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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Syria Tensions; Ukraine Scandal Escalates. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 18, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:03]

ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: To see how the first beach he began cleaning looks now, go to CNNHeroes.com.

That does it for me. "THE LEAD" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The White House now denying the quid pro quo that yesterday it had brazenly admitted.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump said to be today quite unhappy after that attempt by the White House to clean up the Ukraine controversy blew up in the president's face and turned into a stunning confession of sorts on live TV.

Also, Trump today saying that the cease-fire in Syria is working, though try and tell that to the people dodging artillery shells. Now even some Republicans are saying the president got played by Turkey. We are going to go live to the region.

And -- quote -- "If the nesting doll fits." Hillary Clinton claiming that one of the Democratic presidential candidates is being groomed by Russia to play the spoiler in 2020. And she says it has happened before, but does she have any evidence for this charge?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We starts with our politics lead, the White House working overtime to clean up a mess of its own making, after that top Trump eight admitted to the very act at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney now denying that he said President Trump engaged in a quid pro quo with Ukraine, withholding security aid to pressure that country to conduct an investigation that would help President Trump political, denying it.

But that is very clearly what Mick Mulvaney said yesterday. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: To be clear, what you 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.

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That admission or confession, if you will, shocked the nation's capital, including individuals in the White House.

And Mulvaney was quickly ordered to clean it up. He issued a statement claiming that he had not said what he very clearly said.

Republican Congressman Francis Rooney of Florida, a former diplomat, said in response to the attempted walk-back -- quote -- "It's not an Etch A Sketch. How in life can you do those kinds of things when you have just said it right there on national TV?" -- unquote.

Rooney also saying that the admission shocked him and he wants more information.

President Trump and his aides are today trying to pretend that they are not worried about any of this, as CNN's Boris Sanchez reports now from the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump dodging questions today about Mick Mulvaney's damning press briefing, in which the acting chief of staff admitted Trump held back aid to Ukraine in exchange for political favors.

Asked about Mulvaney, Trump pivoting sharply.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, do you want to clarify what Mick Mulvaney said yesterday? Was the aid to Ukraine...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think he -- I think he clarified it.

And I do have to say this. We yesterday had a tremendous day in Texas.

SANCHEZ: Delving into an extended rant and refusing to take any more questions about Mulvaney's controversial confession.

QUESTION: To be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo.

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

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

SANCHEZ: Mulvaney has since walked that back, but that's not stopping the concern on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): Was he talking about just general corruption or was he talking specifically about the Biden issue? The Biden issue would be what's very concerning, because it would be using -- if it's true, using taxpayer-funded aid and policy for a political reason, which is totally wrong.

REP. DAN KILDEE (D-MI): That is an administration that, obviously, it's off the rails, and Mick had a moment of truth, and then realized that that was not going to be good for the president and had to walk it back.

SANCHEZ: Behind the scenes at the White House, a source close to Trump says the president is unhappy with Mulvaney, who baffled the president's legal team by contradicting repeated denials of a quid pro quo with Ukraine.

TRUMP: There is no quid pro quo. There was no quid pro quo. I didn't do it. There was no quid pro quo.

SANCHEZ: That's possibly why last night Mulvaney blamed the media, claiming they misconstrued his remarks. The White House also trying to spin the contradiction.

STEPHANIE GRISHAM, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He did a great job. He mentioned the same message over and over and over. And now the media, of course, is -- we put a statement clarifying some of the things that the media got themselves in a tizzy over.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ: As the White House disputes what we all saw Mulvaney say, that we should all get over it, the Trump campaign is looking to profit.

They're now using "Get over it" as a slogan, Jake, that they put on a T-shirt and are selling online -- Jake.

[16:05:01]

TAPPER: All right, so first they denied the quid pro quo. Then they admitted it. Then they denied it. And now they're selling T-shirts.

SANCHEZ: Right, a moment that the president's personal attorneys have deemed baffled them, Jake.

TAPPER: That's right. Thanks so much. Appreciate it, Boris Sanchez at the White House.

Let's chew over all this.

Kaitlan Collins, let me start with you.

President Trump and his allies are -- they're dismissing this, acting as though it's no big deal. But take a listen to Republican Congressman Francis Rooney of Florida on CNN earlier today. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: You're saying, at this point, you are not ruling out the possibility that this is an impeachable offense for the president?

REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R-FL): I don't think you could rule anything out until you know all the facts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: It doesn't seem insignificant that a Republican congressman would say that.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No.

And this is what Mick Mulvaney did, is essentially putting Republicans in a bind here, because they had been essentially saying the president had denied this, this wasn't the agreement, and Mick Mulvaney came out and essentially undid all of that.

People were stunned after that briefing yesterday. People inside the White House were texting me. A lot of the president's allies were incredibly critical of Mick Mulvaney, including Sean Hannity, who described, I believe, what he did is dumb.

And essentially they just don't understand what the strategy was in Mick Mulvaney coming out and making those remarks. And now the White House is saying that Mulvaney has clarified what he said.

He has not clarified it. He's denying saying what he said on camera.

TAPPER: And we also know, Nia, that President Trump, according to that rough transcript, definitely pushes the Ukrainian president to investigate both this crazy DNC server 2016 conspiracy theory and also the Bidens.

That's in the rough transcript. And then Gordon Sondland, who's one of these witnesses, the ambassador to the European Union, testified that the president told him to talk to Rudy Giuliani about Ukraine, and Giuliani said that the president wanted corruption investigated, specifically, the DNC server 2016 crazy conspiracy theory and Burisma, which is the firm that Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, worked at.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

TAPPER: So we very clearly see the quid pro quo.

HENDERSON: Yes.

Of course, in the phone call, you have this, I need you to do me a favor, though, when he says that to the Ukrainian president, after the Ukrainian president brings up the idea of needing military equipment.

So it wasn't -- it was startling to hear Mick Mulvaney say that, but it's in line with this set of facts that have been coming out over the last three weeks. He was very, I thought, and glib and smug and almost proud of what he

was saying and very comfortable and confident up there. It's really hard to imagine that the president didn't know that this was part of what he was going to go out and try to sell.

And -- right. And what he was trying to sell was essentially, well, it's OK to look into this DNC server thing because the Justice Department is also looking into this, William Barr going all around the world looking for the roots of the Russia probe, when in fact we know what the roots of the Russia probe are right here.

And so it doesn't seem like it's going to sell, but they're certainly going to try to sell it.

TAPPER: And, Amanda, it did seem that we have just reached -- I mean, the Trump scandals seem to go like this. That never happened. OK, maybe it happened a little bit. OK, it happened, but there's nothing wrong with it. You did it.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Get over it.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: And then get over it.

And I thought we had just reached point three of like, OK, yes, fine. It happened, but there's nothing wrong with it, which is pretty standard for Trump scandals, but apparently not.

CARPENTER: Yes.

Well, I mean, I would say Mick Mulvaney is right. There is not a quid pro quo. There are quid pro quos for the two reasons, Biden dirt and DNC stuff.

But Representative Rooney was really the first one that I have heard ask this publicly. Why is Donald Trump so hung up on finding the server in Ukraine and taking the heat off Russia for interfering in the election and hacking the DNC?

That's really, I think, a bigger deal and a more interesting question for Senate Republicans, because they have been part of producing intelligence reports which clearly laid the blame on Russia.

So they're at odds there. And I think that's a good question of how taxpayer resources are being used to undermine those reports.

TAPPER: Yes.

NAYYERA HAQ, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: I don't think these things are independent at all, right?

Certainly, the attitude and approach to dismissing what's going on with the impeachment inquiries is in line with what recently happened in Syria and the negotiations, failed negotiations, with Turkey, and broader behavior of accepting and acceding to what Putin wants geopolitically.

I think part of that is a distraction campaign, and focusing on issues that would potentially, in his -- in Trump's mind, hurt Democrats and undermine the 2020 election.

But there is a broader national security impact of this.

TAPPER: And we should point out that, in addition to everything else we have talked about coming out in the congressional testimony, "The Washington Post" is reporting that Biden's office, according to somebody testifying, George Kent, I believe, the State Department official, seemed to brush off a warning back in 2015 that Hunter Biden's work in Ukraine could prove to be problematic and at least an appearance of impropriety.

The warning coming from George Kent testifying this week, according to "The Post" -- quote -- "Kent raised the issue with Biden's office. He was told the then vice president didn't have the bandwidth to deal with the issue involving his son Hunter, as the other son Beau was battling cancer."

[16:10:09]

So, I mean, we should point stuff -- other stuff is coming out in this testimony as well, not just damaging to the Trump White House.

COLLINS: Yes.

And it's interesting how they said, essentially, that this person who testified yesterday went to a top-ranking official with this concern about the appearance of a conflict. It doesn't confirm what the president has been pushing, that the elder Biden is the one who acted inappropriately and use his office inappropriately.

But it also points something else interesting. Another thing you saw from Mulvaney yesterday was distancing himself from all of these people who've been testifying on the Hill, even though one was a senior adviser to the secretary of state, one was a Trump appointee, Ambassador Sondland.

And he was essentially acting like he couldn't remember their names, what they were saying. What George Kent is saying is disproving this theory that all of these people are going up there just to go after President Trump, that they're anti-Trump, these are career deep state people that are just trying to get the president, when you see people like George Kent, who's actually saying, no, actually we did have some questions about the appearance of what this was going to look like with Hunter Biden.

We also had concerns about what the president and his officials and his personal attorney were doing.

(CROSSTALK)

HAQ: But let's talk about the appearances of all this, because that same press conference that Mulvaney talks about the quid pro quo is also announcing that the Doral resort in Florida, which is failing, is now going to host the G7 leaders and potentially bring multimillions of dollars into the president's coffers.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: Yes.

But it does, I think, show that Joe Biden has got some work to do on this issue still, right?

CARPENTER: Yes.

HENDERSON: He talked about it a bit in the debate.

CARPENTER: Not well.

HENDERSON: We, of course, heard from Hunter Biden in an interview.

And Joe Biden just kept referring to that interview, as if the case was closed. It's not closed. He's got to figure out how to deal with this and really answer the question of why he himself didn't recuse himself from Ukrainian business, if he knew his son had this business deal.

TAPPER: Right.

But it's a good point. You can't really take issue with the swampiness of Hunter Biden being on that board, if you're now saying the G7 is going to be at your private resort, and you're going to make money off of that. Frankly, it all stinks.

But, anyway, we will move on.

Sources say that Secretary of State Pompeo is feeling like the victim in all of this, after some career diplomats buried the Trump administration in testimony. What is he feeling victimized about?

And just minutes ago, President Trump announced a Cabinet original is out. But why is Rick Perry suddenly stepping down, especially after these questions about his role in the Ukraine scandal are popping up?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:56]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We have some breaking news for you in the politics lead. President Trump has named his replacement for outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The president just tweeted that he's nominating the department's current number two, Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette, to head the Department of Energy.

As CNN's Rene Marsh reports, this change comes as Perry is facing scrutiny for dealings with Ukraine and the impeachment inquiry.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION AND AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Staring down a subpoena deadline for documents related to his dealings with Ukraine, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has decided to make an exit.

RICK PERRY, ENERGY SECRETARY: I'm announcing my resignation effective later this year.

MARSH: Perry's video to Energy Department staff came after he informed the president in writing. Perry has become a central figure in the Ukraine probe as U.S. ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, explained Perry was critical to the U.S./Ukraine relationship.

GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE E.U.: We have what are called the three amigos. And the three amigos are Secretary Perry, again Ambassador Volker and myself. And we've been tasked with sort of overseeing the Ukraine/U.S. relationship.

MARSH: Perry, a former Texas governor who spent nearly three years in the Trump administration without any major scandals, denies the impeachment inquiry has anything to do with his leaving. While Ukraine and its energy independence are in Perry's portfolio, he acknowledged to the "Wall Street Journal" he also discussed investigating the debunked theory Ukraine played a role in interfering in the 2016 election, with the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. But denies discussing Joe Biden or his son hunter.

PERRY: As God is my witness, not once was a Biden name, not the former vice president or his son ever mentioned.

MARSH: In May, Perry led the U.S. delegation to Ukrainian President Zelensky's inauguration at Trump's request. After returning, Perry met with President Trump, special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, and Sondland in the Oval Office. The president told them to deal with Giuliani before making any deals with the Ukrainian president.

Perry defends the president's question to circumvent official channels.

PERRY: As the governor of Texas, I use people outside of government all the time to give me information. I respect the State Department, but I happen to know people in the energy industry that are smarter than the State Department folks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: Well, Perry has also admitted he urged the president to make that now infamous July 25th call to Zelensky which was the basis, as you know, Jake, of that whistle-blower complaint. But Perry says he pushed for discussion on energy issues but we all saw that transcript and there were no substantial mentions of that on the call -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Rene Marsh, thank you so much.

Also in our politics lead today, sources telling CNN the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is frustrated and feeling victimized over claims against him that emerged during this impeachment inquiry. In testimony, former State Department officials have blamed Pompeo for not defending former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. She lost that job reportedly because she was expressing concerns about Rudy Giuliani trying to dig you the dirt in Ukraine to help President Trump politically.

[16:20:06]

Sources now tell CNN that Pompeo was warned back in the spring that it was Giuliani who tried to push Yovanovitch out.

Let's bring in CNN's Kylie Atwood, who's bringing us this reporting.

Kylie, you've learned about a letter sent to Pompeo urging him to protect Ambassador Yovanovitch.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes. So, this was letter that was sent to the State Department in the spring. This was months ago. These were former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine who have been in the same shoes that Ambassador Yovanovitch was in and they were writing to Pompeo encouraging the State Department to defend against the smear campaign that was being carried out against her.

Now they did get response from the State Department, from the counselor at the State Department who is one of Pompeo's closest aides, acknowledging receipt and saying that it would be considered. Now, of course, this demonstrates that it wasn't just in the last few weeks or the last few months that it was Michael McKinley who's at senior adviser to Pompeo who resigned because there was not more done to defend against Yovanovitch. This happened months ago.

So, Pompeo knew that people wanted him to defend Ambassador Yovanovitch for a long time now. And he has been asked in an interview just last Friday, he was asked, did you do enough to defend Ambassador Yovanovitch and he pivoted. He didn't really answer the question. He talked about the team at the State Department delivering on the mission of the State Department, but never once mentioning Ambassador Yovanovitch by name.

TAPPER: So, if he feels so beleaguered, why did Pompeo stay quiet on Yovanovitch when there was this clear campaign from Giuliani and others to get rid of her?

ATWOOD: Yes. And this clear campaign encouraging him to say something. Well, let's take a step back, of course, and look at what President Trump thinks of ambassador Yovanovitch.

In that phone call with President Zelensky and President Trump, Trump said that Yovanovitch was very bad, said she was going to go through some things. It is clear, talking to sources who know Trump's thinking, that he bought into the idea that Yovanovitch was against him. So, therefore, if President Trump thinks that, Pompeo is someone who stays in line with the president. And so, he was not willing to go out on a limb thus far and, of course, risk his relationship, risk his job in order to defend an ambassador to Ukraine -- Jake. TAPPER: All right. Kylie Atwood, thank you so much for that

reporting.

Coming up, President Trump praising a cease-fire deal that's a little low on cease and a little heavy on the fire so far.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:29]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is a cease-fire or a pause or whatever you want to call it. There was some sniper fire this morning. There was mortar fire this morning that was eliminated quickly. And they're back to the full pause.

(END VIDEOI CLIP)

TAPPER: President Trump expressing optimism about the quite fragile cease-fire that the Syrian Kurds have already accused Turkey of violating just hours after the agreement was inked. Turkey's government denied shelling Kurdish positions but is vowing to continue the offensive if the Syrian Kurds refuse to leave a proposed safe zone along the border of the two countries, what constitutes the safe zone is quite in dispute. The kinetic action comes as a number of lawmakers, including Republicans, are criticizing President Trump, saying that Turkey's President Erdogan out-maneuvered the United States.

As CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports for us now, the bloodshed on the ground continues.

A word of warning to viewers, some of the images in the report you're about to see are graphic.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is what President Trump's amazing outcome looked like on the grounds in Ras al-Ain in northern Syria Friday. Bodies of civilians who Syrian Kurdish doctors said were killed by an air strike near the border town.

These images backed up those claims although we couldn't conclusively verify them and Turkey called it disinformation. He was hit by a plane, he says. There is a lot of civilians hit by planes. Many dead since the morning. I don't know why. They were meant to stop.

Around the town, the confusion over what the deal between the United States and Turkey actually meant, that Kurdish civilians and foreign volunteers flocking to the town hoping to bring relief.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hundreds will be hurt and we drive as far as we can and when we get shutout we just start walking.

WALSH: They began walking and seemed to turn back later. There is one avoidable reason that the deal announced Thursday wouldn't last. The fanfare of the announcement didn't spell out exactly where the cease-fire applies.

Turkish officials said the deal means the Kurds must leave a long swath of the border, but American officials seemed to indicate only an area 20 miles deep where the Turkish already have control. However, pro-Turkish forcers deeper into Syria and unclear if that cease-fire applies here.

Importantly, it's also unclear what will happen in two major Kurdish towns, Kobani, which Russian flags fly and which Pence said would not be attacked under the deal, and (INAUDIBLE) celebratory gunfire on Thursday night hardly sound of withdrawal.

President Erdogan's official seemed delighted with the deal.

If the U.S. can keep their promises by Tuesday night when this 120 hours of cease-fire is over, but if his promises will not be realized, our operation of peace spring will continue more rapidly than before.

A hundred and twenty hours were how long from the announcement until Erdogan meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.