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President Trump Now Praising Crowd Who Chanted 'Send Her Back'; Iran Seizes Two Tankers in Strait of Hormuz, Including British-Flagged Ship; Trump Calls Crowd "Patriots" After Chanting "Send Her Back". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 19, 2019 - 16:00   ET



RACHEL CRANE, CNN INNOVATION AND SPACE CORRESPONDENT: But there have been tons of people coming to pay homage today.


CRANE: But it will be here for many years to come.

CABRERA: Wonderful.

Rachel Crane, thank you.

Don't miss the CNN film "Apollo 11." It features newly discovered footage of the moon landing. That is tonight -- or, rather, Sunday night -- tomorrow night -- excuse me -- at 9:00 Eastern here on CNN.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The crisis with Iran getting closer to a boiling point as we speak.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: President Trump just responded after Iran seized a second tanker in the span of just a couple of hours today, the confusion in a crisis where one mistake could possibly lead to war.

President Trump today slinging even more insults at a prominent freshman African-American congresswoman and calling the crowd that chanted "Send her back," a chant he just yesterday said he didn't like, calling them patriotic.

Plus, they say they're the forgotten ones, the women accusing President Trump of sexual assault and misconduct who say the MeToo movement has left them out.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with breaking news. U.S. officials now saying Iran has seized two ships, one a British-

flagged oil tanker and the other a Liberian--flagged tanker. The president just moments ago responded to this report.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And this only goes to show what I'm saying about Iran, trouble, nothing but trouble.


TAPPER: The managing editor of the shipping industry publication "Lloyd's List" telling CNN that the seizure of the British-flagged tanker is creating -- quote -- "probably the highest-level security threat we have seen in the region since the late 1980s."

This all, of course, comes after tensions between the U.S. and Iran have escalated over the past few weeks. Just yesterday, President Trump announced that the U.S. had downed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz, a claim that the Iranians are denying.

CNN's Barbara Starr joins me now live from the Pentagon.

And, Barbara, what does the U.S. make of these two tankers that the Iranians have seized?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, for the last several hours, we have been in very fast-moving developments.

These two tankers, we are now told by sources directly familiar with this situation, were seized just half-an-hour apart. That means the Iranians were able to plan ahead, coordinate and know where they were going to be, know where they were going to move their own forces. They boarded both tankers half-an-hour apart and took them into Iranian waters, one from the Strait of Hormuz, one a bit north of there inside the Persian Gulf.

A British warship was 20 miles away. It began moving towards the area. This now puts the British very much on notice of concern, as you just said, about the threats that they are facing.

But there is more. At this hour, we are told by sources we're talking to a U.S. commercial cargo ship is moving through this transit area. The U.S. does not obviously want to say exactly where it's located, but it does want the Iranians to know that the U.S. military is watching.

There are, we are told, armed aircraft overhead keeping watch for any trouble from the Iranians. So that is a very sensitive situation. It is a known fact a transit through the Strait of Hormuz takes some six to eight hours. We don't know where this ship is. We don't know what part of the transit it is in.

And we obviously want that ship to stay safe. So we're not offering -- able to offer a lot of details from our sources on this. Where we are now is what happens next. It is almost impossible at this point for military ships to escort every cargo ship that moves through these waters, but these cargo ships are extremely vulnerable.

They are unarmed. They have civilian mariner crews. These are narrow waterways. They can't really stay out of the range of Iranian Revolutionary Guard small, fast attack boats. So they are extremely vulnerable.

And this is a growing problem now, how to keep shipping safe. It is not just the oil moving through their. Billions of dollars in commercial cargo moves through there. These are the shipping lanes that move on to Asia, Europe and the United States. It is very close to becoming potentially a financial and economic crisis for the shipping industry -- Jake

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr.

And we're just being told this second that the foreign minister of the U.K. has said -- the foreign secretary of the U.K. has said that, as far as they know right now, there are no British citizens on the British-flagged chip, for what that is worth.

CNN anchor Becky Anderson is on the ground in the region.

And, Becky, what are you hearing from your sources about their concern over what seems an aggressive action by Iran?


BECKY ANDERSON, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Jake, remember, we are just across the Persian Gulf from Iran here in the United Arab Emirates, so concern reaching fever pitch over these last few weeks.

Just in the last few days, a senior Emirati official telling me -- quote -- "We are not trigger-happy. We are urging de-escalation."

And, Jake, while they are saying that, we also know that the Emiratis have been pulling back their forces from Yemen, which, of course, would bolster their forces here back at home. And your audience will know better than most that this country, the UAE, spends billions on American military hardware

The fear is palpable. As you mentioned, Jake, the quote from "Lloyd's List" on this being the most serious situation in some 40 years, maritime security here is absolutely critical in this part of the world, the Strait of Hormuz, as you can see there on the map.

But do remember, Jake, to the Iranians, this isn't aggressive at all. To some extent, you could suggest that they are, in fact, acting from a position of weakness, one of their tankers held just off the coast of Gibraltar two weeks ago over allegedly trying to sell on to Syria, in violation of sanctions.

Iran's supreme leader vowing to respond to that at the right time and the right place, he said. Well, clearly, he's judging that to be right here, right now.

It's a very carefully prescribed set of actions coming from Tehran, uranium enrichment, shooting down a U.S. drone. They see this as a reasonable response, they would say, to what they see as U.S. aggression.

And I will keep working the sources here for the very latest reaction, but, for the time being, certainly, as I say, the concern is palpable in this region.

TAPPER: All right, Becky, thank you so much. Appreciate your reporting.

Let's chew over this with our panel.

Kaitlan, let me start with you, as White House correspondent for CNN.

This is all coming after this rise in tensions between the Trump administration and Iran. How is the White House reacting to this report? We saw the president say, Iran is nothing but trouble, but he didn't seem perhaps fully versed on everything that was going on.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No, he said, essentially, they're checking it and they're going to be speaking with U.K. officials. He didn't say if they had done so yet.

But, of course, this is coming just after we're seeing these contradicting reports from each side, from the U.S. and Iran, on what happened yesterday, when the president announced that the U.S. had downed an Iranian drone.

And the Iranians are saying, no, that didn't happen. We don't know whose drone it was. Maybe it was the United States. And then, today, we saw the president and John Bolton respond to that and say they felt very confident it was an Iranian drone and that there was essentially no doubt about it.

So this comes as there are these escalating tensions. The question is, what is the president going to do? Because he made a weird statement there, saying there's no agreement with the United Kingdom over what to do with Iran.

So it kind of leaves open a possibility of what he's going to do. But I should note, we are seeing the president start to move behind the scenes in a more hawkish direction on Iran. So it kind of leaves open for possibility how he's going to respond here.

TAPPER: Phil, how do you interpret Iran's moves seizing these two tankers, one Liberian-flagged, one British-flagged?


We got a carrot and a stick. In the midst of all this, the Iranians even this week have suggested they will talk to us. They have an avenue to do that. One is they have got their people at the U.N. They have also got the Europeans. They're trying to squeeze the Europeans to get the Europeans to tell us to back off. So, there's carrot. Same time ,let's couple this with uranium enrichment, which you know

we have seen recently. The Iranians are telling us, if you don't want to take the carrot, A, we can raise gas prices. That is shutting down shipping. And, B, we might start enriching uranium more, which heads you in a direction to say, are they going to build a bomb?

Carrot and stick, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Toluse, was -- it seems like a year ago, but it was just last month that President Trump called off what looked like it was going to be a military strike against some targets in Iran, after Iran shot down an American surveillance aircraft.

How might the president respond here?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, it really depends on who he's listening to.

His personal instincts are to not get involved. He sort of backed away from saying there's any agreement with the U.K. He's even talked about how the Strait of Hormuz is not a place where the U.S. gets a lot of its oil. He basically said that this is an area that the rest of the world should be worried about. And he does not want to be the policeman of the rest of the world.

So his instincts are to not really be involved and to talk about the carrot part of this, talk about how he might be able to get into negotiations, high-stakes negotiations with the Iranians.

But he has a lot of advisers who do lean in a more hawkish direction.

TAPPER: John Bolton and Mike Pompeo perhaps.


OLORUNNIPA: Right, who say, you can't let this type of action go without a response. And if he listens to those voices, I would not be surprised if he does pull the trigger and actually take some action to show that the U.S. will not be bullied in the Strait of Hormuz, that we will stand by our allies and that Iran needs to be reined in.

So it really depends on who he's listening to and how he decides to respond to it.


TAPPER: And, Jen Psaki, everybody, Kaitlan and Toluse both talking about the president saying we don't have an agreement with the U.K.

Let's play that sound. And I want to get you to react to it, just a few moments ago, President Trump talking about this incident.


TRUMP: We will be working with the U.K., but we have no written agreement. But I think we have an agreement, which is longstanding.


TAPPER: Do you know what he's talking about?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Not clear what he's talking about.

It's also important to remember that the U.K. is going through a leadership election right now. So Theresa May has stepped down. Boris Johnson will likely take her place. He's like the European Donald Trump. But that hasn't taken place yet. So they're in transition.

I'm not sure who he would be having an agreement with either. Also, the Europeans and U.K. has a different view of Iran and the Iran deal and their relationship with Iran. So it certainly wouldn't be along those lines.

What's very tricky here, there's a lot of tricky things, but to me is, who is going to de-escalate this? It's not the United States, given Trump is in the Oval Office. It's not the U.K. with Boris Johnson or a lack of leader hip. So that's the piece that's pretty concerning to me.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around.

We're going to have much more on this breaking news, Iran seizing two tankers today in what a source tells CNN the U.S. military believes was coordinated and pre-planned.

Stay with us.


[16:15:17] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back -- we're back with the breaking news.

The U.S. defense official telling CNN that two tankers have been captured by Iran in what the U.S. military believes was a pre-planned and coordinated operation. Right now, the Pentagon is monitoring the transit of a U.S. commercial cargo ship used armed aircraft overhead.

A lot of nervous people watching to see what the Iranians are going to do.

We have with us, former CIA and FBI official, Phil Mudd, along with retired General Spider Marks, and CNN international correspondent Fred Pleitgen.

Fred, let me start with you, because you just returned from Iran. What are you hearing from your sources about this?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, look, Jake, the Revolutionary Guard has been saying that this first tanker that they took, the Stena Impero, apparently, was turning off its tracker they said, as it was going through the area of the Strait of Hormuz. They say that it was disregarding international maritime law as they put it and that's when their boats moved in and then took it into -- into Iranian waters and then forced it ashore.

Now the most recent thing that I've gotten and this just came to me a couple of minutes ago, Jake, apparently they are towing that ship to the port of Bandar Abbas, that is one of Iran's biggest ports. They're in the area of the Strait of Hormuz, also has a very, very large Revolutionary Guard navy base there as well.

So, certainly, it seems that boat very much in the custody of the Iranians and they have that second tanker now as well. Iranians clearly in a show of force wanting to show that they are the ones who were the boss there in the Strait of Hormuz and we've seen that, Jake, from the statements that they've been making over the past couple of weeks. Not only have they said that they believe that after the Brits took one of their tankers, that they should take a tanker as well, but they also continuously said that they are the ones who are going to police the Strait of Hormuz and they've also said if anybody wants to mess with them, there's going to be consequences, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. General Marks, let me ask you, this comes 24 hours after the U.S. claims the U.S. shot down an Iranian drone that was flying near U.S. Navy ship. Do you worry there is a connection between the two events, what happened yesterday or so with the U.S. apparently shooting down an Iranian drone and the Iranian seizing two ships?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think there is no doubt that all of these are connected. I mean, just when you look at the geography, you look at the proximity, you look at the history, you look what's taking place over the course of the last few weeks, and what we've seen with Iranians today with the British tanker, which frankly is an act of war, if the Brits choose to declare it an act of war.

Clearly, what you want to do is circumstances --

TAPPER: Is it an act of war even if it is true? And I don't know that it is, but even if it's true that they turned off their tracking device, the British?

MARKS: If it's international waters?


MARKS: Yes, it is, absolutely.

But what you want to do in those circumstances is you want to deescalate. I mean, rule one is always, protect your people, protect your individuals, protect your kid. Then number two is you want to deescalate as best you can. Rule three is if you can't get your tanker back, go get your tanker back, regardless of how you have to do it. But remember rule two, don't escalate beyond that.

So, I would -- I'm totally convinced that these two things are -- all these activities are connected.

TAPPER: And Iran's motivation is attention, is aggression, to flex back after the U.S. shot down one of its drones, if, in fact, that's the case?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Simple lever in response to the drone strike but also, obviously, the sanctions that the U.S. has imposed and that is money. We have obviously increased oil production in the United States but the Europeans and the Asians, including the Chinese, get a ton of oil going through those straits.

The Iranians -- and it is a rare moment where the adversary tells you what they are going to do. They tell you their intentions. The Iranians at senior level have said publicly, we could shut down the straits if that's what it takes. They've talked about doing that and done that back in the 1980s. So, it wouldn't be the first time.

TAPPER: How nervous, are you, general, about the U.S. tanker going through the Strait of Hormuz right now and what the Iranians might do?

MARKS: Not at all.

TAPPER: You're not?

MARKS: Not at all. I mean, to Phil's point about shutting down the Straits of Hormuz, the Iranians don't have the capability of shutting down the Straits of Hormuz. They could make it very difficult. They can disrupt traffic. They can make it very, very hard for ships to pass in a way that they would normally want to pass. You've got to alter the passage type of protocol.

But I'm not concerned if the straits ever could be shut down by the Iranians. We would not allow it. We've got the capability in place. So, I'm not too concerned.

But what truly is on the table is, what's the level of escalation that Iran will take on in order to try to provoke us to a point where we fire back. I'm not concerned that the United States is going to escalate. Not at all. But the Iranians are looking for a provocative moment where we might.

TAPPER: All right. Fred Pleitgen and Phil Mudd, General Spider Marks, thanks one and all. I appreciate your time and your insights.

[16:20:01] Just moments ago, President Trump took a new swipe at a Democratic congresswoman and why he says she is and her three cohorts are -- should be expecting more attacks from him, coming up.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- when somebody goes out and says the horrible things about our country, the people of our country, that are anti-Semitic, that hate everybody, that speak with scorn and hate -- (END VIDEO CLIP)

[16:25:09] TAPPER: President Trump just minutes ago resuming his attacks on a prominent black woman, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and defending his response to chants of "send her back" by his own supporters at a North Carolina rally the other night, chants that even many Republicans who support the president have called nativist, terrible, chilling and offensive.


CROWD: Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!


TAPPER: The chants on Wednesday's rally were an extension, of course, of the president's racist attack launched on Sunday, all part of his new campaign tactic, a divisive message against these four freshmen female lawmakers, all women of color coded with the racist suggestion that they should all go back where they came from, though, of course, all four are American citizens and three were born in the United States.

CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House.

And, Abby, you asked the president about why it was OK for him to criticize America, which he did repeatedly as a presidential candidate, and not for these four Democratic women.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. And the president dodged that question and many others today. He pivoted only to continuing his attacks on the squad.

But when it comes to the First Amendment rights the squad has to speak their mind about America, the president said his supporters have a right to say and feel what they want, too.


REPORTER: Do you take that tweet back?

TRUMP: You know what I'm unhappy with. I'm unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can hate our country.

PHILLIP (voice-over): Just one day after distancing himself from his supporters' "send her back" chant, President Trump now refusing to take back the words he wrote that prompted it.

TRUMP: I'm unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can say anti- Semitic things.

PHILLIP: The president's defiance capping a week of controversy that started on Sunday morning with the racist attack, telling four congresswomen of color to go back to the places from which they came.

REP. ILHAN OMAR (D-MN): This is the agenda of white nationalists. PHILLIP: The president was emboldened as outrage exploded on the left

but Republican lawmakers were slow to comment. Two days after the tweets went out, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offering tepid criticism.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Well, I think I've just said, I think everybody ought to tone down their rhetoric.

PHILLIP: By Wednesday, Trump had turned the attacks into a scripted campaign strategy.

TRUMP: And she looks down with contempt on the hard-working Americans saying that ignorance is pervasive in many parts of this country. And obviously and importantly, Omar has a history of launching vicious, anti-Semitic screeds.

PHILLIP: His supporters responding with the chant formed from his own words.

CROWD: Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!

PHILLIP: That scene apparently crossing a line for Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who voiced their discomfort with the chants to Vice President Mike Pence and sources say his daughter Ivanka Trump also expressed her concerns to the president.

By Thursday, Trump disavowed the chants by falsely claiming he tried to stop it.

TRUMP: I did -- and I started speaking very quickly. But it started up rather fast.

PHILLIP: Twenty-four hours later, the president now attempting to move the debate to more comfortable territory -- crowd size.

TRUMP: Those people in North Carolina, that stadium was packed. It was a record crowd. And I could have filled it ten times as you know. Those are incredible people. Those are incredible patriots.

PHILLIP: After Congresswoman Omar did go back to her home state of Minnesota, Trump falsely accusing her of staging the event.


PHILLIP: And President Trump denied that his daughter Ivanka Trump and First Lady Melania Trump advised him about the "send her back" chant but he did say they spoke to him about it. He also declined to answer questions about whether it would be appropriate for someone to tell Melania Trump who was not born in the United States to go back to where she came from. That was just one of many questions the president dodged today, Jake.

TAPPER: Melania Trump has been a citizen for far less time than Congresswomen Omar.

Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this with our panel.

And Tara Setmayer joins us.

Kaitlan, take us into the last 24 hours in the White House because we've gotten whiplash. The president was doubling down on this racist attack on these women, and then he was expressing regret that the chant was going on, now he's pushing it again and he's acting as if Ilhan Omar is the Democratic presidential nominee.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And we've seen this pattern played out before with the president, where something happens, he distances himself from it or denies it, and then later, he doesn't like the coverage of how he's backed off something, so then he doubles down back to his original statement.

That's really what we've seen play out at the White House, because we went from the president saying, oh, I tried to stop it, I started speaking quickly when he was one-on-one with a reporter who was asking why he would let his supporters go on and chant something like that. And then today the president stuck a much more defiant tone, talking about how his supporters are patriots, the people of North Carolina were patriots. While yesterday, he was telling reporters to drive back to North Carolina and ask them why they made those comments.