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Fighting ISIS; Redrawing the Map?; Caught on Camera: U.S. Special Forces Near ISIS Capital; Tornadoes, Floods Snarl Texas, Plain States. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 27, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Could Donald Trump go full Terminator and win California in November?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Donald Trump unveils his strategy to win states that were supposed to be signed, sealed and delivered for the Democratic Party. Could he really turn both coasts bright red?

Plus, new video showing U.S. special forces just miles from the center of ISIS power Syria. So, why is the Pentagon saying we are not seeing what we're probably seeing?

Plus, a twister exploding before our eyes, tornadoes, floods and predictions of a hurricane season with some names we may remember for a while.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake Tapper today.

And Donald Trump is hoping to redraw the electoral map and turn traditionally blue liberal bright Republican red. Could the man who has so far defied all conventions actually win in California and New York?

CNN correspondent Phil Mattingly joining me live now from Fresno, California, where Mr. Trump spoke this afternoon.

So, Phil, the Donald Trump victory tour, after sealing up the nomination, has taken him now to California?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jim, not Florida, not Ohio, not Pennsylvania or Michigan, California, a place Trump himself said just about an hour ago here in Fresno most Republicans wouldn't even come to have dinner in.

And yet he has decided this will be a big component of his general election plans, even as he acknowledged a lot of Republicans don't think it's the best idea.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Listen, we're going to win the election. So I want to make a big play for California.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Today, one day after clinching the Republican nomination, Donald Trump stumping in a decidedly not Republican state, one that has greeted Trump rallies with protests and even violence so far this year.

TRUMP: I love my protesters.

MATTINGLY: Stops in Fresno and San Diego underscoring the Trump's campaign departure from traditional GOP strategy.

TRUMP: We're getting these massive crowds all over the place. I actually think we are going to win California.

MATTINGLY: Trump says he plans to focus on 15 or so states in November, including battlegrounds, such as Ohio and Florida, and Democratic strongholds like California and his home state of New York.

TRUMP: I view it strategically, also, because if we don't win it, they are going to spend one hell a fortune in fighting me off. That, I can tell you.

MATTINGLY: If he's able to reshape the electoral map, Trump could force likely Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton to spend heavily to defend those states and upend the race, Trump advisers say, even as many top GOP officials remain skeptical.

TRUMP: Just met with a lot of the farmers.

MATTINGLY: Trump on Friday meeting privately with farmers before his Fresno stop, looking to bolster his outreach to the agriculture industry, all as he continues to face withering attacks from the Clinton campaign.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Based on what we have already heard, Donald Trump is an unqualified loose cannon.

MATTINGLY: Trump firing back at the former secretary of state.

TRUMP: She's not competent. And it's always been this way. She's always skirted on the edge, whether it's Whitewater or it whether all of these things, going in to how about Benghazi?

MATTINGLY: But reversing course on another former target.

TRUMP: He couldn't get elected dogcatcher in Florida. They hate him in the state of Florida.

MATTINGLY: Florida Senator Marco Rubio joining the growing chorus of GOP leaders, urging his one-time adversary to change his mind and run for reelection, even as Rubio tells CNN's Jake Tapper he won't run against a friend vying for the seat.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Carlos Lopez-Cantera is a strong candidate. He's in the race. I'm not going to -- I'm not -- I think he's put in time and energy to it and he deserves the chance to see what he can take it.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: If you didn't have a friend running, might you reconsider?

RUBIO: Maybe.


MATTINGLY: Now, Jim, it's worth noting that California is not even remotely close to a likely victory scenario for Donald Trump, but it's one the Clinton campaign would be thrilled if his campaign would decide to spend time and money in this state.

The same actually goes for Trump's home state of New York, but Trump's campaign advisers maintaining they believe, even if they can't win a state like this, forcing Clinton to have to play and spend here would be worth the time.

Now, one interesting fact about Fresno, there were not a lot of protests here. There are protesters outside, but no violence, none of the raucous scenes we saw in, say, Orange County just a couple of weeks ago. Doesn't look that that is going to be the case in San Diego, Donald Trump expected there in about an hour.

Obviously, protesters, as you can see, they're already lining the streets in wait for him. It's one of the issues he's confronted every time he's come to California, Jim. You look at the key components of Donald Trump's platforms and policies up to point.

This tend to inflame when he comes to the state that he now says he's going to play big in -- Jim.


SCIUTTO: Phil Mattingly live from Fresno, California, thanks very much.

Well, Donald Trump is not the only presidential hopeful stumping in California now. Senator Bernie Sanders is wrapping up his fifth day of campaigning in the Golden State, where he hopes to deal Hillary Clinton an embarrassing loss in that state's upcoming primary.

He's calling Clinton's declaration that the Democratic race is over -- quote -- "a tinge of arrogance."

CNN senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns joining me now.

So, Joe, the math clearly against Sanders. Even if he won California, he still couldn't beat Clinton in the delegate count.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: You know, Jim, if you look at the delegate math, it's just super difficult for Sanders to get there, because Hillary Clinton fewer than 100 delegates away from clinching the nomination.

Sanders would need a massive blowout there, but now they are hoping a debate with Donald Trump will give him some help. The Sanders campaign just put out a statement they and the Trump campaign have gotten two offers from television networks, which the Sanders campaign is prepared to accept, and they say they also have an agreement on a large charitable donation which would be involved that Trump has also demanded.

No word yet from the Trump campaign on where all this stands.


CLINTON: Thank you so much.

JOHNS (voice-over): Tonight, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are setting their sights on next month's California primary.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our ideas are the future of this country. Let's stand up. Let's fight for them. Let's win this election.

JOHNS: With Sanders keeping up the primary fight, Clinton is appealing to her rival supporters to unite behind her.

CLINTON: Whatever differences Senator Sanders and I have or our supporters have, they pale, they pale in comparison to our differences with Donald Trump and what he represents.

JOHNS: Clinton's campaign releasing through new ads in California emphasizing her record.

CLINTON: I'm Hillary Clinton, and I approve this message.

JOHNS: What seems like a sure thing in California months ago now appears to be a primary in play, with a recent poll showing Clinton's lead has shrunk from seven points to a statistical dead heat now. Clinton is trying to bring the Democratic primary to a close, so she can focus fully on presumptive nominee Donald Trump. She's brushing aside his personal attacks.

CLINTON: I'm not going to respond to anything he says about me. I could care less what he says about me.

JOHNS: Clinton, though, is not letting up in her criticism of Trump.

CLINTON: What he is saying is dangerous and divisive.

JOHNS: Calling the billionaire unqualified to serve as president.

CLINTON: Based on what we have already heard, Donald Trump is an unqualified loose cannon who cannot get near the most powerful job in the world. It is up to us to say no.

JOHNS: Clinton going on offense, even as she plays defense on her e- mails, facing a new round of questions after the release of a State Department inspector general's report concluded she violated rules by improperly using a private e-mail server as secretary of state.

CLINTON: Well, I thought it was allowed. I knew past secretaries of state used personal e-mail. So, yes, I believed it was allowed.

JOHNS: Sanders is taking claim over Clinton not over e-mails, but her comments that she's sewn up her Democratic nomination.

CLINTON: will be the nominee for my party. That is already done, in effect. There's no way that I won't be.

JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE": Does that make you mad seeing that?

SANDERS: Just a tinge of arrogance there, I think.

During an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" Thursday night, Sanders also hit Clinton for refusing to debate him ahead of the California primary.

SANDERS: I think it's kind of insulting for people in the largest state of America not to come forward and talk about the issues.

JOHNS: But Sanders has his eyes on another debate now, not with Clinton, but with Donald Trump.

SANDERS: We will see if he stays with it. But at this point, he is prepared to debate and I'm very excited about that.


JOHNS: The Sanders argument has always been that polls show he stands a better chance to beat Trump than Hillary Clinton.

And that's one of the reasons why this talk of a debate between Sanders and Trumps actually matters. Sanders would have the opportunity to show what he can do head-to-head against Trump and the campaign sees an opportunity to push those poll numbers higher -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Joe Johns, thanks very much.

Joining me now to talk through the presidential race, CNN political commentator Van Jones, CNN commentator S.E. Cupp, Trump campaign senior adviser Tana Goertz, and "Washington Post" political reporter Ed O'Keefe.

Van, if I could begin with you, just on this question of California on the Democratic side, if Hillary Clinton does lose California to Bernie Sanders, what happens next in this race?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, unless he wins by 80 or 90 percent, which no one is saying that, even the Sanders camp, probably the superdelegates stick with Hillary Clinton and she goes on against Trump.

I will say that I'm here in California. There is clearly a big groundswell for Bernie Sanders here. And Hillary Clinton has a very deep well of longstanding support here. So you're having a real clash of the titans in California.


I know Hillary Clinton wishes this were over. She is just factually wrong if she says it's over. You wouldn't know it's over if you're here in California.

SCIUTTO: Ed O'Keefe, would that be a damaging blow to Hillary Clinton's candidacy if she were to lose the biggest state in the union?

ED O'KEEFE, "THE WASHINGTON POST": It certainly would be a black eye on their way to Philadelphia, given that it's the largest state, that it's the largest Democratic state, that so much of the money and the thoughts and the legislation and that eventually gets spread out nationwide, all of it comes from California. To lose the biggest state at the end of this titanic of a campaign I think would be a bit of a blow.

But look, mathematically, she still has what she needs to win the nomination, absent, as Van said, the sudden departure of all the superdelegates.

SCIUTTO: S.E., let's talk about Trump for a moment, this strategy, putting these 15 states into play, he says, including New York and California, that we know, just factually, that would be an extremely tall order.

How much of this is about actually putting those states in play, changing the electoral map, and how much of it is about making the Democrats spend money where they wouldn't normally have to?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it's mostly the latter, but I got to tell you, I can't wait to see him try.

I'm no Trump fan, but I think Republicans for too long have ceded Democratic states. We don't even play in those states. And it's important to bring Republican messages into places where we don't think we have a lot of friends.

Now, I wish the message that Donald Trump was bringing in was a different reflection of our party than it will be. But I'm really glad that finally there's a Republican who has decided California is not off the table. New York isn't off the table. And we should go into these unfriendly territories if we think our ideas are the best.

SCIUTTO: I just want to update our viewers, but also our panel, that we have just gotten a statement from Donald Trump, this just into CNN right now.

I'm going to read from it, the headline being he's saying that he will not participate in a debate with Bernie Sanders, saying, "Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and crooked Hillary Clinton and Debbie Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second-place finisher."

Tana, if I could ask you, as senior adviser to the Trump campaign, what is behind his thinking here?

TANA GOERTZ, SENIOR ADVISER, TRUMP CAMPAIGN: Mr. Trump always has a strategy behind everything that he does, and if he chooses not to debate Bernie Sanders, he's got a good reason.

And we know that everything that he decides he's going to do has been completely unheard of. I mean, Mr. Trump's presidential campaign has been for the record, historic, monumental and nothing has been of the norm. So if he chooses not to do it, then that is his choice, and there's a reason behind it, and it's a good reason.


CUPP: You just don't know the reason, Tana. Apparently, you just don't know the reason, right?

GOERTZ: No, I don't know the reason as of right now.

CUPP: And that's because it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Donald Trump suggested this debate. Bernie Sanders completely agreed. I think it's brilliant.

I just wrote about this for This would completely elevate Bernie Sanders. It would elevate Trump. It locks Hillary out of an important news cycle. There is no reason for either of these guys not to do it. So I'm very interested to hear why Donald Trump decided at the last minute to pull out of this great idea he had.


SCIUTTO: Van, you have any idea?


JONES: Let me just say something here.


GOERTZ: Go ahead, Van.

JONES: I think the response that we just heard from the Trump campaign is very telling.

If Donald Trump did it, it by definition makes sense.


JONES: That's what you say about -- that's what you say about a dictator, a tyrant, an authoritarian figure of worship. That's not what you say about a normal person.

Sometimes, people do stuff that is stupid. But no Trump supporter will say that, because whatever the great leader, the dear leader says, by definition, is correct, it is right, and it all -- that is terrifying to me, to that see the rise of an authoritarian god in this country. SCIUTTO: Ed, I have got to get your thoughts on this as well.

And, then, Tana, we will come back to you.



O'KEEFE: Amid all of the shouting here, I can hear the tears of disappointment from guys like Jeff Zucker and Roger Ailes and Les Moonves, who much be just really heartbroken that what could have been a Super Bowl-sized broadcast is just not going to happen.

CUPP: Huge. Huge.

SCIUTTO: Tana, I want to give you a chance to respond to Van.


GOERTZ: I know -- well, I do know that Mr. Trump wanted this to go towards charity, $10 million to go towards charity. Perhaps the charity wasn't coming forward. Nobody wanted to do it for charity. I don't know.

Mr. Trump is in California and I'm in Iowa. So, I have not had this conversation with him. But I do know that when he's asked to do things like this debate on other things and he said that I will give the money towards a charity, bring the money on, if -- that could possibly be it. I do not know, once again.

[16:15:00] But what I was going to say to Van is, Mr. Trump has done nothing but had a strategy, and the strategy has won. So, when I say if Mr. Trump decided not to do this, I'm talking about a strategy to debate Bernie Sanders. That is his choice. He's still in the running to be the next president of the United States and maybe he decided this wouldn't be good for him. But until I have that conversation with Mr. Trump, I'm not at liberty to share with you all why he's not doing that.

SCIUTTO: Quick, last thought to you, S.E., was this a total missed opportunity to damage the presumptive Democratic nominee?

CUPP: Completely. They actually have a lot in common. They could talk about important issues like trade and they agree on preserving Social Security, they agree that there's a rigged system. It would be a huge platform. And my only thought that Donald Trump doesn't want to do this that he's scared to debate Bernie Sanders.

GOERTZ: Mr. Trump is not afraid to debate anyone.

CUPP: Then he should.

SCIUTTO: S.E., Tana, you have the final word there. Van, thanks so much.

Just recounting for our viewers, Donald Trump giving us a statement saying that he will not debate with Bernie Sanders, the idea that has been floated for the last several days.

Coming up in our world lead: caught on camera, photos of what appear to be U.S. troops just miles away from the ISIS capital in Syria. At least one of them wearing an arm patch is now causing a firestorm. That's right after this.


[16:20:07] SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In the fog of war, how do you define what it means to be on the front lines?

Today, brand-new video showing U.S. special operations forces deep inside Syria working directly with Kurdish forces now fighting ISIS. At least one bearded soldier can be seen wearing the Kurdish YPG's insignia on his sleeve. Kurds and these American commandoes are in the middle of an assault and ambitious mission to conquer Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS.

But asked yesterday about this troops, the Pentagon firmly denied that U.S. troops are on the, quote, "forward line", despite what seems like pretty clear evidence of American boots on the ground very much in harm's way and on the front lines.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): U.S. Special Forces on the ground just north of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, alongside Kurdish and Arab forces.

A French news agency captured these rare images of U.S. special operators in the area, wearing the insignia of the Syrian Kurdish forces they are fighting alongside. NATO ally Turkey immediately protested as Ankara considers the YPG terrorists. U.S. military now says wearing the patches was wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wearing those YPG patches was unauthorized and inappropriate and corrective action has been taken.

SCIUTTO: The new images make clear that U.S. forces are close to the front lines of the fight against ISIS in Syria. Though the Pentagon insists the role of U.S. forces has not changed.

PETER COOK, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: They are not on the forward line. They are providing advice and assistance and, again, I'm not going to get into details but that mission has not changed. Their role be has not changed. They are not leading this fight. They are supporting those forces that are at leading edge.

SCIUTTO: Currently, with more than 200 U.S. forces on the ground in Syria, training and advising Syrian and Kurdish fighters.

CNN's Barbara Starr spoke exclusively last week with the spokesman for the Kurdish Arab coalition, who say they still need more American help. TALIL ALI SILO, SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCES (through translator): We

have requested a continuous supply of weapons at a level that is consistent with the size of the mission we face.

SCIUTTO: In Iraq, the U.S. continues air strikes and artillery barrages against ISIS fighters in support of Iraqi forces fighting to retake the town of Fallujah, sits just 40 miles west of the capital Baghdad. One U.S. air strikes, says the Pentagon, killed the commander of ISIS forces in the city.


SCIUTTO: In our national lead, destructive tornadoes ripped through parts of the Midwest and today, more potential storms are expected. That's next.

Plus, the TSA promised shorter lines at the airport. Is it working this holiday weekend? We'll go live to one of the busiest airports in the country. That's right after this.



[16:27:31] SCIUTTO: So many people today worried they might end up in the unenviable position of being right in the path of a tornado.

We are back and we're following the misery blanketing so much of the country right now. Tornadoes and floods have wrought havoc in the South, in the Plain States and especially in Texas. Officials say two people in the Lone Star State are dead after floods swept through Brenham County and three others are missing. Rescue teams are trying to find them as we speak.

Jennifer Gray is in the severe weather system tracking the storms systems crisscrossing the country right now.

So, Jennifer, still a threat of floods and tornadoes, not to mention tropical storm bearing down on the East Coast. What's the forecast for tonight and this weekend?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, a lot going on across the U.S. I want to start in the tropics though, because the National Hurricane Center is going to start issuing advisories on what will be tropical depression number two at 5:00. So, in the next 30 minutes, they're also going to issue tropical storm warnings across the South Carolina coast.

And so, going into Memorial Day weekend, if you are heading anywhere, say, like Myrtle Beach or even the outer banks, you need to keep your watch on this storm. It's not going to turn into a hurricane, most staying a tropical depression or a tropical storm, but still, a lot of people heading to the beaches and so we are going to expect rain, wind and very strong rip currents. So, looking at the rainfall totals, we could see anywhere from two to four inches of rain across the South Carolina coast as well as the outer banks. So, we'll be watching that very closely.

Turning to the severe threat and flooding threat, as you mentioned, Brenham, Texas, yesterday, 24-hour rainfall total, 17 inches of rain. That's the wettest calendar day on record, still raining across Texas. The rain is pushing to the east. We currently have severe thunderstorm watches across Texas, Louisiana, as well as the Plains. So, we could see another round of severe weather as we go into the late afternoon and evening hours.

The main threat, of course, being anywhere from Oklahoma, all the way up through Kansas. Large hail, damaging winds and the possibility of isolated tornadoes. All of this is going to push to the east during the overnight hours, including places like Kansas City, Lincoln, same places we've seen severe weather over and over the past couple of days -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: We also know we're getting the forecast for the hurricanes this summer. Is it going to be a bad hurricane season?

GRAY: Well, they are actually forecasting a normal season, which you may think it's not a big deal but we've had below normal seasons the past couple of years. You have to look back to 2012 to find a season that was at normal or above. So the national, NOAA is forecasting 10 to 16 named storms, four to eight hurricanes, one to four of those becoming major.