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President Trump Cites He Pulled Back from Striking Iran Because of Potential Death Toll; Oil Refinery in Philadelphia Explodes Amid Middle East Tensions; Democrats Vow Legal Action After White House Blocks 150-Plus Questions to Hope Hicks. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired June 21, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:10] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A good Friday morning to you. It is a busy Friday and a concerning one. Poppy is off today.

Breaking news this hour, Iran says it could have been a lot worse. They claim they had a Navy aircraft with crew members onboard, 35 of them in their sights and did not take that shot.

Also into CNN this morning we have now confirmed that missile strikes against Iran were called off by the president. The "New York Times" first reported that that stand down order came, planes were in the air, ships were in position, but no missiles in the end have been fired. All this in response to Iran shooting down a massive U.S. drone. This is video of that drone falling to the sea.

Airlines are now rerouting flights away from this region after an FAA order to avoid it. And Iran's Defense minister says that U.S. actions are, quote, "aimed at creating another September 11th."

Quite alarming rhetoric. Lots of military pieces moving in the region and we now know that we came very close to military action by the U.S. against Iran.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins me now with more.

Barbara, how close did we come?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, look, Jim, I think it's important to remind everybody how military operations work especially in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. military knew and knew for days that the president wanted some options about how to proceed, especially after that drone was shot down. The military doesn't do anything from a cold still start, if you will. Planes are always out there, ships are always out there. They know what kind of targets they might have wanted to hit in response to the attack on the U.S. drone.

So you start moving everything into place. That's how it works. You don't just start once the president says yes. So they had everything moved into place. What we know is at some point last night the president decided not to proceed with his strike because it didn't happen. We don't know how far down the road all of this was precisely, but we do know that no ships fired missiles, no aircraft dropped bombs.

It is our understanding that it would have been a very limited strike, a very proportional strike to the drone attack. That might have meant a couple of sites, radar, surface-to-air missile sites especially along Iran's coastline that they have been using to fire. As for Iran's claim that it had a U.S. manned aircraft in its sight, it probably did. This is very tight airspace. It's very busy airspace, very busy waterways. The Iranians are always out there in that space and it does not take a lot for them to see U.S. assets, allied assets flying around or those ships below moving through the Strait of Hormuz -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: We now have a step where the FAA is restricting flights over the Gulf of Oman. It's a busy air traffic area for civilian flights. That of course sends a message, Barbara, and I imagine that this is the situation now that while military action was stopped last night, that does not mean that it could not be reordered tonight or this weekend or another time.

STARR: Well, that's right. You know, the safety of commercial aircraft that have no means of defending themselves would be paramount, and it wouldn't even be just for U.S. military action, but if the Iranians are out there firing surface-to-air missiles through this busy commercial airspace, which is apparently what they're doing, that's how the drone came down. You can't have commercial aircraft flying through airspace where there are surface-to-air missiles going off. It's exactly why commercial air traffic has avoided Syrian airspace for years.

This commercial route is exceptionally busy not just for aircraft landing at airports in the Middle East, but this is an air traffic pattern for flights going onto Asia. These airlines do not want to take the risk -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, we saw what happened with MH-17 over Ukraine in 2014, a military missile fired by Russian - pro-Russian separatists took down 298 people over Europe. It's dangerous.

Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

We have CNN's Frederik Pleitgen. He's on the ground in Tehran as Iran claims that they could have but did not shoot down a plane, not an unmanned drone but a plane.


SCIUTTO: With three dozen -- some three dozen U.S. crew members here. That's quite a claim to make. Quite a threat, in effect, is it not, Fred?

PLEITGEN: Yes. It's quite a claim to make, quite a threat to make. And I think one of the reasons why the Iranian commander of the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guard Aerospace Force, has made that claim was actually to dispel some of the things that President Trump said yesterday, where President Trump says he believes it might have been some sort of accident that the Iranian forces fired on that drone. He wants to get after saying that they could have fired on this PA

plane, a plane that I think that you were actually on once, Jim, in the South China Sea.

[09:05:09] You know, it's a pretty big slow moving plane but quite a sophisticated one. He said the reason why they didn't fire on that plane is because obviously there were all those people onboard. And he said, look, we are able to pick out which aircraft we are going to fire on. That's why this is a message to the United States that they fired on the drone and didn't fire on the plane that had people in it.

Meanwhile the Iranians have shown the debris that they say claim from that drone that they shot down. And it's quite interesting to see because the pieces are actually quite small. The Iranians say the reason for that is they shot it down at a very high altitude. They said it was flying about 50,000 feet when they shot it down so obviously the pieces fell very hard when they came down, and these are the ones they say that were floating on the surface in their territorial waters -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Who else flies at similar altitudes many tens of thousands of feet up? U.S. commercial aircraft. That's why there's a big concern here now.

Frederik Pleitgen, great to have you on the ground there in the midst of this.

Let's take a closer look now at why tensions have gotten so high in the region and exactly what's at stake. Let's begin with the Iran shoot down as we were discussing of this U.S. military drone. By the way, the largest military drone in the U.S. arsenal. One of the most sophisticated price tag of more than $110 million.

What's key here is the location when it was shot down. The U.S. claims it was flying through international airspace. This right here Iran claims that it was inside Iranian airspace. Separated those two claimed positions by just nine miles. Small on the map as you can see, but enormously important in military and legal terms because shooting an aircraft down in international airspace could, by some definition, constitute an act of war. That is key.

Here's another point, economically. There are few places in the world as important to the world's supply of oil than this spot right here. That is the Strait of Hormuz, leads from the Persian Gulf, one third of the world's sea born crude oil supply passes through this strait. That is why it was concerning when ships were attacked. Oil tankers by those mines you may remember, the last couple of weeks, right here. It was a message from Iran in effect, claims U.S. intelligence, that in the event of war it could significantly block or even shutdown this key entry point for oil into the world market.

Third point, the U.S. and Iran have forces deployed in very close proximity throughout the region. These are U.S. airbases in the region. You can see on the western side of the Persian Gulf here. There are more than a dozen of them. Now that means the U.S. is prepared at a moment's notice to respond to an Iranian threat. But it also means that Iran has multiple U.S. targets to attack in retaliation.

There are hundreds -- there are thousands of U.S. forces in each of those bases there. That is an enormous risk. The U.S. knows that, Iran knows that. So the region is economically vital, it is packed with military forces from both sides, and both targets from both sides but capabilities. A collision course here, a military action, diplomatic rhetoric, that's how we got to where we are.

Joining me now to discuss this, the dangers inherent to this, retired Colonel Peter Mansoor. He was a former aide to General David Petraeus.

Colonel, very good to have you on with us today.


SCIUTTO: So first, let's talk about this walk-back of U.S. military action by this president in the final hours, perhaps the final minutes here. Tell us how unusual that is to have the planes in the air, the ships in position on the surface and to call back that attack. How unusual?

MANSOOR: Well, it's unusual but not unprecedented. You might recall that we had the 82nd Airborne heading for Haiti at one time in the 1990s and they were called back mid-flight. So the president has that authority to order a strike and then cancel it before it's implemented and in this case for whatever reason he decided to do that.

SCIUTTO: The president is now tweeting about this, what led him to back off from this attack. He is saying that it was -- and I'm going to read this tweet in a moment here. He's saying that in effect it was the number of casualties possible, and CNN had its own reporting on this as well, that that risk is why the president pulled back here. A reasonable reason for a U.S. president to pull back from military action which was intended as retaliation for the Iranian shoot-down?

MANSOOR: Well, if you don't want the situation to spiral out of control, one of the things that you want to make sure is that you don't kill Iranian personnel. And the Iranians shot down of an unmanned drone if we retaliate and end up killing Iranians on the ground, then the escalation cycle begins. We have U.S. troops in Iraq that could be targeted. We have U.S. troops elsewhere in the region that could be targeted. And then this thing could easily spiral into a full-scale war.

[09:10:04] So the president was right to consider that. And my question is, why didn't he consider that before the planes were in the air. But for whatever reason he came to that conclusion.

SCIUTTO: I want to ask you this bigger picture here, because the president appears to be using the threat of military action to get to Iran to the table, to negotiate, to renegotiate, a nuclear deal that the president himself pulled the U.S. out of. With the president backing off last night, last minute could Iran calculate that the U.S. threat of military action is not all it seems to be, that it's bluster?

MANSOOR: Well, this is the other problem. Now you've pulled back from military action, the Iranians could think that they can operate with impunity. They've struck two toil tankers, they've downed a global hawk. They can continue to ratchet up the tensions, and right now they feel pretty comfortable doing that without the threat of U.S. retaliation. At some point the administration is going to have to retaliate in a measured way to show the Iranians that military action is not off the table. Otherwise we'll get nowhere in negotiations with them.

SCIUTTO: Colonel Peter Mansoor, thanks very much. We'll certainly keep you on the line here as we watch these events unfold.

Joe Johns is at the White House now.

So the president in effect revealing what led him back from the brink here that he was briefed, that 150 Iranian personnel could die, that that was the estimate of the U.S. military, and that that's the reason he pulled this back.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Right, and of course the second guessing will begin immediately, and the first question will be, why didn't you know that before you set all of this into motion? So why didn't you know how many people were going to die before you actually authorized the use of force, but let's just read through the tweets.

The president writes, "On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in international waters. We were cocked and loaded to retaliate last night on three different sites. When I asked how many would die 150 people, sir, was the answer from a general." Ten minutes before the strike he writes, "I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our military is rebuilt, new, ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting and more added last night."

The president writes, "Iran can never have nuclear weapons, not against the USA and not against the world." So I think the one point he makes in there about the question of the proportionality is obviously something that would have come up in the international community because on the one hand Iran shoots down what essentially was a very expensive, very large United States drone, it was unmanned, though, and then the United States retaliation involving loss of life would have certainly raised questions about who was the aggressor, if you will, and who accelerated, if you will, the situation.

SCIUTTO: But, Joe -- but, Joe, an estimate of adversary's casualties is a standard and essential piece of any intel prior to a strike. Why would that estimate have come so late in the game? Does that raise questions about when the president was presented with that information?

JOHNS: You're asking precisely the right question because presumably the president would have had intelligence information from the DIA if not the CIA telling him the number of casualties that might be involved including the extent to which Iran might be able to retaliate effectively and what types of U.S. assets might be put at risk. So those calculations in all likelihood were done before the president decided to authorize this is the question, of course.

When you read this it reads very dramatically almost like a movie script. But the fact of the matter is that information in all likelihood ought to have been on the table before the president authorized this.

SCIUTTO: Joe Johns at the White House, thanks very much.

We have David Sanger, covers national security for the "New York Times.

And David, you and I have covered this region for some time. And the parallels to Obama's infamous, you might call it, red line on Syria, are remarkable here and one that, don't take my word for it, you're already hearing those comparisons being made by Republican lawmakers. We saw Liz Cheney on the Hugh Hewitt broadcast earlier today making that very same comparisons, raising questions about what that does to the credibility of a president's threat of military action here. How concerning is that for this president?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, the parallels are great as you say, Jim. And the biggest concern for the president, I'm sure, is that he was the one who so frequently derided what was called the red line decision.

[09:15:00] Now, in this case, of course, as you just heard from Joe, there were no American casualties from taking down this surveillance drone.

And the president was bound to cause some casualties whether it was 150 or more or less, we don't know, from hitting ground stations out there. And I think that there would have been a sense if he drew first blood. In the Obama case, of course, you had already seen significant loss of life from Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people.

And so in some cases, you could argue that the Obama decision would have been more justified than the one the president pulled back from. Interesting, though, that they were only getting to this discussion of what's a proportionate response -- what the president put in his tweet that late in the game. You would have thought that was where they would have started the conversation.

SCIUTTO: It's a basic element of a -- of the Intel prior to the use of U.S. military force. So the question was that figure more general before that it got to the point of a 150-figure, or did that information come earlier? It gets to the whole national security decision-making process.

David Sanger, stay with us, we have more questions to plunge into here. You stay with us as well, we're going to stay on top of all the breaking news. [09:20:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back. The brink of war -- well, the brink of military action. This country came very close last night to a military strike on Iran. The president pulling back. We learned just moments ago in these tweets when he was presented with an estimate of the number of potential Iranian casualties from this.

That figure 150, 150 people was the answer from a general. "Ten minutes before the strike, I stopped it." That's some remarkable information in there. One, that it was the estimate of Iranian casualties that pulled this back, but then it happened ten minutes before military action took place in this very tense region.

Let's discuss now with David Sanger; national security correspondent for "The New York Times", and Robin Wright; contributing writer for "The New Yorker", she's been to Iran a number of times, speaks to Iranian officials. You know this region very well. Ten minutes to military action. That's remarkable.

ROBIN WRIGHT, CONTRIBUTING WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: It's remarkable and it's also remarkable that he pulled back. But I think it also indicates what the president's message really is, and that is he wants to punish Iran for shooting down an unmanned vehicle, but he doesn't want to do something that might start an escalatory cycle from which there's no pulling back --

SCIUTTO: Right --

WRIGHT: Or harder to pull back. And so, I think this is, you know, it's tit for tat basically, not trying to get into something that's more open-ended.

SCIUTTO: Right, and which he'd been receiving warnings about from the Department of Defense on the possibility of that escalation. David Sanger, ten minutes before the strike, an estimate of casualties on the ground for the other side is an essential part of the intelligence prior to any military strike.

Is it credible that the president only got that information so late in the game? Is it possible that he got more specific information, the prior -- you know, the warning was there will be casualties and then they come up with this figure? It just strikes me as strange you would get that figure ten minutes before the missiles launch.

SANGER: Yes, I've been trying to think my way through that as well, Jim. The main thing that you could conclude from that is while they knew there were personnel around these anti-ballistic missile sites and the anti-aircraft sites and so forth, that those estimates probably got refined as they had satellite imagery of how many people, how many cars and so forth were in the target area.

So, I wouldn't be surprised if the president got a more specific estimate, but that's sort of a tactical decision. And what I found most striking about the tweet he sent out was his argument that he had time, and that he was putting more sanctions in place. Because what that tells you is that they essentially believe that the sanctions that they now have, which are -- have begun to cut Iran's oil revenues down to zero or closer to zero will over time choke off the Iranian economy and force the Iranians to act.

And it's very possible that the Iranians are coming to the same conclusion and believe that they need to do all of this other action short of taking human life in order to force events before they get crippled by those sanctions. So we're sort of on two different time scales.

SCIUTTO: Understood. Robin Wright, the parallels to Obama's red line coming very close to not ten minutes away from a military strike on Syria for the use of chemical weapons, and this one are interesting to say the least. Of course, President Trump criticized Obama incessantly for that. I want to play sound from Liz Cheney, of course, a Republican lawmaker, her making that comparison and how that might concern the president. Have a listen.


REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): We saw the damage that was done by Barack Obama when he announced a red line and then failed to enforce it. We had the growth, the rise of ISIS. We had ISIS spread across the Middle East, very dangerous.

And the failure to respond to this kind of direct provocation that we've seen now from the Iranians in particular over the last several weeks could in fact be a serious mistake.


SCIUTTO: That's -- how does the president respond to that kind of criticism --

WRIGHT: Well, this --

SCIUTTO: From his own party?

WRIGHT: This is not over. I mean, there's a lot of time ahead and if the United States wants to act. And remember, some of these sites are mobile, so it's very difficult at any one moment to know how many people are going to be at any one site --

SCIUTTO: Right --

[09:25:00] WRIGHT: Any one time. But President Reagan also did the same thing in 1983 after the -- an Iranian proxy group attacked the American peacekeepers, the Marine Peacekeepers in Beirut, largest loss of U.S. military life in a single incident since Hiroshima in World War II.

American planes were in the air alongside French planes, the French continued to bomb sites in the Beqaa Valley run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Americans pulled back.

So, this is not unprecedented, and I think it's -- president always has to make that tough call. How -- you know, how far do you want to go, what is going to be the cost in human life and what are the repercussions? What do you do next?

SCIUTTO: Right --

WRIGHT: And maybe that's the problem.

SCIUTTO: What's the -- what's the strategy here. And David Sanger, you know as well as me that this is a president who looks very much through a political lens particularly as 2020 approaches. He wants to find wins with political benefits here. This is not a situation that is easily resolved with a clear winner.

SANGER: No, it certainly isn't. And you know, if the pattern that we've seen from this president holds, he wants to force a crisis and then force a negotiation. That's of course what he did with North Korea, though we'd all I think agree that's pretty stalemated now.

It's what he did with NAFTA, it's what he's doing with China. And the problem that he's got right now is that the supreme leader has made it pretty clear that Iran isn't going back into a negotiation unless the United States rejoins the 2015 Iran deal and makes that the basis.

And so, they're both sort of fixed in these positions. It would be a big loss of faith for the supreme leader now to enter into a negotiation without the president either giving on some sanctions or giving on rejoining the Iran agreement.


SANGER: And what we've heard from every administration official is to them that Obama-Iran nuclear agreement is a dead document.

SCIUTTO: Who backs down? That's the question. Who gives ground here? David Sanger, Robin Wright, military action hanging in the balance, good to have you on. Well, tensions with Iran hitting oil prices as you would expect this morning and so is this. A massive explosion and fire at a refinery in Philadelphia, the largest on the East Coast.

Cellphone video captured the moment, several explosions ripping through the Philadelphia energy solutions plant early this morning. We should make clear that this is not tied to Iran, this appears to be an accident here. But you do have this combination of events, tensions in the region around the Persian Gulf.

A domestic event here shows you how markets react to this kind of information. Let's go straight to Christine Romans. Christine, tell us how the markets, specifically let's look at the Iran tensions, are reacting to this.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN SENIOR BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is the biggest factor here right now. And you see futures up -- oil prices up again here today. Both Brent, that is, sort of the North Sea basin of grade of crude oil, and West Texas Intermediate, that's what we have here in the United States, produced here in the United States. Both of them are up, and yesterday, you know, 5 percent jump in crude oil prices, the biggest one day jump for West Texas crude all year. That shows you just how concerning what is happening in the Middle East is to the price of oil. And then this morning, you have these explosions, you can look at those pictures and just see that just before 4:00 a.m., these explosions rocked this refining facility where they -- where they refine some 335,000 barrels of crude a day, and they refine it into butane and gas and heating oil and propane.

And we're told a vat of butane exploded, it could be felt in southern New Jersey and in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, residents were waking up from their -- from their sleep by this huge explosion that is still -- fire still burning here, about a 1,000 people work there. We're told that at this point, no one is missing or unaccounted for, but they're still scouring this facility.

This is the largest refinery as you said on the East Coast. So, you've got this domestic event here in the refinery capacity and then you've got this conflagration, which is a potential problem in the Middle East. That Strait of Hormuz as you know, Jim, 30 percent of all sea-borne oil passes through that very narrow, little bottleneck there between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, right?

So that is such an important bottleneck right there, and it's about 20 percent of all the crude oil in the world at some point is going to pass through there. So even though the United States has done so much to try to up domestic production, to try to insulate itself from volatility in the Middle East, it still has a problem for oil prices, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, that check point, that's why those attacks on those tankers mattered right around --

ROMANS: That's right --

SCIUTTO: Choke point. Christine Romans, good to have you on the story.

ROMANS: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Coming up, Democrats looking for answers from former Trump adviser Hope Hicks, a very close adviser -- answers they really didn't get to so many questions. But did this hearing help or hurt Democrats or her? We'll have more.