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U.S. Official Military Has Been Ordered To Plan Withdrawal Of Half Of The Troops In Afghanistan; Mattis Quits In Protest Over Trump's Policies; As Shutdown Looms, House Passes New Spending Bill With Funding For Trump's Wall, Bill Now Goes To Senate; Defense Official: Mattis Quit On His Own Accord Over Multiple Issues, Including Trump's Syria Decision. Aired 8-9P ET

Aired December 20, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:16] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Good evening. Jim Sciutto here, sitting in for Anderson.

And this is quite an evening of news. The kind of leadership that causes a dedicated patriot like Jim Mattis to leave should give pause to every American. Retired General McChrystal tells me that tonight.

The wheels may be coming off. A supporter of the president tells us tonight, a Republican House member.

This too: Trump is too clueless or distracted to see he just got railroad, a defense official and senior commander in Afghanistan tells me. He goes on to say: This is profoundly shortsighted.

That is the reaction to one of two big breaking stories this evening, the departure of Defense Secretary James Mattis, the last of the so- called adults in the room and the latest of so many members of this administration to leave.

We first got word of it in a presidential tweet. The president saying, misleadingly it would turn out, that the decorated four-star marine general was retiring. Moments later, we learned in fact, a stinging letter came from the secretary. He was quitting, in protest.

And in that letter, not one single word of praise for the commander in chief, plenty to say, however, about sharp policy differences. And as you heard, the reaction from across the board from both parties, from the military, has been brutal. In one case, we should warm you, profane.

One lawmaker, a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said sharply and I don't like to say these words on the air, but this is the kind of thing we're hearing tonight, he said oh, shit.

And as we mentioned, this is just one of two important stories this evening. The other is the growing and now very real possibility of a government shutdown.

We begin, however, with Secretary Mattis, quitting in protest of the president's policies in a number of countries, as CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon. Barbara, you've been follow thing from the beginning. Tell us what

led to this decision to step down?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: This had been a growing decision for Jim Mattis throughout the day. What we are told by officials with how it unfolded is that at 7:30 this morning, Mattis decided that he needed to go to the White House and see the president. He had become quite concerned about the fate of Kurdish fighters in Syria with U.S. troops leaving.

These are the fighters that the U.S. has backed for years now. The fighters that the U.S. military had promised to stand by. And with U.S. troops leaving, those Kurds faced a potential blood bath from a Turkish invasion. And the Turks had talked about going -- coming after the Kurds in news reports that Mattis saw this morning.

So he became very, very worried about all of this we are told. He went to the White House at about 3:00, tried to make another effort to get the president to change his mind about Syria, and withdrawing U.S. troops. The president did not, and at that point Mattis had his resignation letter ready to go. He would come back to the Pentagon, inform his staff and inform the chairman of joint chief of staff that he would be leaving in February.

The letter, most instructive. General Mattis says: You have a right to a secretary of defense whose views are aligned with yours -- meaning his views are not aligned with Mr. Trump's.

You cannot underestimate a key fact here. This is a secretary of defense, a retired general with 40 years on the job, who basically tonight has fallen on his sword. He has said: I can no longer support the president of the United States -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: It is a remarkable moment. We've got a lot of officials leave, quietly, off the record, on background, express dissatisfaction. This is a very public departure.

So, the president summarily withdrawing troops in Syria, we know that. But you have new reporting just now of another drawdown of troops in Afghanistan.

STARR: What we are now told, Jim, is that the president has also ordered the Pentagon to begin planning for drawing down, withdrawing about half of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That could come out to somewhere like 7,000 troops. That will take some time. There's a lot of equipment there, a lot of U.S. Special Forces. But drawing down those troops, as well.

The common theme we see tonight in U.S. national security is that the president is very much pulling back on the U.S. commitments overseas in the war on terror. An isolationist view, back to U.S. borders, rejecting overseas deployments, believing that other countries should fight.

But the problem is this, in Afghanistan, you know better than anybody, local forces are not yet capable of fully defending their country. The Kurds are not capable of defending against is. If U.S. troops withdraw, you basically cede that ground in Afghanistan, in Syria, and potentially also in Iraq, to ISIS, to the Taliban, and there is great concern tonight that basically without the U.S. there, with Russia there, with Iran there, that terrorist safe havens could once again begin to grow -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: ISIS still alive in Syria. Al Qaeda still alive in Afghanistan. All these years after 9/11.

Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

STARR: Sure.

SCIUTTO: Let's go now to the White House where Jim Acosta has been speaking to courses there.

Jim, as we're speaking, I just want to put this up on the screen for our viewers. This is a list of the names who have left this administration so far, or announced that they are leaving, rolling their next to you. You look at that. These are names of consequence.

Nikki Haley, John Kelly, of course, Jim Mattis. We mention this as we started this story, that the president's initial announcement of this in a tweet was frankly false. He said that Mattis was retiring.

He was not. He was resigning rather in protest.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. I think it's safe to say we have a chaos Christmas here in Washington, and it's a chaos of the president's own making. You're right, that tweet from the president was not correct when he said that Jim Mattis is retiring. He's obviously resigning in protest.

The other thing interesting about those tweets of the president announcing the departure of the defense secretary, is that he says a new defense secretary will be named shortly. That suggests the president is trying to offer the suggestion that perhaps there's a plan in place for naming a new secretary of defense. Well, if that's the case, why did Secretary Mattis come over here in the middle of the afternoon at the White House, and resign so quickly after clashing with the president over the Syria policy?

It sounds as though, unless the president has a name at his back pocket that a new secretary of defense won't be announced quickly unless he decides to hurry up and do it. Jim, just talking to folks on Capitol Hill, there is a lot of distress about the way the president is handling things these days. And in the words as you were just pointing out a few moments ago, and this is something that a House Republican said earlier this evening, the wheels may be coming off. And this is a conservative House Republican who doesn't want to speak publicly, but willing to say that privately to send a message that this is too much chaos all at once.

SCIUTTO: Similarly, I spoke to a GOP congressman earlier, who used the expression F-ing distraught at the president's decision to leave Syria. And again, I don't like using that language on the air, but that's kind of language people are using to describe this.

Just as I'm speaking to you, Jim, I just want to remind viewers, these names that are scrolling on the screen and have been, these are all the people that left the Trump administration over the last several months. The question now, Jim, as you've been covering that building for some time, who, if anyone, can backing the president on Mattis' departure here? Who is defending him?

ACOSTA: Nobody really at this point, Jim. I mean, the only person that I suppose may not be against this at this point, and it's only because it hasn't been expressed is the Vice President Mike Pence. He's been a very loyal soldier to the president in all of this. We haven't heard from the vice president or his team about all of that.

But it does raise the question, and I think you're getting at this, as well, who would come in and become President Trump's next defense secretary? Because when you have this kind of clash with your own national security team over something like Syria, that sort of narrows your options. In the past, people like Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican senator, have been talked about for secretary of defense. I can't imagine he's looking at all of this and saying, yes, let me do that job. Lindsey Graham was also talked about as being a potential secretary of defense and he's been clashing with the president in the last 24 hours in all of this.

Rand Paul is the one senator who is backing the president on this Syria policy. So I suppose he might be okay with what's happened tonight. But, again, that really narrows the field of candidates for potential of secretary of defense, if you are looking for somebody whose foreign policy views are more aligned with Rand Paul than, say, Jim Mattis.

SCIUTTO: The other folks who welcome it is Russia. You see lots of positive comments from the Russian president.

Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Joining us now is one of Secretary Mattis' predecessors at the Pentagon. He's William Cohen. He served as defense secretary during the Clinton administration. Before that, he was a Republican senator from Maine.

Let me begin just simply, you have an enormous amount of experience here and you know Jim Mattis personally and professionally. What's your reaction to his departure?

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: It's not just about Syria. This is an issue which has been going on for some time now. You may recall when the entire national security team said that the Russians had attacked us, had attacked our democracy, President Trump said, he believed President Putin.

[20:10:01] He deferred to President Putin, saying President Putin said no, so I believe him and not my national security team, which included Jim Mattis and others. When the issue of North Korea, how to deal with North Korea came up,

once again, Jim Mattis was making one recommendation and he was overruled there. When it came time to talk about deploying our forces to the border on the south in this country, I believe Jim Mattis was opposed to that. And again, overruled.

So, day after day, or time after time, and I think this was the breaking point for Secretary Mattis, who has never been known to quit everything, every star that he has on his shoulders was earned in the blood and the mud of battle, and that has to be taken into account. When he says we are betraying our allies under these circumstances, remember this -- this week, a federal judge looked down at a former national security adviser and he said, you have betrayed your country.

I think Jim Mattis was saying it in another way, saying we are betraying our allies. We depend upon our allies to keep us secure. We depend upon having allies the world over. That extends our defense perimeter. And when you start pulling our troops out, bad things happen, and we are betraying the security of this country.

And I think that Jim Mattis, I talked to him last evening, is the first time in two years, he is a dear friend that I called him at the Pentagon and said, tell me it's not true. And I can tell you, he was distraught, just in our discussions. We didn't talk about resignation, but I can tell you what he felt that this is a betrayal of our allies, not only in Syria, but all of the allies who supported this battle against ISIS, and the war is not over. They have not been defeated.

And what he was concerned about is our credibility and our reputation for reliability has now been called into question. And the president can say, I made a campaign promise. You can make a campaign promise, but some of them are made to be broken. In this particular case, when you put thousands of people's lives at risk, you give a free pass to Iran, to President Putin once again, who likes this decision, you give it to Assad, who is a known killer as such, and then you say, well, you're giving a green light to go in and kill all those Kurds right now. You're giving that to Erdogan and Turkey.

Jim Mattis could not accept that anymore.

SCIUTTO: I hear it, and I feel it in your voice and I've known you for some time and I can feel the anger and frustration here.

Is America less safe today? Because of his departure but also the president's decision in Syria and Afghanistan.

COHEN: The president has taking a wrecking ball to every pillar of stability and security we have erected over the past 60, 70 years. He's systematically demolishing them, starting off with TPP, where he undermined 11 -- 10 other nations and signing an economic agreement that would have, in fact, been in our overall interest, starting there and just systematically going after criticizing publicly our NATO allies. And they should have been criticized, but in the way you demean them.

SCIUTTO: Questioning their commitment to NATO, as well.

COHEN: And you question their integrity as such and undermine NATO. Putin likes that. Putin was in favor of Brexit. The president was in favor of Brexit. So, now, we have a much more chaotic, disorganized, disorderly world.

And now, our role in that world is going to come back to Continental United States, thinking we're safe in some kind of continental cocoon. I think it's a big mistake. I think we're in more danger now than we've been before.

SCIUTTO: There has been this debate through the Trump administration for senior advisers in this position, who believe he's damaging the country. Do they resign or do they stay, right? Clearly, Mattis reached his breaking point, and went through his breaking point. In your view, should other senior defense officials resign in protest?

COHEN: Every person who serves in a presidential cabinet serves at the pleasure of the president. If it comes to the point where you no longer pleasing to the president and you no longer feel that you can carry out his directives, without something being antithetical to your core principles, it's time to step aside and say, Mr. President, I can't do this.

I think Jim Mattis came to that point saying, I've never resigned from everything, I've carried the fight in every battle I've been in, but I cannot do this in the name of our country.

SCIUTTO: You describe a series of decisions on America's greatest national security threats -- Russia, Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea. Is the president fit to be commander in chief in your view?

COHEN: In my judgment, no. I expressed this view to begin with. I must say it publicly, I did not support him for the president. I felt that that by training and background and temperament, that he was not fit for the job, and everything I've seen to date -- not everything, I give him credit when he's been right and I give him credit for taking on China on multiple issues. But when it comes to the national security and the way he's dealing with our allies and the way he is betraying our interests, then I say no.

[20:15:06] SCIUTTO: Secretary Cohen, thank you. I feel it in your voice, and you've done your time there. You've got the experience. Thank you for sharing that with us.

COHEN: Good to be with you.

SCIUTTO: Joining us now, we have retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, who served as spokesman in the Defense Department during the Obama administration and also spent decades in the U.S. Navy. Also former Obama White House communications director, Jen Psaki, and retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, among other places.

John Kirby, you spent a lot of time in government, and I know you have interacted with Secretary Cohen. You heard what I heard there, and you heard the depth of feeling and experience behind it. Do you share those views and those concerns at this hour?

JOHN KIRBY (RET.), FORMER STATE DEPT. SPOKESEPERSON, OBAMA ADMIN: I do, I do. Secretary Mattis has a long history and record of very patriotic, very dedicated, very measured and mature service to this country. It's a real blow to our national security that he's decided to do this. But in a sense, I think Secretary Cohen got in this, he had no choice. When you can't support your boss anymore, you have to step ahead and walk away.

The one thing I quibble with in his letter is this idea you deserve a secretary of defense more aligned with your views. And I think, yes, in a macro sense that's true, but you want a defense secretary that can go to you and disagree.

SCIUTTO: Speaks truth to power.

KIRBY: Dissent, and try to get you to go to the right way. He tried on many issues. The Iran deal, the moving the embassy to Jerusalem, transgender ban, he military parade, we could go on and on, he tried and failed, and obviously he's finally reached a point where he simply isn't willing to have those fights anymore.

SCIUTTO: Yes. General Hertling, I wonder, the president made his decision on Syria by our own reporting over the recommendation over all of his senior advisers, not just Mattis, Pompeo, John Bolton, his national security, many senior Republicans who have been the president's supporters. Who fills that position now? Who is a voice with credibility who can disagree with the president and convince him otherwise, or is that lacking now in this country and this administration?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), U.S. ARMY: You used a key word, Jim, and that's disagree. This president doesn't want disagreement. He doesn't want to be challenged. He doesn't want to see things outside of his bubble of his ideological thought.

And that's the challenge. I think Secretary Mattis finally came to the point where he tried his best, as Admiral Kirby just said, and said I can't do it anymore.

Here's the interesting thing, Jim, and John will tell you this, this is a different kind of resignation from a cabinet position than any of the other ones that have resigned or been fired, because Secretary Mattis grew up in a military culture where we talk about resignations. It's discussed in our war colleges and our staff colleges. When do you get to the point where you can't either do what your pos wants because it's illegal, unethical or immoral or you have major disagreements with it? And then you weigh the balance between continuing to contribute to the organization or saying, I'm gone.

When a guy like Mattis says he's gone, there's something dysfunctional. And there's a lot of things in this administration that are dysfunctional.

You said to Jim Acosta a little while ago, the wheels have come off. The wheels have been off for a long time and we've been seeing sparks fly off the axle for as long as -- well, for a long time. Let's just put it that way. And this has got to change. The security of our nation is more important than these crazy, narcissistic moods of the president of the United States.

SCIUTTO: Jen Psaki, you spent a number of years in the Obama administration. You know about the policymaking process, right, there are debates, there are discussions, there are proposals, tabled, considers, adjusted, debated, et cetera. It seems that process does not exist in this administration, that the president tweets, the president decides on a whim.

How dysfunctional is that for a country, for an administration?

JEN PSAKI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, Jim, it's hugely dysfunctional. The panel touched on this already, but one is, it's not withdrawing troops that in itself is the issue. It's part of it in these cases certainly. But it's the way he's gone about it.

He's done it against the recommendation of his military generals as we know. It's done it without warning to our partners and allies around the world, and it's done it in a way that says we can't be trusted and that we're not going to hold true to our promises. Those are all discussion that happened through a normal process in the Situation Room, and that any president typically undertakes.

I also think Secretary Cohen made an important point about the difference between a campaign promise and what it's like to be president of the United States. I worked for President Obama when he was running for president. He got elected in part because he opposed the Iraq war. People thought he would withdraw troops immediately.

[20:20:02] He came in, he listened to military generals, he made some choices that were not supported by the left wing of the party, because that's what you do when you're president. You take -- you make tough choices, some that aren't political popular, and you do them because it's in the interest of the country.

And what's alarming today are many things, but it's also the juxtaposition of who President Trump is listening to. He's listening to Ann Coulter about shutting down the government over the wall instead of listening to General Mattis. And that should be pretty alarming to people who are paying attention.

SCIUTTO: Well, of course, the irony is Obama did withdraw troops from Iraq and saw the consequences and have reversed. The question is, will Trump -- is Trump capable of a reversal like that if the facts warranted?

Listen, stay with us. We have a lot more to discuss. We're going the take a quick break now and we'll pick up this conversation.

Shortly, joining us next is a Republican congressman and war veteran, I'm going to get Adam Kinzinger's take on all of this.

And later, the House just moments ago on a bill to keep the government running. Also, the chaos leading up to it, that even some Republicans are blaming on this president.


SCIUTTO: We're speaking tonight about what virtually everyone is speaking about, in very dark terms, the departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted, just a short time ago: OK, Republicans, how much longer are you going to let this farcical presidency, in quotes, continue? At a time of such political, economic and geostrategic turbulence, both nationally and globally, are you waiting for a catastrophe to happen before acting? Disaster looms!

Well, joining us now is a House Republican, and also a Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, Congressman Adam Kinzinger.

Thanks very much for joining us tonight.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: You bet. Yes, thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, let me just ask the most straightforward question, that is, is America less safe today with General Mattis' departure, but the decision to withdraw troops from Syria and now to drawdown troops from Afghanistan?

KINZINGER: Yes. I mean, yes. We're less safe. I think does that mean tomorrow something bad is going to happen? You know, hopefully not.

But what it does mean is Syria now is going to be given over to the Russians, and they're emboldened. It's given to the Iranians, Assad is emboldened. ISIS, which is not destroyed, is going to recruit a bunch of more people because they just vanquished the United States of America.

The president, who ran on be in this real tough guy that's just going to just destroy ISIS, gave up, it feels like. And then with these rumors about Afghanistan, you know, it's unbelievable at a time when we're supposed to be negotiating with the Taliban, that maybe he would signal withdrawal?

I mean, anything you know about instruments of power and how diplomacy works, it doesn't work by removing the military threat, and in two cases in two days that was done. So, I don't understand. I guess somebody ran -- the rumors Rand Paul got in his ear and overruled his security team, there is going to be major consequences to this.

SCIUTTO: And I should say, CNN is reporting that drawdown is a reality.

[20:25:01] I wonder, this is really a singular moment, because you have a senior administration official who resigned in protest. He didn't walk out and give some background quotes months later. He left and he put a flag in the ground as he left.

In your view, should other members of his staff, other members of the military, should General Dunford, the chairman of the join chiefs of staff, also resign in protests?

KINZINGER: Well, it's hard to put myself in their shoes, because, you know, you're obviously and I are just discussed it, you know, duty to the country versus a disagreement, major disagreement. I will tell you, if I was in that position, it would be hard for me to continue, because things like Syria, things like Afghanistan, this is 20 years of American policy, and it's easy to say, we just want to bring everybody home for Christmas.

Here's the point, yes, we want to have the military home for Christmas. But every one of the members of the military are volunteers, and they volunteer to kill America's enemies and to protect our country. So this idea that you're doing a favor by bringing everybody home for Christmas, it's like a sugar rush. You're going to enjoy it for a moment.

But I tell you, the military is absolutely disheartened by this. I'm hearing it from my friends, a lot of, what is the president thinking? And, you know, look, what can we do about it besides speak out?

Congress has to be loud about this. There's no obviously enforcement mechanism, because the president is the commander in chief. But along my colleagues that I was talking to on the floor tonight, there is a lot of concern, like I've never seen in my life.

SCIUTTO: I would say, my phone has been lighting up by current and former soldiers, expletive ridden, but just surprise and sadness at this decision.

I wonder, particularly you as a veteran yourself, does President Trump, with this move, risk losing the support of the military community, which is essentially has supported him by and large?

KINZINGER: The military will always obey the commander in chief. So, that's important to keep in mind.

But in terms of their morale, in terms of whether they think the commander in chief is making the right decisions, I'm sure there are some, because there are some that are sympathetic to all kinds of viewpoints. But I will tell you by and large, there is a lot of confusion reining among my friends in the military, among other people in the military which is, look, we had Iran on their heels, we had ISIS on their heels, with 2,200 troops in Syria, a relatively small investment. And he gave it up because he thinks there's riots in the street of Syria. There's not.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and it's difficult to see what constituency he thinks he wins with this.

Final question and you tee this up a bit, what are Republicans prepare to do, able to do, Congress, Senate, or the House, to keep the president from further endangering national security?

KINZINGER: Well, that's a question I can't answer right now, because the -- frankly the president, and I said this whether it was President Obama or President Trump, is vested a lot of power in the Constitution. What he's not doing is not violating the Constitution. But what we can do, is maybe through resolutions, letters, speaking out, make our voice heard.

And that's why I've been active on this in the last 24 hours, because we have to hear the other side of this. We have to talk about, what is at stake with this, and hope the president changes his mind and hope the people around him can get into his ear and he ignores the Rand Paul view of this party, which is not a Republican view, it's a libertarian view. It's masquerading as Republicanism and it's very dangerous.

There's a reason libertarians get about 2 percent in every national election because 98 percent of American people realize that's crazy foreign policy.

SCIUTTO: Congressman, thanks for taking the questions tonight and credit where credit is due, not a lot of Republican lawmakers were willing to talk about it tonight, and we appreciate you took up the cause. Thank you very much.

KINZINGER: You bet. Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Joining us again, Admiral John Kirby, Jen Psaki, General Mark Hertling.

Admiral Kirby, big picture view here. The president is withdrawing American leadership and power from half a dozen fronts from around the world -- Syria, Afghanistan, some of the drawdown that Mattis opposed in North Korea, talk of reducing troops there, but stopping exercises. You know, even with Saudi Arabia, and the killing of Khashoggi, not using American power to drive, you know, better behavior by a U.S. ally there.

Is American a diminished power under Trump?

KIRBY: We are becoming a diminished power under Trump. Here's what bothers me the most about the Syria decision and what we hear now about Afghanistan. There's no strategy behind it. He's just saying I'm going to pull us out because I don't think we should be involved in these foreign entanglements. But there's no vision of what you want to see Syria become. And where do you want Afghanistan to go?

It's not that the troops are the answer to everything. They are an element of national power. But what I'm not hearing is, what is the strategy behind this? Where are you trying to go in the Middle East and in Afghanistan? And it's just not there.

SCIUTTO: I want to prebut, if there are folks at home thinking this is a Democratic view. We just had a GOP lawmaker on and it is military -- hardened military folks who are saying some of the most striking thing about this.

I just want to repeat General Stanley McChrystal who led black ops in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to great distinction.

[20:30:00] SCIUTTO: He said the kind of leadership that causes a dedicated patriot like Jim Mattis to leave should give pause to every American.

Jen Psaki, Stanley McChrystal is a not a fire breathing Trump critic.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. he's a person. And he certainly wasn't a fan at all times of my former boss, President Obama. He's a person who served in the military --


PSAKI: Exactly, for decades. But I think he's speaking for a big population of the military, of national security professionals, of people who are serving overseas, who are very concerned about the lack of strategy, as Admiral Kirby said, that you see from President Trump and also who is identifying as his friends and partners. And that was alluded to a bit in General Mattis' letter.

But just to dive into it a little further, I mean, you reference possibly point troops back from South Korea, who does that make happy? Kim Jong-un. His pull back of troops in Syria, who does that make happy? President Putin. So, it's important to note that because these are the type of people that President Trump is aligning himself with. And those aren't the type of people that for decades we have aligned ourselves with and it really is contradictory to our values.

SCIUTTO: General Hertling, the President saying that he'll announce a new Secretary of Defense by the end of the year, going to be intimating that there was a plan behind it. That's not true. We know that. We know that Mattis went there, try to convince the President, couldn't and summarily resigned. Who is going to take his position from this? The President had trouble filling his chief of staff position, but who's going to take Secretary of Defense?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Maybe Mick Mulvaney. I don't know, Jim, but here's what I tell you. What Jen and John just said is critically important because this is a very dangerous time. We not only have to think about what our strategy is, which has been ignored in some of these decisions he's going to make, not trying to dodge your question, but the enemy has a strategy, too.

You know, you have to look at the ends, ways, and means of the North Korean dictator, of the Syrian dictator, of what's going on in Afghanistan and the status of that. It just can't be a marketing scheme, which seems to be what's driving the current administration in the way they approach things.

And sometimes marketing has lies behind it, and we've seen that in spades from this administration. You can't do that with national security. You have to rely on the intelligence community, you have to rely on facts, and then you have to determine what is your best strategy for how you fit in the world.

It isn't just unilateral decisions without any agreement from generals. So when you take all those things into consideration, who is going to be the next Secretary of Defense, I have no clue. But he better be a very special person and he better have a steel backbone to stand up to this President and say, "You don't know everything there is to know about the world, and you don't know much about national security."

SCIUTTO: John Kirby, you know, one quick final thought.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY, (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I just think what we have to worry about is it's going to be an ideologue now. It's going to be somebody who is much more ideologically aligned with Trump and his foreign policy and that's not necessarily good for his long term.

SCIUTTO: Fair point. Admiral Kirby, Jen Psaki, General Hertling, thanks very much to all of you.

As we said at the beginning of this program, if the turmoil over the resignation of Secretary Mattis were not enough tonight, Washington tonight also shaken by a looming government shutdown. The House passed a bill just a short time ago, but is the shutdown inevitable? That's what the vote count looks like. We're going to have the latest just ahead.


[20:35:44] SCIUTTO: Well, there's more breaking news tonight, this on Capitol Hill. The House is giving President Trump what he wants, a manieth (ph) funding bill that includes new money for his border wall and money to fund part of the government.

CNN's Ryan Nobles has the latest from Capitol Hill. So, Ryan, this bill passed the House, but at the Senate, does he have the votes?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: You know, Jim, it is very hard to find anybody on Capitol Hill who believes that the Senate will pass this, specifically with the margin necessary to pass this legislation. They'll likely need 60 votes to get it over the finish line.

You know, Democratic leaders have been insistent that they have no interest in supporting any type of legislation, even if it means keeping the government open, if it includes funding for a border wall, and the $5.5 billion that was inserted into this bill by House Republicans about an hour ago is exactly what the Democrats are opposed to.

And to be clear, Jim, there's also quite a few Republicans on the Senate side that are also uncomfortable with the way that this language was inserted into this bill at this stage of the game after it seemed both the White House, the House and the Senate leaders on both Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle had agreed to pass a clean continuing resolution that would keep the government open until February. So the big question now is, what happens next?

And, you know, Jim, there are Republicans in the House who believe that this opens the door for Democrats and the White House to begin another conversation on border wall funding, but that doesn't seem to be based in any kind of reality. Democrats have said over and over again that that is a nonstarter for them. They felt like they had a deal on the table, and the President turned his back on that deal. And so now a shutdown seems very likely as we are now approaching that midnight deadline on Friday night. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Christmas shutdown. Ryan Nobles, thanks very much.

Joining me now, USA Today Columnist and CNN Political Analyst Kirsten Powers, and two of our political commentators, former Trump campaign adviser, Steve Cortes, and former Republican congressman, Charlie Dent.

Steve, simple question to you, is this going to end well for the President?

STEVE CORTES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think it will, because it's going to end well eventually for America. Now, there may be a lot of near-term consternation and I don't want a government shutdown and I do realize that it will bring pain to some people, but in my view it is well worth the temporary problems of shutting down part of the government so that we can permanently shutdown what has -- is a porous border that is a massive threat to our national and economic security of this country.

So I'm glad that the President said he won't sign this continuing resolution. I think the Senate abdicated its responsibility by simply punting it to February in saying, "We'll deal with this later because we want to get home early for Christmas." That's not leadership. So I think the President is showing leadership here in trying to force their hand.

SCIUTTO: But, Charlie Dent, the part of the government that's going to shutdown, you know, it's going to be the Department of Homeland Security, some elements of law enforcement, health care, et cetera. I mean, these are not inconsequential parts of the government. Is that a price worth paying for the American people?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely not. Look, this is utterly reckless. We all know how this is going to play out. The House just sent a bill over to the Senate. The votes aren't there in the Senate. The Senate will strip out that $5 billion. They're going to send it back to the House. And if the House doesn't pass it, this is going to shutdown.

There's absolutely no reason to do this. The President had a deal on border security, and DACA, the Dreamers. He walked away from it. The President, like you said the other day, he's going to own this. You know, these members of Congress, they have a responsibility to govern and this is an utter failure of leadership if, in fact, we actually shut this thing down.

And after a week like this, with Jim Mattis just announcing his resignation and, you know, the Cohen, and Flynn, and the Syria pullout, I mean, this has just been an incredible week. I mean, in fact, this is -- it seems like they're in crisis over there. I mean, order.

We need order and stability and discipline, not this disorder and dysfunction, constant chaos. This is just terrible for the country and I think as center right conservatives, people ought to stand up and say this. This is not conservatism. This is nativism, protectionism, isolationism, and that will shutdown. This is just not in the interest of this country.

SCIUTTO: Kristen, you heard Charlie Dent there. He laid out, you know, events that seem a million years ago.

[20:40:03] General Flynn appearing before a court 48 hours ago but, I mean, the series of events this week, is this an administration in chaos to the point where it can't run this country?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think, yes. I think they've been in chaos for a while. But today, it was a particularly chaotic day. And I think that you even see the chaos now bleeding into the right, which we haven't typically seen in the past where you have them now turning against the President, and I think feeding into the chaos a bit, because that's why he has walked back his earlier claims.

I sat here last night saying, you know, we shouldn't chide him or shame him for so-called caving, because he did the responsible thing in terms of avoiding a government shutdown and compromising on the wall. And then he gets attacked by Fox News and Ann Coulter, and he changes course and now he's willing to shutdown the government over Christmas.

So, you know, I don't see any other way to spin this other than chaos, especially when you add in the resignation of General Mattis, which was not just a resignation of somebody who is highly respected, it was a complete rebuke of his foreign policy. And I think that that's the thing that is just the most shocking about it.

SCIUTTO: So Steve Cortes, defend this for me. Did Steve Mattis -- Jim Mattis, rather, enormously respected? It takes a lot for him to walk out of that door and rebuke the commander in chief. You had the President's national security adviser rebuked by a federal judge this week contradicting the President's claims of FBI, you know, forcing him to lie.

You have the President now running into a government shutdown in the face of the reality. He just doesn't have the votes or the support or the money for the wall. Defend the President's running of the country this week.

CORTES: Sure. Well, you know, those are very different issue stuff, but if I can start with the last one --

SCIUTTO: But they've all happened within the last 48 hours.


SCIUTTO: They're all happened within the last 48 hours. CORTEZ: I know. Listen, that the pace of news in Trump world is frenetic, that is for sure. You know, we can never rest in the news business. But regarding the law --

SCIUTTO: But it's not new. It is generated by the administration. It's decision that this President has made.

CORTEZ: OK, hold on. When it comes to the wall and, you know, I think Kirsten is by the way exactly right. I think the President was waffling on this. I'm sorry, waffling is probably too strong a word, but he was at least considering what was advertised as a compromise. And in my view, it was no compromise at all.

The President got nothing. He got no funding for the wall and he got to sign yet another gargantuan spending bill like he did during omnibus that he promised us that he wouldn't do it again. So those of us, you know, his fervent supporters, those of us from the 2016 movement from the campaign, yes, we were very, very worried about it.

I said so last night on the air, I said, I can't imagine. For example, I've already pledged to work for his reelection in 2020, I can't imagine going to voters and trying to explain to them why we don't have a wall in 2020, why we came up short on that issue, because it was a foundational promise of his campaign, the foundational promise of his campaign.

And we've had a Republican Congress go for a few more days. We have to do everything possible to try to get this done, not because it's a vanity project or just because he promised, but because it's right for the security of the American people. Walls work all over the world, particularly in Israel. I think that's the best example to look while we work on our southern border.


SCIUTTO: I want you both to respond, but Charlie has been shaking his head throughout. Republican Congressman Charlie respond and then let's go right to Kirsten.

DENT: I served on the Homeland Security Committee, I have not heard one serious expert on border security said we have 2,000 mile wall. I've never heard anybody say that. What we do need is operational control of the border.

I voted for the Secure Fence Act back in 2006 that allowed for 700 miles of vehicular and pedestrian barriers, detention beds, border patrol agents, technology on the border, you know, we have to do more. But simply somebody please define wall to me. Is it just -- it's a wall with Steel Slats 2,000 miles? How long is this going to be?

Everybody knows that this is not the best way to establish border security by itself. And so to go to the mattresses over this, in my view, is just simply insane. We have to get back to some measure of order and discipline and stability in this country and it's got to start with the President of the United States. I mean, this anarchy has got to end. I mean, I feel like, you know, there are a few inflection moments that --


CORTES: Charlie, the anarchy that has to end is the anarchy at the border.

SCIUTTO: One at a time. Let him finish his thought.

CORTES: We have thousands of people --

DENT: Well, come on. And so, I feel like this is Charlottesville week, a Scaramucci week. This just seems worse. I mean, everything -- I mean the Trump Foundation just got shutdown this week, in addition to all the other things we just mentioned. I mean it just seems like --


CORTES: -- that defines our border, and it has for many years. And unfortunately, we have thousands of people that --


[20:45:00] SCIUTTO: Let's Kirsten come in.

CORTES: -- they got here and they attack our border.

SCIUTTO: Actually, the numbers are down. But, Kirsten, please go ahead.

POWERS: It's just completely disconnected from reality. It is not -- there is not chaos. You know, to the extent that there's any chaos happening is created by the President. And, you know, him sending the military to the border to fight off so-called invaders, which are actually just desperate people trying to get to a safer country, you know, is the chaos that we see.

And so I think it was a campaign promise. It's a bumper sticker campaign promise, and he made a promise that Mexico was going to pay for it. Everybody knew that that was completely bogus and that's how he got himself into this mess, is that Mexico is not paying for it. And so we don't talk about that. Mexico must be paying for this, right? Mexico is never going to pay for it.

Now, you guys are mad at the Congress for not funding it when the Mexico was supposed to pay for it. So why is this Congress' fault?

SCIUTTO: Kirsten, Steve, Congressman Dent, these are issues we're going to be run away through sometime, but thanks all tonight for taking the hard questions.

CORTES: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Coming up, I'm going to speak with a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee about Mattis' resignation, and whether as Republican Congressman Will Hurd says it is bad news for the nation and the security of the world. That's from a Republican congressman. Stay with us


SCIUTTO: Defense Secretary James Mattis quitting in protest today has withdrawn sharp reaction across the board in the defense community, outside on both sides of the aisle, even from ordinarily soft spoken people such as former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen. When I spoke with him earlier this hour, it was impossible to ignore the anger, the frustration, the deep feeling behind his words. Have a listen.


WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: The President has taken a wrecking ball to every pillar of stability and security we've erected over the past 60, 70 years. He systematically demolishing that.


SCIUTTO: Joining me now is Senator Jack Reed, a distinguished army veteran himself, also a ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator, we thank you for taking the time tonight.


SCIUTTO: You know, I imagine you know Secretary Cohen well.

REED: I do.

SCIUTTO: You heard in his voice -- I mean, his voice was crack there thing with conviction. Are you concerned tonight about America's safety at home and abroad?

REED: I am because, first, you have the announcement of a policy in Syria that is going to be quite detrimental to our security interests, the stability in the region. It was done presumptively with -- impulsively without collaboration, not only with his own staff, but with our allies.

[20:50:02] And it really, I think, is going to generate significant consequences not just in Syria, but in Iraq, which is a very fragile country at the moment, perhaps even in Jordan opening up opportunities for Iran to extend their sway.

If you have that significant substantive decision, then you have the resignation of one of the most outstanding secretaries of defense that we've ever had and I think former Secretary of Defense Cohen would agree, a man of great principle, a man who served with great, great fidelity and also dedication to the men and women in uniform. And he left not, you know, in a casual way, but he left, you know, criticizing the President's approach to national --

SCIUTTO: Definitively on the way out. None of this -- as I've been saying, none of this kind of blind quotes months later.

REED: Yes.

SCIUTTO: I mean, he laid down the line.

REED: He -- again, you expect that from Jim Mattis. I'm -- if I'm going to resign, I'm going to be honest with myself, with the American people because that's what he is.

SCIUTTO: Now, I understand you spoke with Jim Mattis today.

REED: I started this morning at 7:30 a.m. on a skiff. We were talking about Syria. I made many of the points I just made now about how it was a bad policy. In fact, it would be a tremendously disruptive and destructive policy, and he listened as he always does very attentively, asked questions. I think he wanted to get a feel for -- not just my viewpoint, but the viewpoint of my colleagues and others, and then we, you know, parted.

I did not expect him, frankly, to resign. I think that came later in the day when he tried his best to convince the President after listening to many people that this was a terrible policy. It would endanger the United States. It would endanger our allies. And it would cause this great questioning of our willingness to be a reliable partner in any endeavor.

SCIUTTO: Sarah Sanders, she said tonight that Secretary Mattis and the President "have a good relationship, but sometimes disagree." I wonder if that's an accurate description of their relationship, because Secretary Cohen made the point that Mattis was deeply frustrated with a number of prior moves by this administration, cancelling exercises with South Korea, questioning the intelligence community's findings Russia's interference on the election. I mean, this was really kind of the straw that broke the camel's back, was it not?

REED: This was the straw that broke the camel's back. And the sense I've had at this from afar, frankly, is that the President has been trying to distance himself from the secretary as the secretary is trying to do his job for the benefit of the American people and particularly, I say again, the men and women in the uniform of the United States.

And so I think at this point, though, the policy was so wrong-headed, was so ill-conceived, was so detached from the reality of the facts on the ground that he just could not continue to serve.

SCIUTTO: What can Congress do to reign in the President's worst impulses on key national security issues today? In fact, it's in our constitution, commander in chief has enormous amount of power.

REED: Enormous amount of power. You know, we have done that in the past. But just a few days ago, literally, there was a significant vote on the War Powers Act with respect to Yemen. That was the Senate voting in a bipartisan manner, very strongly, sending the signal they have to do more to end quickly the fighting in Yemen.

Then in addition to that, there was a unanimous resolution condemning the killing of Khashoggi by the Saudis, particularly naming the crown prince. That was I think a very specific and very direct. So we can use not only the bully pulpit, but with Congress -- the House, rather, now being in control of the Democrats in January, the hearings process, to bring the facts forward to identify areas of significance to the country.

SCIUTTO: Well, I know the country is going to be looking to you. Senator Jack Reed, thanks very much for taking the time.

REED: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Let's check in now with Chris to see what he's working on for "Cuomo Prime Time," which, of course, starts at the top of the hour. I mean, Chris, it's been a remarkable day, a truly remarkable day, a series of remarkable days.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Never seen anything like it, Jimmy. I've never seen this type of resignation and protest of this level figure in an administration, let alone what this man means to this administration. I mean, who is left? Where will the good guidance come from? That's one of the questions we're taking on tonight and also trying to find the paths forward in these situations.

You know, you and I live the reality of what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and what mission accomplished has meant in the past and what the surge was, and what Afghanistan always remains to be. So where do we go from here. Where do we go from here on the continuing resolution? What's going to happen over Christmas? There are a lot of big questions stirred up by what this President did rationally, and now we have to find a way out of it.

SCIUTTO: And who's going to give the President advice he doesn't want to hear? That's the question. Chris, thanks a lot. We're going to see you in just a few minutes.

[20:55:03] Coming up next, the word of the day at the White House, chaos. We haven't even gotten to the fact that the President tweeted a video of himself in overalls singing the "Green Acres" theme song, but we will, next.


SCIUTTO: At the end of really just a chaotic day here, largely being blamed including by some Republicans, many Republicans on the President's impulsive decisions, we want to leave you tonight with this, a presidential tweet. You might call it his thoughts on the legislative process.

Here's what he posted shortly before signing the $867 billion farm bill this afternoon. And keep in mind, this is while the threat of a shutdown was actually growing, Republicans openly saying there was no guidance or leadership from the White House, and the market was down around 400 points on its way to being down 1,000 point this week. And before you ask, yes, he really did tweet this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Green acres is the place for me. Farm living is the life for me. Land spreading out so far and wide --


SCIUTTO: Yes, that's a presidential tweet which we are told an official President statements. And on a day like today, a massive appropriate appropriation's bill affecting millions of Americans apparently reminding him of a sketch that he once did at the Emmy's. Governing is like that, I supposed.

Actress Megan Mullally in that video with Mr. Trump had a tweet of her own in response. "If you guys need me," she writes, "I'll be in a whole in the ground."

A reminder, please don't miss Anderson's show at "Full Circle." It's a daily interactive broadcast on Facebook. Always great to watch. The news continues. I want to hand it over to Chris Cuomo. "Cuomo Prime Time" starts right now.