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Russian TV Spotlights Alleged Spy; Mueller and the Nude Selfie?; Interview With House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer; Trump Threatens to Shut Down Entire Southern Border; Syrian Army Moves on Key City after Trump Withdrawal Decision; Trump Lashes Out at Dems, Threatens to Close Border with Mexico; Dems Repeat Demand for Trump to Endorse Any Deal to End Shutdown Before Approving Money; In Court Filing, Russian Firm Suggests Evidence Collected by Mueller Includes a 'Nude Selfie'. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 28, 2018 - 18:00   ET



JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: As the president refuses to back down from his border wall demand, he can't seem to decide whether to call it a wall, a fence or a bunch of beautiful steel slats. Will the definition matter to Democrats?

Graphic evidence. A new court filing suggests that the special counsel's investigation has turned up a mysterious nude selfie. Could a compromising photo be compromising national security?

And alleged spy revealed. Russian TV devotes an entire program to the story of confessed agent Maria Butina, this as she may soon be free to go public with details of her efforts to infiltrate President Trump's party.

We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, as the shutdown battle is about to enter its second week, President Trump is resorting to a familiar one-two punch of threats and blame.

In a new series of hostile tweets, he's warning that he may close the entire southern border, as he put it, entirely if he doesn't get funding for his wall. The president, forced to cancel his New Year's plans in Florida, is fuming at Democrats, trying to make them and Nancy Pelosi, The Democrats, the shutdown scapegoats.

But Democrats are ready to hit back with the new power they will hold when they take control of the House just six days from now.

This hour, I will talk with the number two House Democrat, Congressman Steny Hoyer. And our correspondents, analysts, they're also standing by.

But, first, let's go to the White House and our CNN White House correspondent, Abby Phillip. Abby, the White House says the president is fully engaged in shutdown negotiations, but clearly he has had time to tweet.


President Trump has been in the White House all week. And while he's been tweeting extensively this morning, the White House hasn't said a whole lot about what he's actually been up to. Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, said he's been in the office and has been making calls.

But there are still no signs that either side is even talking to each other right now. All they are doing at the moment, it seems, is passing the blame.


PHILLIP (voice-over): In a bid to gain the upper hand in negotiations over the government shutdown, President Trump is resorting to old threats, insisting he will close the southern border until he gets this border wall and cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, countries he says have been taking advantage of the U.S. for years.

The president also resurrecting talk of a new migrant caravan forming in Honduras, tweeting: "Word is that a new caravan is forming in Honduras. And they are doing nothing about it" -- though there's no evidence that one is heading for the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump had ramped up talk of the migrant caravans coming from Central America just before the midterm elections, hoping to energize his base.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They got a lot of rough people in those caravans.

PHILLIP: But after the election, mentions of the caravan nearly disappeared. And as recently as this week, the president said the problem had been solved.

TRUMP: The military built some very effective walls for me over the last four weeks on the southern border. And we have held them. We had caravans and people coming up. You have been seeing it. And we stopped them. We stopped them cold.

PHILLIP: The president's threat to pull foreign aid for Central American countries also apparently contradicting his own administration's policy. Just last week, the State Department said the U.S. would continue with strategy of aiding Central American countries through $5.8 billion in public and private investments.

Meantime, as the president's tone on Twitter ratchets up, the White House is dramatically ratcheting down expectations for Trump's biggest campaign promise, turning build the wall...

TRUMP: And we will build the wall. It's not a fence. It's a wall. You just misreported it. We're going to build a wall.

PHILLIP: ... into build the fence.

MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: The president is not willing to give up on the southern barrier. Keep in mind that steel slat fence that he sent the picture, that is the ideal border barrier. It's what CBP wants. It's what everybody says will actually do the job best. So we're not giving up on that. It's why the government is closed.

PHILLIP: White House aides taking their lead from the president, who has been eager to rebrand his wall.

TRUMP: I can tell you, it's not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they'd like to call it. I will call it whatever they want. But it's all the same thing.

PHILLIP: All of this as the White House seeks to drive a wedge between House and Senate Democrats, fixating on Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's bid to be House speaker, which Trump aides now say is at risk if she strikes a deal with Trump over the border wall.

MULVANEY: The vice president and I met with Leader Schumer last Saturday, the last time we sat down face to face. And my gut was that he was really interested in doing a deal, in coming to some sort of compromise. But the more we're hearing this week is that it's Nancy Pelosi preventing that from happening.

PHILLIP: But as the blame game gets hotter in Washington, a new crisis is unfolding, two migrant children now dying in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen traveling to the border Friday to meet with health officials and Border Patrol agents, the visit coming as CNN has learned an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy who died on Christmas in CBP custody had contracted the flu.



PHILLIP: And with the exception of a surprise trip to Iraq to visit troops, the president has canceled his travel plans for the holidays, leaving most of his family down in Florida for Mar-a-Lago, where he had planned to spend New Year's Eve.

That club has a $1,000-a-head ticket event that he typically goes to every year. But the White House has said he will remain in the White House until January 1. But what that also means for federal workers is that there seems to be no end in sight to this government shutdown, entering its seventh day -- Jim.

ACOSTA: OK, Abby Phillip, thank you very much.

Tonight, 800,000 federal workers are either on furlough or working without pay, and they're likely to feel the pain for days to come, as the shutdown drags on.

CNN congressional corresponding Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill.

Phil, where do the negotiations stand right now? It doesn't sound like they're making any progress.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they're at a complete standstill.

Look, Congress is out of session. Negotiations at the highest levels are essentially stalled. And for the most part, everybody, both here on Capitol Hill and down the street on Pennsylvania Avenue, is looking towards late next week for the first action of any kind.

Now, that is when House Democrats will take the majority, and incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made clear they will move quickly, likely right after members are sworn in, to start sending proposals to reopen the government over to the Senate.

Now, they're considering multiple, including one option the Senate has already passed unanimously, to reopen the government until February 8. But the reality right now is, there is no guarantee the Senate is going to move on any of those.

Remember, it's still controlled by Republicans. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear he's not planning to move forward on anything until the president signs off. And that basically takes us, Jim, back to where we have been for days.

Both sides are entrenched. Democrats clearly feel like they not only have the political upper hand, but are very steady in their current position. And that is no border wall at all. The president, he has not budged either.

And so that leaves the main question is, given the furloughs, given the federal workers that won't be getting paid, particularly on January 11, the next day period, is there any resolution insight if nobody's willing to budge? The short answer appears to be no. The bigger question right now is, what is the pathway out of this?

And if nothing changes anytime soon, frankly, the shutdown is probably just going to continue, Jim.

ACOSTA: OK. That is not good news for all those federal workers out there looking for some relief. Phil Mattingly, thank you very much.

We have breaking news right now. House Republicans, in their last days of being in the majority, are issuing another broadside, criticizing federal investigators, accusing them of going too easy on Hillary Clinton's e-mails and too hard on Donald Trump's campaign and Russia.

Let's bring in Sara Murray.

Sara, what are you hearing at this hour? SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, we are

getting these letters from these House Republicans in which they're basically saying they are wrapping up their investigation.

Obviously, we know Democrats are about to take over in the new year, and they're reiterating a lot of the complaints we have heard from Republicans in the House before about the way Comey handled the decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton over her e-mails.

They rehashed their concerns about political bias from Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, those FBI officers who exchanged text messages where they were very critical of Donald Trump. And they said they're concerned that there may have been some abuse to the FISA process, to potentially surveilling people surrounding Donald Trump's campaign.

Now, they're calling on a special counsel to investigate the way that the Russia investigation was started and was handled and the way the Hillary Clinton investigation was handled. And, like you said, they basically think that the Justice Department went too easy on Hillary Clinton and too hard on Donald Trump and the Russians.

And they have a sort of interesting reason for why they think it's so important for there to be another outside counsel investigating this. They're saying that there's no effort to try to discredit the special counsel. In fact, it's the opposite.

In this report, they say: "Whatever product is produced by the special counsel must be trusted by Americans. And that requires asking tough, but fair questions about investigative techniques both employed and not employed."

Now, they put this letter out to Mitch McConnell, to Attorney General -- acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, as well as the inspector general at the Justice Department. And, Jim, it's worth noting that the inspector general at the Justice Department is already looking into a number of these issues.

And so it may not be very likely that we see this special counsel that House Republicans are hoping for.

ACOSTA: OK, Sara Murray, thank you for that update. And we will get back to you for more on the Russia investigation coming up ahead.

But, first, let's get reaction to all of this from a major player in Congress.

Joining me now is the second highest ranking Democrat in the House, Congressman Steny Hoyer.

Congressman, thanks for joining us. We appreciate it. Happy holidays to you.


ACOSTA: Your conclusion to... HOYER: It's not a very happy holiday, unfortunately, for so many of our federal employees and for so many people who do business with the government.

I just had a meeting with a representative of federal employees and representatives of the small business people doing business with the government, and they are traumatized and very worried about their situation.

ACOSTA: And I know you're very worried about it.


ACOSTA: A lot of them are your constituents. We will get to that in just a moment.

But I want to get your reaction first to this conclusion reached in this Republican-led review of what happened in the Hillary Clinton investigation, what happened at the beginning of the Russia investigation, a lot of this directed at the former FBI director, of course, Jim Comey, and so on.


What is your reaction to that, essentially that your colleagues, Trey Gowdy on the House Oversight Committee, Bob Goodlatte on the Judiciary Committee, are both saying they were too tough on Donald Trump, not tough enough on Hillary Clinton?

HOYER: It's ironic, and they must have amnesia, because they conducted some eight investigations just about Benghazi, and they came up -- these are Republican-led, Republican-chaired Republican majorities, and they came up with the same conclusion. There was no fire there.

They made a lot of smoke, but there was no fire, so that when they are now, as they leave positions of power, saying that not enough was done, well, they had the opportunity to do it. Why didn't they do it? Why didn't they move forward?

They controlled the House, the Senate and the presidency. So it's a little ironic that now, sort of like that fish that keeps flapping after you have caught it and put it in the bottom of the boat, it seems to me, but it's unfortunate that we can't have a more positive start of the new year than that.

ACOSTA: Well, it seems there's a lot of flailing going around on the government shutdown as well.

As you know, Congressman, the House has unable -- been able to come up with a compromise with the Senate and the White House. The White House trying to shift the blame over to Nancy Pelosi, as you saw, the incoming speaker, saying she's refusing to negotiate until she secures the speakership.

Mick Mulvaney, the budget director and the incoming White House chief of staff, was saying that it's because she doesn't have the votes over there.

What is your response to that accusation?

HOYER: Well, it's -- he's inaccurate.

Now, Mick Mulvaney is somebody who not only voted to shut the government down in 2013. He then voted against his own speaker, Speaker Boehner, Republican speaker, and refused to vote to open it up.

Now, we opened it up because we had a minority Republicans and all Democrats that voted, so we had the majority. But my answer to that is, look, you had a deal here. We weren't flapping around. We had an understanding. The Senate passed a bill. They passed that bill on the understand that the president of the United States would sign that bill.

And every Democrat would have voted for that bill, except for the fact Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, would not put it on the floor. So we got no opportunity to vote on that bill.

And it will not surprise anyone that Paul Ryan was one of those with Mick Mulvaney that voted against opening up the government. It is a strategy that they have employed over the years, whether it was for education funding, eliminating the Affordable Care Act, or getting a wall that the overwhelming majority of American public thinks is a bad idea.

So, we're not flailing. We have the votes in the House, in my opinion, and they obviously had the unanimous vote in the Senate on a proposal that Mitch McConnell put forward. It's a shame that it wasn't put on the floor. If so, the government would be open.

Of course, that accepts the premise that the president would have done what he told the Senate he was prepared to do. But he changed his mind. And that's -- it's tough to deal with a president who on an hourly basis changes his mind.

ACOSTA: Well, let me ask you this, because you mentioned earlier all of your constituents who are dealing with this, federal workers who are dealing with the shutdown and facing the prospect of working without pay or not -- not working at all in some cases.

And Senator Jeff Flake, who was just on our air in the last hour, predicted that this shutdown could last until the middle of January, which I haven't really heard people make that kind of prediction.

Could it really last that long? And what is going to be done about all these federal workers who are going to be basically without pay for that one?

HOYER: Well, as you know, I'm going to be the majority leader of the House as of January 3. And I intend to put a bill on the floor on January 3 that, if the Senate approves it and the president signs it, will open government. And it will agree to all of the bills that are Republican bills. These are not our bills. When we talk about compromise, we are prepared to vote for the Republican bills that passed the Senate committee, passed the Senate. There have been conferencing on those bills. We're prepared to pass those, send them to the Senate.

And then I think the Senate ought to pass them and send them to the president. And he will have a decision.

ACOSTA: But if it doesn't have any wall money, he's not going to sign that, right? He's not -- he's just not going to do it.


HOYER: But then...

ACOSTA: He will veto it.

HOYER: That's not compromise. That's not working together to accomplish an objective.

And, very frankly, he made a promise that was an ill-informed, ill- advised promise. And he said the Mexican people were going to pay for it. That was baloney. Hey he should have known it was baloney.

We don't believe the wall is a good technology. The American people don't think it's a good technology. There are other ways to keep our borders secure. We're prepared to discuss those.


And, in fact, over the last 10 years, there have been very, very substantial increases in border security.

ACOSTA: And could he get a fence, though? If he's coming down from his wall, maybe he will settle for a fence or steel slats. Could you give him steel slats?


HOYER: I don't want to negotiate on television with you. And we have the four principals negotiating, speaker-to-be Pelosi, who's going to be reelected on January 3 as speaker of the House, Mr. Schumer, Mr. McConnell, and, at that point in time, I suppose Mr. McCarthy.

But -- so I'm not going to go negotiate here. But we are for keeping our borders secure. We're for keeping America safe. We're for keeping Americans safe.

And the misrepresentations of the president on a regular daily basis as to who's coming into this country should not confuse the American people. In fact, he says these are terrorists. We have had no terrorist act from somebody coming across our southern border.

Does that mean that we don't want to make sure that we know who's coming into our country? Of course not. We want to have secure borders. But the wall is not an option. We have -- we have made that very clear.

But we have also made it clear we're prepared to vote for the Republican bills that the Senate sent to us unanimously.

ACOSTA: Let me ask you something else on the Russia investigation.

New job postings have been shown, and it appears to show House Democrats are looking for lawyers with one posting, seeking executive branch, investigative counsel experience.

It sounds like you're gearing up for battle on the Russia investigation, for these various investigations that are going to be launched when you come into power in the House. How is this hiring process going and how do you prevent this from just becoming a big circus with investigations going on everywhere?

HOYER: Well, hopefully, you will help on that regard, because we intend to pursue a lot of substance. We want to pursue making sure that American people have health care, that their drug costs are affordable for them.

We want to make sure their jobs pay well, and they have access to good jobs and good wages. We want to make sure that we have a government that is above-board, transparent, honest and serving the people's interest, not the special interest.

We hope you will cover that. Yes, there will be some oversight. The Congress under the Constitution has the responsibility to make sure that the administration is acting in a way that is consistent with the law and with the policies established by Congress.

But we're going to be pursuing a lot of substance. We want to make sure the Violence Against Women Act gets passed. We want to make sure the DACA and TPS individuals, those with temporary protective status, are in fact protected.

We want to make sure that education is a high priority for us.

ACOSTA: Will Russia hearings be on camera? Will they be on TV? Will there be Russia hearings on TV?

HOYER: Well, I would think that is up to probably the TV stations. But I would think that we're going to be open. And if the TV stations want to cover oversight hearings as to what happened in terms of Russia trying to compromise our democracy, our election, for whatever reasons, then I think it will be on television, and properly so ,to let the American people know what happened.

ACOSTA: And finally, sir...

HOYER: Unfortunately -- let me just add, unfortunately, over the last two years, a Republican-led Congress that had so much energy to investigate and oversee that the Obama administration lost that hunger for doing so when their -- when President Obama became president -- excuse me -- when President Trump became...


ACOSTA: I understand, yes.


ACOSTA: Let me just quickly end on this.

You put out a new statement announcing that the North Carolina Republican Mark Harris will not be seated on January 3, citing -- and this is a quote -- "the now well-documented election fraud that took place in the 9th District in North Carolina."

Why are you speaking out about this now?

HOYER: Well, because we're about to take over.

And, of course, he was elected not in a special election. But this issue will come up on January 3, when the swearing-in ceremony occurs. To my knowledge, he has -- his election has not been certified. And in light of that, and in light of the fact that so many Republicans in North Carolina admit and observe that there was fraud obviously conducted in the general election in North Carolina in that district, that he should not be seated unless the cloud is lifted.

As you know, this is in a court case that's continuing to go on to determine what happened and what effect it had on the election.

My own view is, we probably ought to redo the general election, because there wasn't...


ACOSTA: So, the folks there in that district will just be going without a congressperson, without a representative in Congress for a while, it sounds like.


HOYER: Well, you know, the Republican governor in Michigan, when John Conyers left the Congress, left it open for like five or six or seven months.

So, that's not unusual.

ACOSTA: All right, Congressman Steny Hoyer, thank you very much. Happy holidays. Happy new year. And thanks for coming on.

HOYER: Thank you.

ACOSTA: We appreciate it. Thank you, sir.

HOYER: Good to be with you. Bye-bye.

ACOSTA: All right.

Just ahead: the Russia investigation laid bare. Has a nude selfie been uncovered by Robert Mueller's team?

And the Supreme Court gets involved in the special counsel's mystery case -- you have heard about this -- involving a company owned by a foreign government. Will the secrets in that case be revealed?



ACOSTA: Tonight, a strange twist in the Russia investigation.

A new court filing suggests a nude selfie is among the evidence collected by the special counsel.

CNN political correspondent Sara Murray is back with us.

Sara, this is not exactly material we want to cover or enjoy covering, but it's something that is very interesting about this case. And it may have some implications on all this.

MURRAY: Yes. Doesn't it seem fitting that the only -- the only thing missing from the special counsel's investigation was a nude selfie.

ACOSTA: And here we have one.

MURRAY: Here we have one.

So, Concord Management, which is Russian company, has claimed that a nude selfie is part of the information the special counsel has put together for the evidence they have collected. And this is all part of this lawsuit against these Russian troll farms. They say Concord Management was part of this Russian attempt to try to influence Americans over social media through political propaganda.

And Concord Management is responding and saying, you know, what does a nude selfie have to do with anything? Why are you trying to protect this evidence? They want to get their hands on it. The special counsel team does not want them to get their hands on this evidence.

They want to share it secretly with the judge without sharing it with Concord, because they say, look, your executives have ties to the Kremlin. We don't want this information or the way we collected it getting back to Putin or his inner circle.

This is just one of the things that is keeping special counsel Robert Mueller very busy. The other thing that's happening is, we have this secret grand jury sort of investigation that's been going on. It's a foreign-owned -- foreign government-owned company that's trying to fight a grand jury subpoena that is seemingly related to the special counsel's case.

But what's interesting now is, this is the first time the Supreme Court maybe weighing in on an investigation related to Robert Mueller. It's gone up to them. And now the Supreme Court has to decide whether or not they're going to intervene in this case. They're expected -- the government is expected to make its argument, its brief, to the Supreme Court next week.

Now, whether they will intervene or not, we don't know. It would be very odd for them to take a sealed case like this. And it means, if they do take it, it's possible we could get an inkling on who this actually involves.

ACOSTA: And the alleged spy Maria Butina, she remains behind bars here in the U.S. But her case continues to garner a lot of attention back in Russia.

I noticed the Twitter avatar for the Foreign Ministry in Russia has her picture up. "Free Maria," it says, and so on. And then Russia TV aired this hour-long special on Maria Butina last...

MURRAY: They did a whole -- this whole documentary on her.

I think one of the big questions is sort of how she might eventually be received when she returns to Russia. And, obviously, there is a lot of interest, as you say. When she's actually going to go back, though, is a big question. She's still cooperating with investigators. They haven't set a sentencing date in her case.

And, Jim, as we have talked about before, one of the things she's cooperating about, awkwardly enough, is her boyfriend, an American, Paul Erickson, who may end up facing some charges related to this sort of conspiracy that she was carrying out.

So, like you said, she's pleading guilty and now she's cooperating, and we wait to see when she will be sentenced. And as part of that sentencing, of course, she could be sent back to Russia.

ACOSTA: And becoming something of a cult figure back in her home country.

MURRAY: Absolutely.

ACOSTA: Very strange, interesting stuff.

OK, Sara Murray, thank you very much.

Just ahead: Is President Trump serious about closing the southern border, or is it all bluster aimed at getting his border wall?

Our experts will weigh in on that.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Tonight, a week after -- a week after partial paralysis of the federal government, President Trump is threatening another kind of shutdown, this time on the U.S. border with Mexico. He's been posting tweets and pointing fingers, trying to deflect from his prominent role in the fight over funding his border wall.

[18:33:12] Let's bring in our analysts to talk about this. And David Swerdlick, we heard from Jeff Flake last hour where he was saying that this government shutdown could last into the second week of January. Could it stretch into the middle of January? That's a lot longer than I think a lot of people expected here in Washington.

But you have the White House continuing to do and the president continuing to do what we've seen over the last week or so, which is trying to shift the blame from themselves over to Nancy Pelosi.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, it is, Jim, longer than a lot of people expected. If you go back to January of this year, everyone was sort of girding for a big fight on the Hill, and then Democrats pretty quickly folded up their tent and just moved on from their shutdown threat.

This time, though, I think Democrats, knowing that they're coming into control of the House starting next Thursday, are going to take a little bit of a stand. There's political peril. At some point you don't want it to go as long as the '95, '96 shutdown face-off between the Clinton White House and Speaker Gingrich which lasted almost a month.

But at this point, I think Democrats still feel like they're in the driver's seat. They've got that footage of the president saying he takes ownership of the shutdown; and they know that the president needs to get something on his wall, at least in his mind, to prove to his voters that he's keeping a promise.

ACOSTA: And Steny Hoyer was saying earlier this hour this is going to be very painful for a lot of people in his district and for federal workers all over the country.

Sam Vinograd, the president today also threatened to shut down the entire southern border if he doesn't get his wall, cut off aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. From a national security standpoint, what are the implications --


ACOSTA: -- if something like that happens?

VINOGRAD: -- on his tweet about cutting off foreign assistance to these countries, which are called the Northern Triangle, he's either lying or making another major foreign policy announcement by tweet. His own State Department and his own vice president actually announced ongoing foreign assistance to these countries several weeks ago, and the State Department's, on December 18, announced ongoing assistance as well. So again, he's either lying or he's making a change of course.

[18:35:11] Now, the president may want to rule by fiat, but the truth is we have laws in this country. And legally speaking, the ability to shut down the southern border of the United States doesn't legally hold water, even if you could post sentries all along those 1,200 or so miles.

There are American citizens on the Mexican side of the border that have the legal right to enter the United States. There are visas that grant people on the other side of the border the right to enter the United States. So from any standpoint, he can't do this.

He likes to play the national security card. He used it on things like tariffs. He's doing it again, and it just does not hold water.

ACOSTA: And Shawn Turner, the president has been adamant in the past that it must be a wall. It is striking that he is -- he's kind of come down off that position to a fence or steel slats. Let's listen to the president back in 2017.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On the fence, it's not a fence; it's a wall. You just misreported it. We're going to build a wall.


ACOSTA: So he says, we're going to build a wall; it's not a fence. He accused us of misreporting it, or somebody in the press who was at that press conference that day, of misreporting it. But yet it seems he may go for a fence or some kind of steel slat structure or something like that.

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, I think it is interesting to see how it evolved over the time. We have the president going from a wall where we were actually talking about the specifications of the wall and what it would be able to do in terms of keeping people out.

ACOSTA: Yes, there are prototypes on the border. Remember the prototypes.

TURNER: Yes, we talked about how deep it would go into the ground. Now we're talking about a fence. We're seeing language like a border structure or a -- other terms that are being used.

The fact of the patter is that the real answer here is that we need physical -- we need security, and we need comprehensive immigration reform. Those are the two parts.

And with regard to physical security, the idea here that we would build a wall or a fence or some sort of structure across the entire border simply does not do what we need it to do in order to prevent people from coming into this country illegally.

People are not going to get to the wall on the southern side and simply say, "Oh, there's a fence here. I'm going to turn around and go the other way." You're going to have a number of things happen. You're going to have a cottage industry that's going to grow up that's going to serve the purpose of figuring out how to defeat the fence, and there won't be a lot to that.

You're also going to have issues with people who are going to get to this structure, and you're going to have humanitarian issues on the side of this wall where people are trying to get into this country. There will be a number of issues. There will be people that need to patrol this wall.

So there are a number of issues that I think the administration is not thinking about with regard to what it means to actually put up a border and not have the people and the resources to actually manage that wall.

ACOSTA: And Sara -- yes.

SWERDLICK: One quick point just to follow up on Shawn. I think part of the problem, at least with the way the president is communicating, is that this is not about the building materials or whether there's space between slats. There's a fundamental philosophical difference between the parties. And the president hasn't yet, at least publicly, offered the Democrats anything that they want in return for even considering giving him some of his wall funding.

ACOSTA: And Sara Murray, speaking of the shutdown, I mean, there's one aspect of the federal government that won't be shut down in all this, and that's the Russia investigation. The president, at least in this point, isn't in the mood to shut that one down just yet.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, it soldiers on. It soldiers on. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team is still working, although they have asked for some of their upcoming litigations to be paused. A judge had recently said that was not going to happen here in D.C.

And this is a case involving Jerome Corsi. He's an author; he's a conspiracy theorist. He decided to bring a lawsuit against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, saying he's being unfairly targeted, saying his electronic records, his phone have been unconstitutionally searched. So the hearing that's set for next week is still going to go on. We will see how Corsi and his legal team fare.

It is also worth pointing out that in previous interviews, Corsi has said he willingly handed all of this information over and was very cooperative to the special counsel's team. Now his tune is changing.

ACOSTA: Among the federal workers in Washington on the job next week, Robert Mueller's investigators.


ACOSTA: OK. Stand by, we're going to talk about more of this coming up in just a few moments.

Speaking of Robert Mueller and his mystery case we've all been wondering about recently, as he faces a new deadline, and the U.S. Supreme Court as Sara Murray was talking about. Will some of the secrets be revealed in all this?


[18:43:52] ACOSTA: And we're back with our analysts and new developments in the Russia investigation, including a claim that the special counsel has collected a -- what they're calling a nude selfie as evidence.

Let me go to you first, Sam Vinograd, on this. And my apologies setting it up and bringing this to you, but the company in this filing, Concord Management and Catering, as we were discussing during the break, is a Russian company with an American sounding name, is using that selfie to argue that there's no national security reason; it shouldn't be able to see this piece of discovery on the part of the Mueller investigation. What do you make of that argument?

VINOGRAD: Well, as Sara said earlier, this is a company led by a guy who has close ties to Vladimir Putin and that has been deeply involved in psychological operations and information warfare against the United States. This nude selfie could fall into that category. We don't know.

The issue here is that this is not just a normal piece of evidence. If the special counsel is making the claim that this is sensitive or, in some way, classified, we have to assume that its release, whether to Concord Management or more generally, would do damage to U.S. national security. That is why the label sensitive or any classification is put on it.

That could mean that its exposure could endanger sources and methods, intelligence sources and methods with respect to how this was collected.


But Jim, it could also mean that the actual subject of this nude selfie -- and there are a lot of people I hope are not on that list -- it's -- releasing this nude selfie to the Russians could itself do damage to national security because of who the selfie is.

So, the major lesson is be careful who you take nude selfies with. More general, sensitive information as part of a special counsel investigation or any other national security manner, its release could endanger national security.

ACOSTA: An important public service announcement right before New Year's on the selfie front. Thanks for sharing that.

Shawn, let me ask you, in a normal case this discovery would be shared. I mean, both sides would have access to the material if it's going to be germane to the case.

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, exactly, but it is certainly not a normal case. Look, I think it is unlikely that this company is going to get access to this information. As it's been pointed out, this is a Russian that's been indicted for funding election interference operations here in the United States.

I think that this company is holding up the nude selfie figuratively as a way of suggesting that it is ridiculous that Mueller wouldn't give access to this information under normal procedure. But it is the case, that if there's classified information here, if there's sensitive information that Mueller has every right to go to the judge and say we want to protect this information. I always think that with regard to just what this company has done in the past and who this company is associated with, as Sam was pointed out, it is just really unlikely this is going to happen. It is somewhat of a gimmick.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think to Sean's point, they're not just trying to say we should get access to the data, they're saying the entire case is make believe, there's nothing here. They are seizing on apparently a nude selfie in what is terabytes of data. So, you know, one -- but that is one very small piece. Let's hope it is not terabytes of nude selfies, no reason to think that's the case. But --

ACOSTA: But they're seizing on this for PR reasons?

MURRAY: Yes. It is a company they're saying was involved in a scheme to mislead American voters and to provide propaganda and that seems to be one of the tactics they're embracing in their court filing, is to be as colorful as possible to try to discredit the investigation more broadly.

ACOSTA: And, David Swerdlick, are people across Washington going to worry about the selfie do you think?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, to Sam's point, if you don't take nude selfies --

ACOSTA: I don't want to see it, yes.

SWERDLICK: -- you won't have to worry about this, Washington.

But, look, I think just a quick point. I agree with what everybody else has said. The lawyers for Concord, this Russian company, is going to have an uphill climb demonstrating that in a case that potentially involves conspiracy against the United States that they should have this access to this one selfie amid terabytes of data if, in fact, there's a national security implication of any kind related to this selfie.

I'd like to see that argument made, and I would like to see exactly what the judge has to say about it.

ACOSTA: Even if you don't want to see the selfie or we don't want to see the selfie?

SWERDLICK: Let's hope we don't have to look at nude selfies.

ACOSTA: All right. Very good. OK. Thanks very much, everybody. I appreciate it.

Just ahead, new military advances by the Assad regime in Syria as an ally of the U.S. maybe feeling abandoned by President Trump. Is this what critics of the president's decision to withdraw from Syria were afraid of?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:52:48] ACOSTA: Tonight, new evidence that President Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria is giving encouragement to U.S. adversaries. The Syrian army is now making advances on a key northern city after the Kurds who have been allied with the U.S. asked for protection. It's being welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin as he met with Security Council on Syria.

Let's bring in our CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are you hearing about the situation in northern Syria tonight? It sounds like things are changing.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it just couldn't be more complicated because tonight, there's now serious uncertainty for dozens of U.S. troops stationed in that area.


STARR (voice-over): Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces are on the move, headed to the northern city of Manbij, where U.S. forces have been on patrol, trying to bring stability and keep Turkey and local forces from erupting into all out war. Syrian troops are now just outside the city poised to enter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The civilians, they are so scared, they are worried about the future for the city, what will happen.

STARR: This is one of the contested areas that U.S. troops will be pulling out of as part of President Trump's withdrawal order. For now, troops are staying put but one defense official says the situation could change on a moment's notice.

The concern, U.S. troops will be face-to-face with Assad's Russian backed forces and no one can predict what might happen. These images allegedly show the Syrian army already hoisting the country's flag in northern Syria. Syrian generals claiming they are inside the city.

UNIDENTIFIED SYRIAN GENERAL (through translator): The general command of army and armed forces announces the entry of units of the Syrian Arab army to Manbij, and raising the Syrian republic flag in it.

STARR: The U.S.-led coalition tweeting that everything is just fine. There's still no indication Syrian forces are in Manbij.

The city once used by ISIS to bring in foreign fighters is now mostly in the hands of locals, allied with U.S. backed Kurdish fighters that booted ISIS out.

[18:55:02] The Kurds may now be forced to seek protection from an Assad regime that has gassed its own citizens in order to protect themselves from a Turkish invasion when the U.S. leaves. It's all putting these American forces at the very center of what could go wrong with President Trump's decision to quickly pull out more than 2,000 U.S. ground troops from Syria.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our presence in Syria was not open ended and never intended to be permanent.

STARR: For incoming acting secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, it could mean a tough decision in the coming days.

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Where the United States has been in place, it's either abandoned and then ISIS takes it over or Assad's forces take it over or the Turks come in, and the United States has got to get out of town, or they put themselves at increased risk.


STARR: Now, the Pentagon insists the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria will be orderly and as safe as can be. But as always, adversaries get a vote -- Jim.

ACOSTA: All right. Barbara, stand by.

Now, let's bring in CNN global affairs correspondent.

Elise, this sounds exactly what critics of President Trump's move to pull out of Syria were talking about, what they're worrying about. The U.S. leaves, a vacuum is created and all of these adversaries come rushing in.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Well, clearly, after this announcement, the Kurds who the U.S. was their sole backer felt abandoned. They are cutting a deal with Bashar al- Assad and this is the leading indicator of what every one feared which is a free for all in what was once the most stable part of Syria after it was an ISIS strongholds. That's because of the cooperation between the U.S. and the Kurds.

Now, the Kurds cut a deal with Assad, leading them free to go against Turkey. There could be a real bloodbath there. Russia and Iran are going to continue to move in. And I think this is really going to be more stable in the north that could really hurt Iraq as the government is starting to stand up. So, I think the dominos are really going to start falling right now.

ACOSTA: And, Elise, what does the message that it sent out to the rest of the world? Here we are two years into the Trump administration with the Syria withdrawal, the Afghanistan drawdown is coming. Are we finally seeing -- we're seeing the president delivering on this promise he made during the campaign of disengagement but it doesn't sound like a lot of consideration has been given to the consequences of that disengagement.

LABOTT: Well, clearly, the president is making good on those campaign pledges but as Barbara is saying, it makes it more complicated for the U.S. when these decisions aren't made carefully, deliberative, in consultation with allies and partners and the countries involved. And, you know, you don't have really the president listening to his advisers. You have John Bolton who just announced he's going to be going out to Syria, not Syria, excuse me, to Turkey and Israel, to talk about the situation in Syria as U.S. troops withdraw. But I think --

ACOSTA: He said something along the lines we'll talk about what's next in fight against ISIS.

LABOTT: Exactly. But I think what's really concerning to allies is that the U.S. is, you know, not necessarily seen as a reliable partner. Now, you see the Kurds going to Syria. They'll be going to the Russias, Irans, Chinas of the world.

The problem is, Jim, when the U.S. doesn't lead, the rest of the world doesn't follow. And it's hard for the West and other nations to kind of pick up the slack. But those adversaries are really looking for those vacuums and pickup. So, it's not just about America first, it's about America's whole role in the world and what it means about American leadership, which I think is concerning to our allies.

ACOSTA: They're not saying America first. They're saying, where is America, in some cases.

LABOTT: Exactly.

ACOSTA: And, Barbara, what do you know about the timeline for the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria? How quickly -- because we saw in John Bolton tweet earlier today, he was saying, well, we talk about what's next in the fight against ISIS in Syria, as if that fight is not over, despite what the president about them being decimated and defeated and not silly and so on?

STARR: Yes. Well, you know, the Pentagon wants to take all due time to remove U.S. forces because of the concern about the safety of them and to get them out in that orderly fashion. The question tonight is whether that will be enough time of stability to do that before you see some of these other actors move into the region, the Russians, the regime, the Iranian-backed militias.

So, this is going to get very dicey as the days and weeks go on. One of the big questions tonight is, will the U.S. actually try and go to the Kurds and take back the weapons that they had given them. That is supposed to make Turkey feel better. But practically on the battlefield, I don't know a military person that will tell you that's a viable option. U.S. troops will pack and go -- Jim.

ACOSTA: And a final thought from you, Elise.

LABOTT: Well, I think it's -- you know, it's going to be a (INAUDIBLE) right now. The whole region -- all the dominos are going to fall. I think it's going to really be on the president's advisers to try and manage this in a way that doesn't abrogate the president but also assures U.S. allies. And that's what Bolton is going to try and do next week.

ACOSTA: All right. And we'll all be watching.

And, Elise Labott, excellent reporting as always. Thank you very much for all you do. And, Barbara Starr, thank you, of course, to you as well.

I'm Jim Acosta, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.