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State of the Union

Interview With U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper; Interview With Presidential Candidate Tom Steyer; Interview With Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). Aired 9-10a ET

Aired January 12, 2020 - 09:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST (voice-over): War powers? President Trump claims a new reason for the Soleimani strike.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They were looking to blow up our embassy.

TAPPER: As even some Republicans in Congress aim to block any further U.S. attacks.

SEN. MIKE LEE (R-UT): I still haven't had the questions answered.

TAPPER: Why does the administration's rationale keep shifting?

I will speak to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Republican Senator Mike Lee next.

And can I get a witness? Speaker Pelosi says she will hand over the articles of impeachment this week, but did Democrats gain any leverage, or will Leader McConnell be able to block witnesses from testifying?

TRUMP: I did nothing wrong. They don't even know what the hell is going on.

TAPPER: Plus: closing arguments. Six Democratic hopefuls prepare to take the CNN debate stage Tuesday, as one candidate resurges in Iowa and another surprises with early state polling.

TOM STEYER (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I want to have a sweeping victory, honestly.

TAPPER: But have voters made up their minds? An exclusive with presidential candidate Tom Steyer.


TAPPER: Hello. I'm Jake Tapper in Washington, where the state of our union is busy.

The U.S. Senate is preparing to move forward with the president's impeachment trial. 2020 Democrats are gearing up for the very last debate before Iowa voters make their choice on February 3.

But, this morning, the White House is mired in the fallout from the U.S. strike that killed Iran's top general. While the two nations appear to have pulled back from the brink of war, here in the U.S., questions about the rationale for the strike on General Qasem Soleimani are only growing.

President Trump now says Soleimani had been preparing to target four U.S. embassies, including the one in Baghdad. That is a threat several lawmakers said they were not told about in a briefing by top Trump administration officials.

And it comes amid persistent questions about just how imminent the threat from Soleimani was.

Iran is facing a different kind of fallout. Protesters risked their very lives and took to the streets in Iran to protest the regime lying to them about shooting down a passenger plane and much more.

Stunningly, they are chanting "Death to the supreme leader" there.

The president tweeted in Farsi his support to the -- quote -- "brave, long-suffering people of Iran," and this morning is warning Iran's leader -- quote -- "Do not kill your protesters."

Joining me now to discuss all of this is Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Secretary Esper, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it, as always.


TAPPER: So let's start with -- President Trump said on Friday the Iranians were plotting to target for U.S. embassies, including the one in Baghdad.

Other administration officials say the intelligence was not that specific.

Was there specific intelligence that the Iranians were plotting to attack four U.S. embassies?

ESPER: Well, let me say one thing up front first, to your viewers, to the American people. The United States is safer today than we were just a few short weeks ago.

Why? Because we eliminated the world's foremost terrorists, Qasem Soleimani, who had the -- had the blood of hundreds of American service members on his hands.

Secondly, we restored deterrence with Iran. And we did so without American casualties.

And, third, we reassured our friends and allies in the region that the United States will stand up and defend our interests. And I want to thank all of our brave service members who are deployed

for what they did, for their brilliance in executing this very important mission.

TAPPER: OK, what about the intelligence? Was there specific intelligence the Iranians were plotting to target four U.S. Embassies?

ESPER: There was intelligence that they had a -- there was an intent to target the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

What the president said with regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well. And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region. I believe that as well, as did other national security team members.

That is why I deployed thousands of additional paratroopers to the region to reinforce our embassy in Baghdad and to reinforce other locations throughout the region.

TAPPER: Well, Soleimani was a horrible guy, and he killed a lot of innocent people, and he killed a lot of U.S. soldiers. There's no question about any of that.


ESPER: For 20-plus years.

TAPPER: But the question is not whether he posed a threat in an existential way, because he did. He -- I mean he'd been doing it for years.

But was there specific intelligence that he was plotting to attack four U.S. embassies? Did you see any intelligence like that?

ESPER: I'm not going to discuss intelligence matters here on the show.

Let me just say...

TAPPER: The president did, though.

ESPER: He was -- it's the president's prerogative.

But what the president said was, he believed. He said he could have been targeting, all those things that I believe as well, that the national security team believes as well.

The important thing is this. Soleimani orchestrated, resourced, directed the attacks, escalating up to the December 1 that killed an American. He orchestrated the siege on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and he was planning this much broader plot in multiple countries that would be bigger in scale, and that likely would have taken us to open hostility with Iran.

In fact, a very, very senior intelligence community official said to us that the risk of inaction is greater than risk of action. To me, that is very compelling.

TAPPER: The president has discussed probably that he believed -- and a belief is not the same thing as there was evidence. I mean, you could believe that Soleimani would have attacked the Eiffel Tower. That's not necessarily based in evidence.


I mean, he could have been. He posed a threat.

ESPER: Well, there was evidence -- there was evidence that part of the attack would be against the United States Embassy.

TAPPER: In Baghdad?

ESPER: In Baghdad.

TAPPER: But what about the four embassies?

ESPER: I'm not going to discuss intelligence.

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

TAPPER: He said it was his belief.

But, I mean, I guess the important matter here is, look, no one is disputing that Soleimani posed an existential threat to innocent people. But the president came out and said that there was -- that he believed there was a threat to four embassies

Were those four embassies alerted that there was a threat to them?

ESPER: All -- all the embassies were alerted. That's why I deployed additional troops to the region.

And let me say this much, Jake. I'm glad we're having this discussion today, because I'd rather be here discussing this topic with you than going up to Dover Air Force Base, and standing there while flag-draped coffins come home, and I have to explain to husbands and wives, sons and daughters why their service member died, when I had information that could have prevented that from happening.

TAPPER: But I guess the point is, what information?


ESPER: The information that he was orchestrating an attack.

TAPPER: But orchestrating something, but you don't know what it was.

ESPER: He was orchestrating attack, likely -- which would include an attack on the United States Embassy.

TAPPER: In Baghdad?

ESPER: In Baghdad.

It was going to occur...


TAPPER: But did the Baghdad embassy know that there was a threat to them?

ESPER: Absolutely, because, of course, we -- they were already under siege by Soleimani.


TAPPER: But a new threat, I mean, a different threat?

ESPER: The embassy was constantly watching the attacks, the threat streams coming at them, our commanders on the ground. I deployed hundreds of additional soldiers. We had Apache helicopters in the air to deter attacks and prepare to defend.

We had armed drones in the air to do that. Our goal is to protect the American people.


But many members of Congress from both parties have said that none of the briefings mentioned threats to four U.S. embassies. Why is President Trump telling this to FOX News, but the administration is not briefing Congress on this threat of four embassies, unless there was actually no specific intelligence that there was a threat to four embassies?

ESPER: The president never said there was specific intelligence to four different embassies.

TAPPER: He said he believed it.

ESPER: And they -- and I believed it too.


TAPPER: Four embassies? You believed that?

ESPER: What -- what -- I believe there were threat to more than -- to multiple embassies. That's -- that's why we reinforced embassies with additional troops.

TAPPER: Well, here's the thing. Here's why it matters, because it might sound to some people that were just talking -- like, obviously, Soleimani was a bad guy and he killed innocent people. We know that.

But the question about whether or not the intelligence is what the president is saying is not a new debate.

Remove yourself -- remove this president from the discussion. You have you have been around, as have I. Take a look at what Congressman Justin Amash, former Republican, now independent from Michigan, tweeted on Friday -- quote -- "When President Trump lies or embellishes on a topic this sensitive, and administration officials then parrot his claims to avoid drawing his ire, the situation becomes extremely dangerous for our troops and the American people."

Is President Trump embellishing?

ESPER: I don't believe so.

Look, the bottom line is, we had exquisite intelligence that can only be shared with the Gang of Eight. So I understand the frustration of many members of Congress, but was shared with that Gang of Eight.

I spoke to one of the briefers. One of the briefers told me was that most, nearly all the members of that Gang of Eight believed that the intelligence was persuasive as well and that it should not be shared with the broader membership because of the concerns that it could be released, reveal our sources and methods.

At the end of the day...


TAPPER: President Trump said it on TV on Friday.

ESPER: ... Soleimani was planning an attack, a broader attack against multiple sites, to include embassy, and at least the United States Embassy in Baghdad, and that it was going to result in open hostilities.

Taking him off the battlefield, a legitimate military target, was the right thing to do.

TAPPER: Well, first of all, what you're saying is not the same thing that President Trump said.

President Trump said he believed there were four U.S. embassies targeted. You're talking about something else, that you -- one embassy and maybe a broader threat to others.

Second of all, you're saying that you couldn't tell something to Congress that President Trump was willing to say to FOX News. And that doesn't really make a lot of sense.

ESPER: We briefed Congress, the Gang of Eight, who are the legitimate representatives of the broader Congress in affairs like this, when you have exquisite intelligence. They were briefed.

I'm not going to go into details of what they were briefed, partly because I wasn't there.

TAPPER: Let's talk about the word imminent.

You have not, as far as I can tell, used the word imminent to describe these attacks. Several other administration officials have.

Do you think the threat -- the threat was -- you believe the threat was real? Do you believe it was imminent?

ESPER: In -- in -- in my definition, yes.

I -- I think that the attack was days away. He had a -- he had a proven track record of executing attacks and killing Americans. It was going to be on multiple sites. It was described as being much bigger.

I think, for all those reasons, and the fact that a senior intelligence official said the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action.

TAPPER: Right.

ESPER: Compelling for me.

TAPPER: That's what Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA, said, according to "The New York Times," so you're basically confirming that.

So, here's a question for you. What you're describing sounds like an all-out declaration of war by Iran. If Iran were to attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and also stage this widespread attack, and you believe it was going to happen within days, would that not be Iran launching the first shot in a war between the United States and Iran?


ESPER: Well, look, Iran has been attacking the United States through its proxy militias for 40 years now.

TAPPER: Sure, of course, but on a lower level, right?

ESPER: And, look, go back to last summer.

We had to -- I had to deploy 14,000 additional soldiers to the region since May. They shot down an armed drone. They were striking Saudi Aramco oil fields in the fall. They were seizing tankers.

The -- the scale and scope of attacks against our forces in the -- in the late fall had escalated considerably.

TAPPER: Absolutely.

But you're describing a more grandiose, if you will pardon to use of the word grandiose, a wider spread, and more shocking and more bloody attack than the ones you just described. I mean, would that not be Iran declaring war on the United States, if -- if what you're saying is accurate?

ESPER: Well, it -- it could be. That's why I think the compelling action was to disrupt the attack by taking out Soleimani, a known terrorist leader of a terrorist organization who was on the ground meeting with another terrorist leader. Taking him out disrupted the attack. It -- it -- it also reset deterrence with Iran and it made clear that we weren't going to tolerate this type of behavior.

TAPPER: You know how Iran does this.

When the IDF took out the head of Hezbollah, a month later, Iranians are suspected in killing a lot of innocent people at a Jewish center in Argentina. And then, two years later, they did it again.

Do you think that Iran poses no more threat to the United States? Are you bracing yourself for something from one of their proxies, a terrorist group or a militia?

ESPER: I think, in terms of direct state action, it is far less of a threat today than it was some time ago.

But I think they will continue this malign behavior that they have throughout the world for 40 years. And I think our watchword is vigilance. We have to remain vigilant.

What we have got to do, though, is get back to a position where they will come sit down with us, we can talk about how we get Iran to act like and behave like a normal country. That's what all of us want. That's what the regional partners want.

That's what the Europeans want, is get Iran to behave like a normal country, which means no nuclear weapons program, no long-range ballistic missiles, no hostage-taking, and no support of proxy groups that are spreading mischief from Yemen and Iraq and Syria to Africa to Afghanistan.

TAPPER: Thousands of Iranians took the streets, as we noted in our opener, to protest the regime last night, after Iran admitted that it had shot down that Ukrainian passenger plane. They say it was unintentional and due to human error. It killed dozens of Canadians, Iranians, Swedish, German, British citizens as well.

Do you believe that it was an accident, that it was unintentional?

ESPER: Well, terrible tragedy, 176 lives lost from many countries, as you just said.

My -- my hunch is, it was an accident. And I was dismayed that their first reaction was to was to blame it as American propaganda or some type of mechanical failure. I think they did the right thing by admitting it. Now they need to allow the investigators in and take responsibility.

But you hit on the most important thing. So, in the last 24, 48 hours, thousands upon thousands of Iranians in the streets, not just in Tehran, but all across the country, saying death to the ayatollah, chanting that America is not our enemy.

What the Iranian people want is freedom, prosperity. They don't want a regime that wants to continue with this type of bad behavior all throughout the region, expending what money could be -- should be shared, and invest it back into the Iranian people.

TAPPER: Mr. Secretary, during your confirmation hearing, you said the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force passed by Congress would not justify conducting a war against Iran.

Do you believe the president would need additional authorization from Congress to take any further military actions?

ESPER: I don't believe either those two AUMFs, if you will, authorize an attack on the country of Iran.

But the president does have authority under both those to strike at armed groups, militia groups emanating from Iraq. He certainly has the commander in chief's Article 2 authority to defend the United States.

It's been -- it's been executed by presidents for many decades. We can go back to Reagan with Libya or Grenada, Bush with Panama, Clinton with Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti. Presidents have used that authority.

The president relied on that authority in this case as well, fully justified, fully legitimate, to go after Qasem Soleimani, a known terrorist leader, in Baghdad, coordinating further actions that would result in the deaths of Americans.

TAPPER: All right, Secretary Esper, thanks so much for coming in and taking our questions. We appreciate it.

And have a good Sunday.

Republican Senator Mike Lee called the administration's briefing on the Soleimani strike insulting and un-American. He's going to join me to respond next.

And how is businessman and 2020 Democrat Tom Steyer polling second in South Carolina among Democrats? I will ask him.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Jake Tapper.

Senator Bernie Sanders has a new ally in Congress this week, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah. The two senators are trying to block Pentagon funding for the use of military force against Iran.

This comes after Lee's sharp criticism of top Trump administration officials this week, who gave what Lee called the worst military briefing he has experienced in his nine years in Congress.

Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee joins us now. He's the author of a new book. It's called "Our Lost Declaration: America's Fight Against Tyranny."

Senator Lee, thanks so much for joining us.

So, you seemed, after the briefing, very offended by the lack of information given to you.

Was the administration basically just saying, hey, come on, trust us?

LEE: Look, Jake, in that briefing, we didn't receive very much information that wasn't already available through public media sources.

This is one of the things that's very frustrating. When something like this happens, when events are unfolding quickly, events that will have a profound impact on national security and military strategy, Congress does need to know about it, in part so we can evaluate the scope of our authority to act or choose not to act.

We didn't get that. And that was disappointing.

TAPPER: Did -- in the briefing you experienced, did they say anything about four U.S. embassies were going to be targeted by Soleimani and his forces, as President Trump said on -- he believed on Friday?

LEE: I -- I didn't hear anything about that. And several of my colleagues have said the same. So, that was news to me. It certainly wasn't something that I recall being raised in the classified briefing.

TAPPER: Secretary of State Pompeo said at the White House on Friday that he did tell members of Congress about the threat to U.S. embassies, as the president revealed publicly at his campaign rally, when he said at least one embassy was going to be threatened.


Take a listen to Secretary Pompeo on Friday.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: All of the intelligence that we briefed, that -- that you have heard today, I assure you, in an unclassified setting, we have provided in the classified setting as well.


TAPPER: So that's not true?

LEE: Well, look, I'm not sure exactly what he's trying to say there.

I don't recall being told, look, there were four embassies. I'm sure there was a mention of at least one embassy in that briefing, because there had been an attack on one of our embassies in the days leading up to General Soleimani's killing.

But, look, Jake, I want to make very clear, I issued a statement within a few hours of the attack on General Soleimani, announcing that this was a good development from the standpoint of the security of the American people. We are, in fact, safer as a result of the fact that he's dead.

If you see a wounded veteran anywhere in America, and there they're missing a limb or they're badly disfigured, odds are pretty good that veteran may have been wounded by an IED that was developed and deployed under General Soleimani's leadership and at his direction.

And so this development is good for the security of the American people. But it does matter that we give the details to members of Congress, and it does matter to figure out where we go from here and to make sure that any further action is authorized by Congress.

TAPPER: Congressman Justin Amash, Republican-turned-independent, told CNN that he does not think an attack was imminent, and, therefore, in his view, President Trump abused his power by ordering the strike against Soleimani.

Do you agree?

LEE: Look, I have not yet been able to ascertain really specific details as to the imminence of the attack.

Again, we weren't provided that the other day. We were given somewhat general statements. And I believe that the briefers and the president believe that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack.

I don't doubt that. It's just frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it.

There is also, of course, the argument that there was a -- the 2002 AUMF in place authorized it independently, given that this took place within the war zone.

TAPPER: So, you just heard Secretary Esper say that he does not think further military action specifically against Iran would be covered by the 2001-2002 AUMF, authorization for use of military force.

Do you think President Trump has the authority to conduct another strike against Iran without congressional approval?

LEE: Well, I agree with Secretary Esper. Insofar as he was saying that, I think he's absolutely right.

And if he agrees with that, which it sounds like he does, then he should agree to support the war powers resolution that Senator Kaine has agreed to introduce, with amendments that I have suggested, that acknowledges that neither the '01 nor the '02 AUMF can be read to support further military action against Iran, and that, in the absence of an AUMF or declaration of war by Congress, or in the absence of an actual or imminent attack, and there's no justification for further military action.

TAPPER: So, listen, you and I agree Soleimani had the blood of innocents on his hands and was a bad person. The question is whether or not the intelligence behind his attack was

what it is being presented as.

And do you -- do you have any concerns? I mean, we have heard mixed messages and conflicting stories about the reason for the attack, whether it's the existential threat that Soleimani posed, vs. imminent attacks, vs. an attack on one embassy, vs. an attack on four embassies.

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

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

LEE: Well, I'm worried.

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

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

It's not to say that the government is always lying or that the people who run it are inherently evil. It's just that they're human. And these things do happen.

And so that's important to ask these questions, to make sure that we know the details.

And insofar as we're dealing with the inherent tension between the Article 2 commander in chief power enjoyed by the president and the Article 1, Section 8, declaration of war power on the other hand controlled by Congress, members of Congress do need to be apprised of the information underlying a particular decision.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, thank you so much for your time, sir. We appreciate it.

LEE: Thank you.

TAPPER: Senator Cory Booker says my next guest bought his way onto the Democrat debate stage.


2020 candidate and businessman Tom Steyer joins me to respond to that next.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Jake Tapper. Six Democrats will be on stage for a CNN debate Tuesday in Iowa.

The very last candidate to make the cut is businessman Tom Steyer. He qualified after a pair of polls showed him in strong positions in two of the early voting states. Steyer has 15 percent support in South Carolina, which votes in late February. And he is neck and neck with Senator Elizabeth Warren at 12 percent in Nevada.

Joining me now from the Super Tuesday state of North Carolina, businessman Tom Steyer.


Mr. Steyer, thanks so much for joining us. You will be on the stage on Tuesday. Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey will not. Booker says that the debate rules -- quote -- "has systematically paved the way for a billionaire to buy his way onto the stage."

Do you think you would be on the stage if you weren't spending millions of dollars and putting it into your own campaign?

TOM STEYER (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Jake, I think that the thing that has put me on the stage and it is the same for every single person who's running for president is message. I have a very simple message which is the government is broken, it has been bought by corporations.

I spent 10 years as an outsider putting together coalitions of American citizens to fight and beat those corporations. I am the only person in this race who will say that his or her number one priority is climate, and I will attack it from the standpoint -- from the very first day from the standpoint of environmental justice, and that I can take on Mr. Trump on the economy in a way that nobody can, because I have built a business from scratch and I understand job creation and prosperity and growth as well as economic justice.

I think this is all about do you have a message that is differential and important and do people trust you to actually carry out what you are saying?

TAPPER: So the reason can hear your message though of course is because of the T.V. ads and the millions of dollars you spent.

Let's talk about the two states that polled well and that got you on the debate stage, South Carolina and Nevada. In your campaign, you make up the overwhelming majority of television's ad spending in those states, 91 percent of television ad spending in South Carolina is from you, 97 percent of television ad spending in Nevada is from you.

Do you not think that it is your millions and the flood of advertising in those states that is why you did well in the polls and are now on the debate stage?

STEYER: Jake, if you will read today's "Washington Post" there's a story about this and what it details is what's actually going on in the ground. I have been to South Carolina multiple times, we have 82 organizers on the ground in South Carolina.

I am actually a grass roots person. I have been there. There is someone who didn't endorse me, who is a politician in South Carolina who said, Steyer came down here. He rolled up his sleeves. He went out. He listened to people. He sat across the table.

I have been a grass roots organizer, as you know for 10 year, and that is exactly what I am doing in the early primary states. I am going. I'm listening to people. I spend all my time in the kinds of meetings that I love which is taking questions and asking questions and listening and learning. And so in fact that's what I think has happened is that I have a presence on the ground personally and our organization is doing the kind of the grass roots organizing that I have been doing for a decade.

TAPPER: So that's -- you think that your performance in these polls is because of your one-on-one meetings with individuals you're campaigning in the states, people meeting you and not because more than 90 percent of the television advertising in South Carolina and Nevada is from your campaign -- is that what you are saying?

STEYER: That is actually isn't what I said, Jake. What I said is we have 82 organizers, by far the most in South Carolina, and I have gone -- and let's face it, I am not a famous person. The other people who I'm running against, all the other people are career politicians, many of whom are extremely famous. What I have seen in South Carolina and every state is very low name recognition, and then we worked to let people hear my message, understand what I stand for and try to see who I am. And in every state when people hear that, the numbers go up consistently and they have gone up consistently since I got into the race in July.

TAPPER: So, you will be on the debate stage Tuesday with the former vice president of the United States, with three senators with decades of combined experience, an Afghan war veteran. What experience do you have that makes you qualify to be commander-in-chief and trusted to send American service members into harm's way?

STEYER: Well, Jake, I did business for over 30 years working and traveling around the world, meeting with governments, talking to the heads of huge corporations and understanding actually what drives America's business around the world and our relationships with other countries and what makes that trade and relationship succeed.

So when I think about our experience over the last 20 years and the person who I actually think did the best job in figuring out American foreign policy and military policy was a state senator from Illinois with absolutely no military or international experience named Barack Obama who said against the advice of everybody who was an insider in Washington, D.C., that the Iraq war was a mistake. So when you say actually what we need to do is to have more D.C. conventional wisdom in our foreign policy and our military policy.


I would say actually when I am look at the last 20 years, you don't actually inspire me so much, and listening to the earlier part of the show where in fact that very same conventional D.C. wisdom led to misinformation about why we got into Iraq, led to decades of misinformation about what we were doing in Afghanistan. When you tell me that what we need is more conventional D.C. thinking about our international policy, our foreign policy and our military policy, I would actually suggest to you that maybe this is more about judgment than experience.

TAPPER: Let me ask you. When you are look at the current conflict with Iran, how much of it do you trace back to what happened to Prime Minister Mosaddegh?

STEYER: You know it -- there is no way to get away from the idea that when the United States does something like depose Prime Minister Mosaddegh which is how -- you know, that's how the shah came into power we basically put him into power, that what that does is it changes people's opinion about the United States and what we stand for. Whether we are the guys -- good guys, the people who stand up for democracy and people's rights and freedom and equality, and that is one of the big problems that I have right now with the execution of General Soleimani which is America's brand in the world is the most important protection we have. That even when we are not getting along with an Iranian regime or we're not getting along with Vladimir Putin, the point is that the people around the world know that we stand for what is right, and that was true when President Obama was the president, is that around the world it didn't matter if we were disagreeing with the Iranian regime, everybody in the world knew we stood for what is right.

And when we do something like depose Mosaddegh or we execute General Soleimani, the question we all should ask ourselves is not just the short term question, but long-term, does it make us less safe? Does it change everyone's opinion in the Middle East about what the United States really cares about and who we really are? So, yes, I think that was a dramatic mistake that has reverberate throughout the region for obviously multiple, multiple decades.

TAPPER: It is something that the Iranians still talk about on the streets today. Thank you so much, Tom Steyer. Appreciate your time.

STEYER: Of course they do. Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Yes. The gold standard of the Iowa polling is out where the Democratic field stands just weeks before the first contest will break it down for you next.




SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What is important to me is the kind of grass roots support that we have. The polls are great. Some days they're good, some days they're not. But I think we're going to win here in Iowa, because we have an extraordinary grass roots movement.


TAPPER: Senator Bernie Sanders finding himself at 20 percent in the new CNN/"Des Moines Register" poll in Iowa. Take a look.

Sanders 20 percent, Warren 17 percent, Buttigieg 16 percent, Biden 15 percent, Klobuchar six percent.

Congresswoman, let me start with you. You have endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden from Scranton. You represent Pennsylvania. Is Sanders the candidate to beat do you think?

REP. CHRISSY HOULAHAN (D-PA), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: I actually don't believe that that is the case and I think it's probably way too early for us to understand or know that answer. I think, the polls that you just saw are very, very fluid and not only fluid but Iowa is not the only state as we know in the nation. And so, I think, that it's a start, and I think that as you've seen it is very, very close and neck and neck and we will see what happens in other states as well.

TAPPER: Some people think, Congresswoman, that Vice President Biden is a pretty weak frontrunner. I have heard that argument made. He is at 15 percent even though he just got the endorsements in Iowa from former of Governor Vilsack, Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer. His support was doubled what it is now. Thirty-two percent in December 2018 before he entered --


TAPPER: -- the race. What do you think?

LOVE: Well, I think that there is a lot going on in the United States impeachment, how he was actually one of the later candidates to come on on impeachment. I think that there are a lot of Democrats that are looking for people that are really true to their values. I mean, I am assuming here.

So he has always been kind of the like the middle of the road, try and be -- have more of like an Obama message that is more of unity. I have thought that what is interesting was the actual Iowa/CNN poll that was done on impeachment where 51 percent of independents thought that impeachment wasn't -- that they were -- they were not ready to impeach the president. I think that those are the things that you're going to have to watch for in terms of like a general race. But, I think, right now we're still in the Democrat primary race and you can see the people that are pushing for more of the progressive or Democrat platforms doing better in the polls.

TAPPER: What did you make of Tom Steyer's argument that he is on the debate stage not because of his money and the fact that he is really glutting the air waves in some of these states with ads, but because he has all these organizers and its grass roots?

WAJAHAT ALI, NEW YORK TIMES CONTRIBUTING OPED WRITER: Money helps, money helps Tom Steyer be number two in South Carolina. I think without money, I don't think Tom Steyer would actually have any clout whatsoever. I also do think you have to give him credit he was the first one to jump on the impeachment bandwagon. He has been on it for about two to three years and he has put his money where his mouth is.

At the same time I want to reject this notion that impeachment would help Trump. No, it has hurt Trump because a majority of Americans, more than 50 percent want him impeached and removed. Seventy percent of Americans want witnesses that includes a majority of Republicans, and 70 percent of Americans think what he did which was abusing his power was wrong.

So it has hurt him. It has not helped him. And most independents actually are veering away from Trump.


So this is actually a win for the Democrats and I think it is going to strengthen the Democratic Party.

TAPPER: Let me just bring in the senator. What do you think about the effect of impeachment on all of this?

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think, in the end, it is a loser for the Democrats. The way Nancy Pelosi has handled this, I think, has been -- just showed that it's -- that it's overtly political.

And I think what the point which was just made is accurate which is this is all about hurting Donald Trump in the election. There was no chance Donald Trump is going to be removed from president. It is clear it is a purely political operation and I think people will put -- will view in that lens. And, I think, by the time that the November election comes around, I think the issues with the FBI and what happened with FISA and what happened with the original investigation are going to be more important issue for the American public than impeachment.

TAPPER: Well, Congresswoman, you voted -- you voted for the articles of impeachment. You were one of the freshmen who picked up a seat that was not a Democratic seat.


TAPPER: So -- I mean, it's not without risk that you did such a thing.

HOULAHAN: Absolutely but -- and I was one --

TAPPER: What do you think of all of this?

HOULAHAN: -- of the ones that was very last to come to the table on that, and just specifically over the issue of Ukraine as opposed to the Mueller report or anything else. And I think that this is a moment where -- and I disagree with the senator on this is a moment where we have to stand by the principles of how our government ought to work and how our commander-in-chief ought to behave, and what is happening and happened with Ukraine is very, very alarming. And I think the vast majority of the public believes that to be the case as well.

And so although I was reticent (ph) to come on board, it was largely because I was reticent (ph) to further destroy the nation and the nation fabric in terms of the way that we communicate with one another, but it absolutely had to happen. And so I was that last person and I believe Biden is that kind of person as well. He understands that he needs to be a person who heals the nation and brings the nation together. He is the kind of the candidate that can bring the nation together.

TAPPER: And Senator Elizabeth Warren has not been shying away lately from calling out some of her fellow 2020 candidates. So I want you to take a listen to this.


SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You can look oh, so sophisticated, oh, so smart by backing off from a big idea. Not now, too hard, can't do this.


WARREN: But think about this when --


TAPPER: That is who she was talking about. She was obviously talking about Pete Buttigieg, you can look oh so sophisticated, oh so smart, backing off from big ideas.

ALI: Yes. She has every right to go after Mayor Pete. I mean, Mayor Pete has kind of flip-flopped. He has taken the central moderate lane and he surged initially in November in Iowa, but now we've seen that enthusiasm and excitement is what brings out the Democratic base. And this whole concept of, oh, everyone is -- quote, unquote -- "moderate." Well, compared to Donald Trump, every single Democratic candidate is a flaming moderate, right?

And you saw in the Iowa polls Sanders is a what? Twenty percent, Warren is at 17 percent. It's neck and neck. So I do think that Warren going after Biden and Buttigieg in this debate stage I would recommend she does it. She hasn't done it yet. And I'm going to see -- I think we're going to see some tension between Sanders and Warren leading up to Iowa --


ALI: -- because they are taking some -- they are taking some low blows here.

TAPPER: We'll be --

ALI: Behind the scenes some low blows. TAPPER: We'll be watching Tuesday night, and we are so happy that your daughter is OK.

ALI: Thank you so much. Thank you. And thank you so much ---

TAPPER: We followed that story.

ALI: -- for promoting that.

TAPPER: Up next, the outrageous new argument being used against some lawmakers questioning the rationale for the Iran strike. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Iranian general Qasem Soleimani headed up a group the U.S. considered to be terrorists. He was rootlessly effective. He had the blood of innocence on his hands. These are not matters serious people are debating. The question is whether it was wiser to kill him and risk an escalating response from Iran or not.

According to "The New York Times" CIA director Gina Haspel -- quote -- "advised Mr. Trump that the threat the Iranian general presented was greater than the threat of Iran's response if he was killed." This is what the debate is about, this and the intelligence, what the allegedly imminent threat to the U.S. was, whether that intelligence is being accurately represented or twisted and shaded to justify a desired strike as has happened before in the U.S.

And also we're discussing the role of Congress in all of this. That's a debate that has been raging for decades. But if you listen to the president and his defenders, you don't hear much discussion about these serious matters. The two main arguments we've heard this week are, one, trust us such as Senator Lindsey Graham tweeting, do you believe the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA director are incompetent? Lying? I'm beyond disgusted by the suggestion that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA director got it wrong when it comes to the actions of General Soleimani. It's almost as if Senator Graham is unaware that previous administrations from FDR to JFK to LBJ to Nixon to Reagan to Bush to Obama have gotten it wrong when it comes to matters of intelligence and war and peace not to mention of course this president's long record of prevarication.

Plus the way the government -- he pushes the government of the United States to use its power and credibility to justify his lies about crowd sizes, or hurricane paths, or fake crimes by his political opponents. Then there's the other approach, the other response we're hearing attacking those who have questions or who disagree with the decision, defaming them as terrorist lovers.


REP. DOUG COLLINS (R-GA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER" They're in love with terrorists. We see that. They mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families who are the ones who suffered under Soleimani.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The only ones that are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democratic presidential candidates.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They also support terrorist apparently because so many of them think that killing Soleimani was a terrible idea.



TAPPER: Of those three, only the first, Congressman Doug Collins has apologized for his comments.

Those are not arguments, they're smears. They would get you disqualified from a junior high school debate contest. Blind faith in our leaders in matters of life and death for our service members, for the American people, that's false patriotism. And as Samuel Johnson wrote, such a false patriotism is -- quote -- "the last refuge of a scoundrel."

Let's try to keep this debate at a level worthy of the dignity of the service members who are in harm's way.

Thanks for spending your Sunday morning with us.

Fareed Zakaria picks it up next.