Return to Transcripts main page

The Lead with Jake Tapper

Closing Arguments Underway In Crumbley Manslaughter Trial; U.S. Launches Strikes In Response To Three Soldiers Killed; U.S. Confirms Strikes Against 85+ Targets In Iraq & Syria. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired February 02, 2024 - 16:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Ethan winning the top prize, the big hug from his parents.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Is that all he went home with?

KEILAR: I know, give -- give the kid a toy, come on. Are you surprised there is no like safety exit? Because I feel like Ethan is not the first child that has tried this.

SANCHEZ: A hundred percent. Modern problems require modern solutions. And if you want it that bad, you should not listen to me. That's why I don't have kids, at least yet. I would tell them to do terrible things.

KEILAR: Like it's not the last time.


KEILAR: They need an exit there.

All right. THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER, it's our exit, it starts right now.

SANCHEZ: Have a god one.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: A jury will soon decide if parents can be held criminally liable for their child's violent crimes.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Closing arguments are underway at this very moment in the case of the Michigan school shooter's mother. Will the jurors convict Jennifer Crumbley after prosecutors argued that she was a negligent parent before that 2021 massacre?

Plus, major breaking news in Donald Trumps 2020 election interference trial. Why a judge has now canceled the start date that was just a month away.

And speaking of the former president's many legal issues, what led him to throw papers across a table and storm out of the room during a deposition? Conservative lawyer George Conway is here to tell us all about it.


PHILLIP: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Abby Phillip, in for Jake Tapper today.

We start this hour with our law and justice lead, and the historic trial for the parent of a mass shooter who killed four of his classmates at a Michigan high school in 2021.

Right now, closing arguments are underway in Jennifer Crumbley's trial and she faces four counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection to her sons crying. Earlier today, Crumbley faced and aggressive cross- examination by prosecutors, where she acknowledged that she did not tell school officials that her son was given a gun for Christmas. That same gun was used in the deadly school shooting. Take a listen


MARC KEAST, ASSISTANT PROSECUTOR: You don't deny that you didn't tell school officials, Mr. Hopkins at EGF (ph), about the gun-purchase on the 26?

JENNIFER CRUMBLEY, DEFENDANT: No, we had stated that we went to the shooting range -- shooting range with my son on Saturday.

KEAST: You didn't tell them that you have gotten him that Christmas gifts?

CRUMBLEY: I didn't think it was relevant, no.

KEAST: Do you acknowledge that you didn't go home to look for that firearm after the meeting at the school?

CRUMBLEY: We wouldn't have a reason to.


PHILLIP: CNN's Jean Casarez starts off our coverage with a closer look at today's cross-examination and closing arguments.


KEAST: You're the last adults to have possession of gun?


JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Facing cross- examination, the mother of the Oxford, Michigan shooter, who killed for high school students in 2021 using a gun she and her husband had gifted him just days before. She testified that one month before the shooting, she knew her son was acting depressed after his only friend moved away.

KEAST: You know to be true in November 2021 that he had no peer support. CASAREZ: I don't know what he had in school. He had told me he had

friends in school that he talks to.

KEAST: OK, but you've ever never met them?


KEAST: And he didn't have any clubs at school he was a part of?


CASAREZ: Jennifer Crumbley is charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter. She has pleaded not guilty. The prosecution pressing Crumbley on her actions the day of the shooting. That morning, the school called in Jennifer Crumbley and her husband after discovering a violent drawing their son made on his math worksheet.

KEAST: What do you think of a gun?

CRUMBLEY: I thought it was a gun.

KEAST: Yeah. What about the fact that it is identical to the gun that you've gotten him for Christmas a couple of days before?

CRUMBLEY: I mean, honestly, just like it looks like a gun to me. I didn't even notice.

KEAST: What about the thoughts won't stop, help me? Does that ring out to you?

CRUMBLEY: Yes, that was concerning to me.

KEAST: Blood everywhere and there's a bullet, and actually you were the one who bought the bullets in November 27.

CRUMBLEY: Correct.

KEAST: You later came to learn those bullets were used in the shooting?


CASAREZ: In the meeting at school, Crumbley did not mention the gun purchased four days earlier for their 15-year-old son.

CRUMBLEY: We had stated that we went to the shooting range. I went to search shooting like my son on Saturday.

KEAST: You didn't tell them that you had gotten him that Christmas gifts?

CRUMBLEY: I didn't think it was relevant. No.

KEAST: Do you acknowledge that you didn't go home to look for that firearm after the meeting at the school?

CRUMBLEY: We wouldn't have a reason to.

KEAST: So that the answer then that you acknowledge that?

CRUMBLEY: I acknowledge that.

CASAREZ: Her son used that gun to kill four of his classmates, Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Justin Shilling, and Hana St. Juliana, after that meeting on November 30th, 2021.

The prosecution asking Crumbley whether she neglected her son, pointing to how often she spent time with her horses.


KEAST: Your son could have been with you those three, four, five times a week when you were at the bar.

CRUMBLEY: He could have, yes.

KEAST: And on November the 30th of 2021 at 12:51 pm, you could have been with him

CRUMBLEY: I could have, yes.

KEAST: And you didn't.



CASAREZ (on camera): And the defense attorney, Shannon Smith, is continuing her closing argument right now. She said to the jury, this is a very dangerous case for parents across the country. And if Crumbley, Jennifer Crumbley knew that her son could commit a mass shooting if it was foreseeable, she would have been the first one to stop it.

And, Abby, after the defense finishes, we believe there'll be a rebuttal close, and then the big question is right now, will they start deliberating tonight or wait all the way until Monday?

PHILLIP: On Friday evening, almost 05:00, they have a big decision to make.

Misty Marris is also here with us.

Misty, what do you make of that argument as Jean just laid it out, to parents from the defense, they're ongoing with their closing arguments now, it could be you? Would that work?

MISTY MARRIS, TRIAL ATTORNEY: That's exactly what the defense attorney is doing. This close using argument was really unique because much of it was focused on the defense attorney herself. She said, I could be the one sitting in that chair. If you read my text messages that I exchange with my husband, with my children, if you analyze the lag and time between responding to a text sent by one of them, you would be able to piece together a similar argument that the prosecution is piecing together because there is no context.

And so, she's really personalizing it. And there were parents on that jury -- very, very -- we covered jury selection. There's parents on the jury, and what the defense is doing is trying to have each of those parents reflect on that and see themselves in Jennifer Crumbley.

PHILLIP: It could also backfire, though.

CASAREZ: I mean, it could, right? Because a parent could say, well, I'd never be like that. I'd never be like that.

But here's what the defense is trying to show that, what Misty is saying, a moment in time, which is a text, which can come into evidence now because of technology is just a moment in time. You don't know what happened before. You don't know what happened after. You don't know the circumstances around.

And that's what the defense did by putting Jennifer Crumbley on the stand. They wanted to show why these texts were written in the way they were.

PHILLIP: Did it surprise you that she was the only witness brought by her attorneys?

CASAREZ: For me, no, because that's the star witness in the defense's eyes for the defense. And anyone else could have been cross-examined. It could have opened up a can of worms. So I think they just wanted to stick with her.

MARRIS: Yeah. I don't think they're really needed anybody else because it was all about that. It was laying the context for everything. And you hear in the defense's close, they're focused on the prosecution cherry picking, cherry picking these text messages and issues just out of context and that it doesn't really tell the full story and she's the only one that can tell the full story.

And I think you brought up a really excellent point because there's going to be different perspectives on parenting. Of course, you can be in a group of your best friends and each deal with parenting and different ways. And the question is, how does that play into the legal standard of whether there is a willful disregard of a known risk, and that risk being that Ethan Crumbley would go and do this horrible, horrible heinous act?

PHILLIP: There was a part in your piece, Jean, where the attorneys brought up the picture that Ethan Crumbley had drawn, asked his mother about it and she acknowledged that the thoughts won't stop, help me, rang a bell for her and was concerning, but she didn't do anything about it.

That seems to strike against the argument that any parent would just look at this and say, well, nothing to see here.

CASAREZ: So then let's look at the evidence and here's what the whole story is that she was called along with her husband to the counselor's office. They met. The counselor's office said, we are concerned for his mental state. We're concerned about suicidal ideations. And what do you want to do here? They all just -- they never said he has to go home with you right now. They said he needs to get mental health treatment, was established within 48 hours.

Ethan had to say in it. He said, I want to go back to class. That's how it ended up.

MARRIS: Yeah. And, Jean, they oversold that a little bit. I think the prosecutors in the opening, they'd made it sound like Jennifer Crumbley was told, bring Ethan home and that she said, no, that's not really what the testimony revealed. That testimony came from the school.

So the school also had some power about what to do next in the face of that drawing. And they didn't escalate it to the next level, which would have triggered a search of Ethan's backpack.


MARRIS: So that speaks to causation. That's a factor in this case.

PHILLIP: This is such an important point in all of this. As were trying to assign who is responsible there, now, we have a question of not just the parents, but the school. I mean, how does this case have ripple effects for who all could be brought in to a case like this, Jean?

CASAREZ: Well, I can tell you, the community, the victims' families, Oxford, Michigan, they've been very concerned about the response from the school because the school knew that he was researching bullets.


They knew the English teacher said he's been having violent tendency is in his writings and English class. He was looking at a video very in close in time of someone shooting someone else. They did not tell -- for the majority of those things, they did not tell Jennifer Crumbley what was happening in school.

She had no idea. She knew he was researching bullets. He had just gotten the gun, but she didn't know anything else. A fascinating case and we'll wait to see whether the jury gets it today, whether they will deliberate.

Jean Casarez, Misty Marris, thank you both very much for joining us.

CASAREZ: Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: CNN breaking news.

PHILLIP: And we have some breaking news now. The U.S. has begun its retaliatory strikes in the Middle East after three U.S. service members were killed and dozens of others injured in drone attack earlier this week.

We're going to get straight to CNN's Oren Liebermann. He's over at the Pentagon.

Oren, what we do know about these strikes and where and when they are taking place?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Abby, as we understand that these strikes are now taking place according to U.S. officials in both Iraq and Syria, five days after a U.S. drone strike killed -- I'm sorry, a drone strike killed three U.S. service members in Jordan, the first time we have seen a loss of life as a result of enemy attacks since the beginning of the Gaza war.

President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had both promised a powerful U.S. response, one that might not be measured in hours, but perhaps in days and again, according to two U.S. officials, we are now seeing that response begin in both Iraq and Syria.

It is worth pointing out that the U.S. has certainly carried out strikes in Iraq and Syria over the course of the past couple of months. But this is the first time were seeing them do them both simultaneously, striking targets in Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. has made it clear that coming from the defense secretary and the president, that they ultimately hold Iran responsible for the drone attack that killed three U.S. servicemembers and wounded scores more. Iran arms, supplies, trains, and provides weaponry to the Iranian-backed militias that the U.S. accuses of carrying out the strikes.

So likely as we learn more about the targeting, we will learn more about how the U.S. went after these Iranian backed militias and trying to send a message not only to the militias themselves that the attacks have to stop, but also to Iran to stop arming and training these militias here. So we do certainly expect more information on the strikes as the evening here goes on. But important to note at this point that two U.S. officials tell us, again, that U.S. has begun striking Iraq and Syria.

Now it's worth noting also, Abby, that this might not be a one day operation. We might expect this to continue. U.S. officials have said the response would be multi-tiered or multi-phased. So that means it could go after not only, for example, facilities, but also leadership high-value targets across Iraq and Syria. And a number of other targets, very much expecting a more power powerful series of strikes and actions than we've seen over the course of the past few months in Iraq and Syria, Abby.

PHILLIP: Yeah. And this is a very significant development after months of attacks, more than 160 directed at U.S. assets in the region, Oren. How do these strikes and the geography of it in Iraq and Syria? What does it tell us about where the United States believes these attacks are coming from?

LIEBERMANN: Well, the U.S. has seen attacks from both militias in Iraq and Syria, and that doesn't even get into Houthi attacks from the Iran-backed rebel group in Yemen against international shipping and against U.S. warships there. But the U.S. is as ultimately held Iran responsible.

Still though it was up to the administration whether he wanted to carry out strikes directly in Iran, but that was always considered unlikely because the U.S. has still tried to walk this fine line between sending a more powerful message to these militias, but trying not to start a regional war with Iran. U.S. officials also believed that Iran wasn't interested in a regional war.

So it is a bit of a question of how do you manage to thread that needle and now I suspect over the course of the next few hours, well see what sort of targets sets and how broad these operations are to get a sense of how Biden and the administration made that decision. Who do they go after? Where do they go after them? And to what extent do did they go after them on a series of strikes and operations that may very well last more than just this evening.

PHILLIP: All right. Oren Liebermann, stay close with us as this develops. Thanks for that.

We'll go now to CNN International diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson. He's in Tel Aviv.

Nic, you've been covering this region for decades. This particular conflict in Gaza, which is at the heart of a lot of this for the last several months. Tell us about the significance of the United States making a decision to retaliate and choosing targets in both Iraq and Syria?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, I think he would certainly be viewed by the government here in Israel as absolutely necessary. And certainly understood in this region that unless you hit back hard, then your enemy, in this case the Iran- backed proxy in Iraq doesn't get the message clearly enough.


So I think the expectation in this region would be if the United States is going to have a meaningful impact and really send a message that killing U.S. soldiers is not an option in the future, then it has to be big and bold and hard. And as Oren says, we don't know how far the administration is going to take this.

I think also people will look in this region and say, okay, on the one hand, we hear from the Iranian president saying that he's not really looking for a direct confrontation with the United States and neither is the United States looking for that confrontation with Iran. However, most people in this region was saying were just hold on a minute, Iran actually is already waging a war against the United States' regional interests, its economic interests, its military interests, which are there extensively to stop ISIS gaining a foothold again, Syria and Iraq and Iran is waging a war, therefore against, against the United States' interests.

So albeit through its proxies, Iran's hand is very, very big in their spirit, supplying the weaponry that was used in the strike at Tower 22 in Jordan or whether it's supplying and supporting groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon to the north of here and other groups in Syria and Iraq. So -- and the Houthis as well.

So I think the perception here would be that the Biden administration, if it's going to have an effect, it needs to hit hard. But, of course, it is that delicate balance because events can be misinterpreted, you know, on one hand, were given to believe by one of the Iranian-backed proxies in Iraq that they may have overreached in this strike last week, that wasn't intended to kill U.S. service personnel.

Well, they did. And that's how escalation happens, and that's how people, particularly when you're dealing with these militias that have a mind of their own, that they may have the weapons from Iran, but they have also have a mind of their own that they can overstepped the mark. So, it -- I think tonight, the region will look for the United States to deliver a decisive message, and perhaps in the coming days.

But also that concern is obviously writ large. They don't want to see an escalation, but look, stand in Jordan's shoes. Jordan has been not in this fight until now. And let's say it's not at the moment, but Iran's proxies decided to pick a U.S. target inside of Jordan. I think most Jordanians were sort of unaware that their government hosts a contingent of U.S. forces so close to the border with Syria. It's not a secret, but it's just not just discussed much.

And the Jordanian approach to this strike when it first happened was to try to set it actually happened in Syria. Then, they don't like this. They don't want this, these escalations to be visited upon them. They have a delicate political situation, their country, which is affected by what's happened coming here in Israel.

It's all interconnected. But again, it comes back to that. Iran is prosecuting a war of sorts against the United States just through proxies, not directly.

PHILLIP: Yeah. And as the defense secretary said this week, they can deny it all they want, but without their backing, these attacks would not happen.

Nic, stick around for us as we continue to follow this breaking news story.

I want to go to the White House now where MJ Lee is standing by for us.

MJ, Biden earlier this week said that he had decided what to do in response to this deadly attack on U.S. troops. Now that the strikes have in fact begun, is the White House saying anything at this hour?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The White House so far has not confirmed anything about the strikes that my colleagues have reported on out of the Pentagon.

Abby, it is hard to overstate just what a consequential decision making process this has been for the president following the deaths of those three U.S. service members, following that drone strike in Jordan last weekend, you'll recall that the president immediately convened his national security team and was right away presented with a range of options. And I think the fact that we are seeing these strikes almost a week later sort of speaks to some of the very complicated considerations and the deliberations that have gone into how exactly the U.S. was going to retaliate.

We know that there are two big considerations of the president has been weighing. One, which Nic and Oren both alluded to is making sure that this was a retaliation and strikes that were taking into account the gravity of the situation. Again, the deaths of these three U.S. service members, showing real force and showing the possibility for real deterrence, which so far obviously has not been successful now.


And second, as Nic was talking about, is wanting to prevent a bigger war from being created. The president has talked about this over and over again, different U.S. and White House officials have been clear from day one that the last thing that they want is a bigger regional conflict.

And you know, one of the big questions heading into this moment has been whether the U.S. would be willing to strike assets inside Iran. And we have actually gotten some clear and strong indications from officials, though not definitive, that that probably was not going to be on the table because of how escalatory it would be. You know, when I've asked in the White House briefing room, is that option on the table? The response that I have gotten is we are not looking king for war with Iran.

Now, again, this is just the first step. Officials have been really clear that what we see on day one is not going to be everything that there's going to be sort of multiple stages and multiple iterations of these strikes to come. So we'll see sort of what comes next and what more we can learn about these strikes and what sort of the next steps are going to be? But again, a very consequential decision for the president, very much with these three U.S. service members in mind.

Of course, the president has just returned from that dignified transfer process that was incredibly solemn. And just clarify for everyone, watching around the country, sort of the sacrifice that goes into every U.S. service member that is serving abroad, the dangers that they confront, and that has been really top of mind for the president this week -- Abby.

PHILLIP: Yeah, it's very important note there, MJ.

I don't think it's accidental that we're hearing about this just hours after that dignified transfer was completed.

MJ Lee, standby again for us.

We want to get back to CNN's Oren Liebermann, who's over at the Pentagon.

Oren, talk to us about some of those considerations. The timing of this, it has been more than five days since that attack on U.S. troops but there are so many considerations in all of this. There is weather. There is the return of the bodies from the theater to their families here at the United States.

There's also the war in Gaza and whether or not there is potentially a ceasefire and a return of those hostages on the table.

How are all of those things being weighed?

LIEBERMANN: Of course, and all of those considerations going to not only to target list, but also as you pointed out, the timing on when to carry out the attacks. It's not just the weather. If you're going to carry out a broad array of attacks, then you need to know where they are set up and prepare the logistics for carrying out a number of attacks that would likely require more air assets, fighter jets, perhaps even bombers as well. This takes time to prepare.

And then, of course, you need the environmental factor, you need to, whether to cooperate. So all of this plays into that and we hope to learn more about how those decisions were made over the course of the last five days.

There is also, of course, the pressure here. Not just the political pressure on demands for the Biden administration to carry out some sort of powerful response to that drone attack on Sunday at Tower 22 that killed three U.S. service members, but also the pressure on the need to send a message to Iran to try to restore or enforce American deterrence in the region. That always into the thinking on when to carry out a strike.

Let me pick up also where MJ left off. It wasn't just President Joe Biden was at Dover Air Force Base for the dignified transfer of remains. Much of the chain of command was there as well. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was there, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General CQ Brown, was there, the general of the Army was there.

So even if they're not directly part of the chain of command there, these are part of the Pentagon, part of the military leadership that would want to monitor this in real time to understand what was happening. So, these -- confirmation of these attacks beginning comes just hours after that dignified transfer.

And as the leaders were there paying their solemn respects in a very -- what is a very somber moment there, it is then returned to Washington to oversee these strikes. And it is a chain of events that began on Sunday.

The U.S. obviously has carried out strikes in Iraq and Syria before, but I think everyone was aware that given that the strikes, one of those at least had killed U.S. service members and wounded scores more it would require a much stronger response one, the Pentagon has likely been preparing since the hours after that deadly drone strike, and we see here at beginning to play out in Iraq and Syria.

Administration officials have said it could be multi-phased, multi- tiered, meaning we might just not -- we might not just expect action tonight, but we might see these operations continue over the course of days. That, too, also has factors that affect that you need, once again, the weather to cooperate.

Now that the operation has begun, some of your targets may relocate. You need ISR, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to keep track of all of that, and that all plays into how this will unfold over the course of the next hours and potentially days, Abby.


PHILLIP: Yeah. And as you pointed out, there's been a description of this as multi-tiered, potentially lasting many days. Could we expect that the strikes that begin today might be the most forceful or could they escalate as time goes on? When will we know about the scale of what is occurring right now?

LIEBERMANN: Only I think in real time. Obviously, the Pentagon and the White House are being very careful with what they say. They wouldn't really confirm the timing of any of this until it began, and even now details of how this might look are quite nebulous. They're being vague about what we can expect that this point.

So in terms of what would be the biggest night of strikes, I think that to depends on all the factors we just talked about. All we know at this at this point is that the strikes will be bigger. The U.S. operations will be bigger than what we've seen before. And that could be not just in the number of targets but in the types of targets as well.

In the past, the U.S. is largely struck facilities, weapons, storage sites, command nodes that have gone after some leaders are some senior officers, I should say are senior officials in these militias. But now they could try to go after higher rungs in the leadership of these Iranian backed militias.

Again, it is our expectation that it is unlikely at this point that the U.S. has made the decision to strike inside of Iran. But, obviously, Iran's reach goes through Iraq, through Syria to arm, train and equip these militias. And the U.S. has been very clear, very outspoken about that connection.

PHILLIP: Oren Liebermann, stick around for us.

Again, we're going to go back to CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson. He is in Tel Aviv.

Nic, you have some new information about possible casualties here.

ROBERTSON: We do, coming from Syrian state media. They're reporting that there had been a number of deaths and a number of casualties in one of these strikes. We're also learning from other sources in Syria that the strike was on Al Mayadeen, which is on the Euphrates River, and this is a location actually the United States struck back in November last year when it was trying to tamp down at that time some lower level strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. So this is possibly a facility that has been targeted previously. At

that time when it was reported by the Pentagon back in November, it was listed as an IRGC site, backed site. This is backed by the -- by the Iranian military. And then it was a weapons store back then in November at that site that was hit.

But what we're hearing from the sources now inside Syria, they are saying that three members of an Iranian backed militia inside of Syria have been killed in this strike, that there are other casualties there. I expect we will get more details on this over the coming hours as information becomes clearer.

But first approach, it appears that at least one of the strike sites is one that the United States has hit before, at least once, just a few months ago, and it's probably worth noting that when that site was struck back in November, that did not lead these Iranian backed militias in Syria to back off on their attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria.

So, how -- how much heavier it will need to be the strike on this side and those other strikes to force a desist really isn't -- really isn't clear at the moment. But as far as we know, so far three people from an Iranian backed militia in Syria, dead. There are multiple others injured. And this is at Al Mayadeen, which is on the Euphrates River, perhaps 40 or 50 miles inside of Syria from Iraq. It's a main route from Iraq through -- into Syria that's used by these particular Iran- backed groups.

PHILLIP: All right. Nic Robertson, stick around for us.

And for those who are just joining, the U.S. airstrikes in response to a deadly attack on U.S. troops in Jordan have begun at this hour. We are following this breaking news story, learning now about some potential casualties in northeast Syria.

I want to go now to CNN chief international security correspondent, Nic Paton Walsh.

Nic, the U.S. spent days telegraphing this and we are now learning as we were just reporting, that one of the strikes that has occurred may have been a target that has been targeted before.

Why then do you think it has taken so long to get to this point?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think there's a delicate balance here. The White House is trying to thread here between showing adequate aggressive response towards the death of three American soldiers, probably the largest single casualty incident in that region since possibly the fall of Kabul.


But at the same time, not acting in such a way that it forces a spiral of escalation, that's what the telegraphing has been about. It is pretty abnormal frankly to wait quite so long from an incident like that to actually acting in this particular way, particularly if we're seeing the areas being targeted are places where frankly we've known pro-Iranian militias have been almost some cases for a decade.

Originally, there as part of the Syrian civil war defending the Syrian regime. And then a bulwark defending that same area during the fight against ISIS, U.S. troops still there potentially assisting the Kurdish allies in that fight as well, and maintaining U.S. influence there.

And so, there's been this complex task that Biden administration has had to try and tackle with which is doing enough to try and deter, but not causing a spiral of escalation. Now the telegraphing enables the Iranian militia to potentially evacuate. They've been indications in local media, they've been doing that over the place past days to be sure perhaps that key personnel leaders perhaps are not in those locations.

Of course, the U.S. is able to potentially follow people to different locations. They may have been some intelligence gathering over the past days associated with that relocation and movement. There's another point to in this very volatile region as well, I think the U.S. would be mindful well, to not have their actions mistaken as perhaps the Israelis are other militaries in the region as well. And there perhaps by mistake spark retaliation against the wrong people.

So we've seen a lot of signaling about this abnormal amount frankly, I think it's fair to say that will lower the effectiveness or the harshness of the response they're able to deliver against these pro Iranian militia, I should say, we haven't seen all of it yet. This could be the beginning. We could see this go on for hours. It could broaden potentially in the targets and territory that an indeed aims at.

But I think it's a sign here, really, that Iran clearly does not want a full scale confrontation with the United States. People will be asking quite how one of their proxies ended up in a situation, where they took three American lives. Was that sanctioned or was that them stepping out of lane perhaps, but clearly as well to the United States here heading into an electoral season, very keen to not be dragged into larger conflagration in the Middle East.

And so, this interesting week of signaling of the Iranian saying they don't want a larger war just in the last 24 hours, but they'd stand up to bullies that came right from the top, frankly, from the president almost the top. So a difficult dance here, but I think the key thing to take away at this stage if what were seeing is a reflection of the extent of the retaliation, the U.S. is going to take care that they're not going to strike the Iranian mainland problem. They're not going to go after the Iranian leadership on Iranian territory. Then this may be, I think what the Biden administration feels. Is it enough of a message of deterrence, but not so much that they see escalation.

Remember, there's been so much concern over the past three to four months that the events of Gaza could indeed cause things to spiral around the entire region that hasn't happened at this point. Yes, we are seeing low level confrontations and flash points are merging, but that larger fear of a regional war with the U.S. being dragged in hasn't occurred. And I think what we're seeing tonight so far, its early days, maybe a

bit to try and keep things calm.

Secretary Blinken imminent in the region again for his fifth trip but very keen here I think that Biden administration to do enough, but not so much they widen the problem -- Abby.

PHILLIP: And, Nick, before you go though, I think a lot of people are watching this and saying, Iran has allowed its proxies to escalate this conflict, why the kid gloves from the Biden administration when they've made it clear that they're not ready to get into a direct confrontation. Why are they so concerned about not striking back directly?

WALSH: I think ultimately it opens a Pandora's box of that entire region. Iran has more proxies. It could use to attack U.S. targets around the region. It could potentially use one of its main proxies, Hezbollah, to the north of Israel to spark confrontation on the northern border there. That's the ultimate nightmare scenario, frankly, I think for many Israeli citizen as well as civilians in Lebanon as well, if that were to, finally, after months of tension turned into a full-scale conflict, it's going to impact the price of oil. It's going to lead claims, most likely by Joe Biden's opponents that they would have handled the situation better.

He's already facing a lot of heat for how he's handled the Israel Gaza conflict so far. So I think were seeing here a Biden administration mindful, certainly of their own domestic concerns and realizing that all that's going to have to play out in the region. They have to keep this under control. Iran, it seems even some nuclear experts suggesting lessening their enrichment -- you know, there's suggestions they're heading towards a nuclear weapon, slowing there enrichment perhaps some suggested because they didn't want to further provoke the Americans.


It's unclear really what's happening, but on the surface, I think both sides here don't want a wider conflict and that suits them both right now. So tonight maybe about messaging about how tough they're going to be, doing it enough that people feel perhaps the strikes have been more intense than they have been. It's early days yet, but it's a fascinating night here, frankly that I think exposes the limitations of how much the U.S. can do back against Iran, but potentially also to makes it quite clear I think that the Iranians absolutely not interested in a wider conflict here, too, Abby.

PHILLIP: Yeah. As you said, the early hours of this retaliation here by the United States.

Nick, standby for us. I want to go now to retired U.S. Army Major Mike Lyons and also retired Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who served as the supreme allied commander of NATO in Europe.

Major Lyons, in your experience, do these initial strikes target leadership or supply lines? What exactly? I mean, we've heard the Defense Department saying they need to, they want to further degrade the capabilities of these groups.

MAJ. MIKE LYONS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, I think given the fact that it's been five days since the attack in the base there, I think they're going to be more strategic and I thought they were likely going after leadership first. You heard Oren earlier talk about a lot of different options that they had, but I wouldn't be surprised.

However, if not getting leaders in this kind of strike and they're going after their capability to wage war, and that is the logistical supply lines that exist in these trains that run from Iran through Iraq and then into Syria. So that's what it sounds like. This first target was, it was more on logistics. Perhaps, it was a leader that we've been signaling to have some of those leaders leave.

But there's still tremendous capacity that the Shia militia groups have within Iraq and within Syria and the like. So it looks like this one though, is logistical base, but I still would not be surprised and the overall campaign that they're going to go after some of the leaders of these Shia militia groups.

PHILLIP: And, General Breedlove, this long wait five days to retaliate conceivably could have given these malicious time to relocate, to relocate themselves, and their supplies. For the United States, how do they deal with the fact that this is basically potentially a moving target here?

GEN. PHILLIP BREEDLOVE, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): Well, first of all, thanks for having me on, and we should have struck much quicker in my mind, but as we got close to the dignified return of our soldiers, I'm glad that our government didn't confuse that with all the reporting that you all are doing now. It's important that we keep our eyes on the sacrifice of these soldiers and having that trounced upon by the initial flurry of news of the attacks, I think would have been bad.

So in the big game, we should have struck sooner. But as we got close to this stigma, dignified return, we need to get after it. I think a couple of things that are being missed here. We heard that we want to degrade their capabilities, reduce their capabilities. This there the other -- I think that's what we're doing.

But I really think what we need to be doing is messaging Iran. We need to make it very straightforward with the Iran that their attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East will not be tolerated. And so, as we watch the White House roll out this multi-tiered approach that they've talked so much about in phases, et cetera, we need to keep ourselves focused on how those attacks are messaging Iran. Are these attacks impactful to things that Iran prizes or finds important to them in this ongoing low level war with the United States that they have been carrying through their proxies?

PHILLIP: Major Lyons and General Breedlove, I want you both to standby for us because we have some new information that we want to get your reaction to.

Let's go back now to Nic Robertson in Tel Aviv.

Nic, you're learning more about the location of these strikes. What are you learning?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yeah. And it's quite informative because what it tells us that the strikes places that have been struck before the 12th of November last year was when they were last struck by the United States is as part of the sort of weapons supply route by the IRGC. Iran's top military body, Abu Kamal, just across the border from Iraq into Syria on the Euphrates River, then Al Mayadeen, which is perhaps 20 or 30 miles further up the Euphrates River, but still on that same major highway. And then Deir Ezzor, again, the same distance further up the river, again, on that same major highway.


So strategic places, if you will, along -- think about most of the area. It's desert. It's open. There're on that many highways across it. There are one or two, but this is the major highway from Iraq into Syria to places that weapons can be moved and more easily moved on big trucks, on larger highways.

So these appear to be at the moment without knowing if there were any leadership figures that were killed in these strikes, it does appear to be, A, places that were hit before, but, B, places that might've been part of the weapons supply routes. And think about it this way, too, you know, Iran is supplying weapons not just -- you know, not just threw a rock to there a proxies inside Syria, but also many of those weapons take different routes and transit across Syria to Iran's proxies like Hezbollah inside of Lebanon.

So these are -- these places may have a lot of weapons and ammunition stored there. But again, because of all the signaling, because of the time delay, we don't know what's been -- what's been moved to run but these of course, because we know there have been struck before, well have been under intense surveillance. So one would imagine that if ammunition stores had been moved around, then than the targeting would have adjusted for that?

It may well adjust in the coming days when the assessment is made, what are the effects of these strikes? What do we see moving after these strikes? How can we follow up on that where of people gone, all these sorts of things that becomes fluid and it becomes as the Pentagon and the White House had initially outlined. But this won't be a one and done that there may be -- likely will be follow-ups.

PHILLIP: All right. Nic Robertson, we'll be back with you as this hour progresses.

Let's get back now to CNN's Oren Liebermann over at the Pentagon.

Oren, you also have some new reporting about how the strikes are unfolding as Nick reports on those sites where we believe the strikes are happening at this moment

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We're learning more at this point about what sort of platforms were used to carry out these strikes on targets in Iraq and Syria. And they are telling. We've heard from defense official that B1 -- B1 lancer bombers were used as part of the attack.

Now, that's significant because past attacks in Iraq and Syria over the course of the past several months have been carried out by F15 and F16 fighter jets. Those platforms, those jets can still carry a punch, but they are, of course, limited because they are significantly smaller airplanes than what you're seeing on the screen right here, the B1 bomber. This is one of three of the largest bombers in the U.S. inventory, along with the B2 and the B52, the B1, able to carry a much greater punch, than the much smaller fighter jet.

So multiple B1s used as part of the attack on targets in Iraq and Syria gives you a sense of the scope and sort of the range of the attack itself. It suggests a much broader attack as we wait here for information on specific targets that were hit. It suggests a bigger attack. And as was effectively promised by the Biden administration, a more powerful attack, one that can be carried out and sustained over a period of time.

So again, it is telling that the U.S. used a number of B1 bombers as part of this attack, as opposed to the smaller F15, F16 fighter jets. We've seen strike targets in Iraq and Syria. We've also seen F18 fighter jets from the Navy target sites in Yemen.

Again, the B1, a larger platform, able to carry more bombs, frankly, able to carry a heavier payload and that speaks to the intent of the attacks here. A much stronger response to the ongoing attacks from Iranian militias against U.S. forces, Iranian-backed militias, I should say, than we've seen in the past. That was the intent of the administration, and that's certainly the platforms used here that B1 bomber among the platforms use certainly speaks to that, Abby.

PHILLIP: That's very significant, Oren. Standby for us.

I want to go back now to retired U.S. Major Mike Lyons and also retired Air Force General Philip Breedlove.

Major Lyons, on this latest reporting, the B1 Lancer bomber, and on top of that, we're learning three potential sites that are on a supply line for these militias. What does that tell you about what is being targeted here and how significant it might be when it comes to this question of how much they are able to degrade the capabilities of these groups?

LYONS: Well, it sounds like it's more than just a punch in the nose, which some attacks we've made before, were just signaling, you know, kind of one and done. It sounds like they really wanted to go after these logistical supply lines, like we were talking about and destroy them -- destroy that chain that existed goes from Iran through Iraq into Syria.

And when you use this kind of platform, you're going to get the precision of the target you want to hit, as well as much more mass and capacity with regard to what's going to take up the target.

[16:45:10] So I think from -- again, from a strategic perspective, which is what this has to be aside from the messaging back to Iran, it's got -- has to get the results it wants to get. And so, by using the B1, by increasing the size of the attack along the targets, Euphrates maybe dropping bridges, maybe doing other things to hurt, it looks like the original -- the initial signal is to go after these supply lines of go after the equipment and take away their capability of waging a war.

PHILLIP: And, General Breedlove, you were talking earlier about the need to send a clear message to Iran here. That's overarching this whole operation. When you hear the targets, and also as our Nic Robertson was reporting that these are targets that probably struck before. They are very well-known. Do you think that that achieves the objective you laid out?

BREEDLOVE: Well, may I just add a thing on the B1 that could be important and that is the aircraft not only carries a lot of weapons, but it can carry multiple different types of weapons. And on all of those weapons, it can have very fuses, which gives it an extreme flexibility in how it attacks a target with what size of bomb and what type of fusing.

As to the question you just this gave, we have to give a little credit to our CentCom folks if they went back after those targets, we would hope that that would mean that those targets had been repopulated with equipment or types of things that we wanted to strike. I wouldn't -- I wouldn't think that we would just go back and strike a previously struck target if there wasn't something there a value.

But your most important question to me is -- is this the kind of target that's going to message Iran, all roads start in Iran, all roads go back to Iran and that's the point of what were doing here, is to get them to stop.

And so if this is the first wave, my guess is that we would find more consequential targets in the successive waves that we've been told to expect.

PHILLIP: All right, Major Lyons, General Breedlove standby for me.

Let's get back to CNN's Oren Liebermann over at the Pentagon.

Oren, you've just gotten a statement from Central Command, what are they saying today

LIEBERMANN: We have the first official statement from U.S. Central command, and I'm going to read this in full. And this will give us a sense of the array of the attack here.

At 04:00 p.m. Eastern Time, U.S. Central Command forces conducted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds Force and affiliated militia groups. U.S. military forces struck more than 85 targets with numerous aircraft to include long-range bombers flown from the United States. The airstrikes employed more than 125 precision munitions. The facilities that were struck included commanding control operations, centers, intelligence centers, rockets and missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicle storages and logistics and munitions supply chain facilities of militia groups and their IRGC sponsors who facilitated, facilitated attacks against U.S. and coalition forces.

So, quite a bit of info in that statement there from CentCom. And it is very much what we suspected. We'll start with the 85 targets there. That is an order of magnitude, if not more than the strikes were used to seeing in Iraq and Syria. So when we talked about more powerful, multi-phased, multi-tiered, that's what we're seeing here, in what is essentially the first strikes a very broad range of not only targets in terms of what they went after, but also the number of targets they went after in.

This wasn't simply going after weapons storage facilities or other sorts of storage facilities used by these militias. It is clearly an attempt to do serious damage to their ability to carry out these attacks and to carry out command and control, to effectively be able to function here going after such a number of targets over what it appears are not just one militia, but it looks like the U.S. went after a number of these militias. The U.S. has said it wasn't just one group, Kataib Hezbollah, or the al-Nujaba movement that targeted U.S. forces, but a number of these groups.

And at least from what we're seeing in the Central Command statement, that is what it seems they went after once again in going after command-and-control centers, intelligence centers, the types of weapons they use, logistics sites. So this was a much bigger attack than what we have seen in the past. Now the question is, how much further does this go? And do, do we see this play out over subsequent days here?

PHILLIP: And, Oren, the statement that you just read laid out some timing here, 04:00 p.m. We're now about 15 minutes past that. Given that there is a statement, given that they've specified their targets, do you get the sense that this phase today, perhaps for right now, it has concluded or is this still ongoing


LIEBERMANN: It's a good question and one will only again find out in real-time as were able to talk to our sources here and see how this plays out. It looks like this part of the operation has concluded that does not mean the bigger set of plans here has come to an end.

I think -- I think even Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was asked yesterday about why go with a multi-phased operation right at the end of his press briefing and he said, the militia groups don't see this as a one day operation and effectively hinted it, neither do we. He said they have a lot of capabilities. I have a lot more.

And in this statement here, you see them going after a lot of capabilities.

PHILLIP: Yeah, quite a lot. Oren, thank you very much. Stick around for us.

Let's get back to Nic Robertson in Tel Aviv.

Nic, were hearing something now from one of those Iranian-backed militias that was blamed for this attack on U.S. troops. So what are they saying?

ROBERTSON: Yeah. So, this is an Iranian backed militia inside Iran. Kateab Hezbollah, not perhaps directly involved in this, but they are essentially, organically the same -- the same sort of people with the same backing from Iran, doing the same sort of thing, proxies for Iran.

And this is -- Kateab Hezbollah is one of the biggest the pro-Iranian militia groups inside of Iraq. And they posted on their Telegram channel just minutes -- just a few minutes before the missile because impacted in Syria, they posted on their Telegram channel awaiting orders.

So clearly they are waiting to hear from higher up their chain of command and the implication here would seem to be Iran, we can't know that, but they are proxies of Iran. It appears they're waiting to hear from their sponsors about what to do next. They're clearly indicating that they were aware that there was all the signaling, that they were aware that this was going to happen in just minutes before saying, we're waiting for our set of orders on what we should do, how we should respond.

PHILLIP: Nic, stand by.

Let's get to MJ Lee at the White House.

MJ, you're getting some new information also from your sources in the White House. What are you learning?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, a senior administration official confirms to CNN that the U.S. strikes will not strike inside Iran. The strikes that just began, which we expect to take course over multiple stages, will only focus on assets outside of Iran.

Now, we had expected that that might be the case. We had gotten some strong indications over the last several days that the U.S. would not end up striking inside Iran because of how escalatory that would be. But we are again getting confirmation that the U.S. the strikes that are to come will not be striking inside of Iran. You know, U.S. officials, I'm also told have known for days that tonight would be the night that strikes with first begin and just in terms of timing, and I think this is important.

I'm also told by this official that there was no coordination as far as the dignified transfer of those three U.S. service members we saw earlier today that the timing really took place on two separate tracks. And as far as the timing of these first strikes go, there were of course, a number of considerations that were taken into account, including something like whether.

Now, we know that the president is being updated. He is spending time right now in his Wilmington home. He has known again for several days that the strikes would begin tonight, and he is now being updated by his national security team.

But again, Abby, the important news here is that the U.S. are confirming that the strikes that are to come that are playing out right now, they will not take place inside of Iran.

PHILLIP: All right. MJ, thank you for that great reporting. Standby for us as well.

Let's bring in former U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Secretary Esper, lets start where MJ just gave us that information. Senior U.S. officials in the White House saying Iran will not be on the list of targets. If you are in the Pentagon, as you have been, what is just short of that? That would send an adequate message in your view to Iran?

MARK ESPER, FORMER U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Sure. Look, I don't think anybody was expecting them to strike targets within Iran. That's something I would not take off the list because I argued that we should be strike targets outside Iran first and I was pleased to see that in the statement by U.S. Central Command, that they said they did attack Quds forces sites, that Quds Force is a special element of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

And so, I thought that was the most important part of the statement, followed by the fact that they hit 85 targets, which is fairly robust. So look what matters now is what because the outcome of the strikes. We'll have a better battle damage assessment tomorrow morning.

Their time once the night lifts, and we can see what happened and then what will be the responses by Iran and/or its militia groups. Now, part of that the battle damage assessment will be due the targets need to be hit again.


Those intelligence pick up that militia groups, militia leaders ran and they're hiding somewhere else. So, there's a lot more to play out here. But again, I was not surprised that they did not strike targets within Iran.

PHILLIP: So based on what we've been hearing this hour about these strikes, you just talked about the scope of it, 85 targets. But our sources also telling us they potentially have struck supply lines along the Euphrates.

Do you have a sense of how significant that is for these Iran-backed militias?

ESPER: It's significant in a sense that striking supply depots, supply lines, warehouses launch sites, things like that will degrade and disrupt the ability of these militia groups to continue out addition -- to continue additional tax against us forces for some limited amount of time. That won't necessarily deter them from taking further attacks. I think that depends more on the United States willingness to continue to threaten Iranian assets, things that Iran values, to include targets within Iran itself.

So that's why having a better understanding what was really struck this evening by U.S. forces against -- again, Iranian targets would be important.

PHILLIP: So take us inside of the room here, at the Pentagon and the White House, the president and the defense secretary clearly deliberating for some days about these decisions. What are they weighing?

ESPER: Yeah. Look, it's both a science and an art. What we would typically do, I would do, is tee up a number of options for the president that would speak to the complexity of the attack, the estimated damage done, the number of Iranians or militia men killed and present a very factual basis. And then it would be the kind of the best estimate from DOD and from the State Department and from the intelligence community with regard to how the militia groups and the Iranians might react.

And from there, the president gets to pick the option he wants based on all that input. Again, I suspect that they decided that they didn't want to strike within Iran. That makes sense to me, but knew they need to do more than just hit the militia groups. So that's why I think targeting the Quds Forces was a smart move. What we need to now as to what degree they struck them, how many targets, how many Iranians were killed as a result, but that's a discussion that goes on within the room is what will the impact be? What will we expect from the Iranians?

So it'll be important to see what happens when the sun comes up tomorrow morning in Iraq and Syria.

PHILLIP: Yeah, into to that point, its been clear from the beginning, they don't expect this to be a one and done. They don't expect this to be just today and even though as we were discussing with our Oren Liebermann, it could very well be that this phase might be at a pause point.

Over the next couple of days, what could those targets look like? Do you expect that there could be officials -- personnel targeted, not just supplies?

ESPER: Absolutely. I think all the above. Again, first things first is what we'll get a better battle damage assessment of how well destroyed the first primary targets were if they need to be hit again, they likely will be hit again. But then you start looking at secondary targets.

And then of course, your calculus changes based on how the militias or Iran response, if they want to respond, you know, one-to-one, if you will, then I think we ratchet up our game and we go to the next level of response. You know, you could go after U.S. -- I'm sorry, Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. You could go after oil platforms. But I think -- look, this is a very important moment in the president's administration. In his three-plus years now in office, it's up there with the Afghan withdrawal. It's up there with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

How he responds today, and in the following days will be important. It will dictate the course of how Iran and the militia groups will deal with the United States over the next several months, up to and through the election.

PHILLIP: Critical point there. I want to get your take, though, when we talk about escalation and the risk of this becoming a broader conflict, there's -- the United States is retaliation. Could there be our retaliation against this retaliation? And what could that look like? What could the danger be for U.S. troops and assets in the region?

ESPER: Oh, sure, look, absolutely. Iran retaliated when after the Trump administration, we took out General Soleimani. Remember, they struck a U.S. airbase and with ballistic missiles and then they decided they said they had enough.

So look, they could respond against us targets more forcefully in a region, or they could respond against U.S. targets in some of our partner countries such as UAE, Saudi Arabia, et cetera.

So, you know, one thing that folks aren't talking about that's important is that the Arab states were watching very closely what happens, not just with regard to targets destroyed, but also with regard to how boldly the administration took action and how Iran responds. And so they want to get a good assessment of where this administration will stand, but also what may what are the consequences for them as this plays out over the coming days and weeks.


PHILLIP: That's right. A major story and a major moment as you laid out for President Biden.

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, thank you very much.

We are following this breaking news of a major retaliation strike by the United States against Iranian-backed militias. We will be following this right here on CNN.

I will see you back here at 10:00 p.m. Eastern tonight on "CNN NEWSNIGHT".

CNN's coverage continues right now with Alex Marquardt, who's in for Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM".