Return to Transcripts main page


Sanders vs. Warren?; Shifting Explanations on Iran Strike; Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) is Interviewed about State Department Security Officials Weren't Notified of "Imminent" Threats to Four Specific Embassies; Pelosi Preps to Hand Over Articles as Reps Still in Dark Over Impeachment Manager Selection. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 13, 2020 - 16:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: So, it turns out it is kind of important for the public to believe that the president is telling them the truth.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump today couching his claim that he believes four U.S. embassies were about to be attacked imminently. Thus, he took out Iran's top general. But no one can say that the intelligence actually supports this, just that it is a belief.

"Everyone is going crazy" -- why Nancy Pelosi's silence is causing a stir among the Democrats, as she gets ready to hand over the impeachment articles to the Senate.

Plus, at her own dinner -- what Bernie Sanders reportedly told Senator Warren about why she cannot win, emphasis on the she, though Sanders this afternoon strongly denying it.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We start with breaking news in our world lead and brand-new CNN reporting that seems to undermine President Trump's justification for killing Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

Two officials say that the State Department was not told that there were imminent threats to four embassies, despite President Trump's claim on that matter on Friday.

The president on Twitter today said -- quote -- "The fake news media and their Democrat partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was imminent or not and was my team in agreement. The answer to both is a strong yes. But it doesn't really matter, because of his horrible past." So, yes, Soleimani was a vicious leader of an organization that the U.S. government considers terrorists. And yes, he had the blood of innocents on his hands. But whether or not these attacks, the strike against him, and whether or not the attacks he -- we were told he is planning, he was planning, are imminent, and whether these alleged plots are backed up by actual intelligence and evidence, that, of course, matters, because that was the reason that the American people were told he was killed.

And it was a key part of the justification as to why the Trump administration argued they had to act immediately and without consulting Congress.

Both President Trump's Defense Secretary Mark Esper and National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien were given chances this weekend to offer any evidence, any proof to back up the president's claims that he made Friday on FOX News of plots to attack four U.S. embassies, and they were not able to.

In fact, Esper made it clear there was no actual intelligence that the president was referring to. He was just sharing his belief.


MARK ESPER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I'm not going to discuss intelligence.

What the president said was, he believed it probably could have been. He didn't cite intelligence.


TAPPER: "He believed it probably could have been."

Today, President Trump is so aggressively trying to make his case, retweeting this depiction of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer standing in front of the Iranian flag wearing traditional Islamic clothing, a retweet that prompted the head of the Anti-Defamation League to write -- quote -- "It's outrageous that Donald Trump elevated such repulsive anti-Muslim bigotry" -- unquote.

The White House press secretary defended that retweet this afternoon by adding to the smear.


STEPHANIE GRISHAM, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think the president is making clear that the Democrats are -- have been parroting Iranian talking points and almost taking the side of terrorists and those who were out to kill the Americans.


TAPPER: "Almost taking the side of terrorists." As CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports from the White House, the president is lashing out, as new polls indicate a majority of the American people believe they are less safe after the strike against the Iranian general.


GRISHAM: I think that, honestly, we're arguing semantics here.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the 11 days since the U.S. launched a drone strike killing a top Iranian commander, President Trump and his national security aides have struggled to explain, why now?

GRISHAM: Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Esper, Ambassador O'Brien, and the president have all said there was an imminent threat.

COLLINS: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo first claimed General Soleimani's attack was imminent, though he later raised eyebrows by admitting he didn't know when or where.

Today, the president insisted it was imminent, but argued it really doesn't matter because of Soleimani's horrible past. Despite being a move that brought two nations to the brink of war, explanations about the intelligent have shifted repeatedly.

ESPER: What the president said was he believed it probably could have been. He didn't cite intelligence.

COLLINS: After Trump asserted, without evidence, that four U.S. embassies were in Soleimani's sights, his defense secretary wouldn't back up his claim about specific threats with intelligence.

ESPER: I didn't see one with regard to four embassies.

COLLINS: Trump's national security team has argued forcefully a major attack was coming, but they said they're unable to share the intelligence, as lawmakers have complained even their classified briefings offered little detail.

ROBERT O'BRIEN, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I'm not going to get into the details of those and give our playbook out to the other side. But we were very concerned about embassies throughout the region.


COLLINS: CNN has learned State Department officials involved in U.S. Embassy security were not aware of an imminent threat to four diplomatic posts and didn't issue warnings about the alleged risk before the Soleimani strike.

Amid the ever-evolving explanations, Trump is warning Iran not to kill protesters facing off with riot police after the government admitted it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing 176 people on board.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COLLINS: Now, Jake, before that strike on Soleimani, the State Department did issue a warning to all U.S. embassies, but it wasn't specific and it didn't warn of any kind of an imminent threat, despite the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, repeating again today that, yes, he did believe that threat was imminent.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

Let's discuss with our panel.

I want you to take a listen to the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this afternoon discussing the planning behind the strike against Soleimani.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I want to lay this out in context of what we have been trying to do. There's a bigger strategy to this.


TAPPER: He says the bigger strategy is a strategy of deterrence.

Obviously, initially, we were told that the attack was not about deterrence; it was about Soleimani was planning an imminent attack.

Can it be both?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The explanation has kind of shifted almost by the hour and kind of doubled back on itself.

Look, I mean, the administration, clearly from the outset, has chosen an utterly different path than President Obama did on Iran. They have ripped up the nuclear deal, and they have chosen to try to try to isolate Iran and increase pressure on them.

That is not what they said initially this was an extension of. And so there is a cost, I think, to years of behaving in a way that has caused 60 percent of the public does say that they do not consider the president honest or trustworthy.

Whenever there's kind of a crack in the story, people are kind of ready -- I think most Americans, many Americans have been probably, most Americans are ready to assume the worst, that they are not telling the truth.

And certainly they have behaved in a way on this entire episode that I think compounds those kind of concerns.

TAPPER: Do you think it's contradictory? I mean, certainly, it can be true, I can understand an argument, although we haven't heard a cohesive argument made, where it is, we had intelligence about vague -- a vague plot, and Soleimani is the head of a group that we consider terrorists, we also want to establish deterrence.

I mean, there is a way to do all of them and have it be an argument, but we haven't heard that.


And we also don't know that that's -- would be legally justified, that Congress would support it, that that would achieve the objectives they said they want to achieve.

I mean, I think this tells you a lot about the power of Secretary Pompeo within the administration, because I talk to a lot of Iran experts and former national security experts. No one suggests that this is a good way of deterring Iran, no one, no one I have spoken to ever.

In fact, they suggest that this is putting Iran in a position where they will likely -- they could retaliate in the future. We now are not fighting ISIS. So that doesn't even play out by national security standards.

TAPPER: And there are people -- David, I want to play for you some sound from Senator Mike Lee from -- a Republican from Utah, who's generally been pretty supportive of the president's agenda. Back in 2016, he was a little bit more skeptical, but he's generally been supportive.

He went to the briefing with administration officials. He did not leave happy. Take a listen.


TAPPER: You and I have sat through this movie before, conflicting, changing information, intelligence juiced in order to justify certain actions.

How worried are you about the integrity of the information we're being told?

SEN. MIKE LEE (R-UT): Well, I'm worried.

And as a United States senator and as a voter and citizen, I have learned not to simply take the federal government's word at face value.

I mean, look, we were lied to about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We were lied to for a couple of decades about what was happening in Afghanistan. We have been lied to about a lot of things.


TAPPER: I mean, you get that.


Listen, I had the privilege of talking to both Senator -- excuse me -- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley this weekend, as well as the secretary of defense, about Senator Lee's comments there.

They both have had subsequent conversations with him. And I think perhaps Senator Lee may be in a different place.

Look, I definitely believe in healthy skepticism. And I think there should be a full-throated debate in the Congress about the use of force.

However, in this instance, and just to kind of push back on what Jen is saying, what has been happening with Iran and our Iranian policies for the past 40 years hasn't worked.

Since Ronald Reagan, America has turned a blind eye when the IRGC, Iran or one of its proxy strikes out against America, and this president, and this action, has said, no more, it's not going to happen.

So whether it's Hezbollah, Hamas, the IRGC, I would hazard to guess that if it happens, American blood is spilled someplace, there will be harsh retribution once again.

TAPPER: I do want to note that you're an adviser to President Trump's campaign and also you're a lobbyist and you work on defense issues, in addition to others.


Laura, there's a new Quinnipiac poll out today; 45 percent of Americans say killing Soleimani was the right action for the U.S. to take; 41 percent say it was the wrong action, so within the margin of error, but you could say plurality support for the action.

In a new ABC News poll, only 25 percent say killing Soleimani made the United States more safe; 52 percent say the U.S. is less safe.

It's similar in the Q poll, although it's a plurality; 22 percent say it hasn't had much of an effect.

It doesn't -- usually, quite often, you see the American people rallying to the support of the president, whether it is Bush or Obama, when it comes to things like that. You don't have that here.


And also, in the Quinnipiac poll, while 45 percent that said that they thought it was the right action, as you said, also another 45 percent said that they don't think it made the country safer.

TAPPER: Right.

BARRON-LOPEZ: And so that's the issue that the administration is having, and that's why I think -- I mean, we have heard a variety of answers from the Trump administration and from his officials about why they took this action.

And even as recent as reports today saying that seven months ago Trump potentially authorized this, which could raise, if he did potentially authorize it as a revenge strike, could raise some legal questions as well. (CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I was going to say, look at the crosstabs of those polls, too. They break heavily in a partisan favor; 97 percent of Republicans in the Q poll I think support the strike, saying -- so the breakdown is very, very hyperpartisan.

TAPPER: That's totally true.

And, in fact, a majority of the public does not want a war with Iran. A majority of Democrats don't. A majority of independents don't. A majority of Republicans do.

They are willing to follow President Trump.


URBAN: Q poll, 43 percent, all-time high for the president as well in this poll.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. But, again...

PSAKI: Forty-two percent is celebrated. Look at where we are.


BROWNSTEIN: Couple quick points.

Most interesting thing to me about at this poll continues the basic trend, where Trump's overall job approval is in a historical range, but well -- but not really rising, despite the share of people going up who say they approve of his handling of the economy.

And in this Quinnipiac poll -- they sent me some additional results just now -- one-fifth of the people will say they approve of Trump's handling of the economy still say they disapprove of him overall. We have never seen anything like this.

TAPPER: With really remarkably good economic numbers.


Normally, something like 90 percent of the people who describe the economy as excellent or good vote for the incumbent president. Happened for Obama in '12, Bush in '04.

Last CNN poll, Trump was at 55 among people who call the economy excellent or good against Biden. When people say all of his behavior has no effect on his standing, that is -- to me, that is the tangible measure of what the...


TAPPER: I don't think you have to convince David.

Everyone, stick around. We have more to talk about. Coming up next, the GOP lawmaker and Air Force pilot who says the White House briefing on Iran intel was convincing, but did he hear the word imminent?

Then, the one thing Bernie Sanders reportedly told Elizabeth Warren that could upset a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of voters, and how Senator Sanders is responding today.

Stay with us.




SEN. MIKE LEE (R-UT): I don't recall being told, look, there were four embassies.

I have not yet been able to ascertain really specific details as to the imminence of the attack. Again, we weren't provided that the other day, we were given somewhat general statements.


TAPPER: We're back with the politics lead.

That was Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah acknowledging to me yesterday that in a classified briefing to Congress, he never heard anyone mention a threat to four U.S. embassies.

President Trump says that threat or that belief of a threat led him to order the strike to kill Iran's top military general.

I want to bring in Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger. In addition to being on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congressman, thanks for joining us --

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): Yes, you bet.

TAPPER: -- as always.

First of all, let's -- you know, there's no debate, Soleimani was a bad guy, had innocent blood on his hands. I do want to talk about the intelligence though. Soleimani planning to target four U.S. embassies is a very specific claim.

When you were briefed last week, do you remember that being mentioned?

KINZINGER: No, they didn't go into a ton of specifics of where, but there were very specific things about the dates, and it seems that my friends have forgotten that when they came out. When I came out, I said that was actually about as detailed as I've

heard in any briefing before, because usually we learn absolutely nothing in large briefings with 400-some people.

And there were specific dates there put out by a person in that room, I won't go into more specific detail, and that was extremely specific. And, by the way, those dates were very near-term.

Now, if you don't believe the intelligence, you being generically that anybody that doesn't believe the intelligence, you have to think that General Milley was lying, because he had said he read the report 25 times, and was convinced. You have to believe that Gina Haspel, a career CIA, now the director of the CIA, was lying, same with Mike Pompeo and everybody else up there.

Now, you can believe that. That's a legitimate view point. I happen to believe that they were telling the truth.

TAPPER: Well, just to defend skeptics, because that is what I do professionally, I mean, we have heard before from different CIA directors, secretaries of defense, secretaries of state different claims about intelligence that ultimately prove to be false. I think --

KINZINGER: Sure, sure.

TAPPER: I think after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's healthy for people to question this kind of thing, don't you think?

KINZINGER: Yes, I agree, but when we're talking about a full massive invasion, and everything else, it's one thing. When we're talking about the fact that a guy that everybody knows was bad, everybody sees a history of 20 years, they see a history of 20 years of escalating attacks. They saw what happened in the last week that both targeted Americans, targeted an embassy.

And then we see that the man was actually in Iraq. What was he in Iraq for? He was not there to make peace. Trust me, he was there to coordinate again.

It's not a huge leap to then understand that there may be reason to believe that there were attacks on the horizon. Imminent -- it depends how you define imminent. But that's in a day, maybe it's in a week, but we know his history and we know his future.

Unless he, you know, somehow found a different religion and, all of the sudden, wants to make peace with everything, then I think it's easy to look at that and say, we know what he was going to do.


TAPPER: I asked Secretary of Defense Esper yesterday whether there were specific intelligence that as President Trump claimed, the Iranians were plotting to target four U.S. embassies. Take a listen to part of his response. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK ESPER, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: What the president said with regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well. And he said he believed that they probably -- that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.


TAPPER: Are you uncomfortable at all with the president talking about his general beliefs as opposed to what the intelligence and evidence states?

KINZINGER: Fifty-fifty. So, I mean, the president has a right to declassify whatever he wants. I like when stuff, you know, that can actually be potentially harmful is not put out and I think he's done a good job of not putting that stuff out.

But I also think -- the one criticism that I will give to the White House in all of this is after this happened, there should have been a better communications plan out of the White House. I think an Oval Office address, I think the statement from the press secretary right when this happened would have set the table, where we want it to go. That didn't happen, and we ended up learning a lot more on Twitter, which Twitter can serve a purpose, but in that case, not really.

And so, look -- but I think getting into the minutia of this is I think exactly frankly what my good friends on the other side of the aisle want to do, because the reality, this was a good move. It's hard to defend and say that Soleimani shouldn't have been attacked because to think of all of the Americans that have died, all the attacks that have, all the people that have died -- look in Syria and elsewhere -- we didn't target 200 Iranian military that just wanted a paycheck for retaliation. We actually targeted the man that did it.

And then by the way, Iran escalated. They expected a response, which is why all their air defense systems were up, which is why they shot down an airplane, and once again, Donald Trump didn't respond.

TAPPER: President Trump said today, it doesn't matter whether or not the attack on -- the attack by Soleimani was imminent, because Soleimani had this horrible past.

I agree with you, he had a horrible -- I agree with the president and I agree with you, he had a horrible past, he did a lot of horrible things, not just to American soldiers, by the way, to the Iraqi people, the Iranian people, people in Syria, people in Lebanon. But does it not matter? I mean, it does matter whether or not it was imminent. That's how they're using -- that's how they're justifying the strike, and that's how they're justifying not bringing you guys in Congress into it all.

KINZINGER: Well, look, I think that if it's -- first off on the congressional piece, this idea that they needed to come to Congress to get permission to strike Soleimani, I disagree. We can't debate on the floor of the House of Representatives whether we're going to strike somebody, because at what point does that threshold stop? Is it anytime a weapon is released against a terrorist, we have to debate it on the floor, I don't know.

TAPPER: No, but you can loop in the Gang of Eight.

KINZINGER: Yes, so I have no problem with it, afterwards, right? And even if it's prior, that's fine. And I think they should have done as I've said from the beginning.

But what we're missing here is the fact that this guy was the mastermind and this was a proportional response to take out the guy responsible. And what do we see as result? I had a lot of friends out here that were saying that it is the beginning of World War III.

We saw Iran do a face-saving response. We saw an actual failed response of what they felt was air defense which tragically took 170 lives. And we see today that it did unite the Iranians street, like some of my friends set out there. You actually have people on the Iranian street right now angry at their government, and I hope people are watching that.

TAPPER: Yes, well, we're certainly bringing that to them, and showing it to them. I hope that you're right that, that's it, but the Iranians have a way of waiting a month and then doing something that can't be tied to them.

KINZINGER: And they've done that.


KINZINGER: And they've done that for 20 years, and this is first time we've ever struck back at them.

TAPPER: Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, thank you so much for your time as always. Appreciate it.

KINZINGER: Yes. Same to you, Jake.

TAPPER: Nancy Pelosi is expected to hand over the articles of impeachment to the Senate this week. Some Democrats are reportedly going crazy over her silence. Why? That's next.



TAPPER: In our politics lead today, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is on the verge of delivering the impeachment articles to the Senate, CNN is learning even the Democratic House members vying to be House impeachment managers for the Senate trial are completely in the dark as to who will ultimately be picked.

One House aide says as they wait, quote, everyone is going crazy and as CNN's Sarah Murray reports, we just have heard from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about the next steps for that Senate impeachment trial. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After nearly a month of sitting on the articles of impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is ready to take the next step, almost.

Tomorrow, Pelosi meets with her caucus to decide when to vote on House impeachment managers, a vote that could come as soon as tomorrow afternoon or Wednesday.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): We'll determine in our meeting when we send them over, but it is -- I have always said I would send them over, so there should not be any mystery to that.

MURRAY: After the impeachment managers are made, the House can formally transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate where a trial can begin after procedural steps take place.

But it's still a mystery who the impeachment managers will be even to the Democratic lawmakers jockeying for the job.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): Well, that will be the speaker's decision.

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): I really can't comment on any of this. I really have zero information.

MURRAY: It's also unclear when a Senate trial will actually begin, what it will look like, and whether Democrats will succeed in their demand for --