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Republican Senator Calls Trump Briefing on Iran 'Completely Unacceptable'; Interview With Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Presidential Candidate. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 8, 2020 - 16:30   ET



ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, didn't cause casualties. At least, that's the initial information, but worth noting that, while rockets inside the Green Zone not necessarily uncommon, they do take on a bit more significance, given the backdrop of everything else that is happening.

And, in fact, rockets hitting inside the Green Zone have been occurring on a near nightly basis since the U.S. killed Qasem Soleimani and a key Shia paramilitary leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

In fact, earlier today, Jake, we sat down with one of the commanders of another one of these paramilitary units, the Badr Brigades. Now, they're considered to be more moderate. And by that, I mean that they were not among the groups that were targeting the U.S. military throughout the course of the U.S. occupation.

But this commander was telling us that they may not be able to control the other groups if America does not abide by the wishes of the Iraqi government.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Fred Pleitgen is live...


DAMON: What happens if the (AUDIO GAP) military doesn't leave?

MOEEN KAHDEMI, PARAMILITARY COMMANDER (through translator): It's possible that some Iraqis will once again confront an occupying force, like they did from 2003 to 2011.

If they go back to that time, it will be a violent confrontation. And the Americans are vulnerable.


DAMON: And that, Jake, is why the U.S. military here does remain on high alert. The threat to U.S. forces is very real.

And for the Iraqis, they're in a very difficult situation, because, if the U.S. does stay, there is the potential for more destabilization of this country. If the U.S. does leave, Jake, it leaves Iraq vulnerable to a potential reemergence of ISIS.

TAPPER: All right, Arwa Damon in Baghdad, thanks so much.

Let's go to Fred Pleitgen live in Tehran, Iran.

Fred, what is the reaction there to President Trump's address and the new sanctions he's threatening?


Yes, well, the sanctions is one thing. But I think in terms of President Trump announcing essentially that the U.S. was not going to strike back at the Iranians after those retaliatory hits on the air base, where the U.S. was, that's exactly what the Iranians wanted to achieve.

They have been telling us over the past couple of years, look, we're going to take military action, it's going to hit military assets. We want it to end there. We don't want a further escalation to take place.

Also, Jake, really important for the Iranians, they managed to showcase their ballistic missile technology, because one of the things that people keep talking about when they say how Iran could threaten the U.S. in the Middle East, they talk a lot about these Iranian proxy forces, pro-Iranian proxy forces in the area.

But the Iranians have now shown that they also have sophisticated technology that they have developed themselves that can hit targets and pressure the U.S. very far away from where Iran is, even across the border.

It was something very important for the Iranians to showcase and to point out.

I want to read you one headline that I actually found on the Fars news network. It says: "Trump's big retreat from the threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran missile strikes."

So, clearly, the Iranians wanting to point out how strong their missiles are. And you already mentioned it. The supreme leader came out and said that this was a slap in the face to the Americans. Certainly, the Iranians selling it as that.

As far as those sanctions are concerned, it's a different story, because the Iranians do see that as the fundamental reason why these problems between the U.S. or the Trump administration and Iran continue -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Fred Pleitgen in Tehran.

Clarissa Ward, let's go to you. You're in Irbil in Northern Iraq, which was hit by several of these Iranian missiles. What is the response there?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I have to tell you it was a little bit spooky as we were landing in the night, the airport basically completely deserted. The vast majority of flights have been canceled, because one of those missiles actually landed in the perimeter of the airport.

It didn't explode. There were no casualties reported, but certainly hit a nerve, because this is a very important base for the U.S., for coalition partners. It's where the fight against ISIS has been carried out from. That fight is now on freeze.

But, certainly, nobody wants to see this become a more dangerous hot spot. Traditionally, Irbil and these Kurdish areas have been seen as safer.

When we arrived at our hotel earlier, Jake, interestingly, we saw more than 100 U.S. military contractors. They told us they essentially had been evacuated from Baghdad, from Balad, as well, the air base also in the southern part of Iraq.

The idea was supposed to be that this was the safe place to come to. But with last night's hits, of course, that is now called into question as well -- Jake.

TAPPER: Clarissa Ward, Arwa Damon, Fred Pleitgen, thank you. Please, all of you, stay safe.

One of the Democratic presidential candidates who has been deployed to Iraq weighs in on President Trump's statement.

That's next.



TAPPER: In our world lead, we're getting our first look at the damage after Iran fired missiles at two Iraq air bases where American troops are stationed.

CNN obtained these images of Al Asad Air Base outside Baghdad from Planet Labs. Four buildings on the base appear to be damaged, and a missile seems to have hit one of the runways. Thankfully, we're told that there were no casualties from these attacks, American or Iraqi.

Joining me now to discuss is Democratic presidential candidate Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She's a major in the Army National Guard. She deployed to Iraq in 2005.

Congresswoman, so good to see you. Thanks for joining us.


TAPPER: As someone who served in Iraq, what was your reaction on an emotional level, if you would...


TAPPER: ... when you heard missiles were targeting bases where Americans are serving, bases you're familiar with?

GABBARD: A lot of my friends serve there.

It was last night in New Hampshire. I was literally just walking in the door, about to kick off our town hall meeting, when my staff started passing me notes and tweets and reports that this attack was happening.


And it just brought back, like, a flood of memories of what we were going through on a daily basis at the camp where we were, which was LSA Anaconda at that time, but really highlighting we are in a state of war now, and immediately thinking, OK, where are our troops? What are they doing? Are they safe?

Thinking of their loved ones back home, highlighting the seriousness of what's really going on there. Thank God no one got hurt.

TAPPER: Yes, I agree with that.

What do you make of where we are, how we got here?


TAPPER: I could see -- we have heard Trump supporters and President Trump basically say, look, no American casualties, and we took out a bad guy, Soleimani, a terrorist leader.

What would your response to that be?

GABBARD: Well, first, I just came from the intelligence briefing that the administration came and brought to Congress.

Really, they provided vague comments, no justification whatsoever for this illegal and unconstitutional act of war that President Trump took.

TAPPER: You don't buy the imminence -- imminent attack against Americans?

GABBARD: No. No. They failed to provide any compelling information to prove their point of imminence.

And, really, it brings us to the central question here, which is, is our country's national security better off because of Donald Trump's actions and decisions? The answer to that is no, in two primary ways.

Number one is, Iran is now in a position where they're not really abiding by any restrictions from the Iran nuclear agreement. They're continuing to escalate and speed towards developing their own nuclear weapons capabilities, creating a greater threat for us, to our allies and partners and to the world.

And, secondly, because the troops that we have in Iraq now, and the additional ones that this administration is sending there, are no longer focused on what their -- what their mission there really has been, which is to prevent a resurgence of ISIS and al Qaeda.

The announcement from the commander that came from there that said, we're not doing that anymore, because now we have to shift all of our efforts and focus in a defensive posture against Iran and Iranian- backed Shia militia, this leaves the door wide open for ISIS and al Qaeda to start to reconstitute and to start to be able to build a resurgence in their terrorist activities.

TAPPER: What do you make of the argument made by Secretary of Defense Esper and others, which is like, look, Soleimani and the Iranian and the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, they have been attacking Americans for decades?

And it's not a secret. You don't need intelligence on this. They killed an American contractor at the end of December.

GABBARD: If this administration wants to go to war with Iran, they need to come to Congress, because Congress is the only body that has the authority, based on our Constitution, to decide whether or not to go to war with Iran or not.

That has not happened. And that just shows the shallowness of the argument that the Trump administration is making, where, on the one hand, they're saying, it's because of an imminent threat, but, on the other hand, they're saying, well, look at all these things that have been happening for a long time.

Once again, it comes back to this core question that our commander in chief must be able to answer, which is acting, not in a reaction to say, well, we got to go take out a bad guy here or a bad guy there, but what is in the best interest of the national security of our country? What is in the best interest of our safety and security as Americans?

And I think Trump's actions and decisions here further highlight his lack of experience and understanding at a basic level and lack of foresight in national security and foreign policy, unnecessarily putting the American people further at risk.

TAPPER: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Democrat and presidential candidate, thanks so much for being here. It's always good to see you.

GABBARD: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Appreciate it.

No haggling, no witnesses. So, what will Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell say yes to when it comes to the Senate impeachment trial?

Stay with us.



TAPPER: We have some breaking news for you in our world lead.

Moments ago, two Republican senators publicly railed on the Trump administration after being briefed -- after the Trump administration briefed members of Congress on Iran.

One of them, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, called today's briefing the -- quote -- "worst briefing I have had on military issues in my nine years in the Senate."

Lee said the way everything played out was -- quote -- "un-American and completely unacceptable." He said the administration suggested Congress should not have a role in debating military action in Iran.

And, Kaitlan, let's talk about this, because we heard Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who is a Democrat, saying basically the same thing, like, I have I have been briefed now, and I don't buy it, and it's not -- and, yes, Soleimani was a horrible person, but it's not worth this uncertainty, this unrest, and she said, basically, we're in a state of war with Iran.


And Mike Lee's position on this was -- his positions on things like this have been known, but to say this is the worst briefing he's been to and his nine years being in the Senate is pretty remarkable.

And he says he went in there undecided, but now he says he is going to back this resolution that Senator Tim Kaine, of course, a Democrat, has produced, because of that, because he simply says that their answers weren't sufficient enough.

Now, the administration has been arguing, yes, we far and away have the evidence that this was an imminent attack. So the question is, why wouldn't the top intelligence officials have shown it to these senators in this classified briefing?

And you're seeing a Republican like Mike Lee say he is wholly unsatisfied with this and saying he wants to discuss it with Trump directly.

TAPPER: And there is this move about the -- demanding that President Trump, if he wants to use force against Iran in the future, that he has to come to Congress and he has to do with through the War Powers Act.


You talked to Secretary Pompeo on Sunday, and you asked him about all of the history of misleading information from the government about war in the past and why there's a higher bar now to convince the American people that, if we're going to use American force, that we have to convince the American people that there's a reason behind it.

And it seems like that message has not gotten through, at least with this administration. And that's part of the reason that Congress is trying to reassert itself, because several members of Congress feel that, over the past few decades, they have ceded too much power to the administration to conduct war, to conduct foreign policy, without input from the Congress, the co-equal branch of government.


And it's apparent that this is now becoming a bipartisan issue, that people are saying that, at this point, we're 20 years beyond the last AUMF, the authorization to use military force. And the Congress needs to reassert itself and say that, if we're going to go with a war with Iran, that we need to have Congress involved.

TAPPER: David, I just want to play this sound from Senator Mike Lee. And then we will come right to you.


TAPPER: Here's Senator Mike Lee, Republican from Utah, after being briefed by the Trump administration about the intelligence behind the strike against Soleimani.


SEN. MIKE LEE (R-UT): I still haven't had the questions answered that I came into that briefing expecting to ask.

They left after 75 minutes. Now, I understand these are busy people. They have got a lot of demands on their time.

They're appearing before a coordinate branch of government, a coordinate branch of government responsible for their funding, for their confirmation, for any...


TAPPER: Anyway, David Urban, your response?

URBAN: So, look, as Kaitlan said, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, these voices aren't new in terms of the authorization in using force without -- without -- without coming to the Congress.

I think the point is well made on the AUMF. The AUMF...

TAPPER: The authorization for use of military force.

URBAN: Right, which has been in place for almost 20 years now.

TAPPER: 2001, after 9/11.

URBAN: Since 2001.

It was an issue when President Obama went into Syria, whether that was authorized or not. I think, in this instance, I think the AUMF, they believe, covered the action because it took place inside of Iraq, and it was directly relating to Iraq.

And so I think that's why they believe it was covered. But I think there should be a full-throated debate. Any time our young men and women are put in harm's way, the Congress should be involved, because it's a really, really big deal.

And we should have people in the Congress taking a vote, whether you're for this or against this. And so, when bad things happen down -- years from now, you can be on the record, I supported this or I did not support.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I completely agree with you. And Congress should have a role.

And there were many were advocating for that. And they were never successful.


TAPPER: McCain was advocating it during the Obama years.


PSAKI: He certainly was.

Democrats and Republicans were at the time as well.

I will say, though, David, I think this is a little bit more than just a debate over AUMF. I think what a lot of members have looked at here is this action that was taken, they don't know why. They don't know what the consequences would be. They're concerned there wasn't a discussion about, what then?

And I think that's being reflected by their reactions as well.

TAPPER: And I think, if I could just say before we go to break, the imminence question has to do also with, why didn't you consult with us, if it wasn't that imminent?

But, everyone, stick around. We're going to be right back.



TAPPER: Until his death last week, Qasem Soleimani was not a name widely known to the American people, despite the fact that, as President Trump noted again today, the Pentagon blames the Iranian general for the killing and maiming of hundreds of U.S. service members.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Soleimani's hands were drenched in both American and Iranian blood.

TAPPER (voice-over): Iranian General Qasem Soleimani headed an organization labeled terrorist by the U.S. government, accused of being the architect behind the killings of more than 600 U.S. service members during the Iraq War, and severely injuring many others, forever changing their lives.

TRUMP: Planting of roadside bombs that maim and dismember their victims.

TAPPER: How did Soleimani do this? Bombs called explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs. The Pentagon says Soleimani gave hundreds of EFPs to Iranian militias and terrorist groups in order to attack American forces in Iraq.

The EFP is a weapon former Army Sergeant Bryan Anderson knows all too well.

BRYAN ANDERSON, VICTIM OF EFP BLAST IN IRAQ: When the explosion went off, it cut my legs and my hand off instantly. My legs were on the floorboard. My hand was in the passenger seat, and it actually spun me sideways.

And as I started looking down, they tried to force my head back down to the ground, hoping I wouldn't see what had happened.

TAPPER: Anderson lost both his legs, his left hand and a finger on his right hand from an EFP plate.

ANDERSON: That copper plate liquefies and literally just melts through your armor. It's not piercing it. It's melting through it.

TAPPER: Though not all of Soleimani's victims were from EFP attacks, U.S. Central Command estimates nearly 200 American service members were killed by Iranian made EFPs between 2005 and 2011, and more than 850 others were wounded.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: The EFPs are really directional explosions that shoot a projectile in a single direction with -- that achieves hypervelocity with incredible, horrible results.

TAPPER: As the Iraq War went on, officials were able to tie these weapons back to Iran and to Soleimani.

ROBERT GATES, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: There is pretty good evidence tying these EFPs to the Iranians.

TAPPER: And that forced the U.S. to change its strategy in Iraq.

MARKS: As a result of the EFPs, I can state with clarity and certainty that the MRAP was devised, and we had to adapt how we went to war against this monstrous capability.

TAPPER: And, at least for one victim of the brutal weapon, the death of the man responsible for his grievous injuries has given him some solace.

ANDERSON: Finding out that they got this guy, he's like the brains, the mastermind behind all of that. And this world is a much better place without him.


TAPPER: Our coverage on CNN continues right now.