Return to Transcripts main page


Offensive On U.S. Allies After Trump Stands Down; Constitutional Crisis Erupts As White House Stonewalls Congress. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired October 9, 2019 - 13:00   ET



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

Underway right now, America in the middle of a constitutional crisis. There are two things Democrats are looking to impeach President Trump over. The first is abuse of power. And the second happening before our eyes, as the White House obstructs Congress from investigating the executive branch.

Plus, the Trump administration arguing it should not be subject to the same court ordered disclosures the Nixon White House was, leaves a judge to respond, wow, okay.

And the president describes the infamous phone call with Ukraine's president as perfect, but a White House official called it crazy, frightening and left everyone shaken.

And we do begin with breaking news. Turkey has launched a military offensive against the Kurds in Northeastern Syria just days after President Trump said he was pulling U.S. troops out of the region who might have deterred this attack by Turkey. The Kurds have long waged a separatist movement that Turkey has violently sought to put down, but they've also been crucial partners to America, standing shoulder to shoulder with U.S. Special Forces in the fight against ISIS.

Now, those American forces are gone and the Kurds are warning that the U.S. withdrawal has paved the way for their ethnic cleansing.

Shortly after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Operation Peace Spring on Twitter, war planes from inside Turkey took off to strike their first Kurdish targets in Northeastern Syria. Syrian Democratic Forces, comprised mostly of Kurdish fighters, reported air strikes on civilian areas, sparking a huge panic and an exodus of people from the area.

The Kurds say they are getting reports of civilian casualties from villages in this region and Turkey says the operation is meant to drive out terrorists, which is what they call the Kurds, a key U.S. military ally or maybe a former military ally.

CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward is in Northern Syria. So, Clarissa, tell us what you are seeing. CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Brianna, we were right on the outskirts of the town or Ras al-Ain in the aftermath of those first wave of strikes coming from Turkish artillery. We believe we saw thick black plumes of smoke, at least six different strike targets. The air was just thick with that smoke. There was a fire, also apparently a cotton factory that had caught fire after being hit by a strike.

And then what we saw was this overwhelming wave of civilians trying desperately to get out of this town, fearful for their lives, the streets choked with traffic, cars with mattresses strapped to roofs, women, children in the back of flat bed trucks. I approached some of them and asked them where they were going. And they told me simply, Brianna, we don't know where we're going, we don't know where it's safe. They have no sense of the scope and scale of this Turkish operation.

We're hearing that at least four different towns were targeted as a part of the first wave of this Turkish military operation. Kurdish authorities are also saying one civilian has been killed, seven injured, including two children.

And the question that everyone is asking is what next and where next. And this is a vast area, Brianna. You're talking about a 200-mile swath of territory along that border, making it very difficult for civilians to know where exactly they should head to next.

But a palpable sense of fear and concern here. A lot of Kurdish people had dared to hope that perhaps President Trump would change his mind, that perhaps the U.S. would intervene and avert this from happening. But now it's clear this Turkish military operation is underway and it's clearly going to be bloody. Brianna?

KEILAR: And, Clarissa, Kurds control prisons that house thousands of ISIS fighters, and they're warning they may have to abandon them. What could happen?

WARD: Well, this is one of many potentially problematic scenarios. And this is why European allies of the U.S. are troubled as well as the Kurds. The reality is, we saw waves of vehicles filled with Kurdish fighters leaving their various bases and heading to the frontline along the border to try to provide some resistance against this Turkish military incursion.

Some of those fighters presumably are among those among those who are guarding these ISIS prisons. We're talking about 12,000 hardened ISIS fighters, we're talking about tens of thousands of family members of ISIS fighters, many of whom are also deeply radicalized.

And if the Kurdish fighting forces who are responsible for upholding the fortitude of those prisons are now being yanked to the front lines, it is not unreasonable to speculate that you could see the resurgence of ISIS sleeper cells, that you could also see potentially prison breaks occurring, people escaping and essentially radicals taking advantage of the security vacuum that many fear will be caused by this military operation. [13:05:23]


KEILAR: Clarissa Ward reporting for us from Northern Syria, thank you.

And the president is getting hammered for pulling U.S. troops out of Northeastern Syria. It is a rare lawmaker, Republican or Democrat, who sees wisdom, be it great or unmatched, as the president, said in this move, pulling U.S. troops from a low risk, high reward military operation that has been going on for years now with few U.S. casualties and a lot of success keeping ISIS at bay.

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the president's strongest Republican allies, said, quote, if media reports are accurate and Turkey has entered Northern Syria, a disaster is in the making. And he's urging the president to change course while there is still time, by going back to the safe zone concept that was working. But is there really still time to go back?

Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby is with us. He's our Military and our Diplomatic Analyst. And, first, let's just take a look, John, at the area where Turkey has launched this operation.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes. This is the buffer zone that they're trying to establish, Brianna. It's hundreds of miles long. It goes all the way from the Euphrates River. You could see the river here to the Iraqi border.

And what the Turks are saying is they want to create this zone 18 to 25 miles deep inside Syria. Interesting they talked about the prison. Al-Hol prison camp is down here near the Iraqi border, well outside the zone.

KEILAR: Okay. So you heard what Senator Graham said there. He said, let's change course while there is still time to go back. Is there really time to go back, because at this point in time, the Kurds are feeling quite betrayed by the departure of U.S. forces?

KIRBY: Never say never, but it would be really, really difficult now for the Trump administration to reverse course and try to forestall this Turkish incursion. They've already struck with artillery, long- range artillery and airstrikes, they have created civilian casualties, they've already damaged and destroyed parts of two different cities along that border and we don't have the capacity right now to stop that.

Not to mention, our Syrian Democratic Forces, just in the last hour or so, announced that they were suspending all operations against ISIS to focus on the Turkish incursion. Good luck getting them back on side with you to try stop this.

KEILAR: Yes. They have other worries right now.

KIRBY: It's going to be very difficult. KEILAR: Admiral Kirby, thank you so much.

KIRBY: My pleasure.

KEILAR: As a U.S. Official is telling CNN that the Syrian Democratic Forces, most of whom are Kurds, as we mentioned, have suspended these counter-ISIS operations, as we just heard from John Kirby, because they're now embroiled in this battle with Turkey.

Joby Warrick is a National Security Reporter for The Washington Post. He's also the author of Black Flags, the Rise of ISIS.

Joby, they're focused right now on Turkey, these Kurdish fighters are. Could we, because of this, see a resurgence of ISIS?

JOBY WARRICK, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: It certainly could. And there are two really big problems to worry about, and your correspondent alluded to both of them. One is the possibility of prison breaks or just a loss of control over these thousands and thousands of former ISIS militants and their family members. They're in just one place. There are about 20 different locations around Northeastern Syria. They are guarded not by Americans but by these Kurdish militants that are helping us. If they're off to the frontline to fight the Turks, all bets are off in terms of who's going to look after these prison camps and make sure there is no escape.

It's interesting, about a month ago -- sorry, about a month ago, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, issued a video statement, which he called on his followers to do prison breaks specifically. He's looking to get his people out because there are a lot of people in these prisons and about 2,000 of them are foreigners. They're from other countries outside the region. Many of them are European. If they get out of the prisons, certainly, some of them will try to go home and they're a big problem we'll have to deal with in the future.

KEILAR: So this U.S. military operation in Syria is seen as a model of a light footprint strategy as opposed to huge military operations, like we see in Afghanistan. What does this mean more broadly for U.S. military engagements that the U.S. is walking away from this?

WARRICK: Well, you're right. This has been a very good partnership in the sense that there's been very few American casualties. Our partners, the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces, did pretty much all of the fighting and dying in Syria. And we enabled them, we gave them air cover, we gave them intelligence. Some of our Special Forces people fought alongside them as essentially brothers in arms.

And without that partnership, that falls apart, the ability of the Americans to sort of leverage some kind of control over the security problems in Eastern Syria, that goes away. And we know there is a significant ISIS presence still in the country, even if the caliphate has fallen.

[13:10:01] There are many cells. We just saw in the last 24 hours there were three suicide attacks by ISIS on its former capital of Raqqah against SDF positions.

So there's a real potential for an unraveling of the security situation and for resurgence of ISIS in not just the prison camps but across that part of Syria.

KEILAR: And let me ask you quickly, Joby, if that happens and the U.S. needs to go back in and keep ISIS at bay, could they expect to rely on Kurdish partners to really take the lead on that?

WARRICK: Yes. Would you expect to be able to ask these SDF fighters to ally with us again after this as they see it a very significant betrayal? And the answer is no. It's going to be very hard for us to get allies again, to get people from other countries to ally with us in fighting ISIS if it begins to come back. So this is a huge loss for us, potentially.

KEILAR: That you would be U.S. troops. Joby Warrick, thank you so much.

The U.S. is facing a constitutional crisis as the president goes to war with Democrats over his impeachment.

Plus, why a judge said, quote, wow, okay, after the Trump administration tried to argue they didn't need to share information with Congress because court ordered Watergate disclosures were actually a mistake.

And new details on the elaborate effort to get Ukraine to investigate the president's political rival, including what Trump ordered of a cabinet member and the State Department.



KEILAR: All right, an extraordinary position, that is what a federal judge called the Trump administration's reasoning for why it should not hand over Mueller report grand jury materials to Congress.

Now, a lawyer for the Department of Justice argued that, in 1974, a federal judge erred in ordering the Nixon White House to release similar information to Congress, information that ultimately contributed to Richard Nixon resigning.

The judge's response to that, quote, wow, okay, clearly skeptical of this argument that comes just as President Trump and the White House try to derail the current impeachment inquiry by doing nothing, really. They say they won't take part, they won't turn over documents, they won't cooperate in any way with what they call an unfair action.

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the chairman of the investigating committees, the president's counsel says, quote, President Trump and his administration reject your baseless, unconstitutional efforts to overturn the Democratic process. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that this effort will be regarded as, quote, further evidence of obstruction.

Let's go to Kaitlan Collins at the White House. Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, we knew this letter was coming. We have been expecting it. We didn't know it was going to be as scathing as it was. As you just noted there that, essentially, the White House is arguing that with this impeachment inquiry, Democrats are trying to overturn the 2016 election.

Now, what's interesting and what we're going forward is before this letter was sent out, we had been hearing from people inside the White House that they didn't see this probe as legitimate because a floor vote had never happened to where Democrats actually had to vote to move forward with this impeachment inquiry, something Democrats have maintained they don't need to do.

But during a briefing call after this letter was sent to Capitol Hill yesterday, a senior administration official would not say what the White House would do, what is the standard for them to need to cooperate. If the House does take a vote, does make this a formal impeachment inquiry with a vote, would they then cooperate with documents and testimony and turning over officials to speak to House investigators? They said they didn't want to get into hypotheticals.

So, essentially, they're waiting to see what it is the Democrats do next, how they respond to this. Though Pelosi has said she will not be deterred by the White House's letter.

And while that's going on, we're seeing the president behind the scenes trying to essentially ramp up his defense here. We noted that he hired the former South Carolina congressman, Trey Gowdy, to go serve outside the White House as counsel in this impeachment inquiry, something that we're expecting to be formally announced later on.

But that's going on as the president on his Twitter feed, very clearly, is focusing in gearing up, essentially, for what could be a very long fight.

KEILAR: And I want to talk to you about something actually that just came in from the White House, something from the Deputy Press Secretary, Hogan Gidley, there. He's released a statement from President Trump about what we're seeing in Syria. And, Kaitlan, it says, the U.S., quote, does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea.

My question for you is, while the White House may not endorse this attack, they pulled U.S. troops out of the area, which was sort of an invitation for Turkey to come in. It's like saying, I don't endorse you robbing my house but I'm going to leave and leave all the doors and windows open. So what do they -- how do they make sense of this?

COLLINS: Yes, language, saying, we do not endorse the attack, comes after that phone call the president had on Sunday with President Erdogan of Turkey, where, essentially, the language that came out after that didn't sound like an endorsement but it was essentially the president saying, we're withdrawing U.S. forces from there, we're going to do this abruptly, something the president faced widespread criticism from people who do not typically criticize this president.

And so you're seeing the White House not pivot, not the president change his position here because he still is withdrawing those U.S. forces. But you're seeing them try to make clear here and saying that they do not give Turkey a tacit endorsement to carry out something like this.


But it's interesting, because the president has heard a barrage of criticism from people who are typically his allies, like Senator Lindsey Graham telling him this could be potentially the worst mistake of his presidency, is I believe the phrase he used earlier today. And so the president is trying to tweak essentially that while he's still hearing from other side, other lawmakers, like Rand Paul, telling him that he's doing the right thing here.

KEILAR: All right. Kaitlan Collins, thank you.

We have Julian Epstein with us and CNN Legal Analyst Shan Wu here with us. I want to talk -- let's go back to impeachment and discuss this.

So the first argument is, quote, your inquiry is constitutionally invalid and violates basic due process rights in the separation of powers. That is what the White House is telling Congress. That's what it's telling these investigating committees.

Julian, we have to point out, you were chief counsel for House Judiciary Democrats during the Clinton impeachment. Let's listen to what Lindsey Graham said then in 1998.


THEN-REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Article III of impeachment against Richard Nixon, the article was based on the idea that Richard Nixon, as president, failed to comply with of subpoena from Congress.

The day Richard Nixon failed to answer that subpoena is the day that he was subject to impeachment because he took the power from Congress over the impeachment process away from Congress and he became the judge and jury.


KEILAR: Julian, rings a bell.

JULIAN EPSTEIN, FORMER CHIEF DEMOCRATIC COUNSEL FOR HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Yes. This is Alice in Wonderland upside down reality. The White House is arguing -- I think the text of what they're arguing -- there's a text and a subtext -- the text of what they're arguing is that they have a right as a matter of fairness to negotiate with the House on the procedures and rules of engagement for impeachment. And that's just wrong as a constitutional matter. I mean, that's constitutional law 101. They don't. The House has the sole authority to determine with some procedures.

As a matter of precedent, it's also wrong. In 1998, the White House had no rights and procedural protections, whatsoever during the impeachment process. In fact, we voted on September 11th an impeachment inquiry. There was nothing in the impeachment inquiry about the rights of the White House. I know this because I was actually the person who negotiated a month

later with the White House along with my counterpart, Tom Mooney, the Chief Counsel of the Republican side, the rules of engagement for the White House. But there was nothing that they had during that process that gave them any rights, nor should they have had anything. It's just wrong.

But I think the subtext of this is that the White House has realized they've hit the high watermark. It's better for them in terms of where they're going to be both on the facts and on public opinion. It's better for them to stonewall. I think they've made the decision that it's better for them to stonewall this process, because if they cooperate and they go through hearings, it's only going to get worse for them. Public opinion is going to get worse, the facts are going to get worse.

So what they're doing -- there's a little bit of rhyme and reason to this. What they're doing is they're trying to force the Democrats to call the question early as early as possible on impeachment. The longer this thing goes on, the worse it is for them.

KEILAR: There's no guarantee that Democrats are going to do that at this point in time. Democrats have to proceed in some ways through the courts, which can be rather slow. So knowing that the White House here is likely wrong, Shan, what's the enforcing mechanism to get information out there that should be out there?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the enforcing mechanism is two- fold. I mean, they can go to the traditional modern route of going to court or they could revert to old school and simply use their inherent power to enforce it, which would involve using the sergeant at arms.

However, I think, the third --

KEILAR: Explain what that looks like. I think it's very important for our viewers to know. That means you get your sergeant at arms out enforcing things. This is like your law enforcement taking people to task, arresting people.

EPSTEIN: You either arrest or you start fining them.

WU: Well, you start fining them. I mean, arrest would be very dramatic.

KEILAR: That would be --

WU: That's a constitutional crisis. KEILAR: Yes.

EPSTEIN: There's a third option you're to.

WU: Yes. Third option is I think most practical, is they could simply roll it into an article of impeachment and begin the impeachment proceedings themselves.


EPSTEIN: They simply say if you are going to obstruct, we are going to draw negative inferences on everything you're obstructing and consider all the facts against you in -- disfavorable toward you and include that as your article of impeachment.

But that's, I think, what the White House is trying to do.


EPSTEIN: The White House thinks that if they cooperate and if they have hearings -- I mean, they know -- what this tells you is that they know the facts are bad. And if they engage in the process with hearings, it's going to get worse for them than if they obstruct. So they'd rather take the hit on obstruction.

KEILAR: That tells you a lot.

EPSTEIN: It tells you that they know how bad the facts are.

WU: And the obstruction will buy some time to --

KEILAR: It sure does, which is good for them and bad for Democrats.

In the Nixon impeachment, there was a federal judge who ruled among other things, grand jury testimony had to be turned over to Congress.


This was part of the so-called road map for impeachment proceedings that came out of the Watergate era.

In court yesterday, there was a Department of Justice lawyer who argued that judge was ruling today, he would rule differently. Shan, what do you think?

WU: Well, I think it's a preposterous position, as the judge yesterday indicated by saying, wow. I think it's quite fascinating.

KEILAR: Okay, wow, okay, and called it an extraordinary position.

WU: Right. I mean, you sort of half expect Barr now to open up an investigation into Nixon to see if he can exonerate him at this point. That's how far back the obstruction for this. I think that's simply wrong legally, impeachment.

One thing I think we have to be careful of for the public is a lot of times we talk about impeachment as a purely political matter. It's almost become a dismissive kind of term. But it's a legal mechanism. It's in the original law of the Constitution. And the law is still that impeachment is recognized as a legal matter, as a judicial proceeding. So it would be proper for the judge now to release those grand jury materials.

KEILAR: Shan, Julian, thank you so much for your excellent expertise. I really appreciate it.

Moments from now, Joe Biden will give what his campaign calls his most robust response yet in this scandal of President Trump asking for an investigation of Biden, of the Ukraine president. Stand by for that.

Also, the White House enlists the help of a familiar face to run defense, but Trey Gowdy's own words may come back to haunt him.