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Syria Deal?; White House Chief Of Staff Admits Quid Pro Quo In Ukraine Scandal; Bloomberg News Reporting That Energy Secretary Rick Perry Has Notified President Trump In Writing That He Will Soon Leave His Position As Energy Secretary; Rep. Elijah Cummings Dies At Age 68; House Lawyer Drives Democrats Impeachment Strategy. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 17, 2019 - 16:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Daniel Dale, good to have you on. Thank you very much.


BALDWIN: And thank you for being with me. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Let's send things to Washington.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: A Trump campaign donor just dropped a dime on the Trump-Ukraine scandal.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The White House today, stunningly, just comes out and admit it. Yes, aid to Ukraine was tied to Ukraine fulfilling the president's political desires, after new damning impeachment testimony from a key ambassador and presidential appointee.

Breaking today, the president taking credit for ending a bloodbath, at least temporarily, one that he helped start, after he strikes a deal to pause the carnage in Syria. But did the U.S. just get played?

Plus, best-laid plans. Senator Elizabeth Warren's campaign now working on explaining how she would pay for Medicare for all after her health care plan was attacked as a pipe dream by fellow Democrats.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with some breaking news, a shocking admission from the White House today, an admission that aid to Ukraine was in fact tied to President Trump's push for Ukraine to help him politically, specifically to investigate what the president's own former Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert has called a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election.

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney confirmed the quid pro quo this afternoon. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: We do that all the time with foreign policy.

We were holding up money at the same time for, what was it, the Northern Triangle countries. We were holding up aid to the Northern Triangle countries so that they -- so that they would change their policies on immigration.

I have news for everybody. Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy.


TAPPER: This was stunningly brazen, the White House casting a quid pro quo, one to satisfy the president's desire to have a -- quote -- "debunked conspiracy theory" given credibility, casting this as no big deal, when it is a big deal.


MULVANEY: Did he also mention to me in past that the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that.

But that's it. And that's why we held up the money.


TAPPER: Beyond that, of course, this was the White House lying by omission, because the evidence is not only that the quid pro quo dealt with the debunked conspiracy theory involving the 2016 election and the DNC server.

It's also tied to an investigation, a demand for an investigation into Vice President Biden and his son Hunter. The rough transcript released by the White House shows President Trump saying to Ukrainian President Zelensky right after Zelensky brought up military aid that his country needs -- quote -- "I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it."

Then they discuss the debunked conspiracy theory, after which President Trump says -- quote -- "The other thing, there's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that. If you can look into it, it sounds horrible to me" -- unquote.

Now, expanding on the quid pro quo, Mulvaney today noted that Ambassador Gordon Sondland, in the opening statement of his congressional testimony today, acknowledged that the White House wanted the Ukrainians to provide a statement about how they were going to deal with corruption.

But Mulvaney left out that Sondland also testified that Trump told him to talk to Rudy Giuliani on this and -- quote -- "Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election, including the DNC server and Burisma, as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the president."

Burisma, that's the Ukrainian company that Joe Biden's son Hunter worked for. So, according to Sondland, and according to Trump, the quid pro quo that Mick Mulvaney and the White House today admitted to included a demand that there would be an investigation of Burisma and the Bidens.

A reminder to Republicans out there, when it comes to accepting this as a precedent, the idea of politicians in this country using the power of their offices to demand that foreign countries, vulnerable ones, investigate their own domestic political rivals, speak now or forever hold your peace.

CNN's Alex Marquardt kicks off our coverage today.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): A blockbuster press conference at the White House today, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney undercutting the president's repeated denials there was no quid pro quo with Ukraine.

MULVANEY: We do that all the time with foreign policy.

MARQUARDT: Mulvaney admitting that money was held up until the president got assurances, including looking into whether the DNC had a server in Ukraine, a conspiracy theory driven by the president which has been debunked.


As for allegations that the president held back military aid for political reasons, Mulvaney didn't mince words.

MULVANEY: I have news for everybody. Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy.

MARQUARDT: Mulvaney also made no excuses for revelations that it was the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani who was the gatekeeper on Ukraine policy, which the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testified to today on Capitol Hill, saying that he and his fellow diplomatic envoys to Ukraine didn't have a choice between pursuing a traditional policy to strengthen ties or work with Giuliani.

"I did not understand until much later," Sondland told lawmakers, "that Mr. Giuliani's agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians directly or indirectly in the president's 2020 reelection campaign."

REP. TED LIEU (D-CA): It's very clear that Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani were running a shadow foreign policy, and this foreign policy was basically to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

MARQUARDT: Sondland, who is a longtime Republican donor who gave money to Trump's inauguration, became a target for the impeachment inquiry when his text messages with the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine came to light.

Ambassador Bill Taylor writing to Sondland: "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

Sondland responding: "The president has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind."

But Sondland was repeating to Taylor what the president had just told him on the phone, no quid pro quo. Today, Sondland claimed: "Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings."


MARQUARDT: And, Jake, we are starting to hear some backlash from the White House about Mick Mulvaney's comments earlier.

A source telling our colleague Jim Acosta that the president's legal team was not involved and is baffled, the source adding it was not helpful -- Jake.

TAPPER: You think?

Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

Let's chat about this.

And, Vivian, let me start with you.

This is very much like what Rudy Giuliani used to do, although maybe he's too radioactive to do it, which is get ahead of the story by admitting something horrible and just trying to cast it in the best possible light. He's done that with the Stormy Daniels scandal.

Is that what Mulvaney was trying to do, get out and just admit some of the quid pro quo?

VIVIAN SALAMA, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": I mean, it's not actually really clear, because he actually came out to talk about a completely unrelated topic.

And so whether or not the press conference sort of developed a life of its own in real time is not completely clear. But what we know is that the president is out of town and the White House decided to put Mick Mulvaney forward to address some of these allegations.

And to echo what Alex just said about the president's personal lawyers not really knowing anything behind the Mick Mulvaney press conference, we spoke to folks at DOJ, who wouldn't corroborate a lot of what the chief said, and essentially said, if there's some sort of a link between the DNC servers and the investigation, it's -- quote -- "news to us."

And so it's really interesting to see. It doesn't seem like this was a coordinated effort by any stretch.

TAPPER: So, even if you take the Bidens out of it -- and the Bidens are definitely a big part of it, by Sondland and Trump's own admission -- you have Ukraine, very, very vulnerable, depending on needing military aid to save the lives of Ukrainians against these Russian and pro-Russian interlopers, doing -- like, investigating this crazy conspiracy theory.


I mean, I found it very revealing that Mick Mulvaney chose to bring this up. Remember, President Trump himself just brought the server up the other day. This is the same conspiracy theory that he talks about.

And for Mulvaney to explicitly say, basically, so what, this is a very Trumpian move. So I heard the voice of the president in what Mick Mulvaney was, which is, basically, the yes, so what, I did it defense.

Remember, this is actually -- the origin of this impeachment inquiry is the White House releasing its own transcript of the phone call between President Trump and the Ukrainian president on July 25. And Trump still says that was a perfect phone call.

That is another version of that, yes, so what, I did it defense.

TAPPER: Indeed.

And, Joshua, here's House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff responding to Mulvaney's comments today. Take a listen.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Mr. Mulvaney's acknowledgement means that things have gone very, very bad to much, much worse.


TAPPER: Do you agree?

JOSHUA JOHNSON, HOST, 1A: Bribery involves proving a quid pro quo.

Bribery is named specifically in the Constitution as an impeachable offense. Yes, this got worse.

TAPPER: And, Bill, there was this stunning response from Mulvaney at the podium today. Take a listen.


QUESTION: Is it appropriate for any president or this president to pressure a foreign country to investigate a political opponent?


MULVANEY: You know, every time I get that question, it's -- that's one of the things about -- it is.


MULVANEY: But so is, when did you stop beating your wife?

It assumes that the president has done that. We haven't done that.


TAPPER: But they have. They have done it, according to testimony today from their own people, Sondland, and according to the transcript.

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: And Mick Mulvaney is the acting White House chief of staff.

He is a participant in this. How did the -- why was the military aid not delivered to Ukraine after the Congress had appropriated it, the Defense Department had gone through all the very many bureaucratic hurdles you go through of specifying what aid is appropriate, what's not, interagency clearance?

The whole thing is teed up and it stopped. And then it stopped for, what, for quite a while, right, a month-plus something, with no explanation, no meetings, no documentation.

The Defense Department is so alarmed by this that they have their own general counsel write a memo saying, we don't know what's going on here, because we are legally obligated to send this aid.

Who orders it to be stopped? Mick Mulvaney. How does Mick Mulvaney now justify not testifying to Congress? He is a central player in the quid pro quo aspect of this Ukraine scandal.

TAPPER: Do you think that we're going to see Republicans start to come out -- I mean, other than Mitt Romney -- to come out and talk about this, given how brazen this is?

JOHNSON: Good question.


JOHNSON: I mean, it's hard to say, I mean, other than Mitt Romney and Republicans who have already left.

TAPPER: Right.

JOHNSON: It's easy -- if your name is Jeff Flake, it's really easy for him to do this right now.

I don't know. I mean, there's a lot going on right now. There's an election next year. And so I'm going to be interested to see, politically, what Americans are focused on, because we have got this impeachment inquiry. We have got Syria. We have got Turkey, which we're going to discuss later on.


JOHNSON: So there's a lot going on. We have got a lot of plates to spend. And we can walk and chew gum.

But if Republicans are not convinced that there is a larger, like, electoral or political cost, I wonder if they will think it's even worth it or if they can stay kind of below the radar, keep quiet for a while, and wait for this all to blow over, and then maybe retrospectively say, yes, that's how I felt the whole time.

KRISTOL: But -- Josh, but they have to vote.

They have been good at staying -- God knows -- good, I guess, if that's the right word, at staying below the radar, beneath the radar so far: I don't want to comment on it. I'm more focused on other things, blah, blah, blah.

They have to vote in the House and in the Senate.

SALAMA: But as long as he's not radioactive, a lot of them may decide to just keep a low profile, and they can weather the storm, because at the end of the day, the Senate may not decide to...


JOHNSON: I hear you on voting, though. I'm just wondering if they're going to say anything, or if they're just going to go vote and walk away.

GLASSER: Well, the consequences of saying anything, as opposed to doing something, are unclear at this point, right?

No one has proven inside the party -- and I would include Mitt Romney in this -- to be very effective at waging verbal arguments with President Trump when it comes to his behavior in office.

So maybe we're playing the wrong game of gotcha in that sense. I think the vote is pretty important and relevant. The radical shift in the poll numbers in recent weeks is something that suggests that it's not as open and shut and simple as we think.

There are multiple polls now that show a majority of the American people believe that Donald Trump should not only be impeached, but also removed from office. That never occurred in the Nixon impeachment until two weeks before he was in fact forced to step down.

TAPPER: Yes, Nixon didn't have FOX News, though.

Everyone, stick around.

He's Nancy Pelosi's man behind the scenes driving the Democrats' legal strategy for the impeachment inquiry -- that story next.

Plus, Vice President Pence announcing a pause, let's call it, in Turkey's attacks in Northern Syria, with a deal that looks pretty familiar.

We will explain. Stay with us.



TAPPER: And we have some breaking news for you now. Bloomberg News is reporting that Energy Secretary Rick Perry has notified President Trump in writing that he will soon leave his position as Energy Secretary.

Perry has served in the Trump administration since the beginning. He is currently embroiled in this Ukraine scandal.

And in our Politics Lead today, a black bunting is now hanging over the congressional office door of Maryland's Congressman Elijah Cummings, one of the Democrats who had been leading the Impeachment Inquiry and a remarkable American success story.

Cummings died today at age 68. Heartfelt reaction from individuals from both sides of the aisle continue to pour in. Republican Congressman and staunch Trump ally Mark Meadows, tweeting, quote, "There was no stronger advocate and no better friend than Elijah Cummings. I am heartbroken. I will miss him dearly." Cummings and Meadows shared a close friendship despite their considerable political differences.


REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD): I've said it and got in trouble for it, that you're one of my best friends. I know that shocks a lot of people.

REP. MARK MEADOWS (R-NC): And likewise, Mr. Chairman.


TAPPER: Something you don't see a lot of in Washington these days. I want to bring in CNN's Lauren Fox. Lauren, what's the reaction been like on Capitol Hill?

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS U.S. CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, this was not only a powerful Chairman, Jake, but someone who many members, Republicans and Democrats alike saw as a powerful moral force on Capitol Hill.

I will tell you that Republicans and Democrats are devastated. That was what Nancy Pelosi said earlier at her press conference and also on the House floor just a short time ago.

I will also tell you that when I heard from Gerry Connolly earlier today, I asked him, how are you feeling? This was a fellow colleague of his on the Oversight Committee, a close personal friend, and he said, I'm devastated. I can't talk about it right now. There were tears streaming down his face. Later I asked him, what are you going to remember about your colleague

and friend? And he said, he is never going to forget where he came from. That was where Cummings was very different than other members. He was the son of sharecroppers. He was someone who fought vigorously for his constituents in Baltimore and Maryland.


FOX: And he said, you know, that's why he fought to lower prescription drug prices. That's why after the election, he went and met with President Trump to talk about lowering prescription drug prices, even though he knew what President Trump had said on the campaign trail. He knew it was unlikely they would ever be able to work together on anything else. But on that issue, he cared deeply because he cared about where he came from -- Jake.

TAPPER: And Lauren, who might replace Cummings as Chairman of this powerful committee, the Oversight Committee.

FOX: Well, obviously everyone is mourning on Capitol Hill right now, but Carolyn Maloney is going to be filling in for a short time in that role, and then after that, there's a formal process, Jake.

Basically the steering committee will have a vote, then the caucus will have a vote and then there's a full House floor vote to determine who the next Chairman would be -- Jake.

TAPPER: Okay. All right, Lauren Fox. Thank you so much. And on a personal note, Elijah Cummings' wife, Maya has been a guest on the show. Congressman Cummings was a frequent guest. Our thoughts and prayers are going out to the Cummings family today.

As closed door meetings with key figures in the Impeachment Inquiry ramp up on Capitol Hill, some wonder why Democrats are not yet holding them publicly. Democrats say that the reason is that unlike the Nixon and Clinton impeachments, Congress in this instance has not been already given a report from a special outside counsel on this scandal -- the Ukraine scandal.

Those other outside counsels did their investigations privately and parts of witnesses could not corroborate and coordinate their testimonies.

CNN's Jessica Schneider tells us now about the legal mind, House Democrats are relying on behind the scenes.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): The President is obstructing -- obstructing Congress from getting the facts that we need.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might be front and center as the public face of the impeachment fight.


record, I'm Douglas Letter from the United States Department of Justice ...


SCHNEIDER (voice over): But it's this man, Pelosi's hand-pick General Counsel, who is the key to strategizing the House's fights against the President.

Douglas Letter spent four decades at the Justice Department defending the policies of Republican and Democratic administrations. He doesn't speak to the press, but his words in court say plenty.

He told a Federal judge in Washington, D.C. last week that the Impeachment Inquiry could be extensive, saying, "I can't emphasize enough, it's not just Ukraine, and if it's criminal, but even if it's not, President Trump can clearly be impeached if he was obstructing justice."

Letter her also told the judge that lying to the American public could warn impeachment. Letter leads the nonpartisan General Counsel's Office that represents the House and its committees in all legal matters, and currently employs just nine attorneys.


IRV NATHAN, FORMER HOUSE GENERAL COUNSEL: He is obviously stretched very thin because it's a small office, and they have an enormous docket.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): Irv Nathan was General Counsel from 2007 to 2010. Nathan notes Letter is at the forefront of mounting fights on multiple fronts, even more so than previous General Counsels.


NATHAN: This is like on steroids. This is much more serious than -- and much more intense and many more fronts that he has to battle.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): Indeed, Letter and his team have a lot to handle. They are representing the Judiciary Committee in its lawsuit against former White House Counsel Don McGahn to force him to testify.

They're pushing to get the Justice Department to release the grand jury material from Robert Mueller's probe, and they're representing Democrats in various House committees in multiple attempts to get tax returns and financial records from the President.


SAMUEL DEWY, FORMER SENIOR REPUBLICAN STAFFER FOR CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: I do think that it's an unprecedented amount and scope of litigation that we're seeing. This is a three-dimensional game of chess.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): Letter has only been in his role as General Counsel since January. But now 10 months later, his independent office is at the epicenter of a hyper partisan constitutional power struggle ...


REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): What we see in this impeachment is a kangaroo court.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): ... between Republicans and the President and House Democrats.


NATHAN: The job is a nonpartisan job. He has to ignore those cat calls from the sidelines. They're preposterous. They're not justified.


SCHNEIDER: And Irv Nathan notes all of the current litigation spearheaded by the General Counsel, it is not actually directly tied to the Impeachment Inquiry on Ukraine, and it is unlikely, in his opinion that any of the fights over documents and subpoenas will ultimately end up in court since litigation does take so long and this is a fast track timeline.

And one other thing to note, Jake, that while the General Counsel is leading this fight in the court on multiple fronts, he is also advising the committees here on the Impeachment Inquiry. So he has a wide range of responsibilities here.

TAPPER: All right, interesting. Jessica Schneider, thanks so much.

Coming up, cleaning up his own mess by once again giving Turkey exactly what Turkey wants. The deal one Republican says is quote, "far from a victory." That story next.



TAPPER: Here's a breaking news in our World Lead. President Trump this afternoon acted as though he deserved to take a victory lap for reaching a tentative fragile and temporary ceasefire halting carnage that he helped create.