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U.S. Imposes New Sanctions on Iran; Pelosi Plans to Send Impeachment Articles to Senate Next Week; Russian Warship "Aggressively Approached" U.S. Destroyer; Interview with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA); Trump: May Invoke Executive Privilege to Block Bolton Testimony in Impeachment Trial. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 10, 2020 - 17:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now.

Four embassies. President Trump offers new justification for the killing of Iran's top general, now claiming Qassem Soleimani was planning to attack four U.S. embassies instead of just one but still offering no evidence.

Preparing for trial. Speaker Nancy Pelosi tells House Democrats, she is getting ready to send the impeachment articles to the Senate next week, setting the stage for President Trump's trial to possibly begin next week as well.

Very solid evidence. Ukraine's foreign minister tells CNN, the U.S. has shared strong intelligence showing that Iran was likely behind the downing of a Ukrainian airliner. Tonight, dramatic new video of the moment it crashed.

And close encounter. Tensions on the high seas as a Russian spy ship aggressively closes in on an American war ship. What kind of signal is Vladimir Putin sending to President Trump?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

A day after claiming that Iran's top commander was planning to attack a U.S. embassy, President Trump now says General Qassem Soleimani was actually targeting four American embassies, justifying his killing by an American drone, but the president and his team are not offering any evidence and congressional Democrats and even some Republicans are criticizing the intelligence they have seen.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump's Senate impeachment trial could start as soon as next week now that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told Democratic colleagues that she is preparing to send the two articles of impeachment against the president to the Senate next week.

We will talk about that and more with Senator Ed Markey of the Foreign Relations Committee and former senator and defense secretary Chuck Hagel, and correspondents and analysts are also standing by. First, let's go straight to the White House. Our chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us. Jim, a week after the killing of Iran's top general, the president and his team are still trying to justify it.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Wolf. The Trump administration is still trying to get the story straight about the threat posed by Iranian General Qassem Soleimani one day after the president said Soleimani was trying to blow up an embassy. Mr. Trump changed that to four embassies. The shifting explanations don't end there with top administration officials claiming Soleimani was an imminent threat to America, and yet those same officials could not say when or where an attack might occur. The kind of details that are normally critical to describing something as imminent.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Still in search of a justification for taking out Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, President Trump now says Iran was plotting to attack multiple U.S. embassies.

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

ACOSTA: That's more than what the president said one day earlier.

TRUMP: We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy.

ACOSTA: And that capped a week of mounting consistencies, as top officials insisted that an attack was imminent, even though they couldn't specify the time and place.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleimani. We don't know precisely when and we don't know precisely where, but it was real.

QUESTION: But time and place?

ROBERT O'BRIEN, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It was imminent. You never know the time of place of these things with perfect particularity.

ACOSTA: In the rarely used White House Briefing Room, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to do some cleanup.

POMPEO: We had specific information on an imminent threat. And that threat stream included attacks on U.S. embassies, period, full stop.

QUESTION: So you were mistaken when you said you didn't know precisely when and you didn't know precisely where?

POMPEO: No, completely true. Those are completely consistent thoughts.

ACOSTA: Pompeo claimed lawmakers were briefed on the allegations of an imminent Iranian threat. POMPEO: We did.

QUESTION: You said -- so the senators are lying when they say that...


POMPEO: We told them about the imminent threat. All of the intelligence that we briefed, that you have heard today, I assure you, in an unclassified setting, we provide in the classified setting as well.

ACOSTA: But Democrats say it's all news to them.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Not one word of that was mentioned. So is it true? I don't know. But we didn't hear it.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): I have no idea where he got that from, but that's par for the course for this president.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA): Consistently, in the multiple briefings, I have received on this, they have not shown imminence.

ACOSTA: The president touted the killing of Soleimani at a rally in Ohio, where he said there was no way he was going to brief House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before the strike.

TRUMP: We got a call. We heard where he was. We knew the way he was getting there. And we had to make a decision. We didn't have time to call up Nancy, who is not operating with a full deck.

ACOSTA: The inconsistencies could become a major headache for Mr. Trump, who once told CNN Wolf Blitzer former President George W. Bush should have been impeached for lying about the war in Iraq.


TRUMP: Bush got us into this horrible war with lies, by lying, by saying they had weapons of mass destruction, by saying all sorts of things that turned out not to be true.

ACOSTA: As for the Iranian threat, the Trump administration is still revealing new details, with one U.S. official confirming to CNN that, on the same night of the Soleimani strike, American forces targeted a separate Iranian military official in Yemen.

But that mission was unsuccessful. And there is one another problem for the White House, as the Iraqi prime minister is requesting a timeline for an American withdrawal from the country.

POMPEO: We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is. Our mission set there is very clear. We have been there to perform a training mission to help the Iraqi security forces be successful and to continue the campaign against ISIS.


ACOSTA (on camera): Now the Trump administration announced new sanctions on Iran aimed at further punishing that country's economy. And senior Iranian officials, the White House hopes the new sanctions will somehow proud Iran to get back to the bargaining table over its nuclear program but it's hard to imagine that happening as Iran appears to have closed the doors on sitting down with the Trump administration to talk about much of anything. New negotiations between the U.S. and Iran at this point don't sound very -- in a word very imminent. Wolf?

BLITZER: Good point. Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

After a nearly a month-long delay the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now says she is preparing to send those two articles of impeachment against President Trump to the Senate next week. Our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju is up on Capitol Hill. Manu, with the articles next week, how quickly will the trial begin?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Within days. There will be procedural steps that will need to be taken on the Senate floor but those arguments - opening arguments could occur just days after that. Now, the steps will essentially look like this. Nancy Pelosi will put a measure on the floor by middle of next week to actually formally name those impeachment articles. The Democrats will prosecute the case that - to try to make the case, the senators -- or the president should be removed from office. That case will likely be led by Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman and other Democrats will be named to that team by Nancy Pelosi next week.

Now after that will happen, then the - once the arguments begin, probably the week after that then the White House will have its defense team that will make the case on behalf of the president.

Now what the White House is hoping for is this to move quickly as the Senate Republicans are as well. They want this done potentially by February 4th, before the president's State of the Union so he can use the State of the Union, use it as a rallying cry of sorts and use as these likely acquittal to make the case that he never should have been impeached in the first place and to make that case before this nationally televised audience.

And you're looking at the calendar. It seems very likely that the president could be acquitted by that February 4th timeline. Now one twist in this could be whether or not witnesses will be called in this trial. All it require with four Republicans to break ranks, joined with 47 Democrats to vote and compel witnesses. John Bolton, the former National Security adviser to come forward. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, but at the moment, Wolf, those four Republicans senators have not shown their cards yet, a handful have said that they will be interested potentially in seeing witnesses, but that pressure will undoubtedly grow. And those votes will be taken in the days ahead. So a lot of very consequential month ahead for this presidency as he is looks to get acquitted by the Senate. Wolf? BLITZER: We will see if he is acquitted by the State of the Union Address that he is scheduled to deliver February 4th. Thank you very much for our Manu Raja for that.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials have shared intelligence on a deadly crash of that Ukrainian plane in Iran with Ukrainian officials. Our chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward is joining us from Kiev right now. Clarissa, you just had a chance to speak with the Ukrainian foreign minister. Tell us what he told you.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, CNN has obtained new footage, CCTV footage that appears to show the dramatic and the extraordinary force of the impact as that Ukrainian airliner slammed into the ground in Tehran. You see what appear to be the airplane essentially exploding into many, many pieces, flaming debris, and scattering out across a huge area. We sat down with the Ukrainian foreign minister. He has been very cautious and circumspect about saying categorically what caused this crash. He said it could - still possibly be pilot error or could be a technical issue, it could be terrorism, but certainly leaning towards the possibility that it was in fact an Iranian missile that shot it down, this after his conversations with the U.S. charge d'Affaires here and also with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Take a listen.


WARD (on camera): Is it fair to say that the evidence they presented you with, though, is compelling?

VADYM PRYSTAIKO, UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: The evidence which was presented to us, they're very solid.


What is missed in the picture is how they're supported by the facts on the ground themselves. So, if it was the rockets, there should be the residue of the chemicals.


WARD (on camera): He said that they are having difficulty still locating some of the chairs from that airplane. He believes those chairs could be very helpful in allowing his 50 investigators on the ground to have a better sense of what exactly happened to this plane, Wolf.

BLITZER: Clarissa, witnesses are telling CNN that much of the debris from the crash site has now been moved. How will that impact the investigation?

WARD: Certainly it has been problematic for the Ukrainians and we did ask the foreign minister what exactly had been going on, on the ground, how much access his investigators and had to the crash site. Take a listen to what he told us about the conditions on the ground, Wolf.


WARD: Have your investigators on the ground come across these allegations that Iranians have been cleaning the site, basically removing evidence from the site?

PRYSTAIKO: We are unhappy with what we are seeing especially when we saw that the locals are coming around and picking up things and then touching the things and taking something from the ground. We had to stop and with the cooperation with the Iranian side, we have managed to secure the ground.


WARD: So keep in mind, Wolf, the Ukrainians are really walking a very fine line here, and that is why they are being so cautious, while they may not be delighted with every aspect of how the Iranians have been facilitating their investigation, they know that they cannot afford to alienate the Iranians at this stage. They need to adapt a conciliatory tone to ensure that they still continue to get good access to the site to find out once and for all why this plane went down, Wolf.

BLITZER: Clarissa Ward reporting from Ukraine for us. Thank you, Clarissa.

Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts is joining us. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, thanks so much for joining us. And I want to begin with this new claim from the president. Have you seen any evidence that the Iranians were planning to attack four American embassies?

SEN. ED MARKEY (D-MA): Absolutely not. Just two days ago, Wednesday afternoon, Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Esper, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the CIA, all 100 senators on this question of imminent threat to the United States as a justification for the assassination of General Soleimani. And we sat there for 75 minutes, waiting to get the evidence, waiting to get the information which would prove that there was an imminent threat.

What we heard for that 75 minutes was that it was something that could have happened days or weeks from now. They did not give us any specific targets. They all got up after 75 minutes to just walk out of the room. There were still at least a couple of dozen senators who wanted to ask more questions, more follow-on questions, but it all would have been aimed towards getting the answer to the question of what were the targets and when were those targets going to be hit. And we didn't have any information.

But then 24 hours later, the president says, well, it was an embassy. And then 48 hours later, the president is saying, well, it is four embassies. So it is outrageous, Wolf, that there is just an absolute cavalier indifference that this administration has for the United States Senate that in closed briefing, secret session, they would not give us this information, but yet for Fox News, the president can do an interview that reveals all of this without, without having first disclosed it to the Senate.

BLITZER: How do you explain that, Senator?


MARKEY: So it is outrageous to who he is --

BLITZER: How do you explain that, Senator? What's going on here?

MARKEY: Well, I just think that they believe that they can just treat United States Congress as something that is not relevant to this decision of whether or not we go to war with Iran, whether or not we engage in dangerous activities that can have potentially catastrophic consequences for our national security, not only in the Middle East but also here in our homeland. And that's how they want to conduct this. And it's why it was so important that the House had a debate yesterday and a vote on whether or not we should have a war with Iran without receiving previous permission from the Congress and why it's important that we have the same debate on the Senate floor next week because the president has to be made accountable of what he just did in the last two days in denying us the information which we were entitled.


It's just a further indication that unless we ratchet it up the level of pressure, we could easily just slip into a situation whereby accident of - because of lack of oversight on Trump and his advisers are able to make decisions that could be potentially dangerous for our national security.

BLITZER: While I have you, Senator. Let's quickly talk about the president's impeachment trial. In the Senate, the speaker now says she plans to send the two articles of impeachment to the Senate next week. Is that the right call?

MARKEY: Well, again, I think that Nancy Pelosi has handled this masterfully, because she withheld, we have been able to one, find out that Bolton would be willing to testify. Two, gain access to e-mails which are going to really shed us spotlight in terms of what was happening. It will give us an opportunity and has thus far to put more pressure on the Republican senators to come to an arrangement where we have witnesses, Mulvaney, Bolton, others who have first-hand information about what the president knew and when he knew it.

Now there is no guarantee that ultimately, Republicans are going to give us those witnesses, because McConnell keeps saying that he has the 51 votes to proceed and that they will make the decision later as to whether or not there are witnesses. And later with Mitch McConnell, I'm afraid, is going to mean never. So, the time that Nancy Pelosi gave us is very valuable because public pressure is intensifying on Republican senators to find some way of ensuring that it is a full and fair trial, and through our witnesses and that the American public get the information from witnesses that were denied on the House side and that all of that is going to be directly relevant in informing senators' judgment as to whether or not they vote to remove Trump from office. So I think Nancy Pelosi did just the right thing, and -- and at the appropriate time when she sends it over, we'll be ready to proceed.

BLITZER: You and your colleagues in the Senate are going to be very busy over the next two or three weeks. Senator Markey, thanks so much for joining us.

MARKEY: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. And stay with us for more on the Trump administration of shifting claims about the threat posed by Iran's General Qassem Soleimani.

Also, today, the president said Soleimani was targeting four embassies before he was killed.

An extraordinary new pictures of a very close call on the high seas in what appears to be another provocation by Vladimir Putin's military.



BLITZER: President Trump now says Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was targeting four U.S. embassies before he was killed, but the claim comes without any details about the plot or the evidence that an attack was imminent. Joining us now here in THE SITUATION ROOM is Chuck Hagel who served as Defense secretary during the Obama administration, before that he was a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for coming in.


BLITZER: The claim by the president doesn't seem to line up what we heard from the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just last night. Listen to this.


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


BLITZER: How do you square that seemingly different sense of significant the imminent attack could have been?

HAGEL: Well, Wolf, I have not seen any intelligence, and I guess neither has the Congress on the stories that they keep changing, and they keep adding to. So the consistency is not there. The context shifts at the same time. I don't know.

It is clear to me that they had no clear strategy with what they were doing, not only strategy for taking out Soleimani, but also second and third order effects. What would be your diplomatic strategic objective by doing that? Where are the other places where you believe you could win by taking this action? BLITZER: If Soleimani was plotting attacks against four U.S. embassies presumably in the region, why not inform U.S. senators, U.S. members of the House about that in advance? I mean not in advance of the operation necessarily, but shortly with briefing them in advance of the public statements from the president?

HAGEL: Well, it is pretty basic, Wolf. Certainly the gang of eight, and the eight leaders of the Congress and the House and the Senate who have most responsibility for these types of issues, intelligence and top secret materials, and there is no excuse for that. And then what I heard from members of Congress both publicly and privately on the catastrophic 75-minute so-called briefing that was held. I mean, I am just astounded by that.

You know I recall when I was secretary of Defense during the issue when President Obama pulled the Syrian operation down. We all went up there. Days, and very shortly, maybe two or three days after that occurred and sat with members of Congress for a long time, and as long as they wanted to sit there to explain. Now, we had other exchanges with them before that, but that is just part of the process responsibility of working with the Congress, but I would make one observation on this, Wolf.


It is clear that this president has completely trivialized Congress. He has made them irrelevant and the Congress has helped him to do that. And so why would he? Why does he think he should? And the cavalier attitude they take towards the Congress. The Congress has some responsibility for that, and that has been growing.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the U.S. troop presence in Iraq right now. The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is totally rejecting an Iraqi call for the next steps in all of this from the parliament and now the prime minister has said the U.S. should end its presence, military presence in the country. What is going to be the impact, do you believe, of the killing of Soleimani on the U.S./Iraqi relationship?

HAGEL: Well, already we are seeing the consequences and impact starting with what you just said. I mean a sovereign nation is saying, we want your troops out. Now, this is a nation that we have spent over $1 trillion on and more than 4,000 dead Americans gave their lives. They have been an ally. We worked with them. And they turn around and say this. So where are we winning here? Where is the good news here? And not only that, we have some of our NATO allies pulling their troops out, the Germans and the Canadians have pulled their troops out. Very few of our allies anywhere, especially in Western Europe have supported what we have done here. We have made everybody's life more dangerous.

And so, I can't understand the response from Secretary Pompeo saying, which I heard today, no, we're not going to take our troops out. We will talk about it. I mean this is a sovereign nation. This is an ally of ours. It is very important to us and our presence and stability, whatever stability there still exists in the Middle East that we work with them. So -- BLITZER: The prime minister of Iraq said the U.S. violated Iraqi sovereignty by targeting Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil. He said that was a violation. Let me get your thoughts on this encounter between U.S. Navy and a Russian spy ship yesterday in the Arabian Sea. We got some video and you can see how close - take a look at this. You can see how close these two vessels, these two ships got. How concerning is this? You understand Russian military attitudes towards the U.S.

HAGEL: Well, I think this is what Putin always likes in the sense that where there is instability, there is insecurity, there is mistrust, and there is volatility. He will find the crevices and the nooks to operate within those. He is already in the Middle East in a very big way, obviously. We saw this week, he was in Damascus and right to Damascus and then to Turkey to meet with Erdogan. And that episode with the navy is I think reflective of Russia's attitude, their arrogance. They're minimizing danger. They're minimizing what we could do or what we would do and therein relies a very volatile and unpredictable, and dangerous situation.

BLITZER: And we know, Mr. Secretary, the Russians have been gaining in the Middle East in that part of the world their influence growing. Thanks so much for joining us. Chuck Hagel, the former Defense secretary here on THE SITUATION ROOM.

Coming up, more on what's ahead as the congressional impasse, over impeaching President Trump appears to be ending. How soon will the president's Senate trial actually begin?



BLITZER: It now looks like the long congressional standoff over impeaching President Trump is about to end. Today, the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled she is prepared to send the two articles of impeachment to the Senate next week. Let's ask our experts and our analysts what's ahead.

Gloria, what do you think, is this the right time for the Speaker to finally send these articles over?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't know whether it's the right time or time was running out on her. I think she was playing an epic game with Mitch McConnell. These are two wily people and -- who know the rules of each of their chambers.

She thought she could suss him out a little bit and try and get some idea of how he intended to run impeachment in the Senate. And he said, no way, I'm just going to start it without you, effectively.

But in the end, what she did by holding back is she allowed some news to percolate. One, the fact that John Bolton is willing to testify. And in the meantime, during this interim, you see the e-mails, et cetera, regarding Ukraine and the Office of Management and Budget and the question of the President's involvement in holding up the funding. So she has managed to help produce an argument, which is the Senate

needs to have witnesses because Bolton's willing to testify and there's other information that really needs to come to light.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Absolutely true. The one other thing I'll say I took from this weekend is that Mitch McConnell, like him or hate him -- and there's very few people, I think, who feel indifferently about him, but he -- this was a show of force, his capacity to say, we're ready, I have 50 votes to move forward.


He had Lisa Murkowski on board. He had Susan Collins on board. He had Mitt Romney on board. He had no real dissenting voice. That is a show of force by Mitch McConnell.

Because, remember, just as the Republicans in the House complained that their minority rights were being trampled on during the impeachment hearings, now Republicans will be in charge.

And I think what Mitch McConnell showed this week was, at least for now, at least to start the trial -- there's going to be several phases here but at least to start the trial -- that he is in as, I would say better, control of his Republican conference, his 53 senators, than I think a lot of people thought.

BLITZER: You know, Shawn Turner, the President have told Fox News today that he may invoke executive privilege to prevent John Bolton, his former national security adviser, from testifying before the Senate. Is there any national security rationale for doing so?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Wolf, in a word, no. Look, you know, presidents typically invoke executive privilege for two reasons: either they want to protect White House deliberations because they believe that it's in the best interest of the public to do so, or they believe that releasing the information would somehow threaten or harm national security.

In the case of Bolton, neither of those circumstances apply. In fact, there's no national security rationale for blocking his testimony because hearing his testimony would actually shed light on understanding an issue that was a national security threat. So there's no rationale.

And I think that -- while I don't think that Bolton will be called to testify, I think that if he is called to testify and the President decides he wants to invoke executive privilege, if there was ever a time to challenge executive privilege, then this is a case when the Congress should do so. And I think there's a pretty good chance that they might win.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: But, Wolf, here is the situation where process matters almost more than substance. Because if the President succeeds in challenging Bolton's testimony, if he goes to court to try to stop him, the very act of going to court may take longer than the trial itself. And that's been the tremendous advantage that the administration has

had throughout the Democratic control of the House of Representatives, is that simply by tying things up in court, especially in something that's going to move as fast as in -- as this trial in the Senate, that he may succeed in keeping Bolton off stage even if, ultimately, he loses the case in court.

BORGER: Jeffrey -- Jeffrey, let me ask you this. I'm not a lawyer, certainly not a judge. What's more important than what any judge would have sitting before him or her other than adjudicating this issue? Couldn't it speed it up a little bit --

TOOBIN: But --

BORGER: -- when you have the impeachment of the President of the United States at stake?

TOOBIN: Sure -- I mean in --

BORGER: I mean, what's more important?

TOOBIN: I don't doubt that --


TOOBIN: I don't doubt that any judge would handle this as quickly as possible, but you're still talking about days. I mean, you know, they would have to hear briefing.

And certainly, the case would go to the Court of Appeals, if not the Supreme Court. And here, you have a situation where the Republicans are determined to get this thing over with by the state of the union on February 4th.

BORGER: Yes, well.

TOOBIN: So, I mean, they -- the -- you know. And even a delay of two or three days could push this past the time that McConnell wants to shut down this trial. And as Chris pointed out, McConnell runs this conference and the pretend moderates, like Susan Collins, they fall into line. And that's what they'll do here.

BLITZER: All right, everybody, stand by. There's a lot more we need to discuss.

Also, this quick note, join me and my colleague, Abby Phillip from CNN, and Brianne Pfannenstiel of "The Des Moines Register," as we moderate the final Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses.

The "CNN Presidential Debate in Partnership with the Des Moines Register" this coming Tuesday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN. We'll be right back.



BLITZER: We're back with our analysts and our experts.

And, Chris Cillizza, if the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, sends those two articles of impeachment --


BLITZER: -- to the Senate, let's say, next Tuesday or Wednesday, how long do you think that thing is going to go on that trial?

CILLIZZA: Well, short answer and honest answer, we don't know. I think you -- they -- Republicans are pretty ready to get this wrapped up. As sort of are Democrats. Remember, February 3rd, Iowa caucus; February 4th, state of the union. It's going to be busy -- busy couple --

BLITZER: The President has the state of the union --

CILLIZZA: -- busy couple of days. My guess would be, let's say, that the vote happens next Wednesday; they appoint managers. There's going to be a few days in there of logistical stuff, getting everything in order, first votes on the opening of the trial, and then we have Martin Luther King Day week. So my guess is that next week is when it begins in earnest.

Now, how long does it go? A lot of that is dependent honestly, Wolf, on are there -- as Gloria is mentioning, are there witnesses? Remember, Mitch McConnell's strength here is his ability to keep the 53 Republicans in line.

If Lisa Murkowski or Mitt Romney or Susan Collins, all of whom have expressed some level of interest in hearing from some witnesses -- now that's three, they need four. But if they go over to the Democratic side and you can get 51 votes for a witness or three witnesses, as there were in the Clinton impeachment trial, well, then it's going to take longer. If there aren't witnesses, it's going to wrap up sooner.

BLITZER: And, Jeffrey, a reminder of yours of the key role that the Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Roberts, will play in this Senate trial.


TOOBIN: Well, according to the Constitution, he presides, but it's a very different scenario than judges as we usually think of them. The -- what's incredibly unusual about this circumstance is that the judge, if he makes any rulings, can be overruled by the jury. Fifty- one votes in the Senate can overrule any decisions of the chief justice.

BORGER: He's got enough.

TOOBIN: So I think Chief Justice Roberts will act very much like Chief Justice Rehnquist did in the Clinton trial where he did a lot of presiding but not a lot of ruling.

BORGER: Yes, he's not -- he --

TOOBIN: And I think he is going to look -- Roberts is going to look to keep his head down and let the politicians resolve this --


TOOBIN: -- because it's fundamentally a political matter.

BORGER: I totally agree.

BLITZER: I think we --

BORGER: I think that's his inclination. He's just going to sit there and preside, and that's about it.

BLITZER: The trial will start every day at noon then go on for six or seven hours, continue --

CILLIZZA: And can go through weekends, yes.

BLITZER: And even through weekends.


BLITZER: So we'll watch it all very closely. Everybody, stick around, there's more news we're following, including some very frightening moments at sea as a Russian spy ship gets aggressively and dangerously close to an American warship.



BLITZER: There is dramatic video tonight of a very dangerously close encounter at sea between Russian and American warships. CNN's Brian Todd is here with details.

Brian, this comes as Russian President Putin is clearly siding with Iran in its current conflict with the United States.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there is serious concern here in Washington tonight that Vladimir Putin is drawing closer to Iran, especially in the wake of Qasem Soleimani's killing. The two U.S. adversaries cementing their dangerous alliance. Putin's clearly got the swagger in his step tonight as Wolf mentioned his Navy making another provocative move against a U.S. warship.


TODD (voice-over): Vladimir Putin's Navy, again, taunts an American warship. A Russian spy vessel rides the bumper of the USS Farragut in the Arabian Sea. Pentagon officials telling CNN the Russian ship got as close as 180 feet, provoking horn blast warnings from the Farragut with guns drawn.

The Russians say this was the Americans' fault, but Putin's aggression, including his oversight of a hypersonic missile test off the coast of Crimea, comes as he accuses the U.S. of being too aggressive in killing Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Putin's Foreign Minister calling the killing illegal.

MICHAEL CARPENTER, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Soleimani is someone that the Russians worked well with because they had the same mindset. They both were masters of hybrid warfare, both the Russian security and intelligence services and Soleimani and his Quds Force, so they had a lot in common. And they also have a common enemy in Western democracies and specifically in the United States.

TODD (voice-over): Soleimani had worked closely with Putin and his security advisers, according to Reuters, traveling to Moscow in 2015, 2016, and 2017, going over military strategy in Syria, and arranging Russian weapons deliveries there. Neither the Russians nor the Iranians ever admitted those meetings took place, but analysts say Soleimani's Iranian regime and Putin worked toward the same goals in Syria.

CARPENTER: The confluence of interest was really in keeping Assad in power and preventing a Western-backed regime change from occurring, from the opposition gaining control. And so, to that end, both Hezbollah, Iran, Assad, and Russia worked hand in glove and sometimes even tactically on the battlefield.

TODD (voice-over): And they're still in lockstep, tonight, putting the same spin on the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane in Iran. The Russians and Iranians both rejecting the intelligence from the U.S. and its allies that Iran fired missiles which brought the plane down.

CARPENTER: These are both autocratic states that have built their grip on power in part on lies and propaganda. Russia and Iran also have a mutual interest in obfuscating the cause of the crash.

TODD (voice-over): That's because a U.S. official says Russian-made missiles were used in the downing of the plane. Tonight, analysts warn Putin's dangerous alliance with Iran could undermine President Trump and America's interests in the Middle East. They warn that if Iraq forces Trump to pull American forces out of Iraq, the man in the Kremlin could step right into that power void.

ANDREA KENDALL-TAYLOR, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE OFFICER FOR RUSSIA: Putin is opportunistic, and he will use every opportunity to capitalize on regional discontent with the United States to undermine the United States, to paint the United States as an unpredictable and an unreliable partner.


TODD: Would Vladimir Putin support any terrorist hits or other plots by Iran to retaliate against the U.S. for the Soleimani killing? Russia experts disagree on that.

Some believe that Putin would not support retaliation from Iran because he would fear the instability that might cause. Others say the former KGB colonel would have no problem with a retaliation plot as long as it doesn't have his fingerprints on it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting, thank you.

Coming up, President Trump now claims not one but four U.S. embassies were facing attack from Iran's top general before the U.S. took him out.



BLITZER: Happening now, ending the impasse. President Trump's Senate trial could begin as soon as next week as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signals she's finally ready to let go of the articles of impeachment.

Define imminent. The Trump administration refuses to offer a clear explanation of why Iran's top general was considered an imminent threat before he was killed. Tonight, President Trump is changing his story.

Pilot's last words. We're getting new information about the final moments on board the passenger plane that was likely shot down by Iran, killing 176 people on board. Stand by for details and extraordinary new video.


And new Iowa poll. We have an exclusive snapshot of the Democratic presidential race just weeks before the lead-off contest, one candidate gaining some clear momentum in a close four-way race.

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