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Associate Professor, Caitlin Talmadge, Discusses Iran; Growing Belief Iran Intentionally Missed Areas with Americans; Trump Announces Additional Sanctions on Iran; Iran Refuses to Hand Over Black Boxes from Ukrainian Plane Crash; Global Situation Room Director, Brett Bruen, Discusses U.S./Iran Tensions; Trump Says Iran Appears to be Standing Down; Administration Officials Brief House on U.S./Iran Conflict; Connolly Speaks to Media about Iran Briefing. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired January 8, 2020 - 13:30   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Trump administration officials say there's a growing belief Iran's missile strike on two Iraqi airbases housing U.S. forces intentionally missed the areas populated by those American troops. Officials say this actually suggests the attack was meant to send a message to the U.S., not to cause casualties.

Joining us now is Caitlin Talmadge, an associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

Thank you for joining us.


KEILAR: When you look at -- I mean, we've been discussing this. There's a sense of exhaling in Washington and I think around the world. When you look at how Iran responded here, there was certainly a signal they could have done much worse. What does this tell you about what Iran's intentions are?

TALMADGE: It's early and we're still getting a lot of initial reports and more information. But initial reports do suggest Iran may have been looking for an off-ramp here, a way to publicly retaliate and respond but in a pretty calibrated and careful way.

We know, for example, Iran chose to retaliate in the middle of the night, chose apparently to attack parts of this U.S.-populated base that mostly were housing equipment, a storage site, so not tackling, for instance, opposite housing areas, places where there would have been a lot of casualties.

Plus, we know they warned the Iraqis. And it's notable that they chose to use a type of weapon, we believe a ballistic missile, that the United States can detect when it's launched. All of those are reasons people could have taken cover on the base or evacuated the base. Those are not things you do when your desire is to cause a lot of

casualties. Those are things you want to do when you want to send a message but have it careful and have it be limited with the real power in the message being the potential to do more.

We have seen the Iranians looking for an off-ramp here. And in President Trump's statements this morning, we're seeing the United States take a reciprocal tone. So that's a good thing and we can sigh a bit of relief.

KEILAR: A lot of the reason Iran has engaged in sabre rattling and beyond sabre rattling in the region is because the sanctions they're facing, and how economically strapped those sanctions made them. The president announced more sanctions.

What is the response going to be? Is that, now, in the new reality the U.S. is in with Iran, not considered so severe?

TALMADGE: We don't actually know. It wasn't clear from the president's statement what exactly he was talking about in terms of sanctions. And for sanctions to be effective, you usually need a coalition of your allies to be on board with you.

As we know, fostering alliances isn't a strong suit or priority of this administration. The specific policy steps remain to be seen.

Your question points to an even larger issue in this most recent crisis. It's largely one of the administration's own making. The sanctions put on Iran in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal negotiated under the Obama administration, brought us to the situation we're currently in.

We didn't have to be here. Iran was certified being in compliance with the Iran nuclear agreement. It was not leading to Iran getting to a nuclear weapon.

The whole situation we're in is really the product of choices the Trump administration has made.

KEILAR: Real quickly, before I let you go, is this the end of Iranian retaliation? Do you think there will be more?

TALMADGE: That's exactly the right question to be asking. This is a very public display, something flashy and big that the Iranian leaders can point to having avenged Soleimani's death. But absolutely, I think we can expect that there may be responses over time, maybe not as public, maybe cover, maybe not as attributable but potentially more damaging.

The overall result I think of this whole episode, again, one of the administration's own making, is going to be the United States becoming more entrenched in this region military, even as the president and his defense strategy say we should be extracting ourselves in favor of focusing on others regions like Asia.

KEILAR: That would be quite the contradiction. Caitlin Talmadge, thank you so much.

TALMADGE: Thank you.

KEILAR: I really appreciate having you on.

An Ukrainian airlines jet crashes in Iran, killing all 176 people on board. Investigators from several countries are searching for answers as Iran refuses to hand over the planes' black boxes.


And President Trump signally he will not order more military action in Iran but that those missile attacks last night will also not go unpunished.


KEILAR: Hours after Iran launched more than a dozen missiles at two Iraqi airbases that housed U.S. soldiers, a Kiev-bound Ukraine International Airlines flight crashed minutes after takeoff from Tehran. All 176 people on board were killed.

CNN's Matthew Chance is joining us now from Moscow.

Matthew, we still don't know what caused this crash. Ukrainians are looking at a range of possibilities, everything from mechanical failure to terrorism. What else are you learning?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are. This was a new aircraft, just three years old, a Boeing 737-800, a new generation plane. It had its most recent maintenance fixed a couple days before this crash took place.


Yes, it's a big mystery what would have caused this relatively new airliner to plunge out of the skies in that dramatic way, causing such a dramatic loss of life, 176 people, including passengers and crew.

And the dramatic images from the crash site, the rescue workers trolling the scene to recover the black boxes. They've done that. Even had eyewitnesses who filmed on their cell phones the immediate aftermath of the crash. And even one eyewitness filmed the plane plunging out of the sky in a fireball and slamming into the ground. Absolutely horrific.

It is a bit of a mystery. The Ukrainian embassy in Tehran issued a statement hours ago saying, look, we ruled out terrorism and rocket strike and are focusing on engine failure as a possible cause. But then they deleted that all together and said they didn't know what the cause was, not ruling out any options.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian president dispatched a special investigative team to get to Tehran to get to the bottom of this and, in his words, "establish the truth and to find those responsible" for his terrible catastrophe -- Brianna?

KEILAR: Matthew Chance, in Moscow, thanks so much for that report.

Today, President Trump addressed the nation after Iran fired more than a dozen military missiles two Iraqi military bases that housed U.S. troops. Listen to what he said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All of our soldiers are safe. And only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases. Our great American forces are prepared for anything.

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


KEILAR: Joining us now is Brett Bruen. He is the president of the Global Situation Room, a crisis communications firm. He's also the former White House director of global engagement.

Brett, thank you for coming in.

As you listened to what the president said, what are your thoughts?

BRETT BRUEN, DIRECTOR, THE GLOBAL SITUATION ROOM & FORMER WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF GLOBAL ENGAGEMENT: First, he took a few cheap shots at Tehran. I think, while Iran may well be standing down for the moment, the question is, what is President Trump standing up for. Where is the strategy? That's what I didn't hear from him this afternoon.

Many around the world are wondering at this hour, where do we go from here because we're not out of the danger zone.

KEILAR: Where should we be going from here?

BRUEN: I think he needs to project a path forward, one that perhaps includes an invitation to meet with Iranian leaders to discuss how do we put this problem back in the box, not only the nuclear deal but a whole host of other issues, including Iranian proxies in Iraq.

KEILAR: Where does this go next? That's really the big question. Is Iran, while showing some restraint, certainly, with this airstrike, this could have been so much worse. I think that's really the headline of the day. Is that the case moving forward? Because they have decided they will wait a little bit to save some of that retaliation for the future.

BRUEN: They pulled their punches on this one. But they are still standing ready to throw punches, either directly or indirectly. Iran is historically known for using those proxies to affect the kind of impact they want to see in the world.

And if Trump continues to taunt them, if he continues to tweet at them with these threats, it is not beyond the realm of possibility they will try to send a message right back at him.

KEILAR: The president suggesting that there won't be a military response from the U.S. There appears to be confidence from U.S. officials that Iran is not going to have a further military response.

The proxies are really the issue. We have reporting from U.S. officials they're concerned what the proxies could do. There're not as closely disciplined or tied to the central government of Iran, obviously.

What could that look like? Are we talking attacks on U.S. forces in the region, U.S. officials, what do you think?

BRUEN: I will zoom it out. One of my major concerns was that Trump broke with precedent here. He went after a senior Iranian official, and essentially said, we can take anyone out at any time. That put a target on the back of our officials. Not just in Iraq, in the Middle East, but anywhere in the world.

I have grave concern right now for what it represents for our officials traveling around the world. I think we are going to have to be much more careful than we have in the past.


KEILAR: Brett, thank you so much for your insight. Brett Bruen, we appreciate it.

Members of the House were just briefed on the conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Were they satisfied with what they heard from Trump's top military and diplomatic officials? I will be talking to a congressman who is just out of that briefing. We will speak next.



TRUMP: As we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression, the United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.


KEILAR: President Trump says Iran appears to be standing down after that missile attack on Iraqi and U.S. forces overnight. Iranian officials calling the strike "a slap in the face to America."


And in just moments, I'll be speaking live with a congressman who was just briefed by the Trump administration.

Plus, what these Iranian missiles show about their capabilities and how advanced they've become.

This is CNN special live coverage. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


KEILAR: Top Trump administration officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, and others, have been briefing members of the House of Representatives this hour on the conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Next, they'll go over to the Senate.

Let's listen now to Congressman Gerry Connolly, who came out of this briefing moments ago and said this.


REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-VA): Without commenting on content, my reaction to this briefing was it was sophomoric and utterly unconvincing. And I believe more than ever that Congress needs to act to protect the constitutional provisions about war and peace.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What can you say about the rationale for the strike on Soleimani and also the idea of whether there were imminent threats?

CONNOLLY: I believe there was no rationale that could pass a graduate school thesis test. I was -- well, utterly unpersuaded about any evidence about the imminence of a threat that was new or compelling.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The legal rationale that was delivered to you, is that --


CONNOLLY: The legal rationale -- the legal rationale absolutely fell in the category of sophomoric. The citation was Article II of the Constitution, and the 2002 AUMF, Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which, of course, had nothing to do with Iran. It had to do with what happened after 9/11.


CONNOLLY: I won't comment on content of the briefing because that's classified, but I think the fact that they cited the old one as sufficient would suggest they don't feel they need a new one.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The administration is arguing that the 2002 AUMF says threats from Iraq, and that this was in the territory of Iraq, but you don't think that that's --


CONNOLLY: I think that's a very thin read on which to now be arguing in favor of potentially an entire new military initiative that ultimately has as its target Iran.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you think more powers legislation should repeal the 2002 AUMF?

CONNOLLY: I believe that's an absolute necessary first step, and today just proved it. The fact that the administration is still citing a 17-year-old AUMF that applied to a totally different set of circumstances ought to be a cause of concern for all members of Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. Connolly, given that the threat of military escalation at the moment seems to be gone and Soleimani is dead now, is this in any way a validation of the Trump strategy?

CONNOLLY: As I said earlier, I believe that the threat of retaliation has only begun. I don't believe it's evaporated at all. There's the military retaliation that occurred yesterday and tonight, and that may be ongoing or may not. But then there's the cyberattacks that were probably likely to face for an indefinite period of time and the whole Hezbollah leadership that has yet to be heard from.

So I wouldn't rest easy that somehow the threat is contained that's the end of it. I don't believe that's true at all.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What about next steps --


CONNOLLY: Unfortunately.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: -- for the administration?

CONNOLLY: I believe this administration is, after the fact, trying to piece together a rationale for its action that was impulsive, reckless, and put this country's security at risk.

Thank you.




KEILAR: That is Congressman Gerry Connolly, a Democratic and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the House Oversight Committee.

What's becoming clear, as we hear these lawmakers respond to this briefing they received from top Trump administration officials, including Secretaries Pompeo and Esper, and CIA Director Gina Haspel, is that it depends -- whatever you heard in that briefing really depends on what party you belong to.

We keep hearing Democrats, as we heard from Connolly, saying that he remains utterly unconvinced that there was an imminent threat posed by General Soleimani, who was killed by the U.S. at the Baghdad Airport. He said he was "utterly unconvinced. The threat was not new. It was not compelling."

And he described the legal rationale for carrying it out as "sophomoric." He said it was based on Article II of the Constitution and on the 2002 congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force, which had to do with post-9/11 matters.


And that is it for me.

Our special coverage will continue just ahead with Brooke Baldwin right now.