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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Iran Strike by Trump May Trigger Regional Retaliation; Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) is Interviewed About President Trump Calling Off Iran Strike. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 21, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: He had two different counsels who were -- quote -- "whispering in my ear" while he was seeking to question her, and erroneously referred to her as Ms. Lewandowski.

That is it for me. Thank you so much for being here. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE Tapper" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump says they were -- quote -- "cocked and loaded," but didn't pull the trigger.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Ten minutes away from war. Today, the president explains his decision to call off the strike on Iran and the about-face, seemingly only highlighting the chaos in his administration.

From the fish fry to the fire. 2020 Democrats flood a key early state filled with key African-American voters, as the front-runner in the race tries to shake off a racial controversial.

Plus, going to the mattresses. Republicans in one state fleeing the capital and tell state police to come heavily armed if they want to get them. What legislation has them literally running from the law?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin this Friday with breaking news in our world lead, and a stunning about-face by the commander in chief, President Trump ordering a retaliatory strike against Iran for shooting down an unmanned surveillance drone yesterday.

The Pentagon had targeted three different sites, but then, just minutes before the strikes were carried out, President Trump changed his mind. He says he did this because he was concerned about civilian casualties.

The president tweeted this morning -- quote -- "We were cocked and loaded to retaliate last night on three different sites. When I asked how many will die, "150 people, sir," was the answer from a general. Ten minutes before the strike, I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry" -- unquote.

President Trump has since given a new and slightly different timeline of events in an interview with Chuck Todd. That 10 minutes is now 30. And it remains unclear if the jets were in the air. President Trump says they were not. "The New York Times" as they were.

Moreover, the comments raise the question as to why President Trump did not know until that moment about the potential death toll.

We have this story covered from the Pentagon to the White House.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Let's start there.

Kaitlan, why was it not until that moment that the president seemed to learn about the potential casualties?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's something really unclear.

And, so far, lawmakers have been expressing confusion about that all day, because, typically, when you're making a decision this scale, such a grave decision, that's something that the president would be briefed on very early on by his national security officials.

But, instead, the president says that was a last-minute question that he had, and that was the factor that changed the president's mind. But of course, Jake, we have been doing reporting here behind the scenes all day, and this is a president who was hesitant about ever carrying out this strike in the first place.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't think it was proportionate.

COLLINS (voice-over): Today, President Trump explaining his last- minute decision to call off his planned strike on Iran.

TRUMP: Nothing is green-lighted until the very end, because things change.

COLLINS: Telling NBC News he stopped the retaliatory attack in the 11th hour after being told 150 people would likely die.

TRUMP: They came and they said: "Sir, we're ready to go. We'd like a decision."

I said: "I want to know something before you go. How many people will be killed?"

COLLINS: It's information that commander in chief would typically get when being presented with military options.

TRUMP: I didn't like it. I didn't think it was -- I didn't think it was proportionate. COLLINS: But the president denied it was so-last minute the planes

were already in the air.

TRUMP: No, but they would have been pretty soon. And things would have happened to a point where you wouldn't turn back or couldn't turn back.

COLLINS: It's a decision that pits the president against his top advisers. Sources tell CNN Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton both favored striking Iran, while outside advisers reminded him of his promise to get the U.S. out of wars, not in them.

In the end, Trump opted for restraint over retaliation, tweeting that sanctions are biting and more added last night. But what those sanctions will look like or when they will go into effect is still unclear. Some Republicans are against Trump's retreat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It will send a message that the red line may not be so red.

COLLINS: While unlikely Democrats are praising the move.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): I don't think that people should be jumping down the president's throat for wanting to think this through and make sure that neither side miscalculates and we don't inadvertently end up in a war with Iran.

COLLINS: Others said pulling back is a sign of the indecision in the West Wing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He should not be saying stuff like that publicly, because it gives the impression of a level of indecision that I don't think is helpful to us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, in his tweet today, the president said that new sanctions were added against Iran last night.

But that is not true. The Treasury Department hasn't announced any new sanctions against Iran. Today, in a speech, the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, did say that if Iran -- that additional countermeasures will be imposed against Iran if they continue with activity that's related to money laundering or terrorist organization financing.

[16:05:08]

But we asked the White House, why did the president make this about more sanctions being imposed if they have not? And so far, Jake, they have not gotten back to us.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon. And, Barbara, what are you hearing from your military sources about their reaction to President Trump's decision?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Jake, presidents often set a red line, do this, I'm going to take military action, and, at the end of the day, many presidents find it very difficult to jump over to the other side of that red line.

So, at the Pentagon, they were ready to go, and then the call came that the strike was not going to happen. Today's presidential statement that he found it not to be a proportional strike because the estimate was 150 Iranians might get killed is pretty interesting, because the military has to have strikes be signed off as being legally sufficient.

And one of the things that has to happen for there to be a U.S. military strike anywhere in the world, there has to be proportional use of force. That is a very clear legal standard.

So the president has his opinion that 150 Iranians was not proportional force. But, look, he is not going to have options in front of him from the Pentagon that are not legally sufficient. So it was sufficient. He decided against it.

Now, where we are is, the Pentagon continues to have ships and aircraft very much at the ready in the Middle East. They are always on a state of alert. And if the Iranians were to engage in another provocation, we could be right back here. The president still will have to decide what he wants to do, if anything -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Barbara, the president could still theoretically, even if the Iranians don't do anything new, launch a strike with fewer or even no civilian casualties, one expects.

Are any other plans being drawn up?

STARR: Well, look, you know, it's the cliche, but true, that the U.S. military always has plans.

But one of the things that the Pentagon has constantly cautioned the State Department and the National Security Council about is that it's very difficult to estimate an Iranian reaction if the U.S. was to strike. How do you have a limited military strike option and be somewhat sure that the Iranians are not going to take it and start engaging in a wider conflict?

That is always a very significant worry.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks so much.

Let's chew over this with our experts.

And, Jen Psaki, let me start with you.

When you were at the Obama White House, Obama famously, or infamously, depending on your point of view, said that the Bashar al-Assad in Syria using chemical weapons would be a red line. And then he did. And then President Trump -- I mean -- sorry -- President Obama ultimately did not take military action. He did not cross the red line, so to speak.

Are you surprised that President Trump also felt a similar reluctance to take out -- to take military action that could cost people lives?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, the scenarios are very different.

TAPPER: Of course, yes.

PSAKI: President Obama had sat through meetings and meetings, hours and hours of meetings in the Situation Room, as had his national security team, leading up to that decision. And there were discussions that I don't think took place in this case about, what next? What happens after you strike?

So I think even those of us who are not supporters of President Trump, like myself, should certainly be relieved that he didn't take military action. And I think we don't need to hold him to saying he would and then not doing it, when not doing it is the right thing, or I think it's the right thing and many national security experts think it's the right thing.

In this case, my concern is that if you look at the national security team that's supporting him, that he's consulting with, it's like they're playing a game of Battleship, like that little kids game where you play with plastic ships, like they are proving their machismo and their masculinity by more aggressive language and more aggressive threats.

That's not the way that we should be governing. And that's not the way that anybody should be advising the president. So I'm happy to see that he pulled the team back. But I'm still concerned about where it goes from here.

TAPPER: Mike Shields, I have to say, I find it hard to believe that the first time the casualty number, potential casualty number, was presented to President Trump was at the end, when he asked about it.

Now, he might not have heard it, he might not have internalized it, as one White House officials suggested to Pamela Brown, that it took him a while to internalize it. But that's like one of the first things that would be presented, I would think.

MIKE SHIELDS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it may have been, but he may have gone back to it again. It may be something as he's deliberating over this, and they're waiting for the final command for this, that he's saying, wait a minute, read this back to me again, what are the human casualties going to be? I know you said this is proportionate. In my opinion, as president, it's not proportionate.

And so he -- and he's the commander in chief and he has the ability to do that. And I appreciate Jen's comments saying this was the right thing to do. And I'm waiting for all the Trump critics that think that he's chaotic and sometimes question his mental capacities and all the things that they say about the president.

Here he was, as the commander in chief with a lot of things on the line and a lot of very serious decisions to make, and he made a decision that people are saying is the right decision.

[16:10:04]

I think it's the most important thing for us to focus on. He is not trying to get into this conflict. He is trying to set some parameters and put the Iranian regime under sanctions and have a different foreign policy with them without going to war with them.

And he just demonstrated that with this -- with this decision here. And so if something does happen further down the road, we're going to know he was reluctant to do it.

TAPPER: And, Mona, a senior Republican source told CNN's Jamie Gangel -- quote -- "Our adversaries are far more likely to attack our interests if they think they won't have to pay a price for that."

And that is obviously one of the things that President Trump is being told by people on his national security team, Lindsey Graham, more hawkish people, like, you have to do something, or else the Iranians will think they can get away with it.

And yet he did do something that a Republican critic of the president's I know said, this is the most human thing I have ever seen President Trump do, and meaning it as a compliment.

MONA CHAREN, ETHICS AND PUBLIC POLICY CENTER: Yes, sure.

For people who worried -- and there were many -- that President Trump would be erratic or highly emotional in a situation like this and fire off missiles just to prove his masculinity, as the hint was, that didn't happen. And so that is reassuring.

On the other hand, there are other parts of this that are incredibly disturbing, the fact that there was no process. We don't have an acting secretary of defense. We don't even have an acting deputy secretary of defense. There is no acting secretary of the Air Force.

The Pentagon should have been front and center in this.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I think Shanahan is still actually technically acting secretary.

(CROSSTALK)

CHAREN: Technically acting, but he's on his way out.

And the locus was all about Trump. This is, what's Trump doing? What's he saying? How is he reacting? Instead of it being -- it should have come from the Pentagon, frankly. The Pentagon should have been front and center handling this, issuing statements about what the United States was going to do.

And so, instead, you have this sense that's very unsettling for a lot of people, for our allies too, that the president is erratically sort of switching sides and making -- changing his mind suddenly.

TAPPER: So we're told, Jamal, that Bolton, Pence, Pompeo, all of them were in favor of launching the strikes. And, ultimately, the president went against it.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes.

I think that we get in trouble when we start trying to think of Donald Trump making decisions the way most politicians would make decisions. And what it appears -- what I wonder about -- I don't know this, but what I wonder about is, if you look at the way he behaved with North Korea, if you look at the way he behaved with Mexico around tariffs, what Donald Trump likes to do is start a forest fire, threat everyone's houses, and be the only guy around with the hoses to put out the fire.

So you have to come to him if you want to save yourself. I kind of wonder if what he's been doing recently is getting Iran to the point where they would do something that would be provocative, so that he could be the one to save that.

We know that -- or we have been told that he went to the Omanis to ask them to go cut a deal or get a conversation started with the Iranians. And the Iranians said, no, thank you. Is it possible that the Iranians just called Trump's bluff and said, if you want to start a fight, let's start a fight, and Donald Trump pulled back?

TAPPER: Interesting.

Everyone, stick around.

Why a U.S. military strike against Iran could lead to military conflicts with multiple players in the Middle East.

Then, children sleeping on concrete floors, wearing dirty clothes, being forced to take care of toddlers, these are just some of the horrifying conditions some children are dealing with along the border.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:30] TAPPER: We're back with the breaking news, in the world lead.

President Trump may be, quote, cocked and loaded but if he fires on Iran, the situation could escalate and spread fast.

Let's go to CNN's Tom Foreman.

And, Tom, the U.S. has it allies but so does Iran. And Iran also has those proxies. Any strike, of course, could trigger widespread retaliation.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's really the problem here.

If U.S. forces struck Iran, they would be taking on a robust enemy, somewhere around a million troops guarding a country nearly twice the size of Texas. But the conflict could well expand beyond Iran's borders, to several places where Iran has influence, agents and allies, igniting much of the region. Let's look at some of that. In Iraq, Shia militias backed by Iran could go after thousand of U.S. troops and American contractors still there. In Syria, Shia militias and Hezbollah also supported by Iran and considered a terrorist group by the U.S. could turn on American outposts there. There are only few hundred troops left but those numbers could make them particularly vulnerable.

Beyond that, in Lebanon, same story, Hezbollah could very likely unleash rocket barrages against Israel, which is, of course, an important U.S. ally. Hamas could the same thing from Gaza.

The conflict in Yemen could be another flash point with Houthi rebels staging attacks on U.S. and Saudi forces in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And in Afghanistan, yes, there are two, Iran has fighters who could turn on U.S. troops with renewed fury if the Iranian homeland were attacked.

Beyond that, Iranian forces could try to shut down the Strait of Hormuz right here through which one-fifth of the world's petroleum supplies pass. This has been called by U.S. government the single- most important oil choke point in the world, and do not forget that Iran's missiles would easily have the range to hit U.S. military bases throughout this region.

None of this has to happen if the U.S. strikes Iran. But, Jake, military and political analysts know all of it could.

TAPPER: All right. Tom Foreman, thanks so much.

I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel. He's the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Chairman Engel, thanks so much for being here. Appreciate it.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): My pleasure.

TAPPER: You were briefed on the situation with Iran yesterday. Did you -- were you told about any plans for if a strike. Have you heard more from the White House today?

ENGEL: Well, yesterday, I left the meeting with the president and other members of the House and Senate with the definite feeling that we were going to somehow strike Iran.

[16:20:03] I was very surprised when I heard the news to the contrary earlier this morning. The president didn't go into details but certainly gave strong feelings that we were going to retaliate somehow. TAPPER: As you know, it seems rather unlikely that any military plan

would be presented to the president without a casualty assessment, you know, as one of the first two or three bullet points. I'm being told by Pentagon sources that yes, they did.

Do you understand the idea about President Trump being told not towards the end or not understanding or asking about towards the end what the casualty assessment was?

ENGEL: Well, I don't know what the story was there but it is logical. Just take logic. This would be one of the first questions, if not the first question that the president of the United States would ask his people. So, find it difficult to believe that he waited until the very end to do it.

Now, perhaps he had some mixed feelings about it and that was plausible after the meeting we had. But I was shocked this morning when I heard he had done an about face.

TAPPER: Do you think he made a mistake by doing the about face? Do you think he should have carried out the strike? What's your feelings about the ultimate final decision?

ENGEL: No, I think, look, I hope that perhaps this will lead to calmer heads prevailing. We don't want confrontation with Iran. I don't like the Iranian regime. I don't like what they did. I don't like what they continued to do, the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world.

But I don't think that a war with Iran given all we know about what happened in Iraq and other places is something that we should strive for. In fact, quite the opposite. We should make sure that we work with our allies. By the way, we have our allies -- France, the U.K., Germany, we need to work with them because that will strengthen our hand.

TAPPER: Do you have any concerns that the president making this about-face, pulling back from the strike will embolden Iran at all?

ENGEL: It's hard to say, Jake, because I don't really know what went on behind the scenes once the president made a decision to not do it. I don't know. I would hope we could use this an opportunity to try to calm the situation. And, by the way, as you know, presidents have been using the 2001 AUMF.

TAPPER: The Authorization for Use of Military Force against Afghanistan, yes.

ENGEL: Yes, they've used it as a catch all for everything. We in the Foreign Affairs Committee reject that in terms of using it for the situation now.

TAPPER: Do you think the president needs to come to Congress to get the authority to strike Iran if he wants to?

ENGEL: Absolutely. I think the president needs to come to Congress if we're going to war with Iran. I mean, individual strike, we don't want to tie the president's hands, but in terms of going to war, we're a co-equal branch of government. It's very important that Congress have a say in it.

We've not had a declared war where Congress has declared war since World War II. We dragged into war in Iraq. We dragged into other wars and each president thinks that he could things with impunity. I don't want to see that.

The Foreign Affairs Committee members don't want the see that and we want to make sure that they're not using any kind of excuse to drag us into war with 2001 AUMF which is certainly irrelevant when it comes to this situation with Iran.

TAPPER: But you're right. Presidents Bush and Obama, before Trump, used it to do whatever they wanted to do.

ENGEL: Yes.

TAPPER: Chairman Engel of the House Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs Committee, thanks so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

ENGEL: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Joe Biden's controversial remarks about working with segregationist senators could all come to a head tonight. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:28] TAPPER: Our 2020 lead now. The hottest ticket in town for a Friday night, if you're a 2020 Democratic candidate, is Congressman Jim Clyburn's, quote, world famous fish fry in Columbia, South Carolina. It's also a critical place to court African-American voters who make up 60 percent of the Democratic electorate in the Palmetto State. Almost every candidate will be there including former Vice President Joe Biden.

And as CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports, tonight will be the first time we'll see the front-runner at an event that isn't a fund-raiser ever since his comments about working with segregationist senators in the 1970s erupted in controversy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Joe Biden and his Domestic rivals are descending on South Carolina this weekend, coming face the face after clashing from afar over one of the most divisive eras in the nation's history. Leading the way in the 2020 race, the former vice president is unfazed by his comments that touched off a firestorm this week as he held up his work with segregationist leaders as an example of a forgotten civility in politics.

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's not a racist bone in my body. I've been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. ZELENY: Black leaders and voters have rallied to his defense,

creating an air of tension has Biden the poised to cross paths with Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and other who've either criticized him or called for an apology.

James Clyburn, the highest ranking African-American in Congress, not only defended Biden but said he also worked with segregationists like longtime Senator Strom Thurmond.

REP. JIM CLYBURN (D-SC): I think it's a little bit ludicrous to blame someone for working with people you don't agree with.

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