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Trump Meeting With Swiss Government President This Hour as Iran Tensions Grow; NYT: Photos Show Iran's Revolutionary Guards Loading Missiles Onto Boats at Several Ports; Trump Set to Unveil "Merit- Based" Immigration Plan Today; NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio Enters 2020 Presidential Race. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired May 16, 2019 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:31] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

This hour, what could be a pivotal moment in the dangerous standoff between the Trump administration and Iran. President Trump is sitting down with the president of the Swiss Federation this hour. The White House making it very clear the point of the meeting is to try and establish a back channel of communication with the Iranian leadership.

The president also making a pitch -- almost making a pitch for it in public last week. Listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I would like to see with Iran, I would like to see them call me.


BOLDUAN: Call me, please. This, as new details are emerging on what exactly spiked tensions with Iran in the first place. The "New York Times" is reporting on photographs showing Iranian paramilitary forces loading missiles into small boats at Iranian ports.

CNN last week reported movement of those missiles was one of the critical factors in the U.S. sending a strike group to the region.

Let's get the latest on this. CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House. Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon.

Abby, first to you.

You have all of this going on and also reporting that the president right now is not happy with his advisers on this very issue of how to take on Iran. What's going on?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Kate. Sometimes these discussions about what's going on behind the scenes can seem like palace intrigue, but it really goes to the heart of what is happening here when it comes to Iran.

You have what seems to be an escalating situation in the region, and the president's advisers upping their rhetoric, moving resources, military resources into the region.

Then you have the president himself seeming to want to back away from this, asking Iran to call him. And what our sources are telling us is that the president is frustrated by his advisers who he believes are pushing him toward military intervention, something that he believes he campaigned against.

And even though the White House has been denying this, our sources tell us the president himself has been talking to his advisers and his friends about his frustration with this.

And the fact that this meeting with the president of Switzerland is happening today is a bit of a sign that the president is trying to signal to Iran he does in fact want to talk.

But I want to read you the president's tweet on the subject, denying the reporting in the "New York Times" and "Washington Post" about this underlying dynamic.

He said, "The fake news 'Washington Post' and even more fake news 'New York Times' are writing stories that there's in-fighting with respect to my strong policy in the Middle East. There's no in-fighting whatsoever. Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision. It is a very simple process. All sides, views and policies are covered. I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon."

And, Kate, I should note, it was the president himself who said he was the one who tempers advisers, like national security adviser, John Bolton, who has been very out front on this issue. This is not just our reporting from our sources. The president himself has made that very clear.

BOLDUAN: A great point.

Thanks, Abby. Really appreciate it.

Barbara, it was your reporting on Friday that first pointed to missile movement, as what was one of the things behind this escalating concern and threat coming from Iran. What more are you hearing about this today?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's important to remember just for a second where it all began, which was the U.S. military said there was intelligence that Iran was possibly planning an attack against U.S. forces. Imagery of intercepts of communications showed potential threats to U.S. forces at sea and U.S. forces on land.

Now, they are finally beginning to brief Congress on the intelligence.

And look, there's no question, you have skeptics out there. There's a lot of skepticism about intelligence over the years. So the diplomacy for the Pentagon, for the U.S. Intelligence Community

now is to somehow be able to communicate what the intelligence was and what it is that is different than what Iran's typical high level of rhetoric and typical maneuvers in that region.

This imagery of the missiles is from boats being operated by Iran's militant Revolutionary Guard Corps. That's a big concern.

And there's no indication that they are trying to smuggle them to another location, for example. The concern is that these missiles are on small boats positioned to be able to attack U.S. interests in the region.

What everyone is pressing for is for some of that intelligence to be made public, to show why the U.S. military is so concerned.

In the meantime, the carrier group is nearby. The B-52 bombers are there.

[11:05:03] The Pentagon's strategy is one of deterrence. Put enough U.S. firepower in the region to make clear to Iran, if they were to do something, that they would pay a very heavy military price for it -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: With all of your great reporting in mind, it's very interesting to see what comes out of the meeting today at the White House with the president and the Swiss Federation.

Thank you, Barbara. I really appreciate it.

STARR: Sure.

BOLDUAN: What comes next? Will Iran call President Trump?

Joining me now is Samantha Vinograd, former senior adviser to the Security Council during the Obama administration and a CNN national security analyst, and Max Boot, a CNN global affairs analyst and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Great to see you guys.

Now, Sam, as we have what appears to be more clarity on what the intelligence was behind the escalating tension, the escalating concern, what they called an imminent and real threat -- is how Mike Pompeo said it -- coming from Iran.

Do you think the moves are -- do you think the moves the administration has made, then, in response, are appropriate or do you think, I don't know, it's overreacting?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think we're right to question the intelligence. Not only because of our history in Iraq, but President Trump reinvents history almost as much as he makes it when it comes to achieving a policy goal.

We have seen that on Russia, on immigration, where he searches for facts to fit a narrative about terrorists flowing over our border. We're right to question what the intelligence looks like. My sincere hope is the Gang of Eight will be briefed quickly along with relevant members of Congress.

I want to point one thing out as we prepare for the meeting between the president and his Swiss counterpart. Meeting with the Swiss is not a back channel to Iran. The Swiss represent our official interests vis a vis the Iranians.

If the president was doing this appropriately, he would be sitting down with his intelligence team and figuring out who he could work with to have a private conversation with the Iranians. We did that through the Omanis under President Obama.


VINOGRAD: We did it privately because we understood the Iranians publicly couldn't be seen as speaking with us.

This to me, this meeting with the Swiss that's coming up, is more of a P.R. stunt than anything else. So the president can say, my policy was escalating with Iran. I did it on the campaign trail. I withdrew from the nuclear deal. I engaged in information warfare with "Game of Thrones" memes about sanctions are coming.

Now that things are tipping point and there are real lives at risk, he wants to put himself in front of the cameras and say he's the one who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize in terms of extending an olive branch to Iran in this case, whereas, his team, John Bolton and others, are the ones responsible for this escalation.

BOLDUAN: Max, what do you think of this move from the president? Basically, from the White House, this meeting today at the White House, we have White House officials making it very clear that the whole point is that they would like to establish a back channel. The president asking for them to call him. It's happening in such a public way. Good idea, bad idea?

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, it's probably not the best way to handle things, but when has the Trump administration ever handled anything in the best way?

What you're seeing here, Kate, is the conflict that's emerging not so much between the U.S. and Iran, but between President Trump and John Bolton. And Bolton is somebody who is very set on confrontation with Iran. In fact, I had a former administration official tell me that the whole -- that's kind of why Bolton is probably back in government, because he sees this as his last opportunity to bring about regime change in Iran.

Now, Trump has been willing to walk with Bolton a long way, including getting out of the nuclear deal, including putting very harsh sanctions on Iran. But he's not willing to close the deal in the way that Bolton would like, which is to actually potentially bomb Iran, which is something that Bolton has called for in the past, because in his heart of hearts, Donald Trump is basically a neo-isolationist. Now he's sending up the warning flares and letting it be known

publicly that he does not agree with John Bolton. He doesn't actually want to go to war.

My concern is Bolton and Trump are putting so much pressure on Iran, they're increasing the risk of a miscalculation, especially in the Persian Gulf. And if something were to happen, then you could see Trump being backed into a corner and almost forced to fight with Iran. I think that could be what Bolton is actually counting on here.

BOLDUAN: As you mentioned during the Obama administration, a back channel was established in trying to --


VINOGRAD: A private one.

BOLDUAN: A private one.

VINOGRAD: Not a made-for-TV moment.


BOLDUAN: A private back channel before, as they worked towards the Iranian nuclear deal. But it was very clearly a view that was held that going it alone with Iran was not the right move from the Obama administration. What would it do here?

VINOGRAD: Well, we're not really even going it alone. There's news that came in, the U.K. clarified after discordant statements that they agreed with our threat reporting in Iraq right now.

So in the Iraq theater, it does look like there's consensus among allies about what the threat looks like. Now, the process didn't work well. We should have gotten on the same page with our allies before we decided to withdraw -


[11:10:02] VINOGRAD: The policy process is a train wreck.

I'm going to disagree with Max for a second here. President Trump's policy on Iran didn't start with John Bolton. He's likely escalated the president's desire to be confrontational with Iran.

President Trump took escalatory moves all by himself, like withdrawing from the JCPOA. He let Secretary Pompeo designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. So Bolton may be a player. I don't think he's the decision-maker-in-chief on this.

When it comes to going it alone with Iran, the nuclear deal has divided us from our allies, the P5-plus-1. One of the other smart moves that would be happening in this situation room right now would be John Bolton coordinating a process with Pompeo to speak to our allies about what we're going to do not just in Iraq but what happens if Iran restarts its nuclear program, which is a real possibility. BOLDUAN: Overall, Max, as you look at the reaction to the

administration's concern over the threat from Iran in this latest episode, do you think this is in some way more of a statement of the deep mistrust amongst the public and allies in taking the word of the Trump administration on anything?

BOOT: I think this is where the pathological mendacity of the Trump administration is coming back to bite them, because who can possibly believe anything that Donald Trump says, given that he has been documented at 10,000 falsehoods since the beginning of his presidency.

Of course, John Bolton himself was caught in the past falsifying or twisting intelligence in regard to Iraq and Cuba.

A lot of people have seen this movie before. And no matter who would be president, there would be a low level of trust in terms of saying Iran is up to something that warrants military action.

But with Trump, it's like zero trust. And it's just, the level of credibility they need to achieve for anybody to believe anything that they say is so high that they have to compromise sources and methods to get anything to believe it. And even then, people will be skeptical.


BOOT: So this is why it's not a good idea for the president of the United States to lie like 12 times a day.

BOLDUAN: I do think, you know, if there's danger in that, which you would suggest there's inherent danger if people don't trust the words coming from your or the statements you make. And this is a long-term question, but how do you fix it? If the trust is broken, how do you fix it when this is a serious issue and we need to trust the government, especially national security issues like this.

It's great to see you guys.

VINOGRAD: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much.

BOOT: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, the 2020 race getting more crowded, if you can even believe it. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio throwing his hat in the ring this morning. Why he thinks he's got a shot. That's coming up.

Plus this, the White House is getting ready to unveil a new immigration plan, but it's already essentially being declared dead on arrival, from top Republicans even. Why? Stay with us.


[11:17:35] BOLDUAN: Soon, President Trump will be unveiling his new immigration plan. The focus expected to be heavy on shifting the United States towards a more merit-based system, giving preference to high-skilled workers.

But even before it's rolled out, there are serious questions of whether this is a serious attempt at tackling one of the thorniest issues that's been dogging presidents for decades.

One reality check coming from Senator Lindsey Graham, offering up this quote: "The White House's plan is not designed to become law."

Not a lot of gray area there. What then is going on here?

CNN political director, David Chalian, is kind enough to join me.

Good to see you.


BOLDUAN: If Lindsey Graham says this isn't supposed to become law, then what is this? Is this good for re-election?

CHALIAN: What he means by that is that is the design of this, this piece of it is to rally the president's base. Not to actually get the votes needed, never mind unify the Republicans entirely, but also get the Democratic votes that are clearly needed with a Democratic House and a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.


CHALIAN: So I think that's why you heard Senator Graham say he has a plan that is designed to become law that he believes would actually achieve bipartisan consensus.

But I'm very skeptical right now, to your point, about the question about re-election.


CHALIAN: I'm very skeptical. It seems to me both sides want the issue politically --

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

CHALIAN: -- more -- everybody wants a solution to the problem. It is a real crisis. I'm not trying to actually suggest --


BOLDUAN: You're talking about raw politics here.

CHALIAN: Raw political motivations. Both sides like this issue right now.

BOLDUAN: Yes, because it is an issue that gets to the core, the way they stand on it, to their base. As you perfectly mentioned, any eventual solution requires Democrats and Republicans to come together. Hence, why it hasn't happened in three decades, any major move on this. And if it's a Republican proposal, to get Democrats onboard, at the very least, there needs to be something with relation to the future or the path forward for DACA recipients.

CHALIAN: That doesn't exist here.

BOLDUAN: That doesn't exist here at all. I would argue that's the beginning and end of what we need to hear about it.

CHALIAN: I think that's true.

Now, Jared Kushner has given an indication that he's open to including that piece somewhere along the way, but the sense is that is not what is going to be unveiled here. And of course, what happens --


BOLDUAN: Come on. There's no way Donald Trump is going to support that because --


[11:20:00] BOLDUAN: Didn't they just present that to him and he rejected it?

CHALIAN: He rejected it. Why? Because what is -- can you think of a stronger relationship Donald Trump has with his political base than on this issue of immigration? And the moment --


BOLDUAN: It's how he launched his campaign.

CHALIAN: The moment Donald Trump starts to move towards legalizing some people who were in the country illegally, even through no fault of their own, is the moment he starts softening that very strong tension with his base and that connection.

BOLDUAN: It feels like a million and a half years ago, but there was a moment when, remember, when he talked about feeling for DACA recipients. As president. And that has completely evaporated. I guess you can take it as Donald Trump has said both things so you never know where it ends up on any given day, but I just -- I don't see it going anywhere.

But Jared Kushner, as you brought up, I think, is a fascinating character in this. He has been tasked with -- the range of things he's been tasked with throughout the administration has been, you know, quite wide.

We ask this every time he takes the lead on an issue. I would say, save criminal justice reform, is Jared Kushner the guy that's going to push something like immigration reform over the finish line?

CHALIAN: Well, early reviews of his performance on Capitol Hill and sort of unveiling this policy is not yet. Right? He's not going to be that guy just yet. Underwhelming response, both from Republicans that thought, hey, like you're saying, this isn't the plan that's going to get us to the promise land on getting this fixed. But also from Republicans that were worried that if DACA is a component of this, all our base folks are going to walk away.

What was presented by Kushner was not sort of met with grand applause and a standing ovation by Republicans on Capitol Hill. So he hasn't yet proven to be the guy on this issue to deliver them to the promise land.

BOLDUAN: I'm not saying it's because he's failing in some way. This has escaped advisers and presidents for three decades now.


BOLDUAN: That's why this is hard. And it would take Congress coming together with all of Washington coming together.

And we can all look at the camera and say is that actually something that would happen right now?

With that one, good. Thank you. Great to see you.

CHALIAN: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

A programming note for all of you. Tomorrow night, watch a CNN special report. CNN's Erin Burnett investigates how President Trump and his family do business. You can watch that right here on CNN, tomorrow night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

Coming up for us -- we should keep David Chalian around. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio joined the crowded presidential race. Not everyone in his hometown is cheering and applauding that news, however. If that's the reception -- and we'll show you the "New York Post" cover -- that he's getting from New York, can he win over the rest of the country? That's next.


[11:27:21] BOLDUAN: Make that 23 now. Yes, 23. Another Democratic candidate jumping into the 2020 presidential race. The mayor of America's biggest city, New York's Bill De Blasio, joining the crowded field of Democrats to challenge Donald Trump.

De Blasio making his announcement in a campaign video and an interview with ABC. And he's making it very clear out of the gate part of his strategy is taking Donald Trump head on.


BILL DE BLASIO, (D), NEW YORK CITY MAYOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Right now, the federal government is not on the side of working people. And that's because Donald Trump is playing a big con on America. I call him Con Don. Every New Yorker knows he's a con artist. We know his tricks. We know his playbooks. I know how to take him on. I have been watching him for decades. He's trying to convince working Americans he's on their side. It's been a lie since day one.


BOLDUAN: And let the nicknaming begin.

President Trump wasted no time welcoming De Blasio into the race with a tweet labeling De Blasio, among other things, the worst mayor in the U.S., making it clear there's no love lost between these two New Yorkers, to say the least.

For more on this, joining me right now is "New York Times" reporter, David Goodman.

It's good to have you here, David Thank you so much for being here.


BOLDUAN: If that's the welcome reception that President Trump has offered Bill De Blasio, the reaction from the hometown paper, the "New York Post," is pretty similar, allowing the picture to say everything, if you will.

If that's the case, that's the reception he's getting, what is the case that Mayor De Blasio is making for his candidacy right now?

GOODMAN: The mayor has a convincing case to make in that he's the mayor of the largest city in the nation. He has been an executive for one term, re-elected in more or less a landslide.

And he can show he's been able to do some progressive things in New York that are appealing to the left of the party while also managing a vast bureaucracy. There's over 300,000 people working in New York City. And he has to make sure the garbage is picked up. He has to make sure the city is policed, crime is low. He introduced a new policy, a new pre-K program in his first term that is widely popular here.

So he's running on this idea that he doesn't have a lot of supporters right now in New York City that want him to run for president. But he's really convinced that his record and his sort of experience as a manager and his sort of left-wing bona fides are going to prove out in the end.

BOLDUAN: There are a lot of reasons that, if you want to perceive people as long-shot candidates, to jump into a presidential race, an opportunity to raise your national profile, an opportunity to shine a light on one issue you care very much about, an opportunity to sell books. I mean, obviously, you would love to be president, if that came about. Just to name a few of them.

Does Bill De Blasio fit into one of those categories, do you think?

[11:29:58] GOODMAN: I do. I think what Bill De Blasio has going for him or what he sees is as no -- the thing he's going to do next. Mayors tend not to go on to higher office. None have gone on to the presidency in the history of this country.