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U.S. Preparing for Full and Rapid Withdrawal from Syria; Interview with Senator John Kennedy; Senate Passes Bipartisan Criminal Justice Bill; Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired December 19, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And just in the last few moments, the president tweeted, Barbara, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria. My only reason for being there during the Trump presidency."

Do the facts, does the intelligence support that claim?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, not the position, Jim and Poppy, of the U.S. Military and intelligence community that ISIS is defeated, militarily defeated inside Syria. In fact ISIS very much reforming, re-strategizing according to some officials, launching more attacks. ISIS still operating in the eastern parts of Syria. Still several hundred if not thousands of ISIS fighters and loyalists in that area.

What the president has decided is that the 2,000 or so U.S. ground forces in Syria mainly special forces are coming out as soon as possible. That is what we are being told. It raises some fundamental questions. Number one, what will happen? Will ISIS now make propaganda hate out of all of this saying that it's driven the U.S. out of Syria. You can expect that ISIS will have plenty to say about it.

What will happen to the thousands of U.S.-backed forces in Syria that the U.S. has been training on the ground with those U.S. ground forces? Will they be abandoned?

Russia and Iran, that's the next factor. They all have forces and militias in Syria especially Iranian backed militias. Will they be able to now gain new ground, new influence in Syria? Because while the U.S. was there for the reason of fighting ISIS, it very much was a hedge against Russian and Iranian expansion inside Syria. That was just one of the consequences of the U.S. presence there and the U.S. had wanted, U.S. military officials had been very much aware of that and thought it was a good thing to be a hedge against some of that expansion if it wasn't their formal reason for being there.

You know, the U.S. could still conduct air strikes, could launch artillery attacks from outside of Syria against ISIS. We'll have to see if some of that happens. But the president saying that ISIS is defeated, I think he will be hard pressed to find a U.S. military official saying that that is the case -- Jim, Poppy.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Well, that says a lot, Barbara Starr. Certainly. Thank you very much.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh who has reported on the ground there extensively.

Nick, your read on this.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm flabbergasted, to be honest. And I think that would be an opinion shared by most of the U.S. Special Forces we were on the ground with earlier on this year. They thought they were there more or less indefinitely because they were sort of fulfilling three pretty important roles. The bases they built there suggested they weren't going anywhere. These were solid, permanent structures. And I think that's because many felt the Pentagon was getting a lot of bang for their buck here, with sort of 2,000 plus troops on the ground.

They were certainly -- I think you got to bear in mind this became the most important thing. They were providing a kind of resistance to the Russian influence in the region and preventing Iran from shipping weapons from Iran and Iraq straight through Syria to Lebanon where they can be used potentially to threaten a key U.S. ally of Israel. That was a very important geopolitical role they filled there. And it meant that it had to be in neighboring Iraq for the big military presence as well.

Secondly also, they were kind of acting in a way to calm Turkish concerns to the north. Turkey is another U.S. ally that thinks that some of the forces the Americans have been working alongside are terrorists. The fact the Americans were there kind of calmed that down to some degree. Publicly the Turkish were very angry but I think in their hearts they knew as long as the Americans were around things wouldn't necessarily get out of control.

And finally there is that ISIS fight. You can't possibly suggest it's over. They are massively diminished. But Baghdadi is still out there. And, you know, you might argue that from now on they'd be basically chasing demons in the dust. There was no major geographical hub they could point their fire power at. But still regardless, ISIS are a threat. As Barbara said they are resurging to some degree.

And you've really got to look at the timing here. That's the absolute key thing. To the north, Turkey, a NATO member and key U.S. ally, has very explicitly been threatening to march into that part of Syria and take on those Syrian Kurdish fighters that are allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. People were saying, well, we're not going to do that when the U.S. is still there, that would be crazy, putting NATO military potentially risking the lives of U.S. military on the ground there.

This appears to possibly be influenced by that timing. I think many will be asking how the U.S. essentially sold their allies against ISIS out to try and placate their NATO member ally Turkey.

SCIUTTO: Nick Paton Walsh with a view from the ground there, seems to contradict what the president is claiming.


SCIUTTO: Let's bring in retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. He commanded troops in Iraq, including against ISIS, and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, who's been in northern Syria at least five times in the last 16 months, just got back from the region this weekend.

General Hertling, if I could begin with you here. The most recent Pentagon I.G. report put the figure of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria at 30,000. How can the president claim today that ISIS is defeated in Syria?

[10:05:03] LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: He can't truthfully, Jim. Here's the thing. And I'll reinforce some of the things both Nick Paton Walsh and Barbara Starr said. This first of all was very surprising to me not only the announcement, but the timing. I don't understand why it is happening now. The U.S. forces have just started an offensive with those SDF forces, the Syrian Defense Forces, and the Kurds against the town of Hajin, which is considered an ISIS stronghold. That's number one.

Number two, U.S. forces entered another town called (INAUDIBLE) in southern Syria that the Russians have said they would like U.S. forces out of there. They have stated that several times. You're talking about making both the Russians, the Syrians -- I'm sorry, the Russians, the Syrian Bashar al-Assad, the Iranians and the Turks very happy about this move because as Nick said the Kurdish forces are going to see this as us turning against them one more time.

One point I'd like to make, though. What's interesting that hasn't been brought up yet is there seems to be a transactional element to this, too, because over the last three days the U.S. has just sealed the deal with Turkey for $3.5 billion worth of patriot missile systems that were signed yesterday by our State Department. I'm sure that played a role a little bit in this.

HARLOW: Understood. And Turkey is our NATO ally. But, Gayle, to you, the vantage point of someone who just returned from northeastern Syria, you just saw this on the ground. You have been talking about the ISIS pushes back into Raqqa, the sleeper cells there trying to activate the real ISIS risk on the ground that you saw first-hand.

The timing here, it is hard to understand the why. And, you know, Nick Paton Walsh just laid out an important point that a big part of the reason, you know, our troops are there is resistance to Russia's influence in the region.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Yes. It's not just Russia. Right? It's Russia, Iran, Syrian regime.


LEMMON: ISIS. Right? So you have a very crowded neighborhood in which moms and dads have been working so hard to push forward. And I do think because the United States at this moment is so little attuned to what is going on outside our borders in terms of what U.S. forces are doing, that a real story of forward momentum, of progress in the right direction amid extreme fragility has been lost, right?

I mean, one hair dresser I interviewed in April visited in August and then just saw this weekend in Raqqa was talking to me about how she's now saved up enough money to open up her own shop. And she said all we want is for continued security and stability because the extremists want to come back and we don't want them. All we want to-do is do is push forward with our lives.

And this is a real story of U.S.-backed forces and U.S. forces together bringing stability and security to some measure, right, in that you can drive without being ripped off, you can have a real level of security that is missing for many of the other locations in the post 9/11 conflicts. And I think few of us have appreciated just how many gains have been made with so few losses to U.S. life. Think about this. U.S. has taken back or helped the Syria Democratic Forces to take back all the territory that ISIS held from the beginning and some other provinces has fewer than five U.S. combat deaths.


SCIUTTO: So let me get this straight, General Mark Hertling. This serves Russian interests. It serves Iranian interests. It takes the heat off of ISIS and does a favor for Turkey. How does it serve U.S. interests?

HERTLING: And it under cuts the Kurds, Jim. Don't forget that.


HERTLING: It doesn't serve U.S. interest. And as Gayle just said, this is a chopping off at the knees. There is an expression in Arabic called (INAUDIBLE), little by little which is I think what Gayle is talking about. And you have to make these advances over time. Last week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said we're going to be there for a while. The secretary of Defense said on I think last Thursday that he was thinking about border patrols between Turkey and the Kurdish region.

So none of this make sense and it certainly doesn't serve either our long-term or especially as Gayle said our short-term interest in bringing peace to the region and stopping the kind of immigration that we have seen with people running away from these multiple threats of Russia, Iranian and Syria offenses.

HARLOW: What is the greatest risk, then, Gayle, to Syria now and to stability? I say that word with caution. Stability in the region now. If the U.S. is off the ground they can still do air strikes, they can still advise and assist in different ways. What is the biggest risk then to the region when it comes to Syria and instability?

LEMMON: I think the biggest risk is that a very fragile stability has been holding. Particularly in Raqqa. One commander I went to interview last week in Raqqa actually called me to say that ISIS had put an I.D. underneath her car as she was leaving the city and she survived. [10:10:03] But in the end, these are the kinds of real threats that

local forces are facing every single day. And if you go through the cemeteries in northern Syria, those are the young women and the young men who have put their lives on the line, thousands lost, in the fight against ISIS. And so the fragile stability which has been holding, which has allowed moms to send their kids to school, which has allowed mothers to tell their sons not to join ISIS. All of that fragile stability which has really allowed the U.S. to keep an eye on Iran, on Russia, on the Syrian regime, and to keep ISIS from reemerging, that is what I think is placed in jeopardy.

HARLOW: OK. Thank you both for your expertise. It is invaluable this morning on this very significant breaking news.

Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, thank you both.

SCIUTTO: Coming up, a rare and monumental bipartisan win. The Senate passes a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system. What it could mean for prison sentences moving forward.

HARLOW: Plus a new report says Facebook exempted some big tech companies, all the major players really, from abiding by its privacy rules, handing over private messages of users to benefit these other big tech companies. Why? And what is Facebook saying in response?


[10:15:39] SCIUTTO: Welcome back. A lot of news breaking this morning. And we're joined now by Senator John Kennedy, he's Republican from Louisiana, member of the Budget, Banking and Appropriations and Judiciary Committees.

Senator Kennedy, thanks very much for taking the time this morning.


SCIUTTO: First, I want to start. You've seen the announcement, our reporting and others, on the announcement that the president will withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria. And the president claiming a short time ago that the U.S. has defeated ISIS in Syria. In fact the latest Pentagon I.G. report says that there are still 30,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Do you disagree with the president's claim, that ISIS is defeated?

KENNEDY: I don't know yet what I think about the president's actions, Jim. I'm not trying to dodge the question. I want to hear -- I want to get a briefing from the White House and I want to talk to General Mattis. I think we have for the most part 95 percent driven ISIS out of the Middle East. Having said that, I want to understand the impact that this will have on our Kurdish friends. We would not have been able to defeat ISIS without help from the Kurds. And I want to make sure we're not leaving them high and dry.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you, this clearly serves Russia's interests. It serves Iran's interests there. They don't like having U.S. forces on the ground. It takes pressure off of ISIS there. How would this serve U.S. interests at all particularly from a president who criticized President Obama for withdrawing forces too quickly from Iraq which allowed ISIS to then reconstitute there?

KENNEDY: Well, it could -- it could serve American interests. I mean, we have spilled a lot of blood and spent a lot of taxpayer money in the Middle East including but not limited to Syria. I just don't know yet. I'm really not trying to dodge your question. General Mattis, President Trump have information that you and I don't have. I will be briefed again. I think for the most part we have defeated ISIS. It doesn't mean there are not still some terrorists left. There are. I don't like spend a penny more than we have to in the Middle East. But I am worried about how -- concerned would be the right word. I don't know enough to be worried about the impact this would have on our Kurdish friends.

SCIUTTO: In fairness to you, I just want you to know because you can't see this where you are standing. We've been showing footage, that CNN exclusive, it's drone footage from the aftermath of a battle with ISIS just within the last several days in a part of Syria called Hajin.


SCIUTTO: How can there still be -- the picture, just if I can describe to you, it's devastating. It looks like Dresden after World War II. I mean how can you have fighting like this within the last few days and ISIS being defeated?

KENNEDY: Well, we're -- I didn't say they were totally defeated by I do think they're 95 plus percent defeated. We're certainly in much better shape today than we were this time last year and the year before. And number two, we're not the only country fighting ISIS in the Middle East. Iraq is, as well. So is Iran. So are other Middle Eastern countries. And I'm happy to see them doing more of their part. And again --

SCIUTTO: So you're saying we're going to rely on Iran in part to fight ISIS now, the U.S. is?

KENNEDY: No, I didn't say that.


KENNEDY: I said there are other countries in the Middle East fighting ISIS along with the United States.

SCIUTTO: Understood. OK. I want to move on, if I can, to the budget debate of course. That's atop of your -- Republicans' and Democrats' agenda. We just learned that Senator Mitch McConnell, the GOP majority leader, of course, says that a short--term continuing resolution is coming here. Not clear whether -- it looks like the president is not going to get his $5 billion for the wall. You have said the wall is necessary. That walls work.

Do you believe that the president has let you down on this?

KENNEDY: No. I think I'm biased, of course. But I think Mrs. Pelosi let us down. I did not believe from day one that Mrs. Pelosi would ever agree to a penny for the border wall because she wants to be speaker of the House. And I think it would be fair to say that the new House of Representatives will be further to the left than the former House of Representatives.

[10:20:07] And many of them will not vote for her for speaker if she is seen as giving in to the president. That is just the political reality here. I do think border walls work. They are working right now in San Diego. And in El Paso, Yuma, the West Bank in the Israel, they are working in Bulgaria, India, Saudi Arabia. But this debate is more than just about border security.

My position on immigration is very simple. Legal immigration makes us stronger. Illegal immigration is illegal and one way to stop it is enhancing border security.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you about another topic if I can because we appreciate having you on. You are aware of Michael Flynn -- retired General Michael Flynn's court appearance yesterday. As you know the president, his supporters and the White House have repeatedly alleged that he was tricked into lying to the FBI. In that courtroom yesterday Flynn himself repeatedly alleged that he was tricked into lying by the FBI. And yet in that courtroom yesterday Flynn himself repeatedly asked by the judge and his lawyers repeatedly asked by the judge said in no uncertain terms they were not entrapped. And yet Sarah Sanders then repeated the ambush claim some hours after that.

Is there any evidence in your view that general Flynn was tricked or mistreated by the FBI? And if so, why does Flynn and his lawyers say otherwise?

KENNEDY: No. I read the 302 from Mr. Flynn. As you know, a 302 is the FBI agent's summary of the interview. It's on the Internet. I encourage everybody to go read the 302 and draw your own conclusions. I have read it. I see no indication that Mr. Flynn was tricked. There were no trick questions. I don't think he was coerced. He was given several opportunities to tell the truth. And he told a bald faced lie. And that's just the fact. And I think he owes --


SCIUTTO: Did the White House then telling a lie now --

KENNEDY: I think he knows --

SCIUTTO: So sorry. If I could finish, I was just to say, is the White House then telling a lie by continuing to claim that he was tricked?

KENNEDY: I don't speak for the White House and I don't work for the White House. I do think that Mr. Flynn, 33 years as an army general with a deep background in national security, he had to know there was a good chance that the FBI knew about his conversation with the Russian ambassador and he chose not to tell the truth. And I think he owes an apology to the American people.

I think he owes an apology for President Trump. I think he let him down. President Trump picked him to be the national security adviser for the most powerful and in my judgment the greatest country in all of human history. And he paid -- repaid the president by lying to the FBI. It's a serious matter. And I think he did it. Now let's -- you know, acts have consequences.

SCIUTTO: And you're right, his service deserves to be noted. I've talked to a lot of folks who served with him. They make the same point.

KENNEDY: Well, and his service deserves to be noted. But let me tell you, Mr. Flynn, and I didn't like this either, he was an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey, not while he was national security adviser now. But he was unregistered for the longest time. He was taking money from President Erdogan in Turkey and writing op-ed pieces in support of Mr. Erdogan. Without disclosing that to the American people.

Now that is a violation of law.


KENNEDY: And I don't think it's a testament to his character. He did not do it while he was working for the president. But I'm just thinking of the country and the president down.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And two of his colleagues now have been indicted for that.

Senator John Kennedy, thanks very much for taking the time and taking the hard questions.

KENNEDY: You bet, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Something you rarely see in Washington, D.C. today and that is senators across the aisle passing a massive prison reform bill. How this could completely overhaul the criminal justice system.


[10:28:53] SCIUTTO: Don't miss this story because it's an important one. A massive overhaul of America's criminal justice system. The Senate overwhelmingly passed the Criminal Justice Reform bill. Republicans and Democrats coming together.

HARLOW: Yes. Huge. 87 to 12 vote in favor of this. It has been long sought. It aims to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, reduce recidivism in terms of giving them the ability to thrive when they are out of prison.

Let's talk to Jeremy Diamond, our White House reporter, about this.

You have a fascinating piece this morning on the bill that wouldn't die. So many people and administrations have pushed for this. And it's the Trump administration that got it. Van Jones, the Koch brothers, Jared Kushner, Kim Kardashian, FOX News and the ACLU come together. Who moved Mitch McConnell's hand on this one? Because he called it extremely divisive but then he brought it to the floor.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: As you said, it was the bill that would not die. In fact, so much so that opponents of the bill and ultimately supporters started to call it the zombie bill. And this is something that has gone through this winding journey through Congress, through the administration. In both of those bodies there has been significant opposition to this effort but it was ultimately this unlikely coalition really helmed ultimately by Jared Kushner.