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Explosive Testimony Paints Picture Of Rogue Operation; Hunter Biden Says, I Did Nothing Improper, But Had Poor Judgment; Troops On Trump's Syria Policy, We Betrayed The Kurds. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired October 15, 2019 - 13:00   ET




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

Underway right now, more damning testimony out of the impeachment inquiry, the president former national security adviser, John Bolton, describing Rudy Giuliani as a hand grenade and the administration's pressure on Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, quote, a drug deal. That's according to the president's former top Russia adviser.

And Joe Biden's son, Hunter, speaking out for the first time, admitting bad judgment involving his work overseas though insisting he did nothing improper.

Plus, as Russian troops move in to patrol the border of Northern Syria, U.S. troops are angry at President Trump, accusing him of betraying the Kurds.

And it's debate night on CNN. A lot has changed since the last faceoff, an impeachment inquiry, a new frontrunner and a heart attack.

The Hill is alive now with the sound of investigations today. Congress is back in full session today, both the House and the Senate getting back to work. The three house committees did not observe the break as they worked on the impeachment investigation.

The House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees heard testimony yesterday from Fiona Hill. She's a former top adviser to the president on Russia.

Today, another career diplomat is testifying, George Kent. He is the deputy of assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. He tried unsuccessfully to protect the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from being ousted at the urging of Rudy Giuliani, among other Trump associates.

And The New York Times reports that Kent testified today that he warned associates back in March about a Rudy Giuliani disinformation campaign in Ukraine.

These committees are also watching the deadline today for documents from several players, that includes Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney. He's supposed to turn over documents today on his dealings with Ukraine. It's unknown if he will comply.

And then also on deadline today is Vice President Mike Pence. The committees are seeking documents from his office on his role in the Ukraine scandal. The vice president is not expected to comply.

And then there's Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He faces a subpoena deadline today to turn over documents related to military aid to Ukraine that was withheld at the president's order before his phone call with Ukraine's president on July 25th.

The Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget are both expected to comply with those House requests.

A hand grenade that threatens to blow up everybody, that is the way that former National Security Adviser John Bolton referred to Rudy Giuliani and his meddling with Ukraine. That is what former presidential adviser Fiona Hill told Congress.

Our Sara Murray is here. So this, Sara, was just part of Hill's lengthy testimony. Take us through some of the other points she made.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, But this comment about the hand grenade, she said that this is how her boss, Bolton, described Rudy Giuliani's shadow diplomacy efforts. And it gives you a window into how concerned they were with this sort of other channels of diplomacy.

Fiona Hill testified that John Bolton actually told her at one point that she should go to the National Security Council's lawyer and report her concerns. She said she saw evidence of wrongdoing when it came to the Ukraine policy because it wasn't run through appropriate channels and there were issues of these investigations, which she read as the investigation into the Biden family continuing to come up.

And, of course, one of the people who was at the center of these shadow diplomacy efforts was Rudy Giuliani. We know that he was obviously in contact with President Trump before the president talked to the Ukrainian president in July and was talking to him about pushing for these investigations into the Bidens, as well as sharing information, which has been deemed not very credible at all about the then-Ukrainian ambassador in an effort to get her ousted.

But Rudy Giuliani was doing his own shadow of diplomacy, so were others who were in the administration at that time.

Fiona Hill also testified about her concerns about Gordon Sondland. He was and was the ambassador and is the ambassador to the European Union, as well as Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House Chief of Staff, essentially saying they were running a rogue operation which she says her boss, Bolton, described as essentially a drug deal, again, when it came to Ukraine.

So she's running through all of these things that happened, all of these concerns that were playing out in the Trump administration in the weeks leading up to what has now become this phone call that's central to the impeachment inquiry between President Trump and the Ukrainian president.

KEILAR: We're starting to get more pieces of this puzzle. Sara Murray, thank you for showing us that picture.

I want to discuss all of this with Eric Columbus. He's a former Department of Justice official in the Obama administration. We also have former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Elliot Williams and Laura Barron-Lopez, National Political Reporter for Politico.


Eric, I want to start with you, because we have learned from what we now know about Fiona Hill's testimony that John Bolton referred to Rudy Giuliani as a hand grenade who is going to blow everybody up, and this was the description that came as Giuliani was pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. So what does that tell you about how broadly this effort of Giuliani's was known about, known of and disapproved of within the administration?

ERIC COLUMBUS, FORMER DOJ OFFICIAL UNDER OBAMA: I'm just surprised that Bolton used language that we can say on the air. If Mulvaney was involved, that means it goes all the way up to the top, which is consistent with reporting that we've seen elsewhere.

KEILAR: And just to be clear, because Fiona Hill talks about Bolton describing a drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up. That's how she describes what John Bolton said.

COLUMBUS: Exactly. And that suggests that -- we've already known that Trump and Giuliani have been working together on this. This suggests that Trump has been trying to implicate, if you will, deliberately or not, as many other people as possible. You already have the secretary of state, the energy secretary and the vice president, and now we have the chief of staff getting involved.

These are people who the House can try to call to testify, putting the White House in a difficult position of whether to stonewall and pay a political price for it or to allow these very senior officials to testify and risk that they will tell the truth.

KEILAR: Elliot, each day we're getting new information if someone is testifying on the Hill, but when you look now as these pieces of the puzzle are being put together, what is sort of your overview of what's happening here?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: What you're seeing is the remarkable discipline of the House Democrats. Like just -- even look at yesterday with Fiona Hill's testimony, the very few leaks that came out were actually quite favorable to the Democrats and to their impeachment efforts.

Now, look, if something were exonerating for the president of the United States, you would have heard about it yesterday from the Republicans, because the problem is they don't have a strategy. What they have is undermining the institution, undermining Congress --

KEILAR: You mean they don't have a strategy on the actual context of what's happening?

WILLIAMS: They don't. But the thing is -- but they're not in agreement, like the president of the United States and the House Republicans also don't seem in agreement on their message. Like, what, are they attacking Congress, are they attacking Democrats, are they saying that the president's conduct was okay but not impeachable? It's just not clear what they're going with.

The Democrats have said this is an intelligence investigation. Three committees are looking into it. We're going to have these private depositions, when we have enough information, we'll move forward. But they've been incredibly disciplined, and that's the one thing that's come out of it all, I think.

KEILAR: We've learned, Laura, because Rudy Giuliani told Reuters that he made $500,000 working for two associates, one Ukrainian-American, one, a Belarusian-American who were arrested last week, and who, according to a federal indictment, had received two $500,000 payments, so a million dollars from an unnamed Russian businessmen.

Giuliani says he's working for Trump for free. But this opens a lot of questions about -- not only that, but who is paying for Rudy Giuliani to do this thing that is benefiting Trump and potentially, you know, someone else or another country? Is this opening up the possibility of this is a Russian influence campaign?

LAURA BARRON LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I think that's something that cannot be just pushed aside and ignored. I mean, those payments raise questions about, yes, what Giuliani's motives are, who he is exactly working for and what the administration, as well as Russia and other players involved, hope to gain from all of this.

Over the past weeks, we've just seen a web that has further expanded and looped in more people and more of Trump's central advisers in this larger story. And I think there will only continue to be a trickle with who additionally comes to testify despite efforts by the administration to stonewall this testimony.

KEILAR: Rudy Giuliani says that foreigners didn't pay him. But he's been very lacking in details and specifics about how exactly he was getting paid. Was it this company that these two now arrested men have? It's very unclear.

WILLIAM: Well, look, to take John Bolton's hand grenade analogy a little bit further, the thing with the hand grenade is before it blows everybody else up, it blows itself up. And the question is what peril is Rudy Giuliani putting -- has he put himself in at this point.

As we know from reporting in The Wall Street Journal, they are already looking into his finances.


He's not certainly a target of any investigation. But at a certain point, some of this could catch up to him as well.

I think what's also particularly troubling, there's been some reporting that Ambassador Sondland is going to say later this week that Rudy Giuliani --

KEILAR: There're so many players. No, you should say it. But I just want to say, Ambassador Sondland is the ambassador to the E.U. He's a former Trump fundraiser. He is someone who's seen in Trump's corner. He was part of these text messages that we learned about through Congress. Please go.

WILLIAM: So that guy is about to say later on -- or could say later this week in his testimony that Rudy Giuliani had to approve any meeting between the president of the United States and the premiere of Ukraine.

That's kind of why is the president's personal lawyer -- and, again, this is just one news outlet reporting this , and so I'm not sure if CNN has confirmed it -- but why is the president's personal lawyer needing to confirm meetings with another country's leader? That is, itself, troubling.

KEILAR: We all have a lot to discuss ahead. If you just stay with me, Hunter Biden is speaking out for the first time. Of course, he is embroiled in the attacks by the president. He says he did nothing improper but he did have poor judgment.

Also, U.S. troops angry with the president for, quote, betraying U.S. allies as Russian troops begin controlling the Turkey-Syria border.

And the moments to watch in tonight's crucial CNN/New York Times debate as Biden faces a new frontrunner.



KEILAR: All right. So for the first time since the Ukrainian controversy started, we are hearing firsthand from Joe Biden's son, Hunter, in a new ABC interview. The younger Biden has become a political liability for his father after it was revealed that he served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice president.

President Trump and his Republican allies have accused the Bidens of corruption. And even though there is no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son, Hunter Biden now says he understands how he gave Joe Biden's political enemies an opportunity to raise questions about whether there was wrongdoing.


HUNTER BIDEN, JOE BIDEN'S SON: No. In retrospect, look, I think there was poor judgment on my part, is that I think there was poor judgment because I don't believe now, when I look back on it, I know I did nothing wrong at all. However, was it poor judgment to be in the middle of something that is a swamp in many ways? Yes. And so I take full responsibility for that.

So did I do anything improper? No, not in any way, not in any way, whatsoever.


KEILAR: Back with me now to discuss, Eric Columbus, Elliot Williams and Laura Barron-Lopez.

So it seems like Hunter Biden is making this distinction between what is improper and what is wrong. And that, Eric, is an important distinction in Washington. Should he have conducted himself differently?

COLUMBUS: With the benefit of hindsight, as he said, he should have, if he had known that the president would be mounting this crazy campaign against him even though the president himself put his unqualified handbag designer of a daughter on the White House payroll.

What Hunter Biden was been doing it what's been done in time memorial in Washington, People trading (ph) on their family's names. So you've got lobbying careers of influence jobs here and abroad. And it's not the savoriest part of Washington but something that happens, and it happens everywhere, and that's nothing new.

KEILAR: What do you guys think? What did you think of the Hunter Biden interview?

WILLIAM: So here's the thing. So it's not just lobbying, it's foreign interactions, right? Because in order for these two things to happen, two things need to take place, number one, an individual is engaging with a foreign government or foreign business people, and number two, there's huge sums of money at stake here. And you see the peril that comes from that line of work in that line of business.

And, frankly, the whole industry could use some Febreze, generally, to be clear. And, look, and if -- going back to a couple months ago in the Special Counsel investigation, Paul Manafort, who was very close to the president to the United States, went down over these foreign lobbying ties. Greg Craig, who was President Obama's former White House Counsel, also almost got convicted for these things. It's just dangerous work and we saw it here.

KEILAR: When you look at how this compares to the Trump children and how they have conducted themselves in business, especially considering the president has not done financially what presidents normally do, nor have we had a president in his financial circumstance, it's so interesting because they seem to have so much more of a political liability, and yet the president has positioned Joe Biden and Hunter Biden in this position.

BARRON-LOPEZ: There's rich irony there. The president has not divested from the Trump organization, and also Ivanka Trump received some 12 trademarks from China in the time since she's been working in the White House. So, yes, there is irony there. Voters seem to be taking this in its entire context, which is to say that Joe Biden has not been hurt so far in polling despite these attacks coming from Trump and his allies.


He seems to have weathered this storm so far, and this is an effort by him and his son to come out and pretty much deliver a one-two punch of trying to end this story.

And what's interesting as well is that Vice President Biden's campaign claims that they did not interact with his son, Hunter, and decide, this is the time that you should do this, that you should conduct this interview. That's what they're claiming.

KEILAR: They said it was his choice, right? I'm raising an eyebrow because --

BARRON-LOPEZ: That we didn't plan that --

KEILAR: Hunter Biden gets off -- moves away from this -- the Chinese company. The vice president comes out with an ethics plan that has to do with family members, Hunter Biden gets an interview. And you know what? There is a debate tonight, right? There is a debate tonight where he's going to be on stage with 11 other Democrats, our CNN debate in Ohio. And I wonder if you think, planned or not with the campaign, how this Hunter Biden interview plays into that.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Well, I think it certainly plays into the debate. We'll see whether or not it dominates. I don't really think a lot of the Democrats are going to attack Biden on this front because, again, they don't want to give credence to what everyone so far has found there is no evidence to President Trump's claims.

KEILAR: Even one of the lower tier in need of a Hail Mary candidates?

BARRON-LOPEZ: I don't think so. We'll see, though. Maybe they'll surprise us.

KEILAR: All right. We'll keep our eyes open for this debate tonight. Eric Columbus, Elliot Williams, Laura Barron-Lopez, thank you guys so much.

And just in, we're learning what a career diplomat is testifying to behind closed doors about how early concerns were raised about Rudy Giuliani's rogue foreign policy operation with the Ukraine.

Plus, also just in, news on actress Felicity Huffman and her stint in jail over the college admission scandal.



KEILAR: George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, is testifying right now on Capitol Hill, the latest current or former official to talk to House committees in the impeachment inquiry. And our Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill following this.

Manu, tell us what you're hearing about his testimony so far.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, a big part of the testimony is focusing on what he knew about the efforts to oust the former Ukrainian ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, someone who he had said, according to emails that he provided to Congress, that she was concerned about the efforts to remove her from the post, her emails of the inspector general turned over to Congress, the emails that he wrote about this effort, a smear campaign of sort (ph) launched by Rudy Giuliani and Rudy Giuliani's associates going after Marie Yovanovitch.

Now, these are concerns that George Kent had raised had been raised for months about Giuliani's role, about the efforts to oust the Ukrainian ambassador. And what Democrats are investigating, of course, is whether she was unfairly removed from that position in part because of the efforts by Giuliani and President Trump himself to urge the Ukrainian government to investigate the president's political rival, Joe Biden.

So in a large part, behind the scenes, this inquiry is focusing on that. Members just briefly broke up, most of them declined to comment about what exactly has transpired. But they do expect this to last several more hours as they get into details about everything that happened behind the scenes in a run-up to that July phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky and everything that happened about Rudy Giuliani's efforts from what we're getting indications of that Mr. Kent had concerns for some time about the efforts to go after the Ukrainian ambassador about this so-called shadow of foreign policy that had been waged.

We'll wait to hear the particulars of what he's saying behind the scenes. But according from what we are expecting to hear, we expect him to essentially back up a lot of the concerns that have been raised for months about Rudy Giuliani and his efforts and what people within the State Department have been saying, Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes. This is going to be a very interesting one to follow, Manu, because this is a career diplomat. So we may get some more candid information from you and your sources. We'll come back to you if you get more information, Manu. Thank you so much.

Disappointment, frustration and anger, that is the sentiment that American military personnel and U.S. defense officials, many of them are expressing about Trump administration's refusal to support Syrian Kurds facing a military assault, and possible annihilation by Turkey.

Several U.S. military and defense officials, including personnel deployed to Syria, have described this as an abandonment and a betrayal.

11,000 members of the Kurdish-led forces died in the fight against ISIS. This is a battle that the U.S. asked them to fight. Military personnel also told CNN there is concern that allies and potential partners will not trust the U.S. in the future.

The exit of U.S. troops from Northern Syria has left the door open for Russia just to walk right in.


We have CNN Military and Diplomatic Analyst, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby here with us. Tell us where things stand right now. It's been very quickly moving here over the last couple of --