Return to Transcripts main page

CNN RIGHT NOW

U.S. Embassy In Iraq Attacked By Protesters For Second Day; Trump Says Kim Jong-un Is Man Of His Word After North Korea Issues New Threats. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 1, 2020 - 13:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:00:00]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Happy New Year. I'm Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters on this first day of 2020. Welcome to a special holiday edition of CNN RIGHT NOW.

For the second day in a row, protesters tried to break through the wall of the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad. Security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets to push them back as the Pentagon prepares to deploy hundreds of American troops to the region.

And Kim Jong-un putting the U.S. on notice, saying North Korea should feel free to resume its nuclear testing and warning his country may never denuclearize.

A huge fundraising haul for Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic presidential candidate raking in almost $25 million in the fourth quarter of 2019. Is he the candidate to beat heading into Iowa?

And Chief Justice John Roberts warns Americans may be taking Democracy for granted as civics education has fallen by the wayside.

We start our show with how the president is starting his New Year, trying to navigate foreign policy mine fields, weighing the fate of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq and dealing with the threat from North Korea as it promises, quote, a new strategic weapon.

Outside of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, protesters mainly from Iran- backed Shia militias threw rocks and set fire to its walls while security personnel fired tear gas and rubber bullets. This was the second straight day of mass demonstrations outside of the building and outside of that compound, the latest in an escalation after the U.S. carried out airstrikes on an Iranian backed militia group for killing a U.S. contractor and wounding U.S. soldiers in a rocket attack.

Senior International Correspondent, Arwa Aamon is on the ground in Baghdad. And, Arwa, protesters have left for the day. It seems like this has calmed down a little bit going into evening here. But where is this situation? Far from over?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In the grander scheme of things, yes. This is, after all, Iraq. Anything can set the situation off once again. And even though the protesters have cleared out at this stage, we talked to the spokesperson for Kata'ib Hezbollah. That's the same group that was targeted in those U.S. strikes Who said, look, we decided to end this protest because we gave America our message.

And as he said that, he pointed to one of the entrances to the massive sprawling complex of the U.S. embassy that was completely torched and draped in the flags of the various different groups that make up this paramilitary group whose members and supporters were part of this protest movement. He said that now they were going to leave it with the Iraqi parliament to see if they would move this process forward within the legal framework because, ultimately, he said, they are still sticking to their demand of wanting to see U.S. forces out.

Now, Brianna, look, I've been reporting from this country for well over a decade-and-a-half, and this is the first time that we were able to quite literally just blow through all of the checkpoints and end up right in front of the U.S. embassy. The Iraqi Security Forces were on the scene finally and we ran into the minister of interior there and asked him why it took them so long. And he claimed that it took them that amount of time to spin up their forces.

But, look, this is Iraq's heavily fortified green zone. There are Iraqi Security Forces all over. And, in fact, we spoke to one of them who quite simply said, look, what were we supposed to do? If we had stood there and tried to stop this protest, given who it was comprised of, from moving forward, if we had gotten into some sort of armed confrontation with them, that potentially would have escalated the situation to such a degree, it would have caused so much bloodshed that perhaps we would not have been able to dial it back.

So we do have the semblance of calm as we were leaving earlier tonight. The cleanup operation was beginning. Things are meant to return to normal, meaning that, in theory, as of tomorrow morning, we won't be able to access that area so easily anymore.

But this still remains a very tenuous situation, because if you pulled back and look at the bigger picture, you have competing dynamics within Iraq for control, those who are pro-Iran, those who want to see Iranian influence end. And then you have this proxy war that's happening between Washington and Tehran.

[13:05:02]

KEILAR: And, Arwa, it's just so telling that hearing it from Iraqi forces, that the way to manage protesters and try to dial something down is to let them through checkpoints so that they torch the main entrance to the U.S. embassy compound and breakthrough an outer wall.

DAMON: Well, we should also point out that that is only the case when it comes to this particular group of protesters, which gives you an indication of just how powerful they are. They are very powerful militarily. And every single entity that makes up this group of protesters who support what's known as the Popular Mobilization units or they're members of the Popular Mobilization units themselves, which is ostensibly part of the Iraqi Security Forces, they are very powerful militarily, they're very powerful politically.

If you look at the protests that happened in Baghdad that had been going on for month right now, asking an anti-corruption and anti- outside influence, those protesters were being shot at, were being killed just for making that demand.

KEILAR: Arwa, thank you so much for that report on the ground in Baghdad for us.

And in the wake of these attacks on the U.S. embassy, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has moved 100 Marines from Kuwait to Baghdad to reinforce security there, also deploying 750 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne to the region, and in addition, another 4,000 troops have been put on standby.

Let's bring in CNN Pentagon Reporter Michael -- pardon me, Ryan Browne. I know your name, Ryan, just so you're aware. But the president, this is a tricky situation for him, right, because he campaigned on getting out of endless wars, certainly not putting more troops in places. And here, we have an increase that we're seeing.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: That's right. I mean, the president very clear that he wanted to reinforce his position. In fact, at the New Year's Eve party in Mar-a-Lago, he spoke to reporters touting the deployment of Marines, saying this wasn't going to be a Benghazi situation, referring to the attack that left the U.S. ambassador to Libya dead, so very much a hard line on this, moving forces in the region.

In fact, Brian Hook, a special representative for Iran, cited these deployments today as evidence of why the protests had begun to dissipate a little bit. He kind of said this harsh response.

But to Arwa's point, it's a very complicated situation here. These militia groups remain very powerful. And what led to this whole situation was these militia groups had fired 11 times on various U.S. military installations, one attack of which killed a U.S. contractor, prompting the U.S. to conduct those airstrikes. And then we see these protests.

So it's an escalation game and it remains to be seen whether these additional military deployments serve as a deterrent preventing any further provocations by these militias which are linked to Iran, or actually encourage more action from them. They stepped up with a retaliation of their own. So they're going to be watching this very closely. I don't think anyone on the military side is declaring victory just yet.

KEILAR: All right. Ryan, thank you so much for that report.

And as the tensions rise in the Middle East and troops deploy to the region, the president remains at his vacation home in Mar-a-Lago. But he did take some time out from his New Year's Eve party to talk about the situation, and we have CNN White House Correspondent Boris Sanchez in West Palm Beach on this story.

So, Boris, the president's Twitter feed has been pretty quiet today actually, unusually so. What have you been hearing?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Brianna. You're right, President Trump relatively quiet today after saying quite a few inflammatory things yesterday about Iran. White House officials have told us they are very closely monitoring the situation at the embassy in Baghdad. They said they are very concerned about how hostilities could potentially lead to a deeper conflict.

Of course, they are a bit relieved at what they're seeing today, things calming down a bit. They have put a lot of confidence in Iraqi officials to maintain the security and safety of U.S. personnel and property in that area.

There are still questions about how this might move forward. And President Trump is walking a very fine line here. Of course, we've heard the president previously say that he opposes an expanded U.S. military presence in that region. He does not want another Iraq, which he has criticized that conflict repeatedly. But at the same time, the president has exerted maximum pressure on Iran, and that's led in part to this escalation.

Just last night, as you noted, during this New Year's Eve party at his Mar-a-Lago estate, the president again saying that he wants peace, he does not want conflict, but yet simultaneously again giving some inflammatory rhetoric, saying that Iran would likely not survive a conflict with the United States, that as a country, they simply wouldn't last long.

President Trump is also keenly aware of the politics of this, of the optics of this. The president yesterday quick to compare this situation to the ugly thing that we saw happen in Benghazi, in Libya in 2012, the president trying to distinguish it by tweeting that this was the anti-Benghazi, so he's obviously aware that this is a sensitive time, Brianna.

[13:10:03]

KEILAR: Yes, definitely. Boris, thank you so much, in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Let's discuss all this with my next two guests. We have retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton. He's a CNN Military Analyst, and National Security Reporter for The Washington Post, John Hudson, is with us.

Thank you guys for joining us. Happy Holidays, Happy New Year.

I wonder how concerned you are, Colonel, about this turning into a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think it already has, Brianna. I think this is just one manifestation of what's been going on for years between Iran and the United States in Iraq. As far back as 2003, when I was part of the invasion of Iraq, operation Iraqi Freedom, we saw Iranian cells activate in Iraq in basically real-time just when the U.S. forces were invading and coming through to Baghdad. So this is -- it's just the latest piece in a longstanding conflict that we've had between the two countries.

KEILAR: This is really putting U.S. policy toward Iran under the microscope, right? Democrats said, look, if the president hadn't pulled out of the Iran deal, this is not where the U.S. would be. This is what one of the State Department spokespeople had to say about U.S./Iranian policy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN ORTAGUS, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: The reason why our policy is working is because the Iranian regime is out of money. Their militias are out of money. We are extending the hand of diplomacy while simultaneously pursuing our maximum economic pressure campaign. While we are pursuing sanctions, the president said just last night that we want a peaceful resolution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: John, can you fact check that for us? I mean, she says the militias are out of money. We're seeing them operational.

JOHN HUDSON, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. Well, the difficult thing about the administration's arguments when it comes to the maximum pressure campaign is that when Iran lashes out, when it's aggressive, they say this is just evidence that the maximum pressure campaign is working. And when Iran is quiet and when it's not acting aggressively, they say this is evidence of the maximum pressure campaign working.

So the argument can't work every single time. And, clearly, in this case, this is not something that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wants to see happen. He's very sensitive when the security situation of U.S. diplomats is threatened. He knows this very well of his history as one of the most ardent critics of the handling of the security situation in Benghazi and doesn't want a repeat and understands that his future political career is also vulnerable to such criticisms.

KEILAR: Counter to what the State' Department's spokeswoman is saying, this is not part of the plan, is what I hear you saying, John. The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, essentially brushed off the president's threat on Twitter, which was pretty aggressive. He said, it wasn't a warning, it was a threat. And I wonder what you think about Khamenei saying he's not really worried about what the U.S. is going to do essentially because there's nothing they can do. Is he right? What do you think?

LEIGHTON: Well, Brianna, I think he's a little bit of bravado in the Iranian response as well and the Iranian leader's response. Because the Iranians are in a hard place right now with sanctions being put in place by the U.S. and Western countries, also by the fact that we're exercising a lot of military pressure on the Iranians. It might not be immediately obvious but the fact that we are in places surrounding Iran, Afghanistan on the east, Iraq on the west, the Gulf to the south, we have a lot of military forces there and that does limit the Iranian's ability to move about and to do things they would otherwise do with impunity. KEILAR: When you think about this, what we're hearing from the president, how he says that if there was an escalation of tensions with Iran, if there was a real conflict, that it would go quickly. That's not what I have heard from experts on Iran at all.

HUDSON: Yes. I mean, clearly, a U.S. military conflict with Iran could get extremely ugly extremely quickly. The U.S. has military and diplomatic personnel spread out across the Middle East. Iran, of course, has proxy forces across the Middle East who would be in a position to act.

And, of course, they don't have perfect command and control of all of those proxy forces. So that's the type of thing that has a lot of analysts and a lot of U.S. defense officials particularly very worried about escalation. He has drawn a very clear red line that if U.S. personnel are killed or injured, then the U.S. will act with ferocious force. And that's the type of thing that can start a war very quickly.

KEILAR: Ferocious force. I mean, what are -- and that is essentially what the president is saying. What would that look like? What are U.S. options?

LEIGHTON: Well, U.S. options. I think, are to build upon what John has said, are somewhat limited in this particular case.

[13:15:03]

Anybody who thinks it's going to be a short war is generally going to be wrong about Iran. Iran's war -- a war with Iran would be nasty and brutish but not short. And that's the kind of thing you have to really look at options besides the usual sanctions and diplomatic pressure are quite limited in a military operational sense unless you want to go all the way in and do some very massive damage and that's something that I don't think anybody here has contemplated.

KEILAR: I want to pull up what John Bolton, the former national security adviser to the president, tweeted. He said the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad is straight from Iran's playbook in 1979. It's a sign of Iranian control over Shia militia groups, not a sign of Iraqi anti-Americanism.

We should point out, there have been anti-Iranian protests recently in Iraq. But that distinction, John, it's a sign of Iranian control over Shia militia groups, not a sign of Iraqi anti-Americanism. Does that distinction matter?

HUDSON: Well, to a lot of people looking at the situation on the ground, it doesn't matter because it's still a situation of, quite frankly, danger to U.S. diplomats there. And I think the important thing to remember about Ambassador Bolton is he doesn't necessarily see confrontation with Iran and an escalation with Iran as a bad thing. For him, he has been pushing for these types of things when he was in the administration for a really tough and in many cases airstrikes. And what has happened in the last couple days is exactly what some people at the Pentagon were pushing and warning against. People in the Defense Department are very reluctant to get further ensnared in the Middle East. They see East Asia as sort of the new front of where the U.S. should be expanding its military resources. And so that's where Bolton faced a lot of pressure. And right now, incidents like this really awaken the possibility of being further ensnared in the Middle East.

KEILAR: Yes, they're spending so many resources right now in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. Thank you both, Col. Leighton and John Hudson, really appreciate it. Happy 2020 to you.

Kim Jong-un firing a verbal warning shot indicating North Korea could soon resume its nuclear missile tests and unveil what he calls a new strategic weapon.

Plus, Pete Buttigieg starting the year on a high note, the campaign announcing a huge fundraising haul just weeks before the Iowa caucus.

And the Trump administration moves to ban the sale of some flavored e- cigarettes. Why some say it does not go far enough.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:20:00]

KEILAR: President Trump appears optimistic about the situation with North Korea saying its leader, Kim Jong-un, is a man of his word. This is despite new threats from Kim who says he no longer feels bound by his country's self-imposed halt on nuclear weapons and long-range missile tests and warns that the world will witness a, quote, new strategic weapon in the near future.

This new threats from North Korea come just days after the White House touted its progress with the regime. The administration tweeted this picture of President Trump and Kim Jong-un meeting at the DMZ last year and labeled it, America is winning.

Washington Post Columnist Josh Rogin is here. And there have been face-to-face meetings between the president and Kim. One was in North Korea. They've exchanged letters. At one point, President Trump said they'd fallen in love.

Amid all of this though, what has the U.S. gotten concretely that would make that statement America is winning true?

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Well, what we've gotten is two years of a moratorium on long-range missile testing and nuclear weapons that Chairman Kim just announced is over, okay? So even if you believe that the strategy has worked to minimize the North Korean threat, he said it in his speech, it's in the paper. He's declaring an end to that diplomacy.

Now, the question really is what will the Trump administration do in response. Will they acknowledge that or will they continue to pretend that this diplomatic effort has legs? And if we see the initial indications and based on my conversations with State Department and White House officials, it seems like they're going to pretend that nothing happened.

And if and when North Korea shoots off an ICBM or tests another nuclear missile, as Chairman Kim is promising to do, that ability to pretend will become ridiculous on its face. And then we'll have two policies. We'll have a North Korea that says, we're not in talks and we'll have a Trump administration that says we're still hoping that everything is okay.

KEILAR: So they're sort of pretending that this hasn't happened, even though when it has. And then when asked by reporters about this last night, the president talked about a contract that was signed in Singapore. He says on the very first line, Kim agreed to denuclearize. But analysts and, really, anyone who watched this process is wondering what is he talking about?

ROGIN: Right. Well, in Singapore, there were promises made by Kim Jong-un. He seems to be promising to break those promises right now.

KEILAR: A contract?

ROGIN: It was a statement. It wasn't a contract. It was pretty vague at the time. We agreed to stop exercise, they agreed to stop some testing. It seems like now that agreement, whether it was statement or a contract, is null and void, okay?

And there're two theories about what happened. One is that this entire scheme was doomed from the start and that Kim Jong-un was never going to give up all of his nuclear weapons. That's the John Bolton theory. And there's the other theory, which is that this had a chance to work but President Trump screwed it up by offering too much, negotiating poorly, not bothering, taking (INAUDIBLE) would like the details of this situation when he showed up to these meetings.

[13:25:05]

I think it's a little from column A and a little from column B.

But either way, we are where we are and it leads you to one inescapable conclusion that in the next year, things are going to get more dangerous with North Korea and it's going to require more American deterrence, containment and pressure. And until the Trump administration acknowledges that, both internally and then tells the world about it, there's going to be this crazy dichotomy where the situation gets worse and worse and President Trump heading into his election pretends that nothing is wrong.

KEILAR: John Bolton has been weighing in a lot on foreign policy, right, the president's former national security adviser. And he tweeted this, how to respond to Kim Jong-un's threatening New Year's remarks? The U.S. should fully resume all cancelled or downsized military exercises in South Korea, hold congressional hearings on whether U.S. troops are truly ready to fight tonight. He thinks and has said that Trump's North Korea policy is failing. ROGIN: Right. Well, it seems to clearly be failing. The question is whether or not escalating is really the best solution, okay? Because as we see with Iran, as you said in your last segment, right, John Bolton might be okay with escalation and that could lead you to a series of events that spiral out of control and result in the death of not only Koreans but Japanese and Americans in Asia, maybe Americans in Guam. So we have to be careful about that.

But what's clear is that what the administration is planning to do is to keep doing what we're doing, which is keep the offer of engagement open, work with allies and keep basically the same pressure that we have now.

That doesn't seem to be working. So somewhere in between John Bolton's escalation and doing nothing, there's a policy that could address the threat that's growing with North Korea and address the reality of the situation that the talks have broken down, but doesn't seem that President Trump is willing to get there yet because he can't admit that he failed. And for him, the politics is more important than the policy. For our national security, the policy and strategy is much more important than the politics, and that's where we are.

KEILAR: We'll see if they acknowledge reality soon. Josh, thank you.

ROGIN: Anytime.

KEILAR: Pete Buttigieg brings in a big haul in the last quarter of 2019. What it says about his place in the race?

And President Trump expected to announce a ban on some flavored e- cigarettes. We'll have more on that ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:30:00]