Return to Transcripts main page


Pelosi Set to Send Impeachment Articles to Senate; Interview With Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL); Interview With Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT); Sources: DOJ Review of Hillary Clinton Pushed By Trump Winds Down Without Results; Ukraine Reveals Final Words Of Pilot On Jet Likely Downed By Iran; Trump Now Claims Soleimani Targeted Four U.S. Embassies Without Evidence Or Explanation Of Imminent Threat. Aired 6- 7p ET

Aired January 10, 2020 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We have an exclusive snapshot of the Democratic presidential race just weeks before the leadoff contest, one candidate gaining some clear momentum in a close four-way race.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

New tonight, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appears ready to end the weeks-long standoff over President Trump's impeachment trial. She says she's preparing to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate next week. The trial could begin soon after that.

Also tonight, President Trump now claims the Iranian commander he ordered killed was planning attacks on four United States embassies. The administration still refusing to offer evidence or explain its claim that the threat was imminent.

I will get reaction from Senate Armed Services Committee member Senator Richard Blumenthal. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly.

Phil, walk us through what happens if Pelosi sends the impeachment articles to the Senate next week. How soon could the actual trial begin?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, things will kick into gear rather quickly.

Right now, the expectation is by midweek the House will vote to appoint managers and transmit those articles of impeachment over to the Senate, something we have been waiting for, for over three weeks at this point in time.

Once that actually happens, Wolf, it will be a short while before those managers physically walk down the hallway behind me over to the Senate chamber and present those articles to the United States Senate. By 1:00 p.m. the next day, the trial, based on rules and precedents,

has to actually begin. So, it will move quickly once those articles reach the United States Senate.

Now, at the start of the trial, Wolf, you will be hearing mostly procedural issues, including swearing in of the senators, swearing in of the chief justice.

The expectation right now is the actual kind of meat of the trial will probably start a few days after that, but things will certainly kick into gear. And for a lot of members, particularly over in the United States Senate, that is what welcome news.

Today, Speaker Pelosi in a dear colleague letter to her Democratic colleagues making clear that the effort to withhold is coming to an end. And the reason why, she said, is because she believes Democrats have gotten tangible benefits by holding on for this long, revelations over the course of the last three weeks related to details about certain specific issues that were happening inside the administration related to that Ukrainian aid money that was withheld by the United States, and the revelation that Ambassador John Bolton, the former national security adviser, is in fact willing to testify if he's subpoenaed by the United States Senate.

But the reality also remains this, Wolf. That three-week delay allowed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to get all 53 Senate Republicans in line about the early structure of that trial, something Democrats were hoping they could pressure those Republicans to break off and shift on.

There's also another reality here. Speaker Pelosi said she was not willing to send those articles of impeachment over until McConnell unveiled his rules for the first half of the trial, something McConnell also said no to.

So what Democrats actually got here in terms of something that's tangible, that they can take away, certainly, they got to focus the message on the trial, the message on Mitch McConnell, but in terms of changes to the trial, not so much.

Now, Wolf, I did talk to the Senate majority leader as he was leaving the Capitol earlier this afternoon. He had just a brief summary of what his thinking was at this moment. He said to me, "At last," as in the articles are finally coming over -- Wolf.

BLITZER: His words, "At last."

All right, Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill.

Let's go to the White House right now, where President Trump's justification for killing Iran's top general is changing once again.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us.

Jim, the president now claims General Qasem Soleimani was targeting four U.S. embassies, not just one. JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

The Trump administration is still trying to get its stories straight about the threat posed by Iranian general Qasem 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, though, with top administration officials claiming Soleimani was an imminent threat to Americans. 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 that is 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 Qasem Soleimani. We don't know precisely when and we don't know precisely where, but it was real time.

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.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ACOSTA: 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 prod 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 close the door on sitting down with the Trump administration to talk about much of anything.

New negotiations between the U.S. and Iran don't sound very, in a word, imminent tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, good point.

Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat. He serves on the Armed Services and Judiciary committees.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us,

As you know, the president now claiming Soleimani was targeting four U.S. embassies. Has the administration revealed any intelligence to you that substantiates that claim?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT): There is nothing that substantiates that claim either that has been provided by the president or the secretary of state or secretary of defense either publicly or in our briefing.

And one reason we were so angry coming from that briefing is the lack of specifics, the absence of evidence to justify this claim about imminent threat.

And now, after the vice president says the information was too sensitive, too dangerous to sources and methods, the president is throwing away that claim of need for secrecy, and he is presenting contradictory, shifting stories, which more fundamentally and importantly are a sign of the shifting strategies or, in fact, the lack of any strategy, policy, or plan.

And that has resulted in our being less safe today than we were a week ago at about this time because of the killing of Soleimani, the threat of ejection of our forces from Iraq, the growing resurgence of ISIS, and the withdrawal of our allies from that region.

BLITZER: After insisting that an attack was imminent, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, told FOX News -- and I am quoting him now -- "We don't know precisely when, and we don't know precisely where."

Our own White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins, followed up today. Listen to this.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Secretary Pompeo, what's your definition of imminent?

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: This was going to happen. And American lives were at risk.


BLITZER: Does that meet your definition, Senator, of an imminent threat?

BLUMENTHAL: That vague, nonspecific to allusion to potential risk of American lives in no way, absolutely not, satisfies the definition of imminent.


There has to be something immediate about the harm. And it has to be substantial harm to justify action that, in effect, is an act of potential war.

And the reason why it is important is that Congress has a constitutional responsibility. The president has an obligation under the War Powers Act to come to Congress. That's why we are going to have this resolution that will hopefully be debated by Congress this coming week -- in the Senate, that is -- it's already been passed in the House -- because we have a very solemn responsibility, when American lives are put in jeopardy through war, to debate and to approve it.

And the president is showing not only a cavalier attitude, as Chuck Hagel said earlier in your last hour, but also a contempt for the American people and for Congress through these shifting stories that, in effect, are self-contradictory and contradictory to what they have said privately in the supposed classified briefing.

BLITZER: The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, now says she will send over those two articles of impeachment to you, to the United States Senate, next week.

You said you trust her judgment. Was it -- was this weeks-long standoff, though, this delay in sending over those articles of impeachment, worth it?

BLUMENTHAL: I think that her timing has been excellent.

And I said that I would trust her judgment. And now she has decided, after this week has enabled the offer of testimony from John Bolton and additional documents to be revealed, which show the importance of witnesses and documents that can talk directly to what the president did, when he did it, what happened as a result, they know these witnesses, the four that we have asked to be presented, what directly the president did and said.

And the American people in this week have really formed an opinion that these witnesses and documents should be heard. And the best sign of the effect is my Republican colleagues, some of them telling their hometown newspapers, as Senator Collins did just very recently in Bangor, Maine, that she's talking to Republican colleagues about witnesses and documents, that they're hearing from constituents, the American people, who are saying, you know what a trial means?

It means documents and witnesses. And I think the effect of Nancy Pelosi waiting this long has been to galvanize American public opinion; 70 percent of Americans now favor -- in favor of a real trial, not the sham trial that McConnell wants dictated by the defendant, who should not be setting the rules of the trial.

BLITZER: As you know, the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, thinks he has the necessary votes to avoid what you want.

But we will see what happens in the coming days.

Senator Blumenthal, thank you so much for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right, right now, we are unveiling an exclusive brand-new poll of the Democratic presidential race in Iowa.

Our political reporter, David Chalian, is here with details for us.

And we're only a few days away from the CNN presidential debate next Tuesday night in Iowa, 24 days away from the first actual contest, the Iowa caucuses.

So, where does the Democratic race in Iowa, David, stand now?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, it is a race. That is for sure.

Take a look at the latest CNN/"Des Moines Register" Iowa poll. You see Bernie Sanders at 20 percent, Elizabeth Warren at 17, Pete Buttigieg at 16, and Joe Biden at 15 percent.

Wolf, that is a four-way race. Clearly, Sanders is on the rise. Take a look, compare to where the November poll numbers were, and you will see that Sanders is the only candidate that's actually added support here. Take a look at that. He's up five points since November. Warren and Biden are about where they were.

And Buttigieg has taken a bit of a dive here. He has lost nine points since the November poll, Sanders the only candidate right now in this poll showing momentum and a rise from that November poll.

I should also note, Wolf, 40 percent of this electorate says their mind is made up. That means 60 percent hasn't. This is extraordinarily fluid. We haven't seen that -- a percentage that low in the last three competitive Democratic contests out in Iowa.

This is a fluid race. Also want to dig into some of the numbers here.

We asked what's more important, defeating Donald Trump or picking a candidate that shares your positions? Best chance to defeat the president, 55 percent, Iowa Democratic likely caucus-goers say they want somebody that can beat President Trump, vs. 40 percent who say they want a candidate who shares their positions.


Now, it's been a majority all along. But if you see there, over time, that has narrowed. This is to the benefit of Bernie Sanders. His support is the greatest in the field among those who want a candidate who shares their position. So that narrowing, that little bit of narrowing between those that want a Trump defeater and those that want somebody that shares their positions is to Sanders' advantage right now.

We also took a look at, what are Sanders' strengths in terms of candidate qualities here? -- 91 percent of his supporters say his ability to empathize; 87 percent say his political resume is a strength.

But look at the next two numbers. Leading the military, 61 percent say it's a strength. About a quarter of his supporters think it's more of a weakness. And his physical health -- we have seen him rebound on the trail since that heart attack, but 37 percent of his own supporters call his physical health a strength.

So there are a couple signs there, especially that commander in chief sign, leaving the military, that could be a place where Bernie Sanders needs to do a little more work.

BLITZER: This new CNN poll comes just a few days before our presidential debate in Des Moines next Tuesday night.

What are you going to be looking for?

CHALIAN: It's this news environment, right?

I mean, we haven't seen these candidates on a debate stage with a major international incident going on, the president sort of day in and day out right now in that commander in chief role.

You see the lineup there on the stage of the six candidates who are going to be here. And foreign policy has not been a major issue in this campaign. I am curious to see if these candidates come eager to debate that on Tuesday night.

BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed.

And thanks for the poll information. Appreciate it, David Chalian, very much.

And to our viewers, be sure to join us live from Iowa for CNN's Democratic presidential debate. I will moderate, along with CNN's Abby Phillip and Brianne Pfannenstiel of "The Des Moines Register," our debate partner.

It airs, remember, this Tuesday night 9:00 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN.

Coming up: A top Ukrainian official now reveals what's on the cockpit recording from the plane believed to have been shot down by Iran.



BLITZER: That tug of war that's delayed President Trump's impeachment trial finally seems to be ending.

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, now says she's preparing to send the two articles of impeachment to the Senate next week.

Let's bring in Congressman Mike Quigley. He is a Democrat. He serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, as you know, the House speaker says she will turn the articles of impeachment over to the Senate next week.

Do you worry, though, that momentum is no longer in your favor?

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL): I think the American people will wake up after the holidays and realize this is back on. And it's extraordinarily important.

I think this time has given them the opportunity to see exactly what Mitch McConnell was doing. And I think they're overwhelmingly in favor of bringing witnesses and the documents that come with it to a real trial in the Senate.

BLITZER: But there's no agreement on the issue of witnesses and documents, Congressman. Was the standoff with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, worth it?

QUIGLEY: Yes, we're hoping that we need, what, four Republicans in the Senate to develop a sufficient backbone to do the right thing.

I would like to think they recognize that the American people do want the truth, and without Mr. Bolton's testimony or Mr. Mulvaney or the documents, it would be hard to do that.

We have also witnessed in that time period in which the speaker has held back articles a critical e-mail release from private litigation that show the president knew just two hours after the phone call that he gave the order to withhold that aid, and that there were Pentagon officials extremely concerned about the president's actions being legal.

BLITZER: We will see how confident -- Mitch McConnell seems pretty confident he has the votes in the Senate to prevent those witnesses from appearing.

The resolution to appoint impeachment managers from the House will also be introduced next week by the speaker. Would you like to see yourself in that role?

QUIGLEY: Oh, I think most of us would, especially those who have served since the first day over three years ago that we heard that the Russians had interfered with the election process, and we saw just how involved the Trump campaign was, and how they obstructed that investigation, and, obviously, as a member of the Intel Committee, have watched firsthand through this impeachment process and the investigation.

All that being said, it is a deep talent pool. There's a lot of people in my House that could do this job well. I have been honored to serve at the role that -- in the role that I have played so far and look forward to helping if I can.

BLITZER: Your colleague Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier joined me here in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday.

I want you to listen to what she told me about the plane crash that took the lives of 176 people outside Tehran. Listen to this.


REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D-CA): But if what is being projected is true, this is yet another example of collateral damage from the actions that have been taken in a provocative way by the president of the United States.


BLITZER: Do you agree with her?

QUIGLEY: Well, let me put it this way.

The maximum pressure campaign was designed to change Iranian behavior. It has. It has made it worse.

The attacks in the strait, the attacks on the Saudis, the attacks on U.S. troops, this effort, which began by unilaterally pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal, has strategically set us back.

I think you have detailed some of the measures, those matters. I think you have to add the fact that they pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal, feel free to move forward, which will make us far less safe, the region far less safe.


And I have to add the fact that, while they were -- the Iranians were facing protests in their capital, we have now unified, the president has now unified the Iranians against us.

And the Iraqis who were mad at the Iranians before are now unified against us. The hard-liners, the reactionaries in Iran have only hardened their grip.

So, unfortunately, this maximum pressure campaign has made this all much harder for us, and, frankly, has made us less safe.

BLITZER: So, do you...

QUIGLEY: The only thing I will say about the plane being shot down, the plane crashing, or whatever took place, is, it is a tragedy.

It is, if those reports are correct, part of the tragedies of a fog of war. But we're going to let this investigation take place in terms of what the intelligence community tells us. And I can't talk about it further.

BLITZER: Well, do you agree with Congresswoman Speier that the president shares some of the responsibility for that plane going down?

QUIGLEY: You know, look, I will just put it at this, that the maximum pressure campaign has made things worse and made us less safe.

And there are unfortunate incidents and tragedies as part of the fog of any war like this.

BLITZER: Congressman Mike Quigley, thanks so much for joining us.

QUIGLEY: Thank you.

BLITZER: We are going to continue the conversation.

Just ahead, the Trump administration's conflicting and confusing claims about the threat from Iran. Why can't or won't top officials define the meaning of imminent?

And we're getting new information about the cockpit recording from that Ukrainian passenger jet that went down in Iran with 176 people on board. Does it prove Iran is to blame?



BLITZER: Tonight, we're getting new information about the final moments on board a Ukrainian passenger plane before it went down, this as the Trump administration is now publicly confirming it believes the plane was hit by missiles fired by Iran.

Our Senior National Correspondent Alex Marquardt is following this story for us. Alex, what are you learning?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Ukrainians are also weighing in. The foreign minister now telling CNN that the intelligence that they've seen that the plane was shot down by that Iranian missile is what he called compelling, and more evidence of that is that, according to him, everything was fine in the cockpit until communication was lost all together.

The foreign minister is also telling our affiliate, CTV, that the last words of the pilot were peaceful, and that everything was okay.


MARQUARDT: Extraordinary 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: It's important that we get to the bottom of it.

MARQUARDT: Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joining Canada and 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 that intelligence that'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 items needed to reconstruct the plane in an Iranian hangar are still missing, Ukraine says. They need to be tested for possible chemicals from 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 with what we see, and especially when we saw that the locals are roaming around and picking things and then touching the things and stealing something from the ground.

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

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

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


MARQUARDT: Now, though the black box data has not yet been extracted, the Iranians are saying there will be more answers tomorrow. They have announced a meeting Saturday alongside the foreign investigators on the ground in Iran to review the initial findings of the crash. Now, state-run media is reporting that after that, the cause of the crash will be made public, at least their version of it. Wolf?

BLITZER: Alex Marquardt, thank you very much.

And we're also following the Trump administration shifting justification for killing Iran's top general. Let's bring in our analysts and our correspondents.


Pamela Brown, seem to be getting different lines of thought from the Trump administration.

PAMELA BROWN, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Just look at the past couple days and what Pompeo said today, the secretary of state. First of all, he wouldn't define what imminent means, and then he said before that today that he couldn't say precisely where and when these attacks that the administration has been talking about would actually happen.

You have the president say yesterday that a U.S. embassy was going to be blown up. Senior administration officials say he was talking about the Hezbollah protests. And then another official say, no, actually, this was separate from the Hezbollah protest, there was other intelligence that Soleimani was going to blow up other embassies. So there's been conflicting messages all around.

And Soleimani has been a threat, viewed as a threat for many years. In fact, there have been discussions to strike him for many months in this administration. So it is a fair question about why now, what exactly changed.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: And these conflicting messages all come down to whether there was lawful justification for the president to take this action. That's why people are so focused on this question of imminence and imminent threat or not.

Now, going back through decades even through the Obama administration, the executive branch has offered a broad view of this definition of imminence, saying it doesn't mean you have to wait until the final stages of a plot, you don't necessarily have to have specifics for someone who's closing (ph) a continuing threat.

That's very, very different offering that legal justification from an administration lying or obfuscating about what happened, in particular, lying to the United States Congress or not giving Congress all of the information. At the end of the day, if the Trump administration can put all the questions to rest by just giving Congress a complete classified briefing, showing to Democrats and Republicans here's what happened, here's why we took action.

BROWN: And Pompeo said that he had briefed lawmakers on the embassy threat. Lawmakers have come out and said, wait a second, no, we haven't received that. BLITZER: They had a long, 75-minute briefing, but that was not included to the 100 U.S. senators.

Karim Sadjadpour, you're an expert in this area. We know that Qasem Soleimani was killed in that U.S. drone strike. Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandi is the Iraqi -- supporter of the Iraqi Shiite militia leader associated with the Iranians. He was killed. But now, we're learning that the administration was also targeting an Iranian commander who happened to be in Yemen, but that operation failed. What does that tell you?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, SENIOR ASSOCIATE, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT: Well, I think there's really two policies in the Trump administration. You have Secretary of State Pompeo, who is really intent on countering Iranian regional power, but I think president Trump is someone who's capable of one day threatening war with Iran

and another day offering to build hotels in Iran.

And there's evidence that he's being somewhat driven by domestic political expediency, thinks being tough on Iran will be good for his re-election campaign. And that's a double edged sword, because on one hand, Iran is not popular with the American public, beating up on Iran could be tough. On the other hand, escalating with Iran could trigger potential conflict which would be bad for his re-election campaign. So I think President Trump has really mounted an Iranian tiger here.

BLITZER: Robin Wright, you have been an expert in this area for a long time. We've covered this story together on several occasions. You just wrote a piece for the U.S. Institute of Peace, in which you argue this. I will put it on the screen.

Killing of Qasem Soleimani was the boldest U.S. act in confronting Iran since the 1979 revolution, tantamount to an act of war. And then you went on to say, the dangers ahead are real, the prospects of diplomacy at the moment seems slim. Is that still your prognosis?

ROBIN WRIGHT, DISTINGUISHED FELLOW, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: Absolutely. When you look at the outpouring of grief for the regime following months of protests that led to deaths of hundreds of Iranians, the fact is the Islamic republic now has a mandate to respond. It now, in many ways, has to act.

The prospects of diplomacy, which I think both sides actually wanted in the months leading up to this confrontation, now seems more remote because neither side, whether it is political reasons, because it has taken this action and has to justify the imminent threat, the prospect of the United States doing something are slim, and the fact Iranians are not likely to feel they can compromise or concede on issues when the second most popular man in Iran has been killed.

BLITZER: Yes, the tensions clearly are going to escalate in days and weeks to come. We'll watch it closely.

Everybody stand by. There's other important news, Russian warship's aggressive moves, putting it dangerously close to American destroyer.


BLITZER: We're following President Trump's evolving defense of his decision to kill Iran's top military commander. Let's get some insight from Leon Panetta, former defense secretary, former CIA director.

Mr. Secretary, as you know, the president now says General Soleimani was targeting four U.S. embassies, that doesn't necessarily line up with what we heard from Mike Pompeo last night. Watch this.


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


BLITZER: So does that sound imminent to you?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: The administration is having a very difficult time trying to define imminent. Imminent is when you know an attack is going to take place.


And the reason you kill somebody is that person would be involved in the attack, but what's happened over these last few days is varying explanations about just exactly what was involved. It started with a series of imminent possibilities, the president talked about one embassy. Now, we're talking about four embassies.

I think the more they continue to change their story, the more they undermine the credibility of what they did and why they called it imminent threat.

BLITZER: We've also learned today that on the same day of the Soleimani strike, the United States tried and failed to take on another major Iranian military commander operating in Yemen.

What does that tell you about the administration's strategy on Iran?

PANETTA: Well, you know, it really -- it raises questions about whether decisions made in National Security Council with the president involved a series of possible attacks here or whether these were different approaches because of our military operations targeting different people at different times. So, it's really hard to try to understand whether this was part of an overall plan to go after the leadership in Iran.

If it was, it was obviously a dangerous step, and the bottom line is that whether Soleimani is now dead, the question is did the risk of war increase as a result of what the administration did, and I think they did.

BLITZER: You told me the other day, you think the U.S. is closer to war with Iran than it's been in 40 years. Do you still -- do you still believe that?

PANETTA: I do. I think bottom line is nothing has changed in the relationship between the United States and Iran. If anything, it has gotten worse.

BLITZER: Leon Panetta --

PANETTA: And there's no off ramp here.


PANETTA: There's no off ramp.

BLITZER: Well, we'll watch it together with you. Thanks so much, Mr. Secretary, for joining us.

PANETTA: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: All right. Just ahead, the U.S. Justice Department throwing cold water on President Trump's "lock her up" battle cry against Hillary Clinton.



BLITZER: Tonight, a two-year Justice Department of Hillary Clinton's business dealings is ending with a thud, dashing President Trump's dreams of getting dirt on his former opponent.

Current and former U.S. officials tell CNN investigators did not find enough evidence to recommend a formal criminal probe.

Let's bring in the former U.S. attorney, CNN senior legal analyst, Preet Bharara.

Preet, the crowd at President Trump's political rally just last night was chanting lock her up, lock her up. Listen to this for a second.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Crooked Hillary spent three times more money than us, right? So, crooked Hillary, right -- crooked, we should lock her up at the time.

CROWD: Lock her up! Lock her up!

TRUMP: Crooked Hillary spent three or four times more.

CROWD: Lock her up!


BLITZER: All right. How significant is it that the investigation which was led by the U.S. attorney in Utah, John Huber, didn't any evidence of a crime?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I mean, it depends on what your expectations were. But the clip you just showed is I think one of the unfortunate developments in public society over the past couple of years. People don't like someone who's in office or aspiring to office and without understanding the law of the facts or being part of any investigation yell "lock her up" or "lock him up", and I think that's very unfortunate.

The thing that I think is significant about no charges being filed is that the investigation took place to begin with. Now, you know, there is a low threshold to conduct an investigation. But with respect to Hillary Clinton in this case, there already had been. And remember, Jeff Sessions decided to put this U.S. particularly attorney U.S. attorney, Mr. Huber, on the case to sort of review what had happened before. That may or may not be appropriate.

The problem is if you believe the reporting, it sounds like people are saying that the reason for the Huber investigation was to appease the president of the United States who wanted to get dirt in this instance against Hillary Clinton, other instances with Joe Biden as we've been discussing with impeachment. And that is unfortunate and actually worse than unfortunate.

The idea that the Justice Department or FBI or any other law enforcement entity is deciding to make decisions about investigating people because they want to satisfy the president or appease the president or mollify the president is not the way it's supposed to work.

BLITZER: Is this an unusual case, or are there other examples of what you fear?

BHARARA: Well, you know, some people might say that this John Durham investigation is the same. He's the United States attorney who's been tasked with looking at the origins of the Russia investigation in Connecticut, which is a little bit odd, given we've already had an inspector general report, and a general inspector office look at the origins of Russia investigation and to the extent that also was done by Bill Barr in this case to appease the president and do -- you know, take two or three shots at finding evidence of a crime or in being able to castigate people who investigated you I think is part of the same pattern and is unfortunate.

BLITZER: Preet Bharara, thanks so much for joining us.

BHARARA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more news right after this.


BLITZER: Finally tonight, we're just four days away from the last Democratic presidential debate before the first votes are cast in this very important election season. I'll be there in Iowa to moderate the debate along with my colleague Abby Phillip and Brianne Pfannenstiel of "The Des Moines Register", our debate partner.

Our goal is, of course, to ask serious questions and to give the candidates time to speak so that you, the voters out there, will have a better appreciation about where they stand on the most important issues. Please join us this coming Tuesday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.