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Iran Announces New Commanders; U.S. Declassifies Iran Missile Picture; Confusion over Iran Threat. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 16, 2019 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:20] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

President Trump is meeting with the Swiss president this hour to discuss heightened tensions between the United States and Iran. The commander in chief said to be alarmed, both by some Iranian military moves and by the way some of his own White House deputies are reacting.

Plus, crime is a giant issue as Joe Biden tries to navigate the then and now of Democratic politics. He was the proud architect of a tough 1990s crime bill and says it ih 1990s crime bill and says it'llock of Montana. nate in Montana. Io be with you, for sure. sed immigration. te are Native Amers not to blame for mass incarcerations. But that gets an eye roll from the fact checkers and one of his 2020 rivals.

And President Trump offers a Bronx cheer to the latest Democrat to declare for president. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio says he is the progressive best prepared for the president's bluster.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Good thing about New Yorkers is they look the same whether they're really pissed off at you or they like you.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST, ABC'S "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": It's a tough city. We're hearing it outside. Some protesters getting --

DE BLASIO: A little serenade, George, a little serenade.

STEPHANOPOULOS: (INAUDIBLE) in Times Square this morning.


KING: Back to 2020 a bit later in the program.

But we begin with the Swiss president scheduled at the White House this hour amid big warnings and a bigger Trump administration debate over Iran. The Swiss often play middle man when the United States wants to get a message to Iran, or vice versa, and this meeting comes after a week of White House warnings that Iran appears to be up to something nefarious.

Today, "The New York Times" first to report that what so alarmed the president's national security team is this, overhead imagery showing fully assembled Iranian missile. The concern over what Tehran would do with those missiles led team Trump to move a carrier strike group, order embassy personnel out of Iraq, and ramp up confrontational rhetoric. But how serious a threat the missiles are is still an unsettled question according to U.S. official who spoke to "The Times" and members of Congress, who are now trying to get a better handle on just how serious this is.

One complicating factor there, the different tone coming from the president and some of his top deputies, especially the national security adviser and longtime Iran hawk, John Bolton. White House officials telling CNN, the president is skeptical of Bolton's instincts and wants to quite any impression he is eager for a fight.

Sarah Sanders, today, like her boss yesterday, saying there may be different opinions at the White House, but only one decider.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is the ultimate decision maker and he's going to take all of the information and intelligence that's given to him and he'll make the decision that he thinks is best to keep Americans safe. It's that simple.

I think the president was pretty clear in what his feeling was yesterday, that there isn't division in the White House. And, again, there's only one agenda here and it's the president's.


KING: That message from the White House this morning. Also an announcement from Iran's ayatollah today, a message from Tehran as well.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen is live for us there.

Fred, an announcement of a shake-up in the command of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. What is the message there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's a clear message to the west right now that the Revolutionary Guard, John, is moving on from its old generation of commanders who came of age in the Iran/Iraq War much more to a second generation of commanders who came of age in that big power struggle in the Middle East between Iran and the United States. Both of these guys have their merits in that era. One of them is the former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy. And he received a medal a couple of years ago for capturing American sailors. The other one once said that he would want to destroy all American bases in the Middle East if there was a military confrontation with the United States. Of course, a lot of that, as far as the Iranians are concerned,

involves those militias that the Iranians have on the ground in many Middle Eastern countries. I actually managed to speak to a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard just yesterday and he told me, look, the Americans need to understand that if there is a military confrontation, the Iranians are going to use their ballistic missiles but are definitely going to use those militias in other countries in the Middle East as well.

Meanwhile, as far as negotiations are concerned, the Iranians continuing to say that there are not going to be any negotiations with the Trump administration. They said if they wanted to call the White House, they who definitely do that. They have all the numbers that they need. But they said as long as this maximum pressure campaign by the Trump administration is in place, as long as the Iranians can't sell their oil, as long as companies can't invest here because of sanctions, the Iranians are not going to be talking to the White House, are not going to be talking to President Trump, John.

KING: Two sides seem to be talking past each other at the moment.

Fred Pleitgen live in Tehran, appreciate the live reporting.

With me is studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Hirschfeld Davis with "The New York Times," Toluse Olorunnipa with "The Washington Post," CNN's Kylie Atwood and CNN's military analyst Admiral John Kirby.

Admiral, let me start with you.

Shake-up in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.


KING: The president's sitting down with the Swiss. The message for that meeting at the White House would see, at least in public, seem to say, the president wants to put the emphasis on diplomacy right now. Is that a fair reading?

[12:05:03] KIRBY: I think show. And we don't have a lot of other urgent bilateral meetings with the Swiss typically, so I have to assume that this one is really centered on Iran. They are our protecting power. They have done back channel negotiations for us in the past. They provide a method of communications, so that makes perfect sense.

The question is, how much decision space is Trump giving himself now. And he feels like, I think, boxed in a little bit by some of the hawks on his team. The idea here, and hopefully what he's exploring with the Swiss, are ways to open up some sort of dialogue.

KING: And how to do that. To the point about boxed in. You're part of the reporting on this one. As recently as last week, President Trump was calling people to complain about Bolton, people familiar with the conversations say. He has griped that if Bolton has his way, he'd be at war in multiple places and has suggested if the situations Iran and Venezuela go south, he'll be able to blame Bolton.

Look, this happens in a lot of administrations when there are disputes about big things. The president is the president. It's his responsibility. What is the internal debate. The president thinks, what, Pompeo and Bolton may be too far out over their skis?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Exactly. So we have heard from sources in the White House that President Trump is growing increasingly irritated by this perception that his national security advisers are just as what they have always been, hawks who are going to potentially bring him closer to military confrontation with Iran. But the president himself isn't totally taking that off the table here. He was asked by the initial report by "The New York Times" that the White House has reviewing options to potentially send more than 120 troops to the region to take on Iran if they start building up their nuclear program. He called it fake news, but then he also said that if it were necessary he would send even more troops. So there's a bit of mixed messaging coming out here, but the fact that he's sitting down with the Swiss president today I think speaks volumes because it does say that he is looking for the military option to take a back seat and diplomacy to take a front seat.

KING: Well, maybe at least to talk to somebody else who speaks to the Iranians, maybe not so close to him, just to get a second or third opinion.

To that regard, in "The New York Times," remember, Secretary Pompeo changed his schedule to go to Baghdad to brief the Iraqis. His warning was that Iran is messing in the neighborhood. Watch out for the Shia militias. And "The New York Times" reporting said the senior administration official, American official, said Mr. Pompeo was overreacting, and Iraqi officials said the threat level portrayed and the intelligence was not urgent enough. On its own, two American officials said, the photograph was not compelling enough to convince the American public and lawmakers or foreign allies of the new Iranian threat, but releasing other supporting images could compromise secret sources and methods of collecting intelligence, the official said.

I covered the Bush White House back in the Iraq days. If there's more, here's the -- this -- this becomes the trust issue.


KING: You don't want to -- if there's more, you don't want to compromise sources and methods. But if you just say there's more and you don't share it, you're going to -- you're going to have a trust issue anyway. And in an administration that's often called in for saying things that aren't true, even more so.

DAVIS: Well, right. And, I mean, this is going to be a problem for them, both internationally and domestically, right? And you have members of Congress saying, what is the evidence? What are you actually looking at that leads you to go down this road that, at least rhetorically, the administration seems to be going down of, you know, really flexing its muscles and sort of indicating, at least Bolton and Pompeo seem to be, that they are ready for a potential confrontation here.

We do seem to be seeing the president pulling that back a bit. And he doesn't want to be in this position that, you know, he -- remember, everyone remembers, you know, the situation with George W. Bush and the Iraq War where, you know, there was this issue of, what is the intelligence? What are -- what is -- what are the sort of pieces of evidence we are going to be acting on if we go down this road of a military confrontation. And this president has said many times in the past that he does not want to be in that kind of position. He thinks that was a horrible miscalculation. Led us into a needless war. He's talked about not wanting American troops to be engaged in the Middle East at all. And he certainly does not want to be in that position.

But no question that the trust issue is not only in the international sphere, but here at home with Congress. And that's going to continue to be an issue going forward if they do feel like they need to act on some of this information that they say they have.

KING: And yet, for all his complaints maybe or concerns about John Bolton and maybe his secretary of state, the president, again, is the commander in chief. He is responsible for taking steps, which he says are the right steps, there's a debate about that, but he says are the right steps that have created some of this mistrust, if you will, and added tensions.

He did withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration. He did re-impose sanctions. He just recently designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. And it was his decision, he's the commander in chief, to move the Abraham Lincoln carrier group into the region.

What is the sense at the White House about, is this a little good cop/bad cop or is there really a big disconnect between what the president wants and some of the tone we're getting from his people?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": The president's sort of in a bind because he wants to show that he's tough on Iran and he has a tough foreign policy. At the same time he wants to have an America first foreign policy that's in some ways isolationist and it's not getting involved in all of these quagmires in the Middle East. And the president campaigned on sort of saying that the Iraq War was the -- one of the biggest blunders in U.S. foreign policy and he still has those instincts as he's sort of trying to decide how to deal with Iran.

He does not want to get involved in another land war in the Middle East, but at the same time he wants to show that he's tough and he's standing by Israel and our allies in the region and he's sort of being pulled in various directions, both by our allies in the Middle East, as well as by some of the hawks within his administration that are calling on him to show that level of toughness, but this is a president that really focuses on his political fortunes and he's looking at 2020 and he knows that voters do not necessarily want to be involved in another open-ended conflict in the Middle East that has no end game. And I think that's part of the reason why he's trying to pull back some of the hawks within his administration. [12:10:35] KING: It will be interesting. The meeting at the White

House this hour is closed to reporters. It would be nice if we get -- at least get a readout after. It also would be great if we could get in the room and hear the president -- from the president directly.

Among those who have big questions, not just reporters, not just allies around the world, but members of Congress. The so-called Gang of Eight, the top members, will get a briefing a bit later on today. More on this story in a moment.


[12:15:31] KING: There are bipartisan questions today about Iran, what the intelligence says about the threat posed and perhaps the promise of some clarity by later today.

Listen to lawmakers. You can tell from Capitol Hill, there's a lot of confusion about just what the intelligence shows.


REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): Congress should have been briefed about it.

I don't know whether to worry or not to worry because what I'm hearing isn't coming from the administration.

SEN. ANGUS KING (I-ME): Who's provoking whom? Are they reacting because they're concern about what we're doing, or are we reacting because we're concerned what they're doing?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): When you project force into a very volatile region and you've got real tensions between Iran and the Saudis, we have to be careful. We need a strategy. This Senate needs a briefing on the relevant intelligence.


KING: Some answers could come later today. The so-called Gang of Eight, the top officials on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committee in the leadership, there's a briefing slated for them this afternoon.

It's unclear just who from the administration is going up to The Hill to read those lawmakers into the loop. But word in the newspapers that the president is worried about being pushed into a conflict by his national security adviser, well, that makes the top Democrat in the House a bit happier.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I like what I hear from the president, that he has no appetite for this. One place where -- one of the places that I agree with the president is that both of us in our opposition to the war in Iraq and I hope that that same attitude will prevail with the president of the United States, even though some of his supporters are rattling sabers. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Joining our conversation, Jackie Kucinich with "The Daily Beast" and CNN's Michael Warren.

It just cannot be overstated the distrust, if you will. Part of that, again, has nothing to do with the Trump administration. That's Iraq War hangover. But then it's exacerbated and magnified by the fact that whether it's the president or some people around him, not as much in these kind of questions of war and peace, but they say a lot of things that simply aren't supported by the facts so people are doubting them.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So this is one of the issues with eroding faith in intelligence, which the administration has undertaken, you know, for the last two years.

But the other thing, I just want to -- this -- I guess I'm pointing out the obvious here. The president brought on John Bolton. What did he think was going to happen in terms of Iran? The man has written many op-eds but just, I mean in the last couple years, called for regime change, has called to -- has called for bombing Iran. So this -- the fact that he feels like he's being pushed in this direction, I -- maybe you should have done a Google search because this is what John Bolton is all about.

DAVIS: Well, and, I mean, in many ways that is why John Bolton was brought on. I mean, if you recall, it was, you know, it was sort of concurrent with his decision to withdraw from the Iran deal.


DAVIS: And to sort of take a more aggressive posture on that than some of his former advisers had been counseling him to take. And he wanted to go this aggressive direction. And so when we talk about the good cop/bad cop, I mean in some ways, like on so many other issues, it's like Trump is his own both good and bad cop, depending on the day, depending on, as Toluse said, the political calculation depending on what the public response is. I mean I think Nancy Pelosi is right, that he is sort of instinctually more opposed to this -- to a military confrontation on something like this, but he has been pushed and pulled and there is very little reservoir, if not no reservoir, of trust for him and for his top aides on Capitol Hill.

MICHAEL WARREN, CNN REPORTER: Well, and I think that also applies even for members of his own party --

DAVIS: Correct, yes.

WARREN: Particularly hawks on Iran who --


WARREN: Who sort of see -- saw the John Bolton appointment as being a good sign for them and for their interests who are now sort of frustrated with where, you know, sort of a lack of action that they see from the president. And I think that all stems from the fact that besides this sort of aversion to foreign intervention, the president doesn't really have a strong core on a lot of these foreign policy issues, and so he's being pushed and pulled by members of Congress as well.

KING: And one of the -- adding to the confusion is when you get this conflicting information from members of Congress, in the sense that any administration, again, takes the word Trump out of it because that tends to cause partisan reactions. Any administration should fully brief members of Congress as soon as they know something. Get up there. Give them a full briefing.

There's a Gang of Eight meeting for the leadership today. You heard Senator Coons say the full Senate should get a briefing. But if you listen to some of the other members, the Senate Intelligence Committee, for example, was briefed last week, according to a member of the committee, on some of this intelligence. Members who have security clearances can pick up the phone and call and ask for information. Among those, Senator Angus King of Maine, who's one of the -- he caucuses with the Democrats but he's an independent, he's a more measured voice normally on issues like this, he says, yes, there's alarming intelligence, but then he adds this.

[12:20:00] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ANGUS KING (I-ME): I don't think there's faulty intel here necessarily. I think the intel may be accurate but the unanswered question again is, are they reacting to our assertions of action in the Middle East, or are we reacting to them?

I think the president is absolutely right, according to the reporting that we've heard this morning, to slow this thing down and express a little restraint on some of his advisers who seem to be getting us into a position where something pretty awful could happen.


OLORUNNIPA: Yes, there's a difference between good cop/bad cop when you're dealing with a foreign power than versus when you're dealing with Congress. Congress wants a consistent message from the administration. They've been hearing different things from different parts of the intelligence apparatus, different people who are close to the president, and they're not yet convinced that this is as dire as some of the people within the president's orbit are describing it. And I think that's part of the reason you're having trouble sort of getting a collective voice from Congress in support of the administration, even on issues of war and peace, because they're not hearing a specific message from the administration that's accident and that's clear. They're hearing one thing from John Bolton, and then they're hearing the president saying, I have to temper my own national security adviser, and it's not clear from the administration where things stand. And I think that's the challenge for Congress right now.

KING: And then the reporting about how there's a divide or a debate or at least different voices in the administration, and it stirs even more confusion because they haven't shared, at least publically, much of this intelligence, at least with the American public. But then you -- so you get Marco Rubio, not always a fan of this president, disagrees with him on a lot of foreign policy issues, saying this morning, it's stunning how to just get back at Bolton and others, a small group of people are willing to harm our national security interests by giving the media overblown or untrue information that harm our national security.

So then the stories about the -- the sorry is about dissension in the ranks, if you will, cause more confusion in the senator's view.

DAVIS: Right. I mean it is not unusual in any administration to have big divides inside the White House, inside the administration, about what to do in a situation like this. This is a very complicated, you know, conflict with a long history. The relationship between the United States and Iran, not to mention the whole situation in the Middle East. There's lots of different points of view. The unusual thing is to see them play out in this publically.


DAVIS: And I think that what that tells you is how deeply divided -- how deep the divides are and how -- the degree to which there is a lack of consensus on what the plan should be. And if you just look at what the president has said and what John Bolton has said in the last few days, the president is talking about, he wants to talk with ran. John Bolton has been in favor of regime change in Iran.


DAVIS: So, like, which is it? So if you're a member of Congress, again, like looking for consistent message on this, what's the plan here, what's the ultimate objective, there isn't an agreement on that. And for that -- for a lawmaker who may have to either be asked to approve something or vote on something related to this, that's a very uncomfortable place to be.

KING: Right. And perhaps, by the end of the day, again, with the Gang of Eight briefing, maybe after that there will be a commitment to other briefings. Maybe by the end of the day we'll have a clear picture of this.

Before we go to break, President Trump meeting this hour at the White House with the Swiss president. Again, the Swiss often a go-between between the United States and Iraq and back and forth. The president was asked about Iran. Listen.


QUESTION: Mr. President, you going to war with Iran?




[12:27:56] KING: We're getting a fresh look today at just how much the Democratic Party is trying to take a very different approach to crime and how changing the rhetoric to many means the party should also change the voices.

Eight Democrats vying for the White House writing essays on how to move the party forward for the 2019 report on crime from the Brennan Center of Justice, hitting topics like fair housing, providing addiction treatment, ending the war on drugs and closing for-profit prisons.

It's a remarkably different tone from the same party that passed the crime bill a quarter century ago. However, Joe Biden, current Democratic front-runner, back then a key architect of that bill, insists his work in the '90s, misunderstood.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration. It did not generate mass incarceration.

I made sure there was a setup in that law that said there were no more mandatories except two that I had to accept. The mass incarceration occurred by the states setting mandatory sentences. What happened was if you go back and look, the Black Caucus supported the bill.


KING: Senator Kamala Harris, candidate and rival, this time challenging the former vice president on the trail yesterday Wednesday.


SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Joe Biden, but I disagree with him. That crime bill -- that 1994 crime bill, it -- it did contribute to mass incarceration in our country. It encouraged and was the first time that we had a federal three strikes law. It funded the building of more prisons in the states. Snd so I -- I disagree, sadly.


KING: It's an interesting early flashpoint in the Democratic race. To the former vice president's point, yes, back in the day, the Black Caucus did support the legislation. So did a lot of America's mayors, including Rudy Giuliani, who was tweeting this morning that the vice president should stay firm and hang in there.

[12:29:53] But to the point about incarceration, and Glenn Kessler (ph), the great fact checker at "The Washington Post," says, yes, there are many factors that contributed to the higher incarceration rates, but even Bill Clinton has acknowledged this. If Biden is going to lay claim to the Biden crime bill, he needs to take ownership of some of its flaws. The vice president not willing to do that yesterday.