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Esper Says U.S. Not Withdrawing from Iraq; Trump Says We're Prepared to Attack If We Have to; Wife of Deployed Soldier Did Not Have Time to Say Goodbye; Earthquake Destroys Famous Puerto Rico Landmark. White House Correspondents' Association Says It Is Disturbing Saudis Have More Transparency Than the U.S. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 15:30   ET




MARK ESPER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: -- change. And there is no signed letter to the best of my knowledge -- I've asked the question. So, there may be people trying to create confusion but we should focus on this much, what 've said a few times now, our policy has not changed. We are in Iraq and we are there to support Iraqi forces and Iraqi government.


BALDWIN: As for President Trump, he just told reporters over at the White House that he had no knowledge of the letter. Jamie Gangel is CNN's special correspondent, and Lara Seligman is a Pentagon correspondent for "Foreign Policy."

And so Lara, let me just start with you. On this letter, what message does it say that this mistake could even happen? And this mistake was made by this team who'd be in charge of these key decisions in the Middle East?

LARA SELIGMAN, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, FOREIGN POLICY: Well, we had quite an exciting day at the Pentagon yesterday. So the Pentagon kind of scrambled to bat down these reports that the U.S. was withdrawing all of its forces from Iraq.

It turns out as the General Milley told reporters yesterday in kind of a hastily arranged press gaggle that these kind of -- sending these drafts around are pretty routine, especially when there are many troop movements in and out and around the country.

But they stress that we are not, in fact, leaving Iraq as of yet. There are no plans or preparations being made to do so right now. It was a mistake, although quite -- quite a deplorable one to be making at such a time.

BALDWIN: It is. It is in the way that Iraq has responded and then having the President of the United States have to address this, you know, from the White House. There's a lot of conflicting, confusing statements, Jamie, coming in the wake of this current crisis. I know you're in touch with your Republican sources. What are they saying about this confusion?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: For the past three years, we've talked about in the Trump administration chaos, dysfunction. But when you're in the middle of a national security crisis, it raises concern to a whole new level.


GANGEL: And the Republican sources that I've talked to are actually people who would call themselves hawks and who support this strike on Soleimani. All that said, they are very concerned. That draft letter, that mistaken letter yesterday, I was told by one senior Republican official, that should never have happened. It does not make sense to them. And they are very concerned about what happens next. As we go forward, we don't know what Iran is going to do.


GANGEL: And one Republican Congressman, again someone who supported this strike, said not since 9/11 have they been so concerned about how we're going to be handling this. And with, you know, President Trump doesn't like the deep state. But the deep state, those are career professionals, experienced people. And one Republican said to me, I am really worried that he has diminished the kind of talent that we need, particularly at a time like this.

BALDWIN: I'm going to come back to you in a second. But Lara, you have reporting that the Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, actually cut out some senior Pentagon leaders who are typically looped in on decisions like this, and they didn't find out until after Soleimani was killed. So what does that signal to you?

SELIGMAN: Yes, that's what my reporting shows. It shows that Mark Esper would normally have kept in the loop some of the senior leaders at the Office of The Secretary of Defense and the joint staff, some of the senior military leaders.

But this time they were actually cut out of the decision-making process. They weren't even briefed before the strike actually happened. So I believe this says that Mark Esper is really kind of feeling the pressure, especially to keep the situation under wraps. Especially I'm told after a "Wall Street Journal" report a couple weeks ago stating that 14,000 troops were going to be deployed again to the Middle East to counter the Iranian threat.

I'm told that Secretary Esper was angered by these threats, and he wanted to keep his circle of trust very, very close. Obviously, as this is a very, very sensitive threat. But it is also interesting to me that this happened at a time when actually the civilian leadership at the Pentagon is really in a deficit. We've seen six officials leave just in the past month, I believe. And there's many positions that are being filled by acting officials.

So actually the people that Mark Esper has to call on, really there's a dearth of expertise in the civilian leadership in the Pentagon. He's often relying on senior generals such as General Milley, for example, and it's really shifting the balance of power at the civil/military balance of power in the Pentagon, and this could be part of the reason why the strike actually happened.

BALDWIN: She talks about this tight circle. I know the members of Congress, just quickly, quickly, your Republicans you've been talking to, they haven't been briefed.


GANGEL: They have not been briefed yet. That will happen tomorrow. It was interesting to hear, I think it was Defense Secretary Esper say that they would be talking to them tomorrow. And a reporter said, well, you know, what are you going to be telling them? And he said, pretty much what you're hearing here today.

BALDWIN: Yes, Jamie Gangel, thank you so much. Lara Seligman, nice to have you on.

Just in to us, White House journalist scolding the White House for not revealing a secret meeting with the Saudis. Hear that back story.

And as thousands of soldiers are suddenly deployed in the wake of this Iran threat, I'll talk live with one spouse who didn't get a chance to say good-bye.



BALDWIN: For a third day in a row the Trump administration has talked about whether it's fair game for the United States to attack Iran's cultural sites. But instead of clarifying, there is still confusion over what the U.S. could do. It seems today that the President is easing back from his initial assertion that cultural sites are an option for a U.S. attack despite the fact that it would break international law. Moments ago at the White House, he said this --


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 and 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.


BALDWIN: Earlier today, his Defense Secretary said he believes President Trump would not give any illegal orders.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The President is out there with his position. If you get an order, would you resign from office rather than violate the law?

ESPER: Barbara, I'm not going to get into this hypothetical that you're portraying here. I'm fully confident the President is not -- the commander in chief will not give us an illegal order. And as I said, the United States military will as it always has obey the laws of armed conflict.


BALDWIN: Jamal Abdi is the President of the National Iranian American Council. Jamal, nice to have you on, welcome.


BALDWIN: As an Iranian American, as someone who has been to these cultural sites in Iran, what is it like hearing the President of the United States open to attacking them?

ABDI: It's really -- it's shocking. It's traumatizing almost. You know for a community ---

BALDWIN: Tell me why.

ABDI: Well, look, the first week of Trump's presidency he banned our family members from visiting us in the United States. Now many Iranian Americans came to this country because there's a repressive government in Iran who, for instance, bans me from coming to Iran because of my political work. And now our families can't come here.

We have sanctions that close bank accounts of Iranian Americans because banks are afraid of violating them, because of the problems with the Iranian government. Now to talk about attacking cultural sites -- this isn't something that's owned by a government. This is not about a government-to-government problem. This is our heritage.

You know, I'm an American, I was born here, raised here. So that's my heritage. And to hear the President of my country talking about bombing my heritage, you know, it feels like we're already in the situation of fear because of war and all these other things. And it really twists the knife, you know.

BALDWIN: I don't know, but that's exactly why I wanted to talk to you, to try to understand what that must feel like. And then also just when you've been looking at these scenes playing out, right, the funeral, the scenes inside Iran, the sea of people, not just to mourn this man who is beloved by so many but really -- you know, rallying around a regime that had been unpopular, Jamal. To me, it looks like a message of unity, is it not? And does that worry you as an American?

ABDI: Absolutely. You know, just a few weeks ago Iranian Americans like myself were sitting at home trying to get in touch with our family members inside of Iran because that government shut down the internet because there were massive demonstrations against the government.

And now fast forward a few weeks, and you see a complete reversal. And this has been the trend of this administration. When you impose sanctions that are a form of collective punishment, that are aimed at punishing ordinary people inside of Iran, that doesn't create democracy, that doesn't allow for civil society. That actually enriches the status quo powers.

And now with killing Soleimani, I mean this is somebody with a mixed track record. You know, I think a lot of Iranians revered him, but he was part of a repressive infrastructure in Iran. But when you have an outside power coming in and assassinating the guy, somebody who many Iranians viewed as, you know, a protector from ISIS, part of the reason Iran wasn't as destabilized as the countries around them, that triggers this fear inside of people. And you can understand why people are starting to rally around a government that otherwise people are not fans of.

BALDWIN: Exactly. Exactly. Which is why I wanted to ask you that and just show the pictures again of all these people rallying together in unity. Jamal Abdi, you are such an important voice in this whole conversation. Please come back. Thank you very much.


ABDI: Any time. Thank you.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

And we've been talking about the thousands of U.S. military families who have been affected by the sudden troop deployment amid the crisis with Iran. My next guest was not only thousands of miles away from her husband in a different state when he was deployed from Fort Bragg, she didn't even get a chance to say goodbye.

April Schumard joins me now.


BALDWIN: April, hi, thank you so much for being here. And thank you, of course, to your family for your service to this great country. Have you had a chance to talk to your husband since he got called up?

SCHUMARD: I've gotten a couple of text messages from him. Just to clarify, I was actually at work when he was called in, and then actually flying to San Diego when he was deployed.

BALDWIN: Right. No, I know it was to San Diego for your daughter, for some sort of medical issue. Is that correct?


BALDWIN: Yes. Which is why you weren't with your husband.

SCHUMARD: Yes, she was having a procedure done. BALDWIN: Is she OK, by the way?

SCHUMARD: Yes. Yes, she's doing good now.

BALDWIN: OK, OK. And so, OK, a couple of text messages. How do you feel about him -- I understand, you know, you're married to someone that this is part -- this is your life, this is part of your sacrifice. But how do you feel about him going over there in the wake of all of this?

SCHUMARD: It's just been really difficult because it was so last minute. Neither one of us were expecting it. He was on his Christmas leave. You know, it just happened so fast. Everything going on over there, it's just really scary to be honest.

BALDWIN: And when you say "fast," tell me -- can you give me the brief chronology? Like how fast is really fast?

SCHUMARD: Well, I was at work. I got his text message around 10:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m. he went in thinking that it was going to be basically just a drill. And he was there doing, you know, the procedures that he had to do there and never came back home.

So no goodbyes, no -- you know, I thought he was coming back all the way up until about 6:00 p.m. and then found out that he was not.

BALDWIN: How tough is that for you?

SCHUMARD: How fast?

BALDWIN: How tough?

SCHUMARD: I'm sorry, I didn't understand you. Tough -- oh, it's definitely -- like I said, you go -- you get spun. You know, he signed up for this immediate response force, and so you know that this could happen. But of course, no matter what, you know, your life goes on. And when it does happen, it just -- you've still got other things going on in your life, and you weren't necessarily prepared for that, you know. We're in the middle of adoption and now that has to wait until after.

BALDWIN: Oh, my goodness. And so you're in the middle of adoption. You have this daughter who you were flying across the country. She's OK. Did you have other kids back in Fayetteville?

SCHUMARD: Yes, we have five children here. My sister passed away two years ago, so we're in the middle of adopting three of hers.

BALDWIN: Oh, my goodness. You are an incredible human for many reasons. But with all of these children and a husband who now is up, up, and away, do you have a group of spouses or a community who looks after one another when this kind of thing happens?

SCHUMARD: Well, it's kind of an unspoken thing, but you do know like in this community that there, you know, we're all here, it's a small community. And I just urge anyone out there that feels like they have some time or ability to help, to reach out to somebody and see if they need something. That's the best that you can do in situations like this.

BALDWIN: And just last question, April, and that is so you and your husband have just texted. If you could send one message to your husband, what would it be?

SCHUMARD: Come back home safe.

BALDWIN: We're right there with you and wishing the very same thing. April Schumard, thank you very much.

SCHUMARD: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Thank you. Thank you, thank you. Just imagine.

Minutes from now, the gang of eight will get a classified briefing on the intelligence that the White House says led to this targeted strike on Iran's top general. So we'll be watching for their reactions, of course.

Also, stunning before and after images of the earthquake that destroyed one of Puerto Rico's most popular landmarks. We'll take you live to one of the areas hardest hit.



BALDWIN: Puerto Rico is reeling after being hit by one of those powerful earthquakes to strike that island in the past century. The damage to homes and businesses as you can see is extensive. Power has been knocked out to large portions of the island.

One of the quakes destroyed a significant tourist attraction causing this collapse of the picturesque Punta Ventana rock formation and arch. The 6.4 magnitude earthquake just off the island's southern coast this morning.

Couple hours later a 5.6 tremor hit nearby and analysts are fear that the quake could cost the island more than $3 billion in economic losses, and of course, this is all on top of that Hurricane Maria just a couple of years ago.

Leyla Santiago is in Guanica, Puerto Rico. And I mean the pictures tell us the story. The floor is yours.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, let's tell the story of this home right here I want to walk you through it. You can still see you know how it was sort of frozen in time in terms of there are pillows, there are belongings of people who luckily were not inside in the moment.


I spoke to the homeowner, he said he lives here with his 65-year-old mother. They had evacuated because of the tremors earlier in the week, and now they have to plan to have to start to build from scratch and the uncertainty looms.

I mean, that is only one part of the house. And I will show you what else in terms of damage that we've seen on here. And I kind of tell you. Brooke, something that's really hit home for me, as I have spoken to people here in Guanica, the southern part of the island, which was really the toughest hit. They tell me that this is worse than Hurricane Maria. And that really paints the picture because we all remember the images from two years ago.

So let's go over what's happening now in terms of help. The Governor has announced a state of emergency. She has activated the National Guard. So we expect that to be of help to the people here.

But really, this is about uncertainty, because there has been an increase in seismic activity here since December 28th. I, myself, having stood here for the last hour have already felt twice the earth sort of shaking below me. So this is an area that was already vulnerable, because of Hurricane Maria, because of the economic crisis beforehand, and now this.

This is what is left of the homes and the lives of Puerto Ricans still struggling to survive from the last natural disaster. So let's talk about the next big thing, the power grid. Which automatically shut itself off when the last earthquake this morning, the last major earthquake this morning occurred.

Since then, the power station in the south or a power plant in the south, there were reported damages there, but power has slowly started to be restored on the island. Right here where I am standing, there is no power. No home, no power, and no understanding of what could be next on the island of Puerto Rico, given that so many people feel that they don't have anywhere to go, a safe shelter to go to because they don't know what is coming next -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: It really says something that you're saying that area is worse than Hurricane Maria and you would know having covered it extensively. Leyla, thank you so much. We will of course not go to far from you.

I do want to squeak this in, just into CNN, the President is touting his meeting with the Saudi's Deputy Defense Minister on twitter. But the White House Correspondents' Association is noting a major transparency problem.

The thing is the public learned nothing about the meeting until the Saudi government released the statement, and photos of Monday's meeting in the Oval Office where else, on Twitter. Brian Stelter is our CNN chief media correspondent and host of "RELIABLE SOURCES." So again we find about something not from the White House but from the Saudis.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: This is really unusual. This is not how administrations typically operate. But you know, the other day, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, put in call to the White House, spoke with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago actually. And we found out first from the Russians before the White House, this has been happening time and time again with this administration.

And now this Saudi meeting happens and photos come out before the White House even says there was a meeting. So the White House Correspondents' Association is taking the unusual step of issuing a formal complaint about this.

Here's part of the statement from Jonathan Karl. He says, a meeting with a foreign leader in the Oval Office should at the very least be on the public schedule with a readout of the meeting released after it is over. This has been a longstanding precedent for presidents of both political parties.

This statement goes on to say, it is disturbing to see the government of Saudi Arabia have more transparency than the White House about meeting with the President in the Oval Office.

That is very true. And I think that it hits the nail on the head. And by the way, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham has not responded, has not explained why this meeting was left off the schedule or announced at all.

BALDWIN: I was just going to ask. How would the White House explain that? They just haven't.

STELTER: That's a mystery, perhaps they would say, this is the kind of thing that doesn't need to be disclosed to the public but that argument does not hold water. These people are working for us, these people are voted into office by the American people. And these aides are taxpayer funded. So these kinds of meetings should be disclosed and there should be a readout. Typically there's a readout that describes what happened in the meeting.

Now, right after the White House Correspondent's Association made this complaint, President Trump did tweet about the meeting. That's his preferred method, right. He came out and said, we had a great meeting, we talked about military, trade, oil prices, security and stability in the Middle East. There's the tweet from the President.

But I love Twitter, but tweets are no match for an actual formal announcement by the White House. And, Brooke, I always wonder when these things happen, and they happen too often, if these kinds of meetings aren't disclosed to the public and we have to find out from other governments, what else is he doing that we don't know about?

That's the million-dollar question.

BALDWIN: It is, it is. And as I'm looking at you, I'm thinking of our conversation just 24 hours ago, and now count it to 302, just speaking of transparency, 302 days since the White House has held a White House press briefing. Brian Stelter, thank you for holding their feet to the fire as we all should be.

And that is it for me, I'm Brooke Baldwin here in New York, let's go to a snowy Washington, D.C. "The Lead" with Jake Tapper starts right now.