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Iran Vows Revenge for Death of General; Impeachment Looms amid Iran Crisis; U.S. Assassinates Top Iran Military Commander. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 06:30   ET

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


[06:30:00]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: And just one more thing, they have enormous resources. The IRGC has its own navy of small, fast attack boats in the Gulf that can attack U.S. Naval warships and tankers. That's the kind of capabilities you have to think about.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And it may be an all of the above response from Iran. He is that major of a figure.

Now, look, Kaitlan, value judgment aside here, there's no questioning that Soleimani was a government official. Yes, he was involved with terrorism, but he was a government official. So that's what makes this different than the actions against bin Laden or al Baghdadi or al Awlaki. And there is a division within Congress about whether or not this is even legal. You have Republicans saying that they're behind this action 100 percent. But there have been Democrats, including Senator Chris Murphy and others overnight who have noted, hey, wait a second here, where's the authorization for this type of action? Hey, wait a second, is the United States now involved with the assassination of government officials? So there is that political divide.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and those are going to be the questions, why wasn't there congressional authorization for something like this because you're hearing from several members of Congress that they were not notified about this beforehand.

Now, expect the White House response to be -- to that to be that the president has pretty broad powers here. That's what we've heard from them in the past when it's come to situations like this. They've argued that he has a lot of leeway in making a decision like this.

And that's where it's going to become a pretty big focal point, I think, is this intelligence that they say they had that essentially he was masterminding these future, potential attacks.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

COLLINS: The question is going to be how imminent those threats were, how big they were, what the scale of that was. And so that is something that the white House could potentially use for justification. And that's where it will be interesting where the White House attorneys came down on this. We know that the White House council, Pat Cipollone, has been back in Washington, D.C., working out of his office this week, preparing for that pending impeachment trial. So there will be questions of the figures who played a role in this and whether or not the president did have that authority.

But you're already seeing some criticisms from mostly Democratic lawmakers, I think maybe only Democratic lawmakers, about this so far.

BERMAN: All right, we're going to talk a lot more about this going forward.

Stand by, everybody.

One other question is, how will this new crisis and, frankly, war footing affect the Senate impeachment trial facing President Trump?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Yes.

BERMAN: Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:35:43]

BERMAN: The dramatic attack that killed Iran's most powerful security and intelligence official comes as President Trump is facing both a Senate impeachment trial and a re-election campaign.

Here with us now, CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins again and Margaret Talev, CNN political analyst and politics and White House editor for "Axios."

You know, I delved into the time machine and we found a "New York Times" headline. This comes from December 17, 1998. This was during Bill Clinton's impeachment. This was during the House vote.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: We'll put that up. Hopefully we have it. There we go.

HARLOW: There you go.

BERMAN: Impeachment vote in House delayed as Clinton launches Iraq air strike citing military need to move swiftly.

Now, Margaret, actually, you know, not the -- not to diminish the importance of the air strikes in Iraq at the time, but that's nothing compared to the murder, the assassination of General Soleimani. And this comes during the Senate impeachment trial.

So what do you see as the implication here?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, John, these two events are now going to become interlinked. I mean sort of unavoidably. And I'm not suggesting that this was a political move by the president. I think this was a target of opportunity. The U.S. had the opportunity and made the decision to take it. They did not do that under the Obama administration. They did not do that under George W. Bush's administration. Soleimani has been an important figure for a long time. But there has long been an understanding by the U.S. that this would become an escalatory act if it happened.

Nonetheless, these two events now, because of their timing, are going to become fused in the discussions. And as Congress comes back, we expect to hear from Mitch McConnell, perhaps today, giving us some sense of the path forward on impeachment.

We've heard a little bit already from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And we know the Democrats are frustrated that they did not get a heads up about this. But also when you go back to the impeachment part of this discussion, have been frustrated with the president's foreign policy thinking and judgment. And so I expect that this will affect this both from a perspective of sobriety as they move forward with impeachment, but also from a perspective of demanding documents and information about the president's thinking.

HARLOW: Kaitlan, the fact that this was carried out is carrying out something that both former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama decided and opted not to do. We know that General Stanley McChrystal, who led JSOC from 2003 to 2008, revealed last year he had the opportunity to assassinate Soleimani in 2007 and decided not to, talked about the importance of restraint.

So just speak to the impact of President Trump deciding to do this now as -- you know, we find out hours before Mitch McConnell is going to go speak today about a pending Senate impeachment trial and what you expect to hear McConnell say. I mean it's hard to imagine that he would not talk about a moment like this for the country.

COLLINS: Sure. It's a massive moment. And it's a moment that, as Margaret was talking about, is going to change the dynamic of the 2020 election. Of course the question is going to be, why did the president make this decision now? And so far what we've heard from the White House just over the last I -- less than 12 hours or so since news of this broke is they were pointing to those attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Of course you saw those protesters storming it, trying to scale the walls, lighting fires inside the compound while those diplomats were trapped inside. That is something we've heard the White House point repeatedly to.

Now, the question of whether or not that's something the president brings up today when he inevitably discusses this is something else. And, of course, they're going to need justification for this. And you're seeing already people call Nancy Pelosi -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for these all member briefings because they want more information on this.

So those are going to be the questions going forward. Yes, it's probably likely that the Senate majority leader is going to have to address this at some point, if he still moves forward with that impeachment address today, because before this strike that killed this commander, this was already a really big issue because it was essentially being framed as the president is facing not only an impeachment trial, but also a re-election bid and now he's got these twin challenges coming at him from Iran and from North Korea. We can't forget about what the North Korean dictator said recently. So now it's all of this really coming to a bubble.

So regardless of whether -- where you fall down on whether this was the right move the president made, this has changed the dynamic of the 2020 election.

[06:40:06]

BERMAN: You bring up a great data point. Will Mitch McConnell still give the address we were expecting to hear from him today on the impeachment process?

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: Or will he choose to delay that? That could give you a sense on what direct role in the trial this action will take. So we'll wait to see that over the next few hours.

I do want to get one point on the impeachment process, Margaret, that developed over the last day.

We -- Just Security (ph) did a study of redacted e-mails that were released over the last few weeks, including one we hadn't seen, which came from Michael Duffey, the associate director of national security at OMB. And he wrote this to someone at the Pentagon. This was, what, at the end of August. August --

HARLOW: August 30th, the same day as that meeting around the resolute desk.

BERMAN: In this e-mail, it definitively says that the decision for the hold on Ukraine funding came at the clear direction from POTUS. Clear direction from POTUS. After the meeting with the president took place, Duffey told McCusker, clear direction from POTUS to hold that money.

So if the president ordered the hold on the funds directly, where does that fit? What are the implications of that, Margaret?

TALEV: Well, this helps to fill in the gaps in the sort of narrative about how was this decision made, why was it made, and was it made with the administration thinking no problem, this is absolutely the right thing to do, or with an understanding, as we are now learning, that there were a lot of concerns inside the administration about whether this was legal.

The fact that this really underscores the president's direct involvement I think helps us to understand two things. It helps us understand why Democrats have been pushing so hard for more documents. And it helps us understand why the White House, in part, has been reluctant to release those documents.

But because the House Democrats made the decision to move forward with the process rather than go to the courts to ask for resolution on this, I'm still not sure it changes the dynamic in terms of what Mitch McConnell has to agree to in these negotiations. And again, that really does fall on how hard this key group of Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney and a couple other folks decide to push.

HARLOW: Yes.

TALEV: And I think how -- how -- what has happened now with Iran may affect the pace and the discussions on this could be really important.

HARLOW: Thank you, ladies, both very, very much.

There is clearly a lot ahead today.

Also, what does this all mean for a key U.S. ally in the region, Israel? Israel's prime minister cutting short his trip overseas. Is it to prepare for any potential retaliation from Iran after the U.S. killed its top intelligence and military commander? We'll discuss the major implications of the tension between the U.S. and Iran in the entire region, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:46:11]

HARLOW: Take a look at these live pictures. These are the streets of Tehran this morning. Tens of thousands of Iranians taking to the streets protesting the killing of Iran's most powerful military and intelligence leader. Iran, this morning, vowing harsh revenge on the United States. Global leaders prepared -- preparing for any sort of retaliatory attacks.

Our Clarissa Ward is with us now on the significance of all of this.

Clarissa, as John said at the top of the program, and I don't think it can be overstated, who he was, how powerful Soleimani has been, and for how long, right? This is not just taking out a terrorist. This is much more significant than al Baghdadi or even Osama bin Laden.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, this is a massive escalation, Poppy, and certainly more significant than killing Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. He is the second most powerful man in Iran. He has been described as essentially a mixture of the head of special forces, the head of CIA, and the foreign minister all wrapped into one.

But beyond that, he's almost something of a living legend in Iran. And when I spent time in the capital just last year, you could see that clearly. We visited the Museum of Holy Defense, the entire gift store is full of souvenirs bearing his image. You turn on the television, look online, you see people sharing videos of him reciting poetry. He's attending the funerals of fighters who have been killed.

Not only that, he is the architect of Iran's so-called access of resistance. This cannot be underestimated. This building up of proxy forces across the Middle East, from Iraq, to Syria, to Lebanon, to Yemen. This man has been responsible for the creation and shaping of Iran's foreign policy and military policy for more than two decades. So this is a huge, huge escalation.

BERMAN: And responsible, we should note, according to the U.S. military, for the deaths of 600, at least --

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: U.S. military personnel in Iraq fighting, you know, over the last 15 years there. So he is someone who has menaced U.S. forces overseas for some time.

Clarissa, you spent significant time in Iraq. I'm very curious as to what the long-term impact of this or even short-term impact of this might be on the U.S. military presence and diplomatic presence in Iraq. Will the United States be in Iraq six months from now after this?

WARD: Well, that's a really good question, John. Certainly it puts the U.S. in a very awkward, uncomfortable, potentially vulnerable position. We've already seen Iraq's prime minister come out and say essentially that this killing and the killing of an Iraqi militia leader who was with Soleimani is a violation of the U.S.' agreement and conduct in Iraq. So there's a very real palpable sense that this could ignite sectarian tensions in Iraq, but also really put U.S. troops potentially and also diplomats and various civilian contractors who are working in that country at risk as Iran goes about pursuing some course of retaliation.

And make no mistake, there has to be some kind of a retaliation for this. The question is, are we looking at an all-out war? And what does an all-out war look like in this day and age? It's not going to look like the Iran/Iraq war fought in the trenches with front lines that we saw in the 1980s. You're talking about asymmetrical warfare targeting potentially U.S. contractors, U.S. civilians, U.S. military personnel wherever they may be in countries where Iran has strong proxy forces.

[06:50:01]

And as I mentioned before, that is quite a few countries.

HARLOW: Clarissa, before you go, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who will join us here in just a few moments on the program, just tweeted about calls he's making around the world. And he said, I just spoke today with Chinese Politburo Member Yang Jiechi to discuss the president's decision to eliminate Soleimani in response -- and this is key -- in response to imminent threats to American lives. I reiterated our commitment to de-escalation.

But that gets to the question, Clarissa, of why now. Why now did the U.S. target Soleimani? Was it just the opportunity or was it, it appears, an imminent threat to American lives, as he's saying?

WARD: And one can only imagine, Poppy, that this opportunity had presented itself before. Certainly there are indications that previous presidents had not gone with that option simply because it is seen as the nuclear option.

HARLOW: Yes.

WARD: Now we are hearing the Pentagon saying that, yes, lives were in danger potentially of U.S. diplomats and other U.S. citizens overseas. There's no way, really, to confirm that or to know exactly how much voracity there is to that claim.

But certainly what people want to know now is, no one is really shedding tears for Qasem Soleimani, but people do want to know and feel that there's a strong strategy going forward now.

BERMAN: It's a great point. Again, what this man did not in question. What happens next very much in question this morning.

Clarissa Ward, thank you so much for -- excuse me -- coming in for us in West Palm Beach.

HARLOW: Clarissa, thank you very much.

As we said, we're going to speak with the secretary of state in just a moment.

Stay right here.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:55:14]

HARLOW: Again, back to the breaking news this morning. The assassination of Iran's most powerful military and intelligence leader marks a significant escalation in tension across the region and between the U.S. and Iran.

Here to talk about who the man was and what this all means for the United States and the world is Peter Beinart, contributor at "The Atlantic."

Good morning, Peter. It's very, very good to have you here.

You do not -- I mean you see this very clearly. You say this is the single most reckless act in your view of American foreign policy since the Iraq War. Explain why, as Americans wake up to this news, they know this is the man responsible for the murder of 603 Americans over the years in Iraq and was, according to the secretary of state moments ago, planning imminent threat to American lives.

PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's what the United States government is saying, right? I think it's important for us to remember, particularly in the wake of the Iraq War and particularly given what we know about the Trump administration, which has, let's say, at least a complicated and loose relationship with the truth. These claims need to be verified.

I think what's undeniable is that if you are an American diplomat in the Middle East or anywhere around the world, or you're an American soldier, you are in more danger today than you were yesterday because Iran has massive networks throughout Iraq and throughout the region that it can activate.

Was Soleimani involved in directing the killings of Americans? Absolutely. He also, by the way, was involved in helping America overthrow the Taliban. He was the ruthless leader of a very powerful and ruthless regime that now will escalate against the United States.

HARLOW: So right after this, Secretary Pompeo is going to join us, and John will interview him on this show. Is there anything that you could hear from the secretary of state that would change your assessment? What would warrant this action in your mind?

BEINART: I don't think that anything warrants this action, that it makes the United States more dangerous.

Look. George W. Bush was not a weakling or a pacifist, right? Neither was Barack Obama.

HARLOW: They both passed on this.

BEINART: They both passed on this, not because they had any love for Qasem Soleimani, who had killed Americans --

HARLOW: Right. No.

BEINART: But because they realized it would put Americans at more danger. It's also probably means the end of the U.S. presence in Iraq, right? The irony is --

HARLOW: Yes, get into that because Berman was asking that question of Clarissa earlier, will U.S. have -- will U.S. troops have a presence in Iraq six months from now is a huge question this morning.

BEINART: We will be lucky if our presence in Iraq ends peacefully. That's really, I think, the question of whether our presence continues there is no longer the operative question. The question is whether we're going to have to take those people out by helicopter a la Saigon.

HARLOW: Right.

BEINART: Even before the assassination of Soleimani.

The Iranians have enormous, enormous presence in Iraq, and that will not change.

HARLOW: Iraq was already up in arms --

BEINART: Right.

HARLOW: Livid after the attacks, the air strikes this weekend on those five targets --

BEINART: Yes. HARLOW: Saying this is a violation of our sovereignty.

Well, this morning, the response from Iraq's prime minister after all of this, they are staying it will spark a devastating war in Iraq and called this a violation of their security agreement with America. That is Iraq's position this morning.

BEINART: The -- what all of the Iraqi leaders virtually have been saying over recent weeks is that they do not want their country to become the battlefield between the United States and Iran. They -- it's not that they love Iran --

HARLOW: Right.

BEINART: There's a lot of hostility to Iran and Iraq, but they don't want to be the battlefield for this proxy war.

HARLOW: Sure.

BEINART: We have just massively escalated that proxy war.

HARLOW: So Benjamin Netanyahu cut his shot -- trip to Greece short. He just returned back to Israel overnight. In the wake of all of this, he had been speaking just moments ago on Israeli television and defended the U.S., said the U.S. has a right to defend itself and also said that Soleimani was responsible for, you know, many, many deaths and said is planning further attacks. He didn't specify on whom, but that is echoing what we're hearing from Pompeo.

If you are in Israel right now --

BEINART: Right.

HARLOW: What are you thinking?

BEINART: I think your life also became more dangerous. And as an Israeli today, already we're hearing news of closing of tourist sites in northern Israel because of Hezbollah's potential barrage of rockets.

HARLOW: Yes.

BEINART: This is not surprising for Benjamin Netanyahu. He also said the Iraq War would be a great success and he's running for re-election as prime minister. So his bravado is similar to the bravado we're hearing from Donald Trump.

Talk to the Israeli national security officials and ask them whether they think Israel is safer today. It's a myth -- this is important. It is an utter myth to believe that by killing Soleimani you destroyed the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

HARLOW: Yes. But the Pentagon calls this a deterrent and with his death does not mean the death of what he represented.

BEINART: Sure they do, but -- but we -- we -- we have a lot of academic research now on the fact that when you decapitate the leader of a terrorist organization or a government organization like this, it actually tends to make it more dangerous, not less dangerous.

HARLOW: Peter Beinart, thank you for coming in with breaking news.

BEINART: Thank you.

HARLOW: We appreciate it very much.

BERMAN: All right, we're minutes away now from a live interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. What was the imminent threat that Secretary Pompeo mentioned moments ago was the cause for the U.S. air strike that killed General Soleimani?

[07:00:07]

Our breaking news coverage continues right now.