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Trump Administration to Brief Congress on Iran Attack. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 16:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: It depends what your definition of imminent is.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Right now, the Trump administration about to brief congressional leaders on the intelligence behind the president's decision to kill the top military leader of Iran, as President Trump minutes ago said Soleimani was in Iraq on -- quote -- "bad business."

Also breaking today, Majority Leader McConnell says he has the votes to set the rules for President Trump's impeachment trial. Does that mean the public will not hear from John Bolton, even if Bolton seems to want to testify?

Plus, double disaster -- Puerto Rico dealing with the aftermath of the most destructive earthquakes to hit the island possibly in a century, but now questions about what is being done to help the people who are still struggling after Hurricane Maria.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we begin with breaking news in the world lead.

Any moment, Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress and the heads of the Intelligence Committees, a group collectively called the Gang of Eight, are set to be briefed by Trump administration officials on the intelligence behind what President Trump claims was an imminent threat to Americans, evidence that led the president to make his decision to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

Several Democrats already briefed have expressed deep skepticism about the evidence presented so far, specifically on how imminent the threat was. This afternoon, the president defended his decision, but failed to provide any actual evidence.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We followed his path for those three days. And they were not good stops. We didn't like where he was stopping. They were not good stops. We saved a lot of lives.

We did ourselves and we did a lot of countries a big favor.


TAPPER: The call for the Trump administration to produce clear evidence of these pending attacks comes in an important context.

The American public has been fed falsehoods by its government many times when it comes to war, including, of course, in Vietnam, the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and, most recently, stunning revelations in "The Washington Post"'s Afghanistan papers, in which leaders were revealed to have been lying about the progress being made in America's longest war.

Moreover, of course, this is a president and an administration that have not exactly earned a reputation for hewing to facts and accuracy in matters large or small.

As CNN's Alex Marquardt now reports for us, American forces in the Middle East are currently on high alert, looking out for possible Iranian drone and missile strikes.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There's been much made about this question of intelligence and imminence.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): With pressure growing, the Trump administration's top national security officials in a media blitz today, doing interviews and rare news conferences, but offering few more details about the attacks that Qasem Soleimani was allegedly planning that were, they say, imminent.

MARK ESPER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think it was only a matter of days, certainly no more than weeks.

MARQUARDT: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper only telling CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the intelligence about the attacks was persuasive.

ESPER: The fact of the matter is, Soleimani was caught red-handed on the ground in Baghdad, one terrorist leader of a terrorist organization meeting with another terrorist leader to synchronize and plan additional attacks on American forces, diplomats or facilities.

MARQUARDT: Esper also issuing a blunt warning ahead of an anticipated Iranian response.

ESPER: I'd like to say, we are not looking to start a war with Iran. But we are prepared to finish one.

MARQUARDT: Still being fiercely debated is whether the United States would hit Iranian cultural sites if they respond against U.S. targets, which would be a war crime.

The president has said multiple times this week that he would, but today adding he likes to obey the law.

TRUMP: But think of it. They kill our people. They blow up our people. And then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions. But I'm OK with it. It's OK with me.

I will say this. If Iran does anything that they shouldn't be doing, they're going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly.

MARQUARDT: When pressed, Pompeo and Esper both saying the U.S. will not violate international law.

ESPER: I'm fully confident that the president is not going to -- the commander in chief will not give us an illegal order.

MARQUARDT: As Soleimani's casket arrived in his hometown today, crowds of mourners swelled and a stampede left at least 50 dead, delaying the burial.

Iran has warned of harsh revenge against the U.S., insisting today that America's days are numbered in the Middle East.

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: This is state terrorism. This is an act of aggression against Iran. And it amounts to an armed attack against Iran. And we will respond.


MARQUARDT: The president revealing today they had been tracking Soleimani for what he called a long time, including in those three days before the strike.


He'd been traveling around the Middle East, and had just been in the Syrian capital of Damascus, before flying to Baghdad, where he was killed. And it was in Damascus, Jake, according to the national security adviser, that Soleimani was working on the plans to kill those American forces and diplomats -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

Let's talk about all this.

Chairman Rogers, let me start with you.

You used to be chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. So, theoretically, that would have been you in the briefing right now. What would you have wanted the Trump administration to produce if you were in there right now?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I just -- I want to see the totality of the information.

I'm a little suspect of the imminent piece. And I'm not even sure they had to do that. You know he has planned attacks against Americans and successfully killed them. He was currently planning to kill Americans.

As a matter of fact, the American that got killed about a month ago...

TAPPER: The contractor.

ROGERS: ... absolutely, at the hands of Soleimani and his cronies, and he's going to continue to do it.

So was the compelling case that he was getting ready for something bigger in Damascus, come in Baghdad? I would argue, yes, he was with a gentleman, Muhandis, by the way, who was on the target list for the United States during the Iraq War, including the Obama administration, basically warned the Iraqis, if he comes back from Iran, he won't go home.

And so they're these right with the right mix of people to do really bad things. I just think they have to make the case that this was getting ramped up. It was going to get -- a day or two. And I think Pompeo said that. If it's two days or 10 days, does it make a difference?

My argument is probably not, but you're going to have to define what that looks like and why you decided to make that decision. Should be compelling.

TAPPER: Now, they are being presented with more detailed intelligence and evidence than has been presented to members of Congress so far.

Take a listen, Nayyera, to Congresswoman Jackie Speier. She's a Democrat. She has reviewed some intelligence, not the more thorough stuff that's being presented today. She said it's vague. Take a listen.


REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D-CA): I think that this will go down in history as an epic foreign policy blunder by the president of the United States. I can't say that it was persuadable.

It was vague.


TAPPER: Vague.

Schiff says -- he's the chairman of the Intelligence Committee now -- that what he saw so far -- and, again, he's going to be seeing more detailed stuff now -- but he told me there was a lack of detail in terms of the plotting and imminence.

What do you make of this so far?

NAYYERA HAQ, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: And that's the big question, is the why now, because we have known for a long time that Soleimani is the bad guy. He's a terrorist, even though he is a government official in Iran, was. He -- somebody that was being tracked by -- back in the Bush administration. But the option of exercising an assassination now after what? What was the imminent precipitating event that leads to this level of escalation, followed by then the nation's chief diplomat, Secretary of State Pompeo, going out and being very belligerent in his rhetoric and really amping up the rhetoric and attention?

It seems more that the administration is trying to build a narrative to sell a very skeptical American public on ongoing Iranian intervention. And you hear some of that rhetoric in the type of shock and awe of like how we will hit back, we will hit back hard. We're not going to -- you heard Secretary Esper today finally, the secretary of defense is speaking out, heard him say that the United States isn't going to start a war, but it will end it.

The American public hears that and thinks, we have had 20 years of war that we haven't done a good job of ending. So what is the endgame here? And how are we going to end up safer in this situation?

Because, right now, we're looking at U.S. targets and civilian targets overseas, diplomats, our allies, companies. This has been an escalation that unfortunately largely has been on the United States.

TAPPER: Karim, as somebody who's an expert on the region, tell me what the pluses and minuses are? Obviously, we all agree Qasem Soleimani was a horrible person, responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of innocent people.

Why not take him out? What is the risk? What would the debate look like?


I think, in the near term, what we have seen over the last couple months in the Middle East is that there was growing anti-Iranian sentiment, protests in Lebanon against Iran's role, protests against Iran's role in Iraq, and protests within Iran.

That, for now, has been shut down. I think that...

TAPPER: Now they're all protesting in the U.S.

SADJADPOUR: They're protesting the U.S. And within Iran, the regime elites have banded together.

But if we look at the Middle East over the last several decades, major events which happen, whether it was the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the 2011 Arab Spring, we know that it takes many years to oftentimes measure their impact.

And so there is an argument to be made that we have taken out Iran's most brilliant military strategist, and this is going to limit Iran's ability to play a malign role in the region in the years to come. But so much of foreign policy is just execution. And it's not at all

clear that the Trump administration has a strategy to -- for the day after this and the months after this.


TAPPER: And then, of course, President Trump was asked today about his threat, his very clear threat made once on Twitter and once in person on Air Force One, to threaten to attack Iranian cultural sites.

Take a listen to what he had to say just a few minutes ago.


TRUMP: I like to obey the law.

But think of it. They kill our people. They blow up our people. And then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions. But I'm OK with it. It's OK with me.


TAPPER: How do you read all of this? I mean, it sounds -- we had Pompeo and Esper both saying, we're going to abide by the law, the president saying, I like to obey the law.

It's obviously against the law, against international law to attack cultural sites.


At this point, he seems to be backing off. As you said, he tweeted originally that there were 52 sites, some of them cultural, and then said it in person. And now, given what Esper has said, given what Pompeo said as well, it seems like he is paying attention to the blowback and essentially saying he won't -- he will abide by the law, which says that you can't attack these cultural sites, which just aren't Iranian cultural sites, right?

There everybody's cultural sites. They're the world's cultural sites. Iran is a culture that goes back thousands of years. People go and visit those sites from all over the world because they're a testament to what humanity has built up over these thousands of years.

So they don't just belong to Iran. They belong to all of us. So interesting that the president finally, after a couple of days, and insisting that it was fair game, is backing off.

TAPPER: I suppose that can be counted as progress of some sort.

Coming up next: the new U.S. intelligence on Iran that may have led defense officials to put American forces on high alert.

Plus, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he has the votes to move forward on an impeachment trial. Are Democrats out of options now? Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our world lead today, U.S. officials tell CNN that American troops and missile defenses are now on high alert after U.S. intelligence showed Iran moving military equipment, including drones and ballistic missiles over the last few days.

CNN's Tom Foreman joins me now live.

Tom, what exactly are the weapons and how far can they hit?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, what we know is that Iran has really stepped up the development of drones similar to this model for reconnaissance, for surveillance and importantly for air-to-ground attack, and that is from the recent Pentagon report.

Let's look at this specific model that we know that they have. This is the Shahed-129, this is capable of flying up to 24,000 miles -- 24,000 feet up in the sky, more than 12,000 miles from where it is launches and staying up there for 24 hours at a time.

More importantly, look at what it can carry. It can carry four of these anti-tank missiles, some sources as many as eight of the laser- guided, so that they can go right after their target. And what that means is that Iran with the weapons could have a huge sphere of influence over U.S. interests and allies in the region, so much so that just last month in Congress, military leaders were asked about reports that some of these drones have already been seen over U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria and Jordan.

The military leaders say they have some ability to mitigate this danger, but they do not feel that they have the ability to eliminate the threat, that they say would be a false statement.

So Iran a much smaller military, but this is still a very real threat -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Tom, talk about the idea of Iran calling on its proxies, terrorist groups, militias, other forces in the region, and using them to strike the U.S.

FOREMAN: Yes, many analysts think that's just as likely as the idea that Iran, itself, might try to strike, that they would reach out to the Shia militias out there, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis down south, and they would say, look, you want you to go after the American interests, and what that could turn into is a lot of attacks coming at embassies and troops and economic targets all throughout the region from a lot of different directions, all with the intelligence help, the logistical help and even weapons from Iran to get the job done -- Jake.

TAPPER: Any number of possibilities. Tom Foreman in our virtual room, thank you so much.

Joining me now, retired Major General James "Spider" Marks, also former CIA counterterrorism official, Phil Mudd.

Phil, let me start with you. Intelligence, we're told, shows Iran moving military equipment. U.S. officials say it's either Iran trying to secure its weapons, hide them from the U.S., from a potential strike, or preparing to launch its own attacks.


TAPPER: Which do you think is more likely?

MUDD: I think that it is preparatory by the Iranians. But, by the way, I see a fundamental parallel here between what we're seeing now with this intelligence and what the guys in the White House probably saw with the intelligence about Soleimani. That is interpreting intent into intelligence is very difficult. If he is moving around as the president said, does that mean he's planning something, or does that mean he's got some time on his hands, and he is meeting a lot of people. It is hard to find intent in intelligence.

TAPPER: And, General, based on the intelligence, we are told that the U.S. is watching for potential attacks against American sites and American interests, diplomatic and military, in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan, and does the U.S., one of the problems of being spread all over the world is that you have to then defend yourself all over the world.

Does the U.S. have the capability to do that not just with the military bases or the embassies and consulates, but the business interests?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think that's the point. The military bases are frankly not at risk, because they are at high states of readiness. They are all the time and I would say, they have probably ratcheted that up. So those are well- protected, I'm more concerned about the commercial interests --

TAPPER: ExxonMobil or whatever, yes.

MARKS: That exist in Jordan, that exist in other places throughout the Mideast, those become very likely targets, as do consulates and embassies that might have a -- not a reduced level of readiness, certainly everybody is on high alert, but a capability to respond.

TAPPER: And, Phil, this afternoon, Defense Secretary Esper gave the most detailed description of the alleged imminent attack that led to the strike against Soleimani.


Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REPORTER: The attack Soleimani was planning, was that days or weeks away?

MARK ESPER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think it's more fair to say days for sure.


TAPPER: When I asked Pompeo that, he said days, weeks, it's irrelevant if you're going to be one of the victims. We still haven't seen any evidence for any of this though.

MUDD: Well, first, you're not going to see evidence. I know this sounds like I'm dancing on the pin. Intel guys don't do evidence. They do intel, which typically doesn't reach the level that you can put out in a courtroom. It is what I think, not what I know.

That's why I think you're not seeing the guys report the intel from Defense or State, or the White House, because I suspect when we see it, there's an air gap between yes, it's days away, it's imminent, and what an expert might look at and say, well, that's troublesome, but I'm not sure whether you can interpret imminent through that.

I think there's probably differences of interpretation right now.

MARKS: Can I pile on that for a second? I mean, exactly, I mean, the description that you had early on, whether this is preparation for the Iranians to --

TAPPER: To attack or to hide their weapons, yes.

MARKS: -- execute an attack, or to protect themselves, it's a distinction without a difference, because you can attack from either one of those postures to your point.

MUDD: And, by the way, watch when this comes out, the air gap between what the intel people write, and what the politicians say, you will never see a bigger difference between the written word and the spoken word in the next week or two.

TAPPER: A top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, said that the last thing the American people need is another WMD moment, in other words. The intel idea says this is -- Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, it turns out they don't. That's -- it seems like a fair concern.

MARKS: Very much so. I mean, if we were to take this challenge that we see today, this thing could cascade into where Iraq -- if we walk away, because we are told to go away, we will stay in the region, but Iraq could descend into some type of a civil war if the Shias try to take over, try to push Tehran away or at the same time try to embrace them. The Kurds and the Sunnis are going to completely break away. You're going to see some type of a civil war.

And what the Saud -- what are the Saudis going to do? They are buying nukes from Pakistanis -- TAPPER: Right.

MARKS: -- because Iran is developing them. That's an outcome we do not want.

TAPPER: Thanks so much for your expertise, both of you. Appreciate it, General Marks and Phil Mudd.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he has the votes needed to set the ground rules for the impeachment trial on the Senate. How that might mean case closed before hearing from a star witness. Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our politics lead today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he has the votes to push through his rules for the president's impeachment trial on the Senate without any support of any Democrats, and that could mean that the public does not hear testimony from John Bolton or any witnesses in the Senate trial.

This is all coming as CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports for us now, as we learn new details on the scramble in the White House over Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser, announcing that he's willing to testify.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announcing today he has the votes to set the ground rules of the impeachment trial without the support of Democrats.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): We have the votes once that impeachment trial has begun to pass a resolution --

COLLINS: McConnell only needs 51 senators and potential swing votes like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney have all backed his approach, though Republicans are still waiting on Speaker Pelosi to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate.

MCCONNELL: It continues to be my hope that the speaker will send them over.

COLLINS: Sources say Pelosi has been so secretive about what she'll do, she hasn't even told some of her closest allies like Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Democrats say they want a deal up front to hear from witnesses. A demand that has only intensified after the former national security adviser John Bolton said that he is prepared to testify if subpoenaed. That announcement sent the White House aides scrambling, sources say. Several of Trump's top advisers were in a meeting and watched the news of Bolton's announcement break on television. STEPHANIE GRISHAM, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: First of all, the

articles of impeachment have not been sent to the Senate yet, so we can't even start talking about who or if people will testify.

COLLINS: Despite him having firsthand knowledge of the hold on the aid, Trump claimed today Bolton wouldn't know what they were talking about if he testified.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, that's going to be up to the lawyers. It will be up to the Senate, and we'll see how they feel. He would know nothing about what we're talking about.

COLLINS: But the move puts new pressure on the Republican lawmakers to eventually call witnesses, which they have been reluctant to do so far.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): We're not foreclosing that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll cross the bridge when we come to it.



COLLINS: Now, Jake, the president said that he didn't think that John Bolton would know much if he did testify in the Senate trial, but actually Bolton could reveal a lot. Not only did he meet privately with the president urging him to release the aid. He also was involved in that meeting with the Ukrainians here at the White House and also met with the Ukrainian Leader Zelensky while in Ukraine at one point overseas.

So, certainly, no shortage of information that he could share with those senators.

TAPPER: Yes, he sounded the alarm internally saying that he didn't want any part of the drug deal that some of them were cooking up on the --