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Trump Seeks Talks with Iran Amid Building Tension; Interview with Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) about Iran and China; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio Announces Presidential Bid; President Trump Expected to Unveil Immigration Plan Today; Trump Bans Huawei from Selling Telecom Gear. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 16, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:29] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Thursday morning to you, I'm Jim Sciutto. Poppy is off today.

At the White House this morning a public pursuit of a very private -- solution, rather, to increasing tensions with Iran. A couple of hours President Trump is set to host the president of Switzerland whose country has represented U.S. interests in Iran almost since the fall of the shah. A week ago the White House gave the Swiss a phone number and the president publicly urged Iranian leaders to call him, though later Iran's supreme leader compared that offer to poison.

"The New York Times" is now reporting that the source of the new perceived threat from Iran is a series of photographs showing Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops loading missiles on to boats in the Persian Gulf. But a separate picture is also emerging of a White House now divided over whether and how to respond.

CNN's Abby Phillip is there at the White House this morning.

So, Abby, tell us about these talks with the Swiss and is the president considering using them as an intermediary, as it were, to diffuse the crisis?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, President Trump has made it very clear he wants to talk to the Iranians. He thinks that that is the -- where this ought to be next and this visit by the Swiss president is part of that strategy. It is a message to Iran that he is serious about this. They gave that phone number, as you mentioned, a week ago, opening potentially those channels, but the Iranians have rebuffed that and inside the White House there is also another dynamic emerging here.

As the president has grown increasingly frustrated in recent days with some of his top advisers who he believes are pushing him toward military conflict with Iran, this is the very thing that President Trump campaigned against when he ran for president in 2016 and our sources tell us that this frustration has been growing particularly with John Bolton who has in many ways staked his career on this idea of regime change in Iran.

He's been out front on this issue and President Trump has been frustrated not just with this issue with Iran, also with Venezuela where there was a similar apparent march toward some kind of conflict that President Trump apparently was not prepared for. So that dynamic is unfolding within the White House, but Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, just moments ago told me and a group of other reporters that there are no divisions within the president's team and that the president is the ultimate decision-maker here.

She also adds that they are reviewing all possible options when it comes to dealing with this very, very serious situation that is unfolding in Iran. But clearly our sources are telling us otherwise. This is a source of deep frustration for the president.

SCIUTTO: So, wait, let me get this clear here. The president wants to talk to Iran to diffuse the crisis, this is a president who repeatedly criticized President Obama for negotiating with Iran, of course, withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal. I mean, is he saying here that the White House strategy, if the president is rejecting Bolton's approach that the White House strategy is negotiations with Iran?

PHILLIP: Well, he is. He said it publicly multiple times, but you're right, Jim, the vehicle for these kinds of negotiations would have been the Iran nuclear deal, which the president pulled out of. It has created in some ways a bit of a vacuum here and has contributed to an escalation of tensions, but the White House is saying that they are putting on pressure on Iran to get them to the table on what they believe would be a more significant deal.

On the other hand, Iran does not seem at all interested in that. And I should add, Jim, that there is going to be a gang of eight, this is the key leaders of the committees on Capitol Hill, getting a briefing on what we were told is about the Middle East. That's believed to be about the situation in Iran. So we could be learning -- or they will be certainly learning more, but we will certainly be learning more about the situation on the ground there soon.

SCIUTTO: Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's get more on all these developments, joining me now Frederik Pleitgen, CNN senior international correspondent, and David Sanger, CNN political and national security analyst, and national security correspondent for the "Times." I should note that Frederik is on the ground in Iran for us.

David, if I could begin with you, just -- you've covered this White House for some time, you're very aware of the president's past statements on Iran. So President Trump as peace maker here pushing back his own advisers who are pushing for perhaps military confrontation, John Bolton in particular? And on the other side going to the Swiss to start talking with the Iranians? What's happening here?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think what's happening here is that the president had not fully gamed out what would occur as the pressure rose here.

[09:05:04] What did he know? He knew, Jim, that he hated the Iranian nuclear deal and mostly what he hated about it was that it expired in -- you know, starting in about 15 years and then over time the Iranians would be able to resume some nuclear production. Not weapons, but they could produce fuel.

So what did he do? He pulls out of the deal and the Iranians a year later begin to raise the pressure in return by doing exactly those things that the deal constrained them from doing for 15 years or so. So now all of a sudden he's on this road toward conflict and he's saying, how did I get here? Well, the answer actually goes back into the -- into the decision to get out of the deal. So the Iranians are saying to him if you want to go renegotiate the Iran deal, that's fine, a number of us saw the Iranian Foreign minister, he said they would be willing to have that conversation if he rejoins the old deal and then you build on that. And of course that's the one thing the president won't do. So he has sort of put himself in this own jam.

SCIUTTO: So, Frederik, you're on the ground in Iran. We noted that Iran's Foreign minister, of course was the chief negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal, Javad Zarif, he responded to this escalation yesterday. I want to play his comments and I want to get your reaction to them. Have a listen.


MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: We believe that escalation of tension in the region is not in the interest of anybody but Iran will not be the party beginning escalation but we will certainly defend ourselves and respond to any threat against our national security.


SCIUTTO: So, Frederik, as you speak to Iranian officials on the ground there, are they concerned here? Are they trying to diffuse the situation?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think they're absolutely concerned about the situation, Jim, and I think something happened that was really interesting and really important about a day and a half ago when the supreme leader came out and he said look, categorically there is not going to be any war between the U.S. and Iran. However, the Iranians are going to continue to resist the United States. Essentially what he was saying is that Iran is going to outlast America here in this region.

But one of the things that David just said is absolutely 100 percent correct. The Iranians are saying at this point in time there are not going to be any negotiations specifically with this Trump White House because of the policy of maximum pressure that has been levied on Iran. And the one thing that they keep saying again and again and again is if you want to negotiate, go back into the Iran deal and then we can start negotiating.

It was quite interesting because Hassan Rouhani, the president of this country, he came out, I think it was also about a day ago, and he said, look, we have all the phone numbers we need if we want to talk to the Americans. It simply isn't going to happen until this campaign of maximum pressure, the sanctions, not letting Iran sell its oil in international markets, until that's over.

And another thing that I think is really important, Jim, is that the Iranians are very well aware of these divisions that we've been speaking to -- speaking about in the White House. On the one hand you have people like Java Zarif, the Foreign minister, saying they don't want an escalation. The supreme leader saying they don't want an escalation. On the other hand you have military officials who are saying if there is escalation it's going to be a tough ride for the United States.

I spoke to a senior former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Force just yesterday and he was saying, look, the Americans need to understand one thing. If it does come to shooting war here in and around Iran, it's not just going to be Iranian missiles but it's also going to be the militia that Iran controlled in the countries around here that are going to be part of the action as well, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Frederik Pleitgen, David Sanger, that's very much.

I'd like to discuss now with Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. He's the franking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thank you for taking the time this morning.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Good to be with you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So let's start with what has really been the spark for this latest escalation and that is a U.S. assessment, at least in the view of the Trump administration, that Iran was putting missiles on boats in the Persian Gulf and then the concern was those missiles would be used to target U.S. shipping commercial and Navy ships in the Gulf, but there's a disagreement within the Trump administration as to whether that was a defensive step by Iranians or an offensive one. I'm curious who you believe here.

MENENDEZ: Well, the answer to that question would lie in intelligence briefings that senators should have from the administration -- this is the most opaque administration I have ever dealt with over four presidencies -- so that we could determine what the intelligence is, understand the depth of its analysis and its veracity and then make appropriate decisions. Right now we're being asked to make foreign policy and national security decisions while flying blindly. It's just wrong.

[09:10:01] So if, in fact, that intelligence is the case, it is possible to look at it both ways, as an offensive tactic or a defensive one. I think that what I'm concerned is the possibility of a major miscalculation here by either side. And when the Iranian supreme leader says we will not have a war with the United States, yes, but they have a series of proxy allies that can be an indirect conflict with the interests of the United States.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, because this is an administration that has politicized intelligence before to its advantage, most famously of course the president denying intelligence assessments about Russian interference in the election but also specific to Iran, the American intelligence agencies told this administration Iran was complying with the nuclear deal, the president didn't accept that.

Are you concerned that right now intelligence is being politicized here to the advantage of factions of the administration who perhaps want to get on a military confrontation with Iran?

MENENDEZ: Well, I will be better poised to give you an answer to that when we get hopefully all senators briefing by what I hope is both the Department of State, the Department of Defense and our intelligence community to assess the intelligence and to test its veracity.

What we do not need is another Iraq weapons of mass destruction moment that led us into one of the worst, you know, engagements we have had. So that's what I'm hoping to test, that's why I've been pounding at the Foreign Relations Committee on the Senate floor, in interviews, and it seems that we're finally going to get a briefing early next week. I just hope that that briefing doesn't come too late.

But we're going to test the veracity of this and they are going to have to show us. And if they do have actionable intelligence, Jim, this we should be sharing with our allies so that we can have a diplomatic surge to get Iran to the negotiating table and move forward in an agreement that all could ultimately survive with.

SCIUTTO: Do you believe that members of the Trump administration, specifically the National Security adviser, John Bolton, want military conversation with Iran?

MENENDEZ: Well, I haven't had discussions with Ambassador Bolton specifically as it relates to Iran, but I will say that based upon his past speeches when he was a private citizen and his overall view I think he has a much more robust view than the president does on the use of force as a tool to achieve foreign policy goals. And that is something that has to be obviously constrained.

Look, if I see the president's legacy so far over his last two and a half years is he wants to get American troops out of the Middle East, sometimes I disagree with how he wants to do it, not to add new ones. So he should be seeking a diplomatic surge, he should be getting on the phone with our allies and friends in Germany, in Great Britain, and coming together, giving them the actionable intelligence and then finding a pathway forward to a robust diplomacy effort.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you about China now because, of course, the U.S. finds itself in a trade war with China that apparently the president wants here. You have questioned the president's tariffs policy specifically and just bigger picture you've said that the U.S. should go down the path of raising these issues via the WTO and other international organizations, but I wonder China, as you know, has been a member since 2000, it has broken a whole host of trade rules.

Why do you have confidence that pursuing this through the WTO now would make a difference in ways -- it certainly hasn't made a difference in the past?

MENENDEZ: Well, because we really haven't challenged China with the WTO. What I said is that we should bring an international coalition of the European Union, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, some of the major economic powers in the world and who all agree about China's unfair trading practices and challenge them collectively at the WTO. Make China the bad player at the WTO and seek to enforce WTO decisions and consequences.

We really haven't done that. So we haven't used the WTO. This is one part of the international order China has signed up to. We need to pressure them there. But finally on tariffs, look, tariffs is not going to get us to where we need to be. What it's doing is hurting American farmers, hurting American businesses and hurting American consumers. So it's not a smart way to go as it relates to achieving your ultimate goal.

SCIUTTO: Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Twenty-three for 2020, New York's Bill de Blasio is the second mayor to join the growing list of Democratic hopefuls. Can you keep track of it all?


Plus the president set to unveil his plan overhaul the immigrant system. But one very key issue left entirely out of this proposal. And Attorney General Bill Barr says it is up to the special counsel if he wants to testify before Congress. The latest on escalating tensions between the Democrats and the administration just ahead.


SCIUTTO: Make that now 23 Democrats, almost two dozen challenging President Trump for the White House.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK STATE: I'm a New Yorker, I've known Trump is a bully for a long time. This is not news to me or anyone else here, and I know how to take him on.


SCIUTTO: This morning, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio officially entering the 2020 race and he is kicking off his campaign with stops in Iowa today and tomorrow. For more on the 2020 race, let's bring in Ron Brownstein; the senior editor for "The Atlantic". So de Blasio, not particularly popular here in New York, but wouldn't be the first time --


[09:20:00] SCIUTTO: An unpopular New York politician went on to win a big race. Does he have potential in this crowded field?

BROWNSTEIN: You know, a few weeks ago, Jim, I was saying the Democrats had reached the point of having enough candidates to field a full 999 softball game, and now up to --


BROWNSTEIN: A full 11 on 11 football game. I mean --


BROWNSTEIN: Look, it is -- it is a very crowded space that he is trying to get into. The upside, the Democrats are now an urban party, half of all of Hillary Clinton's votes came from just a 100 largest counties in America. And as his video points out, he actually has advanced in New York, some of the top priorities of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, raising the minimum wage and in particular, very successfully creating a massive universal pre-K program.

But on the other hand as you point out, there is not a lot of support for him doing this in New York. The polling has been clear on that, his own advisers have been divided, and the field is already remarkably crowded to the point where a large number of candidates as you show on the screen, a large number of candidates with a lot of credentials, governors, former governors, senators like Gillibrand and Klobuchar and even Cory Booker, Hickenlooper, the former governor, Inslee, the current governor are having a tremendous amount of trouble getting noticed and breaking above 1 percent in the polls.

It's not really clear that Democrats need another candidate at this point.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, how quickly does this field pare down? Right, I mean, because you've got that 1 percent marker which is just to get in the debate --


SCIUTTO: And if you're not on that debate stage, it's hard to see how you break through further. I mean, after the first debate in June for instance, do you start to see some folks leave or I mean, is it possible they're just staying in to kind of raise their profile for other things?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think a lot of people are making that calculation at this point. I mean, there really are only five candidates that have been getting sustained attention from the media and voters, certainly Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris, you know, even Beto O'Rourke, you know, who came in with such fanfare has basically acknowledged that he has to reboot his campaign and he has been sinking back towards 1 percent or 2 percent.

I think the availability of debates as a forum with which to kind of make yourself known nationally is something that keeps candidates in the race even with very low money and very low media attention between that. But at some point, you have to say -- you know, you're looking at candidates who are 0 percent to 1 percent to 2 percent, whether they stay in or not, what is the point of doing that?

SCIUTTO: Right --

BROWNSTEIN: It's early to say that, but by this Fall, we'll be saying that I think more --


BROWNSTEIN: Frequently.

SCIUTTO: Montana Governor Steve Bullock, I mean --


SCIUTTO: He has cred based on the idea -- here is a Democrat who does well in a red state, I mean, he won by what? Twenty percentage points, I think --

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, right --

SCIUTTO: Even in 2016 as President Trump won the state. Is that, at least on paper a good resume for a credible 2020 Democratic candidate?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, and I think he has an argument to make. The problem is that right now, the electability side of the argument is flowing overwhelmingly towards former Vice President Biden. I mean, if you look at the polling yesterday that came out in Quinnipiac --


BROWNSTEIN: In Pennsylvania, obviously a critical state. Among Democrats older than 50, 68 percent said they thought that Biden had the best chance of beating Trump, only 3 percent picked -- and the next closest was a 3 percent, and that was Sanders --


BROWNSTEIN: And Harris. I mean, it's staggering --


BROWNSTEIN: You know, a lot of these candidates -- if you're Bill de Blasio, what are you offering that Elizabeth Warren is not already offering? And she's been out there, she's built, you know, a constituency. Same kind of question for Bullock who, you know, who may be a plausible candidate in a different circumstance.

But the space that he's trying to occupy, there's somebody there already who is doing quite well. You know, early on, Joe Biden, we have to see how he performs, he did not perform well in '88 and '08 as a candidate. But right now, he is filling the space, and I think that's true just about every lane you can imagine, somebody is already there.

Even Beto found Pete Buttigieg already in the space that he was hoping to --



SCIUTTO: I mean, and that's the thing when you speak to voters and it's in the polling as well, the number one quality they're looking for is being able to beat Trump. That's the -- that seems --


SCIUTTO: To be at the top of their mind right now. Ron Brownstein --


SCIUTTO: Always -- go ahead, thank you.

BROWNSTEIN: I'll just say real quick, I mean, you know, we are -- the Democratic Party is revealing itself to be different than many people thought. It is --



SCIUTTO: Absolutely --

BROWNSTEIN: More moderate, and it is older, and Biden right now is dominating among older voters. If he can sustain that, it makes it hard, but again --


BROWNSTEIN: He has to perform, and there will be lots of questions about his record over the years.

SCIUTTO: Yes, the real life Democratic Party apparently different from the Twitter sphere Democratic Party --


SCIUTTO: And which one matters? Ron Brownstein --


SCIUTTO: Thanks very much.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: President Trump is set to reveal his immigration plan, but will it win over lawmakers in his own party? And we are moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street as investors wait for any sign of a deal on trade between the U.S. and China.

This as President Trump signs a new executive order barring U.S. companies from using Chinese telecom's giant Huawei and others the administration deems a national security threat.


SCIUTTO: In a matter of hours, the president will unveil his administration's new plan for immigration. CNN is learning details of this proposal, it's going to focus on border security, of course, and -- and this is key.