Return to Transcripts main page


Trump: Iran "Made a Very Big Mistake" Shooting Down U.S. Drone; Democrat Rivals Slam Biden on Segregationist Senators & Cory Booker Demands Apology. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired June 20, 2019 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And thank you for being with us. I'm Poppy Harlow.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts now.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Erica Hill, in for Kate Bolduan today. Thanks for joining us.

We do begin this morning with a new spike in rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran. An American drone is shot down and an Iranian military commander sends a chilling warning. Quote, "This is the way the Iranian nation deals with its enemies."

Just a short time ago, President Trump responded with a menacing message of his own. You see the tweet on the screen. In his words, "Iran made a very big mistake."

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House. Fred Pleitgen is in Tehran.

Kaitlan, I want to begin with you.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right now, Erica, there's supposed to be a meeting going on at the White House this morning to discuss how they're going to respond to Iran shooting down that U.S. military drone.

We're not expecting President Trump to attend that based on what our sources are telling us but they are tight-lipped about the details.

We know that the outgoing acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, is expected to attend, as well as incoming acting defense secretary, Mark Esper, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in that meeting as well.

We've been reporting on what exactly is going on at the White House as we're learning the details of what happened here with Iran. And we do know that the president has been speaking to lawmakers about this, this morning, including Senator Lindsey Graham, who said this is what the president told him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Now, they shot down an American drone. They fired into Saudi Arabia. So, I talked to the president this morning. You need to tell the Iranians that if they increase their enrichment program for uranium that would be a provocative act toward the United States and Israel and all bets are off.


COLLINS: Now, Graham also told the president that he should respond to Iran with firmness and resolve.

But, of course, Erica, we've been noting in interview in recent days, the president said he believes everything was under control when it came to Iran and saying he believes they do not have to go to war. The question is, what is the president going to say that?

We will see him in the next hour or so when he welcomes the prime minister of Canada here at the White House.

HILL: It will be interesting to see if we hear any more.

Kaitlan, thank you.

I want to turn to Fred Pleitgen in Tehran.

Obviously, a much different response that we're seeing coming out of Iran.

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTELLIGENCE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely right, Erica. A much different response. The Iranians are essentially putting out a blustery message saying this is the way they deal with their enemies.

The Iranians are claiming the drone, the surveillance drone entered into their own air space illegally. It was interesting because it was early in the morning today that the Iranians came out with their first statement saying that the drone had gone out to the Persian Gulf area and then made a turn towards Iranian air space and then it was shot down by the Iranian air defense system as it was going into Iran's air space.

The Iranians are saying this is an absolute red line for them, their air space. It was quite interesting to see because the Revolution Guard Corps, Erica, which is Iran's most elite military unit and the unit that shot this drone down, they came out very quickly and said this is something that they will absolutely react to the same way again if it happens again.

They also said that Iran does not want war but they said that Iran is absolutely prepared for war at this point in time. Those are statements that we've been hearing from the Iranians over the past couple of days.

Of course, all of this comes in the context of the standoff that's going on between Iran and the U.S., especially in the Persian Gulf, after the tanker attacks that took place last week. The U.S. blaming the Iranians. The Iranians saying it wasn't them. The Iranians say they don't want this to escalate but, if it does escalate, they say that they are well prepared -- Erica?

HILL: Fred Pleitgen, with the latest for us from Tehran. Fred Pleitgen, thank you.

We want to give you a bird's-eye view, a better sense of what we're talking about. This is such a volatile region as we join.

Joining us now, Max Boot, CNN global affairs analyst. Also a senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations.

And if we could bring up the map, as Fred mentioned, what's happened in the last week or so. To remind us how we got here, it was the Trump administration that said there was a threat from Iran against U.S. interests in the region. So as we look at this map, put this isn't perspective, Max. Where is the threat today?

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I'd say, Erica, that the threat is growing. This is really a crisis that Donald Trump himself set into motion last year when he left the Iran nuclear accord, even though the U.S. Intelligence Community said that the Iranians were abiding by its terms.

More recently, in the last few months, the Trump administration has inflicted punishing sanctions on Iran, which the Iranian government describes as an act of economic warfare.

I think what you're seeing here is the way the Iranians are pushing back against the pressure they're feeling from the United States.

HILL: That's one thing. What the Iranians are doing to push back.

What else are you looking at, though, today, in terms of signs that there's another shift happening in the region?

[11:05:08] BOOT: Well, I think the big question mark here, Erica, is not so much in the region, it's in Washington, D.C. You're getting very conflicting and mixed signals from President Trump.

Remember that last week, you had the tanker attacks. Then on Monday, President Trump said they're very minor. He seemed to dismiss their importance, and perhaps encourage further Iranian escalation.

Now, today, you have Donald Trump tweeting that the Iranians made a very big mistake. We don't know what that means. But it suggests some kind of U.S. retaliation. On the other hand, he's been saying for weeks he doesn't want war. He wants to talk. But he's basically goaded the Iranians, pushed them into a position that war becomes much more likely.

HILL: As we just heard from Fred Pleitgen, they're saying, listen, we don't want war either, but we are prepared.

Let's look at this region, too, in terms of where U.S. troops are. If we look at U.S. military bases in the region, there's a significant presence as we know in this area of the world. What are the options at this point?

BOOT: Well, there's a whole range of options, obviously. And the fact that we do have the bases gives us a lot of capability to confront Iran.

But on the other side, it also creates a lot of targets for the Iranians. This is a country that has an estimated 2000 missiles. They have drones. They have mines. They have proxy forces. And in recent days, you've seen some of their proxy forces firing missiles toward an ExxonMobil facility inside southern Iraq, into areas where U.S. trainers may be located.

I think they're basically signaling that, yes -- there's no question, if there's an armed confrontation, the U.S. is going to come out on top. We have much more capability. But the Iranians also have capability to strike back, including in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, in which about a quarter of the world's oil passes. So this is a very dangerous, tinderbox situation.

HILL: There's also the question of the drone, right, where the drone actually was. Was it in international air space? Was it in Iranian air space? Iran says it was in their air space. What would that change?

BOOT: Well, that makes a big difference. And this gets to the issue of American credibility. You do have Central Command saying this was a drone shot down over international air space, which is a very different act than shooting down an aircraft over your own space.

But, remember, the Trump administration has no credibility. This is a president who lies something like 12 times a day. They have disregarded intelligence in the past when they didn't like it. And President Trump refused to listen to what the Intelligence Community has to say about Saudi Arabia or Iran. Now he claims that the intelligence is saying something he likes, so he's putting it out there. I tend to believe Central Command.

But there's a very high threshold that the White House has to reach for the world to believe what they're saying. And right now, I think their comments have been met with disbelief, just because of their track record of not telling the truth.

HILL: Max Boot, always appreciate it. Thank you.

BOOT: Thank you.

Also with us, David Sanger, national security correspondent for the "New York Times" and a CNN political and national security analyst.

I want to talk about messaging, David. Let's start specifically with the president. Yesterday, this is what he had to say in terms of Iran. I want to play that moment.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR, HANNITY (voice-over): As you look at the geopolitical workup there, Iran, Russia, China, tell me your concerns.

TRUMP (voice-over): I don't worry about a thing. Everything is under control. Right now, they've got problems.

HANNITY: Would you say they never get nukes?

TRUMP: I would say, if I were you, don't worry about a thing.


HILL: Don't worry about a thing, nothing to see here. Almost blase when it comes to that question. His tweet in response to the events overnight, changing his tone. What do you make on that, especially based on what Max just said, in terms of what his words mean now?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Erica, he has not had much message discipline in the course of this. You had Secretary of State Pompeo, after the attacks on the ships last week, come out to the State Department press room and make a series of declarations and then the president seemed to undercut that over the weekend, when he stepped in and said I'm not terribly concerned about these and so forth.

And so, what it seemed like, the policy was headed, was to say, look, we can manage the small tactical stuff in the gulf. The big issue is don't restart the nuclear program. Because if you do that, you're in for a world of hurt.

Now, we've lost a drone. It's obviously a pretty provocative thing to do. But fortunately, there were no casualties. The U.S. has lost $150 million worth of machinery. There's an argument about where it was located, in international waters or not.

It's not the first drone we've lost over Iran. Back in the Obama administration, there was famously one lost because of an accident with the drone. But the Iranians put it out on display. And then they copied it and made some of their own kind of drones.

[11:10:04] So the question is, what's the proportional response here. And it's possible that the proportional response should actually be pretty modest on this one. But pretty severe if the administration wants to stick to its position if they move ahead on the nuclear program.

HILL: So the problem with the administration's position is it's not clear what it is. Part of that is the mixed message we get, not just from the president. It would make sense for the president to shift his stance after what happened overnight.

But I'm talking about the mixed messaging we're seeing from Secretary of State Pompeo and John Bolton and the president and the impact that has on the greater world stage and where the U.S. takes not only whatever action it decides on, but also where it continues with its plans for beyond that action.

SANGER: I think that's right. And when you talk to the Europeans, they seem confused on the question of whether or not the administration really believes it when they say, oh, we're not here for regime change. We just want the regime to change their behavior. Many American allies believe they really do want regime change.

It's my sense from talking to administration officials that they're not in a big rush on Iran. They would rather see the sanctions that they've now put in effect, and which have really put the arm on Iran in the past six weeks to two months, play out over the summer and into the fall.

Because they believe that they've finally gotten to a point where they're cutting Iran's oil revenues down, not quite to zero, but close, and forcing the Iranians to make really hard decisions about their budget. And so, I think they would like to see what the maximum pressure really looks like.

The Iranians may be responding by saying, you know, we're not going to let it get to that point. We're going to create a crisis that forces the Europeans to choose between lining up with the Americans or lining up with Iran. And they know Europeans believe that exiting the Iran deal was a bad decision.

HILL: Two quick questions before I let you go. Earlier this week, you reported -- and we talked about this earlier in the week -- about U.S. cyber warfare in Russia and that the Intelligence Community was actively keeping some information from the president because they were concerned with not only what he would do with that information but who he may share it with. Do you think that's the case when it ultimately comes to the information about Iran?

SANGER: I don't. There's a particular sensitivity about Russia because the Intelligence Community, the military is not quite certain why the president has not called the Russians out in public or rarely done so for their activity in Crimea. Even yesterday, when you saw Russians indicted in the downing of an airplane, you didn't hear much from President Trump about that in that interview that you played excerpts from when you were talking with Max.

So, the president is extremely reluctant to get out and criticize the Russians. It's a bit of a mystery to them.

I think there's a care about Russia that doesn't exist in Iran. The oddity in the case of Iran is, it's the president that seems the more restraining influence here, more restrained than, say, the national security advisor, John Bolton, or Secretary of State Pompeo.

HILL: David Sanger, always appreciate your insight. Thank you.

SANGER: Great to be with you.

HILL: Coming up, the knives are out. Joe Biden's Democratic rivals attacking him for remarks he made about working with Senators who were supporters of segregation. The latest on this new battle.

Plus, lawmakers react to Iran shooting that U.S. drone out of the sky. We're going to speak to a member of the House Armed Services Committee who was just briefed on the escalation. And who is also trying to take the power of going to war away from the president.

[11:13:46] Stay with us.


HILL: The elbows starting to get a little sharper in the crowded field of Democrats seeking the White House. Two candidates now demanding apologies from each other.

Senator Cory Booker on CNN calling on former Vice President Joe Biden to apologize, after Biden said, in an era of cooperation, he managed to work with segregationists in the Senate, noting in those discussions, despite their differences, neither Senator called him boy, a term with significant racial overtones.

Here's what Booker said on CNN.


SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ): The vice president said I should know better. And this is what I know. As a black man in America, I know the deeply harmful and hurtful usage of the word "boy" and how it's used to humanize and degrade.

I know Joe Biden. He's better than this. This is a moment he should have spoken to the issue, allowed everybody to learn from it and then move on.


HILL: Now, here's Joe Biden.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you going to apologize to Cory Booker?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Cory has called for it --

BIDEN: Cory should apologize. He knows better. There's not a racist bone in my body. I've been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period, period.


HILL: Joining me now, CNN political director, David Chalian, and M.J. Lee, CNN political correspondent.

David, one thing that struck me with that moment with Joe Biden were the parallels with the way he is approaching this and the way that President Trump approaches different situations. It is don't back down, don't apologize, make yourself a victim. What are voters seeing, David?

[11:20:12] DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: We'll learn what voters are going to see. Obviously, they'll have a chance to weigh in here as we go forward, Erica.

But I don't think Joe Biden would welcome the comparison to Donald Trump. But I think there's something there about an era of no apology, and do you need to respond to every single attack coming your way.

Here's where I think Joe Biden, instead of using that moment to clean this up and move past it, where he may have extended this for himself, is calling on Cory Booker to apologize. Apologize for what? What did Cory Booker say or do that Joe Biden believes requires an apology? He didn't make that clear at all in his comments.

HILL: The other thing that's interesting, M.J., as you look at this, there have been moments before with things Joe Biden has said that have definitely caused some people to bristle. This is a moment we're hearing from the candidates. What is it about this particular instance that is prompting a more outspoken response from his Democratic rivals?

M.J. LEE, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: I think what we're seeing why Joe Biden's candidacy is, in a lot of ways, a double-edged sword. He's such a known figure. We talked a lot about how he has high name recognition. He is sort of a familiar candidate for anybody who has a sense of nostalgia to the pre-Trump era or is sort of feeling rattled by the last couple of years. Joe Biden initially may have been the guy for them.

But on the other side of that, times have changed. And I think Joe Biden has been tested since getting into the race on the question of ,is he the right man for this time? Times have changed. The way we talk about gender issues and race issues have changed. Our cultural norms have changed.

Biden, for his part, is obviously sort of harkening back to this time when he says there was more civility in Congress, when he could even work with segregationist Senators and get things done. But there are folks in the party now who say and think, you know, the year is 2019, and that tone doesn't work for me and that tone doesn't really fit with the times we're in right now.

HILL: We should point out, David, he does, the former vice president does have support here, right? We're hearing from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We're hearing from the White House majority whip, who is about to host a whole lot of Democrats in South Carolina.


HILL: What's the impact of that response?

CHALIAN: Yes, Jim Clyburn, who you're referring to, of South Carolina, said he spent a big chunk of his career working with Strom Thurmond to get things done. So he does -- the quote right there: "You don't have to agree with people to work with them."

Here's somebody that who is not endorsing him in the race. You're right, he's playing host to all of the Democratic nomination race this week as they fight down there in South Carolina, specifically for the African-American vote. And Jim Clyburn comes to Joe Biden's defense here. That is welcome news to the Biden camp, there's no doubt about that.

I don't think that's going to stop, as we've seen Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris, or Cory Book or Bill De Blasio or any of the opponents, Bernie Sanders, who decided that they saw a political opening here and felt they could brush back Joe Biden a bit.

HILL: M.J., as you pointed out, things are different in 2019 in terms of how you talk about issues. Race being one of them. The issue of race is not going anywhere because it's something that needs to be discussed.

How much are voters -- as you're out on the trail, covering mostly Elizabeth Warren, but as you're out there talking to voters at different events, where does this fall on their list of priorities, things that they want to hear from candidates?

LEE: One thing I would note about Elizabeth Warren and the many policy proposals that she has put out is that in almost every single one of them she explicitly talks about how that plan or how that idea would address racial inequality and the racial economic gap that she sees as a big problem in the country. There's no question that those ideas have gotten the attention of at least black leaders, thinkers, people in that community, activists.

But one thing to note, the political cynical way of looking at that is she's a politician, and she's obviously trying to appeal to black voters and win over their support. I think the more generous thing and what her team would say is, it is genuinely an issue that I care about a lot and it's a problem that I see as being serious.

I think if we're talking about the first part of that, the winning over black support question, there's no question that Joe Biden has years-long relationships and deep relationships with the black community, obviously having served as President Obama's vice president.

But I do think, at this moment, his peril is that there are other candidates in the race. There are other candidates that voters, who are not satisfied with him, could easily turn to, somebody who they feel is offering the right policies or somebody, like Cory Booker or Kamala Harris, because they're African-American and they feel like they connect with them.

[11:25:15] HILL: Also imperative for all of these candidates to not take a single vote for granted --

LEE: Right. HILL: -- no matter where that vote may come from.

M.J. Lee, David Chalian, always good to see you both. Thank you.

CHALIAN: Thanks, Erica.

An already volatile situation with Iran escalating overnight, prompting a significant shift in tone from President Trump. A meeting with top defense officials underway right now at the White House. Top lawmakers also meeting soon. Congressman John Garamendi, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, joins us next to discuss.