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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

U.S. Sends Draft Letter to Iraqi Government Suggesting U.S. Would Withdraw Troops, Then Says It Was A "Mistake"; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is Interviewed About U.S. Mistaken Letter to Iraq on Troop Withdrawal and the State of the 2020 Race. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired January 6, 2020 - 20:00   ET

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


[20:00:08]

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.

There's breaking news out of the Pentagon, or maybe it's out of Iraq, or possibly the White House. At this point, we're not exactly sure. And that's kind of the point.

Someone late this afternoon sent out an official letter notifying the Iraqi government that U.S. troops there would begin repositioning in what would appear to be the first step in leaving the country outright.

Then a few hours later, secretary of defense, Mark Esper, said that the letter was sent in error. Actually saying his staff was, quote, trying to figure out, unquote, what the memo is. Which left everyone trying to figure out just what's going on.

And the frightening answer is about the letter and just about every other thing that's happened since the U.S. killed the Iranian general, we simply do not know. That's where the last three days that the United States and Iran, trading threats and mobilizing forces suggest we are. That's where the last three days, developments and seemingly unanticipated consequences suggest we are.

In Iran, there have been giant crowds publicly mourning the man who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq and many other civilians in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere. The Iranians announced they're pulling out of the international agreement limiting their nuclear program. The Iraqi parliament voted to expel U.S. forces.

In addition, the president on Saturday threatened to target Iranian cultural sites in retaliation for any future attacks, which his secretary of state on Sunday tried to deny, which the president then reiterated, which his secretary of defense today denied.

We'll talk about all of that shortly with CNN's Jim Acosta, the White House, and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

But, first, CNN's Barbara Starr has been working her sources at the Pentagon.

Barbara, what's the latest on this letter regarding troop movements?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a letter that apparently got leaked to the Iraqis by some members of the news media, filtering its way across the media. And what the Pentagon said today is once they checked into it, that the letter was poorly written, was a mistake, was never supposed to come out. What it says is that U.S. troops are repositioning in Iraq, and that is true.

But it also goes on to talk about future onward movement of U.S. troops, very strongly suggesting that U.S. troops are leaving Iraq.

And what Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters today is, no, that is not policy right now. And in fact, the Iraqi government has not yet officially asked U.S. troops to leave.

COOPER: And what's the situation about the intelligence used to target the Iranian general, because top national security officials are still defending that.

STARR: They are defending it. Today, again, Esper, and especially the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, meeting with reporters who are adamant that the intelligence was good.

Look, they are focusing a lot on what Soleimani has done in the past with his attacks, but they're also saying they had more current intelligence, that he was plotting near-term future attacks against the U.S., against U.S. troops and U.S. interests in the region.

Were those attacks imminent? What does imminent really mean? Is that days, weeks, or months?

I think a lot of people in the administration wish the word "imminent" was never used. Hard to say when those attacks might have been targeted for. But they are adamant that Soleimani had more plans in the works.

COOPER: Because the president used the term, I think it was, "very major attack" was being planned.

STARR: That's right. The Pentagon has talked about significant plans for violence, that sort of thing. They had a sense that he was going to -- he was in Iraq at the time he was killed to finalize plans in that country to attack perhaps U.S. bases, the U.S. embassy.

COOPER: What about the president's comments on targeting cultural sites in Iran?

STARR: Right. Yes. You know, the president has talked about this twice and we know it is a violation of both U.S. national security law and international laws of armed conflict, so we asked Esper about that today. And he said that the U.S. would continue to follow the law -- and that would mean, not targeting cultural sites, only targeting military sites.

COOPER: But if the president gives an order to do that, what happens?

STARR: What happens? Yes, what happens?

Milley and Esper, at least today, have been very adamant, as you would expect, that the U.S. military will follow the law. I think behind the scenes, they think that the president may have a bit of bluster here, that maybe they can offer him other options.

Also very watchful in case the Iranians were to eventually move weapons into cultural sites. That takes away their protected status. They do become valid military targets then.

But for now, if that were to happen, if the president of the United States was to order a strike on cultural sites that are not military targets and can't be talked out of it, you have very senior government officials that would have to decide if they will follow those orders, which would be illegal, by all accounts, or make a decision to leave the administration.

[20:05:05]

COOPER: Barbara Starr, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

STARR: Sure.

COOPER: Also standing by. Jim, you have some new reporting on this letter.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Anderson, we understand, talking to our sources over here, talked to a White House official earlier this evening, who said the president did see some of the coverage about this mistaken letter from the U.S. military to the Iraqis, about a potential withdrawal that we know that is not happening now, and was concerned about it, and wanted it cleaned up, in the words of this White House official.

Not exactly a good thing to have it on the first day back in the office for everybody after the holidays.

COOPER: Is there any more clarity as to what the White House strategy on Iran actually is?

ACOSTA: Not really, Anderson. The president was asked about this on conservative talk radio earlier in the day, and he essentially said, he's waiting to see how the Iranians respond. He's basically in the same position that everybody else is across the world.

This administration is now essentially putting the ball in the Iranian's court and waiting to see what they do next, and then determining from that how they're going to respond at this point.

COOPER: And last night, the president made some sort of a vague comment about releasing the intelligence. What did he say?

ACOSTA: Yes, he essentially said that they're thinking about it, that they may release it to the public. At this point, the plan is to brief lawmakers up on Capitol Hill. That's going to be happening over the next 48 hours. And I think, Anderson, that is going to be a significant moment,

because if you have Democrats coming out of these briefings, essentially saying they don't believe the intelligence that was behind this military strike on Qasem Soleimani, then you're going to potentially have hearings over in the House about all of this.

Now, I did talk to some Republican officials earlier this evening, and they essentially said at this point, they're waiting to see these briefings and get the intelligence before they make any further comments on this. But, Anderson, here we are, more than a decade after the beginning of the Iraq war in the mid-2000s, back in 2003, and we're still questioning the intelligence, talking about the validity of the intelligence behind a major American military action in that part of the world. It does seem as though this administration, despite being led by a president who claimed that he would not get into anymore quagmires in the Middle East, is at the moment finding his intelligence and his decision making questioned at this point -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Jim Acosta -- Jim, thanks very much.

Joining us now for his take on the day and events leading up to it, Vermont senator, Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders.

Senator, thanks for being with us.

The mistake with this letter today, what does that say about this administration and what message do you think it sends to both allies and adversaries?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It says that there's mass chaos. That the administration hasn't a clue about what it is doing. But it's creating a very dangerous world scenario.

Just yesterday, you had Trump saying very loudly that if the Iraqis want us to leave, the Iraqi government want us to leave, we're going to impose trillions of dollars of sanctions. They're going to have to pay for everything that we spent. And the next thing we hear is, oh, we respect the sovereignty of Iraq. We're taking our troops back -- out.

And then a few hours later, we say, oh, that was a mistake. We are staying in. What kind of message does this send to the entire world?

But, Anderson, what frightens me most is what we are seeing now sounds very much like what I observed and the American people observed in terms of the war in Iraq, something that I vigorously opposed. What we heard was an administration lying about intelligence. We got involved in a war we never should have got involved in.

We lost 4,500 brave soldiers. Thousands more were wounded. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were displaced and died. We spent trillions of dollars on that war, that should have been spent at home, providing health care or rebuilding our infrastructure.

And now at the end of all of that, the government, the country that we were trying to save, to liberate says, get out, we don't want you anymore. So that lesson must be learned. And I think if anything, we get involved in a war in Iran, and in all likelihood, it will be even worse. And I will do everything I can as a United States senator, in terms of defunding any effort of the Trump administration to go to war, do anything I can to stop what I think will be another disaster.

COOPER: As you just referenced, the Iraqi parliament voted yesterday in favor of expels U.S. troops from the country. I mean, if American forces are actually expelled, and it's not clear it would actually come to that, would that be a good thing in your opinion? Because you've called to an end to endless wars in the Middle East.

SANDERS: The United States should have gotten our troops out of Iraq a long time ago. But it has to be done in an orderly manner in conjunction with the Iraqi government, so that the anti-terrorist activity can't continue.

[20:10:08]

It is not a good thing when after spending trillions of dollars and losing 4,500 soldiers that you are booted out of the country you went to liberate. That is not a good thing in any sense.

COOPER: The -- I'm wondering -- you had made a statement about the killing of Soleimani, who, you know, everybody agrees was a killer, responsible for the deaths of many American forces, as well as many civilians around the world. You called it an assassination.

Michael Bloomberg, fellow presidential candidate, said that was, quote, an outrageous thing to say. I wanted to give you the opportunity to respond to that.

SANDERS: No, I think it was an assassination. I think it was in violation of international law. This guy was (INAUDIBLE) -- was a bad news guy, but he was a ranking official of the Iranian government.

And you know what? Once you get into violating international law in that sense, you can say there are a lot of bad people all over the world running governments. Kim Jong-un in North Korea, not exactly a nice guy, responsible for the death, perhaps, of hundreds of thousands of people in his own country, to name one of many, you know?

The president of China now has put a million people in -- Muslims, into educational camps. Some would call them concentration camps.

But once you start this business of a major country saying, hey, we have the right to assassinate, then you're unleashing international anarchy. I think all --

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Sorry, go ahead. No, no, I'll let you finish. Sorry.

SANDERS: No. I mean, and all that Trump seems to be doing now is trying to break all kinds of international protocol, denying the foreign minister of Iran to speak before the United Nations, and really basically trying to lead us into another war, which I believe will be a disaster.

COOPER: If Soleimani was a non-state actor, not a general, an official, a high-ranking official in the Iranian government, would it be different in your mind?

SANDERS: I'm not a lawyer on these things, it might be. But this guy is, you know, was, as bad as he was, an official of the Iranian government.

And you unleash -- then if China does that, you know, if Russia does that, you know, Russia has been implicated under Putin with assassinating dissidents. So once you're in the business of assassination, you unleash some very, very terrible forces. And what I'm seeing now in this world, as a result of Trump's actions, more and more chaos, more and more instability.

And it is absolutely imperative that the United States Congress stand up, because, by the way, let us never forget that according to the constitution of the United States, on which some of us actually believe in and respect, it is Congress that has the responsibility for making war, not the president of the United States. And that is why we have got to pass an authorization, legislation that makes it very clear that Trump does not have the right to go to war without the authorization of the United States Congress, and also, I will work to make sure that he doesn't have the money to do that.

COOPER: There's more I want to talk to you about. If you can, please just stick around. We're going to take a quick break and talk more about the president talking about targeting cultural sites. Also, about politics here at home, what appears to be a three-way tie in Iowa, impeachment, and some very big breaking news.

Also, John Bolton saying he would now be willing to testify during a Senate impeachment trial if subpoenaed. The question, of course, if he serious and what would the White House do? Would they allow that even to happen?

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:18:18]

COOPER: We've been talking with senator Bernie Sanders about the airstrikes that killed Qasem Soleimani, his death and the political debate over national security that it's provoked. It comes as the race for the Democratic nomination continues to heat up, 28 days until Iowa, 36 in New Hampshire.

In Iowa, Senator Sanders, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg are in a three-way tie at 23 percent. In New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders at 27 percent followed closely by Biden at 25 percent. Those numbers from both states are according to a new poll from CBS News and YouGov.

In both cases, Senator Sanders is in the lead with Joe Biden tied or right behind him. We'll get to that polling in a second. I want to stay on Iran,

though, for a moment with you, Senator Sanders.

Your Democratic colleague, Senator Murphy, tweeted that targeting civilians and cultural sites, quote, is what terrorists do. He also said it's a war crime. Do you agree with him? Because that is something the Taliban did in Afghanistan --

SANDERS: That's right. That's right.

COOPER: -- and, obviously, ISIS did in Syria and elsewhere.

SANDERS: Absolutely, I agree with the senator. It is a war crime. And to be learning from the Taliban about destroying cultural sites is unbelievable.

But in addition to all of this, Anderson, one thing we have got to not forget, in America today, domestically, we have enormous crises.

Tonight, half a million Americans, including 30,000 veterans, are homeless. We've got 87 million people who are uninsured or are underinsured. We have an infrastructure which is crumbling.

We have enormous needs facing our country. And the idea of spending trillions of dollars more on an endless war in Iran is to me just beyond comprehension.

[20:20:01]

COOPER: I want to focus a little bit on domestic policy, obviously, with Iowa and New Hampshire coming up. You said, recently, about Vice President Biden, his record, you said, to "The Washington Post," quote, is just a lot of baggage that Joe takes into a campaign, which isn't going to create energy and excitement.

Is there something specifically you were referring to in terms of baggage?

SANDERS: Sure. I mean, look, Joe and I are friends and I truly like Joe. But what is imperative is that we defeat Trump, the most dangerous president in modern history. And that means you're going to have to have a huge voter turnout. You're going to have to get working people excited. You're going to have to get young people excited.

Joe Biden voted and helped lead the effort for the war in Iraq, the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country. Joe Biden voted for the disastrous trade agreements, like NAFTA, and permanent normal trade relations with China, which cost us millions of jobs. You think that's going to play well in Michigan or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania?

You know, Joe Biden has been on the floor of the Senate, talking about the need to cut Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid. Joe Biden pushed a bankruptcy bill, which has caused enormous financial problems for working families. So, if we're going to beat Trump, we need turnout. And to get

turnout, you need energy and excitement. And I just don't think that that kind of record is going to bring forth the energy we need to defeat Trump.

COOPER: Senator Elizabeth Warren was asked by Jake Tapper yesterday why she believes her Medicare-for-All transition plan is better than yours. I want to play her response so that you have an opportunity to respond to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It gets the most help to the most people the quickest possible. Help starts on day one. And then it's full health care coverage, for 135 million people to be able to opt into it at absolutely no cost.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: S do you think his is unrealistic?

WARREN: We can do that on a 50-vote -- we can do that on a 50-vote budget reconciliation and get help to people. Let people experience it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Does her plan, in your opinion, get the most help to the most people, the quickest possible?

SANDERS: I think my plan makes a lot more sense, and this is why. For a hundred years, Anderson, from Teddy Roosevelt on, we have been talking about the need for health care for all. But as I think everybody understands, the reason we are not doing that, the reason why we are -- we have 87 million people uninsured and underinsured, why we spend twice as much per capita as the people of any other country, and why the health care industry last year made $100 billion, they have the power. They dictate. They and the drug companies dictate what happens in health care.

When I win or at least when I hope I win the election, we will have the momentum in this country to finally tell the drug companies who are charging us by far the highest prices in the world, the insurance companies who are ripping us, that finally, finally, we are going to move to a Medicare for all single-payer system, with millions of people standing up and demanding that.

Our program, my legislation, is a four-year transition period. And the first year, we expand Medicare to cover hearing aids, dental care, eyeglasses, and home health care. And we lower the eligibility age from 65 to 55. That's in the first year. I think there will be massive support for that idea. And the next year, it's 45, 35, and in four years, everybody is in.

That is the easiest way to bring universal health care to all Americans.

COOPER: Obviously, there's questions about cost. We'll address that another time.

Senator Sanders, I appreciate your time tonight. Thank you.

SANDERS: Thank you.

COOPER: Coming up next, John Bolton's decision to talk or at least say he's willing to if subpoenaed in the impeachment trial. Our political and legal team looks at the implications.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:28:34]

COOPER: As consequential to the presidency, today may have been internationally, it was no less meaningful at home, former national security adviser John Bolton made sure of that we have announced he was willing to testify if subpoenaed at the Senate impeachment trial.

And he could have a lot to say, obviously. His lawyer has already touted Ambassador Bolton's knowledge of, quote, many relevant meetings and conversations in the Ukraine affair that were not -- that have not been shared with House impeachment investigators. And though he signaled his unwillingness to testify in the House and was ultimately not called by lawmakers there, he certainly was a central figure in the proceedings there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GORDON SONDLAND, AMBASSADOR TO TEH EUROPEAN UNION: Shortly before his visit to Kiev, Ambassador Bolton's office requested Mr. Giuliani's contact information from me. I send Ambassador Bolton the information directly.

DAVID HOLMES, DIPLOMAT WHO OVERHEARD TRUMP SONDLAND PHONE CALL: I heard Ambassador Bolton express to Ambassador Taylor and national security counsel senior director Tim Morrison his frustration about Mr. Giuliani's influence with the president.

FIONA HILL, PRES. TRUMP'S FORMER TOP RUSSIA ADVISER: Ambassador Sondland leaned in, basically to say -- well, we have an agreement that there will be a meeting, specific investigations are put underway. And that's when I saw Ambassador Bolton stiffen.

LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL TOP UKRAINE EXPERT: Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short when Ambassador Sondland started to speak about the requirement that Ukraine deliver specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with president Trump.

HILL: You tell Eisenberg, Ambassador Bolton told me, that I am not part of this, whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[20:30:00] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: So now, it's up to the Senate where the Republican leadership does not want new witnesses but just for dissenting members are all it would talk to change that.

Let's talk about it with our Chief Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin, also John Dean, who made a name for himself precisely because he did testified in the Watergate hearings about what he witness, he's Nixon's White House counsel, also with us, CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

Jeff, obviously, Bolton's testimony, I mean if he was willing to actually do it and show up, would be very significant.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: You know, I think sometimes those of us in the news business, we over hype events. This is a huge development. If you care what happened between the United States and Ukraine, if you care about the facts of this case, you have to hear from John Bolton. He is probably the single most important witness. If he is willing to testify, anyone who cares about the facts should --

COOPER: Couldn't the White House just say, just stop him?

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, this is where we get into John Dean territory. I mean, what could they do, exactly? I mean, I don't think -- they would have to get an injunction from a court if he wants to testify. I'm not sure they could get that injunction. If John Dean shows up and wants to testify --

COOPER: John Bolton.

TOOBIN: I'm sorry. Yes, John Dean may want to testify, too. He's testified before, I know. No, but if Bolton wanted to testify, I think the White House would have been very hard trying to stopping him.

COOPER: John Dean, do you agree with that, as someone who did testify?

JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I do. And in fact, it occurred to me that they might be an effort to block my testimony, but I was loaded for bear. I was prepared to say that the crime/fraud exception would preclude any kind of privilege that they could claim. And I think there's a parallel in this situation.

I think Bolton clearly extracted himself and denied being involved in any conspiracy and that's the most likely offense that was involved here. He also reported the activity to the White House counsel, which is exactly what you should do. They didn't take any action, but he did.

So I think he is exactly a very powerful, potential witness. I don't think he particularly likes the President, and I don't think, also, he wants to be selling a book for a lot of bucks and refusing to testify.

COOPER: But Gloria, we don't really know what his testimony would be, whether it would help the President or hurt him. He does have a book coming out, for which he probably, you know, has a big advance. But that kind of stuff often hinges on having new information in the book that hasn't been previously disclosed.

And if he testifies to everything, then is it, you know, is he disclosing a lot? And if he testifies against the President, does he ruin his chances of getting back on, you know, Fox News as a, you know, paid contributor?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I was talking to a senior democratic leadership aide today who said to me, look, we know what John Bolton has said through others who have testified, calling Rudy Giuliani a hand grenade that's going to blow us all up and talking about the drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland orchestrated, getting very upset, telling Fiona Hill, you've got to report this to the lawyers, which she did.

But we also know John Bolton. We know that he complimented the President, for example, just today on the Iran raid and on the killing in Iran and we know that he wants to not lose his place in the conservative firmament in which he resides, such as on Fox News and in other places.

So, is he willing to go out there and tell a story that is incredible damaging to the President or will he just say, as the White House is saying, look, he disagreed with the President, that's not a crime. And so the danger for the Democrats here is, how much would they know -- if he ends up testifying, how much would they know about what he was going to say before he said it.

TOOBIN: But isn't the point, Gloria, not will he help or will he hurt, isn't the point that he has relevant evidence and they want to find stuff out.

BORGER: I totally agree with you. I totally agree with you. And this is why I think it makes it harder for Republicans who have been complaining that the Democratic case against the President is all hearsay, to suddenly be presented with somebody who's at the epicenter of a story, who is a witness to the everything that occurred and say, oh, by the way, we don't want to hear from him because he should have testified in the House. I totally agree with you.

COOPER: Gloria, is there any chance, though, that they're before Republicans, who would be willing to vote on that?

BORGER: That's the question. I think there is more of a chance today than there was yesterday. And I think this is a living breathing story that is playing out in real time and who knows. Who knows the answer to that? But the odds are better today than yesterday.

COOPER: John, if Bolton is saying he'd respond to a subpoena from the Senate, does that mean he would need to respond to one from the House? I mean, is it possible now that he could head back to House committees?

DEAN: I think the House managers could make a very strong argument that if he's going to testify in the Senate and has agreed to do so and accept a subpoena, that he has an obligation to tell managers what he's going to talk about.

[20:35:08]

And they have either an executive session with him or even just a private session with him. So they know the parameters of his testimony and can prepare accordingly. That would certainly be the normal route. You don't really spring witnesses in any trial. And so, I don't think this will be a Perry Mason moment in the impeachment trial.

BORGER: But we don't know what the rules would be, right? I mean, we don't know. The Republicans could say --

DEAN: Well, I tried.

BORGER: -- OK, you want him, take the good with the bad. We don't know.

COOPER: Jeff?

TOOBIN: I mean, I just -- you know, the procedural things are -- I mean, you know, you have someone like Marco Rubio saying, well, we can't have him testify because we should only draw on the evidence that came before in the House. That's a completely made-up argument.

In no trial, do you only require -- you know, pay attention to what went on in the preliminary proceedings. If you want to know the facts, if you want to know why or whether the President should be impeach, you should get all relevant evidence and there is no one more relevant than John Bolton.

COOPER: Let's leave it there. Jeff Toobin, thank you, John Dean, Gloria Borger as well. Thanks.

Coming up, next back to the breaking news, the Iran confrontation, someone in a unique position to know about how White House decisions are made, at least in the past were made. President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, joins us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:40:21]

COOPER: In our breaking news, the Pentagon now says that a letter suggesting that the U.S. might withdraw troops from Iraq was released by mistake to the Iraqis. For over an hour, there was confusion with military officials in Washington and Baghdad, unable to offer definitive answer on exactly what was happening. All of this coming as the White House and the Pentagon face questions about the killing of Iran's top general.

Joining me now is Susan Rice, President Obama's former national security advisor and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. She's the author of "Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For." She joins me now.

Ambassador Rice, just in terms of this letter, first of all, that was apparently I guess accidentally released by the military regarding withdrawing troops from Iraq, does this kind of thing happen a lot?

SUSAN RICE, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR TO PRES. OBAMA: No, Anderson, it doesn't happen a lot and it should rarely, if ever, happen. This is a mess up on the order that we rarely see, particularly out of the Pentagon, which typically is a pretty tight ship.

COOPER: Particularly in the midst of -- I mean, it is a critical time. It's not like it was just an average weekend. You know, it's been -- it's obviously not a great time to have a mistake like this. You write in a "New York Times" op-ed that Americans would be wise to brace for war with Iran. And while it's not a certainty, the probability is probably higher than at any point in decades. I mean, that's pretty disturbing. You think the U.S. needs to brace for war?

RICE: Anderson?

COOPER: Yes, can you hear me?

RICE: I've lost -- yes, say again.

COOPER: OK, I'm sorry. Do you think -- I was just reading --

RICE: Yes, I heard you. It's pretty disturbing.

COOPER: Yes. I was reading your op-ed, do you think Americans need to brace for war?

RICE: Well, yes, unfortunately, I think we need to be prepared for that possibility. And as I say, it's no certainty, but what's happened in the last several days and even frankly in the last several months, has led us on a course of increasing escalation that I'm quite concerned about.

The killing of Soleimani will require from the Iranian perspective a clear and definitive retaliation. And that retaliation could take any number of forms. It could take the form of attributable cyber attack, it could take the form of terrorist attacks, missiles launched at American military or diplomatic facilities in the broader Middle East.

But when that happens, and it will happen, even if it doesn't happen tomorrow or next week or the week after, President Trump will face a moment of reckoning where he has to decide how to respond.

According to his public statements, on the one hand, he doesn't want a war with Iran. On the other hand, he's threatened to attack them mercilessly, including outside of the laws of war at their cultural sites. So this has every potential to escalate.

And it's hard to see how diplomacy can be retrieved at this point. And then you look at the whole spate of consequences that we've seen just over the last few days. The Iraqi parliament has required that the United States leave. Eventually, we will be compelled to leave Iraq and that is a huge strategic victory for Iran.

We've had to suspend the fight against ISIS. The reason we're there in the first place, when ISIS still has thousands of troops that are in a position to reconstitute itself. And the Iranians have really pulled the last leg out from under the Iran nuclear deal, giving them carte blanche to pursue their nuclear program. And that, too, could lead to conflict. So it's not a pretty picture, I'm afraid.

COOPER: Some in the administration are still talking about, you know, that this is de-escalation. That this was -- you know, that this is a road to de-escalation. To have actual de-escalation diplomacy, don't you need to have kind of off-ramps that both sides can kind of take baby steps in that direction to kind of show -- to develop good faith, to show that things are ratcheting down? It doesn't seem like there's any off-ramps or even, frankly, a highway at all.

RICE: Well, you do need off-ramps. It's very hard to see where they might be in this context. And you have leadership on both sides that seems to believe they have their credibility, if not their manhood on the line, and are making statements that indicate not a rush to de- escalate, but rather a rush to escalate.

So, I do think that we're in a very perilous moment. I hope very much that somehow, some way, we can find a path out of this march to war, but I do think that rational minds, as they assess this situation and know the broader region, have every reason to be deeply concerned at this point.

[20:45:12]

COOPER: Defense Secretary Esper said that, you know, the military would obey the laws and not -- which, you know, it is against laws to bomb cultural sites, to target cultural sites. I'm not quite clear what happens if the President says, do that -- I mean, anyway, what does happen?

RICE: What is supposed to happen in that case, Anderson, is for the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to say, respectfully, no. They are not prepared to violate the law. That's the oath they take. And if they were to go along in blatant violation of domestic and international law, then they, too, would be accountable.

And I have faith in our uniformed military. I have faith in the American defense establishment's readiness and desire to adhere to the norms and the laws of war, because they benefit Americans and help keep Americans safe. So I'm hopeful that it wouldn't come to that.

But I must say I'm troubled that options seem to be presented to the President that may not be the ones that the defense establishment thinks make the most sense. And yet, they're there on the plate and we have a President who seems to be willing to veer from one extreme to the other. So I do hope that they'll be very careful about how they provide targeting recommendations to the President.

COOPER: Ambassador Rice, I appreciate your time. Thank you. RICE: Thank you.

COOPER: Just ahead tonight, the top White House official that we've really heard very little from for almost a year now, even though her entire job is to be heard, and to be seen, and to talk, and to actually answer questions from human reporters. The White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham and the great disappearing press briefing makes our "Ridiculist."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:51:21]

COOPER: Let's check with Chris to see how he's going to be covering all that's been going on today and over the weekend. Chris?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: Happy New Year, my friend. Guys like you and I know where decisions like the President's decision to take out Soleimani can lead. People like us will be on the front lines witnessing it. We will look back to now as justification for why it had to happen.

It is no small irony that a President who kept railing on everyone in this country to know that you shouldn't trust U.S. intel, now he won't share the intel that led to a decision like this. We're taking this on with one of his supporters tonight. We're going to ask why we're not being told why this was done.

And we have Judge Judy on. After 50 years in public life, she's decided to enter the political fray and black -- back Bloomberg. Why? What's wrong with this President and? What's right with him?

COOPER: All right, we'll watch. Chris, thanks very much. That's about eight minutes from now.

Coming up next, the spokeswoman with a non-speaking role in the White House and on "The Ridiculist."

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[20:55:53]

COOPER: Time now for "The Ridiculist." And a new year, a new record, 301 days, that's how long it's been since the last formal White House press briefing and still no sign at the podium of one Stephanie Grisham.

Now, if you're wondering who's Stephanie Grisham, you're probably not a regular Fox News viewer because that channel is seemingly the one place she feels safe enough to regularly appear. And yes, your taxpayer dollars are indeed paying Ms. Grisham to avoid you, ironically, like it's her job.

Now, let's see if you can actually identify Stephanie Grisham from a lineup. Stephanie Grisham is one of these three people. Anyone? I'm going to whittle it down. The woman in the middle, that's Stefanie Powers from that show "Heart to Heart". I used to love that show, Max. The woman on the left, that's RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel. The other one is Stephanie Grisham.

Ms. Grisham is officially the White House press secretary. That job was once a vaunted post in any presidential administration, the conduit by which the White House tells the American people what it's doing, and more importantly is questioned repeatedly, often pointedly, sometimes aggressively about what it's doing by reporters.

For example, if a president were to escalate the potential danger of U.S. interest overseas by killing a high-ranking Iranian general, you might think the White House press secretary would head to the podium to keep the country and the world abreast of what's going on, to try to fill in some gaps between the President's Twitter threats, but that doesn't happen anymore. It hasn't for 301 days.

Now, we've mentioned Ms. Grisham on "The Ridiculist" before. Back in October we highlighted her defense over on "Fox ampersand Friends" of acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney after the White House had to walk back or reinvent Mulvaney's statements, basically admitting that President Trump had squeezed the president of Ukraine for politically advantage -- advantageous dirt in return for U.S. aid.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Grisham's appearance came less than 24 hours after Acting Chief of Staff Mick "Great Muppet Caper" Mulvaney's news conference which drew huge reviews, ranging from not helpful to a confession. Now for her part, though, Grisham said that Mulvaney did everything a good accomplice should.

STEPHANIE GRISHAM, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He did a great job. He mentioned the same message over and over and over, and the now the media, of course is -- you know, we put a statement out clarifying some of the things that the media got themselves in a tizzy over.

COOPER: Tizzy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Stephanie Grisham apparently didn't like that segment. She sent an e-mail to the website "Business Insider" the next day saying in part, "I think CNN has lost sight of the fact that we are human beings."

Now, I heard that criticism and honestly it gave me real pause. I actually was concern about that idea. I thought about it. Have I lost sight that she and others who are lying frequently are human beings? I actually did some serious soul search. I'm not kidding. I didn't curse her in that story. I didn't use any bad words. I didn't dredge up past brushes with the law.

I'm well aware she is a human being and probably believes in what she's doing is probably a very fine person. I haven't lost sight that we are all human beings. We're all Americans. We love this country and good people may disagree and that doesn't make them bad or traitors or un-American.

But what was interesting about Ms. Grisham's accusation that I've lost sight to the fact that we human beings is that just days after she made that remark to "Business Insider", she appeared with her pals/colleagues over at "Fox and Friends" in order to defend this tweet from President Trump about so-called never-Trump Republicans.

The President tweeted in part saying, "Watch out for them, they are human scum." Human scum, that's how the President described people whose crime is they don't support him.

Now, I don't see how labeling concern Americans human scum fits with Melania Trump's "Be Best" campaign or Ivanka Trump's carefully airbrush brand about empowering people, but apparently Ms. Grisham who by the way used to be on Melania Trump's staff, has no problem with it. In fact, she come even went further. This is what she said when asked if the President regretted his words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRISHAM: No, no, he shouldn't. The people who are against him and who have been against him and working against him since the day they took office are just that. They deserve strong language like that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: They deserve that. Yes, they are that. They are human scum. It's funny how Ms. Grisham has gone from, we are human beings, to they are human scum. And it was like in no time. It's funny and it's not funny at the same time. It's actually really kind of sad.

Of course, these are all things that reporters would be table to ask Ms. Grisham about if she ever actually did what every one of her predecessors had done, which is stand up and answer questions from reporters. But look, it's 301 days and counting, so for now, we'll just have to make do with her occasional appearance here on "The Ridiculist."

And that's it. The news continues. I want to hand over to Chris for "Cuomo Prime Time." Chris?