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Mick Mulvaney Admits, Then Denies, Ukraine Quid Pro Quo; White House In Cleanup Mode After Mulvaney Admits Ukraine Quid Pro Quo; Kurds Say Turkey Violating Hours-Old Syria Ceasefire. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired October 18, 2019 - 10:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW: Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone, I'm Poppy Harlow.


He said what? The president's acting chief of staff tries a bold new explanation for Ukraine leaving allies scratching heads and at the same time giving Democrats more legal ammunition in their impeachment inquiry.

After weeks of denials by the president and his allies, Mick Mulvaney claims that holding up military aid to Ukraine, which by the way is at war with Russia, for political purposes is just another day in the Trump White House, and acceptable.


REPORTER: So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason that he --

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF: it was on the two-fold --

REPORTER: -- wanted to withhold funding to Ukraine.

MULVANEY: The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about.

REPORTER: 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.

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


SCIUTTO: There you go. Mulvaney did later try to walk back the admission of regular Trump White House quid pro quos. But let's be clear here. Don't let yourself be gas lit. In the span of less than a month, the president and the White House have gone from attacking the Ukraine whistleblower as biased, based on on hearsay, to granting much of what the whistleblower said while denying a quid pro quo, to now conceding, even defending a quid pro quo, that in the span of just a few weeks.

HARLOW: Surreal but true. The entire surreal Mulvaney press conference happened at the exact same time that the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, was giving more details to the Congress details about the administration's shadow foreign policy involving the president's personal lawyer. Sondland testified that President Trump told him and other diplomats to work directly with Rudy Giuliani, bypassing career officials at the State Department on all things Ukraine.

And new this morning, Energy Secretary Rick Perry is refusing to say if he will hand over documents to Congress in this probe. More on that in a moment.

But, first, let's go to Manu Raju. He joins us on Capitol Hill. So, Manu, we've heard from a select few Republicans who are more than just a little uneasy with what Mulvaney revealed. But are they being joined by a growing chorus?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are some Republicans who are concerned. Most of them are siding with the president or just simply have refused to comment when we tried to talk to them about this as Mulvaney made these comments yesterday.

But one Republican member, Francis Rooney of Florida, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, one of the committees involved in this impeachment investigation, said that he is troubled by the Mulvaney's revelations. He said that's something he certainly doesn't do. And I asked him, would you support -- possibly support impeachment? He wouldn't rule that out, saying, they called Nixon effort a witch hunt, and it turned that was a witch hunt. I want to see all the facts.

Also Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the Republican senator, said this to our colleague, Ted Barrett, that she is absolutely concerned. You don't hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative, period. That's what she said.

So we're trying to get more reaction from Republicans. But the fact that Mulvaney came up yesterday tried to walk back the comments that he said publicly was probably an effort here to stem the possible defections that could be in the ranks from Republicans who were uneasy by those comments because they've been trying to defend the president by saying there was no quid pro quo despite growing evidence to the contrary and now with the Mulvaney's admission that put them in a very difficult spot, which is why perhaps one reason why you saw that statement out of the White House last night. Guys? SCITTUO: Well, another Republican congressman just moments ago, in his part, Adam Kinzinger called those developments quite concerning. And Poppy is going to speak to Congressman Rooney in a short time. Manu, thanks very much.

CNN's Sarah Westwood has the latest from the White House on Mulvaney's remarks.

So our understanding, and the president is not happy with Mulvaney's performance, but not on the substance so much as on how the media covered his comments.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Jim. The source said that President Trump believes the press intentionally misrepresented what his acting chief of staff said yesterday.

But sources tell CNN that right after Mulvaney finished that briefing, White House aides, lawyers, the president's legal team, they were all baffled by what they saw in the White House briefing room by that remarkable admission from Mulvaney.


In fact, Jay Sekulow, one of the president's personal attorneys, came out with on-the-record statement denying that the legal team was involved in what Mulvaney had to say yesterday.

Now, White House aides and lawyers did prepare Mulvaney for the briefing. But the focus of that prep, according to sources who spoke with CNN, was on the fact that Mulvaney was ostensibly there to announce that next year's G7 Summit would be held at the president's property in Doral, Florida. He was not prepared specifically to make that admission.

But what he did was really answer a question that was at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, which is, what was the motivation for suspending that $400 million worth of security assistance to Ukraine? Was that related to the president's desire to see Ukraine conduct politically advantageous investigations? Mulvaney answered yes.

Then within hours after that shock was rippling through the White House and the legal team, Mulvaney released that statement attempting to clean up what he had said but, of course, the damage was done. The White House in cleanup mode, trying to clarify what Mulvaney, but you really can't take back that explicit admission of question quid pro quo. Jim and Poppy?

HARLOW: Toothpaste out of tube, end of story on that one, I think, Sarah. Thanks very much.

Let's take a step back for a moment and just look at what we learned this week in the House impeachment inquiry, two weeks of interviews so far. Testimony suggests President Trump played a key role in the effort to push Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son.

Democrats are now saying they're zeroing in on why U.S. aid to Ukraine had been frozen and whether it was conditioned on that investigation into the Bidens, that they wanted to happen, in other words, a quid pro quo.

SCIUTTO: You might say they were listening when the chief of staff said what he said yesterday. Dems have interviewed now six current and former Trump officials so far. So what next?

They say they are teeing up additional witnesses from the State Department, the Pentagon, the Office of Management and Budget, and, crucially, the White House. They hope to wrap up the interviews in the next few weeks before voting on articles of impeachment, listen to this timeline, by Thanksgiving, remarkably a speedy goal there.

Joining us now to discuss, Alex Burns, National Political Correspondent for The New York Times, and Carrie Cordero, she's an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University.

Carrie, I want to begin with you, because I'm not going to let myself be gas lit. The chief of staff said what he said, repeated and doubled and tripled down, establishing a connection there, seeming to justify it.

Democrats are trying to create a credible article of impeachment on abuse of power based on withholding this aid for a political end here. Based on what Mulvaney said at the podium yesterday, is that evidence for them to use, and how -- from a legal standpoint, how significant?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, again, impeachment is a political process. So there is not actually a legal standard that they have to meet. It's whatever members of Congress think meets the impeachment standard. And that is --

SCIUTTO: But as a lawyer, how much does it strengthen their case?

CORDERO: That's an abused of his office.

So what Mulvaney said yesterday, and I watched the whole thing again late last night to be sure I heard what he said, and he, I think, was talking about the motivation for withholding the Ukrainian money and he was very clear that there was a deliberate decision to withhold it. And he was referring to, I think, the investigation generally into the 2016 election in particular. And he seemed to be tying it to the inquiry that the Justice Department was making. He made it clear that that is part of the president's withholding of the funds and that it was a deliberate decision. And that is specifically for political benefit of the president.

So this is not a legitimate exercise of president's foreign policy authority as the president's defenders argue that it is. Instead, I think members of Congress will look at that and the Mick Mulvaney press conference will be one more piece of evidence that will go into this record that they are creating to determine that the president is abusing his constitutional authority to conduct foreign affairs by trying to dig up dirt on political opponents, past and present.

SCIUTTO: And, by the way, on that idea, Poppy, the Justice Department, run, of course, by Trump's appointee, Bill Barr, immediately pushed back on this idea that the Durham investigation of the origins of the Russia investigation were tied to this.

HARLOW: Yes, and Sekulow sort of aghast at all of this as well.

So, Alex, when you look at sort of we got here and why we got here, and the drum beat that many Republican lawmakers have been beating in the last few weeks which is, no quid pro quo, no quid pro quo, can they -- will they still do that? Does yesterday really change anything politically?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think the Republicans who are never going to move away from the president are never move away from the president.


HARLOW: And no matter what his acting chief of staff says?

BURNS: The fact that Mulvaney then later said his comments were misconstrued when they obviously were not, right?

What I do think has changed politically, not just because of what Mick Mulvaney did yesterday but just because of the avalanche of new information we've gotten over the last week or two, it's gotten much, much harder for Republicans to sort of stay with the thread of what the White House's message on this is supposed to be. That if the idea was supposed to be there is no quid pro quo, that was getting harder and harder to sustain even before Mick Mulvaney went out to that podium.

If the idea was that everything the president did was consistent with the way presidents behave in foreign policy, the information that they've gotten particularly about Rudy Giuliani's role has made that really, really hard to maintain. So if you're not a Republican, like Mitt Romney, who's prepared to criticize the president, and you're not a Republican, like a Kevin Cramer, the Senator from North Dakota, or Marco Rubio, who appears to have sort of no appetite for engaging on this. If you're a Republican who is somewhere in between, it's getting really, really hard to figure out what your story is even supposed to be.


SCIUTTO: Alex, I don't want to overplay but also underplay the significance of some of the comments though you hear from sitting Republican senators. You mentioned Mitt Romney. Lisa Murkowski says, in no uncertain terms, you cannot tie crucial military aid to something for political purposes, which is in effect the substance of a possible article of impeachment being prepared now or at least being investigated now by Democrats. Is it -- is it too early to say that, you know, Republicans are just not going to move on this?

BURNS: Oh, I think it is too early to say that no Republicans will move on it, as I think that, you know, you would need 20 Republicans to move very far in order for the president to be convicted in a Senate trial.

But I think that one thing that's striking about what Lisa Murkowski said yesterday -- and she is an exceptionally independent Republican senator. So I'm not entirely surprised that she would be one of the next voices to speak up in this space. It's the way she was talking about it as essentially a breach of the separation of powers between the Congress and the presidency, this is something that gives people in the Republican Party, who are uncomfortable with the way the president is behaving but don't want to say exactly all the things that Democrats are saying to talk about the prerogatives of Congress, the powers of Congress and the need for the president to respect things that the Congress does, like appropriate money for military assistance.

HARLOW: Carrie, before we go, lest we forget the fact that the president is going to make some money off the G7, emoluments clause, really, really clear, a leader of the United States cannot profit, take money from foreign government. Legally, where is this going to fall? The G7 is going to be at Doral. The president and his family are going to make money off of it. So now what?

CORDERO: It seems like a pretty clear violation of the emoluments clause, which, again, is the provision that says the president can't benefit from foreign money or donations. It's a constitutional issue.

Interesting, just this week, a court of appeals in the fourth circuit said that they are going to reinvigorate am emoluments case against the president.

What Mick Mulvaney did though in his press conference yesterday is he basically -- and this is related to the G7 and the Ukrainian issue. He basically said that corruption is okay, corruption is the way that this administration is going to work and that Americans just need to accept it.

And it's obvious in his justifications for the president's resort being chosen as the G7, which will have two streams of money, potentially domestic contracts and then also potentially foreign money that could come in. So there are two potential avenues for corruption or conflict of interest.

HARLOW: We've got to go. But I would just note even if the costs were lower, right, as Mulvaney was saying, well, this is lower, there will be a cost, we're not going take -- marking it up. That's not the point. It's about any money going there being the issue.

CORDERO: Yes. I thought the profit point was very disingenuous.

HARLOW: Yes. All right, thank you both, Alex Burns, Carrie Cordero, we appreciate it.

CORDER: Thanks.

HARLOW: Still to come, troubling and, quote, not a good thing. That is what a Republican congressman yesterday called Mick Mulvaney's admission that Ukraine aid was, in fact, tied to the president's wish for an investigation into the 2016 election. That congressman will join us next.

SCIUTTO: Yes. It's an interview you're going to want to hear.

Plus, is the hours' old ceasefire agreement being ignored in Syria? Turkey's president denying reports of clashes. But Syrian Democratic Forces say people are dying. A live report from the ground coming up.



HARLOW: Welcome back.

So right now, people are trying to digest what we heard from acting White House chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney yesterday. If you need a refresher, here it is.


REPORTER: So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason that he -- it was on to withhold funding to Ukraine?

MULVANEY: The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate.

REPORTER: To withhold the funding?


MULVANEY: Yes, which ultimately then flowed.

By the way, there was a report we worried that the money wouldn't -- if we didn't pay out the money, it would be illegal, okay? It would be unlawful.

REPORTER: Let's be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo. It is funding will not flow unless the investigation into the -- into the Democratic server happens as well?

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

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


HARLOW: Following that, a Republican member of Congress, Florida Representative Francis Rooney, reacted, saying, and I quote, the more things that tie all this stuff together just makes it more and more troubling. Well, that congressman, Francis Rooney, is with me this morning.

Sir, thank you for being here. Your voice is so important, especially right now. Mick Mulvaney laid out a quid pro quo. What is your response?

REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R-FL): Well, yes, whatever might have been gray and unclear before is certainly clear right now, that the actions were related to getting someone in the Ukraine to do these things. I think that s you put on there, Senator Murkowski admits, said it perfectly. We're not suppose to use government power and prestige for political gain.

HARLOW: In your eyes, Congressman, is that an impeachable offense?

ROONEY: That's something I really can't answer. I mean, I've been reading about this impeachment business. I'm not really -- I went to law school but didn't practice law. I did read something today that, really, impeachment is whatever the majority of the House members say it is. So if that's the case, I guess anything is.

HARLOW: But, sir, honestly, in your mind then, if that is the definition for you, do you think that this rises to the level of impeachment? You just said it is very clear now that there was a quid pro quo, that defense money from Ukraine was withheld so that a politically motivated investigation could be promised. Is that impeachable?

ROONEY: I don't know. I want to study it more. I want to hear the next set of testimony next week from a couple more ambassadors. But it's certainly very, very serious and troubling.

HARLOW: Respectfully, sir, what don't you know? I mean, if that is -- if that is what happened, which the White House just laid out, what is the unknown for you still on that front? Meaning what more would you want to hear?

ROONEY: Poppy, the only unknown would be if this is such of gravitas, so grave and serious that it rises to the level of impeachment. I mean, I don't think this is as much as Richard Nixon did. But I'm very mindful of the fact that back during Watergate, everybody said, oh, it's a witch hunt to get Nixon. Turns out it wasn't a witch hunt. It was absolutely correct.

So I just want to make sure that I get all of the data I can get, and I'm talking to everybody I can talk to to understand all this.

HARLOW: I think that's fair. But it's clear to me you're saying at this point you are not ruling out the possibility that this is an impeachable offense for the president?

ROONEY: I don't think you can rule anything out until you know all the facts. Every time one of these people testifies, we get more information about what was going on over there.

HARLOW: Let's turn to the issue of Syria. This is incredibly important, what has happened in Northern Syria in the last two weeks. You just wrote an op-ed on it this week imploring the administration not to abandon our Kurdish allies. You called shortsighted. You said it will do lasting damage to America's credibility and just help ISIS. Here is how the president describes the agreement that was made between Erdogan and Pence yesterday.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: Sometimes you have to let them fight a little while then people find out how tough the fighting is. These guys know right up here. These guys know, right? Sometimes you have to let them fight, like two kids in a lot you got to let them fight and you pull them apart.

The Kurds were great. A great day for the Kurds. It's really a great day for civilization. It's a great day for civilization.


HARLOW: Right? Is this a great day for the Kurds, Congressman?

ROONEY: No I don't think it's a great day for the Kurds at all. And I don't think since Churchill tried to take Gallipoli in World War I, we have seen something as drastically erroneous as what just just happened. And we desperately need to get through this ceasefire, which I have my doubts about, and see what we've got left.


ROONEY: The Turks have been so tough on those Kurds for so long. I wrote an op-ed that w should recognize independent Iraqi-Kurdistan anyway. I wouldn't be surprised if they used the ceasefire to round them all up.

HARLOW: Turkey said yesterday -- Turkey's foreign minister said, quote, this is not a ceasefire.

ROONEY: Right.

HARLOW: And when you look at the facts, this is essentially ceding to Turkey, giving Turkey almost everything they wanted.

Here is how Republican Senator Mitt Romney sees it.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): The announcement today is being portrayed as a victory.


It is far from a victory.

The ceasefire does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally.

Are we so weak and so inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey?


HARLOW: He is also, Congressman, calling for hearings to investigate the decision. Are you on the same page as Mitt Romney on this?

ROONEY: I agree with my friend, Mitt Romney. We've been friends a long time. And I think he hit the nail on the head.

We have done a lot of bad things in this move, okay? Not only have we empowered Turkey to treat the United States like a third world country, we have brought Russia and Iran deeper into the Syrian situation, basically put Iran that much closer to Israel. I don't see how Israel can like this thing at all.

HARLOW: Congressman, if we could just step back for a moment, because I hear your deep concern about the U.S. agreement here with Turkey, about the Ukraine phone call and the quid pro quo that was admitted by the White House yesterday. In totality, is President Trump making America safer right now with these moves?

ROONEY: No, I would rather these moves had not been made. And I think there is a lot going on right now that are not making America safer. But certainly moving Iran into a stronger position in Syria and basically ceding the territory of the Middle East to Russia is not a good idea.

HARLOW: Do you agree at all with the assessment then from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in that private meeting with the president earlier this week, where she reportedly said to him, with you, sir, all roads lead to Putin, all roads lead to Russia? Do you share some of that concern?

ROONEY: Well, I've read some of that and I was skeptical of it, like most Republicans were. But I've got to say, this business about the Ukraine server, which no one had ever heard about until it was mentioned recently, tells me, what are we trying to exculpate? Russia? Who all of our trained intelligence officials have consistently corroborated that Russia was behind the election meddling, not the Ukraine?

HARLOW: Well, it sounds like you agree then with Nancy Pelosi's assessment. Do you?

ROONEY: Well, there's a lot of things I've agreed with the speaker on. She's the one that got my offshore drilling mill done. I thank her every day.

HARLOW: But seriously, on that front of Russia and Putin, do you think that she has a salient point when it comes to the president?

ROONEY: She has a point.


ROONEY: Look, Obama was the same way. They've all -- George Bush too. Putin has had everybody's number a long time. He is one well- trained agent. HARLOW: Congressman, finally, before you go, I mean, you are one of the few Republicans willing to even directly answer these important questions, frankly. And I appreciate your candor and your willingness to do that. There has been some reporting in the last week looking at your fundraising numbers that you may not run for another term. Are you running again?

ROONEY: Well, I'm thinking about what to do. I'm not going to decide right away. I mean, I'm definitely at variance with some of the people in the district who are -- would probably follow Donald Trump off the Grand Canyon rim. But I'm going calling it as I see it.

We raised our children to do the right thing and I'm going to do the right thing, and that's why I took this job.

HARLOW: So if you don't run again, will it be because of the president?

ROONEY: No, it would just be because I've got other things to do.

HARLOW: Congressman Francis Rooney, I appreciate your time this morning. Thank you very much.

ROONEY: Thanks for having me.

HARLOW: Absolutely. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Poppy, I got to say his comments there, asking the question, are we trying to exculpate Russia by the president and his personal lawyer exploring what is a conspiracy theory about the Ukrainians actually having hacked the DNC server is a remarkable point to hear from a Republican congressman, because there is no basis for that conspiracy theory. Intelligence agencies concluded with high confidence, Russia interfered. And yet here you have the president and his lawyer repeatedly mentioning this. That is a remarkable comment from a sitting GOP congressman.

HARLOW: And you're right, Jim. And I'll say this is someone who has not been pushing for impeachment, right? He has certainly not been. And for him to come to this point where he answers the questions the way that he did I think tells us something.

SCIUTTO: He cut through the B.S. and to his credit. And you cut through it. Thank you, Poppy.

HARLOW: You got it.

The White House celebrating what it says is a ceasefire in North Korea. Turkey doesn't call it that. And by the way, we are seeing reports of new clashes this morning.

Coming up, what we are hearing, what we are learning about today's violence.