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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Fighting ISIS; Gorilla Killed; New GOP Hope?; Iraqi Military Advancing on Key ISIS-Held City; Interview with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 30, 2016 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:07]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Has the GOP found a new hope?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Can't beat them, can't join them. A leading conservative says he's finally found the candidate who might stump Trump. But it could cost the GOP the election?

It was the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War, dozens of U.S. troops killed, hundreds more wounded. And on this Memorial Day, a dozen years later, the U.S. and its allies are trying to rip the city of Fallujah away from ISIS to take back what so many Americans died for.

Plus, blame the primate or blame the parents? Shock and outrage over this heart-stopping video of a gorilla dragging a 3-year-old boy away at a zoo. Today, the zoo explains why they had to shoot the endangered animal dead.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto.

Has the never Trump movement finally found its savior? One of the chief architects of that push by some Republicans to find an alternative to Trump says yes and adds that the details are being worked out right now.

CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash joins me now.

So, Dana, is Mr. Trump taking this seriously?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He seems to be reacting maybe in more colorful terms, in more direct and personal terms, but in the same way as other Republican Party leaders, that a third-party candidate with broad appeal for Republican voters could spell victory for Democrats.

But a prominent anti-Trump Republican is saying that is not true. He's hinting the right person is waiting in the wings.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): If you want to make a splash, send a mysterious tweet on a sleepy holiday weekend like this from Bill Kristol. "There will be an independent candidate, an impressive one with a

strong team and a real chance." Kristol, the staunchly anti-Trump editor of conservative "Weekly Standard" magazine, has been working hard to find that third-party candidate. In an e-mail to CNN, he said an announcement is not imminent, but his tweet sure got a lot of attention, especially from Trump, who responded: "If dummy Bill Kristol actually does get a spoiler to run as an independent, say goodbye to the Supreme Court."

CNN is told that Kristol, along with other never Trump Republicans, have done extensive polling and gathered private data, talking to potential candidates and financial backers.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": There's an opening obviously for an independent candidate.

BASH: They point to public polling as proof there is an appetite.

In a survey earlier this month, little more than half of respondents, 51 percent, said they would be satisfied with a Trump-Clinton matchup; 44 percent said they would want a third-party option.

As for just Republicans, target voters for Kristol and other anti- Trump conservatives, 39 percent said they'd want a third-party candidate. But the open question is who?

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud.

BASH: Two sources close to Mitt Romney tell CNN the 2012 GOP nominee will still not go so far as to run as an independent. Never Trump forces have also been trying to recruit Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse or retired General Jim Mattis. Sasse sources tell CNN he's still a no.

Jim Mattis also has said thanks, but no thanks. Kristol has also floated GOP Congressman Adam Kinzinger. A source familiar with Kinzinger's thinking tells CNN he would have considered it -- quote -- "literally to save the union," because both Clinton and Trump scare him. But he doesn't think that the infrastructure exists to get on the ballot.

On the stump, Trump mocks Kristol.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He can't find anybody. What a loser.

BASH: Most Republicans argue a third party-run would be a disaster for the GOP, splinter the party and help elect Hillary Clinton.

REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: They can try to hijack another party and get on the ballot, but, look, it's a suicide mission.

BASH: Even those who are not big fans of Trump.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Absolutely not. I'm going to have my say...

BASH: (on camera): No third party?

GRAHAM: No way. And I would advise people not to go down that road.

BASH (voice-over): Still separate from Kristol's efforts, two former support governors, Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, won the Libertarian Party nomination this weekend, the most experienced candidates ever for that party.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: The Libertarian Party is already on state ballots across the country. And one of the many challenges for the kind of independent run that Bill Kristol is envisioning is getting on those ballots.

The deadline for the electorally rich state of Texas, for example, has already passed. But, Jim, a source who is working on this tells me they always can do a write-in campaign, maybe a lawsuit for states like Texas and depending how long it takes other states like North Carolina. That deadline is June 9.

[16:05:00]

But, still, the combination of the resources to do that and more importantly finding the candidate who could make all this happen, it still seems to be eluding them, although...

SCIUTTO: It wouldn't be the first surprise.

BASH: It wouldn't be. He does say he has a white knight. But we're still waiting to see who that is.

SCIUTTO: OK, Dana, please stay with us.

Turning to the Democratic race now, Senator Bernie Sanders is revealing his strategy to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming their party's nominee, hinging on Sanders' winning big in California's primary, plus his appeal to Clinton superdelegates about who is more likely to beat Trump.

CNN correspondent Sunlen Serfaty Sanders joining me now.

Sunlen, sounding pretty confident next week in California.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He is. And he's burning a huge amount of resources into this state.

So, really, faced with all this and the polls tightening up in the state, the Clinton campaign has just added a major five-day multistop swing through the state starting on Thursday, a sign that Hillary Clinton is now taking California seriously.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hello! Hello! SERFATY (voice-over): Hillary Clinton today taking part in a

Chappaqua, New York, Memorial Day parade.

CLINTON: I love it. I love being here.

SERFATY: Coming face-to-face with a reminder that her march to the Democratic nomination is not yet finished. Clinton is still facing roadblocks from the ongoing primary battle with Bernie Sanders.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nobody doubts which campaign is the campaign that has the energy and the enthusiasm. That is our campaign.

SERFATY: Sanders is laser-focused on next week's California primary, one of the last big delegate prizes.

SANDERS: California is the big enchilada, so to speak. Obviously, it is enormously important. And obviously we want to win it.

SERFATY: The Vermont senator is showing no signs of giving up the fight, laying out what he sees as three possible paths forward, which include trying to sway superdelegates who have already sided with Clinton.

SANDERS: There are over 400 superdelegates who came on to Secretary Clinton's campaign eight months before the first ballot was cast, before anybody else was in the race, before they could get a sense of what the campaign was about.

SERFATY: But as he digs in, Sanders is starting to face some pressure from high-profile Democrats, like Clinton supporter Senator Dianne Feinstein.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: He ought to be able to read the signposts as well as anybody else. And if he did that, he would know that it's all but over. So, the question comes, you know, why doesn't he do those things which bring all Democrats together?

SERFATY: Sanders making it clear he doesn't think the burden is on him.

SANDERS: If Secretary Clinton is the nominee, it's her job to reach out to millions of people and make the case as to why she's going to defend working families. That's the candidate's job to do.

SERFATY: Sanders, though, is beginning to lay out what steps he would like to see Clinton take if she becomes the nominee, including the type of running mate she should pick.

SANDERS: I would hope if I'm not the nominee that the vice presidential candidate will not be from Wall Street, will be somebody who has a history of standing up and fighting for working families.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: And Sanders would not entertain the idea of party unity ticket and potentially becoming Clinton's running mate, saying his focus right now, Jim, is on winning the nomination. But he says, as to what happens afterwards, we will see.

So, leaving the door open a little bit.

SCIUTTO: Sunlen Serfaty, thanks very much.

Let's talk about all this with our political panel.

Dana Bash, CNN chief politics correspondent, she is back with us. Campaign director at the Center for American Progress and Hillary Clinton supporter Emily Tisch-Sussman, Republican strategist Ana Navarro, and Donald Trump supporter Kayleigh McEnany.

Ana, if I could begin with you, you heard Dana there in her report laying out the folks who have taken their names out of the running. Who are some names who you would say are still in the running for this third-party candidacy?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I can't come up with any names that I think are -- could actually check all the boxes.

I do think Mitt Romney, even though he has said no before, does check all the boxes. Look, you need somebody that has got name I.D. if you are going to go to a write-in campaign in some of these states. You have got somebody who -- you need somebody who can turn on a light switch and get the fund-raising network, get the veteran, seasoned political pros that can put a campaign together in no time.

Nothing, nothing is best than the experience of having run. He knows where all the pitfalls are. I can tell you, anybody who is listening to me now must be very surprised. I gave Mitt Romney a lot of hell in 2012. Right now, I would be willing to consider giving up booze and cussing if he were willing to consider running as a third-party candidate.

BASH: Wow. That means she's serious.

SCIUTTO: That would be a first sacrifice.

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: It would.

SCIUTTO: Dana, that wouldn't be the first time a candidate ruled something out and turned around. You think that is a reasonable possibility?

BASH: Anything is possible. I just -- as she was talking, I'm still stuck on Ana giving up booze and cursing. But let's focus on the subject at hand.

[16:10:03]

SCIUTTO: Let's stay the realm of reality.

BASH: Yes, exactly.

A source who is very close to Mitt Romney in telling me no he's not in said this, "No, no, no, no, no." So, five no's. "I promise you. No."

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: There's a lot you could read into that, though, Dana.

There's a lot you could read into that.

BASH: Yes. I don't see a lot of wiggle room in that.

But, look, I think this begs to -- you asked the obvious question that we're all asking.

SCIUTTO: Right.

BASH: So, who is it? And the fact that Bill Kristol sent out this very sort of scintillating tweet on a holiday is kind of genius.

SCIUTTO: Right. Well-timed to get us talking about it.

BASH: Very well-timed.

Maybe he does have somebody that we're not thinking about. But it is somebody who has got to really capture the attention of people in order to break through a Clinton and Trump who are incredibly well- known brands.

SCIUTTO: Kayleigh, I have to ask you, how seriously should Donald Trump be taking this talk?

KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I don't think he should be taking very seriously because I don't think there will end up being a third- party candidate.

That being said, though, I have to question the motive of some of these never Trump people, because we health care heard so much about the end of the Republican Party if Trump gets the nomination or if he wins the White House. But really the end of the Republican Party is when the establishment thwarts the will of the people, which we have seen them do in Colorado, where the presidential preference poll was canceled.

We saw it when they tried to elevate the will of the delegates over the will of the people. And now in trying to court a third-party candidate, they're essentially saying we do not care that Republican voters have selected Donald Trump, because we still want to preserve our Republican country club.

That's what this is about. And "The New York Times"/CBS poll that was released 11 days ago said 80 percent of Republican voters think that the party should coalesce around Donald Trump. So, they're fighting for a minority, a 20 percent. And I imagine that 80 percent number is higher now that we're 11 days in. They need to take cues from John McCain and Marco Rubio and Mitch

McConnell and rally around Donald Trump, because never Hillary is now the name of the game.

SCIUTTO: I do, Dana and Ana, want to get your reaction to that.

But, Emily, first the view from the Democrats, would this be a boon for the Democratic Party?

EMILY TISCH-SUSSMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It certainly would be.

I have to imagine that any Republican who would be entering the race at this race would actually not be doing so to actually win this election, but for the future of the party.

Look, every calculation that had come out of the party from the last couple of years need to be able to broaden the base, have to go beyond just white men, have to reach out to Hispanics, have to reach out to women, I don't think anybody would seriously argue that Trump is very seriously going to bring those people into the party.

And the couple of names over the last few years who have emerged as real future leaders for the party like Paul Ryan, like Susana Martinez, he's specifically gone after them. So, yes, he may be consolidating party some leaders to say, oh, OK, we will do it. We will hold our nose and we will vote for him.

But I think that anybody who would be jumping in at this point would be doing so to preserve what would be -- what would come next after the next five months, the election.

SCIUTTO: Ana, let me ask you, can you answer Kayleigh's criticism there? Would this be another example of the Republican Party -- quote, unquote -- "establishment" being out of touch with voters, particularly primary voters?

NAVARRO: You know, that argument is getting a little old, particularly when so many establishment donors and establishment folks are now backing Donald Trump.

I do think they should fear somebody like Mitt Romney. And I think it shouldn't only be Donald Trump who should fear somebody like Mitt Romney. When Hillary Clinton has got 57 percent unfavorability, when the Democratic Party, as we're seeing, is fractured and there's a significant faction of Democrats who are unhappy with her and would almost prefer Donald Trump as a second choice, then Hillary Clinton, I would say that a third-party candidate, the right one, could possibly appeal to all the people who are unhappy on both sides, who are unhappy with both the choices, could maybe be a fresh start.

And, you know, again, I think continuing to attack the establishment if you are a Trump supporter has gotten old, because in the event that you haven't noticed, the RNC, the Senate leadership, the fund-raising establishment is now coalescing behind Donald Trump. Now, should Mitt Romney get in the race, I bet you he can peel some of those folks off. SCIUTTO: There's her pitch again. But, remember, that means no

cursing and drinking. So, we're going to hold you to that if it comes through, Ana.

NAVARRO: Yes, but only, only if he runs.

SCIUTTO: OK. Fair enough.

All right, we're going to have to leave it there. Dana, Emily, Ana, and Kayleigh, thanks very much.

In our world lead, coordinated military attacks taking on ISIS militants in three key strategic strongholds, with U.S. forces now taking part, that is right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:18:28] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Gunfire, rockets, and mortars sounding the alarm for Iraqi civilians trapped in the middle of a invasion.

Our world lead now, the Iraqi army and some shady brothers in arms with ties to Iran is waging an out an assault on Fallujah, an ISIS stronghold just 40 miles from the capital Baghdad. The goal: retake the city from the terror group.

Barbara Starr has the latest from the Pentagon.

Barbara, what are we hearing from the battlefield?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, Iraqi forces could -- could be on the verge of entering the city of Fallujah. That would be a remarkable change of fortune for them, very much, however, a new strategy at work here.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): ISIS under heavy pressure on multiple battlefronts in Iraq and Syria. U.S. Special Operations Forces helping local troops inching closer to the front lines.

The Iraqi military announcing its beginning the battle to clear Fallujah, attempting to take back the strategically important city just 40 miles of Baghdad. ISIS tunnels discovered nearby, a sign of the tough fight to come. The U.S. providing airstrikes and watching the Iraqi forces closely.

COL. STEVE WARREN, ANTI-ISIS COALITION SPOKESMAN: We're seeing everything from Iraqi security forces, the regular army to the police, even to their elite counterterrorist service all participating in this action.

STARR: Less discussed but also involved in the Falluja fight, Iran and the Shia militias it backed joining the fight to knock ISIS from the city.

[16:20:02] Raising concerns as they move against the heavily Sunni populated area, it could all lead to more sectarian violence.

To the north, a Kurdish offensive under way around Mosul, an attempt to squeeze ISIS and force it to fight in multiple locations.

GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: We do recognize the value of simultaneity when we go after this enemy right here and if we present them with multiple dilemmas, then we generally see more successful --

STARR: U.S. Special Forces are accompanying and advising Syrian rebel forces fighting on the doorstep of ISIS' self-declared capital. During a recent visit to Iraq and Syria, General Joe Votel said he's always looking at what more the U.S. can offer.

VOTEL: As the conditions continue to change, as we continue to move into new phases of the overall operation, we'll continue to reevaluate that and where we identify the need for additional capabilities, we'll ask for them.

STARR: U.S. Special Forces on full display in Tampa, Florida, over the weekend during an exercise drill that showed why these elite forces are now constantly called to action.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, military officials point to success. ISIS losing territory as much as 20 percent of what they once held inside Syria. But I have to tell you, Jim, having traveled with General Votel in Iraq and Syria last week, there's a lot of caution, a lot of pragmatism. You know, final victory against ISIS, that's not something somebody is looking at this point. They hope to continue to chip away, they hope to push ISIS back. But this is an organization that may well be around for years to come -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: And still, those big prizes, Mosul and Iraq.

Barbara Starr, live from Pentagon, thanks very much.

Joining me now to talk about these latest developments in the war on ISIS, Democratic Congresswoman from Hawaii, Tulsi Gabbard.

Aloha, Congresswoman. Thanks for joining us on Memorial Day.

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: Aloha, Jim.

SCIUTTO: On Memorial Day, we hear that Iraqi forces have entered Fallujah. This after surrounding the city over the weekend. Do you believe the Iraqi military can hold on to this territory and hold off ISIS?

GABBARD: They're definitely making gains in the right direction, but what you said is key. In order to be able to hold the territory once they defeat ISIS there is the critical point. And the only way they're going to be able to do that is if the Iraqi government is supporting local, non-ISIS Sunni tribes to govern over and secure that territory, again, once ISIS is defeated. That's the only way to make sure that ISIS does not have the opportunity to come back in and retake that territory.

SCIUTTO: We know that Iraqi -- that the Shiite militias backed by Iran are also taking part in this. In fact, they have an important role in this assault. What danger does it pose to have a major role for Iran in this assault?

GABBARD: Well, first of all, the Shia militia have a history of going in both during and after these battles and terrorizing the Sunni populations who live there, civilians who are there, people trying too back to their homes there.

So, it's important that the United States play a role with the Iraqi government to, again, ensure that the Shia militia are not -- that they don't have any role whatsoever once ISIS is defeated in the territory, that the local non-ISIS Sunni tribes are able to secure and govern over those territories and make sure their people are no longer terrorized as they have been in the past by the Shia militia.

SCIUTTO: Is that possible knowing the history of the militia and their abuses, frankly?

GABBARD: Well, this is where leadership is necessary. I think it is possible, absolutely. But it's only going to be made possible if the leadership, the Iraqi government, makes it a top priority, understanding that in order for these defeats of ISIS to actually take hold, they have to empower these local Sunni tribes. They have to empower the local government there and support them in making sure that the Shia militia are not allowed to run rampant terrorizing and oppressing the Sunni population there.

This kind of action in the past is exactly what created the oxygen for ISIS to go in and take these territories in the first place.

SCIUTTO: You're aware that U.S. Special Forces were caught on video. Caught in photographs deep inside Syria right outside the ISIS capital, in effect, of Raqqah. Pentagon insisted, yet again, those troops were not on the forward line.

Is it a fact that U.S. forces both in Iraq and Syria are in combat roles today?

GABBARD: Well, first of all, our special operations forces are most skilled professional fighting force that we have in the military.

[16:25:06] And, look, their goal and objective is to go and take out our enemy. To take out those who attacked us on 9/11. ISIS and al Qaeda, while they're in Iraq and Shia to train and assist and equip these local fighting forces, to me the idea that these special operations forces are not able to go after our enemy is kind of absurd to me.

SCIUTTO: So, by you definition, you have experience in Iraq. Of course, you were deployed there. Are they on the front lines?

GABBARD: They are in combat. They are on the front lines. They're supporting people who are there fighting to defeat ISISS, fighting to defeat al Qaeda, people who are our enemy.

The important question here in the area where I have concern is if the mission for Special Operations Forces are not clear, in particular, in Syria. It would be absolutely wrong and counterproductive and a disservice if our Special Operations Forces are being sent on missions to support and to fight to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad, to fight alongside and to work with groups like al Qaeda and a al- Nusra who are working to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad.

So, that's why it's critical that their mission be clear on exactly what they're doing there and who they're working with.

SCIUTTO: Congresswoman Gabbard, thanks very much.

GABBARD: Thanks, Jim. Aloha.

SCIUTTO: He posted this photo to Facebook of flood waters over the windows of his truck just moments before he disappeared. The horrific flooding in Texas, next.

Plus, a 3-year-old dragged through the water by a nearly 500-pound gorilla. Now, the boy's family is speaking out after outrage over zoo officials killing the animal to save the boy. That's next.

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