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EARLY START

President Trump Orders Airstrike That Killed Quds Force Leader; Death of General Qasem Soleimani Raises Concerns; Trump Said to be Updated as Strikes in Iraq Proceeded; Israel on High Alert After Qasem Soleimani's Death. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 04:30   ET

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


[04:30:00]

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: 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 decisive action. U.S. officials say General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and troops in Iraq and throughout the region. The State Department now urging all U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: 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 days after supporters of an Iranian-backed militia stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

The deputy head of the group behind those protests, he was also killed in last night's strike. They were protesting missile strikes launched by the U.S. in retaliation for the death of an American contractor. Those protests at the Baghdad embassy, an attack the Pentagon blamed on Soleimani's forces.

JARRETT: Tehran is of course furious. 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 of course is whether top congressional leaders were notified. CNN's Fareed Zakaria suspects they weren't.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Remember, the other day, the president -- President Trump did threaten Iran during those Baghdad embassy protests to which Iran's supreme leader replied this, "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 international security editor Nick Paton Walsh.

Nick, you've covered Iran extensively. What is Iran's next move, vowing harsh revenge?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Well, obviously, in a direct conventional military confrontation with the United States, the Iranians know they would be on the losing side. So that seems to be the less likely situation here. And of course American military assets in the Middle East able to defend themselves mostly and will be on a high state of alert because this has just happened.

We understand it was a target of opportunity one U.S. official tells me, but for a number of days, it's been clear that the president authorized an attack like this. So, we can be looking at further asymmetrical attacks. That's the phrase you used when potentially proxies of Iran may attack U.S. embassies or U.S. assets in the region. Perhaps attack their allies. Saudi Arabia and Israel will be on a highest state of alert here potentially.

They've both seen attacks from Iranian proxies in the past. The Houthi rebels have attacked Saudi Arabia and Lebanese Hezbollah to Israel's north have attacked them as well. These are potential flashpoints moving forward.

Iran clearly has to feel like it has done something. It has lost its probably most storied military commander that it's had. The man who was behind so much of its military adventurism around the region, the onslaught against ISIS and the U.S. says many of the attacks Iran has launched against the U.S. and its allies in the region, too. But its options are not necessarily as expansive or immediate as you might think.

And as I say, it may be the U.S. has calculated that the likely Iranian response will be something more of the same, a higher level of asymmetrical pressure on embassies. Maybe American civilians kidnapped around the region. Not game-changing responses. That's essentially the challenge for Tehran officials here. They've lost one of their major hardliners, one of their most well-known figures, very publicly, with a very direct message from the United States that this White House is not gun-shy, that it will confront Iranian aggression.

Aggression has been going on for months, decades some even say. That's how long this deep-seated conflict has been continuing. It may continue the same way. We may see an escalation in the days and weeks ahead or Iran may choose to do less and wait until later. That is all unclear but we are entering a new decade now in the Middle East where this one decisive act by the Trump administration, wise or ill-judged as it may be, is going to define so much of how this new decade begins in the Middle East.

ROMANS: All right. Nick Paton Walsh for us. Thanks, Nick.

JARRETT: So, who is Qasem Soleimani and how significant is his death? The United States believes he is responsible for killing hundreds of Americans.

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

Nic, you've described him as not just a war hero, but a national hero.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes. This is the way that his image was being cultivated in the past couple of years in Iran. This was because he was doing such a good job coordinating Iran's proxies, spreading its reach and influence throughout the region.

[04:35:02]

The neighbors of Iran in the region, like Saudi Arabia, view Iran as using its proxies, be they in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, to sort of spread its hegemonic influence, to spread its Shia Muslim theology throughout the region. Ten percent of the world's Muslims approximately are Shia. Iran really sees itself as the home, as the heartland of those Muslims. So, in the Gulf at least, the sense of Iran is of a force that's been expanding. And Soleimani was the -- the spirit of expanding that force and influence throughout the region.

There is no one to step into his shoes back in Tehran. He grew as Iran grew under the theocracy. Since 1979, he became a military commander in that eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. Half a million troops killed, chemical weapons used in trench-style warfare. And he emerged from that battle-hardened, battle-tested, a hero. And he quickly sort of rose up the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's sort of elite force, commanding that and then, commanded the elite part of that force, the Quds Force.

And he really is the person that personifies Iran's reach in the region. And they have no one that they've cultivated, it appears at least, to sort of step in and fill his shoes. So Iran is duty-bound, honor-bound, to avenge his death. They say they will. And absolutely we should take them at their word. This can potentially look like strategic moves to throttle off oil supplies through the world through the Straits of Hormuz.

It can look like attacks as we saw last year on Saudi oil facilities. But its proxy forces, those ones who were so loyal to Soleimani, can really be expected to take a visceral action to show Tehran how loyal they are.

JARRETT: All super helpful background to understand how significant this is.

Nic, thank you.

ROMANS: All right, so the president, President Trump, ordering that strike that killed the top Iranian general from his resort in Florida, where he is wrapping up his holiday vacation. On New Year's Eve with the embassy protests underway, the president was asked if he foresees a war with Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: CNN's Kristen Holmes is live in West Palm Beach with the latest.

And Kristen, we saw the White House step back when Iran shot down an American surveillance airplane. We saw the United States step back or stand by really when Iran bombed Saudi oil fields. Something has changed in the strategy now.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Christine. And good morning. It is clearly an escalation here. So I want to break down what exactly we know and how we got here. And of course this is still a fluid situation.

We've learned that President Trump was seen leaving a secured area around 6:00 p.m. at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Aides say they kept him updated throughout the evening on all of these events. And we are still waiting for some kind of formal announcement from the White House or from President Trump. So far all we have seen is this, a tweet sent out by the president, just shortly after the first reports of airstrikes came in, of just an American flag.

Now no indication of whether or not he's going to speak or address this later today. But of course, we are keeping our ear to the ground.

And Christine, I want to note that the president was not here making these decisions alone. We've learned that the National Security adviser, Robert O'Brien, was here with him at Mar-a-Lago, as well as the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy.

Take a look at this. This is an Instagram post from McCarthy just hours ago that really showcases the president around his resort of Mar-a-Lago. It shows him with President Trump as well as Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and a presidential adviser, along with the deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, kind of in different various positions around the resort.

And in this post, McCarthy praises President Trump. He lauds these actions. But not all U.S. lawmakers are on the same page. And unsurprisingly, the deep divide is among party lines. Republicans really onboard with what McCarthy said, really onboard with the president. We heard from Senator Graham, he tweeted this, saying, "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 unsurprisingly, Democrats are on the other side of this. They say there's a lot of concern about how this went down and what happens next. No congressional authority. No approval for these airstrikes. And it still remains unclear who, if anyone, in Congress was actually briefed about this. And of course, another large concern being the consequences of this action.

[04:40:04]

We heard from Democratic senator of Connecticut, Murphy. Take a listen to this. He says, "Did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second-most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?" The House speaker has now called for an immediate briefing of all of Congress to go over what exactly happened. And we have heard from sources who say that key officials on certain committees will be briefed later today.

Again, no word on what exactly that will look like. And I want to offer a piece of context here because I think it's very important talking to these analysts. President Trump is someone who since 2016 has said that he doesn't want to be in the Middle East. He has said he wants to withdraw troops, that he's lamented the big footprint that the U.S. has had in the Mideast. But now, a lot of analysts are concerned that this is actually going to make it harder to leave.

We're going to have to put more troops in or essentially making our footprint even larger than it was before. So something to watch very closely -- Christine.

ROMANS: Yes. Absolutely. All right, Kristen there for us in Florida. Thank you so much.

JARRETT: 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 for us on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Oren, what's the latest there?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Laura, it's clear that Israel is taking the situation very seriously. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a state visit to Greece. He is on his way or at least will be soon. That trip was scheduled to go another 24 hours. Meanwhile the defense minister has said he will hold a security assessment with not only the IDF chief of staff with senior security officials.

At this point there haven't been any limitations or restrictions put on Israeli civilians in northern Israel. But we'll see if that situation changes. Mt. Herman, a sight in the Golan Heights adjacent to both Syria and Lebanon, has been shut down for now. But again no other restrictions or limitations put on Israeli civilians at this point. And it's key to emphasize at this point. Meanwhile, we're looking for any sort of reaction from Israeli

politicians. Netanyahu has not put out a statement. Neither have other Israeli officials. Perhaps they're trying to be quiet at this point, not to provoke Iran or its proxies at this stage. But there is no doubt that Iran saw Qasem Soleimani as responsible for Iran's actions and the actions of Iran's proxies in Syria. That includes its strategy and its aggression.

So this will be a move that will be lauded by Israel's senior officials. And we see that in a tweet from the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren. He says, "Qasem Soleimani, responsible for the murder of thousands of 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 is restored. All those threatened by Iran are grateful."

The key question for Israel, what does Iran's response look like? And could that be targeted not at the U.S. but at Israel. One of that -- one of those options would be from Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah here behind me in southern Lebanon. And as if to emphasize that point, there is in fact a Hezbollah flag I can see on a hill behind me. Another option would be Iranian proxies in Syria or perhaps in southern Israel, where Iran has influence with Islamic Jihad in Gaza, or on top of that, Iran could target Israeli embassies or consulates overseas. Local media is reporting that they have gone on elevated alert -- Laura.

JARRETT: Thanks so much for laying out the next steps there on the border for us. See you soon.

ROMANS: All right. So President Trump says the strike was intended to deter future Iranian attack plans. 2020 is of course an election year. Rewind nine years back to 2011 and then citizen Donald Trump tweeted this. "In order to get elected, Barack Obama will start a war with Iran."

JARRETT: With that in mind, the 2020 Democratic candidates are reacting. Former vice president Joe Biden says, "The administration's 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."

ROMANS: 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."

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

ROMANS: Just a few days ago Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked down the idea of war with Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Keep it here. Pompeo will be on "NEW DAY" later this morning.

JARRETT: Obviously so important to be able talk to him on a day like today.

ROMANS: Yes.

JARRETT: Well, more on the Iran situation.

[04:45:02]

Plus, a revitalized Bernie Sanders going straight after Joe Biden, saying he can't beat President Trump. Wait until you hear how Biden responded.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: All right. 48 minutes past the hour. Welcome back. Today marks exactly one month to the Iowa caucuses as Democrats start to pick their nominee. An emboldened Bernie Sanders taking Joe Biden head on. Fourth quarter fundraising totals show Biden bringing in $22.7 million. His best quarter so far, doubling his online donations. But Sanders brought in $34.5 million.

JARRETT: The Vermont senator said this to the "Washington Post" about Biden, quote, "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.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What do you say to Bernie Sanders?

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Good luck, Bernie.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, good to see you.

BIDEN: Lots of luck in your senior year, Bernie. (END VIDEO CLIP)

JARRETT: 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.

ROMANS: There's new evidence that shows President Trump's direct role in the Ukrainian pressure campaign. Documents emerging just as Republicans finalize plans to shield the president with a swift Senate impeachment trial.

[04:50:08]

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is expected to define the next steps in the trial 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 the Just Security Web site show a top White House Budget official, Michael Duffey, made it clear the order to halt nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, that came directly from the president.

JARRETT: And 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 the 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.

ROMANS: All right. 50 minutes past the hour. The energy sector, oil prices rallying in response to this U.S. airstrike in Baghdad. What it means for gas prices. CNN Business has more next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Just a tragic hunting accident claiming the lives of a father and his 9-year-old daughter. Kim Drawdy and his daughter Lauren were hunting deer near their home in Walterboro, South Carolina, on New Year's Day. According to the State Department of Natural Resources, the two were fatally shot by other hunters who mistook them for deer. Officials say the shooting is under investigation.

JARRETT: Just terrible.

Ethan Couch arrested in Texas for allegedly violating his probation again. Couch was best-known for using an affluenza defense in a deadly drunk driving case. Prosecutors say he tested positive for THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. The 22-year-old Couch made headlines in 2013 when he was involved in a drunk driving crash that killed four people.

[04:55:04]

He received no prison time after a psychologist testified he was the victim of affluenza, a product of healthy, privileged parents, who never set limits for him.

ROMANS: The family of a victim in the New York Hanukkah machete attack is now speaking out. Great grandfather Josef Neumann suffered severe gashes to his head and neck. Yesterday his youngest daughter told reporters that if he wakes up, he may never be able to walk or talk or even process speech again. She pleaded for people to stop the hate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICKY KOHEN, DAUGHTER OF JOSEF NEUMANN: Guys, I'm begging you. If you are watching this, please, stand up and stop this hatred. It cannot keep going on. We want our kids to go to school and feel safe. We want to go to our synagogues and feel safe. We want to go to groceries and malls and feel safe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: The acting Homeland Security secretary has now directed the department's agencies to review recommendations for preventing attacks on houses of worship and faith-based communities.

JARRETT: The mother of a U.S. Army officer has been deported by ICE. 51-year-old Rocio Rebollar Gomez lived in San Diego for 31 years until she was sent back to Mexico yesterday. Before she left, someone vandalized her home with a hateful message about Mexicans. Her son, U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant Gibram Cruz, says he feels betrayed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIBRAM CRUZ, U.S. ARMY LIEUTENANT: At this moment, I have to hand her off to ICE so that they can deport her to a place where I can't go due to restrictions because of the military.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JARRETT: The family is afraid their mother could be the target of cartel violence in Mexico. Rebollar Gomez was previously deported in 2009. According to ICE, she illegally reentered the United States.

ROMANS: All right. Let's get a check on CNN Business this Friday morning, taking a look at oil prices. They have spiked overnight, more than 3 percent jumps in Bent Crude, West Texas intermediate. Gasoline futures are all up here.

Look, oil prices are higher after that top Iranian general was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad. And it's shaking global markets, as well. You can see markets around the world mostly moving lower here. Japanese markets, though, are still closed for the New Year's holiday. Those will resume on Monday.

On Wall Street, futures taking back all those gains almost from yesterday. Stocks had kicked off the new decade with fresh record highs. The Dow closed up 330 points on the very first trading day of 2020. The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also ended the day higher. And important data today about the health of the U.S. economy. The

December manufacturing index, the ISM index, comes out in about five hours. Now the manufacturing sector has actually slipped into a recession. It has contracted for four-straight months. The index is currently sitting at the lowest level in seven years.

America's top business leaders are entering the new year with the same old concerns. A survey from the conference board found recession fears top the list of external concerns for CEOs going into 2020. Last year, that was the third concern. Uncertainty over the trade war also lingers even after the announcement of that phase one trade deal between the U.S. and China. The president was said he will sign that agreement January 15th in Washington and that he will travel to Beijing at a later date. The number internal priority for CEOs this year, attracting and retaining top talent.

Female directors made big strides in 2019. A new study shows 10.6 percent of the directors of the top movies last year were women, the highest in 13 years. The directors of successful films "The Farewell," "Hustlers," "Queen and Slim," and "Little Women," all women. Women of color are still highly underrepresented. Four women of color directed a top 100 movie in 2019.

JARRETT: It's always good to see.

ROMANS: Yes.

JARRETT: EARLY START continues right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

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

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START this Friday morning. I'm Christine Romans.

JARRETT: And I'm Laura Jarrett. It's Friday, January 3rd. It's 5:00 a.m. in the East, 1:00 p.m. in Baghdad. Welcome to our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world.

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. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force and one of the ayatollah's most trusted advisers, was hit at Baghdad International Airport.

The Pentagon call it decisive action. U.S. officials say General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and troops in Iraq and throughout the region. These pictures obtained by CNN show the aftermath of the strike this morning. The State Department now urging all U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately.

ROMANS: Soleimani was revered by Iran's supporters and proxies across the region and hated by the --

[05:00:00]