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Turkey & Russia Announce Joint Patrols To Operate In Syrian Safe Zones; Defense Secretary: Not U.S.' Duty To Defend The Kurds; Trump's U.S. Troop Drawdown Decision Drawing Criticism For Abandoning Kurds; Anxious Democratic Donors Add Michelle Obama To their Wish List Of Candidates; New Charges Filed Against Parents In College Admission Scandal, Including Actress Lori Loughlin. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired October 22, 2019 - 14:30   ET



DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: But if they keep getting information that they think really buttresses their argument for impeachment, they're going to keep following it.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Dana Bash, thank you.

BASH: Thanks, Bri.

KEILAR; As the U.S. Defense Secretary tells CNN that American never signed up to protect the Kurds against a NATO ally, the cease-fire expires soon and Vladimir Putin is striking a significant deal with Turkey.

Plus, breaking news. New charges filed against actress, Lori Loughlin, in the college admissions scam. Stand by for details on that.



KEILAR: In just a matter of minutes, the five-day cease-fire between Turkey and America's former ally, the Kurds, will end. It appears Russia is moving to take over a major role in the region, something they've wanted for a very long time.

Today, Turkey's President Erdogan met with Russia's Vladimir Putin, and moments ago, announced joint Turkey/Russia patrols would begin operating in the safe zone to ensure Kurdish fighters pull away from the border.

And while the U.S. troops withdrawing from Syria are moving to Iraq, the Iraqi military now says they cannot stay.

Today, Defense Secretary Mark Esper defended the president's decision to pull troops out of Syria telling CNN it's not the U.S.'s duty to defend the Kurds.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MARK ESPER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We didn't sign up to fight a war to defend the Kurds against a long-standing NATO ally. And we certain didn't sign up to help them establish an autonomous Kurdish state.

That was the conflict the Turks put us in between, an advancing Turk, Army opposed by the Kurds, elements of the SDF and, at the same time, you had Syrian and Russian forces moving in. That's not the position we want our young American servicemembers to be in.


KEILAR: CNN's Nick Paton Walsh just arrived in northern Iraq from Syria.

Nick, put into context the developments of today.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely startling, this joint announcement between Russia and Turkey. It essentially takes over the whole diplomatic process if not the process itself.

Let me break it down. We talk about how there's 25 minutes left in the cease-fire brokered by the United States, but that's less important now.

As of noon tomorrow, the Syrian regime and Russian military police will move along the whole Turkish/Syrian border, seems to be the case, and give six days for the Syrian Kurds to pull their fighters and weapons back 30 kilometers from that border. That's a huge sway. That's essentially much of what Turkey originally wanted.

Then, by the end of that six-day period, Turkey and Russia's military police will begin joint patrols for a 10-kilometer-depth inside Syria to police that border.

A complex mechanism but one clearly Russia is in control of. Looking at it in a broad geographic sense, Russia will patrol a large portion of NATO's southern border. Remember, Turkey is a member of NATO.

Russia's defense minister stepped forward saying the United States, said it an our ago, now has 30 minutes left to release its obligations under this particular cease-fire deal that it brokered. Essentially saying, America, get out of town. You've got nothing to do with this.

Essentially we're looking at a complex but very much Moscow and Ankara-dominated mechanism moving forward that most likely let's Turkey keep the area it's already taken. Most likely tells the Syrian Kurds to pull back its fighters and weapons of substantial amount. Introduces Russia as the major power broker and peacekeeper here. But also the Syrian regime, too, along that area. This could be an end to the fighting.

We don't know what will happen towards the end of the cease-fire and half an hour and noon tomorrow when the joint moves begin but looks like Moscow came in and, with Turkey, prearranged to calm this down. The big outstanding question, how complacent of the Syrian Kurds?

Hand forced, happy to go along with this as a better option over Turkey renewing its offensive -- Brianna?

KEILAR: Nick Paton Walsh, thank you, from northern Iraq.

The president's drawdown decision is drawing criticism from top former and current U.S. officials, Republicans and Democrats, calling the move a strategic blunder in the international abandonment of longtime loyal Kurdish allies of America.


PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE & SOUTH BEND MAYOR: What we were doing in Syria was keeping our word. Part of what makes it possible for the United States to get people to put their lives on the line to back us up is the idea we will back them up, too.

When I was deployed, not just the Afghan national army forces but the janitors put their lives on the line just by working with U.S. forces.

I would have a hard time today looking at an Afghan civilian or soldier in the eye over what just happened over there. It under mines the honor or our soldiers.

You take away the honor of our soldiers, you might as well go after their body armor next.


KEILAR: I want to bring in Mark Giaconia, a retired Special Forces, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Army. Several of those years spent fighting alongside Kurds in Iraq.

Thank you so much for joining us, Mark --

MARK GIACONIA, RETIRED GREEN BERET: Thank you so much for having me.

KEILAR; -- to give us this important and unique perspective.

What did you think when you heard the president's decision that he was hastily going to withdraw U.S. troops from alongside the Kurds in northern Syria?

GIACONIA: It was a, kind of emotional, because I guess I flashed back to my time there, you know, embedded with the Kurds where they, they protected us every day. I was there with them before there was any presence of any kind completely living with them. Fighting alongside them against terrorist groups, and then the Iraqi army ultimately.


So I kind of, when I heard about it, it made me put myself in the shoes over there now, what if I had to walk away from those guys then? And it was, you know, hard to imagine with the close-knit almost a brotherhood we had. They were like an extended team to us. It's tough. I mean, tough to imagine.

KEILAR: So there's -- I mean, it's not just, there's the professional element.

GIACONIA: Yes to it. Right? There's the emotional element as well. We should mention there are factions of Kurds. Right?


You might not understand that listening to this whole debate.

There are.

KEILAR: This wasn't monolithic, but what are the, clearly this would be emotional. We've seen that. The sense of abandonment. Professionally what does it mean for what our, what servicemembers now, what, you know, what they need to take into future conflicts and alliances?

GIACONIA: Yes. Tricky, I would say. So one of the founding principles of being a Green Beret is building rapport to get your surrogate or indigenous forces to trust you. That's a big hurdle to get over sometimes when you literally are on the ground. You have to link up with someone, build their trust and then fight with them.

So at least with the faction of Kurds that are relevant to the current conflict, I would make a subsequent link up would be very difficult, which, you no know, could mean -- know compromising an asset -- know compromising an asset. Possibly there are other groups of Kurds I don't think we would have an issue linking back up with because they are multiple and don't get along even.

Strategically I have thoughts around that, too, where we're trained to go into a denied area, link up with indigenous people, build rapport with them and then use them to do operations. And fundamentally, that is difficult if you have to go over a trust barrier.

KEILAR: And that trust barrier may, it's created in part by some of the rhetoric we have seen.

I want to listen to something that we've heard from the president as he's been trying to defend his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sometimes you have to let them fight. Like two kids in a lot. You've got to let them fight and then you pull them apart.

Without a little tough love they would have never made this deal.

A problem at the border that's not our border. We shouldn't be losing lives over it.

I ran on a basis we're going to bring our great soldiers back home where they belong. We don't have to fight these endless wars. We're bringing them back home.

We never agreed to protect the Kurds. We've supported them for three and a half to four years. We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives.


KEILAR: He is saying that there are people who don't want endless war, a lot of Americans who don't. The question is, is that, I guess, one and the same as you have to pull away from the Kurds? What do you say to Americans who agree with him on that, there shouldn't be endless war?

GIACONIA: Right. I agree that there shouldn't be endless wars. I mean, in some of my thinking after the war I wondered if I should have ever been there in the first place.

I mean, I think every soldier wonders that, but -- you know -- I'm not actually sure how to respond to that. You know? Just hang in there and stick it out, and, I mean, a soldier does what they're told ultimately. So I think it will work itself out in that regard.

KEILAR: So is it, to you, really the way in which this was executed?


KEILAR: Not so much whether ultimately you do leave but how you leave?

GIACONIA: Exactly. And what -- what bridges would you choose to burn, and what is -- you can never pull out of anywhere perfectly I don't think, but the way, at least, it appears, seems very sudden.

I'd actually be interested to see how it went down hyper-tactically. Like, how did the troops get told? And how much anticipation did they have that it was coming? You know what I mean? Those micro factors have a -- they have an impact on morale and things like that.

I'm a fan of getting out of the Middle East. Believe me. I spent time over there, and -- but I also think there's a, probably a gentler way to do it where it might be better for the future to do it, you know in a different way.


I'm not calling myself a strategy expert or a political guru, but, again, I go back to imagining myself pulling away from the Kurds. I was embedded with them in a sudden and then that in an impersonal way, if that's how it went down, and it seems like a big deal me.

KEILAR: Mark, thank you very much. Mark Giaconia, appreciate your perspective.

GIACONIA: Thank you. Thank you.

KEILAR: Michelle Obama for president? A new report says anxious Democratic donors are putting the former first lady on their wish list along with some others as they worry about the prospect for the current very large pack of candidates.



KEILAR: The Iowa caucuses soon will be upon us if you can believe. Word is prominent Democratic donors are nervous about the current slate of presidential contenders.

The "New York Times" reports donors are so concerned about who is running --and you're looking at the top five right now -- that they've come up with a list of potential alternative candidates. Among the names mentioned, 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, former first lady, Michelle Obama, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.

Let's bring in Joe Trippi, CNN political commentator, and Democratic strategist, to look at these names with us.

What do you make of them?

JOE TRIPPI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: We've gotten to the handwringing stage about a month ahead of time, because every cycle this happens. Donor class sits back, looks at the candidates and all the flaws each has in them, and then starts to look somewhere else.

But this isn't going to happen. I mean I would just be -- it would take a total collapse of not just Biden but several of the candidates that are top candidates in this field for it to actually happen where somebody -- it would have to be someone like those names listed, because of how late they'd be getting in, have to be a known entity like a Hillary Clinton or a Michelle Obama. Maybe a John Kerry.

On the way, on the outside, might be Jerry Brown, governor of California, former governor of California. Someone like that that people already have big sense of.

But for them to enter, it would take -- take almost a disaster, somebody stepping on a land mine or something, which could happen. But I don't think it will.

KEILAR: Probably unlikely. Right?


KEILAR: That's the point.


KEILAR: Do you understand why donors, and these are donors, not voters, why donors are looking at this field and are nervous? I think a lot of observers would look at the field and say, it's gigantic.

TRIPPI: Yes. Well, we don't have enough candidates, don't have enough bold ideas. It's crazy. Big field. Lots of ideas out there. No.

What tends to happen when there's an incumbent in the Republican Party standing for re-election and George W. Bush, and Trump, there's an angst, do we have the right person to stand up and defeat them? We saw this so far through the season.

And what happens is, you get closer to Iowa, always -- I've been through nine of these. When you get closer to Iowa they start looking at, start having doubts about anybody. It doesn't matter if it's Mayor Pete or Warren or Biden. There's -- one's too liberal. One's gapping. Whatever. But the doubts start to rise.

So we've been through the whole euphoric, he's great, she's great, oh, I really like her. Now we're going to go through the, but wait a minute, this one has this problem, this one has this problem.

That happened with Howard Dean. I managed his campaign. And right now, we were riding high and then all the doubts about Howard Dean.

In our campaign, it started to focus on us and what brought John Kerry back and made him the nominee in 2004. That could happen here as well.

People start -- they looked at Biden. Clearly, feel he's a weak frontrunner in their mind, compared to Hillary and some of the past. They're starting to look at these other candidates. As each one rises, they've got doubts. More of those doubts worry them, the more, maybe, they start looking back at Biden or Klobuchar. Or someone will get a shot if that happens.

But no one knew coming in. Could happen. Never say never in this business.

KEILAR: Never say never, still, probably never.


Joe Trippi, thank you so much.


We have breaking news this hour. New charges filed against actress. Lori Loughlin, in the college admissions scandal.


KEILAR: We have breaking news in that massive college admissions cheating scandal. Federal prosecutors filed new charges against 11 of the 15 parents, including actress, Lori Loughlin.

Alex Field is following this.

Tell us what we know, Alex.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Brianna. This could be more jail time for some parents and Lori Loughlin, who already faced 40 years behind bars. Now charged with bribery, which could come with a jail sentence up to five more years.

She along with 10 other parents got additional charges. So did several athletic officials and alleged associates of this scam's mastermind.

Brianna, this is the second time prosecutors have launched additional charges against those defendants who did not go ahead and accept a plea deal.

KEILAR: Alex, thank you so much for that.

We have a special edition of "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starting right now.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to this special edition of "THE LEAD."