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Sources Say White House Officials Are Holding A Meeting On How To Respond To Iran Shooting Down U.S. Military Drone; Democratic Rivals Slam Biden Remarks On Segregationist Senators; Supreme Court Rules War Memorial Cross In Maryland Can Remain Standing; Trump Says Iran Made A Very Big Mistake Shooting Down U.S. Drone. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired June 20, 2019 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: All right, top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

This morning, the White House is holding a meeting with officials to discuss how to respond after Iran shot down the largest drone in the U.S. fleet. President Trump not expected to attend that meeting, though that's not unusual for meetings at this level.

Meanwhile, Iran's military says that it is sending, quote, a clear message that it does not want to fight but is, quote, completely ready for war.

The U.S. says the drone was hit by a missile in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. That's right there at the end of the Persian Gulf. It's the same stretch of water where two tankers were attacked last week.

Iran is disputing that claim saying the aircraft was actually over Iranian territory.

HARLOW: Take a look at this. This is what the drone looks like. It is huge. It's known as the RQ-4 Global Hawk. It stretches nearly 50 feet with a wingspan of 130 feet. That's the equivalent to the wing span of a Boeing 757. It weighs eight tons.

This is not one of those little drones that you're used to see. No. This is like a plane, essentially unmanned.

We'll get to what is going on at the White House in a moment but let's begin this hour at the Pentagon, Barbara Starr is there for us.

Good morning, Barbara. What is Centcom saying? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are saying that this was an unprovoked attack in international airspace. It's worth thinking about why was that drone even there in the first place. That drone is packed with intelligence-gathering sensors.

So, clearly, over these international waters, keeping an eye on Iran, gathering intelligence about what Iran is up to. This is a drone that can fly for about 30 hours and can cover thousands of square miles of surveillance of airspace and land below. So this is a very key asset.

There's going to be a lot of questions about the capabilities of Iranian surface-to-air missiles that they were able to target this drone very clearly. There's been a lot of concern that Iranian missile capability is getting better, more precise, more able to target. This may be an example of those improvements. We will have to see.

But as for a response, I think it's fair to say, the Pentagon still, you know, very cautious about all of this. There's no rush to war around here, which pretty much is echoing, I think what the President is saying. The U.S. is very concerned about it. The military is sending troops to the region for further deterrence against Iran. But you are not seeing here, by any stretch, that sort of ramp-up, like there is going to be some quick military response, military action. We'll have to see.

A lot of concern that this could all result in some kind of miscalculation that would compel the U.S. to respond. Jim, Poppy?

SCIUTTO: Kaitlan, is it your understanding there is a split within the administration over how forcefully to respond not just to this but also the tanker attacks? The President has said, and, again, he said publicly last night, that he does not want war. But you do have a republican senator like Tom Cotton, you've had some very tough comments from John Bolton and Secretary Pompeo. Is there a split here and who is holding sway?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there does seem to be a split. And the question, Jim, is going to be if this changes that split. Because you've seen people like the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, come out and be forceful and holding Iran accountable, saying that they are responsible for those tanker attacks, et cetera, but then you're seeing the President downplay tell, saying they were very minor and saying he doesn't want to go to war with Iran. So that's the question going forward.

But what we do know and what we're waiting on is a White House response to this. And we know that right now, they are going holding a meeting or they are going to hold a meeting this morning on developing what their response is going to be to Iran shooting down this drone. Because, so far, neither the White House nor the National Security Council has commented publicly on this and the President hasn't said anything on his Twitter feed either.

Now, in that meeting, we're told that the President is not expected to attend right now. But Barbara is being told by an official that the outgoing acting Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, is expected to attend as well as the incoming acting Defense Secretary, Mark Esper.

So officials right now are being really tight-lipped about what is going on in that meeting, who exactly is attending. But we do know that they are working on some kind of response to this and that's essentially what we're waiting to hear from them.

SCIUTTO: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, Kaitlan Collins at the White House, great to have you on the story this morning.

For reaction to help place us into context, retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, who served in both the State Department and the Pentagon under President Obama.

You've got a lot of experience. I'm sure you, Admiral Kirby, have been in meetings like the one that's taking place at the White House right now. We look for precedent for this for a country shooting down a U.S. drone of this size and capacity and capability here, couldn't find one.

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What is the reciprocal response for something like this? What kind of options are being discussed now in the White House?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I suspect that they're looking at a full range, Jim, and that could be simply a diplomatic response, a formal demarche, because this wasn't international airspace, not over Iranian airspace, which changes the international legal context of it. They could also be looking at maybe more sanctions from an economic perspective. And then from a military perspective, I doubt seriously that they're going to look at a tit for tat kinetic military response to this that could further escalate it.

But there could be other options you could play out in an overt way. You could put more forces in those -- over those international waters, put more ships in the Strait of Hormuz. You could demonstrate the American flag and then presence there in a more overt way. You could explore perhaps explore cyber capabilities to try to limit the surface-to-air capability and the sensors that go along with that on the Iranian side. So there're things you can do in a much more covert way. But I suspect they're looking at the full range here.

And what I'm really glad to see though, Jim, is that there is an interagency discussion going on this morning. We have not traditionally seen that out of this administration. It's usually whatever the President decides to Tweet and policy done by Twitter. I'm glad to see that they're having what we would consider in the Obama administration a more normal interagency discussion about this.

HARLOW: Did you during the -- your time in the Obama administration see what appears to be at least from outside the division within this administration on just how tough to be or at least talk about Iran? Because the President last night on Fox News, when he was asked about concerns about Iran, China, et cetera, his words, quote, don't worry about a thing. This as he told Time Magazine this week, when asked if he was considering military options against Iran, he said, I wouldn't say that.

And then the reaction from Bolton, from Pompeo, you know, just this Sunday on Fox, it's just very different, and as Jim pointed out, Senator Tom Cotton. Is that a normal division or is that something to be concerned about?

KIRBY: Okay. Well, that's a very careful question. So like in any normal administration, certainly in the Obama administration, there were differences of opinion and they were hashed out, particularly like over Syria. There were differences in opinion between the Pentagon and the State Department about how to proceed inside Syria to stem the flow of refugees and they restore some sort of diplomatic solution to that.

But they didn't air out so ugly the way that they're doing now over media and social media, in particular. And it's very clear, if you just look at the public comments, some of which you cited, some of which were cited over the weekend between Pompeo and Bolton who have been traditionally calling for regime change, whatever that means, and Trump who is saying, these attacks on the tankers are very minor, and I don't want war, and don't worry about it. So, clearly, the President is in a different place than some of his most key advisers.

What I'm glad to see, what I hope comes out of this meeting this morning is some sort of reconciliation of all those different views so that the President is teed up with options of a more unified nature and that he is able and has the decision space available to him to make a reasonable decision going forward.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you, Admiral Kirby. The difference between this being over Iranian airspace or over international airspace, of course, the Iranians claim it's over Iranian airspace, U.S. says it was international airspace, if it's in international airspace, where it should be able to have safe passage, right?

KIRBY: Right.

SCIUTTO: Is that an act of war to shoot down another country's aircraft over international airspace?

KIRBY: I'm not a legal scholar, Jim. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say it's an act of war. Clearly, And it's a violation of international law and that has to be considered in here. And from the Iranian perspective, it's an escalation of a nature that I frankly am a little surprised that they took. An expert told me that what Iran is up to is calibrated escalation, trying to boil up the pressure on Trump without necessarily crossing a threshold where he might think he has to go to war.

Now, whether this causes that, I really don't think it will. But it is clearly a violation of international norms, which actually, to some degree, could give the administration a chance to bring in the international community here.

And one response you might see, Jim, as a result of this, because it was national airspace over international waters, is a light response by the Trump administration from a military perspective, maybe, again, putting more ships in the Strait of Hormuz, maybe flying more reconnaissance flights, you know, showing a demonstration that we're not going to be cowed out of this airspace. And I think certainly gives them an option that maybe had this been over Iranian airspace, they wouldn't have.

HARLOW: Yes. We're so glad to have your expertise on this this morning. Thank you so much, Admiral John Kirby.

Happening right now on Capitol Hill, the House Judiciary Committee is holding another public hearing. This one, again, sort of like last week's with John Dean on the, quote, lessons from the Mueller report.

SCIUTTO: We're watching, in particular, to see if the chairman of that committee, Jerry Nadler, says anything about former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, this after her refusal to answer any questions about her time in the White House during her closed-door testimony yesterday. The claim from White House lawyers, a kind of blanket immunity, note clear what is.

Manu Raju is on the Capitol Hill. What are you hearing about the democrats' next move here, because we're hearing that from the President's perspective, the White House is calculating there's no downside to say no at everything?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. The democrats are preparing to go to court to fight out a number of these fights, but particularly this one over Hope Hicks. They believe her claim, the White House's claim of absolute immunity yesterday that says she could not answer any questions about her time in the White House will not pass muster in court. So expect that to happen, be initiated in the coming days. We'll get more details about what she actually said behind closed doors when the transcript of that testimony is released either today or potentially tomorrow. We'll see.

Also, we do expect the chairman of this committee, Jerry Nadler, to discuss a little bit about what he learned about -- from Hope Hicks during his opening remarks. We'll see how much he reveals here. So we're getting a little bit more information but still not satisfying what democrats have been demanding. And we're seeing an uptick in the number of democrats who were saying, it is time for an impeachment inquiry.

Earlier last night, Jan Schakowsky, a close ally of Nancy Pelosi, an Illinois democrat, came out in support of an impeachment inquiry. She said she has to talk to her about that. And she said that she spoke to the Speaker about that ahead of time. The Speaker tried to convince her, or at least did not try to dissuade her from going public.

But Schakowsky argued it's important to move forward because it would help their case in court. And, interestingly, she said the Speaker didn't necessarily agree with her about that topic, about that it would help their case in court. So you're seeing while some more members of the rank and file are pushing for an impeachment inquiry, the leadership is still saying no. Jim and Poppy?

SCIUTTO: Manu Raju on the Hill. It's going to be interesting to watch.

Still to come, Biden backlash. Democratic contenders piling on after Biden touts working civilly at times with a segregationist lawmaker in the past. Now, Biden says that he is not the one who should apologize, while other democrats come to his defense.

HARLOW: Plus, the FBI thwarts a bomb plot in Pittsburgh. More on the suspect's alleged ten-point plan to attack a church there. Of course, that comes after the horrible synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.

And a historic meeting in North Korea between President Xi of China and Kim Jong-un, but could this summit be used as leverage against President Trump? Ahead.

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HARLOW: All right. This morning, a major rift within the democratic field for president, and no one is saying sorry, this as former Vice President Joe Biden is refusing to apologize for some controversial remarks he made about working with segregationist senators in the past. Here's what he said at the closed-door fundraiser this week, quote, I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me boy. He always called me son.

Biden went on to say about working with another segregationist senator, quote, well, guess what, at least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn't agree on much of anything. We got things done.

Several opponents of Biden in the 2020 race are taking major issue with that. And the way that he seemed to talk about these senators in a rather warm way, Senator Cory Booker took issue with Biden's use of the word, boy. Booker demanded that Biden apologize. Biden is not apologizing. Instead he's firing back with this.

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REPORTER: Are you going to apologize?

JOE BIDEN, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: Apologize for what? Cory should apologize. He knows better. There's not a racist bone in my body.

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ): His posture to be, to me, I've done nothing wrong, you should apologize, I'm not a racist is so insulting.

I should never apologize for doing that. And Vice President Biden shouldn't need this lesson.

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HARLOW: Let's talk about this with Astead Herndon, National Political Reporter for The New York Times, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Congressional Correspondent also with the Times. Good morning to you both.

Astead, let me begin with you. What have we learned in the last 24 hours about the frontrunner in the democratic primary?

ASTEAD HERNDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I think what we learned is similar to things that we've already known about the Vice President. He has often praised what he called a bygone era of civility in the Senate. And that sometimes comes with these uncomfortable figures, figures who are open racists and segregationists. But Senator Biden had working relationships with them in the Senate. And we also know that as we look forward towards the campaign from now that he's going to be forced to try to change some of that language.

Our reporting yesterday was that some his advisers and even some of his supporters were a little shocked at the way he was characterizing his relationships with those senators. And they've said, if you want to talk about bipartisanship, why not mention other republicans, not the kind of the most controversial of them? And we know that the other democrats are going to try to seize on this to create differences to stand out.

HARLOW: What's interesting, Julie, is that this isn't new. I mean, back in '97, Biden said about Strom Thurmond, quote, he was consummate public servant. He's written about other segregationist, racist senators in the past. He wrote about it in his book in 2007, sort of praising how they changed. He eulogized one of them saying that he moved to the good side and was a brave man.

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This isn't new. But I'm interested in your take on if this is harmful to Biden or if someone like James Clyburn, right, coming to his defense in this, the senior-most African-American in the House protects Biden on this.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, I think -- listen, if you're Vice President Biden right now, you're very happy to have Jim Clyburn on your side on this issue. But I think this points a bigger problem for him and not just on this question of race. But I think this is something that he has run across on a variety of fronts so far in his run, which is that, basically, not having changed, saying the same thing he said for decades.

And you're right, this has been a very consistent thread, not just with him, but there have been comments like this from other democrats and republicans sort of harkening back to this time of comedy and civility in the Senate. Times have changed. This is not -- today's Senate, today's American politics are very different than they were even back in 1997, when you're talking about certainly 20 years before that, when he first arrived on Capitol Hill. And I think a lot of voters, a lot of African-Americans, a lot of democrats and republicans feel that that's not acceptable anymore.

When Joe Biden got to the Senate, here were a lot of segregationists on Capitol Hill. And there was a lot of comedy between the two sides. They were able to work together and they differed very sharply over questions of race and segregation.

But if you had a member of Congress now who said the same thing, that would be a big problem and very controversial.

HARLOW: No. I mean, it's an interesting point because a lot of these senators who we have talked about it this way in the past who were segregationists or didn't support the Voting Rights Act were democrats, right?

I'm sorry to cut you guys short. We do have breaking news out of the Supreme Court, so I've got to jump to that. But thank you very much.

Let's get to our Jessica Schneider on this case. What have we learned, Jess?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, as we head into the final days here of the Supreme Court's term, a decision that affects a peace cross in Maryland, the Supreme Court today deciding in a seven to two decision that a 40-foot peace cross that honors World War II -- I'm sorry, World War I veterans may, in fact, stand. There was a challenge to the constitutionality of this cross standing on state-owned land.

But the Supreme Court today is saying that this cross may stand. It does not violate the establishment clause of the constitution.

The Supreme Court is saying that this cross, because it has a historical purpose, that it does not violate the mandated separation between church and state.

Just to give you a little historical background here, this is a peace cross that was erected way back in 1925. These were mothers of about 49 fallen soldiers who decided to erect this peace cross. It's 40- feet high. And they wanted to do it to sort of replicate what they saw overseas, and American cemeteries overseas, and crosses that marked the graves of American servicemen over there.

This has been standing for quite some time, but in 2012, a group of residents in Maryland decided to challenge this, saying that it was an inappropriate use of government funds, that the government was effectively funding religion. But the Supreme Court here is saying that because this 40-foot peace cross does, in fact, have a secular purpose, because it is closely tied to historical remembrance here, that it can continue standing, that it does not, in fact, violate the constitution. I mean, this is reminiscent, Poppy, back in 2005, when the Supreme Court also ruled that, at the Texas Capitol, that the ten commandments monument could continue standing, because while it did have religious undertones, it was, for the most part, historical.

So that is the same conclusion that Supreme Court is drawing, not a close vote. It was a seven to two vote, upholding the fact that this peace cross can continue to standing. Only two descend (ph), Sotomayor and Ginsburg. Poppy?

HARLOW: Thank you very much, Jessica Schneider, with that important case decided by the high court.

We have news just in, the President has just responded to Iran shooting down that U.S. drone in international airspace. Let me read from you the President. He just wrote, quote, Iran made a very big mistake.

My colleague, Fred Pleitgen, is in Tehran with more and the reaction. So this is the first official response from the White House?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It certainly is the first official response from the White House, a very short response, and I think probably something that the Iranians were expecting.

One thing, Poppy, that we have to keep in mind is that the Iranians continue to say that they shot this drone down over their own airspace, that it violated Iranian airspace, that they were not shooting it down over international airspace.

So they keep saying that they believe that it was their territory that was infringed upon and that they were acting defensively. It's quite interesting. It's been quite interesting to hear from the Iranians throughout the course of the day.

And, really, I have to say, it's not usual for the Iranians to come out with these many statements this fast. But the head of the Revolutionary Guard, which was the unit that shot down that drone, he came out very soon afterwards and said that Iranian airspace is a red line to Iranians.

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And then he said, and I think that's key also in what we're hearing right now from the President as well, is that the Iranians don't want an escalation, they don't want this to turn into a war, but they are ready for a war.

And so looking at the President's comments right now, I think it's certainly something that the Iranians were expecting. And I think you also see a situation here, Poppy, where the Iranians are essentially saying that they are not going to back down. Poppy?

HARLOW: Okay. Fred Pleitgen, stay there for us. We're just getting this in. We're going to take a quick break. Come back to this on the other side.

Again, the President saying Iran's move was a, quote, very big mistake. The question now becomes what is the U.S. going to do about it, much more on the other side.

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