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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT); Trump Administration on Path to War With Iran?; Sen. James Risch (R-ID) is Interviewed About the Killing of Soleimani. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:01]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Everyone, though, is back Monday. We will tune in for that.

Manu Raju, you get the gold star today with all the news. Thank you very much.

That's it for me. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we begin with breaking news in our world lead, of course.

President Trump moments ago speaking publicly for the first time about his order to kill Qasem Soleimani, the top Iranian general and perhaps at one point the second most powerful Iranian official, in a U.S. drone strike outside of Baghdad, Iraq, last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over.

We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The leaders of Iran do not see it that way, of course.

Today, they vowed revenge. And the Iraqi prime minister protested the strike having been carried out on Iraqi land.

President Trump insisted that General Soleimani was planning attacks on Americans and immediate action was necessary. On Capitol Hill today, increasingly louder calls for proof of the president's assertions.

A challenge the Trump administration will likely face is the credibility chasm. President Trump has been digging for years, undermining the trustworthiness of his own words by spreading lies and conspiracy theories, not to mention repeatedly attacking the U.S. intelligence community, the very community Congress and the world is now expected to believe.

We're covering this story the way only CNN can, with reporters in Iraq, in Iran, in Washington, D.C.

But we're going to begin with Kaitlan Collins, who's traveling with President Trump in Florida.

And, Kaitlan, President Trump just now insisted he had no choice but to order that strike.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake.

He essentially said that these attacks that were being plotted were imminent and sinister, in the president's words. And he said the action he took was not to start a war with Iran, but to stop a potential one.

And that seemed like a defense in wake of the criticism that the president has received today, amid concerns about how Iran is going to respond to all of this, because many people have said that they don't think it's a question of if, but when.

And here's what the president said, essentially saying that the United States is prepared for whatever it is that Iran might do in response to this strike.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We have the best intelligence in the world. If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified.

And I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary.

And that in particular refers to Iran. We do not seek regime change.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Two things are notable there, Jake, one, the president praising intelligence agencies, ones he's doubted in the past even when it comes down to things like them conclusively deciding it was Russia who interfered in the election.

But then there at the end, the president says, "We do not seek regime change."

That comes just hours after the strike, when John Bolton, the former national security adviser, said he hoped this was the first start of regime change, something the president clearly wanted to distinguish himself from.

TAPPER: And, Kaitlan, do we know how the decision to attack, to strike Soleimani came together over the last few days?

COLLINS: We're learning more about that.

We know the president made the final decision to give the sign-off to authorize this strike that killed him in recent days. And, Jake, that came after not only the president had been briefed. Clearly, Senator Lindsey Graham had been told that this could be something they pursued in the next few days, but also after sources say national security officials and the White House attorneys got together, talked about the rationale for developing this.

That's when they decided they didn't think they needed congressional approval, though you're already seeing lawmakers push back on that. Jake, the one thing we're still waiting to find out is what exactly the details of these imminent threats were, because, so far, Pompeo and the president have declined to give any details.

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

Minutes ago, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said there was -- quote -- "compelling intelligence and clear evidence" Soleimani was planning a -- quote -- "significant campaign of violence," and the U.S. would have been -- quote -- "culpably negligent" if the military didn't take action.

As CNN's Alex Marquardt reports for us now, that intelligence, that evidence has yet to be made public.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): The car carrying Iran's most powerful military commander destroyed beyond recognition by the missile strike from the American military drone flying overhead, confirmation coming quickly that the ruthless and cunning Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, was targeted and killed.

Top U.S. officials tell CNN that attacks against U.S. targets planned by Soleimani were imminent, though the Trump administration has yet to provide any evidence. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying today there was compelling intelligence that Soleimani was planning a significant campaign of violence in the coming days, weeks and months.

[16:05:03]

He added, "We would be culpably negligent if we didn't take action."

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: 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.

MARQUARDT: Ahead of a possible Iranian response, the Pentagon sending around 3,000 more troops to the region, adding the beefed-up presence that followed violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Hundreds of U.S. service members have been killed by Soleimani's actions, according to U.S. officials, thousands more maimed, mainly by improvised explosive devices that Iran sent to insurgents in Iraq. U.S. officials tell CNN that Soleimani was planning more attacks against U.S. targets in multiple countries across the region.

Intelligence reports, they say, highlighted threats that were more significant than usual.

POMPEO: We watched them colleges flow in that talked about Soleimani's travels in the region and the work that he was doing to put Americans further at risk.

MARQUARDT: Sixty-two-year-old Soleimani joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. For over 20 years, he had been at the head of its shadowy Quds Force, orchestrating military action and terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world.

He supported and directed efforts of proxy forces like Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel and militias in Iraq against ISIS, which also committed war crimes against Sunni Muslim civilians.

The Trump administration says that Soleimani approved those attacks this week on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. But the killing of Soleimani has left the U.S. presence in Iraq in doubt, with powerful forces demanding the eviction of the Americans, the Iraqi prime minister calling the attack a flagrant violation of the U.S.-Iraq security agreement.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: The big question has been why now, when there have been opportunities to kill Soleimani in the past?

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said it was the -- quote -- "size, scale and scope" of these planned attacks. Now, in the meantime, the threat level to U.S. military forces in the Middle East has been raised, meaning they believe an attack against them is likely -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

Joining me now to discuss is Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

You heard President Trump just a few minutes ago. He said the strike was carried out to stop a war, not to start one.

Your reaction.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): Well, I worry that this is going to ultimately spill into a set of events in the region that will end up in a war between the United States and Iran.

The stated intention here was to prevent an attack on U.S. forces. First of all, none of us have seen that intelligence yet. But the question is, does this action actually make us safer? The fact that we're pulling all American civilians out of Iraq today tells us that that place is more dangerous today than it was just a day ago.

And what we also know is that Qasem Soleimani wasn't a lone wolf. He was carrying out the policy of Iran's supreme leader. And that policy remains. He was quickly replaced by his number two. And there is no doubt that there will ultimately be serious reprisals, maybe against U.S. forces, maybe against U.S. civilians, maybe even against top U.S. political and military leaders here at home.

This seems disproportionate to the threat. There's a reason why we didn't go after Soleimani under the Bush administration and the Obama administration, is because they came to the assessment that going after that high an Iranian official would end up getting more Americans killed in the long run.

TAPPER: Secretary of State Pompeo said that killing Soleimani disrupted this imminent attack, saved American lives in the region.

Do you dispute that?

MURPHY: Well, I haven't seen any of the intelligence.

Of course, the War Powers Act, which is the law of the United States, requires the president to consult with Congress before carrying out any military strikes overseas. The president is in violation of the War Powers Act. So none of us can sit here and opine as to whether this was necessary.

But what I know, as a watcher of Iran and of the Middle East, is that by taking out Soleimani, you are, frankly, creating a martyr that is going to inspire more attacks in the future.

And so, yes, maybe it had the effect in the short run of preventing this attack. Maybe there were other ways to prevent this attack through military action other than assassination.

In the long run, though, this ultimately may be more dangerous -- likely to be more dangerous for American interests.

TAPPER: Are you calling it an assassination? Because I believe that word carries with it the weight of legal theory that it was against the law?

[16:10:01]

MURPHY: It is an assassination.

I mean, this is a top official of a foreign government. This isn't the head of a non-state terrorist group. No matter how bad a guy he is, how evil he was, he was a commanding general of a sovereign foreign nation. And we executed him. So I don't think you can call it anything other than an assassination.

It's not the first time that America has been involved in assassinating a foreign official, but it's probably the most high- profile foreign official that the United States military has ever executed.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about a tweet you sent that some of your Republican colleagues are giving you grief for before the attack, in response to the president's response to the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

You tweeted: "The attack on our embassy in Baghdad is horrifying, but predictable. Trump has rendered America impotent in the Middle East. No one fears us. No one listens to us. America has been reduced to huddling in safe rooms, hoping the bad guys will go away. What a disgrace" -- unquote.

What do you say to critics who say, look, before the attack, you said the president is insufficiently projecting American strength; then he carries out the strike and you fault him for that?

MURPHY: Well, our policy in the Middle East has been embarrassment. It has made us weak.

The fact that none of our allies can trust us, that the president changes his mind every day on how many troops we're going to have in Syria, that he welshes on promises that America has made to countries in the region and throughout the world, all of our policy in the Middle East has made us weaker.

That doesn't justify the assassination of the leader of a foreign country that ultimately makes us less safe.

I may counsel my kids to stand up to bullies. That doesn't mean I'm suggesting that they kill the people that are threatening them.

In this case, it may be -- it is likely that the assassination of Qasem Soleimani ultimately will lead to war with Iran, it will make the United States less safe.

So, I have, of course, think that the president has taken grave missteps in the region, but this is -- this is likely an overcorrection for lots of mistakes that have mounted over the time he's been in office.

TAPPER: Just very quickly, if you could, do you think that the assassination, as you put it, of General Soleimani was against international law?

MURPHY: Interestingly, international law is pretty vague and often silent on the question of assassination of foreign leaders.

I likely think that this was done without domestic sanction of law. I'm not sure that, in the end, the administration is going to be able to make the claim that this was absolutely necessary and proportional to prevent an attack on U.S. forces. But I don't know whether it's in contravention of international law.

TAPPER: Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat from Connecticut, thank you for your time, sir. Appreciate it.

MURPHY: Thanks.

TAPPER: You just heard from a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Next, we're going to talk to the Republican chairman of that committee. He spoke to the president today.

Plus, we're going to go live to Baghdad and to Tehran, where we have already seen protests and could soon see a move that will change the future of Americans in Iraq.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:18]

TAPPER: Iran's regime promising, a quote, crushing response for the attack that killed the most powerful general. As American flags burn on the streets of Tehran, U.S. military installations across the Middle East have raised their alert levels.

Here in the U.S., stocks are falling because of fears of retaliation and police departments in New York and Los Angeles are stepping up security.

Joining me now to discuss all of this is Senator James Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thank you for joining us, Mr. Chairman.

Secretary Pompeo says that the attack that killed General Soleimani was in response to an imminent attack. What can you tell us about the intelligence? And do you think it is important that the public get a chance to see as much as possible of this intelligence?

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R-ID): I do. But as with these -- as always happens, it is going to be slower in coming. The intelligence won't be released immediately.

I can tell you that I'm the number two person on the Intelligence Committee as well as being number one on Foreign Relations. This information that we had was rock solid. It was good intelligence.

Our intelligence communities do a good job. There are 17 of them. They keep us safe at home. They keep our troops safe in the field.

This man was involved in actually participating in the orchestration of attacks against Americans. He had been actively engaged in the American that was killed in the most recent days and the Americans whose -- the four Americans who were injured. He's done awful things over the years, not the least of which was running the IED program that killed and maimed so many of our young men and women who are in service there.

This guy was on the battlefield. He was a general. And he was taken out by military action, absolutely lawful.

I'm embarrassed for Chris Murphy when he said this was an assassination. This was not an assassination. This was an act of military conduct fully justified and that's what happened.

TAPPER: Well, you heard Senator Murphy just now. Former Vice President Biden said that President Trump has, quote, just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinder box, unquote. What's your response in general to the criticism you're hearing?

RISCH: Well, look, this isn't surprising. The Democrats criticize this president for everything he does.

Jake, can you imagine if we were having this interview and indeed Soleimani had been able to conduct the operations that he was involved in and Americans would have been killed, many Americans perhaps, and then the word came out that the intelligence community had warned the president that this was going to happen.

[16:20:02]

Can you imagine what these Democrats would be saying? It would be stunning.

And, look, it is very hypocritical for them to be talking like this. They weren't talking like this when Barack Obama took out Osama bin Laden. This is a very, very similar type of an operation, where the head of a terrorist organization, which this man was, not only a general but operating in the field. He was also the head of the Quds Force which is a terrorist organization.

The president ought to be commended for this, not be chided as the Democrats are doing. It's -- it's disappointing to say the least.

TAPPER: The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is on lockdown currently. American embassies in Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan have all issued security alerts.

How concerned are you about retaliation and what kind of retaliation are you most worried about?

RISCH: Yes. Well, first of all, the Iranians are just notorious for making bad judgments and for miscalculating. That's been their mode. Myself and many others warned them after the president did what I thought was very reasonable forbearance both on the attack done by them on the drone and then secondly by the attack on the oil operation in Saudi Arabia where we had 100 Americans working at the time.

The president used reasonable forbearance I think. And unfortunately in that part of the world, reasonable forbearance is viewed as weakness. And myself and others sent word through publicly and through the usual backchannels to the Iranians that they should not make the mistake of thinking that this president is weak or that this country is weak simply because we engaged in reasonable forbearance.

I hope they don't make a miscalculation again. We're not interested in getting into a war. The president said it best just recently on -- in the interview that you carried. Look, we're not interested in that. But they will be making a horrendous mistake if they up the ante here.

TAPPER: Lastly, sir, at a time like this, it is obviously very important that American people and the people around the world trust the words that they are hearing from the U.S. president and his administration. Are you at all concerned that the president has eroded some of that?

RISCH: Well, look, I think what you have to do is take every instance as it comes along. I could tell you and other people have seen the intelligence on this matter who have followed this man for decades will tell you that this was a very dangerous situation that we were in and the president acted appropriately. He should be commended for that. And I hope we as Americans could get behind our commander-in- chief whenever we're involved with a kinetic force like this.

TAPPER: Mr. Chairman, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate it.

RISCH: Thank you, Jake. Thank you for having me.

TAPPER: As President Trump touts the attack, critics question whether his history of false statements may hurt his credibility in such a critical time. That story next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:52]

TAPPER: In our world lead -- just moments ago, President Trump landing in Miami, minutes after making his first public statement on the attack he ordered against Iranian General Soleimani, claiming without citing any specific evidence Soleimani was planning on attacking Americans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. But we caught him in the act and terminated him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: It is worth pointing out that two-thirds of the American public considers President Trump to not be honest or trustworthy according to CNN polling and given the thousands of false claims he's made since taking office.

So let's talk about all this with the expert panel.

Does it matter that President Trump is regarded by so many Americans as not being honest or trustworthy given the fact that this is a time that he really needs us to believe?

TRITA PARSI, NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL, FOUNDER: Absolutely, because this could very well lead to a full scale war. And if that full-scale war was based on him putting forward a lie to justify this movement, well then that reminds us of what happened with the Iraq war, which we went into the country on false premises and it has been a disaster ever since and caused a massive loss of trust, not just in those individuals but from the public losing their trust in the government as a whole.

TAPPER: And in fact, President Trump has talked about not trusting intelligence, talked a lot about how he said that George W. Bush should have been impeached because of WMD in Iraq.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE, FORMER SENIOR DIRECTOR, GULF AFFAIRS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: But the bigger question is, does the American country trust our intelligence community and our Defense Department because they are the two organizations that made the assessment that Qasem Soleimani was planning imminent attacks against U.S. interest, not the president himself.

TAPPER: Uh-huh.

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Listen, I think the American people could be expected to believe that Qasem Soleimani was planning attacks on Americans because that is what he's been doing for 20 years. This is true that the Trump administration has a well-earned credibility problem and they should show us the evidence they used to make this decision but suffice to say, Qasem Soleimani did not show up in Baghdad with a bunch of terrorists for vacation, OK?

Now, that's -- the question really is, not if it's the right thing to do, I mean, not whether we have the right to do it, but whether it is the right thing to do.

And when I was at a briefing today with a bunch of State Department senior officials, the question kept coming up of what happens next? What are they going to do? What are we going to do? Is there a plan for that? And there were no answers, OK?

So this is a hugely risky thing. The legal justification will be debated for years if not decades. But in the immediate days and weeks, we're going to have to deal with the fallout and there's a lot of concern. My concern is that this administration is not prepared for that.

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