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Fighting Continues in Syria; Mulvaney Admits to Quid Pro Quo; Rep. Ro Khanna talks about Sondland's Testimony; Mattis Roasts Trump at Gala. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired October 18, 2019 - 06:30   ET




ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: There's been breaking news overnight.

Fighting appears to be ongoing in a key boarder town in northeast Syria despite Vice President Pence's efforts at a U.S. brokered ceasefire.

We have reporters covering all angles of this conflict this morning. So let's start with CNN's Arwa Damon. She is along the Syria-Turkey border.

What are you seeing, Arwa?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that area in question that you're talking about is actually the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain, which is right behind us. It is, at the moment, quiet. But earlier this morning, there were various reports of gunfire being heard, as well as shelling. And the Kurds are accusing the Turks of hitting a hospital inside the town, as well as saying that Turkey is basically violating this ceasefire.

Now, what we have heard contradicting that is that there were just a few sort of violations that took place as opposed to the whole thing crumbling at this stage. But, look, this was a very hastily, to a certain degree, hammered out deal, even though it did take hours and hours of negotiations. And I say hastily in the sense that a lot of what needs to be clearly defined is not defined in this agreement.

Look, Turkey has agreed to a pause for five days that from Turkey's perspective is meant to allow the Syrian Kurdish fighting force, the YPG, to withdraw from the extent of this border zone, this safe zone that Turkey wants to create. The U.S. has, it would appear, a different definition for exactly where it is that the YPG should be withdrawing from. And, for their part, the YPG have effectively said that they've agreed to a ceasefire but may or may not actually be withdrawing their forces.

But in the last ten days, since this operation began, the dynamics in northern Syria have changed significantly. The Kurds used to have something of an autonomous area. Now Turkey is inside with the Arab rebel fighters that it has allied itself with. The regime, at the request of the Kurds after America turned its back on them, they turning to Damascus to have the regime move up into these areas. And then, of course, the Russians are on the ground.

So while maybe there was a certain sigh of relief after this agreement did come to fruition, John, after the meetings that took place yesterday, at this stage there is still so much that needs to be unraveled in this complex battlefield.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Arwa Damon on the border there.

And as Arwa points out, this whole operation only begun after President Trump withdrew U.S. troops and essentially allowed it to happen. As Arwa also points out, Turkey doesn't say there's a ceasefire. Turkey only calls it a pause in operations. And Turkey says it got everything it wanted out of this.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh is live in Ankara with that.


JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, you know, from Turkey's perspective, they say that you cannot have a cease-fire with a terrorist organization as they describe it.

As Arwa mentioned there, they're calling this a pause to allow for the Kurdish-Syrian fighters to withdraw from this -- from the areas that they've designated as part of their safe zone.

Now, for Turkey, call it a cease-fire, call it a pause. For them, this is a major political win. They have managed to basically get the United States on board to commit to this safe zone that they have been trying to establish for the longest time.

And as Arwa was pointing out, they have this agreement in place. How this is all going to play out on the ground, it is very complex. We do not know. You've got the next few days, very critical. You've got a fragile cease-fire in place.

And, of course, what happens at the end of those five days? Are we going to see the withdrawal of these Syrian Kurdish fighters from these areas?


And, you know, one thing is for certain here, the United States is going to have very little say in this. And that is why Turkey is looking to its other ally here. The ally that has the most leverage on the ground and that really calls the shots right now, and that is Russia. That is where President Erdogan is headed next week, at the end of those five days, where he will be meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Alisyn, back to you.

CAMEROTA: Jomana, thank you very much for reporting for us from Turkey.

So, back here, how much damage was done by Mick Mulvaney's quid pro quo confession? We will dig deeper with Michael Smerconish, next.


CAMEROTA: Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admitting to the world on live television that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine. That's something the president has been denying for weeks.

So what does this do to the impeachment inquiry? Joining us now is the host of CNN's "Smerconish" and CNN political commentator Michael Smerconish.

So, Michael, that was quite a press conference yesterday.


In case people missed it, and they're just waking up, let's just play a little moment where Mick Mulvaney, loud and proud, said, yes, this is what we do.


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.


CAMEROTA: To be clear, afterwards, reporters in the room were so astonishes, they said, just to be clear, you're talking about a quid pro quo -- what you're describing is a quid pro quo, right? They gave him ample opportunity to walk it back then. He did not. The reporting is he came off that podium. The president was quite displeased. They issued a statement that he was walking it back.

What do you think this does to the impeachment investigation?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: OK, I'm going to shock you and tell you that it actually made sense to me, and I'd anticipated that they would end up going in this direction. But he made a mistake with -- he bungled the delivery when he used the word "political." When he said, there's going to be political influence in foreign policy.

And, Alisyn, here's how I get there. The narrative coming out of the diplomatic core matches what the whistleblower said in the whistleblower complaint, which matches the July 25 transcript. The facts seem not in dispute, that there was a quid pro quo.

The way I've anticipated that the president would eventually, notwithstanding what he has said in the past, tried to own it is that they would try and sell it as, they were looking out for American tax dollars that they didn't want squandered in Ukraine. It had nothing to do with the president's re-election. It had everything to do with Donald Trump corruption fighter.

Where Mulvaney went off the rail yesterday was when he said, well, of course there's going to be political influence in a process like this.

Look, I don't know what the defense is against the charge that the president was leveraging our tax dollars in pursuit of an investigation of corruption in Ukraine. This is the one that makes the most sense. But they just can't all get on the same page.

BERMAN: I like the fact that Smerconish is saying it all made sense to him and he predicted it. It's like a combination of Nostradamus and Spicoli from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." It all made sense to me. It all made sense now.

He didn't stick -- you know, not sticking the landing isn't a small thing here, though, Michael, because the politics of it is the, it happens all the time and the get over it part that he really leaned into there. And when you combine that with his other confession in what Gordon Sondland testified to yesterday, which is that all of this Ukraine policy was being funneled through the president's personal, political attorney, Rudy Giuliani, it paints this months' long picture of decisions being made for the president's personal, political gain.

SMERCONISH: Look, you're giving me chicken something that I'm going to try to make chicken salad out of just for the benefit of making the argument for the White House, which is to say, yes, we have to concede that because they're not going to be able to prove otherwise. So what then would be the argument? The argument would be that the intent, you've got to get into the mind of the president that the intent was one of protecting the United States, not protecting the re-election. And if his intent was pure and not illicit, it does provide him -- it's -- I know it's a hard sell, but it provides him some daylight.

BERMAN: But if you're talking about --

CAMEROTA: But we're past that. Aren't we past that, Michael? We're past that. I mean, if the intent was pure, he wouldn't have said, do me a favor on that July 25th phone call. If the intent were pure, Mick Mulvaney wouldn't have said, yes, of course we wanted to investigate crowd strike. We do this all the time. If the intent were pure, you wouldn't have seen all those career diplomats saying, uh-oh, call me. Are you really saying that we're doing this because of a political reason? Like, the -- we're past that.

SMERCONISH: The use of the word political was really the mistake that he made yesterday.

Look, here's another observation, if I may. The president was out of town, headed to that event in Dallas. You would think this was the coordinated rollout of a new defense strategy. And apparently it's not. It's just indicative of what I said to you earlier in the week, that it's rudderless with regard to how they're defending this. No war room. No senior person in the room from whom the president will take direction. It's a scatter shot defense that I can't articulate other than the one I've suggested to them.

BERMAN: He's trying. I mean, you're trying. And we give you credit for trying to make sense of this all. Michael Smerconish --

SMERCONISH: Well, John -- hey, John, John, I'm -- I'm trying. Let me say this before all the e-mails and tweets come in. I'm trying it as an academic matter. I'm not trying it to carry their water. I'm just trying to figure out what the hell is going on here.

BERMAN: I -- believe me, I totally -- I totally get it and I appreciate it. You're trying to connect the dots and make sense of something. And it's hard. It's very, very hard when you listen to the fulsomeness of the words that were said there.


Michel Smerconish, we always like having you on to try to explain this stuff.

CAMEROTA: We appreciate you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: Be sure to tune in to "SMERCONISH" tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. Eastern. He'll speak with the only former FBI agent in Congress, and that is Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (INAUDIBLE).

BERMAN: But that doesn't mean don't e-mail or tweet at Smerconish for this segment. Go ahead.

CAMEROTA: Well, I think it does. I think it does. I think you should take the incoming Twitter.

BERMAN: Tweet at Smerconish. He likes it.

All right, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis chose to make jokes about the president after months of not taking him on directly. He chose this white tie event to talk about it.


GENERAL JIM MATTIS, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: I'm honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals.


BERMAN: He also had jokes about bone spurs. Hear what the former defense secretary said, next.


BERMAN: New details this morning about testimony that could be key to the Democrat's impeachment inquiry. Ambassador Gordon Sondland told lawmakers that President Trump ordered him to deal directly with Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, on all matters involving Ukraine and that the president would not commit to a meeting with Ukraine's president until his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was involved.

Congressman Ro Khanna was inside the room when Sondland testified. He joins us now.

Congressman, thank you for being with us this morning.

What did you learn from Ambassador Sondland's testimony?

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA): Well, based on the public record, here's what we know.

The ambassador was dealing with Rudy Giuliani in our foreign policy in Ukraine. And there is absolutely no justification for the president's personal lawyer having an influence on American foreign policy.


We know from the public testimony, or public reporting, that this is something that bothered many, many people at the State Department and has hurt the morale, frankly, and compromised our national security.

BERMAN: So Mick Mulvaney among the many things he confessed to yesterday, was that Rudy Giuliani was, in fact, the point person on Ukraine's policy, but he said there's nothing wrong with that. The president can choose whoever he wants to influence or help direct foreign policy. Is he right?

KHANNA: Isn't that the whole issue? I mean, he said, get over it. Basically he said the president withheld aid. The president asked Ukraine to investigate the 2016 debunked conspiracy theories. But there's nothing wrong with it, as you pointed out. And that's the issue here. This is not a factual dispute. This comes down to whether you think the president of the United States should be able to have his personal lawyer conduct foreign policy and whether the president of the United States should be able to threaten other countries to investigate a political rival or conspiracy theories.

Democrats believe that's an abuse of the Constitution, an abuse of the presidential power. Republicans and Mick Mulvaney basically believe that's fine. And, really, that's the decision for this country. It's not about facts, it's about values.

BERMAN: Well, isn't it about why Rudy Giuliani was directing the policy toward Ukraine, which now apparently everyone admits that he was the funnel through which it all passed. It's the why. Was it for the benefit of America or was it for the personal political benefit of Donald J. Trump? What have you learned when you've been listening to this testimony?

KHANNA: Well, it's very clear, again, based on the public reporting, that this was for the benefit of Donald Trump. I mean, this is a scheme to figure out dirt on Joe Biden and Hunter Biden. Does anyone, for a minute, believe that if Joe Biden were not running for president of the United States, that Donald Trump would be asking for an investigate into Joe Biden? I mean it's just too coincidental that Joe Biden happens to be the leading candidate back in July against Donald Trump in the polls and Donald Trump is worried about his son, Hunter Biden, and then he's worried about some debunked conspiracy theory of Ukraine's role in the 2016 election? I mean, if this was Donald Trump saying we want to have Ukraine have an anti-corruption program and we're going to threaten aid until they take reforms, we wouldn't be here.

But the problem is, why is Joe Biden's name in the call transcript? Why is Hunter Biden coming up?

BERMAN: One of the things that Mick Mulvaney confessed to yesterday was a quid pro quo, but he says it was to investigate corruption. And he made explicitly clear that that corruption involved, in his mind, the 2016 election and some of these conspiracy theories out there. So he admitted to that quid pro quo, but he said, no, it was not the Joe Biden quid pro quo.

Is that a distinction, or how does that distinction matter, Congressman?

KHANNA: Well, he walked it back and later clarified that he wasn't speaking about Biden and was speaking about the 2016 debunked conspiracy theories.

BERMAN: Well, he even walked that back. But he said it out loud.

Look, he said what he said out loud repeatedly, so I'm going to take him at his word when the cameras were rolling there. But my question is, is there a difference between a quid pro quo that looks into the 2016 election and one that looks into Joe Biden?

KHANNA: Yes. The Joe Biden one is worse. I think both are bad.

Look, if all the president had said is we want broad anticorruption measures, that is fine. I mean no one -- of course the American president has the ability to say to other countries, take broad measures to root out corruption. But that's not what happened in this case. The president was going after debunked conspiracy theories to try to vindicate his own political standing. That's bad.

Of course what's terrible is the president bringing up Biden on the phone call. So I think what you're dealing with is the gravity of the offense, the Biden one being the worst, but asking to investigate debunked conspiracy theories for your personal gain and political standing is bad as well. And Mulvaney admitted to that.

BERMAN: I have to let you go, but do you need to hear any more evidence at this point before you feel you're ready to vote on whether to impeach the president?

KHANNA: We're ready to vote. I mean, again, the president, in my view, has clearly abused his office. He's clearly shredded the Constitution. The votes are there in the House. I hope we take the vote and then I hope there will be some Republican senators, like Mitt Romney or Ben Sasse, who will look at the evidence and think about their responsibility to our Constitution.

BERMAN: Congressman Ro Khanna, thank you for being with us this morning.

KHANNA: Thank you very much.

CAMEROTA: We're ready to vote, really interesting conclusion there.

BERMAN: Yes. I'm not sure that Nancy Pelosi has the same answer to that.


BERMAN: But Ro Khanna's answer is, we're ready to vote.

CAMEROTA: Right, so we need to get a timeline.

Meanwhile, new this morning, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cracking some jokes at the president's expense at this big charity dinner in New York City.


Mattis laughing off President Trump's insult that he is the, quote, world's most overrated general. Take a listen.


GENERAL JIM MATTIS, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: I'm not just an overrated general. I am the greatest -- the world's most overrated. And this is in no small part -- I will tell you, I -- I owe New York -- I owe New York for this because, Senator Schumer, have I thanked you for bringing my name up in a rather contentious meeting in Washington where this grew out of.

So I would just tell you, too, that I'm honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals. And, frankly, that sounds pretty good to me. And you do have to admit that between me and Meryl, at least we've had some victories.

Some of you were kind during the reception and asked me, you know, if this bothered me to have been rated this way based on what Donald Trump said. I said, of course not, I'd earned my spurs on the battlefield, Martin, as you pointed out, and Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor. So not in the least bit put out by it.

And I think the only person in the military that Mr. Trump doesn't think is overrated is who you pointed out, Martin, and that's Colonel Sanders.

It's been a year since I left the administration. The recovery process is going well. The counselor said I'll graduate soon. A year is, according to White House time, about 9,000 hours of executive time or 1,800 holes of golf.


CAMEROTA: Oh, there's more.

Joining us now, someone who was in that room when it happened -- where it happened at the event, CNN's senior political analyst John Avlon.

That's a fancy dinner, John.

So, listen, General Mattis seemed to be having fun there.


CAMEROTA: OK, but is there something to be read between the laugh lines of why he's doing this and saying all of this.

AVLON: Oh, I think it's pretty clear he was pushing back at the president for his comments in their meeting with Congress, that he was an overrated general. And that opened the door just a bit. Mattis has been very reticent to out -- directly criticized the president, even in his book. And a lot of folks have been saying, Syria policy, that's one of the thing he resigned over. Where are you? Call it out.

This is a charity dinner. Folks might know it at home from every four years presidential candidates come and speak and it's a roast type speech. The humor is an assumption. But those were pointed critiques of the president. There was also a big applause line later in the night where he -- he invoked our Kurdish allies and, you know, bipartisan group. Many Trump supporters. Big applause from them.

BERMAN: All right, I want to rain on this a little bit, just for an academic exercise here to quote Michael Smerconish.

First of all, white ties should be banned.

Second of all, Susan Hennessey, who is our national security analyst, she wrote this last night. I know he, Mattis, speaking at a dinner is speaking at a dinner meant for jokes, but this is just an absurd and undignified way for Mattis to make his first public critiques of the president. After indefensible silence, she says, his will surely undercut the gravity of any future words he might have on the subject.

So what she's suggesting is that if Mattis really has a gripe, he should be out there speaking much more publicly than he is rather than cracking one line.

AVLON: And maybe this is the first crack in a door that the -- that Mattis may move through. Look, I think this does not diminish Mattis' long-term credibility at these sorts of dinners.

When you're telling jokes, you need to acknowledge the obvious. And to not acknowledge the fact he'd just been called the -- you know, history's most underrated general by the president would have been absurd. But there were a lot of really serious points in this speech. This was not all laugh line. And he did an entire riff about Abraham Lincoln's warning about the perpetuation of our institutions that was also a very pointed, implicit diss (ph) at President Trump. And I think we've got sound on that. CAMEROTA: We do. And I don't know if we have time for it. It's pretty

long. So I'm just read what you're talking -- you want to -- you want to play it? Let's play it.


GENERAL JIM MATTIS, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: No, Lincoln went on, it was not the foreign aggressor we must fear. It was corrosion from within. The wrought, the viciousness, the lassitude, the ignorance. Anarchy is one potential consequence of all this. Another is the rise of an ambitious leader unfettered by conscience or precedent or decency who will make himself supreme. If destruction be our lot, Lincoln warned, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.


CAMEROTA: That's not funny.

AVLON: No, that's --

CAMEROTA: I mean, the rise of an ambitious leader unfettered by conscience who -- or decency who would make himself supreme. I mean how else are we supposed to interpret what he's saying?

AVLON: Exactly the way he intended it, invoking Lincoln to diss (ph) Donald Trump because he's saying the man doesn't seem to be fit for office.

BERMAN: Do you really think, though, this is just the beginning, because Mattis hasn't indicated at all he's going to speak more publicly going forward.

AVLON: To invoke Donald Trump, we'll see.


CAMEROTA: John, thank you very much.

All right, we're following new developments in Mick Mulvaney's stunning admission that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine.