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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Impeachment Stalemate; Protesters Attack U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; GOP Senator Collins Open to Witnesses Testifying in Senate Trial; Prosecutors: Stabbing Suspect Researched Hitler, Local Synagogues. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 31, 2019 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:00]

RYAN NOBLES, CNN HOST: "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: If you thought 2019 was ugly, nasty, and divisive, may I introduce you to 2020?

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump blaming Iran for protesters setting fires and smashing windows at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq -- the latest on the siege and the safety of the Americans inside.

Are cracks forming in the last line of defense for the Trump presidency? A member of the Senate GOP criticizing the majority leader for working so closely with the White House on the impeachment trial.

Plus, fires ripping through the Australian coast, sending thousands of people rushing to the ocean and threatening the region's entire population of koalas.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Happy new year.

We begin with our world lead.

Hundreds of protesters, some violent, chanting "Death to America" and storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, smashing windows, scaling the walls, setting fires, claiming to be angry over American airstrikes on an Iranian-backed militia on Sunday, billowing smoke filling the air beyond the walls of the massive diplomatic compound, America's largest embassy anywhere in the world.

Apache helicopters were dispatched by the U.S. military to fly over the embassy. And more American troops are on the way, we are told, the embassy currently on lockdown, but, right now, there are no apparent plans to evacuate any personnel.

President Trump pointing the finger of blame squarely at Iran and the militia's leadership for fueling the protest and for launching the original attacks on Americans that prompted the retaliation, as CNN's Kaitlan Collins, traveling with President Trump, now reports. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A chaotic scene, as protesters storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad today, scaling the walls, forcing the gates, and setting fires inside the heavily guarded compound, while diplomats were trapped inside.

Some protesters were chanting "Death to America," while others threw rocks at embassy guards, who fired back with tear gas. The backlash is coming after American airstrikes on an Iran-backed militia group in Iraq killed dozens of its members.

The U.S. said those strikes were in response to a missile attack on an Iraq military base that killed an American contractor, though a spokesperson for the militia group denied they were involved.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy.

COLLINS: On Twitter, President Trump blamed Iran, accusing it of orchestrating the attack on the embassy and warning that their government will be held fully responsible.

With tensions flaring, the president spent less spend an hour at his golf course today. Though he was dressed in his usual golf attire, Trump said he had a meeting on the Middle East and would provide updates throughout the day from his Mar-a-Lago club.

Senator Lindsey Graham, who golfed with Trump yesterday, also said he met with the president and that Trump is "determined to protect American personnel and expects our Iraqi partners to step up to the plate."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke with the prime minister of Iraq today. And a spokesperson for the State Department said there were no plans to evacuate the embassy.

The U.S. ambassador is on vacation and wasn't at the embassy when it was attacked. Defense Secretary Mark Esper also announced the U.S. is sending additional forces to reinforce embassy security, including Marines who are seen here preparing to deploy from neighboring Kuwait.

One Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee said Iran was trying to ratchet up tensions with the United States.

REP. GIL CISNEROS (D-CA): We know Iran is no ally of us. And they're really going out there trying to push our buttons and see how far they can get.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, President Trump has also spoken with the prime minister of Iraq. And according to the White House, the two of them discussed regional security issues, and President Trump emphasized the need to protect United States' personnel and facilities in Iraq. But it's still to be determined if this gets escalated even further,

or if things start to tamp down after this, Jake.

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

CNN's Arwa Damon has covered the security situation in Iraq extensively. She joins me now from the region.

Arwa, there were chants of "Death to America" and demands that the U.S. leave the country. What is the situation the ground right now?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, what we now know of the situation is that those fires that were set seem to have been largely put out or decreased.

And Iraq's counterterrorism units finally arrived on this scene and are securing, it seems from images that we have been able to obtain, securing the perimeter.

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However, there are tents that have been put up, where the protesters do remain just on the road that runs in front of the U.S. Embassy.

And what Kataib Hezbollah, that group that the U.S. targeted on Sunday, is saying is that these are open-ended protests, until, they say, the U.S. actually agrees to leave Iraq. And they say that in all of this their message wasn't just to show their anger at the strikes, but to also show to the U.S. that, at least in Iraq, they can literally walk right up to their doorstep -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Arwa, this Iranian-backed militia was part of the coalition that fought against ISIS. Tell us more about this group. How powerful is it politically and militarily?

DAMON: Very powerful Jake, because prior to their role in this coalition that is something of a paramilitary unit that was established during the fights against ISIS, these various different militias gained their experience fighting the Americans in Iraq.

The vast majority of them are, yes, backed by Iran. And they also now today not only have a force, an armed force, that is part of this paramilitary force that ostensibly falls under the Iraqi security forces, but they also have significant representation in Iraqi Parliament, which is one of the many reasons why Iraq is so fragile today, because you have these forces that don't necessarily abide by the orders being issued by Baghdad.

And you also have a very strong grip within the Iraqi political spectrum.

TAPPER: All right, Arwa Damon, thank you so much. Stay safe.

Joining me now to discuss this is Douglas Silliman. He's the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq under both Presidents Trump and Obama. Also with us, Robin Wright. She's a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center, who has written extensively on the Middle East.

Thanks so much for being here.

Ambassador, let me start with you.

You recently -- relatively recently -- left your post in Baghdad. If you were advising President Trump today, what would you advise him? What would you tell him to do about these protests?

DOUGLAS A. SILLIMAN, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: I think what we're seeing now is an attempt by Iran and the Iranian proxies and supporters inside Iraq to change the debate inside the country.

Iraq has been shaken to the past three months by hundreds of thousands of younger Iraqis in the streets protesting lack of good governance, government corruption, and Iranian and militia interference in their lives and their futures.

What Iran and some of these militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, are now trying to do is to find the American response to the death of the U.S. military contractor as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, and to try to turn the cables and switch the debate away from the problems that Iran has caused in Iraq and define the set of problems that they will blame on the United States.

What is also interesting -- and I have been hearing this on my Twitter and WhatsApp feed from Iraqis all day -- is that many Iraqis are defining the members of good Kataib Hezbollah who attacked the American Embassy, not as protesters, as much of the media is, but as attackers, that they planned to go there, it was set out.

And they believe that it cheapens the meaning of the protests that have been carried on for the past three or four months by average young Iraqis against Iran and against the inefficiencies of the Iraqi government to paint them with the same brush.

So I have been surprised by the number of people who have told me, when you're talking to the U.S. media, don't call the protesters in front of the embassy protesters, call them attackers, because that's what they are.

TAPPER: Attackers.

And, Robin, I mean, that does square. We have seen photographs of some of the people, the attackers, if you will, and they -- a lot of them appear to be or they have been identified, at least, as heads of this militia.

ROBIN WRIGHT, SENIOR FELLOW, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: Absolutely.

And the popular mobilization forces, in some ways, are the kind of Hezbollah of Iraq. They're the pro-Iranian proxies who have not only their own local agenda, but have Iran's interests at stake as well. And so I think that's one of the great problems. How do you deal with

a force that the government doesn't have total control over that is multidimensional? There are over 60 branches of the militia that fall under the popular mobilization forces, each with their own leadership.

And so Iraq today is incredibly complicated, many, many layers, whether it's the protesters who are taking to the streets to challenge the government, or it's those who are attacking the United States.

One of the big questions in the middle of all this, 17 years after the U.S. intervention in Iraq, is the United States losing the ability to influence the direction, or are the prospects of a stable democracy disappearing, that a lot of the things we invested in, is this a country that is disintegrating at different levels into chaos?

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TAPPER: Well, why don't you answer that for us?

Because one of the questions I have seen on social media today from Americans is, they don't want us there. Why are we there? And beyond whether these are attackers or protesters, there obviously have been a great number, for years and years and years, of Iraqi politicians expressing the desire for the U.S. to leave.

SILLIMAN: I remember a very famous statement by the late Senator John McCain from the summer of 2011, that every Iraqi with whom he spoke wanted the U.S. to stay militarily in Iraq at that time.

I was in Iraq at the same time and found that most of them wanted us to stay, but none were ready to say that publicly or to vote in the Parliament to permit that to happen.

What happened after the defeat of ISIS in 2017, '18 and into '19 was a significant number of Iraqis who were willing to stand up and say, the United States, the coalition military force, the United Nations and others international institutions seek to build a sovereign Iraq. We need them to stay here until that job is completed.

And what I think will be interesting, there will be pressure in the coming weeks, probably in the Parliament and from some of the same people you saw in front of the embassy this morning, to push what they will define as all foreign forces out of Iraq.

It'll be interesting to see whether those supporters of the United States who understands what we did in the fight against ISIS and how we are trying to build sovereign, stable institutions in Iraq will continue to support us publicly and push back on that definition.

TAPPER: And, Robin, something else you have been following for years now, of course, is the conflict between the United States and Iran. And this is a big part of that.

WRIGHT: Absolutely.

And, of course, they're vying for influence in the region. And in many ways, the Iranians have greater sway in places like Iraq, in Syria, where the United States, again, withdrew many of its troops recently, in Lebanon.

There are counterstrikes. There are challenges to Iranian influence. Iran is under extraordinary pressure. But the fact is that, despite all the things the United States has done, that Iran still is our primary adversary and able to, whether it's attack tankers, attack Saudi oil facilities, that it's still a major power and a major challenge to American interests.

TAPPER: Or kill American contractors, as happened recently.

Ambassador, Robin, thank you so much for being here. And happy new year to both of you. Appreciate it.

President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may not want them, but one Republican senator is open to hearing from witnesses at the Senate impeachment trial. Who is it?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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TAPPER: In our politics lead today, new signs that at least a couple Senate Republicans might be concerned about whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is setting up an unfair impeachment trial process. Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins joined her colleague, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, expressing reservations. Collins also saying she's open to having witnesses testify.

CNN's Phil Mattingly joins me now live.

And, Phil, both of these senators have said they don't care for how McConnell said there will be no difference between the president's position and Senate Republicans' position.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, that's exactly right. Raising concerns about what -- the majority leader said and how he's made clear that he's working hand and glove with the White House on this process. But also Senator Collins from Maine, a moderate, up in 2020, raising some concerns more broadly than that about people across the aisle. Take a listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): It is inappropriate in my judgment for senators on either side of the aisle to prejudge the evidence before they have heard what is presented to us because each of us will take an oath, an oath that I take very seriously to render impartial justice.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: Jake, let me tell you the most important thing and we're all reading tea leaves what people are saying when they are back home in their states. Here's what actually matters: both Collins and Murkowski seem to be behind McConnell's idea or proposal at this point in time to just start the trial with arguments from the defense, arguments from the House managers and then kind of see what happens after that related to witnesses and whether to subpoena documents.

Obviously, that's what Democrats want in the near term right away and in an opening resolution. The bigger question I think becomes at this point in time when Susan Collins says she's open to witnesses or Lisa Murkowski appears to be in the exact some place. Will they vote with Democrats when they actually get to the point, that, Jake, we'll have to wait and see on.

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mattingly, thanks so much.

Let's discuss.

So, Doug, Susan Collins says she's open to having witnesses. She didn't name any names. Is Phil right that ultimately this is just for the crowd back home, but when it comes down to it, she'll probably just vote the way that Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate vote?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I would say that's probably a cynical view but not necessarily a wrong view. Certainly if you look at what happened with the Kavanaugh hearing and ultimately with the vote, that's the impression that a lot of voters in her state got. I think it's right as a Republican, I think we should hear from more witnesses. Presumably Hunter Biden is not one of the witnesses that she would -- that she would talk about.

I would say, also, this is -- we've gotten fast and far and maybe we've gotten too fast and too far and too soon. If we had slowed this process, we could have gotten some of the witnesses that Democrats wanted from the administration and we could have gotten more information as to whether or not we've got impeachable offenses here or not.

TAPPER: And what is this about, Paul, is whether or not, since Senate Republicans control the Senate, 53, whether or not you can move a Murkowski or Mitt Romney or Susan Collins. Do you see any indication, do you have any hope as a Democrat that you can?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is a tougher vote for Susan Collins and the other moderate Republicans up for re-election than conviction and removal, I think, because -- well, first, we know from the polling, vast majority of Americans, we are divided on everything. The overwhelming majority of Americans want witnesses in this trial. Sixty-four percent of Republicans think there should be witnesses in an impeachment trial.

[16:20:01]

TAPPER: Yes, but they might -- they might be thinking Hunter Biden, I mean -- BEGALA: They might be. But that may be part of it. But we need to

hear -- we've had new reporting from "The New York Times," secretary of state and secretary of defense, the budget director and what they knew about this.

In that interview, Senator Collins said something interesting. She criticized the House and said the House should have subpoenaed these officials. Well, yes, ma'am, maybe. If so, you can fix it. You can subpoena them now, because you are the Senate and you're holding the trial.

It will be -- Democrats should be running ads in Maine turning up the heat on Susan Collins and running them in Colorado --

TAPPER: Why aren't you?

BEGALA: I'm not -- I don't do that for a living any more. I work here. But, yes, they should. If it was me, I would be running ads turning up the heat -- because she's feeling the heat that's why she's starting to squeal right now -- excuse me, to waffle right now.

TAPPER: That is better.

BEGALA: That was un --

TAPPER: What do you make of that?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there are challenges to Susan Collins. There are Democratic challengers, which is partially probably why she's saying what she's saying. Like Doug, I would expect that she would ultimately fall in line and vote with McConnell.

But Democrats are trying to -- like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to size up where he can pull them. Whether -- he only needs about three Republicans to block a motion put forward by McConnell. He needs four in order to put forward a motion, if they want to bring witnesses.

So, right now, they're trying to figure out who those people could be. It's unclear if Schumer himself is reaching out to Republicans yet. But there is talk that potentially other Senate Democrats are reaching out to their colleagues to potentially see if they're willing to vote with them to try to force witnesses.

TAPPER: And, Abby, there was a big story in "The New York Times" talking about the military aid being held and how it was a longer deal with these -- you know, fairly incriminating emails from the White House chief of staff, et cetera. Senator Schumer, the Democratic leader, said this shows they need to have witnesses. But is he going to be able to force them to do it?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That I don't know. I mean, I do think that this -- that report really just highlights how much information is not known about what actually happened. I mean, the Republican argument basically is we know everything there is to know and we don't see anything here.

Well, that report really shows that there is actually a lot of other information that could be backed up by documentation that is in the possession of the White House and of the Trump administration. That could shed more light on the events that actually occurred.

The problem, though, is that, you know, like Doug and Phil, I kind of think that Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski both who are using very similar language to talk about this are basically just trying to signal to McConnell, you need to give us a little bit more room to breathe here. Don't make it so clear that you are working with the White House, but I don't necessarily think they are out of place yet where they are willing to buck the White House and say, yes, we want Mick Mulvaney to testify. Yes, we want the secretary of state to testify.

I think that would be really going a step too far and even for a vulnerable Republican, it would essentially mean pulling the rug out from under you when you are already in a tough race. You would already lose all of the Republicans in your state who are loyal to the president.

TAPPER: Yes, difficult politics.

Stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.

Coming up next, what the stabbing suspect searched for on the Internet before that horrific Hanukkah attack.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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TAPPER: In our national lead today, we're learning more about the suspect accused of stabbing five orthodox Jews with a machete at a Hanukkah celebration in Rockland County, New York. The Pentagon today confirming the suspect's brief time in the Marines, prosecutors also revealing the suspect's online searches and they included "why did Hitler hate the Jews" and "German-Jewish temples near me".

Federal prosecutors have charged him with hate crimes but as CNN's Sara Sidner reports for us now, his family insists he's mentally ill but not anti-Semitic.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Survivors reeling from the Hanukkah stabbing attack that sent five people to the hospital feeling thankful today that it wasn't much worse.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was truly a Hanukkah miracle. If he would have come in ten minutes earlier, the house would have packed. I don't see a way that we could have run.

SIDNER: Instead, many fought, including Josef Gluck.

JOSEF GLUCK, SURVIVED ATTACK: Picked it up from the back and I put it in his face --

SIDNER: Gluck was honored for his bravery and quick-thinking. This is as more details spill out about suspect Grafton Thomas who pleaded not guilty to the initial charges against him. He's now facing 11 counts, including attempted murder and federal hate crimes. After investigators say they found references to Adolf Hitler, so-called Nazi culture, the Star of David and a swastika in a handwritten journal inside Thomas' home.

There is also an apparent reference to the Black Hebrew Israelites. Authorities say two people linked to the same movement were responsible for the killing of four people in and around the Jersey City kosher market just a few weeks ago.

In what Thomas' lawyer claims is the suspect's handwritten resume, there is a line listing Thomas as a marine.

CNN confirmed he was a marine in 2002 but was only there for less than two months. The undated resume described him as highly motivated and lists mental discipline, survival skills and team work as attributes.

His attorney says he has long suffered with mental illness and is disturbed, not hate-filled. The governor counts this as the 13th anti-Semitic attack in New York in the last few weeks alone.

The attorney general now promising action.

LETITIA JAMES, NEW YORK ATTORNEY GENERAL: And we will be establishing a hate crimes task force and we will be again working with local and state elected officials to come up with some legislative fixes and some solutions to address what we have been witnessing throughout the state of New York.

SIDNER: Meantime, the witnesses --

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