Mike Pence: Not Convinced Drone Attack By Iran Was "Authorized At The Highest Levels"

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Vice President Mike Pence said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" that the Trump administration doubts whether the order to shoot down an American drone over the Persian Gulf was authorized by the leaders of the country.

"The president had doubt as to whether the downing of our unmanned aircraft was authorized at the highest levels," Pence told CNN’s Jake Tapper. "We’re not convinced it was authorized at the highest levels."





Full transcript via CNN:

CNN, JAKE TAPPER: So, over the weekend, the Iranians said they had reached out to the U.S. through the Swiss.

Have you received that message? Has there been any dialogue with Iran, either directly or through an intermediary, since the president called off the strikes?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, the president's message to Iran is very clear, that we're not going to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and we're not going to stand by while Iran continues to sow malign influence across the region.

That is why, tomorrow, the president will announce additional sanctions against Iran. And, frankly, as we sit here today, since the end of the Iran nuclear deal, now a year ago, and additional sanctions that the United States is imposing, Iran's economy is literally crumbling.

And over the last two months, we have seen them lashing out even more than they usually do. Remember, Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism...

TAPPER: Sure.

PENCE: ... in the world. They have sown malign influence, even in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, in places like Yemen and elsewhere.

TAPPER: Yes, so they're lashing out.

PENCE: This president drew an end to that.

We have isolated them economically and diplomatically. And they have lashed out, the tanker attack a week ago, the attack on an American UAV last week.

TAPPER: The drone, yes.

PENCE: The president has made it clear that we're not going to tolerate any threats against American forces, American interests, America's allies in the region. And we will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

TAPPER: So, they're lashing out.

But my question was, are they reaching out too? Did you get that message from the Swiss that the Iranians delivered?

PENCE: I'm not aware of any outreach from the Iranians.

TAPPER: OK.

PENCE: I know there was communication. Prime Minister Abe was actually in Tehran not long ago.

TAPPER: OK.

PENCE: And he encouraged them, as President Trump has done publicly, to engage the United States.

The president of the United States has made it clear we're prepared to talk to Iran without preconditions.

TAPPER: Right.

PENCE: But Iran needs to understand that we will never allow them to obtain a nuclear weapon.

TAPPER: A nuclear weapon.

PENCE: And we will not allow them to continue to sow violence across this region.

TAPPER: Well, let me ask you a question about...

PENCE: All -- in the midst of that...

TAPPER: Yes.

PENCE: ... the actions the president took, the actions that we will announce yesterday (sic), the president demonstrated the restraint that the American people, I know, admire and are grateful for when, as right up to the run-up of a military attack, the president continued to evaluate that decision and concluded that what had been initiated and was about to be launched was not proportionate.

TAPPER: Would be disproportionate, exactly.

PENCE: But -- but Iran should not mistake restraint for a lack of resolve.

All options remain on the table.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Yes.

PENCE: The United States is going to defend our troops and America's interests in the region.

TAPPER: But your assertion that the United States -- that Iran should not mistake that for lack of resolve reminds me of what Bolton said not long ago, where he said, nobody should mistake this as weakness.

And it makes me wonder if you are concerned it will be perceived that way.

Before the strike, Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted -- quote -- "I have found that inaction in the face of evil and provocation ultimately has its own cost. In some instances, failing to act can prove to be the most dangerous choice of all."

Now, you initially supported the military strike against Iran. Do you agree that there is a risk that Iran will get the wrong message from the president's restraint, as you put it?

PENCE: Well, let -- let me be clear.

I have said before that weakness arouses evil. But this president has rebuilt our military, to the point that the United States' military forces in the region and around the world are stronger than ever before.

In fact, in the wake of the tanker attacks just a week ago, the president announced that we were moving another 1,000 troops into the region. And I expect Iran and our allies in the region have no doubt about the military capabilities of the United States of America. I believe that's probably...

TAPPER: But do you worry that they worry that the president isn't willing to pull the trigger? Is that a concern at all?

PENCE: Well, I think the president was encouraged that Iran actually announced that they were tracking a manned American surveillance aircraft on Friday and did not fire on it, even though they believed it was in their airspace.

Now, all of that convinces us...

TAPPER: Was it in their airspace?

PENCE: No, of course not.

All of that gives us some sense that -- that, in Iran, that they understand the military capabilities of the United States of America.

But this is -- this is a president who is always going to count the costs. And I was there through the course of the deliberations. Over the last week, in the wake of the tanker attacks, the president was talking about options. In the wake of the attack on the unmanned UAV, there were extensive discussions.

But, at the end of the day, the president looked at the potential loss of human life, relative to an unmanned American drone that had been shot down, and concluded that that was not proportionate. And that was...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But you supported, though, right? You supported the strike initially.

PENCE: I -- well, first off, Jake, I never talk about my discussions with the president of the United States.

TAPPER: OK.

But it has been reported that you, Bolton, Pompeo all supported the strike.

PENCE: I think all -- all of the national security team around this president supported providing him the broadest range of options, including the use of military force.

But the president is the one that makes the decision. And, as he indicated, very late in the process, he was given an estimate that just simply was unacceptable to him.

TAPPER: A hundred and fifty.

PENCE: And this is a president, I think -- I hope that this is also a message to the Iranian people that this is a president who hopes for the best for the people of Iran.

It was the United States back in 2009, in the midst of the Green Revolution, that you remember, Jake, that...

TAPPER: Yes.

PENCE: ... we stood with and spoke on behalf of the people of Iran...

TAPPER: The people of Iran, absolutely.

PENCE: ... the establishment of freedom and democracy in Iran.

We saw protests a year ago all across this country.

TAPPER: OK, I want to ask about something you just said.

PENCE: We want the best for the people of Iran.

But we will stand up to the ayatollahs. We will stand up to their provocations. And Iran should never doubt the capabilities of the armed forces of the United States.

TAPPER: So, you said that President Trump got that information late in the process.

And that is confusing to me, and it's confusing to a defense official I spoke to who said, any time military options are presented to the president, the potential casualty assessment, the battle assessment, is one of the first things that the president would be told.

Now, President Trump said yesterday that he got -- quote -- "very odd numbers" early on in terms of the assessment, the casualty assessment.

What does that mean? And why would the president have only gotten the casualty numbers, as you put it, very late in the process?

PENCE: Well, look, what -- what I can tell you, without -- without talking about the details of those deliberations...

TAPPER: Mm-hmm.

PENCE: ... is that the president was provided with -- with casualty assessments and a whole range of information...

TAPPER: But only at the end, or at the beginning?

PENCE: ... relative to the military strikes that the president -- really throughout.

TAPPER: OK.

PENCE: But, as the president indicated, late in the process, there were more specific projections given to him relative to the targets that he was prepared to use force against.

And he concluded -- he concluded that it was not a proportionate response to shooting down an unmanned American aircraft.

TAPPER: OK. I want to ask...

PENCE: And also -- you also remember the president...

TAPPER: Yes.

PENCE: The president also had doubts as to whether or not the downing of our unmanned aircraft was actually authorized at the highest levels.

PENCE: I can't speak about intelligence that the United States has with regard to that, but you heard the president reflect openly.

TAPPER: That it might have been a rogue general.

(CROSSTALK)

PENCE: We -- we're -- we're not convinced that it was authorized at the highest levels.

TAPPER: Hmm.

PENCE: The president put a regard for human life first. He also put on the table that we want better for the people of Iran.

But Iran needs to understand that the United States of America will never allow them to obtain a usable nuclear weapon. This is the leading state sponsor of terrorism.

TAPPER: Mm-hmm.

PENCE: And the truth that the world has seen over the last 40 years is that the ayatollahs in Iran have no regard for human life. They sow terrorism around the region, around the world.

TAPPER: Would you sit down...

PENCE: And it is unacceptable that they would ever obtain a nuclear weapon as a threat to us, to our ally Israel or to the wider world.

TAPPER: Would the United States sit down with the Iranians with no preconditions to talk about continuing diplomatic relations and ending the Iranian nuclear weapons program?

PENCE: No, I think the president has made it very clear that he's more than prepared...

TAPPER: With no preconditions?

PENCE: ... to have discussions with no preconditions with the Iranians.

TAPPER: OK.

PENCE: But the -- the one precondition is they need to give up the nuclear weapons.

TAPPER: Well, that is a precondition. That is a precondition, though.

(CROSSTALK)

PENCE: We actually hear Iran beginning to talk about within days that they're going to begin to enrich uranium beyond the limitations of the JCPOA. None of that is acceptable.

The president often says that people need to understand, this is not about oil. The attack on the tankers in the straits of a week ago, the United States, we get less than 10 percent of our oil from the Persian Gulf these days because, frankly, we're the -- we're one of the leading exporters of energy in the world. But China, India, other countries depend on that region. This is about the safety and security of the United States...

TAPPER: Right.

PENCE: ... Israel, our allies around the world. And that's why we will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

And we will continue to bring economic, diplomatic pressure to bear, and make it very clear that the United States military will defend our personnel...

TAPPER: Right.

PENCE: ... we will defend our interests in the region.

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