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Trump Sends Contradictory Messages on Saudi Attack Response; Soon: Lewandowski to Appear in Impeachment Hearing; House Oversight Committee Launches Investigation in Elaine Chao over Conflict of Interest; Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) Discusses the Oversight Investigation into Elaine Chao & Lewandowski's Testimony. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired September 17, 2019 - 11:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And thank you all for being with us today. We'll see you back here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.


"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

New accusations all pointing the finger at Iran. Once again, Saudi and U.S. investigators have determined with high probability that the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities this weekend we carried out from an Iranian base. That is according to a source close to the investigation. And that the massive explosions at the oil facilities early Saturday were the work of low-flying cruise missiles assisted by drones.

And right now, President Trump is offering up really contradictory messages on how he believes the U.S. is planning to respond. You will recall, of course, the "locked and loaded" tweet from this weekend. Let's recall that first. At this point, he's declaring it's too early to say.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Have you seen evidence, proof that Iran was behind the attack.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's looking that way. We'll have some pretty good -- we're having some very strong studies done but it's certainly looking that way at this moment. And we'll let you know. As soon as we find out definitively, we'll let you know but it does look that way.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you want war with Iran?

TRUMP: Do I want war? I don't want war with anybody. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: All right, let's get the latest first from the region. CNN diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson, is joining us from the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Nic, it's some of your reporting that's bringing out some of these new accusations being leveled. What more are you hearing from your sources tonight?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, what the sources here with knowledge of the investigation are saying is that some of these missile systems, these low-flying cruise missiles with a bolt-on drone technology with them didn't make it to their targets to these oil facilities, that they fell short in the desert, they didn't explode fully. And that is giving U.S. and Saudi investigators access to some relatively undamaged parts of these missile Systems.

This is what has led the Saudis to say that the weapons were made in Iran and the investigators, both Saudi and U.S. investigators now have a high probability of believing that these weapons systems took off from bases inside Iran, close to the border with Iraq, flew over Iraq and over Kuwait and over the desert to these oil facilities.

The Saudis have, if you will, more air security protection from a threat from the sea. So they flew over the desert rather than the sea to get to the targets.

But just to give you a little bit of context here, Kate, about a year and a half ago, I was, with my CNN team, the first journalist to show what the Saudis were claiming were Iranian-manufactured cruise missiles being fired from Yemen. Different case. These definitely not fired from Yemen, according to the Saudis, these latest ones.

But the point being that the Saudis showed us these weapons systems, said they were from Iran. The U.N. later investigated and concluded, yes, the weapons systems were made in Iran.

What the Saudis were doing back then and what we understand they're doing now is examining the circuitry on board these missile systems because they can see where the circuit boards were made, where the components were made, and that allows them to draw a very strong conclusion about whether the whole system itself was manufactured.

They'll also look at the motor systems on these rockets as well on these cruise missiles and that will also give them insight over how far they could have flown and, therefore, a better determination of who actually fired them -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: And when, if there's such evidence like that, that is going to be crucial in laying out to the public when they make a startling -- the important and very serious accusation that it is coming directly from Iran, from an Iranian base, and who is behind what happened.

Nic, your reporting has been amazing. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Let's go to Iran. That's where CNN senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is for us.

Nick, the more evidence, the more information that is coming out from sources, it is all seeming to point the finger more and more at Iran. But with that in mind, what has been the reaction there?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they haven't changed their initial position. When first on early Saturday U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed the finger at Iran as being behind these attacks without any evidence. Iran said it wasn't them. Then they said the U.S. policy changed from maximum pressure to maximum deceit, referring to Mike Pompeo's remarks.

And even as recently as last night, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pushed back again to the idea that Iran has always maintained that this essentially the Yemeni Houthi rebels firing 10 drones towards these oil facilities.


I should point out, at this stage, we are hearing increasing details as to what investigators believed happened but they haven't shared or made public the evidence that's caused them to come to those conclusions.

U.S. officials have not done that notably over this period of time. So obviously Iranian officials will be waiting to see what evidence can be publicly put forward, Kate?

But many are asking here, whoever you want to blame for the attack, what is the next move, if it the case that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. choose to point the finger at Iran, what are they going to do about it. This is an area in the part of the world where a lot of tension has been building over the past months.

Will the Saudis or the U.S. retaliate? Is there a possible opening for diplomacy now the main Iran hawk in the White House, John Bolton, the national security adviser, has been fired? Many thought that was the case in previous days but it seems like Mike Pompeo's comments were very accusatory, seemed to make diplomacy less likely.

Donald Trump talked about how he might like to talk, sort of wavered over the ideas whether he needed preconditions satisfied first.

Today, we have a definitive answer about negotiations from Iran. The most authoritative voice in the country, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, came forward in a long speech today saying very clearly there will not be no negotiation with the United States at any level.

He goes on to say, "Sometimes the officials say negotiations without preconditions, sometimes they say negotiations with 12 conditions. Such remarks are either due to their turbulent politics or a trick to confuse others."

He even said the government is unanimous in this verdict, from president to foreign minister, in case there's any confusion.

Frankly, here in Tehran, he holds out the slightly humiliating idea that if Donald Trump took back his remarks, apologized, rejoined the nuclear deal, then he might talk to him but, at this stage, diplomacy seems closed off.

Which leads to the question of what comes next. Does Donald Trump really want military action or, as the Saudis seem to be doing, are they building a case in the international community and hoping for broad international pressure -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: That is exactly right.

Nick, thank you so much. It's really important that you're there. Really appreciate it.

To try to get to some of the questions that Nick is raising, let me bring in Ambassador Dennis Ross. He's advised four U.S. presidents on the Middle East, and most recently was special adviser to President Obama. He's also the author of a new book called "Be Strong and of Good Courage, How Israel's Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny."

Ambassador, thank you so much for being here.


BOLDUAN: On what I was just talking about with Nic and Nick, can you give me just your kind of expert assessment? Do you believe it's what we're hearing, these accusations, do you believe it is Iran directly involved here?

ROSS: I do believe Iran was directly involved. And I'm worried about it because it crosses a threshold for them. Typically, the Iranians always work through proxies, they always do things through indirection. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was very much scarred by the Iran/Iraq war and has tried to avoid direct conflicts.

To have allowed the Revolutionary Guard to launch missiles from an Iranian base is unprecedented in this kind of a context. So I am worried about that.

I don't believe we would be hearing some of the reports we're hearing unless, in fact, some of the weapons, as Nick was describing this, actually did not explode and the Saudis probably have them. They have their own experts looking at it but they have American experts looking at the weapons.

It not just who made them. The nature of these weapons and also they can determine where they came from. So this will be something that I think we will know.

I think, no doubt, this is being shared with the Europeans and others.

I think the key right now is, is this being shared as to create a case to politically isolate Iran, to get the Europeans to do something they haven't been prepared to do before, which is to say, we, too, will apply sanctions to the Iranians unless we get some kind of commitment from the Iranians that they will stop further kind of attacks, they will agree to begin to resume negotiations, everything will be put on the table?

Or is this being done to lay the basis to have some sort of military retaliation, even if it's designed to be a very limited one in terms of targets and duration?

BOLDUAN: And you raised something so important. How crucial is it that whatever evidence they have, what they have it, if they have it, that it is made available to the public to see with the situation -- I mean, as you describe in an opinion piece that you wrote this is basically on the cusp of the first foreign policy crisis of the Trump administration.

ROSS: I think the essence of what you're asking is crucial at this point.

If the information that we have is not made public, you will have many in this country and internationally highly skeptical of the claims. There's enough about this administration that raises questions and doubts that unless what can be presented is very clear, very tangible, unmistakable, it will be hard to make that case.


But if we have in fact what was being described earlier, what Nick was reporting on, if there are large fragments or weapons in tact that have been recovered, this will be something that can be presented publicly, the Iranians will be exposed for having lied, which should damage their credibility, and it certainly will put them on the defensive.

If there's one outcome that is good above everything else, what the Iranians have sought to do all along is to create this kind of ambiguity, have plausible deniability. This will deny them that. That in itself will make it much less likely they will take other such steps. But that's really the starting point for whatever it is we do.

BOLDUAN: You lay out -- in your piece you wrote for the "Washington Post," you lay out a few things that the administration should be doing in response to what has occurred in Saudi. One of the things that you write, that the problem is that "our maximum pressure is putting the Islamic Republic in a corner economically but not politically or militarily."

And I wanted to get your take on why sanctions aren't enough.

But also, when I just heard you mentioned that they could be making the case for a military strike, Lindsey Graham just said to CNN earlier this morning that he thinks the administration should be considering striking Iranian oil refineries in response. You're take?

ROSS: Let's take both parts of that. One of the reasons I think the economic sanctions are not enough is because basically we have succeeded in isolating ourselves, not the Iranians, politically.

If you really want to put maximum pressure on the Iranians, they have to see the whole world is lining up against them. We have a track record of seeing when they change their behavior, when they adjust. When they decide that the price as they measure is too high, they adjust their behavior.

The economic pressure is hurting them, no question it's hurting them. But the decision they made because they're not political isolated -- and the political isolation came from us walking away from the Iran nuclear deal -- because they're not politically isolated, they decided, OK, we will show the Americans that we will show we can put our version of maximum pressure on them by pressuring their friends and their interests and become increasingly embolden.

To launch an attack from their own territory, which is really an act of war, shows, as I said, they're not being deterred from us or by us. That may well be one of the reasons you have to think about, is political isolation enough. Must they not also see that something they highly value can be put at risk by a military strike?

The danger is once you launch a military action, does it stop at that point? How do you bring it to an end? Do you have a strategy for taking this and turning it into some kind of a political outcome? Can you turn it into diplomatic leverage?

I do think, to come back to what you were asking before, I do think it is essential for us to be able to make a public case that is understood and accepted internationally. That in itself will change the calculus of the Iranians. Now, whether that's enough, I think you then come back to the question of, does there have to be some kind of military strike.

I think, again, the answered should be one that you come up with by knowing, OK, what's your next step after that, how does it fit into a larger strategy. I think that still is a question mark that many have about the administration's approach.

BOLDUAN: Ambassador, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate your perspective this morning.

ROSS: My pleasure. Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, today's showdown on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers gearing up for what could be real fireworks. A hearing with Trump's former campaign manager. But why is Corey Lewandowski saying he's excited to face questions from Congress? That's coming up.


Plus, why is Republican presidential candidate, Mark Sanford, appearing with a cardboard cutout of President Trump? He's here to explain ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BOLDUAN: President Trump's former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, is headed for Capitol Hill and he's ready for battle. He's expected to appear before the House Judiciary Committee in a couple of hours in what will be the panel's first high-profile impeachment hearing.

Heading in, this is what Lewandowski has to say in a tweet: "Excited about the opportunity to remind the American people today there was no collusion, no obstruction. There were lots of angry Democrats who tried to take down a duly elected president."

Did you also notice the end of that tweet there? Offering an important note, Lewandowski is considering running for Senate in New Hampshire in 2020.

Joining me more is senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju.

Manu, what's going to happen in this hearing? What are lawmakers expecting to get out of it?


MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Democrats want to ask Lewandowski about allegations detailed in the Mueller report about potential obstruction of justice. Namely the president talking to Lewandowski, asking him to apparently curtail, go to approach Jeff Sessions and, then the attorney general, and urge Jeff Sessions to curtail the Mueller probe.

According to the report, Lewandowski was unsuccessful in delivering that message to Jeff Sessions. But the president tried repeatedly to get Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself from overseeing the probe, limiting it in scope, and to exclude the Trump campaign as part of that investigation. Those questions will continue.

The White House is already taking steps to limit the scope of Lewandowski's testimony, saying he cannot talk about any conversations with the president beyond those that were outlined in the Mueller report. And Democrats are objecting, saying there's no right to block his testimony given that Lewandowski was never a White House official.

But the White House also denying testimony from two former White House aides, Rick Dearborn and Rob Porter, saying they have immunity from testifying before Congress. So expect Democrats to object to that effort as well, saying this is all impeachable offenses by the White House instructing its former aides to not comply with congressional subpoenas -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: The White House trying to make the case that communication is still confidential.

But, Manu, there's another big move happening in another House committee. House Oversight has launched an investigation into Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. What have you heard about that?

RAJU: Two Democrats on the committee, the chairman of the full committee, Elijah Cummings, as well as another committee members, Raja Krishnamoorthi, sent a letter to the Transportation Department yesterday demanding information regarding media reports suggesting there could be conflicts of interest, alleging that she may have used for her official position to benefit a shipping company owned by her father and her sisters.

The Transportation Department is pushing back, saying the media reports, in their words, they are stale. And also saying they would comply with the requests for the documents. And the Democrats, Kate, want information by the end of the month -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Manu, thank you so much.

He mentioned Raja Krishnamoorthi. And joining me right now is Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, of Illinois. He sits on House Oversight.

Congressman, thank you for being here.



BOLDUAN: Just bouncing off of what Manu was laying out, the reports of potential questions about conflict of interest, and with the secretary of transportation, have gone on for quite a bit. But I would like to know, what do you hope to get from Secretary Chao now?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, thanks for having me on and thanks for bringing attention to this very important issue.

Unfortunately, there's a pattern in the Trump administration where cabinet official after cabinet official appears to be using their public office often times for private gain. And that's the concern here.

Essentially, Secretary Chao may have used her office to benefit her father's shipping company. That shipping company is based in New York City but it actually has extensive business with the Chinese government and has bought numerous ships from Chinese-owned government shipyards financed through Chinese government loans.

There are two issues that have come up in media reports. One is that she officiated a signing ceremony between that shipping company owned by her father, as well as a company, a Japanese-owned company that is within her own oversight.

And there are questions swirling around why she was there, why she was present and whether any influence was exerted to make that deal come alive.

The second issue is that she also has extensive holdings in a company call Vulcan Materials, which is a road construction company. She has not liquidated her holdings. And, as you know, she has a lot of oversight of roads and bridges and transportation networks. That's a problem potentially as well. BOLDUAN: The investigation is fraught with political land mines.

She's not only a cabinet secretary. She also married to Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate.

Her response, Congressman, to the news articles raising questions about all of this is the following: "Recent articles attempting to fabricate a web of old tired innuendos and baseless inferences, reflecting a lack of understanding of the department's responsibilities while demonstrating deep cultural misunderstandings."

What do you say to that?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I think some of those statements are a little disingenuous.

I authored a provision of a law, which states very simply within the Department of Transportation that no officer or government official, including the secretary of transportation should use that public office for private gain. That is what this inquiry is about. And we're just trying to get to the bottom of it as part of our oversight duties.


BOLDUAN: Very interested to hear what you get, because the secretary's office says they will be complying.


BOLDUAN: So let us see.


BOLDUAN: I want to ask you about some other news happening right now on the Hill. Corey Lewandowski, on the Hill today, will be before the Judiciary Committee for its first impeachment hearing, if you will. If he says he's not going to say anything beyond the Mueller report, do you think it's worth having him testify?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Yes, I understand that he's potentially running for the Senate in 2020 so it will be interesting to see if he makes an announcement at this hearing.

But I think there are two issues. One is that even the allegations within the report, namely, that he may have been asked to attempt to obstruct justice by President Trump, but he refused to carry out the order that Mr. Trump asked them to do, is very interesting. Why did he not do that? And why did he ask someone else to do that? And why did Mr. Dearborn, the other person he asked to carry out that order, not do it either?

Secondly, there are no privilege issues here. He was never an employee of the president. So I think that any assertions that there's privilege issues is mistaken.

BOLDUAN: Let us see what happens today. Congressman, thanks for coming on.


BOLDUAN: I really appreciate.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Thank you, Kate.

BOLDUAN: With all the committees you're involved in, you have a lot on your plate right now.


BOLDUAN: Thank you for your time.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Just a slow fake news day here, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes. That's you and me both.

Coming up -- thank you so much.

Coming up for us, he's a former Republican governor and a former Republican congressman from South Carolina. So why is the South Carolina Republican Party scrapping a Republican presidential primary that he would be part of? Mark Sanford joins us next.