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THE SITUATION ROOM

Trump Administration Briefs Congress On Iran Attack; Interview With Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA); Interview With Sen. Chris Murphy (D- CT); Defense Secretary: U.S Isn't Looking To Start A War With Iran But Is Prepared To Finish One; Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Takes Credit For Rocket Attack Against Iraqi Base Housing U.S. Troops. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Administration officials defend the intelligence, calling it persuasive, and insisting they were forced to kill Iran's top general because an attack on Americans was imminent.

And McConnell's message. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announces he has the votes he needs to begin President Trump's impeachment trial without a decision on whether witnesses will be called, as Democrats demand.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Significant new developments tonight in the crisis with Iran, including a closed-door briefing that's just ended for eight key members of Congress on the intelligence the Trump administration is using to justify the targeted killing of Iran's top general.

The president himself is hardening his line on Iran, saying -- and I'm quoting now -- "We are prepared to attack, if we have to," and that the country will suffer consequences if it does anything it shouldn't, talking about Iran.

We're also following a major development in President Trump's looming impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. The majority leader, Mitch McConnell, now says he has the votes needed to start the proceeding without any witnesses, who Democratic see as an essential a part of a fair trial.

We will talk about all of this was Senator Chris Murphy of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go straight to the White House.

Our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta, is on the story for us.

Jim, the president and his team, they are saying there was absolutely no choice but to kill a top -- the top general for Iran because an attack on Americans was just days away.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And national security officials are just wrapping up a briefing with congressional leaders who make up the so-called Gang of Eight up on Capitol Hill. Those lawmakers were mostly tight-lipped coming out of that meeting just a short while ago.

In the meantime, the Trump administration is still providing the public with conflicting explanations for the president's claim that the strike on Iranian General Qasem Soleimani prevented an imminent attack.

And the president added more anxiety to the situation today, declaring from the Oval Office that the U.S. is ready to strike if Iran retaliates.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was a monster.

ACOSTA (voice-over): With U.S. troops on high alert for Iran to retaliate after the targeted killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, President Trump is beating the drums of war, vowing to respond if Tehran hits back.

TRUMP: If Iran does anything that they shouldn't be doing, they're going to be suffering the consequences. We're prepared to attack if we have to.

ACOSTA: The president appeared to walk back his warning that U.S. forces could destroy Iranian cultural sites during an American response.

TRUMP: And you know what? If that what the law is, 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 very gentle with their cultural institutions.

ACOSTA: But Mr. Trump defended his decision to take out Soleimani, chalking it up as an act of both prevention and retaliation.

TRUMP: We had tremendous information. We have been following him for a long time. And we followed his path for those three days. And they were not good stops. We didn't like where he was stopping. They were not good stops. We saved a lot of lives.

ACOSTA: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is also talking tough.

MARK ESPER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We are not looking to start a war with Iran. But we are prepared to finish one.

ACOSTA: With Democrats demanding that the administration provide proof to back up its claim that an Iranian-orchestrated attack was imminent, Esper first told CNN's Christiane Amanpour such an operation was just days or weeks away.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Ticking time bomb, imminent threat, is that what you're saying?

ESPER: I think the threat was being orchestrated by Soleimani. That's what the intelligence reported. That's what he was doing on the ground in both Baghdad and Damascus and elsewhere. And I think it was only a matter of days, certainly no more than weeks.

ACOSTA: Esper then clarified that to just a matter of days at a Pentagon briefing.

ESPER: I think it's more fair to say days, for sure.

ACOSTA: That was more specific than what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: So, if you're looking for imminence, you need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani.

ACOSTA: The president also claimed he didn't know about an unsigned letter from a U.S. general that appeared to signal that American forces were pulling out of Iraq. That letter confused Iraqi leaders, who had just voted to ask the U.S. military to leave their country.

TRUMP: Well, I don't know anything about that letter. That letter was sent. And I understand it was an unsigned letter.

At some point, we want to get out. But this isn't the right point.

ACOSTA: Democrats are pouncing on the president's handling of the sudden Iran crisis, with former Vice President Joe Biden saying Mr. Trump can't be trusted.

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: All we have heard from this administration are shifting explanations, evasive answers, repeated assertions of an imminent threat. Neither the American people, nor our allies and, indeed, no one around the world seems to be taking his word for it.

ACOSTA: On impeachment, the president appeared to dismiss an offer from former National Security Adviser John Bolton to testify at Mr. Trump's trial in the Senate. Bolton, the president insisted, wouldn't have much to offer, despite top administration officials testifying otherwise.

[18:05:14]

TRUMP: That's going to be up to the lawyers. It'll be up to the Senate. And we will see how they feel. He would know nothing about what we're talking about.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, the White House hasn't exactly been transparent with the public since the killing of Soleimani.

Today, a Saudi defense minister -- deputy defense minister tweeted that he had met with the president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in the Oval Office on Monday to discuss security issues in the region.

The problem is -- and you're looking at it right here -- the Saudis released these photos well before the White House even acknowledged the meeting took place.

In a pointed statement from the White House Correspondents Association, that organization criticized the administration, saying: "It's disturbing to see that the government of Saudi Arabia have more transparency than the White House about a meeting that the president has in the Oval Office."

Moments after this statement was released, the president tweeted about his meeting.

And, Wolf, we were just mentioning a few moments ago the Pentagon had a briefing today. The State Department had a briefing today with those two secretaries. But we have not had a traditional White House briefing over here at the White House in more than 300 days, despite the possibility of war, despite the possibility of the president being removed from office, no briefings over here at the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House for us, thank you very much.

Let's go over to the Pentagon right now.

Our Pentagon Correspondent, Barbara Starr, is working her sources for us.

Barbara, you have some new reporting that U.S. forces in the Middle East, they are on high alert right now. How close is the United States to war with Iran?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, at that Pentagon press conference earlier today, Wolf, Defense Secretary Mark Esper made clear his two top priorities on this right now are protection of U.S. forces in the region and ensuring that they are fully ready to fight if it comes to that.

Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ESPER: I think we should expect that they will retaliate in some way, shape or form, either through their proxies, as they have been doing now for how many years, or by -- and/or with by their -- by their own hand.

And so we take this one step at a time. We're prepared for any contingency. And then we will -- we will respond appropriately to whatever they do.

STARR: Does the U.S. have any responsibility or obligation to also de-escalate, or is that, in your view, solely in Iran's court?

ESPER: We reached the point where we had to act in self-defense. We had to take appropriate action. So, at this point, as I have said a few times now, the ball is in their court. What they do next will determine what happens in the subsequent moves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: Esper also said that the U.S. is still willing to sit down and talk to Iran, but with no preconditions. Don't expect to see that happen anytime soon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

Let's go to Capitol Hill right now. A select group of lawmakers has been getting briefed on the intelligence behind the decision to target Iran's top general.

Our Congressional Correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is joining us right now.

What are you picking up, Phil?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this is the highest-level briefing that can be given to congressional leaders, the leaders with the highest level of classification, that they can receive.

We had two administration -- at least two administration officials who are up here meeting with those leaders, Paul Nakasone, the director of the NSA, also Joseph Maguire, the director of national intelligence.

And why this is so important, Wolf, is this bipartisan briefing for people, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the chairs and rankings of the House Intelligence and Senate Intelligence committees, is, it comes amid continued questions for Democrats about the decision to strike Qasem Soleimani in Iraq earlier this week.

Democrats have raised serious concerns about the intelligence that led to that attack. They have raised serious concerns about whether there is a strategy to come after that attack.

Now, Wolf, we were sitting outside the meeting that was taking place in a classified room. None of the leaders who came out said anything at all, which is somewhat par for the course. They are not allowed to discuss these meetings. They're certainly not allowed to talk about the intelligence.

But it's important to note that this meeting comes before all senators, all members of the House will get their own briefing from top administration officials tomorrow.

Now, Republicans have stayed very closely behind the president on this action, making clear Soleimani was a terrorist, in their words, somebody who needed to be taken out. But the big question now going forward is twofold. One, what happens next?

And, two, what about the intelligence? One of the questions I have heard from members, both parties, is the administration sent up a classified war powers notification. That notification, according to members in both parties that I have spoken to, didn't have the type of information that those members believe should be classified.

And it all goes into the idea right now that members aren't sure they are getting the type of information they should be related to an operation of this significance. The administration will keep that effort going tomorrow in those briefings for the House and Senate -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Phil, the impeachment trial in the Senate is also looming. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, now says he has the votes to set the rules for the trial without Democratic support.

How significant is this?

[18:10:02]

MATTINGLY: Yes, no shortage of historic things going on right now on Capitol Hill.

Look, it's significant for this particular reason. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has 53 Republicans in his conference in the United States Senate, has been able to keep all of those Republicans in line to move forward on this.

Now, Wolf, back in 1999, you remember, the Clinton impeachment trial, this initial rules resolution was bipartisan, passed 100-0. But the impasse between Senators McConnell and Schumer over whether or not to have witnesses set in place at the beginning of the trial has simply not broken.

And because of that, and because Mitch McConnell was able to keep all of Republicans in line with his proposal, he's willing to move forward on a partisan basis.

Now, here's what that proposal would do. It would allow for both sides, the House managers and the White House defense team, to file briefs. Then they would each give presentations. Then senators would be able to ask questions of both teams.

After that point, they -- either the managers, either the defense team or senators could ask for witnesses, could ask to subpoena documents. And a simple majority vote would be all it would take to get any of those things possible.

Now, Schumer wanted those things at the beginning of the trial, wanted to lock them in. It's very clear now McConnell has not only kept his members in line, but is willing to move forward on a partisan basis to at least get the trial started.

Of course, one caveat here, Wolf, still don't have the articles of impeachment. Waiting to hear what Speaker Pelosi says on what her plans are for actually sending those to the Senate. Some expectation it will be in the weeks -- or at some point this week. We just don't know yet -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we will wait and see.

Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill, thank you.

And let's talk about all of this with Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

And let me get your reaction to all the news that's unfolding.

The defense secretary, as you know, he says it was only a matter of days, days, before Soleimani was going to carry out what the president insists would have been a very big attack against Americans. Have you seen any intelligence to support that claim?

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): None.

I know that the eight leaders were briefed today. But it is very regular to be five days after a massive U.S. military attack on a foreign government, and to not have that information shared with members of Congress. There's no reason why members of Congress and the American public should be in the dark for this long.

And, of course, the administration's burden here, Wolf, as you know, is not just to produce evidence of the imminence of this attack, but also to explain why this level of provocative nonstrategic escalation was necessary.

There are all sorts of ways that the U.S. military games out protecting our assets from possible attack. You harden your defenses. You go after the other country or other group's military assets that are going to be used in that attack.

But executing the second most powerful person in Iran, they knew, was going to unleash a fury of downside consequences to the United States that we're seeing today.

I also think that Mark Esper -- Secretary Esper has to decide. At one point, they're saying that this attack was necessary in order to prevent future attacks against the United States. And, today, Esper is saying that they actually anticipate new attacks being launched against the United States, attacks that might be happening as we speak.

So I just think the administration is just sending confusing signals left and right. We're all looking forward to this briefing tomorrow.

BLITZER: I know you have seen some of the intelligence that's been made available to members of Congress, but you're going to be formally briefed by Trump administration officials tomorrow.

Give us the most important specific question you want answered.

MURPHY: Well, I want to understand why they felt that assassinating Qasem Soleimani was the necessary step and whether they had gamed out all of the disastrous consequences that have already accrued to the United States.

Now, setting aside the inevitable military reprisal from Iran, we have already had Iraq order all of our troops out of the country, or at least take initial steps to do so. We have had Iran restart their nuclear weapons program. We have had NATO suspend their anti-ISIS mission.

We have had the United States government suspend its anti-ISIS mission. That is a set of disastrous consequences for U.S. national security. And so they need to explain to us, first and foremost, whether they had anticipated those consequences, and what they are going to do to stop this from descending into a march towards war with Iran.

BLITZER: The Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, says the U.S. is not looking to start a war with Iran, but, in his words, is prepared to finish one.

The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told our friend Fred Pleitgen in Tehran today that Iran will respond to what it perceives and what is calling state terrorism on the part of the president of the United States.

How do you de-escalate all of this and avoid a war?

MURPHY: Well, first of all, let's take on this notion of finishing a war with Iran, right? The reason that we're in this mess today is because we still have 5,000 troops in Iraq who haven't been able to finish a war with Iraq, in Iraq, that started in 2003.

[18:15:10]

And so the idea that anybody in the Department of Defense thinks that you could finish a war with Iran, a place that's twice as big as Iraq, where a counterinsurgency will exist forever, just denies the basic reality of the Middle East.

Listen, there's got to be a diplomatic path at some point here. There's got to be an off-ramp that the United States offers Iran. And, right now, that simply doesn't exist. There's no high-level communication between the two sides. And if that doesn't occur very soon, then this very well may lead to a conventional war or a war involving other allies in the region like Israel that will be potentially catastrophic.

BLITZER: On Saturday, you tweeted this. And I will put it up on the screen.

You said this: "The moment we all feared is likely upon us, an unstable president in way over his head panicking, with all his experienced advisers having quit, and only the sycophantic amateurs remaining, assassinating foreign leaders, announcing plans to bomb civilians, a nightmare."

Now, the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, was on FOX last night. And she said this. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: You don't see anyone standing up for Iran.

You're not hearing any of the Gulf members. You're not hearing China. You're not hearing Russia. The only ones that are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates.

(LAUGHTER)

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: That is sad.

HALEY: No one else in the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What's your reaction?

MURPHY: No, that's absolutely ridiculous. And it's unfortunate that Governor Haley would choose to use those kind of words.

But here's the reality. I absolutely believe that it should be a U.S. priority to disable and weaken Iran. But everything this administration has done has accrued to the exact opposite result. Iran is more powerful in the region than when Donald Trump became president. They are closer to getting a nuclear weapon than when Donald Trump became president.

When Donald Trump took the oath of office, they were not firing rockets at U.S. personnel in the region. Now they are. Iran is more powerful today than when Donald Trump took office.

And the reason that I'm so critical of this president, the reason I'm so worried about letting him continue down this policy and path towards war is because everything he has done has made Iran more menacing in the region. And that's the reality.

BLITZER: Senator Chris Murphy, thanks so much for joining us.

MURPHY: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead, we're going to more on the closed- door Iran intelligence briefing that just ended for key U.S. lawmakers.

Does it show the imminent threat the Trump administration says forced it to kill Iran's top general?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:22:05]

BLITZER: President Trump says his decision to kill the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani saved a lot of lives. That's the president's quote.

But his administration has yet to publicly reveal any evidence proving an attack was imminent.

We're joined now by Congressman Gerry Connolly, a Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-VA): Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you heard the president earlier today, he said Soleimani was planning a very big, very bad attack against American soldiers, against American diplomats.

Congressional leaders, eight of them, have just been briefed behind closed doors. Have you personally seen any intelligence that gives credence to the claims that such an attack was imminent?

CONNOLLY: I have not.

And I have no reason to believe that, frankly, that's true.

BLITZER: Well, tell us why, because you're going to get a formal briefing tomorrow, together with all of your colleagues in the House and the Senate, but tell us why you don't believe it's true.

CONNOLLY: There's -- when you look at the circumstances of this strike, there's nothing to back it up.

There were no warnings to Congress, which there should have been. The only statement we had was the secretary of defense vaguely warning about, we're prepared to protect ourselves proactively and preemptively, if necessary.

No intelligence running around here in Congress or in Washington leading anyone to believe that there was some imminent threat. In fact, "The New York Times" published a report saying, actually, it was kind of business as normal with Soleimani, nothing new.

The president was given options and chose the most extreme in a way that looks impulsive and uninformed, and not much thought going into consequences.

BLITZER: So what do you say to the defense secretary, Mark Esper, who today said an attack that would be like launched against American diplomats, against American personnel was only days away?

CONNOLLY: He's going to have to produce evidence for us to accept that and that substantiates that claim.

I think it's very dubious in nature. BLITZER: At this briefing tomorrow, if you have a chance, what would

you ask these top administration officials on the strike?

CONNOLLY: I think I'd want to know a variant in your question. What was new about this particular visit to Baghdad by Soleimani, who'd been there many times, and has been tracked by the United States intelligence for many occasions? What made this one different?

And if they want to assert, because he was plotting something really big, they're going to have to provide evidence of that, because I don't know that we're going to accept that sight unseen. They're going to have to provide substantiation for that claim.

[18:25:00]

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts, one question on impeachment, while I have you, Congressman.

CONNOLLY: Sure.

BLITZER: You heard the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, today say he has enough votes necessary to start an impeachment trial in the Senate without an agreement on witnesses.

Is it time now for the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to turn over those two articles of impeachment to the Senate?

CONNOLLY: I'm going to leave that judgment to her, Wolf.

I will say that I supported her withholding the articles over the holiday break in order to try to buy some space for Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell to try to work out an agreement, as had been worked out in the previous impeachment trial of Bill Clinton back in 1998.

Unfortunately, that fell through. Mitch McConnell is somebody who, as long as he's got the votes, is willing to do anything at any time to prevail, including here on impeachment.

I think that's a very sad day for the United States Senate. And I think, frankly, it creates the impression for a lot of Americans that this is going to be a sham trial with a rigged jury.

BLITZER: Congressman Gerry Connolly, thanks so much for joining us.

CONNOLLY: My pleasure. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead: Does U.S. intelligence on Iran show an attack on Americans was just days away, as the Trump administration now insists?

Plus, new tough talk from the Pentagon, as the defense secretary says the U.S. isn't looking to start a war with Iran, but is prepared to finish one.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00]

BLITZER: Talk of war as American forces go on high alert in wake of the targeted killing of Iran's top general and threat of hard revenge by Iran.

Let's bring in our experts. And, John Kirby, we're just getting word now that at least ten rockets have hit Al-Asad Airbase, which houses a lot of U.S. troops in Iraq right now. It looks like this may be the beginning of Iraqi retaliation for the killing of its top general.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, Iranian. Yes. I think it's possible. We don't know a lot right now. Rocket attacks have become somewhat of a staple for the PNF, the Shia militias, particularly in Western Iraq, where Al-Asad is. This is sort of how they'd been reacting over the last couple of months under SoleimanI's guidance.

So we don't know a lot. This could be an uncoordinated by one particular militia or it could be something larger. It could be the beginning of maybe a series of retaliatory strikes. So we just kind of have to wait and see how this plays it.

But it clearly demonstrates the degree to which they do feel emboldened to retaliate and the degree to which U.S. forces in the region have got to make sure that their force protection measures are in place.

BLITZER: Alex, if this is the start of Iranian retaliation for the killing of the Iranian general, ten rockets going after a base in Iraq where there are a lot of U.S. troops, potentially, could result in a further escalation especially if American troops are killed or injured.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A massive escalation, Wolf. And if this is part of that response, it is coming a lot sooner than had been thought. Experts had said once the burial and funeral services around the death of Qasem Soleimani had been carried out, that's when we might start to see responses that they could come in different sizes and different places across the region. This is very sudden, this is very direct and this would be no mistaking what the reaction of this is to.

Now, the U.S. said Iran has two choices. They can escalate, which in the words of the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, would be a mistake, or they can come to the table. The Trump administration has said that the killing of Qasem Soleimani was an effort to de-escalate. No one who knows anything about Iran believes that killing Qasem Soleimani would actually de-escalate. This is very much ramping things up.

And the other thing that I'll say is that option of having Iran come to the table, which is what they said the second option was, today, it was announced that the U.S. had actually rejected the visa of Javad Zarif, the foreign minister.

So, to date, we have still not seen much detail around the intelligence that led to killing of Qasem Soleimani. Of course, that briefing just ended on Capitol Hill to the gang of eight. So we are still waiting to get some of those --

BLITZER: All right. I want to go to Fred Pleitgen, who is Tehran for us. Fred, we don't know where these rockets came from. At least ten rockets hit the Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq, which houses a lot of U.S. troops. We don't know who is responsible. But what are you hearing from the Iranians?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, so far, as far as that attack is concerned, Wolf, we haven't heard anything from the Iranians yet. But, of course, it is certainly an interesting development that's going on there, because the Iranians, essentially, since that targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani took place, there are certain signs that the Iranians have been giving and certain things the Iranians have been telling us.

Senior adviser, of course, to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was saying that there would definitely be a response by the Iranians, a military response and that that response would be against military targets.

Now, obviously, as you mentioned, Wolf, the Al-Asad Airbase is one of the largest military targets with U.S. troops there in all of Iraq. So, certainly, to extent that would fit the bill.

The Iranians also, Wolf, I think were quite keen to show that despite the fact that Qasem Soleimani was obviously this towering figure for their military, specifically for the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, the foreign operation wing of the Revolutionary Guard, and generally someone who was almost a legendary figure among the Iranian military.

[18:35:03]

We saw that with these giant funeral processions that were going on all over Iran.

The Iranians also were always very clear and very keen to point out that the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force was not just Qasem Soleimani. This whole notion of decapitating strike against the Quds Force was simply what the Iranians wanted to dispel (ph) from the very beginning, they nominated a successor very quickly. And that successor at Qasem SoleimanI' coffin at that very event said that there would be revenge and that there would be revenge against the U.S. military and that this was something, a plan that the supreme leader himself was on board with.

Again, we don't know if that's necessarily the case that this could be the start of that but also, Wolf, the Iranians were saying that they're not necessarily in a rush to do this quickly. They say that this would happen over a period of time. So could this just be the beginning, could there be other things that take place?

We do know what the ultimate goal for the Iranians is, and this something that's come from the head of the Revolutionary Guard, from the supreme leader. And today, I did an interview with the foreign minister of Iran.

They're all saying what they want and what they think is going to happen is that, eventually, the U.S. will leave Iran. I think Javad Zarif was saying today that he thinks it's the beginning of the end of America's presence in Iran. But, of course, at this point in time, much too early to tell whether or not this is part of that, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, stand by for a moment, Fred. We're just getting a statement from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps saying it has the U.S. Ain Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq, with what they described as tens of missiles. This according to press T.V., an urgent banner on Iranian television.

Arwa Damon is in Baghdad for us. What are you hearing over there, Arwa?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we do have from one Sunni paramilitary commander who is based not too far away from Al-Asad itself is that ten rockets were fired. We don't know at this stage if any casualties were caused.

According to this source, the barrage that he had been hearing has ended. But as I was saying, we don't know at this stage if there were any casualties.

It's worth noting, Wolf, that Al-Asad Airbase does not just house U.S. forces, it's a massive, sprawling complex in Al Anbar Province where you also have the presence of the Iraqi Security Forces on themselves.

Also worth noting that this is a location that has been hit in the past, but it is potentially one of the targets that would be on a target list for the Iranians, not just in the sense of what they are able to fire at it in the way that they are saying that they have but also because of the presence of these Iranian-backed paramilitary forces here.

The U.S. military has, if you'll remember, suspended its anti-ISIS operation and its training missions because they want to be focusing on force protection. These types of attack, even though they did take place in the past though not necessarily in this kind of intensity or under these kinds of circumstances with significantly high intentions that are taking place right now.

It's too soon to tell if this is the beginning of something bigger or if this is just perhaps the testing of the waters to see what kind of a reaction there will be. But most certainly we have been hearing over the last few nights various different reports of mortars being fired toward the green zone. For example, mortars being fired towards Al Balad Airbase. That took place a few nights ago. Those landed just at the southern gate of the base.

And so we have been seeing a slight uptick in activity over the last few nights. But, again, it was just a few rockets or mortars here and there and no significant reports of casualties in any of those attacks. And we're waiting to try and get more information as to where exactly inside the Al-Asad Airbase these rockets may have hit and if there were any casualties caused by this.

BLITZER: Well, this could be the start of the Iranian retaliation for the killing of the Iraqi general, Qasem Soleimani.

Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon. Barbara, you heard the breaking news. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has issued a formal statement saying it has hit the U.S. Ain Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq with tens of missiles. What are you hearing from your sources at the Pentagon?

STARR: I have to tell you, Wolf, at this hour, officials are behind closed doors. We believe they are on classified conference calls between Washington and Baghdad trying to determine exactly what has happened, complicated by the fact that the Pentagon shut down early today because of what was supposed to be a major snowstorm, so it's very tough at this hour to get information.

[18:40:04]

But there are several things that frame the discussion right now. If these are rockets, that may be one set of circumstances, those are relatively short range, generally fired by Iranian-supported groups inside of Iraq. But if, in fact, this does turn out to be some kind of attack at multiple locations, we don't know that yet, if it turns out to be short-range ballistic missiles or cruise missiles, we do not know that yet either, that is a significant ramp up by Iranian forces and, in fact the Iranian regime.

So that is what we are looking for. What kind of weapons have been fired, who fired them and how many bases in Iraq did they fire against? This has been the concern that the Iranian regime would engage in that kind of retaliation. And right now, what you have to remember is this is essentially U.S. forces under attack inside Iraq.

So you have military families obviously desperately concerned for information about their loved ones. You have the military here in Washington trying to figure out exactly what is happening so many thousands of miles away.

It is going to be very important one can think for the Trump administration to come out and talk to the American people about what may be happening. We are not getting that at this hour and, of course, it's the middle of the night in Baghdad. And they are dealing with whatever they are dealing with.

So we have to really pursue this, Wolf. The real question tonight is, I think, how far has Iran gone in firing weapons against U.S. forces, and right now we don't have a firm answer to that very critical question.

BLITZER: And we certainly don't have any firm information about casualties or damage at this U.S. airbase in Iraq. Now, this is a dramatic development.

Jim Sciutto is joining us right now. I just was reminded, Jim, this Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq, Mike Pence, the vice president, was just there in November, two months ago, and the president himself, President Trump, visited the Al-Asad Airbase in December 2018 to visit with U.S. troops around Christmas.

And while the president the other day on Air Force One returning from Florida to Washington didn't mention this base specifically, he did say this. He said, we have a very extraordinarily expensive airbase that's there. It's cost billions of dollars to build.

We're not leaving unless they pay us back for it. So if, in fact, the Iranians, as has now reported, have started to launch rockets at this airbase, where there're a lot of U.S. troops and other foreign troops as well, and if there's considerable damage, casualties, you know it's going to lead to U.S. retaliation.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: For sure. I've been to the base as well. It's an enormous facility. I'm hearing from both inside Iraq and in Washington that the base is under some sort of attack. The key question is the degree, right?

Because as Barbara noted, the difference between this being ballistic and cruise missiles or rockets significant both because of size and potential damage of those weapons, but also who would be the perpetrator. If it's the rockets, more likely to be Iranian proxies inside Iraq. If it's ballistic missiles of longer ranger, cruise missiles, that's more likely to be coming from Iran, and, of course, significant.

At this point, it appears the military is trying to assess while focusing, of course, on keeping the many U.S. forces based there safe. So, still in the assessment mode at this point and the difference between those two would be significant.

Regardless whether it's a proxy or Iran proper, this would appear to be an Iranian retaliation for the Soleimani assassination, which U.S. forces in the region and Iraq have been bracing themselves for. There had some speculation that Iran might bide its time, might keep its powder dry as it were. But if this turns out to be what it appears to be that it would shows that that retaliation was swift.

And also we should be aware, Wolf, that one day's retaliation doesn't necessarily amount to all of the retaliation, right, because Iran has enormous resources at its disposal. And if you were to take in sum total the attacks carried out by Iran or its proxies in the last several months, it runs the gamut, right? You had mines placed on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. You had cruise missile and drone attacks on a Saudi oil facility. You had a bomb on a base that killed, of course, a U.S. contractor. You had the surrounding -- those protests and attacks on the U.S. embassy. And now, you have the U.S. bracing for the possibility of some sort of cyber attack.

So Iran's capabilities, range, broadly, and if this is a rocket attack or a missile attack, this would just be one in a spectrum of possibilities that Iran might threaten and carry out.

[18:45:06]

BLITZER: All right. Let's go to Tehran. Fred Pleitgen is on the scene for us right now.

Fred, I take it Iranian television is broadcasting what they are calling a crushing response to the U.S. aggression?

PLEITGEN: Yes, that's exactly what they are saying. I think that's really significant that the Revolutionary Guard Corps, specifically, first of all, the Iranian military, and second of all, the Revolutionary Guard Corps of the Iranian military, is already taking responsibility for what happened.

It was one of the really interesting things, Wolf, that I've heard over the past couple of days as I've been speaking to Iranian military officials, and other Iranian officials as well. You know, one of the things that really angered them a lot about the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani was the fact the U.S. openly took responsibility for it.

It was one of the things that Javad Zarif, the foreign minister said to me today, they killed Qasem Soleimani and then they took responsibility for it. The Iranians saying that made it an open aggression as they called it against Iran. Therefore, they say they felt they needed to do a response to that.

Now, apparently, this does seem to be part of that response. The Revolutionary Guard we're getting this from press TV which is one of state run news television networks here saying the IRGC has warned the U.S. of more crushing responses in case of new aggression. That certainly does seem to make it look like this is a response to the killing of Qasem Soleimani. That is a banner that's on press TV and the IRGC is saying it will target any regional state that becomes a platform for U.S. aggression, as they call it, and the second -- that was a second banner that was reading.

So, certainly, this does seem to be a very, very significant development and from what we're seeing in the early stage, does look like this is one of the responses to the killing of Qasem Soleimani. Whether or not that's it, no one knows.

What I can tell you, Wolf, is that I think it was two days ago, the head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, he came out and said there would be a strategic retaliation, strategic retaliation, seeming to indicate that it would be over a longer period of time and he also said it would be over a vast geography. So, chances are, Wolf, this could just be the beginning -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It looks like this is the start.

Let's go to the White House. Jim Acosta is there.

I take it the president is already being briefed on this, Jim?

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf.

They are aware of this over at the White House, obviously, and this president now faces a very critical test. He's going to face essentially perhaps the biggest question of his presidency and that is whether to retaliate and how severely to this apparent Iranian retaliation and we're going to have to wait and see what happens in the days ahead and the hours ahead, perhaps.

But the White House just put out a statement in the last several minutes. This is from Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary. It says, we can put this up on screen if we have it.

We are aware of the reports of attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq. The president has been briefed and is monitoring the situation closely and consulting with his national security team. That's all in terms of a comment form the White House.

But, Wolf, you can just look back to what the president was saying earlier today when he was sitting down with Greek prime minister. He was essentially forewarning the Iranians that if they were to retaliate, if they were to strike back, seek vengeance for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, that there would be reprisals. There would be retribution. And he even said at one point that there would be severe consequences.

And so, now, the president has essentially drawn his own red line. He didn't use the words red line but he essentially did that in the Oval Office earlier today. And now, the question will be whether or not the president enforces that.

The other thing we should point out is the president is familiar with this air base and so are officials over here at the White House. The president visited this air base December 26th of 2018. He was paying a visit to soldiers there on the base for Christmas a couple of years ago.

And so it's possible, you're seeing some video of that right here right from the president's visit, along with the first lady less than a couple of years ago. It's possible the Iranians were well aware of this and perhaps entered this into their calculations when they were trying to surmise what would be the best way to get the president's attention. The president's attention has been gotten by the Iranians. No question about it.

And getting back to what I was saying earlier, Wolf, this -- this is exactly what many foreign policy and national security analysts feared here in Washington. A lot of Democrats have been talking about over the last 72 hours that the president by targeting Soleimani has essentially set this chain of events into motion and the question is whether the president will be able to get on top of it and handle it without this blowing up into just a full blown military conflict between the United States and Iran, which is obviously not something the president campaigned on when he ran for president in 2016.

[18:50:09]

He campaigned on getting the U.S. out of these kinds of entanglements in the Middle East. But he's entangled right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Clearly, the Iranians are now taking responsibility for a series of rocket attacks on this U.S. airbase inside Iraq. Arwa Damon is in Baghdad for us right now.

Arwa, I know you're getting information on this, but it looks like it's the start of an Iranian retaliatory strike against the United States for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranians putting out a statement -- a very strong statement saying that this potentially is only just the beginning. They say that this will be the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is warning the U.S. that this is just the beginning of a crushing response in case of new aggression.

What are you hearing over there in Baghdad?

DAMON: Just very scant information at this stage. All we really can confirm is that it does seem as though the al-Assad air base has been hit by at least ten rockets.

But let's look at the context at which all of this is happening, Wolf. There's been all sorts of mixed messaging about whether or not the U.S. military is going to be withdrawing. There was that whole debacle over the letter that was inadvertently sent to the Iraqi government that made it seem like the Americans were beginning to pull out.

And you had very strong statements from the U.S. side from the secretary of defense, from President Trump, about how the Americans were not withdrawing. President Trump has been threatening sanctions on Iraq. And those threats, those positions, have had a reaction from a number of Iran's proxies in Iraq saying that if America doesn't withdraw, they are going to be creating a resistance force to try to go after the Americans, to try to force that to come around.

It could very well be, Wolf, that in reaction to the U.S. so far at least saying that they are not withdrawing just yet at this point in time that those forces on the ground or Iran itself because remember their goal is also to get the U.S. military out of Iraq. The goal, both for Iran and for its proxies in Iraq, because one of the main groups, paramilitary groups leader was also killed along side Qasem Soleimani, is to try to force the Americans and foreign forces to leave.

Is this something of a first warning of what is to come, perhaps, to try to push the Americans in that direction? We're not entirely clear at this stage. But one thing has been made very clear, Wolf, ever since the Americans decided to take out Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al- Mohandes and is they threw this country, they threw Iraq in the middle of this battle that has been brewing for quite some time between Washington and Tehran.

And this is a country that's been begging to be left out of it. Obviously, it is far too late for that. And Iraq is in a very difficult position because if U.S. forces stay, this type of violence most certainly is something that we can expect to be seeing. But of course if U.S. forces leave, the country's vulnerable to the likes of ISIS.

But again still trying to get a lot more information at this stage, Wolf, but suffice to say this is a country that right now is on edge and things might be beginning to be changing.

BLITZER: Yes, and let's not forget -- I want to bring back Jim Sciutto.

Jim, let's not forget this is just a little air base or a minor -- a little military facility.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BLITZER: This is the major U.S. air base in Iraq. There are sophisticated aircraft there, helicopters, a lot of U.S. troops. This is the air base that the president referred to as a billion-dollar air base, billions of dollars that the U.S. spent developing and building this air base, if in fact the revolutionary guard corps launched these air strikes as they're claiming they did, this is a big deal.

SCIUTTO: A lot of personnel and a lot of equipment means a lot of targets, sadly.

I will say that there is a natural momentum to cycles of escalation like this. And that's something that senior military officials expressed to me in the past several days that they're concerned about, tit-for-tat, it has a speed of its own. And the pitch of that can rise very quickly.

And we've already seen that in the last week or so, right? You had an Iranian attack on a base killed a U.S. contractor. You had the attack on the embassy. You had the U.S. killing of Soleimani, and now you have what appears to be an attack on a U.S. base there.

The other point I will make is this, Wolf, part of the threat assessment, and this comes from reporting from our Pamela Brown, prior to the decision to kill Soleimani was precisely an Iranian threat to U.S. bases in the region, including Al-Asad.

[18:55:08]

And there was particular attention to the movement of what are known as Grad missile trucks. They're basically pickup trucks with rocket launchers on the back. They're very threatening, the movement of them close to bases.

If this turns out to be a rocket attack, it could be the kind of attack that the Pentagon was concerned about before launching the decision to kill Soleimani. It could be. And we know that Al-Asad was one of the bases they were concerned about prior to this.

BLITZER: Let me go to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. I don't know if they're getting -- releasing more information over there. I assume a sophisticated U.S. base like this in Iraq has Patriot air defense missiles, an Iron Dome, to deal with these kinds of rockets. We've seen a lot of that going on in Israel as you know.

But what are you hearing, Barbara?

STARR: Well, you know, if it's rockets, they do have some equipment to try and sense that they are coming in. I think the bigger question as you are mentioning about Patriot batteries, if, in fact, the Iranians were shooting cruise missile, short range ballistic missiles, those are the kind of targets that a Patriot missile defense battery would go after. And that's why they have really increased the number throughout the Middle East of those very sophisticated anti-air systems. So, that would be a big concern.

I think -- I think it's just important -- we don't know the exact framework of everything that is transpiring at this hour. We do no Iranians are claiming credit for this rocket attack on Al-Asad, very significant. We don't know if there's casualties, if there's equipment destroyed, we don't know if they were able to stop the rockets. We just don't have enough detail right now and that may be the most concerning thing to the Pentagon and to the U.S. military overseas as they scramble to deal with this situation.

They're going to be looking at the radars. They're going to be looking at signals intelligence, satellite feeds. They will be looking right now at every single piece of information they have trying to determine if anything was fired from inside Iran which would be that very significant escalation or if the electronic intelligence they get shows them that these were rockets fired nearby by Iranian supported militias.

This is really right now chasing the intelligence, chasing the high- tech information that they have to try and determine what they can find out about all of this.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen is in Tehran for us.

Fred, this is not a proxy that the Iranians claim were responsible for launching these rockets into this U.S. air base in Iraq. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Iranian television is claiming responsibility.

PLEITGEN: Yes, yes. They certainly are. I think that's something that's very, very significant because, of course, this is the branch of the Iranian military that Qasem Soleimani was very much a part of and very much one of the leaders of. He was the head of the foreign operations wing of the IRGC.

And I think exactly what Barbara is saying is going to be one of the key questions. What kind of weapons were used in this? Were these simple unguided rockets that were used or were these potentially maybe smaller ballistic missiles or even cruise missiles?

One of the things, Wolf, that military figures in Iran have been telling me is they've been saying that their ballistic missile program and cruise missile program is something they've seriously invested into and something that has become more and more sophisticated over the years. So, if the Iranians are trying to send a message that they can not only wage a conflict against the United States using their proxy forces in other places, but also do this in a more conventional way as well, then that certainly could be weapons of choice that the Iranians might use. So, I think Barbara is absolutely right to point out that one of the

key questions is certainly going to be where did these rockets initiate, were these potentially possibly cruise missiles, were these things fired over a longer distance, possibly even from Iranian soil. That would certainly be significant for Iranians as they're trying to showcase their capabilities that they have not just using militia forces but also using more conventional forces like, for instance, long distance rockets as well.

And then it goes back, Wolf, to one of the things that the Iranians have been telling me, senior military commanders have been telling me. They said there's definitely going to be a response after the killing of Qasem Soleimani. They say that is going to be a proportional response.

Now, what that is is something that's obviously very much up for grabs. But some of these military commanders have said, look, Qasem Soleimani was such an important figure for the Iranians that a single target would not be enough to avenge his killing, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, this is a very dramatic development right now. The Iranians claiming responsibility for rockets being launched against the U.S target at the Al-Asad air base inside Iraq right now. We don't know the extent of casualties or damage, but this is potentially the start of Iranian retaliation. We'll see what the U.S. does next.

Erin Burnett is going to pick up our special coverage.

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