Return to Transcripts main page


U.S. Increasingly Believes Iran Shot Down Flight By Accident; Republicans Blast Administration's Briefing On Iran; Trump Says, No Problem With Bolton Testimony But Will Protect Privilege; Interview with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA); Interview with Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 9, 2020 - 13:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: So you back here this time tomorrow. Thanks for Joining in Inside Politics.

Don't go anywhere, a busy day. Brianna Keilar starts Right Now. Have a good afternoon.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

And we start with breaking news out of Iran right now, where U.S. officials say they increasingly believe a Ukrainian airliner was shot down by mistake on Tuesday shortly after departing Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. The crash came just hours after Iran launched dozens of missiles at two Iraqi airbases that were housing U.S. soldiers in retaliation for President Trump ordering the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

Here was President Trump just moments ago.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some people say it was mechanical. I personally don't think that's even a question, personally. So we'll see what happens.

REPORTER: Do you think it was shot down by accident?

TRUMP: I don't know. I really don't know. That's up to them. At some point, they'll release the black box. Ideally, they'd get it to Boeing, but if they gave it to France or if they gave it to some other country, that would be OK too. I think, ideally, that will be released. I have a feeling that it's just some very terrible -- something very terrible happened, very devastating.


KEILAR: Joining us now from Tehran is CNN Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen along with CNN's Richard Quest from Beirut.

Tell us, Fred, what else are we learning?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Brianna. We managed to get in touch with the head of Iran's Civil Aviation Authority. And this is the first time that there's been an international comment by an Iranian official on this matter.

And we confronted him with this intelligence that we've been hearing about, that it's potentially the shoot-down on this plane accidentally, as it apparently is being said by the Iranians.

Now, he did not flat out deny that that could have been the case. However, he did say that he highly questions whether that was the case. He said in his mind the plane took off, then flew for several minutes, and then apparently there was some sort of issue and it tried to make its way back to the airport. He says the data so far is showing that.

He says he believes that if it would have been struck by a missile, that it would have stopped immediately and simply fallen to the ground. So those are the words of the head of the Iranian Civil Aviation Authority.

It's also quite interesting because we also asked him whether or not Iran actually has the capabilities to read the black boxes of that plane, because, obviously, the Iranians are saying they don't want to hand those black boxes over to Boeing. He says that the Iranians do have the capability of doing that.

He also says that there is a Ukraine team on the ground right now to assist in the investigation, obviously following its own leads as well, and that they are going to receive the data from those black boxes tomorrow. He says whatever that data shows will then be made possible and will then be accessible to the entire world.

One more quick thing. We also asked him about what state these black boxes are in. And he said at least one of these black boxes are damaged, some of the data may have been lost. He says that if there is a problem with reading the black boxes, getting all the information from the black boxes, that there is a possibility to possibly send them to either Canada or France to help out, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Fred.

And, Richard, if Iran did shoot this plane down, how will we find out and how will this affect aviation considering this very tense time?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN EDITOR AT LARGE: We'll find out two -- three ways, one of three ways. Firstly, the Iranians might admit it. After all, they are the ones that will know whether they shot down a plane by accident. Secondly, from the wreckage, the wreckage will tell you more than the black boxes. The black boxes will merely show the way the aircraft responded after any incident, what the pilots said to each other, how they controlled the aircraft.

We already know from telemetry that the black box data stopped all of a sudden. The ACARS data just suddenly stop. But the real way we'll find out if the Iranians don't admit it is from the wreckage that you're looking at now on the screen. There will be explosive fragments. The autopsies of those who were killed will show explosive remnants within them. And that's how you'll find out. We know this from MH17 back in 2014, blown up over Eastern Ukraine.

So here is the real bit of problem. The Iranians are telling Fred that they're going to open the black boxes. But, Brianna, if those black boxes are damaged, it will take the most specialized expertise to deal with it.


Any idea that you will get those boxes open and be reading the data within 48 hours of the crash borders on the unrealistic and improbable.

KEILAR: All right. Richard, thank you for putting that into context for us. Richard quest, Fred Pleitgen with us from Tehran, thank you.

And let's discuss this more now. We have CNN Military Analyst and retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton and CNN Global Affairs Analyst Kim Dozier with us.

You know, I think sometimes, Colonel, you see something like this and assuming that the initial reporting and the initial indications are true that this was an anti-aircraft missile coming from Iran, you think, how could this happen? And yet there are many instances in the past where something like this has happened.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Absolutely. Well, Brianna, when you think about it, in 1988, I believe it was, we shot down an Iranian passenger liner --

KEILAR: The U.S. did.

LEIGHTON: The U.S. did, over the Persian Gulf. It was on its to Dubai from Iran. So mistakes like this can happen, even with the most sophisticated air defense systems. The ideal air defense system integrates intelligence capabilities with radar capabilities and then basically, in real-time, takes a look and sees what's out there and then can help radar systems correlate, OK, is this a hostile target or a friendly target or not a target at all?

And that's what I think what the Iranian -- if this is true, this is where the Iranian system may have failed. They looked at this, they saw an aircraft that appeared to be incoming to their eyes, even though it was taking off from the international airport in Tehran. That fact, that mistake, if it is, in fact, what happened, that was what would have prompted them to shoot. And with these heightened tensions, mistakes like that are far more likely, especially with minimally trained operators than would otherwise be the case.

KEILAR: Well, that is the thing, because this is a region and this is a time where people are on edge, right? You can't overstate the timing for making this a possibility that this plane was shot down, because this was happening right after Iran struck U.S. interests in the region.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: And tensions were high. On the one hand, the Iranian military has a reputation of being very professional, operators who know what they're doing. But on the other hand, even the U.S. has made mistakes like this. And what this will do, if it does get proven without a doubt to be their error, it puts them on the back foot at a time when they were trying to message strength to their people and a response to the killing of their top general.

It also throws their command structure into a bit of disarray. And you saw some of that today with different generals saying different things, that they still want revenge, but, oh, our missile attack against U.S. targets in Iraq was only meant to hit equipment, not really kill people. That could explain some of the messaging discordance.

KEILAR: And Iran, as you heard -- initially, so they're saying they're not going to release the black boxes. But one, according to Richard and to Fred's reporting, is damaged. So there could be tremendous expertise that's needed here. They're looking, it appears, at France, maybe, or Canada? Do you expect that they would release the black box to one of those countries?

LEIGHTON: They might have to in this particular case, Brianna. I mean, the Iranian Aviation System has developed certain capabilities because of the sanctions and because of the isolation Iran has found itself in since Iranian revolution. But some things can't be home-grown, and of those things is expertise in this kind of aviation situation.

Crashes and especially with the assessment after you have a damaged black box, that's, as Richard mentioned, a very difficult thing to do. And if you don't have the right expertise, if you can't read the data and sometimes the hidden data that's in a black box, it becomes far more difficult to really determine what happened in an accident.

KEILAR: Canada wants answers, 63 Canadians on this flight, 82 Iranians on the flight. What is this, Kim, going to do internally in Iran for people there who are just looking at their government, perhaps, having killed their own citizens?

DOZIER: It's going to remind people of the reasons that they were protesting, over heightened oil prices, over claims of corruption and mismanagement and the results of the maximum pressure campaign, which have really hit people on the street the hardest, with rising food prices. It's going to take the shine off of what was supposed to be a moment of achievement for the regime.

The worry is that, as a result, they might seek another military action to distract, to distract the world community and to distract their own people.


KEILAR: Kimberly Dozier, Colonel Cedric Leighton, thank so much to both of you. There is new CNN reporting on how Iran's revenge strikes unfolded inside the Situation Room and what it would have taken for President Trump to strike back.

Plus, as the House gets ready to vote to limit the president's war powers, new outrage over the intelligence being presented to Congress by the Trump administration.

And pressure from her own party growing on Speaker Nancy Pelosi over her refusal to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate.


KEILAR: Happening moments from now, the House will vote to limit President Trump's military action against Iran.


This is coming as Democrats blast the administration, saying that it failed to justify the decision to take out Iranian general and top Iranian official Qasem Soleimani. But perhaps the sharpest criticism is actually coming from Republicans.


SEN. MIKE LEE (R-UT): Probably the worst briefing I've seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I've served in the United States Senate.

To come in and tell us that we can't debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran, it's un- American, it's unconstitutional and it's wrong.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): There was no specific information given to us of a specific attack. Generalities, stuff you read in the newspaper was given to us. I didn't learn anything in the hearing that I hadn't seen in the newspaper already, and none of it was overwhelming that X was going to happen.


KEILAR: Senator Tammy Duckworth is a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. She is combat veteran who was gravely injured during her service in Iraq. Senator, thank you so much for being on with us.

SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D-IL): It's good to be on. Thank you.

KEILAR: You were in this briefing yesterday that you hear your Republican colleagues, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, describing there. I'm curious, to Mike Lee's comment, what is he talking about where he's saying that you all were told basically that you can't debate the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran?

DUCKWORTH: That's exactly what the administration tried to convince us of. And, in fact, I was sitting right next to Mike Lee during the briefing. I had Mike Lee in front of me, Rand Paul to my right and Bernie Sanders on my left. So, as usual, I'm the moderate in the middle.

But it was insulting. They came through and they refused to give us any information on what imminent threat Soleimani was that allowed the president to make this decision without consulting Congress. And then they had the gall to say to us that they were consulting us now, three days after the fact.

You know, there's a reason that the Constitution rests the War Powers with the Congress of the United States. We are the ones who decide whether or not to declare war because we need to have a true debate and discussion. And if the debate and the discussion and the evidence shows we should move forward, then, yes, I would vote yes on it. But right now, we've been completely cut out of that decision-making process. The checks and balances are no longer there.

And, frankly, the evidence that they provided us was flimsy at best. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy this guy is dead, but I am very, very concerned with the circumvention of the -- separation of Congress and the executive branch and also the checks and balances in our system.

KEILAR: Would that frustration raise to the phases of these top administration officials because these are top cabinet officials? And if so, how did they respond? Did they seem to absorb it from your Republican colleagues?

DUCKWORTH: Well, it was very much so raised time after time, senator after senator. And what happened was they just got up and left. They cut off the briefings that they had to be somewhere else. When we pressed them and say, well, will you come back because there are at least another 20 senators waiting in line to ask questions, you owe us the access to ask you these questions, all of them, led by Mr. Pompeo, said, no, no, we don't think we can make it back.

It's unheard of, unheard of that members of the cabinet would not make themselves available to the United States Senate.

KEILAR: Senator Paul said there was nothing in the briefing that he hadn't already informed himself of from reading newspapers. Is that true?

DUCKWORTH: That is very much true. There was nothing that they said that they would share with us that we had not already seen in the media, that I had not already seen in the media. And, in fact, the president was tweeting much of this information already through his Twitter feed.

And when we said, well, what additional evidence is there? We're in a top secret briefing room with people with the highest security clearances, and they said, we can't tell you. If you can't tell us, who can you tell? We are the United States Senate, we have the highest -- and we're the ones who are supposed to be making the decisions of whether or not to commit this country to war.

And this is a real dishonor to our troops, men and women in uniform, that decision are being made in secret and that we are not following the Constitution when we make these decisions. KEILAR: So they basically told you that they were keeping you in the dark about some information, which is what the vice president says. He says that you would actually agree with the decision to take out, not you in particular, but Congress, the folks who are raising concerns such as yourself, that you would agree with this decision if you could have access to the information that he has.

DUCKWORTH: Right, which makes --

KEILAR: I'm so sorry, Senator. I want to play this sound bite and have you react to it. So let's listen to this. I'm sorry.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some of the most compelling evidence that Qasem Soleimani was preparing an imminent attack against American forces and American personnel also represents some of the most sensitive intelligence that we have.


It could compromise those sources and methods.


KEILAR: OK. So they essentially tell you this in the briefing, and what is the reaction of senators? Do they answer your questions about why you can't have that information?

DUCKWORTH: They did not. They said that they needed to protect their sources. And we said, well, you can certainly brief us in a more secure format or you can brief us, say, just the members of the Armed Services Committee or maybe just the members of the Intelligence Community, which is how this has been done in the past, where it has to be even more compartmentalized. You could actually go to a smaller group, just those who are on the appropriate committees, but they refused to do even that.

And what they did tell us was that the evidence they had showed that he was planning, but that the decision had not been made, that Soleimani was on his way back Tehran to make that decision, to get that decision made. So we're like, well, so where is the imminence here, and they could not address that issue.

And that's the problem we have, is that they show up nothing to us that we couldn't see in the media. And then they basically said, you know what, we're not going to show it to you and you're just going to have to go along with what we say. That's not how our system of checks and balances work.

KEILAR: When you say, they, was there anyone in particular? Because we're talking Secretaries Pompeo, Esper, Gina Haspel of the CIA was there. Who in particular said, no, we have this stuff, we're not showing you?

DUCKWORTH: Well, it really was led by Mr. Pompeo and, of course, Ms. Haspel followed along with it. But, really, the person who was leading this whole charge was Mr. Pompeo.

KEILAR: OK. And then I just want to ask you finally. Republican Congressman Doug Collins is attacking Democrats. He claimed, basically, that Democrats love terrorists. Let's listen.


REP. DOUG COLLINS (R-GA): They're in love with terrorists. We see that. They mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our gold star families who are the ones who suffered under Soleimani. That's a problem.


KEILAR: Can you respond to that?

DUCKWORTH: I'm not going to dignify parts of that with a response. I left parts of my body in Iraq fighting terrorists. I don't need to justify myself to anyone.

KEILAR: I want to ask you when he brings up gold star families and how they become sort of like a pawn in this political discourse. What is your view on that?

DUCKWORTH: I'm disgusted. I would never, ever use gold star families, military men or women or their families as any pawn in any political game.

Let me tell you something. This issue is about America's national security. It is not a partisan political issue. My concern is, is America safer today than it was before the president made this rash decision without considering the consequences and having a plan in place to handle the consequences? And my answer at this point is no.

I am not sad that this man is dead. I am glad that he's gone to meet his maker and that he will get his just deserts. But at the end of the day, because of the poor handling of the White House and the consequences of their actions, America's troops are now hunkered down on bases as oppose to taking the fight to destroying ISIS where they are. American forces are now under greater danger of attacks from Iran and other hostile forces in the Middle East. And now, potentially, we have innocent civilians who have been shot down by Russian-made missiles coming out of Iran. I don't think this makes our anywhere else in the world any safer today as a result of this poor decision by the president.

KEILAR: Senator Tammy Duckworth, thank you for joining us.

DUCKWORTH: My pleasure.

KEILAR: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi facing increasing pressure to send over articles of impeachment to the Senate, as the president says he is open to witnesses in the Senate trial.

Plus, news just in on the royal exit. We're now being told Prince Harry defied the queen by announcing his plan to step back from his official duties. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


KEILAR: President Trump is now expressing openness to allowing witnesses at the Senate impeachment trial as long as it means that he can call his own witnesses too.


REPORTER: On impeachment, sir, would you support a deal for witnesses if that included testimony from Adam Schiff and Hunter Biden?

TRUMP: Well, I'm going to leave it to the Senate, but I'd like to hear the whistleblower, I'd like to hear Shifty Schiff, I'd like to hear Hunter Biden and Joe Biden, you know.


KEILAR: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still refusing to send the impeachment articles to the Senate until she's sure she's assured a fair trial, but there is mounting pressure from within her own party to make a move.

Here's what her thinking was this morning.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): People keep asking me the same question. I keep giving you the same answer. As I said right from the start, we need to see the arena in which we are sending our managers. Is that too much to ask?

I'm not holding out indefinitely. I'll send them over when I'm ready. And that will probably be soon.


KEILAR: Here with us now, Congressman Eric Swalwell from Capitol Hill.

OK. She's saying, sir, she's going to send these over soon. How soon do you want to see these sent over?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA): Well, when we have assurances that it will be a fair trial. And, Brianna, to listen to the president say, oh, sure, I'll allow these people to testify but I'm concerned about privileges, he released the call record which, if he was really concerned about any executive privilege, he would have said, I'm not going to release this call record.