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Iraqi PM Calls on All Sides to Practice Restraint; Trump Administration to Brief Lawmakers on Strike to Kill Soleimani; McConnell and Pelosi in Impeachment Standoff; U.S. and Iran Exchanged Messages Through A Swiss Diplomatic Channel. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired January 8, 2020 - 12:30   ET



DOUG SILLIMAN, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: I'm first hearing of what the president had to say, I'm encouraged that the words were mostly conciliatory. And that he is to at least to some extent reaching out to American allies to join in what he sees as the need for international -- continued international pressure on Iran.

I might say there are probably two things that I would suggest that the American administration do moving forward. First of all, is seek to work with our allies and not only in Europe but Israel and the Arab Gulf States with which the administration has very good relations to craft an agreed-upon long-term strategy. One of the things that the Trump administration has not been able to do is publicly articulate its goals for Iraq. I think now there is room for diplomacy and a strong American position would help the United States regain the moral high ground and frankly, regain internationally the leadership in this issue.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: And help me on your take, then. What was Iran trying to do last night? They clearly wanted to show they have this technology, they clearly want to show they could strike U.S. military bases, they clearly made a shift in acknowledging we did this from within our sovereign borders at the United States. So there was a message to the United States, they didn't go too far but they sent a message. There's also a message to Iraq, is there not?

SILLIMAN: Well, first of all, the message was to the Iranian people. The government and the military -- or the religious structure in Tehran has whipped up such fury over the killing of Qassem Soleimani, they needed to do something. They have now defined that this is the Iranian government response to that killing.

Secondly, it was very important for them not to cause enough damage for the United States to retaliate, certainly disproportionately and they seem to have accomplished that based on what the president had to say. But the last thing that they also accomplish is they've been able to put enough fear in the neighborhood, particularly in Iraq but also in the Gulf States and Israel and those countries that want to see the free flow of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz, to continue to work with the United States on de-escalation and fusion steps going forward. So, I think one of the things that Iran did last night is stake a claim to Iraq. It was clear in the attacks, choosing both a base in Anbar province which is mostly Sunni and in Erbil in the Kurdistan region that there were messages in here for those Iraqis who do not want to see an increase of Iranian influence in Iraq and those Iraqis, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, Sunnis, who would like to see the continuation of American and coalition force assistance and training for the Iraqi military.

KING: So a bit of a step back today from confrontation but many, many levels of questions in the days and weeks ahead. Mr. Ambassador, I hope you come back as we go through all of this.

Soon here in Washington, a pair of big briefings up on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are about to read in on the intelligence that spur that U.S. strike that took out Iran's terror chief.



KING: Welcome back.

The president today seeking to reassure Americans and lawmakers that Iran appears to be in his view standing down. Members of both the House and Senate soon heading to separate closed-door briefings from top administration officials. That, an update on the current situation with Iran.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny joins us now live from Capitol Hill. Jeff, what are you hearing from members today including those who are also running for president?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, there's no question here that all eyes on Capitol Hill were on the president's remarks as they have been for the last several days here. There is a bit of silence among Democrats. We, of course, have seen them criticize the president's policies but in the wake of his remarks from the White House, they are trying to assess what he actually means. So they are looking for those classified briefings here this afternoon on Capitol Hill to see what is next.

They certainly like the sound of the restraint. The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans that we've spoken to say, that, you know, look, that is the sign of a superpower to show restraint. Democrats, of course, are criticizing the long-term policy of this president, why did he withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement.

But John, as you said, it is going to be fascinating this afternoon to watch the Democratic presidential candidates including five U.S. senators who are leaving their day jobs for a little bit of time on Capitol Hill are returning to their day jobs I should say to get those briefings. And we have not yet seen a robust foreign policy debate inside the Democratic Party for a while. That is exactly what Bernie Sanders wants to have. He wants to have a conversation about America's place in the world. Of course, Joe Biden has counted on his experience here.

So this is a bit of unchartered territory in the four weeks before the voting begins but for matters of substance, the politics of foreign policy always so complicated. But John, even more so when even Republicans and Democrats here on Capitol Hill aren't exactly sure what the president is up to.


KING: Jeff Zeleny, live on the Hill, appreciate it. A very important day up there.

Let's come back into the room. One question is if you could -- going back just 24 hours ago especially among House Democrats, they wanted to bring to the floor as quickly as possible a war powers resolution, they wanted to send the signal even though it had zero possibility of passing in the Senate. Mr. President, we're watching you. Mr. President, you should be consulting with us more. Mr. President, there are limits on your power here.

Does this step back if you want to call it that or a pause take the gas out of the energy on Capitol Hill to do that?

MICHAEL SHEAR, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't think so. I mean, I talked to some members before the president's address about that very question, are you going to press ahead with this. And I think the ones that were eager to press ahead before seem to think that they're going to continue to do that. I think they want the philosophical point even though as you say there's -- it's unlikely to actually end up in restraining the president in any meaningful way.


But again, I think the point that Jeff made about the long-term concerns remains. And they, you know -- I don't think that the president's remarks answered many of their questions.

KING: No. The president's remarks did not answer anything in the long-term. Again, I heard your colleague, David Sanger right up saying he's a little bit -- depending on your perspective, you could find something you liked. There were carrots for Iran, I'd like to talk to you. You're great people. I want you to be prosperous. There were sticks so I'm coming at you with new sanctions. I want the world community to go against you.

Does it matter that what the president said today is inconsistent with what he promised just the other day? These are the president's words in a tweet Saturday and Sunday. "These media posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly and fully strike back and perhaps in a disproportionate manner."

On Saturday, "They attacked us and we hit back. If they attack again which I would strongly advise them not to do, we will hit them harder than they've ever been hit before." The president is on record there. No Americans were killed, thank God. But they did attack U.S. military installations inside Iraq. And if you take the president's tweets literally, he had promised to retaliate. Does it -- I'm not an advocate of military conflict, that's now what I'm saying here, but does it matter as he's trying to sell people and convince people that he has a strategy?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I read these -- I read his remarks today as a recalibration of that rhetoric from past days in an effort not only to send the Iranians a signal that they don't want to escalate militarily right now but to send the American public that signal and lawmakers from both parties that signal. And I think we'll see. There needs to be those briefings and some of those questions to the administration and see what their responses are.

But I think part of the reason you're seeing the Democratic presidential candidates, particularly Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg who have some of that military or foreign policy experience be very careful right now in what they're saying and stick to this message about the troops is because they understand that it's important to understand what was the intelligence and what is the administration's plans for their next steps.

There are a couple of domestic political forces at play here, right? And one is that the American public does not want another war. And two, is that the American public does not want to get pushed around by the Iranians.

So, how do Americans read the president's actions? How do Americans understand the killing of Soleimani? And how do Americans understand the president signaling? That is going to be crucial for how congressional Democrats decide to respond to this.

KING: It'd be interesting to hear when they come out of these briefings whether any of them are satisfied, both with the question of why General Soleimani was taken out and then additionally -- and if they get any additional information about some of the points the president touched on today without fully explaining.

When we come back though, a shift to another issue. The Senate majority has a message for the House speaker. He's done, he says, waiting on impeachment.



KING: The Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today with a very blunt message for the Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. McConnell says to Pelosi, you have no leverage over the impeachment process here in the Senate so send over the articles.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): There will be no haggling with the House over Senate procedure. We will not cede our authority to try this impeachment. The House Democrats turn is over. The Senate has made its decision.


KING: Speaker Pelosi, of course, still holding those impeachment articles sending a letter to her Democratic colleagues last night explaining why. She says McConnell has promised that he would detail what the process looks like. Pelosi said this in her letter, "Leader McConnell said we'll be glad to show you the resolution when we unveil it. It is important that he immediately publish this resolution", the speaker wrote. "So that as I have said before we can see the arena in which we will be participating, appoint managers, and transmit the articles to the Senate."

CNN's Manu Raju joins us now live on Capitol Hill. Manu, when will the stalemate break?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's the big question here. No one really knows who's going to blink first because what Nancy Pelosi is saying, she needs to see the rules first in detail in writing before she unveils then sends those articles of impeachment over, and Mitch McConnell is making clear he's not going to be told what to do. So perhaps they need to reach some sort of accommodation by themselves.

But I can tell you, John in talking to Democratic senators, they are eager to see this trial starts. Several of them who I just spoke to moments ago said they want this to start as soon as next week. One reason why is that it's upsetting their efforts to plan their work schedules, their personal schedules, they'll have to be here six days a week and also their legislative efforts as they try to prepare and push for things in the days and weeks to come. And on the uncertainty over the trial affects that.

One senator, Angus King of Maine, independent, said he would leave the decision to Nancy Pelosi and when she should send it over but he said it's, quote, is probably time to begin the trial.

Chris Murphy, another -- a Connecticut Democrat told me that he believes a real leverage is actually when they have votes during the trial in which they can force Republicans, put them on the record about whether to call witnesses from going forward. He seems to think that the leverage in withholding the articles is up and it's time to begin the trial. He said he hopes it could happen as soon as next week.


And Richard Blumenthal, the senior Democratic senator from Connecticut told me, I'm ready to begin the trial tomorrow. As a former prosecutor, I'm ready to go to court.

So you're seeing some anxiety of sorts among members who want to see this happen, who don't know where this is going. But at the moment, John, no one really knows exactly how this will be resolved, who's going to blame first but the president's trial in limbo for the time being.


KING: In limbo for the time being. Manu, appreciate the live reporting on the Hill.

Here's my question, Speaker Pelosi says she wants to see it in writing. Mitch McConnell has been pretty clear about the process. He says he wants to roughly follow the rules for Clinton which included arguments for and against impeachment, the House managers should make their case, the president's team would get to respond to it, then senators get to submit questions in writing if they have them, they do that through the Chief Justice John Roberts who would preside on a Senate trial. And then senators would decide if they need additional witnesses. That's how it played out in Clinton, they did take depositions from additional witnesses in that case. Why isn't that good enough for the speaker?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's what it was a little puzzling about to me too because the organizing resolution back in 1999 is like you said pretty sparse. You kind of already know what it would say. I don't know if any document that McConnell produces is going to have that much detail that Pelosi is seeking right now. And I think it's pretty clear with McConnell announcing that he can effectively steamroll Democrats because he has the votes to proceed in the way that he wants, that Pelosi doesn't have a lot of leverage here. And I think the fact that she's losing members of her own party in the Senate, and we talked to a lot of the same senators today, I mean, these senators come from the most liberal flank of the caucus, they're the most moderate who are all saying, let's get this going, we have a job to do, we -- let's just get this trial moving and just get it over with.

KING: Is there an argument to be made that if you want those four Republicans you would need to get witnesses or to get some other procedural question answered in the Democrats favor, why antagonize them now by holding onto this?

TALEV: I don't think those Republicans are there. If they were there for the last week, they wouldn't be like totally evasive whether they had any concerns about any of this stuff. I think you can make a counter-argument that Nancy Pelosi has already used leveraged to get a lot of what she wanted which was messaging over the enter holiday recess that Mitch McConnell is playing games which voters may not like that may translate into their perception of Republican lawmakers in the House and the Senate, and that President Trump is hiding information even as information comes out. She's been able to make those points day after day. Perhaps the utility in that has run out, and perhaps her own members are telling her that now but I think she probably feels OK about it anyway.

KIM: To that point, a Democratic aide told me yesterday that you can kind of win by losing. So this is kind of what they're looking at here. That you may not be able to get the floor but maybe they can win in the public arena.

KING: But this trial is going to begin maybe as soon as the middle of next week?

SHEAR: Yes. I mean, look, I think the Iran stuff complicates it a little bit because they've now got to deal with this. If the Iran strikes and all hadn't happened, they might have a clearer path to actually resolving this over the next, you know, week or few days. Dianne Feinstein came out also today and said, you know, I don't know what good delay does anymore. So the pressure is building I think.

And I talked to folks from McConnell's office yesterday who said -- and asked, you know, can you guys actually pass a resolution before the speaker sends over the articles, and their answer was no. We have to wait from a process standpoint until she sends them over.

So, at some point, they're going to -- somebody is going to blink and it seems likely that it's got be the speaker and, you know, claiming victory, claiming the messaging victory that Margaret talked about, and then we'll be there. Maybe -- I don't think early next week but maybe mid-next week.

KING: Maybe mid-next week. All right.

Up next for us, brand new details on a diplomatic backchannel between Iran and the United States.



KING: Welcome back.

Some breaking news, important new details about today's big story. CNN has learned the United States and Iran exchanged several messages recently through a Swiss diplomatic channel.

CNN's Kylie Atwood joins me live here on set. Kylie, what are we learning about this?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes. So, what we're learning is that in the recent days as this crisis has been unfolding between the U.S. and Iran, there have been messages that have been going back and forth between -- by the Swiss. This is a diplomatic channel that is open and available to the U.S. and Iran, who do not have diplomatic relations themselves. So this is often a channel that's used for consult or dialogue. It was heavily used when there was a prisoner swap that was negotiated, the Swiss had a big part in that at the end of last year.

So it is used but it's even more noteworthy that it's being used at this moment in time because there's this crisis that is unfolding between the U.S. and Iran. And we saw this morning President Trump coming out and seeming to indicate that he wants to de-escalate this crisis, and he noted that he wants the Iranian people and the Iranian regime to have a better future. So there is some indication here that as these messages are going back and forth, the Trump administration may again be in a position where it wants to consider some dialogue with the Iranian leadership. KING: And the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirming there was some messages exchanged but they're not saying who went first and the specifics of them, just that they were involved and they're grateful -- they're happy to be involved.

ATWOOD: Yes. They're indicating that both sides were involved. They're not saying which side was the one to broach this topic, to come to the table and say, we want to get involved. But they are saying that there is a dialogue happening and it's really noteworthy.

KING: It's a fascinating piece of an important story. More questions we'll try to answer.

And thanks for joining us today on INSIDE POLITICS. Hope to see you back here this time tomorrow. A lot of news today, don't go anywhere. Brianna Keilar starts right now.

Have a great afternoon.