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NEW DAY

Deadly Stampede in Iran Postpones General's Burial; Iran's Foreign Minister is Interviewed about Tensions with U.S.; Pentagon: Letter Suggesting U.S. Troop Withdrawal was 'Mistake'; Powerful Earthquake Rocks Puerto Rico Again; Iran Foreign Minister: Response to Soleimani's Death will Be 'Proportional'; Bolton Prepared to Testify in Senate Trial if Subpoenaed. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 06:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[05:59:12]

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Tuesday, December -- January 7.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good catch.

CAMEROTA: Six o'clock here in New York. And we begin with breaking news for you, because there has been this deadly stampede erupting at the funeral procession for Iran's top general.

Iran state media reports that 35 people have been killed and dozens more hurt. Look at your TV screen right now at all of the people who have turned out for the procession of this slain general, Qasem Soleimani. These are live pictures.

And as you can see, the number of mourners turning out for the commander's burial is massive, but it has been postponed because of this stampede.

And now the leader of Iran's Revolutionary Guard is vowing to, quote, "set ablaze" locations where Americans and their allies live after Iran's parliament voted to designate U.S. forces as terrorists.

CNN has a new interview with Iran's foreign minister where he blasts President Trump. He insists America's days in the Middle East are numbered. He talks about how Iran will respond to all of it. So we will bring you that in just moments.

BERMAN: This comes as the Trump administration struggles to put out a cohesive message about how the United States plans to respond to Iran's latest threat. Some of the message, frankly, just a mess.

The Pentagon is flat-out contradicting the president's claims that Iranian cultural sites will be targeted. And military leaders now claim that a memo that outlined a looming withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq was somehow a mistake. Questions are growing about the initial justification for killing

General Soleimani. Congressional leaders will be briefed today.

And we're also following other breaking news, this from Puerto Rico. A powerful 6.4-magnitude earthquake rattled the island just before dawn. There are reports of widespread power outages and damage. We are going to get a report from there shortly.

Meanwhile, we have reporters covering every development in the Iran crisis. We want to begin with Frederik Pleitgen, live in Tehran.

Fred, you have been in the middle of this, and you caught up with Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, John.

Yes, I caught up with Javad Zarif earlier today in an interview that we did; did one at the compound one, at the foreign ministry here. And basically, what he was saying is that he is still extremely angry, of course, by the killing of Qasem Soleimani, by that targeted killing that took place.

He vowed revenge against the United States. He said for sure Iran is going to take action against the U.S. However, he didn't want to specify what exactly that action was going to be, except for calling it proportionate, saying that it will be something that will certainly damage U.S. interests here in the region.

He also said that he believes that the U.S.'s days in this region are numbered.

But I started off, John, by asking him where can all this end? Because right now, what you have is you have both sides basically trading threats. They're saying they don't want war, but they're also saying they are going to retaliate if something comes from the other side. So the big question is how can war be avoided?

Let's listen into what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: You have said that Iran will retaliate for the targeted killing of General Qasem Soleimani. President Trump has said there would be a disproportionate response if you do that. What do you make of President Trump's threats?

JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: His threats will not frighten us. But what he's showing something -- he's showing to the international community that he has no respect for international law, that he is prepared to commit war crimes, because attacking cultural sites is a war crime. Disproportionate response is a war crime.

But he doesn't -- he doesn't care, it seems, about international law. But has he made U.S. more secure? Do Americans feel more secure? Are Americans welcome today in this region? Do they feel welcome? PLEITGEN: Your government and your leadership and the military here

has vowed to take action against the United States.

ZARIF: Well, the United States --

PLEITGEN: What type of retaliation of that going to be?

ZARIF: The United States violated three principles: Iraqi sovereignty and the agreement that they had with Iraq. They got a response from the Iraqi parliament.

They violated the emotions of the people. They will get a response from the people.

They killed one of our most revered commanders and most senior commanders, and they took responsibility for it. This is state terrorism. This is an act of aggression against Iraq, 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.

PLEITGEN: So you think that you can strike at any point?

ZARIF: Well, we think --

PLEITGEN: Because you obviously -- it's no secret that you control militias in in region, that you have forces that are on your side in this region in many countries.

ZARIF: No, we have people on our side in this region. That's much more important. The United States believes that this beautiful military equipment, according to President Trump, that you spent $2 trillion on these beautiful military equipment. Beautiful military equipment don't rule the world. People rule the world. People.

The United States has to wake up to the reality that the people of this region are enraged, that the people of this region want the United States out, and the United States cannot stay in this region with the people of the region not wanting it anymore.

PLEITGEN: Would it be worth speaking to him?

ZARIF: Well, it doesn't need speaking. He has to realize that he has been fed misinformation, and he needs to wake up and apologize. He has to apologize. He has to change course. He cannot add mistake upon another mistake. He is just making it worse for America.

[06:05:10]

He is destroying the U.S. Constitution. He's destroying the U.S. political process. He's destroying the rule of law in the United States, but that's not for me to say. That's a domestic affair of the United States. He has enraged the people of our region. He has killed people of this region. He has spent a trillion dollars. He said that U.S. had wasted $7 trillion in our region. He has added another trillion. Is the United States more secure today because of that?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: And guys, I also pressed the foreign minister on the fact the Trump administration obviously said that there were clear provocations coming from the Iranian side before that targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani, like, for instance, the rocketing of bases; like, for instance, the killing of a U.S. contractor; like, for instance, the attacks on the U.S. embassy.

Javad Zarif there, telling me that he believed none of that justified the killing of Iran's top general.

Again, the Iranians continue to be extremely angry. As you guys have mentioned, today was supposed to be the burial for Qasem Soleimani. Certainly, they continue to vow revenge. They continue to say that they are going to retaliate, and they are going to retaliate against military sites.

So of course, this entire region, specifically of course, U.S. military in this region still very much on edge -- Alisyn.

BERMAN: I'll take it, Fred. Frederik Pleitgen for us in Tehran. Fred, that was fascinating to hear Javad Zarif with a clear understanding of U.S. domestic politics now. And one of the clear questions being asked, which is, is the United States safer after the attack on General Soleimani?

Want to go to the Pentagon now, where they are doing damage control after they say they mistakenly released a letter suggesting U.S. troops would be leaving Iraq. This adds another level of confusion to this increasing volatile situation.

Our Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon with the latest.

They call it a mistake, Barbara, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a mistake quite like this.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it -- I'll join in that. I don't think I've ever seen anything like this, either. A lot of confusion here at the Pentagon.

First up, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, when asked yesterday by reporters, said the U.S. Military will, no surprise, follow international law; and that means they will not be striking cultural targets, perhaps, regardless of what the president has said. So that's an important data point. Following the law, and that means no cultural targets will be struck in Iran, according to the defense secretary.

Now this letter. Actually, it was a letter from the head of training in Iraq, a U.S. one-star Marine general, to his Iraqi counterpart. Somehow it got leaked, and that's where all the trouble began. The letter actually suggests -- and the Pentagon says it's poorly

worded -- and let me read part. It suggests actual withdrawal may be coming.

It says, "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure." This is a U.S. general to his Iraqi counterpart.

This is not what is happening, of course. The chairman of the joint chiefs, you see there, Mark Milley, came out later and said, "That letter is a draft. It was a mistake. It was unsigned. It should not have been released, poorly worded, implies withdrawal. That is not what is happening." So a lot of confusion.

The Pentagon very quickly coming out, General Milley, and saying that this letter was a mistake, because what it showed is that U.S. forces in Iraq were potentially on quite a different page than the Pentagon, and that is not a mixed message that the Pentagon likes to see.

So they're pushing back very hard on that. U.S. troops are not leaving Iraq. They are repositioning. They're moving around. That's what the letter was all about. Not leaving Iraq, at least not right now -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh, Barbara, so much confusion. Thank you for explaining all of that. And obviously, we will check back with you through the morning.

Breaking overnight, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake rattling Puerto Rico very early this morning. This is the largest in a series of quakes that have hit the island in recent days, causing heavy damage in some areas.

CNN's Leyla Santiago joins us live from San Juan with all of the breaking details. So tell us about the situation there, Leyla.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. Alisyn, this is day two of Puerto Ricans waking up to the ground shaking beneath them. It is being reported as a 6.4-magnitude earthquake.

And I did just check in with the power company here, and they say that there was some damage to one of the power plants in the southern part of the island. Of course, that's where power is generated on this island, so that could be an issue. They're currently assessing some of the substations -- some of the substations. But in the meantime, power is out in most of the island right now.

Now, the good news is that a lot of folks after Hurricane Maria made sure to have generators, so it's almost hard to tell who -- who is on generator and who isn't. So some folks are -- are getting electricity through that form.

[06:10:06]

But lots of damage being reported on the southern part of the island. The mayor of Guayanilla, which is on the southern part of the island, telling WAPA-TV in a live interview this morning that there was a lot of homes damaged there. A Catholic Church has been damaged there and a building downtown.

Yauco is another area that is also reporting damages.

But, you know, to put all of this in context. as you mentioned it off the top, Alisyn, this has been, since December 28, there have been reports of increased seismic activity on this island.

And so yesterday was a big holiday here. So as children were waking up to open their gifts from the Three Kings, as they celebrate Epiphany, an earthquake struck yesterday at that time.

I was more toward the interior part of the island. I was in my hometown, Corozal, and you could really feel that it was a strong one.

And then this morning, I'm in San Juan. I was on the 11th floor when it struck and, again, you're waking up at 4:30 in the morning, local time, to the ground shaking in a way that -- that really is not common here.

The concern is not only power, but it's also that many of these places, as we have reported, are still very vulnerable from the hurricane that struck two years ago. I mean, still, if I look out my window right now, I see a blue tarp. So these are homes that are already not -- that are already vulnerable and have, in some cases, collapsed because of the series of earthquakes that we've seen over the last few days.

The good news is no tsunami warnings in place, so that's sort of the sigh of relief, but people very much concerned of what's to come.

BERMAN: Yes. No doubt after everything they've been through. Leyla, please keep us posted. I know you'll get a better sense of the possible damage as the morning goes on. It's dawn there right now, the light just coming up, people just assessing. Thank you very much for being with us.

In the meantime, Iran's foreign minister tells CNN that that nation will respond proportionally to the killing of its top general. What type of threat is the U.S. facing and where? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (via phone): He should have been taken out a long time ago, and we had a shot at it and we took him out. And we're a lot safer now because of it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: President Trump still insists that the United States is safer after the killing of Iran's top general. But in a new interview, Iran's foreign minister tells CNN that is not true and vows to respond to the killing proportionately. But what does that mean?

Joining us now is Clarissa Ward, CNN chief international correspondent; and Nick Paton Walsh, CNN international security editor. Great to have both of you with all of your vast experience in that region.

Nick, you have written a piece for CNN.com in which you say that the fact that Iran didn't respond immediately, that they seem to be biding their time, tells us something. What does it tell us?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Well, I think many people, perhaps, particularly in the White House with the 24-hour cable news diet, may have been expecting some sort of immediate response that was loud and florid in sort of the days ahead.

But we're getting a clearer message from Iran and its allies in the region that they're probably looking to push the U.S. out of the region as much as they can as the predominant focus of their response. And that is a multi-monthlong, frankly, an impossible task, given there are tens of thousands of U.S. troops here.

But the slow nature of that is something, I think, perhaps that Javad Zarif is beginning to realize in the interview with Fred there, where he talks about is America safer, seems to appeal to the American electorate.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanese Hezbollah here, a key Iranian ally, talked about how they would send American troops home from the region in coffins, and that would impact on Donald Trump's electoral chances.

So I think that we're beginning to settle, possibly, on a strategy. Unclear precisely how that will be prosecuted by Iran, but they're no short of targets here in the region. U.S. troops, though, on a high state of alert.

BERMAN: You know, Clarissa, it's interesting. "The New York Times" is reporting this morning that Iran's supreme leader wants there to be an Iranian military response. That's different than having a proxy like Hezbollah in Beirut, where Nick is right now, respond. A direct Iranian military response.

On the other hand, I've had some friends in the region, including Syrians, who suffered at the hands of Iran, tell me they think Iran could be a paper tiger. They think maybe Iran won't do something militarily. They would be scared to act overtly. How do you see it?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think, John, definitely, the fact that we're hearing Javad Zarif in that interview with Fred Pleitgen taking, certainly, not a conciliatory tone but a tone that would appear to be deescalating the situation, vowing that there will be some kind of revenge but it will be proportional. It's not clear when it will take place.

As you said, "The New York Times" reporting that the supreme leader saying that it will be a direct response from the Iranian military, thereby kind of ruling out the possibility of using proxies. All of this seemingly indicating that Iran does not want this to spiral out of control. Iran does not want to see a massive military conflagration on its doorstep. It simply cannot afford to.

The real question, though, becomes how trustworthy is Iran on this issue? And it's important for our viewers to remember when we're listening to these interviews with Zarif, when we're hearing these statements from the supreme leader, that these are not necessarily people with a stellar track record of telling the truth. There is a lot of shrewd, savvy cunning that goes on with strategizing. And the Iranians are not likely to sort of tip their hand to let the U.S. And the rest of the world know what exactly they plan to do to retaliate. But it's entirely possible, John, that they simply don't know yet.

[06:20:05]

CAMEROTA: But, I mean, Nick, therein lies the rub. Are they trying to avoid a bigger conflagration? Or do they not want to deescalate, because they're so offended by what has happened?

WALSH: Look, they, obviously, for their position in the region, have to respond in some kind of way, but they are tacticians. They're escalatory in what they do.

So yes, you're probably not going to see an over military confrontation, because any Iranian general would know they would, hands down, lose that.

We have, possibly, also, a strategy of trying to pressure the U.S. out of the region, seeing some sense that may have some success in Iraq. That would impact the presence in Syria.

And remember, too, Donald Trump, while he seems to allergically react to the idea of being forced to withdraw from the region, has said he wants out of the Middle East. He's called Syria "sand and death." He's made no real secret of the fact he doesn't believe a lengthy U.S. investment here, possibly 80,000 troops at its peak, at times, right now, is something that the United States necessarily needs.

Could Iran possibly pursue something else? Well, remember, the one thing it's actually done at this point is say it will reduce its remaining commitments out of the nuclear deal, not pull out of it. And that could see them possibly, covertly, trying to get closer to a nuclear weapon. That's the nightmare scenario for the region that is possibly going to change the balance of power entirely here.

So we will, I think, see more formulation of this in the weeks ahead, John.

BERMAN: Clarissa, is it clear what the Iranian domestic population is calling for at this point? It seems more unifying than it has been the last few months.

WARD: Well, that's what's so interesting about all of this, John, because, essentially, the Trump administration has been pretty open about the fact that they would love to see regime change take place in Iran.

But with an act like this, what you've actually seen happening is the Iranian government kind of galvanizing public support. And you look at those crowds at the funeral march, and as we saw today with the stampede. Hundreds of thousands if not, as the Iranians claim, millions of people coming out to pay respect to this man. And these are not just hardliners who are coming out. These are also reformers. These are also people who do not support the supreme leader, who do not support President Hassan Rouhani.

But they feel in this moment unified in their indignance and outrage at being targeted in this way by the United States. They feel united in their outrage and bitterness about the U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement. And that, potentially, is a very powerful weapon for the Iranian government to latch onto and use to even consolidate power.

CAMEROTA: Clarissa Ward, Nick Paton Walsh, thank you very much for all of your expertise and sharing it with us this morning.

Former national security adviser John Bolton says he is prepared to testify at the Senate impeachment trial.

BERMAN: That's awfully big of him.

CAMEROTA: Well, it's a shift in tone, as you know, John. But will Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell let that happen? We discuss that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:27:18]

BERMAN: Developing this morning, who saw this coming?

CAMEROTA: I did.

BERMAN: Sort of. Sort of.

CAMEROTA: I did.

BERMAN: President Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton, now says he is willing to testify in a Senate impeachment trial if he is subpoenaed.

Democrats had been pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow witnesses. But sources tell CNN that Bolton's statement is unlikely to change McConnell's strategy.

Joining us now, CNN political commentator Joe Lockhart.

This is what John Bolton now, after the entire impeachment investigation, conveniently says. "Since my testimony is once again an issue, I have had to resolve the serious competing issues as best I could, based on careful consideration and study. I have concluded that, if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify."

What's going on here, Joe? JOE LOCKHART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, color me a John Bolton skeptic. If he wanted to testify, he could have testified in the House. He could voluntarily testify, go up to Democratic staff members and be deposed. He doesn't really want to testify.

What he doesn't want is to be seen as unwilling to testify and then writing a book about it. So I think he has judged that McConnell has dug in, will not issue subpoenas. So he saw an opening to help himself and say, Oh, I want to testify, as long as I get a subpoena.

You know, it will be interesting to see if House Democrats throw a subpoena in his direction to test that.

CAMEROTA: And then what happens? Just explain that scenario. So now it's -- it's, theoretically, in the Senate's hands, though Nancy Pelosi hasn't handed over the articles of impeachment. So if the House Democrats want to subpoena him, does that then get put into the articles of impeachment? Like, what happens if they subpoena him now?

LOCKHART: There -- I mean, the easiest way to describe it is there's no real rules here. They could, you know, have an additional article. They could take the deposition and attach it to the articles. They have the case they want to make. But Bolton does strengthen it.

So I think, again, if Bolton thought that his testimony was so important for us to getting to the truth here, he could walk right up to the House Intelligence Committee and say, I want to sit for a deposition. Then everyone can decide whether there should be witnesses over in the Senate or not.

BERMAN: John Bolton --

LOCKHART: I think he doesn't want that to happen.

BERMAN: If John Bolton wants to tell his story, John Bolton can tell his story to a variety of people very quickly.

Two questions here, Joe, and Alisyn got to one of them, which is why -- you know, if Mitch McConnell's not going to allow witnesses, first of all, what is he afraid of with John Bolton?

LOCKHART: Yes.

BERMAN: And second of all, if it doesn't happen, why doesn't Adam Schiff say, OK, here's the House subpoena?

LOCKHART: Well, I think McConnell wants to get through this as fast as he can. He's afraid of all testimony. He's -- he knows that if Mulvaney comes up, if Bolton comes up.

END