Return to Transcripts main page


Iran and U.S. Swap Threats After the Killing of Iranian General; Dems Argue Lack of Strategy from WH Iran Strike; John Bolton Now Willing to Testify in the Senate Impeachment Trial; 2020 Dems Talk Foreign Policy Credentials. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired January 6, 2020 - 12:30   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: -- from your perspective. The Trump administration says what's all the fuss about, this is a man with the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands, he's a threat to our allies in the region, they say he was planning new imminent attacks against the United States and they've essentially taken a terrorist off the battlefield.

AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Yes, it may all be true. The question is whether or not a tactical success. And we have to see the Intel to see whether or not what we're talking about what does imminent mean. I mean, I looked it up the other day. It means about to happen.

But maybe it wasn't a ticking bomb. Maybe Soleimani was planning attacks throughout the region. The real question for me, does this require a broader strategy and what are the implications? Tactical success, let's give it to them. But a punitive strategic set of failures and you're already seeing that.

I mean, that's the real problem of acting without thinking. Why did the president do this? Preternaturally risk-averse, very careful so far about getting into unwanted and untimely wars and getting out of old ones. This seems to be a departure.

And why he did this, what personal, emotional factors? Who are the advisers pushing this? That's a critically important question I think.

KING: We know among the advisers, there's a long-time hawk when it comes to Iran, is the secretary of state Mike Pompeo. He was asked your question about define imminent, show us the evidence, give us proof, give the American people some reassurance you had reason to do this. Here's his answer.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: When you say the attacks were imminent, how imminent were they? Are we talking about days? Are we talking about weeks? MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: If you're an American in the region, days and weeks, this is not something that's relevant. We have to prepare. We have to be ready. And we took a bad guy off the battlefield.


KING: Is that good enough?


KING: Is that good enough. He says it's not relevant. He's the secretary of state in the world's leading democracy. I mean, I get that this is classified, some of this maybe we can't see, but there are members of Congress who say they would like to see it, too, and they haven't.

MILLER: Moral case for taking Qassem Soleimani off the battlefield may be clear, but again, I come back to the practical implications. Are Americans safer? I don't think so. Are we really going to deter Iran from spreading its nefarious influence throughout the region? I don't think so.

Is our position in Iraq, a 17-year venture in which thousands of Americans died, let alone scores of thousands of Iraqis, trillions of dollars expended, and now we face the prospects of having this Iraqi- U.S. cooperation disrupted? Finally, what's going to crawl out of the Pandora's Box? The possibility of a cross-border confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah or another war with Iran. I don't know the answer to these questions but I wish that someone had spent more time briefing the president on the possible implications of the day and the day after today.

KING: It'll be interesting to see if we get more from him and his team. Allegedly, a briefing to Congress later in this week.

Aaron David Miller, appreciate you coming in. I suspect we'll have you at the table I bet in the weeks ahead.

When we come back, Speaker Pelosi puts the president on notice after the Soleimani strike.



KING: Welcome back.

Democrats now demanding evidence that there was an imminent threat to justify the strike that killed the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. And they are promising additional steps to put the president on notice that he needs congressional approval for any sustained military campaign. In a letter to her fellow House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi promising a resolution that reminds Trump of just that. The letter says in part, "The Trump administration conduct a provocative and disproportionate military airstrike targeting high level Iranian military officials." We are concerned, the speaker says, that the administration took this action without the consultation of Congress and without respect for Congress' war powers granted to it by the constitution.

It is another moment of sharp partisan divide here in Washington. The White House and its Republican Party allies say Soleimani was a terrorist and a threat to America and its allies. Democrats don't dispute Soleimani's bloody history but say the president has not shown there was a threat significant enough to risk a major Middle East conflict.


REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN (D-MI): I just don't think that anyone incident should have led to a move that was this significant without thinking through a fuller strategy. If there's an imminent threat, if people were truly at risk in sort of an immediate way, just bring that to us.

REP. MIKIE SHERRILL (D-NJ): This administration has taken its time briefing Congress on exactly what threat was posed, why we needed to move forward right now with this attack. We haven't heard the long- term strategy.

REP. KATHERINE CLARK (D-MA): He has to come to Congress and make sure we understand what is the overall strategy. Why was this tactic undertaken?


KING: This is significant on many, many fronts. One, just giving the threat now of a major military confrontation in the Middle East. Two, this is a continuation of a respect, the battle of respect and stature between the branches of government with the Democrats particularly in the House saying, you cannot just do your will and do your way. You must consult.

JULIE PACE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I think it's important to put this in context of what the relationship between this White House and Congress has been. And on foreign policy, it extends not just the frustration with -- among Democrats but also Republicans as well here. Obviously, Trump was impeached with over an article that was obstruction of Congress and just on almost routine matters. This White House has really disregarded the Congress' authority.

The president does have really broad powers when it comes to imminent threats against American citizens, American interests, and that's where I think this question lies right now. Was this actually an imminent threat? Soleimani is someone whose role was plotting against Americans. Is this intelligence that was essentially just taken off a shelf and used to justify this action, or was this actually something new?


I think if he brought forward concrete evidence of an imminent attack, there would be pretty broad support including from Democrats. KING: But the Democrats in the House are not naive enough to think that they'll pass a war powers resolution that slaps the White House wrist and says you're supposed to consult us more and you can't do anything else. Unlikely to get any traction in the Republican Senate, right?

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. That's exactly right, I mean. But they obviously feel the need to make a statement right now and say this is not OK. I mean, Trump has gone around them to build his border wall. He's ignored them when it comes to appropriations even though it says in the constitution Congress has the power of the purse. He's totally ignored dozens of subpoenas and requests for documents when it comes to Congress' oversight authority. So, again, that continuation of the story.

I think the interesting thing to watch in the House will actually be there's about a dozen Republicans who have been sort of non- interventionist Republicans who, including Matt Gaetz who is a top ally of President Trump and he was actually a co-sponsor on a defense authorization amendment that would prevent military force against Iran. So what do Trump allies on the Hill or Republicans who have sort of been against this, what they ended up saying? Do they push back or keep silent?

KING: It's a great question. One of the Republicans who's retiring, Will Hurd from Texas who we watched closely during the impeachment debate because he's a former CIA analyst, he's not a fan of the way the president treat the intelligence community but he just essentially made the point that the Democrats had not made an impeachable case. That he was not defending the president's conduct but it wasn't impeachable.

Listen to him here. Number one, he disagrees profoundly. The president has said if Iran retaliates that among the targets will be key Iranian cultural sites which is against the legality of war power issues. Will Hurd said, a, that would be a mistake. But, he says, Soleimani was a bad guy and he's trying to convince the American people now is the time to be worried.


REP. WILL HURD (R-TX): Taking someone of this significance off the battlefield is a good move. There's going to be repercussions, and one of the repercussions is his replacement is going to be looking over his shoulder. There were going to be more attacks. The Iranians are going to do what the Iranians have always done, and that's attack American forces, attack our allies, attack interests.


KING: At this moment, this would be -- I've been here a while, this would normally be a moment of bipartisanship about the threat. We don't live in that world anymore.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I also think that it's contradictory what they're arguing here. It's either that Soleimani was an imminent threat that required this immediate action, or he was just a persistent threat that needed to be taken off the battlefield as part of a broader strategy with Iran. It can't be -- in this particular case, it can't be both at the same time because Soleimani's threat has been -- you know, it's been there in the Obama administration, it was there in the Bush administration, and Will Hurd even argues in that clip that Iran is going to continue to plot against the United States. They're going to continue to threaten American lives around the world.

So, it is a little bit of a problem that the president and his allies can't get their story straight on this which is one of the reasons why Democrats are extremely skeptical about where this is all going. There are real questions about whether there was a plan for the aftermath and what that looks like. And whether or not the president is trying to use this as a way to be bellicose on the world stage when he is politically threatened at home.

KING: In an odd way, it's an extension of the debate over the nuclear agreement because the nuclear agreement did not do a number of things. It did not deal with Iran's ballistic missiles, it did not deal with Hezbollah, it did not deal with Hamas. That was kind of the deal, you take away their -- the (INAUDIBLE) threat against Israel, their ability to project nuclear weapons globally, and you keep the problem in the region. The whole idea was to contain, Iran will still going to be a problem, you try to keep it regionally. Now we will see.

Up next for us, the Democrats say they just got proof Speaker Pelosi's impeachment strategy is working.



KING: Some new details just into us on the big breaking news this hour that the former security adviser John Bolton is now willing and ready to testify in the Senate impeachment trial of the president if he is subpoenaed. This one is priceless. We are told that Ambassador Bolton left a voicemail for the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell before issuing his public statement but that he did not inform the White House he was going to say he was now willing to testify.

Democrats now reacting as well as senior Democratic aide telling CNN's Manu Raju that Bolton's announcement, in their view, is evidence that Speaker Nancy Pelosi's strategy of holding back the articles of impeachment is working. That aide saying, quote, we would not have this development absent the speaker's hold. Another proof point, the aide goes on to say, that indicates the value of her strategy.

I want to start with the priceless piece. I mean, John Bolton, the ultimate Washington inside player. Mitch McConnell gets the message, the White House gets nothing.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Mitch McConnell has the power right now so -- and he probably has a better relationship with Mitch McConnell than he does the White House. Let's not forget how he left the White House and it's kind of just another twisting of the knife. We'll see if Mitch McConnell does that.

KING: And on this day, I think it's fair for the Democrats to argue, aha, now Bolton is willing to testify. That adds to the pressure on Mitch McConnell, it adds to the pressure of those three or four Senate Republicans who might be wavering a little bit about whether there should be witnesses in the Senate. Does it validate her strategy or does it potentially validate her strategy?

BADE: No. Look, John Bolton just threw Nancy Pelosi a bone. I mean, I've been talking to a lot of Dems in the House who were sort of scratching their heads over the strategy. For number one, they say just give Republicans a talking point to say Democrats were sort of playing politics with impeachment, trying to keep Trump from being acquitted that's why they didn't send him over at the Senate.


And then some people were also worried over the weekend that they would now be transmitting the articles during an escalation with Iran and sort of the optics of that. But, right now, this is a huge boom to Speaker Pelosi because now she can say look, us holding back the articles now Bolton is coming out and there's a reason we're doing this, we're winning, we have a smart strategy here. So it certainly helps her leverage.

KING: I'd love to be invited to participate in the phone call if Leader McConnell returns Bolton's call talking about how this one goes.

When we come back, Iowa votes to kick off the 2020 campaign four weeks from today. The Iran strikes or the foreign policy issues now a big issue out on the trail.



KING: The 2020 Democratic selection process officially kicks off four weeks from today with the Iowa caucus and there's still no clear frontrunner in the Democratic race. Look at this, a new poll in Iowa over the weekend showing Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders locked in a dead heat. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar rounding out the top five.

Similar results in a new poll out of New Hampshire where Sanders leads the pack followed by Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar. Many of the candidates shaping the race in real-time as they respond now to events in the Middle East.


JOE BIDEN (D-DE), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And what we need, in my humble opinion, is a president who can provide steady leadership on day one.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I not only voted against the war in Iraq, I helped lead the opposition to the war in Iraq. War is the last response, not the first response.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D-IN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'll say a presidential candidate who has served has a personal understanding of what we're dealing with.


KING: CNN's Ryan Nobles and Jeff Zeleny join our conversation. Abby Phillip still with us as well.

This is interesting to watch because the wildcards and campaigns can change the dynamic of the race. And so Joe Biden says I've been around, I've been vice president, I've been in the room, I have the experience to do this on day one. Bernie Sanders trying to tap and we saw this in 2008 in Iowa, I don't know if it still exists, into the anti-war sentiment within the Democratic Party. I've been with you forever. Pete Buttigieg, I'm the only guy here who's put on the uniform and served.

This is a fascinating moment at a time in the race when we have no idea.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It is fascinating. It's really about experience and judgment. And two percent of voters I was talking to over the weekend in Iowa, they're not as concerned about Joe Biden's old war vote, but they are concerned about this moment. So I think Bernie Sanders is tapping into something that we do not know where this, a, the real situation on the ground is going or where the debate inside the Democratic Party is going. We've been talking for a year about the progressive and moderate debate but there's not been a foreign policy debate, and that is what's going to happen here.

So, it is fascinating to see -- I think in the beginning you're like, oh, this benefits Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg because of experience, but as Bernie Sanders is raising the judgment question, what does that do to this conversation? So this is very much adding more uncertainty to this unsettled race.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: And I think what's also interesting is that there was this thought that because Sanders relies on kind of his playbook that changing events would hurt his campaign in a negative way, but he's been able to kind of fall back on the same game plan that he has when it comes to healthcare, when it comes to college tuition. This is what I've been saying for 40 years. I'm saying that unnecessary wars in parts of the world that we don't have control of are a bad idea.

He can revert back to that. It may not necessarily be a mainstream position, something that people may feel uncomfortable with, but he's arguing that this is where the Democratic Party is right now and that's why you need to make him the nominee.

PHILLIP: And this is where I think Pete Buttigieg is trying to thread this fine line because in the Democratic primary you do get the sense of a rising anxiety that's bringing back memories of the Iraq war debate in some of these Democratic voters who are very wary of jumping into another long war. But then when you hit the general election -- electorate, I think there is a sense that you have to tread this line between understanding what the threat is and having the judgment to go into it and to deal with it in a measured way. And I think Buttigieg is trying to be in that space. He has criticized Soleimani, he's talked about the need to looking at the aftermath of these kinds of actions, and then he's also at the same time leaning into the fact that he has served. And I heard from voters over the weekend who were at some of his events that was top of mind for them. The very first thing that they would say to me is he served.

KING: And this is the unpredictability of it. We've been talking for months about a race that's about is the Democratic Party going to move too left. If you pick a Sanders or a Warren, can you win the general election? Who has the best plan? Is Medicare for All the right way to do it or build on ObamaCare?

Now you have something front and center at least for now, these four weeks, four weeks until the voting right now where Biden plays the experience card and Sanders taps into anti-war, Buttigieg is sort of in the middle there.

ZELENY: Exactly. And I think, you know, this is going to be determined by what happens in real life. The situation on the ground is so unpredictable. So we had the impeachment was overshadowing this but not influenced by it. But the Iran conflict is going to influence potentially this Democratic presidential campaign.

So, also watch Joe Biden. You know, he has not been as smooth on this in terms of the advice he gave to Barack Obama about Osama bin Laden here. So this is very much a wild card being injected into this, not at the 11th hour but at certainly the 10th.

PHILLIP: And some of these candidates are really struggling with parts of this. They're using the word assassinate to describe what happened with Soleimani talking -- whether or not (INAUDIBLE) to call him a murderer as Elizabeth Warren ran into. It's still something that they're feeling out minute by minute here on this campaign trail.

KING: It's remarkable. Remember the impeachment trial could bring the senators back as well. Four weeks until Iowa.

Thanks for joining us today in the INSIDE POLITICS. A very busy day. Don't go anywhere, Brianna Keilar continues our breaking news coverage right now. Have a great afternoon.