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Police Officer Acquitted in Freddie Gray Case; Search Stepped Up for Airliner's 'Black Boxes'; Polls: Trump & Clinton in Dead Heat; Sanders Keeps Fighting as Hillary Calls for Unity; Sources: Taliban Leader Was Planning Strikes on U.S. Targets; Inside Syria and U.S. Troops Training Rebels. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 23, 2016 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:00:12] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, not guilty. The first verdict in the Freddie Gray death-in-custody case. A police officer was acquitted on all counts. What does it mean for the other five officers awaiting trial?

Technical or terror? An urgent search in the Mediterranean for the black boxes for EgyptAir Flight 804. New questions about whether the airliner was brought down by terrorism or a technical problem. Could thousands of other airliners be at risk?

Dead heat. Donald Trump pulls neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in two new polls, and he meets with a high-profile Republican rumored to be on the short list for running mate. Could Clinton be facing a much tougher race than she expected?

And secret soldiers. In a television exclusive, CNN's Barbara Starr goes on a secret trip to Syria to see how U.S. troops are training militia fighters to battle ISIS. Can they succeed where they have failed before?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, a Baltimore police officer is acquitted on all counts relating to the arrest and death in custody of Freddie Gray. Officer Edward Nero is one of six officers charged in the case and the second to be tried.

Gray's death led to widespread rioting, and tensions have been high surrounding the case.

The hunt is being stepped up, meanwhile, for those crucial black boxes which could help explain what happened to EgyptAir Flight 804.

And the search in the eastern Mediterranean is now going under water. Egypt and France have dispatched submarines to look for the flight data and cockpit voice recorders. An automated system on the airliner sent messages about smoke in the front of the aircraft just before it plunged into the sea. But there are new questions about whether the plane was brought down by terrorism or a technical problem.

And two new polls suggest Hillary Clinton has lost what was once a big lead over Donald Trump and is now in a dead heat for the White House. The polls also indicate that the two rivals are about as close as possible when it comes to favorability, or lack thereof, we should say. They show Clinton and Trump are both extremely unpopular with voters.

Our correspondents, analysts and guests, they'll have full coverage of all the day's top stories, but let's begin with the breaking news. A Baltimore police officer not found guilty in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

Let's go live to CNN's Miguel Marquez in Baltimore. Miguel, tell us what happened in it?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When that judge, Mary Williams, Wolf, read that verdict, "not guilty," Officer Nero standing up, first tilted his head back, took a deep breath and was almost in shock, put his head down and just began to sob.

An incredibly emotional time in that courtroom. Shortly thereafter, Edward Nero's brother left. He was thronged by protesters out there, presumably thinking it was Edward Nero himself leaving the courtroom. Then he left a short time later under very, very heavy security.

Nero's lawyer a short time ago, Marc Zayon, issued the following statement: "The state's attorney for Baltimore rushed to charge him, as well as the other five officers, completely disregarding the facts of the case and the applicable law. His hope is the state's attorney will re-evaluate the other five cases and dismiss their charges."

This case resolved around whether or not the arrest of Freddie Gray was legal or not. Prosecutors arguing that the detention, the initial detention of Freddie Gray was lawful, but at some point, as Gray was arrested, it became illegal.

In that video you're watching right now, Officer Nero is the officer who takes Freddie Gray from the ground and into that van. They also say that he failed to put on a seat belt, and that's why he was also charged.

The judge just not buying it, saying the prosecution did not make its case in either -- either case, that the seat belt and the arrest, both of those were perfectly fine for an officer to do.

This is the second officer to be tried, if you remember, Officer Williams Porter earlier this year, that ended in a hung jury. He will go back to trial. The next trial in these six officers is that of Caesar Goodson, the van driver. That is likely to be a very closely- watched and contentious trial -- Wolf. BLITZER: So far, the state's attorney was 0-2. The first trial, as

you say, was a mistrial, a hung jury, and now an acquittal on all counts. So what does it look like going forward?

MARQUEZ: I think the defense is going to be rallying about what they heard today, and prosecutors are going to have to go back and look at the theory that they are testing. This was a bench trial, as well. The -- this is a bench trial, as well. The -- the judge is saying that he is the one who made this verdict and made the acquittal today.

[17:05:12] So this is -- this is something that the prosecution will have to say going forward. They may have a hard time getting a guilty verdict on several of these officers, Wolf.

BLITZER: Looks like that. All right, thanks very much, Miguel Marquez.

I want to get to another huge story we're following right now, that urgent search being stepped up in the Mediterranean for the wreckage of EgyptAir Flight 804, especially the so-called black boxes, which could provide vital clues to what exactly happened.

Brian Todd has been looking into this for us. Brian, you're learning new information. What are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are, Wolf. We're now about five days into the search for EgyptAir Flight 804. Time is critical tonight. Search teams have about 25 days to find the signals from those black boxes. A key question tonight: do they have the right equipment in place to find those signals?


TODD (voice-over): The French patrol ship scours part of the Mediterranean, searching for the fuselage of Egypt Air Flight 804. The vessel has a small submarine and acoustic detection system specializing in finding pings, crucial signals from the plane's black boxes.

TIM WELLER, DEEP SEA SEARCH EXPERT: It's critical for the investigators to get those devices in the water and start searching. The batteries in the pingers are only good for 30 days.

TODD: Searchers call it the acoustic clock. When the batteries of the pingers run out, it will become much harder to find the EgyptAir jet's cockpit voice and flight data recorders and Egyptian submarines searching. Experts say its ability to actually find the plane is limited. The water is almost two Miles deep in some parts of the search area.

Veteran searchers tell CNN it's too critical to get listening devices like high-tech pinger locators into the water.

WELLER: If these devices are not towed, if they're just single deployed devices, kind of like looking in the grand canyon at night with a flashlight for a dime. TODD: Meantime, chilling audio has been released. The pilot of

Flight 804 making one of his last calls to air traffic control. As he speaks to a controller in Zurich, the conversation is routine, nothing to indicate anything is wrong on board.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you so much. Good day. Good night.

TODD: A short time later, the plane is lost on radar. There are also new questions tonight about automated messages transmitted by the plane. They indicated multiple smoke alerts in the front of the aircraft minutes before the crash.

Those transmissions also show there were problems with a heated window and a sliding window in the cockpit. Records show there have been electrical problems in Airbus A-320s. It's not clear if EgyptAir followed a directive from the FAA 13 years ago to replace windshields on A-320s flown by American carriers. Are the thousands of Airbus 320s in at any given time safe?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB, FORMER FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: It takes off anywhere. Every 2 1/2 seconds, one takes off somewhere around the world. It's been the workhorse of the industry, exceedingly than the Boeing 757.

TODD: There's a haunting coincidence surrounding this plane. "The New York Times" reports the very same EgyptAir jet that crashed was the target of vandals about two years ago.

"The Times" says a message on the under sides was written on the underside, saying, quote, "We will bring this plane down."

But EgyptAir officials told "The Times" they believe that graffiti was linked to Egypt's domestic political turmoil, not terrorism.


TODD: So a few days after the crash, the task of investigators tonight seems to have only gotten more difficult. There's little physical evidence to analyze.

So far, no group has claimed responsibility for taking down this jet. Officials have found nothing implicating the flight crew, the passengers, or security officials on board. So the pressure tonight on the search teams to find the fuselage in the black boxes has only grown more intense.

BLITZER: It certainly has. All right. Brian Todd, thanks very much.

I want to bring in our aviation correspondent, Richard Quest. Richard, the clock is clearly ticking for the search crews to locate those two black boxes. How much time do they have?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, 30 days is what the minimum guarantee the manufacturers of the pingers, so you start your clock watching from the moment it went into the water last Thursday.

The real disgrace, Wolf, is that we're still searching in this fashion. A, that the matter is how we got to 60 or 90 days as required or the new regulations. And be that not enough data is being streamed from the aircraft, that that's just sort of one of those things that aviation just has not yet got a grip on.

The reality tonight is that, once again, as we were with MH-370, we are scrambling around, this time on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, trying to find the fuselage, listening to -- for these pings, and hoping to hear them before the -- they run out.

QUEST: I'm more confident here than I was with 370. Here, at least, it's a fairly controlled environment. Yes, it's deep, but they know what they're doing, and they know where they're doing it.

[17:10:08] BLITZER: Richard, data from the plane's so-called ACARS system shows smoke was detected in the lavatory up front right before the plane began to descend. So what could that suggest?

QUEST: One of two things, Wolf. Either we're talking -- look at this interesting graphic. You see the cockpit window where -- this is the first sign that something has gone wrong. Then you have the fixed window. Then you have the lavatory. Then you have the electronics bay. And then you have two flight computers, suggesting a cascading series of events.

And to the next obvious question, is this a result of nefarious activity, terrorists? Is it a mechanical fault? We don't know. But what I find particularly interesting about it is that there's a three- or four-minute gap from the No. 1 to No. 4, 5 and 6. In that gap, there is no mayday. That's a long time for pilots to be flying a plane, heavily trafficked area, where they're going to be diverting from the airways and not at least pushing the button and saying, "Mayday, mayday, we have a fire on board. Get out of the way."

BLITZER: So what could be the explanation for the fact that there was no mayday communication from the cockpit to ground control?

QUEST: The possible explanation is, first of all, they're overwhelmed and simply dealing with the crisis, and in that case, they're just literally focus, focus, focus.

But I think there's another explanation, and that is initially they're dealing with a crisis. But perhaps if you look again, that -- you know, once the fire is in the avionics -- smoke is in the avionics bay, that's where all the radios are. At that point you have to question whether they were able to get a mayday out. Had the communication tools by that stage failed, and they could not get a mayday out?

But I think the core message, from all we've heard so far, is that anyone who says that it was a bomb or a terrorist or it's mechanical is simply they don't know. Everything on the table now, Wolf. And I mean the lot.

BLITZER: Richard, I want you to stay with us, because I want to bring in some other experts, the former FBI assistant director, our CNN senior law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes; our CNN aviation analyst, Peter Goelz. He's the former National Transportation Safety Board managing director. And our CNN aviation analyst, Miles O'Brien.

Miles, does this indicate a progressive chain of events, rather than a single, catastrophic incident?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It's kind of both, Wolf. It could very well be a singular incident, which launches off, like dominos, a chain of events. If you think about a typical aircraft these days, it's so safe. And if a singular event has only a singular consequence, generally speaking, you're going to live to tell that story. But once the dominos start falling and things start failing in succession, which is what we evidently see here, we get what we call kind of the chain of events which lead to an accident.

You take out any one link of those chain -- in that chain, and you probably don't have a cataclysmic event. In this case, one thing, whether it was a mechanical fire or, for that matter, a bomb that is not big enough to blow the thing out of the sky, could have launched this chain of events.

BLITZER: Peter, what do you think?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: I agree. We don't know yet. It seems like it's a cascading series of events. But we really don't know what the time frame is. It could have started some time before.

Remember, the pilots did not respond to the air traffic control message some three minutes before the event actually began. So it really is perplexing. And I think the hint towards terrorism that was given out on the first day was probably inappropriate.

BLITZER: Well, you know, it's interesting because "The New York Times," Tom, had this story over the weekend, saying this Airbus, this particular plane that had disappeared over the Mediterranean and went down into the Mediterranean Sea, there was Arabic graffiti about two years ago written on the plane in heightened political tensions in Egypt after the new president had removed the old president, the Muslim Brotherhood, president Morsi. Sisi was in power, and the message was written in Arabic, "We will bring this plane down."

Now, do you believe in coincidences, or do you believe this potentially is related to this plane going down?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I think it's pretty remote related to that exact aircraft. To put something like that down and two years later you know this plane is here, and now it's ready for us to put a bomb or put some device. And now when you're talking about the ACARS system, what level of sophistication does it take to sabotage that system and cause it to be a terrorist crash by means of mechanical and computer failure? So I don't put complete amount stock in that.

[17:15:05] BLITZER: Because at the time they wrote that graffiti, whoever was opposed to the new president, El-Sisi, the plane's registration, according to "The New York Times," the last two letters were "C.C.," and that's why they targeted that plane, because they hate the president of Egypt, El-Sisi, and they said, "We will bring this plane down." Which obviously, if you're an investigator, an FBI investigator or other investigators, you've got to look at that possibility.

FUENTES: You have to look at it, but the other question is we. Where are they now? If "we" did that, why aren't they taking credit? Where is ISIS that took credit within four hours of the Egyptian...

BLITZER: That was ISIS in Sinai. They took four hours.

FUENTES: That's right.

BLITZER: But ISIS in general, it took them about a month. General ISIS, it took them much longer to take credit for that.

FUENTES: Yes, but ISIS now, if this big of an event happens, they want to take credit as soon as possible. If it was A.Q. in the Arabian Peninsula...


FUENTES: If it was them, they're in competition with ISIS. They would quickly want to take credit.

BLITZER: Those are good points.

All right. Stand by. There's much more to discuss. Let's take a quick break. We'll resume our conversation right after this.


[17:20:27] BLITZER: As the hunt has clearly stepped up for the two black boxes which could explain the crash of EgyptAir Flight 804, we're back with our experts.

Miles, the search for the black boxes is obviously continuing, and it's critically important. They're searching an area about the size of Connecticut, as we're told right now. How much could we determine without those two black boxes? In other words, will they determine what exactly happens if those two black boxes are never discovered?

O'BRIEN: Wow. I think a lot hinges on them, Wolf. That's a shame. You know, as Richard was saying at the top, there's no reason we shouldn't know right now what happened on that aircraft. And, frankly, if there's a fundamental mechanical problem with it, we need to know right away. And for that matter, if there's a security flaw in the system which led to an act of terror, we need to know these things instead of fishing around two miles beneath the sea.

I think we won't get a final answer until those boxes are found. But I do know that we know where to look. And I do know that, when we get them, it's a digital flight recorder. Airbus A-320 pioneered this technology. It's got lots and lots of data there about what the machine was doing. And the cockpit voice recorder will tell a lot about what the crew was contending with, noises in the cockpit. There's -- there's a treasure trove of data in there. It's just a shame we don't have access to it in real time. BLITZER: Richard, what about the debris that has already been found

floating on top of the Mediterranean Sea? So the plane, bits of the plane, some luggage, body parts. What, if anything, could be determined from the debris to help us better understand what might have happened?

QUEST: From the amount that we've seen so far, not enough. And you would, obviously, besides the residue of explosives on bodies and on debris. You're also looking for compression points. You're looking to see how it was twisted off the aircraft.

But from what I'm seeing, compared to previous incidents where you get large pieces of the fuselage or the tail fin or galley carts or things like that, where you can actually see much more of how the thing ripped apart, these are very small pieces. There's a lot more debris, Wolf, that needs to be recovered because, of course, we don't know how -- we don't know how the plane went into the water. I would suggest it seems likely it went in fairly intact, but we don't know that, because we don't have any radar data.

BLITZER: Peter, you've worked with the Egyptians in these kinds of investigations over the years. How much confidence do you have in their ability to find out the truth?

GOELZ: Well, they approach it in a professional way. They have a team of experts helping them from the U.K. and France. The question of technical skill is not really up in the air. The question is the political will.

For the Egyptians, the investigation is tied into their politics and if the investigation is leading in a direction that they find politically unpalatable or unacceptable, then there's going to be questions raised. It took them an awful long time to admit that there was a bomb coming out of Sharm El-Sheikh on the Russian airliner. They never accepted the issue of suicide with their co-pilot in 990.

BLITZER: Egyptian airplane.

GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: On the coast of Nantucket.

GOELZ: Yes. So it's -- the investigation is intertwined with the politics.

BLITZER: And the Egyptians, though, I assume, will get first access to the flight data recorder, the cockpit voice recorder if it's recovered. They'll have the first chance to go through and listen and read all that data. Is that right?

FUENTES: Well, probably, yes. But this seems to be a ball of confusion as to who's actually in charge of this whole thing at this point.

BLITZER: Who's in charge?

FUENTES: I don't know.

GOELZ: It should be the Egyptian police.

BLITZER: It's an Egyptian airliner.

GOELZ: And Egyptian territory. It should be the Egyptians.

BLITZER: In Egyptian air space, not necessarily territorial waters. It's about 100 plus miles...

GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: ... off the coast, at least. It's in the Mediterranean, in international waters right now, technically speaking.

GOELZ: That's right. But the Egyptians have taken the point. They have not ceded that responsibility to anyone else.

BLITZER: Let me let Richard Quest weigh in on that sensitive subject. Richard, go ahead.

QUEST: Yes. I mean, whatever the air space or international waters, there's something known as the F.I.R., flight information region, and they basically divvy up the entire world, specifically, Wolf, so that if a plane goes down somewhere, there's always somebody responsible for air navigation services, ANS, and there's always somebody responsible for leading off with search and rescue.

[17:25:11] So in this -- so for example, that is why Australia has been lumbered with the 370 search, even though it's 2,000 miles off the western coast of Australia, because it's in Australia's flight information region.

Here there's no doubt, as far as I can see. This is Egypt's investigation into ACAIO. And that was why it was very unusual, Wolf. Over the weekend, the French decided to confirm these ACARS, automatic satellite messages. I mean, this is the providence of the Egyptians to make it, and I was very surprised that the BEA of France decided to break protocol in quite that way.

BLITZER: All right, guys. I want all of you to stand by. There's more on this story coming up, as well. But there's another important story we're watching.

Stunning new polls show Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are locked in a virtual dead heat right now. Huge numbers of voters actually don't like either of them.

And later, a television exclusive. CNN takes you to a secret location inside Syria where U.S. troops are training fighters to take on ISIS.


BLITZER: In presidential politics, stunning new polls show the presidential race has turned into a dead heat. Not only has Hillary Clinton's lead vanished, both she and Donald Trump are deeply unpopular with the voters.

[17:30:56] Our political reporter, Sara Murray, is in New York for us outside Trump Tower. Sara, what's Trump doing to improve his standing with voters right now and to improve his standing with fellow Republicans?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Donald Trump has made a number of attempts to try to consolidate the base behind him. Of course, we know last week he released a list of possible SCOTUS picks. He's met with a couple foreign policy giants. And today met with Senator Bob Corker, one of the leading Republicans in the Senate and, in his own right, a bit of foreign policy wonk.

And all of this comes as Donald Trump appears to be poised to defy expectations once again, and we may be looking at a much tighter general election race than we expected.


MURRAY (voice-over): Skeptics predicted a Donald Trump ticket would mean a blowout victory for Hillary Clinton.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Now I'm going to start focusing on Hillary. That's going to be so easy.

MURRAY: But new national polls reveal a race that's rapidly tightening. A "Wall Street Journal"/NBC News poll puts Clinton at 46 percent, compared to Trump's 43 percent. Her 3-point edge down from a double-digit lead just a month ago.

A "Washington Post"/ABC News poll also shows a dead heat, with Trump at 46 percent support and Clinton at 44 percent. As speculation whirls over who Trump might choose for a V.P., the billionaire businessman met privately with Senator Bob Corker today, who brushed aside questions about joining the ticket.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I have no reason whatsoever to believe that I'm being considered for a position like that. You know, I'll say that until I'm blue in my face. It's just -- again, this was a meeting between two people who didn't know each other except over phone calls.

MURRAY: Trump's allies say Corker's foreign policy experience could be an asset to the first-time presidential candidate, even if he doesn't make the V.P. short list.

CORKER: We talked bigger picture, really relative to foreign policy, domestic issues that matter a great deal to him.

MURRAY: Meanwhile, Trump is still aiming to consolidate his conservative base. And he's turning to a potent issue, the Second Amendment, to rally voters.

TRUMP (via phone): I don't want to have guns in classrooms although in some cases, teachers should have guns in classrooms.

MURRAY: But he's delivering a muddled message, saying he doesn't want to see guns in classrooms.

TRUMP: I'm not advocating guns in classrooms.

MURRAY: And in the next breath suggesting trained teachers should be armed.

TRUMP: Teachers should be able to have guns. Trained teachers should be able to have guns in classrooms.

MURRAY: All as Clinton tried to take Trump to task, accusing him of pandering to special interests.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Now, we know the gun lobby is powerful. I believe it's the most powerful lobby in Washington. And we know that some candidates will say or do anything to keep them happy.

Unlike Donald Trump, I will not pander to the gun lobby. And we will not be silenced, and we will not be intimidated.

MURRAY: And in the latest signal of Trump shifting positions, Trump the candidate mocks the concept of climate change on the trail.

TRUMP (on camera): So Obama is talking about all of this with the global warming. A lot of it's a hoax.

MURRAY: But Trump the businessman isn't so dubious. According to Politico, Trump's company applied for a permit to build coastal protection for a seaside golf support. The reason: rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.


MURRAY: Now, Wolf, you saw Senator Corker there dismissing the idea that he's in the running for V.P., saying he had no reason to believe that. And he told reporters that this is really just more of a way for him to meet Donald Trump, to get more comfortable with him.

And that's one key thing we should be watching, as Trump narrows down his V.P. list, is who does he feel comfortable with and who did he feel he had the experience with? So if you start to see these guys popping up with him more and more frequently on the campaign trail, meeting more and more frequently, that could be a better indication that Trump might be nearing a pick -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, thanks very much. Sara Murray reporting.

The new polls showing her tied with Donald Trump are adding fresh urgency to Hillary Clinton's calls for Democrats to unite for the general election. But will Senator Bernie Sanders go along?

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is out in California, where the senator has a rally later tonight. Sunlen, are there any signs he's ready to make peace with Hillary Clinton right now, or for that matter, with the Democratic establishment? SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, not at all yet, Wolf. In

fact, it's very much the opposite. You know, Bernie Sanders is out picking new fights with the Democratic leadership and also suggesting that voters see Hillary Clinton as a lesser of two evils against Donald Trump.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hillary Rodham Clinton!

SERFATY (voice-over): Seeing her lead against Donald Trump evaporating, tonight Hillary Clinton is escalating her attacks on the presumptive GOP nominee.

CLINTON: Trump economics is a recipe for lower wages, fewer jobs, more debt. He could bankrupt America like he's bankrupted his companies.

SERFATY: Clinton also suggesting Trump is refusing to release his tax returns, because he's not as successful as he claims.

CLINTON: I mean, ask yourself, how can anybody lose money running a casino? Really?

SERFATY: Adding to the pile-on, Bill Clinton, blasting Trump's campaign slogan.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know what "Make America Great Again" really means, which is, "Hey, I'll make it the way it used to be. You will be better off, and if you're not at least you'll have somebody else to look down on." That is a dumb idea. It will not work.

SERFATY: While her campaign is setting its sights on Trump, Clinton, though, is still facing headwinds for being unable to close out the Democratic primary.

A new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows that roughly one in five Sanders supporters would back Trump in the general election instead of Clinton. The poll also finds that 41 percent of Sanders supporters view her negatively, compared with 38 percent who see her positively. It's a potential warning sign for Clinton as she tries to unify the Democratic Party heading toward November.

CLINTON: And stop Donald Trump!

SERFATY: All this as Bernie Sanders is digging in more and deepening his feud with the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If elected president, she would not be reappointed to be chair of the DNC.

SERFATY: Endorsing the challenger to Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the Democratic primary contest for her Florida House seat.

SANDERS: Well, clearly I think her opponent. His views are much closer to mine than is -- is Wasserman Schultz's.

SERFATY: And Sanders renews his promise to stay in the race until the convention in July.

SANDERS: If we can win big here, we're going to have the momentum taking us into the Democratic convention to win the nomination.

SERFATY: That pledge becoming fodder for late-night laughs.

KENAN THOMPSON, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": Senator Sanders, I'm sorry, but the night is over.

LARRY DAVID, COMEDIAN (AS BERNIE SANDERS): No! No, it's not over! It's not over until I say it's over!

KATE MCKINNON, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": Oh, hello, Bernie. I didn't see you sitting behind me, so far behind me you could never catch up.


SERFATY: And the DNC announced an agreement today between the Sanders and the Clinton campaign that would give Sanders supporters one-third of the seats on the party's platform committee, certainly seen as an inclusive move toward Sanders supporters, meant to bring them into the fold. But it also gives him considerably more influence over the writing of a platform.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen, thanks very much. Sunlen Serfaty in California.

Coming up, U.S. troops fought some of their bloodiest battles of the war in Iraq in Fallujah against insurgents who were the predecessors of ISIS. Now, a new offensive has begun to try to drive ISIS out of the ci$. What role will American troops play?

And CNN joins a top U.S. military commander on a secret trip into Syria, where U.S. troops are training rebels for another military offensive against ISIS.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[17:43:27] BLITZER: Let's get right to the breaking news. We're now getting brand-new information on why the United States targeted and took out a senior Afghan Taliban leader inside Pakistan.

Want to bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, who's learning this information. Jim, what are you learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Right. A senior U.S. military official tells me that the U.S. was aware that the Taliban under Mullah Mansour was planning new attacks against U.S. targets in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Now, when the strike was carried out over the weekend, the Pentagon said that the Taliban had targeted U.S. personnel, continued to pose a threat to U.S. personnel.

But this is the first time, Wolf, that the Pentagon is saying and this official is saying to us at CNN that they had specific information about specific plots against U.S. targets, that that is part of the reason they chose to act. It may explain why they took the risk they did, because keep in mind, this strike took place in a part of Pakistan the U.S. has never struck before, in Baluchistan, much further south from those tribal areas where most of those strikes have been carried out.

BLITZER: And I take it the Pakistani government not very happy the U.S. violated, once again, Pakistani's sovereignty, air space, to go in there with these drones. This was a decision that the president of the United States personally made to authorize this kill?

SCIUTTO: Absolutely. And what also is different about it, as you know, it's the CIA that, in general, carries out these drone strikes in Pakistan. They don't admit to it, but it is the CIA. This strike was carried out by the U.S. military. Helps explain, if this group was, indeed, had specific new plots against U.S. military personnel, why the president made that choice.

BLITZER: Now, in Fallujah, there's a battle underway right now, in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, that the Iraqi military now is trying to get rid of ISIS there, take over.

[17:45:04] Here's the question: what is the U.S. military role in this offensive?

SCIUTTO: I'm told by U.S. military officials that the role is at this point purely in the air. You've had a number of strikes, in fact, 21 strikes over the last six days inside Fallujah this by U.S. fighter jets and drones against ISIS targets there but I have asked if any of those U.S. military advisers, of which there are hundreds now in Iraq, are forward deployed, supporting these forces, advising these forces as they go in, they say no, they are not. This is an Iraqi operation and crucially also Shia militias involved and you know the tensions that that causes particularly in a Sunni dominated area like this.

BLITZER: Yes. I think there are nearly 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq right now overall including those advisers.

SCIUTTO: No question.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, thank you very much.

Coming up, a television exclusive. We're going to take you on a secret trip inside Syria to see how U.S. troops are training militia fighters there to battle ISIS. Can they succeed where they failed before?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:50:25] BLITZER: ISIS is claiming responsibility for devastating bombings killing dozens of people in two cities in the heartland of the Syrian regime. That comes as U.S. special operations forces are on the ground in Syria urgently trying to put together a coalition of rebel groups who can take the fight to the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr went inside Syria where the head of the U.S. Military Central Command. Barbara is now joining us from Amman, Jordan.

Barbara, this was exclusive television reporting you had. Tell us what you saw.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We are here in Amman, Jordan now after leaving Syria. General Joe Votel wanted to see this particular front line in northern Syria for himself.


STARR (voice-over): These are the first images ever shown publicly from a U.S. Special Operations training camp in northern Syria. CNN was the only television network here with General Joseph Votel on his secret trip to Syria to meet Kurdish and Arab commanders fighting ISIS. Just as ISIS launch new attacks against Syrian government stronghold killing dozens.

GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, CENTCOM COMMANDER: My principal purpose was to meet with some of the Syrian there, democratic force leadership in multiple locations.

STARR: It comes as the U.S. tries for a second time to stand up a fighting force. The first attempt crumbled with just a handful of rebels who stayed in the fight.

Now a dangerous trip Votel felt he had to make.

VOTEL: I have a responsibility for this mission. I have a responsibility for the people that we put here. So it's imperative for me to come and see what they're dealing with, to share the risks that they are -- they are absorbing on a day-to-day basis.

STARR: From here and other secret nearby locations the U.S. military is racing time to train enough local Syrian forces so they can push south towards Raqqa, ISIS' declared capital.

(On camera): General Votel has come to northern Syria under extraordinary security conditions. In fact we've been asked not to reveal a number of details on how we all got here. But Votel considers this part of the war a top priority. He is here to meet with the U.S. military advisers that are helping some of these local troops that you see work to defeat ISIS.

(Voice-over): This SDF spokesman is critical. He says his group urgently needs more ammunition and weapons. Beyond the few supplies he says the U.S. has delivered. U.S. officials say they are working to possibly provide more. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (Through Translator): We've been given a limited

number of old rifles.

STARR: Due to security concerns, we are not allowed to show details of the base. Our cameras are restricted. Security is so high here, the U.S. advisers want their faces shielded. But they do want to talk about the training.

(On camera): You're a military adviser here. What do you guys do here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are here training the Syrian Democratic Forces. Now when I say training, generally that's consisting of basic level weapons training, shooting AK-47s and shooting larger machine guns.

STARR (voice-over): Female fighters train alongside the men. Even as the lookouts, patrol the surrounding fields, and stand watch getting ready for what their future holds.


STARR: And that future may still be some time off. Votel is very pragmatic about all of this, warning that it is going to take a long time for this new army, if you will, in northern Syria to really take hold to be able to push ISIS back out of these key areas. This is a very young, very inexperienced force that U.S. Special Operations is trying to work with -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How extraordinary was it that the U.S. Central Commander, the head of the U.S. Military Central Command actually risks a trip inside Syria?

STARR: Well, I'll tell you, you know, during the years of, of course, the major conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, we saw top officials, top four-star generals travel around the battlefield because they have generally a very big commitment, they won't send troops, you know, if they're not willing to go themselves, so they do make that effort, but in recent years, especially since the war on ISIS began, we just haven't seen this sort of thing -- Wolf.

[17:55:08] BLITZER: Certainly not. All right, Barbara, glad you're out of there safe and sound. Thank you. We will check back with you tomorrow.

Coming up, Donald Trump pulls neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton in two national polls. Could Clinton be facing a tougher race than she expected?

And an urgent search in the Mediterranean right now for the black boxes from EgyptAir Flight 804. New questions about whether the airliner was brought down by terrorism or some sort of technical problem. Could thousands of other similar planes be at risk?


BLITZER: Happening now. Trump surges. We are digging deeper into new polls that shows the all but certain Republican nominee is now in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton. Tonight the Democratic frontrunner is hitting back harder than ever.