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Syria Confusion; White House Chief of Staff Admits Quid Pro Quo in Ukraine Scandal. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired October 17, 2019 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: The president's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, undercut Trump's claims that there has been no quid pro quo.

Mulvaney told reporters that the aid to Ukraine was, in fact, tied to President Trump's wish for an investigation into the 2016 election.

So, in essence, the White House defense has gone from no quid pro quo to: "Get over it. We do this all the time."

Here was Mick Mulvaney:


QUESTION: ... just described is a quid pro quo.

It is, funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happened as well.

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

We were holding 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.

McKinney (sic) said yesterday that he was really upset with the political influence in foreign policy. That was one of the reasons he was so upset about this.

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



And also, just to clarify, he referred to McKinney. He actually meant Michael McKinley, a former top State Department adviser who testified yesterday in the impeachment inquiry.

On top of all of this, the acting chief of staff insists that the delay in military aid to Ukraine had absolutely nothing to do with Joe Biden.

But let me just call your attention back to that rough transcript of the president's phone call, which shows President Trump directly naming the former vice president while talking to Ukraine's president, falsely stating that Joe Biden got a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to stop a case against his son.

Quoting the transcript: "Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution. So if you can look into it, sounds horrible to me" -- end quote.

Here's Mulvaney.


QUESTION: On the call, the president did ask about investigating the Bidens.

Are you saying that the money that was held up, that that had nothing to do with the Bidens?

MULVANEY: No, the -- yes. No, the money held up had absolutely nothing to do with Biden.


BALDWIN: CNN's Sarah Westwood is live at the White House for us.

And so, Sarah, do we know if the president was aware of what Mick Mulvaney was going to say on the whole so what quid pro quo bit?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Brooke, President Trump just spoke to reporters in Texas. He did not say anything about his acting chief of staff's performance there in the Briefing Room.

But, Brooke, what we saw was Mick Mulvaney really answering one of the central questions at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, and that's, what was the motivation behind suspending millions of dollars worth of security assistance to Ukraine just before the president had that now infamous phone call with the Ukrainian president?

Mulvaney there acknowledging explicitly that it was tied to the president's desire to see Ukraine conduct investigations that would be politically advantageous to him, sort of a remarkable admission from the chief of staff there.

And that's not all. Mulvaney also confirmed that President Trump directed high-level administration officials to work with Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, a private citizen, on matters related to Ukraine. He acknowledged -- he confirmed that Energy Secretary Rick Perry was asked by the president in May to work with Giuliani on issues related to Ukraine.

And even though witnesses, former administration officials like Fiona Hill, have testified to Congress that Giuliani was conducting something of a shadow foreign policy when it comes to Ukraine, Mulvaney still defended the president on that point, saying the president is entitled to have whoever he wants working for him.

And Mulvaney denied that he'd ever had explicit conversation about the Bidens, about the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. But he did acknowledge that he did have conversations inside the White House about conspiracy theories related to the DNC server that was hacked by the Russians in 2016.

So, of course, everything Mulvaney saying contradicting the White House's repeated claims that there was no quid pro quo on that phone call. Also, Brooke, I should just note that this is one of the first times we have had an administration official come to the Briefing Room and take questions about the Ukraine controversial since the impeachment inquiry began.

And on this rare occasion, we did hear that sort of remarkable admission that the allegation about quid pro quo is in fact accurate, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Sarah Westwood, thank you very much.

Let's get some perspective.

CNN political commentator Michael Smerconish, he's host of "SMERCONISH" here on CNN Saturday mornings.

And, Michael, you listened to the acting chief of staff. You just heard Sarah pointing out we have heard over and over and over again from this White House, no quid pro quo. And Mick Mulvaney is like, yes, quid pro quo. So what?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: So I'm the least surprised about this.

BALDWIN: Tell me why.

SMERCONISH: And notwithstanding all of the -- well, notwithstanding all of the inconsistencies that have come out of the White House thus far, no quid pro quo, now quid pro quo, I predicted they would get to a point where they would argue there was a quid pro quo, but it was not of a corrupt kind.

And here's why. All the evidence from the diplomatic corps thus far seems to mirror that which we heard from the whistle-blower in the complaint, and that which was evidenced in the transcript or whatever it was of the July 25 phone call.


I have been saying for a while, there's really not a factual dispute here as to what transpired. And the only legal avenue that I see for the president is one of owning it, and then trying to convince the American people, really trying to convince Senate jurors, that his intent was not with regard to his own reelection, but that he was operating with good faith and a good motive in the United States' best interests, that he wasn't going to allow our tax dollars to flow unless he was confident that they wouldn't go down a corrupt rat hole, for lack of a better description.

And it will require getting into his head to convict on this charge, if it gets to that point, and the senators will have to be convinced that, no, he had an illicit motive or intent. And that was to put himself first in a reelection against Joe Biden, and not act on the nation's best interests.

I had Ed Foley, a legal scholar from Ohio State University, on my own program recently. He wrote about exactly this issue for Politico and forecast that this is probably where they would go.

BALDWIN: Wow. OK, so perhaps, perhaps you are forecasting, now that we have heard it from Mick Mulvaney, maybe that's the next act of this, this movie, that that is what we hear then from President Trump.

Let me add to this conversation. We just got some news from our senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez, that, according to a top DOJ official, reacting to Mick Mulvaney appearing to lump in this investigation by U.S. attorney John Durham into the beginnings of the Russia investigation with what Giuliani was doing in Ukraine, this is what this person tells CNN.

"If the White House was withholding aid in regards to the cooperation of any investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us."

What do you make of that, Michael?

SMERCONISH: I make of that that this is all what you get when there's no war room, and that there's really not a senior counsel. I mean a real lawyer.

I don't mean one who's playing one on television. I mean someone that the president will listen to, map out a strategy, and then make sure that everybody is getting on board.

But this thing on a continuum started way over to one side of no quid pro quo. And by the time it's over, I think that will be the defense, a quid pro quo, but by a different name, not with a corrupt purpose, but with the intention of protecting American tax dollars.

Now, that may be a really hard sell, but that's the legal avenue out there that I think they will pursue.

BALDWIN: You mentioned the guy who plays an attorney on TV. I think I'm catching what you're throwing down.

So let's talk about him. Mick Mulvaney also said that -- and this is a direct quote -- "You may not like the fact that Giuliani was involved. That's great. That's fine. It's not illegal."

How do we know that to be true?

SMERCONISH: Well, look, I think there's a practical consideration here. I think that Mayor Giuliani is now a witness. And I don't think that he can be both. I think that the president needs someone of legal stature to really

take control of this. But what that necessitates is that the client is going to listen to the lawyer. There's an adage about a fool who represents himself.

I have often been that person as an attorney. You need to entrust your legal fate to somebody you can rely on and then follow their counsel. And I fault all of these conflicting narratives that have come out of the White House with the lack of any cogent theme, but they're getting one. That's what I think we heard today.

BALDWIN: So we have been covering the last better part of a week, week-and-a-half, all these -- I know they're not household names, but a lot of top officials testifying behind closed doors for members of Congress in this whole impeachment inquiry.

And so when Mick Mulvaney was asked about this particular individual, this was the moment in the briefing. Watch.


MULVANEY: And I can never remember the gentleman who testified -- was it McKinney (sic), the guy? Is that his name? I don't know him.

He testified yesterday. I can't remember that person's name, Durham -- the Durham, OK?

Who said that?

QUESTION: It was George Kent.

MULVANEY: I'm sorry. I don't know who that is. Is that -- is that somebody who testified this week?


MULVANEY: I don't believe I have ever talked to anybody named George Kent in my life.


BALDWIN: I mean, is he -- is he posturing? Is this -- is he playing a game?

I mean, this is the acting White House chief of staff. How does he not know these people are?

SMERCONISH: So -- OK, so, listen.

BALDWIN: Yes. I'm with you.

SMERCONISH: He certainly should know who -- he should know who these people are. He probably does know who these people are.

But may I tell you what I thought when I heard that?


SMERCONISH: I mean, look at us. This is so damn difficult to follow all of these players and all of these narratives.

BALDWIN: I know.

SMERCONISH: And, Brooke, I wonder about people at home and whether they can pay attention.

BALDWIN: But this is the chief of staff at the White House. Are you giving him a pass?

SMERCONISH: I'm not defending it. Yes. No, I'm not defending it. Obviously, he needs to be dialed in.


SMERCONISH: But I'm wondering, how is this all playing outside of the Acela corridor? Are people keeping up? Are they interested in keeping up?


And I don't know the answer to that question.

BALDWIN: OK, stay with me. I have more for you.

But let me fold in another part of this whole conversation, the latest witness in this impeachment inquiry, President Trump's E.U. ambassador, Gordon Sondland.

He is the guy now today still testifying before these three House committees. And he is the first Trump ally actually to be questioned.

The hotelier-turned-diplomat blames the president for pressuring Ukraine, under the direction of Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. And Sondland says that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was aware.

Quoting the opening statement from the E.U. ambassador here, he said: "Based on the president's direction, we were faced with a choice. We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.- Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region, or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the president's concerns."

That's a quote.

However, Sondland also thought -- or said that he thought that the investigations were solely about fighting public corruption, not initially realizing that he says, much later, the whole Biden connection.

And then he also acknowledged that this text message in which he insisted there would be this -- quote -- "no quid pro quos of any kind" actually came from the president himself when they spoke over the phone.

So this is the quote: "I asked the president: 'What do you want from Ukraine?' And the president responded: 'Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.'"

"The president," he says, "repeated 'no quid pro quo' multiple times. This was a very short call, and I recall the president was in a bad mood."

CNN senior justice correspondent Jessica Schneider has a deeper look at all things Gordon Sondland.

And, again, just remind us who he is, where he comes from, how much experience he has in terms of public servant.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. So that's the question today, Brooke. Who is Gordon Sondland? How did he get this post as U.S. ambassador to the E.U.?

Well, really, he has virtually no foreign policy experience. He served on a few state commissions. But the way he puts it in his testimony today is that it's his unique business experience as the founder of a hotel chain that made him President Trump's pick to be ambassador to the E.U.

But, in all actuality, it may have actually been his status as the go- to bundler for the Republican Party in the Pacific Northwest that cemented this ambassadorship.

Interestingly, he initially supported Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, but eventually pivoted to President Trump. And to earn his favor, one source tells us, he donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural campaign.

Now, once confirmed as U.S. ambassador, sources tell us that he was viewed as a problem. He was first confirmed in July 2018. And instead of going through Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or then National Security Adviser Michael (sic) Bolton, we know that he would often call President Trump directly.

And in addition to that, he also struck many of his European counterparts as really something of a mini-Donald Trump. He freely gave interviews. He was a fixture on Twitter. He threw lavish parties, and he boasted about his relationship with the president.

One person who interacted with Sondland described him this way, saying: "He was forceful, blunt, and undiplomatic."

You know, Sondland really has become a key figure in other testimony this week, despite only giving testimony today. It was on Tuesday that George Kent described how he was really edged out by Sondland, Volker and Rick Perry, the energy secretary, when it came to Ukraine.

And then we heard Fiona Hill. She was the ex-Russia adviser at the White House. And she recounted how Sondland said that he was in charge of Ukraine, even though really his official portfolio, it only does incorporate the European Union. So that's also something that Sondland is defending today in his

opening statement, but a lot of questions as to exactly who he is. But it's obvious, Brooke, that he was, as he said in his testimony, at the behest of the president.

And we know that he has deep ties to fund-raising for Republicans -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Jessica Schneider, thank you very much.

Michael Smerconish, you have read his opening statements. I was talking to John Dean last hour, and he was referring to the delicate dance that Sondland must be doing right now right in front of these committees.


BALDWIN: What jumps out at you at how -- what he's saying and what he's saying specifically about what Trump told him to do?

SMERCONISH: The inconsistency, the inconsistency as to, it wasn't a quid pro quo, it was a quid pro quo. I can't even say the word straight now, I have been saying it so often recently.


BALDWIN: I know.

SMERCONISH: But the change of position as to whether it was about public corruption in Ukraine. Oh, it wasn't about the Bidens.

Look, he didn't get the Mulvaney memo. But I am telling you, within a matter of days, they will all be reading from the same hymnal. And the line will be they didn't want American tax dollars squandered in a corrupt country, and that's why they were holding up a meeting with the president, they were holding up the monies, et cetera, et cetera, until they had some assurance that our tax dollars would be protected.


That's the only avenue that's available to them that I see, given that the diplomatic testimony so far, the complaint from the whistle- blower, and the July 25 transcript are all saying the same thing.

So the task for the president now is to convince that he acted with good, legitimate motive to protect the nation, not with a selfish interest to protect his reelection.

BALDWIN: Kind of like how the victory in Northern Syria is now a victory, according to the president.

It's all five days later and a totally different tune.

We will play this clip. We will remember this conversation in a couple of days. And we will -- depending on what they say, we will get to say, Michael Smerconish told us so. SMERCONISH: OK. Sure.

BALDWIN: Michael Smerconish, thank you very much.

We will watch Michael Smerconish's show, of course, every Saturday morning 9:00 a.m. here on CNN.

SMERCONISH: See you, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

Much more on the breaking news ahead, Trump touting the cease-fire with Turkey in Syria, while Turkey says that's not actually what's happening. Those details are ahead.

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. We will be right back.



BALDWIN: All right, we're back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Also breaking this afternoon, conflicting accounts over a cease-fire in Syria. Vice President Mike Pence announced the deal had been reached after meeting with the Turkish president earlier today.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow for the withdrawal of YPG forces from the safe zone for 120 hours.

Part of our understanding is that, with the implementation of the cease-fire, the United States will not impose any further sanctions on Turkey.

And once a permanent cease-fire is in effect, the president has agreed to withdraw the economic sanctions that were imposed this last Monday.


BALDWIN: That is obviously the U.S. side.

As far as Turkey, they're saying, not so fast, emphasizing this deal is only temporary. Turkey started its bombardment against the Kurds in Northern Syria just last week, after President Trump abruptly pulled U.S. troops out of the region.

And moments ago, the president called today's news a victory.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everything we could have ever dreamed of. And we're also going to be able to bring our people back home. This is a situation where everybody is happy. And I'm happy because there's no fighting.


BALDWIN: Let's go to the Pentagon to our correspondent there, Barbara Starr.

And, Barbara, what is your understanding of this supposed agreement, and do you see this as a victory?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think let's just review some of the facts here in hand.

Right now, the Turks are refusing to call it a cease-fire, and they're pretty happy because they get sanctions relief. It's hard to see what they really gave up for all this. We haven't heard a lot from the SDF yet.

The real issue perhaps continues to be the state of play on the ground. If the SDF polls back, which is what Turkey wanted in the first place, so they get that, if they pull back, then the question is, who really begins to monitor all of this? Who enforces it? Who sees to it that this stays in place?

We have no understanding at this point of any kind of international monitoring effort, which is what you would need for something like this, so that all parties would feel comfortable and safe that it was really happening.

The Turks are much further into Syria than this 20-mile zone that this agreement is talking about. No indication they're pulling back from any of that.

You have the Russians on the ground. You have the Syrian regime on the ground, elements affiliated with ISIS and al Qaeda. They're certainly not all party to this.

The Russians still very much a key winner, by all accounts, in this, because they have really been able to extend their influence over this entire situation. U.S. troops still very much leaving Syria. No indication they're going back to their bases.

And the president, bottom line, talked about still doing something to protect ISIS fighters from getting out, still being willing to fight ISIS.


STARR: That's probably the key U.S. national security issue in all of this, to make sure ISIS does not come back.

There are no solid measures that have been spelled out yet about how ISIS would still remain under control -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Of course.

Barbara, thank you very much. And we have been hearing from members of Congress, both on the left

and the right, responding to President Trump's decision and now President Trump's words just moments ago.

So let me just play some sound. This is from Republican Senator Mitt Romney, who is now calling for a hearing into the president's actions. Here he was.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): Was there no chance for diplomacy? Are we so weak and so inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey?

I believe that it's imperative that public hearings are held to answer these questions. And I hope the Senate is able to conduct those hearings next week.


I note, in closing, that I also hope the cease-fire agreement is honored and that Turkey ends is brutal killing. But I note that lives are already lost and American honor has already been tarnished.

We once abandoned a red line. Now we abandoned an ally.


BALDWIN: Senator Romney there from moments ago.

These developments are personal for my next guest. He's an Army veteran who served a year in Iraq in 2016. He traveled to Syria voluntarily, where he decided to help a Kurdish group fighting ISIS.

Porter Goodman is with me now.

Porter, thank you so much for joining me.


BALDWIN: So, Porter, President Trump is now thanking the Kurds and hailing this as this -- quote -- "amazing outcome."

Is it an amazing outcome?

GOODMAN: It is not.

A couple minutes ago, Barbara covered it really well, actually. This is not a victory. This is not any kind of deal.

The entire premise of the Turkish invasion was to set up a safe zone 20 miles deep into Syria that would be administered by them. This was unacceptable to the Kurds, which is why they are resisting the invasion. I don't think it will be acceptable to the Assad regime. And I don't

think that either will accept this deal. So I don't think that this is any kind of progress.

I fear now that having, presented this as some kind of deal, once the Kurds and the Assad regime reject it, then the Trump administration will take that as though they will be able to go and say, hey, look, the Kurds didn't take the deal that we made for them, so this is all on them now, and they will try and wash their hands of it.

But this is no kind of deal. This is more like negotiating their surrender. This is -- and this doesn't answer the fundamental foreign policy issues that led to this disaster in the first place.

BALDWIN: Let's talk about you and how you went and volunteered to fight alongside them. And you were so serious about this, Porter, you didn't even tell your family until you landed back in Iraq.

So tell me why you wanted to go volunteer in the first place, because it's my understanding it wasn't initially about fighting ISIS for you.

GOODMAN: That's right.

What I saw it was, in Northeast Syria -- it started with the Kurds, but now all the ethnic groups and communities in Northern Syria are really working together on this project. But they started to build their own free, open, democratic society, which really champions the rights of ethnic and religious minorities and really champions women's rights.

And in the midst -- they were doing this in the midst of a brutal civil war, where they're surrounded by ISIS on the south and a hostile Turkish state on the north.

I saw a massive information war going on between the Syrian Kurds and the Turkish state. And I wanted to support what the Kurds were doing.

BALDWIN: Tell us about your friends the Kurds. It's my understanding you're still in touch with them, right? What kind of people are they?

GOODMAN: These are amazing people.

A lot of these fighters -- the people of Northeast Syria, I mean, they have become really idealistic and really committed to fighting to establish a safe haven for what really, really amounts to the full set of Western values that we hold dear in the United States and in the West.

So, I mean, these are people who are friendly, hospitable, and really are fighting hard against radicalism, extremism, hatreds -- hatred, and that are really working hard to unite the different sectarian groups of Northeast Syria, and have succeeded.

BALDWIN: So, just given your personal experience, your personal investment, if you could talk directly to the president of the United States right now about what's happening there, what would you say? GOODMAN: I actually wouldn't really say anything to President Trump.

My message would be for the American people.

I would want the American people to understand that we have -- we're in the middle of an information war that's been going on for years between the Turkish state and the people of Northeast Syria.

On the one hand, you have the Syrian Kurds, who have set up a free and open society where journalists, foreign observers, human rights observers can come and go freely, can validate and investigate what's going on in Northeast Syria.

On the other side of this information war, you have the Turkish state, which is the world's number one jailer of journalists, and which does not cooperate with human rights observers, whether they be from the United States or the U.N. or wherever. And they have been producing the majority of the misinformation that's being spread in this -- in this information war.

And now enter Donald Trump, way on the wrong side of this issue. And anyone who's trying to defend his decisions is finding that there's a huge supply of misinformation out there produced by the Turkish state for them to cling to and try and justify Donald Trump's actions.

And they spread this misinformation without understanding the context, where this information came from and what is motivating