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Interview With Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD); Iran Shoots Down U.S. Drone. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 20, 2019 - 16:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: The Federal Reserve signaling it may lower interest rates in the coming months, something President Trump has publicly called for.

Thank you for being with me. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Let's go to Jake Tapper. "THE LEAD" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump facing his biggest test yesterday.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Boiling tensions between the United States and Iran, an American drone shot down, President Trump teasing a possible counterattack, and an Iranian military commander sending a chilling warning.

The debate over going to war exposing the divide inside the West Wing -- what sources are saying about who has the president's ear at this most critical time.

Plus, the Biden backlash. Joe Biden today defending comments about segregationist senators, with 2020 Democrats about to face a major test with African-American voters in the heart of the old Confederate South.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with breaking news in our world lead, President Trump saying today that the American people will soon find out if the United States is going to war with Iran, saying the regime made a very big mistake, shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone, like the one you see on your screen, at 4:05 a.m. Iranian time, over the Strait of Hormuz.

Take a look at this map. Iran says the U.S. drone violated its airspace. And they claim they shot down the drone right off its coast. U.S. officials counter that claim. They call it categorically false. They say the drone was shot down in international airspace south and to the west. Right now, top congressional leaders are in the Situation Room at the White House being briefed, this all coming as the Pentagon is deploying an additional 1,000 troops to the region as a deterrent against what the Trump administration calls increased Iranian aggression.

We have the story covered from the White House, to the Capitol, to the streets of Tehran.

We're going to begin with Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, what type of military options is the Pentagon considering?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, right now, the Pentagon has been focused on defense and deterrence against Iran.

But at this hour, all of that could change.


STARR (voice-over): Murky new video released by the Pentagon of a U.S. Navy drone being shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile may be the moment that changes everything.

It's hard to make out, but the smoke plume is visible as the drone falls into the waters of the Strait of Hormuz, this map showing the missile launched from the Iranian coastline more than 20 miles away from the drone, according to the Pentagon.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard releasing its own video showing what it says is the moment of the shoot-down. When asked about a U.S. military response, President Trump playing his cards close to the vest in the initial hours.


STARR: Military commanders behind the scenes are not looking for a march to war, but they are not excusing the attack, highlighting the international nature of the Iranian threat.

LT. GEN. JOSEPH GUASTELLA, COMMANDER, U.S. AIR FORCES CENTRAL COMMAND: This was an unprovoked attack on the U.S. surveillance asset that had not violated Iranian airspace at any time during its mission.

STARR: But Iran claims the American drone was in Iranian airspace and had its own dire warning.

MAJ. GEN. HOSSEIN SALAMI, IRANIAN REVOLUTIONARY GUARD CORPS (through translator): We have no intention to fight with any countries. But we are completely ready for war. What happened today was an obvious sign of this accurate message.

STARR: Tensions have been rising for weeks. In early May, the Pentagon sent an aircraft carrier strike group, Patriot missile defenses and fighter jets in the wake of intelligence the U.S. said showed Iran was planning and attack. Then Iran is believed to have attacked commercial tankers last month and again last week using mines to leave gaping holes, leading to another 1,000 troops being sent for further deterrence of Iran.


STARR: Now, if there's a determination that this deterrence strategy just is not working, what is the next step? The question is, is there a limited type of military strike you could take against Iran without it leading to all-out war, Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Let's go now to Tehran.

CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is on the ground in the Iranian capital.

Fred, how are the Iranians responding to this threat from President Trump?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Iranians are certainly saying that they're not going to back down.

I think the Iranians also very clearly heard some of the words that President Trump was saying, essentially indicating that he thinks that it might have been a mistake on the part of the Iranians that this drone was shot down.

But the Iranians are very clearly saying, no, this was not a mistake. If you look at -- hear some of the voices that are on that video that was just in Barbara's report, those are not the kind of guys who think they have just made a mistake.


And the Iranians essentially are saying they believe that this drone was in their own territorial airspace, and that's why they shot it down.

If you look at Iran's foreign minister, for instance, Jake, he's now getting involved in this. He even put out coordinates of where he said that this drone was shot down. That puts it about nine miles off Iran's coast. And so the Iranians are saying that they had every right to shoot this drone down.

At the same time, a dire warning coming from the Iranians to the U.S., the Iranians saying, this is what Iran does with its enemies, and essentially saying, yes, this was a clear message to the United States that, if it gets too close, this is what the Iranians are going to do.

And, of course, Jake, all of this comes as the tensions here have been boiling over and continue to boil over. And one of the things that the Iranians have been telling us again and again and again is that, if this escalates, Jake, they say that the Americans are not only going to be facing Iran's regular military, but all of its proxy forces in the region as well -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Fred Pleitgen in Tehran, Iran, thank you so much.

Joining me now to discuss this is Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, have you been briefed on the latest intel on the shoot-down of the drone? Is there definitive proof that it was shot down where the Pentagon says it was shot down, as opposed to where the Iranians say it was shot down?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD): Well, Jake, it's good to be with you.

We were briefed this week before the drone was shot down in the situation with Iran. There's no question that Iran is the bad actor. They're the ones doing these things that are against international norms, violating international agreements.

But the tensions couldn't be higher. And the chances of a miscalculation are very, very high. It's our responsibility to try to calm things down. The Trump policies have sort of heated things up.

And now the danger point is even greater than it was before. But, clearly, Iran is the bad actor. We have got to try to reengage the international community to isolate Iran, rather than isolate America.

TAPPER: So you think the U.S. should respond diplomatically and not militarily? Is that what I'm hearing you saying, further isolation diplomatically and economically?

CARDIN: Yes, I think militarily would be a mistake.

There is no such thing as a limited military response right now that could not be used as justification to escalate a military conflict in the region. That's not in the United States' interests.

TAPPER: Senator, the Iranians have made it very clear that this was not a mistake, that they shot down this drone on purpose.

But take a listen to President Trump earlier today suggesting that maybe this was all just a mistake.


TRUMP: I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody that shouldn't have been doing what they did. I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth. I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid.


TAPPER: What's going on there? Is there any evidence you have seen this was a mistake? Do you think the president is trying to provide the Iranians and perhaps himself with an out?

Why say this was a mistake, when it clearly wasn't? CARDIN: That may be the case.

I think the concern here is that there will be a miscalculation, and a miscalculation can lead us into an unnecessary military conflict. So I hope that the president was saying, let's find a way that we can calm things down.

No, we're not going to back away from Iran's actions have to be to changed. They cannot continue to support terrorism. They can't develop their nuclear programs. We need to get back to diplomacy in order to accomplish that.

And we need to have the support of our traditional allies.

TAPPER: Is there a way to retaliate against Iran militarily, not economically or diplomatically, but militarily, without the risk that it devolves into a full-scale war, resulting in attacks against U.S. forces stationed throughout the region and thousands of innocent people killed?

CARDIN: Jake, please understand that the sanctions that we have imposed against Iran are powerful. It's affecting their daily lives.

It's much more effective than using our military, which only leads to additional military actions. So, to me, the proper response is to isolate Iran. Sanctions help us do that, getting on the same page as our traditional allies, getting the international community to recognize that Iran's activities and now threats in regards to nuclear programs are against international norms.

Let's try to get back to the type of coalition we had before in isolating Iran.

TAPPER: The White House said there was recent intelligence showing the possibility of Iran using proxy forces to attack U.S. interests in the Middle East.

What can you tell us about that? Is that Iran planning to use proxies to kill American soldiers in Iraq? What did that intelligence suggest?

CARDIN: Well, traditionally, it's been Iran supporting proxy forces, that they help groups in different parts of the world, including in Iraq, including in Syria, that are -- including certainly in Yemen, which are against our interest.


It'd be rare to see those assets being used against America, other than in the theaters in which they're operating currently. So I think it's more the fact that Iran supports these groups than these groups are supporting Iran.

TAPPER: Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, thank you so much. Appreciate your time, sir.

CARDIN: Good to be with you.

TAPPER: Right now, the White House is briefing top lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, on what they call an escalating threat from Iran.

We could hear from them in moments.

Stay with us, this as President Trump seems to be putting more distance between himself and his secretary of state and national security adviser on the matter of Iran.

Stay with us. We will be right back.


TRUMP: Loose and stupid.



TAPPER: Our politics lead now.

Asked whether or not there will be war with Iran, after the Iranian military shot down a U.S. drone, President Trump said today, "You'll find out."


Today in the Oval Office, the president said Iran made a, quote, big mistake. And then he seemed to almost be providing an out for the regime and maybe himself, adding that he believes the move was, quote, unintentional.

The Iranian government, however, has made it very clear that it was fully intentional, since they say the drone was flying into Iranian airspace, a claim that the Trump administration says is patently false.

CNN's Abby Phillip now reports on the apparent divide between President Trump and some of his own advisers.



ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As tensions with Iran reach a fever pitch, President Trump meeting with Canadian prime minister and sounding a very different tone than his military and diplomatic advisers, calling Iran's downing of a U.S. drone a mistake.

TRUMP: I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth. I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it. PHILLIP: As for how the U.S. might respond, the president saying wait

and see.

REPORTER: How will you respond?

TRUMP: You'll find out.

PHILLIP: Earlier. Trump huddled with national security and military advisers about the incident, as Defense and State Department officials briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

One Trump ally who spoke with him earlier today is urging the president to take action.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): I would encourage forceful action to stop this behavior before it leads to a wider conflict. Doing nothing has its own consequence. If you do nothing, the Iranians see us as weak.

PHILLIP: But a short time later, Trump emphasized this did not cause death or injury to U.S. personnel.

TRUMP: We had nobody in the drone. It would have made a big difference, let me tell you.

PHILLIP: This coming after sources told CNN the president had privately downplayed last week's attack on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which his military leaders say Iran was behind because they did not involve U.S. ships.

Today, as his hawkish secretary of state and national security adviser looked on, Trump denying that he's being pushed into conflict.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) those in your administration were trying to push you into conflict?

TRUMP: No, not at all. Not at all. In fact, in many cases, it's the opposite. But I will say, look, I said, I want to get out of these endless wars. I campaigned on that.

PHILLIP: But with Iran's provocations increasing, the president acknowledging that this attack make change his calculus.

TRUMP: This is a new wrinkle, a new fly in the ointment, what happened, shooting down the drone. And this country will not stand for it. That I can tell you.


PHILLIP: While President Trump is largely surrounded by advisers more hawkish than he is, the president is being pushed more toward military action by his national security adviser John Bolton. He is resistant to it. And a senior diplomatic source tells CNN that Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state is acting as a triangulator, trying to reestablish deterrence as a policy, but again, Jake, it is not clear if that is going to continue to work at this point.

TAPPER: All right. Abby at the White House, thank you so much.

And joining me now is Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. He's a former Army commanding general of the Europe and Seventh Army. And Robin Wright who is a USIP-Wilson Center distinguished fellow and leading expert on Iran.

General, let me start with you. Assuming that the goal is to avoid war with Iran, how does the United States deal with the fact that the Iranians shot down a drone?

LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's going to be very complex and very complicated to figure that out, Jake. And many of us have been concerned that the president and his administration have not yet faced this level of crisis before that requires a process to get all the thoughts together in one room, and determined the right course of action.

You've got to have experts, and you can't just rely on advice from friends and politicians, and talk show hosts. You've really got to get the experts in the room to tell you what's going on and what the potentially repercussions are.

I haven't heard a whole lot of talk about advice from the chairman of the joint chiefs, who has the war plans and contingency operations and what might be done. All I've heard about so far on air is about the competing demands of the war hawks versus the peaceniks within the administration, pushing the president one way or another. That's not the way to do a process to develop a strategy for Iran.

TAPPER: And, Robin, we showed a map earlier on the show, showing the different places where the pentagon and the Iranians -- there's the map right there -- say the drone went down. Now, the Iranian -- foreign minister of Iran sent out a tweet saying the U.S. drone took off in UAE in stealth mode and violated Iranian airspace. It was targeted at 04:05 at the coordinates near Kouh-e Mobarak. We have retrieved sections of the U.S. military drone in our territorial waters where it was shut down. He also sent out the actual coordinates, which is how we got that.

I guess the question is, in the United States, it's an inclination to believe our Pentagon over anyone else.

[16:20:05] But in the world, when they look at the Iranians saying one thing and the Trump administration saying the other, who do they believe?

ROBIN WRIGHT, USIP-WILSON CENTER DISTINGUISHED FELLOW: Well, this is one of the problems after the tanker strikes and the sense America has its own problem with its own credibility dating back to the Iraq war. The intelligence community has not always interpreted the right data. There have been incidents when ships in the Gulf, sailors have strayed into Iranian waters and there was a dispute over where they were actually. It turned out they were in Iranian waters.

I think the international community and the United Nations will be asking for the evidence to make sure this is what happened because that was very specific intelligence.

TAPPER: Indeed.

Listen to Trump earlier, to President Trump earlier today, General.


TRUMP: Let's just see what happens. Let's just see what happens. It's all going to work out.


TAPPER: Mark, the president says the national security crisis is going to work out. Do you agree?

HERTLING: I don't, not without some hard work behind it. This is not a reality show or a teaser moment, Jake. This is something that requires some good hard work, some diplomatic action, some information.

Your comment to Robin just a second ago about how we are perceived right now in the world stage, we are not being as transparent as we should be. We are not using the power of information. We are not using our allies to help us on this.

We are reacting in a knee-jerk reaction format. And that's unfortunate. We are not trusted as much as we were recently in other administrations.

You can say the Pentagon can you believe or not, the press briefing this afternoon was not a good one. It was not transparent or candid, and we did not give information that we should be taking to international bodies like the U.N. and our allies. We're not doing that, and it's going to hurt us.

There's a price to pay when you're not -- when you don't -- whether you're not considered to have integrity or truthfulness on the world stage.

TAPPER: And, Robin, I know you're concerned the hawks that are pushing President Trump to do something, to respond, to show Iran they can't push around, that they don't have an end game in mind.

WRIGHT: I think there's a real danger that some kind of retaliation, whether it's with a drone or tankers, might lead to something wider. And there's a real concern that the administration knows what it wants Iran not to do, but has it figured out a way to get to a place that deescalates, that gets everybody back to the table and that ends these core disputes, whether it's over the nuclear programs, intervention in the Middle East, missile strikes, human rights. There are a whole range of issues that are still out there with Iran.

And this endangers us going into what is a conflict that is open- ended, that we would technically win in terms of reducing Iran's military capabilities, but they still have a range of proxy militias across the region that could strike at American interests, American targets long after any war actually ended. So that this is something that could end up being one small incident, opens up into something that's much longer, much more complicated and begins to look more like long-term confrontations in Iraq or Afghanistan.

TAPPER: Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, said this would be a bigger mistake than the Iraq War.

Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, Robin Wright, thank you so much for being here. I appreciate it.

There's a Trump tweet for it, not too long ago about going to war with Iran, when it was Obama's time in the White House.

Stay with us.



[16:28:07] GRAHAM: Here's what Iran needs to get ready for. Severe pain inside their country.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): If there's a really wanting not to go to war, then Iran would have acted differently than it acted. The response really needs to be ratified by the Congress.


TAPPER: We're back with breaking news in the world lead. Mixed opinions on Capitol Hill about how to respond after Iran shut down the U.S. drone. Congressional leaders are currently behind closed doors at the White House getting briefed on the situation.

Let's chew over all of this.

You heard there, Kaitlan, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham strongly calling for the president to respond.

Here's a freshman Democrat with a different view, no less strong.


REPORTER: Any concerns with the handling of Iran right now?

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): Yes, I think they're trying to goad us into a military conflict that's completely irresponsible.


TAPPER: It's not clear if she's talking about Iran trying to goad to us or Trump trying to goad to us.

But in 2011, President Trump tweeted, quote: In order to get elected, Barack Obama will start a war with Iran.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And today in the Oval Office, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton were standing right there over the president's shoulder when he was asked by a reporter, are your -- some of your military advisers trying to goad you into conflict with Iran? And he said no. He thinks it's exactly the opposite.

So, I -- he's saying, maybe he's the one trying -- he's pushing harder for it? Even though we had reporting that shows the president has actually been very skeptical into getting conflict with Iran. But, of course, the president made a pretty stunning statement, a rogue general acting without the orders of the Iranian government that shot down this drone. So, the president seemed to be minimizing it in a way, giving them leeway, saying he doesn't believe it was this intentional incitement on their behalf.

TAPPER: And, David, as somebody who knows the president, can you explain that? Because it's obvious that the Iranians, at least according to their words, which is all we have to go on, say this was not an accident. This was intentional. It was not a mistake.

President Trump saying I have to believe it was a mistake. Is he trying to give them an out? Is he trying to give himself an out? What's going on?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think both things are true, Jake. I think the president is hesitant to engage in conflict and to send, you know, our men and women in harm's way.