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No Deal Yet to Avert Government Shutdown at Midnight; Interview with Senator Bernie Sanders; Sources: Trump Recently Vented At Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker About The Michael Cohen Investigations; Trump Turmoil Shutdown Looms, Mattis Quits, Markets Tank; Reaction To Mattis Resignation Still Heated; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Has Cancerous Nodules Removed From Lung No Evidence Of Any Remaining Disease. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired December 21, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:27] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: The federal government will shut down tonight.

Good evening. Jim Sciutto here, sitting in for Anderson.

That is the bottom line. After days of wrangling over the president's border wall and a week of turmoil surrounding this president, not to mention the worst week on Wall Street in a decade, tonight's deadline will come and go without funding to keep the lights on. That means offices and agencies will close. Twenty-five percent of your government will go unfunded, 380,000 people will be put on furlough, 420,000 people doing essential jobs, including about 55,000 at the TSA, they'll stay at work but they won't get paid.

There's a lot of folks who will not be getting any paychecks over the holidays. And just last week, the president said if a shutdown happens, blame him.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I'll tell you what? 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.


SCIUTTOI: Imagine that. Today, the president changed his tune, starting with a tweet this morning, also later during a press availability. This he said would be a Democratic shutdown, yet even as he tried today to avoid accountability and shift the blame, it's now his job along with lawmakers in both parties to clean up the mess which we are now learning won't be happening tonight.

CNN's Phil Mattingly joins us now with more on the Capitol.

Phil, despite the efforts, last-minute meeting, shuttle diplomacy back and forth on the Hill, a shutdown is guaranteed.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, exactly. The House is adjourned for the night. The Senate has told senators that there will be no votes tonight. The actual top leaders in both the House and Senate have already gone home.

The reality is, if there is a deal to be had, that deal will not be reached tonight and there will be no votes tonight. That means a shutdown will start. The question now is not whether or not there will be a shutdown, there will be. The question is, is there a deal that could he made over the course of the next day two days or three days?

And here's the reality of where things stand right now. Jim, as you noted, for days on end, there seemed there appeared to be no movement whatsoever. The president making very clear his top line was $5 billion to fund a border wall. Democrats making very clear they weren't willing to go anywhere near that, and Democrats also making very clear they thought they held the upper hand in these negotiations.

What we do know over the course of the last a couple of hours through that flurry of negotiations, the vice president, the incoming chief of staff, Jared Kushner, coming up to Capitol Hill, shuttling back and forth, is that there is some sign that where the White House is willing to deal. The question is what that deal will be.

Now, as it currently stands, Mick Mulvaney, the vice president, and Jared Kushner are actually still in the capitol, even though the leaders are gone. The question is, what are they willing to move there number too? When you talk to Democrats, they've made very clear they have put a bipartisan option on the table, that would be a six- week stopgap bill that the Senate passed unanimously. The House is obviously up to this point rejected that option. So where are their potential areas of agreement?

What has been batted around over the course of the last couple hours is perhaps moving back to what was this Senate agreed upon in a bipartisan manner, number of $1.6 billion for border security, with the addition of some other fund for immigration related issues that the administration will have access to. That sounds familiar it's because it was rejected earlier in the week by Democrats.

So, where this all ends? Nobody really knows. What they do know is there will be a shutdown on midnight and talks to try and find some way out of this will continue.

SCIUTTO: We heard senators on the floor the last time they spoke saying listen we're not going to come back unless there's something that all the sides are willing really took to back here. So, that next vote won't happen presumably until that point. Do you have any idea then when the next vote might happen? It sounds like no.

MATTINGLY: Yes, we don't, not at this point. But I will say that's tangible movement. The idea that the show votes are the procedural votes or people just putting up bills and having messaging votes, that's in the past now. That was the agreement that was reached tonight.

No, there was an agreement reached on policy grounds. There was an agreement reached to get out of the shutdown. But there was an agreement reached that the next time the United States Senate holds a vote, it will be on an agreement.

When that agreement actually comes together, when that vote takes place, that remains TBD. People I'm talking to that are involved in the negotiations caution that there's a lot to go on or there's a lot that needs to happen in the hours and days ahead.

[20:05:02] And there's a lot of movement that needs to happen from the president's baseline and from Democrats baseline for anything to occur. So, right now, everybody is in wait-and-see time and the reality is, Jim, we're not going to hear anything I'm told until at least tomorrow at this point.

SCIUTTO: Eight hundred thousand Americans are not getting paid through the holidays. Phil Mattingly, thanks very much.

Let's get more now on how this isn't folding at the White House.

Jim Acosta, you've been there. You've been following this. There's talk of compromise from the White House. Do you have any idea of what that looks like? What they're willing to give on?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we saw the president earlier tonight put out that tweet. He's not even demanding a wall at this point. He'll take offense made up of steel slats after all those months of campaigning and saying that Mexico would pay for a wall, he's not willing to give all of that up for steel slats at the border.

But putting that aside, we did run in a to the Chief of Staff John Kelly over here at the White House earlier this evening who said he thought there was a chance that there could be a deal before midnight. I also talked to a senior administration official just in the last few moments who said it is not quite midnight. So there is the potential that they could strike some kind of an agreement.

But as Phil Mattingly was just saying a few moments ago, the mechanics are not really in place. There aren't members of Congress in place up on Capitol Hill in the house on the Senate to vote and approve some kind of compromise.

But whether or not we get some kind of agreement before the clock strikes midnight or perhaps thereafter, somewhere thereafter, I suppose you could have a technical shutdown, but maybe an agreement in place before we wake up tomorrow morning. That is just I think the best-case scenario at this point. I think the president has indicated -- and I've talked to sources over

here this evening and they're indicating president is also willing to dig in on this fight over border security. He wants some kind of consolation out of all of this and at this point, he hasn't seen one yet.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Well, that's the way the president views it, right? He wants a win in every context, a win that reflects on him positively.

ACOSTA: That's right.

SCIUTTO: Jim Acosta, thanks very much at the White House.

ACOSTA: You bet.

SCITTO: Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal today had a tweet that speaks to the shutdown but also the perceptions of larger troubles happening now at the White House.

I'm quoting now: Presidential free fall. Riding Amtrak back to the Senate vote, the only firm track seemed to be the ones under the train. Bipartisan leadership must restore rational governing abandoned by an impetuous, petulant chief executive.

Joining us now, one of Senator Richard Blumenthal's distinguished colleagues, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, independent, of course, from the state of Vermont.

Senator Sanders, thanks for taking the time tonight.


SCIUTTO: You've certainly heard the president. You've certainly heard Republican leaders say tonight that this budget crisis is now on everyone's shoulders, owned by Republicans, Democrats, the president. I imagine you disagree with that.

Who do you believe bears responsibility?

SANDERS: Well, you just had it right on your program a few moments ago, where the president said, I take responsibility for the shutdown. You got the Democrat -- you got the Republicans running the Senate, Republicans running the House, president says he wants a shutdown, I think the American people are clear about who caused the shutdown.

The one point that you're very comprehensive analysis of where we are missed is that two days ago, seems like two years ago, but two days ago, unanimously, the United States Senate reached an agreement to make sure the government did not shut down and extend the process into February. And then what happened is, unfortunately, President Trump watched television, he saw something on Fox TV, heard something from Rush Limbaugh and he changed his mind and sadly, really sadly, the entire Republican congressional caucus in the House and the Senate kind of caved in to him. And it is a heck of a way to run a government when you have a

president who sees something on television, tweets out his view, and you have both the Republican bodies in the House and the Senate cave in to that.

SCIUTTO: So the figure, of course, in that that measure that was passed unanimously as you said the Senate was $1.6 billion. Tonight from the Democrats' perspective, are you or other Democrats willing to give any ground on that figure, go any higher?

SANDERS: Look, I think that the wall is an absurd idea. I think it's a waste of money. I think it just fans Trump's illusions and no, I'm not going to support $5 billion or money for a wall.

Everybody -- and I think Trump lies on this as well as lying on almost everything else, he lies when he suggests that Democrats or progressives are not concerned about border security. Of course, we are. Everybody is concerned about border security.

But if you want to do border security intelligently and cost- effectively, you don't do it with a wall. There are much more, much better approaches than that.

[20:10:00] SCIUTTO: I'm sure you saw the president's tweet tonight going after this slats model, not a wall, he called it a steel slat barrier. Here's the picture there looks almost medieval, with the pikes on the top there. Does that make any difference to you or other Democrats that do not have a wall, to have a fence in effect?

SANDERS: Look, Jim, we have an infrastructure in this country, our roads, our bridges, our water systems which are crumbling. We have veterans who were sleeping out on the street right now, we have kids who cannot afford to go to college. We have a lot of needs in this country and spending $5 billion on a wall is not to leave one of our priorities. And we've got to get our priorities right and take care of working families in this country and not just Trump solutions.

SCIUTTO: What do you say to the folks who say that Democrats -- really they sense the president being weak here, he's about to lose one chamber of Congress to Democrats, knows the time is waning, but the Democrats see an opportunity simply to stick it to the president here?

SANDERS: No, I don't think it's a question that I'm sticking it to him. It's a question of spending taxpayers money in a intelligent way, in a rational way. And with so many terrible needs in this country -- yes, you got elderly people watching this program trying to get by in $12,000 a year, people can't afford their prescription drugs.

We should not be wasting $5 billion on a wall when there are much more cost-effective ways to do border security.

SCIUTTO: I want to ask you if I can't move on to another topic. That, of course, the departure of the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in the wake of a decision to summarily withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, of course, the home of ISIS. Now, there's this -- the president is ordering the having of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the home of al Qaeda.

In your view, are Americans less safe today as a result of those decisions and the departure of the defense secretary?

SANDERS: Look, we have been in Afghanistan for 17 years, Syria is an enormously horrible and complicated civil war. It has been, my view, that we need to begin the process of bringing our troops home. But you don't do it by a tweet. You don't do it without informing your allies. You don't do it in a way that leaves allies of yours and innocent people in a very dangerous situation, i.e., the Kurds.

So, you need a process, an international process to bring our troops home and that certainly is not the way an impulsive president like Trump is functioning.

SCIUTTO: In the wake of this, I had the opportunity last night to speak the former defense secretary and also former GOP senator from neighbor of yours, Maine, William Cohen and I asked him last night if he believes Donald Trump is fit to be commander-in-chief he answered simply no. Do you agree?

SANDERS: Look, I don't believe that temperamentally Donald Trump is fit to be the president of the United States. You cannot have a president who makes important decisions and overrides what the United States Congress has worked hard to do because he saw something on a TV program. That is not the way the United States government should be functioning.

SCIUTTO: Senator Sanders, thanks for joining us tonight.

SANDERS: Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Next, our political experts will weigh in.

Later, breaking news that goes straight to the question of obstruction of justice by this president. New reporting by CNN on what Mr. Trump said to his acting attorney general and why could spell yet more trouble for him going forward.

Also, new insight from Maggie Haberman into the president's state of mind as the stories and investigations swirl around him.

Later, should she be called the indestructible RBG? Another health scare for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg but also yet again another remarkable account of just how tough, how determined she is.


[20:18:088] SCIUTTO: Whatever, if anything, is ultimately agreed on between Democrats and the president on money for the border. There's little chance the president will get anything close to what he once demanded repeatedly and promised to voters during the campaign.


And who's going to pay for the wall?


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




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.


SCIUTTO: That's just not true and it never was.

Now, the president's ask seems to be for a steel slat barrier which he calls beautiful that in actuality you and I will pay for it.

Here to talk about it, former Republican Congressman Charlie Dent, former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo, and Democratic strategist Maria Cardona.

Michael, if I could begin with you, it was days ago that the president said in no uncertain terms that he will happily proudly own this shutdown. Just to remind our viewers, I will play that moment again.


SCHUMER: We disagree.

TRUMP: And I'll tell you what? 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.


SCIUTTO: Now, of course, he's claiming to blame the Democrats. How could he possibly do that?

MICHAEL CAPUTO, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN AIDE: Well, I got to tell you, out here in flyover country, not a lot of people are real concerned about who's responsible for this, all the finger-pointing back and forth. When I heard him say that in the White House, I -- it made me smile.

[20:20:02] I knew immediately, the bipartisan government fetishists in Washington we're going to be all atwitter about it.

You know, out here, we don't really care who's responsible. For those of us who voted for the president, who supported the president and it'll --


SCIUTTO: If the president said in no uncertain terms repeatedly and proudly and loudly, that doesn't matter?

CAPUTO: I can tell you, I don't care who's responsible for this. I want a wall. I don't care if the government gets shut down over it.

Up here in western New York, we've got people dying every week because of opioid, 75 percent of which come across that border, and the experts tell us that the wall works, especially 89 percent of Border Patrol officers want that wall, then give it to them. I'm tired of people dying in my little town. I want to see this with the flow of these opioids stop.

SCIUTTO: Maria Cardona, your response?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: My response is that we should actually try to find real solutions by using real facts. We know that this president is no friend of facts and is no friend of the truth, and that is why he has got to resort to fear-mongering.

It is absolutely ridiculous for people to take him seriously when he said that he was going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. That was lie number one, making Mexico pay for it. Lie number two is that the majority of voters want the wall. The majority of voters do not believe that a wall will actually be successful.

Can we talk about real comprehensive border security, real strategies that will secure our border? Absolutely. And guess who has done that historically? Democrats.

Undocumented immigration was it a full-time high in the mid 2000s. When Barack Obama came into office, he put in a very comprehensive strategy working with Republicans to devote real money and real investment and real strategy and tactics on border security. And guess what? It worked. Immigration from Mexico which was the largest at the time is now net negative.

Now, let's find a solution to keep the Central Americans moms and dads and kids safe in their own countries so that they don't have to come here. But that's not what this president is interested in.

He wants to deport kids, instead of criminals. He wants to deport grandmothers, instead of gang members. Let's focus on real solutions. SCIUTTO But, Michael, and Charlie, I want to get to you too, but you know that when you speak to the experts, the nature of that border hundreds of miles long, there are some places where a wall make is it makes a difference, some places where it doesn't, where it would strike folks, even folks who defend that border that this is more about a political pledge than the actual goal of defending that border.

Michael, just a quick response because, Charlie, I want you I want your view as well.

CAPUTO: Sure, I want to hear Charlie too. You know, I know that the border is -- the solutions on the border and border security aren't entirely wrapped around the wall.

I also know the Democrats voted against Kate's Law. I know that they support sanctuary cities. I know that they voted against keeping MS- 13 and other violent offenders out -- deporting them.


CARDONA: That's just not true.

CAPUTO: I know they're against the wall, even though in 2006, they voted for a wall. So, let's keep your --


CARDONA: We voted for real border security, OK, let's talk facts.

CAPUTO: In 2006, you voted for a wall.


SCIUTTO: You served in Congress, tell us your experience.

CHARLIE DENT (R), FORMER CONGRESSMAN - PENNSYLVANIA: Look, I voted for the Secure Fence Act in 2006. What the Secure Fence Act attempted to do is help establish operational control of the border. It authorized about 700 miles of vehicular and pedestrian barriers on the southern border. Nobody was seriously talking about a 2,000 mile wall --

CARDONA: Thank you.

DENT: -- or even steel slat fence on the southern border. It was not necessary. We need -- you know, we need drones technology surveillance, detention beds, more border patrol agents. We need roads along the along the border where we don't have very good access.

And so, I think it's inexcusable that we are going to shut the government down over this. It makes absolutely no sense. The party that makes the demands of a policy initiatives, in this case the wall, or defunding Obamacare or DACA, is the party that will own the shutdown.

And this is reckless. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to be affected. Many Americans see a crisis in leadership right now.

I'm sitting here in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, let me tell you what? People are not happy when they see the secretary of defense resign, repudiate Donald Trump's worldview. They're concerned about global stability, treatment of allies. They're worried that their government is not functioning, can't even perform the basic fundamental tasks of government.

Let's get serious, though, nobody's advocating for two thousand mile concrete barrier in the southern border.

SCIUTTO: Michael, big picture on that point. I mean, practically, is this the fight that the president wants now? As you know, the markets have been down. The worst December since the depression. In fact, down more than a thousand points since the passage of the tax cut.

[20:25:00] You have real concerns about global economic slowing, shutting down the government -- the government, you know, is a big source of funding in the economy. Is this a risk for this president right now?

CAPUTO: Of course, it is. It's a risk for everybody involved. But the president been grudgingly signed a deal in March and they said that we'd fight for the wall later, and then, September, Republicans who didn't want to face a challenge in the midterm elections asked him to punt the ball until after the elections, and that they would fight for his wall then and it's now. That's where we are today.

And, you know, the president's base who elected him president United States, a lot of them across all demographics supported this wall as a very important point on the campaign promises. And you know, right now, we look at it as a test of his mettle. I'd like to see the president's wishes met here. I think that the for the Democrats who voted for border security in 2006 should try to find their compass again.

SCIUTTO: You know, Maria, there was a moment earlier this week, there was a continuing resolution was passed as Bernie Sanders said a few minutes ago unanimously by the Senate, would appear to change is that the president got grief from sort of the voices of the base, the Laura Ingraham, the Ann Coulters of the worlds. That appears to have swung the president on this.

CARDONA: Right, and that is what is so concerning to the majority of America -- to the majority of Americans who by the way did not vote for this president and vastly disapprove of the job he is doing, exactly because he behaves the way that he does. He clearly has puppet masters in the likes of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, and that is not how you govern the greatest country in the world, I'm sorry.

This president has shown time and again that he's unbelievably unfit, incredibly inept and more and more colossally corrupt. That's why you see the disapproval ratings the way that they are. And on this wall issue, he is just pulling the wool over not just his voters but he's trying to pull the wool over the American people, and they're not going to have it. We need real leadership that is focused on real solutions where we can actually look at comprehensive strategies to get people to stay in their home countries. But that takes resolve, that takes intellect, that takes an interest in finding the real solutions in a bipartisan manner. None of which this president has ever seen to be interested in in showing.

SCIUTTO: So, Charlie and Michael as well, what gets us out of this? I mean, you have a president digging his heels in here clearly is, you know, judging that this is it -- this would be a big political blow to him. But you have Democrats who are about to take over the house by the way digging their heels in too, sets -- imagining that they got the president on the ropes. How do you -- how do you get out of this?

Charlie and then Michael?

DENT: There's very easy way out of this. Look, there are 12 appropriations bills, five of them have been signed into law. OK, that's most of the spending in those five. Seven are left. Six of those bills are teed up and ready to go. They've bipartisan support. Chairman Frelinghuysen and Nita Lowey, the two leaders on the appropriations committee, these bills are done, House and Senate agree to.

I would say pass those six bills, not a CR. The appropriations will get it done and then the fight is over, the homeland security appropriations bill. And I would recommend simply passing a tenure resolution in to, say, February just on that one bill, confine the fight to that issue.

That's the way out. It's very easy. They could do this tonight, if the president would agree, but he's got to make up his mind about what he wants tonight.

SCIUTTO: Michael Caputo, should the president give in on this?

CAPUTO: Oh, I don't see the president giving in on this and I don't think he was taking his cues from Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. He was listening to people like --


SCIUTTO: The timing is suspect because he seemed agreed to the deal and then he heard that and that's when he changed.

CAPUTO: No, no, but the Freedom Caucus was very much involved in talking to the president. He also watched his hundreds of thousands of his supporters were --


DEAN: That's a problem.

CAPUTO: Well, I mean, if you don't listen to the people who voted for you, you want them to listen to the bipartisan government fetishists in Washington? I like the fact that he doesn't comes --


SCIUTTO: Is bipartisanship a fetish? Is bipartisanship a fetish?

CAPUTO: I said the bipartisan government fetishes. I mean, those of us who don't live inside the beltway are making sure the government --


CARDONA: That's the problem with this president is that his base is shrinking more each and every single day.

CAPUTO: No, it's not. It's not.

CARDONA: If he doesn't expand his likability, his governability to so that other people understand that he actually wants to be the president for everybody, not just the president of the people who listen to Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, he is in for real trouble.

SCIUTTO: All right, guys. We're going to have to leave it there.

CAPUTO: Thanks for the advice. I'll take president we have.

CARDONA: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Thanks to all of you and to your families as well, a happy holidays.


New reporting tonight, it seems to highlight just how much this president believes the attorney general, the highest law enforcement official in the land, is supposed to protect him personally. What we are learning about his recent conversations with Matt Whitaker, that's coming right up.


SCIUTTO: There is more breaking news tonight. New reporting by CNN that shows yet, again, what this President seems to think falls under an attorney general's job description, namely protecting him. Pamela Brown has the reporting on this and she joins us now.

So, Pamela, this looks to be remarkable overreach by a President interfering with ongoing investigations.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: At the very least, it is -- it's an unusual situation here, Jim. Sources telling me and my colleague, Laura Jarrett, that on at least two occasions in the past few weeks, the President has vented at his acting attorney general about the Michael Cohen investigations.

We were told the President was angered by federal prosecutors referencing him in crimes that Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to. And according to multiple sources, Trump was frustrated at prosecutors that Whitaker overseas filed these charges that made Trump look bad. Now, we should know, Jim, that none of these sources suggested that President directed Whitaker to stop the investigators, but these discussions between Trump and Whitaker underscore the extent that the President believes the attorney general should serve as his personal protector. And it also gives a glimpse into the strange dynamic of a sitting president, as you pointed out, talking to his attorney general about investigations he's potentially implicated in.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And, of course, Whitaker's predecessor was fired because he didn't do what the President wanted on in terms of oversight or limitation in that investigation.

[20:35:08] Pam, I understand there are at least two discussions, as you said, between President and Whitaker. Do we know how Whitaker responded to the presidential scolding as it were?

BROWN: Well, we don't know exactly how Whitaker responded to this, but we do know what the President did and that was express his frustration lashing out of Whitaker and one event took place after the special counsel charged Michael Cohen over making false statements that included details of him talking to the President well into the election year about the Trump Tower Moscow, as you'll recall, after we reported that.

And then over a week later, Jim, Trump again voiced his anger at Whitaker after prosecutors in Manhattan officially implicated the President in a hush-money scheme to buy the silence of women around the 2016 campaign, something Trump and his attorney fiercely maintained isn't in a legal campaign contribution.

Now, we're told that Trump pressed Whitaker on why more wasn't mean done to control these prosecutors in New York suggesting that they were going rogue. And we should add that -- well, I'm not confirming this conversations, Rudy Giuliani, the President's attorney, said this. "The President and his lawyers are upset about the professional prosecutors in the Southern District of New York going after a non- crime, an innuendo that the President was involved." And also, Jim, the Justice Department declined to comment.

SCIUTTO: Well, there seem to have witnesses to attest to that crime. Pamela Brown, thanks very much. A story I know we're going to continue to follow.

With me now is New York Times White House Correspondent and CNN Political Analyst, Maggie Haberman, also CNN Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeffrey, if I can begin with you, tell us how troubling this is for a president to go to his acting attorney general, scold him for prosecutors under his remit prosecuting crimes, right, that the president has a direct interest in.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the whole point of why we have special counsels, Robert Mueller or before that, independent counsels, was that the completely clear recognition that presidents should not be involved in investigations of themselves, that they should be completely out of the loop. That should be outside their purview.

Well, here we have the President raging at the acting attorney general about the Justice Department's investigations of him. This is precisely the kind of thing that presidents should not be involved in.

Now, apparently it's true that he didn't fire Whitaker, he didn't threaten Whitaker, but the whole point of a president raging at his subordinate over an investigation of him just is completely inappropriate.

SCIUTTO: Maggie, this is pretty early on. In Matt Whitaker's stint as acting attorney general and the President already not happy with his own choice to head the Justice Department, does he not understand the DOJ's independence or does he not care?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I can't read his mind by just having covered him for a while, I believe he doesn't care. I mean, I think that my colleague, Mike Schmidt, at the time had amazing reporting last year about the President, you know, demanding, where is my Mike Cohen, referring to his personal attorney and fixer and brutalizer (ph), frankly, of many, many year. That is what he expected the attorney general to be like.

He will often say, look, you know, JFK had Bobby Kennedy and Obama had Holder and he believes that that is what an attorney general is doing. He believes that's what they did in those cases and that's what someone should be doing for him, which is not to say that he's accurate in that description of previous presidents, but that is how he sees it.

His view of executive power is, "I say something and everything else should follow from it." He does not believe in separation of powers or he's not interested in hearing about it and he is a 72-year-old man who is not going to change how he does things.

TOOBIN: And if I can just add. I mean, look at who he made acting attorney general.


TOOBIN: You know, Matt Whitaker is a completely undistinguished lawyer, someone who in ordinary circumstances would never be even in contention to be attorney general. But what does Donald Trump know about him? He was here on CNN and elsewhere, that is, Whitaker, denouncing Robert Mueller.


TOOBIN: That was his whole qualification for this job. Now, Bill Barr is a much more distinguished lawyer who is now the nominee to be attorney general. But he is famous --

SCIUTTO: He also criticized --

TOOBIN: -- for a 20-page memo that he just voluntarily wrote attacking Robert Mueller. I mean, this is, you know, this is a feature, not a bug of these two attorney generals.

HABERMAN: Yes, that's right.

TOOBIN: And we should note in the maelstrom of news yesterday, lost to some degree with the fact we learned that Justice Department ethics lawyers recommended that Whitaker recuse himself because -- precisely because of those comments you cite, Jeffrey, and he in effect refused. He refused, Maggie.

[20:40:14] HABERMAN: Right. I mean, look, he -- Whitaker is a loyalist to the President. He spent a lot of time cultivating a relationship with him while he was serving as Jeff Sessions' chief of staff. I think it is not a surprise that he is somebody who the President thinks is going to be a heat shield.

Again, we don't have any indication that Whitaker did anything after the phone calls. But they are, as Jeffrey said, they are at best inappropriate and they are not what we're used to seeing from presidents. Presidents -- even if they typically have the desire to make that kind of -- I mean, there was no other instance where we have had a president who is under investigation that way this one is.

But if you pretended that there was, for a minute, there is no other instance of somebody trying to make -- even if another president had this impulse to make a phone call like this, most would recognize the dangers in doing so, but this president just repeatedly tests the boundaries every time.

SCIUTTO: You have to embroider that on a pillow. It's not what we're used to seeing from a president. I mean, I feel like we said that, you know --


HABERMAN: Set that one to repeat, right.

SCIUTTO: Maggie, big picture because this is happening in the midst of other momentous decisions and troubling decisions from any Republicans and Democrats. The departure of Jim Mattis, I mean, the resignation while taking a shot at the President for a series of foreign policy decisions that he found troubling and endangering.

Let's set aside the President's mood, but -- that the President's approach in this last two years of his first term, it seems that he's making decisions more on his own, that he is crowding out advisers who might give him advise he doesn't want to hear, becoming more, not less brash. Is that your sense?

HABERMAN: Look, I think that I -- I wouldn't agree with the last word you used only because -- I mean, I think he is certainly impulsive but I think he always has been impulsive. I do think that he has talked about wanting to withdraw from Middle East engagement for a very long time and there is a foreign policy case that can be made for doing just that.

The larger issue is -- well, an equally large issue is the way in which he did it. To your point about brash (ph), he just tweeted it or just, you know, announced this was going to happen. There was no real process even though, you know, various people in the government knew this was likely to happen but they couldn't keep him from doing it.

You know, it's not that -- there's a lot of bemoaning about a lack of, you know, guardrails being there anymore. The guardrails have slipped away because they have stopped being able to influence his behavior. He just grinds people down and they end up leaving as you saw Mattis do. I do think this is a President who feels like.

And, look, every president, this is not unique to Donald Trump, feels in the second year as if they understand job better because nothing really prepares you for being president. But this president was particularly uneducated on the way the executive power works. He in this year feels like he's got it. He's got control of it and he is not listening to people the way he did before.

SCIUTTO: Jeff, do you see anyone who the President is willing to listen to in this context?

TOOBIN: Jared Kushner. I mean, I think, you know, the only people who were there from the very beginning were his daughter and his son- in-law. Now, I don't know if he actually takes advice from them, but he -- they're at least there. I mean, you've had almost 100 percent turnover in the White House.

And, you know, he -- as, you know, Maggie knows more about Trump than anyone, you know, she says, look -- I mean, he now has even more self- confidence than when he took over and he doesn't need advice from anyone as far as I can tell.

SCIUTTO: Is that correct, though, Maggie? Just -- before we go, is it self-confidence, because there's an impression of a nervous or a concern the President, you know, certainly about legal developments.

HABERMAN: No. He's got --

SCIUTTO: We heard in the last 24 hours that he didn't like the coverage of Mattis' as the only adult in the room. I mean, is it confidence? What is it?

HABERMAN: Well, it is confidence that he actually -- he believes that he has a better sense of what this job is. And I think Jeffrey is correct in phrasing it that way. He never likes the coverage.

And what he particularly never liked about the coverage related to Mattis was -- and any of the generals who were there was always that they were there as the adult supervision. He always hated that narrative and that perception. And so it's not a surprise that he hated that and that he has a lot of anxiety about various investigations into him. You can't -- that's a little more understandable.

SCIUTTO: Maggie Haberman --


SCIUTTO: -- Jeffrey Toobin, thanks very much.

TOOBIN: Enjoy your weekend embroidering pillows.


SCIUTTO: It's a secret hobby.

TOOBIN: I think that's beautiful. I'm very fan of that.

SCIUTTO: Expect one in the mail for Christmas.

Coming up next --


SCIUTTO: -- more on the fallout from Secretary Mattis resigning. What some currently deployed U.S. service members are telling me? It is concerning. You'll want to hear it.


[20:48:44] SCIUTTO: Reaction, startled reaction to yesterday's resignation by Defense Secretary James Mattis is still flowing in tonight and it is concerning. I've heard from currently deployed U.S. service members, including those in Syria, one telling me, "I have never seen the Special Operation Forces community in this state. If he, the President, wanted to lose most military professionals, mission accomplished."

Another, "We fear a genocide in Syria. No logical ways for our commanders in the fight to explain this to our partners." That from people currently deployed. All of this as CNN Jim Acosta is reporting that the President is angry about the resignation letter. But according to a source, "hates the coverage even more."

Joining me now, Ian Bremmer, he's the president of the Eurasia Group, and CNN Presidential Historian, Douglas Brinkley.

So, Ian, the last 24 hours I've been speaking to a lot of folks currently serving in the military, formerly, who served both Republican and Democratic presidents, and they're concerned about Mattis' departure, not just because they saw him as a moderating adult experienced voice, but also because he clearly departed over a series of decisions that a whole host of people are uncomfortable with on Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, you name it. How do you see it?

[20:50:02] IAN BREMMER, PRESIDENT, EURASIA GROUP: It certainly is a blow. He's very well-respected internationally, perhaps more than anyone else in the Trump administration at the cabinet level. Most importantly, in NATO, where Trump was saying it's obsolete, I want more out of them, but Mattis has been a steady hand and seen as, you know, both moderate and a leader and also quite influential.

But I would also say that, you know, in the grand scheme of two years of the Trump administration, the departure of the former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was actually much more normalizing. It took the U.S. away from chaos in a way that's more significant than Mattis' departure creates more chaos.

And I think that, you know, we tend in the media, a lot of people focus on how everything seems to be focused towards the wheels coming off of the administration. This is a bad move but there has been some normalizing features as well.

SCIUTTO: Doug Brinkley, you've watched a lot of administration through the years. I wonder if you agree with that appraisal.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, look, presidents do, you know, fire people and they resign. But, you know, it's unusual in American history to have a secretary of defense write the kind of scathing letter like General Mattis did.

Its low keyed scathing, but we all know what he's saying which is basically Donald Trump doesn't respect our allies, that goes against 100 years of American foreign policy, that the Trump administration didn't give him the proper courtesy about telling him we were pulling out of Syria.

And, you know, we have had people resign. I mean, William Jennings Bryan famously resigned under Woodrow Wilson because he didn't want to go in World War I. But with Mattis, it's unique because you're seeing a different sort of Mattis representing the whole U.S. military establishment versus Donald Trump's isolationist vision.

SCIUTTO: Ian, well, you also cite that letter says it shows an essential lack of respect by Mattis for the President. You don't see this as a larger crisis on par with say Bannon's departure. Explain that.

BREMMER: Well, a couple points. One is that the most important relationship the U.S. has in the world, the China relationship, Mattis has been a bit player in that regard. It's really been driven by Secretary of State Pompeo, who's been much more effective than Rex Tillerson was, for example, against something that's worth reminding people.

SCIUTTO: But, Ian, listen, I've been speaking to folks on the ground in places like Syria and Afghanistan serving members of the Special Forces. They are alarmed at this. They see the U.S. abandoning partners in short shift. The point being, you could discuss a withdrawal from these places over time, you prepare the ground, you prepare your allies to summarily withdraw.

I mean, Trump himself criticized Obama for a much slower withdrawal from Iraq which, of course, aided and abetted the rise of ISIS. I just wonder how you reconcile those two realities.

BREMMER: That's a good question, and it was handled very badly. Would you want to talk to the allies and how about the heads of your own Joint Chiefs of Staff before you made that decision, that's a no- brainer, incredibly stupid in the way it was done. We're talking about 2,000 troops on the ground.

Let's be clear that the people that actually really care about Syria are the ones that are actually putting real troops and real money against it, it's Russia, it's Iran, and it's Turkey. That's why Assad has won. That's what's determined any political outcome on the ground. It's the reason why the Kurds stopped fighting against ISIS with the Americans and started defending themselves against the Turks, for example.

So, the idea that suddenly Trump's decision to pull 2,000 troops out definitely going to offend a lot of allies, Mattis very clearly right about that. But changing the situation on the ground, frankly, not all that much.

SCIUTTO: Doug Brinkley, Ian Bremmer, thanks very much.

Let's check in now with Chris Cuomo to see what's going up on "Cuomo Prime Time" just at the time of the hour. Chris, what you got on today?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: I'm still writing, Jimmy. I'm still writing. We're going to bring on some stakeholders tonight, Jim. We're going to have Ted Yoho from Florida. He's one of the Freedom Caucus. He says the shutdown is the right thing. He will be tested. We'll see if he can make the test to the audience tonight and make his case. We'll see how it goes.

We're also going to have P.J. Rieckhoff on. You know him from IAVA, the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America. We're missing the point about what this pullout from Syria and Afghanistan, the vacuum of Mattis' leadership means to our fighting men and women. We should be focused on them. We haven't been. We've been caught up by the politics. He's going to set us straight tonight.

And then the closing argument about the reality of what is behind a word, because that's what's causing the shutdown.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I hear a lot of similar things as well from deployed forces. Chris, thanks very much. We're going to see you at the top of the hour.

At the end of a week filled with jarring news, there was also this today, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery to remove cancerous nodules from her left lung. We're going to have the latest, next.


[20:59:07] SCIUTTO: Tonight, news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is recovering from surgery that removed two cancerous nodules from her left lung. A spokesperson for the court says there is no evidence of any remaining disease in her lung or anywhere else in her body. We should remind you in 1999, Ginsburg underwent surgery for colorectal cancer, 10 years later she was treated for the early stages of pancreatic cancer. She did cast her vote, though, with the majority today in that 5-4 decision that upheld a federal judges order that blocked the Trump administration's new asylum restrictions. That policy would have banned migrants who illegally cross into the United States from seeking asylum outside official points of entry. The court decline to say when or how Ginsburg cast her vote. But we should note, justices can vote by phone or even email. I didn't know that.

The news continues. I'm going to hand it over now to Chris Cuomo. "Cuomo Prime Time" starts right now.

CUOMO: Jimmy, Merry Christmas to you and the family if I don't see you, all the best, brother. I am Chris Cuomo --

SCIUTTO: You, too.

CUOMO: -- welcome to "Prime Time."