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Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) is Interviewed on Iran; AUMF Reality Check; Trump's Response to Strike. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired January 8, 2020 - 08:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[08:30:37]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are waiting to hear from President Trump. He will address the nation. That could happen very shortly. This is in response to Iran's missile attacks overnight at two bases that house U.S. troops inside Iraq.

Again, there are Americans stationed at those bases. There are no known casualties as we sit here this morning. And, in fact, CNN has reporting that the Trump administration is beginning to believe that Iran intentionally missed U.S. troops at those sites.

Let's talk about this more. Joining me is Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton. He is a member of the Armed Services Committee, also a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

Congressman, it's a pleasure to speak with you this morning.

As you sit here, and as you wait to hear from the president, how do you assess the Iranian attack overnight?

REP. SETH MOULTON (D-MA): Well, they've obviously made an effort to say that it can end here. And if the president is smart, he will take that cue because it is not in our strategic interest to get bogged down in another massive war in the Middle East.

I mean I fought in the Iraq War. The Iraq War is essentially still going on. Let me tell you, a war with Iran would be far, far worse. I'd have to worry about my daughter going to fight in Iran and she's 14 months old.

BERMAN: The Iranians are suggesting this was their proportionate response and it has concluded. Do you trust them?

MOULTON: I don't trust anything the Iranians do or say. They are an enemy of the United States. We have to be clear about that.

But you negotiate with your enemies. You know, the administration's stated policy is to get Iran to the negotiating table. Of course they're failing at that. I don't think Iran's ever been farther away from the negotiating table. But the point is that this is not a time to escalate. This is a time to try to find a way to negotiate an end to this conflict before both countries get dragged into a war that almost nobody wants. I mean maybe Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, wants to go to war, but I don't know just about any other American, Democrat or Republican, who thinks it's a wise idea to go to war with Iran right now.

Of course, on the Iranian side, they've got a lot of public pressure to stand up to the United States. So there's a lot of pressure to go to war and we need cooler heads to prevail.

BERMAN: One of the justifications that the administration used in the immediate aftermath of the killing of General Soleimani was that he was planning an imminent attack on U.S. interests overseas. I understand you have seen some of the underlying intelligence here or you have been briefed. Please tell me what you have seen so far and if you are convinced.

MOULTON: Well, I saw the notification to Congress, the letter that President Trump wrote to Congress to justify, to explain why he had the unilateral authority to conduct this strike. In other words, what the imminent threat actually is. It's a top secret document. Obviously, I can't discuss that here. But I can tell you from reading it that it should be declassified. I say that as someone who's seen an awful lot of classified intelligence in my career, both as a Marine and as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and I can tell you that it should be declassified so that every American can see exactly what this imminent threat is and what it is not.

BERMAN: Can you give us a sense of whether or not it was convincing that killing General Soleimani would stop the alleged threat?

MOULTON: Look, I'm not going to discuss classified intelligence. I would just say that there's nothing in there that shouldn't be declassified. Maybe one small detail that can certainly be excluded.

And we need to know why the president thinks that he has the authority to do this. Remember, vested in the Constitution is the idea that Congress decides when to go to war, not the president of the United States, with the exception of a national emergency, when there is an imminent threat. So the president owes this explanation, not just to Congress, but to the American people for why he's bringing us to the brink of war with Iran.

BERMAN: I do want to ask you, because you have had personal experience inside Iraq dealing with Iranian-sponsored forces. I am sure, as a Marine officer, you lost men, you lost Marines at the least the indirect hands of General Soleimani. So what is your view of him as a person?

MOULTON: He's an absolutely evil man with American blood on his hands.

[08:35:00]

And I don't mourn his loss one bit.

But you've got to be smart about this. One of the basic calculations you learn in fighting terrorists is you not -- you don't take actions that create more terrorists than they eliminate. And you don't take actions that make us less safe.

This reminds me actually of being in Najaf, in southern Iraq in 2005, where we had a militia-held city and an Iranian-backed governor. Basically a Soleimani-like figure in the governor's office. This guy was evil. He was trying to kill Americans. He had blood on his hands. Trust me, I wanted to kill him. But my team made a strategic decision not to take him out because we knew that it would create more problems than it would solve. And I think that's exactly what the president has done here.

Soleimani's an evil guy, yes, but he's create more problems that it solved. And we've got to get out of this escalatory cycle.

BERMAN: It's created more problems than it solved. I could see a Trump administration supporter coming back at you this morning and saying, well, look, the only response from the Iranians so far has been to shoot missiles into the dirt. So there has been no horrific consequence yet. This is -- I'm giving you a strawman argument here. No horrific consequence yet to the killing of General Soleimani.

MOULTON: Well, let's just look at what's happened.

First of all, we have stopped our counter-ISIS mission in Iraq to go into a totally defensive posture. ISIS is a threat to the United States right here at home, and we've just given up the fight because we say we have to protect ourselves from an Iranian attack. That is not in our strategic interest.

Iran has been trying to influence Iraqi politics and push us out of Iraq for 15 years. In fact, that has been Soleimani's charge. He may actually achieve it just because he's been killed because now we're talking about withdrawing all our troops from Iraq and losing that key, strategic foothold that we have in the Middle East.

On top of that, they're talking about -- I mean the president is already sending more troops to Iraq. We're talking about a potential war with Iran. We're getting dragged into another endless war in the Middle East, which takes our eye off the ball of real national security threats around the globe, not just ISIS in the Middle East, but China, Russia, all the national security threats that Democrats and Republicans agree should be the primary focus of our efforts.

So there have been a lot of negative consequences of this action. It's not just about how Iran has been empowered or whether or not they're going to shoot missiles into the dirt. It's about what our strategic interests are around the globe.

You know, one other point, John, we actually had Soleimani and his Quds force, these Iranian hard-liners in a really good spot just a couple of weeks ago. They had overreacted to protests at home and lost a lot of credibility when they killed hundreds of Iranian citizens. Iraq was holding protests against Iran's presence in Iraq. So actually, just two weeks ago, Soleimani and his men were getting marginalized at home and pushed out of Iraq. Now we've completely reversed that situation in Iran's favor. BERMAN: Congressman Seth Moulton, we do appreciate you joining us this

morning, giving us your unique insight on all of this. It will be interesting to hear how the president responds to the Iranian mission and if he, in fact, articulates a U.S. strategy toward Iran because that, as of now, has been a bit muddled. We appreciate it.

MOULTON: There's no strategy we need to hear.

BERMAN: All right.

Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, so what is the justification for President Trump's actions in Iran? Well, John Avlon says it comes down to four little letters. We have a "Reality Check" for you, next.

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CAMEROTA: So what is the AUMF, and what does it mean for this particular moment?

BERMAN: Four letters can mean a lot here.

CAMEROTA: That's what John Avlon says. He has our "Reality Check."

Hi, John.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Hey, guys.

OK, so wars are easy to get into, but difficult to get out of. So see if you can follow how we got to this moment.

The White House says that President Trump killed an Iranian general in Iraq five days ago under authority granted to him by a 17-year-old congressional resolution authorizing war in Iraq based on an attack on our soil carried out by terrorists who were mostly from Saudi Arabia. Clear as mud, right?

Well, presidents from both parties have used the 2002 AUMF, or the Authorization for Use of Military Force, and an earlier one from 2001, to pursue their own foreign policy agendas. And now lawmakers, Democrats in this case, are pushing to limit President Trump's power to wage war in Iran before he use the AUMF to justify any further escalation.

But it's kind of like trying to put a horse back in the barn after they've left the door open for years.

Less than a decade ago, Republicans loved to call themselves constitutional conservatives and Donald Trump promised that he loved it more than any.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (October 19, 2016): It's all about the Constitution. And so important. The Constitution, the way it was meant to be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AVLON: The way it was meant to be. So given that the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, sole authority to declare war, it might shock you to know that the last time Congress actually declared war was in 1942 against Romania in the middle of the Second World War.

But with Vietnam came the 1973 War Powers Act, which was designed to rein in President Nixon's actions in Cambodia. And since then, all of America's wars have started with these authorizations of force.

After 9/11, Congress did just that against those who, quote, planned, authorized, committed or aided the attacks. That's al Qaeda.

But here's where it gets really sticky. The sentence continues, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future attacks. And, get this, only one member of Congress, Barbara Lee, voted against the 2001 AUMF, calling it a blank check. And she may have had a point because a 2018 congressional report says it's been used by three presidents to justify 41 actions in at least 19 countries, literally from a to y, Afghanistan to Yemen. Apparently we haven't made it to Zimbabwe yet.

Now, skip ahead to today and you can maybe see why President Pence tweeted that -- Vice President Pence tweeted that some of the 9/11 hijackers traveled through Iran. Remember that harboring part. Or the administration saying that General Soleimani was planning imminent attacks.

[08:45:01]

Remember that future part. Or even more explicitly, Secretary of State Pompeo, back in April, claiming that Iran and al Qaeda were connected.

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MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE (April 10, 2019): There's no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and al Qaeda, period, full stop.

AVLON: But there's a reason why presidents may be so tempted to rely on these AUMFs. Remember the last time a president tried to wage war the right way and go through Congress? It was President Obama's infamous Syria red line regarding the use of chemical weapons. And when Assad leapfrogged that line, President Obama went to Congress asking for an AUMF, but neither the House nor the Senate wound up even voting on it. There weren't enough votes, Republican or Democrat, and Obama still gets hit over the head by Republicans for allowing Assad to cross his red line. So damned if you, do damned if you don't.

Bottom line, yes, presidents need the flexibility to defend our country and its key allies when needed. But if we truly love the Constitution, as much as politicians say they do, Congress should stop advocating its war powers when it's politically convenient.

And that's your "Reality Check."

BERMAN: Look, generations of presidents have seized this power and generations of people in Congress have ceded it.

AVLON: Exactly.

BERMAN: It's not how it's supposed to be. And it's a real issue for the country going forward. The best time to address it may not be during armed conflict, but it's got to be addressed.

CAMEROTA: Really helpful, John, thank you.

BERMAN: All right, we're about to hear from the president this morning. Will he lay out a coherent strategy against Iran? How will he react to the Iranian missile strikes on U.S. forces? We'll get the bottom line, next.

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[08:50:39]

CAMEROTA: This morning, we will be hearing from President Trump for the first time since Iran struck back. So where does the conflict stand after those ballistic missiles were launched from Iran into Iraqi bases towards U.S. troops?

Let's get "The Bottom Line" with Ian Bremmer. He's the president of the Eurasia Group and editor at large for "Time."

Ian, great to have you here.

Everybody's waking up this morning -- Americans are waking up this morning feeling quite rattled. In fact, many people around the world. Are we in a de-escalatory mode right now or are we escalating right now as well?

IAN BREMMER, PRESIDENT, EURASIA GROUP: Oh, we're very obviously in a de-escalating mode. And we offer two reasons. The first of all is because for the last year, as the Americans were destroying the Iranian economy, Iran was responding and didn't know what the red lines were. Didn't know what would get Trump to react or not. They hit tankers, right, they hit American drones, big ones, they took out 50 percent of Saudi oil and the U.S. didn't react. I mean so much so that the Saudis ended up having to negotiate with Iran on the sidelines because, like, what, the Americans aren't helping us. What do we do, right?

So, finally, they go and they attack a U.S. base in Kirkuk, in the north of Iraq. They go after the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. And the supreme leader of Iran has the temerity to tweet and say the U.S. can't do anything. And, you know, the United States, President Trump, responded. Responded very significantly and has shown what the red lines are and has shown that he'll escalate. And, frankly, that, at some point, needed to be done. It didn't need

to be done by actually killing Soleimani? No, I think you could have done it more modestly. But it sent a very strong message and the Iranians are vastly weaker than the United States. They're not suicidal. And so their response has been the minimum possible military engagement against the Americans.

That is wildly de-escalatory. It's also been supported by a statement by the foreign minister saying, we're going to escalate if you do anything about this. In other words, please, let's now stop. We don't want war.

There's a real opportunity for diplomacy if Trump wants it and is capable of taking it. But for now, let's be clear, this is a much more powerful United States showing the Iranians that you are not going to come after the U.S. directly.

BERMAN: Those are two big ifs, by the way, you've mentioned there, if the president wants to take it and if, in fact, he chooses to take it.

BREMMER: That's right.

BERMAN: You read the Iranian action overnight as intentional de- escalation, as them saying we're not going to attack U.S. troops.

BREMMER: Overwhelmingly so.

CAMEROTA: (INAUDIBLE).

BERMAN: Right?

BREMMER: That's right.

BERMAN: And so President Trump will address the nation shortly. What do you think he will say?

BREMMER: Well, I'm sure he's going to take a victory lap. I mean that's what he does anyway, right? But, I mean, this case specifically, he's going to say, I hit him, you know, the head of the beast. I mean, literally, the United States has killed the head of Iran's military in the cabinet and the response has been, you know, virtually nothing.

And that doesn't mean that Iran is no longer a major antagonist of the United States in the region or that we've ended our fights. There's no mission accomplished moment, God forbid. I mean no one should be taking victory laps here. But, this is a win for Trump. And it's clear that it is.

The question is, look, I never thought Trump wanted to wag the dog. If he wanted war with the Iranians, he's had plenty of opportunity to move in that direction, especially after the Saudis were hit. I mean, frankly, when the drone was taken out, the secretary of defense was trying to get Trump to bring fighter jets, manned, to be escorting drones when they were engaged in those surveillance missions and Trump said no because he didn't want to get stuck in war. So he wasn't about wagging the dog. If he's doing anything, he's likely to pet the dog.

CAMEROTA: What does that mean?

BREMMER: Well, pet the dog means that he wants to come to deals and announce that they're the best deals ever. That's what he tried to do with the Taliban on 9/11 anniversary with Camp David.

CAMEROTA: Inviting them to Camp David, which did not work.

BREMMER: That's right. It's what he's tried to do with the North Koreans for a couple of summits now, which also have not worked. But it's also what he's wanted to do with the Iranians.

And in the middle of all this escalation, when the U.N. was going on, he was trying to call the Iranian president to say, hey, let's make a deal. I'm certain that Trump would love to do diplomacy (INAUDIBLE).

BERMAN: A deal for what, though? Because what people have been saying is, there's no coherent strategy from the administration when it comes to Iran. What is the strategy?

BREMMER: There's no coherent strategy, but there is consistency.

[08:55:01]

Don't hit Americans. Don't care as much about the allies. Can't develop nukes. Don't like anything Obama did.

BERMAN: But they -- can't develop nukes. They are developing nukes.

BREMMER: Right. They are -- they are moving away from the nuclear deal, but it's like, if you get a speed limit 65, it's not like they're going 120. They're saying, we're going to go 75. Don't ticket us, all right. They're stilling telling the Europeans, we want to go back to the deal. They're being very careful about their escalation.

I think Trump wants something that looks like the Iranian deal but has a couple of additional measures to it. So, first of all, it would not end after 15 years. It wouldn't have a sunset clause. It would continue to go.

It's also something that would probably include some level of inspections or something around Iranian ballistic missile development, for example. So it would be a little broader than what Kerry and Obama got done.

The U.S. would be negotiating that from a position of strength. Iran is weaker today than it was when Trump became president. If he wants that opportunity, he certainly has a window for it.

CAMEROTA: There you go.

Ian Bremmer, perhaps the president is listening right now. And we will listen to what he has to say very shortly.

Thanks so much for all of the insight. BREMMER: A pleasure (ph). Good to see you guys.

CAMEROTA: CNN will bring you President Trump's address to the nation live when it happens. CNN's breaking news coverage continues right after this break.

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