Return to Transcripts main page


Ukraine Plane Crash Investigation; Trump's Shifting Explanations for Soleimani Killing. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 10, 2020 - 16:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: The real Senator Sanders will be one of six candidates on stage next Tuesday for the last Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses. Do not miss it, January 14 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.


I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being here.

Let's go to Washington. "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: First, they said they didn't know what Soleimani was targeting. Then they said it was one embassy. Now they say it's four.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking just minutes ago, President Trump changing his story, now claiming four embassies were being targeted by Iran's top general killed in a U.S. airstrike last week, as his administration, the president's, scrambles to try and back up his story.

Hitting send, Speaker Pelosi now planning to hand impeachment articles to the Senate next week. She wanted the guarantee of a fair trial in the Senate, but now CNN is learning Senate Republicans have a plan to fast-track an acquittal for President Trump.

Plus, danger close -- scary video showing a Russian warship making an aggressive pass, nearly colliding with a U.S. Navy destroyer. Why the game of chicken at sea?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in the politics lead.

President Trump today ratcheting up his claims about the threat allegedly posed by Iran that the administration is using to justify the strike on Iranian general, General Soleimani. Now President Trump suggesting not one, but four were potentially going to be targeted by the Iranians.

The Trump administration has yet to publicly provide any evidence or intelligence to back up this new claim or any previous claims of imminent attacks against the U.S. This all comes amid a wave of bipartisan criticism about the

congressional briefings on the intelligence that led to the strike. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today said lawmakers had been told of the embassy threat, but not one lawmaker has yet confirmed that.

President Trump's credibility at home and abroad has of course been an issue now for years. Today's activities prompted this tweet just minutes ago from Congressman Justin Amash, a former Republican, now independent.

Quote: "When President Trump lies or embellishes on a topic this sensitive, and administration officials then parrot his claims to avoid drawing his ire, the situation becomes extremely dangerous for our troops and the American people."

As CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports for us now, it's tough to keep track of the Trump administration's shifting stories.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Without offering any specifics, President Trump now says a top Iranian commander killed in a U.S. airstrike was plotting attacks on multiple U.S. embassies.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies.

COLLINS: Earlier, his secretary of state spoke in broad terms as he dismissed criticism that the administration has failed to back up its claim the killing General Soleimani was justified by an imminent threat.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We had specific information an imminent threat. And that threat stream include attacks on U.S. embassies.

COLLINS: The questions about how immediate the threat was have been fueled by answers like this from Pompeo:

POMPEO: There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qasem Soleimani. And we don't know precisely when and we don't know precisely where, but it was real.

COLLINS: Pressed to clarify his definition of the word imminent, Pompeo paused.

(on camera): Secretary Pompeo, what is your definition of imminent?

POMPEO: This was going to happen. And American lives were at risk. And we would have been culpably negligent -- as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, we would have been culpably negligent had we not recommended to the president that he take this action on Qasem Soleimani.

He made the right call, and America is safer as a result of that. COLLINS (voice-over): Lawmakers say they were never told about plots

on U.S. embassies during closed-door briefings with Trump's top aides earlier this week.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Not one word of that was mentioned.

COLLINS: Though Pompeo is insisting they were made aware.

POMPEO: We did.

COLLINS: To back up its authorization of force without congressional approval, the administration is relying on the intelligence community that the president has repeatedly attacked.

POMPEO: In this case, the intelligence community got it fundamentally right.

COLLINS: The president's frustration was on full display last night at a campaign rally in Ohio, when he attacked Democrats for passing a resolution that would limit future military action against Iran without congressional approval.

TRUMP: They're vicious, horrible people.

COLLINS: But sources say he's also furious with some members of his own party after three Republicans crossed party lines to vote for the resolution.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, the president is claiming that four embassies were targeted.

Yesterday, he mentioned the one in Baghdad specifically, but we don't know what other three he says were on the list. Right now, the White House isn't saying which ones were. And they also aren't saying whether or not they were notified about this plot that the administration now says was under way.


TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much.

Let's talk about this.

A pretty stark suggestion from Congressman Justin Amash in that tweet, where he was saying that the president is either lying or embellishing, and now the apparatus of government is trying to back up this claim that it was four embassies that were threatened.

I'm willing to believe the worst about Soleimani, but this is a problem for the administration.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the major problem here is the lack of the consistency in the message. And we have seen that since this all started to unfold last week, I

mean, not even just the different tone in the president's -- or not even just the different tone that the president has, where he takes a very aggressive tone in his tweets towards Iran, and then he seems to scale it back a little bit when he's talking in public.

But are cultural sites being targeted or not? How imminent was this threat? Are we withdrawing troops or not? We have seen a lot of mixed signals from this administration when it comes to this matter.

And it has been causing a lot of concern on Capitol Hill, who are not -- where lawmakers are not just pointing to the mixed signals, but just a lack of basic information, like the embassy issue that has come up over the last 24 hours.

TAPPER: One of the things that's odd, Josh, is that the administration doesn't seem to understand that, regardless of President Trump and the many lies he's told, this nation has been lied to before about matters of war, whether it's Benghazi or Iraq or Vietnam.

I mean, there is an understandable skepticism.

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And this administration has a well-earned credibility promise.

TAPPER: Plus that, of course, yes.

ROGIN: And it doesn't give you confidence that they can manage one of these complicated crises well, when they say there was in fact an imminent attack taking place, and then, days later, Mike Pompeo said to you, well, days and weeks, it's not really about relevant.

And then today, he says, we had specific information on an imminent threat, and that threat stream included attacks on our embassies, which means it included other stuff, too.

So there's no way you can point to those three statements and say that there's a consistent story here. And while President Trump says crazy stuff all the time, we then rely on the people under him to clarify and at least tell us the truth.

And, by the way, why are they defending this whole imminent thing in the first place? They have destroyed the meaning of that word beyond any usefulness. They could have just said eventually, right? That's what they're saying, is that they were going to attack eventually.


TAPPER: Or they could have just said he -- Soleimani and his troops and his proxies just killed an American on December...


ROGIN: Right. And they're terrorists. MEHDI HASAN, THE INTERCEPT: I mean, as you say, Jake, this has

happened before; 16 years ago, a Republican president who didn't win the popular vote took us to war in Iraq on very, very dodgy intel and telling lots of lies along the way.

George W. Bush is a novice at the lying game when it comes to Donald Trump. Trump tells more lies in the morning. Before he even got out of bed, he's told seven, eight lies on Twitter. So credibility problem is an understatement.

We know he has threat inflation too and lie inflation. Today, he says four embassies. By Sunday, it will be seven. Monday, it will probably be 10. Daniel Dale will be debunking the number of embassies by next week.

TAPPER: Poor Daniel. He is on vacation too.

HASAN: And it's not just Trump that lies, of course. He has an administration of liars and gaslighters and fabulists.

Mike Pompeo said yesterday -- what did he say? He said, we don't know when, we don't know where, but it was an imminent attack. Literally, the definition of imminent implies you know the time. It has to be happening very, very soon. They can't even say days, weeks, hours. Who knows what it will change to?

This is administration that says up is down, black is white, hot is cold. Now they're telling us the meaning of the word imminent is not imminent.

TAPPER: Yes. What do you make of all this?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I mean, I think they have done themselves a hole on credibility over various instances.

And I think you're right that they could have easily made the argument, well, he just killed an American. We know very well he's killed hundreds before this. And so we took the hit.


HAM: That being said, I'm not sure I agree that it's largely a problem for them, because American voters don't want to be deeply involved in the Middle East, but they are not unhappy about his bellicose streak, occasionally taking out a terrorist.

So if that settles down, and is contained in sort of normal fashion, and he doesn't want to be deeply involved in nation-building, they're largely OK with that.

ROGIN: Yes, I would you say, the American people, you're talking about Trump voters, right? They want a tough president who doesn't get us involved in wars.

(CROSSTALK) HAM: Far more than Trump voters actually are OK with...


ROGIN: But I think there are a lot of people who saw what happened last week, where we came one American killed away from being in a real war, and they took a look at that, and they said, oh, my God, look how close we got to a serious war.


HASAN: Look at the polls week -- 57 percent of Americans, I think, say they don't believe it's a safer place. America is not safer after the strike.

Only one in four Americans think this strike has made them safer.

ROGIN: And that can't be good for Trump politically.

TAPPER: Although, I mean, Mary Katharine, I think, has a point is that I think there is a large section of the American people -- and this is not intended as a compliment, but just a statement of fact -- that probably doesn't really care about the details about Soleimani being killed and whether or not it was imminent, or whether or not it was in months or whether or not the administration necessarily has shifting definitions or explanations for this.

KIM: Well, I also think that draws back to the fact that, unless we are in a time of war, unless something serious happens, foreign policy has never really been at the top of the radar in terms of what voters care about.

Now we may see that change, particularly in the Democratic primary, as this continues. But when it comes to the president and his supporters, I mean, you saw a lot of the support at his rally last night in Toledo, Ohio, for his actions.

And I think that the little details that we point out, the inconsistencies, it ultimately may not matter at the end of the day.


HASAN: One in four Republicans said they would be willing to bomb Agrabah at the last election from Disneyland, just for context.

ROGIN: And this is not over yet.

We have got 11...


HAM: ... name, all right?

TAPPER: Well, I mean, to be fair, the lines are really long.

(LAUGHTER) TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Just feet apart -- a Russian warship looks like it is tailgating an American destroyer, as it ignores warnings and comes dangerously close. What is Russia doing?

Then, breaking news in the Iran plane crash story. We're now hearing from a top official who has heard the cockpit audio from moments before the crash.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Breaking now in the world lead, CNN is learning about the final moments from the cockpit audio of the Ukrainian Airlines flight that went down shortly after takeoff from Tehran's airport Wednesday morning.

And for the first time today, an American official publicly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said that it is likely an Iranian missile brought down the plane on Wednesday, killing 176 innocent people.

The Iranian government today called that suggestion -- quote -- "a big lie."

Let's bring in CNN's Alex Marquardt.

And, Alex, what is the Ukrainian foreign minister saying? The plane was a Ukrainian plane.


ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he is saying that according to what he has heard, everything in the cockpit was fine, that is according to the pilot, which is another indication that it is a sudden, violent incident that brought this plane down. And, in fact, the Ukrainian foreign minister has told CNN and our affiliate CCTV just a short time ago that the last words of the pilot were peaceful and that everything was OK.

And as this investigation gets underway, there is new coming in of the moment of impact, we have to warn our viewers that this may be difficult to watch.


MARQUARDT (voice-over): Extraordinary new video from a surveillance camera showing the moment of impact as the plane crashes, a bright flash of light, debris flying, the flaming remnants of the Boeing 737 scattered. All 176 people on board killed.

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: And it's important that we get to the bottom of it.

MARQUARDT: Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joining Canada and the United Kingdom in pointing the finger at Iran.

POMPEO: We do believe that it's likely that that plane was shot down by an Iranian missile.

MARQUARDT: This eyewitness video appears to show the moment the Russian-made missile struck the plane. U.S. and allied officials say it looks like it was a mistake.

SCOTT MORRISON, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: All of that intelligence as it's presented to us today does not suggest an intentional act.

MARQUARDT: In Tehran, the civil aviation chief denying yet again the plane was brought down by a missile, insisting it caught fire in the air and attempted to return to the airport before crashing.

At the crash site, a witness tells CNN that all large pieces of debris have been cleared and that the area had been left unguarded. A source calling it anarchy with looters removing items, many of the items needed to reconstruct the plane in an Iranian hangar are still missing, Ukraine says. They need to be tested for possible chemicals for explosives.

Ukraine's foreign minister telling CNN's Clarissa Ward he's angry with the lack of security.

VADYM PRYSTAIKO, UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: We are unhappy when we saw that the locals are roaming around and picking at things, and touching things from the ground.

MARQUARDT: Iranian officials say that the black boxes have been damaged, but they will attempt to decipher them with Ukrainian investigators on the ground, but they say it could take a month or two to extract the data.

The crash coming at a time of high tension following the U.S. drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani. Canada's prime minister indicating that may have triggered the events that led to the crash.

REPORTER: Given the information that you have, how much responsibility does the United States bear for this tragedy?

JUSTIN TRUDEAU, CANADIAN PRIME MINSTER: The evidence suggests that this is the likely cause, but we need to have a full and complete and credible investigation.


MARQUARDT: Now, we may get some answers as soon as tomorrow. Iran is saying there will be a meeting on Saturday with foreign investigators on the ground in Iran to reveal the initial findings of the crash. After that, according to state-run media, the cause of the crash will be made public -- Jake.

TAPPER: Or their theory of the cause of the crash.

MARQUARDT: Yes. TAPPER: Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

Eighty-two Iranians were on that Ukraine International Airlines flight, along with 63 Canadians, 11 victims from Ukraine, 10 from Sweden, four Afghans, three Germans and three more from the U.K.

CNN's Paula Newton is live for us in Toronto, Canada.

Paula, this flight was headed to Ukraine, but most of the passengers on board had a connecting flight to then go on to Canada.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, 138 to be exact. There are 63 Canadians, almost all of those people were coming here to rejoin, you know, those lives that they were building, brilliant lives which we'll talk about, Jake.

I mean, behind me, we are at a vigil here, this is not just one. These are among dozens across the country. Jake, people come behind me and just spontaneously break out into tears and why? It's the lives lost really, the people behind this tragedy.

I want you to look first at Fareed Aratzi (ph). I mean, look at these pictures, Jake, of newlyweds here. He married his wife Merald (ph) last week. She was supposed to join him in spring here in Canada. They wanted to build a new life together.

And then there's Hamed Esmaeilion lost his wife Clarissa (ph) and his 9-year-old daughter. And, Jake, listen to this, he had to call to the school to explain to them that his daughter would never be back. Take a listen.


HAMED ESMAEILION, LOST WIFE AND DAUGHTER IN PLANE CRASH: I called her in absent and usually she is not, and I told them that, OK, she will be absent forever. That was a hard moment for me.


NEWTON: And I can tell you, Jake, from the office of the prime minister to living rooms right across this country, it is people like that are really getting to people in terms of seeing the families lost here.

I want you to look Amadi Gazami (ph). She was an architect, two children, 11 and 8. By all accounts, absolutely brilliant. You know, their father and husband left behind here in Toronto to try to figure out how to repatriate the remains.


And Mohammed Eliasi (ph), who is an engineer from Ottawa, brilliant, was really concerned about doing good work in his community.

And, Jake, that's another point I want to make here. These really were brilliant, hard-working Canadians and Iranians that were here building new lives from a government that really didn't have anything to offer them for the last four decades. And it is such a story that resonates with so many Canadians, so many new Canadians, and just wondering about could have been. What they want now, Jake, are answers about that investigation.

TAPPER: Our hearts out to our friends in Canada. What a horrible, horrible story.

Thank you, Paula.

Russian aggression on the high seas caught on tape. The Pentagon today releasing video showing a Russian warship aggressively approaching a U.S. naval destroyer in north Arabian Sea.

You can clearly hear that warning from the American sailors, though the Russian vessel ignored it. It is the latest dangerously close call between the U.S. and Russia.

CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon for us.

Barbara, take us through exactly what happened here.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The minister of defense has now issued a statement saying it was the fault of the U.S. Navy that they were in the wrong position, but when you are looking at the video, what the Navy says happened is it had a destroyer operating in North Arabian Sea, of course, south of the Persian Gulf, the USS Farragut. It was operating there very widespread waters when this Russian intelligence gathering ship came up along next to it, and started to maneuver.

And as you see the video, the U.S. Navy says that that Russian ship moved to within 60 yards, which is quite close on the high seas of the USS Farragut. That they sounded, you hear it there, the U.S. sounded five blasts of the horn, the ship still didn't move, and then they conducted radio bridge-to-bridge communications, and eventually the Russian ship moved off. The encounter between the two lasted about 30 minutes.

Has it happened before? Yes. There have been these aggressive encounters on the seas and the air, but the issue, of course, is there is always some concern about miscalculation. This is heavy machinery. It's not always predictable obviously, how tons of a warship may move through the waters. They'd like to keep them far -- the U.S. Navy likes to stay far away from anybody else who is out there, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

Coming up, ready, set -- wait for it -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just announced when she's making her move on the articles of impeachment. But some Senate Republicans have their own timeline in mind.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: In the politics lead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she is ready to send the two articles of impeachment over to the Senate next week. And as she is, CNN is learning from the sources that Senate Republicans hope to acquit President Trump before his State of the Union Address on February 4th.

Let's chat about all this.

Laura, President Trump just weighed in on Pelosi's decision to finally move the articles over to the Senate. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's ridiculous. She should have sent them a long time ago. It just -- it belittles the process.

Nancy Pelosi will go down as probably the least successful speaker of the house in the history of our nation. She has done nothing.


TAPPER: President Trump obviously a big believer in the process.

I do want to ask though, did Pelosi get anything? She has been holding on to them for three weeks. Was anything achieved?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It doesn't look like she will get any kind of concessions from McConnell and she wanted to know what the process is going to look like and McConnell completely rebuffed her on that, saying that he wasn't going to show her what ultimately the trial would -- what would happen.

What they want to know is what differences are going to be from the Clinton impeachment procedure, which Republicans have said they want to lightly follow that, but there will be changes, and Democrats don't know what changes those will include. We do know that she is likely going to appoint Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler to be House managers. How many more on top of that, we aren't sure yet.

TAPPER: Do you think that Pelosi achieved anything here? If you ask House Democrats, they'll say, with the very least, we exposed what an unfair trial this is going to be and what a sham Mitch McConnell is running.

MEHDI HASAN, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR, THE INTERCEPT: And I think if you look at the polling, it suggests the public have been paying attention, a big majority to Americans want to see the witnesses at this trial, even half of the Republicans want to see the witnesses, although I think they think it will be Hunter Biden, yes, she has exposed the fact that it is a rigged trial.

This idea that, you know, Mitch McConnell saying at the very beginning on Fox News that we will be coordinating with the lawyer for the defendant, and people like Lindsey Graham saying publicly that they have no interest in being a fair or impartial juror, which is supposed to be their job. They literally have to take an oath, saying they're going to be a fair and impartial juror. So, I think the trial, as to borrow Trump's favorite word rigged. I think that's very clear to people who are looking at this.

You mentioned the Bill Clinton trial. The Bill Clinton trial had witnesses, new witnesses. Monica Lewinsky testified --

TAPPER: Yes, but they were called later in --

HASAN: Called by House managers, but allowed at that trial, as Vernon Jordan, Sidney Blumenthal and Monica Lewinsky all popped up at the Senate trial.

And I just -- I enjoy the Trump dig that Pelosi is the least successful speaker ever, but she has impeached a president, him.

TAPPER: And, you know, there is this reporting that CNN has that there are Senate Republicans who want to get President Trump acquitted by the February 4th State of the Union Address. So, I guess he could go before them and spike the football and say, you know, it was a witch hunt and now I'm free.