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Republican Jitters Grow Over Trump In Turning Point Week; Potatoes Thrown At U.S. Troops As They Leave Syria. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired October 21, 2019 - 10:00   ET

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


[10:00:00]

POPPY HARLOW: All right. Top of the hour, 10:00 A.M. Eastern. Good Monday morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

Later this morning, President Trump will meet with members of his cabinet as questions grow about several recent reversals by the president on key issues, Syria, the G7 Summit and his acting chief of staff's submission, pretty clear terms, to a quid pro quo in Ukraine.

CNN has learned that President Trump is growing increasingly frustrated with Mick Mulvaney. This comes after his chief of staff, acting, I should say, told Americans to, quote, get over the administration's use of political influence on foreign policy matters. They're even making T-shirts saying that now.

Mulvaney later released a statement saying he never admitted to a quid pro quo, even though the tape says differently.

HARLOW: And all of this as tomorrow begins a crucial week again of testimony on Capitol Hill by current and former U.S. officials. And likely none larger than the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, that is Bill Taylor. You'll, of course, remember that he's the one that sent text messages describing the holding back of military aid to Ukraine for political purposes as, quote, crazy.

Let's start this hour with our Manu Raju. He joins us on Capitol Hill.

A huge week ahead. Do we know anything about what Bill Taylor may say?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're still awaiting word about exactly how he plans to address this committee. But the fact that he is cooperating is notable. As we've seen, other people who work in the administration have not complied with subpoena requests. We just heard that word moments ago that the top OMB or Office of Management and Budget official at the White House, Russ Vought, with the top, another senior official in that office, Mike Duffey, will not comply with Democrats' demands to cooperate this week. But others, including some State Department officials, like Bill Taylor, last week, Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, Marie Yovanovich, who's still a State Department employee, the former Ukraine ambassador, they have all complied. Bill Taylor will be one, as well as a number of other key figures coming forward this week, people in the State Department, people in the Defense Department, National Security Council officials. We'll see if the White House takes steps to blocking either testimony.

But the Democrats are trying to hone in on exactly why that military aid was withheld, how much it had to do with the fact that the president was pushing for investigations both into the Bidens and to the Democratic National Committee. They have already learned a lot about the president's role and a lot pushing the matter of all Ukraine policy towards Rudy Giuliani to fulfill what Giuliani was seeking, which were those investigations.

Now, they're going to learn more about that military aid, and we have seen from those text messages, Bill Taylor was not happy about that aid being withheld, which had been approved by Congress, even at one point threatening to quit. So we'll see what more he details in what's expected to be a full day of testimony tomorrow, guys.

SCIUTTO: And he raised that association, that perception of a quid pro quo himself in this, and of course, that lines up with what the whistleblower's complaint, the root of it. Manu Raju, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Okay.

SCIUTTO: We have Jeremy Diamond at the White House.

So, Jeremy, when you look at this, the president clearly frustrated with at least his aides and cabinet official's performance here defending his actions, his decisions. What is the president thinking about his own involvement in all of this?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Jim, the White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, spent much of his weekend batting clean up after, you know, insisting yesterday on a Sunday news program, despite video evidence that he never admitted to any quid pro quo involving Ukraine and the security aid that was temporarily frozen there.

The president, meanwhile, was watching. He was watching that performance and he was also spending his weekend at the White House, speaking with some of his allies who were critical of the chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney's Performance, and really of this quagmire that he has put the administration in by talking about a quid pro quo in such clear terms during that White House press briefing last week. And that has all left the president increasingly frustrated, I'm told, according to a source familiar with the president's thinking, with his acting chief of staff and leaving Mulvaney increasingly on shaky ground.

And, of course, we know that this is not the first time that Mulvaney has found himself in this kind of a position. Even before this impeachment saga, we saw efforts by some White House officials to begin looking for potential replacements for the chief of staff.

That being said, the White House insists that Mulvaney is not on shaky ground and that he still has the confidence of the president.

HARLOW: Before you go, Jeremy, I mean, to your point about Mulvaney being on shaky ground, at the end of the interview he did with Fox News yesterday, he basically got a layup after a very tough, you know, important interview from Chris Wallace. He said, oh, by the way, what about the reporting that George Kent testified that -- a senior state, you know, that they went to the Obama administration in 2015 to say that he thought it didn't look good that Hunter Biden was on this Ukrainian board and Mulvaney didn't know anything about it, hadn't read the reporting, et cetera.

[10:05:02]

I mean, I just wonder if that adds to the frustration?

DIAMOND: Certainly, inside the White House, it did. I spoke with a couple of folks who said that they couldn't believe that Mulvaney was not read in on that, which was, of course, something that could have been a pretty solid talking point for the White House to once again pivot this issue to the Bidens, which is something the president has done so many times.

As for the president, he'll be having this cabinet meeting later today. And we know that that is often a location where he likes to kind of pump up his own ego by going around the room and having these other cabinet officials sing his praises, especially important at a time where he's facing so much criticism, including from within the Republican Party on so many other fronts. Poppy?

HARLOW: All right. Thanks, Jeremy. I appreciate the reporting.

SCIUTTO: All right. Let's discuss now with Jeff Mason, White House Correspondent for Reuters, and Jack Quinn, former White House Counsel for the Clinton Administration. Good to see you both on.

Jack, Bill Taylor is central to this investigation. His own text messages, we have him here, raised this question of a quid pro quo in the midst of the decision-making on Ukrainian assistance. He says now, in the first one, are we now saying that security assistance and the White House, this with the president and the Ukrainian president, are conditioned on investigations? He later said, as I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with political campaigns, stating, in his view, as a fact here.

This is a central question. You're a lawyer, you've been involved in a an impeachment proceeding before going back to the Clintons. What do Democrats in the House -- how much evidence do they need to show with the reasonable, you know, credibility that there was a quid pro quo? What do you need exactly from these witnesses, from the text messages, et cetera? JACK QUINN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I don't think you need anything in addition to what's already on the record. I mean, all of it is cumulative, of course, and at this point, you know, any new acknowledgements or admissions would be redundant.

I mean, look, it's interesting that we talk about the president being frustrated by, you know, the performance of the people around him. This is not about performance. This is about facts, what's factual, what's not.

And, you know, Mick Mulvaney, for gosh sake, over the weekend, he clearly said that the money was withheld from Ukraine in order to impel them to investigate the likelihood that it was actually Ukraine and not Russia that was behind the hacking of the -- in the 2016 election. You couldn't have any admission more clear, more unequivocal than that. And by the way, it's not the first piece of evidence.

So, to me, this one element of the story is over. It's done. It's acknowledged. It's admitted.

HARLOW: Jeff, what's your, you know, 30,000-foot view, since you cover the White House and do it so well and ask the important questions over and over again, on what these cracks within the president's party actually mean? Like Mitt Romney is one thing, but Lindsey Graham is another and Francis Rooney, he's not going to run again in Florida, but very conservative. He ran on a border wall and things like that. What do those cracks mean for this president?

JEFF MASON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, REUTERS: Yes, I think it's a great question, Poppy. And you're right to note that the two people who you just listed as examples are not necessarily the ones where everyone needs to get excited. But I think the overall meeting is that the -- the possibility and the evidence here that cracks are happening at all, that has to be concerning to the White House.

And it obviously comes at a tough time when the president needs friends in the Republican Party, particularly in the Senate. When he's facing this impeachment inquiry, it's the wrong time to alienate Republicans. And he has done that, both with the G7 decision, which, of course, he pulled back, and more importantly, with the decision about Syria, which he is just continuing to get scathing criticism about from his Republican colleagues.

SCIUTTO: Jack, a focus, an intention, the strategy of Nancy Pelosi seems to be, keep this impeachment process very focused on Ukraine.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: And then that helps shorten the timeline because she wants a shorter timeline, get to a vote as quickly as possible here.

In the midst of this, you do have the president's Syria decision, which like the Ukraine decision, are arguably more so is getting critiques across the aisle and we're seeing the consequences play out before our eyes, Kurds being slaughtered, Russians moving into U.S. territory, American soldiers getting pelted as they leave the country. Do you see cause or wisdom here for Democrats to add that to the impeachment inquiry, the Syria withdrawal?

QUINN: Not necessarily. You know, we need to hear more about what was behind that. But, look, presidents can make mistakes in foreign policy and they don't usually amount to impeachable conduct.

[10:10:04]

And I think what the speaker is trying to do, it's not just a matter of how quickly this impeachment process can move forward. We know from the Russia investigation that it's important to keep things sharply focused. The issue at hand, namely whether or not Trump and Giuliani and company were actually trying to leverage American -- an American ally in Ukraine to -- you know, in order to bolster their story about what happened in 2016 and in order, more importantly, to initiate an investigation of the Biden family.

So I think they want to keep it focused on that. It's clear, it's understandable, the American people will get it and they won't like it.

HARLOW: Jeff Mason, just on that point, what do you think it means -- Jeremy Diamond talked about this a little bit, just a few minutes ago, but what do you think it means that there is the reporting now about George Kent's testimony last week that he went to a senior White House official in 2015 and waved a flag and said, it looks really bad that Biden's son, Hunter, is on this Ukrainian board, even if there's nothing nefarious here and there's no wrongdoing, it just doesn't look good, and it was brushed aside and said, the vice president doesn't have the bandwidth for this right now. He's focusing on Beau, of course, the son that he lost. What's the significance of that big picture, do you think?

MASON: I think that gives Republicans some fodder in all of this, in a time when most of the fodder is trending towards Democrats and trending towards their arguments against President Trump and saying that he's using his office for political gain. That at least in this testimony, as a result of the impeachment inquiry, can point to an official who raised a red flag about Hunter Biden during the Obama administration and say, look, this wasn't responded to.

And I think your question earlier to Jeremy was good. Why the White House doesn't focus a little bit more on that from a messaging perspective is somewhat surprising. Perhaps it's because there are so many other points in the opposite direction. But I do think that you'll see Republicans, both at the White House and on the Hill, zeroing in on that and the context of everything else.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Well, of course, they could also debate, develop standards for how people in office or their children or family members profit from the office or sitting presidents. They could discuss it or you could turn it into political fodder. Let's place a bet on what's going to happen. Jeff Mason, Jack Quinn, thanks very much. MASON: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Still to come, Kurds visibly angry as U.S. troops pull out of Northern Syria. In one town, a U.S. convoy pelted with potatoes and rotting vegetables, just a demeaning departure for U.S. forces there who fought so hard alongside their Syrian allies.

Coming up, the Pentagon announcement that actually some troops are going to stay behind in Syria. We'll have more.

HARLOW: Plus, is President Trump's support within the Republican Party really a strong as he says it is? And what is the political fallout from Hillary Clinton saying that Representative Tulsi Gabbard is being groomed by the Russians? Her spokesperson confirming that is who she was talking about. Has the controversy actually elevated Tulsi Gabbard, next.

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[10:15:00]

HARLOW: Look at this stunning video showing Kurdish civilians in Northern Syria pelting a U.S. convoy with rotten vegetables as they accuse U.S. troops of abandoning them. Thousands of Syrian Kurdish civilians died and fighters, of course, died helping to defeat ISIS.

SCIUTTO: Imagine being the troops in those armored personnel carriers. They fought alongside the Kurds. Our own reporting at CNN has found that they're not happy with the rapid departure. It had to be a difficult moment for them.

Today though, Defense Secretary Mark Esper says that several hundred U.S. forces will stay behind in Syria now, however, not to fight alongside the Kurds or to guard ISIS prisoners, hundreds of whom have escaped, their mission will be to protect oil fields in Eastern Syria.

Barbara Starr joins us now from the Pentagon.

Barbara, I think folks at home might be confused by this pendulum swing, back and forth, they're in, they're out. Now some of them are staying in. This is purely about the oil fields?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: No, I don't think that's exactly the whole picture right now. Where we are is this. Most -- many of the U.S. troops have come out of the Northern Syria area along the Turkish border. What we're now talking about are the troops that are in the eastern oil fields of Syria. U.S. troops had been in that area for many, many, many months, working on the ISIS fight there.

What Secretary Mark Esper said in Afghanistan earlier today is that they are not yet scheduled to come out anyhow. So as they stay for now, they will work on ensuring the oil fields are protected. Have a listen to a bit of what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MARK ESPER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The 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)

[10:20:07]

STARR: But key language there from Secretary Esper, denied to ISIS and others, and we don't really know what he means by others, because, of course, Russians, Syrian regime elements, Iranian militias, all moving across Syria now in various areas and all of them would like to get their hands on that oil. Poppy, Jim?

HARLOW: Of course. Barbara Starr, thank you so much for the reporting this morning from the Pentagon.

Let's talk about these developments because there are a lot of them over the weekend. Colonel Cedric Leighten joins us, a retired Air Force colonel and our Military Analyst. Good morning to you.

What do you make of Mark Esper's announcement in just the last few hours that there will be some American troops that are going to stay behind, namely around those oil fields to protect them, coupling with The New York Times reporting that we haven't confirmed yet, but that the president may leave about 200 U.S. troops in Eastern Syria?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, good morning, Poppy. I think at the very least, these messages are mixed. And, you know, this could have been rolled out in a much, much better way. But it clear shows that, you know, this redeployment of U.S. forces from Syria is, at best, a haphazard issue that has not really been handled very well from a public relations standpoint.

From a military standpoint, you know, these oil fields, first of all, Syrian oil production is about 60th in the world when you compare it to other countries. The United States is number one, Saudi Arabia and Russia follow that. So the oil is relatively small in terms of the amount of oil that we're talking about here, but it's crucially important as a potential funding source for various groups when you talk about protecting the oil fields from ISIS. That's one big thing that the United States has been doing for quite some time.

Other potential customers include the Russians in Syria, the Syrian government and the Turks. So this is a very complicated issue and they are only dealing with a very small portion of it.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And you might say that the fighters who fought and bled alongside U.S. forces against ISIS, you know, where is the protection for them? And I believe that was the frustration we're seeing.

We'll play this video again. As U.S. Forces leave, they're being pelted with rotting vegetables. You served in the region. You're a veteran. Tell us what this moment must have been like for the soldiers inside those armored personnel carriers and what it means for the U.S. position in the region.

LEIGHTON: Well, it's a heartbreaking moment, Jim. And, you know, when a population that you've been supporting for so long turns against you because they're not necessarily frustrated with you personally, but they're frustrated with your government and with the policies of that government, it really hurts. You work very closely with these allies. The Kurds have been by our side, as you mentioned, during this whole fight against ISIS. They are, you know, really angry about this. And the only target that they can vent their frustration on, unfortunately, are service men and women.

And it's a dangerous situation. It could potentially escalate. And we don't want that to happen because the Kurds, you know, they lost about 11,000 of their own fighting alongside us. And their sacrifices are critically important to not only the stability of the region but also to the future of any American relationship in the Middle East. And that future is called into question by these protests.

HARLOW: Colonel Leighton, our Barbara Starr and our Pentagon team have reported a little bit on the complications that would come if the president does decide to leave some of those forces or move them to Eastern Syria and leave them there. The New York Times outlines some of that. Can you just talk about what the potential problems with that may be?

LEIGHTON: Sure. You know, from a force protection issue -- standpoint, Poppy, what you're looking at here is increased risk to American troops that are stationed in that region. You know, you've got all of these different vying factions in Syria and the Syrian civil war. You have ISIS. You have all of these potentials for a resurgent terrorist group there, as well as the various indigenous militias, then you've got the Turks, you've got the Russians. So all of these different groups coming together do not trust the Americans to do what they say.

In some ways, that can potentially be a tactical advantage, you know, as bad as that sounds, but on the other side of it, you have a really big problem, you know, paving the way for lasting relationships and lasting relationships are the key to getting things done.

[10:25:00]

Putting these troops, you know, after this big announcement of a withdrawal, putting these troops in harm's way, in potential harm's way is a very dangerous move. It may be necessary from a strategic standpoint, but it is really the wrong way to go about this. And it's very, very troubling.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Well, there's a lot of back and forth on that Syrian policy. We're seeing it play out in real-time, sometimes in the Twittersphere. Colonel Cedric Leighton, thanks very much.

LEIGHTON: You bet.

SCIUTTO: At least one Democratic senator says that Elizabeth Warren is not being honest with voters when it comes to the cost of her Medicare-for-all plan and who's going to pay for it. How big of a problem is this for her? We're going to discuss.

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