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White House Doing Damage Control after Mulvaney Admits to Pro Quo Pro; Democrats Criticize Trump for Plan to Host G-7 at His Doral Resort; Majority of GOP Not Concerned by Giuliani's Work on Ukraine; Bipartisan Effort Underway for New Sanctions on Turkey for Invading Northern Syria; Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) Discusses the Cease-Fire with Turkey. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 18, 2019 - 11:00   ET



COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR & CORRESPONDENT: They could get a third in a row. And Hurst can keep this team rolling.


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Coy needs a desk job, Jim. Let's switch next week.


WIRE: I agree.


HARLOW: Cory, thanks. Have fun.

Thanks to all of you for joining us for a whirlwind week. We'll see you back here Monday morning. Until then, have a great weekend. I'm Poppy Harlow.


"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thanks so much for being with me.

This morning, the White House in damage control. This time because of acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. Offering up what he seemed to think was a robust defense of the president with regard to using military aid to pressure Ukraine, all while standing in the White House, in the White House briefing room yesterday. And then this happened.


MICK MULVANEY, ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF: Did he also mention to me in the past that the corruption related to the DNC server absolutely? No question about that. But that's it. That's why we held up the money. UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Just to be clear, you just described this as a

quid pro quo. It's funding will not flow unless the investigation into the -- in the Democratic server happened as well.

MULVANEY: We do -- 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.


BOLDUAN: Get over it. So is that now the last and final defense for the White House on this?

Shortly after that, Mulvaney -- shortly after Mulvaney said that, he tried to say he did not and he blamed the media for misconstruing remarks. My only question is how is it misconstruing to just turn the cameras on honestly?

It's not the only issue with his statement. The idea it was based on routing out corruption, writ large, has been undermined by the president himself.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Have you ever -- have you asked foreign leader for any corruption investigation that don't involve political opponents?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, we would have to look.


BOLDUAN: We would have to look. We have no idea.

And then there's this. The DNC server conspiracy theory. Not only has there been no truth behind it. It has been debunked by the president's own former Homeland Security adviser.


TOM BOSSERT, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: The DNC server and that conspiracy theory has got to go. It's not only a conspiracy theory it's completely debunked.


BOLDUAN: Where does the White House go from here?

Let's find out. CNN Sarah Westwood is at the White House. Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.

Sarah, first to you. What are you hearing today? SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, lots of

folks unhappy after Mulvaney's performance yesterday. And one is President Trump himself. Although a source tells CNN that President Trump is more upset about the way the media covered this. He said that he believes the press intentionally misrepresented what Mulvaney said. That's the president's sentiments behind closed doors.

But White House aides and the legal team, White House attorneys, were baffled by Mulvaney's performance, stunned that he explicitly linked the decision to suspend aid to Ukraine to the president's desire to see Ukraine conduct politically advantageous investigations.

Sources tell CNN that White House aides and lawyers prepared Mulvaney to go out and take the podium in the briefing room but prepared him more to focus on the White House announcement yesterday that next year's G-7 summits is held at the president's property in Doral, Florida.

They were not necessarily preparing him to make some sort of big revelation about the Ukraine scandal, which is part of why there was such a swift reaction inside the White House to the president's words.

For example, Jay Sekulow, the president's lawyer, came out with a statement quickly distancing the legal team from what Mulvaney said.

And then within hours, the acting chief of staff was working with press officers to release a cleanup statement, which tried to argue that Mulvaney hadn't said exactly what he said, answering a question at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, which was what was the motivation for withholding the aid to Ukraine.

Obviously, Kate, the White House now in cleanup mode. But in large part, the damage is done. We have Mulvaney's words on camera admitting to one of the allegations central to the probe.

BOLDUAN: No one forced him to say anything. That's the thing making no sense.

Thank you so much, Sarah.

Let's see what comes from the White House. More today.

Manu, we're told CNN caught up with Speaker Pelosi asking about this. What did she say?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. She told our colleague, Ted Barrett, that Mulvaney said was a, quote, "confession." She said this administration has been making lawlessness, in her words, a, quote, "virtue." She sharply criticized that.

She also said they would not stand for the president holding the G-7 summit in Doral.

Now other Democrats also weighed on Mulvaney's comments. Mulvaney, after initial comments, House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, said he made a bad situation worse.

When I asked Schiff whether or not the cleanup job made a difference, he said this.



RAJU: What's your reaction to the Mulvaney walk-back last night? Was that enough to satisfy your concerns?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): I didn't find it the least bit credible.

RAJU: Why is that?

SCHIFF: I think it's pretty obvious.


RAJU: Now, there are some Republicans who have been critical as well. Including Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, who said, "You don't hold up foreign aid that we previous appropriated for a politic initiative, period."

And one Republican involved in the investigation on the House side, Frances Rooney, did not rule out prospect of impeachment when I asked him about that. And said you don't threaten foreign leaders for political reasons.

But most Republicans are siding with the president, including siding with the increasing revelations about Rudy Giuliani's efforts to conduct what appeared to be a shadow foreign policy as regards to Ukraine.

When I asked one key Republican who sits on the House Intelligence Committee if he had any concerns, he said he didn't.


REP. MIKE CONAWAY (R-TX): The president gets to run the White House the way he wants to. He's got trusted advisers that -- some are on the U.S. payroll and some not. And so, yes, he -- he should have wide latitude as to how he gets his advice.


RAJU: We'll see, Kate, if more and more Republicans stick with the president or break from the president, because, as you know, there are several more witnesses, a number of more witnesses coming before the House impeachment committees and more revelations certain to come -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: That's for sure.

Thank you so much, Manu.

Sarah thanks so much really appreciate it.

Joining me right now right now is CNN chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, CNN legal analyst and former New Jersey attorney general, Anne Milgram.

Great to see you guys. Thanks for being here.

Anne, start with Mulvaney and what he said in the briefing room with regard to Ukraine and aid. Just saying it out in the open and this whole "get over it," that line from him, is that -- forget, like, in a court of law. Is it a credible defense here?

ANNE MILGRAM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, so I mean, I think there are a couple of things to think about. The first is there's this idea if we put it in plain sight and just defend what we've been doing, which is to try to basically strong arm another foreign government for political gain, that that makes it OK. And it obviously doesn't. It's a violation of the law and I would argue very much is political corruption. That's the first piece.

But the second piece, equally important, here is that there are so many different defenses. I see Mulvaney and what he said.

BOLDUAN: Since this began, they've tried out new --


MILGRAM: Yes, exactly. And since the first day. First, it was the whistle-blower isn't credible. Then it wasn't true.

BOLDUAN: Didn't have firsthand knowledge.

MILGRAM: Exactly.


BOLDUAN: They there's --


BOLDUAN: Now, it's corruption, writ large. And now --

MILGRAM: And now we can do whatever we want and Giuliani is allowed to be there. It keeps changing. We're whipsawing between one defense to the next.


BOLDUAN: What does that tell you when there's --


MILGRAM: It tells me they don't have a defense. It tells me they don't have a credible argument.

I would almost flip this and say they have to justify in my view why the president of the United States is trying to make a political gain in 2020 with a foreign adversary by holding aid.

BOLDUAN: Yes, yes.

Dana, Donald Trump called on China to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden from the South Lawn.


BOLDUAN: We need to remember and say that and remind folks of that over and over again because -- my forest for the trees situation here, people.

But the reporting that Donald Trump isn't happy with Mick Mulvaney, even though Donald Trump has gone as far as he has in public, I wonder what has changed. Is it just - what -- what makes him about what Mick Mulvaney has done?

BASH: I'm not clear how the president is feeling this morning. But what we can report is that, based on reporting from our White House team, reporting that I'm doing as well, is that the people who are around the president, who are tasked right now with crisis management, were in not happy and are not happy.

People in the legal team and the president's allies I'm talking to on Capitol Hill this morning, who served with Mick Mulvaney, are telling me that they're saying privately, what was that. That was not in keeping with anything that they had planned and anything that they claim on the GOP side that they are hearing behind closed doors when it comes to evidence from the depositions that they are getting. This is what Republicans are saying.


BASH: Go ahead.

BOLDUAN: Go ahead, Dana. I'm sorry keep going.

BASH: No, no, please.

BOLDUAN: You point out something that I -- reminds me that this isn't just an aide, someone behind the scenes, an operator. He is a former member of Congress.

BASH: Yes.

BOLDUAN: Mick Mulvaney knows how to take questions. We've asked him many a question and he deflected and answered very specifically when we covered him. You do that for years. This is not just some aide.

I think that matters in this circumstance when he wants to say that he -- the press is misconstruing comments.


BASH: Right. BOLDUAN: And also reporting coming out that maybe the press team hadn't necessarily briefed him as much to handle impeachment questions. It's like, seriously?

BASH: Right, because he was under a rock. I mean, that really doesn't make a whole lot of sense if -- he didn't ask for a briefing on it, if he didn't prepare himself, then that's -- that's on him, right.


BASH: Of course, a principal needs staff to help. Of course. The fact that was even -- if that was true, that that wasn't part of the conversation before he went.

The first time we have seen a human behind that podium in so long, never mind, the acting chief of staff, amidst this absolute crisis that is going on with the House daily having, you know, hours and hours of depositions with people who work for the president, appointed by the president, which was going on as that press conference happened, it just blows the mind.

One other thing I want to add.


BASH: And you're so right to not lose the forest through the trees.

What Mulvaney said and the reason it sounded credible to us at the time, as we listened to it almost 24 hours ago, because it was in keeping with what we saw was a -- an emerging strategy by Republicans, some close to the president, to say, OK, yes, we did ask the Ukrainians for help with corruption before we gave them money, corruption, from our perspective, in the 2016 election, not the 2020 election, not Joe Biden but the 2016 election.

And that's what he was saying yesterday, which made it -- made us go, OK, he is planting the flag on that strategy. But it obviously backfired because they didn't sort of conceive of the stark headlines that would contradict what the president himself is saying on quid pro quo.

BOLDUAN: Exactly.

Dana, Anne, thanks, guys. Really appreciate it.

Coming up for us, the Trump administration announces a cease-fire agreement with Turkey -- between Turkey and the Kurds. The critics of the president also though are quickly saying the president just gave Turkey everything that it wants. And has it actually stopped the violence on the ground? We're taking -- giving you a live report from the region. That's coming up next.

Plus, President Trump's former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, is hitting back after President Trump called him the most overrated general. He is not the only top military commander criticizing the commander-in-chief right now. That's coming up.



BOLDUAN: Smoke rising over a key Syrian city today despite Vice President Mike Pence announcing a five-day cease-fire less than 24 hours ago, the deal negotiated with Turkey's president. That same president saying this isn't a cease-fire at all, rather a pause in operations.

The longtime U.S. ally on the ground in Syria, the Kurds, saying this morning that the Turkish military has continued their offense.

Despite all of this, President Trump declared victory when he spoke to reporters, calling it an amazing outcome yesterday afternoon. And then said this last night.


TRUMP: Sometimes you have to let them fight. Like two kids in a lot, you got to let them fight and then you pull them apart.

Without a little tough love, they would have never made this deal.


BOLDUAN: Let's get the view from the ground. Joining me right now is CNN senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh.

Nick, since this cease-fire was declared, what is happening there right now?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, in the morning, people would hear shell fire and guns in the town of Raies Alain (ph), a border town, still being fought over between the Turkish-backed forces and the Syria Kurds.

We have seen pictures from a nearby hospital receiving what doctors say are dead and wounded from a Turkish airstrike. We can't verify that independently but the pictures gave it a lot of substance.

The real issue here is -- I should say Turkey said that that's disinformation. The issue is whether or not an attack like that would constitute a violation of a cease-fire that's been so very badly explained.

There are two different versions. Turkey says that the area essentially along all of the borders that Syrian Kurds currently hold, 20 miles deep, has to be withdrawn from by the Syrian Kurds as part of the deal.

They say 100 hours from now, when President Erdogan meets Russian President Putin, if it hasn't happened by then, they reserve the right to renew offensive with extra aggression. The United States, in the best explanation they could give about how

the cease-fire would work, their Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, said it's about territory that the Turks already control, that smaller area between the two towns heavily fought over as well.

And, frankly, if the Turks control it, there's nothing for the Syrian Kurds to withdraw from because they're already out.

A lot of confusion how this works. And Turkey feeling they got pretty much everything out of it they can. The U.S. very self- congratulatory. The Syrian Kurds not necessarily going along with the withdrawal but going along with the cease-fire and real concerned about land grabs in the hundred hours before the key meeting -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Nick, thank you so much. Thanks for being there. Really appreciate it.


Going from there back to the United States. One Republican Senator, Mitt Romney, walked on the Senate floor yesterday and really just laid into President Trump, offering a scathing rebuke of the cease-fire and the president's initial decision to withdraw troops there.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): The announcement today is portrayed as a victory. It is far from a victory. What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history.

Was there more chance for diplomacy? Are we so weak and so inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey?


BOLDUAN: Senator Romney isn't alone in that. A bipartisan effort is under way to slap new sanctions on Turkey for invading northern Syria.

Joining me now is one of the Senators leading the effort, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, of Maryland.

Senator, thank you for being here.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): Kate, good to be with.

BOLDUAN: You what does the cease-fire mean for your sanctions bill?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, Kate, this is the second betrayal of our allies, the Syrian Kurds, our allies in the fight against ISIS.

The first betrayal was when President Trump withdrew about 100 U.S. Special Forces from the border area and allowed Turkey to attack our allies. Now Turkey is gloating about in so-called agreement, saying they got everything they wanted. They thought it was going to be a much tougher negotiation. Essentially, this agreement would allow them to ethnically cleanse a

big swath of northeast Syria where the Syrian Kurds are and will allow the resurgence of ISIS.

I got off the phone five minutes ago with Senator Lindsey Graham. We are moving forward full steam ahead with the bipartisan bill imposing tough economic sanctions on Turkey until they stop killing the Syrian Kurds, until they stop enabling the return of ISIS, and until they and their proxies go back to where they were before.

BOLDUAN: That's an interesting point.

VAN HOLLEN: We hope the sanctions don't --


BOLDUAN: It's not just cease-fire and stop. You want them out.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, we want them out. And under this agreement -- and let's make it clear, the Syrian Kurds did not agree to allowing Turkey to come 20 miles into the Syrian Kurdish home area.


VAN HOLLEN: And this is never going to work. That's why we're going to continue to push forward.

This is a recipe for reigniting ISIS in that area and around the world. And so we're going full steam ahead with the sanctions proposal.

BOLDUAN: You mentioned Senator Lindsey Graham cosponsoring this with you. He has been complimentary of the cease-fire, what they say is a cease-fire, in his public statements. Up until this point, we know he has been a staunch ally of the president.

Do you trust Graham will stick with you on this and push this over the line? Because one can safely assume the White House is not looking to have to deal with your sanctions bill landing on the president's desk right now.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, what I trust is that Republican Senators, like Mitt Romney, who you just heard, Lindsey Graham, are furious about the president's betrayal of our Syrian Kurdish allies, who at a time when Turkey allowing ISIS fighters to transit its territory years ago and allowed ISIS to grow in strength, it was the Syrian Kurds joining us in the fight.

They're furious about in just as military leaders are. We just heard the former head of American Special Forces in the region, Admiral McRaven, say this was a total betrayal.

I do believe on this issue you have Republicans also up in arms against what the president has done because it's a portrayal of our allies and because they recognize the president is adding fuel to the resurgence of ISIS terrorists. BOLDUAN: Can I ask you another -- on another topic, Senator. The

acting chief of staff yesterday stood in the White House briefing room, admitted of a White House quid pro quo when it came to military aid and Ukraine. He now says that the media is misconstruing his words.

I don't even -- let's play it again because that's what he is alleging. I want to make sure we play it very clearly.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Just to be clear, you just described this as a quid pro quo. It's funding will not flow unless the investigation into the -- in the Democratic server happened as well.

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


BOLDUAN: What he says there means what to you?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, Mick Mulvaney just confirmed what all the evidence is now pointing to, that not only did President Trump use the power and prestige of the Oval Office to try to get the Ukrainians to interfere in our elections, but that they withheld U.S. military assistance to the Ukraine, which so important to Ukraine to deter Russian aggression.

They use that in order to try to Ukraine to cooperate on political schemes by --



BOLDUAN: Senator is there a difference in your mind.




BOLDUAN: Is there a difference in your mind on investigating a quid pro quo investigating Joe Biden and quid pro quo about investigating conspiracy theories about Democrats in the 2016 election?

VAN HOLLEN: In my view, this is all about getting Ukraine to conspire with the president to interfere in our next elections in any way.

And in my view, I think the evidence will evenly show -- and I think already it is showing that in addition to withholding arms to the Ukraine with respect to the 2016 server, the same was true with respect to trying to hunt down and dig up dirt on Joe Biden's son. And also withhold the meeting in the Oval Office. Look, what President Trump did is pushed aside our professional non-

partisan career diplomats, substituting them process with Giuliani and his political appointees to try to get Ukraine to do its political dirty work.

We now know a quid pro quo was also involved, withholding taxpayer dollars, money and defense and arms for Ukraine in order to get that done. That is a gross abuse of power.

BOLDUAN: One final question on Syria. You have the sanctions bill. Your sanction bill is against Turkey, of course. There's another serious sanctions which will sitting waiting for action, has been in the Senate for quite some time. This one targets Assad. It's the Caesar Sanctions bill. We covered the stories extensively on this show.

When you focus on Syria, do you see hope for that bill in this moment?

VAN HOLLEN: I would hope so. I hope we can move forward on that piece of legislation as well as the sanctions on Turkey for slaughtering our Syrian Kurdish allies. This is a moment we need to come together.

With respect to the cease-fire, as you indicated, there are reports the cease-fire is falling apart. There are reports this morning that the Turkish-backed forepersons are using white phosphorus against the Syria Kurds. So we really need Congress to act quickly.

You played the segment about the president talking about in being like two school kids in a school yard. That is a total, total abdication of American responsibility to stand with Kurdish allies and stop the resurgence of ISIS.

BOLDUAN: Senator, we'll be following the progress of the sanctions bill closely.

Thank you for coming on.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you. Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, it's been a significant week in the impeachment inquiry. A series of key witnesses testifying behind closed doors, bringing new information to light. So what's the big picture emerging of what the president and his inner circle wanted to do, or were trying to do when it came to Ukraine? Put it all together. That's next.