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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

John Bolton Willing to Testify in Trump Impeachment Trial; U.S. Troop Status in Iraq?; Interview With Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 6, 2020 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:32:51]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We have more breaking news for you in our world lead.

The Pentagon just said moments ago that that widely circulated letter announcing that the U.S. was repositioning troops in Iraq because it had been ordered to depart by the Iraqi government was mistakenly released.

CNN's Barbara Starr is live for us at the Pentagon.

Barbara, the letter was, what, just a draft?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It was, Jake.

We have had an extraordinary couple of minutes here. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, coming back into the press room within minutes of leaving earlier to tell us what he had learned about the letter after making some phone calls.

The letter, he says -- quote -- "That letter is a draft. It was a mistake. It was unsigned. It should not have been released, poorly worded, implies withdraw. That is not what is happening."

So this letter talked about repositioning some forces. That has been going on. That is very well known and very well understood. But the letter also goes on to say to prepare for -- quote -- "onward movement."

General Milley adamant that is a mistake. The letter had -- as a draft had been sent to some Iraqis, and apparently leaked or sent to the media from somewhere in this chain of events.

Milley very concerned about the international implications, so he wants to emphasize it's not true that troops are leaving -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr.

I suspect there's more to the story than that.

But let's keep going. In our politics lead, former National Security Adviser John Bolton announced today that he will testify if subpoenaed by the Senate. Ambassador Bolton is one of the few people who was in the room when President Trump made that July phone call with the president of Ukraine.

And, as CNN's Phil Mattingly reports for us now, Bolton's announcement pushes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into a place where Democratic accusations of a Senate cover-up have been given new life.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With a single statement, former National Security Adviser John Bolton jolted an impeachment process that has been stuck in a stalemate.

Bolton, who declined to testify in the House impeachment inquiry, now saying he has concluded -- quote -- "If the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to comply."

It's a shift with major ramifications in the Senate.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): House Democrats are trading impeachment like a political toy.

[16:35:03]

MATTINGLY: Where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer have been battling for weeks over whether to subpoena witnesses.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): A trial without all the facts is a farce.

MATTINGLY: Bolton's possible testimony could be key, given his central role in the Democratic investigation highlighted in the House.

FIONA HILL, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL OFFICIAL: Ambassador Bolton told me that I am not part of the -- this -- whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up.

MATTINGLY: And by his lawyer, who in November said Bolton -- quote -- "was personally involved in many of the events, meetings and conversations about which you have already received testimony, as well as many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed."

The new development underscores a Democratic strategy to withhold sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate.

SCHUMER: I hope, pray and believe there's a decent chance that four Republicans will join us. If they do, we will have a fair trial.

MATTINGLY: Four Republicans joining with all 47 of the chamber's Democrats is all Schumer would need to fashion a trial along the lines he's been pushing for, with Democrats eying a group of potential GOP converts to help their cause, even as none, at least to this point, have expressed a willingness to go that route.

Both Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seizing on every new development to underscore the need for documents and witnesses now.

Pelosi reacting this afternoon to the Bolton news, tweeting -- quote -- "The president and Senator McConnell have run out of excuses."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY: And, Jake, sources are telling me that the Bolton developments are not changing Senator McConnell's strategy at all. He's still pushing forward with the path he's laid out from the beginning.

The reality is this. At some point, there will be votes on witnesses, and whoever gets 51 will end up getting what they want -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Phil Mattingly, thanks so much.

Let's chew over all this.

Senator Schumer says he needs four Republicans to be in favor of witnesses. You heard Phil Mattingly there. And also two Senate Republican aides tell CNN: "Witnesses aren't happening. Democrats have zero leverage and we feel zero pressure to listen to their demands."

But, Mike, is it not possible that some of the vulnerable Republicans who are up for reelection, Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, Martha McSally, that they might have a tough time explaining to voters at home, yes, I didn't want to hear from John Bolton, that that wasn't important to the country?

MICHAEL WARREN, CNN REPORTER: It could be.

And we should also include senators who aren't up for reelection, but sort of occupy that sort of moderate-ish position, even somebody like Lamar Alexander, who's retiring, but sort of does stake out that position, that they might also just be motivated by sort of an internal consistency.

They want to sort of maintain the Senate rules. I think that the Bolton news does make that much more difficult for McConnell, but, again, trusting Phil's reporting, it doesn't seem like McConnell has any reason to deviate from his path.

He's just trying to hold together that conference and it sounds like most of them will hold together. It's just that magic number of three or four that Democrats need.

TAPPER: Yes.

And, Abby, let's remind people what Trump -- Trump's former top Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, said in her testimony about Bolton referring to the withholding the aid in order to get the Ukrainians to do these investigations as a drug deal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HILL: "You tell Eisenberg," Ambassador Bolton told me, "that I am not part of the -- this -- whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up."

DANIEL GOLDMAN, DEMOCRATIC COUNSEL: What did you understand him to mean by the drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland were cooking up?

HILL: I took it to mean investigations for a meeting.

GOLDMAN: Did you go speak to the lawyers?

HILL: I certainly did.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Do we really expect Republicans don't want to hear from John Bolton?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

And it's clear that what Fiona Hill was saying that John Bolton told her was that he understood it to be a pretty clear quid pro quo and one that he thought was improper enough that he told her to go to the lawyer. That's who she was referring to there when she talks about Eisenberg. He's the White House lawyer.

So, yes, I mean, John Bolton is someone who has key, direct information about all of this. He's someone who's saying on the record for everyone to hear, I'm willing to testify. All you have to do is ask me to, basically.

And I do think McConnell's not going to say, oh, yes, absolutely, we're going to have witnesses, but he is going to be under some pressure here.

The lesson that we learned from Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and from Susan Collins in Maine is that they don't want to be seen as putting the fix in for Donald Trump. They want to be seen as having the -- at least the appearance of fairness here.

And so if McConnell makes that hard for them, I think he's going to get some pushback.

TAPPER: I don't know how you vote against wanting to hear from the national security adviser for the president without coming under criticism at home that you're helping to cover things up.

Thanks so much to both of you.

The groundswell of anger in the streets of Iran -- we're live in the capital city of Tehran next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:44:11]

TAPPER: In our world lead now, a sea of Iranians mourning publicly, flooding the streets of Iran for the funeral of General Soleimani, some, of course, chanting "Death to America."

The general's daughter vowing today that her father's death would bring -- quote -- "darker days" for both the U.S. and Israel.

And as CNN's Fred Pleitgen reports from Tehran, Iranian officials are vowing revenge.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fury and threats, as Iranians mourn their top general, Qasem Soleimani.

Hundreds of thousands lined the streets of Tehran, weeping, chanting, vowing retribution.

(on camera): There's a great deal of anger here on the streets of Tehran, as many, many people have come out here to pay their final respects to the body of Qasem Soleimani and the others who were killed in that American airstrike.

[16:45:01]

Of course, there's a lot of grief, but also a lot of anger at the United States and specifically at President Trump and the Trump administration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All Iranian says, down with Trump. Down with U.S. government. We don't hate American people, European people, but we hate the policy that they follow.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Many of those in the crowd saying they want Iran to hit back at the U.S. as they yelled "Death to America."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: General Soleimani was a hero. He was the only shield against ISIS here. And now, as our leaders today at least said, you will see wrath, revenge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of us want to hold revenge. And all of us say...

(SHOUTING)

PLEITGEN: Iran's leadership hailed Soleimani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praying at his coffin.

And Soleimani's replacement vowing to kick America out of the Middle East.

ESMAIL QAANI, QUDS FORCE COMMANDER (through translator): We will Soleimani's path. We will remove the U.S. from the region in several steps. The supreme leader backs this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: And, Jake, senior Iranian leadership is telling me that they don't want a full-on war with the United States. But they also say that a retaliatory strike on their part is not a question of if, but a question of when -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Fred Pleitgen in Tehran, stay safe.

What could Iran's revenge against the U.S. look like? A former NATO supreme allied commanding general joins me live next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:59]

TAPPER: In the world lead today, the Pentagon is planning to deploy six B-52 bombers to a British territory in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

It's one of many U.S. forces around the globe on alert in case Iran attempts some sort of revenge for the deadly U.S. strike that killed its top military general, Qasem Soleimani.

I want to bring in retired Admiral James Stavridis. He's a former NATO supreme allied commander and author of the book "Sailing True North."

Thanks so much for being here, Admiral. I appreciate it.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: You bet, Jake.

TAPPER: So, on potential revenge, President Trump said yesterday on Air Force One, if it happens, it happens, regarding an Iranian strike.

Game it out. What might retaliation from Iran look like in response to the U.S. strike? What do you think it would be?

STAVRIDIS: They have a wide range of options, as you will appreciate.

Number one on their list will be use of proxies in the region to attack U.S. assets, so going against our troops in Afghanistan.

TAPPER: Another Shiite militia.

STAVRIDIS: Bingo.

Perhaps going back at one of our embassies. Certainly, Jake, there will be a cyber component to this. They will go sea and probably come after a U.S. warship at sea...

TAPPER: They have done before.

STAVRIDIS: ... with a diesel submarine. They have swarm tactics. Or, most chillingly, I think they might say, we're going to do this proportionally. So we're going to kill an American ambassador or senior military figure, much as Soleimani was.

And, here, they would probably go outside the region, perhaps to Europe, where the target sets are softer.

TAPPER: Would it be an act that we would know the Iranians were behind it? Or would it be potentially a mystery?

STAVRIDIS: I think the Iranians are going to want to have some level of plausible deniability throughout all of this, because they are determined, they are highly religious, they are devoted to their cause. But they are not suicidal.

They're not going to stumble into a full-blown war with the United States.

TAPPER: Yes, they don't want to be made martyrs necessarily on a national level.

STAVRIDIS: Yes.

TAPPER: Do you think -- we have heard a lot from President Trump and Secretary Pompeo about the U.S. being safer, Americans being safer today.

As a long-term claim, I could understand that. We will see. Who knows if we will be safe with Soleimani gone. He was certainly a dangerous guy. But short-term, for the 50,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East right now, is it safer today, or was it safer before Soleimani was killed, just speaking today in terms of those Americans?

STAVRIDIS: Yes, it was safer Soleimani was killed.

And I think the way to look at this, Jake, is the difference between something tactical and something strategic. This is a tactical move that takes a very dangerous chess piece off the board.

But we need a strategy, like you do in a chess match, which, by the way, is a Persian game, to think about the longer term. How can we leverage the fact that Soleimani is gone? And what are our next moves to create a strategy, international, interagency, private, public, strategic communications?

We need to get better at launching ideas. We're really good at launching missiles.

TAPPER: There were a lot of Iran hawks in the Trump administration who were strategic thinkers. I'm thinking about retired General Mattis.

STAVRIDIS: Yes.

TAPPER: I'm thinking...

STAVRIDIS: McMaster.

TAPPER: McMaster, who was the national security adviser.

These are people who are without question hawks on Iran. And they may -- they might have recommended this too. But they also had strategic thinking.

STAVRIDIS: Yes.

TAPPER: Do you think that the current leadership around President Trump is strategic? Do they have that kind of bandwidth?

STAVRIDIS: I don't feel that.

And I think part of it is because there's been so much turmoil and change. We're on our fourth national security adviser, our second CIA, our second State Department in the course of three years. So there's been no time to develop strategy and think.

I think the closest to a strategic document out of this administration was H.R. McMaster's security strategy. It came out two years ago. That's a pretty good document.

From all I can see, that is not the course that this ship is being steered on.

TAPPER: All right, Admiral, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it. And good luck with the book.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks a lot, Jake.

TAPPER: Looking forward to reading it.

Coming up, new reaction from members of Congress on John Bolton saying he would be willing to testify and how that might change the impeachment trial in the Senate.

[16:55:00]

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Next week, it's the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, the CNN presidential debate, in partnership with "The Des Moines Register." Do not miss it, next Tuesday night, 8:00 Eastern, only here on CNN.

You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter @JakeTapper. You can tweet show @THELEADCNN.

Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks so much for watching. I will see you tomorrow.

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