Return to Transcripts main page

AT THIS HOUR

U.S. To Deploy Thousands of Additional Troops To The Middle East; Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) Speaks About Impeachment Standoff And Airstrike That Killed Qasem Soleimani; Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) Interviewed About The Airstrike In Iran That Killed Soleimani. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 12:30   ET

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


[12:30:00]

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: -- forces in the region so they are kind of hankering down with this additional protection. These 3,000 or so soldiers will be joining forces there to help provide additional support, additional security amid these high tensions with Tehran and amid fears that there might some kind of retaliatory action by Iran or its multitude of proxy groups, militia groups in the region.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: So we're talking let's say another 3,000 in the 82nd Airborne Division. Now 3,000 U.S. troops are about to be deployed to the region. When you say the region, does that mean Kuwait? Does that mean Qatar, Camp As Sayliyah? Does that mean the United Arab Emirate, Saudi Arabia, or does is mean Iraq itself?

BROWNE: Well the initial 750 from the same unit were sent to Kuwait, we believe at this time that these were additional thousands will at least initially go to Kuwait. And that's pretty common in this situation. They'll go there first and then if there is something that they need to respond to, they can be moved around. They can be split up and split up among these various sites depending on the threat.

We saw that marines from Kuwait were sent to reinforce the embassy during the militias attempt to storm the embassy earlier. So they have the ability to respond fairly quickly from the position in Kuwait to various locations if a crisis is to spring up.

BLITZER: Another dramatic of that moment right now, perhaps as many as 3,000 U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division about to be deployed to the region in the aftermath of this killing of Qasem Soleimani. Ryan, I know you're getting more information. We'll get back to you shortly.

Coming up, Capitol Hill responds to the death of Qasem Soleimani. The New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez is the top Democrat in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he's standing by. We'll get his reaction when we comeback.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Leader, the Minority Leader in the Senate now, speaking on the Senate floor responding to the Majority Leader. Let's listen in.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: -- notorious terrorist. No one should shed a tear over his death. The operation against Soleimani in Iraq was conducted, however, without specific authorization and any advance notification or consultation with Congress. I'm a member of the Gang of Eight, which is typically briefed in advance of operations of this level of significance. We were not.

The lack of advanced consultation and transparency with Congress was put in the constitution, or the rather the need for advanced consultation and transparency with Congress was put in the constitution for a reason because the lack of advanced consultation and transparency with Congress can lead to hasty and ill-considered decisions.

When the security of the nation is at stake, decisions must not be made in a vacuum. The framers of the constitution gave war powers to the legislature and made the executive the commander-in-chief for the precise reason forcing the two branches of government to consult with one another when it came to matters of war and of peace. It is paramount for administrations to get an outside view, to prevent group thinking rash action. To be ask probing questions, not from your inner and often insulated circle but from others, particularly Congress, which forces an administration before it acts to answer very serious questions.

The administration did not consult in this case, and I fear that those very serious questions have not been answered and may not be fully considered. Among those questions, what was the legal basis for conducting this operation and how far does that legal basis extend?

[12:35:03]

Iran has many dangerous surrogates in the region and a whole range of possible responses. Which responses do we expect? Which are most likely? Do we have plans to counter all of the possible responses? How effective will our counters be?

What does this action mean for the long-term stability of Iraq and the trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives sacrificed there? How does the administration plan to manage an escalation of hostilities, and how does the administration plan to avoid a larger and potentially endless conflagration in the Middle East? These are questions that must be answered.

It is my view that the President does not have the authority for a war with Iran. If he plans a large increase in troops and potential hostility over a longer time, the administration will require congressional approval and the approval of the American people. The President's decision may add to an already dangerous and difficult situation in the Middle East. The risk of a much longer military engagement in the Middle East is acute and immediate. This action may well have brought our nation closer to another endless war, exactly the kind of endless war the President promised he would not drag us into. As our citizens and those of our allies evacuate Iraq and troops prepare for retaliatory action, Congress needs answers to these questions and others from the administration immediately. And the American people need answers as well.

On impeachment. Mr. President, the Senate begins this new session of Congress preparing to do something that has happened only twice, twice before in American history, serving as a court of impeachment in a trial of the president of the United States. President Donald Trump stands accused by House of Representatives of committing one of the offenses the founding fathers most feared when it came to the stability of the Republic. Abusing the powers of his office for personal gain, soliciting the interference of a foreign power in our elections to benefit himself.

The House has also charged the President with obstructing Congress in the investigation into those matters. The consequence of an unprecedented blockade of relevant witnesses and documents, flatly denying the legislative branch's constitutional authority to provide oversight of the executive.

As all eyes turn to the Senate, the question before us is, will we fulfill our duty to conduct a fair impeachment trial of the President of the United States, or will we not? That is the most pressing question facing the Senate at the outset of this second session of the 116th Congress. Will we conduct a fair trial that examines all the facts or not?

The country just saw Senator McConnell's answer to that question. His answer is no. Instead of trying to find the truth, he is still using the same feeble talking points that he was using last December. The country just saw how the Republican leader views his responsibility at this pivotal moment in our nation's history. The Republican leader prefers finger pointing and name calling to avoid answering the looming question. Why shouldn't the Senate call witnesses?

The Republican leader hasn't given one good reason why there shouldn't be relevant witnesses or relevant documents. We did not hear one from Leader McConnell today or any day. Once again, Leader McConnell tried to bury his audience under an avalanche of partisan recriminations and misleading references to precedents.

There is only one precedent that matters here that never, never in the history of our country has there been an impeachment trial of the president in which the Senate was denied the ability to hear from witnesses.

[12:40:10]

Let me repeat that. That is the salient fact here. There is only one precedent that matters. There has never, never in the history of our country been an impeachment trial of the president in which the Senate was denied the ability to hear from witnesses. Yet the Republican leader seems intent on violating that precedent and denying critical evidence to this body and to the American people. Leader McConnell has been clear and vocal that he has no intention to be impartial in this process. Leader McConnell reminds us today and in previous days that rather than acting like a judge and a juror, he intends to act as the executioner of a fair trial. Thankfully, the rules of the impeachment trial would be determined by the majority of senators in this chamber not by the Republican leader alone.

The crux of the issue still is whether the Senate will hear testimony from witnesses and receive documentary evidence directly relevant to the charges against the President. Since Congress recess for the holidays, there have been several, several events that have significantly bolstered my argument for four specific witnesses and specific categories of documents. Nothing, nothing in that time has bolstered Leader McConnell's argument that there shouldn't be relevant witnesses or documents.

On December 21st, the Center for Public Integrity obtained e-mails through a Freedom of Information Act request that showed that Michael Duffey, a top OMB official and one of the four witnesses I've requested asked the Defense Department to, quote, hold off on sending military aid Ukraine 91 minutes after President Trump's July phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky.

On December 29th, The New York Times report included several legislations revelations about the extent of Chief Mulvaney's involvement in the delayed military assistance. About the effort by lawyers at OMB, Justice and the White House to create legal justifications for the delay in assistance and about the depth of opposition too and indeed, alarm about the delay in military assistance from parts of the administration, particularly the Pentagon.

Then just yesterday there was a new report about a trove of newly unredacted e-mails that further exposed the serious concerns raised by Trump administration officials about the propriety and legality of the President's decision to delay military assistance to Ukraine. One of those e-mails released yesterday was from Michael Duffey, one of the witnesses we've requested to the Pentagon controller. And it read, quote, clear direction from POTUS, the President, to continue the hold. Clear direction from the President to continue the hold, is what Duffey wrote.

What constituted clear direction? Did Michael Duffey get an order from the President, or did someone like Mr. Mulvaney get an order from the President that was passed on to Mr. Duffey? Were there discussions by administration officials about covering up the reasons for the President directing the delay in military assistance? These are questions that can only be answered by examination of the documentary evidence and by the testimony of key Trump administration officials under oath in a Senate trial.

These developments are devastating blow to Leader McConnell's push to have a trial without the documents and witnesses we've requested. Each revelation mounts additional pressure on the members of this chamber to seek the whole truth. With these new e-mails, we're getting certain portions of the truth. We need the whole truth. For example, much of the evidence that was obtained by the recent foyer requests has been heavily redacted.

[12:45:05]

Here is an e-mail chain between officials at the Pentagon regarding the political article that first revealed the Trump administration was delaying military assistance to Ukraine. It is completely redacted. Every word crossed out. Not available. Can't be seen.

Here's another e-mail with the subject line, apportionment, between officials at OMB and the Pentagon, completely redacted. None of the words can be seen at all. We know now that some of these redactions were covered up, but only some of it.

Why did they redact the sections they redacted? Who ordered the redactions? Why are they covering up? What are they hiding? These questions must be asked. When you are accused of something, you don't suppress evidence that will exonerate you. The fact that the administration is going to such lengths to prevent such e-mails from coming out is extraordinarily telling. It seems like they themselves feel they are guilty.

Getting the full documentary record would undoubtedly shed light on the issues at hand. These were senior Trump officials discussing the delay in military assistance to Ukraine. Who ordered it, why it was ordered, whether or not it was legal and how it was connected to the effort to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations regarding a political rival of the President. And these e-mails represent just a sliver of the documentary evidence that exists in this case.

There was an exceedingly strong case to call witnesses and request documents before the Senate went out of session for the Christmas break. In the short time since, that case has gotten stronger and remarkably so. We are not asking for critics of the President to serve as witnesses in the trial. We are asking only that the President's men, his top advisers, tell their side of the story. And Leader McConnell, once again, has been unable to make one argument, one single argument as to why these witnesses and these documents should not be part of a trial.

Now, I want to respond to one suggestion by Leader McConnell, that we follow the 1999 example of beginning the impeachment trial first and then deciding on witnesses and documents at a later date. First, to hear McConnell say no witnesses now but maybe some later is just another indication he has no argument against witnesses and documents on the merits. Will Leader McConnell commit to witnesses and documents now and discuss timing later?

Second, Leader McConnell's comparisons to 1999 are hopelessly flawed and inaccurate. There were witnesses in 1999, Leader McConnell. You want the precedent of 1999, there were witnesses, as there were in every single impeachment trial of a president in history. It would be a break in precedent for there not to be witnesses.

Third, there was even a greater rationale for witnesses in the Clinton trial. In 1999, the witnesses in question had already testified they had already testified under oath extensively. And there were also bipartisan concerns about the suitability of the subject matter for the floor of the Senate. There's no analogy to today's situation. The witnesses we've requested never testified under oath, and the documents we've requested have not been produced.

Fourth, we have a tradition in America of a fair and speedy trial. That's why we've requested only the relevant information up front so that the trial can truly be speedy and fair. It makes no sense, and in fact, it is a ruse to suggest that the Senate wait until the end of the trial to settle the hardest question when it might take time for witnesses to prepare testimony and for the Senate to review new documentary evidence.

[12:50:04]

We can and should begin that process now, and ensure that the trial is informed by the facts, and does not suffer unnecessary delays.

Fifth, and finally, when Leader McConnell suggests we have both sides present their arguments and then deal with witnesses, he's essentially proposing to conduct the whole trial. And then once the trial is basically over, consider the question of evidence. That makes no sense. That's Alice-in-Wonderland logic. The trial must be informed by the evidence, not the other way around. The House manager should be allowed to present all of the evidence to make their case, not make their case and then afterward ask for evidence we know was out there.

So if we don't get a commitment, up front, that the House managers will be able to call witnesses as part of their case, the Senate will act as little more than a nationally televised meeting of the mock trial club.

If we leave the question of witnesses and documents until after all the presentations are complete, Leader McConnell will argue that the Senate's heard enough, we shouldn't prolong the trial any longer. At hat point, you can be sure he'll label anyone who wants to subpoena evidence as a partisan who wants to drag the whole affair out. I know this because he's already told us what his position will be. This is not a mystery.

Quote, after we've heard the arguments, Leader McConnell said on Fox News, we ought to vote and move on. Does that sound like someone in good faith who intends to have the Senate reasonably consider witnesses at a later date? No, it does not.

Leader McConnell's proposal to vote on witnesses and documents later is nothing more than a poorly disguised trap. After we've heard the arguments, Leader McConnell said, we ought to vote and move on. All of my fellow senators, Democrat and Republican, should take stock of the leader's words and remember the commitment he made on national television to take his cues from the White House.

So I say to the chair, it may feel like we are no longer -- we are no closer to establishing the rules for a Senate trial than when we last met. But the question, the vital question of whether or not we have a fair trial ultimately rests with the majority of the senators in this chamber. The President faces gravely serious charges, abuse of power, abuse of his public trust, soliciting the interference of a foreign power in our elections, unprecedented obstruction of Congress, and if convicted, the President faces the most severe punishment our Constitution imagines.

The framers gave us, this chamber, the United States Senate, the sole power to discharge this most difficult and somber duty. Will the Senate rise to the occasion? I yield the floor.

BLITZER: All right, a lengthy response from Senator Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, response to the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on both issues, the potential escalation of military activity in the Middle East following the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force in Iran. Also a lengthy explanation of the strong disagreements between the Republicans and Democrats on the issue of an impeachment trial in the U. S. Senate.

I want to get Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Center for Foreign Relation Committee standing by patiently waiting to join us. Senator thanks so much for joining us. Let me get your reaction first of all to the breaking news right now that the U. S. is about to deploy thousands, thousands more troops to the Middle East including maybe 3,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division. What's your reaction to that?

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, my reaction to this is what I've been saying for the better part of last year is that the administration needs to come before Congress and present what is their strategy to deal with Iran. And what we've seen between the missile strikes in Syria and in Iraq and then the assassination of Soleimani and now thousands of troops being sent into the region beyond those that we already have is an escalation that has no approval by the Congress of the United States and the potentially mark to war without the authorization of Congress.

[12:55:11]

And so the administration use to come forth, number one, to make us understand what was the intelligence that led them to take out Soleimani now. I mean, we've had this chance before, Republican and Democratic administrations have always pondered the question, is the value of taking out Soleimani greater than the retaliation and the potential for a protracted conflict.

Those administrations both Republican and Democrat decided not to do it. Now that this administration decided to take out Soleimani, they have to come to us and tell us, first of all what were the facts? Does eliminating Soleimani eliminate the threat or simply postpone it. And what's your strategy in terms of dealing with Iran because what we have here is a series of tactics that are escalating and the last thing that we need is a war that is unauthorized by the Congress of the United States.

BLITZER: Well did the President have the authority the legal authority to order the drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani? MENENDEZ: Well that will determine on the facts. We need to have the intelligence behind this because in a different administration we heard that there were weapons of mass destruction and therefore authorization to act quickly. We didn't get any weapons of mass destruction in the Iraq conflict. We need to know what was the intelligence here to determine whether in fact the President was right to making this determination and taking this action or whether in fact, the facts just simply don't rise to the occasion of the potential threat that follows on from the elimination of Soleimani.

Look, Soleimani was a terrorist who was the cause of the lost of hundreds of American lives of civilians in Iraq and of the destabilization of the region, so no one is going to lament his death. But what follows on is the critical question of the national security of the United States, and from my perspective, the potential of a regional war.

BLITZER: You know, Senator Menendez, we heard Senator Schumer, your colleague, the top Democrat in the Senate say, the President does not have the authority for a war with Iran. He said if the U.S. is going to deploy more troops to that part of the world, it requires congressional approval. We just got word and maybe 3,000 troops are about to be deployed to that part of the world. Does that require a new authorization from the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives?

MENENDEZ: From my perspective, if what you're doing is this deployment which is leading up to a military conflict to some type either directly or indirectly with Iran then you need the approval of the United States Congress. That starts with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in an authorization for the use of military force. We have not had either any information from the administration to justify the attack against Soleimani and/or what is their strategy moving forward.

And so as we return next week, these are urgent responsibilities of the administration come before Congress and tell us what happened that they made this decision and where they're going from here, and how they're going to protect. I mean, the potential for asymmetrical, you know, warfare with Iran is enormous.

They have proxies, you know, armed proxies throughout the region. They can use Hezbollah against our ally state of Israel. They have the Houthis, they can strike at oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and elsewhere. They can intercede in the Strait of Hormuz. They maybe even have sleeper cells in the United States. Our diplomats across the globe are in potential threat.

The administration has an obligation to come before the representatives of the American people and tell us exactly how they've planned for the aftermath.

BLITZER: Bottom line right now, Senator, is the world more or less safe as a result of the U.S. drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani?

MENENDEZ: Well to the extent that Soleimani was the mastermind of a lot of Iran's activities, one could argue that it's more safe. By the same token, he's already been replaced. Others had to be plotting with him. And now the question is what will Iran do? And depending upon Iran's course of retaliation and our response to that retaliation is going to dictate the answer to your question. I fear that the end result of the totality of all that is that we're all safe.

BLITZER: So what -- and very quickly, what is Iran likely to do now?

MENENDEZ: As all the options I just outlined for you, Wolf, they don't have to attack us straight on because at the end of the day our military is far more superior. But the asymmetrical warfare that they can carry on throughout the region and in the world is vast. And so the destabilization of oil markets in the global economies, the attack on anyone of our embassies abroad, a sleeper cell in the United States that could ultimately probably create a domestic terrorist attack, there are a lot of options here. And obviously we have unlocked that.

BLITZER: Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, thanks for joining us on this critically important day.

[13:00:00]