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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Utah Congressman Chris Stewart; ISIS Claims Responsibility for Bombing Killing U.S. Troops; Shutdown Impacts; Nancy Pelosi Delays State of the Union Address; Four Americans Killed in ISIS-Claimed Attack in Syria; Russian Foreign Minister: No Proof of Collusion in Mueller Probe. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 16, 2019 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi raises the stakes in the shutdown standoff, telling the president he should reschedule his State of the Union speech or deliver it in writing. Will Mr. Trump show up on Capitol Hill anyway?
Unsanctioned. Senate Democrats fail to block the lifting of sanctions on companies tied to a Russian oligarch, despite some Republican support for rebuking the president. What could it mean for the Mueller investigation?
And Trump's Russian fans. Kremlin officials ridicule allegations that the U.S. president is doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin. Why are they rushing to Mr. Trump's defense?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the killing of four Americans in a suicide attack in Syria, the Pentagon confirming the casualties, as ISIS claims responsibility.
Tonight, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham says he's worried that President Trump's declaration of victory over ISIS emboldened the terror group. But U.S. officials say there will be no reversal in Mr. Trump's Syria policy, including plans for a troop withdrawal.
We're also following a new political power play against the president by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. She's effectively disinviting Mr. Trump from delivering a State of the Union address to Congress on January 29, citing security concerns from the government shutdown.
This hour, I will talk to Republican congressman and military veteran Chris Stewart. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by. We will also hear from other reporters who are following all of this.
But let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta in just a moment. First, our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is getting new
Barbara, what more are you learning about the Syria attack and the American casualties?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf, tonight.
This is the largest single suicide attack against American troops inside Syria, tonight, ISIS far from defeated.
STARR (voice-over): Without warning, a suicide blast on the busy streets of Manbij in Northern Syria, U.S. troops and civilians killed and wounded, people suddenly thrown to the ground, devastation in this commercial area where U.S. troops had been on what the U.S. military originally called a routine patrol.
CNN has learned from U.S. officials the troops had a civilian intelligence expert with them actually hoping to collect information about security and adversaries in the area. Two U.S. troops, along with that civilian intelligence expert and a contractor, were killed. Three service members were wounded.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan offering condolences.
PATRICK SHANAHAN, ACTING U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Allow me to extend on behalf of the Department of Defense our thoughts and prayers to the families and team members of those killed and wounded during today's attack.
STARR: The U.S. has not said who is responsible, although ISIS quickly claimed responsibility.
The military, for its part, has told the president ISIS is not defeated, pushing back against Trump's claim in recent weeks.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have won against ISIS. We have beaten them and we have beaten them badly.
STARR: But the consequences of the withdrawal now becoming more clear.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Losing territory does not end groups historically. It just means they have to shift strategy to a guerrilla-style campaign. And that is exactly what ISIS has now done.
STARR: U.S. official saying tonight there are no plans to change the president's strategy to bring U.S. troops home -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thank you, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Let's bring in our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
And, Jim, as we learn more about this ISIS-claimed attack, the president is getting pushback on his Syria policy.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
But one area where he is not getting pushed back is from the Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul. The president met with Rand Paul earlier this afternoon over here at the White House, along with a couple of other senators, to talk about Syria and other issues.
And Senator Paul came out of that meeting, just released a statement a few moments ago, Wolf, we should point out, saying that he remains proud of President Trump. It doesn't sound like the president is budging, as Barbara Starr said, on his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, even after the terrorist attack in that country earlier today.
The White House did seem to have its -- or did not seem to have its message straight, I should say, as the vice president declared earlier in the day that ISIS had been defeated in Syria, despite that bombing in Syria.
The uncertainty in the battle against ISIS comes as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now raising the stakes in the government shutdown.
ACOSTA (voice-over): In response to ISIS taking responsibility for the suicide bombing in Syria that claimed the lives of U.S. service members, just weeks after the president declared he had beaten the terror group, GOP Senator Lindsey Graham called on Mr. Trump to rethink his strategy.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: My concern about the statements made by President Trump is you would set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we're fighting. So, I would hope the president would look long and hard of where he's headed in Syria.
ACOSTA: The attack in Syria appeared to catch the White House flat- footed.
Even after the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS had announced the deaths of U.S. troops, Vice President Pence delivered a speech that stated the organization had been defeated.
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thanks to the leadership of this commander in chief and the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces, we're now actually able to begin to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria to our coalition partners, and we're bringing our troops home. The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated. ACOSTA: Later in the day, Pence released a statement that was more
carefully worded, saying, "We have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities."
Ever since the president said he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, he's been touting a military victory over ISIS, tweeting last month: "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency."
TRUMP: We have won against ISIS. We have beaten them and we have beaten them badly. We have taken back the land. And now it's time for our troops to come back home.
ACOSTA: A message he repeated during his visit with U.S. troops in Iraq over the holidays.
TRUMP: We're no longer the suckers, folks. And people aren't looking at us as suckers. And I love you folks because most of you are nodding your head this way. We're respected again as a nation.
ACOSTA: The lack of clarity on the president's Syria policy comes as tensions are flaring over the government shutdown, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Mr. Trump to reschedule his upcoming State of the Union address, writing in a letter: "I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has reopened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29."
Pelosi cited security concerns.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: This is -- requires hundreds of people working on the logistics and the security of it. Most of those people are either furloughed or victims of the shutdown.
ACOSTA: The Department of Homeland Security rejected that argument, tweeting: "The department and the U.S. Secret Service are fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union."
The president is signaling he's not budging over his demand for a border wall, telling supporters on a phone call, "We're going to stay out for a long time if we have to."
But the White House is just beginning to get a sense of the economic damage caused by the shutdown.
KEVIN HASSETT, CHAIRMAN, COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISERS: We made an early estimate right at the beginning of the crisis that was a little bit lower than the estimate you just cited, and have been studying it hard as this has gone on, and have found that, actually, the damage is a little bit worse because of government contractors, something that was excluded from our first analysis.
ACOSTA: One part of the government that's still up and running, the White House spin machine.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, we are focused on the long-term economic goals of the administration.
ACOSTA: Now, as for the vice president declaring this morning that ISIS had been defeated, a White House official tried to explain that, saying the White House had not yet publicly confirmed the deaths of those U.S. soldiers in Syria at the time Pence was speaking.
But we went back and found that the U.S. Coalition Against ISIS did tweet a message about those deaths a full hour before the vice president's speech.
And, as for the shutdown, we should point out the White House has been asking lawmakers throughout the day to stay away from a bipartisan effort that had been building to temporarily reopen the government.
And, Wolf, after the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, sent that letter, saying perhaps the president should postpone his State of the Union speech or submit it in writing, we have not heard from the president all day long responding to that salvo from the House speaker.
The White House just put out what we call a lid over here, basically saying for the second straight day the president will be basically behind closed doors, not making any kind of public statement during this government shutdown -- Wolf.
BLITZER: But a lid doesn't preclude the President Trump tweeting, right?
ACOSTA: That's right. He can tweet at any time. There's no lid on the tweeting, as we all know.
But it is rather striking, rather remarkable for Nancy Pelosi to say, President Trump, you can deliver your State of the Union in writing, and the president, not one to back down from a fight, seems so far to be not wanting to engage with the House speaker -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We will see if he tweets about it.
ACOSTA: That's right.
BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta, thank you very much.
There's more breaking news just coming in right now into THE SITUATION ROOM. A Georgia man has been arrested for allegedly plotting to attack the White House and other federal buildings. The FBI says the suspect planned to use homemade explosives and an anti-tank rocket.
Let's bring in our law enforcement Josh Campbell. He is a former FBI supervisory special agent.
What are you hearing, Josh?
JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Hey, Wolf.
Even as our officials in Washington are talking about the -- quote, unquote -- "defeat of ISIS" overseas, we're learning about this dramatic arrest that took place here in the United States today from our Nick Valencia down in Atlanta.
It involved a 21-year-old name Hasher Taheb, who was arrested by federal agents today as part of a plot to attack the White House and various buildings inside the Washington, D.C., area.
Now, this all stemmed from a tip that came into the FBI. An individual reported that this subject, 21 years old, was becoming radicalized and exhibiting signs that worried him. The FBI opened an investigation. They moved in.
And what followed was this -- this dramatic kind of development where you had the subject was talking about wanting to travel overseas to an area that was controlled by the Islamic State, but then really focused on conducting some type of attack here in the United States.
And, again, you had several FBI agents, undercover employees that were involved in this and were going to try to determine what was his motive. And we actually saw throughout the complaint that the individual was trying to attempt to gather weapons.
I'm going to read here part of the complaint to you that really tells you about how this took place and how the individual was actually gathering weapons. I think we have that here.
It says: "On or about January 1, 2019, Taheb, using the social media messaging application noted, asked how many pounds, followed by a potato emoji. An undercover employee," which is the FBI undercover," responded that each potato would fit inside a backpack and that they would have to provide the backpacks."
Taheb then answered to the FBI undercover employee: "OK, just wanted to know how far the cooking oil spreads when the fries are cut."
Again, they're alluding to how much damage can be done by a possible blast.
Now, what we're told is that the individual was actually attempting to gather devices, to then move to the Washington, D.C., area. This took place today, where the subject met with FBI undercover employees in order to gather these devices. They actually met in a tractor-trailer there in Georgia, where FBI undercover employees posing as bad guys were attempting to give this information over.
Once the subject took possession, he was then taken into custody. Now, we're told by officials familiar with the investigation that at no point was the public actually in danger. These weapons were all inert that they were showing the subject that they were attempting to provide to him.
You had a lot of FBI control over this operation. But at least it shows that this was someone who was predisposed to conduct some type of attack in United States. And you read through this chilling complaint, Wolf, and it actually
describes that they had schematics of the West Wing, of the White House compound. They had noted where Secret Service officers were posted up on the exterior of the building. And they were attempting to go so far as to distract them and then bypass them and then conduct this attack.
So, again, very chilling, Wolf. We hear again this -- ISIS has been defeated, but, again, there are people here in United States, at least as of this arrest today, shows that are predisposed to actually act with violence.
Now, one person I talked to noted that he's not being charged with terrorism as of this point. These are charges attempting to attack a federal building. And this person also noted, Wolf, trying this to the shutdown, that these FBI agents who have been working long hours to stop this threat are not getting paid -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, I'm just reading some of this complaint.
As you point out, it is chilling. This individual, according to the complaint, wanted to take down as many as he possibly could, take down people in the White House, blow a hole in the White House, and then broaden the attack to include the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and a specific synagogue here in Washington as well.
If you read it, and I know you have gone through it in detail, it's all pretty terrifying.
CAMPBELL: It is very terrifying Wolf. And, again, it shows that even in our midst now -- it's been a while, thankfully, since we have seen these types of attacks.
There's been a lot of arrests, obviously, since 9/11. These homegrown or inspired actors have been taken off the deck by the FBI and other federal and local state law enforcement officers.
But, again, it shows as of now that they still are out there and that you have these people that are still inspired at least by some of these overseas groups. Again, even though -- and we have talked a lot about this, you and I have, a lot of our experts -- that even though groups like ISIS are being defeated on the battlefield and their territory is being taken away, this is very much an ideology that continues to inspire people.
We have seen that with this case, Wolf. We have seen with other cases as well overseas. And, again, for the FBI, it's still obviously their number one priority to stop a counterterrorist attack here in the United States, to protect the homeland, and at least as this event shows today, they continue to do just that.
BLITZER: Yes, we're grateful to the FBI for stopping this.
All right, Josh Campbell, thanks very much for that.
Let's discuss all of this. Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah is joining us. He's a Republican. He serves on the House Intelligence Committee, also the Appropriations Committee. He is a former U.S. pilot, Air Force pilot.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), UTAH: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: So what's your reaction to this thwarted plot to target the White House, other targets here in Washington? You just heard the breaking news.
Well, I think my reaction is much like the rest of Americans as we learned this. First, thank heaven for law enforcement, for federal and local law enforcement, for the intelligence community, who is -- I mean, their radar is always up, knowing that this is a possibility.
And I think it's a reminder to us that we live in a dangerous world. And so far, we have been lucky in many cases. But we can't always presume we will be. And we need the dedicated efforts of brave men and women who are out there trying to keep us safe.
BLITZER: Yes, and, fortunately the FBI was on the case.
Let me get your reaction, Congressman, also to the death of four Americans in Syria in this terror attack. You heard Senator Lindsey Graham say he's concerned that President Trump's statements may have set in motion -- his words -- in motion enthusiasm by the enemy.
Do you agree with Senator Lindsey Graham?
STEWART: I like the senator. I have tremendous respect for him.
I actually disagree. I just don't think that we have any indication that that's true at this point. And we don't set our policy based on one day, one tragedy, one bombing. It has to be more broad-based than this.
But, Wolf, I agree and I disagree with the president. I actually agree with him that we should be looking at a drawdown in Afghanistan. And the reason I mention that is, I want people to know I'm not reflexively saying we should have our soldiers everywhere around the world.
As you mentioned, I'm a former Air Force pilot. I know how hard our soldiers and airmen are working. I know how hard it is our family. And there's only so much we can do.
But I disagree with the president on Syria. I think we have had an enormously positive outcome there with a very -- a relatively small number of people, about 2,000 soldiers that are there. And it worries me. In fact, I think we need to move very, very carefully in that drawdown
and recognize that we're going to lose some very strategic interests if we do it -- or do it poorly.
BLITZER: Yes, fair point.
Let's turn to the Russia investigation while I have you, Congressman.
You have warned that if the public doesn't get to see the Robert Mueller report, the speculation may be worse than the reality. So will you accept what's now being described as a summary of Mueller's work by the next attorney general, if he's confirmed, William Barr?
STEWART: Well, I need to see the report and I need to see the summary and I need to see what it is that would be redacted or wouldn't be released to the American people.
And, Wolf, I know that some of your listeners or viewers are not going to agree with this, but I don't think the Mueller report is going to be a -- an enormous event. I don't think it's going to be this political bomb that goes off.
In fact, many of those that seem to have information regarding the reporter are trying to downplay some of the expectations. And they think it's going to be much more of a whimper than a lot of people expect.
But, either way, and especially if that's true, but, again, either way, I think the American people want to know, and I think they should know. And, by the way, there's been so many times when they have said, we can't release this for national security. And it's absolutely nuts.
It's not -- these aren't issues of national security. In some cases, they were issues that were embarrassing to the FBI or embarrassing to other individuals. But we're not talking about nuclear codes or how our submarines are designed and built.
This is something different. And I think the American people need to know. And if not, the speculation will run rampant here. And I think that the outcome from that isn't -- isn't good for us.
BLITZER: Yes. You won't be surprised to hear that I agree. Transparency is very, very important, given all the attention that's been focused on this investigation over the past couple years or so.
BLITZER: Let's turn to the government shutdown, Congressman.
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has told President Trump they will have to reschedule his State of the Union address, based on security concerns due to the shutdown.
STEWART: Yes. BLITZER: Do you believe those concerns are valid given that, what,
all members of the House are going to be there, all members of the Senate, the entire Cabinet, except for one designated survivor who stayed behind, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Supreme Court, the entire Washington, D.C., diplomatic corps?
The security that's required for a speech like this, as you know, is enormous.
STEWART: Yes, it is. And it is one target.
And, look, if you're going to hit us at one point, that would be the time to do it, right? But I think it's disingenuous. In fact, I think it's nuts for the speaker to say we should reschedule and to disinvite the president.
Homeland Security, the FBI, Secret Service have all assured us that they can do their job. I believe them. And they surely wouldn't say that if they didn't believe that themselves.
And the second thing, Wolf, is I think that the speaker primarily wants for the president not to have an opportunity to speak directly to the American people, especially about this border security that has been such a divisive issue and, as you said, led to the shutdown.
So I think that's her primary objective there, is to take away a microphone from the president, not because she's terribly concerned about security.
BLITZER: But she does -- as the speaker, she can decide who speaks before the House of Representatives and who doesn't, right?
STEWART: That's my understanding.
Now, I have never been the speaker. And I'm the only guy in Washington who doesn't want to be the speaker, by the way.
But -- so I don't know that I know that. But that's my understanding, is that she gets to decide who comes before the House. But, remember, it's not just the House. It's the Senate and all those other organizations and agencies that you talked about.
But it would be terribly unfortunate if we were to lose that opportunity, and the tradition that has been going back for so long, for the president to come before the chamber to talk to the American people, especially when, again, Homeland Security and Secret Service have assured us, of course we can provide adequate security for this event.
BLITZER: Congressman Chris Stewart, thanks so much for joining us.
STEWART: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, just ahead, we're going to take a closer look at the nationwide impact of the government shutdown, from Wall Street to airports, even to breweries.
And does President Trump bear any responsibility for the deadly attack on Americans today in Syria, after his widely disputed claim that ISIS has been defeated?
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the deaths of four Americans in a terror attack in Syria and the claim of responsibility by ISIS.
Also this hour, the economic damage from the longest government shutdown in history is growing. We're tracking the impact from coast to coast.
Our national correspondent, Jason Carroll, is joining us from Wall Street right now.
Jason, the White House is now acknowledging that this shutdown is causing a lot of financial pain across the country.
JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're absolutely right, Wolf.
And what's become painfully clear, whether you're watching what's happening here on Wall Street or on Main Street, the longer this shutdown continues, the more it's going to start to affect the average American.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CARROLL (voice-over): Worries Wall Street that the shutdown is taking its toll on the economy. Dire estimates indicate $1.2 billion in lost growth for each week it continues.
The White House economic adviser admitting the administration underestimated the fallout.
HASSETT: The damage is a little bit worse because of government contractors, something that was excluded from our first analysis.
CARROLL: Some 800,000 federal workers affected will eventually get back pay from the government, but government-contracted employees, like Roy Blumenfeld, will not.
ROY BLUMENFELD, FEDERAL GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEE: Yes, there will be no back pay for this. This is unpaid time off for me. So that's definitely not ideal right now.
CARROLL: Blumenfeld lined up at a food bank in Washington, D.C., set up for government workers by celebrity chef Jose Andres' foundation.
The shutdown also straining all corners of the aviation industry, long lines at some major airports, like the world's busiest, Hartsfield- Jackson, the crisis costing one of the country's largest carriers, Delta, $25 million so far in January alone.
The safety of the skies now in question, as the shutdown takes its toll on air traffic controllers.
TRISH GILBERT, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, NATIONAL AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS ASSOCIATION: I would say it is less safe today than it was a month ago, absolutely. We do not have the professionals on the job. We are working with bare-bones crews.
We have controllers there doing what they do very, very well. But how long can you expect them to do it without all of the systems behind them to keep the system safe?
CARROLL: This as federal workers across the country struggling to make ends meet. A priest in Kentucky brought food to TSA workers and air traffic controllers in Lexington, while, in New London, Connecticut, a pop-up pantry set up for Coast Guard members, 42,000 active-duty service members now no longer receiving paychecks.
Admiral Karl Schultz tweeted Tuesday: "This marks the first time in our nation's history that service members in a U.S. armed force have not been paid during a lapse in appropriations."
Financially strapped federal workers protesting in Dallas, Baltimore and Sacramento to call attention to the shutdown, now in its 26th day. The Internal Revenue Service ordered tens of thousands of employees back to work without pay to process tax returns.
The Federal Aviation Administration recalled its safety inspectors who had been furloughed, telling them they too have to get back to work without pay.
JOHNNY JONES, TSA UNION REPRESENTATIVE: We have had to make a lot of adjustments. We're considering now to pull my daughter out of day care. We're trying to stretch out our expenses as long as we can.
CARROLL: In Michigan, workers at a small brewery worry delayed federal approval for new beers will hurt business.
MIKE STEVENS, CEO, FOUNDERS BREWING: We live and die by approvals for all of our beers.
CARROLL: And at the Food and Drug Administration, concerns the agency has just five weeks until money runs for approving new drugs.
CARROLL: And, Wolf, more perspective on this, it's gotten so bad for some federal workers in the state of Georgia, some don't even have enough gas money to get to some of those food banks that have been set up for them -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, it's really sad.
All right, Jason Carroll in New York, thank you.
We have a lot to talk about with our political, legal and counterterrorism experts. They're all standing by.
We will continue this conversation right after this.
[18:33:43] WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM: We're back with our experts as the government shutdown approaches the end of its 26th day with no end in sight. And, Gloria, Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House, she said she is really getting tough all of a sudden. She surprised a lot of us today by announcing what the President's January 29th's State of the Union Address before Congress has got to be postponed because of the government shutdown.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, our colleague, Dana Bash, did a series on Badass Women of Washington, and Nancy Pelosi was one of the people she profiled. She proved it today with this. This was kind of a badass move. She surprised everybody and said, because of the national - because this is a national special security event, you need a lot of protection and a lot of these people are on furlough, and we can't guarantee that.
So the President can write his address he can do it from the Oval Office, but we're not going to be able to do it at this particular time unless the government is reopened. Of course, the Department of Homeland Security, and she quoted Kirstjen Nielsen on it, and then they came out and said, no, no, no, no, no, we're fine, we can do it, as did the Secret Service. But Pelosi hasn't budged. In fact, I loved it today when she called it a housekeeping matter. She said, this is just a housekeeping matter, we just can't do it. There's no controversy here.
If the government reopens, that's fine.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And something I didn't know was that the House of Representatives and the Senate have to pass a formal resolution inviting the President. So she can stop that resolution. So she has veto power over whether the State of the Union stakes place, so that's pretty badass right there.
TOOBIN: I mean, that --
BLITZER: She said if really wants to do it on January the 29th, either submit it in writing, a written document, or do it from the Oval Office.
TOOBIN: But he doesn't want to do it from the Office. He wants to --
BORGER: It's not his preferred form of communication.
BLITZER: But, Phil Mudd, do you believe that this is a real national security threat that you're going to have all 100 senators, 435 members of the House, the Diplomatic Core, the Supreme Court Justices, you're going to have members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the entire Cabinet with one so-called designated survivor who doesn't come because of, God forbid, some sort of security incident, is this a legitimate security concern?
PHILIP MUDD, FORMER CIA COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: Heck no. I mean, this is political genius. I give Nancy Pelosi credit for her political sense. It's national security nonsense. We're talking about less than 60 acres and the huge national security threats of U.S. Senators, U.S. Congressmen, Members of the Cabinet, Supreme Court Justices and guests of, for example, of the President, and that's - we can't secure 58 acres? Are you kidding me? There're 40,000 plus flights every day in this country, Wolf. They are still flying, and the FAA, which in the midst of this crisis, is still operating, can manage 40,000 plus flights, and we can't do 58 acres? I applaud her for coming up with a genius of trying to corner the President on this. But from a national security perspective, this is a Kardashian moment. This is fake.
BLITZER: Strong words from Phil. The New York Times is reporting that the cost of this government shutdown is now doubling on as far as the U.S. economy and economic growth is concerned. That's going to have an impact presumably on the President and his top advisers.
DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: It will have an impact on the economy. In that New York Times report, even the White House is saying that every week, the shutdown goes on, the GDP growth goes down by 0.13. So they're acknowledging that. But I don't think, Wolf, that that's the number the President is looking at. He's at 41 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics polling average right around where he normally is, a little bit lower than the CNN poll. And the stock market, as of today is closed, is up 22% from inauguration day. As long as those numbers look relatively good for him, I don't think he is worried about the GDP.
BLITZER: You don't think he's going to budge he's going to budge on that because of the downturn on the economic growth as a result of this government shutdown?
SWERDLICK: I think if this goes on for months, yes, that becomes a problem for the President. In the short-term though, I think he sees the politics playing for him as someone who draws the line in the sand and sticks to it.
BLITZER: What do you think of this statement from attorney to the confirmation hearings of the Attorney General Nominee, William Barr, that Dianne Feinstein, the top democrat, on the Senate Judiciary Committee? She now says his statements have been confusing about what he is going to release once the Mueller investigation is complete, what he's not going to release?
SUSAN HENESSY, SENIOR FELLOW IN NATIONAL SECURITY IN GOVERNANCE STUDIES, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think she is right. His statements actually have been confusing about what report he might have been referencing, about how he might read the regulations whenever he says that he is going to comply with the regulations in producing this report. And I think that Feinstein really is understanding that the Senate's role, like Barr is likely to be confirmed, and that their role now is to extract very, very specific assurances from Barr, that when this moment arrives, he is actually going to produce the Mueller report, not a summary, not an AG report on top of that but the actual Mueller report in full substance to Congress so that it can exercise its potentially impeachment and oversight power.
BORGER: They're never going to get that. I mean, they're never going to get that. And the regulations are so vague, right, that it's unclear actually what Barr has to do. He has a lot of leeway.
HENESSEY: So I think that is exactly why Feinstein is really holding the line here. She understands that this is ultimately going to be a matter within his discretion and that's why she wants then to articulate very, very specifically that he is going to hand over the whole thing.
BLITZER: Jeffrey, she seemed pretty receptive to his confirmation by hearing yesterday Dianne Feinstein. But she's making it clear. She wants a clear commitment from him to release it. But his point is, some things you can't release, you've got redact for national security considerations, classified information, and there're other sensitive issues involved as well.
TOOBIN: Well, certainly everyone would agree that classified information can't be released. But after that, it becomes very much a judgment call. And I sympathize with what Dianne Feinstein said because I agree. I thought his statement was confusing. But you know what? He is going to be confirmed with or without her vote. And she can try but he's obviously not going to make an ironclad commitment. I mean, there are some republicans, I mean, even Chuck Grassley who really want to see this thing released. So, I mean, there will be bipartisan pressure, but he's not going to make an ironclad fist.
HENESSY: And there's an easier solution here. Barr can just say, for any classified material, he will release it to the gang of eight, the members of Congress that are entitled to see the most sensitive and classified information. And those members can decide what's appropriate to distribute more widely.
BORGER: And Mueller can segregate it. He can write a report and then it could have an addendum at the end in which he includes classified information, et cetera, et cetera. So, Mueller, this isn't his first rodeo. He can - he knows what he's doing and he can write something, and maybe Phil knows him the best of all of us, but he can write something that is written for the American public.
BLITZER: That's a good point. All right, everybody - Phil, standby, everybody standby, we have a lot more to discuss and we'll do it right after this.
[18:45:22] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We are back with our experts and our analysts.
And, Phil Mudd, as you know, four Americans, two service members, two contractors were killed in a terror attack in northern Syria today. This is -- and ISIS is claiming responsibility.
This is what the president said less than a month ago. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have won against ISIS. We have beaten them and we have beaten them badly. We have taken back the land. And now, it's time for our troops to come back home.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Was that a mistake for the president to declare victory and announce that all U.S. troops would be out of Syria soon?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Yes, it was a mistake. For every Republican who went after President Obama for talking about ISIS as the jayvee team, in other words, for underestimating the adversary.
If you didn't learn then, now, we have another president who presumably, I hope, is receiving intelligence briefings that say, as we know, ISIS has a presence in Africa. They've got a presence in Yemen. Their affiliates have a presence in Afghanistan. There are still thousands of fighters, as the president knows from his visit to Iraq, in places like Syria and Iraq.
Everybody knows there is still an ISIS presence. And if you didn't know, the lesson from the Obama administration is don't go out and underestimate terrorists when you know there are thousands on the ground. How hard is this, Wolf?
Yes, we gained ground against ISIS. The president is right to say that. Don't declare victory when there's thousands of them still out there. It's not that difficult.
BLITZER: Yes, always a mistake to declare mission accomplished before mission has been accomplished.
BLITZER: You know, Gloria, the vice president, Mike Pence, he gave a speech today after it was officially announced that these Americans had been killed in this terror attack. He said, this is Pence, the caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated. He didn't mention apparently the terror attack at all. That was -- looks like a blunder.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think it was. Speaking of mission accomplished, it was sort of alternative facts also. You know, he gave the speech. He didn't mention it. The White House later said that the administration had not publically yet confirmed the deaths.
But you would assume that maybe the vice-president would tone down the language a little bit when you have these people murdered. But that did not occur. So, it was as if you are living in an alternate universe when you're declaring, you now, the caliphate has been defeated, et cetera, et cetera. I don't know. I don't know --
BLITZER: Official statement was put out an hour before his speech saying that there had been this terror attack and Americans had been killed. And for some reason, that never reached the vice-president, which is awkward.
Lindsey Graham, who's -- lately has been a very staunch ally of the president, he had strong words for the president today on the president's decision to get out of Syria. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: My concern about the statements made by President Trump is that you set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we are fighting.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What do you make of that?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY ATTORNEY: Look, I mean, Graham has been so weak on standing up to this president. I think it's a news event any time he states the objective reality that's critical here.
Donald Trump is incapable of understanding that he is not just a guy ragging and lying on Twitter anymore. He is the commander in chief of the United States military. When he speaks, our troops listen, our allies are listening, and our enemies are listening. ISIS is not defeated. The president knows that. The vice president knows that.
Whenever he says these things that are plainly untrue, things that he has been told again and again are untrue, those words have consequences. I think it's worth noting that this is an area of the president's gravest responsibility, American security, war powers, life and death issues. And even in this context, Donald Trump cannot restrain himself in his own ignorance and sort of need to say things that are plainly untrue. I think that is really frightening to confront.
BLITZER: We've also been told that when the president went to Iraq, that brief visit, met with U.S. military, commanders around Christmas, they told him the military commanders, that ISIS has not been entirely defeated in Syria.
So, what does that say about the decision making process that led to the president's decision to announce a quick withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria? DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Wolf, though their
numbers are dwindling, there are still plenty of people around to give the president good advice, is that, as Susan says, he is frequently doesn't take it. Three things, one, on Senator Graham, just to go back to that, the president, when he thinks he has someone in his pocket, then he is surprised when they are no longer in his pocket. The way Senator Graham carried water for him on Kavanaugh, he probably thought this is my guy now, and it turns out, no, not on this issue.
In terms of the president's decision making, it also suggests how easily he can be spun by his contemporaries.
[18:50:04] By all accounts, by multiple reports, it was President Erdogan from Turkey who talked him into this over the phone. The president likes to have quick wins, touchdowns, when he sees an off ramp, he just takes it.
BLITZER: How concerning is this for you, Jeffrey?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the other thing that is worth remembering is that if there is one constant in Donald Trump's political career, is that he wants people out, he wants American troops to come home. And as terrible as this event is, I don't think this is going to stop him from getting the troops out of Syria and I don't think the broader American public is all that anxious to have them there.
So, I mean, this is a tragedy. Trump obviously lied about the fate of ISIS, but on the substantive issue, I don't think he's going to change and I think that position is pretty popular.
BLITZER: You've been pretty consistent on this, Phil. I interviewed him many times when he was a private citizen. He was always complaining, why does the U.S. have all those troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq?
At that time, there were no U.S. troops in Syria. He says, get them out, get them out quickly. It's a waste of U.S. money. The U.S. shouldn't be engaged in that part of the world.
MUDD: That's a fair point, but one of the problems we have here is the president favors sound bites over policy. For example, if you look at the border, the message is really simple. There's a lot of dangerous people coming over, we need a wall. Instead of a nuanced conversation that's not very good on Twitter about how did we provide different of security across the border. He's looking for a simple answer on Syria, we're safe. The answer is we're not yet.
BLITZER: Everybody, stick around.
There's more news we're following right now.
Top Russian officials rushing to President Trump's defense and accusing Congress of acting illegally.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:56:26]B LITZER: For the second day in a row, a top Russian official is defending President Trump against questions of collusion with the Kremlin.
Our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us live from Moscow.
Fred, I understand the Russian foreign minister is the latest member of the Putin government to come to President Trump's defense?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNTIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he certainly is, Wolf. And he had this annual press conference, Sergei Lavrov did, here in Moscow today. And some of the things he said almost sounded like White House talking points, essentially defending President Trump.
One of the interesting things that he said, for instance, was he believes so far nothing had come out of the Mueller investigation that showed any sort of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. He's one of several Russian officials who seems to be criticizing the president's critics in America. Here's what we learned.
PLEITGEN (voice-over): Tonight, Russian officials defending President Trump against those in the U.S. raising questions about his relationship with Moscow. A top Kremlin aide sounding a similar note to the White House and rid did I calling the question about Trump possibly working for Russia.
And the foreign minister even arguing that the U.S. Congress is illegally trying to hamper the president's foreign policy agenda.
SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): The U.S. Constitution gives the president the right to determine and execute foreign policy. We do know that this right has been coming under attack from the Congress. The issue is covered extensively. However, this does not make these attacks constitutional and it does not make them less illegal either.
PLEITGEN: As the Trump administration grapples with the ongoing government shutdown and one of America's top allies, the United Kingdom, faces a messy exit from the European Union, which President Trump supported, on one of Russia's top political talk shows, an analyst claiming President Trump is in the battle against the so- called deep state in the West.
ARAIK STEPANYAN, POLITICAL EXPERT (through translator): All of the Western world is in a deep crisis. This liberal and capitalistic world is in a deep crisis. Trump in his actions is a saving grace for America because there's that deep state or the Democratic Party wanting to make the USA a global policeman and stick its nose anywhere, but Trump says the American people do not need that.
PLEITGEN: All this as the Mueller investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign increases in tempo. A top Russian senator telling CNN he believes his country is the victim of political infighting in the U.S. and of President Trump's critics.
ALEKSEY FUSHKOV, RUSSIAN SENATOR: Russia is a victim of this anti- Trump campaign because I think it is the first time that the interests of those who would like to bring down the American president coincided with the interest of those who would like to have a better relationship with Russia.
PLEITGEN: And while improvement to the relations between Russia and the U.S. hardly seems in sight, Moscow today vowed that American pressure would never make it change its policies.
PLEITGEN: Some very clear positions, Wolf, from the Russians. They believe President Trump wants better relations with Russia, that he's being hamstrung, for instance, by the Congress. Now, Russians are not very happy with that situation whatsoever.
That top Kremlin aide that we mentioned at the beginning of the report, he also said that the relations are worst than ever and nothing in this context seems to show any sort of improvement. However, as we've stated, they believe that the Congress is responsible for that, not President Trump himself -- Wolf.
BLITZER: These are truly extraordinary developments. Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, thanks very much.
And to our viewers, thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.