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Iran and Israel Trade Fire; Russian Influence in Syria; McCain Rejects Haspel Nomination; Cohen Pitched Access to Trump; Pence Wants Investigation Wrapped Up. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired May 10, 2018 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in New York, 6:00 p.m. in Niamey, Niger, 8:00 p.m. in Jerusalem. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.
We start with rockets flying between Iranian forces and the Israeli military, which has led to a call for restraint in the Middle East. Israel says Iranian forces in Syria fired on Israeli targets in the Golan Heights. Israel responded with a barrage of -- a barrage of activity on suspected Iranian targets inside Syria. One Israeli official saying, and I'm quoting now, if it rains in Israel, it will pour in Iran.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government says this now marks a new phase of the war and promises that the Syrian military will confront the attacks from Israel.
Our Oren Liebermann is live up on the Golan Heights. Our -- CNN's senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is in Tehran.
Oren, this would mark, what, the first time Iranian forces actually started to fire rockets, missiles, at Israeli forces on the Golan Heights. Israeli forces, though, were already on height alert, right?
OREN LIEBERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. This is the first such direct confrontation between Israel and Iran playing out in the skies behind us here over the occupied Golan Heights and southern Syria as we watched it happen.
Israel, as you point out, was very ready for this to happen and has been for a number of weeks, if not months now. That's because there were a number of strikes in Syria targeting Syrian and Iranian forces that they blamed on Israel. Israel didn't comment on those strikes but prepared for a backlash. Over the last couple of days, the IDF, the Israeli military, had been on high alert. Bomb shelters were opened and prepped, although in the end they weren't used. Israel says it was very much ready for these strikes. Twenty rockets came over just after midnight. Israel says those were Iranian forces firing them. The response, we saw surface-to-surface missiles, artillery fire and more. It was a chaotic, volatile night here.
Since then, a deceptive quite as the international community tries to make sure it doesn't escalate here. The White House sitting firmly in Israel's corner defending Israel's right to defend itself. We just got a short statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It reads in part, Iran has crossed a red line. Our reaction was appropriate. The IDF carried out a very wide number of attacks against Iranian targets in Syria. I want to repeat whoever hits us will get hit seven times over.
So very much a warning to Iran from Netanyahu not to continue this aggression. So far right now the assessment is, having spoken to the Israeli military, that Israel doesn't want to respond or doesn't want to escalate at this point and neither does Iran, according to the assessments from the Israeli military. So this may be over, but it is worth noting that this is still incredibly tense, incredibly volatile and the night is still very young here, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, from the Golan Heights, let's go to Tehran.
Fred, what's been the reaction from the Iranian government? Has Iran said they did fire at the Israeli forces in the Golan Heights?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, Wolf, they haven't said that at all. In fact there's been deafening silence coming here out of Tehran. It's now past 9:30 in the evening here in the Iranian capital and there still has not been any sort of official recognition or official statement from the Iranian side.
It's interesting because throughout the day Iran state media has actually been reporting that there were Israeli strikes on Syrian territory. Some Iranian media even were hinting that it might have been skirmishes between the Syria military and the Iranians. And there was even one Iranian network that was acknowledging that the Israelis were blaming the Iranians for allegedly firing first, but even they were saying they were still waiting for some sort of statement coming from the Iranian government. Again, that has not happened yet.
But, of course, all this, Wolf, also comes at extremely tense times. Here in Tehran you have that escalation going on there in the Middle East and then you, of course, also have President Trump just yesterday backing out of the nuclear agreement. And that's something that certainly has a lot of folks here on the ground very concerned.
You know, we went around Tehran for the better part of today. We spoke to people. They said they're very concerned about the economic situation of the currency here. The rial is really tanking. Prices are skyrocketing. And now they're also seeing their country essentially involved in that escalation there in Syria as well. And then, of course, also increasingly being isolated economically by the United States, Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, let me go back to Oren in the Golan Heights.
Oren, as you pointed out, there was a lot of tension between the Israelis and the Iranian forces in Syria going back weeks, if not months. There were previous Israeli attacks on some Iranian supply operations inside Syria. But this is the first time Iran has launched rockets against Israeli targets in the Golan Heights. Is that directly related to President Trump's decision to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal?
LIEBERMANN: Not solely related, but directly related in a sense that it all fits into the same picture. It's viewed as Israel's moves against Iran and there's no doubt that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his dramatic presentation about a week and a half ago, was very much trying to push President Donald Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, to re-impose the most powerful sanctions. So even if the strikes were expected and ready, what we saw from Trump, the decision to pull out of the Iran deal, that's very much what Netanyahu wanted to see. And you're absolutely right, Wolf, it all plays into the same picture, the growing tension between Israel and Iran. We'll find out, I suspect, in the next couple of days here whether it dissipates or escalates.
[13:05:35] BLITZER: All right, Oren Liebermann, thanks very much. Fred Pleitgen is in Iran. Thanks to you as well. We'll certainly get back to both of you as this situation unfolds.
Let's bring in Maryland Senator Ben Cardin right now. He's a Democrat. He's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
Let me get your quick reaction. Syria, the regime of Bashar al Assad, says this is a new phase in the war that's been going on there for years. What can you tell us about these latest attacks that have been going on involving the Israelis and the Iranians?
SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, first, it's good to be with you.
But what's happened here is that we know that the Iranians have a foothold now in Syria. The Israelis were very uncomfortable with that as Ian got closer and closer to the Israel border through Syria. So this tension has been building for months now. And we recognize that Israel would take action if it felt that its security was being compromised.
The decision was made by the Israelis that they had to defend themselves and they took action. So I think it has to deal with the fact that the Iranians are advancing in Syria and have territory in Syria that is very much at -- puts Israel at risk.
BLITZER: Yes, I know the Israelis are also deeply concerned about that Hezbollah forces, not only in Lebanon, but in Syria as well, that are backed by the Iranians. Russia officials, senator, they're calling for restraint right now. Given their relationship with the Syrian regime, with the Iranians and with Israel for that matter, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, is in Moscow meeting with Putin. Is Russia set up to become the key peacemaker right now?
CARDIN: Well, Russia has certainly caused a lot of the problems in Syria, particularly in supporting the Assad regime. They've created the vacuum that has allowed Iran to have their influence in Syria.
Certainly Russia could play a very positive role by bringing about a process that would bring peace among the warring factions in the civil war in Syria without allowing Iran to get a foothold in Syria. That should certainly be part of the U.S. role in whatever happens in Syria.
BLITZER: Let me turn -- switch gears for a moment while I have you, senator. Your colleague, the Arizona senator, John McCain, he's urging senators to vote against the confirmation of Gina Haspel to become the next CIA director. He states the fact that she won't say if torture -- that she oversaw the enhanced interrogation techniques, as it was called after 9/11 was immoral. Here's an exchange from her confirmation hearing yesterday. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: It's a yes or no answer. Do you believe the previous interrogation techniques were immoral? I'm not asking do you believe they were illegal. I'm asking, do you believe they were immoral?
GINA HASPEL, CIA DIRECTOR NOMINEE: Senator, I believe that CIA did extraordinary work --
HARRIS: It's a yes or no answer.
HASPEL: To prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools that we were authorized to use.
HARRIS: Please answer yes or no.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Where do you stand right now in Gina Haspel's nomination?
CARDIN: I think that exchange is very, very troublesome. We want the director of the CIA to be very clear about American values and about moral leadership. So I think that question was very, very troublesome.
Senator McCain, I'm reading the material that he has sent to all of us in regards to this nominee. I'm also reviewing today classified information before I make my final judgment. But I share these concerns.
BLITZER: Which way are you leaning right now?
CARDIN: Well, I think I'll withhold giving you a direct answer to that, but I can tell you that I'm very troubled by these -- that a role in these -- using these enhanced techniques, these -- what's now know to be torture, and would he -- her role is the destruction of the taping of these sessions.
BLITZER: Because, as you know, so many of the intelligence leaders during the Obama administration strongly support her, say she's highly qualified to become the CIA director, whether it's Leon Panetta or John Brennan or General Clapper or Jeremy Bash. They all say she is well qualified for this position. They point out, remember after 9/11 there was a different environment. Then the world, especially people in America, were deeply concerned about al Qaeda and other 9/11 attacks. Does that -- does that have any influence on you?
[13:10:05] CARDIN: Well, she's clearly had a career in serving our country and we admire that commitment to the United States.
But one thing is very clear, America's strength are our values and the message we send to the international community that we have to work with the international community. And I think we have to be very clear about the head of the CIA leading in America's values.
BLITZER: Well, she says if -- if she was given the order to engage in that kind of torture or enhanced interrogation techniques as the new CIA director, she wouldn't go through with it and she said the CIA wouldn't go through it either. Isn't that good enough for you?
CARDIN: Well, clearly we have seen the change in the policy at the CIA. It occurred under the Obama administration that they wouldn't tolerate a violation of our torture commitments. But I think the concern that's being expressed during the confirmation process, that if at the highest levels those decisions were changed, how does she feel about these issues? Should America participate in any circumstances in the use of methods that are torture? And the answer to that should be, no, that we won't participate in torture.
BLITZER: Senator Cardin, thanks so much for joining us.
CARDIN: Oh, my pleasure. Good to be with you.
BLITZER: All right, there's other news we're following, including important new details involving Michael Cohen, the president's long- time personal attorney and just how aggressively the president's attorney tried to capitalize off of this client's success in the election.
And mark your calendar. On June 12th, President Trump and Kim Jong-un will come face to face in Singapore for a truly historic summit involving nuclear weapons.
Plus, the Trump team has a new name for Democrats who vote no on Gina Haspel, sexist. We're going to discuss the GOP's sudden use of the gender card.
[13:15:59] BLITZER: We have now insight into how Michael Cohen, the president's long-time personal attorney, so-called fixer, made millions of dollars by promising access to his client, the president. One source tells CNN that after the election Cohen immediately began shopping himself around. A Republican strategist says his sales pitch went something like this, quote, I don't know who's been representing you, but you should fire them all. I'm the guy you should hire. I'm closest to the president. I'm his personal lawyer, closed quote.
At least four companies took the bait, including one tied to a Putin ally. In all, the companies paid Cohen around $2 million. It's important to note that Cohen hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing, but the new revelations do raise some serious questions about whether one of the president's closest confidantes engaged in influence peddling. That could also spell some potential legal trouble for Cohen, who's already had his office, his home, his hotel room raided by the FBI. He's clearly under criminal investigation right now.
So far at least two companies say they've cooperated with the special counsel and CNN has exclusively learned that Robert Mueller's team interviewed the Russian about payments his U.S. affiliate made.
CNN reached out, by the way, to the president's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, earlier this morning. Giuliani says he doubts President Trump knew about the payments to Cohen. He added, and I'm quoting Giuliani now, I'll only get concerned about it if somebody says it involves the president. So far they're not saying that, closed quote.
With me to discuss all of this, CNN political analyst, the veteran journalist, Carl Bernstein.
Carl, what -- you just heard the explanation of what the sides are respectively saying. What do you think?
CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's quite a list.
I think the first thing is to look at Cohen in terms of his connections to Russians, particularly the Russian named in this latest round to whom his slush fund, his secret account, that is to say Cohen's received hundreds of thousands of dollars from someone connected probably to Vladimir Putin. That's the thing we ought to be looking at more than anything because this whole idea that the president of the United States and others, his Republican supporters, keep saying, no collusion, no collusion, no collusion.
In fact, one reason that there is an open case about collusion, from what we know from investigators, from others, is because of these constant contacts with Russians among those around the president, including his fixer and his lawyer, Michael Cohen. And what the prosecutors in New York may have as a result of the raids that you've just pointed out on Cohen and his i-devices and his computers is really relevant to the question of Russia.
BLITZER: You're talking about Viktor Vekselberg, this Russian oligarch, this Russian billionaire, who does have close ties to Putin and he had a connection with one of the American companies that was funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to Michael Cohen.
BERNSTEIN: More than Mr. Vekselberg. It's also that Michael Cohen has a long history with many, many mobbed up Russians, to put it mildly, business dealings with Russians, including others close to Putin, as we know. Mr. Sader (ph), Felix Sader (ph). There's a whole list.
What I'm trying to get at is, this idea of the president and his surrogate saying, no collusion is a bit of a ruse to undermine the investigation of Mueller. The whole reason that we need an independent investigation is because so many people, Mr. Manafort, Mr. Gates and on and on around Donald Trump, including his son-in-law, have dealings with Russians that we need to look at in terms of what happened in the campaign, what happened that made the president of the United States or president-elect say, oh, yes, we'll do away with sanctions that Mr. Putin would like removed, et cetera.
This is time for serious investigation, not political undermining of the special prosecutor's investigation, which Mr. Giuliani and the president of the United States are determined to do. [13:20:06] BLITZER: The president, he has defended Michael Cohen in
the past. He described the FBI's raid, which were -- had a court order against Cohen's home, his office as break-ins.
How do these payments, if at all, alter the dynamics of that relationship?
BERNSTEIN: We don't know. We don't know. Obviously that there is a lot of thought that Cohen is facing perhaps an awful lot of time in the slam, to put it mildly, for many, many of his activities, and there is a desire among prosecutors in the southern district, I believe, that perhaps he will break and talk about what he knows in his relationship with the president of the United States. He was his fixer. He was his emissary in many business dealings.
But what's really so extraordinary so far is what the Republicans in Congress have done in terms of blind loyalty to Mr. Trump instead of saying, hey, we need to get to the bottom of what might have happened with a foreign power undermining our election through some of these people perhaps, including, if the evidence is exculpatory, let's put it aside and say, hey, Trump, those around him did not do this.
But let me try one equation on people who were watching this. Supposing this were Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, and it were her fixer, Mr. Cohen, not Trump's fixer. And it were her Michael Flynns and her Paul Manaforts and her Roger Stones, there would be a (INAUDIBLE) cry from the Republicans on The Hill to put her in leg irons, forget about an independent counsel's investigation.
And that investigation, if Hillary Clinton had done anything like what we have seen alleged here, there would be a sacrosanct investigation that Republicans would defend, would never allow to be undermined or touched. And that is really, I think, how for a generation we may look back and judge the current Republicans and what they did in at a critical moment in the history of the presidency, when the president of the United States was perhaps involved in some kind of collusion. And we cannot get to the bottom of it unless this investigation goes forward.
BLITZER: You know, it's interesting that Robert Mueller's team interviewed two of the companies that were paying Michael Cohen hundreds of thousands of dollars six months ago -- or so ago. That he was clearly well aware of what was going on.
The vice president, Mike Pence, though, he was on TV earlier this morning saying, you know what, it's time to wrap this whole investigation up. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In the interests of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up. And I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He wants Robert Mueller to bring his work to conclusion.
BERNSTEIN: Look, he's the vice president of the United States. With all due respect to the office, this vice president is a total sycophant for Donald Trump. He's a surrogate. There's no reason to put any faith in his word in terms of this particular investigation. He knows very little, if anything. He's out of the loop.
Look, this is a critical moment in American history. Is the rule of law going to prevail? Are we going to have accountability to the president of the United States? Or are we going to have a legitimate investigation undermined by Republican members of Congress and by those around the president and his supporters? One would hope that even his base, which is everything in terms of his politics, in terms of how he goes after the press because he understands that his -- that we are meat to his base, and that is his hope of survival if the facts here turn out to be really nefarious and deleterious to his future, we need this investigation to go forward.
And enough undermining and enough people in some of the media. In -- at Fox, for instance, there are great reporters at Fox. There are a number of them. And they are beginning to report on what's really going on in this investigation. And Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox, his "Wall Street Journal" has done some of the greatest reporting that every day the president of the United States and his spokesman put into the category of fake news. None of this is fake news. This is something that all America needs to be concerned about and keep their eye on.
BLITZER: Carl Bernstein, thanks so much for joining us.
BERNSTEIN: Good to be here.
BLITZER: Up next, the date and location now set for the highly anticipated face-to-face meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Trump. We have new details.
Plus, stunning pictures coming out of North Korea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's 13-day visit to the rogue nation. We're going inside that meeting. Stay with us.
[13:29:12] BLITZER: The date is now set for President Trump's ground- breaking summit with the North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un. In a tweet today, the president said, and I'm quoting now, the highly anticipated meeting between Kim Jong-un and myself will take place in Singapore on June 12th. We will both try to make it a very special moment for world peace, closed quote.
In a new CNN poll, 77 percent of the American people approve of the upcoming summit, white just 18 percent disapprove. The poll was conducted before North Korea released three American detainees. They arrived back here in the United States overnight and the president praised the decision by Kim Jong-un to free the men.
[13:30:52] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We very much appreciate that he allowed them to go before the meeting. It was sort of understood that we'd be able to get these three terrific people during the meeting and bring them home after the meeting, and he was nice in letting them go before the meeting. I mean, frankly, we didn't think this was going to happen, and it did.