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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
President Trump Says He'd Invoke Executive Privilege to Block Bolton Testimony at Senate Impeachment Trial; President Trump Now Claims Soleimani Targeted 4 U.S. Embassies, Without Evidence Or Explanation Of Imminent Threat; Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) Is Interviewed About Qassem Soleiman; Justice Department Suggests No Evidence To Support Criminal Charges Against Hillary Clinton, Clinton Foundation; New CNN-Des Moines Register Poll: Razor-Tight Race In Iowa. Aired on 8-9p ET
Aired January 10, 2020 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.
Tonight with House Speaker Pelosi saying he's ready to hand articles of impeachment over to the Senate, there's breaking news about the man who would almost certainly be the star witness, that is if Republicans even allow it -- former national security advisor John Bolton.
Tonight, never mind what senators might want or what Majority Leader McConnell might agree to, when it comes to Bolton, President Trump just made it clear he wants him nowhere near the witness stand. That's what he told Fox News' Laura Ingraham during an interview airing tonight.
She asked: Why not call Bolton? Why not allow him to testify? This thing is bogus, why not allow Bolton to testify?
The president replies: No problem other than one thing. You can't be in the White House as president, future, I'm talking about future, any future presidents, and have a security advisor, anybody having to do with security, legal and other things, but especially -- and Ingraham interjects, are you going to invoke executive privilege? Which the president says, well, I think you have to for the sake of the office.
In a moment, our legal and political team weigh in on that, and what it means, and how it might unfold. But, first, more for our Jim Acosta, including some late new reporting that he's got.
So, what more do you know about the president's move to block Bolton from testifying?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's sounding more and more, Anderson, that the White House is moving in that direction. I talked to a source familiar with discussions inside the president's Senate trial team who told me just earlier this evening that there are significant and important executive privilege issues with this potential of John Bolton testifying. It's not altogether clear whether or not they will assert executive privilege in the case of John Bolton because it's not clear whether or not he's going to be testifying.
But according to this source, they believe inside the president's team that this goes to the heart of his presidential powers in the Constitution and so, at this point, it does sound as though if you look at what the president said yesterday, he sounded open to it and today, he sounded as if he was closing the lid on it, and sounding as if he does not want this to happen.
And so, it does seem at this point tonight, Anderson, that the White House is essentially raising up a threat to assert executive privilege if John Bolton is subpoenaed to testify.
COOPER: One of the problems for the White House, although I don't think they view it that way, is that so many witnesses have invoked their own kind of phony invented executive privilege, even though the White House hasn't necessarily done it, they have just done it on the witness stand in front of Congress, that there are actually -- I mean there is such a thing as executive privilege and there are legitimate reasons why some -- you know, why it would be invoked in some cases, and there is an argument certainly for somebody like a national security advisor.
But the president said it would be for the sake of the office. It would also be for his personal sake.
ACOSTA: That's right. The president was saying earlier today that he doesn't think a national security advisor should be able to go up to Capitol Hill and talk about all of the things that happened when he served as national security advisor at the White House. I suppose there is something to be said for that.
At the same time, this is the same John Bolton who according to Fiona Hill, the president's Russia adviser, described this alleged scheme to pressure Ukraine to deliver dirt on Joe Biden as a drug deal and described the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, as a grenade that is going to blow everybody up. So, obviously, John Bolton has a lot to say. And if the White House is successful Anderson in keeping a lid on John Bolton and not allowing him to testify, remember, he wrote that letter earlier this week that sent shock waves through the capital when he said he was willing to testify.
If the White House is able to block him from testifying, they have essentially been able to block a key witness at the president's impeachment trial which has a lot of other constitutional questions. I think some critics would say, Anderson.
COOPER: Just lastly on Iran, I mean in terms of the latest reasons being given for the air strike that killed Soleimani, now the president says Soleimani was targeting four embassies?
ACOSTA: Right. Yesterday, the president said they were threatening to blow up an embassy. And then last night, he used the plural word "embassies". And then today, he told Fox that it was four embassies.
The problem is, is that during the White House briefing that we had earlier today, it wasn't a traditional White House briefing with the press secretary, but in that rarely used room, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came in and was trying to field these questions. It was the secretary of state who had told Fox the previous day that he couldn't cite when or where such an attack was going to take place.
The national security advisor, Robert O'Brien, had said he couldn't name the time or place of when this attack was going to take place. And so, there have been mounting inconsistencies all week long, Anderson, that the administration has not been able to get its story straight.
And remember, this is the same Donald Trump who during the campaign attacked former President George W. Bush and accused that president of lying on the war in Iraq, lying the country into the war in Iraq. And so, this president has big questions moving forward and I don't think they addressed them this week, Anderson.
COOPER: Yes, 305 days at my last count without a official White House press briefing.
ACOSTA: That's right.
COOPER: Jim Acosta, thanks very much.
Joining us now, senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, Carrie Cordero, former deputy assistant attorney general, Elliot Williams, and "USA Today" columnist Kirsten Powers, all CNN analysts.
Kirsten, first of all, what do you think of the president just coming straight out now and saying that that he would exert executive privilege when it comes to Bolton?
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, first of all, I think the idea that he's doing this to preserve the integrity of the White House is kind of laughable because this is a person who has basically been tearing down every institution that he can get his hands on since he's come into office. So, it's not really plausible that that's what's driving this. It's more likely what's driving this is that John Bolton has something to say that's going to be harmful to Donald Trump. I think it's a major tell, frankly, that he would do this.
And so, I think that the ball is now going to be in the court of John Bolton whether he wants to try and defy this, whether he wants to go to court to see if the court could rule in his favor. But I do think that the fact that the president would say that he would do something like this shows that he has something to hide.
COOPER: Carrie, I mean, just from a legal standpoint, you know, as I mentioned, there's been so many phony uses of even the term "executive privilege" and invented ones by people testifying in front of Congress. There is such a thing as executive privilege. Can it be used this way?
CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it can be asserted by the president. So, the president is the one that owns the executive privilege and he can assert it over things that John Bolton would say. In a normal type of proceeding, that type of privilege would be asserted based on specific things that I person would say. So, certain statements, certain conversations, certain words that would come out of their mouth.
What the president is doing is trying to -- he is saying he's going to assert privilege over John Bolton's entire testimony, which is incredibly broad and which you don't really know whether or not the certain things that John Bolton would say would fall under the privilege. So, it's very broad.
But I just want to point out that John Bolton holds a lot of power here because he doesn't -- even if the president were to assert executive privilege, if John Bolton, particularly if he was under subpoena, he could go and sit in the chair and testify. And so, the president can't actually restrain him from doing that.
COOPER: Elliot, the question is -- I mean, one of the questions is obviously does Bolton really want to do this? I mean, he said now after not agreeing to go to the House, saying he was waiting on court decisions, then saying he would go to the Senate, he's also got a book to sell and, you know, probably a big advance and so if he gives up a lot of information now, it's maybe going to make the book less.
I mean, is it possible he's kind of playing a long game here, that he knew that the president would not want him to testify, would say he's going to exert some form of executive privilege but he gets the benefit of saying that he tried to go and now he's just going to put all that stuff in a book?
ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: Yes, I don't think we can try to divine John Bolton's motives because -- and I think everyone is trying to graft their feelings under what they think John Bolton might say, sort of opponents of the president --
COOPER: It's like a Rorschach test.
WILLIAMS: It's literally like a Rorschach test, one of those inkblots where all --
COOPER: We all see John Bolton in different ways.
WILLIAMS: Everybody says, I see my father.
WILLIAMS: Like literally we see John Bolton in different ways. You know, not enough can be said about the fact that the president just cannot -- you know, look, I'll be the first person to tell you that the president has the right and ought to have the right to have private conversations with the senior staff, but the president just does not have the authority to use every word that comes out of his mouth as a shield. And John Bolton's testimony is the ultimate test of this.
Frankly what I think we'll be talking about 50 years -- in 50 years is how this president and this administration has tried to stretch this role of the presidency. And, you know, and the extent to which presidents can exert executive privilege. But, again, I don't think we know at all what John Bolton ought to or is going to say. Look, he's a central figure and he ought to testify.
COOPER: Right, and he apparently said to Fiona Apple it was a drug deal.
The Bangor -- Kirsten, "The Bangor Daily News" is reporting that Senator Susan Collins from Maine, obviously, told reporters that she's working with a fairly small group of fellow Republicans toward a goal of ensuring witnesses can be called in the impeachment trial. I mean, I guess it would take four Republicans.
Do you get the impression there are enough Republicans she could actually bring to that point of view?
POWERS: It's possible. I mean, this is kind of the game it feels like we play a lot. Like Susan Collins is going to come in and save the day and --
COOPER: She's like John Bolton. The female John Bolton.
POWERS: Exactly, another Rorschach test.
POWERS: But, you know, I think that -- I think it will be difficult. And, I think -- you know, when it comes to something like impeaching the president of the United States, it's very different than being somebody who is maybe a critic or, you know, dissents on something versus actually playing a role in trying to impeach the president of your own party.
And so, I know there's a lot of hope that there are a few Republicans that would be willing to do that, but, you know, I think that I'm not holding my breath. And I think that at the same time a trial without witnesses isn't much of a trial. So, it is pretty outrageous that, you know, Mitch McConnell is so closed off to this idea and that Susan Collins has to be doing this in the first place.
COOPER: Carrie, how does it actually work? The president says he wants to exert executive privilege over John Bolton. I know you're saying it's -- you know, this weird blanket thing or kind of unprecedented blanket privilege. If it was in normal times and it was on certain things, would the president and Bolton or Bolton and the president's legal team get together and discuss what are the conversations that are OK, what are the topics that are not?
CORDERO: OK. Well, so, first of all, none of this is normal times because we're talking about a Senate impeachment trial which this is only the third one in our history. So from one perspective, there really aren't a whole lot of rules, a whole lot of precedent to go by for how this specific instance should work, which is why the members of the Senate really need to look at it that way. That they have an opportunity to craft this impeachment trial in a way that's appropriate for today, that's appropriate for the facts that are before them and the gravity of the allegations that are being made.
If there was, to answer your question specifically, though, if this was just assertions of privilege in a normal witness testimony that didn't have anything to do with impeachment, then yes, normally executive privilege or attorney/client privilege would be asserted based on particular documents or particular statements.
COOPER: And, Elliot, I mean, you were counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Is it all helpful, do you think, in terms of strategy for House and Senate Democrats to know the president's thinking ahead of time on this?
WILLIAMS: To know the president's thinking ahead of time? You know, it's hard to know. Again, I think the big strategy question here is what affects Susan Collins and the four or five Senate Republicans up in tough races. I think that's -- the Senate is far more than what the president is thinking. It's really what's Mitch McConnell thinking with respect to the five or so folks, including Susan Collins.
And I think what we're seeing here is giving them a bit of a leash to maybe even -- to avoid having to take a tough vote down the road. So there was some reporting about Susan Collins negotiating with other Senate Republicans over this today. But it's just hard to know right now because everybody -- none of them have the same interests or incentives.
You know, I think the president and Mitch McConnell have different incentives here. Yes, they're both Republicans.
One quick point, Anderson. I think you referenced Fiona Apple.
COOPER: Yes, I know I was going to say, yes.
WILLIAMS: You know, look, Fiona Apple did sing, what I need is a good defense, and I'm feeling like a criminal, like many people in this impeachment proceeding Anderson.
COOPER: It was funny you say because I was about to say -- I was realizing as you were talking, I was thinking about, I think I said Fiona Apple. I was going to say I appreciate the fact that none of you mentioned that and you just allowed me to -- my mistake to just linger.
But yes, thank you for calling me out. Yes, I said Fiona Apple. Fiona Hill obviously.
WILLIAMS: I tried to stare at the camera and keep a straight place while playing through Fiona Apple's songs --
COOPER: The fact that you have that playing in your head and can recall Fiona Apple songs, I mean, more power to you.
WILLIAMS: Hey, I do what I can.
COOPER: All right. Carrie Cordero, Elliot Williams, Kirsten Powers, thanks so much. Rock on.
President Trump possibly blocking impeachment testimony from John Bolton. Also tonight, keeping them honest, why Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump cannot say with any specificity what the imminent threat from Qassem Soleimani was and just what does the secretary mean by imminent?
Later, a tight race just got a lot tighter in Iowa. We have a new poll when 360 continues.
COOPER: Our breaking news tonight, President Trump was asked in an interview with Fox News, would you consider invoking executive privilege to prevent John Bolton from testifying? Here's his response, quote: Well, I think you have to for the sake of the office.
Jim Acosta quoting a source, reported moments ago that no decision has been made. Bolton has previously said he would testify if subpoenaed, but the question, of course, is would he buck the president.
The importance of the president's comment is compounded by the fact that Republican Senator Susan Collins today told reporters in her state of Maine that she's working with a, quote, fairly small group, unquote, of fellow Republicans toward ensuring witnesses. That's according to "The Bangor Daily News".
I want to talk about it more with our CNN contributor Wajahat Ali, contributing op-ed writer for "The New York Times", and CNN political commentator, Scott Jennings, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush.
Scott, do you buy that the president would be claiming executive privilege for the sake of the office?
SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I do actually, because most every president has done it dating back to George Washington. I myself was part of one of these episodes back in the George W. Bush years. I had to show up in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee one day and invoke executive privilege, which is sort of the constitutional equivalent of the executive branch flipping off the legislative branch. Doing that in person is not a lot of fun.
For people who were at John Bolton's level of the White House, however, normally, they don't show up. They send a letter saying the president invoked privilege.
What's interesting about this is they really don't have any leverage on Bolton. All the White House could do is go to court and get an injunction against Bolton to prevent him from testifying. But because he doesn't work there, they don't have the stick of being able to fire him if he violates the president's order.
So, in my particular case, I still worked there and didn't have interest in getting fired, so, of course, I invoked executive privilege as I was directed to do.
COOPER: And did you --
JENNINGS: So, it's a normal thing. Obama did it several times, Bush did it, Clinton did it. It's a normal thing.
COOPER: When you went, did you invoke it for everything or just specifics or topics?
JENNINGS: In my particular case, we invoked it for specific topics. My counsel was there, my own personal counsel, the White House counsel, Emmet Flood, who, by the way, has been in this White House, was part of that as well. So we invoked it on certain topics.
My presumption is, because Bolton was the national security advisor, the top level of advisor to the president, that they would just invoke blanket executive privilege and say these people have blanket immunity from testifying. But again, that doesn't necessarily restrain Bolton from showing up --
JENNINGS: -- just them saying it.
I think they'd have to go to court and try to stop him. What I finding amazing about Bolton is he doesn't have to wait. If he wanted to tell people things, he could write it all down and send it over to Congress right now --
JENNINGS: -- which is why I've been dubious that he's going to go through with testifying.
COOPER: Yes. Wajahat, does the president have a point? There is executive privilege for a reason and he was the national security advisor?
WAJAHAT ALI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, these are obviously the actions of an innocent man who has nothing to hide, Anderson. Donald Trump, of course, said that they had a beautiful, perfect phone call with President Zelensky, so beautiful and so perfect, let's not forget he is impeached. Only the third president impeached. There are two articles of impeachment.
He has abused his powers as president to get a foreign country to interfere in the U.S. elections to help him. And also, he's impeached for obstruction of Congress. Even Richard Nixon who was almost impeached, resigned before the House impeached him and did not try to block all evidence, right, and all aides from testifying. But Donald Trump has claimed all these privileges and has all these immunities which has kept Pompeo and Bolton and Mulvaney from actually coming forward and testifying.
So my question is if he has nothing to hide, he has nothing to lose, because John Bolton as national security advisor, if indeed this call was so perfect, it would be in Donald Trump's interests to actually have him and Mulvaney and Pompeo and everybody else come and testify and tell the American public that there was nothing wrong. But we know from the evidence already established, from the partial phone transcript, from Ambassador Sondland's testimony, Fiona Hill's testimony, Colonel Vindman, George Kent, Ambassador Taylor, there was quid pro quo.
And we know that both Fiona Hill and Colonel Vindman were told by Bolton to go see what this drug deal was all about, the conversation between Sondland and the Ukrainians. And if Bolton testifies, it will be damning.
So, this is why it's going to be a sham trial. The one thing I want to say is Mitch McConnell and all the Republican senators have to take an oath before this trial. He's already violated that oath.
It's like the James Bond villain who reveals the plan before doing it. He said we are not going to impeach this president, our minds are made up. He's literally telling you he's biased. It's like the jury foreman and the judge siding with the defense counsel. It's already rigged, but I do hope this puts pressure on those four or five Republicans who are vulnerable in 2020, including Susan Collins, to do the right thing.
All you need is a majority to vote to have witnesses. They had witnesses for Bill Clinton's impeachment.
COOPER: Scott, though, to your point, Wajahat, the point he makes are very valid. But, Scott, to your point on Bolton, if he wanted to show up, he could show up. And if he did show up and against the president's wishes, that would certainly not help him in whatever future career he hopes to have on the speaking circuit or on Fox TV or perhaps even for his book, no?
JENNINGS: Yes, I don't know what is obviously going through his mind on this. My presumption in reading his statement was that he wanted the appearance of being willing to show up but not the responsibility of actually having to do it.
So if the White House were to invoke executive privilege, that would be a way for him to say, gee whiz, I wanted to do it but they're having executive privilege on me. So, I would have done it and maybe that way he can preserve some credibility that he thinks he might need for some issue in the future.
You know, to Wajahat's points, though, Anderson, I would say the here and now is interesting. But there is long-term implications of this. And having to look ahead to future presidencies and having their national security advisors dragged in, I mean, during the Obama years, they prevented Eric Holder, the attorney general, they prevented the White House political director, and even prevented at one point the White House social secretary from testifying.
So, presidents have always guarded these advisors because if you start making your advisers think they're going to get dragged in front of Congress every day, they will not give you candid advice.
COOPER: Right. But, Wajahat, though, I think you would make the point that obviously this is not appear administration which has really looked for precedent, long-term concerns about protecting the office of the presidency or the institution. You could look at the number of executive orders this president has done, though he complained about the last president's executive orders.
ALI: Oh, yes, Donald Trump cares really much about preserving democracy and the integrity of his office. The same man while eating meatloaf and eating ice cream at Mar-a-Lago, his resort, ordered the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.
So yes, I think we can set aside this fake concern that Trump has for the integrity of his office and we can see just based on the record and his own actions and behavior, he cares about Donald Trump and preserving Donald Trump, because again, if he had nothing to hide, he has nothing to lose by inviting John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney and Pompeo and Esper to testify.
ALI: However, if he has something to hide, he will behave like Donald Trump, which is why he's the only the third president in our nation's history to be impeached.
COOPER: Wajahat Ali, Scott Jennings, thank you very much.
Coming up next, a week into the Iranian crisis and the administration still hasn't said specifically why it began. What is the evidence, was there really an imminent threat? What about the president's escalating claims about how many potential targets there were. We're keeping them honest, ahead.
COOPER: Keeping them honest tonight, after a week of consequences following the killing of a top Iranian general, the administration is still unable or unwilling to say without any clarity or evidence to back it up what it was that drove the need to kill this terroristic leader right now. And many in Congress, including several Republicans, say they haven't been shown any evidence either in closed door briefings.
General Qassem Soleimani for all the lives he has taken, the people he has killed or enabled to be killed, hundreds of American troops in Iraq included, the general was someone whose demise was seen by other presidents as not worth the potential blowback it might cause.
Just a week since the U.S. drone strike that ended his life, we've certainly seen plenty already, including a trip to the brink of war with Iran. At the height of the crisis, the apparent shoot down of an airliner with the loss of 176 lives. Yet with all that behind us and who knows what else ahead, we still haven't been told why it was necessary now.
What we have heard again and again as administration officials, most notably Secretary of State Pompeo talking about the imminent threat that Soleimani's killing averted, without being told what it was or when. Except, as you'll see the President is starting to get specific about the presumed target or targets, though, again, without providing any evidence to show that he's also being truthful.
Here's Secretary of State Pompeo talking vaguely about imminent threats on Fox last night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleimani. We don't know precisely when and we don't know precisely where, but it was real.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Didn't know when or didn't know where. His fuzziness led CNN's Kaitlan Collins today ask him today what he thinks the word imminent actually means.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Secretary Pompeo, what is your definition of imminent?
POMPEO: This was going to happen. An American lives were at risk and we would have been culpably negligent. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, we would have been culpably negligent that we not recommended the President that he take this action with Qassem Soleimani. He made the right call and America is safer as a result of that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: This was going to happen, he says. Again, without saying that this was or when this might happen, only that it would happen. When another reporter followed up, he again didn't volunteer any specifics on what the imminent threat actually was. He did acknowledge one thing when directly asked about attacks on U.S. embassies.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Secretary, the administration said this strike was done based on an imminent threat. But this morning you said we didn't know precisely when and we didn't know precisely where. That's not the definition of imminent. The President has also suggested that there was some sort of attacking planned against an embassy, perhaps several embassies. Can you clarify? Did you have specific information about an imminent threat and did it have anything to do with our embassies?
POMPEO: We had specific information on an imminent threat and those threats included attacks on U.S. embassies, period, full stop.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you were mistaken when you said you didn't know precisely when and you didn't know precisely where.
POMPEO: No, completely true. Those are completely consistent thoughts. I don't know exactly which minute. We don't know exactly which day it would have been executed, but it was very clear. Qassem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests and those attacks were imminent.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: So, it's not clear whether this is one large-scale attack his talking about or several, nor is he saying precisely which embassies were targeted or if these attacks indeed -- were indeed imminent, how killing of the general managed to somehow stop them, which has been a consistently vague theme for the secretary.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: What was the nature of those imminent threats?
POMPEO: John, I can't talk too much about the nature of the threats, but the American people should know that President Trump's decision to remove Qassem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who were the targets and how soon?
POMPEO: Yes, President Trump was right in what he said and so was I. I think any reasonable person who saw the intelligence that the senior American leaders had in their possession would have come to the same conclusion.
CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS HOST: Why now? Why was it urgent this week?
POMPEO: We could see that he was continuing down this path, that there were in fact plots that he was working on that were aimed directly at significant harm to American interests throughout the region, not just in Iraq.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Have they been called off, those attacks?
POMPEO: We're prepared for anything the Islamic Republic of Iran may do.
(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: Today, though, he answered the embassy question, perhaps because his boss is now out there with it talking about what he says was a threat to destroy the American embassy in Baghdad.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy, and you know who organized it, that man right now is not around any longer, OK? And he had more than that particular embassy in mind.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: That was yesterday morning. Yesterday evening at a rally in Ohio, embassy became embassies, plural. His interview with Laura Ingraham today, he was saying four embassies, but again no evidence to back it up.
Joining us now is Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, the President is now saying Soleimani targeted four embassies. Have you seen any intelligence to back up that claim?
SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D-OR): Absolutely not. When there is a specific threat, you see intelligence which says these are the type of information we're getting and these types of matters, these sorts of things that were mentioned. This is how we've reinforced it by checking on other sources. Embassies did not come up at all in the briefing we received.
I must say as I thought a lot about the briefing we received, the picture that you walk away with is General Soleimani was somebody who traveled the region as a general, planning on ways that the Quds Forces, the Iranian militias could be exercise influence and take actions. And that's what he's done year after year after year. So you can say he's always planning, always thinking.
And thus we had him coming back from meeting with Hezbollah and -- well, he may have been discussing future activities. But there was no decision, no target, no time, no acting force, no details and certainly no mention of any detailed or any type of planning about embassies.
So I think this is a pretty much an effort to take a generalized understanding that Soleimani is someone who planned as a general attacks on the United States, does it year after year after year or attacks in the region and try to give the sort of specificity probably weaving it out of whole cloth that would justify the assassination.
COOPER: If -- I mean, that's certainly the portrayal of General Soleimani as, you know, a thug and a killer who -- you know, he's a state actor, but that's -- this is what he does, he plots attacks against U.S. interests, against -- certainly against U.S. personnel in Iraq for years when there were more American forces there and perhaps even now. Why wouldn't -- why isn't it then OK to say, well, OK, he's planning some sort of attacks or some sort of actions that are in the best interests of the United States, therefore he's a legitimate target.
MERKLEY: Well, under international law the idea that someone is about to do something very specific, and you can stop that from happening, is a vision that involves something specific, not just that someone is a general and execute or works out plans for the future. Our generals all the time are planning contingency plans and alternatives for the future.
What we do know is that in the past because he had been so central in leveraging influence in the region, he's been in our scope, if you will, for a long time. But the reason that the United States might have hesitated under former presidents from assassinating him was a sort of interest that we have in the region would not be served by doing so. And by that I mean killing him has reversed the Iranian protests against the Iranian government into protests against the United States.
Of course we've been trying to -- we've been hoping that the Iranian citizens would revolt against their government. It has proceeded to completely undermine the government in Iraq because we did not ask their permission. We violated their sovereignty. We embarrassed the government.
Now the parliament has voted to send us out of the region. It proceeded to interrupt the collaboration against ISIS, our top priority. And by us being reduced and our influence in Iraq, it increases Iranian influence, which is exactly what Iran wants.
First they wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein. We did it for them. Then they wanted a reason to pressure Iraq to push the Americans further out of the region and now we've given them that excuse. So it's hard to see how any considered strategy would result in deciding to take this action.
COOPER: "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting, "Mr. Trump after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with General Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate, associates said." I mean, if there is any sort of personal, political calculations at the President's decision, how would that influence the way you see this?
MERKLEY: You know, I've been asked this over the last several days and each time I said surely I would like to believe that no president would ever conduct a military operation to influence politics, including an impeachment trial in the Senate.
And I must say I kind of dismissed that possibility until the President himself brought it up and said that this was something important to senators that he needs their support in the impeachment trial. I -- it's a very disturbing connection that I would certainly hope would not be the case, but it's the President himself who's raised it.
COOPER: Yes. Senator Jeff Merkley, appreciate your time. Thank you.
MERKLEY: You're welcome. Thank you.
COOPER: Thanks. President Trump has spent years calling Hillary Clinton crooked, of course triggered cries of lock her up. Now, a review by the President's own Justice Department is winding and he's likely not going to like its findings. That's ahead.
COOPER: So after years of unproven conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and the so-called Uranium One scandal, the Justice Department, which was tasked by the Trump administration to look into it, is reportedly winding down their investigation without finding anything that would actually lead to criminal charges.
That conclusion would be a very far cry from the countless claims of criminal conduct and conspiracy made by President Trump and his allies over on Fox News.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: She gave up 20 percent of U.S. uranium.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And then, voila, 20 percent of the U.S. uranium rights go to a Russian interest.
TRUMP: Twenty percent of American uranium.
RUDY GIULIANI, TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: Twenty percent of our uranium.
TRUMP: She gave them 20 percent --
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Uranium One.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Uranium One deal.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have Uranium One.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Uranium One deal.
HANNITY: This Uranium One deal.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Within this Uranium One deal.
HANNITY: That whole corrupt Uranium One deal.
TRUMP: Uranium to Russia.
Let them look at the uranium she sold that is now in the hands of very angry Russians.
GIULIANI: Who gave 20 percent of our uranium to Russia in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars? Hillary Clinton.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in-unison): Lock her up. Lock her up.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Well, the Justice Department is reportedly prepared to say the allegations of criminal wrongdoing aren't true, the Justice Department investigation initiated by the Trump administration.
Perspective now from someone who knows a great deal about being caught in the crosshairs of a politicized government investigation, former FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who is now a CNN Contributor. Are you surprised, I mean, this investigation into Clintons turned up nothing, according to all the reports now?
ANDREW MCCABE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, no. I'm not surprised at all, Anderson. What's surprising, and I think sad, is that we now have yet another example of this Department of Justice capitulating to the political will of the President and his supporters.
This is an investigation that never should have been initiated. It was initiated and I would note publicly announced only because the President demanded it. People like former Representative Goodlatte on the Hill demanded it, and the department did it to mollify those demands.
And they did it in a very public way which of course as, you know, creates immediately a cloud of suspicion that's been hanging over Secretary Clinton and the foundation, and everybody involved in this for two years now.
COOPER: What's so kind of, I mean, I guess, sad, annoying about this, I'm not sure the right adjective, is that, you know, these things get chanted at in front of -- you know, at rallies with thousands, tens of thousands of people and it stirs people up. And the President, you know, runs on it and his acolytes all over, you know, promoted, and folks in Congress do and on Fox News.
And then, too much, you know, too much headlines, and much air time, and conspiracy theories, and they wind people up. And then, they do an actual investigation and nothing comes of it. You're not going to hear those people, you know, recanting, oh, you know what, we were wrong about that whole Uranium One thing. It turns out there really wasn't anything to it. There is no -- there are no criminal charges.
MCCABE: It is -- it's horrendous. And, you know, that -- you know, rectifying that sort of mistake could start with the Justice Department coming out and publicly announcing the end of the investigation. And I'm not saying that they should come out and do, you know, walk through everything they found or, you know, unnecessarily cast aspersions on anyone, but they could easily come out and say that they have declined prosecution. The way the I.G. does and many of the cases that he refers to prosecution that don't go anywhere.
But for the department not to do that, not to take that proactive step to remove this cloud of suspicion, to answer those screaming chants of lock her up and all the conspiracy theories on Fox News and elsewhere, is just -- it's absolutely -- it's cowardly. The reason they don't do it is because they know the kind of wrath that it will provoke from the President and others on Twitter and everywhere else. And it displays a true lack of integrity.
COOPER: Yes. But by not doing it, I mean, it just prepare -- basically, you know, this President knows better than anyone else. I mean, when you have somebody who is shameless, who is willing to say anything, he knows that he can say anything and down the road when it's proven untrue, no one is going to be paying attention to it anymore because they're going to be on to the next thing, which is the next shiny object, which he has now moved on to --
COOPER: -- promoting a conspiracy theory about it.
MCCABE: They'll be on to John Durham or whoever comes after him. You're absolutely right, Anderson. And I think another thing that you really have to point out here is that, what's important to the President and his supporters, the political narrative that they seek is supported not by the actual investigation or its result but by the announcement of the investigation.
COOPER: Right, which is what he wanted out of the Ukrainians.
COOPER: He didn't care if there was a Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens, he just wanted the announcement of one.
MCCABE: That's exactly right. And that is exactly what we saw and what witnesses have testified too in the House investigation that the important thing, the thing they truly sought was the announcement by President Zelensky that Joe Biden and his son were under investigation. It is the same story. It is their go-to plan.
COOPER: Yes. Andrew McCabe, appreciate your time. Thank you.
MCCABE: Thanks, Anderson.
COOPER: Marianne Williamson dropped out of the Democratic presidential race today. Tonight, a brand new CNN-Des Moines Register poll is showing some important trend for the frontrunners. It's really interesting. We're going to have a close look at the number for the first votes only weeks away, next.
COOPER: Just more than three weeks until the first in the nation Iowa caucuses, a new CNN-Des Moines Register poll shows a race for the top spot, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden are in a virtual dead heat. But a closer look at the number shows encouraging signs for one of those candidates.
With me now is CNN Political Director David Chalian. David, what do these latest numbers tell us just in terms of trends going into the first vote of 2020?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, take a look -- just compare it to the November Iowa poll and I think some trends are clear. Bernie Sanders clearly on the rise in Iowa, some real momentum.
In fact, he is the only candidate since November to make some growth. You see he was at 15 percent, now he's at 20 percent. Warren and Biden stayed about the same. Buttigieg really took a dive here of nine points, so the growth in this race right now in Iowa is on Bernie Sanders' side.
COOPER: And all along, I mean, polling had told us above all Democratic voters really just want someone who can beat Donald Trump. Is that still the case?
CHALIAN: It is still the case, but by a slightly lesser margin. Still a majority, 55 percent in this poll among likely Iowa Democratic caucus goers say, they are looking for a candidate who is a strong chance to beat Trump versus one, only 40 percent say that share their positions.
But the margin there has narrowed, and that's to Bernie Sanders' benefit, Anderson, because his supporters are on the side of, I want somebody that share my position. So the fact that they're seeing some growth in that overall request of voters, if you will, plays to Sanders' benefit.
COOPER: I mean, given what happened in Iran, how would a foreign policy crisis maybe impact the Democratic field?
CHALIAN: You know, it's such a good question. It's still not the top issue, that's health care and climate change in this poll, but it is worth noting, we asked about some candidates' strength. And if you look here at Bernie Sanders' strength, you will see his ability to empathize is very important to his supporters. His political resume they see as a strength. But his ability to lead the military, only 61 percent of his supporters, people backing him, say that that is a strength, about a quarter say it's a weakness.
Elizabeth Warren also has a similar warning sign. This commander-in chief-moment I think is on the to-do list, if you will, for Sanders and Warren to try to shore up some of those credentials for voters.
COOPER: David Chalian, thanks.
COOPER: CNN's Democratic debate in partnership with the Des Moines Register is just four days away, it's Tuesday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, you want to watch. Coming up, more tonight, signs of a group of GOP senators could help Democrats with key parts of their battle in the impeachment hearings. We'll see how real that is. Plus, why President Trump is threatening to invoke executive privilege, that's next.