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U.S. Official Says Killing Iran's Top General Disrupted Imminent Attack, Iran Vows Harsh Revenge; McConnell Speaks on Killing of Top Iranian Commander, Trump Impeachment Trial Standoff; U.S. to Deploy Thousands of Additional Troops to the Middle East. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 12:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

In moments, we'll hear directly from the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. Senator McConnell telling CNN last hour he will address the President's targeted airstrike overnight, which has so dramatically turned up the tensions with Iran.

Tehran promising revenge, what its military force is calling a crushing response after the United States used a drone to take out Iran's top general, Qasem Soleimani. The President tweeting that Soleimani killed thousands of Americans and was responsible for the death of millions of people in the Middle East.

A congressional source telling CNN that Soleimani was in the middle of plotting specific attacks on U.S. interests, including U.S. personnel. The sources say those plans were maturing and described the concern as being beyond the normal chatter.

Here on CNN, the U.S. Secretary of State, without commenting on the specific intelligence, said these strikes saved American lives.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: John, I can't too -- talk too much about the nature of the threats, but the American people should know that President Trump's decision to remove Qasem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There's no doubt about that. He was actively plotting in the region to take actions, a big action as he described it, that would have put dozens, if not hundreds, of American lives at risk.

We know it was imminent. This was an intelligence-based assessment that drove our decision-making process. The risk of doing nothing was enormous. The intelligence community made that assessment, and President Trump acted decisively last night.


BLITZER: Secretary Mike Pompeo speaking to CNN earlier today. Congressional leaders, meanwhile, they are demanding answers. Sources tell CNN that the officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, the intelligence community will, in fact, brief some key Senate staff later this hour on the U.S. airstrike.

CNN correspondents and experts are examining every angle of the strike, the anticipated fallout, the political debate from around the globe. Let's go to CNN's Ryan Browne. He's over at the Pentagon for us.

First of all, Ryan, what are you learning about the attacks that Soleimani, according to U.S. officials, was planning?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're being told -- multiple sources are telling CNN that Soleimani had been kind of putting some final touches on some attacks planned against U.S. interests and personnel, both in Iraq and in the wider region.

Now, these attacks are -- were building on previous strikes that Iranian-backed forces had attempted to conduct against U.S. troops in the region, some 11 rocket attacks in recent months, one which killed an American contractor.

But there were additional plots actively being orchestrated by Soleimani, according to recent intelligence, and that those plots were maturing to the point where striking him with a drone became an imminent necessity and a strategic necessity to do that quickly so that he could not continue plotting these attacks in the wake of the rocket attacks and the Iranian-backed militia attempt to storm the American embassy.

So there was real concern enough to prompt this strike, even though U.S. officials were well aware of the potential fallout, given the potential for Iranian retaliation.

BLITZER: What does the Pentagon say about how they're preparing for almost certain Iranian retaliation?

BROWNE: Well, the Pentagon has made almost zero public comments since that statement last night. We haven't heard much of anything at all. But Defense officials have told me that the Pentagon has put all of its troops in the Middle East and Central Asia.

That's tens of thousands of troops stretching from Egypt all the way to Pakistan on a high --

BLITZER: Ryan, hold on for -- hold on for a moment. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, speaking on the Senate floor.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): -- an active state sponsor of terrorism has been removed from the battlefield at the hand of the United States military.

No man alive was more directly responsible for the deaths of more American service members than Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force within Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Soleimani's schemes and his agents killed hundreds of American service members in Iraq and Afghanistan. He personally oversaw the state- sponsored terrorism that Iran used to kill our sons and our daughters.


And as we've seen in recent days and weeks, he and his terrorists posed an ongoing and growing threat to American lives and American interests. Soleimani made it his life's work to take the Iranian revolutionary call for death to America and death to Israel and turn them into action.

But this terrorist mastermind was not just a threat to the United States and Israel. For more than a decade, he masterminded Iran's malevolent and destabilizing work throughout the entire Middle East.

He created, sustained, and directed terrorist proxies everywhere from Yemen to Iraq, to Syria, to Lebanon. Innocents were killed. These sovereign countries were destabilized.

In Syria, these leading terrorists and his agents acted as strategists, enablers, and accomplices to Bashar al-Assad's brutal repression and the slaughter of the Syrian people.

In Iraq, his violence expanded Iran's influence at the expense of the Iraqis themselves. His dark sectarian vision disenfranchised countless Sunni Arabs and paved the way for the rise of ISIS.

And with ISIS largely defeated, Soleimani and his agents, again, turned their sights on controlling the Iraqi people, who, through massive protests, are rejecting not only a corrupt government but also Iran's influence over that government.

And once again, there were Iran and its proxies facilitating violence against these peaceful protesters. For too long -- for too long -- this evil man operated without constraint, and countless innocents have suffered for it.

Now, his terrorist leadership has been ended. Now, predictably enough in this political environment, the operation that led to Soleimani's death may prove controversial or divisive.

Although I anticipate and welcome a debate about America's interests and foreign policy in the Middle East, I recommend that all senators wait to review the facts and hear from the administration before passing much public judgment on this operation and its potential consequences.

The administration will be briefing staff today on the situation in Iraq. We're working to arrange a classified briefing for all senators early next week.

For my part, I've spoken to the Secretary of Defense, and I'm encouraged by the steps the U.S. military is taking to defend American personnel and interests from a growing Iranian threat. I know I speak for the entire Senate when I say that my prayers are

with all American diplomats, personnel, and brave service members serving in Iraq and in the Middle East. I'm grateful for their courageous service to protect our country.

Right from the outset of this new year, it is already clear that 2020 will require the Senate and our whole nation to redouble our resolve to keep America safe in this troubled world.

Now, Mr. President, on an entirely different matter, of course, we also anticipate that another totally different, very serious item will be heading the Senate's way soon.

The Senate will have to address some of the deepest institutional questions contemplated by our constitution. We'll have to decide whether we're going to safeguard core governing traditions or let short-term partisan rage overcome them.

Back in December, I explained how House Democrats' sprint into the most rushed, least fair, and least thorough impeachment inquiry in American history has jeopardized the foundations of our system of government.

Last spring, Speaker Pelosi told the country, quote, impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there is something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don't think we should go down that path. That was the Speaker less than a year ago.


Back in 1998, when Democrats were busy defending President Clinton, Congressman Jerry Nadler said, there must never be a narrowly-voted impeachment or an impeachment substantially supported by one of our major political parties and largely opposed by the other.

Such an impeachment would lack legitimacy, said Congressman Jerry Nadler 20 years ago. That was obviously a standard when a Democrat was in the White House.

But ultimately, House Democrats cared more about attacking President Trump than keeping their promises, so they rushed through a slap-dash investigation. They decided not to bother with the standard legal processes for pursuing witnesses and evidence. They don't have time to do that.

Chairman Adam Schiff told the entire country on national television that getting a court decision takes a long time. He didn't want to wait.

It takes a long time to go to court, so he just plowed ahead. Plowed right ahead with a historically weak case and impeached a duly elected president with votes from just one -- just one -- political party.

Democrats have let Trump derangement syndrome develop into a kind of dangerous partisan fever that our founding fathers were afraid of. And then, Mr. President, just before the holidays, this sad spectacle took another unusual turn.

As soon as the partisan impeachment votes had finished, the prosecutors began to develop cold feet. Instead of sending the articles to the Senate, they flinched. They flinched.

That's right. The same people who just spent weeks screaming that impeachment was so serious and so urgent that it couldn't wait for due process now decided it could wait indefinitely while they checked the political winds and looked for some new talking points.

This is yet another situation where the House Democrats have blown right past the specific warnings of our founding fathers.

Alexander Hamilton specifically warned about the dangers of a, quote, procrastinated determination of the charges in an impeachment. He explained it would not be fair to the accused, and it would be dangerous for the country.

Speaker Pelosi, apparently, does not care. Her Congress is behaving exactly like the, quote, intemperate or designing majority in the House of Representatives that Hamilton warned might abuse the impeachment power.

So as House Democrats continue their political delay, they're searching desperately for some new talking points to help them deflect blame for what they've done.

We've heard it claimed that the same House Democrats who botched their own process should get to reach over here into the Senate and dictate our process.

We've heard claims there's a problem that I've discussed trial mechanics with the White House. Even as my counterpart, the Democratic leader, is openly coordinating political strategy with the Speaker, who some might call the prosecution. So it's OK to have consultation with the prosecution but not, apparently, with the defendant.

Oh, and we've heard claims that any senators who have formed opinions about House Democrats' irresponsible and unprecedented actions as they play it out in view of the entire nation should be disqualified from the next phase. Obviously, Mr. President, this is nonsense. Nonsense.

Let me clarify Senate rules and Senate history for those who may be confused. First, about this fantasy that the Speaker of the House will get to hand-design the trial proceedings in the Senate, that's obviously a non-starter.


What I've consistently said is pretty simple. The structure for this impeachment trial should track with the structure of the Clinton trial. We have a precedent here. That means two phases.

First, back in 1999, the Senate passed a unanimous bipartisan resolution, 100 to nothing, that set up the initial logistics like briefs, opening arguments, and senator questions.

It stayed solid on mid-trial questions such as witnesses until the trial was actually underway. That was approved a hundred to nothing.

Somewhat predictably, things started to diverge along party lines when we considered those later procedural questions. But the initial resolution, laying out the first half of the trial, was approved a hundred to nothing.

I believe we should simply repeat that unanimous bipartisan precedent this time as well. That's my position. President Trump should get the same treatment that every single senator thought was fair for President Clinton.

Just like 20 years ago, we should address mid-trial questions such as witnesses after briefs, opening arguments, senator questions, and other relevant motions. Fair is fair.

Now, let's discuss these lectures about how senators should do our jobs. The oath that senators take in impeachment trials to, quote, do impartial justice according to the constitution and laws, end quote, has never meant that senators should wall themselves off from the biggest news story in the nation and completely ignore what the House has been doing.

The oath has never meant that senators check all of their political judgment at the door and strip away all of our independent judgment about what is best for the nation. It has never meant that, and it never could.

The framers debated whether to give the power to try impeachments to a court or to the Senate and decided on the Senate precisely because impeachment is not a narrow legal question.

Impeachment is not a narrow legal question but a deeply political one as well. Hamilton said this explicitly in "Federalist 65."

Impeachment requires the Senate to address both legal questions about what has been proved and political questions about what the common good of our nation requires.

Senators do not cease to be senators just because the House sends us articles of impeachment. Our job remains the same, to represent our states, our constituents, and our nation's best interests in the great matters of our time.

That is our obligation, whether we are voting on legislation, nominations, or the verdict in an impeachment.

Twenty years ago, I would add, Democrats understood all of this very well. President Clinton had obviously committed an actual felony. President Clinton had actually committed a felony.

If Democrats actually believed in the narrow sense of impartiality they've now adopted as a talking point, then every single one of them would have voted to remove President Clinton from office. Oh, no, but instead a majority of the Senate decided that removing the

President despite his proven and actual crimes would not best serve the nation. Mr. President, they made a political judgment.


And by the way, back then, leading Democrats had zero -- zero -- objections to senators speaking out before the trial. The current Democratic leader, Senator Schumer, was running for the Senate during the House impeachment process back in 1998.

He voted against the articles both in the House Judiciary Committee and on the House floor. And a major part of his Senate campaign that year -- listen to this -- was literally promising New Yorkers in advance -- in advance -- that he would vote to acquit President Clinton.

People asked if it was appropriate for him to prejudge like that. He dismissed the question, saying, quote, this is not a criminal trial but something the founding fathers decided to put in a body that was susceptible to the whims of politics.

That was a Democratic leader in the '98 Senate campaign. That was a newly sworn-in Senator Schumer in 1999.

A few weeks later, during the trial itself, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin successfully objected to the use of the word "jurors" to describe senators because the analogy to a narrow legal proceeding was so inappropriate, according to Senator Harkin.

So look, Mr. President, I respect our friends across the aisle, but it appears that one symptom of Trump derangement syndrome is also a bad case of amnesia. A bad case of amnesia.

And no member of this body needs condescending lectures on fairness from House Democrats who just rushed through the most unfair impeachment in modern history or lectures on impartiality from senators who happily prejudged the case of President Clinton and simply changed their standards to suit the political winds.

Look, anyone who knows American history or understands the constitution knows that a senator's role in an impeachment trial is nothing -- nothing -- like the job of jurors in the legal system. The very things that make the Senate the right forum to settle impeachment would disqualify all of us in an ordinary trial. All of us would be disqualified in an ordinary trial.

Like many Americans, senators have paid great attention to the facts and the arguments that House Democrats have rolled out publicly before the nation. Many of us partially know the parties involved on both sides.

Look, this is a political body. We do not stand apart from the issues of the day. It is our job to be deeply engaged in those issues, but -- and this is critical -- the Senate is unique by design. The framers built the Senate to provide a check against short-termism,

the runaway passions, and the demon of faction that Hamilton warned would extend this scepter over the House of Representatives at certain seasons.

We exist because the founders wanted an institution that could stop momentary hysterias and partisan passions from damaging our republic. An institution that could be thoughtful, be sober, and take the longer view.

And that is why the constitution puts the impeachment trial in this place, not because senators should pretend they are uninformed, unopinionated, or disinterested in the long-term political questions that an impeachment of the President poses but precisely because we are informed, we are opinionated, and we can take up these weighty questions.

That is the meaning of the oath we take. That is the task that lies before us.

Impartial justice means making up our minds on the right basis. It means putting aside purely reflexive partisanship and putting aside personal relationships and animosities.


It means coolly considering the facts the House has presented and then rendering the verdict that we believe is best for our states, our constitution, and our way of life.

It means seeing clearly not what some might wish the House of Representatives had proven but what they actually have or have not proven.

It means looking past a single new cycle to see how overturning an election would reverberate for generations.

So, look, you better believe senators have started forming opinions about these critical questions over the last weeks and months. We sure have, especially in light of the precedent-breaking theatrics that the House Democrats chose to engage in.

But here's where we are, Mr. President. Their turn is over. They've done enough damage. It's the Senate's turn now to render sober judgment as the framers envisioned. But we can't hold a trial without the articles. The Senate's old rules don't provide for that.

So for now, we're content to continue the ordinary business of the Senate while House Democrats continue to flounder. For now. But if they ever muster the courage to stand behind their slap-dash work product and transmit their articles to the Senate, it will then be time for the United States Senate to fulfill our founding purpose.


BLITZER: All right, so there he is, the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, issuing a two-pronged statement.

The first part reacting to the U.S. targeting of Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force in Iran, killing him at the Baghdad International Airport, saying that no man alive is more responsible for the death of American military personnel. Strongly defending the President's decision, saying this individual, Qasem Soleimani, was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The second part of his lengthy address involved what's happening with the impeachment trial in the Senate as far as the President of the United States is concerned.

He says this was the most unfair, the least fair, impeachment process in the House of Representatives. He says it's a historically weak case, all designed by what he described as a Trump derangement syndrome by the Democrats in the House of Representatives.

He said what they should do now, if the articles of impeachment are transferred from the Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the Senate, is do what they did some 21 years ago when there was an impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in the U.S. Senate and do exactly the same process: have opening statements by both sides and then decide on whether or not to call witnesses.

Let's get back to the breaking news on the death of Qasem Soleimani. Ryan Browne is over at the Pentagon.

I understand you're getting new information about more U.S. troops about to be deployed to the region.

BROWNE: That's right, Wolf, new information. Several thousand U.S. soldiers will be deployed to the Middle East, we're being told by Defense officials. This is a step that will be -- help bolster the U.S. military's presence in the region.

Now, these troops, they will be drawn from the 82nd Airborne Division. They had already been placed on alert, kind of a prepare to deploy status, stand-by status, earlier during the crisis around the American embassy.

The Department -- the Pentagon had actually sent 750 paratroopers from this same unit already to the region to Kuwait to act as a rapid reaction force if a crisis will emerge.

Well, those 750 will now be joined by the rest of that brigade, so several thousand, 3,000 or so, additional soldiers will be headed to the region to help bolster the U.S. military's presence there.

And, of course, as we reported earlier, U.S. troops in the region, both in Iraq -- there are some 5,000 there -- but also in the wider Middle East have been put on a higher alert status or force protection status, given the threats.

[12:29:54] There's new intelligence indicating that there will be some kind of

terrorist or other threat against forces in the region, so they are kind of hunkering down with this additional protection.

These 3,000 or so soldiers will be joining forces there to help provide additional support, additional security --