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U.S. Fighter Jet Shoots Down Syrian Drone; Pressure on U.S. to Take Action After Warmbier's Death; Sean Spicer to Hold On-Camera Briefing Today; Bodies of Seven Sailors Killed in Crash Return Home. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired June 20, 2017 - 09:30   ET

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


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[09:32:03] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We have some breaking news here. We're just learning that a U.S. fighter jet has shot down a Syrian drone. A drone that U.S. officials say was armed and within firing range of U.S. troops.

Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins us now with the details.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, this was in southern Syria. And I think right away it's important to say this is the third time that the U.S. has had to shoot something down in southern Syria. We saw a fighter jet of the Syrians being shot down. Second time now they are shooting down an armed drone in southern Syria, a U.S. F-15 shooting down this Iranian-made drone that the U.S. says was posing a threat. An armed threat to U.S. and coalition forces on the ground in southern Syria.

The shoot-down happened because the U.S. says specifically the drone was in a threatening position. This is something that is -- appears to keep happening in this very area where the U.S. says it hopes things are going to calm down, but they are simply not. Of course, this is one day after the Russians said they would threaten any aircraft, any U.S. aircraft, flying in western Syria.

This is a war zone that appears to be heating up with Russian regime and Iranian-backed forces taking a much higher profile -- John.

BERMAN: And Barbara, we have more breaking news. We're getting word that a Russian fighter jet came within five feet. I want to make sure I'm reading that right. Five feet of a U.S. Air Force aircraft over the Baltic Sea? What's going on there?

STARR: All right, another place where the U.S. is being challenged in the skies. This of course thousands of miles away in northern Europe. Often U.S. and Russian aircraft do encounter each other in the Baltic. But this time, yes, within five feet. That's what sources are telling us that this Russian plane flew erratically around a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane.

The whole encounter, you know, unsafe in so many ways. The U.S. not happy about any of this. This is a so-called intercept where the Russians flew a profile that clearly was aimed at doing something very unsafe in the eyes of the U.S. -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Barbara Starr, thanks so much.

This morning, outrage over the death off Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who died just days after being released by North Korea. Senator John McCain has called it murder and pressure is mounting on the president to take action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a brutal regime and we'll be able to handle it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says North Korea will be held accountable.

What does that mean? We'll talk about that in a moment. First, though, CNN national correspondent Miguel Marquez joins me now with the latest on Otto Warmbier's family and just this awful, awful series of events.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's such a tragic story. It's hard to get your head around.

Look, if you look at the statements from Senator McCain and former presidential candidate Rubio, very powerful voices in their own right, calling it murder.

[09:35:05] The administration not quite going so far. The secretary of State saying that it was an unjustified imprisonment of Otto Warmbier. The president saying it is a brutal regime.

The family just heartbroken about the situation that they face. They thought their son was alive, found out after a year and a half of not hearing from him that he would be coming home but in a comma or very close to a coma.

The family in a statement saying, "Unfortunately the awful torturous mistreatment of our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today."

I can tell you that Mr. Warmbier's body now is in the hands of the Hamilton County medical examiner and it may have an autopsy, trying to figure out if there's anything that can be said about how he wound up with such severe brain damage.

BERMAN: The father said if it was any consolation at all that when he returned home Otto Warmbier was still unresponsive but he looked more peaceful.

MARQUEZ: It almost -- reading that part of the statement almost made me cry, having met the Warmbiers last week. He said that when he got on that plane, he got on his knees, hugged his son, spoke to him, his face seemed anguished, and as though he were in pain. A day later, he said his face changed, he was at peace, he somehow felt Otto knew he was home.

BERMAN: Yes, small consolation for that family going through so much.

Miguel Marquez, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Joining me now, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, CNN military and diplomatic analyst. He served as the State Department spokesman and press secretary at the Pentagon.

Admiral, the secretary of State says the U.S. will hold North Korea accountable. What do you think that means?

ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, I don't know. All I do know is I think they're talking about this right now in terms of how to respond to this terrible outcome.

There are no good options, John. I mean, they could -- you could certainly apply more sanctions. You could up maybe your level of military readiness on the peninsula. You could certainly do diplomatic -- you know, file a diplomatic protest.

There are things that you can do, certainly put more international pressure on them, more for the Chinese, but there's no really easy answers to this, there's no -- and there's no surefire outcome on how to prevent it from happening again.

The other thing, John, that they need to keep in mind is we still have three Americans there being detained. And so whatever you do, you don't want to make a decision that's going to make their fates worse either.

BERMAN: Yes, you know, John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has called it murder. Marco Rubio with much of the same language. But Miguel Marquez who was just with me, he noted that the administration has been careful not to use those exact words. Why?

KIRBY: Well, I think it's exactly what we were just talking about, John. I mean there are -- as they navigate through this, they do need to be careful and mindful of the fate of those other three Americans because I'm sure that they are working very hard to get them released as well. And you want to make sure you're not sabotaging that effort. So it's a delicate dance that they have to play right now. And I don't envy them that position.

But clearly at the very least this underscores two things. One, how brutal this regime really is in Pyongyang and, two, how important it is to keep up the international pressure on them.

BERMAN: But, Admiral, doesn't this raise the stakes? I mean, either a U.S. citizen died in the hands of the North Koreans or by the hands of the North Koreans or under the watch of the North Koreans. Isn't that an action that demands some kind of very public, very stern response?

KIRBY: In my personal opinion, John, yes, it does. And I share the statements that were made yesterday by Senator McCain and Senator Rubio. I agree. That this -- they are responsible for the death of this young man. And I do think that the administration should do something. I'm just trying to point out the fact that there are no really easily effective answers and that they do need to be mindful of those three other Americans.

BERMAN: You know, it's a very difficult situation. Has been for a very long time and along those lines, Admiral, the Warmbier family I think with some very critical words of the Obama administration and how the case of their son was handled over the last year. You of course worked at the State Department during this time. You know, what's your response to that?

KIRBY: Well, first of all, my heart goes out to the family. I understand the frustration that they feel. I can't possibly imagine the grief that they're going through right now. What I can say is that having been at the State Department when Otto was detained, I remember it well. I can assure you that the State Department at the very highest levels worked this very, very hard. Secretary Kerry personally got involved in trying to get Otto Warmbier and the other Americans released. He never let go of that.

And you know, I can't remember a time when he had a consultation with his Chinese counterpart where he didn't raise their cases and try to find some kind of solution. There was a lot of effort there. Now, obviously, we failed to get them out and we all know that and we regret that. We're glad that Otto was able to come home. Certainly we're sad at the fate here. But it was something that we worked very, very hard. At the very highest levels.

[09:40:05] BERMAN: Admiral John Kirby, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate your time.

KIRBY: My pleasure.

BERMAN: We have breaking news from the White House. The White House press secretary, whose job it is to answer questions from reporters, will, in fact, answer questions from reporters on the TV today. Why is this such monumental news? We'll tell you when we come back.

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BERMAN: All right, we have breaking news that should be neither breaking nor news. The White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer will hold an on-camera briefing in the White House today, which is in fact part of his job, so why is it news? Well, the fact is, he hasn't done it in more than a week. Yesterday's briefing, no video, no audio allowed. Not many questions asked.

There's something going on inside the White House. I'm joined now by CNN senior media correspondent, host of "RELIABLE SOURCES," Brian Stelter.

Brian, thanks so much for being with us.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Thanks.

BERMAN: Half full. Glass half full. The press secretary is holding an on-camera briefing today, perhaps responding to the pressure here. What do you make of it?

[09:45:05] STELTER: I think it definitely is a response to the heightened state of alert I think the White House correspondents are on. Heightened state of alert because it's been eight days since Spicer had an on-camera briefing. And the off-camera times he takes questions when cameras are not allowed, lately they haven't been allowing audio either.

The White House says you can't even record the audio and broadcast the audio. That's of course a pain for TV networks like CNN and for radio networks like NPR. Bottom line, it seems the White House is inch by inch by inch, you know, rolling back on access, rolling back on those chances to take questions. But we'll see today how useful the briefing really is on camera.

BERMAN: Our colleague Jim Acosta, senior White House correspondent, he used Twitter, which is something the president does.

STELTER: Yes.

BERMAN: It can be an effective tool to communicate with people, I'm told. He noted that he couldn't send video or audio of the press briefing. So Jim Acosta tweeted a picture of his socks.

STELTER: That's right. That's right. And those are from J Crew, those anchor socks.

BERMAN: Very nice socks right there.

STELTER: That's all he was allowed to show, you know, the White House sort of forbids video or audio at these off-camera briefings. There have been past administrations that have used off-camera briefings as a supplement to the usual on-camera events. This White House is different because it's using those to replace the on-camera briefings.

Now why do we want on-camera briefings? I think for viewers at home, we want them because it's a way to hold the administration accountable. It's a way to not just say what Spicer and the White House is saying but actually show and be able to follow up a month or a year later and see if those promises were actually performing.

BERMAN: Every White House likes to control its message. This isn't about controlling your message, this is about limiting the message in a way or not being responsive to the American people about the message right now. It does seem that transparency is clear here.

Let's talk about Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, you know, as of 9:46 a.m. at least, because there's a new swirling round of rumors that Sean is moving out or up, maybe promoted, maybe not doing the briefings much more if they exist after today. What do you make of it?

STELTER: No word on who's going to replace him. I think the easy part is moving Spicer into a new job. The hard part is figuring out who would take over. Who would be press secretary. There's not a long list of people who are qualified for the job who seem to want the job. And maybe that's why it's taken a while to replace him.

BERMAN: In part because we don't know what that job will be. We don't know even if Sean leaves what that person will be doing, correct?

STELTER: That's right. Trump is his own -- at least in his own mind, his own best press secretary. But we have not seen the president taking questions in interviews. He hasn't had a full-fledged press conference since February. Normally when a reporter shouts questions to him, he doesn't answer. This is a White House, as Acosta said yesterday, that seems to be stonewalling on a lot of issues.

BERMAN: Let's be clear. It's not like the president is taking all the questions that the press secretary would be taking. No one is taking the questions.

STELTER: That's right.

BERMAN: Brian Stelter, great to have you here with us. Appreciate it.

STELTER: Thanks.

BERMAN: The bodies of seven American sailors killed in a collision between a Navy destroyer and a cargo ship now heading back home as there are new questions about how this all happened.

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[09:52:17] BERMAN: The remains of seven U.S. sailors on their way home today as investigators work to find out why a container ship ran into the Navy destroyer killing those seven sailors. And there are new questions this morning about the timing of that collision, how it went down.

I'm joined by CNN international correspondent Alexandra Field in Japan. Alexandra, what are you learning?

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A tribute is being paid today, John, to those seven sailors who did lose their lives. That final journey home beginning this morning in Japan. All seven bodies of those sailors now being sent back to the United States, back to the loved ones who are waiting to receive them, to lay them to rest. The tributes are beginning, the memorials will soon begin.

On board the USS Cole there was a moving moment when the sailors there stood in formation. You can see, you can make out the number 62. That's the symbol that represents the USS Fitzgerald that was clearly their tribute to these sailors who were found below deck on the USS Fitzgerald in the flooded out sleeping compartments of that U.S. guided missile destroyer after it collided with a container ship some three times its size.

John, this happened, as you know, in the early morning hours on Saturday. But there's dispute now about exactly when it happened. Multiple investigations are being launched into what caused the crash. But the question of when the crash happened has caused some discrepancy between the U.S. Navy which is investigating and also the Japanese Coast Guard.

The Navy says the crash happened at 2:20 in the morning. That was also the initial finding of the Japanese Coast Guard. They say that's when the container ship that was involved in the crash called -- issued their distress call. But after interviewing members of the crew, the Japanese Coast Guard revised their estimate. They now say they believe the crash happened a whole 50 minutes earlier.

Why would it take some 50 minutes for the crew to issue a distress call? Well, the Japanese Coast Guard says this isn't entirely unusual. The crew may have been enacting various emergency procedures, trying to continue to navigate in that busy waterway where you've got some 400 or 500 ships passing through in a day. But the U.S. Navy is maintaining the crash happened at 2:20.

Why does this all matter? Well, all the investigators involved are trying to determine the cause of this crash will clearly want to lay out what was going on board both vessels in the minutes and hours prior to this so far inexplicable collision.

How long will it take to get answers? Well, the Japanese are saying that these investigations could stretch on for months, if not years. That means that the findings, you know, won't be known until potentially months from now. This question of when exactly the crash did happen, though, this is a discrepancy that should be resolved and you would imagine, John, that it would be resolved once both sides are able to listen to those voyage data recorders.

[09:55:04] That would record exactly the kind of information that these investigators are seeking. Hopefully it leads to the answers that the families are seeking -- John.

BERMAN: You would think that information they could get soon. But so many questions remain.

Alexandra Field, thank you so much.

All right. A big day politically here in the United States. In Georgia, a special election. The stakes incredibly high, not just in Georgia, but in Washington as well, for the president of the United States. We're going to get some celebrity voting in just a moment. Stay with us.

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BERMAN: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman. Poppy is off today to celebrate the fact the White House is holding an on-camera briefing and also perhaps to watch the excitement in Georgia.