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Pence, Pompeo Head to Turkey as Trump Says If Turkey Goes into Syria "It's Not Our Problem"; U.S. Military Withdrawal in Northern Syria Creates Vacuum Benefiting Russia, Syria, Iran and ISIS; Tape of Trump Press Conference with Italian President. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 16, 2019 - 11:00   ET




ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Baldwin. Thank you so much for joining me.

We are looking at breaking news coming out of the House. President Trump is saying it's, quote, "not our problem if Turkey moves into Syria," saying it's between Turkey and Syria, marking a total shift in America's position toward that conflict.

It comes as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are headed to Turkey today to ask Turkey to stand down.

And also just as American troops withdraw from northern Syria creating a vacuum for none other than Russia with Russian troops already moving in.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond is at the White House.

Jeremy, this is still ongoing. This is happening in the Oval Office. What else are you hearing from the president? What else are you hearing from inside?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Kate, as the U.S. Kurdish allies in Syria come under these ongoing blistering attacks from the Turkish army, the president of the United States is saying that what is happening to those allies is simply not our problem. Those are comments the president made moments ago in the Oval Office where the Italian president is visiting.

Of course, despite what the president is saying, Vice President Mike Pence is headed later to today to Turkey to try and broker a cease- fire. So muddled messaging, to say the least, as the administration tries to decide how much of a role it wants to have in Syria, particularly after the president moved to withdraw U.S. forces from there.

Of course, he came under blistering criticism from Republican allies in Congress. And that is a part of the reason we are now seeing this U.S. effort to impose some sanctions, to send the vice president to Turkey to try and sort this out.

The president is also saying that it is time for the U.S. to go home as he talked about this withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria.

Of course, none of those troops who are actually pulling out. Nearly a thousand troops leaving Syria will remain in the region, will remain in Iraq, for example, Kate. So none of those forces, despite the president pulling them out of Syria, will be coming home to the United States -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: All right. Jeremy, still ongoing. We will be bringing the tape when this comes out. Jeremy will bring us the headlines as well.

Jeremy, thank you so much.

In the meantime, let me bring in CNN senior political analyst, John Avlon, and CNN global affairs analyst and "Washington Post," columnist, Max Boot.

Max, what do you think you hear from the president coming out of this? I don't think it needs much more context. I would say, let's wait for the tape. I don't think it's required when he says Turkey moving into Syria is not our problem.

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS COLUMNIST: I would say, Kate, that to use the words "inconsistent" and "incomprehensible" would be too kind for what the president is saying and doing here. It just doesn't make any sense.

Now remember that over the last several days, the spin from the White House has been that we didn't give a green light to Turkey for their invasion of northern Syria, even though clearly Trump did with the Sunday night conversation with Erdogan who said the Turks were moving in, we're moving out.

Now, the White House is saying, oh, we're imposed to this move. They've imposed sanctions on Turkey the last few days. Now President Trump is doing another back flip and saying, it's not our problem, this fight between Turkey and the Kurds.

It doesn't make any sense. U.S. credibility is declining by the hour as we don't have any policy that anybody can understand.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, it's beyond declining. The president is actively undermining it.

And we've seen this movie before. The president says something impulsive that contradicts American policy and strategy. The administration tries to circle the wagons, explain it and clean it up.

Right now, you got the vice president and secretary of state flying to meet with Erdogan, saying they need him to "stand down,: quote. And then the president in an offhanded conversation in the Oval undercuts that entire narrative and says, you know what, the entire region is not our problem. Either he's defaulting to his isolationist instincts," which is one

interpretation, or it's this willful abandonment of American leadership.

But it's not only about strategy. It's about lives on the inline right now in real time.

BOLDUAN: But it also doesn't make sense? Because you said "impulsive." I hear you. We've seen this movie before. But this has been going on for days now because of the green light. And he's been -- it's almost like he's walked up to the line, talked off the ledge, walk up again, talked off the ledge.

He's got his top people flying over there to try to -- if you don't care Turkey is going in, why are you sending Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence over there to tell Turkey to stop? I mean --


BOOT: And why are you imposing sanctions on Turkey? What are you trying to achieve? Why are you punishing them? It doesn't make any sense. This is a disaster that grows worse by the day. This is such a self-inflicted disaster --


BOLDUAN: How does this fit into -- help me -- with North Korea, we talked about the madman theory, right --


BOLDUAN: -- a million times over. This is not a madman theory type of thing. This is --


BOOT: This is more like madman behavior. There's no way to make sense out of this. There's no way to rationalize this, because he very impulsively decided to give -- let Erdogan do what he wants in northern Syria, without consulting with the Pentagon, without consulting with his aides. And now he and the rest of the administration are trying to clean up.

Except Trump's message doesn't make any sense, because, as John was saying, one minute, he says we're fine with this, and the next minute, he's imposing sanctions on Turkey.

AVLON: Because his impulse is to jump over the ledge. He keeps getting talked over the ledge by the professionals. But he made this decision impulsively without his military advisers, with consulting our allies.


BOLDUAN: He made this decision in December --

AVLON: Well, yes --


BOLDUAN: -- I mean, when he was --

AVLON: Then was talked off it and then re-engaged. This is his impulse. It's an isolationist impulse to remove American leadership overseas.

What that does is creates a giant vacuum and its emboldens four folks that are adversaries, Russia, Syria, Iran and ISIS. Those are the beneficiaries of this withdrawal policy by the president.

BOLDUAN: Guys, stand by.

Barbara Starr is joining us from the Pentagon.

Barbara, can you -- obviously, there's no reaction from the Pentagon to what the president just said. But in general, what have you been hearing about the withdrawal of troops, the reaction, what this means for the relationship with the long-standing relationship with Kurdish allies on the ground? What are you hearing from there?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, it starts from the standpoint the Kurdish allies on the ground the U.S. was fighting with were in the front line, the key to defeating ISIS.

The president has just told -- I don't see how you can believe any differently. The commander-in-chief has just told the world, Americans, U.S. troops, U.S. military families none of it matters. It is hard to see how a commander-in-chief gives that message to the U.S. troops.

Remember, there are still hundreds of U.S. troops in very considerable danger inside Syria in a very high-threaten environment until the Pentagon in the coming days can, in fact, get them all out of there.

There are a number of hostile parties, the Turks, the Syrians regime, the Russians, Syrian-backed -- Turkish-backed militias tied to al Qaeda and ISIS. All these people are moving around the battlefield. And there are a decreasing number of U.S. military troops. A very significant challenge to keep them safe until American -- the Americans can get out of there.

A bit mystifying to me, at least, why an American commander-in-chief didn't start with, stay away from our troops, they will be kept safe, don't mess with them.

I think it's fair to say the Pentagon might have expected a very strong public message from the president of the United States that he has their back, a very verbal message that he will see to it that they are all kept safe until they get out of there. I'm not sure I heard those words from the commander-in-chief this morning. So that is certainly one thing to look at right now.

You are seeing a number of Special Forces soldiers who have served in the region express dismay. Because there's another concept as a commander-in-chief, and that is the honor of the U.S. military. They made a commitment to the Kurds to fight with them, to stand by them, and they are not being permitted to do that.

The president has made a different decision. The Pentagon obeys the president's decision. But there's still a considerable sense that something did happen here that may tarnish the views of many troops about the honor that they take so seriously -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: That perspective is so important and critical, Barbara. And thank you always for reminding us of that.

One more line coming out of the Oval Office. Again this is ongoing. We will get the tape when it does play back. But the president also says here, Barbara, "We are not a policing agent. It is time for us to go home."

I think it's one of those things to remind folks that the Kurds aren't just some folks. The Kurds are a fighting force who have been a U.S. ally on the ground there fighting on the U.S.'s behalf against ISIS with American equipment for years and done so at a great cost.

STARR: They have done so at just a such a considerable cost, losing some -- I think, the round statistic, that these are people in their lives, 11,000 fighters.


STARR: Let's remember where this all started. It was because of ISIS.

The president of the United States has to make a decision. Does he want to walk away from the spire Middle East? Is that really what he is saying?

In which case a lot of people might ask, why the president has been chosen in recent weeks to put a considerable number of U.S. troops into the Middle East for what he considers the defense of Saudi Arabia and its oil fields against Iranian aggression.


Look, you are either in a region or you are not. You either see that there are vital security interests for the world and the United States or you do not. And I'll leave it to people a lot smarter than me to come to whatever conclusion they see.

It would be a very significant decades-long shift of American foreign policy, national security policy, to say that the Middle East just simply doesn't matter.

BOLDUAN: Exactly.

Barbara, thank you so much. As are you hearing more, please come back.

We will be getting more coming out of the White House as well.

At this moment, I want to go over to the region. Let's go to CNN's Arwa Damon. She is on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Arwa, we were planning on speaking to you anyway about what you are seeing and hearing on the ground there. But I will see what the impact will be when they hear the words from the commander-in-chief of the United States saying that it's not our problem if Turkey goes into Syria after all this time.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I think, Kate, the Kurds have been so bitterly gutted and broken by everything that has transpired, that hearing that is going to be another knife into their back. But it's one that right now they probably already have grown to expect.

And that is exactly why we very quickly saw the Kurds turn to the regime. They went to Damascus and they basically had to plead with Damascus and with the Russians to move regime forces into northern Syria, an area that the regime was not entirely controlling.

Although, there was an interesting relationship that was still ongoing between the Kurds, between the Kurdish administration in northern Syria and Damascus. Those ties were never fully severed. But the regime has not had its forces in these areas for years right now.

If we step back and look at exactly what was caused by the U.S. first withdrawing from the border area that Turkey intends to capture and then announcing it was fully withdrawing from northern Syria, who is the winner in all of this? It's very clear. It is Russia.

Russia, without firing a single shot, has managed to get America out of Iraq. The regime now is controlling and moving to controlled territory it has not controlled in years.

Turkey might not ultimately get the full aim of the objectives of this operation, and that might be a bit of a bitter pill. But, ultimately, it will be able to settle for a no -- for no YPG, no Kurdish presence along its border.

So when we look at all of this, it's Russia that is the playmaker and the kingmaker, not America.

BOLDUAN: That's already what we are seeing happening. We're already seeing video from Russian state -- Russian TV of Russian troops walking around in American military bases in Syria right now. This is happening as we speak. Let's see what these next things make.

Arwa, thanks so much.

Here's what we're going to do. Any minute, we are expecting the president to -- the tape to come in from the president speaking, clearly saying much more than this one very significant headline coming out. We're going to bring that. We're going to turn that tape around as soon as it comes in. We'll bust out of the break if we have to, to bring it to you. I

believe this is a critical moment to hear exactly what he says.

We'll be right back after this.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you OK with Erdogan saying he's not going to do a cease-fire?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He did not say that at all. He is meeting and he's meeting today with some our representatives. And Mike Pence is leaving today, as you know. We needed him to take an extra day for security reason. But Mike is leaving. Mike Pompeo, who is right here now with us and is going to be joining the meeting. We have a lot of great people over there. We'll see.

In the meantime, our soldiers are not in harm's way, as they shouldn't be, as two countries fight over land that has nothing to do with us.

And the Kurds are much safer right now. But the Kurds know how to fight. And as I said, they're not angels. They're not angels, if you take a look. You have to go back and take a look.

But they fought with us. And we paid a lot of money for them to fight with us, and that's OK. They did well when they fought with us. They didn't do so well when they didn't fight with us.

When I refused to allow the Americans, a year and a half ago, to fight with the Kurds against Iraq, I said, "Wait a minute. This country stupidly just spent a fortune on fighting for, with, around Iraq." Nobody knows how they spent it, but they spent -- actually, we're in the Middle East now for $8 trillion, if you can believe that stupidity. But in Iraq we're in for probably $5.5 trillion.

So they tell me, "Wait a minute. We just spent $5.5 trillion fighting in Iraq and with Iraq, and now we're supposed to spend money to fight with the Kurds against Iraq." I said, "No, thank you."

So what happens is when I said we're not going to fight with the Kurds, the Kurds left. They didn't want to fight against Iraq, which right now isn't the greatest fighting force in the world. That happened twice.

TRUMP: The Kurds actually are pulling back substantially from Turkey. And Syria is pulling in. Syria probably will have a partner of Russia. Whoever they may have, I wish them all a lot of luck.

You know, Russia was involved in Afghanistan. Used to be called the Soviet Union. Now it's called Russia for a reason, because they lost so much money in Afghanistan, that they had to downsize -- a very big downsizing.

So if Russia wants to get involved with the -- with Syria, that's really up to them. They have a problem with Turkey, they have a problem at a border, it's not our border. We shouldn't be losing lives over it.

But, again, we only had 28 soldiers. It was 26, 28. I got all different numbers. It ends up being 28 -- between the 26, 28, two people -- and they're fully accounted for.

So that's the story. It's very simple. And we're watching and we're negotiating and we're trying to get Turkey to do the right thing, because we'd like to stop wars regardless, whether Americans are in or whether they're not in. We want to see wars stop. That's a very important thing. On a humanitarian basis, we want to see that happen.

Steve (ph)?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) that Mike Pence will be able to arrange a ceasefire?

TRUMP: Why don't you go and he'll (ph) take this, please?


TRANSLATOR: Yes. The answer was, "Not at all."


TRUMP: So, I view the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be, for the United States, strategically brilliant. Our soldiers are out of there. Our soldiers are totally safe.

They've got to work it out. Maybe they can do it without fighting. Syria's protecting the Kurds, that's good.

We are -- and by the way, every player hates ISIS, everybody we're talking about. Syria more than us. Russia more than us. They've done a big number on Russia. And we're over there fighting ISIS, but they're over there fighting ISIS, too. They can handle it. And they should handle it. We can fight our own battles on our own territories.

But you have a lot of countries over there that hate ISIS as much as we do. In some cases, probably more. So they can take care of ISIS.

We have them captured. The United States captured them. Some were released just for effect, to make us look a little bit like, "Oh, gee, we've got to get right back in there."

But you have a lot of countries over there that have power and that hate ISIS very much; as much as we do.

So I think we're in a very strategically good position. I know the fake news doesn't make it look that way. But we have -- we've removed all of our, as we said, 50 soldiers, but much less than 50 soldiers. They're now in a very -- very safe location, heading into an even safer location.

And we will help negotiate. We have tremendously powerful sanctions.

Our country has become economically much more powerful than, frankly, it ever was. We picked up trillions and trillions of dollars in worth.

The market was up big yesterday. It's going to be up big today, it looks like. The trade deal with China, just having to do with what we've done, with the financial services, with banks, with the farmers, has been incredible; far greater than anyone ever thought.

TRUMP: I agree it hasn't been papered yet, but it's being papered. But in the meantime, as you know and as we've said many times, China's already started buying. They want to buy. They want to make a deal. They really have to make a deal. Their economy's been hurt very badly by what we've done and by the tariffs that we've charged.

And we've taken in tremendous amounts of tariffs. A small portion of them, we've given to the farmer, which -- the farmers, which has more than made up for what they've lost.

Go ahead.


TRUMP: And because of the new-found economic power of the United States because of the fact that we've made so many trillions -- many, many trillions of dollars in worth of the United States to -- I call it the new-found economic power. If my opponent would have won, China would right now be the most powerful nation economically in the world, and right now they're not even close. And if we're smart, they never will get close. But it depends on who sits in this chair.

But the United States has tremendous economic power, far more power than playing around with having a few soldiers shooting each other at the border. I mean, you have a few soldiers back and forth killing each other at the border; the power we have with sanctions and tariffs is far greater than what we're talking about.

With that being said, our military has been completely rebuilt. Much of the equipment's already been delivered. We spent $2.5 trillion rebuilding it over the last three years. And our -- our military power is at the highest level, and our economic power is at the highest level.

But I'd always rather use economic power before I use military power because people aren't getting killed with economic power. OK?


TRUMP: Please?


QUESTION: Mr. President, you're scheduled...

MATTARELLA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Before the members of the press introduce topics that have already been discussed this morning, President Trump was talking about the possible implementation of tariffs on European products following the whole --