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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ); Foreign Leaders Testing Trump; Democratic Presidential Race Heats Up. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 2, 2020 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: So, thank you for choosing CNN to bring you coverage of all of this and so much more.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. It's great to be back.

Let's go to Washington. "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Two U.S. enemies greeting President Trump in the new year.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Facing threats from Iran and from North Korea, while seemingly preoccupied with impeachment, can President Trump turn his attention way from Washington to deal with these new menacing moves?

As the calendar turns to 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders announces a bonanza, the massive fund-raising just a few weeks away from the Iowa caucuses.

Plus, they're calling them firenadoes, the new threat from raging, deadly wildfires that have evacuated thousands, and is only getting worse.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with our world lead.

Two of America's most dangerous adversaries, the leaders of Iran and North Korea, testing President Trump.

Iran today declaring it is prepared for war, if necessary, and vowing its military is strong enough to break the United States, the escalating tensions heating up during a dramatic 48-hour siege of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by an Iranian-backed militia.

New images showing the extent of damage inflicted on the American Embassy, as more U.S. service members are reportedly on their way to that embassy, this as North Korea is warning the world will witness a -- quote -- "new strategic weapon," one feared to be a nuclear weapon, the regime also dismissing any talk of denuclearization. Here's how Richard Haass, a top former Republican diplomat, explained

it to "The New York Times" -- quote -- "After three years of no international crises," Mr. Trump is now -- quote -- "facing one with Iran because he has rejected diplomacy and another with North Korea because he has asked too much of diplomacy."

But, as CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports for us now, despite these threats, President Trump seems preoccupied with impeachment.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With his impeachment trial pending, President Trump is airing the same 2019 grievances about Democrats in the new year.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What the Democrats did in the House was a disgrace.

COLLINS: Claiming today that, if this happened to a Democrat, "Everybody involved would long ago be in jail, and it would be considered the crime of the century."

But as the president is now facing a Senate trial and reelection bid, America's adversaries seem to be taking notice.

TRUMP: It's time to shake the rust off America's foreign policy.

COLLINS: Promising that on the campaign trail in 2016, Trump is now facing challenges from both Iran and North Korea. An Iran-backed attack on the outer walls of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is now under control, but, today, the defense secretary warned there could be additional threats.

MARK ESPER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We will act in response to actions by Iran or its proxies, and we will act to preempt any attacks on our forces, our personnel.

COLLINS: Iran's recent behavior undermines Trump's June claim that his sanctions turned Iran into a very different nation.

(on camera): You said Iran is a different country. Do you still hold that opinion?

TRUMP: Oh, absolutely.

COLLINS (voice-over): In another potential setback, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is now threatening to expand his country's nuclear power and unveil what he's calling a new strategic weapon.

Kim didn't offer specifics, and he hasn't made good on his threat to send the U.S. a Christmas gift if North Korea didn't get sanctions relief.

But the dictator's defiant statements undercut Trump's claim that there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea. TRUMP: I hope his Christmas president is a beautiful vase. That's

what I'd like, a vase. He did sign an agreement talking about denuclearization, and I think he's a man of his word. So we're going to find out.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, when the president was speaking with reporters, he described what he signed with Kim Jong-un as a contract, like if it was is a real estate deal, which, of course, it was not.

It was actually a nonbinding agreement. It talked about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which, as you know, means something very differently to North Korea than it does to the United States.

So, essentially, what White House officials are saying is, they are just waiting to see what it is that North Korea and Iran do next.

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

CNN's Arwa Damon is on the ground for us in Baghdad, Iraq.

And, Arwa, is there concern that this militia could restart the siege?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

And let's also keep in mind that they right now have only to a certain degree paused their protest, because they're giving Parliament a week to begin negotiating and addressing a bill that would be dealing with America's troop presence.

And let's also not forget, Jake, that Iran has a number of very powerful proxies on the ground here that also could potentially a threat to U.S. military installations and U.S. interests.

[16:05:05]

TAPPER: And, Arwa, this militia, it's part of Iraq's security forces.

And it seems as though the Iraqi military, writ large, just allowed the militia to attack the embassy compound. What's your sense of the Iraqi army's willingness to protect the U.S. Embassy?

DAMON: And therein, Jake, lies one of the many complexities plaguing this nation, the fact that this paramilitary force is largely made up of these former Shia militias, many of whom are also very politically powerful.

The question is not just regarding that Iraqi security forces' willingness to protect the embassy -- and, remember, the Iraqi government was incensed at America's targeting of this group that took place on Sunday -- but also whether or not they are capable and willing to take on this paramilitary force. To quote one of the members of the Iraqi security apparatus who was at the embassy location, he said: Look, what were we supposed to do? If we had tried to confront them, we would have potentially ended up with a bloodbath that we would not be able to dial back, Jake.

TAPPER: Arwa Damon in Baghdad, thank you so much, and stay safe.

Joining me now is Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, good to see you.

Just to remind our viewers, you have been a frequent critic of the Iranian regime. You opposed the Obama era nuclear pact with Iran.

How would you like to see the Trump administration respond to what's going on in Iraq?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Well, Jake, the problem with the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign is that it is only sanctions and no effort to create an international coalition to bring Iran back to the negotiating table and deal with its nuclear program.

So it's like a pressure cooker. If a pressure cooker doesn't have a release valve, it ultimately explodes. So, what we have seen with the president's maximum pressure campaign, without any efforts in diplomacy, is the consequences of Iran actually creating a shorter nuclear breakout time than it did before.

We have seen the circumstances under which Iran is attacking international commerce in the Strait of Hormuz. We see Iran having a land bridge into Syria to attack our ally the state of Israel. We see Iran in naval exercises with Russia and China, two countries who previously were working with us to limit Iran's nuclear influence.

And you and you see the attack that took the death of an American contractor, so -- and now on its related forces on our embassy. So, this is not changing Iran. So, challenging Iran is one thing, but having the strategic and diplomatic efforts to get them to the table -- sanctions are a tool to ultimately get to your goal, which is to stop Iran's nuclear program.

But for that, you need to have a negotiation.

TAPPER: Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today that Iran might attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad again through their militia, through their proxies, or maybe some other attack, and, if Iran does, the regime will -- quote -- "likely regret it."

Do you think Iran at this point is afraid of military action from the United States? Or do you think that they don't think that President Trump would be willing to do it?

MENENDEZ: I think they will still be calibrated in their responses.

But the problem with this tit for tat is, at one point, there is going to be a miscalculation. And when we have that miscalculation, we're going to be in a regrettable set of potential military activities and military engagement that can spiral in a way that leads us to an unauthorized war.

And so this is why creating a diplomatic surge right now -- I mean, I have spoken to representatives of our allies, Great Britain, France, Germany and others, who are ready to join with us, I believe, in an effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.

But, in this regard, I see no effort by the administration trying to match their maximum pressure with a surge in diplomacy.

TAPPER: With a way, an off-ramp for the Iranians.

MENENDEZ: Absolutely.

TAPPER: Iran does support this militia that the Pentagon concluded was responsible for the death of an American contractor. Do you think President Trump was right to order the strike on Sunday in retaliation for the contractor's death, which then sparked this attack on the embassy, according to the militia?

MENENDEZ: Well, I don't know the set of options that were given to the president.

Obviously, a response needed to be had. Whether this was the appropriate response, the most intelligent response, the most limited response necessary to show that there was going to be a consequence for any such attacks, is not in the portfolio of answers that I have, because I don't have all the access to the Department of Defense initiatives that they presented to the president.

[16:10:06]

But, once again, even in the aftermath of a response, what I hear the secretary of defense is talking about military actions. What I need to see is the secretary of state traveling to Europe, to our allies, and joining and creating a coalition to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.

That is what's missing in this regard.

TAPPER: The U.S. still has about 5,000 service members and others, contractors, in Iraq.

Many in the Iraqi government have said the U.S. should get out. Should we? Should the U.S. withdraw.

MENENDEZ: No, I think it would be an enormous collapse of Iraq, after so much blood and national treasure that has been spent in Iraq.

If we withdraw, virtually every other Western country that is participating in Iraq will withdraw. Iran, which already has enormous influence in Iraq, might very well devour it.

The protests that you see in Iraq are largely against Iranian influence. So I don't take the attack on the embassy as a statement of Iraqi sentiment. I take it as, obviously, Iran's surrogates.

So you have to calibrate, what are you going to do? If you totally withdraw, both in your security interests within the region, as well as standing up Iraq against Iranian influence, I think that would be a huge mistake. And that's an issue that I hope the administration is working over very arduously, as a vote in Parliament seems to be taking place as early as next week.

TAPPER: Let me ask you about North Korea.

President Trump's former National Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted -- quote -- "How to respond to Kim Jong-un's threatening New Year's remarks? The U.S. should fully resume all canceled or downsized military exercises in South Korea, hold congressional hearings on whether U.S. troops are truly ready to 'fight tonight.'"

If North Korea does conduct a nuclear test soon or a test of a nuclear weapon, what would you advise President Trump to do?

MENENDEZ: Well, I do believe that having canceled the military exercises was an enormous gift to Kim Jong-un, without any benefit. He took him from an international pariah and has made him acceptable now in the international community.

And he's weakened our sanctions regime, because people think we're engaged with North Korea, so why shouldn't they?

And so you have to resume the sanctions regime. And you have to engage China vigorously, because China is probably the key to whether or not you can have a successful outcome with North Korea.

None of that, from my perspective, is going on right now.

TAPPER: Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, thanks so much, and happy new year to you, sir.

MENENDEZ: Happy new year to you and all your viewers.

TAPPER: With just over a month until the Iowa caucuses, voters are showing the Democratic presidential candidates the proverbial money. Who tops the donor list next?

Then, San Francisco heat -- President Trump blaming Nancy Pelosi for California's homeless crisis. But political attacks aside, what is fueling this humanitarian crisis?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:04]

TAPPER: In today's 2020 lead, Democratic front-runner Joe Biden's campaign just announced he raised $22.7 million in the fourth quarter of the campaign. That's his highest yet in this race, but it does fall short of the massive haul for Senator Bernie Sanders and even the fourth quarter for Pete Buttigieg.

As CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports with Iowa 32 days away, the money gives us a sense of who might be in this race for the long haul.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Finally, it's 2020, and Bernie Sanders is starting the New Year with a bang, announcing today that he raised more than $34 million in the final three months of last year. A muscular tally, likely to make him the top fund-raiser in the Democratic field. But Joe Biden also recorded his biggest fund-raising amount yet, saying today that he raised $22.7 million in the fourth quarter, boosted by doubling his online contributions. That was just shy of Pete Buttigieg, who announced he raised $24.7 million.

One month and one day before the Iowa caucuses, those three leading candidates rushed to release their fundraising tallies as a sign of strength. Campaigning in Iowa, Sanders said it proved his grassroots support is thriving.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need to transform our economy and have a government which works for all of us, not just wealthy campaign contributors.

ZELENY: Sanders' total came from 1.8 million small dollar contributions, his campaign said, with his individual donations now surpassing 5 million. Andrew Yang also making a big showing, raising $16.5 million, a significant jump from $10 million in the third quarter. Their Democratic rivals have until the end of the month to report their fund-raising, but none are likely to surpass another candidate in the race, President Trump, whose campaign said today he raised $46 million over the last three months of 2019.

The president is playing a pivotal role in the Democratic primary. Biden is making the case he's the strongest candidate to take on Trump.

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But eight years of Donald Trump will I think in a fundamental way change the nature who we are, we can't let that happen.

ZELENY: Biden winning a key endorsement from Iowa Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer.

BIDEN: Abby, thank you, thank you, thank you for having me.

ZELENY: A Democrat who won her seat in 2018 in a district Trump carried.

Today, Julian Castro becoming the latest candidate to step aside. The former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary in the Obama administration, bowing to political reality.

JULIAN CASTRO (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I determined that it simply isn't our time. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So after raising all that money now, Jake, the candidates are starting to spend it. You can see behind me here a house in Grenell, Iowa. Bernie Sanders is just taking the stage here. He's trying to rally his volunteers and a lot of staff members as well.

For the next month, they'll be canvassing across this state to get out their vote. Also the state awash in TV ads. Amy Klobuchar also here, making her case.

Jake, you can feel the energy in the New Year. Finally, this campaign has reached its calendar year of 2020 -- Jake.

[16:20:02]

TAPPER: Yes, 2020. Here we go. Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

So, let's talk about this, because Joe Biden tops a lot of the polls, especially the national polls, not necessarily the state by state, Iowa and New Hampshire. But we have Bernie Sanders with a colossal haul and 5 million individual donors, which is huge, and even Pete Buttigieg eclipsing him in fund-raising.

It matters, doesn't it?

FINNEY: The money? Absolutely. Because what it means is will you have the dollars to go on the airwaves in the four early states, in addition to having the staff on the ground, and one of the most important things, they're going to have to pivot very quickly to the Super Tuesday contest.

So, we've already seen Bloomberg put staff on the ground there. So, whoever has the most money is going to be able to put staff on the ground very quickly.

TAPPER: And we shouldn't sleep on Sanders again. I mean, this is a -- this is a big haul. He had a heart attack in October. Since then, not only has his health revived, since then 1.8 million people contributed to his campaign, 40,000 people alone donated on the last day of the fourth quarter. The average donation, $18.53. And he's also pointed out, with 5 million donors, if every one of them gave him $27, that's $1 billion.

MELANIE ZANONA, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: That's huge. That's huge. I mean, Sanders has shown he is a formidable candidate in this race and he's also shown the strength of his small donor base, especially at a time when right now in the primary, one of the biggest debates is how candidates are bringing in money, how they're raising it, and what type of donors they're going to.

So, now, the Sanders campaign can say, look, you know, we aren't going to be fighting with our arms tied behind our back. We can do it with small donor donations to compete with President Trump. We don't have to rely on wealthy donors like people like Biden and Mayor Pete have relied upon. TAPPER: I even wonder, Ayesha, is it even right to call Joe Biden a

front-runner if he's being eclipsed in fund-raising by Buttigieg and by Bernie Sanders? Sanders has this huge fund-raising donor base and also the state-by-state polls show that it's really fluid, and the voters haven't coalesced around a Democrat yet.

AYESHA RASCOE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, NPR: Yes, I think that what has happened with Biden is that he's been able to remain fairly consistent in just having support, like he has his base of support that hasn't wavered a whole lot. And so, I think that has helped him. And also just the name recognition has helped him, and we'll see what happens.

I mean, he was able to -- even though he was eclipsed by Buttigieg and Sanders, he was able to bring in a considerable amount of money, which was good for him. This was kind of a do-or-die moment for him, in a sense. Like if he hadn't been able -- if he hadn't been able to show that he could do the fund-raising right now, that would have been a real problem for him.

So, I think the issue, I think the thing with Joe Biden is that he has the name out there and he has to show what he can do in Iowa.

TAPPER: What's your take on all of this, Mary Katharine?

HAM: Yes, I think the race is a little more exciting than national polling suggests when you look at these fund-raising numbers.

FINNEY: Yes.

HAM: And despite the fact that as much as I think Bernie is out of touch with the general electorate, and we'll see how that works out if he makes there as a primary candidate, I think he's sort of underrated and resilient. And this shows that.

The other interesting thing is this $46 million for Trump -- I say this sometimes to tweak little friends, but it is worth thinking about. He beat Democrats last time with not very much money. He was not the big spender in that race.

TAPPER: Right.

HAM: And now, he's got an economic juggernaut of good news behind him, whether you give him credit for that or not. And he's got this fund-raising juggernaut behind him this time. It's going to be a different race and it's an interesting thing to have to contend with.

TAPPER: So, he raised a lot more than any individual Democrat. But here was the interesting take on this from Dave Weigel of "The Washington Post". He says the $46 million Trump raised in the fourth quarter, the Democratic field is easily going to double it when you combine all of them. And that's really, really unusual, Weigel notes. The 2012 Democratic field did not do that against Obama and the 2004 Democratic field did not do that with George W. Bush.

FINNEY: Well, and also, let's not forget all that outside money, right? What we're talking about right now is the money being reported by these candidates. We're not including the money that Bloomberg has put in not just to his campaign but the things like voter registration and to going after Donald Trump.

So, I think once we get to a general election, I suspect the money will be there, because again, the imperative among Democrats to beat Donald Trump is so strong that there will be all kinds of outside groups, super PACs, you name it, going to against Donald Trump.

ZANONA: I think the question is, when will they consolidate? Because especially going back to Sanders' numbers, now he has the money to stay in this race for a very long time, even if it becomes clear he is not the nominee. So, I think Democrats are bracing for a very long primary fight.

TAPPER: We should point out, for Julian Castro withdrew from the race today.

FINNEY: Yes.

TAPPER: Why -- you know, on paper he looked like a strong talent. He was good at the debates. But his disapproval went -- took a real hit after he went after Joe Biden at that one debate.

RASCOE: Yes. And I think that the loss of Julian Castro, Kamala Harris before, it raises real questions for Democrats. I mean, this was or this was one of the most diverse fields that they had, and what you see is that is that diversity is quickly kind of fading away. And so, I think that that kind of raises some questions about the way that this was handled, the way the Democrats handled their primaries and whether this was the right way to go about it, or whether that support is actually there for this diversity that they say and the public says they want.

[16:25:11]

TAPPER: Right, but the top four Democrats right now, according to polls, are all white, Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg.

Stick around. We got more to talk about.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just responded to new emails directly tying President Trump to the hold on the money to Ukraine. What that might mean for the impeachment trial in the Senate. That's next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: The politics lead now. Amidst a presidential impeachment involving a withheld White House meeting for the president of Ukraine, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled his planned trip to Ukraine where he would have met with Ukrainian President Zelensky.

[16:30:00]