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Trump: I'd Go To War With Iran Over Nuclear Weapons; Pompeo Speaks From Centcom Amid Increased Tensions With Iran; Senators: No Warning on Trump's Immigrant Round-up Announcement. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired June 18, 2019 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: There would be a question mark if the U.S. would use military action when it comes to defending against the use of international waterways for the movement of oil.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: And that's what those around the president are saying. He is trying to -- by saying very minor, he's trying to send the signal that he's not interested in a military conflict in the Middle East so he's trying to downgrade the offense if you will.

I want to read you a little bit more, Kylie just notes what the president's said in this interview. He said, "He might take military action to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon but cast doubt on going to war to protect international oil supplies. I would certainly go over nuclear weapons, the president said, and I would keep the other a question mark.

Now, you don't want a president to play all his cards so keeping some question marks is traditional policy if you will. But at this moment, the president of the United States is saying a very minor thing. Is that a problem?

RET. RDML JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: It is a problem. It sends a terrible message to not just Iran, who now thinks that they do have a bit of an upper hand here, that he's going give them some wiggle room. Look, the Revolutionary Guard is not completely attached to the Rouhani government. So there are some independents there on their operations that you have to take into account.

Number two, it sends a horrible message to our allies and partners, and particularly those who are more dependent on Middle Eastern oil than we are right now. I mean, he also said in that interview that, you know, we don't import that much oil from there like others do so why should I worry about it. So good luck getting allies and partners to go along with you diplomatically or militarily should it come to that when you clearly message to me that you don't really care about their interests in the region so much as your own.

KING: Well, that's been interesting in the reaction of in the sense that you have -- when the troop deployment was announced later yesterday, Russia and China saying, calm down, they think this is a provocation, we shouldn't do it. But even traditional allies, Chancellor Merkel today saying she doesn't doubt the U.S. evidence about the tanker attacks but she wants everybody to step back from confrontation.

Obviously, the president annoyed, it's a kind word, the European allies by withdrawing from the JCPOA. How much of that, the mistrust of Trump if you will, the dismay with Trump over his policies are affecting now the reaction? Because you can -- let's say you blame President Trump pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, escalating tensions. That still doesn't give anybody the right to blow up tankers.

So the question is what's the response and how much is the Trump hangover if you will affect the international response?

ATWOOD: Well, I think it's a fair question because we've seen time and time again the president come out and say things that aren't necessarily true on the world stage. And even though there are many U.S. allies who say, yes, the evidence does point to Iran being behind these attacks, there are also some allies that say we'd like to see some more evidence here. I mean, Secretary Pompeo came out less than 24 hours after the attacks on the tankers last week and pointed the finger squarely at Iran. That's not a whole lot of time to do an in- depth investigation.

KING: It is not every day we see a secretary of state show up at a U.S. Military command. Number one, they say this was planned before the tanker explosions, the State Department says so I want to be fair to Secretary Pompeo.

But A, what does that tell you? And B, you lived through the negotiations. You were still at the State Department during the Iran nuclear deal. Where is the circuit breaker here? Where's the off- ramp?

KIRBY: Yes. So, my first question, very, very unusual. This is not the secretary of state's job to go visit and confer with military commanders, that's the defense secretary's job and our acting defense secretary is not going there. I was with John Kerry for two years. The only military base he visited was Norfolk to go look at climate change effects on the Navy.

So this is untoward. It also sorts of flies in the face of his messaging on Sunday about how he's focusing more on diplomatic and economic pressure. He's going to talk to generals. Clearly, they're doing some messaging here.

But I think -- I mean -- I'm sorry, the second question --

KING: Is there an off-ramp?

KIRBY: Is there an off-ramp? Oh yes. I mean, I don't see one. And that's the thing, John.

All this rhetoric and bellicosity, all this messaging, you know, Bolton is regime change, Trump is getting them back to the table and get a deal. There's no cohesive foreign policy. Therefore, it's hard to imagine that they have constructed or are thinking about realistic off-ramps to decrease the temperature and to give Iran a way out of this that doesn't result in confrontation. The other thing is it doesn't appear to me that they are doing anything other than closing down their decision space rather than opening that up.

KING: Interesting point. We'll hear from the secretary of state any moment. We'll bring that to you live when it happens. It might bring you both back for that conversation. We'll see how it plays out.

Coming up for us though as we wait, Senate Republicans caught off guard by the president's announcement of a big planned round-up he says of undocumented immigrants. An operation one expert says would be impossible.


[12:37:49] KING: We'll take you straight to U.S. Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: -- and General Clarke and his team at Centcom. The purpose of my visit was to come down here and make sure that the State Department and Department of Defense were deeply coordinated across a whole broad range of issues. We certainly discussed the ongoing tension in the Gulf, but we talked about a much broader range of issues.

If we're to deliver at the State Department on the president's diplomatic objectives, we have to be tightly woven with our military, and I appreciate General McKenzie, General Clarke and their teams spending time with me and my team today to make sure we were doing just that.

We had extensive conversations about tactical operational strategic levels of work between our two organizations to make sure that when we present options, alternatives, and policy recommendations to President Trump we're doing so in a way that is coherent and consistent and leads the president to a fuller understanding of the challenges and opportunities connected to decisions that he makes.

We certainly, as I said, spoke about the challenges in Iran. We talked about the Centcom decision that Secretary Shanahan and the president approved to move a thousand more Americans into theater to make sure that we're in a position to do the right thing, which is to continue to work to convince the Islamic government of Iran that we are serious and to deter them from further aggression in the region. It's been our mission since the beginning of this administration to convince the Iranian regime not to move forward with their nuclear program and not to continue to engage in the development of the missiles and all of the other activities, the malign activities that they've been engaged in around the world. That's why we put in place the pressure campaign that's now been ongoing for a year and a couple of months. It's been very effective.

And now we need to make sure we continue to do that so that we ultimately get the opportunity to convince Iran that it's not in their best interests to behave in this way. We all have to remember this isn't just two and a half years or five years, this is 40 years of Iranian activity that has led us to this point.

[12:40:01] And to re-establish deterrents is a challenge but one that I know the Trump administration is up to. And we're working hard each and every day, both in the State Department and the Department of Defense and all the elements of the United States government to achieve that.

And with that, I'm happy to take a couple of questions. Yes, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- either directly or through third parties with Iran to try and deflate the situation at the Persian Gulf?

POMPEO: Almost certainly. President Trump had sent President Abe to take a message of his to the leadership in Iran. You have to remember, these are messages for the leadership. I think the Iranian people are being woefully misserved by leadership.

But, yes, we're engaged in -- we have been engaged in many messages. Even this moment right here, communicating to Iran that we are there to deter aggression. President Trump does not want war, and we will continue to communicate that message while doing the things that are necessary to protect American interests in the region.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Japan and Germany have asked for additional proof of the attack on the tankers and you said Sunday that you were going to provide that. When are we expected to see that?

POMPEO: Yes, we'll continue to provide additional information about those attacks. We shouldn't focus on just those two attacks. Since the beginning of May, there are now over a half dozen different instances of Iranian attacks in the region. Some thwarted and some not successfully thwarted and they had an impact.

But I saw just as I walked in here Chancellor Merkel say that she thought there was strong evidence that Iran had engaged in this activity. We'll continue to work with partners all around the world. It's worth reminding everyone here, you have China that depends enormously on energy transiting the Strait of Hormuz, you have South Korea, Indonesia, Japan, all of whom have an enormous interest in ensuring there's freedom of navigation throughout this waterway.

The United States is prepared to do its part but every nation that has a deep interest in protecting that shipping lane so energy can move around the world and support their economies needs to make sure they understand the real threat, the real threat to their interests in the region and the real threat to their countries' economies if we're not successful in doing that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) that obviously falls within the operating theater of U.S. Central -- special operations command at Central Command. What do you say to the families of the men and women who work within those commands about how they should prepare themselves for what may come over the next year or two? POMPEO: Look, the first thing I'd do is say thank you to them for their service to the nation. I know many of these young men and women, they are talented, capable, aggressive. They have put us in the place where we have this opportunity to deter Iran. And what I would -- what I'd say to them is what I'd say to everyone who is engaged in this kind of service.

America is deeply appreciative. We are providing them with the resources they need to be successful to continue to engage in the activities in a way that will deliver good outcomes and to thank them for their willingness to take this ultimate risk that every service member faces. I remind my diplomats all around the world, they too face threats to themselves and to their families. And when I get a chance to talk to those officers at the State Department, those diplomats, I tell the same thing I'd like to share with the families that are here at Centcom, thank them for their amazing professionalism, work, and their willingness to serve America at these challenging times.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Secretary, you said many times that the U.S. is not seeking war with Iran. President Trump said this week that he would consider going to war over Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Is that something that was discussed here today at Centcom and can you give us any more details as (INAUDIBLE)?

Also on Sunday, you said military options (INAUDIBLE) is something that's being considered. Can you give us any more details about the discussions?

POMPEO: Look, one of the purposes of my visit today was to make sure that we were coordinated. The responsibility for diplomacy, achieving the strategic outcomes that President Trump has sent forth falls on all of us, but the State Department has the first oar in the water on that. But we can't do that without making sure that we have the capability to respond if Iran makes a bad decision. If it makes a decision to go after an American or an American interest or to continue to proliferate its nuclear weapons program.

And so we talked about a broad range of issues here today across all of that spectrum. I know that soldiers, sailors, and airmen and Marines inside of Centcom are ready to respond to any threat that the Islamic (INAUDIBLE) should present to the United States. And we talked about each of those and how to make sure that we were in sync in how we would prepare those options for the president of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Secretary, what's the advantage of coming here to Tampa to talk with generals rather than talk with generals at the Pentagon? And should your trip here be a message to Iran?

POMPEO: So I talk with generals at the Pentagon all the time too, so these are not mutually exclusive options. But it was important for me to get here into the headquarters where a lot of these works is done and made sure we didn't have to send a whole bunch of folks up to meet me in Washington. [12:45:06] I got a chance to meet with not only those two leaders but their teams today, and they got a chance, in turn, to hear how the State Department is thinking about these problems and how we're delivering deterrents in the region and reinforce with them the strategic objectives of the United States of America. So it was important and valuable to me to get here so I could talk to a broader range of leaders and hear at a more granular level all of the great work they have been engaged in.

I'll take one more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) happen next week. Anything to say about that?

POMPEO: Yes. I don't have anything to add to that. I'll say only this. It is the case that in May we had over 140,000 illegal immigrants enter this nation unlawfully. It is an important undertaking to ensure that we have sovereignty and security at our southern border. And so every action this administration is taking is designed to do just that.

President Trump has been unambiguous, very clear. We worked -- I worked personally on an arrangement with Mexico now a week and a few days ago. I am confident that we will get that under control and it is important. It's important for American national security that we do in fact achieve that.

Thank you, all.

KING: You've been listening to the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He's at U.S. Central Command Headquarters, that's in Tampa, Florida. Central Command was notably responsible for U.S. troop deployments to the Middle East. A statement from the secretary of state about why he was there, then he took a handful of questions.

Notably, he said President Trump does not want war. He said even part of his statement there was to send Iran a message. Number one that the president does not want war but that the United States also will not tolerate continued -- what he called malign activities by the Iranian regime.

Let's talk about what we just hear. Let's start with Rear Admiral John Kirby, our CNN military and diplomatic analyst.

Admiral, we were talking earlier in the program about how unusual it is for a secretary of state to go to a military installation. He said he was there to compare notes with the generals so that they have coherent and consistent recommendations to the president about what to do. What was your biggest takeaway from what he just heard?

KIRBY: That it was nothing more than a photo op. He didn't need to be down at Tampa in Central Command headquarters to have that kind of discussion. And he said it was important for them to talk about being deeply coordinated. You can do that in Washington, D.C. This was clearly about messaging Iran about American readiness and posturing in the region. And it was really nothing more than that. I found it very interesting, John, he talked -- he bragged about their pressure campaign but then in an answer to a question, he said, you know, since May we've seen half a dozen other attacks in addition to the ones we've been talking about the last couple of days. It's not very clear to me how effective this pressure campaign has actually been.

KING: Appreciate the insights, Admiral Kirby. Let's bring it into the room.

He did clearly say President Trump does not want war. Which if you are watching in Tehran, that's the U.S. top diplomat standing at a military installation saying that. He also said at one point that they wanted to re-establish deterrents and that re-establishing deterrents was going to take a while.

Obviously, his counterparts around the world, a lot of them thought that the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama administration was deterrent. Not to everything, everybody admits it. It didn't deal with Hamas, it didn't deal with Hezbollah, it didn't deal with some of the stuff that happens in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz and the like. But it did, they believed at least crimp the nuclear program.

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, SIRIUSXM: Right. And if you're watching Mike Pompeo today it's really interesting. He goes to Centcom, it is really unusual to see a secretary of state make a solo visit to an installation like that.

Later today, he's going to meet with the top foreign policy official from the European Union. I don't know if we'll get a different message from him then but I thought that was interesting. And I thought that when he invoked China and the other countries that have interest in the freedom of navigation that was clearly an invocation of kind of international legitimacy for whatever the United States is doing in the Gulf.

But he didn't get asked some of the most basic questions that he should've been asked. One is, the president just came out and said these attacks on tankers were minor.

KING: Very minor.

KNOX: You've been talking them up as very serious. Where is Patrick Shanahan? You know, if we're talking about coordination between the State Department and Defense Department, it might not be a terrible idea to have at least a senior deputy to Shanahan be present. That didn't seem to be the case.

And the third one though, I'm (INAUDIBLE) about this, is there any kind of military action for which you do not believe you currently have legal authority. In other words, for which you would need to go to Congress to get the authority.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Just also at issue, I think in this whole situation is Trump's credibility, the U.S.' credibility at large, right? So, Trump has continually sewn mistrust of the intelligence community. Now he's relying on the intelligence community say this was accusing Iran of these attacks on the oil tankers. And it so far seems also there hasn't been a lot of U.S. allies that are as willing to say -- to go there and to -- if the administration is trying to take an aggressive attack, then it doesn't look as though there are that many allies that are willing to go along that path with them. At least not yet.

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The U.S. -- I mean, I think you're right, the U.S. has got a bit of mixed messaging on this. Because on the one hand, President Trump certainly contributed to the contentious environment with the decision to pull the U.S. out and try to shake the JCPOA and force Europe to try to force Iran to do something different which is all that escalating tension is what has helped bring us to this moment.

[12:50:04] But now the president who walked away from the first deal is asking all of the allies and partners in that first deal to come to his side now because of what Iran did with those tankers. And it's a complicated argument because I think most allies and partners do feel that you can't encourage Iran to continue aggressive acts. But on the other hand, Trump is a really unreliable partner on this stuff, you know.

So, that's one of the messaging challenges. And then the talk to us, talk to us, but we're going to be really tough is also very tough. What does talking to you get if you make a deal and then pull the rug out from under the deal?

KING: Let me close with Admiral Kirby. Go back to you. Close your eyes for a second, Admiral, and put yourself back at the podium at the State Department. The secretary of state said part of his mission was to tell the military and the State Department, the generals, and the diplomats if you will give coherent and consistent advice to the president of the United States. When you're there on a day when the president is quoted on a magazine saying it's very minor that Iran attached some mines to some tankers and disrupted oil traffic in the incredibly important Strait of Hormuz, is that consistent?

KIRBY: No, it's not a consistent message from the administration. But I can see a scenario where the State Department and the military actually are on the same page with respect to how to move forward here, to try to provide off-ramps for better solutions. But as Margaret pointed out, the real issue here is there's no cohesive policy with respect to Iran coming out of the administration. And there's dissidence between the White House and certainly the Pentagon I think and there's got to be dissidence between Bolton and the president.

Bolton much more bullish on Iran than the president appears to be. And the president seems to be tap dancing all over this to try to, what he thinks, I think, is to calm the tensions down. But what he's actually doing is making our allies and partners more worried because they don't know where the hell we're going.

KING: Admiral Kirby, appreciate your insights. When we come back, the president of the United States tweets that starting next week, millions of illegal aliens he calls them will be deported from the country. His point man on the border says no comment. Republicans on Capitol Hill say no clue.


[12:56:43] KING: The president appears to have caught his own administration and his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill off guard with a tweet last night. Here it is, quote, next week, ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in.

The president's acting secretary of Homeland Security was asked about this morning and he said no comment. ICE has just issued a statement which doesn't directly address what the president means but it does say the border crisis doesn't start and stop at the border which is why ICE will continue to conduct interior enforcement without exemptions for those who're in violation of federal immigration law. It goes on to talk about targeted law enforcement and the like.

TALEV: That actually in no way addresses at all.

KING: It doesn't address -- essentially, ICE seems to be saying we will continue to do what we were doing yesterday, the day before, and the day before and planning to do tomorrow and next week and next month. The president says on the day he's officially launching his campaign --

TALEV: Coincidence.

KING: I insert that. Yes, it's a total coincidence. Millions will be thrown out starting next week.

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. He should have definitely taken a signal from ICE on this one and not talked about it. I mean, from our reporting with my colleagues at the Post, this is something that was, you know, scheduled to happen next week. But the thing about ICE and enforcement is, they don't publicize their plans because that tips off people and undercuts the operation.

And what the president did was, he, you know, got ahead of his keys and clearly wanted something to tout perhaps before this campaign rally. But in doing so, he's actually undercut himself and the operation.

KING: Not only undercut the secrecy of the operation but also it's just -- again, overstating dramatically, ridiculously the math. ICE -- the former ICE director saying maximum 400,000 in a year. The president says millions. So, you know, we can have a debate about the administration's immigration policies, the country is having that debate and we'll throw out the campaign. But if ICE was going to do this within its legal rights, they might do hundreds here, thousands there. The numbers add up, not millions. BARRON-LOPEZ: Right. So the Obama administration in 2015 did targeted deportations of Central Americans but it was in the hundreds. Millions is very different. It's unclear if ICE even has the resources to carry something like this out.

TALEV: I think the initial feedback on the Hill from Republicans has also been, uh, we don't actually know what he's talking about.

KING: Yes, Republican Senator John Thune telling Phil Mattingly he has no idea. Neither he nor anyone else he knows has heard about it. Roy Blunt, a member of the Republican leadership or senior Republican asked about it. Do you know anything about it? He said no.

TALEV: I think there's also a concern to flip the script on this a little bit that if there are, you know, policy initiatives or action initiatives being rolled out, are they being rolled out in a way that is timed to major domestic political events or as -- I mean, we were -- I was joking out earlier when I said it was a coincidence. But, why is this being initiated the same week as the re-election launch?

KING: And why is the president announcing something on Twitter that his government is not prepared to explain. I guess I've asked that question before.


KNOX: It's not the first time.


KING: It's not the first time.

All right, thanks for joining us in the INSIDE POLITICS. We'll continue to try to get answers about this. Try to get answers about this. But sometimes we make fun about it but it's not fun, it's a big deal. It's your government sometimes at work.

Thanks for joining us, we'll see you back here this time tomorrow. Brianna Keilar starts right now. Have a great afternoon.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters.