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Congress Gets Back To Work With Packed Agenda; Divisions Within GOP Raise Questions About Agenda; Trump: Democrats Are "Doing Nothing For DACA"; Iran's Supreme Leader Blames "Enemies" For Protests; Trump: "The U.S. Is Watching" As Iran Protests Intensify. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 2, 2018 - 11:00   ET



ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Ana Cabrera in for Kate Bolduan. A busy start to the new year. It is President Trump's first full day back in Washington and he is facing a packed agenda. He is tweeting away on a slew of different topics this morning on the attack.

First taking new swipes at North Korea's so-called "Rocket Man" and the Iranian regime, two of the countries on top of his international agenda, and on the domestic front, he is vowing yet again to build what he calls the desperately needed wall.

And he's slamming Democrats over DACA, immigration, infrastructure, entitlement reform and keeping the government open, all pressing issues right now. President Trump also taking aim at his own Justice Department again.

Let's go live to CNN's Jeremy Diamond at the White House. And Jeremy, what exactly is the focus for the president right now?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right. Well, the president is beginning his first full day here at the White House of 2018 much the way that he spent 2017, spending much of his morning on Twitter, and one of the tweets that he posted this morning appears to lob a new attack against the Justice Department.

He suggested this morning that the Justice Department is part of the, quote/unquote, "deep state" that he believes is conspiring against him. Of course, in recent months, we've seen him go after top Justice Department officials, top FBI officials and suggest that the FBI's reputation is in tatters.

But that was just one of the many tweets that the president posted this morning. He has a lot on his mind as he's beginning his first full day here of 2018. Also tweeting support for the Iranian people who are protesting, of course, their sixth day of protests in Iran, calling the Iranian regime brutal and corrupt.

He's also tweeted about the North Korea threat, of course, and the possibility of potential negotiations there. So, a lot on the president's mind as he begins 2018. He is also looking towards the fight with Democrats over DACA. He has in the past suggested an openness to negotiating some kind of protected status for the DREAMers who -- the program that he ended a few months back. Here's his tweet that I'll read for you.

"Democrats are doing nothing for DACA. Just interested in politics. DACA activists and Hispanics will go hard against Dems. Will start, quote/unquote, "falling in love" with Republicans and their president. We are about results."

This may be the latest in the president's negotiating tactics as he prepares to enter in those kinds of discussions with Democrats in this new year. So far, there does not appear to be any kind of deal at hand for the DREAMers in this country.

CABRERA: And hopefully, we'll have more on the priorities and get a better sense of the plan of attack as we move forward in the new year from that White House press briefing at 2:00 this afternoon. Jeremy Diamond at the White House for us, thank you.

Congress getting back to work as well this week. They have a lot to do. Not a lot of time to do it. Given it's a midterm election year that makes thing a little more complicated. Divisions within just the Republican Party alone are raising questions about what they can get done on issues like health care, immigration, and safety net programs.

Before any of that happens, lawmakers have until the 19th of this month to approve a budget just to keep the government funded.

Joining us live from Capitol Hill with a closer look at the GOP agenda, is CNN national correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty -- Sunlen.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ana, there certainly are a lot of items on Congress's to-do list here because they left back in December, leaving a lot of major issues left unresolved. First and foremost, as you mentioned, January 19th, that is a major deadline that they are facing right away, once they get back to fund the government, to keep the government open and funded to avoid a government shutdown.

Also adding to the mix, look at this long list, they have to fix DACA, stabilize Obamacare, renew long-term funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, potentially looking at reforming entitlements, that's something that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, at least House side, says he would like to look at this year.

The Senate, they are back tomorrow. The House is back next week. We know that they will start immediately looking at a way to avoid a government shutdown. Congressional leaders are sitting down with top White House aides here on Capitol Hill tomorrow.

And then House -- then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan will head to Camp David this weekend to huddle up about the legislative agenda writ large throughout the year.

But as you smartly mentioned this is an election year now and that changes the political climate substantially. So, that certainly is going to be playing in as well -- Ana.

CABRERA: All right. Sunlen Serfaty, keep us posted. Thanks so much.

Let's talk more about all of this. Joining us CNN contributor and reporter for the "Washington Examiner," Salena Zito, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist, Keith Boykin, and CNN political commentator and former Trump campaign adviser, Jack Kingston.

So, Jack, the president is meeting we know with his secretary of labor today. They want to talk infrastructure. That's what he says he wants to do first in 2018, but there's a long list as we laid out of these must to dos.

First and foremost, keeping the government funded priority, extending the Children's Health Insurance Program. The 7,000 DREAMers who are in limbo right now. Let's not forget, too, the Senate has much tighter math.

[11:05:11] Mitch McConnell's math got a lot harder with Democrat Doug Jones soon to be sworn in. How difficult will it be to get all of this through?

JACK KINGSTON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's going to be very difficult and the Democrats are in a very good position to have a lot of influence on there. I've been in communication with the chairman of the Transportation Committee this morning, Bill Shuster, he is very anxious to get going on an infrastructure bill.

That's a very large committee that has a lot of bipartisan cooperation and I think that if the president is serious about solving all of the above, infrastructure could be the key to get a lot of people on board.

So, I think there's great opportunity there. Certainly, Chairman Schuster is optimistic about the importance of that. Just to come up with so many solutions as the vehicle to get things done.

CABRERA: But a big infrastructure bill is also a big spending bill. Will Republican deficit hawks go for this, especially given the tax reform is supposed to add over a trillion dollars to the deficit according to the experts.

KINGSTON: I think that there will be expenses that people would agree on. For example, you can go with a public/private partnership solution to many cases where you can get people to build roads and bridges if they have an opportunity to share in the revenue.

Certainly, the toll roads around Washington, D.C., are great example of that. But people know that with smart cars and technology and Priuses and the battery-operated cars you can't go through the usual fuel tax to get there.

But I think most people realize that because we have had this debate now for about ten years. You know, also looming out there is a debt ceiling debate. The debt ceiling will be coming due in the spring and I think if they can get to a two-year budget deal, then that might be a good way to deal with that.

The other part of it is the defense bill wants about a $57 billion increase. But with North Korea and Iran and all the other unstable or possible instability in the world today, I think that's going to drive the defense bill and get a lot of Democrats and Republicans at the same position to say let's get this done and let's not dilly-dally around.

CABRERA: Keith, the president is tweeting about another big agenda item, something important to Democrats in particular, and that about the DREAMers, what to do for them. This is what he writes, "Democrats are doing nothing for DACA. Just interested in politics. DACA activists and Hispanics will go hard against Dems. We'll start falling in love with Republicans and their president. We are about results." What's your response?

KEITH BOYKIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is the way on the first business day of the year the president of the United States wants to start, by attacking Democrats over DACA, an issue that he created a big controversy over last year, that we could actually work together on.

That we had a bipartisan agreement that was destroyed by Republicans in the Senate a few years ago under President Obama. So, I don't think this is helpful. This is completely unhelpful and destructive language from the president.

I just want to say something about what Jack Kingston just said a moment ago. It's interesting now Republicans are willing to spend $57 billion more for defense. They are willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars potentially for infrastructure.

They just spent $1.5 trillion on a tax bill for the wealthiest Americans primarily and these are the same people who were supposedly deficit hawks for eight years under President Obama, who were opposed to any kind of infrastructure investment, didn't want to do anything to improve the nation's roads --

CABRERA: You're not buying that's going to have bipartisan support.

BOYKIN: It could but there's just so much hypocrisy there and the Republicans -- if you really want the Democrats to work with you, you have to come with open hands and open heart. Donald Trump attacking the Democrats and the crooked Hillary today and calling out "The New York Times."

And all of a sudden said this is not -- this is divisive rhetoric. This is not what we need from the president of the United States. It's been almost a year now and he still hasn't matured and grown up. It's time for America to move on and start to act like we are adults in this country and for the members of Congress to take the leadership role --

CABRERA: Hold on, Jack. Hold on, Jack. I want to get Salena into this conversation because one thing we have learned in this last year is that the president will continue to play to his base. And so out of that big long list, Salena, you talk a lot with his voters, his most loyal supporters. What's most important to them?

SALENA ZITO, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, I mean, I think the biggest lesson that we should learn from 2016 and beyond is that voters on both sides of the aisle want to see results from Washington. So, I think that the infrastructure bill is incredibly important to voters on both sides of the aisle.

These are job creators, not just because they create jobs when they build things, but also, they make communities more attractive to new businesses if their transportation and infrastructure within their communities are sound and safe and they -- then there are more jobs then created.

[11:10:00] I think that DACA is important to a lot of voters. It's not just important to Democrats. I think Republican voters that I've talked to and independent voters want to see this fixed as well. They look at these kids as children that had nothing to do with their situation and they are, by all means, American.

This is the country that they have lived in the longest. I also think that welfare reform is going to be important or some kinds of entitlement reform, so I will put it on that list. Infrastructure, DACA, and some sort of entitlement reform. That's what voters are looking for.

Whether they're able to get to it is going to be interesting because as you pointed out, Jack, there are not only fractures within the Republican Party, fractures within the Democratic Party, everyone is taking a look at November and they sort of whatever they want to get done, they want to get done by July.

CABRERA: So, Jack, tax reform, obviously a huge victory where Republicans were able to find a sense of unity along with the president. Do you see that as creating momentum for whatever they decide to push for in the weeks ahead or as much -- has much of their political capital been spent?

KINGSTON: Well, absolutely and I think if the speaker is dealing with this effectively, he's going to not lose the momentum that he ended up the year with and say look, guys, we have to build on this. That can't be the high-water mark.

And combing the tax cuts with bringing back overseas money, infusing that in the economy along with the $5 trillion that was gained by the capital markets and the stock market last year, plus low unemployment, I think we're going to have a really strong economy going into the election year and that's going to be the Republicans' best bet.

There's 21 toss up seat, 17 of them belong to Republicans. There's 60 competitive seats, most of those belong to Republicans. So, the Republican Party is going to be spending a lot of money on defense in terms of the election year.

And you got to have a strong economy, you got to have a story to tell about national security, about legislative accomplishments, and if you don't have that, then historically the party in power, the party that controls the White House, is going to lose seats.

CABRERA: Keith, do you agree?

BOYKIN: Well, the economy was strong under President Obama in the last year or so and President Trump just basically, like he does with everything, put his name on it and took credit for what had already been going on.

The longest consecutive job market growth streak in history under way when President Trump took office. Now the numbers that he said were phony and fake last year are suddenly real. So what President Trump is doing is basically trying to take credit for something that's already happened. I think the American people --

CABRERA: He is getting credit though.

BOYKIN: The American people see through it. He's the least popular new president in American history.

CABRERA: That's true. There is a new Gallup poll that shows 68 percent of Americans say the U.S. economy is in good shape. They're optimistic about that piece.

BOYKIN: See, part of what's happening is Democrats knew the economy was actually in better shape when President Trump took over when he said we were in American carnage than the Republicans are willing to admit.

Republicans finally acknowledged it on January 21st, the same thing that Democrats had been saying for the past year, that the unemployment rates were at new lows, we were actually creating jobs. Actually, job growth has declined this year.

We had the lowest job growth in five years under President Trump. He can try to spin and sell all he wants, but the American people know that President Obama deserves more credit than President Trump.

Trump hasn't signed any new major economic legislation until the tax reform bill. The idea he takes credit for something that happened before is preposterous.

CABRERA: He has got a lot of regulations.

BOYKIN: Those regulations don't take effect immediately. People will see through that and they know that the economy is going well before that. I don't see how that's going to be an effective argument for the Republicans and I think, you know, the Democrats won in Atlanta and Alabama and won in Virginia.

They won in New Jersey. They won all across the country in November. They're on a winning streak and won six out of the last seven presidential elections, Democrats have the wind at their back and they have the opportunity to make huge wins and gains in the midterm elections.

CABRERA: Well, we got to leave it there. Even Ari Fleischer, who, of course, the -- the former press secretary for Republican White House is also predicting a blue wave and Salena Zito, I owe you a question next time. Thank you all for joining us, Keith Boykin, Jack Kingston, and Salena Zito.

Coming up, the president's inner circle now calls him a coffee boy, but the former Trump campaign adviser, who is now cooperating with the FBI, apparently had a much larger role. Details ahead.

Plus, the death toll rising in Iran as the regime tries to stamp out growing anti-government protests. Stay with us.



CABRERA: New this morning, President Trump is now accusing President Obama of contributing to terrorism and corruption in Iran. It comes as President Trump again voices support for Iranian protesters saying, quote, "The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.

All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their pockets. The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching." So, it's now day six of these protests. The death toll climbing to at least 21.

CNN's senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is joining us with more details. So, Nick, bring us the latest.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, as you mentioned overnight, it is the near doubling of the death toll that has many concerned, particularly now we are in the sixth day of protests, frankly that nobody really saw coming.

It's the economic and political grievances, perhaps many of the young men on the streets are voicing. They're well known, but nobody really expected to see this many out so wide, so geographically dispersed for quite so long.

While I think we initially saw the moderate President Hassan Rouhani sound sympathetic towards some of those grievances, the economic and political ones, elements of this groundswell, is now asking for the whole system frankly in Iran to be changed.

Sort of managed democracy to some degree, where elections are allowed, but those who contest them are very much controlled by the supreme leader of Iran. We've heard from him today, Ayatollah Khamenei, he doesn't often comment on his country's upheavals at times.

[11:20:05] But clearly the severity of this meant he felt obliged to release statements blaming, quote, "The enemies of Iran for this." The enemy is waiting for an opportunity for a floor through which they can enter, suggesting perhaps the United States or maybe their major regional adversary Saudi Arabia fomenting this protest.

But, Ana, you know, as we edge into the sixth day where there are signs the protest has continued, the question really is how do you calm through negotiation, a protest movement that has no leader, no clear manifesto.

That is just people, seen fomented by social media, getting out there on the streets and expressing their grievances. A very hard question to answer, but I think troubling for many observers today we've seen this move from moderate talk from the government saying we understand you, you have the right to protest.

To perhaps more hardline suggestions that actually outsiders are fomenting this and also suggestions from the security forces they may have to target those responsible. That could lead to troubling hours ahead -- Ana.

CABRERA: We have talked about how this is in some ways similar to 2009 and the Green Movement, but in other ways, different because of how widespread and, in fact, that it's happening in small villages and towns as well.

I had been reading some of the comments from the Iranian leaders saying this, too, shall pass, the movement will be over soon, that the protests are not growing, they are, in fact, starting to get smaller. Do you know what the facts on the ground are there? Is there a sense that this is starting to turn a corner in one way or another?

WALSH: It doesn't appear at this point to be continuing to expand geographically. It started on quite a wide base. It's very different to 2009 in some ways. That was a response to an election result, the protesters didn't like.

That was an organized reform movement that were pushing it through and the response from the authorities was more violence quicker. This is much more unanticipated. It comes after the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani and it comes from angry youth in the working class that hasn't seen their lives change in the way the leader said might occur after sanctions were lifted under the nuclear deal that was supposed to improve the economy.

So, a lot of everyday grievances here and I think what's shaken some people, not a sense of panic perhaps, but confusion, certainly, is this is not -- doesn't fit into this sort of established norms or framework of Iran's controlled political situation.

It's quick, it's new, it's big and they're still dealing with it now six days later. I think many are concerned we might start seeing the measured response from security officials lapse and more repressive measures come into play. That's the broader fair -- Ana.

CABRERA: Nick Paton Walsh, thank you for that update. Joining us now, Kareem, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And we have the president's tweets here. Initially they were, the world is watching, and now he's more focused saying the U.S. is watching. I'm curious if you find that significant, a significant distinction given the history of the U.S./Iranian relationship? KARIM SADJADPOUR, SENIOR FELLOW, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: It's tough to know how much thought President Trump put into that tweet, but I think it's obvious that any time there are protest movements against the government, against a government like Iran whose official slogan is death to America, American politicians are going to want to support that protest movement.

The big question is, what is the most constructive way to do so. I think that the best way to do so rhetorically is with carefully crafted statements of solidarity, but much more important than that is what the U.S. can do, not say. I think that any action which inhibits the regime's ability to repress and censor people is very important.

One important way of doing that I think is to make clear to companies and countries around the world that if they're caught helping Iran repress and censor people they will be sanctioned by the United States.

CABRERA: So, Iranian leaders have responded in an interesting way, acknowledging the economic hardship of their people, and they've been trying to bring some unity by making this argument that their unrest is fueling some kinds of satisfaction among the country's enemies. They've also argued the U.S., U.K., Saudi Arabia, leaders are all waging a proxy war with social media to incite protesters. What does this response by the Iranian government tell you?

SADJADPOUR: Well, the -- always been the long-held response to any protest movements to say it was fomented by outside powers, whether America, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and he's the third longest serving autocrat in the world. He's been supreme leader since 1989.

One of his long-held philosophies of dictatorship is that you never compromise when you're being pressured, when under pressure, because if you take a step back, that's going to project weakness and invite even more pressure.

[11:25:03] So I think we should have no illusions that the supreme leader is going to approach these protesters in a conciliatory fashion. I think in the coming days and weeks, we will see the regime's repressive apparatus to assert themselves much more.

CABRERA: Given the U.S. response so far, which is largely just been words or tweets by the president, I mean, we know there are already strict sanctions in place. President Trump is technically decertified the Iran nuclear deal, so what leverage does the U.S. have at this point to try to insert itself further?

SADJADPOUR: It's true the U.S. has somewhat limited leverage over the actions of the Iranian government, but we do have the power to mobilize so there are other countries around the world with whom we have great partnerships with, whether that's the European Union, India, South Korea, Japan, countries that have strong commercial relations with Iran, to mobilize them to try to deter Iran from cracking down on mass.

As I said earlier, making it clear to companies and countries that if they're caught aiding the Iranian regime's repressive and censorship apparatus there will be consequences in the United States.

CABRERA: Karim Sadjadpour, thank you very much for your analysis.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you.

CABRERA: That so-called coffee boy who may have sparked the entire Russia investigation, is back in the news. We have details on the former Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, and it shows he has a much larger role in all of this than just fetching cups of coffee. That's next.