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Withdrawal from Syria; Moscow Tower Letter; Flynn Sentencing Postponed; Clinton Investigation. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired December 19, 2018 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:00] KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And I don't think he thought his time in Washington was going to come to an end this way.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: A lot -- my memory goes back to when he was working for Jack Kemp, a long, long time ago. This is not the way he thought it was going to end.

Thanks for joining us today on INSIDE POLITICS. See you back here this time tomorrow.

Stay with us, though. A lot of news ahead. Brianna Keilar starts right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar, live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, a full and rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria according to the president. But as Trump cries victory over ISIS, the Defense Department and Republicans are contradicting him.

Caught in a lie, the president signed a letter of intent to build Trump Tower in Moscow, despite Rudy Giuliani insisting he did not. This is a CNN exclusive.

Softening on his border wall demand. The White House now exploring other ways to get $5 billion to build the wall as a possible government shutdown looms over Washington.

And private messages not so private. The D.C. attorney general is suing FaceBook after a stunning new report details its mishandling of your personal data.

We start with the declaration from the president that ISIS has been defeated in Syria. With that statement, Trump now ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops there, but he may be largely alone in his assessment of the actual situation in Syria and his determination that troops can be pulled out quickly may be falling flat as well. Just last week, we heard this from the State Department.


BRETT MCGURK, U.S. SPECIAL ENVOY FOR GLOBAL COALITION TO DEFEAT ISIS: Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished. Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer term campaign. We have obviously learned a lot of lessons in the past and we know that once a physical space is defeated, we can't just pick up and leave.

I think it's fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate until we have the pieces in place to insure that that defeat is enduring.


KEILAR: Heads are spinning.

Joining me now, CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr from the Pentagon for us. We also have General Mark Hertling, former U.S. Army commanding general Europe and the Seventh Army, and Aaron David Miller, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and CNN global affairs analyst.

Barbara, you've been reporting this out, the Department of Defense just came out with a statement saying the campaign against ISIS is not over in Syria. So make sense of this for us.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's very difficult to do, Brianna, because where we are this morning is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says there's still a long way to go. They need to keep training local forces on the ground. There is no indication that the defense secretary is ready to pull out. You just saw the special envoy, Brett McGurk, there say there was a long way to go.

And we are seeing members, Republican members of Congress, expressing their concern and not being informed, as was the same with many allies, caught by surprise about this whole decision. The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, one of the most adamant defenders of the administration, Senator Inhofe saying a short time ago, and let me quote, he says, in terms of if this is the right time, I can't tell you that it is the right time because I didn't know this was going to happen, so I had no way of knowing what went into that decision in terms of whether or not it was the right time. I can't confirm that it was the right time, he says essentially.

That shows you the level of confusion and lack of coordination across Washington and across many international capitals today as this has emerged. Right now the Pentagon working to try and come up with an exit plan to safely get troops and their equipment out of there. Nobody knows how long that will take, how soon it could happen. And the big question, what about those thousands of local forces the U.S. had backed? Are they going to be abandoned? And what about Russia and Iran, who are very active inside Syria? Does this basically cede the ground to them? Can they now move ahead however they wish?


KEILAR: Aaron, this has spurred quite the conversation about whether the U.S. should be in Syria. You -- and this was clear on Twitter this morning -- you do not think there's a compelling reason to stay. AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: No, I think we need to

understand exactly what our objectives are. I mean a rapid, full and precipitous withdrawal from the narrow perspective of counterterrorism, I think, is a mistake. The problem is, we have an open ended mission in Syria. Our goals, checking the Iranians, trying to find a way to leverage Assad out of power, restraining the Russians, all these are fantastical given the limited nature of our deployment. You cannot do any of these things with 2,000 American forces.

The conundrum I think for the president is, it's the end of the year. He's been against this deployment. He tried to get out in April. Mattis convinced him otherwise. Maybe they'll slow roll this in order to create a sort of transition, gradual -- a more gradual withdrawal. But, no, Brianna, I think it would be a mistake to withdraw forces immediately.

[13:05:15] My real problem is exactly, what is our end game in Syria and are we laying the basis for yet another forever deployment?

KEILAR: So, general, there's this difference between a case for a long-term presence there and also the difference of making a case for whether the U.S. should pull out immediately.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Absolutely. And the president has not been enamored with any of the combat missions we've been involved with since the beginning. He -- since he's taken office. He was very -- very outspoken about bombing things and killing terrorists, all of that was good. But those are all transactional approaches and shortsighted ways to deal with what is a long-term threat.

And in this case, especially in Syria, we have seen advances. There have been, in fact, the Kurdish forces are in the middle of an offensive right now against a town called Hajim (ph), which is in the northern area. Iraq has been very successful over the last several months. They still admit they have challenges with ISIS in various territories within Iraq. So ISIS is not defeated by any stretch of the imagination and yet the president claims that it is and it's time to pull out.

I think you'll see some of the advances -- and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has said we must continue this fight, helping the Syrian defense forces and the Kurds in northern Iraq. Secretary Mattis has been concerned about the border between Turkey and northern Syria. As you saw Brett McGurk has said we're in for a relatively long-term presence with few troops.

But, again, I agree with David to a degree, the strategy for this area of the world is not well refined. The end state has not been really portrayed by the president or even understood by the president. So can you accomplish the mission with a few thousand troops? You can certainly continue the mission with those few thousand troops. But as many of us have stated from the beginning, there seems to be a dysfunctional strategy in that part of the world. And having this short-term announcement, or this very rapid announcement, throws a very complex situation into true chaos with the various countries that are involved in that part of the world.

KEILAR: Is there a worry on your part, Aaron David Miller, that if, looking back, for instance, on the withdrawal in Iraq, which created the ability for ISIS to get a toe hold there, are you worried about the same thing here?

MILLER: To a degree, yes. I mean it -- Obama withdrawing troops in Iraq is not quite the same thing. I mean we had 10,000 forces there. And there again it was -- it was precipitous. But here, at least, to some degree, you have a variety of forces. The Iranians, the Russians, to some degree the Turks, and, of course, the Assad regime itself that also has a fundamental, vital interest. Perhaps, in many respects, a much more vital interest than we do in ensuring that ISIS does not return, at least in a territorial dimension, and try to create another caliphate.

But Mark's right, I mean there's no question that from the narrow perspective of counterterrorism, an abrupt withdrawal is simply going to make it easier for not just ISIS elements, but a variety of al Qaeda derivatives to ensconce themselves. And as long as Syria remains a broken humpty dumpty, Brianna, I suspect, which cannot be put back together again in its entirety, I suspect you're going to be dealing with a jihadi problem there for a long time to come. Whether or not we can deal with it offshore using air strikes and drones, that's another matter.

KEILAR: Aaron David Miller, General Mark Hertling, Barbara Starr, thank you so much.

Right now, general -- attorney general -- former Attorney General Loretta Lynch is on Capitol Hill. We have some video of her arriving here in the last hour. You can see her walking through the halls of Congress, where she's expected to be grilled by Republicans about the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails. Lynch's hearing is coming two days after James Comey, the ousted FBI director gave a second six hour interview to a Republican led House committee.

Meantime, in the Russia probe, CNN has exclusively obtained proof that candidate Trump signed off on a lucrative business proposal with Moscow while running for president. This is it right here. This is a letter of intent to move forward with negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Russia signed unmistakably by Donald Trump right there.

Now, on Sunday, CNN's Dana Bash asked about the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, about the business deal and he said this. It was a real estate project. There was a letter of intent to go forward, but no one signed it.

[13:10:08] Well, I want to bring in CNN reporter Kara Scannell. We also have former Republican House Intel chairman and CNN national security commentator Mike Rogers.

This makes a liar of Rudy Giuliani, or at least someone who is ill- informed, Kara.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: That's right. I mean it's a complete contradiction of what Giuliani told Dana on Sunday. And we can see as plain as day from that letter, that's unmistakably Donald Trump's signature in that Sharpie squiggle. And that's important because this is the Trump Tower project in Moscow that Donald Trump and the Trump Organization was working and communicating with the Russian government about, with another -- another broker that they worked with, all during the campaign that Donald Trump was saying publicly there was no -- he had no business dealings with Russia. He had nothing to do with Russia. And that we've learned behind the scenes that, in fact, they did have this plan.

The letter of intent was signed in October of 2015. It would have given -- it was lucrative. It would have given the Trump Organization $4 million up front. There were conversations about designing the spa by Ivanka Trump, which is one of their signature projects when they build these towers.

So, you know, this was actually continuing and Michael Cohen pled guilty just last month to lying to Congress about this. They said, you know, you told Congress that conversations ended in January and we've now learned that the conversations continued at least until June. And Rudy Giuliani also gave an occasion this weekend that perhaps it they even continued as late as November of 2016. And there were conversations about Trump even traveling to Moscow.

KEILAR: Yes, it's -- it's sort of -- it's sort of stunning in that, I mean, this is written proof, chairman, right? Are you surprised by this?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Well, this is not the first time Giuliani didn't get the facts right. So I'm going to withhold judgment that he purposely misled versus maybe someone told him that there was no document signed and he --

KEILAR: But the president should -- you would think the president would recall signing --

ROGERS: Well, I'm not saying the president wouldn't be wrong in this, I just think Giuliani -- people are saying Giuliani lied. I'm not sure he lied. I think he represented the facts probably as he knew them. I think somebody else may have told Giuliani on the legal team there was no signed document.

What worries me and concerns me most about this is if you look at all the folks who are off -- heading off to jail here, all of them lied about something to do with Russia. And this is just one more example of something that, you know, he could have disclosed in the normal course of business and people would have said, I don't like it but it's not a crime. The fact that he's trying to cover up for this is a head scratcher for me and it tells me maybe we're -- there's all of this smoke, there may be fire. And I'm not talking about collusion, I'm just talking about some financial dealings that may or may not have been inappropriate for someone who is running for the highest office in the land. And I think that gets even to this discussion about looking for financial records in the grand jury if they're not disclosing the company, company a, or, you know, I -- we can all guess that likely deals with a company owned by the country that had financial dealings in some way related to the Trump Organization.

KEILAR: Chairman, listen to what then candidate Trump was saying about Russian business deals or what he was saying about it being a candidate versus now as president.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (October 9, 2016): I know nothing about Russia. I know -- I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don't deal there. I have no businesses there. I have no loans from Russia.

TRUMP (November 29, 2018): This deal was a very public deal. Everybody knows about this deal. I wasn't trying to hide anything, OK.


KEILAR: This is the issue to you, right? The bigger issue is why would you -- why would you cover it up?

ROGERS: Why? I mean if you're in the real estate market in New York City, you're going to bump into the Russians. They deal a lot there in real estate. They're all over the -- it doesn't make it illegal. They're doing legal transactions every single day. And he's in the real estate business in New York City and around the world. I don't know why you would decide that you can't completely be truthful about what your relationship is before you became president of the United States.

In my mind, if you do it correctly, it's all legal. You don't have to worry about it. Again, we may not like it. We may think, gee, that was a bad decision. But now, when you have all of these folks starting to go to jail over lying about Russia, and a clear example of President Trump not being exactly honest about his relationships with Russia, that gives credence to, I think, the Mueller investigation's look, maybe not a collusion, but certainly the financial angle of were there promises made along the way that probably shouldn't have, that may even rise to the level of legality?

KEILAR: Former House Intel Chairman Mike Rogers, thank you so much.

Kara Scannell, really appreciate the reporting.

And staying with the Russia investigation, why is the White House standing by their claim that Michael Flynn was ambushed by the FBI when Flynn himself says he was not.

And kicking the can down the road, right into the Democrat's hands. The latest on the looming possible government shutdown.


[13:19:23] KEILAR: The fate of Michael Flynn still to be determined. A district court judge delaying his sentencing until next year and warning he has not ruled out jail time. One thing that is clear, however, is the White House narrative that Flynn was ambushed by the FBI and tricked into lying has completely been destroyed.

Here's what Sarah Sanders is claiming.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're arguing that he was certainly ambushed and that the FBI -- that we know had clear political bias.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Flynn said that he knew that it was illegal to lie to the FBI and he was ready to accept responsibility. This was all before agreeing to a delay in the sentencing.

Given that, are you in a position now or would like to revisit your comments earlier today that the FBI ambushed Flynn?

[13:20:05] SANDERS: No. I -- we still firmly believe -- we don't have any reason to want to walk that.


KEILAR: Well, in open court, Flynn took full responsibility for his lies. He admitted that he knew lying to the FBI was illegal, as you heard there.

Earlier today, Republican Senator Joe (ph) Kenny -- Kennedy, pardon me, citing with the facts over the White House.


SEN. JOE (ph) KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: I see no indication that Mr. Flynn was tricked. There weren't any strict questions. I don't think he was coerced. He was given several opportunities to tell truth and he told a boldfaced lie. And that's just a fact.


KEILAR: Crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz joining us now.

And, Shimon, just tell us, where do things stand at this moment for Flynn?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, well, quite simply, Brianna, things are not good for Michael Flynn. The prospect of prison is very, very real for him now. He's in a much different place today certainly than he was going into that sentencing hearing yesterday.

And then late yesterday, just in the evening, early evening, the judge then took a drastic measure of trying to limit, trying to keep an eye, even more on Michael Flynn, limiting his travel, saying that he could only travel within 50 miles of Washington, D.C. Told Michael Flynn, you need to surrender your passport. And, keep in mind, all of this is sudden. Michael Flynn has been

pretty much a free man, was able to roam around, go wherever he wanted to, travel wherever he wanted to. And for whatever reason, and it is likely because he's now facing prison time, that the judge has decided to yank his passport and limit his travel.

This can go on for over a year. Because of his cooperation in another case out of the Eastern District of Virginia, that cooperation can go on for a year to a year and a half. So it won't be until then, until that is over, that we will know what his sentence will be.

KEILAR: All right, Shimon, thank you so much. Shimon Prokupecz.

And joining me now is Ken Starr, former independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton. His latest book, "Contempt: A Memoir of the Clinton Investigation," is out now.

And, sir, I'm so curious about this book, but I first want to get your perspective on the Russia investigation since you're one of the few people who knows what it's like to serve as special counsel.


KEILAR: You've -- we've been covering this, the federal judge delaying Michael Flynn's sentencing at Michael Flynn's request. The judge was clearly peeved by Flynn's filing that indicated he was caught off guard by the FBI, even as he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and he said in court that he knew that was wrong.

Did you see any problem with the way that Flynn would interviewed by the FBI, the way that was conducted?

STARR: Yes. I do, and I think Judge Sullivan did as well. So the other side of the story is, it wasn't ambush, but it was irregular. It was a failure by the FBI, which has basically said that we did not follow customary procedures. But I completely agree, there's no excuse for lying to the FBI. And so the Mueller team has not somehow hatched up an ambush. I think it was extremely poor form by James Comey and to Andy McCabe to do what they did. But General Flynn, very experienced, he's responsible for his actions and he's taken responsibility for his actions that he should do.

Now, the judge, I think, was peeved at everyone in the --

KEILAR: What were the specifics -- what were the specifics of the way it was conducted that you take issue with?

STARR: Failure to follow protocol, which is to deal with the White House Counsel's Office, to explain what you're doing and to be forthright about what you're doing with the White House Counsel's Office. That way the White House Counsel's Office could have made its own assessment, should we postpone this, have we interviewed General Flynn and so forth. Quite apart from the focus on, should General Flynn have had his lawyer present and so forth. I'm viewing it from a governmental perspective of the relationship with the Justice Department and the FBI to the White House. That protocol was violated. And I think Mr. Comey has specifically said, we took advantage of the fact that it was early on and there was not a great deal of organization. No excuses. But there's also no excuse for lying. And he did. And he's admitted that. General Flynn has. And rightly so, because he lied on multiple occasions. So it's --

KEILAR: But do you see that -- I'm just curious --


KEILAR: Do you see that differently of not looping in White House Counsel different than say like Monica Lewinsky being questioned initially without an attorney present? So you make a distinction because it's a governmental issue?

STARR: No. Oh, yes, of course. I mean what we were following, we were vindicated, Brianna, and I describe this in my book, just we were completely vindicated by Chief Judge Norma Holloway Johnson (ph). Lots of media speculation about how did you treat her and so forth? But we were vindicated. We were doing exactly by the book what we were supposed to do in exactly the right way using experience, personnel and so forth.

[13:25:12] What we know now is that, yes, this is different. This is government to government. And especially when you're going to be interviewing the brand-new national security adviser, you do check in with the White House Counsel's Office. It was very bad form. Not illegal. They could do it. But it was -- I would call it an abuse of power.

KEILAR: In your book, and it's important to mention that today marks the 20 years since the Bill Clinton impeachment, and in your book, "Contempt," you talk about the impeachment. You also address how this may not -- impeachment may not have the end result of the impeachers.

STARR: Right.

KEILAR: So with that in mind, what do you think about what's going on right now with Democrats, will at some point possibly have to weigh this decision about whether to proceed?

STARR: Yes. I think there's going to be sentiment. We're already seeing it during the -- we saw it during the campaign. But I think cooler heads will prevail. But we'll see. It depends on the evidence, of course.

But I think part of the lesson that I tried to articulate in the book is impeachment is hell for the country. So hold the president accountable, hold oversight hearings and the like, but be extremely reluctant to go in favor of impeachment. It just puts the country through a terrible ordeal, extraordinarily disruptive and there are other ways to vindicate the truth and the public interest.

KEILAR: There's -- there's, I think, at this point in time, there's a reevaluation of the Clinton impeachment and the role of different players. You talk about this in the book a little bit. You talk about Monica Lewinsky. I wonder, what do you think now with the benefit of hindsight about how Monica Lewinsky fared at the time of your investigation, especially as she has been sort of reevaluated in this Ne Too era?

STARR: Right. Yes, and I looked at this pretty carefully in the book itself. I saw her as misguidedly, but very shrewdly protecting the president at all costs, including at terrible peril to herself month after month. But happily she eventually decided to do what, which her mother had urged her to do on day one when -- in which a very competent criminal defense lawyer would likewise have said, tell the truth and work out a deal, just as we're seeing in the Mueller probe, there are deals that are worked out. And the transaction that we were seeking was, we want the truth, Monica. Just tell the truth. Whatever it is, whether it's exculpatory, we think you committed perjury, we think you're encouraging others to commit perjury, just tell the truth and we'll get it all over with.

KEILAR: She clearly, sir, thought, looking bac, she's moved and is reevaluating whether she thought there was an abuse of power. And I hear what you're saying in your book, you talk about how she was responsible in making herself a tragic figure.

STARR: Right.

KEILAR: Do you -- I wonder if you worry, when you're talking about that, that you're treading precariously into victim blaming territory?

STARR: No, I'm just trying to evaluate a very sad chapter for the entire country. That the entire matter could have been concluded in terms of law enforcement, authorized by Attorney General Janet Reno. And I think there's a real misunderstanding, Brianna, about that. How did this all of this come to be, the Lewinsky phase of the investigation? It was because the president was in the process of committing perjury and engaging in other crimes against the rule of law. We're rightly talking about rule of law in the Trump administration. What the book shows, that the president was embarked, month after month, on effort to obstruct justice and the like. And, in fact, he was found in contempt for his obstruction of justice. I think that is underappreciated. So I think part of the lessons -- and we're drawing those lessons now is -- tell the truth, don't obstruct justice because at the end of the road there's going to be accountability. The truth will come out.

KEILAR: Because he was found in contempt, you make a point in your book, you say that neither Bill, and you say also Hillary Clinton, neither Bill or Hillary Clinton has the character to be the leader -- to be the leader of the free world. You called Hillary Clinton in your book smug, dismissive, brittle, a liar, vindictive. I wonder, because these are also the adjectives that critics of President Trump's, that they will use, do you think that he is equipped to be -- to have the character to be the leader of the free world?

STARR: He was not my candidate. I had -- I'm a very loyal member of the Bush team. So he was not my candidate, but he was then nominee and that he won. There are about 80 percent of his policies that I think are terrific. I frequently criticize the president for this. I think --

KEILAR: But on his character? Because you talked about character.

STARR: Oh, I think that -- oh, yes, no, I --

KEILAR: Does he have the character to be the leader of the free world?