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Trump: "We Were Cocked and Loaded" Before I Called Off Strike; Biden Tries to Move Past Controversy in Working with Segregationist Colleagues. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired June 21, 2019 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Erica Hill. Thanks for joining us today. INSIDE POLITICS with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Erica. And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Cocked and loaded. A remarkable last-minute halt to U.S. military strikes on Iran. President Trump says he pulled the plug after being told 150 Iranians would die and deciding that was too many as a punishment for Iran's shoot-down of an unmanned U.S. drone.

Plus, Joe Biden huddles with African-American lawmakers hoping to contain the damage over his bragging about being able to get things done back in the day with racist segregationist Senate colleagues.

And Roy Moore rides again. Accounts that he pursued teenage girls while a prosecutor derailed his last Senate run. But the Alabama conservative wants a rematch despite pleas by President Trump and other Republican leaders to please go away.


ROY MOORE (R-AL): Once the mere mention of my name caused people just to get up in arms in Washington, D.C. because I believe in God, in marriage, in morality in our country. And I believe in the right of a baby in the womb.


KING: Back to that story a bit later in the program. But we begin the hour with a remarkable firsthand account from the commander-in-chief about a plan to bomb Iran, and about his last-minute abort order. The targets were Iranian missile batteries and radars selected by the Pentagon as a response to Iran's shoot-down of an air force drone. President Trump revealing the play-by-play in a series of tweets saying, 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 later before the strike, I stopped it, not proportionate the president said to shooting down an unmanned drone.

The president is also saying he's adding more sanctions on Iran beginning last night. What now is one big question. CNN's Fred Pleitgen joins us live from Tehran, Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon. Barbara, let's start with you. Remarkable to get this firsthand account from the president right after such a situation. How close were we to this and what now?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I guess 10 minutes if you believe what the president has to say. You know, it's a little mysterious here exactly what may have transpired because you have to logically believe the president if he desired to have a full briefing on this potential strike, it would have happened 10 minutes -- pardon me, a lot sooner than 10 minutes before the missiles and bombs started flying. So he would know these things. The military would have offered him briefings, understanding discussions, analysis, all day long, hours before this was even taking place. And he suddenly says he canceled it 10 minutes ahead of time.

You know, I'm not sure what the president's thinking is about this. There were three sites, missile batteries, radars, that kind of thing. These are not isolated sites, there is military personnel who populate this site. What could you possibly strike where there wouldn't be people there might be one question. Of course, there were going to be people there.

If he was not willing to take that risk, that is one thing. We knew throughout the day that the president was making a number of statements that were sort of de-escalatory if you will. So at the end of the day, he decided that he didn't want to pursue this. The question now, how does Iran perceive this and does Iran now think it has a green light to possibly shoot down more drones?


KING: It is a great question. And on that point, let's go straight to Fred Pleitgen in Tehran. Fred, how is this being viewed in Iran? Is it viewed as just a pause, there's something coming? Or is it viewed as some effort by the president of the United States to try to de- escalate?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think so far, it's viewed as a pause. It was quite interesting to see the Iranian reactions because the Iranians, John, came out and said they themselves also held back from possibly killing Americans. The Iranian commander of the aerospace forces for the Revolutionary Guard came out earlier today and said aside from having that drone which they shot down in their sights, the Iranians were thinking of targeting a P-8 U.S. anti-submarine plane that they say was flying in the exact same vicinity. They say they could have targeted that plane but they did not.

Essentially, they're saying two things. On the one hand, it seems to them that they're also obviously holding back from taking life. Now, on the other hand, they're also dispelling that notion that President Trump put out yesterday saying that somehow the targeting of a drone may have been some sort of mistake by some loose cannon commander. No. The Iranians today said that they know absolutely what they're looking at, they know absolutely what they targeted. And they said with shooting down the drone, they were sending a clear message to the United States as to what exactly their capabilities are.

It was quite interesting today, John because for the first time they actually displayed parts of what they said was that drone that they shot down. It was sort of smaller parts of the fuselage. They say that these were all parts that fell into Iranian territorial waters and they got that from the surface, so it's not all of it.

[12:00:06] But they certainly maintain that this drone invaded their airspace or violated their airspace and that they had every right to shoot it down. And they said if there would have been a response from the United States, that there would have been a crushing blow as they put it back from Iran, John.

KING: So those are strong words as we try to answer many, many questions. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon and Fred Pleitgen in Tehran, appreciate the live reports.

With me in the studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Abby Philip, CNN Diplomatic and Military Analyst Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, CNN's Kylie Atwood, and former State Department negotiator Aaron David Miller.

I want to start with the White House reporter because Barbara Starr raises a great question. In a normal scenario, the president is briefed throughout the days on his options. He goes back and forth. He's told on moment one here's a, here's b, here's c. If you do a, this is what will happen. We will blow up this and that. Likely casualties will be this.

Was he told before and thought about it and it didn't settle in, right? Do we not know the answer to that question? Wherein he says and we still don't have all the details, he says 10 minutes out he decided 150 people is too many, not proportionate, he pulled the plug.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: What I'm being told from sources is that he was told before. The question is did he internalize that information? Did it -- was it at the forefront of his mind? Or did he in the last 10 minutes decide that that information was more important to him than it might have been earlier when he was initially told about it?

That's the part that I think a lot of people close to the president don't really know in terms of his own decision-making. When he is told things, sometimes they penetrate at the level that they are supposed to. The casualty list I think for most people would be a very important piece of information. But maybe he wasn't focused on it, and I think my sources are kind of like we don't know, you know, whether or not he decided in those last 10 minutes.

Actually, I don't believe that an unmanned drone is a one-for-one trade-off for 150 Iranians or it could just very well be that it just -- this is not a president who in the context of briefings always internalizes everything that is being told to him that is written on pieces of paper. It's not clear to me whether this was told to him or written down. I think for President Trump that actually will matter a lot. RET. RDML JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Or did he just use that as an excuse?

PHILLIP: Or did he just use that as an excuse.

KIRBY: Yes. Because look, I'm telling you, John, I've seen plenty of these (INAUDIBLE), it's on the first PowerPoint slide, right, that the Pentagon gives you. Here is what it's going to cost you in terms of potential casualties. I mean, it's baked into the planning process of every tactical strike operation from the very, very beginning. So I find it incredible for anybody to suggest that he wasn't told.

KING: It is a remarkable insight though into the commander-in-chief, any commander-in-chief, but particularly this one. His reputation in town among his critics is he's impulsive, he's reflexive, he's not nuanced, he doesn't do the either/ors. This was an either/or and he decided at the end, and we'll learn more about the process in the hours and days ahead.

His advisers were unanimous, right? Mr. President, you should do this. And he decided at the last minute, and again, we may learn more about this. I don't want to do this, I don't think it's proportionate.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: But those who were not unanimous were members of Congress that were speaking with him yesterday in the Oval Office. And I do think it's important to recognize that the argument that many of them made to him was you don't want to bumble into war here. And that's an argument that we know holds some significant weight for President Trump, who said time and time again that he wants to be the one to get the U.S. out of wars. So when you're thinking about his thinking, you know, on the big stage, grand -- when he's out at campaign rallies and that kind of thing, if he can say he prevented war with Iran, that's better for him than saying he bumbled himself into war.

KING: How will this be perceived in the neighborhood in the sense that we talked yesterday. You were on from the Wilson Center during the breaking news about where is the off-ramp here, where is the circuit breaker, who steps forward, who's the third party? We don't know the answers to any of those questions. Iran knows today the president of United States was prepared to strike its radars and its missile batteries and he decided not to do it. Iran is saying today we shot an unmanned drone, we also targeted a surveillance aircraft that had people on it and we decided not to shoot that one.

Are these signals everybody should step back or are we drawing lines for some strange protracted situation where it's OK to shoot down drones and it's OK to bomb tankers but there's some line you can't cross.

AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I mean, I wish that were the case and there are sustainable grounds rules going forward because I think the Iranians frankly want to see two new presidents in 2021. The supreme leader wants Rouhani out and their election is in 2021, and the Iranians clearly want Trump gone. So, if that were the case that there were actual grounds rules that could get us to the next year and a half, I'd feel a lot better. I don't think that actually is the case.

The issue on what changed the president's mind at the last minute if it was the last minute is very intriguing. Was -- I mean, did he talk to somebody at the last minute who persuaded him? Is there a piece of Intel?

The admiral and I were talking earlier, he made this comment the other day about loose and stupid. Is there actual Intel -- was that based on actual intelligence that he actually believed? And is it, in fact, true that this could have been a -- an untoward act by a commander who decided he wanted the Iranian medal for bravery and the supreme leader isn't very happy with this?

[12:10:10] I don't know.

One final point, we have a highly risk-averse president here, John. And I'm sure he thought through bad for the base, bad for oil and gas prices, and bad for the commitment I made to get America out of bad wars and I'm getting a new one.

KING: You say a risk-averse president bad for the base so there are. We'll get later in the program, we'll talk more about the political reaction. But I want you to listen to Liz Cheney, a prominent member of the House Republican leadership, her dad obviously was the vice president, the defense secretary Dick Cheney. She's a more hawkish member of the Republican Party. She says -- it's important for context, she says she gives the president the benefit of the doubt, that he stopped yesterday, decided to pull back but he's still debating the appropriate response. But listen here as she says the United States here better not send the wrong message.


REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): If, you know, Iran thinks that it can demonstrate to the world that somehow it's able to take advantage of the United States, that it's able to attack and destroy one of our drones without any consequence or with the only consequence being that we now ask to speak to them, I think that that's very dangerous.


KING: Again, she's trying to be polite there, but there better be a consequence. And wait a minute, why are we offering to speak to them at this moment?

KIRBY: She makes a good point. I mean, look, the -- I think there does need to be some sort of concerted response. You shouldn't just be able to just shoot down a drone or mine tankers in the Gulf of Oman without having the United States respond in some way. But there's a whole menu, John, of options and ways to do that.

Now he alluded to maybe sanctions that he's going to put on. OK. There's other even military moves you can make that are less provocative but also very demonstrable and visible, like escorting tankers or escorting reconnaissance aircraft with fighter aircraft. There's things he can do, he's got options. He just needs now to -- now that he has a little bit of time to think through them.

KING: And we haven't seen many -- you know, we had rocket man, fire and fury which led to the negotiations which have not gotten any agreements. But the temperatures turned down there a little bit. We did see the response in Syria to the use of chemical weapons, more of a one-off using U.S. missiles.

KIRBY: About twice.

KING: Twice. We haven't learned a lot about this president in these moments. You say risk-averse. Maggie Haberman, the great reporter from the New York Times tweeting this. "A source told me 30 minutes ago that Trump was pleased with his own performance last night. Loved being in command by ordering the strikes and then by ordering the stand down. And the president just tweeted it."

If you're a Trump supporter, you're going to say, you know, the strong president made a decision. If you're a Trump critic, you're going to say, what, did he treats this somehow as like, you know, time in the x-box?

PHILLIP: I mean, I also think you have to think that based on what Trump said in this tweet if you had just transposed this onto Barack Obama, we would be having a completely different conversation from the perspective of how this would be viewed from Republicans. I think people would certainly view this as the president blurring his own lines, creating a line and then blurring it himself.

But Trump -- I think Maggie is right, Trump likes the fact that this is his call. That he gets to decide whether he goes and doesn't go. He also likes ramping up the rhetoric, ramping up the tensions in a particular situation and then being the one to turn the dial back down.

So that's what he's doing here. But the question is, is there actually a strategy behind it. And honestly, you know, people say that the haphazard strategy is that there's a good cop/bad cop thing going on. Trump gets to be the good cop saying come to the negotiating table and Pompeo and Bolton are the bad cops.

But that's not really something that they're planning here in this administration, it's just what's happening. And I have some questions about how much longer this can continue because it's clearly not working with respect to Iran. Iran is not stopping what they're doing. In fact, they continue to up the ante.

KING: And to that point, there's a diplomatic source telling CNN the United States has now requested a closed-door meeting at the Security Council. That is not something, again, for the unpredictability of the surprises, the Trump administration not a fan of the United Nations. The Trump administration saying let's get behind closed doors at the Security Council to talk this over. What does that tell us?

MILLER: You're not getting much help there because the Chinese and the Russians -- Putin is already been adamant that the United States is acting irresponsibly. Now, obviously, maybe there'll be some sense of turn-around because the president (INAUDIBLE). But the reality, John, is we're going to get another -- you're going to get another bite at this, unfortunately, because the Iranians are not going to remain stable. Their economy is in trouble and they're ramping up low enriched uranium stockpiles. So sooner or later, the president is going to have another bite at the apple and an effort to decide this time what targets he wants to hit.

KING: You call it a bite at the apple. I mean -- and again, we talked this a bit earlier but just the unanimity here, we -- there is often a tug of war of a foreign policy in the Trump administration. But on this particular question, what's the option beforehand. The vice president, the secretary of state, the National Security advisor, who don't always agree on everything, all said, sir, we think this is the right thing. He decided not to do it.

What does that tell us? Number one, it reminds anybody that is a singular call, the president of the United States makes it whether his name is Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George Washington.

KIRBY: Sure. But I think he understands that his base is probably not very supportive of this.

[12:15:02] I think there was probably a domestic politics that factored into it. But the Pentagon also I'm sure was not urging him to do this. And maybe for once he finally listened to the generals.

PHILLIP: It also tells you that he's surrounded by hawks. All of those individuals are people who are usually more bellicose on these issues. It's unusual for a president who ran on getting out of foreign wars to surround himself with so many people who are very much in favor of using U.S. force when they think it's necessary.

KING: All right, we'll continue the conversation and watch what happens.

Up next for us here, back to domestic politics. Joe Biden's past continues to complicate his present.


[12:20:14] KING: Welcome back.

Joe Biden has the most to prove as most of the Democrats running for president come together tonight in South Carolina. The event, Congressman Jim Clyburn's fish fry, giving the candidates a chance to mingle with African-American activists and voters who are absolutely critical in South Carolina's big presidential primary. Biden enjoys deep support there and he's hoping to prove his recent words about working with racist, segregationist colleagues doesn't cost him any of that support. Team Biden this morning insisting the story in their view blown out of proportion.


KATE BEDINGFIELD, BIDEN DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER: The story the vice president was telling was about how awful the segregationist views of Jim Eastland and Herman Talmadge were. The entire point of the story was that they held views that were repugnant to him and that was reflected in the way they talked.

The vice president I think was frustrated that a story that he has told many times was being taken out of context. You know, again, the entire point of the story is that sometimes you have to work with people who you vehemently disagree with or whose views you find repugnant.


KING: Now Clyburn himself has defended Biden including this morning but Clyburn just last hour acknowledging what rivals like Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have said since Wednesday, that Biden's words don't belong in 2019.


REP. JIM CLYBURN (D-SC): I was born and raised here in South Carolina, as were you, and we know how charged that word is. But like anything else, what were your intentions in saying it. You work with people who you do not agree with in order to get things done for your constituents, and so I don't blame Joe Biden for that. But that's what we call in the world of tennis, although I'm a golfer, an unforced error.


KING: Joining our conversation, Matt Viser of the Washington Post, Politico's Melanie Zanona, and Catherine Lucey with the Wall Street Journal.

I get respectfully why the Biden campaign wants to say this is much ado about nothing is being taken out of context. The question, Joe Biden says there's not a racist bone in my body, why would people question me. I don't think anyone is questioning whether there's a racist bone in his body, they're questioning his judgment. What would you bring up -- if you were asked a question how do you get things done when you have to work with difficult people, whether it's Vladimir Putin or some segregationist, racist jerk in the Senate, that's one thing.

He brings this up. That's a judgment question, it's not a racism question.

MATT VISER, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Nobody was talking about Jim Eastland at the start of this week. You know, Joe Biden introduced him into the conversation of the 2020 campaign. And there are sort of two issues at play. The first is, is him bringing up, to begin with, and the second is how he's handled it since.

And I think there's an element of him calling on Cory Booker to apologize to him that rubbed some people the wrong way. And there's a sense like Clyburn is hinting at talk about this unforced error a little bit, Mr. Vice President. You know, illustrate a little bit your judgment in how you've handled this, why did you misspeak. And we haven't heard that from him.

He's only had private fundraisers. We've gotten reports from those. But today is the first moment really for him to address these if he wants to, to answer a little bit and expound upon sort of why he introduced Jim Eastland --

KING: And to that point, as you jumped in, I want you to listen to Congresswoman Barbara Lee here of California, one of the veteran members of the Black Caucus. One of the Democrats who, you know, maybe not publicly on record for Biden now but ready in the back of their mind to support Biden as the frontrunner or Biden as the candidate (INAUDIBLE) saying now that an event like this, makes you think, hmm.


REP. BARBARA LEE (D-CA): But let me tell you, saying something to the effect that I was treated like a son and not a boy is quite offensive. He has supported and led on many civil rights issues. I don't think that's the issue. I think the issue is being tone-deaf to what is offensive.


MELANIE ZANONA, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Yes. I mean, I think you're also seeing a split within the CBC caucus. You have seen Jim Clyburn come out and support Biden. Also Richard -- Cedric Richmond, he is the chairman of the campaign, he's come out strongly. I think about a dozen members have at this point come out in support of Biden. But that doesn't necessarily reflect the voters in the Democratic Party right now who are younger, who are more diverse. They want to see someone who's a torchbearer, they don't want to see a consensus builder right now.

And I think Biden is going to face a really serious test today in South Carolina. Not just how he handles the situation but also how the voters respond, right? I mean, we don't know whether this is going to impact him.

Right now, he is leading with black voters. He's very popular. He has the benefit of name recognition in the state but he can't take that for granted. And he has been skipping out on some events recently so he has a lot of work to do while he has candidates like Elizabeth Warren creeping up on him.

KING: And we'll see the test in South Carolina and tonight, we'll see a bigger test when he's on the debate stage. A week from now, everyone will be having the conversation how did Joe Biden handle it, how did this come up, how did this play among the questions. He said Cory Booker should apologize to him for saying the vice president is wrong, Cory Booker says uh-uh.


[12:25:03] SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I understood where his intentions were and his heart was. The fact is though it's not about me or him, he said things that are hurtful and are harmful. I believe he should be apologizing to the American people and having this discussion with all of us.


KING: How big of a test for the frontrunner? Especially with a debate looming in six days.

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Absolutely. I mean -- and the Times actually has a good story about how Biden has been loathed to apologize before this. I mean, the back and forth around the Hyde Amendment, with Anita Hill. And I think one of the things that we're seeing here is Biden really has been trying to sort of pitch ahead to the general election.

We've seen that throughout his campaign, he has really tried to focus on President Trump. We saw him on Iowa going after Trump but he is trying to make this argument that he is a centrist -- more of a centrist option who is best able to take on the president. But he still actually has to get through this primary, and this debate stage is going to be -- and this event in South Carolina are really going to be tests of how he can do that.

PHILLIP: There's also in my view a substantive problem with what Biden said and his failure to address it. In addition to the son thing which is offensive to a lot of people, or the boy/son thing, there's also the fact that he characterized that era of being one of civility. And that's just factually incorrect. And if he's unwilling to acknowledge that, I think that is substantively going to be a problem.

Segregationists like Eastland were really the sort of paragons of the violent era of segregation and Jim Crow. That is not civility even if it might have felt like civility in the halls of Congress. So Biden has to address that. I mean, I think that this combative nature is going to be something that he's going to have to answer for because it might seem like a good idea to be Trumpian in that way, but part of me believes that Democrats are going to view that very differently.

I mean, Democrats actually don't necessarily want a Trumpian-type person to go up against Trump. So I think figuring out that balance is not something he's going to be able to dodge for much longer.

KING: You're absolutely right. And the question is being raised about his instincts, about his judgment, about his tongue getting out ahead of the brain and logic. Sometimes there are questions that have come up in his past campaigns. That's why I think it's a big week ahead for the former vice president.

When we come back, the president decides not to bomb Iran. Some Democrats say yes. Some Republicans are worried.