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Iran's President: U.S. Committed "Grave Mistake" Killing General; NATO Suspends Training in Iraq following Strike on Iran General; Trump Launches "Evangelicals for Trump". Aired 8-9a ET

Aired January 4, 2020 - 08:00   ET

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


CHRISTI PAUL, CNN HOST: The president of Iran this morning saying, quote, everyone will take revenge, essentially, for the death of Qasem Soleimani. Good morning to you. Welcome to our viewers in the U.S. and around the world. We're glad to have you here. I'm Christi Paul.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN HOST: And I'm Martin Savidge in for Victor Blackwell. Moments ago, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani visiting the family of Qasem Soleimani telling Soleimani's daughter, everyone will take revenge for his death.

PAUL: Back in the states, thousands of additional military troops are being deployed to the region. That adds to the more than 700 that were sent earlier this week, in fact.

SAVIDGE: Meanwhile, top leadership in Iran say they've already named Soleimani's replacement as the country threatens the U.S. with forceful revenge. Counterterrorism officials are now on the lookout for possible retaliatory actions.

PAUL: And President Trump says he ordered the killing not to start a war but to stop one after learning an Iranian general was plotting, quote, imminent and sinister attacks against the U.S. The president says he's not seeking a regime change in Iraq. We have our reporters and correspondents spread out across the globe covering all angles of this story and we do want to point out that we're already seeing the aftershocks in the region where that strike on the Iranian general took place. New this morning, NATO says it's suspending training in Iraq. CNN's Arwa Damon is in Baghdad. Arwa, talk to us about the significance of this.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Look, the NATO mission has multiple facets. One of them is this training program underway, critical in the sense that the Iraqi security forces most definitely do need and continue to need that kind of support. NATO is saying that this is only temporary at this stage and that the overall mission will continue. What we have now both in Iraq and in Iran is two nations who are really to a certain degree trying to grapple with the emotions that have come after the initial shock and reaction at the targeting of Qasem Soleimani and the leader of (INAUDIBLE) Hezbollah (INAUDIBLE) by the U.S.

We also just have now this video that shows the visit by Iranian president to the house of Qasem Soleimani's daughter, where she asks him, who will take revenge for my father? And he responds to her that everyone will be taking revenge. When you go out into the streets in Baghdad where we were just a short while ago, speaking to people who were part of the funeral procession here, they are also underneath sorrow, talking about their boiling anger, talking about their desire to seek revenge as well, saying that the U.S. had absolutely no right to carry out this strike.

You have a varying degree of reaction, though, to all of this. There are those that are vowing, people who, for example, had their sons and their husbands, part of these paramilitary forces, Iraqi paramilitary force that is very tied to Iran, saying that they will continue to fight once again viewing America's presence in Iraq as an occupation.

And then, you have voices that are coming from the scene of Baghdad's protests that have been going on for months now that are against the Iraqi government that are calling for an end to outside influence. They too are expressing their outrage at this strike by the United States because they view it as once again America drawing Iraq into a war that does not necessarily have anything to do with Iraqis themselves. And you get this sense that on either side of all of this, whether Iraqis support what Iran is doing here or not, there is a fairly equal level of anger that the United States is once again using their country as a proxy battlefield.

We literally had one older man begging, begging both America and Iran to just leave Iraq alone because the great concern is, and we're already beginning to see the initial indications of that, is that Iraq potentially is going to pay the biggest price for what's happening between Washington and Tehran.

SAVIDGE: Arwa Damon for us there in Baghdad. Thank you very much for that update. We are learning that counterterrorism officials are already on the lookout for possible retaliatory actions from Iran. The Iran-linked militant group, Hezbollah, is viewed as one of the potential entities that could strike back. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is in Beirut, Lebanon for us. Nick, what more are you seeing and what more are you hearing about the risks?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is unclear at the moment exactly how Iran will exercise its desire for harsh revenge, this retaliation. Now, some are suggesting perhaps the imminent threat that U.S. officials claimed was the response was the reason why Qasem Soleimani was killed, the plots that he was in the midst of implementing.

[08:05:00]

They may still be carried out. They refer to threats against military and diplomatic facilities in Iraq, Syria, but also here in Lebanon, which points really to the U.S. embassy in Beirut here. They could possibly be under threat to some degree and U.S. officials

and Trump Administration have suggested that Qasem Soleimani met key officials in Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant political group, in the days before his death.

Hezbollah, though, has been a little more calm in its response, issuing messages of condolence and mourning and saying that the victories of the axis of resistance, that's their term for the general groups so often supported by Iran that resist the U.S. presence in this particular region, that they will find their victories increased and I quote here, because of the blood of Qasem Soleimani.

So, suggestions certainly that Iran's proxies around the region may end up being those who implement this threat for retaliation. I spoke to a western intelligence official in the hours after the strike and they pointed at the proxies most likely getting an increase of funding to perhaps disperse around the region, the threat, make it harder for the U.S. to work out where it might come from but also to cyberattacks and I think we should bear in mind as well as we see this period of mourning continue over days that they may use that period in Iran to focus on the past of Qasem Soleimani and then at a later stage due to retaliation at a time of Iran's possible choosing in a way frankly which nobody really expected.

Iran is the strategic master of incremental steps often in directions that nobody really predicted so I'm sure that while U.S. personnel - military and diplomatic in the region will be on the highest alert, they already are frankly, for some kind of retaliation as will U.S.'s allies mainly to the south of where I'm sitting in Israel who have long standing enmity (ph) with Hezbollah, Iran-backed group here in Lebanon. That could potentially flare up as one form of retaliation. I think possibly we're going to be looking into a longer game here for where we see the full entirety of what Iran may be planning actually playing out, Martin.

SAVIDGE: CNN's Nick Paton Walsh with the view from Beirut, thank you very much for that.

PAUL: Nick, thank you. Let's get to CNN's Barbara Starr. She's at the Pentagon right now. We know, Barbara, that there are 3,000 troops that are going to be deployed to that region. What do we know -- we know there are already 700-some there but what do we know about this latest mission that will take place now?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Pentagon officials are making it very clear, look, these are not troops that are going to be in any kind of capability or position to conduct war against Iran. That is not what this is about. This is about beefing up U.S. defenses in the area, mitigating the risk if Iran does conduct a retaliation attack, something the U.S. is very closely watching.

PAUL: Okay, Barbara, we appreciate it. Thank you.

SAVIDGE: Meanwhile, CNN's Kristen Holmes is traveling with the president and Kristen the president was, I guess, taking a victory lap last night but several Democrats are still skeptical that the strike was necessary. What more can you tell us?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Martin, you have to remember that this is really divided among party lines. There's one thing that everyone agrees on, which is that Soleimani was a bad man. Now, Republicans think that this was the right action, that President Trump did the right thing, but Democrats want to know more. You have to keep in mind that two former U.S. presidents were given this opportunity and decided not to given the consequences.

So, now there are a lot of questions about, one, why no one in Congress was really informed, why was no one told about this. We know, of course, President Trump's closest allies like Matt Gaetz or Lindsey Graham, they were told but when it comes to others in leadership on both Democrat and Republican side, no one really got any sort of heads up. Now, the big concern is what happens next. A lot of questions about whether or not this might spark an unnecessary war. Take a listen to what President Trump said about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war. I have deep respect for the Iranian people. They are a remarkable people with an incredible heritage and unlimited potential. We did not seek regime change, however, the Iranian's regime's aggression in the region including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors must end and it must end now. The future belongs to the people of Iran, those who seek peaceful co-existence and cooperation, not the terrorists, warlords who plunder their nation to finance bloodshed abroad.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOLMES: So you see the president there clearly answering those questions, saying that we did this to stop a war, not to start a war.

[08:10:00]

But Democrats still want more answers and there was a briefing on Capitol Hill that involved several aides from key committees and listen to what Democratic Senator Van Hollen had to say about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN, (D) MARYLAND: Yes, there was a briefing for staff members, and I had a representative there. And no, nothing that came out of the briefing changed my view that this was an unnecessary escalation of the situation in Iraq and Iran. While I can't tell you what was said, I can tell you I have no additional information to support the administration's claim that this was an imminent attack on Americans and obviously the issue of intelligence is important especially given the fact that bad intelligence, false intelligence is what got us into the earlier war with Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOLMES: And we have learned that there is another briefing on Monday, so we will wait to hear from lawmakers after that. That will actually be for Senators directly, but as Fred said, there is a huge question mark here and it's not just Democrats. It's also military leaders. It's also analysts and experts on the Middle East over what exactly is going to happen next.

PAUL: All right, Kristen Holmes, we appreciate it. Thank you so much. Listen, we are going to hear from Iran's ambassador to the United

Nations next as he calls the death of top general Qasem Soleimani an act of war. We're also hearing from President Trump making his first appearance since ordering that military strike. His own coalition of evangelicals were in the room there. We'll take you there. Stay close.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PAUL: Fourteen minutes past the hour right now and Iran's ambassador to the United Nations called the death of top general Qasem Soleimani a, quote, act of war, and warned that there would be harsh revenge.

SAVIDGE: CNN's Erin Burnette sat down with the ambassador last night. Here's part of their conversation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERIN BURNETTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When you look at what happened here, was this a declaration of war?

MAJID TAKHT RAVANCHI, IRANIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: In fact, it was an act of war on the part of the United States against the Iranian people. The U.S. has started an economic war against the Iranian people back in May 2018 when the -- when President Trump decided to withdraw from the JCPOA, the nuclear deal, and it started the maximum pressure policy against the Iranians, putting lots of economic pressure on Iran and they have continued until today.

Last night, they opened the new chapter in their attack against the Iranians by assassinating one of our most beloved generals who is popular, not only in Iran but also in the countries in the region. So, that was, as I said, a new chapter which is tantamount to opening a war against Iran.

BURNETT: So, you say it's tantamount to opening a war against Iran. President Trump today said, his words, we took action to stop a war; we did not take action to start a war. What do you say to President Trump?

RAVANCHI: I do not - I do not believe that the U.S. took an action to stop a war, because the assassination of the -- the plan for the assassination of General Soleimani was in the making for quite some time. John Bolton, the former National Security Advisor, tweeted last night that it was in the making, so it is not acceptable to agree to what the -- what the administration is saying, that they had enough evidence, as they put it, that general Soleimani was planning to attack U.S. citizens.

BURNETT: Because you say this had been in the works for quite some time.

RAVANCHI: This has been for quite some time in the plan.

BURNETT: Secretary of State Pompeo on that front says General Soleimani was plotting an imminent attack on Americans. That was his word, imminent. Can you categorically say -- RAVANCHI: Definitely it is rejected. If they have evidence, they

should show it. They should provide the evidence. I'm sure that they do not have any evidence that can be proven in a court.

BURNETT: So, President Trump says he's not looking for regime change in Iran. He also said that today. Do you believe him on that? Obviously, John Bolton, the former National Security Advisor, said the opposite as he has said many times before, but when President Trump says this is not about regime change, is he telling the truth?

RAVANCHI: What matters is the U.S. deeds, not the words. What they are doing against the Iranians are exactly to put lots of pressure on the Iranian people to stand up and that is -- that is in conservation of U.S. obligations based on international law.

BURNETT: So when you say tantamount to war, an act of war, the words that you used, Ambassador Ravanchi, the supreme leader of Iran today vowed severe revenge and his other words were a harsh retaliation to what he calls the criminals who perpetrated this attack, the Americans. So, what does that mean? If you're going to have revenge, retaliation to an act of war, is that a war?

RAVANCHI: As I said, the U.S. has already started a war against Iran, not only an economic war but something beyond that by assassinating one of our top generals who is being mourned by the people in Iran and in the region. So, we cannot just close our eyes to what happened last night, definitely there will be revenge. There will be a harsh revenge. Iran will act based on its own choosing and the time, the place will be decided by Iran.

BURNETT: So I want to ask you about that because when this happened last night, President Trump did not say that he was targeting someone else and General Soleimani happened to be there. He said, it was him and we targeted him and we killed him. There were no proxies. There was no excuse making. He owned it. Will Iran's response be the same way? That Iran targets the United States?

RAVANCHI: I'm not in a position to go into the detail of what's going to happen, when they are going to act in revenge.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAVIDGE: Again, that was Erin Burnett speaking to a representative of the Iranian government from the United Nations.

Meanwhile the United Methodist Church is at odds over gay marriage, the historic move the church is proposing to resolve their differences.

[08:20:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PAUL: Twenty-two minutes past the hour and the president spoke to evangelical voters in Miami yesterday. This was his first appearance since ordering the strike against Soleimani. Here's what he said of the attack, the one, of course, that took out the Iranian military leader.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We took action last night to stop a war; we did not take action to start a war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAVIDGE: The president bounced around to a variety of topics and joining us now is Napp Nazworth. He's the former politics editor for the "Christian Post." Napp, thanks very much for joining us. We understand you left your position last month because of some editorial differences. I want to pull up your post from that day and show you what it is and it is the announcement today, rather abruptly, I was forced to make the difficult choice to leave the "Christian Post." They decided to publish an editorial that positions them on Team Trump. I can't be an editor for a publication with that editorial voice. How difficult was it for you to make that decision?

NAPP NAZWORTH, FORMER POLITICS EDITOR FOR THE "CHRISTIAN POST": It was very difficult. I've been working there for eight and a half years. I did not want to leave. It was just became a situation where we were at an impasse with no compromise that could be reached and so I felt like I just had to make the choice that I did.

PAUL: Naz, we see the president yesterday at this rally in Miami, understand there were 5,000 people in the audience there and we know that "Christianity Today" magazine recently wrote a scathing editorial calling for the removal of the president from office. Do you get the sense that there is a divide in the Christian community when it comes to President Trump?

NAZWORTH: Oh, definitely. We're about evenly divided, I think, and it's important to understand when you see the evangelicals at that rally, they definitely represent a segment of evangelicals but not all evangelicals. And even though it was at a Hispanic church, Trump does much better among white evangelicals than nonwhite evangelicals.

SAVIDGE: What is going to be the fallout, then, come 2020? We're in an election year. White evangelicals made up, I believe, over 80% or voted over 80% for this president. What's going to happen when it comes to November?

NAZWORTH: I think you'll probably see the same. I don't see much change in Trump's coalition happening, but I really worry for the future of evangelicalism because of the alignment with Trump and what you saw last night is Trump himself aligning his campaign with a religious movement, even the name, evangelicals for Trump, and he said, God is on our side. So he's aligning his campaign with evangelicalism itself.

PAUL: Do evangelicals -- are they attracted to him, those who are attracted to him, because you said there is a divide, are they attracted to him primarily for his policy? There are a lot of people that look at evangelicals and wonder why they would accept some of the behavior that comes from the president. Is it because they believe in the policies so strongly?

NAZWORTH: It's partly that. Definitely some of the policies, such as his pro-life positions and his religious freedom positions, they support, but I think part of it is just the fact that once they voted for Trump, they kind of became part of his team and so they have sort of a tendency to just defend him and to reject the arguments of his critics and they tend to trust Trump over, you know, the Democrats or the media and so forth and that's because they've just see themselves as being part of his team.

SAVIDGE: Those evangelicals who cannot support this president, who are they going to vote for come this fall?

NAZWORTH: Well, some of them will vote for the Democrats. There's always --

SAVIDGE: Such as? I mean, what Democrat would stand out in their mind? Is that a Joe Biden?

NAZWORTH: They're probably divided on that as well. Joe Biden, you know, probably would do well, maybe Mayor Pete Buttigieg would do okay. There's always been about 15% to 25% of evangelicals who support the Democrat anyway, but then there's going to be another segment of evangelicals who can't support either one and they're going to either write in a candidate, maybe there will be a third party candidate or something like that. But that's where I stand. I don't see any Democrat that I can support, and I think there's going to be a segment of evangelicals who agree with me on that.

PAUL: All right. Napp Nazworth, thank you so much for taking time to be with us.

NAZWORTH: Thanks for having me.

SAVIDGE: You bet.

Fury in Iran and Iraq over the death of General Qasem Soleimani. Coming up, why one of President Trump's staunchest allies says the Iranian leader signed his own death warrant.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:30:00]

SAVIDGE: In other news the United Methodist Church could soon be divided. Church leaders are proposing a split into more than one denomination over differences about gay marriage. The proposal comes from a 16-member group of bishops and church leaders. They say the separation would be, quote, the best way to resolve our differences, unquote. The new proposal would split the second largest protestant denomination into one traditional group that bans same sex marriage and another more liberal-leaning institution.

PAUL: Well President Trump's allies are defending his decision to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. The Pentagon says President Trump ordered the attack after learning Soleimani was actively developing plans for an attack on U.S. diplomats. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham says killing the Iranian general was not revenge.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): He signed his own death warrant. He miscalculated Donald Trump. After the contractor was killed from Shia militia controlled by Soleimani, the president made a decision that he would not tolerate any more attacks against American interest and we caught the guy red handed planning another attack.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAVIDGE: Joining us now, Robin Wright, he's a distinguished fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace and the Wilson Center and contributor writer at the "New Yorker" and Josh Rogin is also with us, the columnist for the "Washington Post" and a CNN political analyst as well. Josh, let me begin with you. Do you really believe that the killing of Soleimani -- General Soleimani here in the balance is going to save lives as those who have defended the president's action have said?

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there is a possibility that it could both save lives and at the same time cost other lives, and there's no doubt that Qasem Soleimani, for many years, was a key actor in the attacks on not just Americans but Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis and Iranians, and he's got lots of blood on his hands, and the -- we can debate the justification for killing him and the way that the Trump Administration did, but at the same time, we have to look at the administration's rationale and listen to when they say that they believe that this act will de-escalate the crisis and then look at what's going on in the region and have a safe prediction that actually this act will escalate the crisis.

And what we see in terms of the reaction in Iraq, in Iran and all over the region is a promise of revenge, a promise of retaliation. So, it's not about, you know, whether or not this was -- we had the right to do this. It's about whether or not it was the right thing to do and whether or not the costs will outweigh the benefits and that's what we'll find out over the coming days and weeks.

PAUL: Robin, there's news this morning from the German foreign minister that Germany is in close consultations with the U.K. and France regarding, quote, how to help calm the situation. Is there any evidence or any indication that any U.S. allies are willing to vocally support the U.S. in this move?

ROBIN WRIGHT, "NEW YORKER" COLUMNIST: Well, all three countries are part of the coalition that are -- and have supported the coalition that's operating in Iraq. There's an enormous amount that is at stake. All three countries also are very involved in the nuclear deal that is still alive for the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, even though President Trump did withdraw from it in 2018.

One of the great challenges now in the aftermath of this assassination is what happens next. The United States is very good about taking actions in whether it's ousting Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, the question is what happens next. Is there a strategy that ensures that any retaliation by Iran does not lead to an escalation and what becomes a much more open conflict?

The assassination of Soleimani was the boldest action against Iran by the United States militarily in 40 years since the 1979 revolution and Iran will interpret this, as will others in the region, as an act of war, and the -- we see it as revenge for -- whether it's killing a U.S. contractor or a preemptive attack to prevent a wider Iranian set of attacks, but the reality is it is perceived very differently by the two sides and we have to make sure that we've gamed this in a way that it doesn't lead to a war, which is what the president has said his goal was.

SAVIDGE: Josh, do you get the sense that this was carefully thought out?

ROGIN: No.

SAVIDGE: And I don't mean the strike itself but I mean, of course, what is to follow. That's what really we're talking about now. You don't get that feeling.

ROGIN: No, no, I went to a briefing with a bunch of senior state department officials and I asked them, I said, you know, what -- what's the planning for what comes next? They basically didn't have an answer. They said the ball is in Iran's court and they said they hope that this leads to a de-escalation and that doesn't really seem to be the case. And then I asked them, what's the diplomatic off ramp? What's the plan for giving Iran a chance to actually de-escalate by giving them an alternative? There wasn't one.

So, you know, it seems to me that, you know, just getting the president this far, getting him to approve this strike was a Herculean effort inside the administration and what we see when we cover the Trump Administration is that the president does something and then they form the policy around it, and I think that's what we have here.

The president has taken this action and now after the fact they're forming the policy around it in the most risky and unpredictable circumstances imaginable. So, I think in one sense, they're right, the ball is in Iran's court, but what happens then and how we mitigate the damage to the U.S./Iraqi relationship, how do we protect our troops in places like Syria, I'm convinced that they haven't thought all of that through and that's pretty dangerous.

PAUL: So, Robin, I want to ask you about trust, because this is a president who, you know, really, for the first three years, has been very vocal about questioning his -- the intelligence community, his intelligence community. Is there any indication as to why he decided to believe the intelligence community on this particular situation?

WRIGHT: Well, we don't know the intelligence, so it's very hard to judge, but I think one of the interesting things is that the intelligence community clearly was able to track Soleimani. This is one of the most incredible orchestrators, masterminds of covert operations anywhere in the Middle East, and to be able to track his movements, it's rarely happened in the past. Twice, the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration had moments where they knew where Soleimani was and there were options to strike him and they opted against it because they feared the potential risk. Was this too high value a target? Were there other ways to signal to Iran that it was -- that its actions were intolerable, unacceptable, and shouldn't proceed?

At this particular juncture, I suspect there are those in the administration, including Secretary of State, some of those at the National Security Council, who have said, this is the moment to signal to Iran in light of this lightning escalation we have had in incidents over the past week, and they prevailed, even though the president has repeatedly said he doesn't want war and he actually wants diplomacy with Iran. I think that still his goal, whether that's ever more difficult now is a big question.

SAVIDGE: Josh, is this a clear example of what happens when the people who might have been in that White House and told the president something different, in other words, said no, this is not a good idea, they aren't there anymore, and I'm thinking of a General Mattis and those like him.

ROGIN: Yeah, I think that's a lot of it. You know, I think President Trump believes the intelligence when it tells him what he wants to hear, and he doesn't believe the intelligence when it tells him what he doesn't want to hear. So when the intelligence says, Iran, bad. He says, great. If it says Russia bad, he s I don't think so. I don't think it's more complicated than that. I think, you know, yes, we've got an administration not full of people who are simply agreeing with whatever the president says but who are basically in the process of trying to persuade him rather than to prevent him from doing the things that he has an instinct to do.

Let's remember here that as Robin rightfully pointed out, the president doesn't want war with Iran. He's made that very clear. But he's been convinced to take this huge escalatory measure, so there's a contradiction there, and you can't have a president who wants to get out of the Middle East and a president who just put 14,000 more troops into the Middle East since May and another 3,000 on the way and say that this is a coherent strategy that makes a lot of sense. Okay? It doesn't.

And I think that's why we have all the missed signaling. That's why we have all the confusion and again, inside the administration the sense is, OK, we're going to wait to see what Trump says and then we're going to figure out how to explain that to the world. It's the exact opposite of what a regular policy process would be and it leads to confusion and miscalculation and in this environment that you could see how that could go very bad very quickly.

SAVIDGE: Yes, this is also something you cannot walk back as an administration.

ROGIN: That's right.

SAVIDGE: All right, Robin Wright and Josh Rogin, thank you both for joining us. We appreciate it greatly.

PAUL: Well, CNN's Alex Marquardt takes a closer look with us at who Qasem Soleimani was and how he came to be such an influential power player in the Middle East.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The car carrying Iran's most powerful military commander destroyed beyond recognition by the missile strike from the American military drone flying overhead. Confirmation coming quickly that the ruthless and cunning Quds force commander, Qasem Soleimani, was targeted and killed. Top U.S. Officials tell CNN that attacks against U.S. targets planned by Soleimani were imminent, though the Trump Administration has yet to provide any evidence.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying today there was compelling intelligence that Soleimani was planning a significant campaign of violence in the coming days, weeks, and months. General Mark Milley adding, damn right there is risk to U.S. safety in the region and we would be culpably negligent if we didn't take action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: He was plotting in the region to take action, a big action, as he described it, that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk. We know it was imminent. This was an intelligence-based assessment that drove our decision making process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARQUARDT: Ahead of a possible Iranian response, the Pentagon sending around 3,000 more troops to the region, adding to the beefed up presence that followed violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Hundreds of U.S. service members have been killed by Soleimani's actions, according to U.S. officials. Thousands more maimed mainly by improvised explosive devices that Iran sent to insurgents in Iraq. U.S. Officials tell CNN that Soleimani was planning more attacks against U.S. targets in multiple countries across the region. Intelligence reports, they say, highlighted threats that were more significant than usual.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POMPEO: We watched the intelligence flow in that talked about Soleimani's travels in the region and the work that he was doing to put Americans further at risk.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARQUARDT: Sixty-two-year-old Soleimani joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps after the Iranian revolution in 1979. For over 20 years, he had been at the head of its shadowy Quds force, orchestrating military action and terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world. He supported and directed efforts of proxy forces like Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel and militias in Iraq against ISIS which also committed war crimes against Sunni Muslim civilians.

The Trump Administration says Soleimani approved those attacks this week on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but the killing of Soleimani has left the U.S. presence in Iraq in doubt with powerful forces demanding the eviction of the Americans; the Iraqi prime minister calling the attack a flagrant violation of the U.S./Iraq security agreement.

The big question has been why now when there have been opportunities in the past to kill Soleimani. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley said it was the size, scale, and scope of these imminent attacks. Now, in the meantime, the threat level against military forces in the Middle East has been raised, meaning that they believe an attack against them is likely. Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington.

SAVIDGE: The killing of an Iranian general has far-reaching consequences, including all the way to the Democratic candidates for president. They're in their final sprint towards the Iowa caucuses. We'll look at how this simmering crisis with Iran could impact their final pitch to voters. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:45:00]

SAVIDGE: In the midst of all the breaking news we don't want to lose sight of the fact that we are just 30 days away from the first contest of the 2020 campaign in Iowa. Today, several candidates are bouncing between events across Iowa as they try to build enthusiasm before the caucuses.

PAUL: But of course you know the escalating tension with Iran, I mean, it could shake up their strategies and their stand on America's foreign policy. Ben Rhodes, who worked as former President Obama's Deputy National Security Advisor put it this way in the "Washington Post." he said quote, I think the basic choice is if you want to return to a recognizable, steady and robust American foreign policy or do you want a more wholesale rejection of the entire post 9/11 approach that Bernie and to some extent Warren are offering. The center of gravity has shifted.

I want to discuss this with Lauren Gambino. She's a political correspondent with "The Guardian." Lauren, thank you so much for being with us. First and foremost, is there any indication that this recent event in the last 24 hours will shift people's perspectives on what they value in a candidate? Will foreign policy move a little higher on the list, maybe closer to healthcare?

LAUREN GAMBINO, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT FOR "THE GUARDIAN": Yes, we haven't really seen foreign policy take center stage yet but this is certainly -- it's certainly changing how that's discussed. We saw, you know, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden kind of go back and forth on foreign policy in the past and that -- that started again yesterday. Bernie Sanders has gone after Joe Biden for his past vote to support the war in Iraq, and you know, I think on this issue in particular, Bernie Sanders thinks he can really distinguish himself from the former vice president.

He wants to compare their records and they both, you know, have the longest records. They've both been in politics for decades and so I think on this issue, you're going to see these top two candidates really go after each other, but you know, if it could cut both ways because this is an issue where Joe Biden is his most confident. I think you see in the debates, Joe Biden really, you know, flexes his experience and his knowledge of all the nuances in the Middle East, especially, so I can I think this is an issue where Joe Biden can show voters I'm running on my experience and I'm ready to be your Commander in Chief. I've dealt with these very intense and very high pressure situations in the past and I'm ready to go on day one.

PAUL: His experience with Iraq could hit some people the wrong way, though. Let's listen here to what you were talking about, this exchange and the way that Sanders is going after Biden right now. The former vice president was asked about that. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, thanks guys, we got to get this...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So tell me you (INAUDIBLE) want to use this moment to question your judgment about Iraq. Bernie Sanders among them today talking about how he was right and you were wrong. What's your response to that?

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't respond to Bernie's ridiculous comments.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you have any questions about Bernie Sanders' judgment on foreign policies?

BIDEN: You're not going to get me in a fight with Bernie.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. And you're...

BIDEN: Bernie's got enough baggage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL: OK, so does his experience, particularly his experience with Iraq which many of his opponents most likely are going to try to highlight. Does it bode well for him or does it not?

GAMBINO: It's going to depend. His voters tend to be older and therefore, you know, I think that his experience does matter for them. His, you know, time is the number two in the White House does matter and that will work to his benefit. But you have Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg whose voters are coming to them for different reasons and in part because of their difference on this issue, Bernie Sanders in particular actually; his voters do name foreign policy as one of the reasons that they're attracted to him. They like that he doesn't want to intervene in this region and he

calls for an end to endless wars is how he puts it, and it's similar to what Donald Trump says. Also you have Pete Buttigieg, a young veteran who has called the Iraq war the biggest blunder of his lifetime. So I think, you know, you can see these candidates really turning on Joe Biden on this issue especially because it's so relevant in this moment. It won't be a reach. It's very much in the news and so that will be an easy attack that they can make on him.

PAUL: When we talk about some of the latest fund-raising numbers for the fourth quarter of 2019, Bernie Sanders is way ahead $35.4 million. Mayor Pete Buttigieg is next at $24.7 million and yet we have President Trump with $46 million. What do you make of all of that, Lauren?

GAMBINO: Well, I think it's a couple of things. It's going to be a very long Democratic primary. You have a number of candidates who have the resources to go the distance, and that's actually not what Democrats want. Because Donald Trump is raising so much money and it's just for the general election, he has very minimal competition in the Republican primary, so he does not have to worry about that. He's entirely focused on the general election. Meanwhile, these candidates, though they're raising a lot of money, are going to be spending a lot of money on the primary race and Democrats want them to find a nominee as quickly as possible so they can turn and focus on Donald Trump and stop him because he does clearly have this war chest and a turn out machine that is already, you know, in full gear.

PAUL: You know, Marianne Williamson laid off her campaign staff nationally this week and she has said things, however, that have been resonating with people. One of the things she said last time she was on the air with us, she said, we are not governing with a conscience. Does she still have a chance?

GAMBINO: I think she has touched a segment of Democratic voters. I don't -- you know, she hasn't really qualified for the debates in several months. She's, you know, not really been on the national radar. She's independently wealthy, and that's how she's got this far. But recently she sort of said, I can't go the distance. I'm not a billionaire like some of these over candidates.

PAUL: It's expensive.

GAMBINO: Right. Exactly. So it's going to be hard.

PAUL: Lauren, we appreciate it. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

GAMBINO: Thanks so much.

PAUL: And by the way, just to note Marianne Williamson is going to be with us live, later this morning on "CNN Newsroom" and in the 10:00 a.m. hour we're going to talk to her so stay close for that.

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[08:55:00]

SAVIDGE: "The New York Times" is reporting the Trump Administration is refusing a court order and with holding 20 emails discussing frozen military aid to Ukraine. The "Times" says the messages were sent by an aide of Trump's acting chief of staff and an official at the Office of Management & Budget and the paper says that official was in charge of handling the release of nearly $400 million in military aid. But the "Times" reports that in response to a court order that the administration swiftly process those pages, the White House refused to turn over the messages even with redactions.

PAUL: And now Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is calling for those officials to appear at the Senate trial even as lawmakers fight over whether there will be any witnesses called.

SAVIDGE: And before we head out, a reminder to tune in to the State of the Union tomorrow. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, they will all join Jake Tapper. Be sure to watch Sunday, 9:00 Eastern right here on CNN. More news straight ahead.

PAUL: Smerconish is next. We'll see you in an hour.

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