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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump: We Did Not Kill Soleimani to Start War with Iran; Protests in Iraq U.S. Strike Kills Iran's Top Military General. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:01]

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: 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.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: What might the fallout be? I heard a lot this morning about asymmetrical responses, in other words, you're not going to see the Iranian military try to defeat the American military on the battlefield. It will be more like Iranian proxies in Yemen go after American interests, Iranian proxies elsewhere in the Middle East.

What do you see?

KELLY MAGSAMEN, VP, NATIONAL SECURITY AND INTERNATIONAL POLICY AT AMERICAN PROGRESS: So, I think the Iranians are going to unfold their response over time. I think we're going to see a lot of different kinds of responses, potentially see kidnapping of American officials or potential assassination against American officials abroad. You could see them go after diplomatic posts around the world, not just in the Middle East. We have vulnerable posts around the world where Iran has reached. We could see cyber attacks.

So there is a full range of options that the Iranians have. And don't forget that in a couple of days, the Iranians were already planning to announce potential additional nuclear steps. So you could also see them deepen their efforts on their nuclear program.

TAPPER: Who is Soleimani, who was Soleimani to the Iranian people? Put him in some sort of context, a lot of people out there, this might be the first time they heard of him.

TRITA PARSI, NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL, FOUNDER: So, he was just an ordinary person from a very poor background that fought in the Iraq-Iran war, rose up in the ranks and ended up becoming one of the most prominent generals in the Quds Forces. He's interesting in the sense that the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guard, is very unpopular organization amongst the broad scope of Iranians, because they're so involved in the internal repression. Soleimani was different in the sense that he was part of this regime but actually enjoyed a significant amount of following in popularity largely because he was seen as being a critical person fighting ISIS, as someone who was perceived as defending Iran against the external threats. So, I think what you will see first before the Iranians do any retaliation against the United States, is that the government will try to use Soleimani's popularity in order to boost their own internal control.

TAPPER: Josh, let's take it back to President Trump for one second. You heard Chris Murphy, the senator from Connecticut, talked about how this is in his view an assassination. That's obviously a word that carries some weight on it. I mean, that is a very strong response to killing a very bad guy.

ROGIN: Right. And I think it is worth adding to Trita's point about his popularity in Iran that this man was very unpopular in a lot of countries where he did a lot of evil things, including Syria where he orchestrated a genocide against the Syrian people, Lebanon where he created -- and especially in Iraq. Remember, the Iraq protests were protesting Iranian PMF control, that means Soleimani, OK?

Now the question of assassination is not clear-cut, but the way I understand it, he was a designated terrorist, OK? And the U.S. government has permission to kill terrorists when they find terrorists.

Now, you can disagree with that from an authorization standpoint. Surely, Congress has yielded a lot of influence here by not renewing or changing the authorization since 2001. But I think we should acknowledge here that both the Obama administration, the Bush administration, the Trump administration, they're zapping terrorists all over the place. So, this is a terrorist with a government title, but he's still a terrorist.

TAPPER: Do you worry at all about President Trump having squanders credibility like on whether or not the Canadian government cut out a clip of him from "Home Alone 2", whether or not Justin Trudeau had something to do with that, that squandered when he needs it now, he needs people to believe him now?

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE, FORMER SENIOR DIRECTOR, GULF AFFAIRS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: I don't think people pay enough attention to things like whether or not he's upset with the Canadians or now they've now come into a place where they take it in stride.

You know, we can -- we know he's the mouthpiece for this operation in terms of he needs to be the face of the U.S. government, but, really, he didn't carry out this strike. He wasn't part of the intelligence that determined the strike. He's not part of the planning for the post-actions on the strike until he approves them.

So, really, his credibility is less relevant than our credibility with partner intel services around the world. TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We're going to keep talking and we

got more to talk about coming up, fallout from the deadly strike.

Up next, we're going to go live to Baghdad where Iraqi leaders could soon take a major step that might change the future of the Americans in that country.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:38:44]

TAPPER: The world lead, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushing this video today in their tweets, depicting celebrations in Iraq after the U.S. strike that killed Iran's top General Qasem Soleimani, as well as the commander of an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq.

CNN reporters on the ground in Iraq, however, say these celebrations were not widespread.

Meanwhile, Iraq's prime minister is calling the strike an assassination and a flagrant violation of the U.S. agreement with Iraq.

I want to go to CNN's Arwa Damon. She's in Baghdad, Iraq, for us.

Arwa, will Iraqi leader goes as far as to say they want U.S. forces to leave the country?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, parliament is meeting for an emergency session on Sunday. So we'll get more clarity on that.

But, Jake, even prior to all of this, after America's first strikes that took place this past Sunday against one of the fairly powerful groups here, Kataib Hezbollah, whose leader was killed alongside Soleimani, you already had senior leaders within parliament calling for the U.S. to leave. The prime minister himself prior to all of this had said that perhaps Iraq needed to reassess the relationship with the United States following these strikes.

[16:40:04]

Iraqi caretaker prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, saying that this was not just a violation of Iraq sovereignty but also an act of aggression against Iraq itself.

Again, prior to all of this, there was perhaps the school of thought that would have said that even if lawmakers did draft a bill demanding that U.S. troops leave, it may not get the votes to pass through parliament. This may change that calculus.

And you were talking there also about this video depicting some celebrations in Baghdad following the death of Qasem Soleimani, just like he is in so many other places, a very divisive figure here as well. But, Jake, one also has to remember that even if Iraqis want Iranian influence to end here, even if they want to see an end to these Iranian-backed proxies and militias, that does not necessarily equate to being supportive of acts of American aggression on Iraqi soil because Iraqis have learned the very bitter lesson in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein of exactly what American aggression looks like and the repercussions from this particular strike, that is something that is going to put us, Jake, into unchartered territory.

TAPPER: All right. Arwa Damon with some sobering words there from Baghdad -- thank you so much.

Iran has already named Soleimani's replacement and is vowing to avenge his death, calling him a martyr.

CNN's Ramin Mostaghim is in the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Ramin, what's happening right now in the streets of Tehran?

RAMIN MOSTAGHIM, CNN REPORTER: At this moment, we're into Saturday. So I can say the schedule on Saturday is piling up more sentiments against America. And it seems that students, different guilds, clergymen are going to have different gatherings to call for revenge, revenge.

So, sentiment is framed around revenge. We expect more revenge coming from the different walks of society because Qasem Soleimani seems to be a hero for all walks of Iranian society and that is bringing us to the very trouble times.

TAPPER: And, Ramin, what does revenge look like? What might the Iranians attempt to do to get in their view revenge against the United States?

MOSTAGHIM: I mean, it seems it is unknown even for the officials. They are thinking and they are just discussing behind the curtains what to do next. They shall also show some self-restraint and try to find a better way to take revenge. The sentiments of the people is piling up against America and that is why, Jake, we don't know what could happen.

TAPPER: Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

President Trump is now sending more American troops to the Middle East but there remain a lot of questions surrounding this deployment.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:47:45]

TAPPER: Iraq's president calling on both sides to use restraint after the U.S. attack that killed Iran's top general. I want to bring Ambassador Richard Haass. He was a top diplomat in President George W. Bush's administration, and is currently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Haass, thanks for joining us.

So, we learned after the strike that the Trump administration is deploying thousands more troops to the Middle East, sending thousands of them to Kuwait specifically.

Does that signal to you that a retaliation from Iran is inevitable, that war is inevitable?

RICHARD HAASS, PRESIDENT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: I think retaliation is extremely likely, I think, though it won't look like a traditional war, Jake.

I don't -- we think of wars as guys in uniforms on battlefields, beginnings and ends. I think this is likely to be much more diffuse, could be random in terms of time. It could use militias. It could use cyber.

So I think we're looking at something much more distributed in terms of geography, multiple targets. Could be, say, something in Saudi Arabia or Israel. Could even include a cyberattack on the United States.

TAPPER: President Trump, of course, presenting this information, relying on the world to believe his word.

As you and I have long discussed, he's had his own credibility issues. He says a lot of things that are not true.

Do you worry that the public, the world will not believe what President Trump tells them when he needs them to the most?

HAASS: Oh, absolutely.

And it's ironic to have him embracing U.S. intelligence, since he's done so much to discredit it over the last couple of years.

But it's important in one -- to one degree, which is, he and the secretary of state were talking about the imminence of the attack. Imminence is a critical word in international law, because it provides the right of what's called preemption and anticipatory self-defense, the idea that you, under international law, have a right to act if an attack is about to be launched against you.

But that needs to be proven.

But I think there's a larger point, Jake, and it's where you began the conversation. We're sending thousands more troops to the Middle East. So, even if this attack was justified in the narrow, I don't think it makes sense in the large.

Why does the United States now, at a time of rising of China, Russian threats to Europe, North Korean nuclear and missile programs, why do we want to find ourselves getting even more bogged down in the Middle East?

[16:50:00]

I simply do not see the strategic logic of this set of decisions.

TAPPER: Do you believe that the Trump administration has a plan for what comes next?

HAASS: I don't see how you can have a plan, because, at the moment, it's unknown what Iran will do.

There's any number of targets, from refineries, to embassies, to American businesses in the region. So, one can't have a plan, because this is not going to be a traditional conflict.

TAPPER: Richard Haass, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it, sir.

Strong words just moments ago from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the potential fallout from the strike -- that's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:09]

TAPPER: President Trump bolstering U.S. presence in the Middle East, deploying roughly 3,000 more American troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.

They're headed to Kuwait. What exactly is their mission? How long will they stay, as Iran's leaders vow revenge for the U.S. strike killing Iran's highest ranked military commander?

Let's talk about this with the panel.

Let me ask you. President Trump said as recently as this past October he wants to end endless wars.

Is this a contradiction, in your view?

MAGSAMEN: Absolutely.

I mean, actually, since May, President Trump has deployed over 14,000 additional U.S. troops to the region. That was before the events of this week. So this deployment, I think we have to understand that it's going to have a very limited utility against an asymmetric adversary like the Iranians.

Conventional deterrence has a lot of limits. I think sending troops is going to make us feel good, but I'm not sure it's actually necessarily going to do anything to deter the Iranians at this stage.

ROGIN: Yes, I think the contradiction is between the president and a lot of people who work for him. And that's been the contradiction this whole time.

You saw John Bolton tweet in favor of regime change. And the president had to say, no, no, no, I -- he doesn't speak for me.

Well, how many people inside the administration have a different goal? It's clear the president doesn't want war. And what you said about deterrence is important, because we talk a lot about this imminent attack thing.

What the Pentagon said in the first statement, which was the official statement, is, this is meant to deter future attacks.

Now, somebody's got to explain to me the logic of attacking to deter an attack, because what you end up having throughout history is a series of escalations. It's called the escalation ladder, which is what leads you into a war you don't want.

But, again, today, I went to the State Department, and they're like, oh, this is going to deter Iran. That doesn't really seem to be the case. But that is the stated goal.

PARSI: In fact, everything the Trump administration has done from the moment it went into the White House has been to escalate matters towards Iran, with a justification that that would deter the Iranians.

But every time, instead of deterring the Iranians, it has caused the Iranians to counterescalate. The only time we actually have seen that the Shia militias in Iraq did not attack American forces was when the Obama administration and the Iranians were negotiating and later on implementing the nuclear deal.

By going out of that deal, we have -- essentially, Trump has unresolved a resolved issue and instigated all of this, and is now leading to a point in which some folks already are saying that we are, if not at the precipice of war, at war.

TAPPER: Do you agree with the idea that this strike will de-escalate manners? Because that's what Secretary of State Pompeo said he hoped would happen. And then you heard President Trump say this attack was to prevent a war, not to start a war.

That might sound a little Orwellian to some people.

FONTENROSE: I think it is.

I think the intent is to send the message that we're open to de- escalation, but I don't believe anyone in the administration actually thinks that this will de-escalate.

The irony is that both sides of this argument, both Iran and the U.S., have miscalculated each other's behaviors from the beginning. The U.S. assumes that if they apply tough rhetoric to their speeches on Iran, that Iran will be cowed into concessions and will come to a table.

And Iran has assumed that if they accelerate the withdrawal from JCPOA components, and if they escalate gradually attacks against our interests, that it will force President Trump to come to the table. And both have been grave misinterpretations.

So this is another one on both parts. And neither is going to de- escalate, is the concern. The activities are intended to send the message that we can get you in your sleep, but we'd rather not, if you would just play nice.

I think one of the other big ironies is that, if the Parliament moves to or votes to evict the U.S. from Iraq...

TAPPER: The Iraqi Parliament, yes, yes.

FONTENROSE: Right. If the Iraqi Parliament moves to evict the U.S. from Iraq, they will give Trump exactly what he wants.

I mean, the president has been clear that he would really like to pull us out of the region.

TAPPER: And, by the way, that would give Soleimani and Khamenei of Iran what they want -- or wanted in Soleimani's case -- because they want the U.S. out of Iraq too.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGIN: We're talking about a lot of second- and third-degree effects that I don't think the administration has calculated.

One is ruining the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. The other one is our troops in Syria. We have got 600, 800, 1,000, who knows how many troops. They're sitting ducks, right?

If this thing goes south, they're going to be the first to go. There goes our Syria policy, our Iraq policy, in exchange for what? In exchange for an escalation that's supposed to be a de-escalation? That doesn't make sense in the first place. A lot of risk here.

PARSI: Look at it from the Iraqi perspective. They were not consulted about this either.

The last thing they want is to have their country that already has suffered so much to become the arena for this escalating conflict between Iran and the United States. And their considerations were not taken into account at all.

TAPPER: All right, great stuff. Thank you so much. Really appreciate you all being here.

Be sure to tune in this Sunday morning to CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION."

My guests will be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Gang of Eight member and Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Congressman Adam Schiff, plus 2020 presidential candidate and veteran Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

That's at 9:00 a.m. and noon Eastern on Sunday. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks so much for watching.

Stay safe.

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