Return to Transcripts main page


Bill Taylor Unleashed A Bombshell Testimony; President Trump Calls The Impeachment A Lynching; Top U.S. Diplomat Testifies He Was Told 'Everything' Depended On Ukraine Announcing Investigations That Could Help Trump; Russia Strikes Deal With Turkey To Remove Kurdish Forces In Northern Syria As Trump Withdraws U.S. troops. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired October 22, 2019 - 23:00   ET




There is a lot going on tonight and we're going to dig deep into four big stories in the hour ahead.

Explosive testimony from a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine has the president on the ropes in the impeachment inquiry.

What Bill Taylor says about the campaign to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Bidens and how it plays into all the president's problem.

So, in the midst of all this, it's no surprise the president is doing what he always does, he's trying to distract and divide. This time disgracefully comparing the impeachment inquiry to lynching. We're going to dig into that.

Plus, today's bombshell testimony on Capitol Hill gives Democrats a lot of ammunition in the impeachment investigation. So, what should the next move be?

That as Russia and Turkey strike a deal that lets them call the shots on NATO southern border as U.S. troops withdraw. Defense Secretary Mike Esper -- Mark Esper -- excuse me, speaks out on that.


MARK ESPER, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I took what the recommendation of the chairman of joint chief of staff. We recommend that those troops be withdrawn. And eventually, the rest of the force would be withdrawn.

I think the broader strategic context is this. Look, it's no surprise that President Trump said coming into office as he campaigns that he wants to bring American soldiers service members home as much as he can. And the endless wars, in his words. And so, this is part and parcel to that. And it should come as no surprise to anybody.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: We'll get to the explosive and damming testimony from the top diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor.

Here to discuss Susan Glasser, Ryan Lizza, Shane Harris.

Thank you all for joining. I appreciate it. Good evening to you.

Let's start with you, Susan. And I want to start with what Bill Taylor said about pressure on Ukraine's president to announce investigations into Burisma and 2016 election interference.

He says, "Ambassador Sondland said everything was dependent on such an announcement including security assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky in a public box by making a public statement about ordering such investigations."

Did the president -- did President Trump's problems just get a whole lot bigger do you think?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: You know, this was the most powerful testimony we've seen. In fact, you know, we're just saying a month ago we would have been shocked to see the level of specificity. The concreteness of the allegation.

And the fact that they go directly back to President Trump. I can't emphasize that enough. What Ambassador Taylor's testimony has done along with that of several of the others over the last week is really pierced the veil of the White House which they've continued to try to insist upon and to show that President Trump took numerous specific actions that he was in effect orchestrating and directing this Ukraine plot.

And this testimony I think is a specific concrete and damming really, as any testimony in any investigation that I have seen on Capitol Hill over the last few decades.

LEMON: Ryan, Taylor recalls a conversation with Tim Morrison. Tim Morrison is a top Russia expert at the National Security Council. It's about a phone call Morrison had with Sondland and President Trump.

He said, "Mr. Morrison said that he had a sinking feeling after learning about this conversation from Ambassador Sondland. According to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a quid pro quo. But President Trump did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden in 2016 interference and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself."

Is this not the definition of a quid pro quo?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Well, what you have in the testimony is example after example of them holding up the meeting with the president and the security assistance. But whenever called on it saying of course this is not a quid pro quo. But the evidence itself is rather damming that it was. I think one part of his testimony that I found, you know, -- he

documents a very, very clear insistence from the White House that they investigate Burisma and the Bidens or they don't get what they want out of the United States.

What I think is sort of heartbreaking in the testimony is how he tries to bring it back at every turn at what our policy was in Ukraine. Why we were there. Why it was important for the president of the United States to have a good relationship with this new president. Why we were giving them security assistance.

They are under threat and at war on their eastern border with Russia. We want to bring them closer to Europe. He believed this -- you know, he believed that this policy was so important that it would safeguard European security.


And so, I think a lot of what has gotten lost in this is just from a national security perspective how important this bipartisan policy of defending Ukraine from Russian aggression was.

And to sell that out for a petty political fight is really unprecedented in modern American politics.

LEMON: Listen, I'm paraphrasing here. But I think what Susan said was this is the most powerful testimony so far, right, Susan? You said that.

Shane, you said that Taylor's testimony is astonishing and the most complete that we've heard so far.

SHANE HARRIS, NATIONAL SECURITY WRITER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think that's exactly right. And he has so elegantly frames what the stakes are, as Ryan was just saying here. Explaining to people why does it matter that the United States was giving this military aid to Ukraine. He lays it out eloquently.

And this is also we should remind people a former soldier. He served in 101st Airborne in the Vietnam War, he graduated from West Point. He talks about going to the front line and seeing Russian troops amassing on the other side of a bridge. Knowing that 13,000 Ukrainians have already died. And meeting a commander there who said we're so dependent upon this assistance that you're giving us.

So, he really puts it in human terms. The ambassador does. In addition to then giving us this just tremendously rich detail which we should note to corroborates earlier testimony we've already heard. Including from Fiona Hill who was on the national security council. Things that she attributed to John Bolton, the former national security adviser.

So, it's a compelling well-framed piece. And also, it just builds on the evidence that we have been hearing for the past couple of weeks.

LEMON: You know, Susan, Taylor says that he was -- he was so worried about the withholding of military aid that he sent a cable to Secretary Pompeo.

He says, "I told the secretary that I could not and would not defend such a policy. Although I received no specific response. I heard that soon they're after the secretary carry the cable with him to a meeting at the White House focused on security assistance for Ukraine."

Yet, the pressure campaign against Ukraine went on after that. How culpable is Pompeo in all of this?

GLASSER: Well, he's obviously a key witness as his former national security adviser John Bolton. One detail that really leapt out of me is not only that Ambassador Taylor wrote that cable for Secretary Pompeo outlining his grave concern about the withholding of aid to Ukraine, but he also did so explicitly at the advice and recommendation of john Bolton who visited Kiev.

And by the way, this was in Bolton's final week at national security adviser. There was already a huge rift between the president's advisers between Pompeo and Bolton. And it appears that Bolton was already trying to signal or had made common cause with those who were expressing concern and alarm, whereas Pompeo not only did nothing when the president of the United States fired unceremoniously demanded the ouster of the previous ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.

Many people tried to appeal to Pompeo. And he did nothing to save her job, has never spoken out. And in fact, that was the reason for the resignation of his senior counselor, Mike McKinley just 10 days ago. And we have forgotten that. That's very significant.

Also, Pompeo was on the phone call the famous or infamous July 25the phone call between President Zelensky and President Trump. So, he was fully read into this Ukraine plot. In fact, Rudy Giuliani continues to insist that the State Department knew everything about his machinations in Ukraine.

Does that mean that Pompeo personally was a part of this, there are obviously very important questions that need to be asked about the role of the secretary of state? And what appears to be the subversion of the policy that his own department was carrying out. It's an extraordinary story.

LEMON: We're out of time. Thank you all.

LIZZA: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: In the midst of all this turmoil all these damming revelations on Ukraine the president disgracefully calls the impeachment inquiry a lynching. We're going to set the record straight on the reality of lynching in America, next.



LEMON: President Trump in a disgusting statement says the impeachment inquiry into his allege abuse of power is a lynching. The president claiming this morning on Twitter that the impeachment process is without due process or fairness or any legal right. It's a quote, "lynching."

And so, this is not a lynching. Impeachment inquiry is nothing like a lynching. An investigation. An investigation allowed by the Constitution into President Trump's actions with Ukraine in no way resembles the racist and barbaric white mob murderers of black people that tarnish our nation's history.

So, let's set the record straight right now on lynching in the United States of America. And this is according to the NAACP.

There were almost 5,000 lynchings in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968. With roughly three quarters of the victims being black. Those are the ones that were reported. There were many that were not reported.

It was an act employed by white people to terrify African-Americans in the wake of the Civil War. A murder so public and brash that it made clear that they could do whatever they wanted to black people with no recourse. No justice.

I want you to take a look at this map. It's from the equal justice initiative showing where racial terror lynchings took place across the country in the late 1800s and the early 1900s.

It was happening all over. Where it is bright red there that means there were more than 20 lynchings in just that county. In some cases, almost 50 lynchings in a single county.


But I just want to give you an example of just one lynching because one example is enough to understand the brutal and unjust tactics used on black people in this country.

It is a story of two men. Irving and Herman Arthur who worked on a white owned farm where they suffered ongoing abuse. And this is according to the Equal Justice Institute. The brothers left the farm in search of better working conditions. The farm owners tried to stop them with gunfire and then alleged -- that the alleged that the two brothers hurt them. OK?

Soon after Irving and Herman were arrested and jailed and local whites posted signs throughout the towns of Paris, Texas advertising their impending lynching.

And on July 6, 1920, a mob of 3,000 gathered to watch as both men were tied to a flag pole at the town's fairground. Tortured and burned to death.

After the lynching, the brothers' corpses were chained to a car, driven through the town's black community for hours. Local sheriff involved in the case later declared the brothers had been guilty of no crime at all. Yet they were tortured. Lynched. That is a lynching.

I want to bring in now Charles Blow, Tara Setmayer, and Cornel West. Good evening. This story is disturbing. It's been disturbing me all day. I wonder if you -- I first wondered if you took the word lynching out and you put in, if you said this was a presidential Holocaust. How people would feel about it. If you said this was a presidential raping. How people would feel about it.

Lynching has a disturbing connotation as well. Charles, your reaction to this was simple to you? Right? How dare you.

CHARLES BLOW, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. This is a simple objection because it's horrific. But I think it's really big to me in the sense that it is a pattern that I see particularly among conservatives. Particularly among white conservatives to try to co-op the language of white supremacists' terror against black bodies.

And to neuter it or to basically to purchase their way into oppression without ever being oppressed. Or purchase their way into the effects of terror without being terrorized and to take the language and say that it apply -- it can be applied to anybody. Right?

It's actually very specific. So, stop saying I was lynched. Stop saying you vote Democratically so you're on a plantation. Stop saying that this feels like slavery to me. Stop saying that this is, you know, reverse discrimination whenever I don't get my way.

Stop acting like a paper cut is a guillotine. It is not that. The one -- simply put, this is not a lynching for Donald Trump. Because Donald Trump would still be alive when it's over. Whether he will be president, who knows. Whether he will be impeached or not, who knows. I think yes. But he'll still be alive.

No one will burn his dead body. He one will take knives and pick away his fingers and fillet his flesh after he's dead and take those souvenirs at home, those items home for souvenirs. That's what a lynching is. Don't try to corrupt the language. Don't try to steal it. This is specific to us.

LEMON: Tara, I want you guys to listen -- to all of you. This is Senator Graham defending the president's choice of words.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Yes, this is a lynching. In every sense. This is un-American. What does lynching mean? And a mob grabs you they don't give you a chance to fend yourself, they don't tell you what happened to you. They just destroy you. That's exactly what's going on in the United States House of Representatives right now.


LEMON: He should know better because he represents --



LEMON: He represents South Carolina. A state that has 30 percent, almost 30 percent black, 1.3 million people. I mean, is he thinking about them when he's defending what the president said?

SETMAYER: No. Clearly, he isn't. Shame on Lindsey Graham and every Republican that tries to make an excuse and rationalize this.

I'll tell you what. I heard clips from Rush Limbaugh today where he actually said that the definition of lynching has nothing to do with African-Americans. And blew it off as if we're all idiots because we associate lynching with the domestic terrorism of black Americans in this country which is the stain on our American history. Really?

Shame on Rush Limbaugh for indoctrinating millions of his listeners to try to get then to think that lynching -- you know, no, how dare people even associate that with black America. Really?

Is he really that ignorant of history or that manipulating? He also went on to say that every Republican should defend, should rally around Donald Trump and defend his choice of those words. Really?


These people are unbelievable. There is nothing at all remotely resembling a lynching in what's going on. This impeachment inquiry is absolutely lawful. It's constitutional. The Democrats are going about this methodically.

And Republicans are to have nothing else to do but argue about process because the facts of what's happening around this impeachment are so devastating that they can't argue the merits.

They know that this president is incompetent, they know that he's engaged in impeachable offenses and they know that he's using racial language to stoke this kind of us versus them type of environment because that's what Donald Trump does.

And using racial language is so irresponsible. We already have so much racial division going on. This president does this constantly. And now this is another distraction he is using because that's what he does when his back is up against the wall. Shame on all of them. They know better.

LEMON: Dr. West, talk to me here. How can the president and his defenders --


LEMON: Do they understand what's going on? What's going on?

WEST: I think that Brother Charles and Sister Tara have told the truth. That this is more thuggish behavior. It is more gangster activity. It's always been a deep white supremacist strand at the center of it.

But I think we have to recognize the ways in which the system itself now is beginning not just to break down but countervailing forces have to come forward. So when you're talking about gangsters and thugs, when you're talking

about Jim Crow which is a form of slavery which is reinforced by American terrorism. Fifty years every two and a half days some precious black body was hanging from a tree.

When you play the "Strange Fruit" the southern trees bear by one and only Billie Holiday, they were written by the Jewish brothers Abel Meeropol that hits deep. But it's a matter of how do we fortify ourselves. How do we fight? We can't just react to gangsters. You can't react to thugs. You have to be able to organize and mobilize.

And we tried to do this on Saturday when we marched from Union Square to Trump tower. With hundreds and hundreds of people saying what? The Republicans are cowards. You can't have a checks and balance system with cowards.

The Democrats are not moving fast enough. And even if they do move fast, he's not going to be able to be removed from office because he might be impeached but not convicted.

What do we do in a moment in which the democracy is so fragile and using some of the most vicious language against black people against working people, against brown and Mexicans and Muslims, and so forth.

So, what we don't want to do is just react. We want to do what Frankie Newton is doing playing that horn behind Billie Holiday.

LEMON: All right now.

WEST: You know Frankie newton is one of the great jazz musicians who happened also to be a socialist. And we're from Louisiana. We are from the birthplace of jazz.

What do you do? You got to fortify yourself and say how do we come up with the effective countervailing vision and strategy to push gangsters and thugs out and allow for Democratic possibilities to flow or the whole system goes under. Because what --


SETMAYER: You have to educate.

WEST: -- Brother Russian (Ph) needs and his other reaction are neo fascist adorn, they're trying to push us towards civil strife and Civil War. And we're saying wait a minute here now. We're ready to fight. We're ready to fight.


WEST: But let's just be clear --


WEST: -- about what the terrain is. And let's be clear about what the issues are. LEMON: All right. I need you to hold your thoughts. Because the

former Vice President Joe Biden denouncing Trump's language, lynching language, and his own as well. We'll explain right after this.



LEMON: I'm back now with Charles, Tara, and Dr. West. So, Charles, this Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden this is him. He compared impeachment inquiry to lynching. This was back in 1998 in an interview with CNN as the senator from Delaware. He also invoked the term in reference to impeachment. Watch this.


THEN-SEN. JOE BIDEN (D-DE): Even if the president should be impeached, history is going to question whether or not this was just a partisan lynching or whether or not it was something that in fact met the standard. The very high bar that was set by the founders as to what constituted impeachable offense.


LEMON: So, he's apologizing. Tonight, he apologized saying it wasn't the right word to use. He says Trump's chooses words deliberately to stoke racial divides. Is that enough? What do you think of that?

BLOW: Again, white people, stop it. Stop. This is language is very specific. It means a particular thing. It means a horrific thing in history. Biden, stop it.

LEMON: Trump.

BLOW: Trump, stop it. It is very specific. And it is horrific. Right? So, it can't be -- that's the thing about precision and definitions of things. It actually can't be used that way. Right? It can't be about, you know, that something that you survive. It can't be, you know, absent the history that is loaded into it in this country which was, as you described in your opening statement, it was terror. It was supposed to be overblown. Theatrical murder. Right?

It wasn't supposed to just kill the person. It was supposed to be theatrical and invite people to the theater and make postcards of what you saw in the theater.

LEMON: But when it happened to others besides people of color it was just hanging, it was a public hanging. To the African-American and the black folks they called this specifically lynching. Right?

BLOW: Lynching. Right.


BLOW: And it was demonstrative.

WEST: No, that's not true.

LEMON: Go on.


WEST: When Leo Frank was lynched -- when Leo Frank was lynched, he was a Jewish brother who was lynched. They lynched Catholics. They lynched a number of folks. Lynching was targeted of black people and people of color. But there was a lynching that embraced Catholics and Jews and others. The Ku Klux Klan zeroed-in on Jews and Catholics and black folks disproportionately. So it was still lynching.

But I think Brother Charles's point is a good one, the very notion that Biden could use that same kind of language. And we have to be honest. Brother Clarence Thomas with his right-wing so --

LEMON: The high-tech lynching.

WEST: -- he used that in the -- exactly. All of a sudden you get the deodorizing of something that is a crime against humanity. That's how white supremacy operates.

LEMON: Dr. West, let's listen to that.

WEST: You deodorize all the ugly stuff.


CLARENCE THOMAS, THEN SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: From my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate.


LEMON: Folks didn't like that then.



SETMAYER: -- when he used the term. I mean, look, I think that in certain circumstances, you're using verbal hyperbole to make a point and there are qualifiers. And is it -- you know, is that a term that we should use, probably not, just like holocaust. You don't really use that to describe anything in any other context than what the horrors that it was in.

I just think that in the situation like this specifically with Trump and the way that the right is trying to justify this is really just so intellectually dishonest. I mean, like I said, Rush Limbaugh saying that lynching -- trying to tell people lynching has nothing to do with African Americans. What's he going to tell us next? The N-word has nothing to do with African Americans either? That's not the real definition of it?

I mean, it's asinine that they're trying to convince people that this is perfectly OK to use in this context. It's just not. And Trump knew. Like Biden said, he used it deliberately. That was a deliberate term. He typed it out and chose that for a reason and it's completely inappropriate and despicable.

LEMON: Is there a difference, Dr. West, between Thomas making that sort of accusation versus the president?

WEST: The difference is that Thomas and people who are beautifully black like him have been the victims disproportionately as opposed to a vanilla brother or a vanilla sister. But he is still wrong. He is still wrong because it allows the use of the term to become so normalized, that you act as if it was not tied to crimes against humanity. Forms of American terrorism linked the slavery (ph) in that way.

I think again though the stress has to be to the response to it. You see, we black folks have never looked white supremacy in the eye and didn't come out fighting at our best. The question becomes, how do we come out fighting now? We got fascism running afoot. You got disregard of rule of law. You got the balkanization of the populous. You got the devaluing and the scapegoating of the weak, especially the Mexicans and Muslims and poor and black and brown.

So the democracy is being imploded as it were, and you have to come up with ways of awakening moral, spiritual and political that allow for the democracy to go -- to move forward. This is why if things don't work the way the system is. We got to hit the streets. We got to go to jail. That's exactly what out now all about.

Next Saturday, it is going to be like Puerto Rico. It is going to be like Hong Kong. The people have to speak with their feet if the election political system is too weak. The Republicans are too cowardly. The Democrats are not moving fast enough. And with Biden using the language that he used, he just disqualifies himself. Thank God for Bernie. You just disqualify yourself in having any moral authority when it comes to this kind of crime against humanity.

LEMON: All right. Quickly, I got to run.

BLOW: Both Thomas and Trump are centering whiteness. It's just that Thomas was appealing to white guilt and Trump is appealing to white supremacy. But as always, the devaluing of that language basically centers the white audience over the black one and discards the black pain that goes along with the language. We have to remember that. Both those guys are wrong.

LEMON: Thank you. Thank you very much.

SETMAYER: Trump isn't a victim. The republic is.

LEMON: Yeah. Thank you all. I appreciate it. Back in a moment.



LEMON: The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine giving bombshell testimony today, that he was told President Trump would withhold aid to the country until it publicly announced investigations that could help his reelection effort.

Here to break down what today's testimony means, Julian Epstein and Elliot Williams. I'm so glad to have both of you. Thank you so much. Elliot, you first. William Taylor's opening statement offers another confirmation of the whistleblower's account of a quid pro quo, contradicting the president's claims.


LEMON: How damming is Taylor's testimony?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's pretty damming, Don. Look, the transcript of the phone call that we have of the president with the president of the Ukraine was damming enough. Now you're filling in the details and eventually the testimony that we heard today will be public.

He will testify on the record at some point. And you will have, I guess, a West Point grad with 30 years in the foreign service saying that he knows that the president or believes strongly that the president committed an impeachable offense. This is absolutely damming testimony and there's just going to be more it coming.

LEMON: Julian, you got to tell me, you spoke to a lot of Republicans today, and you said they're all saying the same thing about the president. What is it?

JULIAN EPSTEIN, CHIEF COUNSEL, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE DEMOCRATS DURING CLINTON IMPEACHMENT: Well, I think a lot of Republicans in the Senate don't like this president, and I think they're kind of hedging their bets right now. I think they are put in a very tough bind today because of exactly what Elliot said.

There is now very powerful evidence from multiple sources that the president was soliciting a bribe in exchange for an official action. And bribery under the Constitution is impeachable offense and it's a criminal offense as well.

So for all of the people that are saying you need to show me an impeachable offense, you need to show me a criminal offense, there is not just very, very powerful evidence from multiple sources in the diplomatic community. That's exactly what the president has done.

So I think that the legal case is now very, very solid. I think in addition to that, a lot of people are saying there's sort of an America --- there's America's dumbest criminals sensibility to all of this. If you're going to seek bribery from a foreign official, the president is going to seek a bribery exchange, you would think he would involve a private emissary to go and make that deal with the foreign leader.

But the president in this case has involved dozens and dozens of people. And I think a lot of Republicans are sitting back and saying, you know, this president really is not playing with all his marbles. And if he is this sloppy in soliciting a bribery deal, that portends very negatively for what the defense is going to look like, particularly with all the struggle of Giuliani and the self-dealing potentially with Turkey and all these other stories that you have been reporting last week.

LEMON: And what else could potentially come out in all of this.

EPSTEIN: Exactly.

LEMON: You say that there will come a day, Elliot, when testimony like Taylor's will happen in public and it will be devastating. There's more testimony to come. What are your predictions here?

WILLIAMS: Well, a number of things. First, Ambassador Sondland, who is an individual whose name we have heard -- number one, we already heard from, but you need to hear from him again because there is now a factual dispute between Sondland and Taylor as to whether the president on a phone call on September 7th literally called for the prime minister of Ukraine to stand up and say that an investigation had been open.

You have now these two major State Department officials in dispute. They are all credible individuals. Someone either memory was mistaken or someone is not telling the truth. This is a big deal. So we need to hear from him.

We will likely -- I think we need to hear from Rudy Giuliani what is this shadow of the language was, irregular and informal channel of foreign policy that was being conducted, how was that being run and how did that give the president of the United States a window into this unlawful self-dealing.

LEMON: That would --

WILLIAMS: -- all testimony we need to hear.

LEMON: That would certainly be some riveting public testimony to hear from Rudy Giuliani because you never know what he's going to say. Taylor sheds more light on Rudy Giuliani's role in all of this as well as John Bolton's vocal opposition. I just have a short time left to Julian. But do you expect either of them will testify?

EPSTEIN: I think Elliot is exactly right. I think we will see additional testimony of the Intelligence Committee. I think we will see public testimony perhaps for the Judiciary Committee. And I think again part of the backdrop of all of this is Republicans are starting to get really wobbly on this president. A lot of them are saying it privately.

And I think the betrayal of the Kurds in Syria and the seating (ph) of our national security policymaking with grave national security implications to both Putin and Erdogen in Turkey has a lot of Republicans saying, you know what, I'm not so sure about this guy right now. It's the worst possible timing again raising questions about -- is the president really playing with all his marbles here.

LEMON: Yeah.

EPSTEIN: Republicans are asking that question.

LEMON: I got to run.

WILLIAMS: There is one problem -- sorry. OK.

LEMON: I got to run. Thank you both. I appreciate it. We'll be right back.




LEMON: Russia and Turkey strike a deal that let them call the shot on NATO's southern border as U.S. troops withdraw. It is a win for Putin and Erdogan amid fears that our former allies, the Kurds, are left defenseless. Defense Secretary Mark Esper addresses that in an exclusive interview with CNN chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: We see an army captain who talked to The New York Times and basically said I joined the army to prevent genocide, not to pave the way for it.

We have even seen the head of the Senate Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote a very, very pointed op-ed in which he said, "The combination of the U.S. pullback and the escalating Turkish-Kurdish hostilities is creating a strategic nightmare for the country. Even the five-day ceasefire announced Thursday holds, events of the past week have set back the United States' campaign against the Islamic state and other terrorists."


AMANPOUR: "Unless halted, our retreat will invite the brutal Assad regime in Syria and its Iranian backers to expand their influence. And we are ignoring Russia's efforts to leverage its increasingly dominant position in Syria to amass power and influence throughout the Middle East and beyond."

As secretary of defense of the United States, how do you respond to that?

MARK ESPER, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I understand the sentiments of the soldiers on the ground, who have fought side by side with the Kurds. The Kurds have been our good partners in the defeat of ISIS.

There is a certain bond that happens in combat with fellow soldiers of any country. As you said, I experienced it during my time here in the Gulf War. I understand that. But at the end of the day, when you get back up to the 30,000 foot level, the strategic level, you got to ask ourselves.

At the time that President Erdogan decided to cross the border, very clearly that he was going to make that move, I had a responsibility to make sure that our soldiers weren't put in harm's way, trapped between 15,000 plus army and SDF forces from the south, and eventually Russians and Syrians.

So I took what the recommendation of the chairman, joint chief of staff, we recommend that those troops be withdrawn and eventually the rest of the force be withdrawn.

I think the broader strategic context is this. Look, it is no surprise that President Trump said coming into office as he campaigned that he wanted to bring American soldiers and service members home as much as he can from the endless wars, in his words. And so this is part in parcel to that and it should come to no surprise to anybody.

AMANPOUR: Can I just ask you a personal question, professional question? Were you on the phone call that President Trump had with President Erdogan? Did you know what was being discussed between the two presidents in the hours before the Turks launched their offensive into Syria?

ESPER: Sure I listened in to the phone calls, of course, but my experience with that --

AMANPOUR: So you knew what was being discussed.

ESPER: Yes, absolutely. But my experience goes back to when I first came to the office in late July, so two months or so into it. Probably the one issue that dominated my time more than anything else was working with my counterpart, the defense minister of Turkey, trying to build this safe zone, the security mechanism, by which we would do joint patrolling with the Turks to keep a buffer zone between Turkey and the SDF.

We thought it was going well. We established a joint operation center in Southern Turkey. We were doing ground patrols and air patrols. We got the SDF to agree to back up a little bit. And I guess at some point, the Turks decided it is not moving fast enough, it is not comprehensive enough, whatever the case may be. But we saw the pressure building despite our efforts and --

AMANPOUR: The pressure from the Turks.

ESPER: From the Turks. And it was just days before when President Erdogan called President Trump that the minister told me, look, we are going to be coming across, we will give heads up. And when Erdogan spoke to President Trump, he confirmed that and notified us that that was his intent.

AMANPOUR: So, Mitt Romney, as you know, senator from Utah, what we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain on the annals of American history. Was there no chance for diplomacy, he asked. Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey, he said. You just said pretty much that's exactly what happened.

ESPER: Look, Turkey is a longstanding NATO ally. We are not going to go to war against a NATO ally and certainly not over across with regard to our border that we didn't sign up to defend in the first place. You got to go back to our primary mission, defeat ISIS.

AMANPOUR: Right. So you just said that you were doing a good job and most people thought you were doing a good job.

ESPER: Everybody except the Turks, that we were doing a good job.

AMANPOUR: Right, bizarrely, because you were keeping ISIS down and you were buffer forces (ph), correct?

ESPER: I meant in the context that the Turkish government did not feel we were doing --

AMANPOUR: I understand.

ESPER: -- a good enough or fast enough job with regard to building the safe zone.

AMANPOUR: Right. OK. But strategically in term of defeating ISIS, that was a successful buffer zone that had taken a good five to six years --

ESPER: That buffer zone is not related to the defeat of ISIS.

AMANPOUR: All right. Fine. They were buffer forces, would you say?

ESPER: We were trying to build a safe zone between the Turks and the SDF.

AMANPOUR: That I understand. To keep down ISIS, you were doing quite a good job there.

ESPER: Yes, that's right.

AMANPOUR: The president has said and is in the right of any president to want to end endless wars and bring troops home. But you know much better than I do that America is full of buffer troops in many parts of the world where wars have ended in order to prevent re-emergence of hostilities, whether it is between North and South Korea, whether it is in Europe, and now with Russia, whether it's elsewhere in the Middle East.

ESPER: And that's one of the challenges I faced as secretary of defense, trying to implement our new national defense strategy. How do I reposition our forces to deal with the threats of the coming decades, which is China, number one, and Russia, number two. As I look around the globe, I see our forces tied down in multiple occasions. If you step back, you would see American forces easily in 80, 90 countries around the world. You see we have legal obligations to help defend dozens of countries, and we will honor those. But what I have to do is think about how do I reallocate, reposition my forces.


And in some cases, substitute them with other countries so that I can frame up to deal with China, our principal strategic competitor, in the next few decades.


LEMON: Thanks for watching. Our coverage continues.