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Impeachment Stalemate; Interview With Former General John Allen; Iran Tensions Cooling?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 8, 2020 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Is Iran backing down, or are they just taking the fight underground?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking now, Iran tells the U.S. via back channels that their response is over, as President Trump claims the regime is standing down following last night's attack by Iran on bases housing U.S. forces. So, why is the FBI warning us about another kind of attack?

The president also vowing Iran will never have a nuke, and that he will strangle the country with new tough sanctions. Is this the way to handle decades of aggression from the regime? A presidential candidate who served in Iraq weighs in live.

Plus, the Senate majority leader essentially telling Speaker Pelosi to butt out, as pressure mounts on the House speaker from members of her own party to deliver the articles of impeachment to the Senate.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with our world lead today. The escalating conflict between Iran and the United States looks to be on hold, at least for now.

President Trump today said that Iran appears to be standing down after firing more than a dozen missiles on sites in Iraq where U.S. troops are stationed.

CNN has just learned that Iran sent multiple messages through three different back channels to U.S. officials, all indicating the same thing, Iran saying, hey, we're done.

But U.S. officials remain concerned about ongoing threats from Iranian proxies. Mr. Trump also confirmed today there were no Americans injured or killed during last night's attack.

The Iraqi military says the same about its personnel.

Multiple administration officials tell CNN that they believe Iran intentionally avoided hitting U.S. troops, hitting, as one Pentagon official told me -- quote -- "deliberate targets with minimum damage and maximum warning." President Trump today tried to blame President Obama for the Iranian attacks, repeating the lie that the U.S. gave Iran billions of dollars as part of the Iran nuclear deal. In actuality, that money consisted of frozen assets that already belonged to Iran.

The president also claiming, with no proof, that that money was used to fund a terror spree. The White House has presented no evidence to back that claim. And experts say that, in fact, Iran's aggression accelerated significantly after President Trump withdrew from the Iran deal.

The president today also claiming, falsely, that 100 percent of ISIS had been destroyed. According to his own Pentagon, that's not true.

Either way, as CNN's Alex Marquardt reports, the 16 missiles that Iran launched might only be a retaliation in the short term.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The American people should be extremely grateful and happy.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Surrounded by his national security team, the president today announcing a de-escalation, for now, in the crisis with Iran.

TRUMP: Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.

MARQUARDT: The Pentagon waited until there was daylight in Iraq to determine officially that the Iranian missiles harmed no Americans and left no major damage at either of the two areas targeted.

According to the Pentagon, over a dozen ballistic missiles were launched from inside Iran toward two parts of Iraq, in the west and north, where U.S. troops are stationed, in Irbil, at least one missile landing at the international airport, but didn't explode, and another hitting near the U.S. Consulate.

Most were directed at the sprawling Al Asad Air Base 140 miles west of Baghdad, home to hundreds of U.S. troops. Satellite images obtained by CNN show the before and after. Here, a number of buildings appear to have been destroyed or damaged next to a row of helicopters. Other buildings were also hit.

Of 16 missiles launched, sources say that four appeared to have failed in flight. The president gave credit to an early warning system that the short-range missiles were incoming. U.S. intelligence satellites had picked up early signs that they'd been fueled up and then launched.

Iran had also warned the Iraqi government, likely knowing that it would be passed on to the Americans, which gave U.S. troops a chance to take cover. Some Trump administration officials now telling CNN that they see Iran's strike as intentionally missing areas where Americans were housed, so that they weren't killed, but a clear message was sent.

SEN. TOM UDALL (D-NM): We have a pause. We should be trying to de- escalate in any way we can, de-escalate the situation on both sides.

MARQUARDT: Immediately following the attack, Iran's foreign minister tweeting that Iran had concluded its response, but the regime later warning of crushing responses in case of new U.S. aggression.

And, today, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, claiming, "We slapped them in the face," but saying it wasn't enough.


MARQUARDT: And right after last night's attack, Iran did reach out to say they were done retaliating, a source now telling our colleague Pamela Brown that Iran used at least three of those back channels, including the Swiss and other countries, to convey that message.


But multiple U.S. officials are also telling CNN that they're still concerned about Iran's proxies in the Middle East. And now the Department of Homeland Security, as well as the FBI, have just put out a bulletin about potential cyberattacks -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Alex Marquardt, thank you so much.

Joining me now to discuss is retired Four-Star Marine General John Allen. He served in 2007 in Iraq and Fallujah, but near the base that was attacked last night, one of the bases. He also visited Irbil, I imagine.

And you were deputy commander at CENTCOM, and led the formation of an Iraq War contingency plan.

Thanks so much for being here.

So, the president said today Iran is standing down. Is that how you see it? Do you expect further response from Iran or its proxies in the future?

GEN: Sure.

First, let me say how glad all of us are, Jake, that none -- we had no casualties yesterday.

TAPPER: Yes, absolutely.

ALLEN: And Iraqi casualties as well. And my thoughts and prayers are with the passengers on that airplane that went down, because it was not just Iranians. It was an international passenger list. So we should all be thinking about and praying for them as well.

Look, the Iranians should know that the president has all the cards right now. The contingency capabilities of the United States gives him the capacity both to de-escalate, but, if necessary, to escalate in a very major way very quickly with overwhelming force.

I think the Iranians know that. They had to do something. Whether those missiles were in fact targeted to not damage or kill any Americans, or they were just lucky that they didn't land on those targets, I think, remains to be determined.

But they are -- the fact that they came through a series of multiple back channels trying to stand down any American retaliation for that attack, I think, indicates that they're desperate. And I think they understand that the United States has the capability of inflicting enormous battle damage on that regime.

And right now, that regime can't afford to have an American slap in the face that they said that they had offered to the United States.

TAPPER: But do you think that they purposely didn't kill anyone last night?


ALLEN: No, I don't think we know.

TAPPER: You don't buy that?

ALLEN: No, I don't think we know.

TAPPER: I know we don't know. But what's your suspicion?

ALLEN: My suspicions are they shut those missiles to those bases, hoping not to kill any Iraqis, but with the full intent of inflicting damage.

And they have no idea in the end where those missiles are going to come down. So I don't buy the idea that they were pure in their targeting with no intention ultimately of hurting the United States or Iraqi forces.

TAPPER: One of the ways that Iran has responded in the past has been to wait a month, and then some proxy stages some devastating terrorist attack with no obvious links to Iran.

It happened when the Israelis killed the leader of Hezbollah.

ALLEN: That's right.

TAPPER: And a month later, there was that horrible explosion, killing innocent Jewish civilians in Argentina, two years later, another one. It happened with the Israelis again when they -- after they killed a nuclear -- the Israelis are suspected of killing a nuclear scientist. They went after a month later diplomats in three different countries, a bus full of Israeli tourists.

Is that what you expect?

ALLEN: I absolutely do, Jake. And you framed it perfectly. Look, the Iraqis -- the Iranians know that there is no way that they can compete with the United States in a conventional head-to-head symmetric conflict. So they will do what they have done always in that region, is, they will motivate the Quds Force, which is a special operations force which is largely a terrorist organization.

But they will also unleash many, I think, of the Shia militia elements. Kataib Hezbollah, for example, has already threatened American troops. And we killed the commander of Kataib Hezbollah in the same blast that killed Qasem Soleimani.

We should see other Shia militia elements also acting independently, or acting at the behest of Iran. We won't necessarily know. But your point is, there are unconventional capabilities available to the Iranians that we should anticipate.

And the FBI warning is a good example of how that could unfold. And I will also add that the Iranian cyber army is something that we should be very focused on at this particular moment, because they can hit us in an unconventional way, but they can also hit us in the cyber domain as well.

TAPPER: Let me play for you something that President Trump said about Qasem Soleimani.


TRUMP: Soleimani's hands were drenched in both American and Iranian blood. He should have been terminated long ago.


TAPPER: Why wasn't he killed long ago?

ALLEN: I think there were strategic decisions that were made that were predicated on the sense that his being alive strategically was better than his being killed tactically.

TAPPER: Because it would -- the situation might spiral out of control.

ALLEN: That is correct.

And that's a difficult statement to make, because, of course, the president's right. His hands are covered with the blood not just of Americans, but of many Iraqis, as well as Iranians.

So he, in fact -- as when I was the commander in Afghanistan, we perceived him as owning the foreign policy and security and defense portfolio from as far east as the western one-third of Afghanistan, all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean and into Gaza.


It was an enormous portfolio. And he had largely singular sway, at the behest of the supreme leader. We had him in our gun sights on a number of occasions.

And the idea of -- ultimately of killing him has to be taken as a strategic decision, because of, as you say, there's a potential really for the instability, the instability that would come from that, of destabilizing the region.

TAPPER: Was it a mistake not to shoot him before, not to go after him before?

ALLEN: It's hard to say. Again, each one of those circumstances was different. Each one of those occasions provided different opportunities.

The president weighed the intelligence that was provided to him for this particular attack, and decided to kill him and to take him out, but also took out a very senior Iraqi militia leader at the same time.

TAPPER: General John Allen, always great to have you here. Thanks so much for your time. Appreciate it.

ALLEN: Thank you, Jake. Good to be with you.

TAPPER: President Trump is now asking help with Iran from the same organization that he has called in the past obsolete. And that's not all he's asking NATO for.

Plus, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he will not haggle with the House over impeachment, as Nancy Pelosi starts to feel the pressure from her own party.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: The world lead now, surrounded by his closest national security advisers and top generals, President Trump addressed the nation this morning declaring the U.S. military had, quote, big, powerful accurate, lethal and fast, unquote, missiles, but he did not have to use them. Instead, the president said that Iran appears to be standing down, insisting that the nation would never have a nuclear weapon and he would impose new sanctions against that nation.

As CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports for us now, the president's rhetoric today mark something of a shift from the threats he had been making.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On the cusp of war with Iran, President Trump stepped back today.

TRUMP: Iran appears to be standing down. COLLINS: Flanked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president signaled

his response won't be a military one, after no Americans were killed during Iran's missile attacks on military bases in Iraq.

TRUMP: All of our soldiers are safe and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.

COLLINS: Despite threatening for days to retaliate with force if Iran targeted Americans --

TRUMP: If Iran does anything that they shouldn't be doing, they are going to be suffering the consequences and very strongly.

COLLINS: -- today, Trump urged restraint.

TRUMP: The fact that we have this great military and equipment however, does not mean that we have to use it.

COLLINS: Instead, the president said he'll impose additional economic sanctions on Iran, and asked NATO to get involved, despite dismissing the alliance as obsolete in the past.

TRUMP: The United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions. I am going to ask NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process.

COLLINS: Trump also called on world powers to abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and made this claim about his predecessor President Obama without evidence.

TRUMP: The missiles fired at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.

COLLINS: The president spent last night and this morning huddling with his national security team in the Situation Room. While officials believe that it is contained for now, there are still big questions about Trump's long-term strategy when it comes to Iran. In recent months, Trump has claimed Iran changed his behavior since he took office, despite continuing to provoke the U.S.

REPORTER: Mr. President, you said Iran is a different country. Do you still hold that opinion?

TRUMP: Oh, absolutely.


COLLINS: And, Jake, we're getting a better look at how the president spent his night last night, watching the details of these attacks come in, and you can see these photos just released by the White House a few moments ago where he is surrounded by the defense secretary, secretary of state, the treasury secretary, of course, the vice president is there as well, as well some White House attorneys and the press secretary all in the room.

And we're told by the sources that one of the big things that the president is looking at and he made it clear in the speech today whether there is going to be any American casualties in these attacks.

TAPPER: And thankfully there were not. No American casualties nor Iraqi casualties.

Thank you so much for that piece. Stay here on our panel.

And, Jen Psaki, let me just ask you, no American or Iraqi lives lost with the response last night. Iran's top general, head of a terrorist group gone, is this something of a success for President Trump?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, we all should certainly celebrate there were no American casualties, Democrat or Republican or any affiliation, of course, though if you look at this, the question is what now.


PSAKI: And right now, the effort against ISIS is frozen, because the military administration is focused on protecting bases in Iraq in the Middle East. The Iraqis want the United States out of Iraq. That's not good for our national interests. We also have Iran who also has decided they're not going to abide by any of the nuclear commitments they made. We maybe on the path of that, but this kind of expedited that.

And we have personnel around the world, military and diplomatic, who are on high alert. I don't know that that is a win. I don't think that is a win.

TAPPER: David Urban, you are a 2020 --


TAPPER: I will get to you in a second, you are a 2020 Trump campaign adviser. You're also a lobbyist, though, you represent some defense industries. And you served in the Army. So, there are all of your credentials there.

I want you to take a listen to the former acting CIA director Mike Morell who believes that the threat from Iran, the overt threat is over, but --


MICHAEL MORELL, FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR, CIA: I think what's not over is the covert war, and I still think that down the road, we will see an Iranian terrorist attack against senior officials.


URBAN: So, let's -- like, does anybody really think that Iraq -- that somehow Iran had given up on harming America?


TAPPER: No, of course, not. URBAN: Hezbollah or Hamas are just going to sit back? No, they weren't.

And we took off, what this president did, this administration did and this military did was to remove a really bad guy from the planet who was going to do really bad things to Americans in an imminent fashion. He was not showing up there in Iraq just to play poker that night with the Iraqi general who is leading protests outside of the embassy.

And maybe people forget , I don't forget, you don't forget, I hope that no one forgets that our embassy was stormed, hostages were taken by the Iranians before, I mean, executed and led by some of these same folks who were eliminated, and so the world is much safer --

TAPPER: The Iranian-backed --


URBAN: Yes, the world is a much safer place. Hezbollah, the 83 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks are funded in large part by the Iranians. No one has called these guys until this action. And so, the world is a much safer place today, and I challenge anybody to say.

TAPPER: Jen, I will give you an opportunity to respond.

PSAKI: No, I just think, David, I think what General Allen was referring to, and I and a number of Iranian experts I have talked to today, have referred to, is the fact that the Shia militia or Shia around the world are now really -- this is going to set them off.

URBAN: Because they weren't already?

PSAKI: The question, David, is what is the consequence -- what are the consequences? So, whether that's Hezbollah in Lebanon, whether that is in Yemen, the Houthis in Yemen, what does that mean? Their cyber capacity, as we know, and as Mike Morell said, assassination, and assassination of high level officials is something that Iran has done in the past, if you look back at what they did in reaction to the killing of the nuclear scientists from Israel.

So, there is some validity to the argument that these tactics are possible, and that their retaliatory steps may not look the same as they did last night, but there could be --

URBAN: I just think that look -- our enemies hate us enough, to think that somehow we made them hate us extra more because we did this, it's not -- it doesn't hold water.

TAPPER: Toluse, there's also this issue now that the Iranians say that they're not going to abide by the nuclear deal. Obviously, the U.S. had withdrawn, but the deal was still in place with other countries, including Germany, Russia and others. That's obviously on President Trump's mind.

Take a listen to him. This is what he said even before he said good morning as we walked out to give his presentation today. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.


TAPPER: It's interesting, because the killing of Soleimani had nothing in at least what they stated had anything to do with the Iran nuclear program.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, and it's part of the reason that this entire process isn't over, it's too early to declare this a victory or a loss for the president, because a lot of the times, the president comes out, he speaks according to the teleprompter, he gets accolades and then developments changed. And I think especially when it comes to the nuclear situation, Iran is in a place where they have already that they are not going to abide by some of the restrictions or a part of that nuclear deal, President Trump spent a lot of time during his speech today saying that the nuclear deal was part of the reason that Iran is so aggressive, even blamed the previous administration for what had happened in recent weeks with Iran and aggression from Tehran.

And I think the president is going to put himself in a tough situation where if Iran does break out, if they do begin to take action to show that they're not abiding by the structures of the nuclear deal, then President Trump is going to have pressure to increase sanctions and potentially take other actions to show that he is not just going to speak about them not getting a nuclear weapon, but he's actually going to enforce what he has made a red line at this point.

TAPPER: The White House obviously bracing for what might come next for Iran, but hoping that it is over, and the president is talk about getting NATO more involved and trying to impose sanctions against Iran, more sanctions.

COLLINS: Yes, those seem to be the paths he wants to take now. But obviously, you couldn't ignore the visual that you saw today which is the president standing there, flanked not only by the vice president and the defense secretary, but also the joint chiefs of staff. It is a pretty clear message that the president still feels like he has the military option in his back pocket should he need it.

And that is why this is so notable over the recent days and the meeting in the situation room last night was so critical last night, because it is not clear what step the president would take.

TAPPER: Especially, he was waiting to find out as you reported whether there were U.S. casualties.

COLLINS: About the casualties.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We have more to talk about.

CNN reporters covering this story across Iraq and Iran as no other network is. We're going to go live next with new reaction to President Trump's statement abroad.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: In our world lead, the Iranian foreign minister says that the country has concluded its proportionate measures against the United States with the airstrikes overnight, which Iran supreme leader called a, quote, slap in the face to the U.S.

In Iraq, where those strikes took place, fears are growing of the country being brought into what one Iraqi government official called a, quote, spiral of conflict. We have three reporters spread out across Iran and Iraq, and joining me now.

Let's start with Arwa Damon live in Baghdad, where moments ago two rockets landed in the Baghdad Green Zone.

Arwa, what are you learning on the ground there?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, didn't cause any casualties, at least that's the initial information. But worth noting that while the rockets are inside of the Green Zone are not necessarily --