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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Romney: Haven't Decided Who I'm Endorsing In 2020; Sources: Pentagon Told Trump 120 Days Is Minimum Time Needed To Not Get Everyone Killed; Interview With Utah Senator-Elect Mitt Romney. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 2, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:33:17]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: And we're back with Republican senator-elect of Utah Mitt Romney, only the second person in the history of this nation to have been the governor of one state and the senator of another.

Sam Houston from Texas, you were saying.

MITT ROMNEY (R), UTAH SENATOR-ELECT: Yes.

TAPPER: OK.

So we're in the middle of a government shutdown right now. President Trump is insisting on $5.6 billion for a border wall. Democrats are refusing to give it to him.

Tomorrow, Democrats in the House are going to offer a clean government funding bill, $1.3 billion for border security, not for the wall. The shutdown is now in its 12 day, nearly a million federal workers going without pay.

Do you want the House bill to go to the floor of the Senate, so you can vote on it? What's the path out of this?

ROMNEY: Well, there's the substance, and then there's the symbolism.

And, clearly, if the president were able to get a $5 billion check to build the wall, that would look like a huge win for Republicans and a big loss for Democrats.

And it's very hard to get Democrats to vote for something like that. So there has to be some kind of deal done where the Democrats get something and the Republicans get something. That's the way things are done in Washington. At least that's what I have read...

TAPPER: Right.

ROMNEY: ... about things getting done in Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: I haven't been here long enough to know. But I think that has to happen, or find some other way to get things open again, and then look for some kind of a deal, where, again, both sides get something.

It has to be a win-win. You have a hard time getting a win-lose going through the Senate, where you need a number of Democrat votes to get something to become law.

TAPPER: One of the big problems -- and I suspect that you will discover this as you become a deal-maker in the Senate -- is that President Trump's team will try to negotiate and then they will be undercut by President Trump.

Vice President Pence offered Democrats $2.5 billion for the border wall, and then President Trump -- I don't think the Democrats were going to go for it anyway. But President Trump undercut it. Earlier, Vice President Pence told Republicans in the Senate, just pass a clean funding bill, the president will sign it. And the president didn't sign it.

[16:35:03]

I mean, that's going to be a problem.

ROMNEY: Well, I'm not going to step in and say, OK, here's how the president should negotiate his priorities.

That's something which he's going to do on his own and he's going to do in the way he thinks is most effective. He has his negotiating style. I'm sure other people have theirs.

But I will go back to the basic premise, which is, it has to be win- win. And you go back and look at the history of great pieces of legislation that moved the nation forward, it took Republicans and Democrats coming together to make that happen, unless one party was lucky enough to have 60 votes in the Senate all by itself.

TAPPER: Right.

ROMNEY: And then you could do something like Obamacare. But other than that, you have to come together.

TAPPER: Republican Senator Bob Corker, who is retiring, or has retired, told me a few days ago that this border wall is not about national security; it's about the president trying to look tough politically.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: This is a made-up fight, so the president can look like he's fighting. But, even if he wins, our borders are going to be insecure.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Corker's whole argument was, this entire shutdown is unnecessary, this is not about securing border, this is about the president trying to look tough, and people are now going without paychecks.

ROMNEY: Well, I think it's unfortunate that the government is shut down.

This has an impact, obviously, on a lot of people that aren't getting paychecks, but also a lot of others that are planning on going to a national park, businesses that house people going to national parks. People that are inconvenienced here in Washington that want to get to the Smithsonian will find that closed.

So, it has a big impact. It's very unfortunate. But I think the president is very sincere when he says he wants to secure the border. And how you get there is a real question. It's going to have to be worked out on a bipartisan basis.

But, clearly, we have to have a more secure border. And I think that really should focus on the E-Verify system, which basically penalizes employers if they hire people that are here illegally.

TAPPER: Do you think the shutdown is worth it for the president's border wall?

ROMNEY: Well, he's got to make that own assessment himself.

TAPPER: But what do you think? You now represent people who are not getting paychecks.

ROMNEY: Yes, let me tell you, I would vote for the border wall. I have made that part of my platform for many, many years.

I think we should have a border wall on our southern border, and whether it's a wall or a fence or technology and perhaps in some cases the natural landscape prevents people from coming in easily. But we ought to secure our border.

But that's necessarily, but insufficient. We have to do a lot more in terms of our E-Verify system, in terms of our visa tracking systems and so forth. And we need to make it easier in some respects for people to come here legally and work temporarily and then go home, particularly in the agriculture industry.

In Utah, we rely on a lot of people coming in to harvest crops and so forth. We ought to let that be guided by what the states need, as opposed to what the federal government imposes on them.

TAPPER: You said that you were dismayed by President Trump's decision in December to pull troops out of Syria, which resulted in the resignations of both the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and the special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk.

The president says, we need to get out of these foreign entanglements. And that's what he ran on. Why is he making a mistake? ROMNEY: Well, the reason that we're in involved in the world is to

make the world safer, which is good for the world and good for us, because we trade with places throughout the world.

We sell products throughout the world. People come and go into our various countries, and we share not only culture, but education, technology, innovation. And so having a stable world where we can conduct trade is a very good thing for us and for the world.

And so we're in Syria with a very small footprint, about 2,000 people, to help our allies there, the Kurds and, in some respects, to provide some stability to that region, so that Assad or Erdogan or the Russians or the -- you know, the Iranians don't rush in and slaughter people, slaughter our allies.

So, pulling out on a precipitous basis, without interacting with them and coordinating this with them and getting the input, for instance, from Secretary Mattis is something which I think is very troubling to me and to a number of others.

TAPPER: I hear you on the precipitous nature of it all and not consulting with allies. But what do you make of the general argument that the United States can't be the policemen of the world, and we're now involved in this never-ending war?

We have been in Afghanistan since 2001. It is now -- what year is it, 2019? We're approaching the 18th year of this war. That means that there will be people who were born before 9/11 before long who will be fighting in Afghanistan.

When does it end? What do you tell your constituents when they say, we can't do this forever?

ROMNEY: And the answer is, you can't be everywhere forever. But you do place our troops and our military might in places where hopefully they're not involved in conflict in a kinetic way, but they are able to provide stability in a region, which is good for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.

And, at the same time, it's good for us. And so we're involved in the world. We have hundreds of thousands of fighting men and women. We're not going to have them all just sitting home, hoping nothing happens. No, we actually station them in various places to keep bad things from happening.

[16:40:00]

That's why they're in the DMZ -- or next to the DMZ in South Korea. And that's to make sure that we keep stability there, because we don't want to have someone rush in and create a war, which throws the entire economy and a lot of people into pain.

So, that's one of the reasons we have troops around the world. But are we going to be the policemen? No. But we part of an effort to make sure the world is stable and is that in our interest? Yes, it's in America's interest. It has been our strategy. The Bretton Woods idea was that we would

help encourage free trade throughout the world and stability in the world and that we had the might to be able to do that. That's why we have our aircraft carriers that are going in some of these oceans, is to provide stability. It's good for us, and it's good for the world.

TAPPER: I want to turn to Russia.

The president today said that -- quote -- "The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there" -- unquote.

That's a view of the Soviet invasion that is false. It's just not what happened.

But, beyond that, what do you make of the divide between the president's pro-Putin, pro-Russia rhetoric in many ways versus. his argument that he has done more than Obama in other ways, such as arming the Ukrainians and imposing sanctions? Whether or not he wanted to do it is another matter, but those sanctions are being imposed.

Do you think he is being tougher on the Russians, as tough as you want him to be?

ROMNEY: Well, I think it's important to be clear-eyed with regards to Vladimir Putin.

And Russia has a real problem. Their population is shrinking. Their work force is shrinking. John McCain used to say that they are a gas station parading as a country. And they're in trouble.

And, as a result, Putin is looking around for how he can get more population and get more of an economic industrial base. And so he's looking at the former satellite states of the Soviet Union.

And America has to make it very, very clear in our communication and in the things we do that that is unacceptable to us and to the world, that he can't go invading other nations.

There's -- since World War II, there's only one major power that's been invading neighbors. And that's been that's been Russia going into Georgia, going into Ukraine. And this is simply unacceptable.

I think that President Obama didn't handle it as well as he could have. And I think it's very important for this president to make it clear to Vladimir Putin, we will not accept forays and adventures in grabbing a territory and population from sovereign nations around Russia.

TAPPER: You wish he was tougher on Russia than he's been?

ROMNEY: You know, I'm going to call it as I see it with regards to actions that occur.

I would have been, I think, probably inclined to a more aggressive rhetoric opposing Mr. Putin. I think it's important for the leader of the free world to point out that nations that kill members of the media, that do not tolerate dissent are not the nations that we're going to align with, and that Vladimir Putin has been a very unfortunate and awful leader.

TAPPER: Before I let you go, a lot of people out there want to know how you're doing.

You battled prostate cancer not long ago. Obviously, your lovely wife, Ann, has had her issues with multiple sclerosis over the years. How are you two doing? How is your health?

ROMNEY: Well, fortunately, we're doing very, very well, so...

TAPPER: That's not wood. But we will get you some over there.

ROMNEY: Close enough, yes.

We're doing very, very well. And Ann in particular, she keeps very healthy and very strong. And I'm doing just fine as well.

TAPPER: Senator-elect, I hope that you will continue to come here and talk to us. We really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.

ROMNEY: Thanks so much. Thanks.

TAPPER: Appreciate it.

ROMNEY: Thanks. Good to be with you.

TAPPER: We will talk about what we just heard from senator-elect Romney with the panel next day. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Just moments ago, incoming Republican Senator Mitt Romney was here for his first national interview and his first national interview, period since slamming President Trump in an op-ed. He told me he's not yet sold on President Trump's reelection.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), SENATOR-ELECT, UTAH: He was endorsing me I wasn't endorsing him and I haven't decided who I'm going to endorse in 2020. I'm going to wait and see what the alternatives are.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I'm going to wait and see what the alternatives are. Let's chat about this with the panel. Needless to say, Jen Psaki, when you have an incumbent president who is running for re-election, has declared he has -- is running for re-election and you were of that party, that is a bold statement that he hasn't decided whether or not to endorse him. JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure. Well, I will say for Mitt Romney he's very good at reading the political headwinds and following the political weathervane and you know, he's leaving his options open which I think many Republicans are privately as well. So he's saying it publicly and I guess that should be given some credit.

But I mean reading his op-ed, there's not much -- yes Trump doesn't like to be criticized, he's a very sensitive guy, but he's basically saying I'm with you on your policy issues. I'm with you on substance --

TAPPER: Domestic --

PSAKI: -- domestically on the substance of your agenda, the points he talks about in the op-ed. So you know, that's not -- that's a lot of the reason why a lot of Democrats are sort of rolling their eyes about this and -- but he has -- he gets credit or maybe his team gets credit for kind of effectively creating some buzz for him as he's about to get sworn in tomorrow.

TAPPER: What do you think? I mean Republicans -- there are Republicans who don't like what he did as well.

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Look, I don't think there's much news here. I mean the one piece that you mentioned that he isn't endorsing the president for 2020 is maybe a little bit of news, but you know, Mitt Romney in his interview laid out very conventional Republican points of view on a whole variety of issues, some of which the president has departed from on foreign policy.

So I mean, I actually thought it was fairly unremarkable. I mean, not in a bad way, unremarkable. And interview in the sense that Mitt Romney is going to be a Republican and Donald Trump as Mitt Romney and the Republican Party has been for a long time. Donald Trump is changing that and Mitt is -- I think Mitt saying well, I'm not -- I may not be going there with it. And that is -- that's something that is pretty broad-based within the party right now. There is a real struggle and I think Mitt will be with the establishment wing, not the Trump wing, but where there's overlap he'll go along.

[16:50:19] TAPPER: And yet a lot of that establishment wing did not support Donald Trump for president. Cory Gardner, Ben Sasse, Rob Portman, I mean, I don't want to -- I don't want to overstate what Mitt Romney has done, but I mean, if he can't get this of establishment wing onboard for 2020, that is a potential problem for President Trump.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Exactly. What interesting too in the interview is that where he was the most forceful and the most confident was when he was speaking to you about foreign policy and I think that's really where he's going to try to make his mark in the Senate. Sources have told me that he is angling for a spot on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which would naturally give him that platform to talk about Russia, North Korea, particularly if the President shows some signs of cozying up to Russia as he has previously on that issue. But just the whole thing I find pretty remarkable because there is

this time-honored tradition of really high profile incoming senators kind of keeping their head down once they are elected to the Senate. You know Al Franken for instance and --

TAPPER: Hillary Clinton for a while.

KIM: And Hillary Clinton for a while as well. And clearly, Mitt Romney is not taking that.

TAPPER: And take -- and take a listen, Jeremy, to some of the things that incoming Senator Mitt Romney said really bothered him about President Trump's first two years.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: The Charlottesville response by the President was something that gave me great concern. The support for Roy Moore in the Senate race was something I was very, very concerned about. His attack on the media, I wrote an entire piece about that. So I've laid out time and again places where I disagree with the President and I think it's very important for a president to demonstrate the qualities of integrity, and honesty, forthrightness, empathy, and respect for the institutions of our democratic republic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Honesty, integrity, I mean, he -- I think he is saying he's not going to criticize the president every -- for every little tweet but he's going to be a thorn in his side.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, and I think that's what we learned the most about you know, Mitt Romney from this interview is what kind of senator he's going to be? How he is going to respond to the President? He's not going to be Senator Jeff Flake. He's not going to offer the same kind of fiery remarks that we heard from Bob Corker or the late Senator John McCain, but he is going to stake out ground and stake out differences with the President when he thinks it's important and again I think it's on foreign policy in particular where we really heard Senator Romney -- Senator-elect Romney is going to be focused on.

And there is perhaps a void there. There is some space for him to fill you know given Senator McCain's passing, Bob Corker leaving the Senate as well, definitely a space for Romney to make.

TAPPER: And Jeff Flake as well. A lot of the critics are gone. He's clearly emerging in that lane. Thanks one and all for being here. Retired or fired. President Trump changing his story on the departure of former Defense Secretary James Mattis. Plus, the not so slow withdrawal from Syria. What's really happening behind the scenes at the Pentagon? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: In our "WORLD LEAD," you may have noticed that the President went from demanding a 30-day withdrawal from Syria to agreeing to give the Pentagon four months. Tweeting, "We're slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families. Trump allies point to this as a slow down or a pause, but it isn't.

Multiple and foreign sources tell me 120 days is the minimum amount of time it will take to pull out U.S. troops and U.S. equipment, and in the words of one Pentagon official, "not get everyone killed." The President's decision is still causing much concern among top officials of his own government who are concerned about Isis resurging, and as CNN's Barbara Starr reports, this all lands on the desk of the new acting Secretary of Defense.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The first cabinet --

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: On Patrick Shanahan's first day as Acting Defense Secretary, President Trump focused more on the man he just replaced, now former Secretary James Mattis.

TRUMP: But what's he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good. President Obama fired him, and essentially so did I.

STARR: Mattis, however, resigned after having his advice ignored by the President, according to sources directly familiar with Mattis' thinking. Now, Shanahan takes on the burden of figuring out Trump's changing rhetoric on pulling 2,000 ground troops from Syria, which the President described as --

Trump: We're talking about sand and death. That's what we're talking about. We're not talking about, you know, vast wealth. We're talking about sand and death.

STARR: Now the President insisting, he has no specific timetable for pulling troops out.

TRUMP: Over a period of time. I never said I'm getting out tomorrow.

STARR: but in a White House-produced video just last month, Trump was adamant on an immediate troop withdrawal.

TRUMP: They're all coming back and they're coming back now.

STARR: For his part, Shanahan today remained focused on the White House's message about border security.

PATRICK SHANAHAN, ACTING DEFENSE SECRETARY, UNITED STATES: The threat is real. The risks are real. We need to control our borders.

STARR: But commanders say it could take as long as four months to get troops out of Syria safely.

MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: He made the decision first and then started looking for things to either back it up or run contrary to what he thought. That's confusing to not only our allies, but also our foes, and it's especially confusing for the military people. (END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: So did Trump fire Mattis? Well, he did make him leave two months earlier than the secretary had planned, but the secretary had already resigned. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Thank you so much. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER. You can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Welcome back --

END