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Government Watchdog Calls For Kellyanne Conway's Removal From Office; USDA Employee Revolt?; U.S. Blames Iran For Tanker Attacks; Trump Welcomes Foreign Dirt on Rivals. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired June 13, 2019 - 15:00   ET



PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: And we begin this hour with breaking news.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not mincing words moments ago and blaming Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that's occurred in the Gulf of Oman today.

This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.


BROWN: Well, defense sources tell CNN a U.S. Navy ship spotted an unexploded mine attached to one of the two tankers attacked this morning. One of those tankers was carrying oil, the other chemicals.

Now, these images show black smoke, as you can see right here, billowing from one of the tankers after it was hit by what the owner calls some kind of shell. Now, this all happened as the tinkers were sailing through the Gulf of Oman. That's a busy and strategic shipping lane in the Middle East.

Officials are drawing comparisons to attacks on four ships in the same area a month ago.

So there is a lot to discuss here.

I want to bring in CNN senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski, CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, and retired Rear Admiral John Kirby. He's a former spokesman for both the State Department and the Pentagon.

First to you, Michelle.

You were at Pompeo's news conference. What does this attack mean for the U.S.?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Well, it shows that the U.S. stance of deterrence and increased pressure on Iran is affecting Iran.

The U.S. was so quick to call Iran out as the culprit for this one. It took a long time and in the attacks on May 12, very similar attacks, similar M.O. It was tankers that were also affected.

But today, day of, the U.S. is willing to come out say Iran was behind this, and you heard the secretary spell it out there. So it shows that this is affecting Iran. And they are feeling the pinch of its IRGC, its Revolutionary Guard, being designated a terrorist attack, of the U.S. convincing companies not to do business with Iran, and cutting off some of its oil shipments out.

We know through multiple sources that Iran is feeling that. They're obviously furious about it. And this is one more way of showing it. But it's not deterring them, clearly. And the U.S. stance is having an effect, but it's not changing Iran's behavior, at least not right now.

So now comes the scenario of, how do you respond to this? After the attacks on the 12th that we mentioned, U.S. allies were saying -- remember, European allies want to keep the Iran nuclear deal and they want to keep doing business with Iran, because they feel like that's the best pathway to ultimately changing Iran's behavior.

So when they saw Iran attack these tankers, they felt like, oh, God, now we have to respond to this. And that has to come through the U.N. Unpleasant for them, because it shakes up the status quo. But they felt like that would have to be something that needed to be done after something so serious.

And now we have another round of the same kind of attacks. So we will see what the international community does because of this.

BROWN: And the U.N. Security Council, I believe, will be meeting within the next hour discuss these attacks.

KOSINSKI: That's right.

BROWN: So the question is also, will the U.S. do anything else?

Admiral Kirby, we know that the U.S. has already announced sending 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East in response to Iran's actions previous to these attacks on the tankers. Now Barbara Starr reporting the Navy is going to be sending in more Navy ships to the region.

I was just speaking to a national security official yesterday, though, who said there was always this concern with Iran that there will be a miscalculation. Do you think with these added moves that that increases the risk of a miscalculation with Iran?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: No, actually, Pam, I think it reduces the risk of miscalculation. And I suspect that's why the Navy is going to send additional resources in terms of ships and maybe even aircraft to that part of the Gulf of Oman to try to send a strong message to Iran that we do have a presence there, that they shouldn't escalate things any further.

So I think it really is an attempt to de-escalate the tensions and to try to reduce the risk of miscalculation. That said, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is a bit of a proxy group inside Iran. They don't necessarily answered directly to the civil state authorities.

So they act oftentimes unilaterally, and sometimes not even in concert or coordination with the government in Tehran. So there's still always going to be a risk that they could take more matters into their own hands and cause more damage.

BROWN: So, General Hertling, I want to bring you in for your perspective, because Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he came out quickly on this condemning Iran, blaming Iran. He said that only Iran has the sophisticated technology to pull off something like this.


Do you agree with that?


What I would say, though, too, this is a potential approach to using asymmetric warfare. What I mean by that, Pamela, is they are using a weak force to attack a strong power, us. And they're doing it by using really inexpensive devices, limpet mines, placed on ships that are coming out of our partners or allies' ports.

These two ships that came out -- and Admiral Kirby can speak to this -- came out of a port in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These are two of our allies, our partners. So they are attacking our friends.

And they were -- one of those ships was going to Japan while Prime Minister Abe was in Iran at the time. They are using very cheap devices, if you will, to conduct a warfare against us.

And putting more ships in the area can certainly feel good, but you're talking about a technologically advanced Navy going into an area to fight against these kinds of things that are easily emplaced on ships. It doesn't take much to do this.

Secretary Pompeo also mentioned the rocket attack in Baghdad. Having been in Baghdad and know what kind of rockets Iranian proxy forces send into the city, they're not technologically advanced. Sometimes, they're fired off the back of mules. So these are not things that are expensive.

And the maximum pressure campaign that we are attempting to use against Iran, they're doing against us by attacking our allies and our partners. BROWN: And this is all happening as tensions continue to escalate

between Iran and the U.S.

Michelle Kosinski, Admiral John Kirby, and Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, thank you very much.

Well, President Trump has gone from asking Russia, are you listening, to saying that he would be happy to listen if the Trump reelection campaign is offered dirt on his 2020 rivals. And in a jaw-dropping new interview, the president added that he might not tell the FBI about it. He said, maybe I would, maybe I wouldn't, going against the advice of FBI Chief Christopher Wray.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Your campaign this time around, if foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on opponents, should they accept it or should they call the FBI?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen. I don't -- there's nothing wrong with listening.

If somebody called from a country, Norway, we have information on your opponent, oh, I think I would want to hear it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You want that kind of interference in our elections?

TRUMP: It's not an interference. They have information. I think I would take it.

This is somebody that said, we have inflammation on your opponent. Oh, let me call the FBI. Give me a break. Life doesn't work that way.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The FBI director says that's what should happen.

TRUMP: The FBI director is wrong.


BROWN: So, those comments sparking sharp and swift criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Yesterday, the president gave us once again evidence that he does not know right from wrong. It's a very sad thing, very sad thing that he does not know right from wrong.

He supposedly -- he takes an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. But I guess it doesn't include him in terms of being -- to be held accountable to obey the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BROWN: Now, on the Republican side, top Trump ally Lindsey Graham called out the president's words, while also casting blame on Democrats for the so-called Steele dossier.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): I think it's a mistake. I think it's a mistake of law. I don't want to send a signal to encourage this. And I hope my Democratic colleagues will be equally offended by the fact that this actually did happen in 2016, where a foreign agent was paid for by a political party to gather opposition research. All those things are wrong.


BROWN: All right, I'm going to bring in Sara Murray, CNN political correspondent, David Chalian, CNN's political director.

OK, Sara, first to you.

Let's also not forget that Lindsey Graham was the person who told John McCain to hand over the dossier to the FBI.


BROWN: So, if you would, just kind of give us a reality check, because he's trying to draw this parallel between what happened with Don Jr. when he was offered Russian dirt and the Steele dossier.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: As is always the case with Lindsey Graham, there's just so much fodder there. It's kind of like, where do you start?

I mean, for one, the Steele dossier is not the entirety of what the Russia investigation was based on. It was already moving. It was just one of these facets that was behind the FISA warrant. And, you know, if they relied on it too heavily, if they did something wrong, Bill Barr has already started an investigation into how the investigation got started.

So if people acted inappropriately, we're going to find out about that. There's also a difference between a former U.K. intelligence officer who has helped the FBI in the past providing information -- we have a very friendly relationship with the U.K., one of our closest allies -- vs. someone from a foreign government going to a political campaign and essentially saying, hey, we have dirt on your political opponent.


Who cares who it came from?


BROWN: For an adversary.

MURRAY: Yes, for an adversary.

We have dirt on your political opponent coming from Russia for an adversary. Let us share that with you. This raised a lot of concerns. It didn't rise to the level of being prosecutable, as far as Mueller's team determined.

That doesn't mean it was the right thing to do.

BROWN: And Mueller, he came out and said, look, this was systematic on the part of the Russians that interfered in the election.

You didn't hear that sense of alarm, David Chalian, coming from the president in terms of what Mueller laid out.


So, for two years, we have heard nothing from President Trump other than no collusion, no collusion, no collusion. And now we hear, I am standing here willing, ready and able to collude. If somebody in a foreign country would like to share information , I'm ready to take it on.

BROWN: Right.

CHALIAN: It is unthinkable what he said.

It disintegrates at the very core of what our democracy is about. This is the president of the United States inviting in a foreign entity to play in America's elections, and doing it so cavalierly, without any notion that they may actually be crossing a line.

And I know we get so used to all the line-crossing, but this is one of those days where you wake up and you just say, this is the president of the United States looking to actually dismantle a core function of our democracy.

BROWN: So what would you say to those who would say, look, I mean, what is wrong with listening, as the president says? Look, just listen.

And then he drew this parallel with presidential diplomacy, saying, look, I meet with foreign leaders all the time.

What do you make of that?

CHALIAN: You mean like when he was comparing his recent talks with Queen Elizabeth?

BROWN: Yes, overseas.


CHALIAN: And they talked about everything. And so if she had mentioned something about the political race upcoming in 2020, somehow, that is the same thing as if a foreign nation state called and said, we have dirt on your opponent? Oh, I would take a look at that.

That is not the same thing. You're having conversations with people in your daily course of business, that is a totally different thing than a foreign entity offering you dirt on your opponent.


And I think one of the sort of alarming and out-of-body experience things about this is, the Republican Party used to be the party of national security. They used to pride themselves on this kind of thing. So to now have the president being out there saying, essentially, we don't really care if foreign governments meddle in our election, it also makes me think back to we didn't hear much from Bob Mueller over the course of the last couple of years.

But one of the last things he said when he was giving his 10-minute statement was a foreign government tried to interfere in our election, and we should not lose sight of that. And that, it seems like, for me, almost was his biggest takeaway, is that we should take this seriously, because it's not going to end there.

And this is just another example of how this president has not taken it seriously. He didn't take seriously the fact that Russia tried to meddle in our last election. This administration has done very little to prevent that from happening again in 2020.

And we haven't seen the kind of sort of uprising you would expect from members on both sides of the aisle to say, like, let's make sure we secure our election and this kind of stuff doesn't happen again. Now we have the president essentially just extending an invitation. Come on in. Let's meddle.

BROWN: There is so much more to talk about in this segment. I'm so sad that I have to wrap, because I have so many more questions.


BROWN: Also, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, the president said he was wrong. I mean, what's he going to do now? Is he going to respond?

All right, thank you, guys. Appreciate you coming on.

Well, coming up, she has been a constant presence by the president's side, but now a federal watchdog says Trump should fire his White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. We're going to tell you why.

Plus, chaos in Memphis -- bricks and rocks hurled at officers and cruisers vandalized, the violent protests after U.S. Marshals shot and killed a man.

And then later, revamping the presidential plane. Trump unveils his plans for changing up the look of Air Force One after nearly 60 years.


BROWN: Well, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway once dared the feds to come after her for violating the Hatch Act.

Well, now they have done just that. The Office of Special Counsel has accused Conway of violating the rule that limits political activities of government employees. Well, it's even recommended Conway be fired.

And the White House is responding.

I want to bring in Kaitlan Collins, CNN White House correspondent.

So, Kaitlan, what is the president saying about this? I don't get the sense that he's taking this very seriously, this suggestion to fire Kellyanne Conway.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we have been told in the past that the president has kind of brushed this off when Kellyanne Conway has been told before that she's violated the Hatch Act, this law that prevents federal employees from making political statements, something that you have seen Kellyanne Conway do time and time again.

But the White House is pushing back on them coming out today, saying that their statement is unprecedented, and that their actions against her are -- quote -- "deeply flawed," Pam, and saying that it violates her constitutional rights to free speech and due process.

So they're pushing back on this hard. But it is significant that this government watchdog is coming out saying that Kellyanne Conway should be removed from her job from this.

But, of course, Pam, we have got to point out that it's the president who is responsible for taking disciplinary action when it comes to violating the Hatch Act, and he's clearly not likely to do so, based on what we have been told.


BROWN: And just in, Kaitlan, Congressman Elijah Cummings, the chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has announced that he will hold a hearing with the Office of Special Counsel.

What more can you tell us about that?

COLLINS: Yes, because this act is seen as kind of toothless in ways, but we have seen the Special Counsel's Office, not related to Robert Mueller's office, of course, saying that because Kellyanne Conway is a repeat offender of violating the Hatch Act, that they think, if no action is taken, then it sends a message to federal employees that they can violate this law without repercussion.

Democrats are trying to push back on that, saying that they want to hold a hearing on this, that they want to even invite Kellyanne Conway to come up to Capitol Hill and make some statements. But, of course, as we have seen with the requests coming from Capitol

Hill, from Democrats specifically, for White House officials to come up on Capitol Hill and testify, it's not very likely that they will do so.

And you can see that in the letter that Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, sent to the Office of the Special Counsel about this report on Kellyanne Conway, where he referred to her as a close counselor to the president, one of the closest in the West Wing, Pat Cipollone said.

And that may be a way they try to justify not being able to send her up to Capitol Hill to testify in front of lawmakers.

BROWN: All right, Kaitlan Collins bringing us the latest from the White House -- thanks, Kaitlan.

And this just in from Washington: Employees of the Department of Agriculture turn their backs on Secretary Perdue as he is speaking.

CNN national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux joins me now.

So, what happened? Why did they turn their backs on the secretary?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pam, this is a controversy that is blowing up at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA.

Now, this is over Secretary Sonny Perdue's move to reorganize this agency. And Perdue was meeting with the employees today. You will see the video of them turning their backs on him.

He announced that there are two units that are going to have to relocate from their Washington, D.C., offices to the Kansas City region. Now, he says this is a necessary cost-saving measure that's going to make the department run more efficiently, streamline federal bureaucracy.

But the hundreds of USDA workers impacted by this, they're not buying it. And here's why. The career researchers in these two units -- it's the Economic Research Service unit -- that's ERS -- and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, NIFA -- they produce research that contradicts the administration or President Trump's positions on the impact of climate change on crops and livestock production, on the president's trade and tariffs impacts on U.S. agriculture.

So one watchdog group even says that this is just the administration's backdoor way to cut off the staff, the resources to these groups who provide research and analysis to lawmakers who don't align with the president's political positions.

So what's happening now? The fight has triggered unionization drives. There's criticism now that it's forcing world-class researchers who have to make a decision whether or not they uproot their families or leave their careers. Well, here's how Perdue replied here in a statement. He defended the

department's decision. He is saying that this is going to improve USDA's ability to attract highly qualified staff, where the cost of living is going to be cheaper, and will also put resources in an area a country where agriculture is more directly impacted.

So what's happening now? The USDA employees, they're working out these buyout packages. In the meantime, there are critics who are ringing the alarm bells, saying that this is part of Trump's plan to radically less government, especially in areas of research and science, Pam.

BROWN: That is quite the visual there with those employees, their backs to Secretary Perdue.

Suzanne Malveaux, thank you so much for bringing us the latest there and breaking it down for us.

And coming up, what do Trump's 2020 rivals think of his remark that there is nothing wrong with listening to a foreign government offering up dirt on an opponent? I'm going to ask presidential candidate and Governor Jay Inslee to weigh in on that.

Plus, President Trump has a new paint job in mind for Air Force One. And the color scheme sure does look familiar.




SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): ... wise, wise unanimous consent request.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA): I thank my friend the senator from New York, the minority leader.

And I agree with him. This is a really unfortunate time. I am -- can't imagine -- I always thought I -- in today's political environment, you always think yesterday of being the greatest outrage.

But the fact that yesterday, the president of the United States said, even after all that we have gone through in the last two-and-a-half years, even after all of the evidence of Russian intervention has been out and vetted, even after 140 contacts between Russian officials and folks affiliated with the Trump campaign or Trump business operations, you would think there would be a sense of some level of moral obligation, even if we're not backwards-looking, to say, on a going- forward basis, we ought to make clear that, if any foreign power tries to intervene again in an election, the least we can do is ask for a requirement to report to law enforcement.

I heard yesterday the president went on and kind of said, oh, this is no big thing, or everybody does it.