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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Report Shows Unredacted Emails Tie Ukraine Aid Hold Directly To President Trump; Iraqi T.V. Reports, Senior Iranian Military Official And Deputy Head Of Iraq Paramilitary Forces Killed In Rocket Strike Attack At Baghdad Airport. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired January 2, 2020 - 21:00   ET

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


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ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANDERSON COOPER 360: Good evening. Chris Cuomo is off tonight. We have late breaking news out of Baghdad on the report of killing of the Iranian general, who heads a shadowy paramilitary force operating in Iraq and Syria. General Qasem Soleimani, he was killed, we understand, in a strike in Baghdad airport. This is a video of the explosions that we just got. It's a very big deal, particularly in the region. Nobody has claimed responsibility or taken responsibility for the attack at this point.

The demise of Soleimani removes a major and troubling figure from the scene from the U.S. standpoint and may set off a firestorm in and of itself. We've got live reporting on this just ahead.

We begin though with new reporting on the unredacted contents of administration emails on Ukraine, what they say and how they might play in the impeachment battle.

Now, this is what the emails, which were obtained originally a Freedom of Act lawsuit, this is what they looked like after the Justice Department got done with them and released them to the public, line after line of blacked out redactions.

Now, the law and security organization called Just Security, they have gotten a look at the unredacted versions of those emails. And what they have learned and have talked about is striking. Warning, for one from the Pentagon that the hold on military aid to Ukraine could be illegal, the Pentagon was warning the White House about that. The battle over the White House Budget's Office talking points were cover story to try to kind of explain what happened.

Plus, an official from the Office of Management and Budget making it clear the order to keep the freeze in place came directly from President Donald Trump. Quoting from Just Security's reporting on exchange between Budget Official Michael Duffey and the acting Pentagon comptroller, quote, after the meeting with the president took place, Duffey told McCusker, who is Pentagon comptroller clear direction from POTUS to hold, meaning there was clear direction from president of the United States to hold the aid.

More now on the story and the White House reaction from CNN's Kaitlan Collins, who joins us now.

So, has the president or the White House had any response so far to the unredacted emails?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No, they haven't said much. And, of course, we know that in the past, the White House has argued that as far as it comes to these redactions, they feel they've got a lot of leeway here.

So you're already hearing criticism from Democrats about the just how much is redacted, the fact that the Trump administration redacting this amid all of this congressional oversight with the impeachment inquiry. So those are the questions there.

But, Anderson, really reading this, you can really see just how dead set the president was on withholding this aid and it only backs up the testimony we heard from multiple officials and from our own reporting about how there were officials who went to the president trying to get him to release this aid, saying it wasn't in the country's interest to withhold it.

But still, you can see just even from that simple email from that budget official to the Pentagon official saying it's clear that the president is the one who wanted this aid to be frozen.

COOPER: And do we know that the president has been having meetings about the impeachment trial while he's down at Mar-a-Lago?

COLLINS: Yes, he has. The question is what decisions are they making. Because before the president traveled here, Anderson, we were told, the used to have some pretty big decisions to make when it comes to defense, who's going to be representing the president, who's going to be saying what at the trial. And those are the questions that still remain about what exactly is going to be, has it been locked down?

And we know the president has been at times airing his grievances about the impeachment trial and other times people have said he's in a pretty good mood while he's here because he's golfing, dining with old friends and meeting with a lot of people he typically wouldn't be able to see and interact with on a daily basis like he does at the White House, including Alan Dershowitz, his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, people like Trey Gowdy that he's been golfing with, a lot of influence on the president as he's been down here.

COOPER: All right. Kaitlan, I appreciate it.

Let's get the perspective now from Michael Carpenter, he's a former Pentagon official, a senior director of the University of Pennsylvania, Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global engagement. Mike, thanks for being with us. You oversaw the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative when you were at the Pentagon. What was going on here? Now that we've seen these unredacted emails, thanks to Just Security, what's going on here? Because it certainly seems like the Pentagon is raising a lot of red flags and then toward the end of this suddenly, you know, a White House official tries to throw a Pentagon official under the bus saying essentially, well, no one can blame the White House for this hold up is because you guys didn't prepare well enough.

MICHAEL CARPENTER, SENIOR DIRECTOR, BIDEN CENTER FOR DIPLOMACY AND GLOBAL ENGAGEMENT: Yes. Well, Anderson, a couple of things jump out at you when you read these emails. First is that throughout all the months of back and forth between OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Pentagon over this frozen military aid, there is never a coherent rationale that's articulated for why the aid is being frozen.

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And, in fact, during this two months process, you have a deputy small group meeting, which is a meeting of the deputy cabinet heads of the various national security agencies that deliberate this freeze and they all decide unanimously that the aid should move forward.

And the subsequent to that, at the end of August, you have a meeting between Secretary of State Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Esper, John Bolton, the national security adviser, and President Trump in the Oval Office where the other three gentlemen try to convince the president to release the freeze and release the aid to Ukraine. He will not do that at that point in time. And so there is never a coherent rationale.

The other thing that jumps out at you is that the Pentagon is worried sick that they're going to be left holding the bag for what is essentially an illegal action under the Impoundment Control Act. In other words, moneys have been obligated -- sorry, authorized by Congress for this security assistance to be obligated. And the Pentagon wants to obligate it. They want to send the aid to Ukraine, but they can't.

And then finally the last thing, Anderson, is what you pointed out at the outset, that there is very clear direction from the president. Everybody knows that that's involved in this process, that the president wanted this aid frozen.

COOPER: Well, also, Michael, what's so fascinating is we've heard Republicans in Congress say time and time again, well, that this was just being held up for an understandable concern out of the president's deep love of not corrupt places and his concern about corruption and they were going to review it and he got satisfied with the answers and he moved on. We know that's not true. We know that the only reason the aid was released was it was going public because of the whistleblower.

But even if that had been true, I mean, there was no evidence there was any kind of actual review by the president's people on corruption in Ukraine. I mean, they could have -- they didn't even bother to have a cover, like a fake, you know, review done. They could have had an intern, you know, pull together just a random assortment of reviews of corrupt people in Ukraine and put it together and they could show that and say -- but they haven't even done that.

CARPENTER: Correct.

COOPER: There's just no evidence.

CARPENTER: There could have been a semblance of a process to give some legitimacy to the concerns, the supposed concerns from the White House about corruption in Ukraine.

But, Anderson, the other reason why that is blatantly false is because the Pentagon is required per the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative to certify that the funds being spent in Ukraine are being spent properly on equipment that's needed by Ukrainian forces and that there is -- that any corruption-related concerns with regards to military assistance are being addressed or are being met.

And the Pentagon made that certification back in June well before the aid was frozen. And so there was simply no grounds for having any sort of corruption-related review.

COOPER: Yes. And, of course, the U.S. embassy, their actual policy to Ukraine was to fight corruption. So it just -- it's amazing all the way around.

Michael Carpenter, I appreciate you being on. Thank you.

CARPENTER: Sure, my pleasure.

COOPER: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted this about the email story, quote, Senator McConnell, this new evidence raises questions that can only be answered by having key Trump administration officials, Mick Mulvaney, John Bolton, Michael Duffey and Robert Blair, testify under oath in the Senate trial.

Joining us now is Hawaii Senator and Judiciary Committee member Mazie Hirono. Senator Hirono, thanks so much for being with us.

Do you agree with Senator Schumer that -- are these emails what he calls a devastating blow to McConnell's push to have a trial without the documents and witnesses that the Democrats requested?

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): They corroborate what's already been testified to by the witnesses, that the president wanted the aid to be frozen. And then these unredacted emails just verify that. But we all know that the president has been stonewalling this whole process from the word, go, and that he has produced -- I don't know that he's produced a single relevant document. And he certainly hasn't made his witnesses available at all.

COOPER: I mean, could there be, in your opinion, any kind of legitimate national security reason for the administration to even redact the things they redacted from these documents? Because it's not about classified information about Ukraine or the United States, it's essentially interoffice blaming an interoffice.

HIRONO: Yes.

COOPER: The Pentagon pointing out we're concerned what you're doing is illegal, essentially

HIRONO: it puts the responsibility directly on the president that he shook down the president of another country for his own political ends. And then in doing so, he basically compromised our national security. So it points the finger where the finger belongs, on the president. And that's why they don't want any of this kind of information to come out. And yet they trickle out. You know, truth somehow wills out no thanks to either Mitch McConnell or the president.

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COOPER: Yes. I mean, what a difference it would make if you and other senators or if the folks in the House who were investigating this had actually had access to what I'm guessing are hundreds of thousands of documents?

HIRONO: That's right. And I think that they definitely would have called not Just Mulvaney and Bolton but the person at OMB who obviously has firsthand knowledge of the reasons why this aid was withheld.

So this is all par for the course. It is the president doing everything he can to prevent the truth from coming out and that truth is that he's responsible for this aid not to be given out and it's illegal and these are impeachable offenses.

And as I've said, Anderson, the Senate trial is going to be the opportunity for the president to mount his defense. And we don't know what Mulvaney or Bolton will say. So in our calling for these two people to testify because they were right there when all this was happening, we don't know that they're going to say, they can come forward and exonerate the president, but notice that they are not coming forward and the president doesn't want them to come forward.

So, we are where we are.

COOPER: Where are we? I mean, you know the Senate better than anybody. Do you think that this will actually -- that there will be a trial?

HIRONO: I don't know how Mitch McConnell is going to not have a trial. I don't think that Nancy Pelosi is going to withhold the impeachment articles. But let's face it. There are all kinds of obfuscations going on, all kinds of distractions.

And my expectation is that there will be a trial. It may not be -- it probably won't be if Mitch has his way the kind of fair trial that we should be having and that the American people want with witnesses and relevant documents. So if Mitch has his way, we will have a trial and it will not be the kind of fair trial. And so he's taking his marching orders from the president, as he basically always does in these instances.

COOPER: So, Democrats, you only need four Republicans to side with them when it comes to what the Senate trial would look like, whether or not there will be witnesses called. Have you heard any appetite from moderate Republicans, or so-called, if they are to side with Democrats on this?

HIRONO: We know that we've heard Susan Collins, we've heard Lisa Murkowski, we've heard Mitt Romney express some concerns. But expressing concerns does not mean that they're actually going to vote with us in insisting that witnesses be called and documents be produced. So anybody can express all kinds of concerns but big deal if they're going to support Mitch and what he wants to do, which is basically to not have any witnesses and to not have the kind of fair trial that we want.

So I think the bottom line is that if we proceed in this fashion, in the way that Mitch and the president wants, then I guess we're left with the president saying, I did it, so what. That is the Mulvaney excuse and explanation, get over it. This is nothing to get over. So we need to do everything we can to bring truth to light. And thank goodness that this redacted evidence is yet another, in my view, evidence of the president's wrongdoing.

COOPER: Senator Hirono, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

Coming next, an update on our breaking news, the reported killing of a top Iranian general. This is really big news, late word on who may be responsible and what could be repercussions in the wake of it and the impact of this on the ground. We'll have live reporting from Baghdad and the Pentagon, as well as perspective from somebody who knows more about this general than anyone we know, that and more when this special late edition continues.

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COOPER: The story began several hours ago. Though in the moment it happened, we didn't quite know the significance of what occurred. We got a video of explosions at Baghdad Airport. Right now, we know this was the videoed reported killing of one of the top military figures in Iran, someone designated as a terrorist by the U.S. who believed to be responsible for much or Iran's paramilitary activities in the region. Iraqi state T.V. says the commander of Iran's Elite Quds Force, Qas Soleimani, as well as an Iraqi militia commander, were killed.

CNN's Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon joins us now live from Baghdad.

Arwa, you and I were talking shortly after you got word about the -- what seemed to be airstrikes or at least the explosions. We didn't know at the time Soleimani was involved or others. Explain what you know and the importance of it. ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: First of all, Anderson, we are arguably about to enter into uncharted territory. The significance of the death of Qasem Soleimani, given who he was to Iran, who he was to any number of Iranian proxies throughout the entire region, given how revered he was inside and outside of Iran by his men in the battle and given the fact that he is the commander of the Quds Force, this shadowy elite force that is specifically tasked with unconventional warfare, this is going to push this region into a potential conflict that is going to be very, very difficult to get out of without a lot of bloodshed.

What we know right now is that a couple of hours ago, there were initially reports of rockets being fired in the vicinity of Baghdad International Airport. We initially received reports that a senior figure within the Popular Mobilization Force -- this is a branch actually of the Iraqi Security Forces, but it's a paramilitary force that is mostly made up of different groups of Shia militias, the vast majority of whom are, yes, backed by Iran.

But we initially received information that it was a senior leader within this paramilitary force, the head of their protocol division who had been targeted. We then later heard first on Iraqi state television and then the PMF itself coming out saying that, yes, Qasem Soleimani had been killedalong with the head of Kata'ib Hezbollah.

Kata'ib Hezbollah, Anderson, is that same group that was targeted by the U.S. in Sunday's airstrike.

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The PMF that I'm talking about of which Kata'ib Hezbollah is a member, is the same group that was out in front of the U.S. embassy that was attempting to breach the the walls of the U.S. embassy.

This is not only just going to shake Iraq and potentially escalate things here inside Iraq for the United States, but the Iranian regime and its proxies and the influence of the Quds Force, that extends well outside of Iraq. It is hard to imagine a scenario where Iran does not respond to this. Add to all of this, Anderson, the PMF is blaming the United States for this strike, for what they're calling an assassination.

We do not have confirmation from the Americans, but just the perception that it was America, that in and of itself is going to have a very, very devastating effect.

COOPER: Yes. Arwa Damon, thank you. We'll continue to check in with you. Be careful.

Joining me now is Dexter Filkins with The New Yorker, who profiled the Iranian General several years back, and he's obviously spent a huge amount of time in the region. Dexter was also based in Iraq for three-and-a-half years while reporting for The New York Times. Also with us, CNN Global Affairs Analyst Max Boot. And back with us this hour, Fareed Zakaria, Host of Fareed Zakaria GPS here on CNN.

Dexter. first of all, just your reaction.

DEXTER FILKINS, THE NEW YORKER: It's huge if it's true. I mean, Qasem Soleimani has been the most important operative in the Middle East for the last 30 years.

COOPER: He's the most important?

FILKINS: Absolutely. He's the architect of the entire Iranian regional strategy to set up clients in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to prop up the Assad regime to basically take effect of control of Iraq and to do what he's been doing in Yemen. He is the architect of that. There is no one more important than him. He is literally drowning in the blood of the people that he's killed, including hundreds of American soldiers who he --

COOPER: He's responsible for the deaths of hundreds of --

FILKINS: Hundreds of American soldiers. He oversaw these militias, like Kata'ib Hezbollah, who were Iranian clients armed, trained, directed, created by Iran. They're not just Iranian-backed and Iranian-influenced, they are Iranian creations. And during the Iraq war ten years ago, they were killing American soldiers at will. So --

COOPER: They were behind the IED's --

FILKINS: Really sophisticated IEDs that were really wreaking havoc on American soldiers. So this is a huge event.

You know, the question is what happens now. I think the Iranians are going to have to respond, and then all bets are off.

COOPER: And there's many possible ways for them to respond in a lot of different places.

FILKINS: Yes, I mean, they're very sophisticated. They're cool customers. So they're going to do it. It's their neighborhood. They'll do it when they want and they'll do it how they want. But things could get mighty dangerous very fast.

COOPER: Max Boot?

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I mean, Dexter obviously gives a very good overview of who General Soleimani was. And I think based on his track record, Anderson, I would say there was no question about the justice of killing him. He was a very, very bad guy who, as Dexter just said, has the blood of thousands -- hundreds of thousands of people on his hands, and especially in Syria where he's masterminded the genocidal strategy of the Assad regime but he's also been responsible for the death of American soldiers in Iraq. He has perpetrated great suffering and misery in places like Lebanon and Yemen as well.

But issue is was this a wise move, and what are going to be the repercussions and is the Trump administration read for this escalating crisis with Iran? And so leaving side the justice of the issue, the question is was it a wise thing to do, we'll find out in the next few days.

But give how haphazard the national security policymaking process is in this administration, you have to wonder have they actually thought through all the repercussions on what is a very, very major move.

COOPER: So to that end, Fareed, for people who have not been following the developments in Iraq, particularly for the last couple of years, can you just explain -- and I know it's incredibly complicated, which we've certainly learned time and time again, but this was a regime which the United States backed and supported and a lot of Americans died fighting to bring democracy there and fighting to attack forces there.

How has it that a guy like Soleimani is moving around freely in Syria and Iraq and all through the region and this regime, which we have backed with trillions of dollars and a lot of American blood is now having this guy freely run around with all these militias? I mean, even the existence of all these militias, I think, is confusing to a lot of people.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: Yes, you're exactly right. So, I mean, the thing to remember is Iraq was run by Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni.

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That was a minority repressive dictatorship. Once the Americans liberated Iraq, what happened was the national power dynamic in Iraq emerged, which was it's a Shia majority country and the Shia took control. Now, the Shia have a historical, religious affiliation with Iran that also most Shia leaders had been backed by the Iranians for years because they were in exile, they were persecuted by Saddam Hussein. So Iran developed a natural influence.

And what happened post-Saddam Hussein is Iraq became a cockpit where America and Iran battled for influence. So the Iraqi government, the democratic government of Iraq that we supported enormously was also being supported by Iran enormously. The two sponsors of the new Iraqi government have been the United States and Iran. And every Iraqi diplomat, every politician has had to juggle this reality. So they've kept the Iranians happy while keeping the Americans happy.

This blows the lid off that. I mean, I think probably the greatest single vulnerability here is that Iraq could explode into a civil war. Because the Iraqi politicians have been handling exactly the dilemma you described. They've got to be nice to the Iranians because they are next door and they have all these Shia ties. They've got to be nice to the Americans because the Americans have provided them with a lot of support and a lot of military assistance.

Now, you are going to be forced to choose and it's going to reignite the Iraqi civil war.

And, again, back to Max's point, the whole question, I think, we all have is the administration seems to be going down a path of assassinating this crucial figure who, again, entirely justified in terms of the morality, but we are essentially entering into a war, a proxy, a shadowy war with Iran, sacrificing the stability of Iraq in a very volatile place. Yemen is already in a civil war. Syria is already in a civil war. Do we know what we're doing? Why are we doing this? This was a president who wanted to get us ut of the Middle East.

COOPER: Dexter?

FILKINS: Well, it's interesting. The Bush administration had a chance to kill Soleimani in 2006. They were hunting a guy named Imad Mughniyeh, who was the military commander of Hezbollah, really, really, bad guy.

The CIA and Mossad eventually got Mughniyeh. They killed him. But they had a chance at one point because they found Mugnia and Soleimani was with him. And I had to think about it. And, basically, President Bush said, it's too much.

COOPER: Wow, really, that's interesting. Too much because they will just be too destabilizing?

FILKINS: For different reasons, also legal reasons. I think there was an authorization to do that. But we had the chance to do that and we didn't take it.

And I think there was another moment in Kurdistan when General McChrystal and a bunch of others thought they had him, and just missed him. But this is -- it's kind of hard to overstate how potentially game-changing, this whole thing.

COOPER: Game-changing, the fault lines are where?

FILKINS: Well, look, Soleimani has spent the last 30 years kind of building this sphere of influence in the Middle East for Iran, basically, and that's Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria and the Shia majority in Iraq. I mean, that's basically been his entire project. And now, we've basically just -- with this, we just take the hammer and just smash that.

And so they're going to -- Iranians are going to have to respond. And so if the White House needs to be thinking about how we're going to respond to their response because this thing could just start -- could takeoff really fast.

COOPER: And we're going to take a quick break. We're going to have more next, including the late new reporting from the Pentagon and elsewhere on what's going on and any potential blowback. We'll be right back.

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COOPER: We're joined tonight by the reported of someone the someone the U.S. government considers one of the world's most terrorist, a person with the blood of many Americans and many others on his hands. Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, someone responsible, as Dexter Filkins from The New Yorker told us just before the break, for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq and Syria, hundreds of thousands of people in the region.

Joining us is CNN Pentagon Reporter Ryan Browne. Ryan, is the Pentagon saying anything officially on this or is anybody claiming responsibility?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, no claims of responsibility as of yet, and so the Pentagon is being incredibly tight lipped. We're hearing absolutely nothing from the Department of Defense. We've reached out to the U.S. military in Iraq. We've heard nothing back. So they're being more tightlipped than usual. And so it is sparking a lot of speculation about whether or not the U.S. was involved, how much the U.S. knew about this situation.

Earlier today, we heard from the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, who really ramped up the rhetoric against Iran and the Islamic Revolution and Guard Corps, which General Soleimani was a member, saying that the U.S. could take preemptive action against the group in Iraq if they felt threatened.

So we haven't heard anything. But earlier today, we definitely heard some strong rhetoric about what the U.S. was going to do to counter the threat from Iran, its proxies, which General Soleimani really was. As you heard from Dexter Filkins, he really was kind of oversaw all of these various Iranian militia -- linked militias and proxy forces, many of which have attacked U.S. troops.

In fact, Secretary Esper blamed one of those groups that General Soleimani helped oversee for the death of an American contractor on Friday, something that sparked the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

So the U.S. has long been worried about General Soleimani. We have heard nothing officially about this yet but definitely there has been an increased willingness to talk about the U.S.'s desire to push back against Iran in Iraq.

COOPER: Yes. Ryan Browne, I appreciate it. We'll continue monitoring any word from the Pentagon.

Back now to Dexter Filkin, Max Boot and Fareed Zakaria.

It is -- I mean, I guess is question is what happens now if -- what does the Iraqi regime do? I mean, you were talking before about the Iraqi regime sort of walking this line between the United States and Iran.

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There's a natural affinity as fellow Shia to be linked with Iran. The U.S. obviously is not the presence it was in that country and there's certainly a lot of animosity in many quarters there.

ZAKARIA: And things had been seeming to be moving a few months ago toward a more kind of towards some kind of approach (ph). I talked to Iraqi officials a couple months ago. And they said we just want the Americans to get on a little better with the Iranians. Otherwise, we're caught in the middle. We're hostages in this process.

I was talking to some Saudi officials who were talking about how the Yemen civil war might be -- there might be a negotiated settlement here.

So there were signs that in Syria, sadly, after an enormous and barbaric killing. But, again, there is an element of stability there. But we have now ratcheted it all up. We have decided we're going to escalate against Iran.

And they have been -- they're in a box, so they started lashing out. They shot down an American drone. They attacked Saudi oil facilities. They harassed tankers, and now this. So we're clearly seeing things ratchet up so the Iraqi government is going to try to have to figure out what to do.

But every country in the region is going to have to figure out. The Saudis, for example, while the archenemy of Iran, were very careful after the Iranian strikes on Saudi oil facilities. They didn't make a big deal about it. They didn't retaliate. They tossed it over to the U.N. They didn't even formally accuse Saudi Arabia in the U.N.

So everyone had been trying to dial this down because, think about it, the Middle East is volatile enough. I mean, you've got Syria in total chaos, civil war, 5 million refugees, half a million people at least killed. You have Yemen, which is the world's worst humanitarian crisis. You have Iraq fragile. And in the midst of this, we've now added this.

COOPER: It's very interesting, Max, because time and time again, I mean, I remember George W. Bush running on not wanting to get involved overseas in foreign wars and be the world's policemen. And even while in Iraq and Afghanistan, you know, saying over and over we're not nation-building. Clearly, we knew it then they were nation-building. We said it then. And subsequently, you know, reports that have come out show clearly we were nation-building.

Presidents get sucked into foreign policy crises that they have no desire to get in and yet they still often get sucked into it.

BOOT: And I think this crisis is really reflecting some of the contradictions of President Trump's foreign policy, which can be described as bellicose isolationism. And he keeps talking about wanting to pull out of the Middle East but also wanting to strike back and be a counterpuncher and he's making threats and issuing ultimatums.

And now you're seeing all of that come to a head right now, where this is a crisis that President Trump has really created between the U.S. and Iran. Because while the U.S. and Iran have a long history of animosity dating back to 1979, relations that actually quieted down quite a bit since President Obama concluded the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015. And last year, even though the Iranians were complying with the Iranian deal, President Trump decided to blow up the deal and then he imposed unilateral economic sanctions on Iran this year which had been a lot more effective (ph) and a lot of people, including, expected.

The way the Iranians view that is the U.S. is waging economic warfare on them and they need to strike back. And so that's why you're seeing the attacks on tankers, the attack on Saudi facilities, the attacks on various targets throughout the region.

And now, of course, Trump is escalating further and, again, perfectly justified morally to Gill general Qasem Soleimani. But you really have to ask, does Trump have an endgame here? Does he know what the next step is going to be? And if the Iranians retaliate, what are we going to do next?

COOPER: Also the question is does the U.S. have the capabilities diplomatically, do they have the personnel diplomatically -- we heard during testimony from State Department officials about it being hollowed out from the inside. Mick Mulvaney is -- I didn't even know if he was acting director of the office of Management and Budget and he's chief of staff of the president of the United States. There's a lot of people kind of doing double duty and a lot of folks who are acting, literally acting secretaries.

FILKINS: I mean, can we run a war right now?

COOPER: Yes, can we run or execute other levers of foreign policy that are not war-related. Obviously, the military is related to do stuff, but is there -- folks in the military will often say, and I forgot who wants to testify saying, look, they want diplomats because diplomats help -- they help you not get into the pointy end of the sphere.

FILKINS: Well, the thing that the curiosity of the Trump administration has always been particularly with Iran is that it's schizophrenic. It's, on one hand, they canceled, they walked away from the Iranian nuclear agreement and they speak in a very bellicose way. But Trump's never -- he's always walked away from the moment, and this is the moment he didn't walk away.

[21:40:04]

But they've never --

COOPER: We can't confirm who is behind it but -- and --

FILKINS: Yes, assuming that the United States were behind it.

COOPER: We'd think we're going to get, I think, a word from the Pentagon shortly, actually.

FILKINS: But the policy of the Trump administration with Iran is regime change. I mean, make no mistake about it, they believe they can -- I mean, I've talked to people in the White House about it. They believe they can topple the regime with the sanctions. And so it's very easy to imagine if, in fact, the United States did this, they thought, well, all it needs is a spark to take them down.

ZAKARIA: And this is the point you made about the war. The part about this is, I think, particularly complicated is the U.S. military, if you think back over the last 30 to 40 years, U.S. military is very good at simple, defined objectives because it has incredible fire power, it has incredible capacity. What it's not good at is the shadowy wars where it is trying to deal with paramilitary forces who are mixed in with the civilian population. Think of Iraq, think of Afghanistan, this is always -- Vietnam, exactly.

And it always leaves Americans puzzled like we're the richest country in the world, we have the greatest army in the world. Lyndon Johnson used to tell his Pentagon people why are a bunch of bandits and knights in pajamas beating us?

And the danger here is getting sucked into a war on Iran's terrain and Iran's terms, and, again, did we really want this?

COOPER: Yes. Dexter Filkins, Fareed Zakaria, Max Boot, thank you all. Appreciate it. Great to have you here.

Coming up late, new details from the White House, also a presidential tweet that's raising all kinds of questions, and, shortly, we are expecting a statement from the Pentagon about the situation that has just occurred. A busy night. We'll be right back.

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[21:45:00]

COOPER: We're expecting a statement from the Pentagon any moment now about the -- in the wake of the reported killing of a shadowy, notorious Iranian general, a man with a lot of American blood on his hands, a lot of people's blood on his hands over the years.

The president has just weighed in on something, we don't know if it's specifically on this. CNN's Kaitlan Collins joins us.

Kaitlan, so have we heard anything from the White House? I know other lawmakers are responding.

COLLINS: Yes, we're hearing from other lawmakers. But so far, Anderson, the only thing we've gotten from the president is this tweet that he sent out just a few moments ago, a little bit cryptic. Maybe the question is whether or not this is a confirmation from the United States' side, something we have not gotten yet, just a picture of an American flag that you can see here that the president tweeted out.

Other than that, it's been radio silence from the White House. We've reached out to multiple officials asking for a request for comment on this. And so far we haven't gotten anything.

Anderson, we do know that we've seen several tweets from some of the president's biggest allies in Congress, including Marco Rubio, the senator who tweeted just a few moments ago, talking about how he believes the president so far has exercised restraint when it comes to Iran and essentially praising this move here.

We've also heard from people like Mark Meadows, several other Republicans on Twitter, but nothing that makes clear yet what it is the president's role in all of this.

Now, we know he's here just right behind us at his Mar-a-Lago club. He was seen at dinner earlier from a person who told me that also there is the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, who is on property tonight.

Now, that's not that unusual for the national security adviser, of course, to be around the president. But he had been here earlier in the weekend on Sunday when he flew down with Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and Mark Esper, the defense secretary, they made those brief statements about those strikes that had been carried out. So the president had been briefed on the day before. And then they took no questions, left, and flew back to Washington several hours later.

Now, we are told that O'Brien, the national security adviser, has returned. We're waiting to see if there are any other officials around the president who are national security officials.

We should also note that as far as the president's activities today, we have not seen him in his public schedule. CNN did get a shot of him earlier on the golf course. He was out of his club for about five hours before returning to Mar-a-Lago earlier. And other than that, Anderson, we're still waiting to hear more from the White House. And that could potentially just come from the Pentagon tonight.

COOPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins, thanks very much. I appreciate it.

Dexter Filkins is with us. It's not clear exactly if we're going to get a statement now or not. Obviously, Kaitlan is also going to be continuing to monitor it.

But just again, for those who are joining us, Soleimani, as someone who's -- you profiled him. You spent a lot of time in the region for years. You're really stunned by this.

FILKINS: Yes, it's amazing. Yes. I mean, morally, it's totally justified.

COOPER: And the guy is a killer.

FILKINS: Yes. I mean, if you just talk about American deaths, he is responsible for hundreds of deaths in the Iraq war, hundreds. He oversaw the Iranian militias that really wreaked havoc on American soldiers in the kind of latter part of the war, so no tears for Qasem Soleimani.

But I think the question is what happens now. And, you know, things could get very, very hairy really fast. And because that's their neighborhood, they can respond at the time and manner of their choosing. COOPER: Okay. Sorry, I'm just getting some word in right now. Go ahead.

This is a statement from the Pentagon. I'm just reading it to you as I'm hearing.

At the direction of the president, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani. It goes on to say, Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. That's the end of the statement? I'm sorry. It was being read to me. The statement goes on, but that's the bulk of the statement.

So, Dexter, what do you make of that?

FILKINS: Well, I haven't seen the intelligence, but actively making plots to kind of undermine American interests or to attack American soldiers or diplomats, I mean, that's another day at the office for him.

COOPER: That's what he does.

FILKINS: That's what he does.

And he's -- Soleimani, his entire mindset was formed during the Iran/Iraq war, which is now so long ago. He was a very young man.

COOPER: Iran/Iraq war, I mean, epic --

FILKINS: So long ago, epic.

COOPER: A million killed -- was it a million? A total of a million on each side?

FILKINS: I think a million on each side. But for them, deeply scarring.

COOPER: Generations of people, I mean, young people just thrown as cannon fire.

FILKINS: Poison gas, yes. And for them, it was a deeply scarring experience.

And so after that war was over in the late '80s, Soleimani set out to build this kind of Iranian's speher of influence in the Middle East, which we see today. So it's Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and as I said in Iraq, he was incredibly aggressive against American soldiers there.

[21:50:08]

So this is the thing that he's built. And it all goes back to him and it goes back to his vision.

And we've known this for a long time and, you know, the evidence is in. The Americans have had chances to kill Soleimani before. President Bush had the chance to kill him, I think, in 2006. He didn't take it. And I think he didn't take it, I can't speak for him, but my guess is that everybody paused and thought, why do we really want do this? We're certainly entitled to do it, do we really want to go through with this? And now we have.

COOPER: Dexter Filkins from The New Yorker, thank you, Dexter, I appreciate.

Again, from the Pentagon, the U.S. now taking responsibility for the strike. More ahead. We'll be right back.

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COOPER: We have dramatic developments in Iraq tonight. Before the break, we got the news the United States taking responsibility for the strike at Baghdad Airport that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

Joining us from the CNN Pentagon -- is Pentagon Reporter Ryan Browne. Ryan, talk about what the Pentagon's statement just said.

BROWNE: Well, Anderson, it's a lengthy statement. It goes on for quite some time. But, basically the Pentagon's statement says that President Trump directed this strike. So saying that, calling it a decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad, the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

They go on to say that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American service members. Now, this is during the time of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Iran-linked groups were blamed for hundreds of American soldiers' deaths, referencing that. And they said that the strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attacks, saying that Qasem Soleimani was actively plotting attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and the wider region, so a very strong statement from the U.S. claiming responsibility.

The Pentagon is confirming that it was a U.S. strike that killed Qasem Soleimani. They call him a terrorist in the -- head of a foreign terrorist organization. Of course, the Islamic -- Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been recently designated a terrorist organization by the Trump administration, not -- a little while ago, so, again, kind of laying out the justification for this strike.

You know, earlier today, we heard from Secretary of Defense Esper, who briefed reporters saying that the game had changed and that the U.S. was going to act preemptively if need be to stop Iran and some of its proxies.

[21:55:06]

And clearly, with this strike of killing Qasem Soleimani, the game has, in fact, changed, Anderson.

COOPER: Yes. Ryan, I appreciate it. Ryan Browne from the Pentagon.

I want to quickly go back to CNN's Kaitlan Collins just outside Mar-a- Lago.

Kaitlan, a lot of things moving now very quickly.

COLLINS: Yes, and we're still waiting to hear from the president himself. So far, Anderson, all we've gotten is that tweet of the American flag, that picture that came from the president. And so far, we haven't gotten any other word from him or anyone inside the White House just so far that statement that Ryan just read from the Pentagon.

What we do know is the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, is here with the president on property. He had left earlier this week then came back either yesterday or today. Though we do know that also the defense secretary, Mark Esper, is, of course, back in Washington. He is not here on property with the president.

Just to give you a heads up of who it is that's around the president at the time of this, though it's hard to see how the president doesn't come forward, either put out something. What we're waiting to see is if that happens tonight, Anderson, or if we get word from the president tomorrow.

COOPER: And do we know how long he plans to -- is it -- do we know how long he plans to be at Mar-a-Lago?

COLLINS: So far, he's scheduled to be here until Sunday. That's what we've heard from several officials who have been here traveling with the president. Of course, that could change. And he does have something on his public schedule tomorrow.

That's not something you see often while he's here on this break, typically. It's no public activities. But he is leaving here tomorrow afternoon to go to Miami for a rally, a rally he's having a evangelicals in the Miami area, not too far from here where we are, here in West Palm Beach.

The question is whether or not we hear from the president before then or if he takes that chance to speak with reporters about this strike that the Pentagon just confirmed tonight.

COOPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins, I appreciate it. Thanks very much, Kaitlan.

We'll be right back.

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[22:00:00]

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