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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Pentagon Now Says 11 Service Members Hurt in January 8 Missile Strike; Trump: Impeachment Trial is 'Rigging the Election Again Against Bernie Sanders". Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 17, 2020 - 16:30   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Now, a defense official tells CNN it can take days for those systems to appear, and Defense Secretary Esper was just made aware of the injuries yesterday.

[16:30:08]

We have a team of correspondents covering the story across the globe.

Let's start with Arwa Damon in Istanbul.

And, Arwa, how are these soldiers doing? And tell us what you saw when you visited the base after the attack?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, our understanding, Jake, is that the expectation is that they will be treated and once they are given medical clearance, they will return back to their posts at the Al-Asad Air Base.

What the military is saying is that they went through regular routine checks and as they do, the explosions of this nature that happened close to anyone, it became apparent that some of these service people needed to have additional medical screening for their own health and also perhaps to a certain degree to err on the side of caution, because, look, Jake, it is not at all surprising that they suffered from concussions, from some sort of brain trauma given what we saw and heard when we were at the Al-Asad Air Base a few days after the ballistic missile attack by Iran.

If you look at the areas that were targeted, Jake, you had sleeping quarters, you had operating areas, we heard stories of troops who were extraordinary close to the impact areas where these missiles were landed, stories of soldiers who have to keep, while these the missiles were raining down on them and holding the post and the security of the perimeter of the base, because remember at the same time, they were receiving intelligence that there could be rocket and mortar attacks and some sort of ground assault.

Now, the vast majority of the forces were able to shelter in Saddam era bunkers, but a number of them had to shelter in the bunkers that were built to withstand mortars and rockets, not this kind of missile that was fired. Three were some 3,000 times more powerful than that. So, when you talk to the troops that were down there, Jake, all of them will still say, it is miraculous that no one was killed.

TAPPER: All right. Arwa Damon, thank you so much.

Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon for us.

And, Barbara, how is it that Defense Secretary Esper did not know that there were injuries in the immediate aftermath? Is there some sort of failure to communicate with him?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It doesn't appear so in the immediate aftermath. But what appears to have happened, Jake, is the symptoms did develop over days. Some of the troops had initial symptoms, and they simply didn't get better. Some of the troops then days later reported symptoms and it was yesterday that they were finally evacuated out as you said to Germany and Kuwait, and it was yesterday then as that happened, it triggered a mechanism for it to be reported to the Pentagon, and in fact, a four-star general walked into Esper's office and interrupted the meeting and told him what had happened.

It perhaps underscores all these years later, how difficult it is for the U.S. military to understand the implications of traumatic brain injury and to deal with it on a very rapid basis.

TAPPER: And, Barbara, Arwa just reported that the expectation is all of the injured service members are expected to return to Iraq?

STARR: Well, that's according to an official statement from the U.S. military, but again, these traumatic brain injuries, they heal on their own timetable and these troops will have to be monitored and there will have to be a medical sign-off for them to return to duty, Jake.

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

This is all comes as Iran's supreme leader is attacking the Trump administration, calling members of the administration clowns. Leading Friday prayers for the first time in eight years, Ayatollah Khamenei definitely declared Iran and said, declared that Iran slapped the United States in the face.

CNN's international security editor, Nick Paton Walsh, joins me now.

And, Nick, the speech by Iran's supreme leader was carefully crafted and choreographed trying to rally the country's hard-liners?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Possibly, also possibly show to everybody that he has still the calm hand in control. They have had a crazy format, frankly. Iran losing their top military figure, launching retaliatory airstrikes, military to military against the U.S. base there in Iraq as you heard from Arwa, and also blowing out of the air by mistake that Ukrainian airliner, PS752.

Essentially, much of this rhetoric is boilerplate. He called, as you said, U.S. officials that are trying to encourage protests in Iran against the economy, against that mistake in downing. He called them clowns, said diplomacy was off the table for the U.S., well, we kind of knew that on the surface. But also, interestingly too, had disparaging words for the European allies of the United States that are trying to perhaps keep the nuclear deal alive, calling them the servants of the United States of America.

The one bit that stood out, when he referred to the mistaken downing of that airliner. Many of the Iranians died in that. There were protests on the street when the Iranian officials said that it went down for technical reasons, he said that he was grateful to the Iranian military for saying they were behind it, a paraphrase there, but he also said something like that absolutely never had to happen again.

[16:35:05]

That's key because he maybe pointing towards the cover-up there, possibly the mistake, possibly even the protests afterwards, but a little bit to draw the line under it. More importantly, this is really him staying to the established script for Iranian officials but trying to say after this turmoil, I am in charge still, I'm still the leading figure of authority and making this very rare appearance which we have not seen as you have said for eight years -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much.

President Trump is claiming that Democrats are rigging the primaries against one of the president's potential opponents. Wait until you hear who he is talking about and what he is blaming.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:40:04]

TAPPER: Today's 2020 lead, who needs foreign countries sowing the seeds of division and spreading conspiracy theories when President Trump is willing to do it for free.

Today, the president suggested that Senate impeachment trial against him is a calculated strategy by Democrats to keep Bernie Sanders off the campaign trail and to help Joe Biden win the Democratic primaries.

The president of the United States tweeting, quote: they are rigging the election again against Bernie Sanders just like last time, only even more obviously. They are bringing him out of so-important Iowa in order that as a senator, he sits through the impeachment hoax trial, Crazy Nancy therefore, thereby gives the strong edge to sleepy Joe Biden and Bernie is shutting out again.

Let's talk about this. So, obviously, it is true that the impeachment trail will keep Bernie Sanders and the other three senators running for president off the campaign trail. But that is -- they are not doing it to help Joe Biden.

MEHDI HASAN, THE INTERCEPT: Can you imagine if the Democrats -- I mean, the simple way of disproving this latest ridiculous theory is Bernie Sanders supports impeaching Donald Trump. He is part of the conspiracy. The best --

TAPPER: They're frustrated. He is frustrated, he is frustrated.

HASAN: But he has been a supporter for quite a while of impeaching Trump for his many high crimes and misdemeanor. So, it's a ridiculous theory that that is the case. Trump obviously loves playing divide and rule. The irony about rigging election is he is the one on his side not allowing any of the Republican challengers to debate him, get on ballot paper, I mean, the real rigging is, even they are not a threat to him, he won't even let them run against him.

CHARLIE SPIES, FORMER CHIEF LEGAL COUNSEL, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: The argument the president is making is that Nancy Pelosi is, I would say, a smart woman, and the only -- there was -- delaying the sending articles over had no strategic benefit for her. I think it backfired politically. The only political benefit was for Joe Biden, because it now --

TAPPER: You don't think that is why she did it? Do you?

SPIES: Well, I think that -- not the impeachment in general.

TAPPER: You don't think that is why Pelosi delayed it?

SPIES: I can't think of another logical reason.

TAPPER: Really?

(CROSSTALK)

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm going to boil this to less characters, fight, fight, fight. I mean, that is what he is doing with the Democratic contenders. We saw it when Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were quarrelling early this week, President Trump was sowing into that, he likes being in the conflict, which is why I think you hear Democrats both -- you know, in the states and nationally saying, everyone, stop fighting, he's the one we need to be going after.

AYESHA RASCOE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, NPR: Well, this is what he wants, right? He wants to make whoever comes out to be the nominee, he wants to make them extremely toxic, because they know that this is going to be a close race whoever wins the nomination, and this is going to be a close race. So if he can turn off the Democrats or turn off the Bernie supporters --

TAPPER: Sure.

RASCOE: -- and make them think, I'm not going to go out for whoever got the nomination, because Bernie got shafted or whatever, then that helps Donald Trump.

So, yes, I mean, I don't know that Trump is really concerned about fairness to Bernie. But he has said it a lot on the Twitter feed. He always says that Bernie was treated unfairly, and that is what he is saying. TAPPER: Well, he is not the only one. I mean, you know, and I don't

want to defend the president's tweet, I think Nancy Pelosi held the articles, because she was trying to force a more fair process and you can certainly argue that it didn't work.

But I mean, Elizabeth Warren said that the primaries against Bernie were rigged.

HASAN: That is the point that if it were just Bernie being hurt, maybe you can make the case, but it's Warren, it's Klobuchar. There's no evidence that Nancy Pelosi is endorsing Biden. She might be a Klobuchar supporter for all we know. I mean, it doesn't make any sense that they are harming Bernie when it is all of the others.

SPIES: Well, in 2016 they changed the process, because they acknowledged it wasn't fair to Bernie.

RASCOE: Yes. These theories work, or the way that he is talking about this right now as far as the impeachment being unfair to Bernie, it works because people do feel like, and people like the 2016 process, they said it was unfair to Bernie.

TAPPER: Sure.

RASCOE: There will be supporters who feel like, yes, they will feel like this is happening again. So he can take a grain of truth, and then use it to his advantage.

TAPPER: So, assuming that President Trump is just trolling the Democrats. He is also trolling Mike Bloomberg. He called Bloomberg's campaign ads a vanity project, and he is not the only one to think that. Also, Bloomberg is spending five times what Mr. Trump is spending on TV and digital ads right now, $206 million by Bloomberg compared to $40 million by President Trump and his campaign.

When Bloomberg dropped $10 million in a Super Bowl spot, his campaign, Bloomberg's campaign reportedly told "The New York Times", the biggest point is getting under Trump's skin.

So, we're just all trolls now? Is this where we are?

KUCINICH: Billionaires trolling billionaires, just what the Founders intended.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: You don't think he is a billionaire.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But moving on --

HASAN: There is an onion meme, right, that the worst person in the world just made a point you agreed with. Trump is right, it is a vanity project by Bloomberg. He can't win the Democratic nomination. My theory is he's going to run as a third party and get Trump re- elected by running -- you know, doing all this for publicity and vanity and then doing his own thing in an election to the nightmare scenario.

KUCINICH: I do think there is real concern within some areas of Trump's campaign apparatus about the money that Bloomberg can double in this race.

[16:45:02]

TAPPER: Well, he's worth something like $54 billion.

(CROSSTALK)

HASAN: -- race is Michael Bloomberg. Spend it on Senate race --

(CROSSTALK)

KUCINICH: Well, no, literally, you could just like throw it into the fire.

But -- but even -- Bloomberg has said -- and if you believe him -- that he will spend money if he's the nominee or not to defeat President Trump.

TAPPER: Right.

What do you think of Bloomberg's chances? Do you think he could actually get the nomination? Do you think -- why does President Trump talk about him so much, relative to his standing in the polls?

SPIES: Because he spends all his time attacking President Trump, and the president is a counterpuncher, and doesn't like being attacked all the time.

TAPPER: Yes.

One other thing interesting is "The New York Times" editorial board released its December interview with Joe Biden. The editorial board is releasing these interviews. It's very interesting.

Biden telling the editors that it's -- quote -- "not true" that he's ever hinted that he would only serve one term.

But there are Democrats who think that that would be an appealing message in a way because Biden is not young. And if his pledge is basically, I will just bring the country back to normal, it might have some appeal for some people.

RASCOE: It could have some appeal.

I guess the detractors to that would say, why would you say you're going to run for one term? Then, if you get elected, you're a lame- duck.

TAPPER: You have no power, right.

RASCOE: And you have no power, and people aren't going to work with you.

It's going to be hard either way. I think that's a way of trying to address this age issue, trying to address whether he would be able to last for -- or whether he would be able to maintain the energy that he would need for two terms in office.

But I think that that's why he's kind of walking back from that.

KUCINICH: The primary would start the day after the election, even more than it already does, for 2024.

I mean, you would be -- completely take away any sort of power you would have if you did that.

HASAN: But not saying means that he and Bernie would both be in their late 80s when they finished their second term, which a lot of people find hard to digest.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We got more to talk about.

The FBI arresting three men, tying them to a radical white supremacist group, possibly with frightening plans for a Martin Luther King Day rally in Virginia.

That's next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:51:05]

TAPPER: In our national lead now, a state of emergency in Virginia.

Moments ago, Governor Ralph Northam held a confidential security briefing explaining his decision to ban firearms at Monday's gun rights rally in the capital of Richmond.

Fears of a repeat of the deadly 2017 alt-right rally in Charlottesville rose yesterday after three alleged white supremacists with 1,500 rounds of ammunition were arrested by the FBI.

And, as CNN's Alexandra Field reports for us, a law enforcement official says those men were planning on going to attend the event.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Alarming accusations in Washington's backyard, the FBI arresting these three men in Maryland and Delaware, tying them to a radical white supremacist group and alleging they were heavily armed and headed to a pro-gun rally in Virginia, according to law enforcement.

Prosecutors slapping them with multiple firearm and immigration- related charges because one of them, a Canadian citizen, is accused of illegally crossing from Canada into the U.S.

According to court documents, the men had more than 1,500 rounds of ammunition and built their own gun, even bragging: "Oh, oops it looks like I accidentally made a machine gun."

Prosecutors say two of the men smashed their cell phones and threw them in the toilet before agents took them into custody. The FBI says the three are members of an international white supremacy group called The Base, which claims to be training its members to fight in a race war, according to a top counterextremism group.

Prosecutors even showing a picture of one of them training with the group, long guns raised and at the ready. Court documents also state members of The Base use encrypted chat rooms to discuss creating a white ethno-state and attacking African-Americans and Jewish people, as well as building bombs.

The men were planning to attend a pro-gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, being held on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, according to authorities.

The rally coming just days after Virginia lawmakers passed three gun reform bills, has led Governor Ralph Northam to temporarily ban firearms on state capitol grounds and to invoke a temporary state of emergency.

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM (D-VA): State intelligence analysts have identified threats and violent rhetoric similar to what has been seen before other major events, such as Charlottesville.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Jews will not replace us!

FIELD: The memory of the Unite the Right rally still haunting the state more than two years later. It quickly turned violent, leading to a clash between neo-Nazis and counterprotesters and left one woman dead.

NORTHAM: No one wants another incident like the one we saw in Charlottesville in 2017. We will not allow that mayhem and violence to happen here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FIELD: And, Jake, three days before this rally starts, we're already seeing stepped-up security measures around the capital and also a stepped-up police presence.

The groups that are supporting this rally went to court to try to get the governor's orders on that temporary weapons ban knocked down. They did not succeed, ultimately, the judge siding with Governor Northam -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Alexandra Field, thank you so much.

Ranting and raving and reportedly belittling his generals, the new book claiming President Trump flipped out on his war cabinet next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [16:58:58]

TAPPER: In our politics lead, an explosive new book by "Washington Post" reporters Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker is giving color to a 2017 Pentagon meeting between the president and top military officials, where President Trump, according to the book, told them -- quote -- "I wouldn't go to war with you people. You're a bunch of dopes and babies."

He categorized the war in Afghanistan as a loser war, according to the book, telling the decorated military officers to their face: "You're all losers. You don't know how to win anymore."

Reporters painting a grim scene, based on accounts from people in the room. "Trump's stream of venom had taken an emotional toll," they write. "So many people in that room had gone to war and risked their lives for their country. And now they were being dressed down by a president who had not. They felt sick to their stomachs."

The book calls this meeting a turning point in the Trump presidency.

You can tune in this Sunday morning to "STATE OF THE UNION," the guests, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown and impeachment House manager Congressman Jason Crow. It all starts at 9:00 a.m. and noon Eastern.

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

Our coverage on CNN continues right now.