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Bolton Prepared to Testify; U.S. Warns Commercial Vessels; Threats Effect on Oil and Gas Prices; Earthquake Hits Puerto Rico. Aired 9:30-10a

Aired January 7, 2020 - 09:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Congress is back from the holidays, back in session, and two articles of impeachment still in the hands of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. When will she transmit those to the Senate?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. I guess only she knows at this point.

As Democrats demand to hear from more witnesses, former Nation Security Adviser John Bolton says he is willing to be one. He says he'll testify if subpoenaed.

Let's discuss. Sabrina Siddiqui joins us now, national political reporter for "The Wall Street Journal," and presidential historian Jeffrey Engel.

Good morning to you guys.


HARLOW: So, you know, it's really notable, Sabrina, that Bolton is saying this, that he's saying it now. And equally notable that he could say whatever he knows right now, by the way. He doesn't have to wait to be called in a Senate trial and he doesn't have to be subpoenaed. But let's remember, his lawyer said in November he has -- he was privy to many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed in the testimony that we heard in the House hearing.

So, what does this mean? What do Senate Republicans do now?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's certainly a very significant development for John Bolton to say that he is willing to testify if he is subpoenaed by the Senate. This is the president's former national security adviser who had firsthand knowledge of many of the key allegations that have really been at the center of this impeachment investigation. And according to what we've heard from some of the other witnesses thus far who testified before the House, it's well known that Bolton was very opposed to this pressure campaign by the Trump administration against the Ukrainian government withholding aid and the pursuit of political investigations sought by the president according to Fiona Hill, who testified before the House. Bolton had likened the hold, the freeze on aid to a drug deal. So he certainly has a lot that he could share.

And the question really now is whether this will force Mitch McConnell's hand. He, of course, has said that he does not believe they need to call any additional witnesses as we wait for the Senate trial to begin. So it's really about whether or not some of those swing state Republican senators or potentially some of those swing votes in the Senate will pressure McConnell to subpoena witnesses --


HARLOW: Right.

SIDDIQUI: As well as documents that have been withheld by the White House.

SCIUTTO: Jeffrey, we should note, you've written a book, co-authored a book called "Impeachment: An American History." So let's draw on your historical knowledge of this process here.

Mitch McConnell has said he wants a trial just like the Clinton impeachment. Now, in the Clinton impeachment, there were new depositions, witness depositions that took place during the Senate trial, did not? Would that -- would that precedent not increase rather than decrease the pressure to allow a witness such as Bolton to testify in the trial?


ENGEL: Well, I think John Bolton's decision to testify if subpoenaed really does ratchet up the pressure on Senator McConnell, who, of course, was there in 1999. But there's really a key difference between the depositions that were taken in '99 and what we're discussing today.

In '99, the House managers, the Democrats, really wanted to essentially make a -- excuse me, Republicans, really wanted to make a show of the depositions. They actually, many of them, wanted to have witnesses testify on the Senate floor --


ENGEL: In order to demonstrate sort of the personal image of Monica Lewinsky's abuse at President Clinton's hands to the senators to try to emotionally force them to make a -- confront the evidence and make a decision. So essentially they weren't looking for new evidence, they were looking for a way to present the evidence. This, of course, is completely different from what we're seeing today. We're seeing -- we're in the searches for new evidence.

HARLOW: That's a really key distinction, Sabrina, and that's why you have Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling this sort of "Alice in Wonderland" to make that comparison, to say it's apples to apples, because Ken Starr had already deposed those three witnesses, right, in his investigation leading into the Senate trial of President Clinton, whereas none of these witnesses have talked to the House. I guess a key difference is the House didn't subpoena Bolton. So, you know, does Marco Rubio have a point when he says, look, we shouldn't do this in the Senate, the House could have waited and done it?

SIDDIQUI: Well, one of the distinctions here is that some of the witnesses who refused to testify before the House do possess knowledge and could provide evidence that is directly related to the charges that were filed by the House to the key -- the articles of impeachment and their substance. And so I think that, look, there's going to be a lot of wrangling over precedent, but the fact of the matter is right now we're still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to send those articles of impeachment over to the Senate. And Democrats do have very little leverage here, so they're hoping that this delay in terms of sending over those articles may give room for more revelations for fresh evidence, which we've seen through the release of some emails showing, of course, officials in the Pentagon raising concerns about the legality on the freeze of that aid, as well as someone like Bolton willing to say that he's going to testify to try and ratchet up that pressure on McConnell to agree to some of the concessions that are being sought by Democrats in terms of what the process of a Senate trial will look like.

SCIUTTO: Jeffrey Engel --

SIDDIQUI: That's where McConnell hasn't budged, but just worth noting, those Republican senators have -- who have criticized McConnell over the process, they certainly aren't calling for him to agree to any of the concessions sought by Democrats at this stage.

SCIUTTO: Right. At least not yet.

Jeffrey Engel, you do hear some senators saying, let's get through the first stage first of the Senate trial and then leave open the possibility of calling witnesses after that. Explain to our viewers how that works.

ENGEL: Well, that's exactly what happened in 1999. We had the same sort of dispute whether or not to have witnesses called during the testimony. Same exact arguments placed by the same exact voices in many cases. And the Senate actually had to retreat into a private session where senators could hash it out without any cameras, without any politicking going on. And at that point, an interesting thing happened. Senator Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts and Senator Phil Graham from Texas, polar opposites, essentially agreed that we should start the trial and then we'll have witnesses later, maybe. That is to say, start the trial, see how it goes and take a vote later when we want to decide whether or not to have witnesses. Essentially punt the issue down the field.

And I think that's something we're going to see possibly at this point because there's -- at any point in the trial, even after the Senate rules have been created, when the trial begins, senators only need 51 in order to essentially change the rules and allow witnesses to come in. So essentially whatever is decided before the trial happens doesn't really matter for when the trial gets going.

SCIUTTO: Yes, you just need four Republicans to break ranks to create a majority.

Listen, thanks to both of you, Sabrina, Jeffrey Engel. There will be a lot of questions going forward and there may be a surprises.

HARLOW: For sure.

SCIUTTO: I mean we were saying on the air yesterday, there might be a surprise, and here you have it --

HARLOW: Here you go.

SCIUTTO: John Bolton offering to testify.

It ain't over yet.

The U.S. Maritime Administration warns commercial vessels in the Middle East of threats today from Iran. We're going to be live from Saudi Arabia.



HARLOW: All right, also under threat from a possible Iranian attack, commercial ships in the region. That warning coming from the U.S. Maritime Administration advising all ships in the Middle East that they could be under the threat of attack by Iran. That means, of course, major shipping routes like the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean.

SCIUTTO: It wouldn't be the first time you had attacks on oil tankers. A number of weeks ago, which the U.S. blamed on Iran, as well as an attack on Saudi oil facilities.

CNN's international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson, he is in Saudi Arabia this morning.

And, Nic, you were there when you had this attack a number of weeks ago via drone, you know, included on Saudi facilities, oil facilities there. Tell us about what Saudis are concerned about. It seems that they're sending a delegation to try to ratchet down the tensions here. Where do they think the vulnerabilities are?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, they think the vulnerabilities are still in the region. They know that they're not out of the woods, that the region isn't out of the woods, even though the Iranians are talking about only targeting U.S. bases. They know it's an close and major ally of the United States and also as a -- you know, as an arch enemy of Iran they still remain potentially in the crosshairs. They've been hit. Their ships, their tankers in the Gulf have been hit as well.

I've been in both the Gulf and seen some of the ships that were mined, believed to be by Iranians. It's very easy to bring a tanker to a complete halt and even sink it the way that the -- they've been targeted before.

[09:44:58] And when I was at the Saudi oil facilities where they were targeted by this complex drone and missile attack, what absolutely struck me there was looking at a long line of sort of columns of equipment and that the Iranians were able to target precisely column after column. Maybe a hundred, 150, 200 feet apart each column. And these columns are as wide as maybe a large truck. Yet these drones were able to target them precisely, which means everyone here knows that the Iranians have the capacity, capability and maybe the intent to absolutely pinpoint something. So if you've got a weak area in a structure, be it U.S. troops on a base under a wood roof rather than a concrete roof --

HARLOW: Right.

ROBERTSON: The Iranians can find that and get a missile there. It's not like firing artillery, slightly imprecise. This is so precise.

SCIUTTO: It's remarkable. It is remarkable. You understand why they're on high alert.

Nic Robertson, thanks very much.

As the tensions escalate and the president threatens new sanctions, not on Iraq, but U.S. ally Iraq, this all could have major economic impact here at home, particularly when it comes to oil.

HARLOW: Absolutely. Let's bring in CNN business lead writer Matt Egan.

Talk to us about oil prices in terms of what is ahead. If we do see Iranian-style sanctions on Iraq, what does that mean for oil prices? What does that mean for every American consumer?

MATT EGAN, CNN BUSINESS LEAD WRITER: Well, hitting Iraq with Iran- style sanctions would really catapult both oil and gas prices. And that, obviously, would be a negative for the American economy. It would backfire.

Believe it or not, Iraq is the second biggest oil producer within OPEC.


EGAN: Second only to Saudi Arabia. And even though the United States is the world's leading oil producer right now, more than any other nation on the planet, we do still import a lot of oil. Iraq is the fourth biggest source of oil into the United States. So it's hard to see how you can put sanctions on Iraq without rattling already nervous oil markets. That's why it seems unlikely that President Trump would do this. It just seems like the economic and thus political costs would probably be too high.

HARLOW: That's interesting.

SCIUTTO: The administration, the president, will often make the point, as you said, that the U.S. is producing more oil and, therefore, is more insulated from shocks in the Middle East.

How true is that?

EGAN: It is true, we don't import nearly as much oil as we used to. We actually -- we're producing so much oil that we export a bunch of it.

HARLOW: Right.

EGAN: But here's the problem, not every barrel is created equally. U.S. oil is a different flavor. It's very light. That's fine, but our refinery system was made decades ago and it's actually configured to need a healthy dose of heavy oil, which we get from overseas, from places like Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

SCIUTTO: That's an important distinction.

HARLOW: Very important. Matt, thank you.

EGAN: Thank you.

HARLOW: Appreciate the reporting.

We have a lot ahead.

Puerto Rico rattled overnight by several powerful earthquakes. A live report from San Juan on the dangerous situation there is ahead.



HARLOW: Well, at least one person is dead, eight people injured after a series of strong earthquakes and aftershocks hit Puerto Rico. According to the U.S. geological survey, more than 100 small earthquakes have hit there since December 28th. Two of the strongest have hit in just the last 24 hours.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and you think of what Puerto Rico went through in Hurricane Maria. And some of those areas still rebuilding. Just so sad to see this. There are widespread power outages now across the island. Geologists say more aftershocks could follow. Those are always scary when they do.

CNN's Leyla Santiago joins us on the phone. She is traveling through Puerto Rico heading south.

Leyla, tell us what you're seeing as you go south there, the level of destruction. Of course you were there after Hurricane Maria. I'm curious how this compares.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, it was the southern part of the island that was the hardest hit here. For Maria, it was the interior part. For this one it is the southern part. So I am currently in (INAUDIBLE) and I haven't seen too much destruction because we're not that far south.

But what the images that we're getting out of places like Guayanilla, Guanica, those areas we have seen just from the images sent in we have seen a school collapse, we've seen a church that collapsed, a lot of damage to the downtown areas and homes as well.

Poppy, as you mentioned, there has been one death reported, multiple injuries. But, listen, it is almost 11:00 a.m. here and the assessment is still underway. So I suspect that those numbers could actually change. But we know that some of the hospitals had to get patients in and out early this morning.

And this is day two of Puerto Ricans waking up to the ground shaking. Yesterday it was probably around 6:30 and then this morning it's around 4:30. And in context here, this is an island that when you fly in, you will still see blue tarps. So there are many buildings here that are still vulnerable because of Hurricane Maria.

So important to note that at least as of 9:00 a.m. today, the governor here in Puerto Rico has not made an official request for FEMA assistance. So we're still waiting to see what comes of that. Now that may be because the assessment continues, but given the images and the reports we're getting, this is an island that will very much need assistance again.

HARLOW: Yes, very much on edge, I'm sure, for more aftershocks to follow.

Leyla, we're so glad you're here -- you're there reporting. Thank you.

SANTIAGO: You bet.

HARLOW: Moments from now we are going to hear from the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, as the White House says there was a plot by Iran to kill American soldiers and diplomats within days in the wake of the deadly air strike that killed a top Iranian general.


What will the secretary of state say?

Stay with us.


SCIUTTO: A good busy Tuesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow.

We're following all of the breaking news this hour.

American forces in the Middle East on high alert this morning as the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to speak in just minutes from the State Department. According to two U.S. officials, intelligence shows an escalating threat from Iranian drones on U.S. forces. U.S. intel also observed Iran moving military equipment over the last few days.

SCIUTTO: Also this morning, President Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, has said -- though he didn't give details on the intelligence -- what led to the U.S.' killing of Iran's top general, a man responsible for hundreds of deaths.



JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: You did say it was about diplomats.

QUESTION: Is the administration going to declassify the intelligence?