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President Trump Now Praising Crowd Who Chanted 'Send Her Back'; Iran Seizes Two Tankers in Strait of Hormuz. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired July 19, 2019 - 15:00   ET



ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: But let's get right to CNN Pentagon reporter Ryan Browne to get more details on what we know at this time.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: Well, Ana, U.S. officials saying that Iran seized this vessel, diverting it into Iranian waters.

And we have also heard from the vessel's owner, Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management, who said that the vessel was approached by unidentified small craft and a helicopter, and that they had lost contact with the vessel while it was operating in the Strait of Hormuz, that narrow stretch of waterway that has been the focal point between these tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and where, just yesterday, the U.S. said it had downed an Iranian drone, and also where Iran had shot down a U.S. drone just a few weeks ago.

So, again, this very tense area. At least one British vessel has been seized, according to U.S. officials and according to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which says it seized the vessel.

Now, again, Iran has been threatening to do this for some time after it had one of its vessels seized by Royal Marine commandos in Gibraltar, something the U.K. government did over a sanctions violation issue. Iran has threatened retaliation. They had approached a British vessel earlier.

A British warship had intervened that time. It looks like this time Iranian forces were able to seize a British vessel in this very critical waterway, the Strait of Hormuz.

CABRERA: And according to the company, they believe they're 23 people on board. They haven't been able to get in contact.

Fred, what would be Iran's motivation for this, for escalating tensions?


Well, I think there's several motivations that they could have for this. On the one hand, it does appear as though it might be a tit- for-tat response to the Brits taking that Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar that Ryan was just talking about.

And, in fact, in Iranian Parliament, there had been senior military commanders, but also parliamentarians who had called for Iran to also try and take a British tanker as well. One of the interesting little nuggets that we have learned is that just today the government of Gibraltar extended the detention of that Iranian tanker by another 30 days.

So hard to see that it would be a coincidence that the Iranians would take a British-flagged tanker on exactly the day that that happened. But, of course, generally also, this has to do with the general tensions between the U.S. and Iran in that waterway.

Ryan was just saying it. There has been a flurry of incidents in that waterway, attacks on tankers that the U.S. has attributed to Iran, the Iranians saying they weren't behind it, the shooting down of that U.S. drone, which the U.S. says was in international airspace. The Iranians are saying that it went into their airspace.

And then, of course, all the incidents surrounding the transit of the USS Boxer into that area not too long ago, where the Iranians, whether or not that drone was being shot down, were definitely buzzing that ship. They had a helicopter around that ship as well.

They have released surveillance video of them tracking the USS Boxer. And I can tell you, I have gone through the Strait of Hormuz on a USS -- on a U.S. Nimitz class carrier. It is extremely narrow. And it's a time when a big ship like that is very vulnerable.

So, certainly, that is a very dangerous time. But you can tell that the Iranians are showing that they are bold, that they're extremely confident, despite the fact that a lot of the gear they use is, of course, no match for what the U.S. says.

They're clearly sending the message that they are the ones who are in control of that area, they're not going to back down from that area, and obviously all this coming amid the tensions between the Trump administration and the Iranian government over the nuclear agreement over Iran's nuclear program -- Ana.

CABRERA: Right, let's get to General Hertling, because, as Fred just mentioned, General Hertling, there's been a lot going on now between this back and forth between Iran and the U.S. Now they have this U.K. tanker.

How would you expect the U.S. or the U.K. to respond?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It is going to be increasingly tense, Ana.

The tanker today is one incident. The shoot-down yesterday of the Iranian drone, which could not be compared to the kind of drone that they shot down of ours a few weeks ago. There was another ship earlier in the week that disappeared off the radar, a UAE-flagged tanker called the M.T. Riah, I believe, and it just popped up today, that was allegedly smuggling or rainy and oil out of the straits.

So all of these things show the complexity of the scenarios inside of the Straits of Hormuz. And as Fred just said, that's a very tight waterway. Ships are very well-controlled in that area. You know exactly where you are, according to either LORAN compasses or through satellite feeds.

And folks know whether you're in international waters or in territorial waters. It's confusing. It's tough. It's tight. So it will be tense.

Let's add one more thing to this issue, though, is, right now, whenever there are there are tensions like this between any two countries, diplomatic agencies can talk to each other. The ambassadors can talk to each other.


We have really -- the U.S. really has no way to communicate with the Iranian government, other than by open communication. And what I mean by that is either news releases or, in some cases, Twitter feeds.

So that increases the danger and the complexity is a situation, where you can't call up the government of Iran and say, what's going on? Let's solve this without any kinetic action. Let's try and do something before somebody gets hurt.

It's a very bad situation, unlike anywhere else in the world.

CABRERA: Quickly, I just want to follow up on something you said at kind of the top of your remarks, when you discussed the tit for tat on the different drones that were brought down.


CABRERA: First, Iran brought down a U.S. drone. Then it was about 24 hours ago on this program when we brought the breaking news, as we learned that the U.S. had now brought down an Iranian drone.

You said you can't really compare those two drones. What do you mean by that?


Well, not all drones are created equal, Ana. The drone, the U.S. drone that was shot down was the equivalent of a small Learjet, very technologically advanced. It cost 180-plus-million dollars. It was flying at 30,000 feet, taking big-picture strategic intelligence from the area.

The drone that was shot down was literally invading the defensive space of the Boxer -- the Iranian drone that was shot down was invading the defensive space of the Boxer yesterday. You might even want to put that in the category of perhaps a better-than-average RadioShack drone that was about 1,000 feet above the ship.

You can't compare those two things. They're just very different. One is a strategic asset. The other one's a tactical asset.

CABRERA: So, everybody keep that in mind as we get into our next segment.

Thank you, gentlemen. Great to have all that important information now front and center.

Iran has been claiming they have no information about losing a drone. But a short time ago, President Trump insisted it was brought down as it was threatening the USS Boxer in the Strait of Hormuz. Listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No doubt about it. No, we shot it down. And, of course, I'm sitting here behind the desk in the Oval Office.

But John -- tell me, please. John Bolton, you are there?

JOHN BOLTON, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Yes. There's no question that this was an Iranian drone. And the USS Boxer took it out, as the president announced yesterday, because it posed a threat to ship and its crew. It was entirely the right thing to do.


CABRERA: My next guest co wrote the book "Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier's Inside Account of the Hunt for America's Most Dangerous Enemies."

When he was an intelligence analyst, Brett Velicovich led a team that directed the movement of three Predator drones.

And, Brett, I just want to ask you about this breaking news. You write about how every action U.S. military forces take now use drones.

How do you think the U.S. military is using drones when it comes to this seizing of the British tanker?

BRETT VELICOVICH, FORMER U.S. ARMY SPECIAL OPS: well, right now, they're more than likely using it today gather intelligence and collect information on what exactly happened.

But, based on what I'm seeing, it's just more activities from the world's largest sponsor of terrorism. And the truth is, the Iranians have never been held accountable for their actions. They're responsible for over 600 American soldiers' deaths during the Iraq War. And they will be responsible for hundreds of more if we don't do something about it.

And the truth is, our inaction against the Iranians with what they have been doing lately has led them to become more and more emboldened. They see it as a sign of weakness, based on how the Iranian leadership thinks.

And so they have seen that as an opportunity to conduct more hostile action. And that's what we're seeing here with the seizing of this tanker. But one thing that people don't realize is that the Iranians are regularly flying drones 24/7 hours a day basically along the Strait of Hormuz through the Gulf looking for targets of opportunity to conduct a strike against various forces.

And it's very difficult to determine whether or not that drone that they're flying is being used for surveillance or it's packed with explosives ready to conduct a strike, which they have done recently against other oil tankers.

And so when the when the Marines on this Naval vessel used counterdrone technology to take down this Iranian drone, it was an incredible thing, because they may have very, very much -- well saved lives in this case, because who knows if that drone was going to conduct a strike?

CABRERA: How exactly does that work? Because we heard that, when they brought down the Iranian drone, they used a jamming technology. How does that work?


So, for a while now, U.S. Marines have been quietly adding counterdrone technology to various Naval vessels throughout the Persian Gulf. And what they have added is a system that's basically known as a light marine anti-defense integrated system, which is an electronic warfare jamming system that's equipped with radar and cameras that basically scans the areas and looks for friendly or hostile drone threats.


And what they in this case was, they found a hostile threat from this Iranian drone, and then they jammed the actual signal from the drone, which basically either can knock it directly out of the sky or force it to return home.

But, either way, the whole system is designed basically to create this virtual bubble around these ships to not only detect these threats, but also mitigate them, should that be necessary.

CABRERA: Really interesting.

Brett Velicovich, thank you so much for your insights.

VELICOVICH: Thanks for having me.

CABRERA: We're also following breaking news out of the White House, the president now changing his tune on those "Send her back" chants at his rally. Now he's defiant and he's actually praising the crowd that yesterday he was saying did something he didn't like.

Also, just in from the Justice Department, more than 3,000 federal inmates are about to walk free -- details on who's getting out as early as today.

Plus, Senator Bernie Sanders in the hot seat over the $15 minimum wage he's pushed for, for workers across the nation. Now his own campaign staff says he should pay them the same.



CABRERA: More breaking news.

We just reported on Iran seizing a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Well, now, moments ago, during our commercial break, we learned Iran has seized a second tanker, another clear escalation.

Let's go live to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Ana, this is a Liberian- flagged tanker called Mesdar.

We are now learning that U.S. maritime intelligence has every reason to believe Mesdar has also been seized by Iranians, elements, and taken into -- potentially taken into Iranian waters.

We do not have the exact location this ship at the moment. So let's just step back for one second. And where are we today? We have two commercial vessels seized by Iran. These are the only elements out there that would be engaged in this type of activity in the Strait of Hormuz, according to sources we are talking to.

We don't know which order the ships were taken in, but both taken today. The U.S. military, U.S. military intelligence, maritime intelligence authorities throughout the Middle East, and, of course, British intelligence now, because of their tanker, are looking at this situation around the clock trying to figure out exactly what has happened, where the ships are, who is on board that ships -- those ships, what the situation is, and what conditions they are being seized and held in.

Are they surrounded by Iranian boats, armed boats? This is typical of Iran's methodology. They use Revolutionary Guard's small, fast armed boats to try and surround these ships, demand that they board, demand that these tankers move into Iranian waters.

But, right now, the fact that they have done two in a short period of time does open a new chapter in the concern about this, because for Iran to pull this off, there would have to be coordination, planning, putting their forces, putting their Revolutionary Guard boats in the right place to get to this and to carry out these two seizures, these two missions that they have carried out.

So there's going to be a lot of concern about Iran having upped its effort, upped its strategy. And it leaves the allies, it leaves international maritime shipping clearly trying to figure out what to do.

I mean, you only have to look at the map to see that commercial shipping is so vulnerable as it moves through the Persian Gulf and it moves through that narrow choke point that the world knows as the Strait of Hormuz.

The Iranian coastline is right there. Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval ships are right there. There's just no way of getting away from Iran. Many times, they behave and they let shipping go by. That is not the case right now.

They are clearly engaging in a series of provocations. It leaves worldwide commercial shipping and worldwide maritime intelligence looking at this very narrow checkpoint and trying to determine if they can still move commercial cargo and international oil through this area.

It will have an economic impact. It has a security impact around the world. But it also -- I mean, we have talked about this a lot. You have to remember, the crews on these ships, these are civilian mariners. These are people out there working these ships trying to earn a living.

And, right now, by all accounts, they are being held much against their will -- Ana.

CABRERA: OK, Barbara Starr, we will come back to you as we learn more information. Thank you for that reporting.

Now two ships, again, seized the Iranians in the Strait of Hormuz.

The president is speaking to reporters as he leaves the White House. We're waiting for that tape.

But he's already changed his tune once today about that controversial "Send her back" chant at his rally. You will hear more in just moments.



CABRERA: Any minute now, President Trump heads off to New Jersey for a weekend at his Bedminster golf club.

But before he left, he -- and after a day in which he claimed he initially had disavowed a rally chant inspired by races tweets that he sent targeting four Democratic women of color, the president actually reversed course.

He did something we have come to expect when turmoil engulfs the White House. After distancing himself from controversy, the president embraced it.

Here's what he said earlier today:


QUESTION: President Trump, you said you were unhappy with the chant. However, the chant was just repeating what you said -- what you said in your tweet. Do you take that tweet back?




I'm unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can hate our country. I'm unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can say anti-Semitic things. I'm unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman, in this case a different congresswoman, can call our country and our people garbage.

That's what I'm unhappy with.

QUESTION: So, you're not unhappy about the chants?

TRUMP: Those people in North Carolina, that stadium was packed. It was a record crowd. And I could have filled it 10 times, as you know.

Those are incredible people. Those are incredible patriots.


CABRERA: Wajahat Ali is a CNN contributor and an op-ed columnist for "The New York Times." Tim Miller served as the communications director for Jeb Bush's 2016 presidential campaign. He is also a partner at Definers Public Affairs.

Tim, let me start with you. And let's talk about political consequences here. What do you make of what we just heard from the president?

TIM MILLER, FORMER JEB BUSH COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, look, this is what we have come to expect from Donald Trump, which is why I was a little bit disturbed by how credulously a lot of people in the media took his supposed disavowal when he made it yesterday.

I have to give credit to CNN. I looked through the headlines this morning, and CNN was one that said that "Trump claims to disavow," which I guess was the closest to accurate, because, even yesterday, when he was supposedly disavowing it, he said, oh, boy, that was quite a chant. That was quite a chant by those people.

I mean, this is who this person is. He does not have the capability to be empathetic to what it might be like to be a person of color or a refugee or an immigrant and watch the president of the United States lead a white mob in a chant that says "Send her back."

It's not something that is in his constitution. And so, obviously, he's going to lash out when he sees TV clips like this and end up defending the racist, despicable chant that he was responsible for.

CABRERA: And here's what Hugh Hewitt wrote on Twitter. I want to read this to you.

"Send her back is a nativist, terrible chant, also electoral suicide. There are more than 400,000 naturalized residents in Pennsylvania, with 200,000 more in Michigan. Trump won Michigan by 11,000, Pennsylvania by 44,000. You don't have to be a math wizard to figure this out."

Tim, should the president be thinking about those slim margins? I mean, he's saying this is strategy. At least, that's the reporting behind the scenes. But it doesn't really add up.


MILLER: He has a gut indicator.

Look, you have to -- and Hugh has been far more defensive of the president than I have, though he's been one of the rare conservative commentators who's been willing to step out and criticize him in cases like this.

But, look, if you're the president of the United States, put yourself in his shoes. Everybody told him he was going to lose after the "Access Hollywood" tape. Everybody told him he was going to -- that he should have backed down from the Muslim ban. Everybody told him he should have backed down after Charlottesville.

And every time, he refused to do so. And even though he did -- even though he lost the popular vote, even though he got killed in the House, in his head, what he thinks is, all these people don't know anything. I know what's good for me, and I'm going to follow my instincts.

And so you can always pretend like you're talking strategy behind the scenes with the Trump team, but the only strategy happens between Donald Trump's ears, and he's going to do what he thinks is right at a gut level.

CABRERA: And, again, yesterday, he was claiming that he was unhappy with these chants to "Send her back."

Wajahat, as Tim mentioned, not only did we say he claimed to be unhappy, but we have been pointing out that he started these attacks. Then he remained silent during the chants for a whole 13 seconds, contradicting his claim that he spoke up against them.

What do you make of his new spin?

WAJAHAT ALI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Donald Trump's a racist, and racists are going to racist.

This is the feature, not the bug. And that's step one. We have to acknowledge he's a racist. It goes back to the '70s. He the one who led the Obama birther conspiracy theory. Mexicans are rapists and criminals, right?

And then, for the midterm elections, what did he say? Jews are funding the caravan of immigrants and rapists and Middle Easterners. And now he says, "Send her back."

He ignites the crowd and then he bathes in it. He bathes in the 13- second chant of send her home. And now he calls them incredible patriots. So it's a disavowal of an alleged disavow, which means he agrees with

it. And so that's step one. He's a racist.

Step two, the reason why he does it is, as Tim says, he says, oh, my base loves it.

But this is where he's wrong. 2018 midterms, he only had one talking point. He tripled down on the invasion, the caravan. Didn't talk about the economy. Didn't talk about the jobs.

I would have said something about that, if I was a Republican strategist, talk about the economy. He says, no, the invasion, invasion, invasion.

What happened? They lost 40 seats, seven governorships, seven state legislatures. And this is the thing. This is the Steve Bannon strategy, Ana.

He says: If we get the white vote, keep them angry, we can rule for 40 years. Throw in voter suppression and gerrymandering.

But the Republican Party cannot afford to lose any other voters. They are shrinking.