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Angry Crowds Attack U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; White House Responds to Attack on U.S. Embassy; Schumer Calls NYT Report "Game Changer" And Demands Witnesses; Lawyer for Indicted Giuliani Associate Asks Court's Permission to Share Material with House Investigators; Prosecutors Say Stabbing Suspect Researched Hitler & Synagogues; Rep. Eliot Engel Discusses New York Stabbing Attack & Anti-Semitism. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2019 - 11:00   ET



RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Ryan Nobles, in today for Kate Bolduan. Thanks for joining me for a special New Year's Eve edition of AT THIS HOUR.

We start with a developing story out of Iraq where we're seeing angry crowds attack the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Today's violence growing more intense after hundreds of pro-Iranian protesters marched through what's normally a restricted part of the Iraqi capital. Some can be seen setting fires to blast walls surrounding the compound, smashing embassy windows, and trying to break down doors.




NOBLES: And the backlash you're seeing set off by Sunday's U.S. airstrikes against an Iranian backed militia the U.S. blames for killing an American contractor last week. The sudden escalation between the U.S. and that group now fueling calls for American forces to leave the country.

Meanwhile, President Trump is tweeting about the violence in Baghdad saying in part, quote, "Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible."

We have team coverage of these violent protests. CNN senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, is in Istanbul, and White House correspondent, Jeremy Diamond, traveling with the president. He's in West Palm Beach.

Arwa, let's start with you.

What more are you learning about these protests?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ryan, based on live images that we're seeing broadcast, it seems like, on the one hand, the crowd has gotten smaller, but they appear to have managed to have set fire to this enclosed area that is where you would go to get your I.D. badge and go through the security scanners before actually setting foot into the compound itself.

Over the last few hours, we saw this crowd throw stones, attempt to scale the walls, set fires, chant anti-American slogans, demand America leave Iraq.

And there's a couple of important points to make about who these protesters are because, Ryan, these aren't just ordinary protesters. The vast majority of them are members of what's known as the PMS, the Popular Mobilization Force. This is a paramilitary force ostensibly part of the Iraqi security forces, but mostly made up of former Shia militiamen from a number of different very powerful groups, many of whom have very close ties to Iran.

And that is exactly what Kataib Hezbollah is. That is the militia that Americans struck in those five strikes that took place on Sunday. From the perspective of the Iraqi government, those strikes were as if the Americans had struck at the Iraqi security forces themselves.

We have heard from the prime minister who was trying to calm down the situation, trying to get the protesters to express their grief, express their anger but without causing a threat to the U.S. embassy compound itself.

We do understand that the ambassador is not in Iraq. He is on a preplanned vacation. He's been out of the country for about the last week.

As far as we are aware at this stage, U.S. embassy staff have not evacuated, but they are on lockdown.

As for Kataib Hezbollah itself, again, that militia that was targeted by the U.S., part of this Iraqi paramilitary force, they put out a statement saying that this protest was to voice their anger but also to show the Americans that they could basically, literally, go right up to their doorstep and attempt, they were saying, to try to damage this image of America being this almighty force, to paraphrase what their statement was saying.

Everyone is watching this incredibly closely right now, Ryan, because if this escalates even further, the consequences could be very damaging.

NOBLES: Arwa Damon with the latest happening in Iraq. Arwa, thank you for that.

Let's go to Jeremy Diamond who is traveling with the president.

Jeremy, how is the Trump administration responding?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ryan, we're hearing from the president himself via Twitter, and the president clearly is trying to hold Iran directly responsible for the protests that we are seeing now happening outside and in parts of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

The president tweeting that, "Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. embassy in Iraq," and he says that, "They will be held fully responsible." So we see also there a warning from the president.

Now, as for whether there will be any U.S. action as a result of this, the White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham, she told me in a statement this is an escalation from Iran and also saying, "It will be the president's choice how and when we respond to their escalation."


But beyond the president's words and the words of his press secretary, we are also seeing some action from other elements of the Trump administration.

The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, he has been on the phone with the prime minister of Iraq as well as the president of Iraq. And we are also seeing action from the Pentagon, sending two Apache helicopters to fly over the embassy in Baghdad in a show of force as well as sending additional Marines, a small number of additional Marines. That is according to a U.S. official.

Now, this is all, of course, part of a broader proxy fight between the United States and Iran, and the president clearly is not shying away from that.

In fact, we're seeing in another tweet from the president sent out just moments ago where he is saying, "To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don't want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time."

So the president there, as he is seeing these attacks on the U.S. embassy in Iraq, these protests, he is saying, look, I would also like to see counter Iranian protests as we are seeing these counter American protests happening in Baghdad -- Ryan?

NOBLES: All right, Jeremy Diamond with the latest on the White House response to this volatile situation in Iraq. Jeremy, thank you very much.

Let's talk more about this with CNN global affairs analysts and contributor for "Time" magazine, Kim Dozier.

Kim, how precarious is the security situation for American personnel at the embassy and what does it mean for the U.S. troops that are stationed there?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, the number of embassy personnel has drawn down drastically, so they have a plan for this, including, if necessary, an evacuation plan.

And the protesters didn't get beyond, as Arwa was saying, the main entry gate. They were fired on with tear gas by Marines inside.

But also their own organizers called them back. This was a show of force by the Iraqi government saying, you know, we told you not to do these strikes, and so they allowed this protest to happen.

In the protest crowd -- and it was only a few hundred people, unlike the millions who have demonstrated across the river in Baghdad's Freedom Square, but it represented the key members of the Iranian- backed armed groups that also have a block in parliament.

One of the leaders in the crowd has been sanctioned by the U.S. government just this month for taking support from Iran.

So this was a demonstration of their political power and also by the Iraqi government security forces allowing the protesters through, it was a sort of a relief valve to express their displeasure.

The U.S. military compound, which is within an Iraqi base, is just across the street, so this was sort of a controlled display of violence, but everybody drew back when it could have gone too far.

The problem is, this is fueling -- this whole back and forth is fueling Iraqi politicians who have been pushing for a long time to reduce or eliminate the U.S. presence in Iraq. And it is unfortunately weakening those politicians who would like to try to strengthen U.S. political ties.

NOBLES: So to expand upon that, obviously, as this conflict grows, this airstrike, in particular, the backlash from it, how damaging is that to the relationship with Iraq and trying to build those coalitions that you're talking about?

DOZIER: Well, this tension has been building for a while in that, over the past year or so, there have been Iranian military missiles smuggled across Iraq, and the U.S. has warned Iraqi officials, you've got to stop this.

You've seen two of those munition sites hit by Israeli attacks. Officials have confirmed to me those were Israeli strikes. But in the last two months, U.S. troops based on Iraqi military bases have been hit 11 times. So after multiple warnings, the U.S. felt that it had to take action.

The problem is this is happening across this -- against this larger backdrop of how the maximum-pressure campaign by the U.S. against Iran is playing out in Iraq.

Basically, the Iran's Quds force, it's external militia arm, was supporting a number of Iraqi armed groups, the ones you saw protesting outside the embassy. As Iran has run out of cash, it's had to cut off a lot of those groups.

Those groups, in turn, have become more predatory, taking money from their own people, setting up everything from impromptu check points to stealing Iraqi government contracts. And they're not actually improving anything, just pocketing the cash. And that has created the tension on the streets where the Iraqis have risen up against this kind of corruption.

The problem is those Iraqis aren't very organized. They haven't been able to choose who they want to stand up against these highly organized Iranian-backed political groups, so you see the U.S. position weakening and, unfortunately, you see U.S. enemies strengthening.


NOBLES: We have only a little bit of time, Kim, but I have to ask you, does this set the stage for the growing possibility of the U.S. perhaps doing some sort of military intervention within Iran? Are we getting to that stage where that becomes a realistic possibility with each passing day?

DOZIER: I think what U.S. officials have done is very carefully calibrated their response to mirror what Iran is doing. Iran has been using proxies, now the U.S. is hitting those proxies. I think the last thing it wants to do is hit Iran directly. So this is a careful ratcheting up of the conflict.

So the next thing to watch for is whether those Iraqi militant groups going to do? Are they going to try to attack U.S. forces again, which would require response?

NOBLES: Kimberly Dozier breaking it down for us on the situation in Iraq and Iran. Thank you so much, Kim.

DOZIER: Thank you.

NOBLES: Coming up, a renewed call to testify. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says new information about Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton are a game changer when it comes to the hold up of aid to Ukraine. Can Democrats and Republicans reach a compromise?

Plus, chilling new details about the man accused of stabbing five Jews at a Hanukkah celebration. The latest on the investigation when we come back.




SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Simply put, in our fight to have key documents and witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial, these new revelations are a game changer.


NOBLES: That, of course, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer renewing calls for key Trump administration officials to testify at the Senate impeachment trial.

This, following a "New York Times" report detailing steps taken by several Trump advisers after the president ordered a freeze on military aid in Ukraine. Senator Schumer wants to hear from four witnesses, including acting

White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and former national security adviser, John Bolton.

Joining me now to talk about this, Jamil Jaffe, who has served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as chief counsel. He was also a senior counsel for the House Intelligence Committee and associate counsel to George W. Bush. Also with us, Shan Wu, a CNN legal analyst, defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.

You both have great credentials. We're fortunate to have you here for this conversation.

Jamil, we'll start with you.

You know, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it pretty clear he doesn't really want to call any new witnesses. He also hasn't ruled it out. Do you think that he'll view this "New York Times" report in the same light that Chuck Schumer is? Is it going to be a game changer for Mitch McConnell?


And the reason why is that McConnell's view is generally, look, the House had the chance under Democratic leadership to conduct whatever investigation it wanted to conduct. It could have waited to get the testimony of Bolton or Mulvaney. It chose not to and to get the impeachment articles out by Christmas. So no reason to call witnesses here. The House can still continue its investigation if it wants to. It's choosing not to do that.

His view will be, in the Clinton impeachment, we didn't call witnesses. Even though, back in the Andrew Johnson impeachment, there were 40 witnesses called. At least in the modern era, there haven't been witnesses called. And that was Schumer's position back then, so why is he changing his position.

NOBLES: Shan, is it really about what McConnell wants but more about what this small group of moderate Republicans want? Could they be the ones that compel him to call these witnesses? Could it perhaps be a game changer for someone like Lisa Murkowski, Cory Gardner or Susan Collins?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think that's right, Ryan. It's really a question of the political atmospherics for McConnell. He wants to protect his own majority. He wants to protect the Senate itself.

So if information began to come out where those more moderate folks might change their minds, I think that could influence him.

But I probably respectfully disagree with Jamil. I don't think that's McConnell's real motivation. The historical precedent. I think he wants to stay as far away as possible from live witnesses.

I think they left their best argument in the locker room, which I think they should have leaned into the idea that this is really a foreign policy issue, which goes to the core of the president's powers, but they haven't done that.

They seem genuinely pretty shy of more witnesses coming forward.

NOBLES: So to Shan's point, Jamil, I think it's probably across the board expected that Mitch McConnell would do everything he could to avoid live witnesses.

Could you see some sort of a compromise reached with Chuck Schumer where they do taped depositions or something along those lines to get the witnesses on the record but not create somewhat of a circus atmosphere surrounding their testimony?

JAFFER: That's exactly what happened, Ryan, during the Clinton impeachment. They had three witnesses who had depositions. The depositions were not read on the floor. They were just part of the permanent record of the proceeding. And they immediately went from arguments to closing arguments and did that. So that certainly is one potential outcome.

And Shan's right. Look, I think Mitch McConnell does not want witnesses, although the Democrats should be careful what they want if they get witnesses. If they do get witnesses, I think you'll expect to see Hunter Biden and Joe Biden called, and that's not something that's going to help Democrats in the upcoming election.

NOBLES: Let's turn to Rudy Giuliani's role in all of this. A lawyer for Rudy Giuliani's indicted associate, Lev Parnas, is asking the court's permission to share documents and iPhone data with House investigators.

Shan, how could that material help their case against President Trump?

WU: It could help it in a number of ways because Giuliani's information would elucidate exactly what, perhaps, his instructions were, how much he was briefing the president.


It's interesting that he's asking to disclose that because obviously there's attorney/client privilege issues. We see from the "New York Times" reporting that Mulvaney fled the room to protect that privilege but Rudy seems cavalier about that.

If I was Trump's team I would not be happy about that request.

NOBLES: We'll have to leave it there.

Jamil Jaffer, Shan Wu, Happy New Year to both of you and thank you for joining us.

WU: Happy New Year.

NOBLES: Before we go to break, take a look at this.





NOBLES: Cities around the world already ringing in the new year. Moments ago, the clock struck midnight in Singapore. And this is what it looked like in Auckland, New Zealand. Fireworks lighting up the sky there. And check out these celebrations in Australia. A spectacular site near the Sydney Opera House.

We'll be right back.







NOBLES: We are learning more about the man accused of stabbing five people during a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi's home in New York. Police say they found handwritten journals which refer to Adolf Hitler and Nazi culture.

And they say the suspect's Internet history included searches for nearby Jewish temples and prominent companies founded by Jews in America. He's now facing federal hate crime charges along with five counts of attempted murder.

CNN national correspondent, Brynn Gingras, has the latest from Monsey, New York.


BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Grafton Thomas, the man accused of stabbing five Hasidic Jews at a Hanukkah celebration, now charged with federal hate crimes. The suspect remains in custody after being charged with obstructing the free exercise of religion in an attempt to kill.

Thomas already pleaded not guilty to state charges Sunday of five counts of attempted murder and one count of first-degree burglary.

According to a criminal complaint, prosecutors say Thomas's Internet history on his cell phone included searches of, "Why did Hitler hate the Jews," and, "German Jewish temples near me." There was also reportedly a search for prominent companies founded by Jews in America. The criminal complaint against Thomas also says a journal found by

authorities shows that he expressed anti-Semitic sentiments with some entries referring to Hitler and Nazi culture with drawings of a swastika and a Star of David.

One entry, "Hebrew Israelites took from the powerful people (Ebinoid Israelites," apparently a reference to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. According to a law enforcement sources, that group has been linked to the terror attack at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City three weeks ago.

The complaint also details the moments leading up to the Hanukkah attack, alleging Thomas entered the rabbi's home with his face covered by a scarf and proclaimed to those inside, "No one is leaving," and then used an 18-inch machete to start stabbing and slashing people.

JOSEF GLUCK, ATTACK SURVIVOR: I kept screaming everybody run, go, go, go, the guy's coming. He said, hey, you, I'll get you. That's the only exchange that he had I think with anyone.

GINGRAS: Thomas was apprehended by police two hours later in New York City. Police say he was found with blood on his clothes and a smell of bleach in the car with a machete and another knife that had apparent traces of dried blood on them.

His attorney and families say he's a former Marine who suffers from mental illness, and they claim he had no history of anti-Semitism.

MICHAEL H. SUSSMAN, STABBING SUSPECT'S ATTORNEY: There's no suggestion in any of those ramblings and pages of writing of an anti- Semitic motive of any anti-Semitism.


GINGRAS: In talking to members of this nearby synagogue, two of the five people injured in the House here behind me on this weekend's attack are still in the hospital, one with a very critical head injury.

And Ryan, the latest on Grafton Thomas, he is in federal custody right now, but he's expected to be back in court this Friday on those state charges of attempted murder -- Ryan?

NOBLES: Brynn Gingras with the latest from Monsey. Brynn, thank you.

We're lucky to be joined now by Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and someone that, for a good portion of his career, was representing Monsey, New York, before reapportionment.

Congressman, you said you actually spent some time there yesterday. Just your sense of how things are in the community right now.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): Well, the community's certainly coming together. This is, of course, a horrific attack. It was good to see everyone there. I mean, it was just an outpouring of love, of community.

It's just a terrible thing that happened, and we shouldn't sweep it under the rug. This is an epidemic that's getting worse and worse, and we need to nip it in the bud.

NOBLES: To that end, what can Congress do? Should they be doing more to fight anti-Semitism?

ENGEL: I think we should be looking at laws, perhaps, that we could pass, certain hate crimes laws. I think there's a lot that Congress can do. I think on a local level, there's a lot that can be done. I think that there's no, you know, quick answer to it.

But I think that we have to resolve because this isn't, unfortunately, the first incident, and probably won't be the last. Anti-Semitism is on the rise.