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President Trump Orders Strikes on Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani; Who is General Qasem Soleimani?; No Word Yet from Trump on the Killing of Iranian Commander; Israel Assessing Security After Qasem Soleimani's Death. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 04:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: Iran is vowing harsh revenge after a strike ordered by President Trump takes out the leader of Iran's special forces.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is EARLY START. I'm Laura Jarrett.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. And I'm Christine Romans. It is Friday, January 3rd, 4:00 a.m. in New York. It is noon in Baghdad.

A major breaking news overnight. Iran's supreme leader now vows revenge after a U.S. airstrike ordered by President Trump killed the commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard's special ops unit. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force and one of the ayatollah's most trusted advisers, was hit at Baghdad International Airport.

The Pentagon calls it a decisive action. U.S. officials say General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and American troops in Iraq and throughout the region. The State Department now urging all U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately.

JARRETT: Soleimani was revered by Iran's supporters and proxies across the region and hated by the country's enemies, who saw him as the mastermind of state-sponsored terrorism. His killing marks a huge escalation coming just comes days after supporters of an Iranian- backed militia stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. They were protesting missile strikes launched by the U.S. in retaliation for the death of an American contractor, an attack the Pentagon blamed on Soleimani's forces.

ROMANS: Tehran is of course furious. The Foreign Minister Javad Zarif calling it extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation, adding, "The U.S. bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism."

One big question this morning is whether top congressional leaders were notified. CNN's Fareed Zakaria suspects they were not. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": It's not clear what the objective here. Soleimani is a bad guy. There's No question. But we appear to be without, by the way I'd say, without congressional authorization, entering into another Middle East war.


JARRETT: Remember, just the other day, President Trump did threaten Iran during the Baghdad embassy protests to which Iran's supreme leader replied that, "that guy has tweeted that we see Iran responsible for the events in Baghdad and we will respond to Iran. First, you can't do anything."

Our coverage around the world begins with our international security editor Nick Paton Walsh.

Nick, you've covered Iran extensively. What is Iran's next move here?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Really unclear. They have to respond but they know that they're in a comparative position of military weakness. They would lose a conventional military confrontation with the United States. The United States knows that. It knows that it can protect its military assets in the region, possibly its embassies, too. Its civilians may be vulnerable. So there are limited opportunities for a direct Iranian response.

But U.S. may have calculated that they're just simply going to see more of what Iran has been doing over the past week or so. Paper cuts. Attacks on embassies, attacks on bases. They killed one U.S. contractor, serious for the family of the man involved. But not really changing the calculus of the U.S. presence in the Middle East.

But Iran cannot be seen to do nothing in response. This is one of its most storied, most well-known military officials. It's effectively like if Iran killed the head of CENT-COM in the United States. You would see the United States respond -- sorry, Iran respond incredibly fiercely toward something of this nature.

So we're in massively unprecedented territory here. I hear from one U.S. official that this was, quote, "a target of opportunity." President Trump had issued the authorization of that very high level to go after someone of Soleimani's nature certainly. But this is obviously something that has sent as a deliberate strategic message by the United States. There weren't any doubt in Tehran that they are gun-shy to evaporate.

Remember, the last time we got to this moment was the Iranian alleged attack on the Saudi oil fields. I spoke to the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif then and he said that if Iran was attacked by the U.S., there would be, quote, "all-out war." The U.S. stepped back from that there but now after the last week, they've launched this I have to say unprecedented, and I'm sure shocking to some U.S. officials waking up today, hearing this attack against one of the most well-known military figures and hardliners inside Iran. The consequences of which we will see. There probably will be more

unexpected than we imagined and they will define the next decade most likely in the Middle East.

JARRETT: Nick, thanks so much for providing all that context. We'll see you back soon.

ROMANS: So who is Qasem Soleimani? And how significant is his death? The United States believes he is the man responsible for killing hundreds of Americans.

Let's go live to London again and bring in CNN's Nic Robertson.

As you heard Fareed Zakaria say, look, this is a bad guy. This is someone the United States has designated as a terrorist, someone who runs, you know, terrorist operations against the United States.


Inside Iran, he is seen as almost like a head of state. This is a very big moment.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: This is a man who is being groomed -- not just groomed but vetted as, not just a war hero, but actually as a national hero. This is a man who, in his 20s, right after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, was part of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, a brutal war, more than 500,000 troops killed. It was more than trenches, it was chemical warfare that was used on both sides. And he rose rapidly through the ranks there.

He emerged battle hardened, battle tested, and a hero. And he then was put in charge of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Then he rose to being the commander of that elite force within that, the Quds Force. And what he's been doing is coordinating and overseeing Iran's proxies in the region, be they Yemen, be they Afghanistan, be they Iraq, be they Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

So he is the sort of the field person who is bringing the military equipment, who's bringing the military strategy from Tehran to sort of expand the Iranian theocracies' reach throughout the region, expanding this influence of Iran throughout the region. So he's been a hero within the country.

What we will likely see is a response by the proxies, that would be visceral. They hold him as a hero. The word from Tehran last year with rising tensions with the United States was that the proxies would attack U.S. forces and U.S. interests in the region. And then we'll see a more calibrated and strategic response from the leadership. They cannot let the killing of this national hero go unchallenged. It would diminish them in the region and essentially roll back 40 years of an expansionist agenda.

ROMANS: Fascinating. All right. Thank you for that background. And, you know, the arguing about whether it should have been done is sort of one story. What happens next I think is really an important story as well.

Nic, thanks for that.

JARRETT: President Trump ordering the strike to kill the top Iranian general from his resort in Florida where he's wrapping up his holiday vacation. On Christmas Eve, with the embassy protest underway, the president was asked if he foresees a war with Iran.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think that would be a good idea for Iran. It wouldn't last very long. Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace. And Iran should want peace more than anybody. So I don't see that happening.


JARRETT: Him saying that of course on New Year's Eve.

CNN's Kristen Holmes is live for us in West Palm Beach with the latest.

Kristen, what are you hearing down there?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Laura, here's what we know and obviously this is still a developing situation. But so far what we have heard is that President Trump was seen leaving a secured area of his Mar-a-Lago resort around 6:00 p.m. last night. Now we're told from officials that aides kept him updated throughout the evening of everything that was going on.

But in terms of an official reaction from the White House or from President Trump, all we've gotten so far is this. A tweet from President Trump, shortly after the reports started coming out, of an American flag. Now we don't know yet if he's going to say something, going to add to that later today. But of course we have our ears to the ground here.

And I want to note that President Trump was not alone. We learned that National Security adviser, Robert O'Brien, was also there. He was seen at Mar-a-Lago. And the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy.

Take a look at this. This is posted on Instagram by Kevin McCarthy just a few hours ago. It shows him and the president. It shows the president with his son-in-law and also obviously adviser, Jared Kushner, essentially having these discussions around that Mar-a-Lago resort.

Now, in that post, McCarthy really praises President Trump. And I do want to say that the real decision here, the real feeling among U.S. lawmakers is divided. And it's divided among party lines. Republicans realty getting on board with McCarthy. They are praising President Trump. We saw a tweet from Senator Lindsey Graham that said, "The price of killing and injuring Americans has just gone up drastically if Iranian aggression continues and I worked at an Iranian oil refinery, I would think about a new career."

Now on the other side of the aisle, Democrats showing a lot more concern. Concern over the fact that it is unclear who, if anyone, was briefed. It is obvious, we have heard that there was no congressional authority that was granted to do this. And a lot of concern, as we're really hearing from around the globe, about the consequences of this action.

Take a look at this. This was tweeted out by the senator of Connecticut, Chris Murphy, who said, "Did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second-most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?"


Now, Pelosi did send out a statement. She's speaker of the House obviously there, saying that they wanted an immediate briefing. We have learned that some key Senate staff, they are on the special committees, as well as some leadership aides, are going to be briefed later today but no more details when it comes to that.

And again, I want to note here what -- echoing what Nic has said, both Nicks have said, which is essentially that it's not just Democrats who are concerned about these repercussions, that it's also analysts that we're talking to. And giving some context about President Trump here. He is somebody who has said he long wanted to get out of the Mideast. He has lamented about the United States big footprint. And many are concerned that this is actually going to make it worse, not better.

JARRETT: A congressional response, certainly going to be an important part of the story today. Kristen, thanks so much.

ROMANS: All right. So if Iran does choose to respond with force, Israel would be one obvious target. Israel is assessing its security this morning.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is live on the Israel-Lebanon border -- Oren.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine, we just got word a few moments ago from the prime minister's office that he has cut his trip short to Greece and he is on his way back to Israel. That, as the Defense Ministry announced earlier this morning that it will hold a security assessment with the Defense minister, security officials and the IDF chief of staff.

As of right now, there are no additional restrictions or limitations on what civilians can do in Israel along the northern border. And this is where, as you mentioned, we could see a potential Iranian response. That's because there are Iranian proxies in the region including Hezbollah, right across the border here in Lebanon behind me. As if to emphasize that point, there is in fact a Hezbollah flag just on the hill here in Lebanon.

That would be one option for Iran to respond if it chooses to do this. Another would be Iranian proxies in Syria. That is why there's a security assessment to see how Iran might respond and if that response could be pointed towards Israel.

Iran also has other options. Iran has influence with Islamic jihad in Gaza. So that can be a response. The potential firing of rockets. And local media is reporting that Israeli embassies and consulates around the world on elevated alert. That too a potential target.

As we look for the security assessment, we're also waiting to see if there is a political response. This will be something that Israel's political establishment from Prime Minister Netanyahu on down will applaud, will congratulate, although at this point the prime minister, the defense minister, the foreign minister, have not issued an official statement. Perhaps they're trying not to provoke the situation at all.

But we have heard former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, and he put out a tweet a short time ago saying, "Qasem Soleimani, responsible for the murder of thousands -- Syrians, Iraqis, Americans, Israelis, Yemenis -- and for plotting terrorist attacks around the world is dead. Justice is done and American deterrence in the Middle East restored. All those threatened by Iran are grateful."

And that will be the response of the political establishment as they choose to make it -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Oren Liebermann for us on the border there in Israel and Lebanon, thank you.

JARRETT: Well, President Trump says the strike was intended to deter future Iranian attack plans. 2020 is of course an election year. But rewind nine years to 2011. And then citizen Donald Trump tweeted this. "In order to get elected, Barack Obama will start a war with Iran."

ROMANS: All right. With that in mind, the 2020 Democratic candidates are reacting. Former vice president Joe Biden says, "The administration statement says that its goal is to deter future attacks by Iran. But this action almost certainly will have the opposite effect. President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox. And he owes the American people an explanation of the strategy."

JARRETT: And this from Senator Bernie Sanders, "Trump's dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars. Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one."

ROMANS: And Senator Elizabeth Warren says, "Soleimani was a murderer responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans. But this reckless move escalates a situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict."

There's been no statement yet from Pete Buttigieg, who is of course an Army veteran.

JARRETT: And just a few days ago Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked down the idea of a war with Iran.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Should the American people contemplate being on a war footing in 2020 where Iran is concerned?

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is state-sponsored terror. This is Iranian-backed terrorism that took place that threatened American interests. We've taken a fundamentally different approach. We have starved them of resources. We've denied them access. We've put pressure on the Iranian leadership. And I think you see that.


JARRETT: And you're going to want to keep it right here as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be on CNN's "NEW DAY" later this morning.

ROMANS: Yes. We'll be able to ask him what is the strategy, what is the next move here from the United States.

JARRETT: Absolutely.

ROMANS: All right. More on the Iran situation. Plus revitalized Bernie Sanders going straight after Joe Biden saying he can't beat President Trump.


Wait until you hear how Biden responded.


JARRETT: Well, today marks exactly one month to the Iowa caucuses as Democrats start to pick their nominee. An emboldened Bernie Sanders taking on Joe Biden. Fourth quarter fundraising totals show Biden bringing in $22.7 million. His best quarter so far, doubling his online donations. But Sanders brought in a whopping 34.5 million bucks.

ROMANS: The Vermont senator said this to the "Washington Post" about Biden. He brings into this campaign a record which is so weak that it just cannot create the kind of excitement and energy that is going to be needed to defeat Donald Trump.

Biden had this short and sweet comeback.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What do you say to Bernie Sanders?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, good to see you.

BIDEN: Lots of luck in your senior year, Bernie.



ROMANS: Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang took in an impressive $16.5 million. Notably Elizabeth Warren has yet to release fundraising numbers. She sent an e-mail to supporters in late December, seeking their help with a last-minute push.

JARRETT: There's new evidence that shows President Trump's direct role in the Ukrainian pressure campaign. The documents emerging just as Republicans finalize plans to shield the president with a swift Senate impeachment trial. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is expected to define the next steps in the trial later today with his first floor speech of 2020.

McConnell is expected to push back against Democratic demands for testimony from current and former White House officials. Documents reviewed by Just Security, a national security blog, show a top White House Budget official, Michael Duffey, made it clear the order to halt nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine came directly from the president.

ROMANS: That e-mail was sent on the same day Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with President Trump to discuss the hold, which had been in place for about two months. Duffey is one of four witnesses Democrats want to question in the impeachment trial. Newly released e-mails also suggest there could be new and damning bombshells in piles of official evidence that the president is refusing to hand over.


JARRETT: The president orders a strike that kills a top Iranian commander. Iran already vowing revenge. What response lies in store? That and other headlines, up next.


ROMANS: Well, as you might expect, this means higher crude oil prices. Whenever you have conflict in the Middle East, look at the energy sector. Oil prices move up after that top Iranian general was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad.

Moving over to global stock markets, you've seen a pullback there as well. Nervousness in global stock markets. On Wall Street futures right now for stock market futures are leaning down. It looks like you could see a 1 percent move in the Dow.

Look, stocks kicked off the new decade with fresh record highs. The Dow closed up 330 points on the first trading day of 2020. The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also ended the day higher.

Important data today, the December ISM number, that's a manufacturing number, that comes out at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Really important to see what's happening in the manufacturing sector because it has slipped into a recession, four months in a row of contraction. The index is currently at the lowest level in seven years.

JARRETT: Dangerous weather conditions expected to fan the flames in Australia this weekend. The government in New South Wales issuing a leave zone alert.


That's essentially a voluntary evacuation order, warning residents that worsening conditions are forecasted for Saturday. Families and pets evacuating on Navy vessels from the isolated town of Mallacoota ahead of what's likely to be a devastating weekend.

Fires hit cattle farmer Steve Shipton's thousand-acre ranch on Monday. Fifty of his cows are dead and he's now forced to shoot the injured. At least 18 people have died so far across the region, 28 remain unaccounted for in Victoria alone.

ROMANS: Google says it has developed an artificial intelligence system that can detect breast cancer more accurately than doctors. A study tested the Google health program using tens of thousands of mammograms from women in the U.S. and the U.K. Research showed the AI model reduced both false positives where test results suggest cancer is present where it isn't and false negatives where an existing cancer goes undetected. The study was just published in the scientific journal "Nature."

JARRETT: What revenge does Iran have in store? That's the big question. New threats overnight from Tehran after their top commander was killed in a U.S. airstrike. The president bypassing Congress to give the order.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

ROMANS: Iran is vowing harsh revenge after a strike ordered by President Trump kills the leader of Iran's special forces.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everybody. I'm Christine Romans this Friday morning.

JARRETT: And I'm Laura Jarrett. 29 minutes past the hour here in New York.

Major breaking news overnight. Iran's supreme leader vows revenge after a U.S. airstrike ordered by President Trump killed the commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard's special ops unit.