Return to Transcripts main page


Iran Fires At U.S. Troops in Iraq; Ukraine International Airlines Plane Crashes in Tehran; McConnell Won't Promise Impeachment Trail Witnesses. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired January 8, 2020 - 05:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Iran launches missile attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq. Is this the end or just the beginning?

CNN live this morning in Baghdad, Beirut, London, and Washington. We've got this covered.

Good morning, and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Laura Jarrett. It's Wednesday, January 8th, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

Big breaking news this morning. Iran delivering the revenge it promised after President Trump ordered the killing of a top Iranian general. More than a dozen Iranian missiles fired at two targets in Iraq that house American troops, Al Asad Air Base and at U.S. and coalition forces stationed in Erbil.

The president visited Al-Asad in December of 2018 and said this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: While maintaining the U.S. presence in Iraq to prevent an ISIS resurgence and to protect U.S. interests.


And also, to watch over Iran. We'll be watching.


ROMANS: U.S. and Iraqi sources say the strikes caused no known casualties. Iran's foreign minister tweeted they took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defense. We do not seek escalation or war. But will defend ourselves against any aggression. He now says it's up to, quote, the U.S. to come to its senses.

Speaking overnight, Iran's supreme leader said Iran gave the U.S. a, quote, slap in the face. Iran's semiofficial news agency shared this undated video of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER (via translator): If you hit, you get hit back.

They know this. They know that if they get themselves involved in a confrontation with us, they get entangled in a military way, they will get their feet trapped. They might harm us but they will harm themselves many times more and they realize that.


JARRETT: Iran is threatening to attack within U.S. borders if America retaliates from last night's missile attacks. All this confronting Trump with the toughest test of his presidency, which he tried to put the best face on last night.

All is well! So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well- equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!

He promised to make a further statement this morning.

ROMANS: All right. Our coverage begins with CNN national security reporter Kylie Atwood live in Washington.

Kylie, good morning. What is the word from American officials this morning?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes. So a U.S. military official is telling CNN that the U.S. military had an early enough warning of these Iranian ballistic missile launches so that they were able to sound an alarm. What that meant is that people were able to get into a safe location, to get into bunkers. That may be one of the reasons that, at this point, there are no American casualties known as a result of these missile attacks.

Now, the initial assessment, according to sources talking to CNN, is that these parts of the Al-Asad base that were hit were not populated by Americans. Now, they are still waiting, U.S. officials are still waiting for daylight because that is when they will able -- be able to produce a full assessment of what these ballistic missile launches really did. The damage that was really caused as a result of this attack.

Now, Christine, overnight, there was a flurry of activity happening here in Washington. When this attack happened, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was at the Pentagon. He immediately met with the joint chiefs and senior Pentagon officials. He then made calls to congressional leadership to explain to them what the U.S. was hearing, what the initial assessment was, what was going on.

Then Secretary Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley went over to the White House. They met with President Trump and the rest of his national security team to really talk about what was happening and what the U.S. knew at that point. Now, senior pentagon officials were also calling U.S. allies in the region. Also, NATO allies to explain to them, to talk to them about what they were hearing. Now, we are waiting, however, for the Pentagon to come out with some

more. With some more information, an assessment as to what this missile launch, what this attack really did to the U.S. and president Trump is expected to address the nation at some point this morning. Christine.

ROMANS: We'll look forward to those damage assessments from the military. Thanks for that, Kylie.

JARRETT: Again, the only communication from President Trump so far is this tweet, all it well. So what will he say this morning?

Let's bring in CNN's Jeremy Diamond.

Jeremy, what are your sources kind of give you a sense of what we might hear from him?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we got to focus on the tweet first because that is, perhaps, the predictor of what president Trump's response will be today. And it was quite an optimistic note the president struck just hours after Iran fired dozens -- more than a dozen, excuse me -- missiles at bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops.

The president's message, all is well, which was very much in contrast to the president's message in the five days before then, as you waited to see what Iran's retaliation would be. At the time, the president's rhetoric was far more bellicose. The president was threatening Iran with disastrous U.S. military response. Not only if it caused casualties, as the president is now looking to see the full casualty assessment from this attack, but also, simply if Iran struck U.S. interests in the region.

And that would certainly include these military bases that house U.S. troops. Remember, it was the president who had set that red line.


But a senior administration official explaining the current administration's posture said now is the time for patience and restraint. So, potentially, the president looking for an off ramp here today as we await his remarks later this morning.

But the president also getting an earful from hawkish figures in the Republican Party, including Republican Senator Lindsey Graham who spoke with the senator last night and appeared on Fox News talking about potentially hitting oil refineries and describing this attack by Iran as an act of war.

Now, even if there is potentially a cooling of tensions, the FAA is taking no chances. They have issued a prohibition for any U.S. civilian aircraft to be flying over Iraq, Iran, and the Persian Gulf -- Laura.

JARRETT: All right. Jeremy Diamond, thanks so much there in Washington for us. ROMANS: Iran's telecommunications minister speaking further many

Iranians with this tweet: Get the hell out of our region, #hardrevenge. A senior Iranian official had told CNN the response to the death of General Qasem Soleimani would be military.

So what does all this mean for the American presence in the region?

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh live in Baghdad for us -- Jomana.

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine, U.S. forces across this region in a state of high alert, as you can imagine. And also, air defenses activated across the Middle East.

In the hours following that attack, we understand from a military official that there were joint patrols, U.S. and Iraqi forces, patrolling outside their bases. They also deployed attack helicopters and drones in the skies over bases that house U.S. forces. Here in Baghdad, our team witnessed an AC-130 gunship flying over central Baghdad, which includes, of course, the Green Zone.

Now, you know, while we've heard from the Iranians saying that this is it. That this is going to be their conclusion. They're concluding their retaliation. Still, everyone is in a state of high alert as we're seeing now, there were celebrations. Images emerging from Tehran, the Iranian capital, people waving the Iranian and Iraqi flags, celebrating this attack and that familiar chant of "death to America."

So you can imagine how nervous everyone is in this region, and it's not just concern for U.S. military targets. We have seen a rare security alert coming from the U.S. embassy in Amman, Jordan. In that alert, they are telling citizens there to keep a low profile and to be very cautious with their movements, and at the same time, a warning for U.S. government employees in that country saying that they should avoid unnecessary movements, nonessential movements outside their homes today. And that includes not sending their children to school -- Christine.

ROMANS: Wow. All right. Thanks for that from Baghdad, Jomana Karadsheh.

JARRETT: And breaking overnight, both black boxes have been found from the Ukraine International Airlines plane that crashed in Iran killing all 167 passengers and nine crew members: while this happened in Iran, there is no suggestion that it's linked to hostilities between Iran and the U.S.

The Boeing 737 headed for Kiev crashed just two minutes after taking off from an airport in Tehran. According to Iran's state news agency, the plane experienced technical difficulties. The Boeing 737-800 have been in service for just three and a half years. No relation we should note here to the 737 MAX which remains grounded.

Ukraine International Airlines has now suspended flights to Tehran until further notice. ROMANS: All right. Iran launches a strike on U.S. bases in Iraq.

What will the president say today? And could this actually be an off ramp for both sides?

Christiane Amanpour spoke with the defense secretary. She joins us next.



JARRETT: Later this morning, President Trump will address the nation following a missile attack by Iran on two targets in Iraq housing U.S. troops. According to U.S. and Iraqi sources, the strikes caused no known casualties.

ROMANS: We'll have to see a damage report on infrastructure as the day wears on.

Let's go live to London now and bring in CNN's chief international anchor, Christiane Amanpour.

Christiane, I guess the biggest question now that we've seen this hard revenge that was promised by the Iranians, is this the end of something? Or the beginning of something?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Well, I think, again, we're slightly on a knife edge. And we will have to wait to see what President Trump says about this. Although, his initial tweet implies that this is the kind of response that they expected.

They seem to have, quote/unquote, survived it. And whether the United States will now decide that enough is enough for this moment and whether there's some other diplomatic or political or any kind of engagement going forward, as Secretary Esper said to me yesterday.

So I think first and foremost, we wait because the ball is again in the U.S. hands, in the Trump administration court, in the White House court. So, we'll wait to see.

I think it's very important to note what Javad Zarif, who is the international spokesman for Iran as foreign minister. His tweet is very, very clear and just to repeat for all our viewers in the United States and around the world.

He has said: Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self- defense under article 51 of the U.N. charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials were launched.


He went on: We do not seek escalation or war but will defend ourselves against any aggression.

This is a very clear comment and it matches what he said in interviews with CNN in the days immediately after the killing of Soleimani. Let us also put out what Secretary Defense Mark Esper said to me yesterday before this retaliation took place. He came to talk to us, specifically to tell Iran that the United States is not looking to escalate the situation.

Let's just reacquaint our viewers with what he has said.


MARK ESPER, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We are not looking to start a war with Iran. But we are prepared to finish one. As I've told my many colleagues, as I spoke to them over the last few days, what we'd like to see is this situation deescalated, and for Tehran to sit down with us and begin a discussion about a better way ahead. We think that's the best approach at this point in time.


AMANPOUR: So that is very, very clear from the United States, from the Trump administration. It remains to be seen whether now is actually the time for any kind of negotiations or deals. Maybe it is. We don't know yet.

But I think that also we have heard from the Iranian supreme leader. His comments have been quoted on wires and elsewhere because he told people today that this -- this kind of military response is a slap in the face to the United States from which they launched that -- that attack on Soleimani.

So, again, he making it very clear that this is a military response with Iran's name on it. Very, very important. This has not happened before. With Iran's name on it from Iran, we understand these missiles were -- were launched.

This, again, is a first as far as we know that has been claimed by Iran. But the -- again, waiting for the battle damage assessment, it appears at the moment that it has been to, quote, proportionate in response.

He also, though, went on to say that this kind of military response is not enough. And that is about telling his people that their political aim is to get the United States out of the region and out of Iraq. So that's where we are right now. We've had a military response. We've had a response from Iran. And now, we've had the supreme leader talking about their political aim, which is eventually to get the U.S. out of that region -- Christine.

JARRETT: How surprised are you that Iran went this route? You know, the conventional wisdom after the strike last week had been that we might see something more covert instead of a direct attack, what do you make of that?

AMANPOUR: Well, we were saying, to be fair, certainly from my sources, that there were two ways this was going. Obviously, that the -- Iran has the capability to empower and launch its proxies to all sorts of targets in the region where the United States is present and exposed. Or -- that would be one message sent.

Or it would be, as Foreign Minister Zarif kept saying, a direct and proportional response. And what he kept saying was what the United States has done is attacked our state. This is an act of war against us. But our response will be proportionate.

So when you -- he seemed to be saying that we have to respond. We, Iran as a state, have to respond. So others were saying, and we reported this, other Americans said it will be interesting to see if Iran responds in a measured way from Iranian territory and claiming it. That's what -- that's what's happened. And that's what we have to see where it goes.

But again, it'll be very important to note what President Trump says, whether he can accept that this is a proportionate response from Iran. Whether this is what the United States expected. And whether, for the moment, this will stop the tit-for-tat cycle of escalation.

I spoke to a congresswoman, Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin who has been a CIA analyst and who spent three tours of duty in Iraq during the, you know, U.S. presence there, is an expert on the Shiite militias inside Iraq. And she was concerned yesterday that the cycle of words between both countries, the U.S. calling Iranians terrorists, the Iranians calling the U.S. terrorists, et cetera, could escalate and push both sides back against the wall, and then leave them in a position where war, either intentionally or maybe accidentally, could be the result.

Again, this moment right now is massively important and we wait to hear from President Trump as to whether this is what they expected, what they can tolerate from Iran. And what their next steps will be in what Esper said to me, as you saw, in a more diplomatic and political nature.

ROMANS: Yes, I think you're totally right that the next move here is what the president says this morning, how he takes those strikes last night.


And whether we can get off -- step off this escalation ladder sooner rather than latter.

Christiane Amanpour in London, thank you so much for that, Christiane.

JARRETT: Thanks, Christiane.

Much more ahead on the strikes by Iran targeting U.S. troops. Plus, Mitch McConnell ready to start an impeachment trial without a deal on how to proceed with Democrats.


JARRETT: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he will pass rules for President Trump's impeachment trial with no negotiation with Democrats. The Democrats wanted a commitment to witnesses and more documents right upfront. But McConnell says he has enough Republican votes to set the rules based on Bill Clinton's 1999 trial.


Back then, the question of witnesses was put off until after each side presented its case.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): We have the votes. Once the impeachment trial has begun, to pass a resolution, essentially, the same, very similar, to the 100 to nothing vote in the Clinton trial, which sets up, as you may recall, what could best be described as a -- maybe a phase one.


JARRETT: McConnell says Republicans won't act until they get the articles of impeachment from the house. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now calling for McConnell to immediately publish rules for a Senate trial before she sends over those articles.

ROMANS: All right. Our big story this morning, Iran vowed to retaliate and it did. Missile strikes overnight on U.S. bases in neighboring Iraq. The president will speak this morning. Will hostilities cool? Or only get worse?