Return to Transcripts main page


Mechanic Accused of Sabotage Had ISIS Video on Phone; Interview With Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT); President Trump Names New National Security Adviser. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 18, 2019 - 16:00   ET



ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: He says he's going to keep the campaign going until the end of the month.

A little good news to send you on your way to "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER," which starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: A new man in the president's ear to help decide the next step with Iran.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news, President Trump names a new national security adviser and he turns up the heat on Iran, and as the U.S. government claims new evidence may show Iran has launched the missiles that blew up a Saudi oil field.

Also breaking today, possible terrorist ties. Prosecutors say an airline mechanic accused of sabotaging a passenger jet had a graphic ISIS video on his phone, and that is just the beginning.

Plus, stonewalled. America's intelligence chief denies Congress a look at an urgent whistle-blower complaint, as mandated by law. What is the Trump administration hiding?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we begin with the world lead today.

President Trump today trotting out his fourth national security adviser in less than three years amid growing tensions with Iran. Robert O'Brien, who served as special envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department, has been tapped for the new role one day after the president quoted O'Brien as calling him, the president, the -- quote -- "greatest hostage negotiator in history."

The president today also announcing as part of the response to the bombing of the Saudi oil fields plans to substantially increase sanctions against the Iranian regime and warning the U.S. has additional options on the table, including potential military confrontation.

Right now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Saudi Arabia reviewing the evidence collected from the attacks, which Pompeo called a -- quote -- "act of war." Pompeo over the weekend directly blamed Iran for the attack, though President Trump has been a bit more circumspect about definitively pinning the blame.

The president is being pushed and pulled in every direction. So what will Mr. Trump ultimately do?

CNN's Barbara Starr kicks off our coverage from the Pentagon.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Standing next to his new national security adviser, President Trump still stopping short of military action against Iran for its alleged attack on Saudi oil facilities.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're really at a point now where we know very much what happened.

STARR: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shortly before landing in Saudi Arabia for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told reporters that the strikes on Saudi oil facilities were an Iranian attack on an unprecedented scale, calling it an act of war.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There were no Americans killed in this attack, but any time you have an act of war of this nature, there is always risk that that could happen.

STARR: However, Pompeo did not provide details definitively showing the attack was launched from inside Iran.

Today, Saudi defense officials showing the world remnants of what they say are alleged Iranian missiles and drones used in the massive attack that disrupted world oil markets. Iran denies involvement, but the Saudis insist the weapons are of Iranian origin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That attack was launched from the north and was unquestionably sponsored by Iran.

STARR: While, via Twitter, President Trump announcing he's imposing more sanctions. The Pentagon has been told to ensure plans for military options are up to date, but there is no indication of imminent U.S. military action.

Several officials telling CNN any strikes would have to be a coalition effort and President Trump wants the Saudis involved.

ROBERT O'BRIEN, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We're looking at those issues now and getting briefed up.

STARR: What to do next about Iran may be front and center for Robert O'Brien, the U.S. hostage negotiator Trump named as his new national security adviser.

TRUMP: He did a tremendous job on hostage negotiation, really tremendous, like unparalleled. We have had tremendous success in that regard.

STARR: One senior White House official says it shows Trump wants a consensus-builder, not a showboater, a dig perhaps at predecessor John Bolton, a well-known hawk.

O'BRIEN: A peace through strength posture that will keep the American people safe from many challenges around the world today.


STARR: And in the latest development, it has been announced that Saudi Arabia has now joined the international coalition to try and ensure maritime security in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr for us at the Pentagon, thanks so much.

Joining me now is Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

A U.S. official tells CNN that they have imagery showing weapons used in the attack being staged in Iran. Have you seen this intelligence? Are you convinced Iran is responsible?


SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): I have read some limited intelligence that was provided to the United States Congress.

Upon reading it, it seems to me there was likely Iranian involvement in this attack. But I think the details are still to be decided. And I would like the chance to be able to talk to those who have interpreted the intelligence we have.

That is an important question. But this idea that the administration has that we have some secret defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, I think, is really dangerous. Ultimately, this was not an attack on the United States. This was an attack on Saudi oil assets. And this administration is acting as if we are the security guarantor for all of our friends and allies in the Middle East.

That is never how we have conducted our business, in part because we know that, when the United States gets militarily involved in the Middle East, more things go wrong than go right. So this is a moment, I think, for very careful consideration of what we do and what we advise the Saudis to do.

TAPPER: The argument would be, I think, Senator, that the attack on the Saudi oil field is an attack on the world economy, not just on one country. Do you disagree with that?

MURPHY: Well, let's just remember how this all started, Jake. It started because the United States pulled out of the Iranian nuclear agreement and then started sanctioning the Iranian economy, limiting their access to the world oil market as well.

And at some point, there has to be an adult who is going to start a de-escalatory cycle. We are caught in escalatory cycle in which each side decides to respond in kind. It will eventually get us into a war.

And so what I would recommend to this administration is that they find a way to start talking directly to the Iranians about how to get us out of a pattern that is headed towards a place where no one wants.

TAPPER: It seems as though the U.S. government takes very seriously the intelligence and information being provided to the U.S. government, to the Trump administration by the Saudi government, the Saudi foreign minister and others.

Why should the U.S. believe a word they say, given how they blatantly lied about how they murdered "Washington Post" columnist Jamal Khashoggi?

MURPHY: Right.

Remember, for 20 days, the Saudis told us they had nothing to do with Jamal Khashoggi's murder. And, in fact, they had not only murdered him, dismembered him, and knew about it for those entire two weeks.

Add to that the fact that they have been misrepresenting the nature of their military involvement in Yemen for years, intentionally targeting civilians, when they told us they weren't.

I just find the whole nature of the relationship to be preposterous. The Trump administration acts as if we're the inferior partner. When the Saudis need our help, we go to Saudi Arabia, instead of the Saudis coming here. We decide that we are going to wait until the Saudis tell us what they want to do.

That is not how this relationship works. The Saudis need the United States much more than we need them, especially when today their oil isn't as important to us as it used to be.

And I wish that we would act start looking we are what we are, which is the dominant partner in this relationship.

TAPPER: Let's say that the Iranians did carry out this strike, not just the Houthi rebels who are allied with Iran, but actually Iran.

What do you think would be the appropriate response, if anything?

MURPHY: So, the response would be to try to convince all parties in the region to stop this series of escalatory measures.

I get it that it would probably make a lot of Americans feel good if we responded tit-for-tat. But if that gets us into a shooting war with the Iranians, that is not good for anybody.

So, at some point, there has to be a movement to end these escalations. And so, even if the Iranians were directly involved, it may be that the Saudis decide to take action themselves.

Why on earth have we sold the Saudis hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons if they can't defend their own territory? The United States should be playing the role of the de-escalator here, the force for peace and for a reasonable outcome to what is an unreasonable escalation of actions right now.

TAPPER: Would you support President Trump meeting with Iranian President Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly, given what has occurred over the last several days with Iran, or even, independent of that, just to try to improve relations?

MURPHY: I think that we should start talking to the Iranians right now about how to stop this crisis from getting any worse.

My only worry about the president talking to Rouhani is that it might make things worse, not better. If there is no exchange of diplomatic priorities ahead of that meeting, I'm not sure we come out better at the end of it.

So how diplomacy normally works is that you actually have mid-level bureaucrats and diplomats talking to each other before the principals get together. That is not how this administration has worked. And we see how it has gone in North Korea.

So I generally don't have any problem with talking to our adversaries, but, in this situation, I think it might be better for Secretary Pompeo or people that work for him to do some outreach ahead of a meeting between Trump and Rouhani.


TAPPER: Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat from Connecticut, thanks so much for your time, sir. Appreciate it.

MURPHY: Thanks.

TAPPER: Alarming revelations today about a commercial airline worker accused of trying to sabotage a flight right before takeoff in the U.S. -- why prosecutors believe he has multiple ties to the terrorist group ISIS. That is next.

Plus, the teenager from Sweden who took Capitol Hill by storm today.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: We're back with breaking news in our national lead now.

Authorities alleging today that the American Airlines mechanic accused of trying to sabotage a plane before takeoff, the one who claimed he did so in order to earn more overtime pay, has ties to ISIS.

[16:15:10] They say not only did Abdul-Majeed Alani have an ISIS video on his phone, but the suspect claims his brother is actually a member of the terrorist group.

I want to bring in CNN's Rene Marsh.

Rene, what else are we learning about the suspect's alleged ties to the terrorist group?

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION AND AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: That's right. A lot came out in federal court and keep in mind this is in the context of a bond hearing where these prosecutors were arguing that his bond be denied.

All that being said, besides the ISIS video that they say not only was on his cell phone but that he shared it with others, they also say that Alani told fellow employees at American Airlines that he travelled to Iraq to visit his brother who was a member of ISIS. Prosecutors also said that the defendant's roommate said that he traveled to Iraq because his brother had been kidnapped. Another allegation that came up in court was that on Alani's cell phone, there was a news article that he received from an unknown sender which essentially referenced the Lion airplane crash.

Remember that was a plane crash that involved that 737 MAX. That was the first crash involving the 737 MAX. That article made specific references to the air data module system that happens to be the same system that he tampered with on that commercial airliner.

TAPPER: But, Rene, we should underline this -- despite all these allegations in court and this bond hearing, Alani is not charged with any terror-related crimes, right?

MARSH: That's right. I mean, at this point, he's not. He's charged with tampering with this plane. But that's not to say at some point additional charges will be added. But as I speak to you, he is not facing any charges having to do with terrorism.

TAPPER: All right. Rene Marsh, thanks so much.

I want to bring in former CIA counterterrorism official Phil Mudd.

Phil, what's your initial response when you hear about this long-time airline employee Alani having alleged ISIS ties?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: My first response is, look, you're going to look at this and say, he must have been an ISIS member, I'd have a couple of basic questions. Number one, why are you putting something over a sensor instead of taking the plane down if your intent is to commit an act of terrorism?

The other thing is that terrorists I'm experienced with, once you take them down, they want to send a message to the world they're proud of what they do. Why does it take the prosecutors to say he's an ISIS member? Why doesn't he stand there and say I did it for the cause of god, I'm a member of ISIS? This is confusing, this one. TAPPER: Well, also, I mean, I just have to say, I have no idea about

this individual's ties to ISIS or his guilt or his innocence, but I have to say, prosecutors often, especially in a bond hearing, juice up as much information as they have to try to get the judge or the jury -- the judge in this case on their side.

MUDD: Sure. And I'm with them on this. Let me give you an example of why. If you see a video on someone's camera, if that individual has traveled to Iraq, obviously, the heartland of ISIS, one of the questions you might have before judges, it's very complicated, judge, to look at a war zone and determine what this individual was doing in Iraq and what his brother was doing, what his relationship with terrorists was, whether he sent money to terrorists years ago.

So, they've got to investigate this even if they don't level charges of terrorism. I don't see why they don't tell the judge: leave him in jail. We've got to look.

TAPPER: Although, I have to say, I mean, the individual has a brother who is a member of ISIS, according to him.

MUDD: Right.

TAPPER: And he did this act. He committed this act. He had the stuff on his phone. Even if he doesn't have ties to ISIS ultimately or didn't have a terrorist intent, ultimately, you'd think there'd be some sort of screening process where he wouldn't be, you know, allowed to work on planes.

MUDD: I mean, that makes sense. But what the heck are you going to do. Once you get money in the door, you're going to have a comprehensive program whether you're at the CIA or American Airlines, United Airlines, any airline around the world, or an airport. You're going to have screen program to look at people's cell phones? Are you going to screen their Facebook pages? Are you going to screen their private travel to determine where they could go and where they can't?

On principle, you want to say, we're going to look at people who have access to an airplane over time and practice, I don't know how you do it, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mudd, thanks so much. I appreciate it.

MUDD: Thank you.

TAPPER: The president said today that he's building a border wall. Note the word "new" is not in the line. We're going to separate the promises made versus reality, next.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: We are back with our politics lead now. In the next hour, President Trump will visit a section of the border wall in California. He's anxious to show his voters that he's making good on a key campaign promise to build the wall, even though we should point out no new wall is being built yet where some sort of barrier did not already exist. What has happened is barriers have been constructed to replace what was there already. And, of course, Mexico is not paying for any of it.

But be that as it may, CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports for us now, homeland security, the department overseeing this all, is being led by acting chiefs, with another top official of that department having just been fired.



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump will close out a fundraising swing on the West Coast with a stop at one of his biggest campaign promises. A promise he hasn't fulfilled yet.

TRUMP: We're going to show you a lot of wall. We're building a lot of wall.

COLLINS: Despite that claim, no new wall has been built along the southern border as of August. Though his administration argues that replacing old barriers with new barriers counts.


Trump's border tour comes one day after the White House fired the Department of Homeland Security's general counsel. John Mitnick was expected to be pushed out months ago after Trump's close adviser Stephen Miller pushed for him to go during a purge of the department's leadership.

But he managed to hang on for several more months. His departure now adds to the revolving door of officials at DHS which critics say there is a void in the department supposed to oversee the nation's borders and domestic terrorism threats.

And Trump isn't leaving California without one last swipe at the Democratic stronghold. Today, he announced his administration will revoke the state's authority to set its own vehicle emissions standards. That authority let the state set stricter standards than federal rules and 12 other states followed in California's place.

The state's Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom firing back at the president and his party.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM (D-CA): I don't know what the hell's happened to the Republican Party. And by the way, where is the Republican Party right now?


COLLINS: Now, Jake, the president might be clashing with Democrats while he's here but he's raising a ton of money while doing so. He's expected to take home about $15 million after a two-day fundraising swing over here on the West Coast as he heads back to Washington later tonight.

TAPPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins traveling with the president, thanks so much.

Let's chew over this with our experts.

Let me start with you. This is a new replacement border wall which had previously been there. Does President Trump -- does it matter to his base if there is any new wall over new places that had not had any barrier there before?

MARK MCKINNON, FORMER ADVISER TO GEORGE W. BUSH & JOHN MCCAIN: I think it does, Jake. I mean, this is the prominent, preeminent thing that the president campaigned on and which he got all the support. I don't think anybody really expected him -- that Mexico is going to pay for the wall. But they expected some wall and that's why you see the president so desperate to appropriate funds from wherever he can to get some new wall.

And I think, yes, there's going -- there is going to be some bad commercials of Democrats down at the border filming no wall has been built.

TAPPER: And while President Trump is trying to fulfill this wall, we should point out, you have an acting Department of Homeland Security secretary, acting ICE director, acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director, acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner. Are we to assume that Majority Leader McConnell just doesn't care about advise-and-consent anymore? It just does its (INAUDIBLE) --

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, for some of them they have no nominee at all. There's like a real continuity problem here, just sort of basic governing issue with getting people through the process.

As far as the wall goes, I don't -- I might actually disagree with you. I'm not sure that Trump supporters care. If he stands in front of a wall-type structure and says, we're doing some things and we put some new stuff up, they're mostly happy because they think someone else is fighting him on it, right? Like he's fighting their battle and then maybe he hasn't gotten all the stuff done yet, but I don't -- I'm not sure they care that much.

TAPPER: Is this an issue that Democrats can actually use the way Mark suggests or does it matter because of what Mary Katharine says?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm not sure if they can fight the fight on his terms which is oh, he didn't get the wall built. What I am interested in is, you know, there's some reporting in "The Washington Post" about these budget requests from Republicans and Democrats over the years where they warned that a lot of these projects that are being canceled would do things like make a conditions for living for military families dire and make schools uninhabitable or unlivable, and can that be used as a means of saying, look what he's doing. This is a political prop and he's putting men and women and their families at risk.

MCKINNON: Especially if there is a crisis in one of those areas and --

PSAKI: Exactly, and there could be, unfortunately, because of this. So I don't think they can win and play his game like it's there's not new wall, but there are other ways they can play this game.

TAPPER: And, Jamal, speaking of playing their game, the president is in California. The administration is announcing it's going to get rid of the state's ability to set its own emissions standards. I mean, there is an argument here about whatever happened to state's rights.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: You know, I think part of the reason California gets to do this is because Washington is so dysfunctional when it comes time to deal with anything with climate change, to raise emission standards. I was chief of staff for a member of Congress from Michigan for a year and I've got to tell you, this is never something that anybody from that state wanted to hear about. But if California did it and the other companies -- companies would have to acknowledge it. Once you do it for California, they can't do 50 different sets of standards. It doesn't make sense.

But it is amazing that the Republicans who have been pro-state rights people now say when a state wants to do something good for the climate and the environment, the answer is no.

TAPPER: And something else is interesting, Mark. President Trump expected to net as much as $15 million just on this trip. That is $3 million more than Kamala Harris raised in the whole second quarter of the campaign, senator from California.

He's going to have a big war chest and that is going to be a big fear for Democrats.

MCKINNON: Monstrous. And, you know, this is just an example of the power of incumbency and Trump didn't raise a lot of money the first time around, but he has the highest support among a political party of any president ever, except for George W. Bush right after 9/11. So -- and --