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John Bolton Willing to Testify in Trump Impeachment Trial; President Trump Threatens Iranian Cultural Sites; U.S. Troop Status in Iraq?; Interview With Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Iran's Revenge?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 6, 2020 - 16:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: They will be sent to a British territory in the Indian Ocean, so that they are out of the range of Iranian missiles.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being with me.

Let's go to Washington. "THE LEAD" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Breaking right now: After Iraq votes to kick U.S. troops out, those troops could be on the move.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Mourning, anger, mobilization, people flooding the streets of Tehran as the U.S. braces for the regime's next move, and the president throws out a threat to obliterate parts of Iran.

Also breaking today, an impeachment curveball. The former national security adviser raises his hand and said he is ready to talk. Will Leader McConnell and the Senate prevent the American people from hearing his testimony?

Plus, the first votes in the next presidential election just four weeks from tonight, as the focus in the race shifts to what it takes to be commander in chief, and one candidate asks if President Trump is wagging the dog.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with our world lead, the Trump administration and key U.S. allies bracing for Iran's possible retaliation after the U.S. strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani Thursday night. Massive crowds gathered in Iran today to mourn Soleimani, including the country's top leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

The White House insists Soleimani has American blood on his hands and was plotting an imminent attack against Americans, though none of the evidence behind that claim has been released publicly.

And Democrats who had been briefed question how imminent the attack was. President Trump says he's considering declassifying the intelligence, and he renewed his threat to strike Iranian cultural sites, which would violate international law, as House Democrats are preparing to introduce a resolution limiting President Trump's military action

CNN's Alex Marquardt has this report.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Four days since the killing of Qasem Soleimani, and calls are growing for details on the attacks that were being planned by Iran that the Trump administration says were imminent.

We talking about days? We talking about weeks?

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: If you're an American in the region, days and weeks, this is not something that's relevant.

MARQUARDT: Now Senate Democrats demanding that the president declassify the notification that he sent to Congress about the drone strike that killed Soleimani, writing: "It is critical that national security matters of such import be shared with the American people in a timely manner."

SEN. GARY PETERS (D-MI): I think it's important for the -- for -- certainly for the White House to put out there the reasons for the attack and the imminent nature of it.

MARQUARDT: Flying back from his Christmas vacation, the president responded, "We may discuss that."

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: They know that Congress will be -- that they will be briefed. They're just doing this for show.

MARQUARDT: House and Senate members are expected to get briefed on Wednesday, as Democrats in both chambers work on war power resolutions that would limit President Trump's ability to act militarily against Iran.

REP. KATHERINE CLARK (D-MA): It will be resolved, I am afraid, with the one precious lives of our sons and daughters. And that is what this president has to realize, that there are implications here for American lives.

MARQUARDT: In the wake of Soleimani's killing in Iraq, more than 3,000 U.S. forces are now being sent to the Middle East, a show of force that will also, many fear, make for a potential Iranian target.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's stressful for sure, especially with everything that has escalated recently. He was supposed to be only doing like training. And now it has obviously transpired into something else.

MARQUARDT: This as a sea of crying and angry Iranian mourners filled the streets of the capital Tehran, vowing revenge and chanting "Death to America."

The American killing and the all-but-certain Iranian response to come raising global fears it will set off a new round of deadly violence, the U.K., France and Germany issuing a joint statement saying: "There is now an urgent need for de-escalation. We call on all parties to exercise most restraint and responsibility."

POMPEO: Frankly, the Europeans haven't been as helpful as I wish that they could be.


MARQUARDT: And, Jake, the Pentagon has just announced it is also deploying six B-52s, which are huge long-range bombers. The Defense Department saying that they will be available for operations against Iran if needed, and they will be based out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, so that they're out of range of Iranian missiles -- Jake.

TAPPER: Thanks, Alex.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: And we have this breaking news in our world lead, sources confirming to CNN moments ago that the U.S. military has notified Iraq it is repositioning some of the U.S. troops in the country; 5,000 American service members are currently stationed there.

In a letter to Iraqi officials, a U.S. commanding general writes that the movement will happen over the next few days and weeks to -- quote -- "prepare for onward movement."

Iraq's Parliament voted to expel U.S. troops from the country yesterday, after President Trump ordered that strike to kill a top Iranian military leader.


Joining me now is Leon Panetta. He's a former defense secretary and CIA director under President Obama.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us.

In this letter, the Marine Corps commanding brigadier general, William Seely, said that he was doing this in -- -- quote -- "in due deference to the sovereignty of the republic of Iraq and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and prime minister. CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare it for onward movement."

The letter also concludes that: "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure."

What do you make of that, Mr. Secretary?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, it raises a lot of issues. I thought the action taken by the Parliament in Iraq was in many ways

advisory and not -- did not constitute an order that the U.S., in fact, leave here. At least according to that particular note, it seems clear that the Marine general has received an order for the United States to depart Iraq.

It's not unusual for a general like that to take precautions in terms of organizing our forces, so that they can withdraw in an orderly fashion. So that part of it is not unusual that they would make plans in order to reposition our forces for possible departure.

What concerns me is that this now appears to be real, that the United States, in fact, may be withdrawing from Iraq. And I think that constitutes, very frankly, another threat to our national security.

TAPPER: Mr. Secretary, stay right there.

I want to bring in our correspondent Arwa Damon, who is in Baghdad, and she can hopefully shed some more light on this, and then we will come back to you.

Arwa, tell us what you know.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, look, there's some interesting language in the letter that, when, afterwards, we spoke to a U.S. official in Baghdad, was trying to say, look, despite what the letter reads, this is not an announcement of a U.S. troop withdrawal, nor does the announcement at this stage of what is to come, saying that this was simply a repositioning of some troops.

And because there was going to be a lot of helicopter activity over Baghdad, in particular over the Green Zone, that they wanted to clarify, given how tense the situation is right now, that they were going to be moving some forces, and that this should not be misconstrued as the U.S. military attempting to move coalition forces, and which, of course, given the situation right now could potentially provoke a very negative reaction.

But if we look at the language of some parts of the letter, they -- the letter does recognize what has been requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Iraqi prime minister.

It does talk about repositioning forces over the course of coming days and weeks. But we have also heard that some of this repositioning is due to the current security situation and the heightened threat that does exist to the U.S. military here and to U.S. installations.

Towards the end of the letter, though, Jake -- and this fits also quite interesting -- "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure."

Now, as far as we are aware, at this point, the Iraqi government has not yet officially requested U.S. forces to leave. And in speaking with senior Iraqi officials, some of them at least are saying that what they're hoping for is some sort of agreement, some sort of way to create breathing space for the situation to calm down, because, even though what the U.S. has done here is being viewed as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty as an act of aggression against Iraq itself, there is a recognition that this country does still need the support of the U.S. military.

Also, Jake, worth noting that, in looking at the language in this letter, it is also a great reflection of the situation that the U.S. faces right now, perhaps also to a certain degree hoping to appease the Iraqi government, and perhaps delay any sort of full-on withdrawal, or have it at least, Jake, reach a point where they then can't turn back from.

TAPPER: All right, Arwa Damon in Baghdad.

I want to go to the Pentagon right now and bring in Barbara Starr.

And, Barbara, that line that Arwa Damon, our correspondent in Baghdad, just highlighted, "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure," from a U.S. Marine general to the Iraqi Military Ministry, it seems pretty stark.


You were just briefed on this all by the secretary of defense, Mr. Esper.

What did he have to say?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The secretary of defense, Mark Esper, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, both just finished a briefing off-camera, but on the record, so we can quote them, with the Pentagon press corps.

Now, Secretary Esper began by saying that he is aware of this letter, but that the U.S. has no plans at this time to leave Iraq. He went on to say that the letter is, in his words, inconsistent with policy at this time.

And so it is a bit baffling. He noted that, yes, troops are repositioning throughout the region, that, given the situation, that is very much public knowledge. So this one-star Marine general may well be talking initially in this letter about some repositioning, but then this general goes on and says "to prepare for onward movement."

It is unlikely that a one-star general would be the one to announce anything about U.S. forces leaving Iraq virtually simultaneously with the secretary of defense saying it's inconsistent.

So there's a lot to figure out here. This letter, by the way, remains unsigned. So, it is -- at least the version that we have seen. There is another thing that came up at the briefing that's quite important.

Both Secretary Esper and General Milley said they would continue to obey the law about targeting military sites when asked whether they would agree to target cultural sites, as the president has suggested. They both said they would continue to follow the law -- Jake. TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks so much.

Let's bring back former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Mr. Secretary, I'm not sure that you can explain what's going on here, but what's your best guess?

PANETTA: My best guess is that they're scrambling around trying to figure out what the hell to do.

And, obviously, there are several things involved here. Number one is, they do have to reposition their forces, I think, for defensive purposes, for the possibility of an Iranian proxy attack.

So that to me makes sense. The idea that they're repositioning for purposes of withdrawal, I think, does concern me. And I think, frankly, right now, we're not -- we're not really sure whether, in fact, the U.S. is going to prepare for withdrawal.

I hope they don't. I hope they make every effort to try to maintain our forces there, because, frankly, the issue we're forgetting a lot about in the middle of all of this Iranian crisis is the fact that ISIS still remains a real threat to the United States, and the ability to deal with ISIS depends a great deal on U.S. presence in Iraq.

TAPPER: What is your best guess in terms of what the Iranian response to the strike against General Soleimani will be? Do you think it will be Iranian-backed militias, proxies attacking U.S. forces in places like Iraq?

PANETTA: I think the most likely approach that Iran will use is what they have done in the past, which is to use their proxy forces to go after U.S. military targets.

I think -- I think they are intent on seeking vengeance here. I think they are planning some kind of attack. There are a number of targets, obviously, between our troop presence in Syria, our troop presence in Iraq, in Kuwait, in the Gulf. So there are a number of targets that they could go after.

But I think, rather than having missiles suddenly fly from Iran, I think the more likely scenario is that they will use their proxy forces to attack us.

TAPPER: All right, Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us during this breaking news moment. We appreciate your time.

President Trump says he would target sites important to Iran, but his closest advisers are not as crystal clear -- their twist on his words, as the world waits to see how far Iran will take its vow of revenge.

Plus, the statement today from former Ambassador John Bolton that may take impeachment in a whole new direction.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our world lead now, the president's closest advisers are dodging and dismissing the questions about how serious the president was about the threat to attack cultural sites in Iran. President Trump declaring it on Twitter and then after various administration officials denied, that's what the president was saying, the president again reiterated his pledge on Air Force One.

As CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports, sources say there is widespread opposition in the administration to the move which would likely be considered a war crime inside the Trump administration.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With nothing else on the public schedule, President Trump called into Rush Limbaugh's radio show today to defend the U.S. airstrike that killed Iran's top military commander.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll see what happens. We'll see what the response is, if any

COLLINS: Making no mention of the threats to hit Iranian cultural sites which prompted intense backlash. He repeated those threats on Air Force One Sunday night, telling reporters: They're allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people, and we're not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn't work that way.

That coming after the president tweeted Saturday that the United States has 52 targets in its sights if Iran retaliates, one for each American held during the hostage crisis of 1979.


Experts say a military attack against a cultural site would constitute a war crime. And White House aides are attempting to defend the statements by claiming that Trump never made them.

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: And for these critiques, President Trump didn't say he'd go after cultural sites. Read what he said.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: He didn't say he's striking cultural sites. He says identified sites.

COLLINS: The president is also countering a vote by the Iraqi parliament to try to oust U.S. troops by saying he'll impose very big sanctions if they do, just as hundreds of U.S. troops are deploying to Kuwait on short notice to serve as reinforcements amid those rising tensions in the Middle East. Despite Trump promising repeatedly on the campaign trail to get the U.S. out of long expensive and bloody Middle East engagements.

TRUMP: War and aggression will not be my first instinct. A super power understands that caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, as far as the president's threat to target those cultural sites, our colleague Barbara Starr just asked the defense secretary if it is something they would move forward with given that the president has threatened it twice on the record despite the aides denying it, he said, quote, we would follow the laws of armed conflict. She said, does that mean no, since that would be a war crime if you did that, and he said, quote, that's the law of armed conflict, essentially the defense secretary saying, no, he would not.

TAPPER: Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much.

Let's chew over all this.

And, Mehdi, it's interesting, because the people in the administration are saying, we will follow the law, we're going to abide by the law, but President Trump is out there saying that, very clearly, that he is going to target cultural centers in Iran possibly if Iran hits the U.S., and according to international law, including a U.N. Security Council resolution the U.S. voted yes on, that would be against the law, it would be a war crime.

MEHDI HASAN, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR, THE INTERCEPT: Including the 1954 Hague convention of the protection of cultural property that the U.S. is a signatory to. You say officials have been saying, they are not following this, and they've also been lying in public, too.


HASAN: One of them came on your show yesterday. Mike Pompeo, he did the round of the Sunday shows where he basically, you know, 1954, oh, well, don't believe, the party requests you not to believe your eyes and ears. He says, just go and look the tweet. He didn't say attack cultural sites. As you pointed out to, that's exactly what he said.

Kellyanne Conway today goes one step further in the kind of gaslighting Olympics, saying, it was a hypothetical. It's not a hypothetical. He said we will hit 52 sites, including cultural sites, very fast and very hard.

That's a war crime, and the irony is Trump supporters are saying that Qasem Soleimani is a war criminal, that's why he had to be killed and that's why we shouldn't be shedding tears, here's Trump basically agitating to be a war criminal, he did it when he ran for president. He said we're going to kill the families of terrorists, remember that? We're going to take out the families of terrorists and the women and children.

Maya Angelou said it best, when someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time who he is.

TAPPER: He did run on a pro-war crime policy position in a way --

HASAN: Steal the oil, kill the terror family suspects and now he's going to attack cultural sites.

TAPPER: CNN's Daniel Dale points out there seems to be a familiar cycle. Quote, number one, President says inflammatory thing, number two, Trump officials say he didn't say it, he didn't say what people are saying he actually said. Number three, Trump says he totally said it and he meant it.

It's kind of a challenging position for people in the administration. They go out in a limb and he saws it out from behind.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE, DIRECTOR, SCOWCROFT MIDDLE EAST SECURITY INITIATIVE, ATLANTIC COUNCIL: That's not uncommon. That's very true. I think in this case, there are one of two things that could have happened, either he was presented with an important sites in Iran and looks at all of them as potential targets if they were not part of the natural target deck. Or, remember, we're talking about someone whose idea of culture may be different than the Iranian scholar.

So, it might be that he is talking about the TV stations or sports stadiums and things that -- you know, TV station would be considered critical infra infrastructure and not things like ancient sites or libraries.

TAPPER: Let's be clear --

HASSAN: And a TV station full of journalists.

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, a TV station is full of civilians. Cultural places full of civilians. He's talking about killing civilians, OK --

TAPPER: Well, that is her interpretation.


ROGIN: I mean, just think of the actors that commit, that destroyed cultural sites. We're talking about the Taliban, ISIS, the Chinese communist party. This is not a club that the United States should not aspire to be in even as an empty threat, OK?

I think what the president is trying to do here is he's trying to establish we call escalation dominance. He's trying to threaten them with such severe punishment that they are scared into not retaliating for us killing Soleimani. That's a very risky strategy to do even when you have an administration that's functioning well, that's communicating well, that's messaging well.

And none of those things are present here, and so, we should dial back the rhetoric.

TAPPER: And, Jen, two leading Senate Democrats, Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez, called President Trump to declassify the intelligence behind the drone strike. Kellyanne Conway was asked today if the president will do that. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CONWAY: Yes, they will be briefed, but they also should calm down and celebrate, not denigrate the fact that the world's greatest terrorist, who singlehandedly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and injuries of thousands others, they should celebrate and not denigrate that fact.



TAPPER: What do you make of that?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, just to echo what my friend here said next to me, I mean, they are lying to the American public. This is not the first time they have done that.

TAPPER: Well, they said President Trump never called for the bombing of cultural centers, and he has now done it twice.

PSAKI: Correct. And they've also been misleading or one could suggest they'd been misleading about why they did this strike to begin with, and they don't have a record to stand on to begin with, of being honest with the American public.

Look, I think Congress is doing what they should be doing, which is asking for the evidence, asking for the backup that led to why they took this action, because we can all agree, Soleimani is a very bad guy, he did he was a very bad guy. He did terrible things.

But the question is, was this the right in the national interests of the United States? And right now, even the forces, the U.S. forces who are in Iraq are not fighting ISIS. They're protecting the bases. That's not in national -- the interests of the United States. They're frayed, there's a fraying of our alliances in the region. That's not in the interest of the United States.

The fact that diplomatic and military personnel around the world are on alert, that's not in the interest of the United States. That's why Congress is asking these questions and I think they have a right to.

TAPPER: Does Kellyanne has a point, though, about Democrats aren't doing enough to celebrate the killing of this horrible person?

FONTENROSE: I don't think there should be necessarily celebrations over the death of anyone, but I do know that Qasem Soleimani was a bad guy, you know?

TAPPER: Right.

FONTENROSE: And taking him off of the battlefield is every president who has since he is active has talked about and just not seen the conditions for. Now, we instead of chasing him, we know what he was going to do, and we were able to get him in advance. First time that's been an option. Remember the intelligence downgrade is not super easy, this is a compartmentalized intelligence report.

TAPPER: To releasing information.

FONTENROSE: So, anyone -- the intel committees folks and the intel reps on the Hill will have had access to the original intelligence already and should have been able to an extent to brief their seniors.

HASAN: But this whole thing about bad guys, I get it, but Kellyanne Conway works for a man who brags about the friendship with Kim Jong- un, right? You can't take listen from them on who is and isn't a guy. Trump has a record of mourning the deaths of the people like Saddam Hussein, Mohammed Gadhafi. He's on record saying, I wish they were still alive running their countries.

So, the last people going to lecture about bad guys is this -- the criteria is not bad guys for taking people out. As for the imminent threat and the intelligence, we now know, thanks to "The Washington Post", thanks to Josh's papers that Pompeo was calling for this for months. And now we're told, no, no, because it was an imminent attack, well, where is the imminent attack? How does killing Soleimani stop an imminent attack, and was he wearing a suicide vest when they killed him?

ROGIN: I think we're going to have a historical debate over whether or not their justification makes sense. It was honest. But right now, we have to deal with where we are, and where we are is a very dangerous, volatile situation with thousands of Americans, not to mention millions of Iraqis and Middle Eastern citizens under direct threat from the action that we took, and we have a responsibility to deal with that threat, in a comprehensive way, and that's what we don't see.

TAPPER: And President Trump threatening to sanction Iraq if Iraq actually kicks out U.S. troops.

Everyone, stick around. We have more to talk about.

Huge news on impeachment. A member of President Trump's inner circle saying he is ready to talk, how that might change the Senate impeachment trial. That's next.