Return to Transcripts main page


Esper: We're Prepared For The Worst But Hope Iran De-escalates; Pentagon Letter Suggesting Iraq Troop Withdrawal A "Mistake"; Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) Discusses Upcoming Briefing Of Gang Of Eight On Soleimani Death, How To De-Escalate U.S./Iran Tensions; Iran Crisis Forces Foreign Policy Onto Campaign Trail; Trump Press Conference With Greece P.M. Talks Iran. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 14:30   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: And these unseen demonstrations of power that have rallied around a flag.


But also somebody who they were protesting against a few weeks ago.

So they have sent a message and the Iranian leaders are going to have to respond in some way. The question is whether there can be any sort of de-escalation.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Is the question. And he said it's up to Tehran, they could de-escalate. Send us a back-channel message and say they want to talk. But it sounds, according to the foreign minister, according to Fred, they plan on retaliating. The big question is, how.

Christiane, I want to thank you.


BALDWIN: Exactly.

Barbara Starr was in that briefing. She asked two excellent questions of the secretary of defense.

So, Barbara, I jotted down -- you asked about, you know, does the U.S. have the obligation to de-escalate. And if you were given an order by the commander-in-chief, by this president, as we have been talking, as he's been talking potentially about hitting cultural sites, you know, would you be willing to resign if you were asked to break the law in doing so.

What did you make of his answers to you?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: He made very clear that it's Iran's responsibility, the ball in their court, to de-escalate the situation. Iran clearly, you know, not feeling the same way.

It was part of the reason, as Christiane and Fred said, for this briefing, to send a message to Iran.

The secretary said, how could they de-escalate. They could make clear they were willing to sit down with the United States to talk about any preconditions. Nothing about the nuclear agreement, none of that. Sit down and talk without preconditions. That may or may not happen any time soon.

It's not looking like it right now. Because the secretary does say for the first time he pinned it down and said, this threat, this imminent threat was possibly in a matter of days.

And that's the first time we have quite heard it narrowed down to that. Until now, it was days or weeks. So it's very interesting he narrowed that down.

And he said that the U.S. continues to expect Iran to retaliate. We know that, you know, overnight, the U.S. was quite concerned that there might be a drone threat, an imminent drone threat against several U.S. locations in the Middle East.

This is a situation that, you know, is becoming very clear. It will last for some time. It will ebb and flow. They'll get intelligence that indicates that threats are on the rise, they'll react to that. And maybe those threats materialize. Hopefully, they do not.

So we're a long way away really from seeing a clear road ahead at this point I think.

BALDWIN: Barbara, thank you so much for jumping on after that briefing.

Now to Iraq and Arwa Damon, who is live there.

And we're talking about how the secretary of defense wouldn't say if the U.S. would withdraw from Iraq if asked to.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, there's so much confusion here right now because of the letter that was sent that initially was taken by the Iraqi government to mean that the U.S. was, in fact, beginning its withdrawal.

We heard from the prime minister. addressing the cabinet. We got one draft of the letter and the text of the translations did not match up. So we sent it back and then it was sent back to us once again.

He's trying to make the point that he doesn't quite understand how this all happened somehow by accident. And then he says after they notified the relevant departments within the Iraqi government and the security forces. They also notified the Iraqi embassy in D.C. That, all of a sudden, four to five hours later, they hear this is a mistake.

They said, how are we supposed to take anything seriously moving forward. Any time we get a notification, are we supposed to call the Americans and double check it's OK?

These kind of mistakes in today's Iraq, given the tensions, can have severe repercussions.

We have heard from the Iranian-backed groups, if the U.S. does not leave, we'll form what they're calling a resistance movement. Who is going to be part of that movement? The very same Shia militias that fought the Americans when they were here during the years of the U.S.- led occupation of Iraq.

And then that's something else that the U.S. is missing, at least if we look at what is being said publicly, and that's the nuance of how Iraqis feel. Yes, there's anti-government demonstrations going on for months now. Yes, the very same demonstrators are calling for an end to Iranian influence. But they're calling for an end to the American influence.

When it comes to, you know, the members of the Iraqi government or political parties, the Sunnis or the Kurds or the security forces, who don't want to see the U.S. leave because they still need American support, because they need American assets because they know the threat against ISIS is ongoing. This does not mean they support what the United States did.


And in killing Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi territory, America put this country in an impossible position.

If U.S. forces stay, there's going to be bloodshed here. If the Americans leave, there's going to be bloodshed here as well.

BALDWIN: Just listening to everything you're saying and all I can think is the road ahead is uncertain on so many fronts.

Arwa Damon, excellent, excellent job there in Baghdad with all these questions we can't answer at the moment.

Our special coverage continues. The president is facing reporters right now as the Pentagon contradicts him, and the intelligence on the strike is questioned. I'll talk with a Congress and veteran of the Iraq war. Do not miss that.

You're watching CNN. We'll be right back.



BALDWIN: Just a short time from now, the top lawmakers in Congress, known as the Gang of Eight, are set to receive a briefing on the rising crisis in Iran. The full House and Senate will be briefed tomorrow.

Will lawmakers get the information that the public is still seeking despite the Secretary of State speaking out today, and now the Secretary of Defense? What they're seeking is the specific intelligence that led to the U.S. drone strike that killed General Soleimani. Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego, of Arizona, is a Marine Corps

veteran who served in Iraq and sits on the Armed Services Committee.

So thank you so much for being on with me.

REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D-AZ): Thank you for having me.

BALDWIN: So we actually heard from Defense Secretary Mark Esper and he said to Christiane Amanpour, when asked, what was the planned attacks, and he went -- you know, he was very specific in talking to the press corps saying that the attack was days away. Does that constitute an imminent threat to you, Congressman?

GALLEGO: Well, first, to begin, there are always threats upon our forces in the Middle East. As a matter of fact, I had received briefings about similar threats that had occurred about a month ago.

So obviously, the interpretation that this White House is giving is that the threat was so imminent they have to do it, and do a decapitation move against Soleimani. It may, in the end, may bring us more harm than good.

I think that's why this is a mistake on the whole grand scale of how we look at this.

BALDWIN: Am I hearing you correctly, that the U.S. faces an imminent threat with regard to Iran all the time?

GALLEGO: All the time. We know that Iran is consistently trying to come up with ways to affect our actions in the Middle East or try to pressure us to move. As a matter of fact, one of the main goals is to have us out of Iraq, to be able to have more direct impact on Israel.

Ironically enough, because of our actions, we may end up being pushed out by the Iraqi government and being able to fulfill Iran's long-term goals.

BALDWIN: We'll get to that in a second.

But, all right, sir, what's the off ramp? He was saying that certainly not up to the U.S. to de-escalate and that the off ramp would be sitting with Tehran to come to the U.S. to message us to sit with the United States and to talk, though -- you know, when you listen to Iran, they're planning on retaliating.

Do you see any sort of off ramp, any way of de-escalation here?

GALLEGO: The first thing we have to understand, you can't escalate and de-escalate quickly. But Iran has to be part of this solution. I think it will take both sides to do it.

Iran is a very bad actor in that region. Has targeted the United States and our allies for many years and they actually have to step up to this game, too. But, you know, we do need to recognize that this was particularly a strategic mistake. Is that man -- obviously, I'm glad he's dead. But I, you know, as a

young man in the Marine Corps, had to choose whether or not I had to shoot at someone or not shoot at someone, and a lot of times I chose not to. And I think we took our eye off the ball and really messed up.

BALDWIN: What about looking ahead to, you know, the president has threatened to target cultural sites in Iran. So the president right now is sitting at the White House and reporters are listening -- I have to make sure I get this quote correct. I like to obey the law, quote, "but they're allowed to kill our people."

What do you make of that?

GALLEGO: Well, the president doesn't have any choice. The law is the law. Targeting cultural sites and targeting innocent people is a war crime and it goes against the best interests of the United States.

You know, every 17, 18-year-old man or woman that now carries a rifle understands that. And they show a lot of personal courage everyday withholding, you know, doing some really horrific things that sometimes they feel like doing.

And when you have the president of the United States, somebody who avoided the draft by lying about his feet and bone spurs, trying to act like a tough guy it's not a good way for us to really project the view of the United States around the world.

Let's think about this. The last two entities that actually have targeted cultural sites are ISIS and the Taliban. And I don't think we want to be known as a third group that was part of that really unsavory group of people.


BALDWIN: Listening to you talk to me, you know, obviously, you're a sitting member of Congress but you can tell this as a veteran, this is so personal to you.

You mentioned how you've been in Iraq, you could have shot the enemy, and you chose not to.

GALLEGO: That's not true. I chose not to shoot innocent people. I want to make that clear.

BALDWIN: But you have to war, you have lost friend. You have been open about it. You know what it's like to have the enemy eyes on you.

But you don't want President Trump to define who America is. However, however, President Trump is the commander-in-chief. He is the one calling the shots. So how can he not define this moment?

GALLEGO: Well, I think that's up to the United States to block him. I think it belongs to every servicemember right now to hold their own honor and everyone in the Pentagon to basically refuse the unlawful orders should they come down. I think that's how we define America. By our resistance to a

president that wants to basically go against the grain and what we understand.

And if we do that, I think we can really, you know, go along in a good pace to show the world who we are not, who this president wants us to be.

And there are ways for us to lawfully execute a war without violating, you know, civilian and human rights. Without violating, you know, general war crimes.

I think this president thinks that he can do that. I know for a fact that we can. I have seen it done. And I think we, as a country and as a military, still have that standard to carry and we should carry into the future as long as we can.

BALDWIN: OK. Congressman Ruben Gallego, thank you for your time serving this country and thank you for joining me today. I appreciate it.

GALLEGO: Thank you.

BALDWIN: As we wait on the brink of promised retaliation from Iran, the issue is now the main focus on the campaign trail. Looking ahead to the election this year. We'll talk to one analyst about the two words he says could really change this debate.



BALDWIN: This crisis with Iran and the president's foreign policy approach will no doubt be major talking points in next week's Democratic presidential debate.

CNN Senior Political Analyst, Ron Brownstein, is with me.

And, Ron, reading your piece, you know, you basically say there are two words that could change the debate on Iran -- decisive and impulsive. How will each side make the case?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, if you look at the praise that Republicans have given to the attack, the most common word they use is it was "decisive," that the president acted decisively and made a decision that other presidents would not and have not.

If you look at the principal criticism of Democrats, it was that it was impulsive or reckless. He didn't think through the implications of what he did.

This really, I think, fits in with a long-standing kind of division between the way the parties present themselves to the country on national security. If you think of Reagan or George W. Bush, they didn't sell themselves

as people who had mastered the intricacies of international diplomacy. They saw themselves as someone with a clear moral compass who acted decisively.

Clinton and Obama, they're -- their calling card is they're deliberative, they think through what this means.

I believe that ultimately whether this is seen as something that was decisive, who would do what others did not, or volatile, taking a risk that proved too costly, will be the determinative of how the country, ultimately, assesses this act and probably foreign policy in general.

BALDWIN: Using that notion -- hang on one second, Ron.

We've got to go to the president of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Soleimani was planning attacks again American targets, what can you tell us about what you knew prior to ordering the attack?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, number one, I knew the past. His past was horrible. He was a terrorist. He was so designated by President Obama, as you know. And he wasn't even supposed to be outside of his own country. He was. So right there.

But that's in a way the least of it. We had an attack very recently that he was in charge of where we had people horribly wounded, one dead. In fact, the number now as of this morning I believe is two dead. And that was his.

He was traveling with the head of Hezbollah. They weren't there to discuss a vacation. They weren't there to go to a nice resort someplace in Baghdad. They were there to discuss bad business, and we saved a lot of lives by terminating his life. A lot of lives saved.

They were planning something, and you're going to be hearing about it or at least various people in Congress are going to be hearing about it tomorrow.

Our secretary of state covered it very well a little while ago. I saw him, I saw his news conference.

Mike, and if you want to mention a couple of things in addition to what I've just said.

But we had tremendous information. We've been following him for a long time. And 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.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: We had intelligence indicating there was active plotting that put American lives at risk. I'm confident, I think the president is confident, too, that the actions that the president took saved American lives, saved lives of Iraqi Muslims, as well.

It was the right thing to do, and our Department of Defense did an excellent job executing the mission.



TRUMP: And as you know he killed at least 608 Americans, but the number is much higher than that. He's also very much roadside bombs and all of the horrible explosives you see. He was a big believer and sent them everywhere.


He was somebody that we did ourselves, we did a lot of countries a big favor. I've been hearing from countries. They were extremely happy with what we did.

And if you look inside Iran itself, there were plenty of those leaders that were happy because they feared him and didn't like him in many cases.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Could you also clear up, Mr. President, whether Iranian cultural sites would be on any future target list?

TRUMP: As I said yesterday, it was very interesting, they're allowed to kill our people, they're allowed to maim our people, they're allowed to blow up everything that we have, and there's nothing that stops them. And we are according to various laws supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage.

And you know what, if that's what the law is, I -- I like to obey the law. But think of it, they kill our people. They blow up our people, then we have to be 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.

All right --



TRUMP: Don't forget, in our case, it was retaliation, because they were there first. They killed -- look, I don't have to talk about him for 18 to 20 years. He was a monster.

But just in the very short period of time, two people dead. People badly injured. And then, before that, there were other attacks. And look at what he was planning.

So that will be discussed tomorrow morning. Right now, it's classified. That will be discussed tomorrow with Mike Pompeo and the Joint Chiefs.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is the U.S. prepared for an Iranian attack?

TRUMP: We're prepared. We're totally prepared. And likewise, we're prepared to attack if we have to as retribution.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. President, if Iran's leader said that any response to the Soleimani killing would be, quote, "proportionate," what would the United States do in the event of any Iranian --


TRUMP: So, again, John, if you look at what's going on, ours was an attack based on what they did. We weren't the first one out. He killed an American. Now two people are dead from the same attack. And some people very badly wounded.

And that was one of his smaller endeavors. You look over his past, his past -- he's been called a monster, and he was a monster. And he's no longer a monster. He's dead. That's a good thing for a lot of countries.

He was planning a very big attack and a very bad attack for us and other people. And we stopped him. And I don't think anybody can complain about it.

I don't hear too many people other than politicians who are trying to win the presidency, those are the ones that are complaining. But I don't hear anybody else complaining.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You call him a monster, but -- but --


TRUMP: To each his own. I disagree 100 percent. I'm sure he does, too. He has a public to take care of, that's his reason. I'm surprised to hear it, but that's OK.


TRUMP: Say it?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you willing to make a deal with Greece - (INAUDIBLE)

TRUMP: So Greece and I, and my people, we have a group of people, as you saw they brought a lot of great representatives from Greece that we've been dealing with. We have a tremendous Greek population, over three million people as I understand it. That's fantastic.

I think I -- I feel i know most of them. I think I know all of them come to think of it. It's a great population in the United States.

We're going to be meeting. We're going to be talking. We're going to be negotiating. And we're going to be making a lot of deals.



TRUMP: We have a really great relationship with Greece.

KYRIAKOS MITSOTAKIS, GREECE PRIME MINISTER: Let me add to that. Greece is interested, Mr. President, in participating in the F-35 program. As you know, we are already upgrading our F-16s.


MITSOTAKIS: And that program will be completed in 2023, 2024. We're very much interested in participating in the F-35 program after that.

I'm sure that the U.S. will take into consideration the fact that this country is coming out of an economic crisis in terms of structuring the program in the best possible way for my country.

TRUMP: That's true.

You know, they just signed a very big renovation of existing aircraft. They had great aircraft. But it's gotten a little bit tired, and they've done a renovation that's going to bring it up to brand new. And we look forward to doing that. Couple of our great companies are doing it.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How do you feel about the idea of a supposed withdrawal and the possibility -- isn't that something Soleimani wanted?