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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Crisis in Syria; Interview With Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL); Trump Lashes Out at Republicans Not Defending Him. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired October 21, 2019 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:02]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: This increases the chance that his rival, Benny Gantz, will become Israel's next prime minister.

And if Gantz also fails to form a coalition, and no one else emerges to command a majority, Israel may be forced to hold a third election.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" STARTS RIGHT NOW.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to a special edition of THE LEAD: "White House in Crisis." I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump today trying out a new strategy to fight off a growing impeachment crisis, attacking Republicans criticizing him, and demanding that the Republican Party rally around him and come to his defense.

In a Cabinet meeting this afternoon, the president clearly irked by the growing number of Republicans who have publicly criticized his actions, whether for the admitted quid pro quo demand that Ukraine conduct political investigations for him in exchange for military aid, or the rash decision to pull U.S. service members from Northern Syria, abandoning U.S. allies, or the short-lived push to send taxpayer dollars to one of his resorts by hosting a global summit there.

The president today lamenting that Democrats are doing a better job of sticking together to attack him on those issues than Republicans are sticking together to defend him over them.

Let's go straight to CNN's Jeremy Diamond live at the White House for us.

And, Jeremy, President Trump also called out the Republicans who have left the door open to a possible impeachment inquiry.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake.

As the prospect of impeachment grows closer by the day, the president seems to be growing concern that Republicans may not stick by him in the way that he needs them to. Republican lawmakers have largely stood by the president so far, but we are beginning to see some signs of criticism from certain Republicans, including the Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, for one.

And the president seems to think that Republicans should take a page from Democrats' playbook.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think they're lousy politicians. But two things they have, they're vicious and they stick together.

They don't have Mitt Romney in their midst. They don't have people like that. They stick together. You never see them break off.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DIAMOND: Now, Jake, while the president is talking about problems in the Republican Party more broadly, he didn't address any of the strife within his own administration.

This Cabinet meeting came after the White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, struggled repeatedly to try and defend his sudden walk-back or attempts to walk back that admission of a quid pro quo with Ukraine.

The president was asked about his chief of staff's standing, and he declined to answer any of those questions.

TAPPER: Hmm.

Jeremy, President Trump also attempted to defend his initial push to hold the G7 global summit of world leaders at his Florida resort. He claimed it would have been the best G7 ever, it would have been free. There's no evidence that it would have been free, of course.

What is the president's reasoning for reversing course and opting to hold it somewhere else?

DIAMOND: Well, Jake, you're exactly right. One of those claims that the president made, that this was free, was not something that was made as a selling point, when the chief of staff, Mulvaney, came out to the White House Briefing Room last week to make the case for this.

But, somehow, the president is now claiming that. And he's continuing to lament the fact that he had to reverse course on this, a rare course reversal, of course, for the president. And he blamed Democrats for this.

But, Jake, the president knew that Democrats were going to be criticizing him on this. This is something that he's been floating for several months now. And the criticism from Democrats was not a surprise.

What was a surprise, Jake, was the extent of the criticism from Republicans. And that is why we saw the president this weekend make that sudden course reversal.

TAPPER: All right, Jeremy Diamond at the White House for us, thanks so much. President Trump today also wrongly claims that the whistle-blower who

initially publicly raised concerns about his conversations with the president of Ukraine privately -- then it became publicly -- that the whistle-blower has been discredited.

Of course, he or she has not been discredited. The president also said that the whistle-blower gave a false account. That is also not true.

The president even nonsensically suggested today that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff might be an informant for the whistle-blower, which is, of course, not only false; it's bizarre.

CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju is live for us on Capitol Hill.

Manu, will there be a vote to censure Chairman Schiff today? President Trump was pushing Republicans to do so.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

And Republicans are pushing to do so. We do expect a vote this evening in the House. Actually, the vote would be a Democratic effort to stop this Republican resolution. So, expect Democrats to vote in lockstep against this Republican effort.

And what the resolution essentially would do would be to censure Adam Schiff and condemn him for a number of things that the president has been alleging, including how Adam Schiff at an open hearing with the acting director of national intelligence characterized the president's remarks.

The president has attacked Schiff for lying about for what he said. Also, Adam Schiff initially said he had no contact with the whistle- blower. It turns out that the whistle-blower initially reached out to one of his aides. And it turns out that was for guidance and the process of filing a whistle-blower complaint, something that Schiff's office says is done all the time with whistle-blowers.

[15:05:00]

But, nevertheless, Republicans are echoing what the president has been saying. And that's what we're going to see in this resolution tonight, as Democrats says this is all an effect to distract from the allegations in the impeachment inquiry -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Manu, you have some new reporting about how the impeachment inquiry might take longer than some Democrats were expecting. Why is that?

RAJU: Because they're running into this issue. More leads are coming up in their investigations, in their closed-door depositions.

Initially, some Democrats had hoped they could wrap up everything by Thanksgiving, potentially even vote to impeach by Thanksgiving. But with more witnesses come more leads. They are trying to bring in additional people.

Some witnesses have been tough, difficult to schedule. Just today, they announced that three witnesses who were supposed to come this week have now been delayed, in part because of memorial services for the late Congressman Elijah Cummings.

So Democrats had hoped this would all be done, but this could potentially slip into past Thanksgiving, maybe even up until around Christmastime, for the House to consider this.

And remember, also, Jake, the committees are expected to write a report detailing their recommendations. All of this could take some time. So we're only in the first phase of this investigation. Then we have the votes in the House to impeach the president, assuming they go that route, and, of course, then the Senate trial, which could take several weeks, Wolf -- Jake.

TAPPER: Manu Raju, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Also today, we have some breaking news, brand-new reporting about perhaps the key witness in the impeachment inquiry who is set to testify, testify tomorrow. That key witness is Bill Taylor. He is the top American diplomat in Ukraine.

Taylor, you might remember, sent text messages suggesting that he was opposed to the -- what he saw as a direct quid pro quo, military aid from the U.S., in exchange for Ukraine conducting political investigations to help President Trump.

Sources tell CNN that Taylor was concerned about taking this job to begin with.

Let's bring in CNN national security reporter Kylie Atwood, who's breaking this news for us.

Kylie, why was Taylor so concerned and worried about taking this job with the Trump administration?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, he was pulling out of retirement to take this job, right? And he came in at a very tenuous moment.

That's because the former ambassador had been ousted early. She was kicked out of her job, we now know, for political reasons, because Trump wanted her ousted. So when he was asked to take the job, he -- the folks who came to him included Secretary Pompeo, Kurt Volker.

They had a meeting with him at the State Department in which they tried to convince him to take the job. They pressed him that there was solid U.S.-Ukraine policy in place, that it wasn't politically motivated. And even after that meeting, however, he still wasn't ready. He still needed to be convinced.

He texted with Kurt Volker, who was the special envoy to Ukraine at the time, saying, hey, why don't you take this job if it's so great? And Kurt Volker said to him, listen, I have got it covered. I have the Washington element of this covered. I have the international element. We need someone like you on the ground there.

Now, he was, Bill Taylor, the former ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009. He's widely trusted in the State Department, in foreign policy circles. So when he did finally take the job, there was a sigh of relief from folks who know U.S.-Ukraine policy well.

But, of course, now it's going to be a pivotal, pivotal moment to hear from him, because he, as you said, is the one who suggested that there was a quid pro quo. And he texted the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., saying it would be crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.

He got a response saying that he had misunderstood something. The question is, what did he misunderstand? And how is he going to explain that to lawmakers tomorrow?

TAPPER: Yes, those text messages read like somebody trying to secure and provide a paper trail for his objections because he doesn't like what's going on.

ATWOOD: Exactly.

TAPPER: Kylie Atwood, thank you so much.

Coming up: President Trump just did something that we have rarely seen him do -- why it could be a big lesson for Republicans.

Then, a tweet put an end to his wild ride in the Trump administration, and now the former head of the VA is telling all about what it was really like to work for President Trump.

You're watching a special edition of THE LEAD: "White House in Crisis."

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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TAPPER: And we're back with our special coverage on THE LEAD: "White House in Crisis."

Today, President Trump called on Republicans to fight tougher in the impeachment battle, lamenting how a growing chorus of members of his own party have left the door open to impeachment.

Let's discuss this with my powers that be, my brains here.

Amanda, let me start with you.

President Trump said Democrats are lousy politicians, but they stick together. He's calling on Republicans to defend him, to fight back against impeachment. He attacks Mitt Romney.

What do you think is going on here? AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This would be a good

time for the president to have a lot more political capital.

I mean, Republicans are exhausted from defending him from every little thing. And you saw the backlash against the emoluments question in terms of hosting the G7 at Doral, because it was such a clear and obvious violation.

Note that problem doesn't necessarily go away, because there's still lots of foreign dignitaries frequenting his hotels. But people are just extremely tired.

I mean, you talked to Francis Rooney yesterday on "STATE OF THE UNION," and it wasn't just about Syria and Doral. He was saying, listen, I have been taking it in my home state of Florida on gun violence, says Republicans don't have the right solution on the environment. And now you want me to do this?

People are just throwing up their hands.

TAPPER: Let's talk about Francis Rooney for a second, Gloria, because -- so this is Congressman Francis Rooney. He is a former Bush ambassador to the Holy See.

He is a very conservative Republican, and he announced his resignation. But before he did that, he kept -- he said he's keeping his mind open.

And I asked about Mick Mulvaney's attempted walk-back of his confession that there is a quid pro quo.

[15:15:06]

This is what Congressman Rooney had to say:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: You didn't buy it, the walk-back?

REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R-FL): I don't see how you back something that's clear. I would say, game, set, match on that.

TAPPER: And is that impeachable? I mean...

ROONEY: I don't know. That's the question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, what's interesting about that, is open mind about impeachment, and refusing to be gaslit, right?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Shocking.

TAPPER: You can't just walk -- well, it is shocking.

BORGER: It is shocking. That's what's so shocking, is that it is shocking.

You hear a congressman -- and we know, yes, he is leaving. But you hear a congressman say, I'm not going to come out here and say to you that he didn't say what he said, because he said it, because Mulvaney said it, and that's ridiculous.

So he wasn't going to play Alice in Wonderland here. And that doesn't mean that any other Republican is going to follow him. But I think what Donald Trump was talking about today is the proverbial cracks in the cement that he can see, not just Mitt Romney, but all of these Republicans, including columnists, who are saying, there's too much.

CARPENTER: Admirals and generals too.

BORGER: Admirals, generals, McRaven, whom you interviewed.

There's too much weight here now for us to bear. And the Doral was one thing, but Syria, Syria is really something that they are just not going to bend on.

TAPPER: Does he have capital? I mean, as Amanda said, yes, does he have political capital?

(CROSSTALK)

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: He has an enormous amount of political capital because of the Republican Party support that he has.

But I feel like, with Rooney, there's such a psychological burden that so many Republicans in Congress carry around with them every day, because we all talk to these guys off the record. And you know what they say. They try and signal to us that, privately, they don't have as much respect for Trump as they say, and that, if it wasn't for the Republican base of the party and their fears of losing reelection, they would be more vocal.

And, lo and behold, a guy like Rooney says he's retiring, and suddenly he loves to come on TV and kind of unburden himself, almost like a confession, right?

But it only happens with people who are either in a moderate district, swing district, or they're leaving office.

TAPPER: Well, and one of the things that's interesting, Jen -- and I want to hear what you think because you used to be the spokesman, spokeswoman for the Obama State Department -- is, for a lot of these people, the bridge too far was Doral, was sending the G7.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right.

TAPPER: But for a lot of them, it was Syria and the rash decision and abandoning the Kurds.

And that's when we heard from people even like Lindsey Graham.

PSAKI: That's right. And it became kind of the straw that broke the camel's back, for lack of a better term.

And it may make way for Republicans, some of the same ones, maybe some other ones, to differ with Donald Trump, put their political ambitions and political worries aside.

What was so striking to me about what Rooney said is that it was very clearly spoken. I mean, he wasn't arguing Ukraine and the server and 2016. I think some of the things he said that stuck with me were, one, I'm going to be looking in the faces of my children a lot longer than I'm looking in the faces of people in this building, and, two, what's he going to do to me?

And by saying those two things, he's almost calling other people in his party out to consider those two things. How will you be written about in history books, and what is Donald Trump going to do to you? And that's, I think, an important message to send to the...

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: One point on Syria, because I think this gets glossed over a lot, although it has been part of the coverage, Trump's decision released hundreds, if not more, of ISIS fighters into Europe.

Donald Trump went to the cameras and essentially said he didn't care. These are people that American lives were sent tracking and putting in prison. That's something that goes to the heart of Republican Party and national security and is just absolutely sickening to think about.

And I think that's part of the backlash here that should be analyzed in a little bit more detail.

BORGER: None of these decisions, these political -- these hefty political decisions, which they're all going to face, are made in a vacuum.

And so you say, well, was it just about this phone call with Zelensky and the president saying, do me a favor, though? Well, it is about that, but it's also about a lot of other things.

So whether it's, as Trump calls it, the phony Emoluments Clause, which happens to be in the Constitution, over the Doral, or just a whole group of things that, at some point, the burden becomes too much to bear for some members.

Now, we haven't seen that yet. But there is a bend here.

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: Mitch McConnell might be looking at the Senate seats that might be lost.

BORGER: Exactly.

LIZZA: We have learned where some of the red lines are here for the first time in several years on Syria and on Doral.

That's really...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Backed off on Doral and is now saying, well, some people will stay in Syria.

LIZZA: Yes.

And a lot of people were wondering, what is the red line for a lot of Republicans? Well, we figured it out. I think the great danger for Trump is if a Ukraine-like situation, where there's this quid pro quo, there's an allegation of corruption, if that were to intersect with something like a Syria decision, that's where Republicans would start to abandon...

(CROSSTALK)

[15:20:03]

PSAKI: This is a really, really important piece, because what we don't know is what the other transcripts are on that server.

What motivated him exactly to give this green light to Erdogan, and what are the calls he had with Putin? And that's...

BORGER: Will we know? We don't know.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: It's a mystery. We will probably never see it. But maybe we will. But it is a mystery, because we still don't know why he made that decision.

Everyone, stick around.

American troops were pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables as some were leaving Northern Syria, while others are going to stick around with a new mission. We're going to go live to Syria next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:25:30]

TAPPER: Welcome back. Our world lead now.

In the face of widespread criticism that he abandoned a reliable U.S. ally, the Kurds, and helped pave the way for a bloodbath at the Turkish-Syrian border, president Trump insisted today that he actually knows more about Syria than the pundits, and he declared the U.S. did not promise to protect the Kurds forever.

President Trump also confirming what Defense Secretary Esper announced today, that some U.S. troops will remain in the region to protect critical oil fields from the terrorists of ISIS.

Now, for U.S. troops leaving Syria, cameras today captured the despair of Kurdish civilians, who were pelting U.S. convoys with rotten vegetables and holding up signs saying that the U.S. was leaving them and their children to be slaughtered.

CNN senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is in Northern Syria right now.

Nick, tomorrow marks the end for the temporary cease-fire between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. Is there is there any confidence that they can extend it and preserve some semblance of peace?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Quite possibly. The cease-fire hasn't been a raging success. It's got 22 hours left in it. People have died during it, two officials telling me they didn't think it was holding, but the U.S. government line is that it's doing its best job it can.

The question really is, is the meeting in Sochi between Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin being the backer of the Syrian regime who have fallen into the role of the new ally of the Syrian Kurds since the U.S. left, is that meeting able to hammer out a kind of status quo that all sides are happy with, or are the pro-Turkish forces, the Syrian rebels doing a lot of the fighting, are they slightly out of control?

Could they continue to keep fighting? All eyes on that and the fact that President Erdogan has said he will up his campaign yet more if he doesn't feel he gets what he wants by 10:00 local time tomorrow -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Nick, what is the strategic value of the oil fields?

WALSH: For the United States, none, really, frankly. They don't make enough oil to merit an entire military presence continuing on that behalf.

I think there are some analysts who think that possibly those in the Pentagon who knew they needed to keep a presence here in Syria simply tried to persuade President Trump that oil was worth fighting for here.

But, essentially, they provide a bit of a block in the south, which is always the through route many thought Iran was using towards the Mediterranean and Lebanon and Israel, a key U.S. ally, and also too it enables them to keep troops on the ground fighting ISIS.

What's the upshot, though, Jake, of this two chaotic weeks, in which U.S. presence here has radically transformed? Well, there are there was many troops here. Most of them are going to be in Iraq, away from where ISIS is in Syria, where they were fighting them before.

The U.S. has lost its key ally in that fight against ISIS, the Syrian Kurds, and it now has couple of hundred, maybe 300 troops left inside Syria in a much worse position before. Essentially, nobody's going home. The fight against ISIS continues.

They may regroup because of the chaos and the vacuum, and the U.S. looks weak. Russia gains -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Nick Paton Walsh in Northern Syria, stay safe, my friend. Thank you for that report.

Joining me now is Republican is Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He's a veteran and currently a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Take a listen to what President Trump said today about the Syrian Kurds.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: A lot of people are good when they fight with us. And we have protected them. We have taken very good care of them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What do -- how do you respond when you hear President Trump say, we have taken very good care of them?

KINZINGER: Well, we did do a point. And, obviously, we're not now.

The president's right. We're not promising to be there forever. Nobody want to be there forever. But there's real benefit in standing with your allies, and especially when it comes to the Kurds.

Look, it's a very complicated situation. There's no doubt about that. But if you look, for instance, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iraq region, or the Kurdish part of Iraq, the way they treated us, very well, both during, after Desert Storm, but also then after 2003.

I don't think a single American lost their lives in hostile fire in Kurdish territory. They have stood with us against the fight -- in the fight against ISIS. They took 10,000 deaths, at least.

I mean, you think about, as much as we have paid in life for Iraq and Afghanistan in 20 years, it's less than 10,000. So, you think about that impact, and then to leave just so quickly, without a negotiated solution, it's obviously what's disheartening to a lot of us out here.

TAPPER: And President Trump and Defense Secretary Esper today making a big show of arguing they have no obligation to protect the Kurds.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: We never agreed to protect the Kurds.

MARK ESPER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We had no obligation, if you will, to defend the Kurds against a longstanding NATO ally.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What's your reaction to that?

KINZINGER: I mean, it's like

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