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THE SITUATION ROOM

Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) Is Interviewed About Mitch McConnell's Rebuke Of President Trump's Syria Policy; Deadline Tonight For Rick Perry And White House To Produce Ukraine Documents In Impeachment Probe; Trump Tries To Downplay Mulvaney Quid Pro Quo Debacle As Sources Say He's Angry And Pelosi Calls It A "Confession"; Mixed Reaction After Former Defense Secretary Mattis Jokes About Trump Calling Him "Overrated"; McConnell Rebukes Trump's Syria Troop Withdrawal, Calls It "Grave Mistake" In New Op-Ed; North Korea Blocks High-Rise Windows in New Signs of Kim Jong-un's Paranoia. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 18, 2019 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news.

Grave mistake. Tonight the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is publicly rebuking the president's Syria policy saying the withdrawal of the U.S. troops is endangering America. Is this the issue that will cost Mr. Trump support from his base?

Mulvaney mess. President Trump insisted his acting chief of staff clarified his quid pro quo bombshell. The Democrats aren't buying the walk-back as they argue the White House confessed to wrongdoing.

Mattis fires back. The former defense secretary has a stinging response to being mocked by Mr. Trump after holding back for months. Should General Mattis have chosen a more serious forum to finally speak out?

And Kim's high-rise cover-up. A bizarre sight in North Korea where the windows of many skyscrapers have been covered up. Is it new evidence of Kim Jong-un's paranoia and his penchant for secrecy?

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on a staunch GOP ally of the president speaking out against him tonight. In a new op-ed the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling Mr. Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. And I'm quoting McConnell now, "A grave strategic mistake."

The president is facing new fallout on multiple fronts tonight. He's trying to downplay the Mick Mulvaney debacle saying his acting chief of staff's comments have been clarified but privately we're learning Mr. Trump hasn't gotten over it. A source suggests he's fuming after Mulvaney appeared to admit that U.S. aid to Ukraine was tied to the president's push to investigate Democrats. Mulvaney now denies he confirmed a quid pro quo. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says his remarks amount to a confession.

I'll get reaction from House Judiciary Committee member Madeleine Dean. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First let's go to our chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, it's day two of White House damage control after Mick Mulvaney's bombshell.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Wolf. President Trump, he dodged the question earlier today when asked about acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's admission of a quid pro quo connecting aid to Ukraine to investigating Democrats. The clean-up continued today over here at the White House and up on Capitol Hill as Republicans echoed the president's muted response to the Mulvaney mess. But Mr. Trump caused more confusion of his own on his green light to Turkey's invasion of Syria.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Station, this is President Donald Trump, do you hear me?

ACOSTA (voice-over): After speaking with astronauts on the space station, President Trump tried his best to defy the gravity of the moment.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you want to clarify what Mick Mulvaney said yesterday. Was the aid --

TRUMP: I think he clarified it.

QUESTION: Investigating the Democrats.

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

ACOSTA: Pressed on acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's admission of Democratic dirt for dollar scheme with Ukraine, the president dodged. No surprise as a source close to the White House said that the president was not happy with Mulvaney's briefing room confession of a quid pro quo.

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I have news for everybody. Get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy. I'm talking. That is going to happen.

ACOSTA: Mulvaney later clarified in a statement there was no quid pro quo and while some top Republicans on Capitol Hill appear to be reading from the president's talking points --

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): I think you saw Mick Mulvaney clarify his statement.

ACOSTA: A growing number of GOP lawmakers are finding Mulvaney's comments troubling.

REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R-FL): Well whatever might have been gray and unclear before is certainly quite clear right now that the actions were related to getting some of the Ukraine to do some of these things.

ACOSTA: Still the rarely seen White House press Secretary Stephanie Grisham gave Mulvaney a pat on the back.

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

ACOSTA: The reaction from Democrats, not so fast. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Mulvaney's remarks a confession.

QUESTION: What is the reaction to the Mulvaney walk-back last night. Was that enough to satisfy your concerns?

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

ACOSTA: The president is trying to spin out of the trouble latching on to a "Washington Post" report that career diplomat George Kent told lawmakers, he raised concerns in 2015 about former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter's business dealings in Ukraine.

TRUMP: He excoriated the Obama administration and Joe Biden and Joe Biden's son saying that there is tremendous problems - tremendous problems with Joe Biden's son and the Ukraine.

[17:05:00]

ACOSTA: Biden campaign released a statement saying, "On Joe Biden's watch, the U.S. made eradicating corruption a centerpiece of our policies toward Ukraine, including achieving the removal of an inept prosecutor who shielded wrongdoers from accountability."

In response to fighting in Syria that appeared to signal Turkey's violation of a day-old cease-fire, the president insisted he was on top of the situation. Mr. Trump then made the bizarre claim that the U.S. is somehow in control of oil assets in the region. Something that is just not true.

TRUMP: We have ISIS under control. We've taken control of the oil in the Middle East, the oil that everybody was worried about. We have the USS control of that. And there are no shots being fired. And a lot of people are doing a lot of things.

ACOSTA: At his rally in Dallas, the president minimized the conflict between Turkey and Kurds U.S. allies as a schoolyard fight.

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

(END VIDEOTAPE) ACTOSTA: Now as for the president's policy in Syria, a major development just this evening. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell writing a blistering op-ed in "The Washington Post," we could put it up on screen, in it we should point out McConnell does not directly criticize the president by name but he does say, quote, "Withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria is a grave strategic mistake. It will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances."

One other development to mention, the president has announced his new energy secretary to replace Rick Perry who was stepping down from that post after being swept up in the Ukraine investigation. Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette has been nominated for that job. Wolf?

BLITZER: A lot going on. Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Right now the outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry is staring down a deadline to handover documents in the impeachment investigation. Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju. He is up on Capitol Hill. So Manu, what do House Democrats want from Rick Perry and the White House for that matter and will they comply?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Democrats are zeroing in on the decision by the president to put on hold efforts to strengthen alliances with the Ukrainian nation in exchange for what the president had been seeking, an investigation into the Bidens and effort by Rudy Giuliani to bolster the president's political chances in 2020.

Now Rick Perry has emerged a key figure in that case and Gordon Sondland the ambassador's testimony just said yesterday to the House committee. He mentioned that they went to President Zelensky's inauguration in May and afterwards they went and briefed the White House about an effort and hoping that President Trump would meet with President Zelensky but the president instead directed them to talk to Rudy Giuliani instead and according to Sondland's testimony, Perry and others were disappointed. These are among the documents and questions that they have at Rick Perry are demanding that he turn over.

They also want the White House to turn over a range of documents about that July phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky and in which Trump urged Zelensky to open up an investigation into the Bidens, into the Democratic National Committee. There are not much expectation on Capitol Hill that the White House will comply. We'll see what the Energy Department ultimately does.

Now this comes amid a very busy week. Coming up next week in the House impeachment push, the big event coming on Tuesday when the current top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor is scheduled to testify behind closed doors. Now Taylor is important because text messages that were released show that Taylor had a raised significant concerns about why hundreds of million dollars of aid that had been approved by the U.S. Congress had not been provided to Ukraine. There are questions about exactly how that transpired and then after Tuesday the committees will double up and witnesses back-to-back on each of the days with officials from the State Department, Defense Department and White House National Security Council as they push to wrap up this investigation in the coming weeks and build their case for Democrats to ultimately decide whether to impeach this president, a decision that could come this fall. Wolf?

BLITZER: Manu Raju reporting. Thank you very much.

Also tonight the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apparently is feeling the heat. As the Ukraine scandal plays out and veteran diplomats testify in the impeachment probe. Let's bring in our national security reporter Kylie Atwood. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM with me. What are you learning Kylie?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Secretary Pompeo over recent weeks has become increasingly frustrated and that is for two primary reasons. First of all, senior State Department officials have resigned in the face of this impeachment inquiry. And also he has faced increasing criticism for not defending Ambassador Yovanovitch, the ambassador who was abruptly forced to be removed from Ukraine from her post there.

Now we have heard from Ambassador McKinley one of those U.S. officials who quit his job that he was frustrated that Secretary Pompeo didn't come out and defend the Ambassador Yovanovitch against this smear campaign. But what we've also learned in our reporting is that there were outsiders who were encouraging the State Department to step up and say something to defend Ambassador Yovanovitch months ago.

[17:10:06]

So this wasn't something that just passed across Secretary Pompeo's desk in recent weeks. It was an effort, a letter sent by these former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine in the spring encouraging the State Department to say something. They did receive receipt that that actually had been received, their note, and a senior official at the State Department said that it would be considered but clearly nothing has been done yet.

BLITZER: You know about these allegations, Kylie, we've heard from the president and Rudy Giuliani and we've heard from Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff but we really haven't heard any substantive reaction from Secretary Pompeo. Why?

ATWOOD: That is the key there. It is the substance, right, because he has done actually a number of interviews in the last week. But when it comes to these specific questions, he often does not directly answer them. So he was asked just last Friday, did he do enough to defend Ambassador Yovanovitch and he sort of skirted the question. He talked about the team at the State Department. He talked about them working towards joint mission. He did not mention Ambassador Yovanovitch and her mission and the work she was doing and commend her at all. He didn't talk about her.

Now the other thing is he's been on the road, right? We have seen him just this week in Turkey and in Israel. He is picking up and could carry on with his duties as secretary of state. And that comes as current U.S. officials who are still working for him are up on the Hill and implicating him further. We heard from Ambassador Sondland, the current U.S. ambassador to the E.U. who said that he had signed off from Secretary Pompeo on everything that he did. So clearly he's becoming more at the center of this but he is carrying on with other duties and not really wanting to talk about the specifics.

BLITZER: Can't blame him not for not wanting to talk all of this. Kylie, thank you very much with that report.

Joining us now, Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, a Democrat, she serves at the House Judiciary Committee. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us. What is your reaction to this strong rebuke of President Trump's Syria policy by the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell?

REP. MADELEINE DEAN (D-PA): It is about time. I'm pleased he's speaking up and pointing out the grave strategic disaster that abandoning our allies, the Kurds, is. Giving a green light to Turkey to come in and slaughter. People lost their lives as a result of that capricious decision that President Trump was apparently bullied into. Children lost their lives. And the abandonment of our allies, the Kurds, is just despicable.

BLITZER: Today is the deadline for the White House and the Energy Secretary Rick Perry for that matter to hand over subpoenaed documents. Your committee's role in this inquiry will be to draft articles of impeachment. Is there any doubt in your mind right now that obstruction will be included?

DEAN: I have confidence that obstruction of justice, obstruction of Congress will be tops among articles of impeachment if and when they move forward. I don't want to get ahead of anybody right now. We know that Adam Schiff and the Intelligence Committee is doing terrific work getting at the facts, speaking to courageous people in order to reveal to Congress and then to the American public the extraordinary wrongdoing that we first learned from a whistleblower having to do with the Ukraine issue. And the shakedown of a foreign president whose Democracy was at risk and whose sovereignty was at risk. So I'm looking forward to the completion of those interviews as you pointed out, a couple of important ones coming up this week. He's already completed the committee in a bipartisan way has already completed about eight interviews and so there is a lot of work to be done but it is being done expeditiously and well.

BLITZER: We'll see what Bill Taylor the top diplomat right now in Kiev has to say. He's been called back to testify behind closed doors on Tuesday.

President Trump says his acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has clarified his comments from yesterday when Mulvaney admitted that aid to Ukraine was in fact conditioned on investigations of Democrats. How do you interpret Mulvaney's remarks?

DEAN: I think what we saw yesterday in the press briefing room was the truth and his attempt to take it back today by way of a statement of clarification is more of the same from this administration. You can't say white is black and black is white and the same moment and think you have any credibility. So Mick Mulvaney revealed his colors, showed that that is the way this administration works. It shakes down. It holds up. It provides quid pro quo to foreign leaders, our friends, says you've got to do me a favor though. Investigate my opponent in the upcoming election. Think of the betrayal of his oath of office, think of having people like Mick Mulvaney carry out these betrayals of our national election, of our national security, of global security.

[17:15:07]

It's stunning. But you don't get to say one thing one day and then the opposite thing the next day and have anybody believe you.

BLITZER: Let me also get your reaction, Congresswoman, to President Trump, his decision to host the next G7 summit in June at his resort in Doral, Florida. Have you spoken to your colleagues about what your next steps might be in terms of learning how this decision was made because it's raising lots of questions?

DEAN: We will be investigating how it was made but really right now we're very focused on making sure we get all of the facts surrounding the July 25th call with Ukraine. Certainly you saw that we took a vote on the floor of the House yesterday condemning the president for his actions in Syria. With which two-thirds of Republicans joined us. And now you see the leader of the Senate calling it a grave mistake.

Doral is an extraordinary in plain sight abuse of the emoluments clause but apparently this president doesn't understand what this clause means. The founders put that in there, the framers put that in there for two reasons. One, to avoid or to prohibit profit earring by a government official, by a president, by any one of us, frankly, but the other was to eliminate or mitigate foreign influence. Flying folks in from around the world, spending money at his establishments is a clear violation of the emoluments clause. People know that. This man does not believe in his oath of office. I don't believe he's read the Constitution to know that he is bound by these things. He certainly doesn't honor it.

BLITZER: I know we got to run. But I want you to give us a quick reaction to the death of your colleague, your friend and Congressman Elijah Cummings who passed away yesterday.

DEAN: Thank you for giving me a minute to talk about him. I'm a new member of Congress and as heartbroken as I am that we lost Elijah Cummings yesterday, a giant and good and decent man, I mean decent, that kind of great man based in decency and I'm so pleased I had these few short months to serve with him.

I sat down with him one day on the floor of the House as we were voting and you don't have assigned seats but he sits in a particular space. And I had the chance to talk to him. He looked around that chamber with such reverence and said remember years from now, hundreds of years from now, your family, your ancestors will remember that you were here. And I said, well, Mr. Cummings, they're going to remember you were here. I'm not sure about me. But he talked about the place with reverence and as he said so often to us, to anybody who would listen, we are better than this when we get into these ridiculous corruptions or chaos or confusion. America is better than this. And yet we see a president hollowing out department after department, hallowing out diplomacy, hallowing out our standing in the world, hallowing out agencies like the consumer protection financial bureau in front of financial services this day.

Elijah Cummings was a giant and he will be so greatly missed. But I think he will also help us focus on what is right, what is just, and doing the right thing by our Democracy, protecting our Constitution and holding this president accountable.

BLITZER: He was a truly great, great American. Representative Madeleine Dean -

DEAN: Such a great man.

BLITZER: -- thank you so much for joining us. May he rest in peace.

Up next, looming deadlines and more witnesses as the Trump impeachment probe is clearly picking up some dramatic speed.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:23:36]

BLITZER: Tonight is the deadline for both the White House and the Energy Secretary Rick Perry to submit documents for the House impeachment probe. The investigation is clearly picking up a lot of speed with seven witnesses scheduled to answer questions next week.

Let's bring in our political, legal and national security experts to talk about what ware learning right now. Even if Congress, Gloria, doesn't get these documents, they are still the House Democrats on these three committees. They are moving full speed ahead.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: They are. And the energy secretary is just effectively sent a letter to Congress, to House Democrats making the argument the same argument that the White House is making, which is because you haven't validly authorized the impeachment inquiry, you don't have any power to get my -- to get my documents following along with the White House, but having said that, even if they don't get these documents, they made a lot of progress. They are talking to all of these former State Department officials who are effectively saying that this case goes beyond that phone call that started it all and that this is a foreign policy run amok that you portray the State Department effectively trying to work around the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani who was out for dirt on the former Vice President Joe Biden. So we have the president on this phone call saying, I'd like you to do me a favor though to the Ukraine President Zelensky, and then this portrayal gets broader of foreign policy that seemed to be run by this rogue operation, run by Rudy Giuliani.

[17:25:19]

BLITZER: I could only imagine, Abby, how angry the president must be at Mick Mulvaney, his acting White House chief of staff, who clearly screwed up yesterday big time in that half-hour plus news conference he had in the White House briefing room suggesting, yes, there was a quid pro quo. Ukraine is not getting the aid until they help the U.S. determine -- get some political dirt on the Democrats back in 2016. The president and those of us who know President Trump, he doesn't like these kinds of reactions from his aides.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And particularly, he typically doesn't like how other people react to what Mick Mulvaney said as he watches the coverage the next day and sees how his allies are saying that Mick Mulvaney messed up. And you saw even Sean Hannity who the president watches religiously saying that he did not like what Mulvaney had to say. And you could see that the president's own words today when he was speaking to reporters, he said Mulvaney clarified it.

Well if the president was really thrilled with everything that Mulvaney had to say, he won't have felt the need to actually clarify those comments. And what also happened yesterday was that because of all of the information coming out of all of the depositions on the Hill, Mulvaney essentially was forced into a position back against the wall where he had to essentially acknowledge almost everything that was being said by these current and former State Department officials. It has put the White House in a really tough position but it just shows up until this point, Democrats have been very successful in moving this investigation forward and forcing the White House to really admit a lot of the things they have been denying for weeks and weeks.

BLITZER: Watch, Susan, watch what Mulvaney said yesterday just to remind our viewers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MULVANEY: MULVANEY: Like, look, this is a corrupt place. I didn't want to send them a bunch of money.

Did he also mention to me in past that -- the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that.

But that's it. And that's why we held up the money.

The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But the president's former Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert in recent weeks said he told the president this was just some fake conspiracy theory that Ukraine had the server from the DNC and all of this. Listen to what Bossert said recently.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM BOSSERT, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: It's not only a conspiracy theory, it is completely debunked. The DNC server and that conspiracy theory has got to go. They have to stop with that. It could not continue to be repeated in our discourse. On the other matter, I honestly believe this president has not gotten his pound of flesh yet from past grievances on the 2016 investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Clearly the president doesn't want to believe that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, he wants to believe that Ukraine interfered in the U.S. election which it didn't do on behalf of Hillary.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: This is about the president's ongoing on section with undermining the findings of the U.S. Intelligence Community that Russia interfered in the 2016 election for the purposes of harming Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump.

Now it is bad enough that the president is essentially extorting a foreign leader to substantiate his pet conspiracy theory for his own political gain but Mulvaney actually made a much more significant admission. He said that they tied the withholding of that military aid to the investigations that the president wants. Now he wants to say that this was about the Ukrainian server, this conspiracy theory.

We all saw the call transcript, that call memorandum which the president of the United States brought up the Bidens, brought up investigation into the Bidens. And so that really is the core admission that Mulvaney made. There was a quid pro quo. The suggestion that what the president was actually after was the Ukrainian server is really just distraction. They are trying to make it look even worse -- or less bad than it actually is.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. Samantha, we're going to get to you in a moment. We got to take a quick break, much more on all the breaking news right after this.

[17:30:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our political, legal, and national security experts.

Samantha Vinograd, the former Defense Secretary James Mattis, General Mattis, he was at the Al Smith Dinner last night, which is supposed to be fun, lively, you know, a little politics involved. He responded in this way to President Trump's calling him, quote, the world's most over-rated general. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. JAMES MATTIS (RET.), FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I do stand before you, as was noted here, really, having achieved greatness. I mean, I'm not just an over-rated general. I am the greatest, the world's most over-rated. (LAUGHTER)

MATTIS: I'm honored to be considered that by -- by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an over-rated actress.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTIS: So I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTIS: And -- and frankly, that sounds pretty good to me.

(APPLAUSE)

MATTIS: And you do have to admit that between me and Meryl, at least we've had some victories.

[17:35:01]

I had earned my spurs on the battlefield, Martin, as you pointed out, and Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What's your reaction to that?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, General Mattis is certainly speaking in terms that President Trump can understand. He's being sarcastic and he's talking about television, so the President can relate to that.

But I really view this in contrast to what General Mattis did when he resigned in protest. General Mattis' resignation, I think, really sent shock waves around the foreign policy and military community because he took a serious tone, and he laid out the reasons why he had left the administration.

A lot of us who worked with him -- I was at the White House when he was CenCom Commander -- had been waiting for him to speak up in a more formal setting. He did a slew of television and radio interviews after his book came out. And he's really shied away from criticizing the President, of course, unlike Admiral McRaven who wrote a scathing op-ed, I believe, yesterday, laying out the reasons why he is so fundamentally bothered by the President's comments.

And so, while this was a funny setting, Wolf, there's really not -- not much to joke about in the predicament we're in right now, whether it's in Syria, with Turkey, or with other allies. And I -- I think many of us who worked with General Mattis are waiting for him to speak up in a more formal way.

BLITZER: What do you think, Susan?

HENNESSEY: Look, I think it was just sort of silly and undignified. It's one thing to use the Al Smith Dinner to make some jokes in a highly charged political climate, you know, take some of the -- the pressure and tension out of the room. It's another thing to use it as cover to launch critiques that you aren't willing to do directly.

And so, to Sam's point, a lot of people had been waiting to hear Mattis weigh in on, you know, attacking the President or critiquing what the President is doing directly. Mattis has said that he will -- he will know that moment when it comes.

The problem is, having made these comments, whenever he actually does decide to speak out, if he does decide to speak out, he's going to look like just another Trump hater. And so, I think, at the end of the day, Mattis is actually going to regret having used this forum to make light of the situation.

PHILLIP: And when --

BORGER: Well, and look at why he quit. I mean, he quit over Syria policy, right? So, you know, it -- what kind of impact, just think about it, would it have if Mattis, Tillerson, McMaster, Kelly were to come out and say this president is -- is dangerous on foreign policy which is effectively what Mattis believes, we think --

VINOGRAD: Right.

BORGER: -- given the fact that he resigned. That would have a great deal of impact.

VINOGRAD: I just wonder what else they're waiting for. I mean, you bring up Syria, and we have Leader McConnell's op-ed that came out recently. And we are at a point now where the President has done irreparable damage to U.S. national security.

We are not going to be able to take back bases from Russian forces in light of our Syria withdrawal. We are not going to be able to just drop U.S. troops back into the territory that is now controlled by Turkey in -- in Syria.

So while General Mattis was trying to be funny, the Al Franken Dinner is a light -- a light forum, when are these people going to speak up? And how much more damage is going to be done around the world?

BORGER: Right.

VINOGRAD: We have forces in other places, in South Korea, in Japan, and elsewhere, and I just really worry what they're waiting for.

PHILLIP: But even if --

BLITZER: The Al Smith Dinner, but go ahead.

VINOGRAD: Yes.

PHILLIP: But the McConnell letter is, you know -- it doesn't mention President Trump. It mentions President Obama --

BORGER: The administration, yes. PHILLIP: -- but it does not mention President Trump, who is the

Commander-in-Chief at this moment. And -- and McConnell, at the end of the op-ed, he says America's wars will -- will be endless only if America refuses to win. That is a direct shot at President Trump. But even still, even after all of this, McConnell refuses to use President Trump's name.

A lot of Republicans in that same vein refuse to assign blame to the person who made the decision in the first place with the notable exception of Lindsey Graham, who then got shot down by the President for doing that, so it's still risky. And I think that's why you haven't seen people come out --

BORGER: Well, Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: Yes.

PHILLIP: -- and Mitt Romney. But it -- that's why you haven't seen people come out and do this. They do not want to be at the center of President Trump's anger.

BORGER: But you know what --

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment. Everybody, stick around, there's a lot more news we got to get to. We're about to go live to the Syrian/Turkish border. Is the ceasefire still holding despite sporadic fighting? We're going to update you, we've got new information.

[17:39:09]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is criticizing President Trump's Middle East policy in a new "Washington Post" op-ed, writing -- and I'm quitting Mitch McConnell right now -- withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria is a grave strategic mistake.

Our senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is near the Turkey- Syrian border for us. First of all, Arwa, is the ceasefire holding?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we were talking to residents on the Turkish side who live close to the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn which is just across the border. And they said that in the hours following the ceasefire, they were continuing to hear gunfire, gun battles, as well as explosions, but by this afternoon, it had pretty much died down.

There are a number of things, though, that President Erdogan said today that are worth noting. First and foremost, as we all know, this cessation of hostilities, this pause, as Turkey is calling it, does expire on Tuesday.

And once that has happened, if the YPG, that Syrian Kurdish fighting force that the U.S. had allied itself with, had not pulled back from the safe zone -- and that is the safe zone as Turkey defines it, 18 miles into Syria spanning from the Euphrates River all the way to the border with Iraq -- then Turkey would resume its operations in a more intense fashion.

[17:45:08]

Another thing, too, Wolf, to readdress at this stage, the regime, as we know, has moved into areas in northern Syria at the request of the Kurds once they realized the Americans were not going to be helping them. So you have a presence of Bashar al-Assad's forces in some areas along the border as well as in key cities.

As this process moves forward, a lot of experts and observers are saying, presumably, quite possibly, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is going to end up being in control of the prisons that hold ISIS detainees, the camps that hold ISIS families, their widows, their wives.

And there are concerns, given that Bashar al-Assad -- remember, back in 2011, did release al Qaeda members from his prisons to try to radicalize the revolution. There are concerns that the Syrian government could use its control over these ISIS facilities as leverage.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon on the scene for us. Arwa, be careful over there. We'll check back with you soon.

Up next, why are the North Koreans covering up the windows of skyscrapers? What it may reveal about Kim Jong-un.

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[17:51:18]

BLITZER: Tonight, Kim Jong-un appears to be going to new extremes to keep his secrets under wraps. Let's bring in Brian Todd. He's got more.

Brian, this is sort of an odd move for Kim Jong-un.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Odd and very mysterious, Wolf. We spoke to a journalist in Seoul, South Korea whose sources in Pyongyang happen to notice the coverings on these windows. And bravely, those sources started photographing them. We have new information tonight on what Kim Jong-un's regime might be trying to prevent those residents from seeing.

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TODD (voice-over): Tonight, Kim Jong-un's paranoia and obsessions with secrecy and security appear to be playing out across Pyongyang's most exclusive neighborhoods. Chad O'Carroll, a correspondent for the South Korea-based news Web site, N.K. News, was recently checking a lead on a construction project in the North Korean capital when his sources noticed something strange. Near an important section of Pyongyang, O'Carroll's sources saw many

upper floor windows in some luxurious high-rise apartment buildings mysteriously covered. And at great risk, they started to take pictures.

CHAD O'CARROLL, CEO, KOREA RISK GROUP: These window bars are made of concrete. They are immovable, and they are basically either fully opaque or they are kind of slats that just allow you to look in one way.

TODD (voice-over): Look at O'Carroll's comparison for N.K. News of a tower block in the Changchun apartment complex about a year ago and now.

O'Carroll says his sources observed what they believe are hundreds of apartments and hotel rooms with windows covered and, in some cases, only on upper floors. Windows at the Koryo Hotel, a famous destination for tourists, were replaced with translucent covers, so guests can't make out detail of anything outside.

O'CARROLL: And the overarching goal of all of this is, as far as we understand, to prevent people being able to look into what's known as North Korea's forbidden city.

TODD (voice-over): The forbidden city, analysts say, is a nickname for a section of Pyongyang where important government buildings are located, the headquarters of the Korean Workers Party and other offices where Kim and the elites from his inner circle conduct business. The position and height of many of these now blocked windows, analysts say, seems to be fueling the regime's paranoia.

DEAN CHENG, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: If you are an assassin, you'd probably love to be someplace higher up. If you wanted to try and eavesdrop, if you wanted to observe who is coming and who is going, if you wanted to try and establish somebody's schedule, these would all be apartments that would give you a great view of who is in which office.

TODD (voice-over): But by closing off these windows in what's known as Pyonghattan, Kim's regime is also likely taking away the views of some people who are very powerful -- top North Korean officials who have been given those exclusive apartments, those elite who, analysts say, the dictator bribes with luxury goods and cash to keep him in power.

O'CARROLL: When you get to the stage that you're blocking the view of your -- your apparently trusted elite families in North Korea, I think it -- it's something that is potentially going to breed some discontent.

TODD (voice-over): Others say those who have been elevated to power by the Supreme Leader likely understand this is something they may just have to swallow.

CHENG: This is a regime that maintains its authority through open execution with mortar rounds and anti-aircraft cannon. Compared to that, having your, you know, nice window barricaded is not exactly, you know, something worth dying for.

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TODD: Analysts say this could also be a sign of another impending crackdown by Kim Jong-un, a stepped-up pace of round-ups, arrests, possible executions of those who the dictator suspects of being disloyal.

We got no response to our inquiries about the coverings of the high- rise buildings in Pyongyang from South Korean intelligence or from North Korea's mission to the U.N. U.S. intelligence would not comment -- Wolf.

[17:55:08]

BLITZER: Very interesting indeed. Brian Todd reporting, thank you. Much more on all the breaking news right after this.

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BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news.