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McCain Reaches Out to Australia; Military Action Against Iran; Treasury Allows Minor Easing of Russian Sanctions; Yemen Raid Explanation. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 2, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The news continues right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Pamela Brown.

We begin with breaking news on many fronts on what's shaping up to be a very busy Thursday.

Just a day after President Trump put Iran, quote, "on notice," he is now sending out even more provocative words against Iran after the nation launched ballistic missiles allegedly in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution. Listen to what the president said just moments ago.


QUESTION: Is there military action off the table in Iran?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nothing's - honestly, nothing is off the table.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, out.


TRUMP: I haven't eased anything.


TRUMP: Well -


BROWN: Nothing off the table. And as Iran is now on notice, the world is learning how President Trump is also pulling arguably the nation's closest ally on guard. Details are now coming out about a heated phone call that the president had with Australia's prime minister objecting to a deal former President Obama negotiated. It said the U.S. is to accept about 1,200 refugees now under Australian jurisdiction on a remote island and many of them are from Iran. Today's Australia's leader said - today Australia's leader, rather, said President Trump dismissed him. The deal is intact. But the president just tweeted that the deal was, quote, "dumb." And moments ago he further explained his positon on balking at the plan.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A lot of people taking advantage of us. A lot of countries taking advantage of us. Really terribly taking advantage of us.

We had one instance in Australia. I have a lot of respect for Australia. I love Australia as a country, but we had a problem where, for whatever reason, President Obama said that they were going to take probably well over a thousand illegal immigrants who were in prisons and they were going to bring them and take them into this country. And I just said why? I just wanted to ask a question. I could ask that question of you, why 1,250, it could be 2,000, it could be more than that, and I said, why, why are we doing this? What's the purpose? So we'll see what happens. But, you know, a previous administration does something. You have to respect that. but you can also say, why are we doing this? That's why we're in the jam that we're in.


BROWN: All right, so let's turn to CNN's Sara Murray. She is at the White House.

Sara, some top Republicans are worried now that the U.S. offended Australia, one of our closest allies. John McCain actually made a call. Tell us about that.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. And, look, Donald Trump made it clear in his inauguration address that he was putting both allies and enemies of the United States on notice and that he was going to sort of re-jigger the world order. But I think the way he's doing it with these very frank, and in terms of Australia and Mexico, very tense calls with other heads of state is certainly worrisome to some Republican lawmakers on The Hill. John McCain actually reached out to Australia on his own, in an attempt to try to mend some fences. Take a listen to him laying out his concerns with how Donald Trump handled this.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I'm concerned about the effect of this difference and issue of the Australian people. The importance of our relationship with Australia, it's very, very important. They're one of our most important allies in the world. We have worked together cooperatively in trainings missions, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in intelligence and it's very important we maintain that relationship.


MURRAY: Now we are hearing similar comments today, Pam, from a number of different Republicans on Capitol Hill talking about the importance of this allegiance between the U.S. and Australia. So it's clear that President Trump's frank approach is worrisome not just to other heads of state, but also to some members of his own party. BROWN: And speaking of frank approach, he was asked about Iran. We

know that yesterday Michael Flynn, his national security advisor, said that the administration was putting Iran on notice and now the president is saying that military action is not off the table. Has there been any reaction to that?

MURRAY: Well, we did here from Iran earlier this morning, from a senior advisor to Iran. This, of course, came a day after General Flynn said they were putting Iran on notice because of their ballistic missile activity and Iran essentially said, we are going to vigorously continue with this missile activity. So they seem to be sort of upping the stakes a little bit and President Trump was just asked about what the options are on the table because despite saying that Iran is on notice, senior administration officials last night basically said they're at the beginning of a deliberative process. They wouldn't really say if they were going to take an action. Today, President Trump is making clear that everything is on the table in the - as part of that deliberative process, including potentially military action.


BROWN: All right, Sara Murray, thank you so much for bringing us up to speed on what's going on there at the White House.

Meantime, the Treasury Department just announced it will allow some U.S. companies to do limited business with Russia's intelligence agency known as the FSB. Now this is the same agency that U.S. intelligence had accused of being involved in election hacking efforts. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer denies that this move eases a sanction that was put under place - put into place, rather, under President Obama.

[14:05:16] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Why is the administration easing sanctions against Russia at a time that -

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're not easing sanctions. The Treasury Department - it is, from what I understand, is a fairly common - it's a fairly common practice for the Treasury Department, after sanctions are put in place, to go back and to look at whether or not there needs to be specific carve outs for different, you know, either industries or products and services that need to be going back and forth. But I would refer you back to the Treasury Department on that one.


BROWN: Let's bring in CNN's senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski. She joins me live from the State Department.

So, Michelle, walk us through what's behind this move.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean the headline on this at first looks like, what? I t's confusing at first. This is the FSB, Russian security services. Yes, accused of being part of the hacking. Also what - this is what used to be the KGB.

But when you talk to experts - obviously you heard what the White House said, the Treasury Department, as well as former Obama administration officials, they say, look, this is a little thick. It's actually an innocuous technical fix so that the U.S. government can work with Russia for things like customs and border enforcement, to facilitate trade. So, yes, this is allowing - it is an easing, really. I mean you heard the press secretary say no, no, no, no, this is not an easing. It is. But it is very small.

BROWN: It is, yes.

KOSINSKI: Yes, it's fixing it to allow certain U.S. companies, like contractors, et cetera, to do some very limited business with the FSB. But, again, this is for the governments to work together to facilitate trade. And you look at the numbers involved, it's quite small. I think when you hear, you know, easing sanctions to help the FSB, that seems very alarming. I mean, obviously, every - all eyes are on sanctions right now. I mean people around the world want to see how the new administration handles the sweeping sanctions that were imposed on Russia in a gradual way. But this is not the big deal that maybe at first some thought it was.

BROWN: All right, that's a very important perspective there from Michelle Kosinski.

Thank you so much, Michelle.

And let's take a deep dive now. With me now, the author of "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran." Trita Parsi is also the president of the National Iranian American Council. And P.J. Crowley, who used to be assistant secretary of state for public affairs, he wrote the book "Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States."

So, President Trump, today, said that nothing is off the table when asked whether he would consider military action against Iran.

P.J., first to you, your reaction to that?

P.J. CROWLEY, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Well, at one level it is - you know, it more less mirrors the - the rhetoric of the Obama administration in the sense that on the one hand no options are off the table, on the other hand it did do the nuclear deal, which at least, you know, for the moment, forestalled a military confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Now, particularly with the Obama administration, you know, it continued to express concerns up until its last day, you know, on Iran's growing influence in the region, as well as having an agreement to disagree over whether missile tests, you know, constitute a violation of the U.N., you know, resolution. I mean it just underscores that, you know, notwithstanding the nuclear deal and some of the negative talking points that Mr. Trump used in the campaign, you know, there is still significant friction, you know, between the United States and Iran. BROWN: And you have Iran saying after the White House said it was

putting it on notice that it's going to continue its missile test. Trita, what is your reaction to that?

TRITA PARSI, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL: Well, I think that is to be expected and that's the exact danger here. What the Obama administration did is that they first worked extensively to try to establish channels or communications so in case you end up in a scenario in which you may have to issue a threat, you also have the escalatory options. The Trump administration has not done the effort to be able to establish those channels. So right now the two sides are not talking to each other. Instead, they're just issuing these statements and this bluster. And unless you have the escalatory options, unfortunately what started off as bluster, may end up in a military confrontation.

BROWN: Right, because, P.J., it does raise the question, the White House says, look, Iran, we're going to put you on notice. Iran says we're going to continue our testing. Now the White House is saying nothing's off the table, including military action. I mean where do things go from here?

CROWLEY: Well, I think - just to underscore what Trita said, I think that was one of the most significant bi-products of the nuclear negotiation for the first time in 35 years. You had an authoritative channel between, you know, the United States government, even though it does not have formal diplomatic relations, and representatives of the Iranian government, and that's going to be one of the questions now that we do have a secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is whether you're going to have that channel of communication remain open just to try to make sure that either by design, more likely by misfortune or misreading of actions where you - you can - you can at least understand the other side and try to mitigate the potential for an escalatory step.

[14:10:38] BROWN: And, I'm curious, I mean it's no secret that people within the Trump administration have been outspoken against the Iran nuclear deal. In your view, Trita, is what Iran is doing with this testing, is that a violation of the Iran nuclear deal, as we heard from Michael Flynn yesterday?

PARSI: It is extremely ill-advised what the Iranians did. The timing certainly makes it provocative. But it is not a violation of the U.S. Security Council resolution. What happened in the negotiations was that the missile issue was actually included originally because of the suspicions that the Iranians had a nuclear weapons program and as a result there was an effort to also make sure then that they wouldn't' have the delivery systems. Once the nuclear issue got resolved through the nuclear deal, this issue should actually have been automatically eliminated. But because of the way the United States very successfully pressed the Russians and others, they managed to get a consensus to get it included, but the compromise was that the language was very soft. It only calls on the Iranians not to engage in these activities. That's not legally binding. And as a result, it goes against a spirit. It is extremely ill advised. It is provocative, but it's not a violation and it's certainly not a cause for war. BROWN: OK. And, P.J., I want to ask you about what I was just speaking

with Michelle Kosinski about and this move by the Treasury reporting that it is easing sanctions. Trump denies that this is, in fact, an easing of any sanctions, but how do you see it? Is this common practice?

CROWLEY: Well, I think there is a - there is a technical basis behind it, but I think what we're seeing is the - we could have participated the reaction particularly on Capitol Hill where there is a clear division between the Trump administration and the rhetoric behind its approach to Russia and the Congress recognizing that there was Russian interference in the election and there's certainly an impulse, you know, on The Hill to try to do something about that. So while yes on the one hand there's a technical explanation for it, on the other hand we see this as yet another example, you know, from President Trump who refused to at least initially acknowledge the Russian attempt to influence the election and now you see kind of a failure to read the signals that its sending to the rest of the world whether you're talking about Russian sanctions, whether you're talking about immigrants, or whether you're talking about refugees with Australia. And while it's off to an aggressive start, obviously there's the cost that we're paying in terms of U.S. relations with the rest of the world.

BROWN: Trita, final word to you.

PARSI: I just - the thing that I think is so important for people to understand right now is that we have a functioning nuclear deal that has taken war with Iran, as well as a nuclear weapon in Iran off the table. It would be tremendously irresponsible to escalate over minor issues on the side that could actually cause that deal to fall apart. That would be a significant detriment to U.S. national security.

BROWN: All right, Trita Parsi, P.J. Crowley, thank you both, gentlemen, appreciate it.

CROWLEY: Thank you.

BROWN: And up next, we have some more breaking news. This involving the deadly U.S. raid in which a Navy SEAL was killed. We now know that President Trump approved the operation.

Plus, I'll speak with the chaplain who Trump called out today during the National Prayer Breakfast. And the moment the president asked the room to pray for the rating for TV's "Apprentice." Stay with us.


[14:17:7] BROWN: Welcome back.

We just heard from Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who was very careful to explain why the raid which killed a U.S. Navy SEAL was characterized by the president as a success. And he also discussed how the raid in an al Qaeda stronghold in Yemen was planned and green lit over a dinner.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He then, on that evening, had a dinner meeting, which included the president, the vice president, Secretary Mattis, Chairman Dunford, Chief of Staff Priebus, Jared Kushner, Chief Strategist Bannon, General Kellogg (ph), General Flynn and CIA Director Pompeo, where the operation was laid out in great extent. The indication at that time was to go ahead.


BROWN: And I want to mention that the Navy just announced that Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens killed in that raid will be posthumously advanced to senior chief petty officer.

And joining me now, Ryan Browne, our national security producer and retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Anthony Tata.

Thank you both for coming on.

Ryan, just start with you. You are learning some more details about the civilian casualties and the details of this firefight. What have you learned?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY PRODUCER: Well, we learned that this operation had been in the works for some time. Now this is what's called the site exploitation mission which is designed to gather as much intelligence on al Qaeda and Yemen as possible to facilitate future strikes down the road.

Now the - this operation was delayed in order to achieve a moonless evening to kind of provide some concealment. Unfortunately, the al Qaeda fighters detected these U.S. Navy SEALs and their UAE allies. An intense firefight broke out involving grenades, small arms fire and some heavy weapons usage. Some airstrikes were called to support the U.S. Navy SEALs. It is believe that those air strikes against a building where al Qaeda fighters were firing from resulted in significant civilian casualties. The U.S. military's still investigating, but they say it's likely that there were civilian casualties, including some children. And, of course, there are reports from the ground, from Yemen officials, saying that civilian casualties were in the dozens potentially. So the military's still accessing that, but we've learned that that is kind of the current state of their view in terms of the civilian casualty situation.

[14:20:04] BROWN: OK. Thank you so much, Ryan Browne. I appreciate it.

And, general, I want to come you to now. You just heard those details and, of course, the details about the civil casualties. I want to listen to what Sean Spicer today said during the White House briefing and why the White House views this raid as a success. Let's take a listen to what he said.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's hard to ever call something a complete success when you have the loss of life, or people injured. But I think when you look at the totality of what was gained to prevent the future loss of life here in America and against our people and our institutions and probably throughout the world in terms of what some of these individuals could have done, I think it is - it is - it is a successful operation by all standards.


BROWN: So, general, what is your reaction to that? Do you agree with him?

BRIGADIER GENERAL ANTHONY TATA, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, I think the press secretary is trying to be very careful in what he's saying because you have to look I think, first, Pamela, at the very different change in tactic here where previous administration relied primarily on done strikes. Here we have boots on the ground and we have aerial coverage and we have SEAL Team 6, a special mission unit, going in to retrieve sensitive site exploitation, as Ryan called it.

So there was something there that we needed to get our hands on that threatened U.S. vital interests. And so success, not success. If we got what they were planning, and if we preempted an attack, you know, it's hard to prove a negative if nothing ever happens then, you know, how do you prove that it was a success. But if we prevented that, and I think that's what the press secretary is saying, is that there was prevention of something that was being planned by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, then - then that is a success. And, sure, any time there's loss of life, you know, a great Navy SEAL losing his life, others injured, hard landing is a euphemism for crash. So, you know, you can tell it - you know, as Ryan mentioned, it was a moonless night. It was a new moon. That was probably the trigger for the event because we like to go - we have the night vision optic advantage in these fights. But the harder something like that is defended, Pamela, the more important it is to them. And so that tells me that what we went after was very high value.

BROWN: What do you make of the fact that the president apparently made this decision over dinner?

TATA: Yes, I don't think it - you know, I think what you've got is a president that's working 24-7 and, you know, when I heard all the names and I knew some of this from my sources, you know, I know General Kellogg, Keith Kellogg, very well. I know Mike Flynn very well. You know, he had all the right people in the room. CIA Director Pompeo. He had all the right people there to - with the right experience. Mike Flynn and I were on the battlefield together in Afghanistan. He's as good an intelligence officer as there is. He's a great national security adviser. So you've got all the right people. It's whether or not they were eating cheeseburgers or not, it doesn't really matter what they were eating.

BROWN: Well, but you just picture, you know, them being in a skiff in the Situation Room deliberating for, you know - and so I think maybe that is how things happen in the White House, but I think initially it certainly caught my attention and my producer's attention that this happened over a dinner. Before I let you go, general, I want to just kind of ask you, because there's been some questions raised about whether this was done prematurely without the full, you know, fuller picture with intelligence. What is the process? Walk us through what happens in preparation to go to the president and say, this is our package, this is a raid that we want to conduct? What are the stages, the steps before it gets to that level?

TATA: Yes, there's something called the joint operations planning process. You get a que of intelligence. You get some kind of communication. You get some kind of intelligence, whether it's human intelligence, signals intelligence, you know, some kind of special intelligence that has come and then you cross confirm it because you - you never want to go on one piece of intelligence. You want to have at least two corroborating pieces of intelligence that then tell you that you've got something significant. And if we're putting boots on the ground in Yemen, that tells me it threatened U.S. vital interest.

And so then what you do is you give it to your special mission units and (INAUDIBLE) and central command and the special operations commander, all those people are very good soldiers that I've served with and I know they know this process. They went through the process. They've been planning this mission. And then what they do is they look for the right battlefield geometry. Is the weather correct? Is the moonlight correct? Can we get from point a to point b. There's a lot of logistics involved in just getting to the objective.

And then there's the actions on the objective. What is it that we're going after? It was - it was hard drives. It was flash drives. There were - the computerized equipment that they were trying to collect in the sensitive side exploitation. That was the goal of this mission and they got that.

[14:25:14] And then once they pulled off the objective, then you have all that logistics in reverse to get people back safely. You've got to be able to do medical evacuation.

BROWN: Right.

TATA: And so when you present to the president a plan, you've got to have all of those - all of that main plan together. And then you've got to have a, you know, a couple of contingencies as well. Well, if the weather turns bad, you know, here's our trigger to turn back. If something happens on the objective, here's how we're going to pull it off. And you've got -

BROWN: Right, and a lot of - because a lot of different things can go wrong and certainly a lot of things did not go as planned during the raid.

General, thank you very much for coming on our show. We do appreciate it.

And coming up on this Thursday, back to our breaking news, escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. President Trump saying military action not off the table, just a day after putting Iran on notice. Reaction from overseas, that's next.

Plus, pray for Arnold. President Trump takes a moment at the National Prayer Breakfast to talk ratings and "The Apprentice." We'll talk to the pastor who got this shout-out from the president.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't even know if you're a Democrat or if you're a Republican, but I'm appointing you for another year, the hell with it. And I think it's not -