Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

U.S. Not Withdrawing From Iraq?; President Trump Comments on Iran Crisis, Impeachment. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:00]

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Go ahead.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: How do you feel about (OFF-MIKE) withdrawal from Iraq being a possibility? Is this not something Soleimani actually wanted (OFF- MIKE)

TRUMP: Well, it's something that I want too. I mean, eventually, they have to able to defend themselves and take care of themselves.

And it's something ultimately that I want to see. We don't want to be there forever. We want to be able to get out. I didn't want to be there in the first place, to be honest, and everybody knows that.

That was when I was a civilian, I said it. But we were there, and they made a decision. And I disagreed with that decision very strongly. But we're there now. We have done a great job. We have gotten rid of the caliphate; 100 percent of the caliphate is gone, and -- which is ISIS.

We have thousands of ISIS prisoners that we're keeping right now under lock and key. And we want Europe to take many of these prisoners, because they came from Germany, France, and other places, probably a few from Greece, in all fairness. We will have to talk to you about that.

KYRIAKOS MITSOTAKIS, GREEK PRIME MINISTER: Well, none -- none from Greece so far.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Good. You're lucky. You're lucky.

But we have a lot of -- we have a lot of people right now in prison, ISIS fighters that are tough fighters. And they are where they should be.

So, I think we have done a fantastic job. But, eventually, we want to be able to let Iraq run its own affairs. And that's very important. So, at some point, we want to get out. But this isn't the right point. The other thing is, if we do get out, you know, we have spent a

tremendous amount of money on building airports and building -- it's one of the largest embassies we have in the world, Mike.

And we want to be reimbursed for the various costs that we have had, and they're very significant. But we will work something out.

And I talk sanctions, but I'm only talking sanctions if we're not treated with respect. We have to be treated with respect. We deserve...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: I'll tell you what. I will tell you.

What with -- with what we -- excuse me. Wait. Wait. Wait. One second.

With what we did with ISIS -- and this was done during my administration, because it was a mess before we got here. With what we did with ISIS, we have done the Middle East and we have done a lot of other countries a tremendous favor.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

TRUMP: We are talking to him, and we're talking to -- yes.

We're talking to -- when you're talking about Libya, we're discussing with President Erdogan. We're discussing with many other countries. I just spoke with the chancellor of Germany, with Angela. And we talked about that subject specifically, Libya, what's going on.

We will be talking to Russia. They're involved. A lot of countries are involved with respect to Libya.

And it's right now a mess, but there are a lot of countries. And they all want to know where we stand. And they do know -- know where we stand. We have a very distinctive stand, and we have meetings set up, and we're going to see if we can work out some kind of a plan for peace.

(CROSSTALK)

MITSOTAKIS: I think it's important -- just one point -- Mr. President, can I just make one point, sir, one point, one...

(CROSSTALK)

MITSOTAKIS: One point on this issue.

I think it is important to point out that the agreement signed between Turkey and Libya infringe upon Greece's sovereign rights, and essentially cause great concern and instability in a region which is already highly problematic. So, we would be very much looking to your support to make sure that

these types of provocative agreements are not being put into place.

And I think we should refrain in general in the Eastern Mediterranean from any sort of activity that inflames passions and that doesn't promote regional peace and security.

So, we will be very much looking forward to your support on this issue, because it is a very important issue to my country.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the Iraqi government says it expects U.S. forces to leave the country after the letter that it received, General Mark Milley said, by mistake yesterday.

What do you say to the Iraqi government about the possibility of U.S. forces leaving based on that letter?

TRUMP: Well, I don't know anything about that letter. That letter was sent. And I understand it was an unsigned letter. So I could maybe let Mike speak it.

I don't know if that letter was a hoax, or was it unsigned or what.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: (OFF-MIKE) wasn't intended.

QUESTION: But the Iraqi government is saying they're taking you at your word, they expect U.S. forces to leave.

TRUMP: Well, I think it's the worst thing that could happen to Iraq. If we leave, that would mean that Iran would have a much bigger foothold, and the people of Iraq do not want to see Iran running the company -- the country. That, I can tell you.

So, we will see how it all works out. I know it's going to work out well for us, because, at some point, we want to be able to get out. We want to bring our soldiers back home.

I will say that we have had tremendous support from the people of Iraq, appreciating what we have done. And they don't want to see Iran go into Iraq.

But they're neighbors, and over a period of years, something will happen. We will see what that is.

[15:05:02]

But the -- what was said yesterday, I didn't know about. I really don't know about it.

What is that, Mike? What exactly was that?

(CROSSTALK)

POMPEO: It was a draft letter that was sent...

(CROSSTALK) TRUMP: A draft unsigned

POMPEO: Unsigned letter.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: And the media knew that.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: But they don't want to say that, yes.

POMPEO: They knew it.

And the Iraqi people understand that we're there to help them stand up their sovereignty.

TRUMP: The Iraqi people were not happy when the suggestion was made yesterday that we were thinking about leaving at some point. They were not happy.

But, at some point, we will want to leave.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: No. Steve, go ahead. Steve.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

TRUMP: What?

QUESTION: Are you ready for the Senate trial?

TRUMP: Yes, whatever it is.

It's a hoax. The impeachment is a big hoax. It's a -- it's become a laughingstock all over the world. There was nothing done wrong. The two articles that were sent are not even serious.

And, by the way, they're not a crime. The Republicans voted approximately 196-0. This was not supposed to be partisan. It was never meant that way by, as they would say, the founders.

So it was -- it's turned out to be a totally partisan hoax, witch- hunt. And, frankly, it's been going on from before I came down the escalator with our great first lady. I mean, it -- this has gone on for three years, and probably longer than that.

And it will be very interesting when the final tabulation is set and when the facts are released, because a lot of people are working on those facts right now. It's a big deal. It's in many ways the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on our country.

It's one of the great hoaxes ever. It started with an illegal document that turned out to be false, the fake document that you know so well, the dossier, as they call it. And it went on from there. It was set up by a bunch of dirty cops and others working with the

DNC, working with the Democrats. And from the day I ran, from the day I was elected, and probably before that substantially -- not probably. If you look at the insurance policy, the insurance policy was long before that.

So that means, before I ever got elected, they were working on something that's so illegal. So I assume that will be announced at some point into the future, and hopefully not too far into the future.

And the impeachment story is, it's just a continuation of the same. It really is a shame that we can't focus on all of the things. We talked today about Iran. We talk about Iraq. We talk about economic development. We have the greatest stock market we have ever had in the history of our country. We have the greatest economy that we have ever had in the history of our country.

We're setting records, unemployment records, employment records also. We're going to have almost 160 million people working. And that we have to work on this partisan scam is really a shame. That we have to take time is a shame.

All right. That's about it.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Will you be OK if John Bolton testifies? He indicated yesterday that he would if he's subpoenaed.

TRUMP: Well, that's going to be up to the lawyers. It will be up to the Senate. And we will see how they feel.

He would know nothing about what we're talking about, because, if you know, the Ukrainian government came out with a very strong statement, no pressure, no anything. And that's from the boss. That's from the president of Ukraine.

The foreign minister came out with a statement that was equally as strong. And, frankly, if you look at it, and you look at everything, all they have to do is read the transcripts. You take a look, not just at one. You take a look at two transcripts. They were absolutely perfect.

There was absolutely nothing done wrong. There was no false statement. And it's crazy that it's gotten to a point where you look -- Ukraine, the president of Ukraine said there was no pressure whatsoever. There was no pressure on his country whatsoever.

And, by the way, in terms of the money, it got there two or three weeks ahead of schedule, long before it was supposed to be there. There were absolutely nothing done wrong. The one thing I look at is corruption, and the other thing I look at is, why isn't France and why isn't Germany, and maybe I could say why isn't Greece, or why aren't all of these countries, why aren't they paying?

Why is it always the United States that has to pay? And I said that strongly. In fact, it's in the transcript, but the press doesn't cover it.

Why is it that the United States pays? And it affects Europe far more than it affects the United States. So, why isn't it that France, Germany and all of those countries in Europe that are so strongly affected, why aren't they paying? Why is it always us? That's one question.

And the other question is always about corruption. We're sending all of this money. Where is it going? Where is it going? And the president, by the way, got elected on anti-corruption. And I think he's going to do a great job.

[15:10:01]

But I appreciated his statement. He's made it many times, no pressure whatsoever.

Thank you all very much.

(CROSSTALK)

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: We always hang on that just a little bit longer just to see if he makes any more news.

The president there at the White House today talking about Iran, talking about this current crisis regarding Iran and also Iraq and also towards the end there talking impeachment.

Listen, there were all kind of falsehoods in there when it came to impeachment. The man has been impeached, full stop.

Let's go to the current crisis with regard to Iran and our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

And, Jim, just listening to him, again, the questions, what was imminent attack? Can you give us more? What did the intelligence indicate? And, obviously, he was defending it, saying American lives were saved.

But I didn't hear much more beyond that. Did you?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think that's right, Brooke.

A couple of things. I think the president was certainly beating the drums of war. And you could hear that in his remarks, that the United States is prepared to attack Iran if Iran attacks back and retaliates for this killing of the General Qasem Soleimani.

I think that is unmistakable in what the president just said a few moments ago. I will say there were a couple of things that stood out to me, Brooke. One is, when it comes to this notion that the Iranians were on the verge of this imminent attack, the president did say at one point, well, we had tremendous information. He called it tremendous information that we were dealing with, before carrying out this targeted killing of the general. But he also sort of cast the strike on Soleimani in retaliatory terms, essentially saying that, well, we went after Soleimani because of these other things he had done previously.

And so he was trying to have it both ways in that regard. But the other thing, Brooke, that I think we need to point out, the president does not backtrack -- this president does not backtrack, walk back statements very much. He definitely did that in his remarks in the Oval Office with the Greek prime minister just a few moments ago, when he was asked about his previous threats to go after cultural sites in Iran.

The president seemed to walk that back and say, well, I like to obey the law, and seemed to say that that's not on the table any longer.

The other thing I think we should point out, he's also been engaging in some tough talk with Iraq, essentially threatened to slap sanctions on Iraq if they order us out of the country. The president saying at one point, well, that would be the worst thing to happen to Iraq. We're not prepared to do that right now, but the president reiterating that this is something that he would like to see happen at some point.

He doesn't want U.S. forces, he says, to be in Iraq long term. But putting all that to the side, Brooke, I do think that, if Iran were to retaliate and strike in some sort of significant way, you really can't read the president's comments in any other fashion, other than this is a president who is prepared to launch some sort of military strike on Iran if Iran retaliates.

And that appears to be the message coming from the president just a few moments ago. I think there was also a little bit of talk there towards the end about impeachment, about the prospect of John Bolton testifying, and this mysterious letter that emerged yesterday that seemed to say that the U.S. was going to pull out of Iraq.

The president at one point saying, I don't know anything about that letter, but that it was an unsigned letter.

And then the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, essentially said that letter shouldn't be -- shouldn't receive any due credit at this point. They seemed to brush it all off.

BALDWIN: Yes. Yes.

ACOSTA: But those were some of the minor headlines coming out of this, but the president sounded very much on a war footing should Iran retaliate, based on those comments he made just a few moments ago, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Yes, hearing him say they will be suffering the consequences.

Jim Acosta, thank you so much for ticking through all of those headlines.

Let's go in depth on a number of those, starting in Beirut with our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh.

And, Nick, specifically on Iraq, can you just fact-check for me the president's claims that the Iraqis want the U.S. to stay?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, I mean, he was very clear on the idea that if they suddenly left, a lot of Iraqis would not be happy about that.

Now, of course, there are some Iraqis who do not want the Iranian presence to be sustained. But I think there's been a bit of a swell of anger towards the U.S. violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

Another important fact-check too, he said, was that essentially the Trump administration defeated ISIS, and that the policy against ISIS was a mess before the Trump administration got there.

Look, we have all covered that fight for a long time. The Trump administration entirely continued the strategy set in place by the Obama administration. So those elements are not themselves true.

One interesting thing that I may have misheard -- he wasn't entirely clear, I think, the president there. He suggests that, tomorrow, there will be more about this intelligence about the imminent threat being discussed with Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, and the Joint Chiefs.

Not clear if he'd be doing the discussing or if we would perhaps hear more information about that. But, interestingly, he did seem unable to let that part of the news cycle die by bringing it up again, the fact that more information may be available at some point, obviously key for this president, who's been so dismissive of his own intelligence community when it comes to the threat Russia poses to the electoral system.

[15:15:15]

He seems to be relying on them entirely, not only to give him the information to launch this unprecedented attack of his entire administration in terms of foreign policy, but also give the justification for that later on as well, an interesting element too here, frankly.

But I have to keep coming back to this idea that really Iran's playing something deep down Donald Trump actually wants. Iran wants America out of the Middle East, and so does Donald Trump, really. He says not now, because now is not the right time -- I quote -- "to get out."

But, really, in the end, they want to let Iraq run their own affairs. Well, obviously Iran wants to intervene in that too. But there is a sort of feeling you get that Iran's thrust over the past days is, push America out of the region.

You heard Javad Zarif saying again today to our Fred Pleitgen in Tehran, the Iranian foreign minister, that this is the end of the U.S. presence in the region. That is not something that's not really part of the Trump platform. He's clear at this stage. He doesn't want it to have -- happen now.

And he just say only sanctions against Iraq if they're not treated with respect and, strangely, again this idea that the U.S. wants reimbursing for the things it's built to prosecute U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, even possibly the U.S. Embassy as well. That's sort of a separate issue.

But, certainly, this key tenet of Iran's retaliation, America, get out of the Middle East, is something that is not that distant to really what's I think in the heart, to some degree, of Trump foreign policy -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Nick, thank you in Beirut.

For more perspective, with me now, Retired Colonel Peter Mansoor. He spent 26 years in the Army serving two tours of duty in Iraq during the first Gulf War. He also served as a former aide to General David Petraeus. Also now with us, Hillary Mann Leverett. She's a former U.S. negotiator with Iran. She worked in the administrations of Presidents Bush 41, Bush 43 and Clinton. She is also the co-author of "Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic."

And so, Hillary, just starting with you, listening to President Trump, listening before to the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, and even this morning to the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, we keep hearing about how Soleimani was a bad guy, right, that he had -- the phrase I keep hearing is blood on his hands, which he absolutely does, right?

And we heard that echoed from each of those individual men speaking about him today. What we have yet to truly here is what intelligence, why this president, why this administration -- this is a man, this is a bad man who had been tracked by multiple administrations past.

Why did they decide to take him out?

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Yes.

And I worked in multiple administrations, as you point out, including the Bush 43 administration, when there was a similar caricature of Saddam Hussein, which everybody knew. Iraq -- Saddam Hussein was a dictator, a horrible person, and if we just took him out, everything would be fine.

We sent over 100,000 troops there, spent a trillion dollars there. And here we are nearly 20 years later and we're about to be expelled from the country. So the idea that everything rests on whether someone is a good person or a bad person really misses the point of U.S. interests, U.S. strategic interests, and what lays in store for the United States.

BALDWIN: I want to come back to the U.S. being expelled from the country, because that is precisely what Iran wants.

But playing it forward, the big question mark is, what does retaliation look like, right? Fred Pleitgen talked to Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, who said that the response -- whatever the retaliation is, that the response would be a proportionate one.

Listen to this, Colonel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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, but we will respond proportionately, not disproportionately, because we are committed to law.

We are law-abiding people. We're not lawless, like President Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Colonel Peter Mansoor, what would a proportionate response even look like? What could that scenario look like?

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, I'm not sure that proportionate is the right term.

I think what Iran wants is one -- is a response that has plausible deniability. Maybe they put their proxies to attack U.S. bases and kill some Americans in retaliation. They launch a cyber-strike. There's some terrorism around the world.

If they were to launch what they believe is a proportionate response with their conventional military forces against a U.S. base and kill Americans, the president will respond and the escalation will continue.

And this is the calculation that Iran -- I'm sure their security council is debating right now. How far can we push the United States without getting another attack against us?

BALDWIN: So, then are you saying that war would be undeniable, Colonel?

[15:20:05]

MANSOOR: Was that directed...

BALDWIN: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MANSOOR: No.

They -- what they want is plausible deniability, that there is a retaliation against American interests in the Middle East, but it doesn't necessarily have Iranian military fingerprints on it.

If -- I think they're treading a fine line, because any action against U.S. interests in the Middle East today will be blamed on Iran, whether they're behind it or not. So it's really a difficult situation, where both sides need to de-escalate. Neither one is willing to do so.

BALDWIN: Exactly.

Hillary, go ahead.

(CROSSTALK)

MANN LEVERETT: If I may, I think this was -- this has been interpreted in Iran and I think this was a direct attack on the core leadership of Iran.

And from what I understand, unlike perhaps some of their prior behavior, they have taken a decision this time that they want to directly retaliate in a proportionate way, but a direct retaliation.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Define direct retaliation for everyone sitting at home wondering, not speaking that language.

(CROSSTALK)

MANN LEVERETT: Yes.

BALDWIN: Yes.

MANN LEVERETT: I'm not sure exactly how that would unfold, but something where it would be clear that the Islamic Republic of Iran has retaliated for an act of war, as they see it, on their core leadership.

But that's really only one sphere that we need to worry about. The other sphere, which is perhaps even more important, is the anti- Americanism this has ignited in Iran, in Iraq, throughout the region.

BALDWIN: Yes.

MANN LEVERETT: We saw millions turn out for the funeral processions.

BALDWIN: Yes.

MANN LEVERETT: But that's just the beginning. We're going to be facing this for at least the next several months.

Forty days from now, it will be the mourning day that will commemorate the day that General Soleimani was killed, but 40 days also -- very few people are reporting on this. In 40 days, that's the anniversary of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There will be millions that will come out in Iran and throughout the region. We have to face both the popular uprising against the United States and anger against the United States with the direct Iranian retaliation. That's the danger we face.

(CROSSTALK) BALDWIN: Given that very real scenario in the coming weeks, what are the options laid in front of the United States, right? You hear both the secretary of defense. You heard President Trump saying, despite that letter that was apparently erroneously sent out, that the U.S. is not withdrawing from Iraq.

The U.S. decided to take this guy out at the Baghdad Airport, which then got Iraq, right, well, folded up into this mess. And so what are the U.S. options moving forward, given the growing anti-American sentiment?

Colonel, that's to you.

MANSOOR: I'm not sure the sentiment is growing. It's always been there. The people in Iran who hate the United States as the great Satan, well, they have always hated the United States since 1979.

And the same in Iraq. And there's plenty of people on the other side, as the president noted, who want -- in Iraq, who want a U.S. forces to remain as a counterbalance against Iran, the Shia, and -- or the Sunnis and the Kurds.

So I'm not sure that these popular protests in the streets right now are going to have really any impact on the policy going forward. In terms of what the Trump administration does, I'm afraid the ball is in Iran's court. They're going to have to play defense for a while and see what the retaliation, what form the retaliation takes.

And then they're going to have to make a new calculation of whether they respond to that in a military sense, or if they turn to diplomatic channels. But this is going to go on back and forth for a while until it's resolved, if it's resolved, or we lead into a regional war.

BALDWIN: Hillary, what are you looking to most immediately?

MANN LEVERETT: I'm concerned about the lack of options that the United States has, and I'm concerned about the determination that Iran has to expel the United States from the region for at least a generation and to humiliate this president as he's running for reelection.

I think this is going to be an ongoing crisis for the next several months that will include not just Iran, but Iraq and perhaps other places around the world.

President Trump took this decision, and he conveniently leaves out of his timeline really after Iraqis almost stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. He is looking at a series of crises like that for the next several months. And I do not think that he has an answer, as is illustrated by the Pentagon not even being able to get straight whether we're going to stay in Iraq or leave.

BALDWIN: With the letter. That's what you're alluding to.

MANN LEVERETT: Yes. Yes. BALDWIN: Hillary Leverett, thank you. Colonel Peter Mansoor, thank

you, sir, as well.

We will continue all of these conversations, as the future is so uncertain.

Still ahead, I'll talk to the wife of one of the thousands of American soldiers who've been called up to be deployed to the Middle East. In her case, her husband deployed before she even had a chance to say goodbye.

Plus, an Iranian-American activist joins me to discuss the president's threat to attack cultural sites.

[15:25:02]

I'm Brooke Baldwin. And this is CNN's special live coverage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: As the world waits for how Iran will respond to the U.S. airstrike that killed their top military official, a different kind of chaos is unfolding within the Trump administration.

After Iraq's Parliament voted to expel U.S. troops from the region, the top U.S. general says a letter to Iraqi counterparts was released by a mistake.

The letter suggested America would comply and indeed withdraw troops from the region, but the Pentagon later explained that the letter was just a draft. It was poorly worded.

So here is Defense Secretary Mark Esper:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK ESPER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We are not leaving Iraq.

And a draft, unsigned letter does not constitute a policy change. And there is no signed letter, to the best of my knowledge. I have asked the question.

So, there may be people trying to create confusion, but we should focus on this --

[15:30:00]