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Vice President Mike Pence has been central to U.S. policy in Syria. After President Trump's controversial decision to withdraw American troops from the country and the ensuing Syrian incursion by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Pence was instrumental in securing a cease-fire agreement with Erdogan. Judy Woodruff sits down with Pence to discuss that effort and the impeachment inquiry.
From the raid this weekend that ended with the death of the top leader of ISIS, to the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, Vice President Mike Pence has been at the center of U.S. policy in the region.
He and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met over a week ago with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And, afterward, they announced a temporary cease-fire in Syria.
And then the vice president was next to President Trump, sitting, watching, as U.S. Special Forces tracked down al-Baghdadi.
That raid is where we began when I sat down with Vice President Pence at the White House earlier today. We spoke before the House Democrats announced plans to vote on Thursday to formalize their impeachment inquiry.
Mr. Vice President, thank you very much for talking with us.
Vice President Mike Pence:
Good to see you, Judy.
Let me start with the news this weekend.
And there's been praise from all corners for the U.S. military, intelligence community, the president, since he announced this successful raid in Syria killing al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.
My question for you is, does this mean the threat from ISIS and the ideology it represents is now lessened?
Well, we believe it does.
But let me begin by saying, as the world learned Sunday morning, this weekend was a great weekend for America. The most wanted man in the world, al-Baghdadi, is dead. And it's a tribute to the courage and professionalism of our Special Forces, the armed forces of the United States, our intelligence services.
But let me also say, Judy, it's a tribute to the decisive leadership of our commander in chief, President Donald Trump.
So, you say it's less of a threat, ISIS, and the ideology behind ISIS?
Does that mean the decision to move the U.S. troops out of Northern Syria is now more justified?
Well, let me say first we — we think the elimination of al-Baghdadi, the active leader of ISIS, will have a measurable impact on that terrorist organization.
That being said, let me address your question specifically. The president has made it clear that, when our troops went into Syria, in combination with Syrian Democratic Forces, they went in for the purpose of defeating the ISIS caliphate.
And they accomplished that in March of this year, with — at great sacrifice of Syrian Kurds and great sacrifice of our forces, great professionalism and courage on both sides. The last inch of territory controlled by the ISIS caliphate was captured.
And with the killing of al-Baghdadi, we believe that fight has gone on and will continue. But the president's decision to move forces out of the border region was — in a very real sense, it was a reflection of the fact that our troops went into Syria to defeat the ISIS caliphate, but they had evolved into being troops simply patrolling the border between traditional Kurdish Syria and Turkey.
And the president — the president said we didn't need to be in that mission. He announced we were moving our troops out. Our troops are moving out. And now, because of that, we have achieved a cease-fire in the region. And we're calling on European countries to make that safe zone a reality.
Excuse me. Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt, but there's just a number of questions I want to ask you.
But the reason I'm asking is because, as you know, what is being pointed out is the irony is this, that this raid was carried out successfully because American troops were there. And yet the president has decided to move them out.
So, if the troops hadn't been there, could there have — there couldn't have been a raid.
The other point that's being made is that this raid was conducted with the help of America's Kurdish partners. The U.S. has decided to leave those Kurdish partners to the — to the will of Turkey, who doesn't want them there.
So, there's a lot to square that circle.
Well, first, let me take the issue with the suggestion that, if we no longer had Americans patrolling the border of Turkey in Syria, that we wouldn't have been able to accomplish this mission.
We have troops elsewhere in Syria. We have troops in Iraq. All across the region, Judy, we have nearly 40,000 American forces deployed.
The Special Forces, I can't say precisely where, but the Special Forces that deployed in the region would have been unaffected by the decision the president made to have troops come out of the border area.
So, they weren't part of the — they wouldn't have been part of this pullout? Is that what…
Well, I can't say where the troops deployed from.
But what I can tell you is that the president's decision to remove troops from patrolling the border of Syria and the Turkish border had no impact on the capability, as we demonstrated this weekend, of moving this incredibly successful assault that brought the most wanted man in the world to justice.
And yet what is being seen now is that, after that meeting that you and Secretary Pompeo had with President Erdogan, and agreed on a safe zone, not long after that, President Erdogan met with President Putin of Russia.
They settled on a much larger safe zone. And the Turks went after the Kurds with will. Hundreds were killed. There's talk in the U.S. of war crimes being committed.
So, my question is, was this truly a success, when the Turks got what they wanted in the first place?
President Trump sent our delegation to Turkey with one mission. And that was to save lives, to stop the military incursion by Turkey into Syria…
.. and to bring a cease-fire to the section of the border that Turkish military were controlling at that time.
But hundreds of Kurds were killed.
We — there was fighting along the border. There's no question. And even after the temporary cease-fire took effect, there were some limited skirmishes.
But, as General Mazloum told me, as he said after the temporary cease-fire became a permanent cease-fire, what President Trump was able to secure from Turkey was a commitment to allow our allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces to safely withdraw from that 20-mile area along the border.
And reports are today that Syrian Democratic Forces are now in the process of withdrawing from a similar section along the Turkish border in Syria that is, frankly, controlled by Russian forces and by the forces of Syrian leader Assad.
But did the Turks break the promise they had made to you to respect this safe zone, to go on and — and create a much larger safe zone, which, in effect, shut the Kurds out of a much larger area than what you had originally negotiated on?
You know, I — I — our focus was to end the fighting in the area that Turkey's military was present.
The discussions that they had with — with Russia and with Syria itself about creating a buffer zone along the border is something that, frankly, has been talked about for years.
It's — this whole notion that we would essentially have a demilitarized zone that would be without Syrian Kurdish military forces, not Kurdish people, but Kurdish people live there now and will continue to, but also that, eventually, it would be without the military presence of Turkey in that area as well, that we would create a demilitarized zone.
And we're in consultation right now, Judy, with our European allies to bring resources to bear and maybe well personnel to bear to — to monitor that area.
The only thing President Trump made clear was that U.S. forces would no longer be deployed along the border between traditional Kurdish Syria and Turkey.
But the United States is fully prepared to work with and enlist the support, using our diplomatic and economic power, of other nations to maintain a safe zone.
Sorry to interrupt.
So it's a success for Russia, who is celebrating this. Iran has come out ahead. And the Syrian regime has come out ahead. Just — that's a victory for the United States?
No. When President Trump sent our team, he sent us with one mission, Judy. And that was to stop the invasion, to end the killing. And we accomplished that in a five-day cease-fire that literally allowed thousands of our allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces to safely withdraw from the area that was under control of the Turkish military.
But make no mistake about it. To your point, President Trump has made it clear that American forces will remain in Syria, and particularly that we will be deploying forces to ensure the security of the oil fields all across Northern Syria.
And we're going to be working very closely with our Syrian Kurdish allies to make sure that the revenues from those — oil don't fall into Iran's hands, don't fall into the regime's hands, don't fall into Russia's hands, but they remain — they remain focused on ensuring the security and the stability of those hard-fought gains, where our Syrian Democratic Forces literally won back their country from the scourge of ISIS.
Let me turn to Ukraine and then the impeachment inquiry under way right now in Congress by the House of Representatives.
The president, as you know, says he never pressured Ukraine's President Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden.
But there's now reporting by a number of news organizations, including the Associated Press, that, as long ago as May, after the president's first phone call with President Zelensky, that he was strategizing, anxious, worried with his staff about how to deal with this pressure from President Trump.
Well, that's — that's not what President Zelensky has said. He actually said there was no pressure.
In his conversation with the president, he said…
But the people around him…
… that — that, in discussions that I had with him, that there was no pressure.
And I think any American who takes time to read the transcript of President Trump's call with President Zelensky will see the president did nothing wrong. There was no quid pro quo.
But in that transcript, Mr. Vice President, the president mentions Joe Biden. And he says to President Zelensky, "I hope you will look into this," in a reference to what happened to Joe Biden's son, to Vice President Biden's son, and to Mr. Biden.
What did you think when you read that in the transcript? Did you think that it was appropriate for the president of the United States to bring up a political rival?
Well, I think the president has made clear that his discussion in that matter was all about looking to the past.
But — and I can tell you that, in — in the president's call, when the American people take time to actually read the call, which I know was greatly distorted by the way it was characterized…
But what did you think…
… in the whistle-blower's report.
The whistle-blower spoke about eight different references to the Bidens. That was simply…
But it's just the whistle-blower, Mr. Vice President. It…
And — but the other thing, the other…
… distortion, Judy, frankly, was when the chairman of the Intelligence Committee read into the record before the committee a fabricated version of the phone call.
But it's not just…
That's why, any time this topic comes up, I always tell people, make sure and sit down and read the transcript, and you will see there was no quid pro quo. The president did nothing wrong.
And I can assure people that, in all of my discussions with President Zelensky on the president's behalf, we were completely focused on restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine, standing with them against Russian aggression, helping to support their efforts to deal with corruption in their country…
But I — excuse me.
… and enlisting more European support.
Excuse me for interrupting.
But to bring up Joe Biden's name, the man who is likely to be, may well be the Democratic nominee for president next year, did it raise a red flag with you?
And, by the way, it's not just the whistle-blower. It's William Taylor, longtime respected diplomat, appointed by President Bush, reappointed by President Trump, who said — and I'm quoting — based on everything he was told by people who talked to the president, that the president was withholding military aid for Ukraine and the promise of a White House meeting because they weren't committed to investigating the Bidens.
This was in the transcript.
You read that transcript. Do you — does Bill Taylor, William Taylor, have credibility, as far as you're concerned?
Well, are you referring to William Taylor's testimony before the committee?
His account, the testimony, as far as we know.
Well, I — we can't really count on that, because all we have from the committee are leaks.
Well, we have his statement.
I mean, Judy, the — the process that's going on in Congress today is a disservice to the American people, and it's a disgrace.
I mean, to have impeachment hearings taking place behind closed doors, and the only thing the American people learn about are piecemeal release, leaked apparently by the Democratic leadership on the committee to the press.
This was his opening statement, 15 pages.
It's just unacceptable, Judy.
The — the committee ought to release the entire record of all of their witnesses, how they responded, how they clarified points that they had made in their testimony.
And the American people deserve to know that. I mean, the…
Again, it wasn't leaked. It was in his statement that he released to the public.
Well, yes, according — look, the American people have a right to know.
Impeachment is a great and serious matter in the life of this nation, and the way the Democrats are conducting this so-called impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill, behind closed doors, is wrong.
And they should — they should open this whole process to the light of day. They should release all of the transcripts.
And they say they're going to do that, that they're moving toward an open process.
And they should also respect the due process rights of the president of the United States of America.
And they say Republicans have an equal…
In the last two impeachment — in the last two impeachment inquiries, you know, Judy, there were rules that were established where counsel could be in the room, where due process rights of the president and of the administration were respected.
And that's simply not the case now. And I think it's why, as I travel around the country, it's why so many Americans are so frustrated with this Congress, because, frankly, for the last three years, Congress has been spending most of its energy trying to overturn the will of the American people in the last election.
And despite the fact we have been able to get an enormous amount done, when we had a Republican majority in particular, and this weekend's extraordinary military success and the defeat and the killing of the most wanted man in the world in al-Baghdadi, shows that we're continuing in the fight to keep this nation secure.
The S&P standard just set a record today. This economy is booming, 6.5 million jobs. And then the American people look at this Democrat Congress , and its endless investigations, and its so-called impeachment inquiry…
I think Congress…
And I think the American people, Judy, are saying, enough is enough.
They really want to see the Congress start to focus on issues that matter most to them, to their public safety, to prosperity.
By the way, you mentioned previous impeachments.
Lindsey Graham, who was in the House of Representatives during the Bill Clinton impeachment process, said at the time, the day Richard Nixon failed to answer the subpoena is the day that he was subject to impeachment, because he took the power from Congress, the point being that Congress does have a right to investigate a president. It says so in the Constitution.
Well, Congress has this authority.
And, so, the question is, why are…
And they're asking the administration to cooperate. And…
No, remember, Judy, I was in the Congress for 12 years.
The Congress acts by a vote in the majority. Even that hasn't happened here. The speaker of the House unilaterally initiated an impeachment inquiry. There's been no vote.
Members of Congress have taken no position on this inquiry. And most members of Congress have no access at all to what's happening behind closed doors.
I think the American people just deserve better.
It's a process…
I mean, if Congress wants — if Congress wants to pursue an impeachment, then they ought to do it in a way that respects the American people, gives the American people all the facts, and — and ultimately respects the history and tradition of the House of Representatives, as well as the due process rights of the president.
They say these three committees will wrap up their work in a couple of weeks, and then they will turn to open hearings.
If the House goes ahead and votes to impeach the president, what do you believe will happen in the United States Senate? Do you believe they will convict the president and remove him from office?
Well, let's be clear first that I don't take it as a foregone conclusion that the House will — will vote to impeach President Donald Trump.
I mean, as the American people take a look at the facts in this case, they read the transcript, it was so mischaracterized by the whistle-blower, and grossly mischaracterized by Chairman Adam Schiff in his fabricated version of the phone call that he read into the committee.
But when people read the transcript, they will see, despite the reckless allegations of many in the media, there was no quid pro quo. President Zelensky himself said there was no pressure, that it was a perfectly good phone call. The president did nothing wrong.
And, as the facts all come out, I think the American people will come to understand that. And I expect they will let their voice be heard on Capitol Hill.
But the other reason is — is, I really think the American people really want to see this Congress come together and work with this president in ways that will make our country more secure and more prosperous.
Mr. Vice President, thank you very much.
Thank you, Judy. Good to see you.
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Broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff is the anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
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