Trump said, the United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.

OK, everybody, stand by. We have a lot more on our breaking news. What message does President Trump's surprise visit send to America's allies?

Plus, a huge record for the markets. The Dow makes history again.

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[16:17:11] BASH: We're back with breaking news in our world lead. President Trump making his first visit to a war zone as commander-in- chief today, surprising troops in Iraq, along with the first lady. The president defended his decision to withdraw American troops from Syria. And he suggested Iraq could be used as a base for future actions in Syria.

CNN's Ivan Watson joins me now.

And, Ivan, you've done extensive reporting from Iraq, including during the Iraq War. People can't really forget in 2014 you're seeing images on the screen now how you were with the Kurds helping in a dramatic helicopter rescue of civilians who were just jumping on that helicopter as they were trying to give supplies and food to those who were under attack from ISIS.

Given that experience and so much more that you have in the region, what message do you think President Trump sent to those allies, particularly the Kurds, with his visit today?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, he repeated this line, that the U.S. cannot continue to be the policeman of the world. And perhaps there's merit to that. In that case that you referred to, 2014, August, the U.S. intervened and probably protected the Kurds of northern Iraq from potential annihilation by ISIS at a time when Kurdish defenses had been routed.

So the U.S. played a policeman role, and stood up and defended an ally at a time when ISIS was carrying out ethnic cleansing and genocidal policies in areas that it had recently conquered. So that message he's sending, it does raise some real questions and some anxiety among allies who have relied on U.S. support in the past. I think it's telling that President Trump, or it's at least notable, that he did not meet with the Iraqi prime minister, who was recently elected. We've been told that that meeting was cancelled during his brief time on the ground in Iraq. And there's been no explanation for that.

The message that President Trump wants to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, out of the -- working alongside the Syrian Kurds there, immediately you had the Turkish defense minister talking about massacring the Syrian Kurds, which the Turkish government views as terrorists. If that were to take place, that kind of scenario, what would Washington's position be? And what message would that send to other allies in other places around the world?

It's also noticeable that we haven't heard any mention of Afghanistan. That's America's longest-running overseas conflict.

BASH: Yes.

WATSON: Some 17 years. There are 14,000 U.S. troops there that the White House has signaled it wants to cut in half.

[16:20:02] But there was no mention, no advanced warning, to NATO partners. Dozens of them in Afghanistan working alongside the U.S. and when President Trump talks about burden-sharing with allies and they need to pay, some of them are. But they're not being brought in, into the decision making process when President Trump wants to pull troops out.

BASH: Yes. The allies aren't being brought into the decision-making process. Congress, his own cabinet. There's a pattern here, for sure.

Ivan, thank you so much for that reporting. Certainly based on your real world on the ground experience.

Back here with our panel. Political panel joins us now.

David Drucker, you tweeted something I thought was very succinct and to the point. Which is the president rarely does conventional, but often conventional is best. Now we've moved away from the discussion about the policy and just talking about the notion of him going to the war zone. And visiting troops, which is the first time he's done this since he's been in office.

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, look. The president obviously is a different sort of politician. He likes to communicate in unconventional ways, unorthodox ways. That's where he's most comfortable. His base of support appreciates him for exactly the reasons why many others don't appreciate him.

But often the best way to communicate to the country at large, voters that supported him, voters that didn't, all of the different constituencies within the federal government that he oversees, particularly his role as commander-in-chief, is just to talk to them like a conventional, normal president. And by showing up in a war zone, saying hi to the troops during a holiday time, it really can calm a lot of nerves, it can make people feel good, and make Americans feel, if only for a fleeting moment, and I'm sure it's going to be fleeting, because I don't think he's going to change, that somebody is in control and that everything isn't too wacky.

And I think it's very important for any president to send that message, especially at a time of so much volatility, both domestically and around the world.

BASH: The -- Mona, "The Washington post" just last month said this: Trump has so far declined to visit those combat regions, saying he does not want to associate himself with wars he views as failures, according to current and former advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. That obviously changed, and when he was there today, he talked about the fact that he has been outspoken about Iraq since he was a civilian.

MONA CHAREN, SENIOR FELLOW, ETHICS & PUBLIC POLICY CENTER: Yes. But the notion that he as president of the United States can separate himself from our military commitments that have been undertaken by the nation as a whole, by his predecessors, by Congress and so on, mistakes his role that -- you know, the world did not begin when he was inaugurated.

A. SCOTT BOLDEN, FORMER D.C. DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIRMAN: Right. His war.

CHAREN: Right, exactly.

BOLDEN: He doesn't want them, but now they're his.

CHAREN: And besides, there's a tremendous inconsistency. On the campaign trail, he was thundering about how he was going to decimate ISIS, he's going to slam ISIS. Was it a war he didn't want? No. It was a war he did want and it was a war that was begun by Obama that he continued.

So to say, well, it's not me, I'm not part of it, is -- it doesn't wash.

BASH: One of the little bits of news -- newslets, I think you can call it, from this trip, is that he's told reporters he's not in a rush to find and name a permanent new defense secretary. I'm guessing if I'm one of those troops who feels reassured in a war zone, that might take me back a few steps.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Exactly. I mean, the resignation, the departure of Jim Mattis is something that has really alarmed congressional Republicans, particularly those in the Senate.

And related to that, I thought what the president said in Iraq about why he decided to withdraw the troops from Syria, very fascinating. When he says it's not fair the U.S. has to carry the burden, we can't be the policeman of the world. I mean, that is precisely his world view, and that shouldn't be a surprise to us. But it is something that Republicans by and large on Capitol Hill do not agree with. I mean, his decision to withdraw troops from Syria was vehemently opposed by nearly every Senate Republican we've talked to, save perhaps, you know, Rand Paul and a couple of others.

But the fact that he is in no hurry to nominate Mattis' successor is something that should be concerning. I mean, we have people openly lobbying for people such as Heather Wilson to take over. Obviously, Mitch McConnell himself has said he is hoping that the president nominates someone in the mold of Mattis.

But, I mean, out of any cabinet post, the defense secretary is something that is an incredibly important position and goes without saying. And where there should be some stability and we're not quite seeing that.

BASH: Scott?

BOLDEN: We're seeing gaps, if you will.

[16:25:00] So this is not good. You know, when you talk about America being the policeman of the world and that we're not -- we've been the policeman of the world because we've accepted that role since the end of World War II. And so, we invest a whole lot of money. We invest in humanitarian efforts and what have you --

BASH: I just want to say, as you're talking, looks like we're getting our first pictures back of the president and the first lady in Iraq. Keep going.

BOLDEN: Right. So we are the fact that the Republicans were against him pulling out of Syria, against them taking -- pulling back on Mattis, is troublesome, because not because of all of the things that have been said around this table, but because the person that's acting secretary has no military experience, has very limited foreign experience from the private sector. So, it's important on what, who and when he makes that appointment,

because we have these ongoing wars that we're pulling out from Afghanistan and Syria. It's a real problem.

And one of the reasons, with the markets and voters like us, as well as elected officials are concerned about all of this, is because he's doing it all at once. Kind of herky-jerky, if you will, as opposed to thought. I don't mind him being a disrupter. I just don't want him to screw it up while he's disrupting.

What's the game plan, if you will?

CHAREN: Well, that's -- if we had a different kind of man in the Oval Office, people wouldn't be so nervous about Mattis' departure. It's exactly because people are afraid of Trump's instability, that this is so worrying.

BASH: All right. Everybody, stand by. We have a lot more to talk about as we, again, see the first images -- of the president coming in and surprising those troops.

He says that federal workers want him to keep the government closed until he gets his border wall funded. Is that really the case? We'll discuss, next.

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