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Iran Strike; Hong Kong Protest; Xi Jinping in North Korea; Britain's Election; NYT: Trump Approves Iran Strike, Then Pulls Back; U.S. Demotes Saudi Arabia, Cuba in Trafficking List; Saudi Arabia: Report on Khashoggi's Murder is 'Flawed'. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired June 21, 2019 - 00:00   ET

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


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[00:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN Breaking News.

JOHN VAUSE: Hi. I'm John Vause. Thank you for being with us and we begin with breaking news in the U.S. showdown with Iran.

The "New York Times" reporting the United States president had approved military strikes on a number of Iranian targets that's called a measured response after American drones were shot down. But that strike was abruptly called off.

Here's part of the report from the "New York Times". The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off, a senior administration official said. Planes were in the air and ships were in position but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down, the official said.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. military was making its case against Iran, releasing coordinates which it says prove the American drone was over international waters when Iran shut it down. The Iran says the drone violated its airspace.

CNN's Barbara Starr begins our coverage reporting from the Pentagon.

BARBARA STARR, CNN: 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 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.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iran made a big mistake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH GUASTELLA, GENERAL, UNITED STATES AIR FORCE: This was an unprovoked attack on the U.S. surveillance asset that had not violated Iranian airspace at any time during its mission.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOSSEIN SALAMI, IRAN REVOLUTIONARY GUARD CORPS: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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 an attack.

Then Iran is believed to have attack commercial tankers last month and again last week, using mines to leave gaping holes leading to another 1,000 troops being sent for further deterrents of Iran.

VAUSE: Thanks to Barbara Starr for the report. Joining us now is retired Air Force colonel and CNN Military Analyst, Cedric Leighton. Colonel, thank you for being with us.

Is there any reason that you know of why the U.S. president after deciding on a military strike like this would make this decision to literally call back the planes and turn the ships around? What could be the circumstance surrounding that moment?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, MILITARY ANALYST, CNN: Well John, there could be several possibilities. It's, of course, a very strange situation to deal with and it doesn't really happen very often, except in exercises and in movies sometimes perhaps.

But the reason I think that the president may have done this is basically he wanted to do this as a show of force and that's on the positive side of things. He wanted to show the Iranians what he could do without actually doing it. So that's one possibility.

The other possibility is that he could have, in essence, gotten cold feet and decided that he didn't want to go that far because he became concerned after thinking about it, what Iran might do in response to this action. So the risk of every increasing escalation is extremely high in a situation like this and it's certainly a possibility that he may have decided that this was not worth doing at this particular point in time.

VAUSE: If you're a military leader sitting back into Iran and you're just learning about this now, did you see it as a show of force or an act of cold feet?

LEIGHTON: Well, if I were in the Iranian shoes, I would see it as a show of force because even if it's a set of cold feet, it could still be something that tells me that the Americans are coming in, they're doing these things, they have the capability of doing certain things.

Their targets may have been commander in control, radar sites, and things like that. And so I [13:35:00] would certainly be very cautious at this point if I were sitting into Iran.

VAUSE: Yes. As far as that goes, the military action, the "New York Times" also reporting that official said the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets like radar and missile batteries. It's essentially what you call a proportional response to the downing of the drone but it may be proportional but it's not without risk.

LEIGHTON: That's right. Yes, proportional depending on the number of missile batteries and radar sites that you actually strike.

If you strike one or two, that would be probably somewhat proportional to what happened to the global hawk -- drone. But if you strike 20, 30, 40 or more, then you are at risk going way beyond the walls of proportionality and that could also create its own series of problems.

VAUSE: What we have here is a little more from the "New York Times" report in regards to the drone. "Iran's ability to target and destroy the high-altitude American drone which was developed to evade the very surface to air missiles used to bring it down, and surprised many Defense Department officials, who interpret it as a show of how difficult Iran makes things for the United States as it deploys more troops and steps up surveillance in the region."

For those around the president who are arguing for a robust military response like the National Security Adviser John Bolton and others, at this point, are they underestimating just what the U.S. could be facing in terms of Iran's military capability?

LEIGHTON: I think there's a very big risk. I think it's certainly possible that they're underestimating what Iran can actually do.

Now, Iran definitely has its vulnerability, it has its weaknesses. But the Iranians are also very experienced fighters and they've been doing this for quite some time.

They fought Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. They plot all kinds of current military actions through their proxies as well as through the revolutionary guards. So they're very experienced fighters and they also have a lot of time to develop tactics and techniques that they would not have otherwise developed had they had more peaceful or amicable relations with the United States. So the Iranians are not only a difficult foe but a very dangerous foe and that is something that people in the White House and throughout the quarters of power here in Washington will really have to take a look at.

VAUSE: We're also hearing that this military response, which has been ordered and then called off by the president, it may not be called off for good. It could actually be just postponed or put on hold.

So where do you think things stand right now? Is this a pause or is this a reset?

LEIGHTON: Well, it's maybe -- it's an opportunity for a reset. I think I'll put it this way, it's an opportunity for a reset in both Iran and the United States choose it to be that.

It could in effect be a pause but the element of surprise is gone for the United States at least at the moment. And that presents its own problems as well.

So when you look at exactly what the state of play is here, it's definitely fluid. It could go in many different directions but it's definitely a very dangerous situation right now in the Persian Gulf and it's something that I think we're going to have to watch very carefully, probably towards not just a few days but for the next few weeks.

VAUSE: Cedric Leighton, CNN's Military Analyst, thank you. Appreciate you being with us.

LEIGHTON: You bet, John. Anytime.

VAUSE: Thank you. U.S. Federal Aviation Authority has put restrictions on U.S. Airlines flying over the Gulf Region, put on a notice saying all flight operations in the overwater area of the Tehran flight information region above the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman only are prohibited until further notice due to heightened military activities and increase political tensions in the region which present an inadvertent risk to U.S. Civil aviation operations and potential for miscalculation or misidentification."

David Soucie, a CNN safety analyst, a former FAA safety inspector, is with us to explain what this all actually means. David, start with the logistics.

How many flights are we talking about here will be impacted by this FAA order? And is it just about flights being rerouted away from the region or is that just a little too simplistic?

DAVID SOUCIE, SAFETY ANALYST, CNN: It's a little more complicated than that because there actually has to be adjoining flights and difference stops that need to be changed. But United Airlines from the United States has been doing this for a little bit.

They knew that there was something going on in the area and they chose to do it. But at this point, the FAA is restricting all flights so that could affect a lot of other carriers and where they're going.

So it could be pretty significant. I don't think passengers that are traveling through the area are going to be too inconvenienced by it. It may extend a flight for an hour or two or add an additional stop.

VAUSE: OK. Is this -- while it's caused which is made -- even though there is low risk but a need for an abundance of caution or does there have to be a significant threat before the FAA would actually go to this extent?

[13:40:00] SOUCIE: The significant threat does not need to exist to do this. All there has to be is increased military activity or proof that there's Nelson missiles in the area or military activity in the area that could reach the altitude of the aircraft.

If you remember in the Ukraine accident in MA17 back in 2014, it was a very similar situation when that airplane was brought down, military activity was increased but they didn't think that they have the capability.

Now, this is proven because of this drone that they do have the capability in the area to shoot them down. So that would have escalated the risk for the FAA.

VAUSE: With MA17, I think that the -- they were flying at the recommended altitude which as you say they thought was above the range of the associated missiles. While other airlines though actually flew at a higher altitude. They took their own measures. Would you expect something similar in this case?

SOUCIE: Yes. I think that what this -- what's odd about this is that the FAA is the one issuing the NOTAM. What should occur according to the International Civil Aviation Organization rules is Iran themselves are the one who should be making this notice and saying we are part of the United Nations, we really want to be part of this, and we are going to divulge when we have that capability in this area and when there's activity.

So it's surprising to me that Iran hasn't stepped forward and say we have this capability and don't fly over our area. So that is unique.

VAUSE: In the past, orders to avoid airspace, something to escalate military action. Even if this order refers to the downing of the U.S. drone, all the chances this decision was made in expectation of the U.S. launching a military strike and that military strike according to the "New York Times" was abruptly called off by the president?

SOUCIE: I most definitely think it was and that's indicated by the fact that United Airlines who's privy to this information because they do fly direct, they are the only U.S. carrier that flies direct to India and over this area. So because of that, there was definitely NOTAMS that came out and which are not public to everyone, that just says, hey, we're going to do some military action here and so we need to stop flying in the area. That's a very big indicator that there was some activity even before this drone was shot down.

VAUSE: And the situation now that this military action has been called off. Does that mean that this advisory will eventually be withdrawn? Where does it stand?

SOUCIE: No, I think that this advisory will stay in place for people not to fly over it, simply because it's been proven that that capability exists now. In fact, there was an air carrier within 50 miles of this drone that was shot down. That seems like quite a long way.

But when you're traveling at speeds at three at 400 miles an hour, 50 miles is not that far, they would have been able to see out the window the plume of smoke from this drone being shot down.

VAUSE: Yes, 50 miles is a blink of an eye really. David, thank you. Appreciate your insights.

SOUCIE: Thank you.

VAUSE: Next up on CNN NEWSROOM. Protesters in Hong Kong not backing down in their fight against Beijing and a controversial extradition bill.

Also ahead, building stronger ties in North Korea. The latest from the historic summit between China's Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un.

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[00:15:00] VAUSE: Now to Georgia and more protests outside the country's parliament. Opposition groups accused the government of collaborating with Moscow.

After a Russian address the legislator. Riot police had tear gas. Protesters try to storm the parliament building.

A number of people were injured. The governor is calling on protesters to immediately stop the violence and leave parliament grounds.

And right now, thousands of protestors in Hong Kong gathered outside the city's police headquarters because Chief Executive Carrie Lam had to completely scrap a bill that would make anyone in Hong Kong subject to extradition to Mainland China. That bill sparked a protest by millions.

CNN's Anna Coren live for us this hour in Hong Kong. So, Anna set the scene for us. What are we looking at in terms of numbers and determination by these protesters?

ANNA COREN, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Well, John, things have changed since 7 a.m. this morning as when protesters began gathering outside. They have now made their way in the thousands down to police headquarters which is where we are.

There are dozens of police lining the front of the building, none of them are wearing riot gear I should add, that there are thousands of protestors who are -- they've got their gas masks, they've got their masks, they've got their goggles, and their cling wrap in case the tear gas starts firing.

They got their helmets. They are ready if things turned ugly. Now, they are demanding these police release those who have been arrested.

They're also calling that the head of police and the secretary of security to sit down along with the city's Executive Carrie Lam. Obviously, we heard from her earlier in the weeks. She made that apology, that very personal apology that certainly didn't resonate with any of the people here.

I should also add John that the people taking to the streets today, walking the center of Hong Kong, a lot of them is students, university students on their summer break. It was a student union that called for today's protest.

And earlier, we've heard from Joshua Wong, that very prominent Pro- Democracy protest leader who was released from prison earlier this week. He gave his speech just here behind me and the crowd went wild.

These are people who feel emboldened. There is momentum. Obviously, they feel the government, the Hong Kong government, has given in slightly by shelving this very controversial extradition bill.

They are calling for the complete withdrawal of this bill and for Carrie Lam to step down, John.

VAUSE: OK. So this is the question now. How much longer will they be there and what is the likely reaction from the authorities there in Hong Kong?

COREN: Yes, good question. We could be here for a very long time.

It's quite interesting, John. These protestors called 7 a.m. this morning.

When I get in here at 7 a.m., there were a couple of hundred people. Thousands have now turned up and it has just gone 20 past 12.

So it's lunchtime. No doubt, people will be seeing this thinking right, another protest is on.

These protests that we are witnessing over the last couple of weeks, there is not one leader that has called for them or driven them. They have been led by the people.

They have been very spontaneous. So something like this, an organized gathering, can then turn into thousands of people occupying the city streets. I mean Harcourt Street -- Road which is -- has been blocked off. You're talking about these guys blocking the major artery of Hong Kong with steel barricades. These protesters moving the steel barricades. These barricades, why they're still on the streets is beyond me.

You would have thought that city officials and police would have removed them. But we saw these guys grabbing these steel barricades, moving them to position, and blocking traffic.

They want the police's attention. We've heard from police a short time saying that they are asking for the protester to remain peaceful. And also that this is very irresponsible of the protesters blocking roads, blocking emergency [00:20:00] services from getting access to roads.

So they are asking that things remain peaceful. We understand the police negotiated. We brought out to speak to the protesters. But John, no one is going anywhere.

VAUSE: Hope you two got lunch and your sunscreen. It's going to be a long day. Thanks, Ana.

COREN: Thank you.

VAUSE: Over years of strained relations, China and North Korea are rekindling their once close relationship. Both countries as the heat turn out are locked in a dispute with the United States. Ji Jinping is closing out a two-day summit with Kim Jong-Un in Pyongyang.

China's media quotes the president is saying his country's bond with North Korea will not be shaken by no matter how the international situation changes. CNN's Paula Hancocks live from Seoul in South Korea for all of us.

So Paula, I guess is this sort of friendship of convenience if you like, these two old allies getting back together against Donald Trump?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Well, it certainly looks like it. I mean they've had their moments at the beginning of the term for both Kim Jong-Un and Xi Jinping. There was no love lost between them.

China said he was not appreciative of the intent meteor missile testing that Kim Jong-Un was carrying out. But since the end of 2017, beginning of 2018, they really brought this relationship back on track.

And it is two old traditional allies trying to instill the main benefactor financially for North Korea by a substantial amount. So what they're doing here is they're really showing to the world that they are very close.

Xi Jinping is showing to Washington, showing to President Trump, as well as the rest of the world that he is pivotal when it comes to this North Korean issue. And the fact that it was a state official visit, the pomp and ceremony has been unprecedented as far as we can tell at this point.

You can see that there was that open top tall through the streets of Pyongyang, very similar to what we saw with the South Korean president but there was a 21-gun salute a, military parade when he arrived at the airport.

In the evening, the mass games, this huge artistic and gymnastic performance that North Korea carries out most years, that was opened up once again for Xi Jinping as well. So Kim Jong-Un knows how to put on a show for a foreign leader and he's certainly doing that here because optics are very important.

VAUSE: Yes. And it seems like that they're learning from Donald Trump. Paula, thank you. Paula Hancocks live in Seoul.

Protest to replace Theresa May as leader of Britain's Conservative Party and Prime Minister has come down to two men. One has been dubbed Bojo the Clown, the other Theresa in Trousers.

Bojo or Boris Johnson is the former mayor of London and is considered the favorite but his rival Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a.k.a. Theresa in Trousers is promising to not go down without a fight.

"The Times Newspaper" offering this report. "Don't be fooled by the Theresa in Trousers tag, boring Jeremy Hunt has cunning and steel. A third candidate, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, may have been the victim of tactical voting.

"The Guardian" reports Johnson's camp believes remain-voting Hunt, will make it less formal adversary than Gove, who along with Johnson was one of the leading figures in the Vote Leave campaign.

Regardless of whether it's Johnson or Hunt, the grim reality of the Brexit paradox remains unchanged. The E.U. will not renegotiate the already agreed to exit deal and a fractured British parliament won't approve any deal until it's renegotiated.

Nile Gardiner is with the Heritage Foundation and was an advisor to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He joins us now from Washington. Nile, good to see you.

NILE GARDINER, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Great to be here. Thank you.

VAUSE: OK. Let's go to the odds. Boris Johnson after reading that final ballot amongst the members of the lawmakers, the MPs, he tweeted this. "I'm deeply honored to have secured more than 50 percent of the vote in the final ballot. Thank you to everyone for your support. I look forward to getting out across the U.K. to set out my plan to deliver Brexit, unite our country, and create a brighter future for all of us."

What exactly is his plan to deliver Brexit? Because he didn't have one the other night in a television debate?

GARDINER: On Brexit, I think that there's a distinction between the Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. I think that Johnson is very clear about delivering Brexit on October 31st.

It has to be said that the European Union is not expressing any interest in renegotiating the E.U. withdrawal agreement. In fact, I think that Johnson has already made that clear privately to the MPs that he believes the E.U. withdrawal deal is dead in the water and that he would then seek a wholesale renegotiation if he doesn't get a renegotiation or a new deal basically.

Then Johnson will go for a no deal Brexit. The big difference I think between Johnson and Theresa May is that Boris Johnson is very serious about delivering a no deal Brexit. Theresa May had two opportunities to do so. She didn't decide to do so.

Johnson is [00:25:00] a real risk taker. And I believe he is also far more in tuned I think with the beating heart of Middle England.

VAUSE: Here's the Scottish National Party MP in parliament speaking out against Boris Johnson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

IAN BLACKFORD, SCOTTISH NATIONAL PARTY MP: The member household has called Muslim women letterboxes. He described African people as having watermelon smiles. If that's not racist, Mr. Speaker, I don't know what is.

Does the prime minister honestly believe that this man is fit for the office of prime minister?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: OK. So he was also criticized as a do-nothing mayor of London. His time as foreign secretary far from successful according to many. And really there's this criticism that he isn't offering a whole lot new on Brexit most likely because his hands are tied. So is he suitable to be prime minister?

GARDINER: Well, I've met Boris Johnson on a number of occasions here in Washington and I think he actually will be a very good British prime minister. a very big change from Theresa May who was a very disappointing leader and a very weak leader.

I think that Johnson is going to be far tougher prime minister and he's also I think someone who's fully committed to delivering Brexit. After all, he was a leader of the Vote Leave campaign. He truly believes in British sovereignty and self-determination. Theresa May certainly did not.

VAUSE: David Cameron, the former prime minister, he was brought down by Brexit. Brexit then brought Theresa May to power and Brexit was the cause of her demise.

And Brexit will bring either Johnson most likely or maybe Hunt to number 10. Is there any reason to believe that Johnson or Hunt's faith will not be the same as Cameron's and May's? GARDINER: I think Johnson has made a sterner stuff than Cameron and May. Let's not forget as well that both Cameron and May were in essence actually Remainers really.

Johnson is a Brexiteer and that's a very big difference. Also, Johnson I think is someone who has a much more positive vision for Britain's future.

And I think he's someone who greatly admires Margaret Thatcher. He has a clear vision for Britain as a sovereign nation.

And I don't think that was the case with David Cameron or Theresa May. And I think that Johnson is somebody who presents a far more positive, optimistic vision of Britain's future outside of the European Union.

VAUSE: We shall see. I mean this is one of those debates or segments that we will only know when it's happened. Nile, good to see you. Thank you.

GARDINER: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

VAUSE: A lot more on our breaking news next as U.S. President Donald Trump holds back on military strikes on Iran at the very last minute. Stay with us.

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JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks for staying with us, everybody. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Vause with the headlines this hour.

[00:30:30] Thousands of protestors have gathered outside Hong Kong's police headquarters, demanding the government withdraw a controversial bill that would make anyone in Hong Kong subject to extradition to mainland China. The bill was suspended by the city's chief executive last week. Protestors say that is not enough. They want it scrapped altogether.

"The New York Times" is reporting that the U.S. president approved military strikes against Iran, but abruptly called them off at the last moment Thursday night. One official tells "The Times" planes were in the air and ships in position when word came to stand down. The strikes were meant as retaliation for Iran's downing of a U.S. drone over the Strait of Hormuz.

And the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority has put out a notice restricting flights by U.S. airlines over the Gulf region, in particular, prohibiting flights to what's called the Tehran flight information region over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The notice cited heightened military activities and increased political tensions. United Airlines has already rebooked some of its passengers onto other flights.

David Rohde is a CNN global affairs analyst and executive editor of "The New Yorker" website, and he's with us from New York.

David, good to see you.

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Thank you.

VAUSE: It was hard to ignore this moderate, almost conciliatory tone from Trump, the U.S. president, on Thursday when he was talking about the downed drone. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have a feeling -- I may be wrong, and I may be right. But I'm right a lot. I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody that shouldn't have been doing what they did. But I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: You know, that's a real change in sort of his recent comments, so what's going on here? Can you explain why Trump is taking this much softer approach?

ROHDE: I think Donald Trump is blinking. I think he does not want a military conflict with Iran, and this fits a pattern. He sort of blinks when, you know, Russia misbehaves. He blinks when North Korea misbehaves, and now he's backing down when Iran misbehaves. And it's -- it's part of a broader problem, where I think his sort of foreign policy is not working. The toughness, the saber rattling hasn't cowed these countries, and, you know, Iran is essentially calling his bluff; and he's -- he's backing off.

VAUSE: Yes, because you know, the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, he's one of the few lawmakers out there who, you know, is pushing for a much more robust response to the downing of the drone. This is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Trump has told the Iranians you cannot disrupt navigation of the seas. You can't attack our interests or our allies. That's an unacceptable way to live in the 21st Century.

They are testing him. They need to do so at their own peril. If they get away with this, God help us with North Korea and throughout the world.

I'm convinced that, as a last resort, President Trump will stop this behavior.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: And you know, putting aside the hawkish turn, he's actually making your point. You know, any threat made in terms of "Don't do that or else." It's the health part which is crucial. Otherwise, it's just simply meaningless.

ROHDE: Yes, they -- I mean, Senator Graham, I agree with him. You know, President Trump said don't disrupt navigation. You've had mines go off on tankers, and it's disrupting navigation.

Now you've had, you know, a high-altitude American drone that we didn't even think, or the U.S. military didn't think could be shot down. You know, that's been shot down. And the president has sort of put himself in this position by, again, you know, ending the Iran nuclear deal, threatening Iran. And you know, it's an interesting dynamic.

I'm surprised, frankly, at how dovish the president is being. But he -- you know, it's again, his promises -- you know, "I'll tear up the Iran nuclear deal, and I'll talk tough, and I'll get a new one"; you know, promises with North Korea, he's having a hard time delivering.

VAUSE: According to CNN reporting and the reporting from other outlets, Donald Trump is at odds with the very hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton.

Also, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well. Apparently, they're both pushing for, you know, a robust military response. You know, we were talking about lawmakers. It would be a moderate response. But, you know, the military is warning that a military response could quickly escalate.

So the bottom line here, is the only thing stopping a serious confrontation right now between the U.S. and Iran is Donald Trump?

ROHDE: Yes, but that could be a good thing, because the more we see of President Trump, the more of a sort of a dove he seems to be.

But I agree. It's a dangerous situation. There -- you know, there is the acting defense secretary just resigned. The moderates that existed in this -- in this cabinet -- Jim Mattis, the former defense secretary; H.R. McMaster, the former national security adviser; and Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state -- are all gone.

There isn't a policy process. "The Washington Post" had a story about how John Bolton, you know, is dominating Iran policies. So, you know, it's the dangerous situation about sort of who can get the president's ear. And I think that is -- you know, the central argument is between Bolton calling for, I would guess, military action and the president saying no. And I think Pompeo sort of triangulates between the two, but he, Pompeo, is also very hawkish.

VAUSE: Right now, the U.S. is insisting the drone was in international airspace when it was shot down. The Iranians say no. They claim it violated their airspace when it was shot down.

Here's the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, with option No. 3?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: It's quite possible that there could have been a very shallow penetration of Iranian airspace by the global hawk-like aircraft when it was a Navy UAV. And by the time the Iranians reacted, and when they actually went to shoot it down, it was over international waters. So both we and they could be -- believe that we're both correct.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: We keep hearing both sides saying they don't want a wider confrontation. So could this be a possible off-ramp here, a walk to walk all of this back, both sides sort of saving face.

ROHDE: Yes, I think so. And I think that's what, you know, President Trump was trying to say, you know, and this was an accident, but it's possible what Clapper said, that the U.S. sort of was testing Iranian air defenses. I think, you know, countries do it all the time. And by the time they fired the missile, you know, the U.S. drone was out international waters.

But this is a very, very serious situation. If anyone had sort of said six months ago you'd have mines going off on oil tankers; oil tankers, you know, burning in the Gulf repeatedly now; and the American drone shot down. People would have been alarmed. So we should be alarmed. This is a very dangerous moment, and it could escalate.

VAUSE: It's also seems -- it's a delayed moment from the time when the Trump administration withdrew from, you know, the nuclear agreement with Iran and the five other countries that, you know, the Iranians kind of waited for a while, sort of looked at the state of play, and now, with their economy tanking, essentially, this is the response.

ROHDE: I think it's the response by Iranian hardliners, and I think they are under a terrific economic pressure. But this is where the Trump administration may have miscalculated.

Maybe they thought the population would rise up against the hardliners in Iran, or they thought the hardliners would blink. And instead, you know, the hardliners have sort of nothing to lose. They -- they could feel that they can just, you know, show that Trump is a paper tiger.

You know, if the U.S. carried out limited airstrikes, you know, the Iranians could retaliate. And it's -- it can be a-for-tat, and what will the United States do in the end to stop Iran and to topple this regime? Are we prepared to invade Iran? It would be an unbelievably bloody conflict, and that is, again, the problem with saber rattling. Are you willing to use force to defeat your enemy? And I don't think Donald Trump is ready to do that, and that's why he's sort of in this situation.

VAUSE: Yes. Also, the American public certainly isn't ready for that kind of wider conflict. David, thank you. Appreciate it.

RODHE: Thank you.

VAUSE: Next up on CNN NEWSROOM, the U.S. adds two more countries to its list of worst human trafficking offenders. But the secretary of state refuses to call one of them out by name. Guess which one? We'll tell you in a moment.

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[00:40:35] VAUSE: The U.S. has added Saudi Arabia and Cuba to the list of worst offenders on human trafficking. In the annual Trafficking in Persons report, the U.S. downgraded the two nations to tier three, the lowest possible rating a country can get.

They now join that list, which includes Russia, China and Venezuela, and could face cuts in foreign assistance.

Notably, the report did not include Saudi Arabia on a list of countries that recruit child soldiers.

As CNN reported on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo overruled experts in his own agency to keep the kingdom off that list. That includes Afghanistan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Iran, among others.

Secretary Mike Pompeo released the report at a ceremony at the State Department. During remarks, he called out Cuba by name, never mentioned Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, though, pushing back against an independent report on the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A U.N. human rights investigator laid the blame for the murder on the Saudi government, saying there is credible evidence linking Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the crime.

But a Saudi minister disagrees. He told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the perpetrators are already being punished.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: What do you say to the following? Khashoggi says, "There's a towel here. Are you going to give me drugs?"

They say, "We will anesthetize you."

And then there's a struggle, and then a man asks whether Khashoggi's passed out. And then another one -- or the same one says, "He raises his head."

Another one says, "Keep pushing. Push here. Don't remove your hand. Push it."

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, SAUDI MINISTER OF STATE FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: It's a gruesome murder that happened outside authorities. And for which the people who committed it will be punished. That's why there's a trial. That's why there's an ongoing investigation. This should never have happened.

AMANPOUR: Then there's a really more gruesome one, even. A Saudi official asked whether it be possible to put the trunk of the body in a bag. Another replied, "No, too heavy. It's not a problem. The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them."

AL-JUBEIR: Terrible. This is terrible. I told you, this is a gruesome murder that took place without authorization for which the people who perpetrated are being punished. They'll be -- they're in court. They're on trial, and they will be punished. We have made that very clear.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAUSE: Eleven people are on trial for Khashoggi's murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of them.

With that, we'll say thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Vause. Stay with us. WORLD SPORT starts after the break.

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