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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Report: Unredacted E-Mails Tie Ukraine Aid Hold Directly to President Trump; Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) is Interviewed About New Documents Tying Ukraine Aid Hold Directly to President Trump; Biden Fires Back After Sanders Says "Just A Lot Of Baggage That Joe Takes Into Campaign; Iraqi TV: Head Of Iran Quds Force And Deputy Head Of Iraq Paramilitary Forces Killed In Attack At Baghdad Airport. Aired 8- 9p ET

Aired January 2, 2020 - 20:00   ET

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


[20:00:16]

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.

With the impeachment trial looming, though no date set for it to actually begin, tonight evidence the Trump administration does not want you to see -- previously hidden contents of internal emails, including one that makes it clear the president of the United States directly ordered the central act in the central allegation against him, withholding military aid for Ukraine allegedly to extract Ukrainian help in dirtying up Joe Biden.

Now, it took a lawsuit and a federal -- a judge's order for the Center for Public Integrity to first obtain these emails. And even then, as you can see, some were so heavily redacted, they were essentially meaningless.

But now, an online forum called Just Security, which is based at New York University's Reiss Center on Law and Security, has viewed the unblacked out versions of those emails.

What they found, it amplifies recent reporting from CNN and others about just how concerned and suspicious senior government officials were that the aid freeze to Ukraine was against the law, or as the former top diplomat in the Ukraine put it, at the time just plain wrong.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL TAYLOR, FORMER TOP U.S. DIPLOMAT IN UKRAINE: As the committee is aware, I wrote that withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be crazy. I believed that then, and I believe it now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: But he, of course, testified to Congress. Many of the people in these emails that we're now seeing, they did not, and some are being blocked by the White House from telling what they know. And what they know is probably an awful lot, which is why this new reporting is so important.

We're going to talk to the author who broke the story, Kate Brannen, in just a moment.

But first, we want to kind of set the table on what some of her reporting has uncovered, starting with a top defense official's email, an email questioned about the legality of what the White House was up to. The email is dated July 25th, and yes, that's the day President Trump made that phone call to Ukraine's president, asking for, in his words, a favor for us.

So here is the one line redacted email that acting Pentagon comptroller Elaine McCusker wrote to the White House budget official, a guy named Michael Duffey. Now, according to Just Security, behind that blacked line, Just Security has learned that she asked whether the decision had gone through the Defense Department's general counsel.

In other words, this official, McCusker, wants to know, has anyone vetted the legality of this because the law requires that money appropriated by Congress cannot be held back or impounded by the White House. Which is precisely what subsequent emails show the pentagon was worried about, quoting from Just Security's report, on October 6th, Duffey, remember, he is the White House budget official, sent McCusker -- she is the Pentagon comptroller -- an email telling her that he planned to extend the hold on the Ukraine funding by reinserting the same footnote into the budget document. The footnote still noted that the pause would not prevent the Defense Department from spending the money before the fiscal year ended if the hold was lifted.

McCusker wrote -- wrote back, asking to whom Duffey spoke to confirm that the additional pause would not affect the ultimate execution of the program. "Good catch" is what Duffey wrote back.

Let's just remember, because -- now, this is confusing. Congress had appropriated the money for Ukraine back in 2018. The law required that it be spent by September 30th. The Ukrainians fighting a war with Russian-backed forces needed it immediately.

Yet, according to impeachment testimony, was being held up really for no apparent reason except it's what the president wanted.

Here is Foreign Service officer David Holmes talking what he was told shortly before the aid freeze formally went into effect.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID HOLMES, STATE DEPT. POLITICAL COUNSELOR: The official said that the order had come from the president, it had been conveyed to OMB by Mr. Mulvaney, with no further explanation. This began a week or so of efforts by various agencies to identify the rationale for the freeze, to conduct a review of the assistance, and to reaffirm the unanimous view of Ukraine policy community of its importance.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: And Republicans, you'll recall, downplayed that testimony as hearsay saying, well, you know, there is no direct link to the president. But these emails in Just Security's reporting on the unredacted content, that's where the connection is, where you can see at least part of the direction by the president.

It would presumably be even plainer if Bolton or Mulvaney or any of these other administration officials who were up to their necks in this thing, this drug deal is what Bolton called it, but they aren't talking. The new emails do reveal, though, something else. They reveal what appears to be the emergence of a kind of cover story from the Office of Management and Budget as well as pushback from the Pentagon on this policy.

This all happened shortly after August 28th when "Politico" broke the aid freeze story. That's when it suddenly came to light. That's when the president decided, OK, you know what? Actually, the aid will go through after that.

You hear all these Republicans saying well, look, you know, there may have been a pause, but the aid went through. Yes, it did, but only after the story was going to go public.

The administration began hashing out talking points, the main one being that none of this would stop the aid from going out by the deadline.

So, here is a redacted email on the matter from Elaine McCusker, the comptroller at the Pentagon, to Michael Duffey, the official at the Office of Management and Budget. It reads, Mike -- that's how she starts saying, then there's a redaction in the original email, and then, just got outside of another long session on -- redacted again. Things have evolved again. We'll try to reach you in a bit.

So, it's hard to tell what that means with all the redactions. Well, according to Just Security, says they've seen what's behind the redaction the -- behind the redaction. It reads, I don't agree to the revised TPs, talking points. The last one is just not accurate from a financial execution standpoint, something we've been consistently conveying for a few weeks.

So this clash escalated all the way up to the president, with the president on August 30th after which according to Just Security, responsibility for the freeze is tied directly to him.

I'm quoting again: After the meeting with the president took place, Duffey told McCusker, clear direction from POTUS to hold.

Senate Democrats would certainly like to hear from that guy, Michael Duffey.

House Speaker Pelosi also weighed in, tweeting late today, quote: Trump engaged in unprecedented total obstruction of Congress, hiding these emails, all other documents, and his top aides from the American people. Why won't Trump and McConnell allow a fair trial? Joining us now is Kate Brannen, editorial director at Just Security.

Kate, thanks for joining us.

I mean, it's so fascinating, your reporting, and what you found behind these redactions. I mean, it's quite clear, at least in the opinion of the people writing, was that the president -- it was the president himself who personally directed the aid to be held.

KATE BRANNEN, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, JUST SECURITY: And every step of the way when there is sort of a moment where they think the hold could be lifted, it all comes down to what the president wants. There has been this pretext sort of this pretextual story of why the hold was there in the first place, is they wanted to do a policy review, see that the money was being well spent.

But it's clear from these emails that that's not taking place. There's no reference to anything like that happening. It's just is POTUS going to lift it? Did POTUS decide to lift it? And sort of the repeated answers, no, POTUS says keep the hold.

COOPER: Yes, I mean, the argument by Jim Jordan and others about oh, yes, it's just on hold for a policy review, that makes absolutely sense. The president doesn't believe in foreign policy so much, doesn't want to spend a lot of money needlessly to a corrupt regime. There is no evidence of any kind of policy reviews.

In other words, the White House brought forth a 200-page white paper on Ukrainian corruption that they compiled in those days as they were holding up the aid. And in fact, we know the corruption review had already been signed off on -- by the military and the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, that's what they were working on, anti-corruption efforts.

I mean, according to these documents, the Pentagon was clearly concerned about the hold. It seems like at least some were very up- front with the White House about those concerns.

BRANNEN: Yes. To -- I mean, to go back to your policy review point, when the hold is first put in place, the Pentagon wants to know why and they don't get a straight answer.

And then what's also really important is when it's lifted, McCusker, who you were talking about, the acting Pentagon comptroller, asked her colleagues at OMB, well, why has it been lifted now? And the answer is like, I don't know. You know, we'll wait -- I'll see what I can find out.

So, there's not a rationale at the beginning of this. There's not a rationale at the end either.

COOPER: I mean, it's -- it's not how you imagine -- you know, communications at the highest levels of our government to be. Just the amount of confusion and sort of everybody in service to the whimsical thoughts of one man, the president of the United States in this case is -- you know, if you're not used to reading these kind of things, even if you are used to reading kind of government communication, it's really strange.

BRANNEN: Yes. There's -- I mean, that definitely came across as I worked my way through them from June through October is sort of the opportunity costs of trying to implement this hold, the amount of chaos it sort of created. You know, it's difficult to get a contract out the door at the Pentagon. It's an incredibly bureaucratic process.

And so, they were sort of bending over backward every step of the way to sort of slow it down, to buy time, and to hold things up. One of the directions from OMB was basically like please keep doing all the planning and preparatory work for these contracts. Just don't obligate the money.

[20:10:00]

And DOD sort of repeatedly was like, there is only so much we can do until you give us -- you know, you permit us to spend the money. Then the money won't go out the door.

And OMBA sort of kept pushing them on that. And as you said earlier, I mean, the chief concern from the Pentagon was that this hold violated the law and that it would violate the Impoundment Control Act, which in fact it appears it did. By the time the hold was lifted, the Pentagon couldn't get $35 million of the $250 million total spent by September 30th, and it required Congress to step in and pass legislation that extend that money in order for them to buy weapons for Ukraine.

COOPER: We're going to take a quick break. We're going have more with you. This is an important conversation. There is so much to know about.

Also tonight, what sizable new fundraising numbers say about Bernie Sanders' position with just a few weeks left for Iowa and New Hampshire. We'll talk money, politics, Sanders and the rest of the Democratic field with some top strategists tonight. Former Governor Howard Dean is going to join us, a former presidential candidate.

And later, the attack in the U.S. embassy Iraq, the influence of Iran and the question of whether the United States is losing its influence around the world. Fareed Zakaria joins us for that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:15:28]

COOPER: We're talking about tonight about information hiding behind redaction bars and the things they black out in those letters they don't want you to see. It goes straight to the heart of the impeachment of President Trump. It makes the reporting by our guest tonight, Kate Brannen, and Just Security so significant.

Kate is back now with us.

There is a thing in your article, in your reporting which is extraordinary. And it's not only extraordinary just as a policy but also it shows personalities and the human kind of betrayal and trust and lack of trust between people in different branches of government.

There was -- you know, despite weeks of being warned about the dangers of holding the aid, the Office of Management and Budget, this guy Mike Duffey, who had been in communication with the comptroller of the Pentagon who deals with the money explained what happened right at the end in two emails that you saw.

BRANNEN: Yes. As I was reading these emails, it sounds silly, because they are very wonky, but the personalities coming across it was a bit of a page-turner in that McCusker and Duffey are exchanging these emails all summer about the hold, about the concerns from the Pentagon about it. McCusker is repeatedly warning him and telling him about the Pentagon's concerns about the legality, and Duffey seems to kind of understand her and understand the situation, or at least sort of that's what's coming across.

And they talk to each other regularly and in a pretty familiar tone. And then I think it was September 9th, she sends him an email, you know, again stating quite firmly like the serious legal concerns the Pentagon has. And he writes to her in what I thought was a sort of remarkably formal letter.

He CCs a bunch of lawyer, Pentagon lawyers, OMB lawyers, and writes her this stern letter saying -- basically throwing her under the bus, saying, if -- you know, if the money is impounded and in fact the law is violated, it's going to be on you for dropping the ball and not doing all the preparatory work that you were supposed to, and it's really going to be the Defense Department's fault and not ours.

COOPER: Wow.

BRANNEN: And she writes back to him. She takes everybody off the CC line and writes just back to him and says: You can't be serious. I'm speechless.

COOPER: Wow.

BRANNEN: Because she has sort of epically been thrown under the bus by him.

COOPER: I mean, if -- you know, for anyone who works in the office, for you to suddenly get an email from somebody you have been corresponding with for months, and, you know, have some rapport with, and are trying to be on the same page and trying to do what's good for the country, you suddenly get an email in which CC'd, not even blind CC'd, but CC'd all these attorneys who haven't been involved in it, throwing you under the bus, and then she just emails him back directly without CC-ing all this -- I mean, it's a little microcosm of just what goes on. That's fascinating.

BRANNEN: Yes. And I mean, in terms of the substance of it, what he is saying to her is ludicrous, which is sort of why she returns the response that she does. COOPER: And this guy Michael Duffey, I mean, he is the associate

director of national security programs in the Office of Management and Budget. He was the one who said this order came directly from President Trump. He is also the witness that the Democrats want to call to testify.

The more you see these emails, the more you want to hear from him, from Bolton, from -- you know, the chief of staff. I mean, it's -- Mulvaney.

BRANNEN: Yes. There is this real line, because Mulvaney had previously been with the director of OMB, and I believe he remains the acting director. But his -- the person who held Duffey's job before him is a man named Robert Blair who moved into the chief of staff's office when Mulvaney became the chief of staff at the White House.

And so, there is a real like OMB group of people that are tied to this story from Mulvaney to Blair to Duffey, and the entire sort of Ukraine hold was communicated through that line. It went from Trump to Mulvaney to Blair to Duffey, and then out to the Department, the State Department, the Defense Department. So this group, this small group of OMB officials are really kind of key to the puzzle.

COOPER: Yes, up to the next.

Kate Brannen, thank you so much. Really fascinating reporting.

BRANNEN: Thanks so much.

COOPER: At the top of the broadcast, we showed you House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reaction to Kate's reporting. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has just weighed in on the story as well.

Quoting from his part of the statement, quote: These incriminating documents reinforces the need for all of these materials to be produced, and that a fair trial in the Senate cannot take place without them.

Joining us now is Intelligence Committee member and California Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier.

Congresswoman Speier, just first off, I'm wondering what your overall reaction is to these documents and how much it makes it all the more important that testimony is given from the people who are actually sending these emails.

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D-CA): You know, Anderson, I actually feel what is most important is for us to get the documents.

What I've seen over and over again when we've interviewed many of these people is their great ability to forget or not remember. And the documents don't forget, and the documents, as we have seen by this outstanding reporting is -- says it all, that the president demanded this, that Ukraine was put at risk, and that they have consistently refused to turn over any documents to the committees that have had jurisdiction for oversight. So what has been released has been released through a lawsuit that's been filed, and then subsequently, evidently these emails have been acquired through some whistle-blower.

So we are in the dark. The American people are in the dark. The Congress is in the dark. And there is a massive cover-up going on with this administration, and it makes me fearful about what else we don't know.

COOPER: Well, you know, what's so interesting about that is, you know, things are so -- looked through now so, you know, tribally, which is an overused word now, but through a particular lens of who you support and who you like and who you believe. But when you kind of step back from all of this and you just think, wait a minute, so in all these levers of government and at the top, the highest levels of the White House, any -- everybody who knows really and was really involved in this, they aren't talking for a variety of reasons, but they are not giving testimony. They are not sitting under oath. They are working for us for the American people, and yet they are keeping the secret.

And also as -- these documents are public documents. These are -- should be documents that American people can see. And it's -- it is just when you step back from it, it's kind of mind-blowing that, wait a minute, how -- what argument is there really for just not being honest and open in a public hearing?

SPEIER: And what does the rule of law mean in this administration? When all of these individuals have been subpoenaed, all of these documents have been subpoena and they have been ignored?

Now for you and me, if we ignore a subpoena, we go to jail. So for a long time, I have been of the opinion that we should use what Congress has, which is the power of inherent contempt, and bring these individuals in to the House chamber and slap them with fines because that's the only thing that I think will make them talk.

COOPER: Speaker Pelosi, she's still not transferred the articles of impeachment to the Senate. How much does -- do these documents you think change her calculus, or should change the calculus?

SPEIER: Well, it should change the calculus not just for the house but for the Senate more importantly because if this was Barack Obama, there would be no question that these people would be coming forward as witnesses and that documents would be released. And furthermore, whether it was Clinton or Nixon or if it had been Barack Obama, there has been cooperation by the president and his office in the past.

This is the first time we've seen this gross effort to cover up and withhold documents that as you point out belong to the American people, certainly belong to the oversight committees that have the responsibilities to determine whether or not the law is being broken.

COOPER: Congresswoman Jackie Speier, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

Still to come tonight, with the breaking news on the strike against an Iranian figure in Iraq, Senator Bernie Sanders and also President Donald Trump raking the bucks. Both reported big numbers to close out 2019. We'll take a look also at what that haul could mean for their political futures ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:28:48]

COOPER: Thirty-one days, that is how close we are to the Iowa caucuses. Just 31 days.

New fundraising numbers are giving us a snapshot into the current state of play with the big takeaway that Bernie Sanders, or at least his fundraising operation appears to be surging at probably just the right moment. His campaign says it raised almost $35 million in the fourth quarter of last year, tops among Democrats, who reported almost $10 million more than second place Pete Buttigieg. Vice President Joe Biden and Andrew Yang round out the rest of the top fundraising numbers. Elizabeth Warren said today that she is going to report numbers soon.

Now, shortly after today's numbers were published, Sanders took a direct shot at Joe Biden's ability as a candidate saying, quote: It's just a lot of baggage that Joe takes into a campaign, which isn't going to create energy and excitement. He brings into this campaign a record which is so weak that it just cannot create the kind of excitement and energy that is going to be needed to defeat Donald Trump.

Moments ago, Biden responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: What do you say to Bernie Sanders?

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Good luck, Bernie.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good to see you.

BIDEN: Lots of luck in your senior year, Bernie.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Joining me now is Howard Dean, former Democratic presidential candidate and chairman of the DNC, and also Ayesha C. Mills, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist.

[20:30:00]

Governor Dean, this back and forth between Senator Sanders and Vice President Biden, it does seem like clearly, the closer we get to Iowa, the -- I mean, this is most obviously been involved. But the sharper the attacks are becoming, and that's, I mean, that's par for the course. HOWARD DEAN, FORMER CHAIRMAN, DNC: This is so familiar to me from 16

years ago.

COOPER: I bet.

DEAN: It really is amazing. Yes, I know. I mean, this is what the -- what happens. You've got 30 days to go. Iowa is going to focus on the presidential race and the attention of the Democratic primary voters on the winner of this race in the next two or three. And so, yes, this is the battle for the presidency of United States, and it's going to get rough.

COOPER: Aisha, what we haven't seen is Sanders going after Elizabeth Warren, Senator Warren. And, I mean, obviously do they have to do that or is there any reason for him? I mean, she's been sort of imploding and certainly, you know, fundraising problems and not -- she seems to have lost some momentum from some of the debates. Do you think Sanders feels he doesn't need to kind of go down that road and possibly alienate people who if they like Warren and they decide she is not viable would go to him?

AISHA C. MILLS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So, the first thing I would say is that, I wouldn't characterize Elizabeth Warren's campaign in any way, shape or form as imploding. I think that, you know, when you raise $20 million in a quarter or whatever she's going to report, I don't know what number is, that's hardly imploding.

I think the reason why, though, you're not going see Bernie Sanders go directly after Elizabeth Warren because we are in this Democratic primary in an ideological battle. And the two of them are ideologically on the same team. This is a battle between progress, do we care about lifting up all the people, do we care about the small guy, about small donors, what is the vision for the Democratic Party in America about exclusivity, who gets to be at the table, and then there is doing business as usual.

And so, that's really what this debate is all about. And so, when you see Joe Biden saying, well, I'm the guy who's been around for a really long time. Remember me, you guys know what I did. I'm going to do more of that. Well, people who support Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders don't really believe that that's the way we should move forward. We actually need some kind of change. We need some growth and that's the difference.

COOPER: Governor Dean, when you hear Bernie Sanders saying look, you know, Joe Biden is not going to get people excited. I mean, you know, you look at Pete Buttigieg's numbers among African Americans just about anywhere, but in South Carolina is where that poll was taken, 0 percent in one poll. So do you see that as a major problem for Biden, for Buttigieg?

DEAN: I don't see it as a major problem, but it is a clear distinction between Bernie and Elizabeth, to a lesser extent to Andrew Yang on the one hand and Biden and Pete. The interesting person for me in Iowa is Amy Klobuchar, who lives next door and can dish it out to Trump as well as anybody else. But, sure, look, I don't know who I'm going to vote for in the Vermont primary. And for me, I'm very much torn, because I want, as Aisha was talking about, I want real progress and real change. In the other hand, I want to beat Trump more.

So whatever it takes, whoever I think is going to be the best person to beat Donald Trump is who I'm going eventually vote for on Super Tuesday when we get --

COOPER: How do you -- so what does --

DEAN: I have no idea who I'm going to vote for right now.

COOPER: Well, that's interesting. I mean, how do you get to like what are the markers that you look for? Is it just who is, you know, still viable and strong at the point when you got to cast a ballot?

DEAN: Absolutely. The first four races are really, really important because we added South Carolina and Nevada when I was chairman. We now have obviously the first states don't look anything like the Democratic Party looks like nationally. But when you add in Nevada, which is a very high percentage of Hispanics and Asian Americans, and add in South Carolina with 60% of the voters in the Democratic primary are going to be African American, you do get a cross section in these first four states of what our party looks like. And that's why they're so critical.

Whoever comes out of this really strongly and looking like they can take on Trump and beat him is who I'm going to end up supporting.

MILLS: Well, I would just add to this. So we're having a conversation about money raised and who has the number of dollars in the banks. But the conversation that really we should be paying attention to is how many donors does each campaign have. And what I find fascinating that we don't talk about enough is that Bernie Sanders' campaign has hit over 5 million individuals who have given contributions to him of whatever the amount is.

What that means is that, Bernie Sanders has 5 million voters already baked in around the country. Biden doesn't have, you know, a fraction of that in terms of the number of people that are powering a campaign. So we can look at polling numbers and we can look at cash on hand. And what money does, it gives you the opportunity to put more people on the ground and to try to pull more people to the polls. But when you've got people who are already invested, literally already invested, they are going to show up and they're going to actually go vote.

[20:35:00]

So I would, you know, look at this beyond polling, beyond kind of who is doing all the trash talking, if you will, and see who is putting the people in power to actually put them in office. That's who's going to ultimately wrack up the delegates because they have real voters. And that's why I think that the billionaire class, for example, that's running right now, the billionaire boys can buy as many ads as they want to on television, but that's not going to manifest and people actually going to the voting booth and casting that ballot.

COOPER: Governor, do you agree with that?

DEAN: Yes, I think that's really -- I do agree with that. And I think Aisha is exactly right. Although how good your organization is matters a lot in Iowa and presumably how many donors you have, have something to do with your organization. So we don't know who has the best organization yet. We're going to find that out in Iowa. We may get some big surprises.

But I absolutely think that Bloomberg and Steyer have got a big problem. You cannot win these four states without people on the ground. And Bloomberg is not even making any effort. I respect Mike Bloomberg, I really do, but I do not think you can win the Democratic nomination with an advertising campaign. I don't care how much money he spend.

COOPER: Yes. Howard Dean, appreciate it. Thank you. Aisha C. Mills, thank you, always a pleasure.

MILLS: Thank you.

COOPER: Great to have you.

Coming up next, breaking news just in from Baghdad. Iraqi-state television says the leader of the Iranian-backed military unit known as Quds Force has been killed in a rocket attack at the Baghdad Airport. General Qassem Soleimani reportedly killed.

This is really big, unknown at this moment though who is responsible for the strike. We'll get a live report with late details in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:40:11]

COOPER: Breaking news tonight from Baghdad. Iraqi state television reports the commander of the Iranian Quds Force Unit within Iran's revolutionary guards has been killed in a shelling attack at the Baghdad International Airport. Also reportedly killed, the deputy head of Iraq Paramilitary Forces. CNN's Arwa Damon joins us from Baghdad.

Explain, Arwa, what we know, because when you and I were talking earlier, a couple of hours ago, and there had just been the sounds of three explosions. Is that what this is?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, we're not entirely clear, but yes, that seems to have been the case. Initially these reports came out as three Katyusha rockets hitting in the vicinity of Baghdad International Airport, and then the images emerge that we're showing two vehicles on fire. Following that, we began getting news from sources within the Popular Mobilization Forces. This is that Iranian-backed Iraqi Paramilitary Unit. Those sources were initially saying that a senior member was in the PMF was killed saying that it was the head of their protocol department.

But now we're hearing from Iraqi state television who is also quoting a source within the PMF saying that the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, a name who anyone who has been following what's been happening in the Middle East and involvements with Iran will know very, very well that he has also reportedly been killed in this strike, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is the head of Kata'ib Hezbollah. That is the same group that the Americans targeted on Sunday. He is also the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, that they were both reportedly killed in this strike.

We don't know at this stage who was responsible for carrying out this strike. But, Anderson, if these reports end up being true, this is potentially going to shake Iran, Iraq, the entire region in a way that is very difficult to predict right now but is not going to end up well for the people in this region.

Many of those analysts right now who are looking at this situation, especially looking at the death of Qassem Soleimani, who was such a figure within the Quds Force. He was seen often in the battlefield in Iraq and the fight against Isis, a very shadowy figure himself.

If this ends up being true, Anderson, as I was saying, this is really going to potentially change the nature of what's happening in Iraq, in Iran as we know it. It is very difficult to see how Iran does not somehow respond to this in a way that is very, very potentially significant.

COOPER: Explain -- talk a little bit more about Soleimani because, I mean, he's, as you said, he is sort of shadowy. You would see images of him popping up in different areas near front lines, overseeing kind of big picture military campaigns on behalf of Iran in a number of places.

DAMON: He does. And, look, the Quds Force is a shadowy branch, again, of Iran's revolutionary guard corps that is tasked with their operations outside of Iran and in unconventional warfare. Qassem Soleimani was often reported to have been seen both inside Iraq and inside Syria.

He is an individual whose name quite often would strike fear in the hearts of those who were potentially the target of his and his group's operation. He has been instrumental when it comes to implementing Iran's foreign policy vis-a-vis the various proxies that it has, not just here in Iraq but also in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen, and elsewhere. He really is such a key figure when it comes to the Revolutionary Guard Corps, when it comes to the fact that he is the commander of this force.

This strike is fairly brazen, fairly audacious to a certain degree, to be taking out someone of such significance at a time when there is such tension in the region.

[20:45:00]

Add to that the fact that reportedly also the commander of Kata'ib Hezbollah was also killed in this very same strike, those two vehicles hit just on the outskirts as they were leaving Baghdad International Airport it would seem. Anderson, the repercussions of this, we cannot even begin to imagine right now at this stage.

COOPER: Yes. Let me bring in, stay with us if you can, Arwa. I want to bring in Fareed Zakaria, co-host of "Fareed Zakaria GPS." You talk a little bit about Soleimani, the significance of this and also what we have been seeing in Iraq over the last, you know, 24, 48 hours. What is going on?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Sure. So I think everything was said exactly right. Soleimani is difficult to convey how revered he is in Iran. Imagine the French foreign legion, at the height of the French empire. This guy is regarded in Iran as a completely heroic figure, personally very brave.

COOPER: I was wondering earlier when Arwa was talking, I was trying to think of somebody, and I was thinking of de Gaulle, although he became the leader of the country, which is not --

ZAKARIA: Right. It's not quite, but yes. It is something he means bigger than any --

Put it this way. Other than the Supreme Leader Khamenei and maybe the president, he looms larger in Iran than almost any other figure. He is regarded as personally incredibly brave. The troops love him, and he has been the kind of mastermind of Iran's policies in Syria, in Iraq.

So when General Petraeus was fighting the Iraq war, the surge, I remember him telling me that Soleimani was his principle antagonist. That was the guy the American generals were bumping up against. Stan McChrystal had one point, had to decide whether or not to attack a convoy that had him in it. And it was a big decision because, you know, potentially eliminating Soleimani would have huge blowback.

So if, in fact, this has happened, I think the Iranians will have to respond and will respond in some way.

COOPER: To whom?

ZAKARIA: To the United States. I think they would view it presumably, this is in some way an American-directed attack. We still don't know. But --

COOPER: But we cannot confirm who is behind this.

ZAKARIA: Right.

COOPER: This is now -- you can -- this is not occurred in isolation. We've seen what happened at the US Embassy, you know, we've seen statements that have been made.

ZAKARIA: Right. It's inconceivable to me that the Iraqi government would have done this. So, but to step back, what's been going on is that the United States, the Trump administration has decided it is going to pursue a policy of maximum pressure on Iran, getting out of the Iran deal, calling the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, essentially make it impossible for Iran to sell oil anywhere.

The Iranians therefore feel trapped in a box and have been lashing out in various ways. They've shot down drones. They've attacked Saudi oil facilities, now this. The Iranians have been, as you know, attacking American contractors and killed some.

So right now, we are in a situation where the Trump administration has ratcheted up the pressure. It's not clear what they want, you know, what the goal of this is. Because the demands they have made of Iran are so extravagant, there is sort of essentially that Iran surrender, you know, its role in the region and perhaps even essentially engage in a regime change. That's not going to happen.

So the problem with the administration strategy right now is where does it go, because the Iranians won't stop. They have many levers. They have militias in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq. They could destabilize the Iraqi government in a way that would make the United States even more vulnerable.

COOPER: Iran is obviously incredibly has, you know, through a vacuum have become incredibly powerful within Iraq.

ZAKARIA: Right. The important thing to remember is Iraq is a Shia majority country. Iran is its next-door neighbor, also Shia. Iran has enormous power, but the United States is also a big stakeholder in Iraq. I mean, the American Embassy in Iraq, people have to understand it's not a normal embassy. It's I think a hundred acres. It's like a mini city.

And for that embassy to have been stormed, it's actually much bigger in some ways than the storming of the Iranian Embassy. Obviously, it wasn't successful, but my point is the American Embassy in Baghdad is the symbol of American power.

COOPER: Yes.

ZAKARIA: For that to have been in some way attacked, it's a -- we've suddenly ratcheted up the pressure here, and it's not clear where this is going.

COOPER: Right. And if the US is on this, this certainly another big ratcheting up. Fareed Zakaria, thank you, Arwa Damon as well.

Up next, we'll get reaction to this attack in the Baghdad Airport from the Pentagon.

[20:49:46]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: New details in the story that's just breaking out of Baghdad, Iraqi-state television reports that the commander of the Iranian Quds Force has been killed in a rocket attack at Baghdad International Airport. There's lot of questions about responsibility. We can't confirm who is behind this.

CNN's Arwa Damon is in Baghdad now. What are local reports saying? What information do you have about who might be behind this?

DAMON: Well, Anderson, a lot of the blame is being pointed at the United States from the Popular Mobilizations Forces themselves saying that they believe America is behind the strike.

COOPER: When you say Popular Mobilization Forces, that's a militia.

DAMON: Forces, yes. That is a paramilitary force that was formed in response to ISIS sweeping through Iraq years ago that is mostly made up of these Shia militias who are supported by Iran-funded training.

And, Anderson, we should also point out that these very same fighters within the PMF, the vast majority of them got their fighting experience battling the Americans for years during the US occupation of Iraq.

[20:54:55]

The commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani during the battles against ISIS and afterwards was a very prominent figure on the battlefield in the sense that he was often in Iraq or at the very least reported to be in Iraq. He is revered not only in Iran but also among many of the Shia fighters inside Iraq as well. His reach stretches across the entire region.

He is believed to have been killed along with commander of Kata'ib Hezbollah. That is the group that the Americans had already targeted on Sunday. They are part of this Popular Mobilization Force which ostensibly part of the Iraqi security apparatus.

They are blaming the Americans. Now, we don't have that confirmed. But, Anderson, given how tense the situation is here right now, that just the perception that it could be the Americans has the potential to escalate the security situation here. I think right now in ways that we can't even really begin to grasp.

COOPER: Arwa Damon, we're going to continue to check in with you throughout the night. Thank you. Be careful. We're going to continue to monitor the situation there in Iraq and bring you updates.

Also ahead tonight, the new report on the unredacted e-mail showing some members of the Trump administration, they had no doubt that President Trump was orchestrating the freeze on aid to Ukraine. Well show you the documents ahead.

END