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U.S. Troops Killed in Afghanistan; Lindsey Graham Ends Presidential Campaign; How Will Lindsey Graham Support Now. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired December 21, 2015 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: There you have it. Congratulations, Miss Philippines.

Thank you for joining me. I'm Carol Costello.

AT THIS HOUR with Berman and Bolduan starts right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm John Berman.


We have two big breaking news stories. Let's begin in Afghanistan where U.S. troops were killed in an attack in Bagram.

BERMAN: A suicide bomber blew himself up near a joint NATO-Afghan NATO patrol, killing six servicemembers nearby.

Let's get the latest from Pentagon. CNN's, Barbara Starr is there.

Barbara, any word how many Americans involved here?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John and Kate. At this hour, what the Pentagon is saying is this was a mission by U.S. and Afghan troops. Six NATO troops were killed and they do believe there were Americans among the six killed. To be very clear, they are not yet officially saying all six were Americans. The reports are still initial reports. They're trying to reach out to all family members involved. As you can imagine, a very difficult and tragic situation, obviously, for military families at this holiday season. So, they are being very cautious double checking everything because first reports, often, can turn out to be wrong. But six members of the NATO mission killed, three injured when they were at this apparently meeting outside Bagram Air Base. They were outside of their vehicle when a suicide vehicle bomber drove by and blew themselves up, killing six, injuring three. This is just the latest by insurgents in Afghanistan. We know Taliban has fought to take back areas in northern Afghanistan. Now in southern Afghanistan, in Helmand Province, the Taliban also staging a number of attacks. There are 10,000 troops in, of course, right now, scheduled to stay there at least through next year -- John, Kate?

BERMAN: A reminder of the harm and challenges they face by being there.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Six NATO members dead, likely Americans among them.

Thanks very much, Barbara.

Now to our other big breaking story this morning. A shakeup in the Republican race for president. In an exclusive interview with CNN, Lindsey Graham has announced that he is ending his presidential campaign. Actually, I'm underselling it. It wasn't exclusive just to CNN. It was the one-and-only Kate Bolduan right here.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, John.

He jumped in the race in early June, and since then, Lindsey Graham has centered his entire campaign as we know on national security. He was the only remaining presidential contender to serve in the military. As he exits, the Senator sat down with me in his only one- on-one to explain his decision to drop his presidential bid.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, my campaign, I'm going to suspend my campaign. I'm not going to suspend my desire to help the country. I'll probably go back to Iraq and Afghanistan and get other updates. But the one thing I feel really good about is I did it with a smile on my face. I talked about things important to me and somebody better fix one day.

BOLDUAN: Why are you deciding to get out of the race?

GRAHAM: Because I've hit a wall. My campaign has come to a point where I need to think about getting out and helping somebody else. Here's what I predict, again, I think the nominee of our party is going to adopt my plan when it comes time to articulate how to destroy ISIL.

BOLDUAN: Can't you do more in pushing that conversation by being in the race than getting out?

GRAHAM: To be a viable candidate, you have to have finances and, you know, get on the big stage.

BOLDUAN: What's the final straw --


GRAHAM: My biggest problem is a lot of people like what I say but not many people hear it. This whole process started in a strange way. You couldn't get on the main stage unless you poll at a certain level. If you never run before, that's pretty hard. If you don't come from a political family, that's hard. If you come from a small state versus a large state, that's pretty hard. You have to raise a lot of money. I would advise the Republican Party, never do this again. Bottom line, people are coming my way in form of a morrow bust foreign policy. Jeb Bush and I think Kasich and Christie. And Donald Trump talks tough and he's trying to act tough, and you know, if he gets to be the nominee, I'll give him my two cents' worth about a plan that I think can keep the country safe. I'll make other predictions. I think Hillary Clinton will adopt most of this before it's over with.

BOLDUAN: What was the final straw, then? Is it not making it on the main debate stage, do you think?

GRAHAM: I think I did a good job in the last debate.

BOLDUAN: You were widely seen as dominating and being the winner of the undercard.

GRAHAM: I've heard that said but you can't punch through when you have a two-tier system. I don't see myself getting on the main stage in time to make a difference.

[11:05:07] BOLDUAN: You often talk about the men and women in the military that you meet in your travels, that you've served with. And you say, you are there to fight for them, you're the one that is running that will fight the most for them. Is there anyone left in the race that you trust to fight for them?

GRAHAM: Really, I think Jeb and Marco get it. I think everybody loves the military. It's not that I care about them more than anybody else. I think I just understand the world and they truly want to win.

Let me give you a story that caps it all off. There was a lieutenant commander, Phillip Murphy Sweet, he was an engineer. It was his job to take an Iraqi army base and turn it into a rule of law center in really one of the worst parts of Baghdad. They were going to dedicate the courtroom while I was there. I flew over with Colonel Martin, my boss, Petraeus' legal adviser. We took a tour of these tours with Commander Sweet and his team. He showed me around. And as I left, I said, man, you've done a hell of a job. I mean, this came about in record time. He said, I'm in it to win it. And I took off and I went one way in a helicopter. A few hours later he left and he was killed. And I remember when I went back home, I called his wife. And I told her how sorry I was and how proud she should be. She said, don't worry. Wanted him there. And she wrote a letter that she read at the memorial service that just knocked everybody to their knees. She's got four kids. He could have gone home, but he stayed. And they determined that I would meet him and he would get to tell me what he was so proud of and the accomplishments he had made. And most of it's been lost. And it really pisses me off.

BOLDUAN: Senator, you said he told you, he's in it to win it, but apply that to what we're talking about right now.


BOLDUAN: What you say to his wife about what you're announcing today?

GRAHAM: I've dedicated this campaign to having a debate worthy of Commander Sweet.

BOLDUAN: Do you feel on some level that in getting out of the race you're letting him down?

GRAHAM: No. I feel like I've honored his service and I've moved the discussion to a fashion he would be proud of.

BOLDUAN: Do have you any regrets with this?

GRAHAM: I regret I haven't been a better candidate. I regret I never got on the big stage. I regret that I didn't make it to the final group. But that's just about me. I have no regrets about running for president. I am so glad I did this.

BOLDUAN: It was worth it to you.

GRAHAM: Oh, my god. I met some of the nicest people in the world. My team. I've never been more proud of the people who work for me. They took a long-shot bid and did the best we could with it. It's been the joy of my life to run for president of the United States.

BOLDUAN: You mentioned John McCain, one of your closest friends.

GRAHAM: That was clearly the highlight of the campaign, was going to New Hampshire with him.

BOLDUAN: What did he say to you when you told him --


GRAHAM: Not good, not good. I told him last night. Not good. He's a fighter. He's been shot down like 15 times. The bottom line about John, he put more into my campaign than he did his own. He came to New Hampshire, endorsing me when I was at 1 percent. Really the highlight of the campaign. The fact that he would say, I think Lindsey Graham is ready above all others to be president of the United States was far and away the highlight of my political life, because he wouldn't have said it based on friendship. He's got a lot of friends. But he really believed it.

We've fallen short here, but the fight continues. And to those who are doing the fighting, I'm going to be your voice. To those in the Republican Party who want to win, check my plan out. Hillary, if you get to be president, I'll help you where I can. Hope you're not, but if you are, I'll be there to help you win a war we can't afford to lose.


BOLDUAN: You really see, he was very serious, very emotional, Lindsey Graham. You don't see that very often.

BERMAN: I think he means it what he says, running for president was the best thing he's done in his life. I think he did make a different disproportionate to his standing in the polls, less than 1 percent. He pushed this discussion onward.

[11:09:57] BOLDUAN: That's his frustration point. He really believes that he has pushed the conversation on national security where it needs to go. That's why he can't understand and that's why his big frustration is why he can't break through in the polls.

BERMAN: He has more news to make, perhaps.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. You can see how fiercely he cares for the men and women in the military and how much he feels responsible for them.

But we have much more coming up in our sit-down with Lindsey Graham. Who will Graham throw his support behind in the primaries since he's dropping out? What are his parting words for Donald Trump? No love loss between those two. More of our exclusive interview after this.


BERMAN: Breaking news in the battle for 2016, Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, has announced he's dropping out of the race, an announcement he made to Kate Bolduan.

BOLDUAN: Graham sat down with me exclusively to explain why he's dropping out now, instead of holding out to New Hampshire, which has been his strategy all along. Also, which candidate could he be throwing his support behind now?


BOLDUAN: Let's look at the race. Are you going to endorse and when?

GRAHAM: I'm going to take some time with my family. I'm going to think about what I should do. I have no intention of endorsing anybody right now. I want to figure out how can I help the party and the country. And I need some time for myself, and my family. We'll evaluate who to help, if anyone at all, down the road.

BOLDUAN: Here's the one thing I'm scratching my head about. By all account, Senator, you run a lean operation. Why not hold out until New Hampshire? Your strategy and see what happens.

GRAHAM: Well, we're going to have to start consolidating as Republicans. We're going to have to -- I see people coming my way on foreign policy. After this last debate, I felt, OK, most people get it. You can debate about Assad, but most people get that we need to be more robust and --


BOLDUAN: That goes even further to my point, though. Why not hold out?

[11:15:11] GRAHAM: I'm not trying to just hold out. I'm trying to make a difference. And I think the best way for me to make a difference is to think about helping somebody else or to get out of the race and have a voice is a bit different. I don't want to be the undercard voice. I cannot tell you how frustrating it has been to spend all this time and effort preparing myself to be commander in chief and be put at the kiddy table.

BOLDUAN: We talk about New Hampshire. Why, then, not hold out to South Carolina? Does this have anything to do with South Carolina?

GRAHAM: At the end of the day, I'm not going to be competitive in my state and I'm not competitive outside my state. We started off leading the back in South Carolina. What's happened here is my lean of the party has collapsed. South Carolina has been incredibly good to me. I would be competitive in South Carolina, but I got to show traction outside the state.

BOLDUAN: From the very beginning of this campaign, you have been one of the most vocal critics of the front-runner, Donald Trump, which famously led to your personal cell phone number being thrown out there in retaliation.


What are your parting words for Donald Trump?

GRAHAM: You know, we're at war. A lot of men and women are at risk overseas. Watch what you say over here. You're doing really well. I'm impressed with your campaign. The only way we can win as Republicans is put a coalition together. You need to start thinking about policies that will actually work. You may wind up being the nominee of the party. The Republican Party future may be in your hands. But the future of the country will be in your hands if you're president of the United States. This is not a game show. This is not a reality show. The reason I know that is I've been over there enough to know what it costs to defend this nation.

BOLDUAN: Would you consider, would you accept a cabinet position in a Trump administration?

GRAHAM: The only thing I'm thinking about right now is getting the Republican party in a better spot on foreign policy, mission accomplished, trying to find a way forward for the country as a whole. Keep us from becoming Greece, not even close yet. Getting the Republican Party in a growth mode not in a declining mode. This is an election for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. This is no longer about 2016. This is about who are we as a party. Where do we want to go? Where do we take the country?

BOLDUAN: Now without the constraints of a campaign, I do wonder if it comes down to Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton, who do you support?

GRAHAM: I'm going to support the Republican nominee. I can't have it both ways. Now, do I think Donald Trump can beat Hillary Clinton? No, without some major adjustments. Re-evaluate. It's OK to adjust. You're good at business partnerships. In foreign policy partnerships, you're making it really difficult. Think about what you say.

BOLDUAN: You have become famous for your one-liners and quick wit.


Especially in looking at the debates, what is the Lindsey Graham one- liner describe your presidential run. GRAHAM: First of all -- let me think about that one. About being

witty, my dad owned a bar. I come by this naturally. If you own a bar, you got to do two things. You've got to keep the customers coming back so you need to be funny and entertaining. You want them to drink long, as long as they can without getting totally drunk. You have to be tough enough to keep the bar from being taken over by the loudest guy in the room. And you've got to be entertaining enough to grow your business. So, I want to dedicate this campaign to every bar owner. I try --


BOLDUAN: Tip your bartender. There's your one-liner.


GRAHAM: Yeah. I showed that you can grow up in the back of the liquor store and even run for president of the United States. If you're well loved, you're truly rich. And we were not rich in material ways, but I was well loved. So, I leave this race feeling like I'm the richest guy who's ever been in it.

BOLDUAN: Thank you for your time, Senator. Thank you.

GRAHAM: Thank you.


BERMAN: Terrific interview. He says he leaves the race smiling. Dedicates the campaign to bar owners everywhere.

BOLDUAN: Everywhere. Exactly.

BERMAN: True Lindsey Graham at his best.

Candidate reactions coming in. This was Marco Rubio this morning in New Hampshire.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R), FLORIDA & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Lindsey is someone I know personally. We worked together in the Senate and we don't agree on everything on foreign policy, but I think he's a defender of a strong national defense, as I am. And, you know, I watched some of the debates he was in, some of the early debates, and I thought he was one of the most forceful voices on any debate stages about our military. We'll miss that in the campaign, although I'm sure he'll continue to do that in his role in the Senate. I personally think Lindsey is a good guy and a funny guy. We'll miss his humor on the campaign trail. We look forward to hearing more of it on the Senate floor.


[11:20:04] BERMAN: Interesting and measured.


BERMAN: What about Jeb Bush? On Twitter, he wrote, "Nobody is more clear-eyed about ISIS than my friend Lindsey Graham. I hope as he leaves the race our country listens to his counsel."

Chris Christie wrote, "He is a great American and a good friend. I've always admired him and wish him the best"

Ohio Governor John Kasich wrote, "Enjoyed Senator Graham's wit and respect his seriousness on national security experience matters. Best wishes to him"

That, again, from John Kasich.

Now reaction from those not running this time, but those running before, including his dear friend, John McCain. He writes, "Republicans lost our most qualified, thoughtful, fearless and honest presidential candidate, not to mention the candidate with the best, and it seems sometimes the only sense of humor."

Wow. What a tweet that is from his friend. John McCain.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely.

So, what is the impact of Senator Graham's exit from the race now? There's a lot to discuss here.

Let's bring in CNN's chief political correspondent, Dana Bash; as well as CNN's senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Dana, you know Senator Graham very well. You've covered and followed him for a very long time. Your reaction to what he said.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: First of all, Kate, that was an excellent interview. It was so fascinating. Never mind just about Lindsey Graham, but just about kind of where we are in politics right now that somebody like him who has tremendous experience, as you saw in some of the tweets and statements by some of his competitors and that doesn't necessarily matter this year. It's, in fact, a negative this year. I think what struck me the most was how emotional he got when talking about the men and women in the armed forces. He is the only person -- was the only person remaining to have served. He was a JAG officer, a military lawyer. You know, I noticed in last week's CNN debate, he was more emotional than usual and it's perhaps because he knew in the back of his head that it was his last debate. On one of the breaks, I said to him, are you OK? Every time he talked about this issue, whether it was about troops or just about national security, he got incredibly emotional in addition to his now famous one-liner. That to me is the most telling. And what he added the most to the very, very large field was not just his national security knowledge, but his intimate understanding of the military having been so involved in it his entire life.

BERMAN: It's so interesting. I think sometimes we don't give candidates the respect they deserve. Running for president is a soul- crushing endeavor. It takes an enormous amount of effort. Jeff Zeleny, the timing of this today is interesting, too, and sad for

Lindsey Graham. Today was the deadline to take your name off the South Carolina ballot. Explain that and how that might have been an influence.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Right, John, even though Senator Graham says it was not because of that, I actually asked him last week going into the debate if he was thinking about the deadline. He said, no, I'm in it for the long haul. That's what candidates have to say. They're in it until they're not. And today, was an important date on the calendar, because by December 21st, if you decided to stay beyond that, your name would be printed on that South Carolina primary ballot. South Carolina is the first primary in the south, but it's the third overall, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. So, very important. But it was unlikely Senator Graham was going to remain even viable by that point. It was a bit of saving face measure. By dropping out on the 21st or before, he's able to take his name off the primary ballot so he's not ever going to have recorded in history the fact that he lost the South Carolina primary. Now I would argue his role in this campaign going forward is much more important. His endorsement he's going to make is much more important. There's a lot of establishment, national security, former military Republicans in South Carolina who will look to Lindsey Graham for guidance in this campaign. So, boy, he is much more of a factor for Marco Rubio, for Jeb Bush, for anyone else, for Chris Christie, perhaps, in this race. We know he will not give his endorsement to Donald Trump. He thinks he's not a serious candidate and not surprisingly Donald Trump is someone is one of the people we have not had any reaction from at this point.

BERMAN: He's like the Obi-Wan Kenobi candidate, Lindsey Graham.


BERMAN: Strike me down and I will become more powerful than you can ever imagine.


BOLDUAN: I was waiting for a "Star Wars" reference.


BOLDUAN: Interesting you bring up Donald Trump, Jeff. I noticed in the interview, I mean, Lindsey Graham is famous for his one-liners and how harshly he has held -- he has never held back in his criticism of Donald Trump. I would say even a softer, more measured tone from Lindsey Graham in this interview. Even saying he's run an impressive campaign along with the warning that this is not a reality show. This is not a game show.

I found that very interesting, Dana.

[11:25:17] BASH: Oh, incredibly interesting. Listen, he's been so, so harsh. You said to him in the interview, he was one of the people who early on called him a wrecking ball, called him a -- he really pulled his punches today. I was kind of floored because of how open he is, but for the country especially because of Trump's comments of late about Muslims and so forth. So, that really surprised me but it's him lifting himself out of campaign mode, and the reality that is not unconscionable that Donald Trump could be his party's nominee and he's going to have to deal with it. It's kind of coming to terms with that possibility.

BOLDUAN: Very real.

BERMAN: Jeff, I want you to respond to what you heard from Marco Rubio. He was very reserved.


BERMAN: He could have been much more elusive in his phrase. But Lindsey Graham is complicated for Marco Rubio, isn't he?

ZELENY: No doubt about it. Marco Rubio is trying to do well in Iowa, do well in New Hampshire, trying to court the non-establishment wing of the party, and Graham is nothing but the establishment wing of the party. So by embracing Lindsey Graham, and vice versa, that's not good for Rubio. That's one of his challenges, trying to appeal to all three segments of this Republican Party. But I'll tell you, anyone would want Lindsey Graham's endorsement going into South Carolina. I'm not sure they want it before South Carolina. So we'll see how that plays out.

BOLDUAN: You could have summed it up by saying, it's complicated.

BERMAN: It's complicated.


BOLDUAN: Thanks, guys.

BERMAN: Coming up for us, big moves in the Republican field. Lindsey Graham out. Who might be next?

BOLDUAN: Also ahead, the president has a new message for critics of his ISIS strategy, you're probably watching too much TV, one of the things he's saying. Why the commander-in-chief says the media is helping to fuel fears of the terror group.

We'll be right back.