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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump's Consistent Claims And The Contradictions Of Imminent Threat From Iran; Trump Retweets Fake Image Of Schumer And Pelosi; Iran Accused Of Shooting Protesters; A Bigger Strategy As Part Of Strike On Soleimani; Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) Is Interviewed About the Intelligence On Iran; GOP Senator Calls For Trump To Not Infect Trial With House GOP; Pelosi: Senate Must Call Witnesses Or "Pay A Price"; Senator Cory Booker Drops Out Of Presidential Race; U.S. Sending 21 Saudi Cadets Home After Naval Air Station Shooting; Australia Drops Carrots And Sweet Potatoes To Starving Wildlife. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 13, 2020 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[17:00:00]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Will President Trump continue to dance around criticism of the Saudi regime.

Good afternoon, I'm Jake Tapper and you are watching a super sized edition of "THE LEAD" because Wolf Blitzer is currently in Iowa preparing for tomorrow night's Democratic debate on CNN.

We're going to begin this hour with breaking news in the world lead. President Trump claiming moments ago that his administration has been consistent in its claims about the nature and imminence of the threat posed from Iran.

But, neither Defense Secretary Mark Esper nor National Security adviser Robert O'Brien could on Sunday back with the evidence the president's stated belief that four embassies were targets of Soleimani. In fact, Esper told me this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK ESPER, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: What the president said was he believed that probably could have been. He didn't cite intelligence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: He believed it probably could have been. Okay. The president tried to change his line of attack today tweeting, "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 Soleimani's horrible past."

It doesn't really matter. It does matter of course because the White House claimed the imminent and specific threat justified killing Soleimani without consulting Congress. Constantly changing justifications, beliefs replacing evidence, the

American people have been here before and that was under presidents with more allegiance to facts, as CNN's Jim Acosta reports for us now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Facing persistent questions about his decision to take out Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, President Trump blasted away at Democrats with one of his most offensive social media posts yet.

The president re-tweeted a photo-shopped anti-Muslim image showing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in front of an Iranian flag wearing traditional Islamic clothing. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham defended Mr. Trump's swipe doubling down on his false attack.

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.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The Trump administration is back to ramping up the rhetoric with Iran with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo standing by the decision to kill Soleimani while warning leaders in Tehran to behave themselves.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: On the military side, we have warned the Iranians repeatedly, done so personally myself, that an attack that took American lives would not be tolerated. If Iran escalates, we will end it on our terms.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Top officials are still struggling to state why Soleimani was targeted with the president claiming the administration's explanations have been consistent.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: First of all, I think it's been totally consistent, but here's what's been consistent. We killed Soleimani, the number one terrorist in the world by every account. Bad person killed a lot of Americans and killed a lot of people. We killed him. And when the Democrats try and defend him, it's a disgrace to our country.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Defense Secretary Mark Esper waivered on the president's claim that there was an Iranian threat to attack four embassies.

ESPER: I didn't see one with regard to the four embassies. What I'm saying is I share the president's view that probably my expectation was they're going to go after our embassies.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Same for National Security adviser Robert O'Brien.

ROBERT O'BRIEN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We knew there were threats to American facilities. Now, whether they were bases, embassies, you know, it's always hard until the attack happens.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president tried to clean it all up with a tweet insisting the threat by Soleimani was imminent and that his team was in agreement on the decision to strike.

As demonstrators took to the streets in Iran protesting Tehran's downing of a Ukrainian airliner, the president issued a warning tweeting, "Do not kill your protesters. The U.S.A. is watching. Turn your internet back on and let the reporters roam free."

Democrats are accusing the president and his team of misleading the public to justify their actions after the fact.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-VA): Well, I think they're making it up as they go along to try to provide cover for the president. I really believe what happened here was it was not about intelligence, it was about opportunity.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (on camera): Now, during the president's remarks to reporters just a few moments ago, he did not offer any new evidence or intelligence pointing to an imminent threat posed by Qassem Soleimani. The president only said the information coming from the administration has been consistent when it hasn't been, Jake. The only consistency has been the inconsistency, Jake.

TAPPER: That's right, Jim. And we should note that the re-tweet of the image of Schumer and Pelosi in traditional Muslim garb, the Anti- Defamation League has called repulsive anti-Muslim bigotry. Thanks for your report. Appreciate it.

So, what exactly did security officials at four U.S. embassies in the region know about this alleged threat stream? CNN national security reporter Kylie Atwood is breaking the story live for us from the State Department.

[17:05:01]

Kylie, these four specific embassies, were they warned about this allegedly imminent attack?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: No. Our reporting reveals that four specific U.S. embassies were not given a head's up that there was an imminent attack coming their way.

And that's because according to sources that we had spoken with, State Department officials who were involved with the security of U.S. embassies didn't know that there was an imminent threat facing four U.S. embassies.

Now, this is obviously important because that is the justification for the strike against Qassem Soleimani that President Trump has talked about publicly, and one senior State Department official described being blindsided by that justification because they didn't know about a threat against four U.S. embassies specifically. Now, the other thing, Jake, is that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq,

Ambassador Toller, he actually returned to Iraq after there were protests that took over the U.S. embassy grounds in Baghdad and before the strike against Qassem Soleimani.

That raises even more questions about how imminent this strike was going to be against U.S. embassies which President Trump said included the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad if the ambassador was allowed to return to the country.

TAPPER: And Kylie, how is the State Department responding to your reporting?

ATWOOD: So, the State Department spokesperson highlighted the fact that they have done a lot of work here. They put out a worldwide security warning to all U.S. embassies warning of potential escalation with Iran and Iranian proxies in late December that was ahead of the Soleimani strike.

And they followed that warning up with calls to regional security officers in the region essentially warning them that this was not something that they could not take lightly. If they needed additional forces to come in and help them, they could ask for them.

But the bottom line is that the State Department didn't know that they should be having specific communications with four U.S. embassies.

TAPPER: All right, Kylie Atwood at the State Department. Let's got to the region now. Tehranians taking to the streets protesting the regime. You heard them there chanting in Farsi, death to the supreme leader.

Iranian forces are now accused of using live ammunition and tear gas to try to disperse these massive crowds protesting Iran, initially lying about and then admitting that its own military shot down that Ukrainian passenger plane last week, all 176 innocent passengers onboard were killed.

CNN's international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson joins me now from Abu Dhabi in the U.A.E. Nic, the Iranian regime is denying using live ammo, but there is evidence that suggests otherwise.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: The video of these protests suggests otherwise, Jake. You can see people who appear to be shot, who have what appear to be live bullet round holes, bleeding on the streets.

Some of the protests you can hear the gunshots being fired. You can hear what sounds like tear gas canisters and you hear what sounds like live rounds being fired. And then you hear the crowd saying they are shooting, they are shooting, get down.

Then there's a lady that says I have been shot in the foot, shot in the foot, and the man standing near her shouts, oh, my gosh, she has been hit. Somebody else shouts, get bandages, get bandages. So the evidence on the streets speaks against this. You've had in the past 24 hours senior Iranian commanders going on

T.V. saying they are sorry about the downing of the aircraft. They feel that this is terrible. In fact, one commander said he wished it was him that had been on the aircraft.

The reality is this contrition of the political and military leaders are portraying is not the reality on the streets, Jake.

TAPPER: And Nic, protesters are chanting "death to the ayatollah." What do you make of all this? How significant is it?

ROBERTSON: It's significant, but it's also significant that the regime is trying to crush and put this down. There have been additional counter-riot police on the streets going into this evening in Tehran.

It is clear that the leadership feels threatened by this at the moment and that they are not going to kowtow despite being sort of under international scrutiny.

And as we are going into this evening, I think we're getting a taste as well of what the diplomatic rhetoric is going to be like. The British ambassador was arrested by the Iranian authorities over the weekend accused of joining in one of these riots.

There is an escalating spat between the British and the Iranians. The foreign minister in Iran now, accusing the British of parroting the U.S. line, abetting U.S. terrorist adventurism in the region and threatening retaliation on the British.

TAPPER: All right, Nic Robertson, thank you so much. The White House attempting to defend President Trump sharing that bad photoshop of Schumer and Pelosi in traditional Muslim attire what the ADL called anti-Muslim bigotry. A key Democratic lawmaker is here to respond live, next.

[17:09:59]

And he road a wave of 2020 buzz into the presidential race. Now, he's out making the Democratic field even less diverse than it was. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Sunday after the U.S. strike that killed Iran's top general, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was offering a new line of defense.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POMPEO: There is a bigger strategy to this. President Trump and those of us in his National Security team are re-establishing deterrence, real deterrence against the Islamic Republic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And the idea of a bigger strategy of deterrence was not the talking point in the hours after the strike back on January 3rd of course.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[17:14:57]

POMPEO: He was actively plotting in the region to take actions, a big action as he described it that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I want to bring in Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. He is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, first off, let me just ask you. Soleimani was a horrible person. He had the blood of innocent people throughout the Middle East and American soldiers on his hands.

Is it not a good thing that this person who was, you know, heralded even by his enemies as a brilliant tactician and strategist, isn't that a good thing that he cannot -- he's not around anymore to wreak this violence and vengeance?

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): It is, but our responsibility here is not to view the killing of Soleimani in isolation. We have to look at the consequences of that assassination.

And I just spent some time on the phone with the Iraqi ambassador to the United States who described to me what seems to be a process being set in place to expel all American Forces from Iraq that is going to embolden ISIS and weaken US National Security.

And so the reason why Bush and Obama did not take out Soleimani when they had a chance was not because they thought that the world would be better off with Soleimani alive. It was because they knew what would happen afterwards.

And so we're charged with looking at the big picture. That's in fact why the Constitution says Congress has to make these decisions and not one person, not the executive branch alone.

TAPPER: Okay, but the CIA Director, Gina Haspel, you know, Mark Esper told me and confirmed for me essentially the "New York Times" report that Gina Haspel said, actually, if you do a balance sheet on whether the world is more dangerous with him in it, continuing to wreak havoc and kill innocent people including U.S. troops or take him out and risk whatever repercussions there might be, risk whatever response Iran makes, she said, at the end of the day, safer and better to take him out.

Does, I mean, did you not vote for her? I mean, does her judgment not good?

MURPHY: Well, let's just take a secondary at Pompeo's new rationale, and this is a rationale of the entire administration is using, that one of the purposes of the strike was to restore deterrence. Well, in fact, it didn't restore deterrence because the Iranians

launched a strike against U.S. assets in Iraq which luckily killed no one, but our Department of Defense says it was intended to kill dozens, if not hundreds of Americans.

That means that we actually didn't restore deterrence. We set into motion a series of events that almost got perhaps 100 Americans killed. So, I just don't see the rationale for this.

I don't see our interests being stronger in Iraq. I don't see deterrence being restored and I don't see the rule of law in the United States being upheld, and I think there is a lot of folks here in Congress and across the country that share that views.

TAPPER: President Trump said that the possible plot on four U.S. embassies was a justification to take out Soleimani. He revealed this after a full week of questions. When you went to the congressional briefing, did you hear anything about a threat to four U.S. embassies?

MURPHY: No. The administration said nothing about a threat to embassies and they were being pressed at the end of that briefing to give intelligence that would back up this claim of an imminent threat because they were refusing to do so.

They had that intelligence and it was at their fingertips such that the president could share it with Fox News several days later, they would have shared it with us.

I don't think the President is telling the truth about the threat to the embassies and that is backed up with the way -- by the way in which Secretary Pompeo has fudged his responses to similar questions and I think that Secretary Esper's very candid admission this weekend that he never saw that intel.

TAPPER: Quickly if you could, Congressman Adam Kinzinger joined me last hour. He said that the intelligence briefing he received did mention dates. It wasn't specifics in threats, but it did mention dates, did you hear dates mentioned?

MURPHY: I would be curious if they mentioned dates in the House briefing. They did not in the Senate briefing and in fact, Secretary Pompeo days later said that there was no intelligence about a specific attack or specific dates or specific targets. And so the administration has publicly stated that they don't have information on dates or targets.

TAPPER: I want to get your reaction to that image that President Trump re-tweeted of Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer in the traditional Muslim garb. What did you make of that?

MURPHY: It's disgusting, but is not unsurprising. This president got elected to office by trying to convince all Americans that they should fear Muslims both domestically and abroad.

And by posting those images it just, you know, not only degrades our domestic debate, but it also becomes bulletin board material for terrorist recruiters. I mean, they thrive on this idea that the president of the United States is out to get all Muslims across the world.

[17:19:58]

And so every time he posts one of those things, maybe, you know, he and his sycophants have a good laugh, but ultimately it endangers American national security because it ends up in more people being recruited by groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

TAPPER: Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, thank you so much sir. Appreciate your time.

MURPHY: Thanks.

TAPPER: President Trump is now suggesting we just skip the impeachment trial, right, as Nancy Pelosi is preparing to hand over the articles of impeachment. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:25:00]

TAPPER: In our politics lead, one Republican senator is asking President Trump to not, "infect the Senate trial" by picking Republican congressmen to be part of his legal team.

So, it's worth noting we did see Congressman Jim Jordan walking into the White House just hours ago. Presumably he would be one of the infectors. CNN's Manu Raju joins me live on the Hill. Manu, you talked to two GOP senators about the pending impeachment trial. What did they have to say?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John Cornyn, he's a member of the Senate Republican leadership team, made that comment to me just moments ago. He said let's not infect the Senate trial with a circus-like atmosphere of the House. I think there is an increased risk of doing that if you were to add the House members to the Senate team.

Now, this comes as there is that debate going on within the president's legal team and beyond about bringing in those additional Republicans, people like Jim Jordan or others who were part of the Republican defense in the House.

Some Senate Republicans say let's in fact just go proceed as normal. Let's not bring in these individuals who could distract from the president's defense in any way. And also over the weekend, President Trump called for an outright dismissal of his case.

John Cornyn instead said to me, look, instead we should move to acquit the president, not to acquit dismissal like the president wants. And other Republican senator Lamar Alexander, a close confidant of Mitch McConnell said the majority leader, said to me that he is open to the idea of bringing forward witnesses. But he said that is a new way, that needs to wait until later, wait until actually the opening arguments happen in this case, and then they can vote to decide. So, a lot of steps need to take place, a lot of uncertainty, but certainly clear that there is going to be some big votes on the floor in the coming weeks, Jake.

TAPPER: So witnesses still a possibility. Manu, we are expecting to see how Speaker Nancy Pelosi officially hand to the Senate the impeachment articles this week after nearly a month of limb. How soon might there be a Senate trial?

RAJU: Well, we can expect some procedural moves to occur this week. Tomorrow, Nancy Pelosi is going to meet with her caucus behind closed doors, detail her plans in moving ahead including discussion about naming House impeachment managers, people who would actually formally prosecute the case on behalf of House Democrats.

And the House floor, they'll actually vote to name those House managers and then after that, the actual articles will be delivered by those House managers over to the Senate. They will read aloud those articles of impeachment on the floor of the Senate.

And then afterwards, the senators will be sworn. The Chief Justice will be sworn in and then we could expect arguments to happen next week, likely probably at the beginning of next week.

There is opening arguments that each side will make and then the question will be how quickly they move to dismiss or whether or not they actually do go forward and subpoena these witnesses.

TAPPER: All right. Manu Raju, thanks so much. Let's chat about all this. Gloria, if the Senate ultimately allows witnesses, and that is a big if. We know now -- I mean does whether or not Pelosi has gained this out all ride on that decision?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, she wants witnesses. She believes she made the case to the American public, that without witnesses, it is a, "cover-up."

So, and she believes that the news that has transpired since the House impeached Donald Trump, John Bolton saying, you know, he wants to be subpoenaed, the e-mails about Ukraine and the Office of Management and Budget and the question of the president's culpability and involvement.

She believes all of that has helped her make the case that there ought to be witnesses. And so, I think, you know, in the end, Nancy Pelosi, if it works out, she can say, well, maybe it wouldn't have happened if we hadn't had this delay.

TAPPER: We'll see.

BORGER: I think it would have happened one way or another honestly, but we'll see.

TAPPER: And you don't hear it publicly, but a lot of members, the Democrats in the House are frustrated not just because some of them feel that the urgency has been undermined by this delay, but also they don't know who the House impeachment managers are going to be and they want to know.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right -- right. And certainly from the White House perspective, the White House, I mean, will argue, you know, spokespeople will argue that this had no effect at all, that it didn't help to move the ball forward at all.

There was of course public conversation about all of this. I think the more interesting thing is the way that it fits into the thinking among people close to the president because there is kind of two camps that way I see it.

There are the individuals who do not want witnesses who want this to be a legal case that's made by Pat Cipollone, quick and dirty, done. No witnesses at all, right.

And then there is the other camp of folks who frankly align with the president's instincts, which is a theatrical defense, you know, you bring in witnesses. Sure, you can give them Mulvaney, but we get the whistle-blower, we get Hunter Biden, we get those folks.

So, I think it's more interesting to see, you know, if there is indeed witnesses that do come up. If there are four votes among Republicans, does that then open a can of worms of all of the witnesses that the president would like who are of course much more politically motivated candidates.

[17:29:59]

TAPPER: Sara, take a listen as Pelosi this weekend defending the delay when sending the impeachment articles to the Senate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: What we did want though, and we think we accomplished, in the past few weeks is that we wanted the public to see the need for witnesses. Now, the ball is in their court to either do that or pay a price.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And Republican Senator Susan Collins says she's working with a small group of Republican colleagues to work on an agreement to call witnesses.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And, you know, there have been revelations in this time that the impeachment articles have just been sitting there, cooling their heels. You know, John Bolton came out and said that he would be willing to testify in front of the Senate. We had learned more about what's in the kinds of documents that the White House has refused to hand over.

So, in that sense, you know, you can understand what the Speaker is saying. But it does kind of undermine their argument that they couldn't possibly wait for any of this stuff to play out in the courts because, like you said, it all needs to be done very urgently because this election is coming up and because the President's behavior was so egregious. And so, it is a double-edged sword.

TAPPER: And then, of course, there's the question, if Bolton doesn't testify before the Senate, would the House subpoena him? Take a listen to the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Adam Schiff, this weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARGARET BRENNAN, CBS NEWS HOST: The Speaker was on another network today and seemed to leave open the idea of subpoenaing John Bolton, the former national security adviser to the President. Is that something you would be looking at? Are you looking at?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: You know, it's certainly something that we are considering.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, they are considering it. And I think, as Speaker Pelosi said, the ball is in the court of the Senate. If the Senate decides to call these witnesses and have John Bolton come and speak what he has said that he's willing to do, then that leaves the House not having to do that. But I think that they want to have that in their back pocket.

And if the Senate decides that they're going to push through this very quick trial -- no witnesses, no John Bolton, none of these firsthand witnesses who have an understanding of what the President was doing -- then we could have another repeat of what happened in the House with, you know, these momentous hearings where people come before the televised committee hearings and expose what the President was doing.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Democrats say that if the Senate does not hold hearings with witnesses, then we're going to do it ourselves.

TAPPER: Perhaps the best argument that Pelosi was up to something that was actually effective are the tweets and the reaction of President Trump, who really seems to have become unmoored even more so than normal.

Here is one tweet. Many believe that by the Senate giving credence to a trial based on the no evidence, no crime, read the transcripts, no pressure impeachment hoax, rather than outright dismissal, it gives the partisan Democrat witch-hunt credibility that it otherwise does not have. I agree!

That's like mad libs.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: For whom?

MURRAY: Right out in your face (ph). DIAMOND: I will say, though, that it was really in the first few days

after Pelosi did this that you saw the President really -- you saw why Pelosi was doing this. Because the President was extremely bothered by it --

TAPPER: Of course, yes.

DIAMOND: -- I want my trial, I want my vindication. Then that kind of dissipated a little bit. And so, I think that that is where Pelosi maybe didn't get quite as -- exactly what she wanted.

But, again, we've seen the President say all kinds of things, and we've seen him say we're going to dismiss it, I want the theatrical trial, I want witnesses. So, you know, I think he kind of throws a lot of things at the wall and see which sticks.

BORGER: She is so brilliant at getting under his skin.

TAPPER: Yes.

BORGER: And when she said on ABC yesterday that he'll be impeached for life, it drove him crazy because he started tweeting about that, why do I have to have that?

And he is clearly thinking about his legacy. And she knows that. And she knew how much that would bother him. So she can play --

TAPPER: Yes.

BORGER: -- play him so well, it's remarkable.

TAPPER: That's a skill, I suppose.

BORGER: Maybe, I guess.

TAPPER: Three weeks until the Iowa caucuses and another Democratic candidate dropping out. Could his voters put someone else over the top? Stay with us.

[17:33:40]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: In our "2020 Lead," New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, today, announced he is dropping out of the presidential race, saying in a statement, quote, I got into this race to win, and I've always said I wouldn't continue if there was no longer a path to victory.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny joins me now live from Des Moines. Just three weeks before the first votes are cast in Iowa, the Democratic field, heralded at one point, Jeff, for being the most diverse in history, has frankly just been getting Whiter and Whiter.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I think it has.

TAPPER: All six candidates who qualified for tomorrow's debate are White.

ZELENY: Right, it has, I mean, over the last year or so. Of course, we started with Senator Kamala Harris, Cory Booker as well. Deval Patrick is still in the race, the former Massachusetts governor. Not really competing in the Iowa caucuses, but it is a sign, you know, that it was a very crowded field. This was going to be difficult for these candidates to break through.

But Cory Booker was not going to be on the debate stage, anyway. He did not qualify for the DNC criteria here, but that doesn't mean that his impact is not going to be felt in the race.

Cory Booker had one of the earliest organizations on the ground here in Iowa, had loyal supporters, you know. They didn't necessarily always get picked up in the polls, but they had, you know, a core group of supporters across the state. So I am told by a variety of other campaigns that they are going after those supporters.

I talked to one county official, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Dallas County, just outside of Des Moines, Bryce Smith. He said that the Pete Buttigieg campaign called him six minutes after Cory Booker dropped out. So there is a scramble on to get those Booker supporters here.

But, Jake, the reality here, the debate tomorrow evening is the last big moment for candidates to have a break-out moment and gain momentum for that three-week stretch. It is clear that we're seeing, you know, Bernie Sanders already going after Joe Biden. You know, this extraordinary back and forth with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. So, certainly, tensions are high.

[17:40:05]

And, Jake, we've just learned all presidential candidates are coming to Des Moines, even Donald Trump. He is coming for a rally four days before the Iowa caucuses -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny, in Des Moines, thanks so much.

Let's chew over all this. Booker dropping out, does this change anything?

OLORUNNIPA: Well, it could change some things. We already heard about this scramble for his voters. He was --

TAPPER: OK, the executive director of Dallas County, I mean, like --

OLORUNNIPA: Well, he was very organized within the state. This was a place where he had put in all of his chips. He wasn't really spending as much time in New Hampshire or South Carolina or Nevada. He really had spoken of -- focused a lot of his energy on Iowa. And the fact that other candidates are going to be looking for his endorsement, looking to pick up some of his voters, that's going to be key going into the Iowa caucuses.

It's going to be a close race as we've seen. All of the various polls have the top four sort of bunched together, so getting a little bit of an extra bump by picking up some of these supporters will help whoever ends up being the -- the winner in this.

TAPPER: It is a game of addition, that's right. Let's take a look at the latest poll out of Iowa, a Monmouth University poll. Biden at the top of the pack, 24 percent, followed by Sanders at 18 percent, Buttigieg at 17 percent, Warren at 15 percent. That's from today.

A CNN poll with the "Des Moines Register" has Sanders at 20 percent, followed by Warren at 17 percent, Buttigieg at 16 percent, Biden at 15 percent.

I guess the only conclusion you can really make is that it's tight between those four candidates, at least right now.

MURRAY: Do you think?

TAPPER: Yes. Yes.

MURRAY: Yes? Is that all you can give?

TAPPER: That's all I got.

(LAUGHTER)

MURRAY: Yes. I mean, I think the other thing is, look, Cory Booker dropping out of the race, obviously, you know, he will have supporters who'll go elsewhere. But I think the bigger thing is everyone just making their late in the game pitches.

So many people in Iowa are still undecided. It's really important. That's part of the reason the debate is so important, is because you need to be the person who has this momentum who can convince the undecided voters to break your way more so than you need to, you know, win over the few people who might have been supporting Cory Booker and are looking for another home.

And I think that is -- that is a challenge as people are, you know, older and Whiter and just more kind of bunched together in this grouping.

BORGER: It's really remarkable to me how many people are undecided. I was looking at a poll today where more than half of them say that they're undecided or that they have a first choice but could easily change their mind.

MURRAY: Right.

TAPPER: Yes.

BORGER: So, going into this, it's very dynamic, it's very -- it's very fluid. And to add to that, caucuses are dynamic.

MURRAY: Right.

BORGER: Caucuses are fluid. And, you know, you can come in with a first choice and then walk over to another side of the room and decide that you've -- that you've changed your mind.

DIAMOND: And in the middle of that, of course, we have the impeachment trial in the Senate that's likely to begin at the end of this week or the beginning of next week.

MURRAY: Right.

TAPPER: There's still four senators running.

DIAMOND: Right.

TAPPER: They might be taken off the campaign trail.

DIAMOND: Warren -- you know, if you're Warren, if you're Bernie Sanders, if you're Amy Klobuchar, I mean, you know --

TAPPER: Don't sleep on Michael Bennet.

BORGER: Yes, Bennet.

DIAMOND: And Michael Bennet, of course.

MURRAY: You're right.

DIAMOND: How could I forget? You know, if you're any of those candidates, you're hating Nancy Pelosi right now I think, frankly, for holding up the articles of impeachment, delaying that eventual trial in the Senate by a few weeks, around this time when, again, momentum, as Sara said, is the key word --

BORGER: Maybe they'll car --

DIAMOND: -- coming out of this debate tomorrow night.

BORGER: Maybe they'll car pool back to Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: One of the things that's kind of stunning is that this was, at one point, the most diverse crop of presidential candidates of all time. And tomorrow night, it's six White candidates.

Interestingly, if you look at this, a "Washington Post" poll has found Biden at 48 percent among Democratic African-American voters nationwide. Forty-eight percent. So when people talk about the field is not diverse, one of the reasons is that the diverse voters are backing Biden, I suspect, because they think he can win.

OLORUNNIPA: Yes, you do have a situation where voters have become pundits in a way. They're looking at polls. They're looking at the fact that President Trump won in 2016 over the conventional wisdom that said he couldn't win.

And a lot of these voters are saying, we want to back someone who can take on Trump, we want someone who can win back some of the voters that went to Trump in 2016 and bring them back over to the Democratic side. So it's made it harder for people like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker to break through with African-American voters. Julian Castro got out of the race recently.

So even though we had -- we started off with a very diverse crowd of candidates, the fact that Joe Biden is leading with Black voters shows that even if you don't represent a diverse community, if you show that you can beat President Trump, you're likely to get a higher level of support among those voters.

TAPPER: And, Sara, I want to get your view on this story that M.J. Lee broke that, according to sources, Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren at a dinner in 2018 that he didn't think a woman could win the presidency. Bernie Sanders is on the record saying he never said that, that the sources are wrong or are lying. What do you make of all that?

MURRAY: Yes. I mean, whoo, this is a top story. Obviously, the gloves are off between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

I think, you know, it's also -- I have no doubt at all about M.J. Lee's reporting, but, man, if you really wanted to mess with your opponent, I think it's easy to convince a number of staffers to, like, bring out a weapon like this and use it against the opponent.

[17:45:06]

And I think the thing that really hurts Bernie Sanders about this is that, you know, it does kind of seem like something you could see him saying because he has had this gender problem historically. And that's the -- that's why, I think, if voters do believe it, if it sits with voters, that's why it would sit with them, because they already could have had this belief that Bernie Sanders has a gender issue.

TAPPER: He certainly -- he certainly views the world in terms of class more than any other division. Everyone, stick around. We have -- got more to talk about.

You do not want to miss tomorrow night. CNN teams up with the "Des Moines Register" for the latest Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses. It's 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here in CNN. Two of the moderators from CNN, Wolf Blitzer, Abby Phillip. It's going to be a must-see.

Coming up, terror on a U.S. military base and now 21 Saudi cadets are being sent home in the fallout. What the Justice Department is now saying about the deadly naval air station attack. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:56]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: This was an act of terrorism. The evidence shows that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That was Attorney General William Barr this afternoon announcing the findings of an investigation into the deadly Pensacola shooting, calling it an act of terrorism.

Last month, as you will recall, a 21-year-old Saudi national opened fire in a classroom building at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. He killed three innocent sailors, severely wounded eight others. The shooter was killed after two deputies exchanged gunfire with him. And now, 21 Saudi military students are being removed from the U.S. training program and returning home.

CNN's Senior Justice Correspondent, Evan Perez joins me now live. And, Evan, what else did the investigation find?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, of these 21, there were 17 of these Saudi students, who they found -- when the FBI was doing this investigation, they found jihadi content in some of their social media postings, anti-American content. And there were 15 of them, some of the -- there was some overlap among some of these. Fifteen of them, they found some kind of contact with child pornography.

The Saudi government determined that these people -- these -- the -- all 21, essentially, this is conduct unbecoming an officer in the military there. And so, that's the reason why they're being kicked out, not only of the U.S. but out of the Saudi training program.

What's interesting today is that the FBI is still trying to figure out exactly when he essentially turned into a radicalized jihadist, essentially.

TAPPER: The shooter, yes.

PEREZ: The Shaudi (ph) -- the Saudi shooter, correct. And so, the -- they're still working to do that. One of the things -- one of the problems they're still doing, they're still working to get into two iPhones. They're working with Apple to try to figure out how to get into those, which are protected by encrypted technology as you know.

TAPPER: After the shooting, President Trump came out and basically read a script that could have been written by MBS, the leader of Saudi Arabia -- the central leader of Saudi Arabia. Here he is in December. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter. And that this person in no way, shape, or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people, who love the American people so much.

So that was just given to me by the King of Saudi Arabia. And I can tell you, it's a horrible thing that took place, and we're getting to the bottom of it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PEREZ: Yes. I mean, look, you can see that the President has some strong feelings about what the Saudis have done on behalf of the United States, so we don't know whether he's going to address this again. But we do know, today, certainly, the Justice Department officials went out of their way saying how cooperative the Saudis were in this investigation.

TAPPER: All right, Evan Perez, thank you so much.

Coming up, veggies from heaven. Carrots falling from the sky to save millions of animals, or at least to attempt to, starving after some of the world's worst fires, at least in the history of Australia. We're going to go down live down under. Stay with us.

[17:53:50]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: In our "World Lead," it is raining carrots and sweet potatoes. The Australian government is helping some of the millions of animals affected by the worst wildfires the country has seen in decades by dropping more than 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and carrots as part of a post-fire wildlife recovery effort.

Experts say nearly half a billion animals have been impacted by the fires in New South Wales alone, with millions potentially killed.

CNN's Will Ripley is live for us now from Australia. Will, what is the current status of these fires?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, it's extraordinary, Jake. We're here at one of the most -- hardest- hit areas. And in fact, a lot of the cell towers are down, which is why I'm talking to you on the phone. And we're trying to get a live signal, but it's touch and go.

The destruction is everywhere. We're in a village with just 50 homes. Twelve of the homes were destroyed in what was described as an apocalyptic scene with red ash raining down on residents who lived here. And yet, you know, there's one home that's completely gone; the home next door may have survived. Almost inequitably why one house made it and the other did not.

But this is just one community that is affected, and there are so many here in the Australian state of New South Wales. The recovery efforts to try to save animals whose habitat has been destroyed are underway. But also, to get people whose entire lives have been uprooted, those efforts are also ongoing as we speak.

We spoke with an economist here in Australia who says it could cost $70 billion to recover from these fires. And yet as of now, the Australian government has only allocated about $1.5 billion. Clearly, there are going to be more resources needed for these people.

And even though the weather is giving us a slight break for the moment -- there's rain in the forecast which could help firefighters get some of these fires under control -- in this state alone, there are still more than a hundred fires burning, many of them uncontained.

And once the temperature shoots back up, there's still a lot of fuel -- a lot of fuel that could reignite these fires. And the fire scene (ph) still has many weeks to go, Jake.

[18:00:04]

TAPPER: All right. Will Ripley, thank you so much. Stay safe, my friend.

You can follow me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter @JakeTapper. You can tweet show @THELEADCNN.

Our coverage continues right now.