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Iran Fires Missiles at U.S. Bases in Iraq in Response to U.S. Airstrike that Killed Iranian General; No Casualties Reported in Iranian Missile Strikes; Ukrainian Plane Crashes Near Tehran; President Trump to Address Nation on Iranian Missile Strikes; Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) is Interviewed Regarding Iran and the Senate Impeachment Trial. Aired 8-8:30a ET
Aired January 8, 2020 - 08:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: This is new video from Iranian media supposedly showing a launch of those missile from western Iraq. At this time there are no known casualties, no known casualties.
And just in to CNN, multiple officials in the administration tell CNN that there is a growing belief within the Pentagon that Iran intentionally missed areas populated by Americans. They missed on purpose, these officials say. They are floating the idea that Iran may have chosen to send a message and not provoke a major U.S. military response.
A short time ago, Iran's supreme leader addressed his nation, saying they gave the United States, quote, a slap in the face. Iran's foreign minister insists it's now up to the U.S. to come to its senses. We're waiting to see how the president responds this morning.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Also breaking overnight, a Ukrainian passenger plane crashed near Tehran just minutes after takeoff, and it killed all 176 people on board. Investigators say there was distress call from the Boeing 737 flight. It was headed to Kiev. Of course, analysts this morning are looking at the timing of this and whether there is any possible connection between this passenger plane going down and the military action that was happening at the very same time in the region. Look at these pictures, John. This is the devastating aftermath. There's just -- everything, obviously, is just sort of blown to pieces, and you can see investigators trying to just figure out what would have brought this plane down.
BERMAN: Obviously, the timing of this is raising so many questions because this plane crashed shortly after those missiles were fired at those U.S. troops at Iraqi bases. We don't have answers at this point. What we do know is that the Iranians are unwilling to share the black boxes. That in and of itself doesn't tell you much. It doesn't seem like there would be much cooperation between Iran and the U.S. on anything right now. We also know that several airlines are now saying they're not going to fly over Iranian or Iraqi airspace, probably a reasonable decision.
Let's go to Frederik Pleitgen in Tehran for the latest on the ground there. Fred?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, John. As far as these black boxes are concerned, we've been looking into that. And it seems as though it might be somewhat of a political situation that's going on there. The Iranians indeed saying that they're not going to turn these black boxes over. They say they're going to not turn them over to either the company, Boeing, or to America. So this could be a continuation, if you will, of the standoff between the United States and Iran that's obviously been going on. The Iranians very reluctant to hand the black boxes over to any sort of entity that's in the United States, and, of course, to any sort of investigation authority that is in the United States as well.
The Iranians are saying that, according to the law of international air travel, normally the country where an air crash happens is also the country that leads the investigation. Of course, we do know that in the past, some countries have handed black boxes over to investigation authorities in other places.
But we are, guys, trying to still piece together what exactly happened with that flight. What we know is that it took off from Tehran airport, Imam Khomeini Airport, which is the airport that I always fly in and out of when I go to Iran. It's just a couple miles down the road from here. At around 6:30 early this morning, it only flew for about two hours. It didn't gain much in the way of altitude, and then came down very, very suddenly. As Alisyn was saying, there was no distress call from the plane.
And then looking at that debris, you can see the debris is extremely widespread. It's extremely small pieced as well. I want to give you just a little bit of the lay of the land in the area. I know behind me right now you're probably seeing some mountains. That's the north of Tehran. The south of Tehran is really very much flat land, mostly farmland around that area with some smaller structures there, mostly farm houses. You see that when you fly in and out of that airport, that the land there gets very flat. That's also probably one of the reasons why that crash site is fairly accessible and also why those black boxes were found pretty quickly. That site is not very difficult to get to.
Now, the plane was in the air for two hours, then crashed very suddenly. There's some video purporting to show that plane going down, which would seem to be some sort of fire coming out of the plane. Unclear whether or not that's an engine. It still is totally unclear what brought that plane down. There was a statement earlier today by the Ukrainian embassy here in these saying that they didn't believe that there was any sort of malfeasance, any sort of terrorism or anything possibly involved in this. That statement has since been taken down, and the Ukrainian government, it was a Ukrainian Airlines plane, is saying it's unclear what exactly brought that plane down.
The toll is devastating. Everybody who was on that plane was killed, 176 people, as you put it, many of them Canadian citizens, many of them Iranian citizens, some Afghan citizens and other European citizens on board that plane as well.
Obviously, a major aviation catastrophe that took place in the early morning hours here just south of Tehran at the airport. And as you guys put it, obviously, all of this coming at that time that we were dealing with the aftermath of those Iranian ballistic missile strikes on those bases. We were actually on air reporting about those ballistic missile strikes taking place when we heard that that plane had crashed. So the timing is certainly remarkable. Absolutely unclear whether or not this is in any way related.
But, of course, all of this also feeds into the wider uncertainty of this area, of this part of the world, and then also, of course, aviation in this world. One of the things we also have to keep in mind, guys, is that Iran and this region is a major aviation corridor for international airlines, for instance, flying into hubs like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Middle Eastern hubs. A lot of airlines now avoiding Iranian air space, avoiding flying into Iran at all, guys.
BERMAN: Frederik Pleitgen for us in Tehran covering many developments for us this morning on several fronts.
We want to go right to the Pentagon and deal with a little bit of other breaking news involving the Iranian missile strikes on those bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. CNN reporting moments ago, you just heard, that there's a growing sense within the Trump administration that the Iranians intentionally missed areas that they knew housed U.S. troops so as to prevent provoking perhaps a harsh military response from the United States. So let's go right to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us this morning to tell us what we're hearing. Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. There have been some verbal clues from the Iranians. They talk about a slap in the face to the U.S. They talk about this may be it, unless the U.S. military engages in further action against it. But what will happen to try to prove this assumption that the Iranians avoided places where there were U.S. troops specifically located is the military. The U.S. military and intelligence community is going to have to look at its electronic intelligence the radars, the telemetry signals, everything they have electronically from the flight of those missiles from Iran into Iraq, and see how they were guided, what the precise target was believed to be, and did the Iranians hit the precise point that they were aiming at? We may never learn that, but that's going to have to be part of the assessment here.
There's also been a verbal clue perhaps, perhaps from President Trump in an overnight tweet when he said "All is well!" He went to say "Missiles launched from Iran hit two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties and damages taking place now. So far, so good." And you can read the rest of it there.
So what we know now this morning, top national security leadership has been to the White House meeting with the president, reviewing all the evidence, perhaps offering him options on what he wants to do next. He is expected to address the nation while everyone awaits to see what those next steps may be. Alisyn, John? CAMEROTA: Barbara, thank you very much for all of that breaking news
from the Pentagon. And again, we are waiting to hear from President Trump this morning. We don't know exactly what time. But, obviously, Americans just waking up around the country are looking very forward to hearing from the president about what happens next.
BERMAN: Much more of our breaking news coverage right after this.
CAMEROTA: OK, breaking news. Breaking news all morning. And if you are just waking up, there was this missile strike last night from Iran into Iraq in the direction of U.S. troops. As far as we know, no casualties have been reported at this hour, but President Trump is about to address the country on the Iran crisis. It will happen this morning. We're not sure exactly what time. It could be at any moment.
This comes as Trump administration officials say there is a growing belief, however, inside the White House, that Iran's missile strike on these two Iraqi air bases deliberately missed areas that were populated by American forces. That suggests that the attack was meant to send a message to the U.S., but not to cause any casualties.
So joining us now we have CNN military analyst, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton, he's a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CNN political analyst David Gregory. Great to have both of you. So Colonel Leighton, with everything you've seen last night and this morning, the fact that there were no casualties, how do you interpret this?
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET), CNN MILLION ANALYST: Well, I think, Alisyn, I think the interpretation that this was a message from Iran as opposed to a deliberate military strike was casualties is very, very significant. The Iranians are showing a capability to target things, but not to actually kinetically kill them, and that's a very big difference from past Iranian practice. Changes maybe in their doctrine, in the way they're employing their forces, and we're seeing this really for the first time playing out operationally. And it's a very interesting development.
BERMAN: Is it your understanding they have that capability, the precision within their weaponry to aim close but not make a direct hit?
LEIGHTON: Well, the Iranians have the capability to use GPS. They also use a Russian built system called GLONASS which is a navigation system that is kind of like GPS. So they can use that, and there is some reporting out there that indicates that they have actually incorporated these systems in their weapons systems, some of their newer weapons systems. They have cruise missiles, for example, that can use that. So that is the type of thing that we're looking at now, John. BERMAN: It just does seem like an it's awfully big gamble unless
you're 100 percent sure, if you are trying to intentionally miss, shooting a missile at a base where there are U.S. troops, you better be damn well sure.
LEIGHTON: That's right. That's exactly right. And if you're not sure, you should never attempt it. And that's what we're seeing. I think they were secure in their way of looking at this.
CAMEROTA: So David Gregory, now, of course, the question is, how will President Trump respond? He will be speaking at some point this morning. What are you listening for?
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think there's a question before we hear the president, which is, is this it? The Iranians are saying that this has concluded their response. There's no reason to believe that that's the case. That may just be wishful thinking. They may do a lot more quietly with proxy actors. So you just don't know.
But I think to your question, on the face of it, we thought we might hear from the president last night, which suggested that there was an immediate reaction to the reaction.
Now there's been more breathing space. So, I think what I'm listening for is some sense of strategy from the president. We heard from the secretary of state that it's confront-and-contain. That's the administration's positioning toward Iran.
We've seen that confrontation. What are they trying to contain? What is the strategy? Might there be talks in the future?
We don't know what the end game is, what a strategy is for dealing with Iran, despite the very provocative act, the escalation of taking out Soleimani. So, the fact that the president wants to speak to the country and perhaps lay that out, I would assume there would be something of a warning as well.
But all we've heard from the president, frankly, through tweets, rather cryptic messages, clipped messages and, of course, really provocative threats about hitting cultural sites which he's walked back. So something that would be a little clearer, a little bit more coherent I think could be reassuring to Americans at this point.
BERMAN: There's been a confused public message and I don't think Americans know what the strategy is nor U.S. allies around the world because that strategy hasn't been articulated at all. This would be an opportunity to do that.
David, I am struck by, if this is it, in the near term for the Iranians, do you think President Trump would take that opportunity to say, see? You know, I took out General Soleimani and all the Iranians did was shoot at the ground as opposed to killing U.S. troops. There was no immediate consequence. That could be a risky statement to make before you know if the
Iranians will do more.
GREGORY: Yes, I mean, I would be -- again, trying to predict where the president would land on this is impossible and we shouldn't try. But I think that in their mindset, they want to go places that other administrations have not gone. So, obviously, the Obama administration negotiated with Iran and nuclear deal they pulled out of that. They want to be more confrontational with Iran.
But the president has also said he would sit down with the Iranians as well. Unconditionally. You could see the president who seeks to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon from trying to negotiate a new nuclear deal -- that's tougher.
What's clear is that he is trying to do something that was a major escalation, something that was considered, you know, bold or reckless, depending upon your point view of in taking out Soleimani, and we just don't know what the full scale of that reaction is. Except there's got to be a view that the Iranians do not want all-out war with the United States.
CAMEROTA: Colonel, David, thank you both very much. We really appreciate the analysis.
Joining us now is the Democratic whip, Senator Dick Durbin.
Senator, thank you very much for being here with us.
I want to get your impressions of what happened last night -- roughly two dozen of these ballistic missiles launched by Iran to -- into Iraq air bases, no -- towards U.S. troops -- but no casualties reported.
How do you see what happened?
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): Well, of course, the missiles were sourced in Iran. They were better precision military equipment than we have seen in the past. The net result appears to be no loss of American life. But, clearly, we have to decide what the next step will be.
I sincerely hope this administration will take a breath at this moment and step back and really measure how far we want to go into this escalation. And I also think that there's a responsibility -- a clear responsibility under the Constitution -- for the United States Congress to make it abundantly clear to the president that we have a constitutional responsibility when it comes to these types of escalations or any possibility of war.
CAMEROTA: It sounds like Lindsey Graham has a slightly different take on this than you do. Last night as this was unfolding, he wasn't exactly signaling de-escalation. Let me play for you this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): This was an act of war, Sean, by any reasonable definition. The missiles were launched from Iran at targets inside Iraq housing U.S. military personnel. The president has all the authority he needs under Article II to respond.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: What's your response to that?
DURBIN: I can tell you that that approach by Senator Graham is one that will lead us directly into war. It is a confrontational approach instead of a measured approach.
What is our goal? What is our object here? We are going to make certain we keep our minds set on that.
This president started his presidency hell-bent on a confrontation with Iran. He has it now. And the question is whether he wants to escalate it into a war with more troops being sent.
When thousands of Americans are being asked to go to the Middle East and to risk their lives, it is time for us to step back and measure exactly what our goal is at this moment. If we are looking for stability in the Middle East, if we are trying to reduce terrorism by Iran and other countries, let us do it thoughtfully, not impulsively.
CAMEROTA: Well, since you have been very focused on Congress, authorizing whatever happens next, whatever military action, what does Congress want to see happen next? What military action would you authorize?
DURBIN: Well, I can certainly say that when it comes to protecting Americans and American interests around the world, it's clear the president has that authority. But when we are moving hundreds, if not thousands, of troops into this theater, it is really an escalation of this confrontation. And at that point, we need to stop and ask ourselves, are we ready for another war in the Middle East.
We have gone through two of the longest wars in the history of the United States, endless wars, and it's time for us to measure whether we're going to continue this posture indefinitely. I think it's a serious mistake if we do.
CAMEROTA: I want to ask you about the underlying intelligence. Congress will be briefed today about what the administration has said was an imminent attack. They say they took action because there was an imminent attack that we've not seen any evidence and the public doesn't know what that means.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier saw that underlying intelligence and she was both underwhelmed and felt it was overhyped. So let me play for you what she said after seeing it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JACKIE SPEIER (D-CA): I have seen the intelligence that's been provided by our Intelligence Community and also the letter from the president. I think this will go down in history as an epic foreign policy blunder by the president of the United States. I can't say that it was persuadable. It was vague.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: Senator, what happens if you see vague intelligence, that's not persuadable?
DURBIN: Well, I've already seen some, and I don't know if it's the same as Congresswoman Speier, but I have to join her in her evaluation. Of course, terrorism threats exist in the Middle East and, of course, Iran has sponsored them in the past and sadly may continue to in the future.
Did I see this imminent threat that led to this president's decision to target the -- Mr. Soleimani, General Soleimani? No.
Now, make no mistake, General Soleimani is an architect of terror with American blood on his hands. But we've known that through previous presidents, President Bush and President Obama. And they made the careful decision that confrontation and elimination at that point would not be in the best interest of the United States in the long run.
What was it that President Trump saw that changed his mind? Was it an impulsive move on his part, or did he thoughtfully think through what this means in terms of our future in that region of the world?
CAMEROTA: But if it was impulsive, let's just say -- and let's just say that it was about retaliation -- let's say that the intelligence ends up showing that there wasn't an imminent attack. It was about retaliation just as say with al Baghdadi.
Do you think the American public will forgive that?
DURBIN: Well, I can tell you that the American public has no sympathy for General Soleimani and his past, nor do I. And I'm not making any excuses for the fact that this man has been an enemy of the United States, and as I -- as mentioned earlier, has blood on his hands when it comes to his previous decisions.
But when it comes to the next step, the sending of thousands of American troops into that theater in a confrontation with Iran, that's a totally different question. It's one that we ought to think through carefully and Congress ought to step up, man up, woman up, and say that under the Constitution, it's our responsibility to debate this issue.
That's what it says in Article 1, Section 8, and we ought to stand by that.
CAMEROTA: What do you want to hear President Trump say this morning?
DURBIN: Well, I hope the president will be measured in his response. I don't want to hear any more of these wild claims that we're going to go destroy cultural sites. That's a definable war crime, period, and the fact the president said it is embarrassing to this country as far as I'm concerned. We can fight terrorism, but we can also maintain our civility in the process. I hope that the president will say something this morning that shows he's slept on this, thought about it, taken a breath and decided not to escalate this situation into a full-blown war.
CAMEROTA: You're looking for a pause. You're looking for him to signal that this -- we're in the moment of a strategic pause.
DURBIN: Well, I hope that he'll at least think carefully about what the next step might be. Committing American troops to this theater, engaging in another war, is something that should be debated, something that I think is wrong at this moment.
And the American people should have a voice in this process through Congress. It's time for the House and Senate to engage in this debate.
CAMEROTA: While I have you, Senator, about the next steps in the Senate impeachment trial, is it time for Nancy Pelosi to send over the articles of impeachment?
DURBIN: I think she is contemplating that -- and soon.
And I understand she may make a decision in the next few days. But that's entirely up to her.
What she's been looking for is not unreasonable. The Constitution calls for a trial in the Senate. She has asked what that trial will be.
As one of my colleagues said the other day on the Caucus luncheon, a trial has witnesses. A cover-up does not have witnesses.
I think there's a point that we clearly know -- at least four material witnesses need to be called in the Senate, so we can have a better understanding of what happened in the circumstances leading up to this impeachment.
CAMEROTA: What about what Mitch McConnell says, that in the Clinton case, you had opening statements and then decided -- opening arguments and then you decided?
DURBIN: Well, if that was all that he said, then of course, it's a pretty reasonable position. But he said more.
Senator McConnell made it clear in the last week or two that he is now consorting with the president's defense team, and he's all but said that he wants this matter dispensed with as quickly as possible. He's not interested in material evidence, in documents or witnesses. You can't have a real trial, a fair trial unless that happens.
And I think that many members of his own caucus may say to the majority leader, you can start this trial, but when it comes to witnesses, we've got to make a decision, a public decision and vote on it, and we want to be reasonable in our response.
CAMEROTA: Senator Dick Durbin, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us this morning on a very busy morning on Capitol Hill. We'll talk to you soon.
DURBIN: Thank you very much.
BERMAN: All right. We'll continue to follow the breaking news all morning long. We're waiting to hear from President Trump, his reaction to the Iranian missile strike on the base -- the bases that housed U.S. troops.
CNN's breaking news coverage continues right after this.