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U.S. Diplomat Testifies He Was Told Trump Wanted Aid Withheld Until Ukraine Said It Would Investigate Biden; Anonymous Senior Trump Admin. Official Who Wrote Explosive "New York Times" Op-Ed Coming Out With New Book About Trump; As Top U.S., Diplomat In Ukraine Testifies In Impeachment Inquiry, Trump Calls The Constitutional Process "A Lynching"; McConnell Introduces Resolution Opposing U.S. Withdrawal From Syria; Esper: Troops Leaving Syria Will Temporarily Reposition In Iraq, Others Will Stay To Deny ISIS Access To Oil Fields; Putin Expanding Influence In The Middle East As Trump Pulls Back. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 22, 2019 - 17:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, another excellent report from Bill Weir. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter @jaketapper. You can tweet THE LEAD at @theleadcnn. Our coverage is going to continue -- CNN continues right now. Thank you so much for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, Taylor testifies. The top American diplomat in Ukraine tells lawmakers in the impeachment inquiry he was told that President Trump would withhold military aid from Ukraine until it publicly announced investigations that could help his reelection chances.

Anonymous tells all, a new book about the President called "A Warning" is about to be released written by the same unnamed senior Trump administration official who wrote the incriminating "New York Times" op-ed about Mr. Trump last year.

Impeachment lynching, the President draws sharp criticism after invoking the racist murders of African-Americans as he rails against the constitutionally provided House probe into his dealings with Ukraine.

And Putin's power play, as American troops withdraw from Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin expands his influence in the region and strikes a deal with Turkey to push U.S. allied Kurdish forces away from the Syrian-Turkish border.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in "The Situation Room."

We're following multiple breaking stories, including key testimony in the impeachment inquiry by the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. CNN has just obtained Bill Taylor's opening statement to lawmakers. It shows that he testified that the U.S. ambassador to the European Union told him President Trump wanted Ukraine's president to publicly announce investigations that could help Mr. Trump politically in exchange for U.S. military aid.

Also breaking, the anonymous senior Trump administration official who wrote an explosive "New York Times" op-ed about the President has now written a new book about Mr. Trump called "A Warning."

We'll talk about the breaking news much more with Congressman Will Hurd of the intelligence committee. He heard today's impeachment inquiry testimony. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go straight to Capitol Hill. Our Congressional Correspondent Sunlen Serfaty is on the scene for us. Sunlen, you're learning new details about this potentially very critical testimony in the impeachment inquiry.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. CNN has obtained the opening statement of Bill Taylor, the President's top diplomat in Ukraine today up here on Capitol Hill, in which he lays out for the committee essentially his increasing concern about the relationship with Ukraine telling lawmakers that it was being undermined by, in his words, an irregular informal channel of U.S. policy making and by withholding of security aid for domestic political reasons. He told lawmakers today, Wolf, that he believed it was crazy then and still believes its crazy now.


SERFATY (voice-over): Tonight, the President's top diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, testifying behind closed doors in what Democrats are calling a sea change moment.

REP. ANDY LEVIN (D-MI): In my 10 short months in Congress, it's not even noon, right, and this is the -- my most disturbing day in Congress so far.

SERFATY: According to Taylor's opening statement obtained by CNN, Taylor told the committees leading the impeachment inquiry that he was told by the U.S. Ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, that security aid to Ukraine was being held up in part due to the push for Ukraine to publicly investigate Ukraine's involvement in the 2016 campaign and Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company where Joe Biden's son, Hunter, was on the board.

"Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election," Taylor told the committee today, adding that Sondland said he'd also made a mistake earlier by telling Ukrainian officials that a White House meeting was dependent on a public announcement of the investigations.

"In fact, Ambassador Sondland said everything was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance," Taylor said today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's filling in some gaps. He's sharing with us in a pretty candid way and, you know, his experience.

SERFATY: Taylor today walked the committee through a detailed time line of events dating back to June when he assumed the post. And saying it was in mid-July that it was becoming, "clear to me that the meeting President Zelensky wanted was conditioned on the investigation of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. It was also clear that this condition was driven by irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani."


And explained his rationale for raising concerns about a potential quid pro quo over text messages discussing the halting of U.S. security aid to Ukraine with former U.S. envoy to the Ukraine Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland. One of which on September 1st, 2019 shows Taylor asking, "Are we now saying that security assistance and White House meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Sondland responding, "Call me."

And in text messages a week later, Taylor writing, "As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign." To which Sondland answered, "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The President has been crystal clear, no quid pro quo's of any kind."


SERFATY: And Taylor's testimony is still going on right now behind closed doors. He has been with lawmakers now for going on eight hours. Taylor plans to return back to Ukraine tomorrow. And a source telling CNN, Wolf, that he still wants to keep his job. Wolf?

BLITZER: Let's see if he does. Sunlen Serfaty, thank you very much.

Let's go to the White House right now. The anonymous senior administration official is now coming out with a brand-new book about the President. Our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta is joining us with the latest. So first of all, Jim, what are you picking up?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Trump is playing the victim today, comparing the impeachment proceedings up on Capitol Hill to a lynching. And while the White House is insisting there is nothing wrong with what the President is saying, Republicans and Democrats are distancing themselves from that comparison. But the President's tweet is not the only reading material that Washington is talking about today.


ACOSTA (voice-over): For a President who loathes tell-all books, this one might cause Mr. Trump to hit the roof. The senior Trump administration official and the writer behind the anonymous op-ed in "The New York Times" last year is now coming out with a book entitled "A Warning," that promises more damaging revelations about the President. The author's literary agent says the book "has been written as an act of conscience and of duty."

Keeping behind closed doors, President Trump is lobbying another distraction from his social media bunker, tweeting, "So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the president, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here, a lynching, but we will win."

Aides to the President defended Mr. Trump's comparison of the impeachment proceedings to a lynching insisting he wasn't conjuring up the painful history of African-Americans being murdered by white mobs in the decades following the civil war.

HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: But the President is not comparing what happened to him with one of our darkest moments in American history. He's just not. What he's explaining clearly is the way he's been treated by the media since he announced for president.

ACOSTA: Democratic presidential candidates pounced with Senator Cory Booker tweeting, "Lynching is an act of terror used to uphold white supremacy. Try again." While some of the President's own party were uncomfortable with the lynching tweet --

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): I don't agree with that language. It's pretty simple.

ACOSTA: -- others in the GOP hopped on the bandwagon.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): This is a lynching in every sense. This is un-American. Yes, African-Americans lynched, other people have been lynched throughout history. What does lynching means? When a mob grabs you, they don't give you a chance to defend 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.

ACOSTA: The President and his defenders are complaining about the guarded impeachment process with key witnesses like the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, testifying behind closed doors.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA): We want to conduct it in a way that other witnesses don't know what witnesses are going to say, because otherwise they could work together and cook up alibis and tailor their testimony. And the fact that we've been able to keep it so close has protected in some respect against that.

ACOSTA: The President's allies are telling him to accept the likelihood he'll be impeached, as a new CNN poll finds 50 percent saying Mr. Trump should be thrown out of office, all part of a steady trend toward supporting impeachment.

Bipartisan outrage is building over the President's green light for Turkey's invasion of Syria. Russia and Turkey reached an agreement for a patrolling area of Syria abandoned by the Trump administration. The announcement featuring a meeting between Turkey's president and none other than Russia's Vladimir Putin. VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translation): I would like to thank them for a very business-like and open conversation, talks and all of this, of course, has been done on the basis of good (INAUDIBLE) and mutual interest.

ACOSTA: Democrats say the President should have seen this coming.

SEN. TIM KAINE (D-VA): -- Turkey, Russia, Iran, Syria, that Assad regime are all being empowered by this. When the President is withdrawing, all of these nations are being empowered.


ACOSTA: As for the situation in Syria, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as other GOP senators have introduced a resolution opposing the President's green light to Turkey. That may be too little too late as Turkey, a NATO allies -- worth remembering a NATO ally has now joined forces with Russia in the region, Wolf.


BLITZER: Very disturbing developments indeed. Jim Acosta reporting, thank you.

Let's get more on all the breaking news. Joining us now, Republican Congressman Will Hurd of Texas. He's a member of the intelligence committee. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. Let's get right to your reaction to Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, his testimony today. You were inside that room.

REP. WILL HURD (R-TX): I was, Wolf. And because it's being treated as a deposition, there are many things I can't talk about, but we have seen the opening statement that was provided to the press and on the website. And, you know, there's a lot of questions that this brings up and it means more people have probably got to come back in and reanswer some questions.

I think it shows that we need to talk to Mayor Giuliani about his activity in that region. And this is -- you know, ultimately there's a question about how diplomacy should be conducted and having an informal channel is not a good way of doing that.

And the question that we're going to be answering here is -- as this reach a level of impeachment or is it a disagreement on policy and, you know, there's a lot of more questions that need to be answered.

I also think that those questions should be, you know, pursued in other committees rather than the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It started in HPSCI appropriately in order -- because of the whistleblower. We should be protecting the whistleblower's identity.

But now that this is moved into State Departments and other areas that doesn't include classified information, I think that some of the other avid committees are appropriately staffed to be able to handle that. Because I want to see the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence reviewing the intelligence we knew before Turkey invaded Northern Syria to kick out the Syrian Kurds.

What intelligence do we have and what are we trying to collect to prevent ISIS from rebuilding in Syria and Northern Iraq. How are we going to make sure that there's enough humanitarian support to the Iraqi Kurds who's having a deal with the humanitarian crisis right now.

BLITZER: I want to get to that whole Syria issue. It's explosive, as you know, but the top diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, who's still testifying right now, in his opening statement, very lengthy, 15-page single spaced testimony, among other things he said this, referring to Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union.

"Ambassador Sondland told me President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma, that's the Ukrainian oil and gas company that Hunter Biden was on the board, and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election."

In addition, Taylor said that Sonland told him that everything depended on that. His word everything, including not only security assistance, but a meeting with the President, that sounds like a quid pro quo directed by the President. Does it to you?

HURD: Well, he also said -- Sondland also said that this is to be clear is not a quid pro quo. I think the person that --

BLITZER: That's what Sondland said, but we're talking all about what Bill Taylor said today quoting Sondland.

HURD: Right.

BLITZER: And I assume you want Sondland so come back for more testimony.

HURD: For sure. Look, Sondland needs to come back and answer some of these questions. And it's also important to be clear on what did the Ukrainians know and when, right? And I think in the documents on your website it makes it clear that the Ukrainians did not know about the aid issue until after the phone call whose transcript was provided by the White House.

Now, again, I think there are these two lines of effort here. Is this the way diplomacy should be conducted and was there a violent -- was there a crime and was there a committing of a crime? And I think people have made it clear, if you try to use federal resources to benefit yourself, right, whether that's getting information on an opponent, that is a crime.

And so, this is something that there are still more questions. This is why I've been supportive of these hearings to try to understand these questions. But also, I'm going to make sure that we're hearing everything out and turning over every stone. Unfortunately, there were some people that have already made a decision on what they think should happen after this investigation. And whether you disagree with the President, you think everything is an indication of impeachment, whether you support the President, you think everything is an example of exoneration. I want to make sure that we're continuing to get to the truth and there is a lot more people that we need to hear from and a lot more questions we should be asking.

BLITZER: Yes. Not only Sondland, but you want to hear from Rudy Giuliani as well --

HURD: Absolutely.

BLITZER: -- who is apparently conducting some sort of shadow diplomacy if you believe Bill Taylor's testimony today. Do you believe it would be impeachable, Congressman, impeachable conduct to withhold $400 million in congressionally authorized and appropriated military funding for Ukraine in return for political dirt on the Bidens?


HURD: I think that would reach a level that we should be considering. And that's why we got to continue to do these investigations. We are not in an impeachment inquiry yet. And I think that we should have these investigations and these hearings to determine whether that's the next step. But there's still a lot of questions. It's premature to have that conversation, Wolf.

And especially, it's important to make sure the right committees are looking at this because what's happening in Northern Syria, the fact that Turkey is in Russia today announcing what the Turks have called a ground-breaking deal, I think that was the adjective that was used, is absolutely outrageous, especially when Turkey is a NATO ally.

NATO was created in -- out of the ashes of World War II in order to deal with Russia. You could have significant loss of life because of the humanitarian crisis that this is creating and especially if the Turks are going to try to drop 3 million refugees back in Syria, which could potentially be a violation of international law

There are some questions about whether the Turkish troops have used white phosphorus, which is a banned substance in their invasion in Northern Syria to kick out the Syrian Kurds. And then now the people that are going to monitor whether the Turkish troops and their affiliates are the Russians, this is a crazy situation.

And again, these humanitarian crises are going to continue to build. It's going to put pressure on the Iraqi Kurds because they're having to deal with this now. These are some of the questions. And ultimately, why should we care about this? Because we can't let ISIS rebuild.

And the turmoil and the chaos this is going to create is going to create a situation in which ISIS can rebuild. And, you know, for me, I remember September 11th, 2001. I remember seeing the beheadings and the people set on fire by ISIS. And this is an important issue that unfortunately I don't think is getting enough attention right now.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a critically important issue indeed. Before I let you go, Congressman, let me get your thoughts. The President today compared the entire impeachment process against him to a lynching. He used that word lynching. You're the only African-American Republican serving in the House of Representatives. What's your reaction when you hear that word lynching, this comparison?

HURD: Well, it's a crazy statement, shouldn't have been said and it shows a level of intensity to -- insensitivity to a horrific period in our history of our country. And this is one of the things that, you know, stop using this kind of language because it takes away from the message, but also it contributes to this notion that Republicans are not understanding of the plight of minorities. And so, I wouldn't have done -- I would advise him to stay away from that. And, again, this level of insensitivity to a dark period is not acceptable.

BLITZER: Will Hurd is also a former CIA officer. We're grateful to you for your service. Thanks so much for coming in.

HURD: Wolf, always a pleasure.

BLITZER: Up next, we'll have more on today's bombshell testimony in the Trump impeachment inquiry. Testimony Democrats are calling disturbing, a sea change and damning for President Trump.



BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including a top U.S. diplomat testifying that he was told everything involving U.S. assistance to Ukraine was depended on it's leader announcing publicly investigations involving the Bidens in the 2016 presidential election here in the United States, investigations that would politically benefit President Trump looking forward to the 2020 campaign.

Let's bring in our political and legal experts to talk about this truly bombshell testimony. And among other things, you know, Susan, Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine said this about the President's attitude.

He said, "Ambassador Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman. When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.

Ambassador Volker, who was the special envoy, used the same terms several days later. I argued to both that the explanation made no sense. The Ukrainians did not owe President Trump anything, and holding up security assistance for domestic political gain was crazy as I had said in my text message to Ambassadors Sondland and Volker on September 9th. So what does that say to you.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Well, look, this is the playbook of corrupt politicians all around the world, that in exchange for an official act, you need to grease their palms, line their pocketbooks. Donald Trump and his close allies are describing him as being owed something, not the nation of the United States, not our national security interests, but Donald Trump personally, politically.


What Bill Taylor is describing here and throughout these 15 pages of astonishing testimony, he is describing a quid pro quo. One thing, quid, White House meetings and military assistance, will not happen unless there is another. Namely those political investigations of the President demanding, and so this really is for all of those Republicans who have been sort of holding their fire saying we need to wait until we see more, until we see more.

This is Bill Taylor laying out absolutely every piece in meticulous detail and noting and pointing them quite explicitly to where corroborating evidence is, including conversations like this that show quite clearly that Ambassador Sondland and Kurt Volker were fully aware of what was going on.

BLITZER: Is it a quid pro quo and is it impeachable?

HENNESSEY: I think it is clearly a quid pro quo by the ordinary definition of the term. And, yes, it is not just impeachable, it is something that the President of the United States should be both impeached, convicted and removed. This is one of the most astonishing abuses of presidential authority we have ever seen. It is the President extorting a foreign leader by withholding congressionally appropriated funding, military aid to an ally in exchange for demanding, coercing foreign interference in a U.S. election.

BLITZER: Let me get Abby Phillip. His testimony today, Ambassador Taylor's testimony contradicted Ambassador Sondland's testimony a few days ago, because clearly there are differences and it's clear that the committee is now want Sondland back.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it's clear that Sondland's description of what he believed happened, he claimed that it was solely based on his conversation with President Trump and that he had no independent reason to sort of verify one way or another.

But what Bill Taylor is describing is that Sondland, even though he got these assurances from President Trump that the President didn't want to use the term quid pro quo, what Sondland was describing to Bill Taylor as Susan just laid out is in fact a quid pro quo and he did not testify to that. It seems based on the fact that Will Hurd as you just spoke to him says he wants him to come back.

So, it raises a lot of questions about Gordon Sondland being truthful about what his understanding of the demands were clearly. President Trump wanted the Ukrainian president to personally ensure that this investigation was publicly announced and that the investigation needed to be about not just the 2016 election, but also about Burisma, that energy company, and Joe Biden.

BLITZER: It is interesting, you know, Bianna, because Democrats are saying Ambassador Taylor's testimony today was very damning. Do you expect these revelations will now lead to what some are already calling a pivotal shift in the entire impeachment inquiry?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN SENIOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, it's interesting that you're not hearing from many Republicans at this point. Look, this is a very well laid out methodical transcription and testimony of what's happened over the past few months that we've seen from Bill Taylor today. Anybody who wants a synopsis of what we're talking about at home should go online and read his testimony because he lays it out crystal clear.

And what struck my attention was specifically when he talked about two channels of communication, the regular channel of communication, vis- a-vis protocol in Ukraine and in U.S. policy, that's something he oversaw, something he's been very familiar with, he's been doing this since 1985.

And then there's the irregular channel that was overseen by the "three amigos" leading to Rudy Giuliani and ultimately to President Trump. And this is what stood out. He said, the irregular policy channel was running contrary to the goals of long-standing U.S. policy. That should send a red flag to both Democrats and Republicans.

He also lays out early in his testimony that Ukraine is a strategic U.S. partner. Ukraine is important for our own security. So anybody at home trying to understand why this is such an important matter, there it is. He lays it all out.

Two other issues to bring up, scrutiny over Mike Pompeo and Mick Mulvaney, what roles they played because it's clear here that Taylor, Ambassador Taylor said he sent a memo, a cable to Secretary of State Pompeo expressing his concerns. Where is that memo?

Remember, we heard Secretary Pompeo said that everything according to him was fine from the transcript. He was actually on that call. So, where is that memo? I'm sure many in Congress would like to see that, and also Mick Mulvaney, his role in withholding that money. Remember, he is the official OMB director even though he's acting secretary counsel as well.

BLITZER: Yes, those are great questions. You know, Jamie, you've been speaking with a source close to Ambassador Taylor. What are you learning about this veteran U.S. diplomat?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: He is not only a key witness, that he is a reliable witness. His former colleagues say he's a straight shooter.


He's honest. He's professional. He didn't have to do this job. He went back because he was determined to do the right thing. And let's just remember for context, the State Department did not want him to testify today. Their guidance was, do not to go. He defied that, he went. There was no --

BLITZER: He was given a subpoena this morning.

GANGEL: Right, but that gives you some cover. Others, you know. The second thing is there was no State Department attorney in there with him.

Republicans I've talked to on the Hill keep talking about, in the impeachment inquiry, a bright line, something that shows specifically that something wrong was done. This testimony today, by someone like Bill Taylor, that's a bright line. It is devastating testimony.

BLITZER: They really want Giuliani, who is apparently conducting a lot of this foreign policy, to testify. What are the chances, Susan, he will?

HENNESSEY: Well, Giuliani will certainly attempt to not have to testify. And frankly, he probably has a reasonably strong argument for invoking the -- the Fifth Amendment. There is -- there is serious sort of legal concerns and liability concerns for -- for Rudy Giuliani.

BLITZER: Because he's under investigation by the U.S. attorney --

HENNESSEY: Because he is --

BLITZER: -- for the Southern District of New York.

HENNESSEY: Because he is personally under investigation. We've also seen that he tried to sort of assert, you know, attorney-client privilege with the President.

That said, Bill Taylor is laying out a story that shows that Rudy Giuliani was taking direction directly from the President of the United States himself. Unlike past presidential scandals in which we've seen presidents really be harmed by things that their staffers were doing, it is very clear that this was being driven personally by the President of the United States.

Trump was personally dictating, directing, and was deeply involved in these efforts, these efforts to oversee essentially two channels that were operating at cross purposes. One that was pursuing the stated national security goals, bipartisan goals, of the United States and supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression and another channel that was actively undermining that, attempting to withhold military assistance until the President got what he wanted, which was dirt on political opponents.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Abby, if -- if you read this testimony that's -- I've -- I've read it now a couple of times, they really wanted President Zelensky to do a public interview. And they mentioned CNN a few times.

That's what the President really wanted, a public statement that he was going to investigate this firm Burisma and the Bidens, the 2016 election, Ukrainian involvement, allegations that Ukraine, as opposed to Russia, was interfering in the American election. They wanted a public statement from President Zelensky.

PHILLIP: Yes, that struck out at me as well. Why would they need that public statement to be sort of, you know, presumptively on camera, something that could be replayed over and over again? And -- and Taylor alludes to the fact that the President also wanted Zelensky to personally do it himself. So it leads to a lot of questions.

I mean, I think that the -- the most obvious explanation from that -- for that could be that this is exactly the kind of thing that can become part of a -- of a political campaign. It can be used against Vice President Joe Biden.

And -- and based on Rudy Giuliani's own public statements in the months leading up to all of this, Giuliani made it very clear that he believed that this issue of Burisma and Joe Biden should be a part of the 2020 campaign. It should be counted against the former Vice President.

So we have to -- to measure up what we're learning from the -- from the hearings, from Bill Taylor, and also what Giuliani actually said out loud publicly, to everyone who would potentially hear it, about what he was trying to do, politically, for the President.

And I just want to add one more character in all of this that -- that I think is going to become critically important, and that's the former national security adviser John Bolton who was also at the center of a lot of this.

He no longer works at the White House. He also left on -- on bad terms with the President. He has a lot to say about this, and -- and some of it has to do with the ways in which he tried to memorialize some of these concerns while he was at the -- at the National Security Council.

BLITZER: Yes, we'll see when he shows -- if he shows up, I assume he will, before these committees.

Everybody, stand by. There's a lot more news we're following, including an exclusive CNN interview with the Defense Secretary, Mark Esper. What's ahead for U.S. troops pulling out of Syria and U.S. influence in the Middle East now that Russia's Vladimir Putin is stepping into the void?



BLITZER: Breaking news, we're monitoring developments in Syria right now where Turkey's five-day pause in military operations against Kurdish forces is ending. Today, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the Turkish President, Erdogan, they announced their forces will conduct joint patrols along the Turkish-Syrian border in order to remove Kurdish fighters.

Earlier, CNN's Chief International Anchor, Christiane Amanpour sat down for an exclusive interview with the U.S. Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, while he was visiting an airbase in Saudi Arabia.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Can you tell us, first and foremost -- there seems to be some confusion that maybe you could clear up -- where are the U.S. forces in Syria going?

The President has said perhaps a contingent could stay in Syria. You said that they were going to be redeployed to western Iraq. But the latest news is that the Iraqi command says welcome to come across the border but only on route out.



AMANPOUR: He doesn't anticipate your troops staying there. So where will they be?

ESPER: Well, as you know, we're conducting a phased withdrawal, deliberate phased withdrawal, from northeast Syria. It began with the -- what we call Phase One, which was in the immediate zone of attack. Now, we're into Phase Two, which is from the northeast quarter, if you will.

And then, eventually, we have other phases that will withdraw all the forces out. We will temporarily reposition in Iraq pursuant to bringing the troops home. And so, it's just one part of a continuing phase, but, eventually, those troops are going to come home.

AMANPOUR: So they are coming home.

ESPER: They will come home.

AMANPOUR: None will stay in Syria.

ESPER: Well, we -- right now, the President has authorized the -- that some would say in the southern part of Syria in Al-Tanf. And we are looking maybe at keeping some additional forces to ensure that we deny ISIS and others access to these key oil fields also in -- in the middle part of the country, if you will.

But that needs to be worked out in time. The President hasn't approved that yet. I need to take him options sometime here soon.

AMANPOUR: So -- so --

ESPER: But the bulk of the force would reposition in Iraq, and then eventually go home.

AMANPOUR: So none of this is clear, first and foremost. And those who might stay might be away from that border, away from the bulk of the ISIS trouble, and securing oil fields from who?

ESPER: Well, I don't -- I don't talk about securing oil -- oil fields as much as I talk about denying ISIS access to the oil fields so that they can't have revenue to continue their bad behavior.

And with regard to, you know, the deployment, what I'm trying to do, what my aim is, to keep my options open -- really keep the President's options open -- so that if events change on the ground, whether it's up in northeast Syria or other parts, we have the flexibility to -- to respond to the President's direction.

AMANPOUR: How are you going to have the flexibility to respond to a resurgence of ISIS?

And as you know, that is a big concern from inside the military, from amongst your allies, from many in the President's party back in the United States, and -- and analysts and politicians all over the world. All of these years that you've managed to deny them the ability to -- to pose a serious threat, they are now open for business again. And people are very, very concerned.

In fact, General Petraeus has said, this does not end in endless war, it probably prolongs it because this gives ISIS an opportunity for a resurgence. This is not a strategic success.

ESPER: Well, let's -- let's look at the facts on the ground. Based on the intelligence we have, the reporting we have, of the 11,000 or so detainees that were in prisons in northeast Syria, we've -- we've only had reports of a little bit more than a hundred that have escaped.

The SDF, and we remain with them, are maintaining the guards over top of the prisons they have control of. So right now, we have not seen this big prison break that we all expected. So that's the good news piece.

And then with regard to the -- the other part, I'll be meeting with my allies, the United States allies, in Brussels in the coming days. We're going to have a specific session on what do we do with the -- with the Defeat ISIS Campaign now that's in a new phase to ensure that we contain -- maintain pressure on ISIS so that it doesn't resurge.

AMANPOUR: Golly, Secretary, in a new phase. Some would say you have -- I don't know -- wantonly or willingly ended the success on ISIS. You heard what General Petraeus just said.

ESPER: Well, the success --

AMANPOUR: It's not really a new phase. I mean, the metrics are not about territory, are they? They are about resurgence, regrouping, the ability to do so. And even before this withdrawal of U.S. forces, many in your military and elsewhere were watching a resurgence

ESPER: Yes, well, I -- I didn't --

AMANPOUR: -- and watching cells come together.

ESPER: I wouldn't classify it as a resurgent. I had not. What I would say is this, is keep in mind why we partnered with the SDF originally going back to 2014. It was to defeat ISIS. And we ended up destroying the physical caliphate of ISIS as of March this year.

And the -- the task then is to make sure we maintain the enduring defeat. And part and parcel of that is making sure that local security, et cetera can handle that. So, yes, we are in a new phase of the Defeat ISIS Campaign, it's -- it's to maintain that defeat and maintain that destruction.

AMANPOUR: I'm still confused. The local forces who are making sure that that happened were the SDF. And those are the forces who, by withdrawing, you have allowed to be victims and targets of the Turkish offensive, which is precisely designed to get them out of the way --

ESPER: Well, the SDF --

AMANPOUR: -- of the area that you've been stabilizing.

ESPER: The SDF are still in control of the prisons that are under their control. The Turks have told us they've taken control of the prisons under which they now have responsibility. And our mission in that area was to train, advise, and assist. We weren't guarding prisons up there in that part of the world.

AMANPOUR: Yes. I mean, as you know, it's not just about prisons. It's about fighting, and the Kurds were your real on-the-ground fighting force.

ESPER: Sure.

AMANPOUR: Tragically, about eight American lives were lost during the fight for ISIS, but more than 11,000 Kurdish lives were lost.

ESPER: That's right. And -- and we were their enablers and we were their air force, so we had mutual interest. The mutual interest was destroying the physical caliphate of ISIS.

AMANPOUR: Correct, and make sure that ISIS doesn't come back as a fighting force --

ESPER: That's right.

AMANPOUR: -- which people are worried that they will right now --

ESPER: And we're --

AMANPOUR: -- including members of the Pentagon.

ESPER: And we're all focused on that, is to make sure we understand, as we enter this new phase, how do we continue that enduring defeat of ISIS.


AMANPOUR: I'm having trouble with the word enduring, but let me ask you first. You say you're going to NATO to talk to allies.

ESPER: Sure. AMANPOUR: Allies are actually quite shocked -- and I'll be interested

to know what they say to you because those were your allies, the Kurdish forces on the ground -- and they, right now, feel utterly betrayed.

You've seen these terrible tragic pictures. I'm sure no Secretary of Defense wants to see their allies throwing rocks and rotten fruit at retreating American forces, calling them liars and saying that they've betrayed them. I wonder what you're -- how do you feel when you see that?

ESPER: Well, here is what the allies have said publicly and privately. We all condemn what President Erdogan of Turkey has done. We all oppose it. That is this irresponsible incursion into northern Syria that has upset -- upset what's -- what had been happening on the ground successfully.

And so, everybody opposes that. We're going to talk specifically about that as well in the context of what's next with regard to defeating ISIS. So that's, I think, where we will begin, at that point right there.


BLITZER: Coming up, Vladimir Putin strikes a deal on Syria with Turkey. Is Russia replacing the United States as a dominant force in the Middle East?



BLITZER: Vladimir Putin is aggressively expanding Russian influence in the Middle East, looking to supplant U.S. dominance in the region. CNN's Brian Todd is here with the very latest.

Brian, President Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria has certainly paved the way for Putin to increase Russia's influence in the region.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It has paved the way for Putin, Wolf, and the Russian President is moving at lightning speed tonight to spread his influence over Syria. But the former KGB officer isn't stopping in Syria. He's flexed his muscles all over the world recently, partly with the help of President Trump.


TODD (voice-over): With handshakes and smiles, Vladimir Putin greets Turkish President Erdogan in Sochi where Putin once hosted the Winter Olympics. Putin gives a characteristically benign statement about only wanting to maintain security in Syria.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION (through translator): We are certainly concerned about the growing threat of terrorism and the contradictions in this particular region. These separatists' moods and tendencies have been kindled artificially from the outside.

TODD (voice-over): A veiled shot, analysts say, at the U.S. A senior administration official tells CNN tonight the Trump is concerned that this deal between Putin and Erdogan to jointly patrol areas of northern Syria could actually undermine the security there, but experts say Putin has seized this moment.

JEFFREY MANKOFF, DEPUTY DIRECTOR AND SENIOR FELLOW OF THE RUSSIA AND EURASIA PROGRAM, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The message that Putin is trying to send is that if you sign up with Russia, Russia's going to be there. It's going to fulfill its commitments in a way that the United States has not.

TODD (voice-over): Vladimir Putin has been aggressively bolstering his power in recent months and not just in Syria. He's met with the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman, scored key investments worth billions from the leader of Abu Dhabi, met with Kim Jong-un with an eye towards shaping his deal with President Trump. All with the calculation that Vladimir Putin and not Donald Trump would become an indispensable player.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY, DIRECTOR OF THE KENNAN INSTITUTE, THE WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR SCHOLARS: This is an instrument for Putin to return to the global stage as a necessary intermediary, as someone you have to include. If you do not consider Moscow's interests here, they will ensure that you fail.

TODD (voice-over): Experts say, in the Middle East, Donald Trump might have handed Putin the role of intermediary on a platter by withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria and signaling that he wouldn't stand in Putin's way.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If Russia wants to get involved with the -- with Syria, that's really up to them.

TODD (on camera): What did he hand to Vladimir Putin when he did that?

MANKOFF: Yes. Well, I -- I think he basically conceded influence over the future of Syria.

TODD (voice-over): Experts believe the former KGB colonel has again deftly maneuvered against Trump in the Middle East. Putin wants to influence events in that region without owning any messy outcomes, analysts say. And as for fighting terrorism, America shouldn't expect much help from Putin there either.

ROJANSKY: Russia's problem with ISIS has been that, no, they don't like ISIS very much, but they're much more concerned with winning the war for Assad. And as long as the United States and U.S. allies like the Kurds were focused on defeating ISIS, they didn't have to worry about that.


TODD: Analysts have other warnings tonight about Putin's future moves in the Middle East. They say he's got his sights set on getting Russian companies to help Syria rebuild, to do business with Iran, to sell weapons in the region, to bolster the Kremlin's economic stake in the Middle East, and by doing so, to diminish America's -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I understand even tonight, Brian, since this deal between Putin and the Turkish President was reached, the Russians are already moving very aggressively.

TODD: That's right, Wolf. The Russians, tonight, have already announced they're going to move additional military hardware into northeastern Syria because the territory they control is growing so fast. And Putin's ally, Bashar al-Assad, is so giddy about this entire deal that Putin just made with Erdogan that he personally thanked Putin over the phone just a short time ago tonight.

BLITZER: All right, very important stuff. Brian, thank you very much.

There's more breaking news. Coming up next, new details emerging with key testimony in the impeachment inquiry. A top diplomat says he was told President Trump would withhold aid from Ukraine until it announced an investigation into Joe Biden.



BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Damning testimony. A top U.S. diplomat gives lawmakers important new evidence of a quid pro quo in the Ukraine scandal. Tonight, Democrats say this could be a major turning point in the impeachment investigation.