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Backlash as Trump Claims ISIS Defeated in Syria And Orders U.S. Troop Withdrawal; Interview with Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois; House Intelligence Committee Expected to Vote Thursday on Whether to Release Roger Stone Transcript to Mueller; Interview with Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired December 19, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:13] JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Declaring victory and getting out.

John Berman here, in for Anderson.

That's what President Trump is doing in the fight against ISIS in Syria and the way he announced it all by itself is stunning enough. Then, again, so was the reaction -- the surprise, dismay, the outrage, even the outright mockery. And that's just from fellow Republicans.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: The decision to withdraw American -- an American presence in Syria is a colossal, in my mind, mistake.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: Pulling the plug on these troops without giving due consideration to the consequences, I think, is something that I don't think any of us want to do.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If Obama had made this decision, Republicans would be all over him.


BERMAN: All over him, by Senator Graham's way of thinking and others because the president's decision would seem to hurt U.S. allies and help U.S. adversaries, namely, Russia.

Senator Rubio even alluded to that on Twitter retweeting Kremlin praise for the move adding, himself, I found someone who is supportive of the decision to retreat from Syria. But that tweet mocking though it may be gets to the heart of many of the questions about why this, why now, and what's behind it that we don't yet know.

It is not just Republican lawmakers speaking out, it's the president's own inner circle. A senior administration official told CNN's Jake Tapper, and I'm quoting now, senior officials across the administration agree that the president's decision by tweet will recklessly put American and allied lives in danger around the world, take the pressure off ISIS, allowing them to reconstitute and hand a strategic victory to our Syrian, Iranian, and Russian adversaries. That same official quoted his colleagues as saying it's a mistake of colossal proportions and the president fails to see how it will endanger our country.

That's right. The calls are coming from inside the house. Bottom line, nothing about any of this is like anything we've seen before except, of course, from this president. Starting with that tweet this morning: We have defeated ISIS in Syria. My only reason for being there during the Trump presidency. He did not elaborate.

But a short time later a source told us the president ordered a full and rapid military pullout from Syria. So, to say that blindsided nearly everyone doesn't begin to describe it. It even caught the White House off guard.

One senior official who was holding a conference call on it simply could not offer any details referring reporters to the Pentagon. The Pentagon's response, ask the White House. We're not making this up. No one had any details, at least none that they could talk about.

Republican Senator Bob Corker who's the outgoing chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went to the White House for a scheduled meeting this afternoon hoping to ask the president about his decision, but the White House canceled the meeting when he was there. No one today seemed ready for this, perhaps many including longtime allies had no idea it was coming.

Two diplomatic sources from two countries in the region tell us they had not been consulted or informed. The news, they said, came as a total surprise, which keeping them honest, truly is a surprise because back in April when the president floated the idea of a pullout, only to later be talked out of it, he had plenty to say about how he would be consulting everyone.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home and we'll be making a decision as to what we do in the very near future. We'll be consulting also with the groups of our people and groups of our allies.


BERMAN: So, clearly back in April, consulting the agencies and allies involved was important enough for the president to mention it at a televised news conference. This time, apparently not so much, or not at all.

When asked about whether the president consulted with Defense Secretary James Mattis or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that administration official we mentioned a moment ago declined to comment. But we should note, he did push back, or she, did push back against a suggestion that administration officials were caught unaware.

Still, it's hard to imagine this was the process of anything resembling a robust interagency debate. Here's the State Department's official in charge of fighting ISIS just last week, suggesting U.S. troops were in Syria for the long haul.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And if we've learned one thing over the years and during defeat of a group like this means you can't defeat their physical space and leave. You have to make sure the internal security forces are if place to ensure that those gains, security gains are enduring. We have obviously learned a lot of lessons in the past. And we know that once the physical space is defeated, we can't just pick up and leave. So, we want to stay on the ground to make sure stability can be maintained in the areas.


BERMAN: That's a top official eight days ago saying the official policy of this country is to stay in Syria and the course.

And John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations, the current national security adviser, said back in September, quote: We're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that include Iranian proxies and militias.

[20:05:12] They're still there. Keeping them honest, despite losing much of their territory, a recent Pentagon report says as many as 30,000 ISIS fighters are still in the region.

So whatever you might think about the wisdom of keeping several thousand U.S. troops in the region, wherever you stand on American intervention in global hotspots, whatever questions you might have about the president's motivations for this, with respect to Russia or maybe as a diversion from the Mueller investigation, one thing really is not debatable. The president is choosing to build his case to the public on a false notion, which he tweeted this morning and restated tonight in this White House video referring, as you'll see, to the gratitude of those who've lost their lives.


TRUMP: I've been president for almost two years, and we've really stepped it up and we have won against ISIS. We've beaten them and we've beaten them badly. We won and that's the way we want it and that's the way they want it.


BERMAN: All right. Joining us now, CNN senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, as we said, this caught many people by surprise. Members of the president's own party on Capitol Hill express deep unhappiness. How extensively was this plan within the administration?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, as far as we know, it was the president tweeting this morning about 9:30 or so Washington time that 16-word tweet that caught everyone by surprise including, I'm told, people here inside the White House. So, initially, it seemed the president was trying to change the subject. Of course, the Mueller investigation hanging over this White House so much, but also it's odd because there was the criminal justice reform bill that was passing last night, actually a good-news story for this White House.

But the president clearly trying to engage here, but, John, I cannot recall a time where so many loyal allies of this president, who are normally deferential, Lindsey Graham, John Cornyn, occasionally Bob Corker, really coming hard after this president. Vice President Mike Pence went to Capitol Hill today and he got an earful, I'm told, inside that Senate Republican lunch.

People were saying it was the wrong decision. It was simply, you know, people were not, you know, briefed on this.

So, John, the sense was the president, the commander in chief, clearly making the call essentially on his own, against the advice of his advisers and no prep about it. It wasn't until six hours later the administration had a conference call trying to explain all of this and, John, many answers were -- many questions, rather, were left unanswered.

BERMAN: Then after that was this video that the president put out that's very different. Very, very different than how he has explained this in the past, very different than he normally makes proclamations. Why did the White House do it this way?

ZELENY: There's no question this is something that we've seen president Trump do really increasingly over the last few months. He films a video on the South Lawn of the White House. Of course, no questions can be asked.

But it is not what a president normally does in terms of making an announcement like this that would have normally been done from the Oval Office, perhaps, from the diplomatic reception room. He's making a major decision, a change in U.S. foreign policy, saying we're bringing troops home.

So, this is something he's been campaigning on. He talked a lot about. Unclear why they didn't have more of a grander proclamation than that simple statement there on the South Lawn of the White House.

John, I'm also told the president wanted to get this off the checklist before he heads to Mar-a-Lago on Friday, but so many questions, and Lindsey Graham said Congress is still going to press the pentagon and others about how this withdrawal will happen and why this was announced today.

BERMAN: Even all that understates the strangeness of it all today. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

Earlier today, I spoke to Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.


BERMAN: Congressman Kinzinger, what was your first reaction when you heard this announcement from president Trump? REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: I didn't

believe it, you know, we got indications, I was sitting eating breakfast, that this was going to happen. I thought, obviously, this was some untruth and then to see the president's tweet and to realize that, in fact, he had made a decision, I think against all his national security advisers, to leave Syria immediately, I was blown away.

I'll tell you, I'm still speechless today. I have a lot to say on it. But I just -- I sit around and I'm kind of numb because the president ran saying he was going to defeat ISIS.

ISIS isn't defeated. We're defeating them, but what this is going to do if the president follows through on it is double or triple the size of ISIS probably overnight and it's very sad.

BERMAN: So why do you say ISIS hasn't been defeated? Because that was his specific claim today.

KINZINGER: Yes, well, we know by numbers that there's still at least I've heard some estimates as low as 2,000, and some estimates as high as 20,000 or 30,000. As long as there's one member of ISIS, we're going to have to continue this fight.

[20:10:03] You know, fighting terrorism is not a choice we have. It's a choice that terrorists make on our behalf. What we do have a choice about is where we fight them.

Do we fight them in Syria? Do we fight them in Iraq? Do we find them in their home area or do we fight them here on the streets of New York or D.C., or, you know, Shanahan, Illinois? That's the question.

Right now, if the president follows through on what he said and we leave Syria, that fight is going to move somewhere else because they're not going anywhere.

BRIGGS: And it's also more than the territorial battle, a territorial battle has been going well in Syria. ISIS has been pushed back and on the retreat in terms of territory, but there's more to ISIS than just land.

KINZINGER: Yes, ISIS is a thought, it's an idea. There's probably a lot of people at any given time that are on the verge of joining is and they may -- maybe not, you know, if they see all these is members die. It's probably a bad decision to join them.

But then, all of a sudden, if, you know, around Christmastime, it comes out that the United States is giving up the fight against ISIS in Syria, now people on the verge of joining them will see this as a maybe what's been prophesied, maybe the caliphate is coming true because the United States left.

These are things we have to take into account. We're fighting them at relatively low costs. It's interesting, so I wear -- my buddy who was killed in Iraq this year, his name was Andreas O'Keefe (ph), I followed them in Iraq back in '08, he died fighting ISIS in Iraq. They still exist.

You know, I want to know that his sacrifice, as terrible as it was, would lead to the end of ISIS as we know it. And I'm worried by this decision.

BERMAN: What happens to the U.S. partners who have been fighting alongside the U.S. troops? The Kurdish forces there, among others.

KINZINGER: Well, I'm very much worried about them. If the rumors or the innuendos are true that it was after the president talked to President Erdogan of Turkey that then he made the decision, President Erdogan wants to destroy the Kurds. He's made it very clear. He considers them a massive terrorist organization. So, some kind of a deal was cut.

If I'm a Kurd right now, I'm extremely worried. As an American, I'm worried because if this is, in fact, the case, once again, we have enlisted people on our fight with us and then abandoned when they needed us the most. We have a terrible history of doing that and I hope this isn't one further example.

BERMAN: You said you were surprised. You said you didn't believe it because you didn't think that the military was advising the president to do so. Do you think he did this without consultation?

KINZINGER: Yes. I think so. I mean, I don't know, but I -- the people I know that are around the president that advise him would never advise anything like this. When just weeks ago, you have members of the government saying this is going to be a long fight. General Dunford saying this is going to take a long time and, all of a sudden, this decision is made over night.

As president, he has a right to do it. I don't question his ability and his authority to make this decision. But as a member of Congress, and an American, I have a right and a responsibility to speak out when it's wrong and this is wrong.

BERMAN: Finally, I want to ask you to respond to what Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said. He praised the announcement saying, I'm happy to see a president who can declare a victory and bring our troops out of war. It's been a long time since that happened.

KINZINGER: Well, I'll remand rand Paul of 2011 when President Obama declared victory and left Iraq and we had to go back.

Rand Paul is not really a Republican. He's a libertarian masquerading as a Republican. He put out a budget when he got elected which would have slaughtered the amount of money we spent on the military, something like 20 percent, 30 percent. His foreign policy is not going to lead to a safer America.

And I respect his viewpoint because it's a legitimate viewpoint, vehemently I disagree. And that is not -- that should not be the view of the Republican Party at large.

BERMAN: Congressman Adam Kinzinger, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate your time.

KINZINGER: Yes, take care.


BERMAN: With me now, "Washington Post" national security reporter Joby Warrick who is just back from Iraq and is the author of Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS." And CNN senior political analyst David Gergen who's advised four presidents.

David, I want to start with you here. To see the president make the kind of statement that he did, not from inside the White House, not from, you know, somewhere with troops behind him but on Twitter --


BERMAN: -- like that. After really shocking everyone including members of his own administration.


BERMAN: Ever seen anything like this?

GERGEN: No. And it's interesting tonight we're seeing the big split in the Republican Party. I think since Donald Trump took office.

You have Republican after Republican is peeling off. They're very upset about this. There had been a consensus -- yes, we've taken a lot of territory back from ISIS, started under Obama, it's continued under Trump. Good for us. That was terrific.

But to get people out, we need to train up the people who are still there on our side, the Kurds. And General Dunford just said, head of the Joint Chiefs, we're only 20 percent through the training. We need to have 80 percent still to go.

What we've got is the president talking to Erdogan of Turkey.

[20:15:02] Erdogan apparently saying I'm going to go after those Kurds because they're my enemies, we consider them terrorists. Trump then makes a decision very quickly, get out of there, I don't want to be in harm's way when they come.

What happens? We leave those Kurds to be slaughtered. We destroy our reliability in the Middle East.

Who are the big winners tonight? Russia. Iran. You know, Syria under ISIS. And you go down the list. Turkey has won out on this thing.

If you go down that list, these are all countries that are Muslim are really opposed to us. This is a victory for the other side.

BERMAN: You know, Joby, let me just ask you, you got back from Iraq, you've done a ton of reporting on this. Few people have your depth of knowledge on this subject. The president said flat-out on Twitter and then later today, ISIS has been not just defeated but beaten badly.

How does that square with what you've seen?

JOBY WARRICK, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: That'd be a big surprise to people in the region. And as you mentioned, I was just in Iraq last week. And they know that ISIS isn't defeated. They could see what's going on next door in Syria, where there are still serious pockets of ISIS fighters that determined resistance. We've seen that in the last few weeks and closer to home for them. They see signs of resurgence.

All of those thousands of fighters we're talking about, many of them have wandered across the border, gone back to towns and villages. Some are hiding out in mountain caves. They're coming back. And there's a tempo of attacks we're seeing in places like, you know, the area south of Mosul, around Kirkuk. Sometimes a couple dozen attacks in a month showing that ISIS is gaining its foothold there and it's got allies and he wants to do a lot of damage.

BERMAN: So, what happens based on your reporting and what you've seen when the U.S. does pull its troops out?

WARRICK: Well, here's the problem. So, you can start to see potentially ISIS regaining its footing in Syria. What does that mean?

It means as happened back in 2013 and '14, the weapons start to flow again. There's freedom of movement that allows terrorists to go to other places and make ambitious plans. That's what the Iraqis are worried about. It's not so much they can't control in an insurgency. It's what could happen if things get really bad in Syria, because there's a border that's very porous and bad guys can cross it.

So, that's really what they're worried about and starting to see signs of that happening already and these troops are still there.

BERMAN: You know, David, you've heard Senator Corker expressed shock, Marco Rubio and others. But then we have quotes from senior administration officials who are also shocked and clearly, there was no coordination between whoever knew in the White House, in the Pentagon or the State Department.

So, you've been inside administrations. What does a move like this do?

GERGEN: Well, it really -- it erodes morale inside. People begin to think, we got two things wrong here. We got the substance of it wrong and we got the process wrong. And both of them were terrible mistakes.

And it's ironic, John, coming hours after he successfully built a consensus on the criminal justice reform, that's exactly the way he should govern, and give him credit -- give credit to Jared Kushner for pulling that off. To have this, this is complete opposite from a presidential power perspective and presidential performance perspective. I cannot tell you how much once again the United States has turned tail on its own friends. And it's really hard to build your friendships back up once you betrayed the people that you're fighting with.

BERMAN: You know, Joby, you heard people, we played it before in the show, say that the winners here are Russia and Iran. Is that accurate?

WARRICK: Yes, it is, and if you think about it, too, this is a fairly small deployment that we have. It's only a couple thousand people. So it's not huge. But we control a really critical area, this area particularly in southern Syria that essentially keeps all those other forces that we're worried about at bay. This is our way of keeping the Iranians from having a throughway essentially from Iran to Lebanon to support Hezbollah fighters.

So, it's much more important than even just the fight against ISIS. A lot of things that are sort of kept in place because we have a small troop presence there. So, that's what we tend -- we are at risk of losing and that's the real concern.

BERMAN: So, tonight, this administration, people in the United States and leaders all around the world coming to terms with this decision and what it means.

Joby Warrick and David Gergen, thanks so much for being with us.

GERGEN: Thank you.

BERMAN: Coming up, more breaking news.

Next indications that Robert Mueller is leaving no stone unturned. The "Washington Post" reports the special counsel asked the House Intelligence Committee for an official transcript of Trump adviser Roger Stone's testimony. That request tells us a lot. We'll tell you exactly what, next.

And later, a California power company blamed for more than a dozen California fires last year under the microscope again in this year's deadly Camp Fire. Drew Griffin investigates. That's ahead.


[20:23:56] BERMAN: More breaking news tonight. The House Intelligence Committee is expected to vote tomorrow on whether to release the transcript of Trump adviser Roger Stone's committee interview that they did, whether to release it to the special counsel Robert Mueller. That's according to a House Intel Committee member.

"The Washington Post" reports Mueller asked the committee Friday for an official transcript of Stone's testimony. It's not clear what part of the testimony Mueller would be focusing on, but the "Washington Post" points out Mueller could use the threat of a false statement charge to get Stone's cooperation, maybe as he did with Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen.

There's no reporting Mueller might get what he wants. Two House Republicans on the intelligence committee tell CNN they would vote to release the transcript to Mueller if he has formally requested it. Joining me now is Congressman Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut, and

a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Now, Congressman, I know you feel you cannot officially confirm or deny whether the request has been made. CNN is reporting it. I will say that. But I would like to know from you is, if you were asked, would you have any reason to oppose releasing the official transcript to Robert Mueller?

[20:25:05] REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: No, I don't think so, and, you know, as you probably know, John, the committee voted some weeks ago to release all of the transcripts to the public. That's under way as a process right now, scrubbing those transcripts for classified information.

So, one way or another, the transcript will become public at some point. But no, I don't imagine that if -- and again, I cannot confirm communications between the special counsel and the intelligence committee, but, no, were that request to be made, I would certainly be favorably inclined to approve it.

BERMAN: It's interesting, though, because back in September, there was a Democratic motion to release the transcripts to Robert Mueller and it was voted down by Republicans on the committee.

Doesn't seem like they're going to block it now, does it?

HIMES: Well, I don't know. I don't know. I guess you had that story from two members on the Republican side said they would support such a motion so if such a motion were made, presumably, it would pass.

But it is interesting, I mean, let's imagine that Mueller does get his hands on that transcript. I for one, again, I can't confirm the specifics of what's been requested, but I for one would put Roger Stone at the top of my list of people that I would be concerned had not been truthful with the committee when he testified to us. And obviously, you know, if that is true, as we saw in the Michael Cohen case just a couple weeks ago, lying to Congress is a big deal and Mueller was not shy about using that as leverage with Michael Cohen.

BERMAN: Now, I know you're not going to tell me what you don't believe he was not truthful or not truthful about with your committee, but in public, he has been asked repeatedly about what he knew of WikiLeaks -- the hacks and the hacked e-mails that WikiLeaks had, when they would release them. He has always denied knowledge beforehand of the release.

Do you have reason to doubt those public denials?

HIMES: Well, you know, as you point out, publicly, he said I -- you know, the fact that I said that John Podesta was about to get, I think the phrase was, some time in the barrel, right before WikiLeaks released John Podesta's e-mail, he has made publicly, and I'm not sure that he said anything to the committee that would be different from what he said publicly, that that was just a big coincidence, that he had no knowledge. I think that's too big of a coincidence, and you know, what we've

learned, of course, since Roger Stone said that is that whether it's Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort or you name any number of, you know, a half dozen officials, when it comes to these things, they lie about it. Even though it means that they risk or do go to prison.

BERMAN: And I do want to adhere, if that's what this is all about, it gets to the center of the whole Russia investigation. Did someone close to the president, Roger Stone advises the president on politics, did he have knowledge of e-mails hacked by the Russians and given to WikiLeaks? That's according to the indictments from Robert Mueller's team over the summer. Did Stone know about that?

Now, "The Washington Post" notes, this is interesting, that the Mueller team somehow got an unofficial transcript of the report, perhaps through director of national intelligence. So they know, they know what Roger Stone told you already. They've seen the notes already.

The reason to get the official transcript "The Post" says is because you need the official transcript for an indictment. Now, I don't know if that means Mueller is going to indict Roger Stone or not, but does this move tell you that perhaps he's getting closer to making the decision, the final part of his investigation, at least into Roger Stone?

HIMES: Well, you know, yes is the answer to that question. Obviously, if Roger Stone told the special counsel or told anybody in an official capacity a lie, that's a very big deal and a very big point of leverage that Mueller would now have on top of Roger Stone. Roger Stone is not a young man. He could probably contemplate like Paul Manafort spending a good chunk of the rest of his life in jail if Mueller decided to throw the book at him.

So, this is a big point of leverage. The reason this is important, John, you made this point, you know, we've seen all sorts of efforts on the part of Russians to reach out to the Trump campaign. We saw it with the Don Jr. meeting. We saw it with Michael Cohen and various -- we've seen the Trump people lie about it.

Roger Stone could be the guy who knew in advance what was going to happen because, again, he predicted bizarrely on time that WikiLeaks release of compromising e-mails on Hillary Clinton and if he knew about that in advance and didn't raise the alarm, you know, there is a very, very ugly fact for the Trump campaign.

BERMAN: He has denied it but then, again, Roger Stone has said a lot of things and denied a lot of things in the past. You just never know.

Congressman Jim Himes, thanks for being with us tonight. I really appreciate.

HIMES: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: With me now, CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. And, Jeffrey, this "Washington Post" story is fascinating as much for

the process as the fact what happened here. I was not aware you need the official transcript of Congress congressional testimony if you're going to indict for perjury. Now, I don't know if that's what Mueller's going to do but if he is going to do it, he needs the official transcript.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Just like in a tax case, you need the tax return, official copy of the tax return, not just any old Xerox copy. Same thing with a congressional -- with congressional testimony, it's got to come from Congress in an official way. This is not a guarantee that Roger Stone is going to be indicted but if you're Roger Stone, it's certainly an unnerving development.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. I mean, they could not indict him for lying to Congress without it.

TOOBIN: Right.

BERMAN: And --

TOOBIN: It's also been clear for months based on who we know have been going in and out of the grand jury, they've been looking at Stone. They have not called Stone, himself, to testify, which is consistent with how you treat a target of a grand jury investigation. So it's quite obvious that Mueller has been close to indicting Stone for some time, but that's not the same thing as an actual indictment.

BERMAN: All right. Roger stone, whom you're reported on for a long, long time.


BERMAN: This is how we responded to the "Washington Post" story today. He said that Mueller would need to prove intent and materiality and no reasonable attorney would conclude that that's happened here in terms of his testimony to Congress.

TOOBIN: You know, I don't like to throw around legal jargon on television, but Roger Stone is a classic BS artist. This is a guy who says different things at different times. And in a perverse way, that may actually help him here because the evidence against him like Congressman Himes was saying is that, you know, he said he knew that these WikiLeaks were coming -- this WikiLeaks disclosures about John Podesta were coming.

He could say, and a lot of people would believe him, especially those of us who've followed him for a long time says, "I was just blowing smoke. I didn't know what was happening. I was just throwing stuff in the air and trying to get people to believe that that things were going to happen to the Clinton campaign." That could be true. However, it could also be true that he did have this inside information and he was lying about it.

BERMAN: And Mueller may have documents. He may have sources to refute what Roger Stone said to Congress. If, if the Mueller team is able to go after Stone for lying to Congress, they did that with Michael Cohen. They used it as leverage. Do you ever think, based on what you know of Roger Stone, that he would cooperate?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, he has made a big point of saying that he would never cooperate. And, you know, this is a guy who values toughness above all else. You know, his political hero is Richard Nixon. As we've discussed, he has a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back.


TOOBIN: No, it's like -- I've seen it in person. It's like this big, Richard Nixon's head on his back. This is his political idol, you know, the guy who hung tough. In the face of an indictment, people sometimes change their minds but, you know, of all the people in this story, I would say Roger is among the least likely ever to flip against President Trump or anyone else for that matter.

BERMAN: Is it my business how you saw the tattoo in person?

TOOBIN: He took off his shirt and showed it to me.

BERMAN: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you for being with us. Thank you for sharing.

TOOBIN: There's even more sordid aspects to that story, but we'll leave it for another day.

BERMAN: Appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

TOOBIN: Part two.

BERMAN: And your discretion, frankly.


BERMAN: All right. Remember this White House reality show moment? I mean, meeting? The President lobbying for border wall money telling Senator Chuck Schumer he would be proud to shut down the government for border security. Well, tonight, it seems more and more likely there will be no wall money and also no government shutdown. The art of the no deal, next. Keeping them honest.


[20:36:57] BERMAN: Senate Republicans hit some snags today but they say they're still close to passing a bill to keep the government funded for the next several months. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced it earlier today. Another top Republican said the President would sign it.

And keeping them honest, that's a bit odd for two reasons, one, because the bill does not contain money for the President's border wall, and two, because just about a week ago the President said this.



TRUMP: -- I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don't want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. So, I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn't work. I will take the mantle of shutting down and I'm going to shut it down for border security.


BERMAN: Keeping them honest, sure seems like he won't. In fact, it almost seems like he bluffed, was called on it and is now backing down. This does not sound like a chapter from "The Art of the Deal" nor the kind of deal making he promised voters.


TRUMP: We need somebody with great energy, with great passion, with great deal making skills.

I'm going to make the great deals.

I am going to make great deals for our country.

I mean, what I do is I do deals. I deal.

I negotiate by creating leverage so I can extract a good deal for the United States, for the people.


BERMAN: He said all that. Then, again, he also said this.


TRUMP: I promise, we will build the wall.

And who's going to pay for the wall?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in unison): Mexico.

TRUMP: Who's going to pay for the wall?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in unison): Mexico.


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in unison): Mexico.

TRUMP: It will be a great wall. Mexico is going to pay for the wall.

Mexico is going to pay for the wall.

Mexico will pay for the wall.


BERMAN: Indirectly. That's right. The new and improved version is now Mexico will indirectly pay for the wall. And how do we know, because the President said so. Mexico is paying indirectly for the wall through the new USMCA, the replacement for NAFTA, far more money coming to the U.S. because of the tremendous dangers at the border, including large-scale criminal and drug inflow.

The United States military will build the wall. So, who is going to pay for it? Mexico, indirectly. Doesn't quite have the same ring, does it? It's kind of like the difference between lock her up and community service.

With me now, USA Today Columnist and CNN Political Analyst Kirsten Powers and former Trump White House Director of Legislative Affairs and CNN Political Commentator Marc Short.

Marc, Democrats are taking over the House a couple weeks from now. So, the way you look at this now, for all intents and purposes, was this the President's last best chance to get funding for his wall?

MARC SHORT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it is. One of the last opportunities we get funding for the wall, John. But I do think that where the administration should be focused, frankly, is to say accurately that last year they got the first new funding in 10 years at $1.6 billion.

[20:40:05] And I've heard the Democrat talking points and some have been echoed on this network to say it's not wall. It actually is $500 million of a levee system that is 20-foot concrete wall with a road in between and another wall on the other side. Its $200 million of actual new bollard fencing on the Rio Grande River and it's about $900 million of repairing fences from about 8 feet to raising it to 30 feet of bollard fencing, which is what causes the border patrol said they want.

So I think the administration should actually be taking credit for what they got and the new bill has another $1.6 million in. So it's actually the first new funding in 10 years just delivering on the President's commitment to actually build a wall.

BERMAN: I understand what you're saying. And, yes, there is funding that has been used for these border barriers, but it isn't the wall the President promised. In fact, he specifically cited that it can't be for the wall as he promised it. But, I do understand what you're saying.

SHORT: But, John, to that point, what the President said after the campaign is Customs and Border Patrol career officers came and said, "Here's the wall that we want. Here is the fencing that we want." That's the plan the administration submitted to Congress to get funding that Congress has funded. So, in fact, that is the White House proposal. That is what is actually Congress is supporting. I understand Democrats are in a tough spot because they want to say to their base, we never agreed to that, but they actually did.

BERMAN: Look, again, Marc, I understand what you're saying. That wasn't the promise, that wasn't who's going to build the wall, we are going to build the wall, who's going to pay for it? Mexico. It's neither of the things he promised during the campaign. Yes, that was the deal that was struck more than a year ago with Chuck and Nancy, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, and what has been extended at least for a few more months now.

Kirsten, you know, for a President who says he makes better deals than anybody, for a President who said he was going to get $5 billion for the wall this time, or else, what happened?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, first of all, I just -- I do want to just respond to what was just said. I mean, he has not gotten what he said he was going to get and he, you know, he most recently wanted $5 billion and he didn't get it. And the CBO has said that to build the wall will cost $18 billion. So, let's just think about that for a minute, $18 billion for this wall that we don't even need.

But he didn't get anywhere near the amount of money that he needs for the wall that he said was going to be paid for by Mexico. So I would say he's definitely failing on terms of getting done what he said he would get done in getting the deals that he needs to get done to accomplish one of his goals that he, you know, when he had both -- you know, the Senate and the -- you know, both sides of the Congress under Republican control. So it seems like a failure.

I would say it's a good failure. And I don't think that we should shame him for it because I think it was actually very mature behavior to say I'm not going to shut down the government because of the wall. And so I think it's turned into this thing of trying to shame Donald Trump for actually doing something that I think was mature.

BERMAN: Look, I thing that's an important point. The government will stay open until February. If you didn't want a shut down over Christmas, both sides have figured out a way to get there at least until February. Maybe there'll be a shut down over Valentine's Day. It will be less romantic for a lot of people.

Marc, the messaging from the President in that meeting one week ago with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, did that backfire on him?

SHORT: Well, John, I don't think that the expectations have been raised to get to $5 billion. As Kirsten knows, yes, we had Republican control of the House and Senate but you need 60 votes in the Senate on any spending bill. So that meant you're going to need to get nine, at least nine Democrat votes in the Senate, which was unlikely.

Having said that, again, I do think that it's something that the administration on the messaging front should be talking about what they got already as opposed to raising expectations that I think were difficult to meet.

BERMAN: And Kirsten, finally, on the fact that the President claims that Mexico will indirectly pay for the wall by way of trade with NAFTA, which, by the way, is not how revenue actually works.

POWERS: Right.

BERMAN: Is that an example of deal making?

POWERS: But that's -- what you just said, though, it's not -- I don't even know how that would work, that how would you even earmark that money or direct that money assuming that that amount of money came in, anyway. And like I said, I just think people need to think about this $18 billion and it's probably -- if the past is prologue, it will be more than that because usually when the government does something, whatever they think it's going to be, it's usually at least twice as much or more.

So, is he saying that we're going to get some benefits from a trade deal that hasn't been ratified yet, either? And then he's going to take that towards, you know, I'll put this towards the wall? I think people should be concerned about that.

[20:45:01] BERMAN: Kirsten Powers, Marc Short, thank you so much for being with us. Happy holidays to both of you.

SHORT: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: So this terrible forest fires in California, they have subsided. Investigators are now working on one of many possible causes as well as gathering evidence pointing to those responsible for more than a dozen of last year's fires in the state. Coming up, a CNN investigation uncovers the same company is, again, under scrutiny.


BERMAN: Investigators in California are hard at work trying to determine the cause of that terrible camp fire in the northern part of the state where at least 86 people were killed. There's equipment from one company being looked at as a possible cause. As CNN's Drew Griffin reports, it's the same company already blamed for nearly all of last year's fires in a single month.


NORMA QUINTANA, NAPA, CALIFORNIA RESIDENT: This area was my studio with big windows.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is all Norma Quintana has left of the home she lived in for 30 years. A macabre reminder of the day her physical world turned to ashes.

QUINTANA: The fire was behind us.

GRIFFIN: She and her family had five minutes to escape the atlas fire in fall of 2017. When they returned, it was all gone.

QUINTANA: I couldn't negotiate the loss. I couldn't negotiate the loss of a home. I couldn't.

GRIFFIN: Across Northern California, the fires in October of 2017 fueled by high winds and drought would kill 44, burned 8,900 homes and other buildings. As the burning ended, the burning question began. How did this happen?

DEPUTY CHIEF JAMES ENGLE, CAL FIRE: We had a number of fires that were the result of some type of ignition from power lines.

GRIFFIN: Cal Fire investigators concluded that 17 of the 18 fires in October of 2017 were caused by equipment from Pacific Gas & Electric, the multibillion dollar power company. In 11 of those fires, investigators found evidence PG&E violated state law. James Engle oversees fire investigations for Cal Fire.

(on camera) Is PG&E doing enough, in your mind?

ENGLE: Well, that's -- that's not my call to make. The wind -- in the case of those particular fires that they were referred to the district attorney if there is violations of law.

[20:50:06] GRIFFIN (voice-over): It's actually been going on now for years, 1994, '99, 2004, the whiskey fire in 2008, the deadly butte fire in 2015. Fire after fire that investigators found were caused by a power company failing to follow state regulations to trim trees or maintain equipment. J JOHN FISKE, ATTORNEY, BARON AND BUDD: You see a pattern and practice that PG&E is not willing to step up to the plate and do what it needs to do to prevent these utility-caused wildfires.

GRIFFIN: Attorney John Fiske has built a practice suing power companies, and specifically PG&E, for causing fires that are destroying Californians' lives. He's doing it, he says, because the state of California won't.

FISKE: And if you had a company that was out in the Atlantic and it kept starting hurricanes, and the government just kind of continued to let it start hurricanes, again, you'd consider that behavior to be almost sociopathic because people's lives are absolutely devastated.

GRIFFIN: PG&E was convicted of six felonies because of a gas pipeline explosion in 2010. Just last month, the president of California Public Utilities Commission announced a new review of PG&E, telling "The Wall Street Journal" he was very concerned, they, PG&E, still don't have accountability in place.

(on camera) Is PG&E getting the message, do you think?

ENGLE: I think you're going to have to ask them.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): We tried, but the company declined. And instead, sent a lengthy statement saying it expanded its community wildfire safety program, improving real-time monitoring, enhancing vegetation management efforts, conducting accelerated safety inspections, installing stronger and more resilient poles.

Critics point to the way PG&E has spent its money, awarding its CEO salary and stock worth $8.5 million in 2017, and spending another $8 million lobbying lawmakers in Sacramento to get a law passed that allows PG&E to pass some of the cost of the fires on to customers. Now, PG&E is dealing with this.

Last month's camp fire in Northern California killed 86 and destroyed the town of Paradise. Equipment from PG&E is being investigated as a possible cause. Attorney John Fiske says it has to stop.

FISKE: You don't need wildfires. Oftentimes the most vulnerable members of our community are affected because they're immobile and they cannot get out. That's how devastating these wildfires are. That's why it is so important that these companies change their practices. It's a matter of life and death.


BERMAN: And Drew Griffin joins me now. Drew, 11 of those terrible Northern California fires from last year, investigators found evidence PG&E equipment not only started the fires, but the company violated state law. Are charges being filed?

GRIFFIN: John, they are certainly being reviewed. Several district attorneys are asking California's attorney general to review these cases. PG&E itself, we reached out to them, they say they've yet to review those investigative reports saying they're not public yet, but in the meantime, the civil cases involving thousands of homeowners who lost homes like Norma Quintana in our piece have begun, John.

BERMAN: All right. Drew Griffin, thank you so much for your reporting and your work.

Coming up, Rudy Giuliani changes his story again about what the President did when he was trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Details on that next.


[20:57:44] BERMAN: There is more breaking news regarding the investigation into President Trump's business interests in Russia and on what happened on my friend Chris Cuomo's program last night. It all centered on whether Donald Trump back in October of 2015, signed a letter of intent that was meant to set the stage for negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Remember, during the 2016 election, there was zero indication from the Trump campaign that his company had explored any business deals in Russia during that campaign. And over the weekend, Rudy Giuliani, the President's T.V. lawyer, went even further, telling Dana Bash this. "It was a real estate project. There was a letter of an intent to go forward, but no one signed it." No one signed it. Remember that, then watch this. My colleague Chris Cuomo producing that letter, that signed letter, signed by none other than Donald Trump.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Here's the letter. Cohen didn't sign it, the President did. Then this weekend, the President's esteemed lawyer said, "It was a real estate project. There was a letter of intent to go forward, but no one signed it." Why are they doing this? This is Donald Trump's signature. It's here. We know this.


BERMAN: All right. So, people do make mistakes, I guess. Donald Trump obviously did sign it and tonight Giuliani reached out to Dana Bash again and said this. "I was wrong if I said it. I haven't seen the quote," Giuliani went on. "But I probably meant to say there was never a deal, much less a signed one."

Chris Cuomo joins me now. Mr. Cuomo, when you see this, is this another example of Rudy Giuliani, not really working as the President's lawyer exactly, but as a P.R. rep?

CUOMO: Well, that's 100. I think from the beginning people have miss analyzed the mayor's role that they were never getting ready for trial. Of course, it would seem like malpractice giving things away, creating false permutations of fact. That's why you'll have experts on the show say, this is like malpractice. Not if you're getting ready for a P.R. fight, it isn't. They're trying to own the facts. They're trying to own the narrative.

Now, that said, JB, I take Mayor Giuliani at his words. If he says he misspoke, that's good enough for me, I'll take it. Doesn't explain away the whole situation, though, because you still have the President who put that letter in Michael Cohen's mouth and said he signed it.

He knows that he signed it himself. Why did they say that? That goes to the P.R. campaign. You would never say things like that if you were worried about winding up in front of a judge or prosecutor.