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Interview With Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT); Syria Confusion; White House Chief Of Staff Admits Quid Pro Quo In Ukraine Scandal; U.S. Ambassador Breaks With Trump, Says President Directed Diplomats To Work With Giuliani On Ukraine; Turkey Agrees To Five-Day Pause In Syria Assault, Denies It's A Ceasefire As Trump And Pence Claim; House Impeachment Probe's Lead Lawyer Hand-Picked By Pelosi. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 17, 2019 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: The acting chief of staff offers stunning confirmation that U.S. aid to Ukraine was tied to the president's demand for an investigation of Democrats. Did Mick Mulvaney destroy Mr. Trump's no quid pro quo defense?

From bad to worse. Democrats are seizing on the Mulvaney bombshell, suggesting it amounts to a presidential confession in the impeachment investigation. But the White House is telling critics to -- quote -- "Get over it."

Ordered to see Giuliani. A U.S. ambassador breaks with the president, testifying that Mr. Trump effectively forced diplomats to work with his personal lawyer on Ukraine. Tonight, powerful new evidence of Rudy Giuliani's central role in the Ukraine scandal.

And not a cease-fire. That's what Turkey is saying about its new deal with the U.S., insisting it only agreed to pause its assault in Syria. As President Trump touts an amazing outcome, is he giving Turkey exactly what it wants?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news that cuts to the heart of the Ukraine scandal and the Trump impeachment inquiry, the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, admitting to the kind of quid pro quo that President Trump has repeatedly denied.

He confirmed that Mr. Trump froze U.S. aid to Ukraine as part of his efforts to pressure that country to investigate Democrats. Tonight, a source says the Trump legal team is stunned, acknowledging Mulvaney's remarks were not helpful to the president.

Also breaking, Turkey agrees to a five-day halt in its offensive in Northern Syria, calling the U.S.-brokered agreement a pause, rather than a cease-fire. President Trump says he hopes it will lead to a longer truce, as he tries to ease the bloodshed and fallout from his decision to withdraw U.S. troops.

I will get reaction from House Intelligence Committee member Jim Himes. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, Mick Mulvaney may have given a gift to impeachment investigators.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He certainly did, Wolf.

The White House made a remarkable admission today, as the acting chief of staff acknowledged in the Briefing Room earlier today there was a quid pro quo, tying foreign aid to Ukraine to an investigation into the president's unproven conspiracy theory about the Democratic National Committee and the 2016 campaign.

The president's legal team, I was told, was stunned by Mulvaney's performance, with one source telling CNN, it was not helpful.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): For the acting chief of staff, it was a moment of high drama, as Mick Mulvaney conceded that the Trump administration's hold on military aid in Ukraine was connected to the president's desire to investigate the Democratic National Committee's actions during the 2016 election, a quid pro quo.

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: We do that all the time with foreign policy. I have news for everybody. Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy.

ACOSTA (on camera): What about the Bidens?

(CROSSTALK)

MULVANEY: I'm talking to Mr. Karl.

That is going to happen. Elections have consequences. And foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Mulvaney's comments came as a shock to members of the president's legal team. One source told CNN, "People a are bit stunned."

Mulvaney's remarks have raised even more questions, as he hinted there may be a recording of the president's conversation with the leader of Ukraine back in July, when Mr. Trump was seeking dirt on Joe Biden.

MULVANEY: You can stop asking the questions there, because there's no cover-up. And I can prove it to you by our actions. If we wanted to cover this up, would we have called the Department of Justice almost immediately and had them look at the transcript of the tape, which we did, by the way, right?

If we wanted to cover this up, would we have released it to the public?

ACOSTA: Mulvaney also defended the president's decision to involve his own personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in the administration's dealings with Ukraine.

MULVANEY: It's not illegal. It's not impeachable. The president gets to use who he wants to use. If the president wants to fire me today and hire somebody else, he can.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... from the actual, like...

MULVANEY: The president gets to set foreign policy, and he gets to choose who to do so.

ACOSTA: Part of the problem for the president, Mulvaney's comments directly contradict Mr. Trump's claims there was no quid pro quo.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, all of a sudden, Schiff doesn't want to talk to the whistle-blower. Now, all of a sudden, quid pro quo doesn't matter, because now they see, in the call, there was no quid pro quo.

The whistle-blower said quid pro quo eight times. It was a little off. No times.

ACOSTA: Mulvaney's moment overshadowed Mr. Trump's announcement of a stoppage of Turkey's attacks on the Kurds in Northern Syria.

TRUMP: On behalf of the United States, I want to thank Turkey.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump congratulated Turkey's president for hitting the brakes, after receiving a green light from the White House.

TRUMP: I just want to thank and congratulate, though, President Erdogan. He's a friend of mine.

And I'm glad we didn't have a problem, because, frankly, he's a hell of a leader. And he's a tough man. He's a strong man. And he did the right thing.

[18:05:06]

ACOSTA: GOP senator Mitt Romney accused the president of turning his back on Kurdish/U.S. allies.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): What happens now to the Kurds, and why Turkey will face no apparent consequences. Further, the cease-fire does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, we should point out, in just the last several minutes, the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, has attempted to clean up what he said in the Briefing Room earlier this afternoon. Mulvaney released a statement saying: "Let me be clear. There was

absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election."

Wolf, there is one very big problem with that. He's already said it. He said it to reporters and to the entire world in the White House Briefing Room earlier this afternoon.

So, this appears to be a massive cleanup attempt on the part of the White House, given the fact that even the president's own legal team, outside legal team, has responded in saying that the president's legal team was not involved in the chief of staff's briefing earlier this afternoon.

Wolf, one other thing we should point out, the president just spoke to reporters down in Texas just a short while ago. He said he did not see what Mick Mulvaney told reporters earlier this afternoon, but he reiterated he does have confidence in his acting chief of staff.

But, again, in just the last several minutes, Mick Mulvaney tried to put out a statement cleaning up what he said earlier today. But as just about everybody in Washington and around the world saw, in that Briefing Room, the acting chief of staff admitted to a quid pro quo.

BLITZER: Yes, I just read it, read his lengthy statement that he released, Jim.

And nowhere in the statement does he say, does he apologize, say, I misspoke or something like that. He seems to simply suggest, I never said quid pro quo, when he clearly did.

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf.

This is another example -- and we see this over here at the White House all the time -- up is down, black is white, believe us, not your lying eyes. And this is another attempt at that. We typically see that behavior on the part of the president, but, in this case, it's Mick Mulvaney who's trying to pull a fast one by saying he did not say there was a quid pro quo, when, in fact, that's what he said earlier today.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect the president is not going to be very happy by all of this.

All right, Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

Let's go to Capitol Hill right now, where impeachment investigators are seizing on Mulvaney's comments.

Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is joining us.

Sunlen, what are you hearing from House Democrats?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Democrats are certainly seizing very quickly on these comments today as they advance their impeachment probe up here on Capitol Hill. One Democrat saying Mick Mulvaney just co-signed the president's

confession with what he admitted behind the White House podium today. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, also saying that, in his opinion, things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): Things have just gone from very, very bad to much, much worse.

The idea that vital military assistance would be withheld for such a patently political reason, for the reason of serving the president's reelection campaign, is a phenomenal breach of the president's duty to defend our national security.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: Now, there has been so far very, very little Republican reaction up here on Capitol Hill.

But for the few who have spoken out, it has been significant, most notably, Alaska Senator, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who today told CNN that, yes, absolutely, this is a concern. She says, you don't hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative, period -- Wolf.

BLITZER: At the same time, Sunlen, another key witness testified up on Capitol Hill about the Ukraine scandal. And I suspect it's still going on.

SERFATY: That's right.

Gordon Sondland, who was the former Trump mega-donor turned U.S. ambassador to the E.U., he is still testifying behind closed doors up here on Capitol Hill. Sondland told the committees today that he was directed by Trump to work with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani when it comes to Ukraine, comes to potentially setting up this White House meeting.

In his opening statement, he said -- quote -- "Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President Zelensky, committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election, including the DNC server, and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance to the president."

So Sondland here very clearly trying to distance himself from what Rudy Giuliani and President Trump was doing. And he said during that testimony, it wasn't until much, much later that he knew that Giuliani, part of his agenda was to put pressure on the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden's son.

And Sondland said he did not know until very recently that Hunter Biden was even on the board of Burisma. But many Democrats, Wolf, leaving that committee room today, really calling foul on that, saying that he's just essentially today giving himself some cover -- Wolf.

[18:10:04]

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen, thanks very much, Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, we're getting new insight into how the Mulvaney bombshell is playing inside the U.S. Justice Department.

Our Political Correspondent, Sara Murray, is here with me.

Sara, so what are you hearing from DOJ officials?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's not going over great. They didn't appreciate the way Mick Mulvaney tied to what Rudy Giuliani was up to, to what is a legitimate, whether you agree with it or not, investigation going on at the Justice Department into 2016 election meddling.

And this is what a senior Justice Department official told Evan Perez.

They said: "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."

And I think, Wolf, there was this calculation within the Trump administration and the White House that, if they made it seem like this was all about looking back to 2016, if they made it seem like this was not about the Bidens and not about looking ahead to the 2020 election, that essentially they could cry, no harm, no foul, this isn't that big of a deal.

I think we're seeing the limits of that strategy today with Mick Mulvaney. The fact that he came out and said, we withheld aid because of an investigation into 2016, caused a lot of alarm immediately. He got a lot of flak for it. Even Republicans on the Hill have been raising concerns about the notion that these two things were tied.

And so this sort of talking point that I think the White House hoped would work on their behalf is not panning out as well as they had hoped.

BLITZER: Certainly is not.

All right, Sara, thanks very much for that.

Joining us now, Congressman Jim Himes. He's a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

And let's get right to that press briefing. Did the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, actually corroborate some of the whistle-blower's initial report?

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): Well, of course he did. I mean, again, you know, he said that one of the three reasons for

military aid to have been held up was the very political objective of making sure the Ukrainians were assisting on this conspiracy theory that the Ukraine was somehow involved in the 2016 election interference, a point, of course, that our entire intelligence community and anybody who pays attention to this knows is completely specious.

But what's important here is that that is a political interest of the president of the United States. The chief of staff just confirmed that it was a factor in the holdup of congressionally appropriated military aid to a vulnerable country.

Now, quickly let me point out that it's been the defense of the Republicans around here and the president that there was no quid pro quo.

OK, we're past that. There was a quid pro quo. The chief of staff told us that.

But the reality is, Wolf, that you don't need a quid pro quo for the behavior. The president, in the transcript, which is there for all to see, suggesting that the new president of Ukraine investigate a particular company that is associated with Hunter Biden, you don't need a quid pro quo for that to be certainly wildly inappropriate and unethical, but almost certainly illegal as well.

BLITZER: As you know, Mulvaney disputed that the president asked Ukraine to investigate the Bidens at his news conference in the White House earlier in the day.

What do you make of that distinction he offered?

HIMES: Well, I just don't understand that, because, again, the White House released the so-called transcript, in which the president very clearly asks for that.

So, again, we sort of need to, you know, touch the walls around us to make sure that we're in a real world here. But it's all part, of course, Wolf, of a much larger effort, I think led by Rudy Giuliani, you know, a fairly unhinged associate of the president who, working with people like Parnas and Fruman, who have now both been arrested, was not doing a shadow foreign policy.

People keep talking about a shadow foreign policy. That was nobody's foreign policy. Rudy Giuliani was leading an effort -- and you saw the opening statement by the ambassador today about how everybody was concerned about this. He was leading an effort to squeeze a very vulnerable country that is under attack day in and day out by Russia to serve the president's political interests, to investigate Burisma, to investigate Biden.

That was what the Ukrainians were being led to believe was important to the president of the United States. That's not a shadow foreign policy. That is an impeachable abuse of power. BLITZER: Mulvaney argued that President Trump had every right to

involve Rudy Giuliani, his personal private attorney, in foreign policy.

How do you respond to that, especially given the reports that are out there -- and a lot of reports -- that Giuliani was making a lot of money from Ukrainian interests?

HIMES: Well, so Mick Mulvaney is just wrong on that point.

The president does not have the right to just decide that so-and-so is going to be my ambassador to do this. There is a reason that, when somebody takes on an official role in the United States government, that they undergoing a background check, that they are -- if they are to be ambassadors, if they are to play a senior diplomatic role, that they are confirmed by the United States Senate.

So, even in the normal approval process of ambassadors, which is pretty standard around here, no, the president doesn't have free rein to decide that so-and-so is going to be an ambassador. The Senate gets to vote on that as well.

[18:15:10]

And by no stretch of the imagination -- and, in fact, it may very well be a violation of law -- does the president get to say, hey, my personal attorney, who I just happen to have attorney-client privilege with, so that nobody can ever ask me about the conversations that I had with my personal attorney, and he can't be deposed because he's my personal attorney, well, he's going to be my guy who does this little bit of foreign policy.

Mick Mulvaney really know what he's talking about when he says that the president has the right to do that.

BLITZER: You heard also from Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, today.

He's still testifying for hours and hours up on Capitol Hill. He was in direct communication with President Trump on Ukraine policy. What did he tell you about the president's role in all of this?

HIMES: Well, I don't want to go beyond the opening statement that he released publicly. The deposition is still under way. It is closed. So I can't talk about the specific things that Ambassador Sondland has said, beyond what has been made public.

But, as you can tell from the opening statement that he publicly released -- or I guess that his people publicly released -- his basic thesis is that, look, I was just trying to do my job, was just trying to get a meeting, didn't really know what Giuliani was up to, and hadn't seen anything particularly untoward.

So we're obviously going to need to correlate that against the testimony of the people that he was working with, people like Ambassador Volker and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. But you can tell from the opening statement what his approach is,

which is basically, look, I just was head down, trying to do my job, wasn't involved in this stuff.

But it was interesting, of course. The ambassador, who is a political appointee and a supporter of the president, makes it very clear in that opening statement that he was discouraged by Rudy Giuliani's bizarre role -- my word, not his -- and he makes it very clear that -- and, remember, this is an appointment of the president -- that the holding up of military aid to Ukraine would be a very bad thing.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts while I have you, Congressman, on the so-called cease-fire in Syria.

The president says this is a great day for civilization. In your view, who are the winners and losers in this deal?

HIMES: Well, I mean, there's not much dispute about that, right? The president succeeded in getting the Turks to stop shooting the Kurds, our allies, the people who died alongside us in the fight against ISIS.

The president succeeded in getting Turkey to stop shooting them for, I guess, 120 hours. A cease-fire usually involves a negotiation between both sides. The Kurds weren't involved in this negotiation. And the price of that apparent 120-hour cease-fire is that Turkey gets to stay on land that the Kurds have occupied for a very, very long time in a country that isn't theirs.

So, again, it doesn't surprise me that the president thinks this is the greatest deal in human history. But it was yet another sellout of the Kurds in favor of Turkey's being able to accomplish something they have been hoping to do for a very long time, which is put the Kurds in precisely this position.

BLITZER: Congressman Jim Himes, thanks so much for joining us.

HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The breaking news continues next.

After weeks of denial by President Trump, his acting White House chief of staff reverses course and says there was a quid pro quo tying military aid to Ukraine to an investigation of Democrats in the 2016 election.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:23:16]

BLITZER: We're following breaking news.

The acting White House chief of staff is trying to clean up his truly stunning comments earlier in the day, admitting that the United States and U.S. aid to Ukraine was tied to the president's push to investigate Democrats and the 2016 presidential election. Tonight, Mulvaney is denying that amounts to a quid pro quo, but his

remarks may already have done very serious damage to the president's defense against impeachment.

Let's bring in our correspondents and our analysts.

And I want to be very precise, Jeffrey Toobin. This is what, in his statement, his cleanup statement, that was just released a few moments ago, hours after his news conference, he said -- this is Mulvaney.

He said: "Let me be clear. There was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election."

That's what he said on paper just now.

Here's what he said earlier in the day:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MULVANEY: Like, look, this is a corrupt place. I didn't want to send them a bunch of money.

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.

The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation.

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

The president asked Rick Perry to work with Mr. Giuliani. You may not like the fact that Giuliani was involved. That's great. That's fine. It's not illegal. It's not impeachable. The president gets to use who he wants to use.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, so what's the strategy here?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: You think there's a strategy there?

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: I don't get it.

TOOBIN: The -- you know, he made a terrible mistake. He committed a terrible offense at that briefing today. He told the truth.

He said, there was a quid pro quo. He said, you know, we wanted -- you know, we wanted that information, that investigation, and we held up the money. He said, we held up the money. [18:25:07]

And now he realizes the official Trump policy is to lie about what went on. So, his statement is a lie. So now he's back on the same page with the president.

But let's not be unclear about how -- like, what really happened. It was a quid pro quo.

BLITZER: Yes, he said: "No question about that. That's it, and that's why we held up the money."

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right.

I actually think that there is a strategy. I'm going to give them a little bit more credit. And here's -- so, I think you were talking with Gloria in the last hour about it. She called it the Giuliani strategy. I'm calling it the half-Rudy. And here's why.

Giuliani's strategy, most famously, with Michael Cohen, was to get out there and say, yes, yes, he paid the money, and everybody went, oh, that's -- he is saying crazy talk.

BLITZER: In the Stormy Daniels...

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Stormy Daniels.

But it turned out to be true. And that way, when we found out it was true, it was like, oh, yes, we already know that.

That's what he tried to do. The growing decision that they had -- that a lot of Republicans had been kind of zeroing in on about their defense had been what Mulvaney said, which is, yes, we were saying, you have to deal with corruption if we're going to give you the money, but we're talking about 2016, which is what he said, and not about 2020, because the idea is, if we're talking about making sure that a government isn't involved in our democracy, that's a little bit easier for the American public to take than what the president actually said in the phone call with the Ukrainian leader, which is prospectively, which is, you're not going to -- not -- or, do me a favor, please look into my opponent potentially for 2020, which is different.

So I think he was trying to get that out there, but didn't -- they didn't realize that, when it comes from not Rudy Giuliani, but the White House chief of staff in the White House Briefing Room, and it undermines what the president has been saying, they got headlines that they didn't expect to be as stark as they were.

BLITZER: Yes, because he was very blunt earlier in the day, Bianna.

And now, in this new statement, he says, I really didn't say what he actually said.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Even though he said it. And that's why I will call it the too-clever-by-half strategy, because you have an administration, you have an acting chief of staff who is now approaching this by saying, listen, if we are in the throes of impeachment, impeachment is a political process, right? It's not a legal process.

He repeatedly said, nothing illegal was done. Get over it. That's our new foreign policy strategy. Get over it. And every administration can decide what they want to do with regards to foreign policy.

But in his mind, what benefits the president is by saying, we have nothing to hide. So here's all the facts. I'm getting in front of everything, once again reiterating, as the president had before, that this was a perfect call, there was nothing wrong with it. In fact, if there had been something wrong with it, we wouldn't have let the DOJ know and given them a heads-up.

But he did say earlier today that there was a quid pro quo. So, this all goes back to the bigger issue of, none of this is normal. And the irony that they keep going back to one area of corruption regarding one country -- never once has a president talked about corruption with Russia, any other countries, but it's Ukraine, specifically corruption over the past couple of years.

And the irony that this take place two minutes after he said, by the way, next year's G7 is going to be at the president's resort of Doral? I mean, you want to talk about corruption, you want to talk about irony, and the questions that all of this raises?

But I think, from his strategy and his approach, at least from the afternoon -- he's having to clean it up now -- is saying, we're not hiding anything. That's typically what happens in an impeachment investigation. We're laying it all out there. And, hey, America, there's nothing wrong with it.

BLITZER: You know, David, you heard the president -- Mulvaney, I should say -- Mulvaney say at that news conference earlier in the day, in explaining why there's nothing wrong with a quid pro quo, going after the Democrats' server, the 2016 election, he said: "I have news for everybody. Get over it."

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: He's saying get over it.

And here's the thing. Look, I like Dana's theory of the Rudy...

BASH: The half-Rudy.

SWERDLICK: The half-Rudy.

I'm saying that could be it, or it could be the Rudy special, which would be a different theory, which is, send everybody from the administration, the White House, the lawyers, the State Department, out, telling different stories, the president himself, telling different theories of the case, to see which one catches on with the public or catches on with Fox News. And then they will run with it. What I think Mick Mulvaney was out

there trying to do today was get this idea out there of, hey, quid pro quo, no big deal.

But the thing is this. They want people to think that, unless there's a guy in a trench coat on Third Street and Elm Street in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, that it's not a quid pro quo.

But that's not what it is. If you say -- what was the line, Jeffrey? It was, we asked them -- that's why we held back the money.

TOOBIN: That's why we held back the money. Yes.

SWERDLICK: If you say, that's why we held back the money, you're saying that it was a quid pro quo.

BLITZER: Yes, that's what he specifically said. That's why we held up the money.

SWERDLICK: Right.

TOOBIN: You know why he said that's why they held up the money?

BLITZER: Because it's the truth.

TOOBIN: Because it's the truth.

BLITZER: Yes.

TOOBIN: Exactly. That's why they held up the money.

BLITZER: All right, we have got a lot more on the breaking news.

(LAUGHTER)

[18:30:00]

BLITZER: We've got a lot more on the breaking news and we'll do that right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our analysts. And, Dana, in his statement today in his news conference, the acting White House chief of staff cited the DNC server, the Democrats' role, the 2016 election. But he also insisted that there was no discussion, no quid pro quo involving the Bidens.

But listen to what the president himself told President Zelensky of Ukraine in that controversial phone conversation on July 25th.

[18:35:06]

This is from the partial transcript that was released, the rough transcript. This is the president, quote, there's a lot of talk -- this is what he's saying to Zelensky. 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. So that whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution. So if you could look into that, it sounds horrible to me.

The president himself was saying, you know, do me a favor, and he was talking about the Bidens.

BASH: That's exactly right. That's why this whole attempt, looks like even they're admitting, a failed attempt at trying to get out there, the notion that, yes, maybe they tied money for Ukraine to rooting out corruption and looking into what might have happened in 2016, which, by the way, it's all been debunked, anyway. But let's just put that aside.

Separating that from what you just said, the very, very large flaw in that strategy is what you just read. The president himself said it in a transcript released by the White House, talked about Biden. So there's no way around that.

TOOBIN: And remember, at that time, when he is asking for this favor, he uses the word, favor, in a different part of the conversation, they're holding up this money that Ukraine desperately needs. So when the president of the United States says, it would be great if you looked into Biden, at the same time, he's holding back hundreds of millions of dollars that you need for protection from Vladimir Putin, that is not just like a random request.

That is a quid pro quo. I mean, I'm sorry, there's no other way to describe it.

SWERDLICK: And it's also money that Congress voted to appropriate to Ukraine. It's not from the president's personal slush fund. There were no provisions in the law with that money saying only if the president of Ukraine does the president of the United States a favor though.

BLITZER: What do you think? Bianna, go ahead.

GOLODRYGA: And what makes it even more -- what makes it even more obvious, that this is what they were talking about and everyone knew whether or not they admitted it publicly, was that even President Zelensky, remember, a political neophyte who is in the middle of a war, losing thousands of his own people with Russia, feeling the ultimate pressure, needing that money and assistance from the United States, wanting for -- for no other reason than public image and P.R. image to show Vladimir Putin an invitation, an invite to the White House, given all of that, he still relented.

He could have said, sure, whatever you need, we'll get it done. But even he understood, a political newbie understood what exactly the president was asking him to do and how inappropriate that was, because he knew that it was putting him in the middle of a U.S. election. And by the way, one of these days, there may be a Democrat in office and they're going to have to a relationship with them as well. BLITZER: I think that conversation with Zelensky, the president said, 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.

All right, everyone, stick around. A lot more on the breaking news, including on the situation in Syria, as Turkey agrees to halt its assault for five days, but denies it's a ceasefire.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:00]

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news on the Turkish assault in Northern Syria. Turkey agreeing to a five-day halt in the offensive, calling it pause, not a ceasefire, as President Trump and Vice President Pence have described it.

Let's go to our Pentagon Correspondent, Barbara Starr. Barbara, what is this U.S.-brokered deal actually mean?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, there is confusion on all fronts about the details. Very little information with military precision has actually come out.

Let's go to the map. This is the area of Northern Syria along the Turkish border that the Turks want to control and want to push the Kurds out of. The agreement, as we understand it now, basically will have the Kurds withdraw, the Syrian Kurds withdraw, let's say, roughly in the central area here.

But what the Turks decide to do about the rest of this and how deep they may go without withdrawing and how long they may try and control this territory very much remains to be seen.

The big question, Wolf, for all the military forces in the region, if you say you have a ceasefire, who controls it, who monitors it, who will go in and make sure there is compliance with the terms?

BLITZER: What happens now with U.S. forces in the region?

STARR: Well, top U.S. officials are telling us the withdrawal of the nearly 1,000 troops will continue. There is no change tonight in all of that. But there is also, you know, really a big if here. Already, the U.S. had to bomb one of its own ammunition dumps at a site it was withdrawing from, because it didn't have the ability to pack it up and move it to the evacuation zone. So there's a lot of complexities in the U.S. troops getting out of there.

And a big question, unanswered, what about ISIS? President Trump saying that we, meaning the U.S., supposedly, will still continue to monitor the ISIS situation.

[18:45:04]

The Syrian Kurds still in control of most of the prisons that the ISIS detainees are in by all accounts. But I don't think with this situation and this amount of uncertainty, right now, anybody is counting ISIS out. A good deal of concern remains that ISIS will find a way to exploit this situation, Wolf.

BLITZER: Horrible situation, indeed.

All right. Barbara, thank you.

Just ahead, the lawyer leading the Democrats' impeachment fight. We'll reveal why he was handpicked by the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:50:15]

BLITZER: Tonight, with the impeachment investigation in overdrive, Democrats are relying on the legal mind of the House general counsel, a man chosen by the speaker herself.

Our Justice Correspondent, Jessica Schneider is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tell us more about this very key figure, Jessica, in the impeachment probe.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. So, his name is Douglas Letter and he was, in fact, as you said, hand-picked by Nancy Pelosi to really be the legal mind behind the many battles the Democrats are waging against the president and the administration.

Letter has a very small team of attorneys and they are fighting on several fronts all the while, advising on the impeachment proceedings.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might be front and center as the public face of the impeachment fight.

DOUGLAS LETTER, HOUSE GENERAL COUNSEL: May please the court, I'm Douglas Letter from the United States Department of Justice.

SCHNEIDER: But it's this man, Pelosi's hand-picked general counsel who is the key to strategizing the House's fight 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 also told the judge that lying to the American public could

warrant impeachment. Letter leads the non-partisan 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: 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 and much more intense on many more fronts that he has to battle.

SCHNEIDER: Indeed, Letter and his team have a lot to handle. They're 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 DEWEY, FORMER SENIOR REPUBLICAN STAFFER FOR CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: I do think that it's a -- an unprecedented amount and scope of litigation that we're seeing. It's a three-dimensional game of chess.

SCHNEIDER: Letter has only been in his role as general counsel since January, but now, ten months later, his independent office is at the epicenter of a hyperpartisan constitutional power struggle.

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

SCHNEIDER: Between the Republicans and the president and House Democrats.

NATHAN: The job is a nonpartisan job. He has to ignore that those catcalls from the sideline, they're preposterous, and they're not justified.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And Irv Nathan notes that all of the current litigation spearheaded by the general counsel, it's not directly tied to the impeachment inquiry on Ukraine and it's unlikely that any of those fights over documents and subpoenas will ultimately end up in court since, of course, Wolf, litigation would just take too long and the Democrats are trying to do this on a very speedy timeline.

BLITZER: Yes, very important stuff.

All right. Thanks so much for that, Jessica.

Much more news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:58:26]

BLITZER: Finally tonight, we remember a truly great American, Congressman Elijah Cummings, who died this morning. There's been a flood of tributes to the Maryland Democrat and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and they're all very well- deserved and bipartisan. He was so widely respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

On a personal note, I was fortunate to know Congressman Cummings through our interviews and our connection to Howard University here in Washington, D.C. He was a proud Howard grad. I received an honorary degree there in 2014. It allowed us to spend some quality time together.

Up close, I saw his kindness and his passion to work for the American people. His love of the House of Representatives, his impressive knowledge of the legislative process and his commitment to improving the lives of his constituents in Baltimore.

Elijah Cummings leaves a remarkable legacy. This year, he hinted at how he hoped to be remembered.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD): When we are dancing with the angels, the question will be asked in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Elijah Cummings was 68 years old. Our deepest, deepest condolences to his wonderful family. May he rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing.

Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.