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Interview With Sen. John Barrasso; Iranian President Says U.S. is Confused and Taking Illogical Moves; Trump Imposes New Sanctions on Iran Amid Escalating Tensions; President Trump Dismisses Idea of FBI Probe into Khashoggi's Death. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired June 25, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:20] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour, good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow. Jim Sciutto is off today.

Lying, outrageous and idiotic. This morning Iran is hitting back at the Trump administration after it hammered Iran with new sanctions claiming the White House suffers from, and this is terminology from the Iranian regime, quote, "mental disability" and is cutting off chances for diplomacy, quote, "forever."

Of course all of this follows the president's National Security adviser John Bolton just hours ago calling Iranian leaders a radical regime. But astonishingly in the same speech he claims President Trump has opened the door for negotiations. That's if President Trump chooses diplomacy. He says if he decides to use the military option, he would not need congressional approval. Here was the president.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I like the idea of keeping Congress abreast, but I wouldn't have to do that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sure. Nancy Pelosi actually said you must have congressional approval. So do you disagree with her on that?

TRUMP: I disagree.


HARLOW: Let's get to Fred Pleitgen, our colleague who is live in Tehran for us this morning.

So those words, I mean, very carefully chosen and could not be more biting from the Iranian regime about the White House, saying it suffers from, you know, mental disability. What more are Iranian officials there, the Foreign minister, saying about the new sanctions?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's quite interesting, Poppy, because on the one hand the Iranians are saying that these sanctions mean nothing, that they're only a propaganda, that they're not going to hurt the supreme leader and also not going to hurt some of the others who have been sanctioned as well. Like for instance, senior members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. But they're also saying, look, the fact that these sanctions were put

in place closes the door for diplomacy forever. The Iranians are saying that the U.S. on the one hand says that it wants to go back to the negotiating table but on the other hand, for instance, has also announced that they want to sanction Iran's Foreign minter, the top diplomat of the country. So the Iranians are essentially accusing the United States of lying about their intentions of wanting to get the Iranians back to the table and really attacking the White House as such.

Let's listen in to what's the president, Hassan Rouhani, had to say.


HASSAN ROUHANI, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): They have become frustrated and confused. They do not know what to do. They do strange things that no sane person in the history of world politics has done or at least I don't remember. This is because of their total confusion. They have become mentally disabled. The White House is suffering from mental disability.


PLEITGEN: So there you heard some pretty strong words there coming from the Iranian side. The Iranians also engaged in some pretty tough talk once again against the U.S. There's a senior naval commander who said earlier today that anybody who engages in what they call adventurism in the region would not come out alive -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Wow. Fred Pleitgen, thank you very much for the reporting. And it's just invaluable to have you on the ground in Tehran for us.

Also this morning U.S. National Security adviser John Bolton is taking a very hard line -- not surprising -- on Iran. This as he's meeting with Israel and Russia. This meeting is happening in Jerusalem. He's promising a combination of sanctions and other pressure will get Iran back to the negotiating table. Listen to Bolton.


JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The president has held the door open to real negotiations. To completely and verifiably eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons program. All that Iran needs to do is to walk through that open door.


HARLOW: Well, the escalating standoff with Iran comes as the Pentagon faces an unprecedented period of upheaval. There has not been a permanent Senate confirmed secretary of Defense for 175 days. That is since of course General James Mattis resigned from that position on December 31st and it is taking a toll.

Let's begin in our reporter, Michael Warren, who has been digging deep on this and doing a lot of reporting. So, Michael, let me begin with just your words and your piece about

this, that you describe the Pentagon as being without a civilian head and on auto pilot. What does that mean and what are the implications of that right now given this situation with not only Iran, right, with North Korea and et cetera.

MICHAEL WARREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. And again, Poppy, this has been going on for more than six months, a record length of time for the Department of Defense to be without that permanent secretary. Now you talk to people, defense experts, formal officials in the Pentagon. They say the Pentagon is a large bureaucracy made up a lot of different bureaucracies that keep going, keep moving whether or not there is a permanent secretary, and that seems to be true for a short period of time, but there are some long-term consequences, they say. Long-term reforms, planning, strategy, retention of other civilian officials within the Pentagon.

[09:05:08] It's starting to cause a lot of problems.


WARREN: We've had all this turnover now with the acting secretary, and it is having a real effect.

HARLOW: So, Michael, I mean, you'll remember, I think it was back in February on "Face the Nation," on CBS, when the president said this. Quote, "It's easier to make moves when they're acting," talking about just having acting positions, period. Not just secretary of Defense. It's easier to make moves when they're acting. I like acting because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility.

Is there any merit to that argument or is there more that a permanent Senate confirmed, say, secretary of Defense, can actually do? More power they have.

WARREN: Well, again, Poppy, that permanent secretary of Defense can for instance start recruiting a lot of these positions, these civilian positions that remain vacant right now especially since General Mattis left. There's a lot of, again, long-term planning and there's a lot of external things that the secretary of Defense can do when he is -- he or she is confirmed by the Senate. A lot better communication with Congress, for instance.


WARREN: Congress can hold the secretary of Defense to what the secretary says in those confirmation hearings and also externally and internationally we have the NATO summit this week, a number of ministers of defense will be meeting in Brussels. The acting secretary will be there, Mark Esper, who's expected to be nominated by President Trump for the permanent position.

But what defense experts tell me is that it's different. There's a sense that the idea of temporary never really leaves the mind of people dealing with an acting secretary of Defense. HARLOW: Sure. That's a good point. So the president's pick right

now, at least the acting secretary, Mark Esper, talk about the leadership changes that would have to come if he is nominated and confirmed by the Senate. I mean, what would that look like in terms of the shuffling of the cards within the Pentagon at a moment where there's so many questions about how this country is going to deal with Iran?

WARREN: That's right. There's a really going to be kind of a crazy carousel. Could we have three acting secretaries of Defense within a month or so? Of course Patrick Shanahan was six months or so as acting secretary, expected to be nominated and then withdrew last week from consideration. Mark Esper was put into this position, but the law says, complicated federal vacancies laws says that Esper will actually have to step down as soon as his nomination is formally sent to the Senate, and so we will have the secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, expected to take on that acting secretary job.

A lot of turnover, a lot of turmoil, there's a lot of what experts call in-briefing for those acting secretaries to get up to speed about all of the vast bureaucracies again that the Pentagon.


WARREN: Deals with.

HARLOW: Sure, and this is a moment especially when you would want nothing lost in the mix with all of that transition.

WARREN: That's right.

HARLOW: Michael Warren, great reporting. Thank you, my friend.

All right. Let's go to Capitol Hill, House Democrats are divided. This was very evident last night in a late-night meeting. They're divided as Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushes for a vote today on a bill that would send billions of dollars to the U.S.-Mexico border. A lot of that for those detention facilities. Some of the most progressive members of the caucus say this bill does not go far enough. There are not enough restrictions on how the money could be used.

This is after hundreds of migrant children were relocated from this Texas facility that you're looking at on your screen after reports they were living in filth for weeks, going weeks on end without showers and toothpaste and soap.

We are live at the border but first let's go to Capitol Hill to find out where this goes from here.

Nancy Pelosi, Lauren Fox, is trying to get her caucus to vote on something that could be agreed upon in the Senate and signed ultimately by the president but she's having a very hard time doing that.

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. You know, it's a steep hill to climb for the speaker of the House. She heard from members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last night, progressive members who are frustrated basically saying, you know, we're just giving more money to the administration at the border to, you know, create more of a crisis than we're already seeing.

So this morning we do expect that the House Appropriations Committee will unveil changes, subtle changes to this bill that some of those changes will include just, you know, increases in the standards of care at some of the facilities that are housing these migrant children, but, you know, there's going to be a tough battle ahead because the House still hopes to vote today.

There's questions about whether they can get the votes to pass their bill, then you still have to deal with the Senate. They have not voted on the floor yet on their own proposal, that passed in a bipartisan fashion, 30-1, out of the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, but there are big differences between the Senate bill and the House bill. How you reconcile those differences and how you do it before ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, runs out of money at the end of the month.

It's a huge question and it's one that Dick Durbin who is the Democratic whip, told me in the Senate just a few minutes ago would be a miracle to get done by the end of the week before the Fourth of July recess -- Poppy.

[09:10:06] HARLOW: Yes. They really need him to get it done, you know, on the Democratic side and Republicans as well, and Democrats have come together.

Lauren Fox, please keep us posted on where this goes. Thank you.

So let's talk more about what is actually happening at this facility. Our Nick Valencia live in El Paso.

For anyone reading about this, Nick, or listening to it, to just imagine for one moment that these were their children, it's unbelievable.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And some of these inspectors and independent monitors, Poppy, are parents and they say it is unconscionable what they saw. One inspector has been doing this government accountability checks for 20 years and says this is the worst that she's ever seen. A Customs and Border Protection facility.

And it's very interesting. After the Associated Press first reported these condition and then CNN followed up, these children were abruptly moved and HHS is now responding to that with a statement here. I want to read that in part. Quote, "Last week the Office of Refugee Resettlement identified shelters space in its network for 249 unaccompanied children who were later located at the CBP Clint Station facility. These children should now all be in HHS care as of Tuesday, June 25th."

And some of the conditions described to me by these independent monitors who conducted interviews with more than 30 children, just absolutely filthy, squalid conditions. Some of these teenagers that they interviewed hadn't showered in three weeks. There's limited access to things like toothpaste, toothbrushes and soap. One woman said that there is a pervasive health crisis happening across the southern border. She's worrying about the long-term impact and effect on these migrant children.

We mentioned that the children had been moved, Poppy. According to Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, most of the children had been moved here to the Border Patrol station behind me. But according to independent observers the conditions in this Border Patrol station may not be any better. Perhaps even worse in Clint -- Poppy.

HARLOW: OK. Nick Valencia, I'm so glad you're on this story. Thank you for being there for us in El Paso this morning.

VALENCIA: You bet.

HARLOW: Still to come, hard liners pushing the president to take action on Iran. I will speak with a top ranking Republican senator. What he thinks the administration should do next.

And the first Democratic debate just a few days away. How are the candidates preparing? How will they break out from that ever growing pack?

Plus new body cam video released in the Jussie Smollett case shows the "Empire" actor on the night he claims he was attacked with a makeshift noose around his neck. Over 70 hours of footage reveals much, much more about the night of that alleged incident.


[09:15:00] HARLOW: All right, show us the plan. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham says he's not worried about the president's decision to pull back on that almost attack on Iran, but he says we need a plan moving forward. Graham tells CNN's Manu Raju, quote, "we're working on one", and quote, "we'll see if they adopt it."

Well, Republican Senator John Barrasso joins me now, he sits on the Foreign Relations Committee; he's also the chair of the Senate Republican Conference. It is so important to have your voice on all --

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-WY): Thank you --

HARLOW: Of this, this morning, senator, I appreciate you being here. So, let me ask you about the president this week in a new interview. He said he appreciates the input from Congress, but essential he doesn't need the approval of Congress if he were to strike Iran. Do you agree with that?

BARRASSO: Well, I agree. I think under the More Powers Act, the president has that authority, but I think the president has also shown he wants to continue with maximum pressure without military action, and he's done that by increasing the cyber attacks. He's done that with increasing the sanctions against individuals, and we've seen it with the sanctions on oil as well as the sanctions on metals and petrol chemicals. The pressure continues to be ramped up.

HARLOW: Are you comfortable with this president or any president launching an attack on Iran without consulting Congress first?

BARRASSO: Well, I think any president would have that authority under the War Powers Act, especially if we are attacked. We know that Iran has had 40 years of bad behavior, it needs to stop because the threats are increasing with their desire for nuclear weapons, their increased ballistic missiles, their increased funding of terrorism.

It is time for them to change their behavior, and the president is taking the right approach.

HARLOW: Foreign Minister Zarif just said Iran will never pursue a nuclear weapon. This was just in the last five minutes. Do you believe that? Should the U.S. believe that?

BARRASSO: No, we shouldn't believe that. Don't listen to what they say, watch what they do. And what they have been doing has continued to be pursuing a nuclear weapon. It has been a stated goal through the years, but Iran with a nuclear weapon makes the world --

HARLOW: So if --

BARRASSO: Makes the world less safe and less secure and less stable. We cannot allow that to happen.

HARLOW: So if the U.S. should not believe that and not believe what they say, then what is your response to National Security adviser John Bolton who just this morning said, quote, "the combination of sanctions and other pressure will bring Iran to the table".

If we shouldn't believe what Iran says, then what good is this diplomacy, right? John Bolton saying we're opening the door to diplomacy, let's see if they walk through it. But it sounds to me like you're saying, senator, you can't believe a word the Iranian regime says.

BARRASSO: Well, the old trust but verify. We need to make sure that they're not developing a nuclear weapon. We know in the past they had hidden sites where they were working to develop and use the centrifuges --

HARLOW: Right --

BARRASSO: To develop a nuclear weapon. We know what their ballistic capacity is. So we're going to continue to pursue economic pressure --

HARLOW: Yes --

BARRASSO: Cyber pressure. But my goal is as the president's is to not do this in a military way, but --

[09:20:00] HARLOW: Right -- BARRASSO: To get them to change their behavior through other

pressures. And we know their economy is suffering, we know that the screws had been tightened. There's -- their economy in many ways is on life support. They are now not able to fund some of the terrorist activities because they're feeling the pinch at home, and it's because of the sanctions from the United States that had made --

HARLOW: Right --

BARRASSO: That possible.

HARLOW: For example, do sanctions against Foreign Minister Zarif, as we heard Treasury Secretary Mnuchin talking about this week. Do those make sense, right? Because what the U.S. is doing there essentially makes it harder for them to come to the U.S., come to the U.N., to sit down for negotiations, et cetera. Are those the most effective sanctions?

BARRASSO: The most effective sanctions are the ones that are really hitting the economy the hardest which have to do with the specifics of oil. And I think the president has a wonderful opportunity this weekend as he heads to the G-20 meeting, as he meet with leaders from around the world including the leaders from China to say we need to have peace and stability in that portion of the world --

HARLOW: Yes --

BARRASSO: And let's all weigh in and work --

HARLOW: Wow --

BARRASSO: Together collaboratively to make sure that Iran stops its bad behavior.

HARLOW: We know China is Iran's largest trading partner, so, yes, the U.S. needs Xi Jinping onboard with this. Let's see what can come off that conversation at the G-20 between the president and President Xi. Listen to your fellow Republican Senator Tom Cotton who was very hawkish on Iran. Here's what he told Chris Wallace on "Fox News" Sunday.


SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): I think retaliatory strikes are warranted when we're talking about foreign vessels on the high seas. I think they're warranted against an American unmanned aircraft. What I see is Iran steadily marching up the escalation chain. It started out with threats, they went to attack on vessels in ports, they went to attack on vessels at sea and now it's an unmanned American aircraft.


HARLOW: Are retaliatory strikes warranted right now?

BARRASSO: Well, I think the president has shown leadership of strength by raising the efforts in terms of the cyber attacks on their missile capacities, and specifically --

HARLOW: But senator, and --

BARRASSO: Their missiles. So, that to me is -- go ahead --

HARLOW: But what about retaliatory strikes, and are you supportive as Senator Tom Cotton is of military action, retaliatory strikes for Iran taking down that drone?

BARRASSO: Well, I'm saying that you don't have to have a military attack --


BARRASSO: To up the -- to up the ante in terms of additional pressure on Iran. I want political pressure, I want economic --

HARLOW: Yes --

BARRASSO: Pressure, I want diplomatic pressure, all of those things before you would ever go to a --

HARLOW: Right --

BARRASSO: Military action.

HARLOW: OK, so, that's a no for now on that. Finally, let me --


HARLOW: Ask you about Jamal Khashoggi; the journalist who was murdered as you know at the hands of this -- of the Saudi regime. You have been very forceful of this, you walked out of a briefing a few months ago from the Trump administration on his murder, saying I'm not happy with the results. The president was asked in an interview this week whether or not he spoke to the Crown Prince about the murder on this phone call.

And he did not. And then there was this exchange in the "NBC" interview.


CHUCK TODD, MODERATOR, MEET THE PRESS: The United Nations said they'd like the United States to order the FBI to investigate Jamal Khashoggi's death and possibly MBS' --


TODD: Involvement in it.

TRUMP: I think it's --

TODD: Will you allow the FBI to do that?

TRUMP: I think it's been heavily investigated -- TODD: By who?

TRUMP: By everybody. I mean, I've seen --

TODD: By the FBI?

TRUMP: I've seen so many different reports.

TODD: What about the FBI?


HARLOW: Senator, do you think it would be helpful for the FBI to investigate the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

BARRASSO: I'm not sure that, that would tell us anymore, but you know, this did come up in the Foreign Relations Committee just last week in the hearings for the president's nominee Kelly Craft to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

People on both sides of the aisle continue to be very concerned about what happened there in that murder, and we cannot let it rest.

HARLOW: So, you -- I mean, it sounds like you want more answers. So to the extent of the FBI could help with that, you don't oppose it?

BARRASSO: I don't oppose it. I don't know that it adds anything. I've had all the -- I've seen the evidence, and I'm convinced of what is happening.

HARLOW: Senator John Barrasso, I really appreciate your voice on all of it this morning. Thank you so much.

BARRASSO: Thank you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Pre-debate playbook, how are Democrats strategizing to make a mark when they face-off against their rivals? Of course, the debate, this Wednesday and Thursday night, we'll talk about that. We're also moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street as the Dow inches closer to yet another record high. Investors are waiting to hear more from the Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

He is speaking for the first time after the Fed suggested interest rate cuts could be coming soon.


HARLOW: All right, Senator Kamala Harris, presidential candidate, has a key endorsement from a fourth member of the congressional black caucus. Congressman William Lacy Clay of Missouri say she is the candidate that he is getting behind. He thinks she's the one who can beat President Trump.

He was an early supporter of Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign. But he says he feels Harris is a transformative figure like President Obama. The endorsement comes as Harris prepares for that first debate of course, that is this week in Miami. It will give her another chance.