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Candidates Campaign in New Hampshire; Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman Removed From White House; Interview with Bill Taylor, U.S. Former Ambassador to Ukraine. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 7, 2020 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Trump.

THE LEAD starts right now.

With impeachment in his rear-view mirror, President Trump apparently seeking revenge. We have just learned that one key player from his National Security Council who was a key witness in his impeachment just got shown the door.

A CNN exclusive. Ambassador Bill Taylor, another critical impeachment witness, is speaking for the first time since his congressional testimony right here on THE LEAD.

Plus, with still no official winner in Iowa, Democratic presidential candidates are looking for a clear win in New Hampshire. And to get that, well, they're starting to get a little personal.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We have this breaking news for you.

CNN has just learned that Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a key witness in the impeachment inquiry of President Trump, has been fired from his White House National Security Council job.

Vindman's attorney writing a statement obtained by CNN that says in part -- quote -- "There is no question in the mind of any American why this man's job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House. Lieutenant Colonel Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right frightened the powerful. The truth has cost Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman his job, his career and his privacy.

"He did what any member of our military is charged with doing every day. He followed orders, he obeyed his oath, and he served his country, even when doing so was fraught with danger and personal peril. And for that, the most powerful man in the world, buoyed by the silent, the pliable, and the complicit, has decided to exact revenge" -- unquote. CNN's Kaitlan Collins is breaking the story from the White House.

Kaitlan, tell us more.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, the president all but confirmed this is going to happen when he was asked this morning about whether or not it was imminent that they were going to push Lieutenant Colonel Vindman out of this job.

He responded, saying he wasn't happy and that we'd be hearing about what would be happening to him. And now we know that he has been escorted off the White House grounds by security, told his services are no longer needed.

And, Jake, we do have one remaining question, which is about the future of his brother, Eugene, who is an attorney for the National Security Council, who we are told also walked out with Vindman today, but it's unclear if he received the same messages -- message about his services no longer being needed.

Now, the president had been essentially telegraphing this for weeks. They wanted to wait until the impeachment trial had come to an end, though, because aides had cautioned the president that, if he pushed out someone who testified in the impeachment inquiry, it was only going to make things harder for him.

And now, clearly, now that trial has wrapped up this week, they are making these moves at the National Security Council.

The president has continued to complain about Vindman ever since he testified, saying that that call that he was also on, on July 25 was inappropriate, that it undermined national security.

The president has not only mocked what he said. He mocked him for wearing his uniform to come and testify there on Capitol Hill, as you saw him.

So it really wasn't a surprise to many people inside the White House that this happened.

But, of course, Democrats and the president's critics and other people are going to say this is retribution for his testimony. And you can see his attorneys drawing a direct line between him testifying and him being fired months before he was scheduled to go in this statement that they put out.

He is way ahead of his scheduled departure date from the National Security Council role. It's a two-year job. He's not supposed to leave until July of 2020, when he would typically go back to the Pentagon, and now he's expected to do that.

But, of course, there are still going to be questions about a role at the Pentagon, looks like, a role still in this administration, though we should note, earlier today, the defense secretary, Mark Esper, said that they should not fear any kind of retaliation.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much.

And we should note Kaitlan referred to President Trump hinting as to this morning. Let's roll that sound. Here's President Trump this morning asked about the status of Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and whether or not he was going to be essentially fired.


QUESTION: Mr. President, would you like to see Alexander Vindman out of your White House? Do you want Alexander...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I'm not happy with him. Do you think I'm supposed to be happy with him? I'm not.


TAPPER: Bill Kristol, let's start with you as we chew over this with the panel.

What's your reaction, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman being literally shown the door?

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: I mean, it's one thing to shorten his detail, though it's not the right thing to do, since he acted entirely honorably and, apparently, he saw something that was problematic. He went to the counsel's office and raised it, as he should, and reported it to his superiors in the military.

But one can say, OK, it's awkward. One can understand perhaps the national security adviser calling over to the Pentagon and saying, could you take him back a few months earlier, make sure he's treated well, we're just going to make a change here a little ahead of schedule?

That is one thing. To have him escorted off the White House grounds by security, as if he's been -- what has he been charged with? Nothing. Has he done anything inappropriate? No.


That is a disgrace. And I think people in the military, you see that -- you go over on detail to the White House, it's an honor, typically. Sometimes, it's a bit of a burden too. Sure, you might enjoy more commanding a battalion somewhere.

But whatever. You do it to be -- and you expect to be treated in a reasonable, decent way. And then to be escorted off by security, when there's zero evidence, no charge at all that he did anything wrong, that's a real disgrace.

TAPPER: And let's also remind our viewers that Lieutenant Colonel Vindman served in combat in Iraq, and actually earned a Purple Heart after an IED exploded.

And he, I'm told by somebody close to him, still has shrapnel in his body from that service in Iraq.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised, because President Trump has made it clear, post-acquittal, that he is seeking, to coin a phrase, heads on a pike.


I mean, as soon as it was clear that Mitt Romney was going to vote to convict, President Trump's campaign and his supporters went into full mode in trying to attack Romney.

And the theatrics of Vindman's escort out of the White House kind of reminds me of when Trump tweeted out that Comey was going to be fired, while had just taken a trip to L.A., I believe, it was California, and found out on TV that he was going to be fired. So this is a classic move by Trump.

TAPPER: And you might remember when, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman testified, he said to his father, who was in the audience -- his mother passed away -- don't worry. We're not in Russia anymore. We're not in the Soviet Union anymore. I'm going to be -- I'm going to be OK. His family having emigrated from the Soviet Union.

And I guess it remains to be seen how OK he's actually going to be.

ALEXANDRA ROJAS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, JUSTICE DEMOCRATS: Yes, I mean, I think that it took some real courage.

He knew that his career was going to be on the line for this. And, regardless, he did the right thing. And I think, if Republicans had the same courage to be able to go up against this president, we might be able to see a different outcome.

But I agree that this is the typical theatrics of the White House, and that he had his career on the line and is going to -- stood with the American people.

TAPPER: And you might remember, Olivier, during Adam Schiff's closing argument for the Senate impeachment trial, he quoted a CBS News report that quoted a Trump confident saying that, if that people don't back him, there are going to be heads on a pike.

A lot of Republican senators claimed that they were very offended by that, even though he was quoting a CBS News report quoting a Trump confidant. And yet we see the White House going after Mitt Romney, literally the White House issuing bullet points against him, the president's son calling for Mitt Romney to be kicked out of the Republican Conference in the Senate, Trump going after him, attacking his faith.

Now we see Lieutenant Vindman being escorted off the White House grounds. I mean, I don't know what will offend these Republican senators more, the quote about heads on a pike or heads on a pike, but that is now what we're seeing.

OLIVIER KNOX, SIRIUSXM: Unless you were asleep the last three years, the idea of this White House seeking retribution is perfectly logical.

It's in keeping with his actions from the moment he took office. I don't really know why they would get offended of that quote, given that we have seen it time and time again.

Now, let's pause and reflect about pushing Romney out of the Republican Senate Conference. Would Republicans want to winnow down their slim majority by a vote? Is that really the political kung fu here?


KNOX: Probably not the best call.

TAPPER: Yes, but...

KRISTOL: Could I just said one...


KRISTOL: Attacking Romney, I don't -- it's distasteful. The way he did it was really horrible. The fact that none of Romney's colleagues came to his defense is also disgraceful.

But he is a Republican -- he's a senator. He's a politician. He can fight back. He can stand up for himself.

This man is an active-duty officer in the U.S. military. He can't fight back.

TAPPER: He can't criticize the commander in chief, yes.

KRISTOL: And he is not supposed to be treated in this way. And he has behaved, so far as one can tell, in a very honorable way.

And I really do think it is now a test for his superiors all the way up to defense secretary. As for chief of staff Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Milley, who is an Army man, incidentally, I mean, well, he needs to be treated with not just fairness, but I would say even some sense of -- that he has been wronged.

I mean, it is wrong to escort an active-duty military officer who's been accused of nothing off the White House grounds as if he's somehow a suspect in some crime or something.

TAPPER: And another point on this is that Vindman, when he came forward, when it became clear that he was going to testify, after having been called by the House of Representatives to do so, Esper, I believe it was at the time, the secretary of defense, issued a statement assuring Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, there will be no retribution, there cannot be any retribution against him.

But that's only in -- within the Pentagon. That doesn't mean that his detail to the White House, there would be no retribution.

BARRON-LOPEZ: I mean, certain agencies and heads of those agencies can guarantee something, but we have seen time and time again that Trump acts as Trump wants to act.

And so when he decides to take retribution, there's not much that the department of -- secretary for the Department of Defense can do, other than bring Vindman in, the way he said he was going to.

TAPPER: Can you imagine if Obama or the Obama administration had taken any action against any of the Benghazi whistle-blowers, who had various positions in the State Department and elsewhere?


It's really quite a thought to have.

KNOX: It is.

I mean, obviously, we are going to be watching to see what his next posting is, because if he ends up at Ice Station Zebra, we will know that the retaliation is fully on.

And the other thing I would say is, the president over the last few months has gotten -- has sort of an inclination to get more involved, not less involved, in the inner workings of the Pentagon, notably on matters of military justice.

And there has been retribution. He ordered the withdrawal from some commendations for the prosecutors of those folks that are accused of war crimes. So he's perfectly willing to meddle on that.

The question is whether Secretary Esper can thwart that.


Everyone, stick around. We got more to talk about.

Senator Bernie Sanders is signaling who he now sees as his biggest competition, and he's calling that person out by name.

Plus, thousands quarantined on cruise ships, and the number of Americans infected on board is growing.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: And we're back with the 2020 lead.

Democratic presidential hopefuls are going on offense ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire Tuesday.

Senator Bernie Sanders of neighboring Vermont attacking Mayor Pete Buttigieg for being the favorite candidate of billionaires.


Tom Steyer running a new ad attacking Biden, Buttigieg and Sanders.

As CNN's Abby Phillip reports, all the candidates are looking to punctuate their messages at tonight's debate in the Granite State.


PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, that's fantastic news to hear that we won.


ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A moment of celebration. And now, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is hoping to ride the momentum from Iowa to a strong finish in the New Hampshire primary.

BUTTIGIEG: New Hampshire is a state that has never been told what to do.

TAPPER: Right.

BUTTIGIEG: And we've got to earn every vote and earn a win on Tuesday night right here.

PHILLIP: With 100 percent of the precincts reporting and new questions about the consistency of some of the caucus data, according to a CNN analysis, there is still no clear win near Iowa.

Sanders saying it's time to move on.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We've got enough of Iowa. I think we should move on to New Hampshire.

PHILLIP: And pivoting hard to take on his nearest rival out of Iowa.

SANDERS: I'm reading some headlines from newspapers about Pete Buttigieg. Pete Buttigieg has most exclusive billionaire donors of any Democrat. That was from Forbes.

I like Pete Buttigieg. Nice guy. But we are in a moment where billionaires control not only our economy, but our political --

PHILLIP: Meantime, Joe Biden has been absent from the trail in New Hampshire. The former vice president spending Thursday huddled with his advisers in Delaware. Sources say Biden is doing campaign restructuring, elevating communications adviser Anita Dunn in the wake of a disappointing Iowa loss.

The candidate not competing in the traditional early states, Michael Bloomberg, challenging a key argument Biden has been able to make for his electability.

BIDEN: The 60-plus candidates that I campaigned for in the toughest districts in the country just two years ago don't see me as baggage. They want me in their districts.

PHILLIP: Bloomberg now picking up more endorsements from Democrats who flipped their districts from red to blue. Most recently, New Jersey Representative Mikie Sherrill. RICHARD SPENCER, FORMER SECRETARY OF THE NAVY: I do believe Mike can

get it done.

PHILLIP: The former New York City mayor also picking up an endorsement from President Trump's former secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer.


PHILLIP: The Iowa Democratic Party is now saying that they've extended the deadline for campaigns to say whether or not they want a recanvass of the results from the caucus on Monday. They have now until Saturday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

But Bernie Sanders has already told CNN's Brian Nobles that his campaign does not plan to request a recanvass, however, they do have concerns about some individual precincts and they'll bring those concerns to the Iowa Democratic Party -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Abby Phillip, thanks so much.

Let's chat about this.

So, let's go over this again. Senator Bernie Sanders seeming to acknowledge that Buttigieg might be his toughest competition. He said what he said in New Hampshire, about Buttigieg being backed by more billionaires than any other candidate. He even debuted a new hashtag on Twitter today. It's #PetesBillionaires.

Will this be effective?

ROJAS: I think so. And I think the reason why is because what this election has proven to be about with I think the rise of, obviously, Bernie Sanders and you have folks like Elizabeth Warren who still have a lot of momentum and outside establishment figures is leveling the playing field and having a vision for the future, and it is a reality in the United States of America right now that you have three people that own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of America.

And so, I think that trust is also a big factor here and Bernie is someone that you can look back years and years, right, and find him saying the same thing. And someone like Mayor Pete is backed by lots of millionaires and he also hasn't been saying the same thing on things like Medicare for All and his acceptance of corporate money since the beginning of the campaign. So, I think the biggest thing Bernie is worried about and defeating Trump and drawing that contrast, and there's a stronger contrast with him than --

TAPPER: Now, Buttigieg's response in the past has been in the past he's the only one on the debate stage who is not a billionaire. He's the only one -- he's poorest of them all, including Bernie Sanders.

KNOX: Right. So, there are two messages. Politics, change is needed and change is scary. The Democrats are obviously running on a change is needed platform. And so, this is a fight over who's the best champion for the changes needed now. I think -- I don't know how effective it's going to be, because Buttigieg has a lot of other reasons to invoke, like that one, for him being the agent of change. But I think that's what this boils down to.

TAPPER: And I have to say, Vice President Biden off the campaign trail today, I assume he's preparing for tonight's debate. There does seem to be concern about his campaign coming in fourth, and poor fourth in Iowa.

Dan Balz of "The Washington Post" put it this way, quote: Joe Biden has a problem, and it's not just that no Democrat has finished a weak fourth in Iowa caucuses and gone on to become the party's presidential nominee. The problem is Joe Biden the candidate. Biden has been a lackluster advocate for his own candidacy and the weakness of that advocacy was an unwelcome element of his campaign.


Do you think he can turn it around? He's obviously banking on getting a lot of votes in South Carolina. He's popular among black voters when they're a sizable chunk of that base.

KRISTOL: If you're fourth -- a weak fourth, as you say, in Iowa, and then fourth again, let's say, in New Hampshire, no one's ever come back from that, and especially when you're the former vice president of the United States for eight years of a very popular president named Barack Obama.

In retrospect, so I think he'd have a very tough time coming back honestly. And there's not much -- maybe he'll do great at the debate tonight, but it's not clear what issue he would ride or how he would -- there are other people in the field. If you want a progressive, you got Sanders and Warren, you got Buttigieg now. He's an interesting new fresh face, much younger than the others, I would say. And you got Bloomberg lurking there as a kind of alternative moderate if Buttigieg doesn't quite make it.

So, where's the path for Biden?


KRISTOL: And, you know, so one last point, the degree to which, thinking back on it, he didn't have to support you would have expected as a two-term vice president. Most obviously, where was Barack Obama?

TAPPER: Right.

KRISTOL: But others, too. You know, senator colleagues of his, you didn't hear a lot of people coming forward and say, you know what? Joe Biden's the guy. You know, I served with him for 15 years on this committee in the Senate. He's the guy that take us for -- you didn't see much of that. I think in retrospect, it was a weaker candidacy altogether maybe than it looked.

TAPPER: Yes. Well, it's not over it.

KRISTOL: Fair enough, fair enough. TAPPER: And, Laura, Bloomberg taking up a lot of Biden oxygen. For

example, the first Trump administration official to endorse a Democrat, former secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, said this earlier today.


SPENCER: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm a life long Republican. I quantity myself as a Reagan Republican, but I'm here before you today because I am tremendously concerned. Mike has a track record, a track record of productivity, a track record as an honest and principled man. I have no doubt, no doubt whatsoever that he can lead this country.


TAPPER: So I don't doubt that Mike Bloomberg can win over Reagan Republicans who don't like Trump. Question is, can Mike Bloomberg get young people, African-Americans, Latinos to the polls along with the Reagan Republicans?

BARRON-LOPEZ: Well, we have to wait and see, but it is clear that Bloomberg is having an impact on Biden's candidacy, even in places where Biden appears to be the strongest, like Super Tuesday states where there are Latinos, where there are black voters.

And Biden for a long time continued to say that South Carolina would be his launching pad into the Super Tuesday states and now, Bloomberg is eating up all that with TV ad buys and he's starting to gain in polls there. And so, it's unclear what impact it's going to have on someone like Biden.

TAPPER: He clearly came into the race when he saw that Biden was weak.

Everyone, stick around.

Coming up, he was the top diplomat in Ukraine and a key witness in the impeachment inquiry and now he's talking for the first time since the hearings in a CNN exclusive. Ambassador Bill Taylor, next.



TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead and an exclusive interview. One key impeachment witness has just been fired from his White House job, but before that happened, we spoke with another witness, Bill Taylor, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He's taking a break right now before deciding where best he can work on improving the U.S./Ukraine relationship.

But right now, he's talking exclusively with us for the first time since his testimony and the acquittal of President Donald Trump.

Joining me now is the former ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor.

Ambassador Taylor, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.


TAPPER: So, I want to talk about Ukraine and the importance of it in a second, but first, just taking a step back, it must have been very weird personally to be at the center of this Ukraine scandal and to be personally attacked by the president as he did.

Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's a never Trumper. His lawyer's the head of the never Trumpers. They're a dying breed, but they're still there.


TAPPER: And obviously around at the same time he was tweeting you were a never Trumper he was tweeting out that never Trumpers are human scum.

What was your reaction to that?

TAYLOR: Jake, no real reaction.

TAPPER: Not even weird, that it was strange?

TAYLOR: Of course, it's a little weird. But I've -- I'm not a never Trumper, as you know, as others know. I'm totally independent. I've worked for Democrats, I've worked for Republicans. So I was not worried that that was -- that was an issue.

TAPPER: And, I mean, if you were a never Trumper, then one presumes that when Secretary Pompeo asked you to come in and serve in the embassy in Ukraine, you would have said never, right? I mean --

TAYLOR: I thought very carefully about Secretary Pompeo's offer, as to whether or not I should do this and I concluded that it was important for me to do this. I concluded that I could make a contribution, both to the Ukraine and to the United States security, and so, I agreed to do it.

TAPPER: Do you regret it?

TAYLOR: Not a bit, not a bit.

TAPPER: When you testified, you really only had your slice. You only really knew about your view of this whole scandal from Kiev, what you had been able to see, what you'd been able to ascertain from talking to other people.

Now that the impeachment inquiry is over and you have heard the testimony of 16 other people and read documents, and, like, do you think that your initial impression was accurate? TAYLOR: I do. I was, as you say, just reporting what I'd been told --