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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Declares Victory in Handling of Syria Crisis; Republicans Forcibly Crash Impeachment Testimony. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 23, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: It is a little early for a turkey pardon.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Conservative lawmakers storm a secure room in the House and interrupt key impeachment testimony, claiming they have been shut out, as the president calls Republicans who do not support him -- quote -- "human scum."

With his top envoy to Syria contradicting him, President Trump declares victory in Syria and hands Turkey a gift, after Turkey inflicted carnage on U.S. allies the Kurds. Why Russia and ISIS may also have reasons to celebrate today.

Plus, teflon Don. The president's lawyers argue in court that you can't touch him legally until he leaves office, even if he were to shoot someone.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead.

Today, the number two Republican in Senator, John Thune of South Dakota, delivered a devastating assessment of the latest testimony in the House impeachment inquiry of President Trump.

Senator Thune telling reporters that the picture being painted of the Trump-Ukraine scandal by the top diplomat in Ukraine is -- quote -- "not a good one."

Bill Taylor testified that he was told President Trump was going to withhold -- quote -- "everything" from Ukraine, everything, including badly needed military aid, that is, until Ukraine's president publicly announced investigations into Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as Ukraine's alleged role in the 2016 election.

And as CNN's Kaitlan Collins now reports for us, this all comes as President Trump is trying to spin capitulation to Turkey in Syria as a win for the United States. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This was an outcome created by us, the United States, and nobody else.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Today, President Trump took credit for a cease-fire in Syria, while announcing the U.S. will lift sanctions he imposed on Turkey.

TRUMP: Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand.

COLLINS: Trump imposed those sanctions after Turkey invaded Northern Syria, days after he decided to pull U.S. forces from the area, leaving Syrian Kurds and longtime American allies unprotected.

TRUMP: So the sanctions will be lifted, unless something happens that we're not happy with.

COLLINS: Trump says the cease-fire will save Kurdish lives, even though, just yesterday, Russia and Turkey agreed on a plan to push Syrian Kurdish fighters out of the region they once occupied.

TRUMP: Other countries have stepped forward. They want to help, and we think that's great.

COLLINS: The president also claimed ISIS fighters who have escaped from Kurdish-run prisons have been largely recaptured.

TRUMP: A small number, relatively speaking.

COLLINS: But his top envoy to Syria disputed that just hours earlier.

JAMES JEFFREY, U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR SYRIA ENGAGEMENT: We would say that the number is now over 100. We do not know where they are.

COLLINS: Trump ignored CNN's question about the discrepancy today.

(on camera): Mr. President, you said that the ISIS fighters who escaped have been recaptured. But, today, your top envoy said that's not true, that they don't know where they are. Do you have a comment?

(voice-over): Today, the president took no questions on Syria or the high-stakes impeachment inquiry.

(on camera): Did you tell President Zelensky to publicly announce the investigations, Mr. President?

(voice-over): His silence coming after he dismissed his top diplomat in Ukraine's testimony, quoting a Republican who claimed Bill Taylor didn't say Ukrainians were aware that military aid was being withheld.

Taylor testified that he was told a top aide to the Ukrainian president delivered a message making clear that it was.

Trump now saying the impeachment inquiry is dead. But members of his own party sound unsure, including the second-ranking Republican leader in this Senate, who said the picture emerging from Taylor's testimony is not a good one.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, the president says that these never-Trump Republicans are -- quote -- "human scum."

He also said that his current top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, is a never-Trump Republican, he believes, someone he says he doesn't know, though we should note that Bill Taylor is a West Point graduate, a Vietnam veteran, who Secretary Pompeo personally recruited to come back and take this job as the top diplomat in Ukraine, though Secretary Pompeo hasn't weighed in on the president's insult to Bill Taylor yet.

TAPPER: That is if he does it all. Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Let's chew over all this.

Jen, the White House responded to Bill Taylor's testimony by calling the impeachment inquiry a -- quote -- "coordinated smear attack from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats."

Then, of course, you had President Trump calling Bill Taylor a never- Trumper and saying that never-Trumpers are human scum.

Obviously, their messaging is pretty specific. They're going after Taylor.

[16:05:00]

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Obviously.

And attacking the messenger and trying to discredit the messenger has been a tactic we have seen from them before. It's also a tactic that President Putin and the Russians use against ambassadors and other people in Russia, I'll just point out.

That's their strategy at this moment. Now, the problem they have is that there's so much detail that we have in front of us at this point. We have Taylor's testimony. We have the whistle-blower complaint. We have the chief of staff of the White House giving a press conference.

We know they did it. The question is, what happens now? And so, you know, this is kind of desperate, in my view, and taking some tactics from their Russian friends' playbook in mind.

TAPPER: So, Bill Kristol, you're a leading never-Trumper.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: Let me just to show you what the president said about your ilk today. "The never-Trumper Republicans, though on respirators, with not many left, are in certain ways worse and more dangerous for our country than the do-nothing Democrats. Watch out for them. They are human scum."

I don't think you're human scum, Bill, but on behalf...

PSAKI: Me neither.

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: Let's not poll the whole panel, though, because it could be closer.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: What do you make of that, though?

KRISTOL: Elevating our discourse there.

I mean, I wonder why never-Trump types are on his mind so much. I mean, the Democrats are doing the impeachment in the House. It's fine with me, but I wouldn't say we have been particularly -- I'm flattered -- I'm flattered if he thinks we are causing him a lot of trouble.

And I do it's a sign of what Jen calls desperation or panic there. Don't you think generally in the White House -- the president's personal tweets and what he's been saying over the last few days in interviews, the House Republicans today, I mean, there's a sense that, if all were well, he would not be worrying about attacking never- Trumpers, attacking Bill Taylor, who was...

PSAKI: He selected and Secretary Pompeo put into...

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Well, what about Secretary Pompeo?

Bill Taylor, whom I don't know, so he's not part of this never-Trumper conspiracy. I might have met him 10 years ago or something when he was ambassador, was George W. Bush's ambassador to Ukraine for the past two, three years.

TAPPER: Right.

KRISTOL: Very strong pro-Ukraine. And that comes out in his testimony, very skeptical of Putin and Russia.

Is called back -- he's 71, 72 years old -- called back by Secretary Pompeo to serve the country after this mess where they fire another good Foreign Service officer who's the ambassador. He comes back really out of duty.

I mean, he's doing stuff...

TAPPER: Entirely out of duty.

KRISTOL: Yes. (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: His wife didn't want him to do it.

KRISTOL: He's been ambassador Ukraine. He comes back as charge d'affaires because they're not going to go through Senate confirmation and so forth.

And so he does it totally out of duty. Did Secretary Pompeo say a word? I mean, honestly, just out of his own self-respect? I know the president wouldn't like it. But say a word defending this man who has served this country, ranging from fighting in Vietnam through a very distinguished four-decade career in the Foreign Service?

TAPPER: Yes, a fellow West Point graduate. You would think he would, but he didn't defend Yovanovitch, as far as we know.

I want you to -- it's not just President Trump and Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, attacking Bill Taylor. Take a listen to Vice President Pence.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS: How do you have career diplomats now turned into collaborators with the Democrats rolling up to Capitol Hill?

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have some extraordinary men and women in our diplomatic corps, who know their work and who are strong and are out fighting for America's interests.

But there's no question that when President Trump said we were going to drain the swamp, that an awful lot of the swamp has been caught up in the State Department bureaucracy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Drain the swamp? I mean, Laura is clearly asking about Bill Taylor and the others who have been testifying.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. It's an oldie, but a goody. Just go back to it.

No. And Jen can back me up here. I don't think Bill Taylor is anyone that would be close to someone who'd be associated with the swamp.

Now, you wonder why they didn't put a more swampy individual there, because all administrations put some people in ambassador positions that have no business being there.

Instead, they put this career diplomat in that position who now has a front-row seat to all of these deeds that are being done that are not above-board.

So that is -- that is actually quite questionable, because the swampiest part are -- ambassadors can be swampy.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Well, they had a swampy one to the E.U., Gordon Sondland.

They had Rudy Giuliani. So what they hate is the fact that there was actually an honorable person there.

KUCINICH: One of these people are not in the swamp.

TAPPER: I want to just ask you.

Matthew Whitaker, who was the acting attorney general at one point, on FOX said that abuse of power is not a crime. What do you make of that?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, lots of things are not a crime.

For instance, being an individual who's manifestly unfit to have served as acting attorney general of the United States is not a crime. But that doesn't mean that Matthew Whitaker should have done it or we should have had him as acting attorney general.

The simple fact is, an impeachable offense does not need to be a crime, Jake. And over the years, Congress has generally found three bodies of conduct to be impeachable, abusing power in office -- that's an obvious one -- behavior that's incompatible with the office of presidency or federal judge or whatever, or misusing one's office for personal gain.

[16:10:01]

Those are the kinds of things that Congress is looking into here. But this question of whether the president violated a criminal statute, that's just not the standard.

Matthew Whitaker knows that. He should be ashamed of himself for making that, because he's misleading the American people about what an impeachable offense is.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We have got a lot more to talk about.

Pushing, shoving, screaming, the drama, the stunt that House Republicans pulled today, in an attempt to make a point about the impeachment inquiry.

Then, the new CNN poll showing one 2020 Democratic candidate gaining support among several key voting groups. Who is it?

Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:18]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): We're going to go and see if we can get inside. So, let's --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's do it.

GAETZ: So, let's see if we can get in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida and with that a group of House conservatives stormed the so-called SCIF, that's the secure room where three house committees are conducting impeachment interviews. The uproar is described as yelling and railing, delayed today's testimony from another witness and it came after President Trump publicly grumbled that Republicans were not doing enough to defend him. A source told CNN President Trump knew in advance of today's protest.

Let's go right to CNN's Lauren Fox on Capitol Hill.

And, Lauren, these Republicans said they wanted to see what was happening and what they call secret meetings. But just a point of clarification here, aren't there already Republicans in these hearings asking questions of these witnesses?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, there are, Jake. But Republicans are arguing and the top Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy, told me just a short time ago that he needs more transparency, that, look, every one of these members were elected, they all had the right to understand exactly what's going on in this secure room and he's arguing that when impeachment comes to the floor of the House of the Representatives, that those members have to know what's going on.

Now, Democrats are arguing, slow down, this is just the beginning of the investigation, but behind closed doors this went on for five hours. Now, Laura Cooper is now testifying behind closed doors. But it went on so long that this afternoon they had to bring in snacks and pizza for members who were in the room.

Ultimately, they had to leave to go vote. And now it appears that the testimony is underway. But I will tell you, Jake, a very chaotic scene this morning.

And like you said, it turns out President Trump knew that Republicans have planned this about a week ago.

TAPPER: All right. Lauren Fox, thank you so much.

Let's chew over all of this.

And, Jackie, let me start with you. To a degree in the sense that this argument about process, that the Democrats are holding these hearings behind closed doors, is that not helping Republicans stay unified in the House in terms of an argument for voters, it is an argument for House Republicans and there does seem to be a degree of unity. At least on the House Republican side.

KUCINICH: Yes, because, I mean, they could complain about the process because they can't get into the substance because the substance right now that we know about is in defensible. So, that's what they are complaining about. Now, we've seen when they had open hearings that they complain it is just a big show and a circus. So maybe we'll see that again.

But they do -- we always would like to see the process. Now Republicans themselves had closed door intelligence briefings when they were in charge. This isn't unusual because some members feel like they get better answers and are able to put the show-boating aside in a more open hearing. But of course we always have openness but there is a reason they do this and both sides do it.

KRISTOL: These are hearings with three committees in which Democratic and Republican members are there. And they shouldn't be call it Democratic hearings, they are in the room and equal time to question and the counsel for each side is there and can ask questions. The Republicans can report to their colleagues who are not on these relevant committees. Everything they said as they choose.

So the idea that this is some secret thing, they are choosing to have closed hearings for a good reason because they don't want to reveal the body of evidence, they don't want people to hear what other people say if they could have a hearing and not grandstanding. But the notion this is Democratic partisan and I think this thing today was a big mistake. There are 20 Republican congressmen on those committees and what does it say to them that these other guys storm in and pretend there is no representation.

If there are any Republicans left who care about the dignity of the House or any kind of not being a third world country, they have to be appalled by what happened today.

TAPPER: And, Jen, you said people storming the SCIF had electronic devices. You're not allowed to bring even an Apple Watch with you.

PSAKI: No. You're not allowed to bring an Apple Watch. Also, they ordered pizza. I mean, it became sort of this show-boaty type of event.

I'll say this has a shelf life or expiration date this entire argument because there will be a public component of this.

TAPPER: Right.

PSAKI: They are doing the hearings now. They're gathering information. Clearly, that's been constructive and productive. There are Republicans there, but there will be a public piece. And then at that point, they'll try to make the other argument. But this argument is not going to last for long.

WILLIAMS: But more importantly, to use the correct term, they are not even hearings. They are depositions, which are legal processes where you sit down with counsel and questioned by both sides or they are transcribed interviews of these other things like that. They are not even hearings and there will be public hearings.

Taylor will testify and what you will have is a West Point grad marine whatever -- West Point grad saying he thinks the president of the United States committed an impeachable offense.

[16:20:01]

That will be, if not devastating, at least incredibly --

TAPPER: Well, we don't know that he's going to say that. But he's going to describe --

WILLIAMS: He is going to describe conduct that itself impeachable.

TAPPER: In your view.

WILLIAMS: In my view, yes.

TAPPER: And what do you make of the fact that the second ranking Republican John Thune said today that the picture coming out of Bill Taylor's testimony about a quid pro quo is not a good one. That is John Thune.

That's not a squishy Republican. He's the number two Republican in the Senate from South Dakota. He doesn't have to say anything that is not fully supportive of President Trump. But there is an honest assessment there.

KRISTOL: Yes, there is real nervousness I think on both of the Senate Republicans and some of the House Republicans. We saw that with Mr. Rooney the other day, that they are not confident any more that it is quite as easy to excuse what the president has done as they once thought.

TAPPER: and why is that? Well, Democrats and even some Republicans say it was jaw-dropping. We're going to break down why Bill Taylor's testimony could be the most significant part of the impeachment inquiry yet.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:55]

TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead.

The White House is assailing the career diplomats who had served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, calling them radical unelected bureaucratic coordinating a smear attack with far left lawmakers.

Radical unelected bureaucrat, that's what they are calling this man, William Taylor, a West Point grad who served as an Army infantry officer in Vietnam. He worked in the State Department for many administrations, including as President George W. Bush's ambassador to Ukraine.

President Trump today also accused Taylor of being a never Trumper before saying never Trumpers are, quote, "human scum." And there is a reason that Mr. Trump and the White House are attacking Taylor. His testimony was devastating for the president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): In his 15-page opening statement to congressional investigators, Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, laid out perhaps the strongest evidence yet of an apparent quid pro quo. President Trump withholding congressional-mandated military aid until the Ukrainian president announced an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Taylor testified he had been concerned about, quote, an irregular informal channel of U.S. policy making with respect to Ukraine that included then special envoy Kurt Volker, U.S. ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, the now outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Taylor says that by August of this year, the official and unofficial channels, quote, had diverged in their objectives.

The official objectives for the U.S. mean supporting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and providing Ukraine with military aid to beat back pro-Russian separatists. And little by little, Taylor realized what the unofficial objectives were -- pushing the Ukrainians to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden.

In June, Volker and Sondland told Taylor that, quote, the president wanted to hear from Zelensky before scheduling the meeting in the Oval Office. Specifically Sondland later told Taylor, quote, Zelensky needed to make clear to President Trump that he, President Zelensky, was not standing in the way of investigations.

Investigations of what? By mid July, it became clear to Taylor, the meeting, quote, was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma, unquote, the company where Joe Biden son Hunter sat on the board of directors, quote, and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. A push, quote, guided by Mr. Giuliani.

REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D-NY): To hear what was taking place, these separate groups that was going on, talking about U.S. policy, where 2020 elections, political elections interest was taking place led by Mr. Giuliani. It was absolutely stunning.

TAPPER: But the Oval Office meeting was not the only thing being withheld. Taylor testified, quote, on July 18th, I heard a staff person from the Office of Management and Budget say there was a hold on security assistance to Ukraine. A, quote, directive that had come from the president to the chief of staff to OMB.

That security assistance, a $400 million military aid package overwhelmingly approved by Congress to help protect Ukraine from Russian aggression. Taylor said, quote, I and others sat in astonishment. The Ukrainians were fighting the Russians and counted on not only the training and weapons but also the assurance of U.S. support.

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): It was the most detailed and specific testimony we've heard in these many depositions about the holding up of military aid.

TAPPER: Taylor was the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine but testified he was kept in the dark about that July 25th phone call between President Trump and Zelensky. In that call, after Zelensky talked about Javelin missiles, Trump brought up a, quote, favor he wanted, an investigation into the 2016 election and the DNC server -- what a former top Trump aide has called a debunked conspiracy theory.

And then the president raised, quote, the other thing -- investigating the Bidens. Just last month, Taylor testified, a National Security Council official told him that Sondland told one of Zelensky's top aides, quote, the security assistance money would not --

[16:30:00]