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STATE OF THE UNION
President Trump Announces ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Is Dead; Interview With Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) On Al-Baghdadi's Death; Interview With Defense Secretary Mark Esper; Ambassador Taylor Dodged Bullets For The U.S., Now Dodges Trump Attacks. Aired 10-11a ET
Aired October 27, 2019 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: That's when he got off record and started rambling around. He didn't think his CIA chief, who I guarantee you was up to her eyeballs in putting these packages together to make sure that the intelligence was right and our special forces had everything that they needed from the intelligence community, make sure they got there.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Gina Haspel. Gina Haspel.
ROGERS: Gina Haspel was there, and I -- I agree with Lisa. Given the very detail about the layout of the compound tells me that there were, you know, and he told the world that there was likely somebody who was helping us on the ground understand what that complex looks like. You can take great pictures over it but what's underneath it, pretty difficult. So that -- you needed a human source likely close to that.
So, the more he talked about it, that's where I think you saw the grimaces around the table, worried that that one little bit piece in braggadocio is the one piece that gets somebody in trouble down the road. And I think that's what we are --
TAPPER: And he also talked about the fact that they knew that al- Baghdadi kept changing his travel plans, which also would also suggest some insider information.
ROGERS: Well, or -- well, that may not be insider information, once they knew where he was and we're able to observe travel patterns. But that's just good operational security. That to me says is exactly why he has survived as long as he has. Remember, we thought we had got him once before.
ROGERS: He was injured. He nursed himself back to health, and then when he would do these in fits and starts, we had seen that operational security pattern well before this. So that tells me he knew that he was likely at some point in his life, you know what they say, he slept with a suicide vest for years. There's good intelligence going back for years that he expected that this was going to happen. So all of those activities would be a normal pattern for somebody who is trying to make sure that they don't end up at the end of a raid by America's special forces.
TAPPER: And I can't help but notice, General Clapper, that you might have been on his mind to a degree as well, given the fact that President Trump at least twice during that press conference slammed what the intelligence community should not be doing as opposed to what they should be doing, that's obviously a reference to the investigation into what exactly the Russians were claiming, et cetera.
Twice he said that, once he said that this is what they should be focused on and then another time he talked about the intelligence community not doing what they should be doing, clearly a reference to the investigation into whether the -- how the Russians were reaching out to his campaign, and combined with the fact that he did not thank his CIA director Gina Haspel and did not thank his director of National Intelligence, Joe Maguire.
JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think the -- this is a case where this intelligence I like, it's great, if it's intelligence I don't like, it's not so great. So I think this gets back to the work that we did in the last administration on the Russian meddling in the election of 2016, which still is a burr under his saddle and so I think that's the reference there. And I think I have an idea who he's talking about.
TAPPER: So let me ask you about another thing, which is, he really painted a very vivid picture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's last moments -- pardon me -- as a coward. He said he was crying and whimpering and screaming all the way as he ran down the tunnel.
Obviously, I don't know if that's true, it's a very vivid picture. If it is true that Baghdadi grabbed his children with him and then detonated his suicide vest, taking his own life and the life of his three children, then that only contributes and adds to the picture we already know of Baghdadi, that he was a sociopath, a psychopath, a monster.
Is there a value in a president painting a picture like that about this person, he killed his own children?
CLAPPER: I do think there's -- and I think Mike Rogers made this point, that it was useful to provide a reminder of the nature of ISIS and its leadership. The brutality that was consistent hallmark of ISIS behavior. So yes, it was graphic and all that. I would agree that it would have been better served just to have made the announcement from the teleprompter and quit, and not get off, because I think that actually detracted from the magnitude of the event and detracted from the credit.
CLAPPER: That was given to the folks who contributed to this.
TAPPER: Something else that President Trump did that I'm sure everybody at this table applauds, which is he reminded us of the names of some of the people, the Americans and at least one Brit, who had been killed brutally by ISIS, the journalist James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the humanitarian workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, as well as the Jordanian pilot who had been burned alive by ISIS.
That's an important reminder for people in addition to, of course, as Jeremy Diamond mentioned before the speech, the individuals inspired by ISIS, killed in California, killed in Florida, killed in New York.
LISA MONACO, FORMER OBAMA HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: I think that's very important. And I think I was really glad to hear him cite the names of and mentioned the names of those very brave journalists and aid workers, and Americans who lost their life to ISIS' savagery.
He did not mention the name of a journalist who remains in Syria and remains unaccounted for, and that's Austin Tice, and who, you know, we pray every day for his safe return. And that's another important reason why we need to be in a partnership with our Kurdish partners and to have a presence there, to be able to generate some intelligence to hopefully bring Austin Tice home.
TAPPER: And that's one of the points that we have been talking about earlier, which is the fact is that without the relationship with the Kurds, the SDF, and without troops there on the ground, there are many people in the Pentagon who say this successful mission could not have been carried out.
ROGERS: Oh, you know, absolutely. There's no way we could have done this. Remember, those Kurdish forces were pushing back on ISIS. They were leveraged up by our capability with our special forces community and special operators to go with and go forward. All of that, Trump should understand how impactful that was. That was a change in the way we were operating in Syria. And it did make a significant difference, to push back and eliminate their land holding.
And as the director mentioned earlier, the ISIS philosophy isn't going away. And in some cases, they'll seek some revenge here. But all of that was important. And you could not have done it without those Kurdish forces. And all of that information that gets collected across -- all of Syria in that battlefield feeds back to a place that likely contributed to this successful event.
ROGERS: And you can't do it without those allies of which, candidly, we just walked away from.
TAPPER: The White House has released this photograph, I just want to put it up. It is from the situation room, as the decision, I guess, was made or as they were watching the raid go down, President Trump saying that he was able to watch a lot of it as it happened, although he wouldn't go into detail about how exactly that happened.
You know, it's interesting, General Clapper, President Trump was very eager to praise and thank Russia for allowing the U.S. to use their airspace. He was less willing to give a lot of credit to the U.S.' Kurdish allies, the SDF, even though the general of the SDF has said that this was a five-month-long operation as far as the Kurds were concerned. President Trump said this was a two-week operation as far as the U.S. was concerned. That suggests to me that all these details and all this information likely came from the Kurds and either a Kurdish spy or intelligence they were able to gather on the ground in Syria.
And that it's interesting to me, just because the president seemed very reluctant to credit the Kurds while he was at the same time bending over backwards to thank Putin for allowing the U.S. to use its airspace.
CLAPPER: Well, that is a curious juxtaposition. But it's certainly not inconsistent with the president's consistent deference to Russia and he's constantly looking for opportunities to heap praise on them. So, I don't find that surprising. I suspect there was -- because we don't know exactly the specific technical details of what led to this but typically there's a long buildup of gathering, correlating lots of bits and pieces, as Chairman Rogers indicated, over a period of time.
And I'm quite confident that our being on the ground and sharing tactical intelligence, ground level intelligence with the Kurds, I'm quite sure, had a lot to do with the success of this mission. The buildup could be the marshaling of the forces and all that, which could take place over a couple of weeks. But I think the ultimate sequence here was much, much longer, with the gathering of intelligence.
TAPPER: All right. General Clapper, Lisa Monaco, Chairman Rogers, thanks so much for being here. We really appreciate it.
You're watching a special two-hour edition of STATE OF THE UNION. President Trump just confirmed that the most wanted terrorist in the world is dead.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Last night the United States brought the world's number one terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. He was the founder and leader of ISIS, the most ruthless and violent terror organization anywhere in the world. He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: The president said that U.S. Special Forces blitzed al- Baghdadi's compound in northwest Syria overnight, chasing him into a tunnel where the president said al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest, killing himself along with three of his children he had dragged along with him into that tunnel.
CNN Senior International Correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh is live for us right now in Irbil, Iraq. And Nick, the president gave quite a vivid account of this raid.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. At times the rhetoric was quite sort of crude, in all honesty, the notion of Baghdadi dying like a whimpering coward. He talked about how there were some frightened puppies in some cases who were fighting alongside Baghdadi, a vivid picture painted certainly at time itself by a president who was almost in awe possibly of the U.S. security machinery unfolding around him.
You referred to how he got to watch it, and it was often as though you were watching a movie, possibly at times revealing a little more than his security chiefs would have liked. He was at pains to say they would not say from which base -- he said a port -- from which base this was launched, but they had gone in and out the same way. And also suggested that the flight time was an hour and 10 minutes.
Now a basic assessment of that, and helicopters, means you're probably looking at maybe somewhere in the Mediterranean or possibly even somewhere in Iraq. But a lot of details seemed to emerge here, that seem to be on the edge of the comfort zone of what his officials may necessarily have liked. But also interesting, too, to point how he referred to Turkish airspace being used. That of course is the nature of how close they are to the border there. But also pains to thank Russia. He said Russia was great. But also how the Syrian Kurds gave us some information that turned out to be helpful.
A president certainly there trying to seem, by use of the first person consistently, part of that operation while at the same time clearly I think in awe of how it unfolded around him -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Nick Paton Walsh, in Irbil, Iraq, thanks so much. Stay safe, please.
President Trump says U.S. forces spent two hours inside the ISIS leader's compound collecting intelligence including, the president says, about future ISIS operations.
Joining me now live in studio, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Mac Thornberry.
Congressman, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.
REP. MAC THORNBERRY (R-TX): Thanks for having me.
TAPPER: So, you heard the big news, the U.S. operation, a raid, in which Baghdadi was killed. What's your reaction?
THORNBERRY: Number one, I think that was the most effusive I have ever heard the president in talking about our military and intelligence professionals. They deserve all the credit. It is remarkable what they do. Secondly, on that point, it was important not only to get Baghdadi, but to collect the information there. And hopefully, we can follow up very quickly on some of that information, which may give us the location of other ISIS operatives or identify plots that are under way. And I guess the third point I would just say is, as you were just
discussing with the panel, we can never do this stuff alone. We have to have allies and friends, whether it's information or whether it's help in flying over an area. We cannot do this sort of thing. We cannot protect the American people all by ourselves.
TAPPER: Right. And so I guess, with that in mind, there would seem to be consensus from the three counterterrorism experts on our panel, bipartisan, that the success of this mission kind undermines some of the president's recent actions in Northern Syria, given that, A, they don't believe that this could have happened without the U.S. already there, even though, obviously, they flew in, and, B -- just the idea of the presence of the U.S. And, B, that that alliance with the Kurds was so important.
The Kurds saying this was a five-month operation. And, obviously, a tremendous amount of intelligence was gathered, and it seems likely that it was from Kurdish intelligence forces.
Do you agree? I mean, do you think that this underlines the importance for the U.S. to stay in Northern Syria?
THORNBERRY: Yes. I think it -- and it's important that the president apparently has decided that we will maintain some presence in Eastern Syria around the oil fields. So, that does several things, one, prevent ISIS or Assad from getting the oil revenue. But it also gives us a platform from which to continue to watch and pressure ISIS.
So, one of the things that's happened in the last 17, 18 years is, ISIS, in particular, even more than al Qaeda, has spread a network around the world. And we have a handful of special operation folks also around the world who are watching them, keeping track and can take action when necessary.
But we -- again, we can only do that with partners. Whether it's Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia, we rely on partners to help gather that information and, when necessary, act on it.
TAPPER: One of the other things that we've learned about ISIS in the last couple weeks is, according to Jim Jeffrey, the special envoy to Syria and for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, there have been a number of ISIS terrorists that have gotten free since the president's announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Northern Syria.
So, this is obviously a great achievement in the fight against ISIS. Al-Baghdadi was the founder, the spiritual leader of ISIS, but there are also this -- this new threat of 100-plus ISIS terrorists out there.
Senator Bob Menendez, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he says that the release of these ISIS prisoners is a clear and present danger to the United States. Do you agree? THORNBERRY: Well, we need to have more information about exactly who
they were. So there are top-rate, very dangerous ISIS operatives who have been prisoner. There are also lower-rung kind of soldiers. They are much less dangerous. But, again, it goes back to the point it was important not to pull all the way out of Syria. Having some presence there gives us a greater ability through intelligence gathering to keep track of these individuals and other ISIS operatives because, as you pointed out, it's a big deal to get Baghdadi.
THORNBERRY: And I think the president deserves a lot of credit for authorizing the raid. If it had gone bad, he would have gotten the blame. But that does not mean ISIS is defeated, any more than getting bin Laden meant al Qaeda was defeated. We've taken something valuable away. But you still have these networks, you still have people who will take the place of anybody we remove. And they continue to work to -- to attack America.
One other point. There was a lot of comment about, well, we wouldn't expect Baghdadi to be in Idlib because we thought al Qaeda was there.
THORNBERRY: What happens in some places is terrorist organizations that you think are rivals can actually cooperate in certain situations.
TAPPER: Is that what happened here?
THORNBERRY: And --
TAPPER: Or you suspect it?
THORNBERRY: Well, in that area, there were signs of al Qaeda and ISIS cooperating in a way we have not seen before. I just -- I just mentioned that to highlight the danger to terrorism. We're not done with this threat. Just returned from Afghanistan a week ago. There are dangerous terrorists still in Afghanistan plotting against our homeland.
TAPPER: Including ISIS.
THORNBERRY: Including ISIS, and especially ISIS. So, we've got to keep the pressure on. This is a big deal, but we've got to keep the pressure on.
TAPPER: And, lastly, what did you make of the president's -- he painted a very vivid picture of al-Baghdadi dying a very cowardly death, which I don't doubt for one second. A lot of these terrorists are cowards. But it was -- it was very vivid. He talked about him crying and whining, detonating a suicide vest, killing his own three children while he did so. Again, I don't -- I don't doubt that that's how he died or that he killed his own children. These people are monsters. But, I wonder if there's any part of you that said at all concerned,
because now there is, of course, a question about what is ISIS going to do in response to this move, in response to perhaps the president's rhetoric? Does that concern you at all in terms of galvanizing or motivating ISIS terrorists?
THORNBERRY: Oh, it probably makes me a little uncomfortable to hear a president talking that way. But, again, Baghdadi was the inspirational leader for an ISIS network across the world, from Africa to Southeast Asia. If you can take a little of the glamour off him, if you can make him less inspirational, then there's a value to that for all of these folks who are on their computers or in these networks looking to attack.
But you're exactly right. ISIS will seek to do something to show, we're still here, we're still relevant. So, the United States is going to be tested in the days to come. And, as you know, one of my big concerns is, we have only funded the military for about 25 more days. We don't -- the dysfunction in Washington --
THORNBERRY: -- is translating into doing real damage to our military, who we depend on and are so proud of for things like this.
TAPPER: And the men and women at the tip of the spear, they deserve better.
TAPPER: Congressman Mac Thornberry, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate your being here.
We're going to have much more on our breaking news coverage. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back.
TAPPER: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Jake Tapper.
The leader of ISIS is dead after a raid led by U.S. special forces in Syria overnight. President Trump just hailed the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in remarks at the White House, saying Baghdadi died, quote, "whimpering and crying and screaming all the way."
Ahead of the president's remarks, I spoke with the Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, about the raid.
TAPPER: Let's start with the president's announcement. What can you tell us about the raid? Was this an operation conducted specifically to target Baghdadi? MARK ESPER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Sure. Well, let me say first of all
this is a great day for America, this is a great day for the world. The president made a very decisive action and our troops and our interagency partners executed it brilliantly. So, as you know, we defeated the physical caliphate earlier this year and now the leader is dead. And so again, that's great news. And I want to commend all the participating in the operations.
I will tell you this that the operation was conducted last night. The president approved a raid onto the target. The aim was to capture Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And if we couldn't capture him then of course we were going to kill him. And like I said, the raid was successful. We pulled our troops out. We had two minor casualties, two minor injuries to our soldiers but a very successful, flawless raid.
TAPPER: When you say minor injuries, they will recover from those injuries?
ESPER: They've already been returned to duty.
TAPPER: OK. That's great. And -- so the president knew about the operation ahead of time, he approved the operation.
ESPER: The president was taking options earlier this week. He reviewed them, asked some great questions, chose the option that we thought gave us the highest probability of success and confirmation that the head of ISIS would be there, and either capture or killed, and then we executed from there.
TAPPER: Was there a lot of deliberation?
ESPER: Yes, I think in all these things, there's deliberation. The president had to -- had the opportunity to hear and speak with the commander of Central Command. He had a chance to hear from me, he had a chance to talk with General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And again, that decision was made late last week.
TAPPER: Could this operation have been done without U.S. troops on the ground in Syria already?
ESPER: That's speculative. I don't know, it's -- I'd have to consult with our commanders about that. You know, we have tremendous reach and capability. The people, the service members who executed this attack are the best in the world. And there's nothing beyond our capability.
TAPPER: Can you tell us which branch of the Special Operations they came from?
ESPER: It's a joint force, which means it's multiple components. And again, we worked closely with our interagency partners on this as well. It's a big team effort. They're very good at this, nobody is better. And as I like to say, they take the complex and dangers and make it look simple and safe. TAPPER: So CNN's reporting that it appears Baghdadi detonated a
suicide vest during the raid. Did that happen? Did he take his own life?
ESPER: Yes, that's the report we have on the ground from the commander that we tried to call him out and asked him to surrender himself, he refused. He went down into a subterranean area and in the process of trying to get him out, he detonated a suicide vest, we believe, and killed himself.
TAPPER: So he killed himself.
TAPPER: OK. Has a DNA verification been done on his body to verify that it is -- and confirm that it is him?
ESPER: We have confirmation through a form of visual and also some DNA confirmation.
TAPPER: So a DNA confirmation has come through?
TAPPER: And it is him.
ESPER: I was briefed on that by the commander earlier this morning.
TAPPER: The administration has been taking a lot of heat for the -- for the handling of the U.S.-Kurdish allies in Northern Syria. Did the Kurds play a role in this operation?
ESPER: I'm not going to discuss who all participated but we had some help from outside partners.
TAPPER: But the U.S. allies, the main U.S. allies in that region are the Kurds.
ESPER: That's right. I'm just not going to get into details right now.
TAPPER: OK. The general of the Kurdish forces, the U.S. ally Kurdish forces say that they did play a role. Is that --
ESPER: The SDF has been good partners for the last few years. They were instrumental to us helping defeat, destroy the physical caliphate of ISIS. And again, we remain in contact with them on the ground and they've been helpful in a variety of ways.
TAPPER: The -- CNN has reported that the CIA assisted in locating Baghdadi. Is that true and how long did the U.S. know his location?
ESPER: Again, I'm not going to get into any intelligence matters or anything related to those type of operational details.
TAPPER: It's surprising that he was in this town. This is not known as a hotbed of ISIS. It's more friendly to al Qaeda, which is an enemy of ISIS in some ways. Were you surprised that he was there?
ESPER: Well, again, we, as a joint team, the military with the intelligence folks who worked these issues very closely. We shouldn't be surprised, after what we saw where bin Laden was hiding, that they choose locations.
They've learned a lot about how we and others conduct intelligence, so this is a difficult task, it's very complex. And I give great credit to again the military, our interagency partners, the intelligence community, everybody that worked on this. And for the president for making this decisive decision to execute this raid.
TAPPER: Did the U.S. have any idea of his location before this last week?
ESPER: Yes, again, I'm not going to comment on those types of matters.
TAPPER: He was killed in this region that borders Turkey. Were there concerns that he was going to try to go into Turkey to escape?
ESPER: Well, there's concerns always when you have a target like this, that it's fleeting. And that's why I think as the stars align over the past week, the decision was made to go after him.
TAPPER: This -- the town where he was, as I said, it's more friendly to al Qaeda than it is to ISIS. Is there -- are there concerns that ISIS might have some sort of alliance with al Qaeda in that area?
ESPER: Yes, I'm -- I don't think we're prepared, at least I'm not prepared to speculate or make these types of judgments right now. The important is to celebrate the fact that the head, the founder of ISIS is dead. We got him. It signifies our commitment to the enduring defeat of ISIS.
TAPPER: I'm not trying to take away from the celebration. I agree it's a great achievement, I'm just trying to find out as much information as possible.
There are Russian forces also operating in this area of Syria. Should we assume that the U.S. deconflicted with Russia, in other words told the Russians, we're going to be here just so that there wasn't any misunderstanding, miscommunication, or kinetic action between the two, between the U.S. and Russia?
ESPER: I'll just say broadly that we have communications with the Russians. We deconflict all type of things. And I'll just leave it at that.
TAPPER: And what does this mean for the troops that have been sent into the region to help protect the troops that are helping to protect the oil fields in Syria?
ESPER: Well, the two are separate but related. Related in the sense that both signify, again, our commitment to the enduring defeat of ISIS. The troops now that are denying ISIS access to those oil fields, they're doing so because we want to make sure that ISIS cannot generate the revenue that would allow them to buy weapons, that would allow them to attack our partners and allies in Europe or come back to the homeland.
And that's our commitment and that's why we are reinforcing some of our positions in the southern part of Northern Syria.
TAPPER: Did the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Turkish-Syria border accelerate the timetable on this mission in any way?
ESPER: No, I don't think so. Look, the withdrawal was prompted by the fact that President Erdogan of Turkey made a decision that he was going to attack regardless and seize a safe zone, if you will, between Turkey and Syria. If -- and we were opposed to that vehemently and protested as much. And our concern was that Turkey's actions, as unwarranted as they were, would cause us, them, others, to lose focus on the defeat ISIS mission. That's the reason why we went in and that's the reason why we're still there.
And last week, I spent in the region talking to many of our allies and I spent time in Brussels with our NATO allies and reiterated to them that our commitment to the enduring defeat of ISIS.
TAPPER: And obviously this is a huge blow to ISIS, to have their leader, al-Baghdadi, killed. Is there now concern that ISIS might lash out, that they might try to stage some sort of terrorist attack as a way of showing to the world, hey, we're still here?
ESPER: Well, you prepare for everything. But you're right, this is a devastating blow. This is not just their leader, it's their founder. He was an inspirational leader in many ways. He is the one that -- when he formed ISIS in 2014, he led to establishing the physical caliphate throughout the region, so this is a major blow to them. And we're going to watch carefully next steps. And as a new leader and leaders pop up, we'll go after them as well.
TAPPER: As you noted, the physical caliphate has largely disappeared as the U.S. and the Kurds have beaten it back, but obviously there's still thousands, if not, tens of thousands of ISIS terrorists that remain. What is the status of ISIS right now?
ESPER: Like as we've been saying for some time now, we want to ensure the enduring defeat. That means we have to continually monitor the situation, make sure as we groups pop up or coalesce or establish a training camp, we go in and take them out. That's the way to ensure that they're no longer a threat to the United States, into our allies and partners.
TAPPER: And the president has said they're defeated but they're not fully defeated.
ESPER: Well, it's a physical caliphate. And defeat, it's hard to defeat an ideology. So what we're going to have to do is stay on top of this. We're going to have to make sure we have the capability to go in and, again, destroy targets as they arise.
TAPPER: When are all U.S. troops going to leave Syria as President Trump has said he wants to do, but obviously a lot of military officials have said they do not want to do, they think it would be a mistake?
ESPER: Well, President Trump's directive was we leave Northern Syria, Northeastern Syria, that part specifically where the safe zone is being set up by the Turks. We're halfway through that process, if you will. It will take weeks, not days.
But at the same time, the president said we would keep a presence in Southern Syria at Al-Tanf. And recently we got the direction that we would maintain presence in the area of Deir ez-Zor in order again to deny ISIS and other destabilizing actors down there access to the oil fields.
TAPPER: One thing I want to ask you, I want to follow up on something you said that you've said before, which is that President Erdogan of Turkey had said that he was going to go into this area and that's why the U.S. pulled out even though you and others had vehemently opposed him doing that.
It just seems odd that a NATO ally and a weaker country, although Turkey obviously has a very large military, would be able to, for want of a better term, push the U.S. around, I mean, push us out of the region. I would think the U.S. Would say, we're staying and I know you don't want to attack U.S. forces. How do you make the argument that this wasn't the U.S. retreating?
ESPER: Yes, I think that's an overstatement. I mean, we've known since the original partnership between the United States and SDF that Turkey --
TAPPER: That's the Kurds.
ESPER: That's right, that Turkey protested this. They view that many in the SDF are terrorists, that are members of the PKK.
And they also had two or three incursions over the past two or three years. So as I came into office about three months ago, this was probably the top foreign policy issue that was on my plate, constantly working with the Turks to establish a safe zone, to address the legitimate security aids and to try and walk them back from conducting this incursion.
But due to domestic politics, security concerns, any number of factors, it became clear to me and other members of the national security team that the Turks were going to do this regardless.
And I thought it would have been irresponsible, as did the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to leave our soldiers, numbering less than 50, in between a Turkish army of 15,000 plus and their route of attack.
TAPPER: One last thing, sir, and that is you've talked about the credit that you go to the military operators, the special operators who conducted this raid. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries and obviously it was successful raid. You've also given credit to President Trump for his decisive action on making this.
I just want to show you this tweet in 2012. You had nothing to do with this tweet, just for the record. President Trump, when he was citizen Trump, said stop congratulating Obama for killing Bin Laden, the Navy SEALS killed Bin Laden.
So I guess just the question I have is do commanders-in-chief deserve credit for the actions of our brave men and women in service, in uniform?
ESPER: Look, I'm not going to get involved in the political issues here. Clearly, the credit, first and foremost, goes to our service members and to interagency partners who helped execute this. And in this case, again, the president made a tough decision and gave the order to go. And at the end of the day, he bears responsibility for its success or failure, as do I, as does the entire chain of command.
TAPPER: I would agree, and I would agree that that was also true in 2012. Secretary Esper, thank you so much for being here. Don't be a stranger.
ESPER: Will do.
TAPPER: A big foreign policy victory for President Trump. Will it quiet his fellow Republicans' concerns about his Syria policy? That's next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He died after running into a dead end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.
He had dragged three of his young children with him. They were led to certain death. He reached the end of the tunnel, as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: President Trump, in the last hour, at the White House, confirming in rather vivid terms the death of the world's most wanted terrorist, at least at one point, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Let's discuss. Congresswoman, what's your reaction to the news, what's your reaction to the vivid image painted by President Trump? REP. KAREN BASS (D-CA): Well, my reaction to the news is that I'm glad he's taken off the scene. He obviously was a horrific person and killer. But, you know what, I'm glad that the Kurds were there to help us get the information that we needed, and it certainly raises the question what would have happened if we had pulled out way before.
TAPPER: You agree with that take, the idea that this underlines the need for the U.S. to continue to stand with the Kurds and to be on the ground in Northern Syria?
BILL KRISTOL, POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and with others. It sounds like the Iraqis helped us in important ways on the intelligence perhaps. But it's great news. And all honor to the people who carried it out and who planned it and ordered it.
I'd also say this builds on efforts, obviously, over years against ISIS, since 9/11, against terrorism and through various entities which have sort of morphed from into one another, Al Qaeda and ISIS. And we shouldn't forget everyone who has chosen to serve and who's fought in this difficult, often frustrating fight over what's now almost 20 years.
TAPPER: What might this mean for the president politically? He's obviously had a lot of criticism coming from Republicans on Capitol Hill about his move in Syria. What do you think?
RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it helps on a couple of levels. Number one, it shows that the president can still be a president and still govern and still carry out business, still do important things, that he's not overly distracted, and that the government is working in accomplishing things that are important to the security of our country.
Believe it or not, I think that is a narrative that is going to be spun, it's being spun now, it's going to be spun more, I think, in the future, that this president is just out of control, in chaos, the government is in chaos, everything is in chaos.
And the fact that we were able to accomplish something this substantive, this important to the security of our country, is probably more important for him than it was for Barack Obama to get Osama Bin Laden, because no one was doubting that Barack Obama was in control, everything was -- there was sort of a normal presidency, if you will, this isn't.
And so having something that is -- shows the accomplishment of the government and his control, I think, is probably more important for him than maybe any other president in recent memory.
TAPPER: Although, Jen Psaki, a former communications director for the Obama White House, Republicans did try to make the argument that Obama was soft on terrorism, did the Bid Laden raid have any effect on President Obama's popularity?
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, there's no doubt that, as he was running for president, and he could say I killed Osama Bin Laden, that that was a useful point he could make to reassure people that he was on it, that he was going after terrorism, that he was a strong leader on national security.
Although if you look back at the polling at the time, he was at about 46 percent, when Bin Laden was killed, he went up to 52 percent, and then he went back to 46 percent just a few months later. So this is certainly a different case, but it was short-lived, even in the killing of Bin Laden.
Now, I will also add that for Donald Trump, as was evidenced in some of his remarks today, this is different than Bin Laden. Bin Laden was this bigger-than-life leader of Al Qaeda. Baghdadi was certainly the leader, but they are much more diffuse, as your panels have been talking about. Their leadership is around the world, they learned some lessons from that and they may have an easier time regrouping than Al Qaeda did.
So that's also something that, well, that's not political, it may have a different impact on kind of their regrouping and rise.
BASS: And the other thing that might be a little different is that everyone in the entire world knew Bin Laden. But whether people really knew Baghdadi is a different story.
PSAKI: And that's a lesson learned, exactly, by, unfortunately, by these terrorist groups all over the world, in Africa, across the Middle East, including in Afghanistan, and they may be able to regroup, I hope not, nobody wants that, but more quickly than they were previously.
TAPPER: And President Trump will be able to claim credit for the death of al-Baghdadi in the same way that President Obama was able to claim credit in the death of Bin Laden. Obviously, the special operators on the ground do all the hard work and as do intelligence professionals.
But reminded Secretary Esper of this tweet from 2012, then citizen Trump saying, stop congratulating Obama for killing Bin Laden, the Navy SEALS killed Bin Laden, factually accurate.
The Navy SEALS killed Bin Laden. In this case, Baghdadi killed himself, but it was -- you would agree though that President Trump gets the credit for the successful raid?
KRISTOL: Absolutely, as President Obama did in 2012. Now, I would say, where did ISIS come from? It began in 2014 because -- we won't debate, but, I would say, a premature withdrawal from Iraq and the failure to intervene in Syria. But anyway, there was a vacuum and ISIS started in 2014, and that's been a very tough fight for the last five years with a lot terrible things done.
So I very much hope President Trump thinks about that lesson, that things weren't great in the war in terror in 2014 or 2015, when Mr. Foley and others were being killed because we've gotten Bin Laden, and that means staying on top of it. And I do think that means some troops on the ground and an aggressive effort with both the intelligence -- our intelligence assets and the military to not feel like, especially Trump even said today, well, it's 8,000 miles away, we have good homeland security, we don't have to worry about this stuff.
PSAKI: It's also important now to say that he is mindful of his language. I mean, Obama was careful about saying we are not at war with Islam and his remarks after the Bin Laden raid.
TAPPER: As was George W. Bush after 9/11.
PSAKI: As was George W. Bush.
TAPPER: President Obama quoted George W. Bush in his remarks after the Bin Laden raid on that.
PSAKI: Exactly. And we gave Bin Laden -- Bin Laden was given a Muslim burial, not because he wasn't a horrific terrorist, he was, but because the partners in the Middle East are key and vital. So he needs to be careful about his language moving forward.
I think some of what we saw today, I think, is problematic and troubling because it sends -- it could probably make him a martyr and he needs to be careful about that.
TAPPER: You disagree?
SANTORUM: I completely disagree with that. I think the fact that he talked to him as a coward, that he died like that like a dog, if you will, and he surrounded himself and killed himself, number one, and killed himself with the children. I mean, I just think it points out that, you know, this guy is, in fact, a coward and this is not a guy that you should be rallying around or creating a martyr around.
So I think it was actually very important that he --
BASS: Referencing the Muslim ban, that wasn't helpful, and he referenced that in his comments. I was also glad he eventually got around thanking our troops.
TAPPER: You're the second Republican at this table to say that you wish that he had stuck with the teleprompter statement.
SANTORUM: It was very powerful, very -- it was direct, it hit every point perfectly, and not that the press conference was a disaster, it wasn't, but it just injected things that didn't need to be injected.
TAPPER: Such as, for example, this, which President Trump said in his adlibbed remarks after the teleprompter speech.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: About a year, you'll have to check it, a year, a year-and-a- half, before the World Trade Center came out, the book came out. I was talking about Osama Bin Laden. I said, you have to kill him. You have take him out. Nobody listened to me.
If you go back, look at my book, i think it was The America We Deserve, I made a prediction, and I -- let's put it this way, if they would have listened to ne, a lot of things would have been different.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Now, as a fact-checking matter, that's not true. But also beyond that, why even talk about this?
KRISTOL: I mean, how inappropriate is it for the president of the United States to say that at this point?
BASS: How inappropriate is it for him to start by thanking Russia?
TAPPER: He did start by thanking Russia.
SANTORUM: Yes, look, I'm okay with that. I mean, look, if I had been on this panel --
TAPPER: He did thank the troops but, I guess, Russia was first.
SANTORUM: If I had been on this panel eight years ago, there would be just the exact opposite. I would be the one being critical of anybody being kind to Russia and everybody else would be -- so we've seen a complete flip.
The president --
PSAKI: That's why it's confusing that you're defending his -- thanking Russia first now. That's what's perplexing.
SANTORUM: It is perplexing. But I would say this. The president has an agenda, just like Hillary Clinton did when she was Secretary of State to try to engage the Russians. I think it is folly.
BASS: For what reason?
TAPPER: Well, I want to --
SANTORUM: The reason is try to get a more peaceful world. I'm sure that's --
BASS: I don't believe that.
TAPPER: Speaking of Eastern Europe, former Chief of Staff John Kelly told the Washington Examiner yesterday that he told President Trump that his, meaning the chief of staff's successor, cannot be a yes man, or President Trump would ultimately be impeached.
Trump responded saying John Kelly never said. He never said anything like that. If he would have said that, I would have thrown him out of the office. He just wants to come back into the action, like everybody else does.
Beyond all that, I do want to talk about the fact that this was a momentous week in the impeachment inquiry with a number of diplomats, a number of Trump administration officials, especially perhaps Ambassador Bill Taylor saying that he believed that there was a quid pro quo, that the Trump administration and Rudy Giuliani were pushing for dirt on the Bidens in exchange for military assistance.
BASS: Absolutely, it was a very powerful experience to be there and to hear his testimony. And, you know, to quote one of my colleagues, he didn't use the Latin word quid pro quo but he explained it there in great detail.
TAPPER: Were you concerned at all by what you heard about Bill Taylor and other's testimony?
SANTORUM: A little bit. I think this whole Ukraine thing, which is -- he wanted information, look, getting information on anyone for any reason is not a crime. I mean, the Supreme Court has even ruled that it's not a crime. It's not something of value that can be quid pro quo.
So the whole premise of this that there is some action here that is illegal, I think is suspect to begin with. Is it bad judgment? Absolutely. Should he have been pursuing this policy? In my opinion, no. But I don't think there's impeachable offense here whether they can, quote, prove it or not.
PSAKI: Here's the problem. The bar should not be whether this is a crime. We should make a judgment, and I will defer to Congresswoman Bass and others who can move this legislation forward on whether this should be a crime moving forward.
But at this point, should the president of the United States -- we should all be evaluating. Should the president of the United States be seeking opposition research on your political opponent in exchange for military assistance? That's what we're talking about here. That is not acceptable.
SANTORUM: I don't think he did that. I just don't think he did that.
PSAKI: I think we saw in the notes from the transcript and in countless testimony that is what he did. There are likely other cases where he did. That's how people are evaluating it.
TAPPER: Final word, like we have ten seconds.
KRISTOL: The kind of career foreign service professionals and intelligence professionals who President Trump routinely trashes, as he did with Bill Taylor, are the kinds of people who help make possible these victories as well and broader victories in making the country safer.
TAPPER: All right. Thanks, one and all.
The president wrote off Bill Taylor, who we're just discussing, as human scum and the latest in a long line of never-Trumpers. But those who know Bill Taylor best tell a far, far different story about who Bill Taylor is, of his service and his sacrifice, and that's next.
TAPPER: The deposition this past week from the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Ambassador Bill Taylor, was, Republican sources tell CNN, impactful and, quote, reverberating among Republicans on the Hill. Taylor detailed conversations with Trump administration officials pushing an explicit quid pro quo, in his view. He was told, quote, everything Ukraine wanted from the United States, including military aid depended upon the Ukrainian president publicly announcing an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden. The White House has been relentlessly attacking Ambassador Taylor.
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MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF: What you're seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying, you know what, I don't like President Trump's politics so I'm going to participate in this witch hunt that they're undertaking on the Hill.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: There's no evidence for that. And the president then called Taylor a never-Trumper and there's no evidence for that. And he said that all never-Trumpers, quote, are human scum. Human scum.
Thousands of miles away, watching this all unfold, was one of Taylor's West Point classmates with whom he served in Vietnam, now retired Colonel Bob Seitz. Let show this photo here. That's Seitz on the left in this photo in from firebase Rakkasan in Vietnam, in spring 1971, Bill Taylor is the one on the right of the photo.
For 18 months, Seitz and Taylor jumped from helicopters and rocked (ph) through the jungle-covered mountainous terrain, enduring, Seitz told me, quote, fatigue, hunger, bad weather, dying, killing and a lot of terrible wounds.
They were rifle company commanders of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne, the same regiment from the World War II book in miniseries, Band of Brothers. The motto of the 506, currahee, meaning we stand alone.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To Easy Company, victory and currahee.
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TAPPER: Seitz told me that Bill Taylor of Alpha Company was and remains the embodiment of the United States Military Academy cadet prayer, which says in part, quote, make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong and never be content with a half truth when the whole can be won. Colonel Seitz told me he has been enraged listening to President Trump and White House staffers lie and launch personal attacks on his friend, Bill Taylor. Taylor even extended his tour in Vietnam an extra six months. None of those attacking him ever stood up for their country they way Bill did, Seitz told me.
Taylor's service to his country continued as a diplomat working for every administration since 1985, serving U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush. Former General and Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry telling me, quote, Bill always volunteered for the tough posting and combat with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Afghanistan, Gaza, the difficult spots in the Middle East, unquote. In Iraq, Taylor came under fire in both Baghdad and Fallujah.
Earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked Taylor to come out of retirement to head back to Kiev. Taylor was wary of taking the position after seeing how poorly the previous ambassador had been treated by the Trump administration. But his mentor had told him, quote, if your country asks you to do something, you do it.
Sitting on Colonel Seitz's kitchen table right now is Wednesday's New York Times. Seitz looked at the cover photo with tears in his eyes. It shows his battle buddy, Taylor, walking into Congress, to choose the harder over the easier wrong, to not be content with a half truth when the whole can be won.
Taylor is standing alone, Seitz tells me, the way currahees have stood alone for our country. But all of us other currahees are standing with him, Seitz said. So President Trump can suggest that Taylor is human scum and the folks in the White House can attempt to smear Bill Taylor. But to his friends, the president is not just attacking Bill Taylor, he's attacking the values that Taylor personifies, duty, honor, country.
General Eikenberry told me, Taylor is, quote, integrity and courage are the true marks of patriotism, loyal to an oath of office and never to be corrupted or intimidated by those seeking personal gain at our nation's expense, unquote.
Now, you can ask yourself, of the behavior and values you have seen displayed during this impeachment inquiry, whose makes you proud to be an American and whose might make you ashamed?
We'll be back with another hour of STATE OF THE UNION at noon. "RELIABLE SOURCES" is next.