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New Fallout After White House Admits, Then Denies Quid Pro Quo; Ceasefire Appears Shaky As Fighting Erupts In Syria. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired October 18, 2019 - 13:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I'm Brianna Keilar live from Washington's CNN headquarters.

Underway right now, from no quid pro quo to actually, yes, there was quid pro quo but get over it, the White House acting chief of staff in hot water a big admission in the impeach scandal.

And as the ceasefire appears to collapse in Syria, the president calls Turkey's attack on the outnumbered and outmatched Kurds a schoolyard fight, dismissing the plight of the former U.S. allies who lost 11,000 soldiers in the fight against ISIS.

Plus, as the architect of the Bin Laden raid says the president is destroying the country, the army general who quit the Trump administration is joking about President Trump's lack of military service.

And one of the president's worst performing resorts is about to get a much needed shot in the arm with the G7 Summit. The president awarding himself a big contract paid for by you.

But first, the Trump administration is now on cleanup duty following a dramatic week of explosive testimony and a stunning admission from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. He admitted on live T.V. that there was quid pro quo before the U.S. and Ukraine Before telling the White House press corps to get over it. The White House is now trying to walk back those comments. But officials are creating a tangled web of contradictions in the process.

We have Jessica Dean covering this story. And, Jessica, the president and his allies can't seem to really keep their story straight here.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Brianna, there has been a whole host of answers and explanations to all of this that have continued to evolve as we've gone through the last several weeks. Let's just take a look at a few of them.

We started out with the President Trump saying that the phone call was perfect, everything was perfectly fine about his interactions. Well, then after perfect came, yes, probe Biden, Vice President Biden, remember, on the lawn and all that, and a bunch of other things. We had no fair share, no quid pro quo. There was nothing that actually happened. And that was the talking point for a long time, was that there was no actual quid pro quo.

And then it continued on, as we heard from other Republicans that Schiff helped on all of this, that there was a going back and forth between him and the whistleblower. Additionally, it was a hoax, that it's my right. And then GOPs also, joker defense, anti-corruption

The list goes on and on from so many different explanations that we've heard from Republicans and the White House, of course, ending with what you said. And this is the big turn that they're now trying to walk back. There was quid pro quo, get over it.

So, Brianna, that's where we stand now. We'll see if we'll add more to the list in the coming days.

KEILAR: All right. Jessica, thank you so much.

And we are at this point also getting a clearer picture of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's role in pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens in exchange for military aid.

In testimony this week, officials who worked for him, including one of his most trusted advisers, say that he seated diplomatic decisions to the president's unpaid personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and he ignored the concerns about the smear campaign Giuliani launched against the former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.

We have McClatchy White House Correspondent Francesca Chambers here with us, along with CNN National Security Reporter Kylie Atwood.

I want to issue a quick correction. I just said a short time ago that General Mattis was a former army general, Marine Corps, just to be clear. I just want to put that out there.

Okay. So back to what we're talking about, Secretary Pompeo, I mean, he's one of the president's most loyal folks that he has around him, right? It's just -- that is apparent about him all of the time and it's really unwavering. But how is he weathering this, that he's so close to this?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes. So Mike Pompeo, we're learning over the past few weeks, has gotten increasingly so frustrated as these career State Department officials have resigned from their post at the State Department, and as he has gotten more and more criticism about his decision not to come out and publicly defend Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled from her position early at the order of President Trump. He hasn't come out and said anything about that.

He has gone frustrated and feels a bit victimized here. But the problem is that he knew. He knew about what Giuliani was doing in his effort to engage with State Department career officials. He actually is getting implicated more and more as these officials are headed up to the Hill.

So we heard from Ambassador Sondland who said that just in recent weeks, he had gotten a message from Secretary Pompeo, saying that he was doing a great job and essentially to keep it up.


We also know that Pompeo was aware of the concerns both internally and externally about him not saying anything with regard to Ambassador Yovanovitch. And so we have some new details that even in the spring, he was sent a letter by former ambassadors to Ukraine, encouraging the State Department to come out and say something to defend Yovanovitch and they didn't do anything.

KEILAR: Let's talk about Mick Mulvaney, right? He had this appearance that was bizarre in many ways yesterday before the White House press corps. CNN is learning that the president is actually unhappy with Mulvaney, even though it was pretty clear that Mulvaney was speaking to an audience of one there.

A source says the White House lawyers and press staff prepped Mulvaney on questions that he faced at the 2020 G7 Summit at the golf course. They did not brief him on how to handle impeachment questions.

And in that regard, he did do a lot of damage on this case that the White House was at least trying to make about impeachment and there being no quid pro quo.

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY: So I've been told that the president is very happy with how Mick Mulvaney did by White House officials, but at the same time, the fact that they had to even issue this statement yesterday right before 6:00 P.M., right before the prime time shows came out.

It isn't really great for the White House that they had their first briefing in a really long time, and it doesn't really go the way that they expected it to go, which they should have expected it to go that way. It was the first time we were hearing from Mick Mulvaney about his involvement in the Ukraine saga. But he didn't answer the questions, I guess, the way they would have expected and had to play cleanup at 6:00 P.M.

KEILAR: How was the president happy with Mick Mulvaney if he had to say, oh, he clarified what he said?

CHAMBERS: Because he's happy that he defended him in front him of the press. Any time that one of the White House officials gets up there and full-throathedly (ph) defends the president, the president is always going to be happy with that performance.

But it's also important to note that the president didn't see as it was happening live. It's not something that he was watching on his plane. So, possibly, after he started hearing from everyone else who might have been upset about it, he maybe changed his mind about that. But at the time, he thought he did a fine job.

KEILAR: Does he understand, do you think, the difficult situation Mick Mulvaney put him and the White House in?

CHAMBERS: The fact that Mick Mulvaney was asked repeatedly by colleagues in the press briefing room - I was also in the press briefing room.

KEILAR: You were, yes.

CHAMBERS: Yes. I was in the press briefing when this happened. And the fact that he was asked repeatedly about whether or not there was a quid pro quo. he had multiple opportunities to say, there was no quid pro quo and clean that up, and instead he just says, this happens all the time in foreign policy, which opens up more questions about, well, who else is this happening with all of the time in foreign policy and other phone conversations.

ATWOOD: And the bottom line is there were other ways to answer those questions. Secretary Pompeo has received that exact question, was there quid pro quo, and if there was, would that be a problem? And when he got those questions, he said that his job is to oversee security assistance to make sure that it is, in his words, completely appropriate and that American taxpayer dollars are used appropriately.

So he, when he's gotten those questions, has danced around it, but Mulvaney decided to go right for it and take it right on.

KEILAR: So what's the big deal?

ATWOOD: Correct.

CHAMBERS: And whether or not he was briefed on it or not, the president has been saying no quid pro quo over and over and over again. It's not really clear what you would need to be briefed on.

KEILAR: We're all briefed on what the president wants there, right?

Okay. Let's talk about Energy Secretary Rick Perry, because he has announced that he is resigning once a replacement is named for him. He was a key person in the U.S.-Ukraine relations. He actually led the delegation to the Ukrainian presidential inauguration.

But then when asked if he was leaving just last week, this was how he responded.


RICK PERRY, ENERGY SECRETARY: I'm here. I'm serving. They've been writing this story that I was leaving the Department of Energy for at least nine months now. One of these days, they'll probably get it right. But it's not today. It's not tomorrow. It's not next month.


KEILAR: No, it's next week, right? Does the Ukraine scandal, Kylie, have any bearing on his departure?

ATWOOD: We don't know the answer to that. But, of course, it can't have no bearing on it, right? We don't know if it was the factor. We know that Secretary Perry has been thinking about leaving for a long time, according to sources close to him. But now he's entangled in something that doesn't look very good at all. So he is getting out before he gets even deeper into it.

And the question is, what does he feel he can tell Congress after he's out of the Trump administration? Can he be a little bit more forthcoming when he speaks to them about what he knows on the Trump administration, Ukraine and what they actually did there?

Kylie, thank you so much. Francesca, thank you.

And ahead, there are serious ethical concerns as the president taps his own resort to host the G7 Summit.


Also, reports of violence just hours after the president declared a ceasefire in Syria after his withdrawal of U.S. troops from there.

And does the president likens the Turkish attack on the Kurds to a schoolyard, you're going to hear the words from a U.S. military spouse who was apologizing to the Kurds.



KEILAR: The vice president calls it a ceasefire, the Turkish government insists that the agreement is a pause. Call it what you want, it's really not happening on the border of Turkey and Syria. Fighting appears to be ongoing at Ras Al-Ain, a key border town in Northeast Syria. And at this point in time, the Syrian Democratic Forces say there's been shelling by the Turkish military, including an attack on a hospital that killed five people. It is not clear if the city is within the safe zone because the safe zone itself, the boundaries of it, are unclear at this point in time.

Yet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that reports of clashes in the safe zone is nothing but disinformation.

CNN's Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon is on the border. Arwa, you tell us what's happening, because even President Trump who seemed to diminish whatever kind of skirmish was going on there just as a little mortar fire or sniper shooting, even he acknowledged that it was happening and that he had discussed it with Erdogan.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, and then following that discussion, it seems as if, as you are stating there, it was dismissed. Look, we've been on this hilltop actually overlooking the area that is being talked about, that of Ras al-Ain. And we've been here for about the last seven to eight hours. And ever since we've been here, there hasn't been much going on, especially not when you compare it to the days prior.

However, citizens who live on the Turkish side did tell us that even for hours after that agreement was reached, the pause, as it's being called by the Turks, they did hear heavy gunfire, they did hear explosions and they continued to hear that during the morning hours. But right now, as we are speaking, it does appear to be calm.

There is a clock on this though. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his mind, has no doubt exactly what this safe zone encompasses, no matter what the U.S. thinks.

For Turkey the safe zone is that line that runs 18 miles into Syria and then to the Euphrates River on one side and then all the way up to Iraq on the other. That is what Turkey wants cleared of these Kurdish fighters. But, Of course, it's phenomenally complicated situation since the Americans left, abandoning their allies, the Kurds, they have turned to Damascus.

So along this stretch of border, you also have the Syrian regime's troops, the troops of Bashar al Assad, and you have the Russians.

And there is something that we actually should also begin refocusing our attention on. Those camps that house the ISIS wives, widows and children and the prisons that have ISIS detainees in them currently under the control of the Kurds, with the regime moving in, a lot of experts are saying the regime could take over those ISIS prisons and ISIS camps. And that could potentially be used as leverage against the west.

So there are a lot of moving parts and nothing in this war zone is black or white.

KEILAR: Indeed. Arwa Damon, thank you so much for that excellent report from the Syrian border.

As Arwa just said, this is an extremely complicated multidimensional conflict that we're witnessing, but President Trump considers this fight between Turkey and Kurdish-led forces to be more black and white.


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 it, right? Sometimes you have to let them fight. It's like two kids in a lot, you got to let them fight and then you pull them apart.


KEILAR: But let's take a look at the numbers in what President Trump is describing as a schoolyard fight. Back in January of 2018, the U.S. announced it was going to train about 1,500 Syrian Kurdish fighters to be part of 30,000 strong border force in the country's north. Just compare that to Turkey's estimated 730,000 troops, the second largest standing army force in NATO.

And it has really been gut-wrenching week. For many U.S. forces who fought alongside the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Force in Northern Syria, and now feel like they're abandoning their brothers and sisters in arms, it's been hard for the families too.

One U.S. military spouse has written an open letter to the Kurds and CNN is protecting her identity because her spouse is still active duty.

In it ,she writes this. Dear Kurdish soldiers. You don't know me but I have known you most of my adult life. When my military husband and I quickly married knowing he was deploying to the Middle East to be part of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I feared what he and his special operations unit would face when they arrived. How bad would the fighting be? How long would they be gone? Would he survive?

And months later, he returned and recounted to me what he could about his experience, and I asked, how he had made it through, he replied, we had help, we had the Kurds.


He told me stories of how the Kurdish people in Northern Iraq supported the troops, advised them, stood by them, fought shoulder to shoulder with them in combat and became an ally and a friend. And I became grateful, immensely, unwaveringly and forever grateful for you.

Since then the words Kurds in my home has meant something. It has meant ally and friendship. There are pictures of Iraqi Kurds alongside my husband and fellow soldiers in our home. I have a coffee mug with depictions of female Syrian Kurdish soldiers on it that I proudly used to remind me of you. My children play soccer in their Kurdistan jerseys.

The Kurdish people are not nameless, faceless people across the world. You hold a place of honor and respect in our home. It's important to me that all of you know that. I owe you so much. My husband is home safe today after years of fighting, and I know you helped make that happen.

But now I watch the news in horror. I see promises broken, progress destroyed, years of hard work and unimaginable sacrifice gone in a tweet. I see allies betrayed, their faces in my picture frame. While watching the news, my children ask -- my children turn to me and ask if those are our friends, and I say, yes. They have looks of confusion on their faces.

I can't imagine what your families are going through. I can't imagine their fear. I can't imagine these things because for the last 17 years, you have fought to help us keep an attack off our soil, and I know that has now compromised your safety. It breaks my heart, she says.

And she goes on to say, I write you today on behalf of my family to say thank you for everything you have done for us. Thank you for your friendship, for keeping your word and fighting alongside us, for staying the course year after year. Thank you for keeping my husband safe so he could come back home to me and my children. You have my sincerest prayers today that you too may safely return to yours. Thank you to your families that sacrificed without you so you can make this partnership happen. I pray we return to your side, that we stand by you, and this has not all been in vain.

Forever yours, a grateful wife.

And that is just part of what this military spouse wrote here. You can read her entire letter at

Let's talk all of this over now with CNN Political Analyst and Washington Post Columnist Josh Rogin with us, as well as retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton. He is also a CNN Military Analyst.

So whether you have this ceasefire that is holding, and I know even -- there are many analysts who take issue with the idea of this being a ceasefire, right? The Turks see this as a pause. Let's listen to what the president said last hour.


TRUMP: I just spoke to President Erdogan of Turkey. We're doing very, very well with Turkey. There is a ceasefire 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.


KEILAR: Should the president be so easily placated by Erdogan? He really seems to be quite convinced that what he's saying is the gospel.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, he shouldn't be. This is very typical of someone like Erdogan. He's, in essence, running the information war in this campaign, and he's doing it and his victim, and his main -- really the main target of his operation is President Trump.

President Trump, for whatever reason, believes that whatever Erdogan says is the gospel. It is not the gospel. It is absolutely fundamentally untrue and it needs to be verified by the intelligence agencies, agencies that President Trump, of course, doesn't like.

KEILAR: That's a very good point, Cedric.

So, Josh, in this op-ed that you wrote in the Washington Post, this is about the withdrawal from Northern Syria. You say, and for years to come, the world will be dealing with the consequences, including more terrorism, more refugees, more Iranian expansion, more war crimes, more Russian influence and a grim future for millions of innocent Syrians.

The president though, characterizes this as he's saving the lives of U.S. service members.

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we have to understand what the ceasefire is. It's a band-aid on a gunshot wound, okay, a self- inflicted gunshot wound at that. And even if it works the way it's supposed to, which is a big if, that totally ignores the underlying larger problem, which is that President Trump has made another decision to withdraw all 1,000 U.S. troops U.S. Northern Syria, we're blowing up our bases. I would differ to Cedric on this, but typically in military operations, if you're blowing up your own bases, you're doing it wrong, okay?


ROGIN: And what we have done is --

KEILAR: They're doing it wrong, Cedric? That's not how it's supposed to work?

ROGIN: Exactly.

LEIGHTON: Yes. It's not how it's supposed to work. And Josh is exactly right. You're pointing out all the right things here, because from a strategic standpoint, if you're blowing up your own bases, you are losing ground, you are vacating territory, you are ceding that territory either to an enemy or to somebody else.


ROGIN: Well, specifically in this case, we're going to cede it to the Assad regime and Iran and Russia, okay? And what that spells is suffering for years for millions of innocent Syrians.

There are a lot of outrage about the Kurds, and rightly so. But there are mostly Sunni-Arab living in not the border zone. The border zone is just up here. The rest of that territory that the Assad regime will take over are innocent Syrians who have been resisting Assad's rule for nine years.

Now, they face a grim future, and you can be sure that the Assad regime and Iran will make them pay and it will be partially our fault.

KEILAR: And what does it also mean for U.S. service members if the U.S., whether it seems unlikely it's this administration, but potentially a future administration, makes a calculation that the U.S. somehow needs to be involved and maybe they don't have the benefit of a light footprint approach with an ally who is bearing the brunt of casualties. What then does it mean for U.S. forces, Cedric?

LEIGHTON: It means, Brianna, that we are going to have to go in with a much heavier footprint. The risk to our forces is going to be much, much greater than it otherwise would have been, and it's also going to mean it's going to be much harder to do. Just from a pure military and political standpoint, it is going to be a very difficult operation to undergo.

And I think josh will probably agree with me that if we decide to go back in there, it's not only going to be tougher, but it's going to take a lot longer. ROGIN: I think one fundamental thing that Trump gets wrong, and he gets a lot of stuff wrong, is the idea that Russia and Assad and Iran are going to fight ISIS, okay? For years, the Assad regime has used terrorists to intimidate the west and also to portray the Syrian conflict as a false choice between him and ISIS. That's what he does. That's what he's going to do. The terrorism is going to get worse. We may be tired of fighting the terrorists, but they're not tired of fighting us.

And the next time we have to go in, we're going to do it without those Kurdish partners who we just abandoned.

LEIGHTON: There's an example in Iran -- excuse me, in Iraq when the Iranians said that they were going to fight ISIS when ISIS was coming down through Mosul and threatening Baghdad, the Iranians were basically ineffective against ISIS. And the Iraqis really needed America to come in and stymie that flow of ISIS fighters in there.

So that's kind of a preview of what could happen in this case.

KEILAR: Colonel, Josh, thank you so much to both of you.

And ahead, the president is awarding his struggling Florida golf resort with a huge contract paid for by you, the taxpayers.

Also the tale of two military men, the architect of the Bin Laden raid with a blistering assessment of the president and then former defense secretary with some jokes about him, maybe some of them went too far. We'll talk about that.