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AT THIS HOUR

Hundreds of U.S. Troops May Stay in Syria after Withdrawal; Trump Abandons Idea to Host G-7 at His Doral Resort; Mulvaney Tries to Cleanup Remarks on Quid Pro Quo Regarding Ukraine; Angry Kurds Hurl Insults & Rotten Food at U.S. Troops Leaving Syria; Esper: Some U.S. Troops Will Remain in Syria to Protect Oil Fields from ISIS; Turkey's President Wants Nuclear Bomb Despite West's Objection. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 21, 2019 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:00]

JIM SCUITTO, CNN ANCHOR: Polo, thank you very much.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Polo. We appreciate it.

And thanks to all of you for joining us. Jim and I will see you back here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

This morning, cracks are emerging in the Republican Party. But remember, cracks are just that, cracks. This comes as the president is signaling for the second time in a year that he could reverse his plans to withdraw troops from Syria. Those troops were seen already moving out of Syria and into Iraq over the weekend.

A U.S. official telling CNN that he, the president, is considering keeping up to several hundred troops there now after, of course, saying this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: American combat troops should not be at the center of ancient sectarian conflicts all over the world. Bring our soldiers back home. Bring our soldiers back home.

(CHEERING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: It's not only that. It would be the second reversal in just a couple days for President Trump, now abandoning his plans to host the next G-7 summit at his resort in Florida.

Here's how acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, put it on Sunday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF: He was honestly surprised at the level of pushback. At the end of the day, you know, he still considers himself to be in the hospitality business. And he saw an opportunity to take the biggest leaders from around the world and put on the absolute best show, the best visit that he possibly could. He was very comfortable doing that at Doral. I think we were all surprised at the level of pushback.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: That is the chief of staff declaring on TV that the president of the United States still views himself as being in the hotel business while he sits in the White House.

That aside, Mulvaney shouldn't be surprised by the pushback considering he said he expected it late last week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MULVANEY: I was skeptical. I was. I was aware of the political sort of criticism that we could come under for doing it at Doral.

I get the criticisms. So does he.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: The president would clearly like to blame the media and clearly like to blame, as he put it on Twitter, Democrat crazed irrational hostility for his about face. But all the reporting suggests that it was actually Republican lawmakers who were the gamechangers. Making clear they couldn't defend it and said they wouldn't.

Let's get to it. CNN's Jeremy Diamond is at the White House and joins me now.

Jeremy, also importantly, Mulvaney, in his public appearances, trying to also say he didn't say what he did say with regard to the quid pro quo and Ukraine. What are hearing?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Kate. Mick Mulvaney spent part of the weekend spending cleanup, insisting on a Sunday news program yesterday that, as you said, he did not say what he said. And his latest rationale and defense appears to be that he did not specifically say those words "quid pro quo."

Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MULVANEY: Reporters will use their language all the time. My language never said quid pro quo. It is legitimate for the president to want to know what's going on with the ongoing investigation into the server. Everybody acknowledges that. At least, I think most normal people do. It's completely legitimate to ask about that.

Number two, it's legitimate to tie the aid to corruption. It's legitimate to tie the aid to foreign aid from other countries. That's what I was talking about. I can see how people took that the wrong way. Absolutely. But I never said there was a quid pro quo because there isn't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DIAMOND: Kate, you can see there, even as Mulvaney said he didn't say the words "quid pro quo," he acknowledges again that the president's interest in the Democratic National Committee server and Ukraine investigating it was part of the calculus as the White House temporarily suspended that aid.

Now Mulvaney didn't necessarily do himself any favors. We're told that the president is increasingly frustrated with Mulvaney as he spent his weekend watching coverage of this and fielding calls from allies who were critical of Mulvaney.

That being said, I'm just learning now, Kate, from a senior White House official that Mulvaney actually got a show of support from senior officials at the White House this morning during a senior staff meeting. He actually brought up, I'm told, the coverage of all of this, acknowledging that it has been a tough week, and senior staff at the White House responded, I'm told, with a round of applause -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: So you at least have that.

Good to see you. Thanks so much, Jeremy. Appreciate it.

For more on this, let's bring in CNN's chief political correspondent, Dana Bash.

So, Dana, add up -- let's start with just the reversals and about- faces if you will. If you add up the reversals from the president, the difference makers were the fact that the Republicans pushed back. That is unique. Does this -- do you sense from your sources that this foreshadows something more? What does it mean today?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Possibly. Possibly. There are a couple of different dynamics. As you said, they're very much related. First and foremost, is Republicans up in arms about several different things that the president did where, maybe in the past, Republicans wouldn't have been as aggressive in their pushback.

[11:05:09]

Obviously, number one was the president's decision a week ago Sunday night to remove troops from Syria. And then number two, this whole Doral situation where he had his chief of staff come out and say we're going to do at his property, so what, he's in the hospitality business.

Those two things combined have given the Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have been frightened to speak out against the president, frightened because they're going to get a tweet or, more importantly, because they're going to get, you know, pushback from their own constituents who are very much Trump supporters.

These two things have given Republicans a channel to express their concern in a way that they felt like they didn't have and still feel like they don't necessarily have on impeachment.

That is something that a senior Republican actually articulated to me over the weekend, that that is very much a dynamic. And because of that. the president, in ways that we haven't seen very much, has had a series of reversals.

Maybe that is a lesson to Republicans. As afraid as they are of their constituents or a tweet, they can have an impact if they work together.

BOLDUAN: That's a lesson from this weekend for sure.

I mean, when it comes to Mick Mulvaney, you have new reporting about the level of frustration with him from the president to others in the White House. I mean, what does it mean for him though now, do you think?

BASH: You know, he's on shaky ground. There's no question about it.

Now, after his press conference, between his press conference last Thursday, I believe it was, and his, "I didn't mean to say that statement," the president made clear that he needed that statement to go out because he was not happy with the content of what Mulvaney said undercutting the president saying there was a quid pro quo.

But I was told that the president wasn't angry at Mulvaney and wasn't frustrated. He just wanted it cleaned up.

That changed over the weekend, according to people I'm talking to. And one source says it was because the president, as he is prone to do -- this is his, you know, how he consumes information and that is a lot. He consumes a lot of information. It was raining here in Washington. He probably was watching -- I'm told he was watching a lot of news coverage.

Not just Mulvaney himself out on Sunday trying to clean it up but the tone and tenor of the questions to him and the discussion about how bad it made, not just Mulvaney look but the president, that has irritated the president more than he even was at the end of last week.

Does that mean that Mulvaney is on his way out? Not necessarily. And I reported, along with Kaitlan Collins and others, one of the reasons is because the president is well aware he's already on his third chief of staff and four chiefs in three years is not necessarily something he's going for.

BOLDUAN: When you're in the middle of an impeachment inquiry.

BASH: Precisely.

BOLDUAN: Good to see you, Dana. Amazing reporting as always. Thank you.

BASH: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: For more on this, let me bring in former Republican congressman and now CNN political commentator, Charlie Dent.

Great to see you, Congressman. It's been a while.

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Good to be with you, Kate.

BOLDUAN: You've been dodging me. We'll get to that later. Just kidding.

(LAUGHTER)

What you're at right now, in terms of, as Dana was pointing out, Republicans are standing up to the president, and he's actually backing down in a couple situations. It appears very clearly in one and possibly when it comes to making some change in terms of Syria. What do you read into this though? Are you looking at this in this moment as a new chapter?

DENT: Potentially, Kate. I'll tell you why. Look, between the Ukraine debacle, the Kurdish betrayal, Doral, the meltdown meeting last week, the Mulvaney confession on the quid pro quo, these members are in a situation where they can't defend the indefensible.

I mean, the president's self-dealing on Doral. The fact that Mick Mulvaney said he was surprised by the pushback, the president of the United States directing resources to his own business? If a member of Congress had done that, they would be investigated immediately and probably a DOJ, Department of Justice, referral.

So I think it's very significant. These members cannot defend the indefensible. If more of these members speak up, Kate, if they speak up, the president will change course. Witness Syria, witness Doral.

There were some moderate members at Camp David this weekend. I'm sure they gave the White House an earful about all of this. I hope the White House responds. But the members can make a difference if enough of them speak up.

BOLDUAN: Of course, what is the tipping point is always the question, right? Right now, you see cracks. You see some Republicans speaking out.

[11:10:05]

One of the Republicans speaking out now, the Congressman Francis Rooney, from Florida. Let me play what he said on "STATE OF THE UNION" yesterday on the question of formally supporting the impeachment investigation. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R-FL): I'm not 100 percent sure, right this second. I want to hear what Ambassador Taylor has to say Tuesday. And I hope to hear from Ambassador Bolton before that would happen. Because what I've heard so far is quite troubling. It's quite troubling that we had a diplomatic outreach of civilians delegating our paid public servant diplomats.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: He had some really harsh language. He has now announced he's going to retire as well.

After listening to what Rooney said, if you were still in office, looking at the dynamics of your district and the House conference, would you support the impeachment investigation?

DENT: I would support an impeachment inquiry investigation. I would vote for that absolutely. In fact, at this point, I think they must engage in this inquiry.

I believe the Democrats should hold a vote on this. Most of the Democrats, House Democrats, have already declared themselves on this issue. They might as well bite the bullet and vote on it. They ought to be more transparent in how they're conducting the investigation.

But I think --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: For Republicans though --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: But, Congressman, for Republicans, though, do you think that's where the question lies or do you think the question is now beyond that? Like John Kasich came out last week saying he now supports impeachment because it's like a past the Rubicon kind of moment.

Do you think it's no longer a "would you support impeachment inquiry" question now? Are you getting to the point of thinking there are more and more Republicans who could actually support impeachment?

DENT: I think we're getting to that point that some are going to have to think very hard about this. Particularly those Republicans in those swing districts. They have to think hard about this. This is a tough vote for them on the impeachment inquiry as it is for Democrats in the swing districts.

By the same token, if Donald Trump is to be impeached -- and I believe he will be impeached by the House -- then the Senate Republicans in those swing states are also going to be under incredible pressure. And to listen to Mitt Romney and others, I think many members are exhausted and disgusted. Listen to Francis Rooney, a good man, and Will Hurd. Look at the exodus, all these members who are leaving, in large part, out of frustration. They may not be saying that publicly. I know they're saying it.

I had a Republican member who supports Trump, last week, tell me, you know, just how crazy -- he used an expletive before crazy -- how crazy this all is and how difficult it is.

So they're exasperated by this whole situation and they're laying it on Trump's feet. He's put them in an impossible predicament with Doral and on Syria, and I think they've just had enough.

BOLDUAN: Exasperated, some speaking out, some announcing retirement. It remains to be seen if the dam will be breaking.

Congressman, it's good to see you. Thank you for coming in.

DENT: You bet. Thanks, Kate. Any time.

BOLDUAN: Sure.

Coming up, U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria is under way. And some Kurdish civilians, they're showing this is their reaction to that today. We're going to get details from the Pentagon about where things stand there in a second.

Plus, there's this. The diplomat who raised red flags over withholding military aid to Ukraine will have his turn in front of the impeachment inquiry this week. This is a key witness. And we'll look at what he will say and, especially, what he'll be asked by the committee when he heads to Capitol Hill.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:18:27]

BOLDUAN: U.S. troops moving out of Syria across the border in Iraq after President Trump ordered their withdrawal. The decision from the commander-in-chief being met with fierce backlash at home from even the president's own party.

On the ground, you see right there, Syrian Kurds expressing their anger this way, throwing rotten food, cursing at a U.S. military convoy as they rolled out.

But now, complicating matters even more, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper just said this morning that some American troops will remain in Syria to protect oil fields from ISIS. It could be a couple hundred or, according to a U.S. official, it could be several hundred.

So are the president's orders now changing? For those now staying behind, what is their mission?

Joining me right now, CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, and CNN political and national security analyst, David Sanger. He's also the national security correspondent for the "New York Times."

Barbara, let's start there. What are you learning about the troops that are staying behind, that are staying in Syria?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, staying behind at least for now. You know, that's a really big if.

Defense Secretary Esper held a press conference several hours ago when he was traveling in Afghanistan. He was asked about this. What he talked about is, these troops in the eastern oil fields right now, they're not scheduled to come out for some days or weeks. So for now, they stay put.

But it's what he said about what they might do that is so interesting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK ESPER, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The purposes of those forces -- a purpose of those forces, working with the SDF, is to deny access to those oil fields by ISIS and others who may benefit from their revenues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[11:20:11]

STARR: By ISIS and others. The U.S. military mission in Syria has always been to defeat ISIS and also defeat other terror groups operating in Syria and others, suddenly, pops up.

Well, it's no stretch to imagine the Russians, the Iranian militias, the Syrian regime, all of those folks are interested in getting access to Syrian oil fields. And it's a big unanswered question now whether Esper wants to use U.S. troops to deny those parties access -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: That's a huge question right now, Barbara.

David, looking at where we are in this moment, the 120 hours of this cease-fire expires tomorrow. What then? What are you hearing, David?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Two things, Kate. First, I think back on Barbara's good reporting there. It's really interesting to think about where the administration's priorities are here.

In the president's mind, it was not worth keeping troops in place to protect the Kurds. It wasn't worth keeping them in place to keep the Kurds acting as essentially jail wardens for ISIS. It wasn't worth their keeping troops there to prevent Iran and Russian-backed forces from coming into the area. But it might be worth it to protect oil made vulnerable by the previous decision.

It takes you to where the president's priorities are and how much they were or were not looking down the line at the predictable results of the president's decision. The cease-fire is not really a cease-fire. It is, in the minds of the

Turks, a pause. That's how they've described it. They've never used the cease-fire word. I think we know what could happen when the pause ends.

BOLDUAN: And the big question is, does five days turn into seven days because, as the reporting has been, Barbara, it's going to be weeks, not days that this withdraw will taking. That's what Esper said.

Let me play this video, show folks this video once again from this morning, Barbara. Syrian Kurds cursing, throwing food at U.S. military vehicles as they're moving out of the region.

Not only you can imagine what it feels like to be one of the members of the U.S. military in the convoy, but what is the view from the Pentagon in seeing that today?

STARR: Well, look, I think it's really important to remember, when you talk about the people who worked -- the military personnel who worked here in the Pentagon, they have a different view than the person who might be riding in that convoy.

In that convoy, that may well be a very deeply disturbing experience for them. Tomatoes and rocks aren't going to hurt them, per se --

BOLDUAN: No.

STARR: -- but it is demoralizing. I think there's no question about that.

And we know that many, not all, many of the forces that have served in Syria have been very unhappy about having to pull out before they perceive the job is done.

Here in the Pentagon, you know, it's an order from the president to get out. So that is what is happening.

I think it's really important to say that, for now, they are following the letter of what President Trump said he wanted. All troops out of Syria except for those deeply in the southern part of the country. But there seems to be, day by day, a lot of wiggle room in what that really means.

BOLDUAN: Wiggle room in gray areas, not, not what is needed right now over there in the slightest.

David, you have some really important reporting that dovetails into all of this that, for Turkey's president, this is about much more than just Syria. He wants a nuclear weapon. How real is this?

SANGER: Well, he says he does. He said it before. And about a month ago, talking to his own political party in Turkey, he said that he could not accept a world in which the West and other nations could have nuclear weapons and missiles and he could not. So he was basically chaffing at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treating, which Turkey is a signatory, and Turkey is also a NATO member. We've never had a case where a NATO member has broken out the NNPT or

sought a nuclear weapon, a NATO member that didn't have one before the treaty was signed. So the interesting question now is, is this just something that's playing to the domestic audience or does he really have plan.

My colleague and I dug into this and, in fact, they've been building up a fairly significant nuclear capability for 40 or 50 years in addition to those 50 nuclear weapons that the U.S. keeps on Turkish soil.

[11:25:10]

So if they decided to try to match the Iranians, something they've talked about before, they would be in a good position to do it.

BOLDUAN: David, thank you so much.

Barbara, great to see you. Thanks so much.

SANGER: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us still, he called the possibility of a quid pro quo with Ukraine crazy in the series of text messages now at the center of the impeachment inquiry. Tomorrow, acting ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, will have his say before Congress. What could he reveal?

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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