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Mixed Messages on Trump Administration's Next Steps; Interview with Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE); Nancy Pelosi's Next Impeachment Actions Unknown. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 10:30   ET


[10:30:00] DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: -- there's a lot to it. There's what David (ph) was talking about, with trying to contain a nuclear program, which is separate from its proxy wars throughout much of the Middle East and the support of Hezbollah, the Quds Force, all of its regional interests, which would only be made more menacing if they were actually a nuclear power.

So I think what's key here is if somehow the president thinks you can take out Soleimani, which there was a basis to do, and then say, well, that's it. Now we just want to de-escalate this whole thing.

It is incumbent upon the administration to have a real strategy, moving forward, for how to handle each step along: retaliation, threats, the fact that we're on more of a war footing, sending troops to the Middle East. This has to be explained and it has to be managed.

And the cultural site business alone, the fact that what Secretary of State Pompeo's essentially saying is, don't listen to the president, that's what he said. He said --


GREGORY: -- well, never mind his fulminations about that. We like that because --



GREGORY: -- when he pops off like that it's scary and it's irrational and maybe Iranians will be deterred by that. But, you know, war policy is still what it is.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I mean, listen, we were told, in that 24, 48-hour period, the president said my tweet amounts to legal justification that we may take military action against Iran. He also tweeted that the U.S. is and has the right to attack cultural sites, so we should ignore that one but pay attention to the other? I mean, that's the world we live in.

HARLOW: It's such an important point that you make, David Gregory. And Nia-Malika, I think it's compounded by the fact that you have all of this confusion. Esper says no cultural sites; Pompeo essentially says, no, the president says yes.

Oh, and by the way, a draft letter about what on earth is going on with U.S. troops in the region gets circulated, and then we're told that the Pentagon -- oh, wait, that wasn't supposed to be out there, you know, that's not what it is. Makes it even more pressing that Americans get some straightforward answers, does it not?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: No, no. I think that's right. A lot of sort of mixed messaging coming out of this administration. But what is clear and what Americans see on their televisions and certainly folks in North Carolina and Fort Bragg who are dealing with this specifically, is those troops loading up to go abroad.

On the hand, the administration is saying that Americans are safer with the elimination of Soleimani from the battlefield. But at the same time, there is this ramp-up in terms of forces over there and a sense from this administration -- and certainly from Iran -- that more is to come.

And I think if you're an average American, that's what you're bracing for. What is next? Are the Iranians to be taken seriously in terms of them saying that -- vowing revenge and possibly on American troops. They say that revenge will come and it will be militarily.

So I think if you're an average American, that's what you're worried about, that's what you're seeing on your television over these last couple of days. It's very different from what we were seeing on our television months and months ago, and certainly different from what we were seeing under the Obama administration.


HENDERSON: You know, they can sort of make the comparison that there was an appeasement going on in prior administrations, but there certainly wasn't the kind of drumbeat of war that was going on, back under --


HENDERSON: -- the Obama administration (ph) --


GREGORY: Can I just say that --

HENDERSON: -- that's going on now.

GREGORY: Just -- you know this, Jim. The idea of confrontation in the Middle East obviously is at odds with an administration that wants to get out of the Middle East --


GREGORY: -- that thinks that we've been fighting wars for too long and to no end. What they are saying now is that -- that American leadership is

indispensable. And in fact, not just leadership but America leading confrontation with Iran, because of the threat that Iran poses to America and American interests in the region. That's a --


GREGORY: -- big moment. It's a political moment --


GREGORY: -- it's a policy moment, to --

SCIUTTO: Well --

GREGORY: -- lay out for the American people what sacrifice we should expect.

SCIUTTO: And you have the hard fact that thousands more U.S. troops are in fact --

GREGORY (?): Exactly.

SCIUTTO: -- on their way back to the region, and have been deployed in recent weeks and months. So it -- I mean, the facts on the ground fight the -- fight the political statements.

John Kirby, I want to talk about the threat now. Because you now have U.S. forces bracing for the possibility of Iranian drone attacks. We've seen Iran use drones in the attack on Saudi oil facilities. They have a whole host of pressure points they can apply -- tactics, proxies, militias in Iraq, cyber-attacks, you name it. Just explain to viewers the range of options at their disposal here that America needs to be worried about.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN ___: So Iran's the weaker power here, no question about it. And they will fight asymmetrically, as they have been for much of the last decade or more. And so you -- you know, a lot of those tactics you just named, I think we have to all consider to be on the table for them.

They're not probably -- I find it unlikely that they're going to conventionally confront the United States military in the region. They know they can't win that fight and they're not suicidal. I mean, this is a regime who's not on a -- you know, they're not on a martyrdom mission here. But they will try -- when they retaliate, it'll be in an asymmetric way.

Now, we heard General Milley talk about this yesterday, he says they're prepared for that. It's a lot to prepare for because as has been said earlier, they can strike at us not just in the region, but outside the region.


And inside the region, there are innumerable different places where they could try to -- to get at U.S. troops and forces.

It seems to me that the -- that whatever the retaliation's going to be, it's going to be against U.S. military assets or facilities or perhaps diplomatic. In other words, U.S. institutional targets, not -- not soft targets, not civilians. So cyber -- if there was a cyber- attack, it would probably come in some way to disrupt American diplomatic or military facilities or processes.



SCIUTTO: There's a lot to watch out for, no question.

SANGER: Yeah, cyber's the one area where they can reach us here in the United States --

SCIUTTO: At home, yes.

SANGER: -- in a way their missile and other --

SCIUTTO: And they've carried out cyber-attacks that have struck targets on the U.S. homeland --


SCIUTTO: -- before. Something to watch out for. David, David, John, Nia-Malika, thanks to all of you.

We have a lot more news this hour, including a Republican congressman to get his reaction to Secretary Pompeo. Please stay with us.



SCIUTTO: Just moments ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking amid growing tensions with Iran. Pompeo reiterating it was, in his words, "the right decision" to strike down Soleimani. Pompeo will now conduct a series of classified briefings for lawmakers, including a full House briefing tomorrow.

With me now is Republican Congressman Don Bacon. He serves on the Armed Services Committee. We should also note he served nearly 30 years in the Air Force, including time in Iraq.

General -- if I could still call you that, I don't know if you're tired -- thanks very much for taking the time today.

REP. DON BACON (R-NE): Hey, it's -- thank you for having me on. I'm grateful.

SCIUTTO: So you heard Secretary Pompeo there, again claiming, as the president had, that this strike against Soleimani has made Americans safer. Fact is, today, we have U.S. forces in the region that are being told

to go on alert for strikes by swarms of Iranian drones. We have thousands more U.S. forces deployed to the region for force protection. And also the fight against ISIS in Iraq has now been suspended during this time, this (ph) tension. I wonder, are Americans safer today than they were before the strike, in your view?

BACON: The big picture, yes. But I would agree to this. There is risk when you push back against a country that has been murdering Americans, there is a risk that they will counterattack and escalate even more.

But the fact is, Iran has been attacking our country since 1979. And this General Soleimani led the Quds Force for about 15 years, in which he killed 608 Americans in Iraq, and he's also conducted attacks in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, other areas in the Middle East. He tried to organize a terror strike in Washington, D.C. against the Saudi ambassador.

And just in the week before --


BACON: -- this mission, he attacked our bases, killed another American, a 609th American. How long can we not respond? By not responding, we were emboldening his behavior.

And so I think, yes, we're safer. We told the -- we showed the world, we showed Iran, you kill Americans and we're going to --


BACON: -- not take it anymore. But, yes --


BACON: -- there is a risk that they're going to escalate. But in the end, we will win this because we can destroy their navy, their air force in a day. We have the power, so I think Iran should be very careful how they respond.

SCIUTTO: Let's talk about how the U.S. is going to respond because, as you know, the president tweeted -- and we've been told to tweet the president's tweets as official statements of this president -- he tweeted that the U.S. will target cultural sites in Iran, and then he doubled down on that on the weekend.

TEXT: Donald J. Trump: ... hundreds of Iranian protestors. He was already attacking our Embassy, and preparing for additional hits in other locations. Iran has been nothing but problems for many years. Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have...

... targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!

SCIUTTO: Secretary Pompeo, there, saying in effect, ignore what the president said. And that the U.S. will follow international law. Who should Americans believe, the president or the secretary of state, on this?

BACON: There's two different messages going on here. The president is communicating to Iran that if you retaliate and escalate, we will hit you twofold, you will come out the worst. And so he's trying to deter the Iranian behavior.

SCIUTTO: By attacking cultural sites --

BACON: But in the end, what --

SCIUTTO: -- though? I mean, you served in Iraq --

BACON: No, he's --

SCIUTTO: -- you did two years there, and I noted because I was -- I was covering the story at the time -- you remember, you went in there soon after the attack on the Samarra mosque, which was a religious and cultural site there, led to -- and not by the U.S., by terrorist forces -- but let to a just explosion of sectarian violence.

I mean, you know the power of attacking religious and cultural sites. Are you saying, in your view, that that's a reasonable way for the U.S. to respond despite international law?

BACON: Well, we will not -- we will not respond in that way, but the president's communicating to Iran that they'd better weigh what they do next very carefully, that we will hit them twice as hard.

But in the end, we will follow the laws of armed conflict. The president will not order an attack on the cultural sites --

SCIUTTO: He will not?

BACON: -- I'm quite confident of that. But even if he did, the military would not do it. We will follow the laws of armed conflict.

But I will tell you, the president, I believe, is trying to deter --

SCIUTTO: Interesting.

BACON: -- Iranian, you know, their counterpunch, if they're considering one. So this is about deterrence.

But I'll also tell you this. There's ambiguity in what is a proper military target at times. Sometimes a proper military target also has some cultural significance. If you go after a Quds Force headquarters, that is a military target but could also have some cultural value, depending on that building.

So I would just say they're -- in the end, we will follow the laws of armed conflict. The president will not direct it, and I don't -- and the military wouldn't conduct it.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you, right now, about another threat the president has made. He has made a threat -- and we're told that the White House is drawing up -- possible sanctions, not against Iran but against Iraq.

And you'll remember, the president tweeted, just in the last 24, 40 hours, that these sanctions could be even worse than what the U.S. has imposed on Iran, which is now being described as a principal enemy in the Middle East. Should the U.S. be sanctioning its ally and its partner, Iraq, in the -- its partner in the fight against ISIS today?


BACON: I hope not in the long run. I think we should let the dust settle in Iraq. You know, the parliament that voted was only 50 percent of the members were there. The other 50 percent were largely not agreeing with that resolution. I think we've just got to let the dust settle on this.

I believe that Iraq, in the long run, will say, we need the United States there because of ISIS. If we pulled out, I believe ISIS would eventually control the Anbar Province again, much of northern Iraq. And I think the Iraqis will see that too. So I think we just give a little time, and I believe the Iraqis will do the right thing.

SCIUTTO: Yes. It's alarming process (ph), to remind -- imagine them back on the ground there.

I want to ask you, before I let you go, on impeachment. Of course, you voted in the House against impeaching the president. And at the time, you said on the House floor -- I'm quoting you here -- "Simply put, there was no quid pro quo. There was no crime. There is only the majority's disdain for the president."

We now have John Bolton, the president's former national security advisor who, according to sworn witness testimony, described the president's withholding of aid as "a drug deal." He wants to talk, he wants to tell his side of the story. Presumably, he has firsthand knowledge of this, based on other witness testimony. Why shouldn't Americans hear from him?

BACON: I'm not opposed to hearing from John Bolton. I believe, in the end, he'll -- I -- you know, the president withheld aid temporarily, but the Ukrainians received that aid a week before the law required. There was no investigation from the Ukrainians, and so there was -- there was no quid pro quo. In the end, they got the aid and the --

SCIUTTO: Well, failed quid pro quo then, right? Because that --

BACON: -- and they did not do an investigation.

SCIUTTO: I mean, all that happened after this was exposed to the light of day, right? Because it was withheld for weeks and months, and folks at the Pentagon were alarmed. BACON: Well, when the president talked to the Ukrainian president,

they're -- at that point, the Ukrainian president didn't even know the aid was being withheld. I (ph) would (ph) say in the end, it was good to give the aid to the Ukrainians, I supported it.

By the way, the previous administration refused to do that --

SCIUTTO: You're right, fund lethal aid, yes.

BACON: -- and so we have the Democrats impeaching this, the Democrats doing this impeachment on this aid, and they refused under President Obama to give them that aid to begin with. In the end, the right thing was done. I would not have withheld the aid, but it was eventually done a week before the law required.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Congressman Don Bacon, U.S. Air Force veteran, thanks very much for joining the program today.

BACON: Thank you, sir.


HARLOW: All right. Ahead for us, sources tell CNN not even Senator Schumer knows what Speaker Pelosi is going to do with those articles of impeachment. We're live on the Hill, next.


SCIUTTO: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, keeping her plans on sending the impeachment articles to the Senate to herself, so much so, sources telling CNN, not even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer -- of course also a Democrat -- knows what she's going to do.

HARLOW: CNN's senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju is live on Capitol Hill this morning. Is that surprising, Manu? It's sort of surprising to me, that even Schumer's not in the loop here.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's emblematic of how tightly controlling this process Nancy Pelosi has done. And through the course of this impeachment inquiry, she has looped in her colleagues, her confidents at times in which she felt it was necessary to bring them into the fold.

And at the moment, she has not yet told even Senator Schumer, according to sources that I have spoken to, who have spoken to the leader and said that Schumer himself thinks that perhaps they could be sent over this week, but he himself doesn't know for sure.

Now, at the same time, I've had a chance to talk to a number of Democrats and Republicans about the decision and the offer by John Bolton, the former national security advisor, to testify before the Senate. Of course, Democrats are all for it and Republicans are not quite there yet.


RAJU: Why not just send him a subpoena so you can hear what he has to say?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): Well, because we need to -- we need to respect the House's role as the instigator of the impeachment articles, and presumably the 17 witnesses that testified in the House, that will be available here.

RAJU: Should the speaker withhold the articles indefinitely?

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA): The speaker will -- I -- make her own decision on this. I think we've seen, over the last number of years, that, you know, Speaker Pelosi's thoughtful.


RAJU: And Warner went on to say that he believes that nine times out of 10, she is correct on her decision-making process here.

Now, she does come back to Washington, the capital, today. She meets with her leadership team, she meets with a large group of Democrats. We'll get a sense about whether she provides any more insight Into her thinking.

But that decision to withhold the articles has essentially kept the Capitol Hill at a standstill, the trial (ph) on a standstill because Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, said he will not move forward until he gets those articles of impeachment.

And of course, there's no deal between Schumer and McConnell about how that trial would look like, whether they would agree to witnesses up- front. Mitch McConnell says no to that, he continues to resist doing that. So a lot of questions still. A big question, what will Nancy Pelosi do -- guys.


HARLOW: You'll know first --


HARLOW: -- we know that. Manu.

RAJU: No pressure.

SCIUTTO: And we'll tell all of you right away, the moment we hear.

RAJU: That's right.

HARLOW: Manu, thank you very, very much. Obviously --

RAJU: Thanks.

HARLOW: -- there is a ton of news, especially international news. U.S. troops in the Middle East on high alert right now, over concerns that Iran may use drones to target U.S. targets. Stay with us for the very latest. Thanks for being with us today. We'll see you back here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow. SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto. "AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan is

right after a short break.