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Sen. Angus King (I-ME) On Today's Iran Briefing Of Top Congressional Leaders; Iran Supreme Leader Wants Direct, Proportional Retaliation; U.S. Sends Help To Fight Australia's Fires. Aired 7:30- 8a ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 07:30   ET




JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: For the first time, today, congressional leaders will be briefed on the drone strike that killed Iran's top general as questions mount about the justification for carrying out the killing.

Joining us now is Sen. Angus King. He's a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services Committee, from the great state of Maine. Senator King, thanks so much for being with us this morning.

SEN. ANGUS KING (I-ME): Yes, sir.

BERMAN: We just learned moments ago that the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will also brief the press at 10:00 a.m. this morning. This, of course, before the briefing later today with the Gang of Eight in Congress.

What questions do you have for Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, who says the United States is safer as a result of the killing of Gen. Soleimani and also says that the attack was based on an imminent threat without producing the evidence? So what questions do you have?

KING: Well, I think there are two or three issues to start with. One was should there have been consultation with Congress and, as you point out, was it an imminent threat? What does the intelligence say? I have not yet seen that intelligence. I am having a briefing this afternoon at the Intelligence Committee. Hopefully, we'll be able to dig into that.

But, John, I really think the more important question is not whether it was legal or consultation or all of that, whether it was a smart move.

As I see it, it was the opposite -- that they've strengthened the regime in Iran. Two weeks ago there were protests against the regime. Now, there are protests against us -- massive protests. They've given the regime an outside target to divert from their sort of internal problems of the economy. We've given ISIS a new foothold in Iraq as we've already done in

Syria. We've alienated our European allies. Certainly, people -- Americans in the Middle East cannot feel safer today than they did this time last week.

The list goes on and on. We just heard this morning that Russia is graciously offering to step into Iraq, and we're talking about the possibility of the Iraqis expelling us. Ironically, one of Soleimani's principal goals was to get us out of Iraq and this killing may have -- may end up resulting in the goal that he wanted to achieve.

So I think the real question, John, is what was the strategy here, what are the next steps? We don't know what the -- what the response is going to be. I happen to think it might be a cyber response, which could be very -- I don't know if catastrophic --

BERMAN: Well, let's talk about that.

KING: -- is the right word.

BERMAN: Let's talk about that, Senator, because yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Awareness System asked American organizations, especially those involved in supporting the country's critical infrastructure, to adopt a state of heightened awareness.

How vulnerable do you think the U.S. is to an Iranian cyberattack?

KING: We are very vulnerable. I am glad to know that they -- I was glad when they made that statement. I think they should -- we should be on high alert because I think cyber is one of Iran's possible actions.

The Soviet Union and China -- or the Soviet Union -- and there it goes -- Russia and China are the major actors in the cyber realm, but Iran has a significant capability which they've exercised in the past.

So the answer is yes, there are vulnerabilities no matter how much we try to patch and defend, and I think this is one of the possible responses.

But again, the overall picture is that -- you mentioned at the introduction -- are we safer today because of this move and I think the answer is clearly no.

Now, you've got to acknowledge Soleimani was a terrible guy --


KING: -- with a lot of blood on his hands and it was a -- it's a good thing to get him out of the -- off the world stage. The question is the timing --

BERMAN: Right.

KING: -- and the place, and why now, which has created all this cascade of problems.

BERMAN: I want to ask you another aspect of your job these days, which is a --

KING: Yes.

BERMAN: -- potential juror in a Senate impeachment trial.


We learned yesterday the former national security adviser John Bolton now says he would testify to the Senate if he received a subpoena. This is after declining the invitation to speak to the House during its impeachment process.

You wrote an op-ed -- a terrific op-ed one month ago where you compared John Bolton to a Sherlock Holmes character where you said basically, he was the dog that didn't bark. You can tell the guilt of a matter by the dog that didn't bark. He's now willing to bark, he says. He's now willing to come and bark before the Senate.

What does that tell you?

KING: Well, I think he should -- he should have come before the House -- and I think the Senate should take his testimony. I can't imagine, with a straight face, how anybody around here could say we don't want to hear the evidence -- we don't to hear the facts.

And by the way, I have no idea what John Bolton is going to say. He could -- he could extricate the president from this entirely or he could incriminate him, and I don't think anybody really knows. But the point is we ought to have the evidence from John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney, and Duffey, and the others -- and the documents.

I mean, the posture of some of my colleagues is hear no evil, see no evil, and take no evidence. And I don't see how anybody can take that oath that we're going to have to take to do impartial justice in a trial -- the Constitution uses the word trial --

BERMAN: Right.

KING: -- without trying to get whatever evidence is available.

BERMAN: Marco Rubio says it should have come out before the House and given that it didn't come out in the House process, the Senate's not the place to do it.

KING: Well, that just doesn't make sense. I mean, we have to make our own judgment on what happened. What did the president do and why did he do it?

And we ought to have all the information we can get. And to whether or not they got it in the House and whether they should have pursued the subpoenas through the courts -- whatever that is -- that doesn't alleviate our responsibility to make our judgment based upon whatever evidence is available.

BERMAN: One of the key Senate votes might come from your colleague from Maine, Sen. Susan Collins, who from my understanding so far, has said yes, she's open to hearing witnesses but she sides with Mitch McConnell that the Senate trial should start without an agreement to hear witnesses.

KING: Well, it looks like that's what's going to happen and the question is are we just postponing a day of reckoning on witnesses to the middle of the trial?

Again, remember, senators have to take a special oath. This is not -- we're not legislating here; we're literally acting as jurors in a trial prescribed by the Constitution. The oath says do impartial justice. And frankly, I don't see how some of my colleagues can do that having already said they know what the case -- how the case is going to come out. And I -- that's a criticism of several people on both sides.

But I think we're going to have to get to this vote. I'd be surprised if there's a unified Republican vote to say we don't want the evidence because they're going to have to live with that vote. They're going to have to live with that vote.

That's going to be -- as Lincoln says, this -- the fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation, and that's exactly what we're facing here. This is history and I think we need to get it right.

BERMAN: Sen. Angus King from Maine, always great to have you on the show.

KING: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: Please come back soon -- Alisyn.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: John, how will Iran respond to the killing of Gen. Soleimani and how is the U.S. preparing for that response?



CAMEROTA: Iran is vowing revenge for the U.S. killing of their top military general. "The New York Times" reports this morning that Iran's supreme leader says any retaliation must be quote "direct and proportional and carried out in the open by Iranian forces." This is a notable change from the usual tactic of the regime hiding behind proxies.

Joining us now is Michele Flournoy. She served as undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration. She was a principal adviser to defense secretaries Gates and Panetta. Ms. Flournoy, I thank you very much for being here.

First things first. Do you believe that Gen. Soleimani was planning an imminent attack on the United States?

MICHELE FLOURNOY, FORMER UNDERSECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR POLICY, CO- FOUNDER AND CEO, CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SECURITY: Well, I think that's one of the questions that should be asked of Sec. Pompeo when he speaks later this morning.

It's not clear whether this was sort of business as usual -- he's always planning attacks -- or whether there was something specific -- a specific plot that they were trying to disrupt. But if that -- if there was a specific plot, the question I have is why didn't you attack the potential perpetrators? That's the way you disrupt an attack; not going after the sort of overseer or the overall commander who is not actually executing the plot.

So I think there's some questions that the administration has to answer there.

CAMEROTA: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as President Trump, blames the administration that you were part of, the Obama administration, for the predicament that they say they were now in.

So here is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday, on CNN, talking about that.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: Jake, we're trying to restore deterrence that frankly, is a need that results directly from the fact that the previous administration left us in a terrible place with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Team Obama appeased Iran and it led to Shia militias with money, Hamas, the PIJ, hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed by Soleimani, himself.

This was the place we found ourselves when we came in.


CAMEROTA: What's your response to hearing that?

FLOURNOY: I think that's unfair. We're three years into this administration.

And I think the situation we find ourselves in now stems from the fact that President Trump decided to walk away from a nuclear deal that was working and constraining the nuclear program in Iran. They then imposed a maximum pressure campaign with sanctions and other things, but without a clear path to negotiations, without clear strategy or objectives.


And then when Iran, frustrated that it couldn't get the United States back to the table no matter what it did -- it started putting a series of provocations in place. So first, shooting down drones, attacking shipping, then hitting a Saudi oil field -- or oil infrastructure, all without a U.S. response. So the failure of deterrence that we've seen is on this administration's watch and they are accountable for that.

So now you have a situation where finally, the Iranians escalate to the point where they actually kill an American and then the president responds. But he responds with an option where he doesn't seem to have thought through the larger strategic consequences in terms of putting Americans across the region at risk, both our embassies and our forces, completely disrupting and undermining the relationship with Iran and our campaign against ISIS there.

And now, opening a Pandora's box of targeted killing of officials. So, you know, what's to stop Iran from targeting a U.S. senior official who is traveling in the region, going forward?

So this was a tactical move that was made without any regard for strategy, without any regard for strategic consequence, more broadly.

CAMEROTA: And so, what is going to happen next? I mean, you know Iran -- you dealt with them during your years as an undersecretary of defense. What are they going to do next?

FLOURNOY: Iran tends to telegraph what they plan to do and we've heard them say there will be retaliation. It may be proxies but it's also quite likely now to be with Iranian forces, as we've been told.

That could be a tax on our ships in the Gulf. It could be an attack on our U.S. forces anywhere in the region where they have opportunity. It could be attacks on our embassies. So I think the threat to Americans in the region, the threat to our national security is substantially higher today than it was before the attack.

And then you have to consider how does President Trump respond to that. There's a very real risk of miscalculation and stumbling into a direct conflict with Iran that neither side says they want.

CAMEROTA: We're just getting a little bit of breaking news that I want to bounce off of you.

Robert O'Brien is on a different morning show at the moment and he just gave a little bit more information about what he claims the underlying intelligence was. Here's all we know. The Iranians were planning to target a facility that contained diplomats -- a facility that contained diplomats.

What does that tell you?

FLOURNOY: It means that he -- there may have been further attacks planned on our embassy, whether it was in Iraq or elsewhere. But again, if that's the -- if that's true, why wouldn't you target the actual perpetrators of that attack to disrupt it as opposed to a targeted killing of probably the second-most powerful person in the Iranian regime, which opens up a whole range of strategic consequences that I think dramatically escalated the situation and the risk to Americans?

CAMEROTA: Michele Flournoy, we really appreciate all of your experience in this department. Thank you very much for coming on.

FLOURNOY: Glad to talk with you -- thanks.


BERMAN: We're just getting some staggering new numbers from the unrelenting fires in Australia. Nearly 2,000 homes damaged or destroyed. We have a heartbreaking look at what's going on there, next.



BERMAN: So, one major new development in the impeachment saga is John Bolton, former national security adviser, says he will testify to the Senate if subpoenaed.

CAMEROTA: I think that's a big development.

BERMAN: It's a very big development. We'll see if anything happens there.

But there have been a number of really important developments over the last few days, including reporting on memos and e-mails that we hadn't seen that shed new light on a lot of stuff here.

John Avlon with a reality check -- John.


So, you might remember that in December, the Center for Public Integrity successfully sued to get e-mails that the Trump administration was trying to hide. Now, they came back looking a lot like this but they still revealed significant information like the fact that the request to hold the Ukraine military aid came about 90 minutes after President Trump asked the new president of Ukraine to do us a favor by digging up dirt on the Bidens.

Well, a site called Just Security revealed what was beneath those redactions and it showed what the Trump administration didn't want you to see -- senior defense officials expressing urgent concern that the president's hold on Ukraine military aid broke the law.

Now, many of the e-mails are between Michael Duffey at OBM, and Elaine McCusker, the acting Pentagon comptroller. We see Duffey directing McCusker to delay the Ukraine aid with McCusker trying to get a straight answer about why this was all happening and warning it could break the law if Congress wasn't informed.

When a deadline passed in August, McCusker explained that certain paperwork was " necessary -- legal teams were discussing last week." Her comments were redacted.

She passed on questions she'd received from the Senate. "Has OMB directed DOD to halt execution of the funds for Ukraine security? If so, when, and what was the reason given?"

Then the deputy defense secretary got involved and drafted a letter that was entirely redacted by the DOJ, but according to the Justice Security said, "We have repeatedly advised OMB officials that pauses beyond August 19the jeopardize the Department's ability to obligate funding prudently and fully."

Then, after Politico first reported the hold on the Ukraine aid, the OMB general counsel sent over the administration's talking points. McCusker refused to roll over. Quote, "I don't agree with the revised talking points. The last one is just not accurate -- something we have been consistently conveying for a few weeks." In other words, she wasn't willing to lie for the president.

But two days later, after a meeting between Trump, Pompeo, and the secretary of defense, Duffey wrote McCusker "Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold." Now, this is a big deal because it communicates a direct order from the president and it blows up yet another of the talking points we've heard from Republicans.



REP. LOUIE GOHMERT (R-TX): The evidence is a bunch of hearsay on hearsay.


AVLON: Then Duffey deflected to blame the Pentagon for any aid not released, causing McCusker to exclaim "You can't be serious. I am speechless." This, too, was redacted.

These e-mails show Trump appointees and nonpartisan public servants tug between the president's demands and the law. The Trump Justice Department also seems to approach redaction with an eye towards protecting the president's cover story rather than protecting national security information.

Now, common sense will tell you this new information is highly relevant to any Senate trial and it only came about because of dogged reporting. But if you missed it, it may be because the day after these unredacted e-mails were published, President Trump decided to target Gen. Soleimani, shocking his military adviser.

Now, we don't know if the president's playing a game of wag the dog here but he certainly did float the idea a few times when Obama was president.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our president will start a war with Iran because he thinks that's the only way he can get elected.

(END VIDEO CLIP) AVLON: And that's your reality check.

CAMEROTA: That is so helpful, John. I'm so glad you're reminding us and telling us what was in those e-mails because so many people missed it.

AVLON: That's right.

CAMEROTA: Thank you.

The U.S. sending reinforcements to Australia to help fight the bushfires that have devastated large parts of the country. A team of wildfire specialists from California are on their way to Australia. The fires, so far, have destroyed more than 1,300 homes in New South Wales alone, and it is estimated about half a billion animals have been killed in the fires.

CNN's Anna Coren is live in Australia with the latest. These numbers are staggering, Anna.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it truly is quite extraordinary, Alisyn. There are more than 200 fires that are burning across southeastern Australia. Dozens of them are out of control.

And we found out today that the cost of the fires is up to half a billion dollars. Well, that figure is expected to rise.

Now, some residents, they are returning to their homes relieved to find that they are still standing. But for some, it has been a heartbreaking experience.


COREN (voice-over): Heading up the driveway towards his home through the burnt-out bush, Bruce Honeyman knew what was waiting for him.

BRUCE HONEYMAN, LOST HOME IN AUSTRALIA WILDFIRES: This is all. The house is -- it's all gone. It's all gone.

COREN (voice-over): The mudbrick home he shared with his partner, Julie-Ann Grima, reduced to smoldering rubble after the border fire that crossed Victoria into New South Wales roared through townships, including Pericoe, west of Aydan, just a few days ago.

HONEYMAN: The ferocity of this sort of fire is unbelievable and we made the right decision to evacuate, and for that, I'm thankful, yes. But, yes --

COREN (voice-over): They were preparing for the worst. The reality, however, devastating. The speed of the fire evident from its indiscriminate nature. It completely raised the house while leaving the newly-built pergola intact just a few meters away.

For battle-weary firefighters who have been in the thick of it for months, the magnitude of this crisis clearly taking its toll. CLINT BRADLEY, RURAL FIRE SERVICE: I get a lump in my throat

sometimes seeing people who come -- yes -- come and find this. Then it makes me think how I would feel if it was me.

COREN (on camera): Julianne and Bruce are one of thousands of families that have returned to their homes that are no longer there.

And while the rain has arrived, it's only short-lived. Those dry, hot conditions are expected to return and there are still months remaining of Australia's fire season.

Their bush sanctuary, the result of 10 years' hard work, now a memory. But their resolve to rebuild and restore their life in this natural habitat unwavering.

JULIE-ANN GRIMA, LOST HOME IN AUSTRALIA WILDFIRES: This is the risk you have when you're in -- when you're in the bush, and this is Australia. We will reassess what we do from here and this will still be home. We've got -- we've got more things than what some people have got and we've got to be thankful for that.


COREN: Alisyn, the devastation just so widespread and yet, their resilience is truly inspiring.

And as Australians do in times of adversity, they come together -- and that is what is happening. Millions of dollars is being raised, including from many high-profile celebrities, going towards those bushfire victims, as well as the firefighters out there battling these fires now for months.

So, really, even though things have calmed down John.