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Israel & Iran Trade Fire in Most Direct Conflict Yet; Trump Announces Time/Place of North Korea Meeting after Prisoners' Release; McCain Speaks Out Again Trump's CIA Nominee; Pentagon to Release Final Report on Niger Ambush of U.S. Solders; Poll: Democrat Lead in Midterms Drops. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired May 10, 2018 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Oren Liebermann is in the Golan Heights.

Oren, you've been watching all of this happen overnight. Take us through what happened, what you saw and where things stand right now.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN JERUSALEM CORRESPONDENT: This all started shortly after midnight, when Israel says Iranian forces in Syria behind me fired off some 20 rockets aimed at Israeli military positions in the occupied Golan Heights near where we're standing. We were here shortly after that and saw very much part of the Israeli response and the exchange of gunfire, from Israel surface-to-surface missiles, which we saw and heard fired, as well as artillery fire from Israel into Syria that echoed across the canyon, the valley here behind me. We saw Syrian antiaircraft fire hosing across the sky in a number of different places and what appeared to be rockets fired from there pointing in this direction. That all happening in a few very tense, very volatile hours overnight. Israel says part of their response was striking dozens of Iranian targets including intelligence compounds, rocket launchers, and command posts throughout southern Syria.

A very different feel just a few hours later, this morning, this deceptive quiet as the international community tries to get involved here to make sure this de-escalates and does not lead to the war that many here fear.

The White house putting out a statement on the Israeli side, that is not a surprise. I'll read you part of the statement. It says, "The United States condemns the Iranian regime's provocative rocket attacks from Syria against Israeli citizens and we strongly support Israel's right to act in self-defense."

We saw a statement from the Syrian foreign minister, which said, "This is where the aggression is, a new phase." Interestingly, we have not heard from the Iranians on this one.

Kate, a number of countries trying to make sure this de-escalates at his point and this quiet holds.

BOLDUAN: The next hours, next days are critical in this question.

Great to see you, Oren. Thank you so much.

Joining me to discuss this and more, Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks, from New York. He sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thank you for coming in.

REP. GREGORY MEEKS, (D), NEW YORK: Good to be with you.

BOLDUAN: You heard Oren Liebermann laying it out there, the statement from the White house press secretary is Israel responded to Iran, "We strongly support Israel's right to act in self-defense." Do you stand with the White house here?

MEEKS: I think that clearly, you know, Israel is our strongest ally and we want to make sure they have the right to defend themselves. We need to get all the facts. But I also think that what the White house should do -- because we do need to de-escalate what is going on. I have serious concerns about what is taking place, and the other party that is there is Russia, along with the Iranians, et cetera. I would hope what this administration should be doing is also talking to Russia to make sure that they're having -Russia, because it has got to be a scenario that is multi-parties. And so I would hope the administration is talking to Russia and having Russia get involved and making sure that they are talking to the Iranians and others that are there to de-escalate this scenario. It is a very dangerous scenario that we're about to get into.

BOLDUAN: And, Congressman, some folks are making a connection -- I want to get your take -- do you see any evidence that this attack has anything to did with President Trump's announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal?

MEEKS: I can't say that I have seen any evidence yet. But we're looking, and I think we need to get all of the facts. I think the president's decision to withdraw from the agreement raises serious concerns and potentially can disrupt the Middle East even more and destabilize it even more. It puts our allies, European allies at edge. But as well as the balance between what is taking place between the Saudi Arabians, it really confuses the whole matter. I think it was very detrimental to overall the climate in the Middle East and we'll see. I want to see what the facts are, though, before I make my final judgment.

BOLDUAN: On another very important foreign policy issue, you commended the work in securing the release of the three Americans held in North Korea. The president, and also right after their arrival in the United States, just announced the time and place for the meeting with Kim Jong-Un, June 12th in Singapore. Where is your level of optimism when you see -- with these two things playing out now, at this very moment of how -- what will come of that meeting?

MEEKS: I don't know what is going to come of that meeting. I think it is a good day. Anytime you have hostages released from -- who has been held, based upon by a dictator and humanitarian conditions, nonhumanitarian conditions, it is important to have them coming home. And if Mr. Pompeo had something to do with that, I think that's a good thing.

But I'm concerned about the president trying to utilize this as a real live TV show and not do the substantive work that is necessary in such a summit. So that is still a wait and see. I hope that he's got diplomats there and that Mr. Pompeo is really prepared. And they're going to make sure we're talking about the complete disarmament and denuclearization of North Korea and that our partners in South Korea and in Japan are also engaged.

[11:35:21] BOLDUAN: But, Congressman, with concrete action, like we saw from the president and the administration overnight, does it then force you to have to look past some of the language that he uses often that he's often criticized for, including what he said last night, with regard to Kim. He says we want to thank Kim Jong-Un and, in his words, he says, "He was really excellent to these three incredible people." Do you look past that?

MEEKS: I don't know if he was really excellent to those three incredible people. He held them in detention for a long period of time, one over three years. And I'm told he was working hard labor. Others have seen nothing but guards.


BOLDUAN: I think a fair assessment is something quite short of excellent to these incredible people.


BOLDUAN: What does it mean when the president is saying that when he's standing right next to the three Americans?

MEEKS: That's what I'm saying. That's why I have concerns about the direction of what the president is going to continue to move in. Is he, you know, forgetting about the evil that this person has done, and will he take that into consideration as to whether the person had -- Mr. Kim Jong-Un has the credibility and the willingness to allow inspectors to go into North Korea to make sure he is denuclearizing. So, you know, those are some hard issues, hard questions that has yet to play out. And we have to see what type of negotiations. I hope it is not just a made-for-television show where he goes and meet, and they have an agreement to do something in the future that cannot be verifiable. And the president, thus far, has had the tendencies of having made for television conferences and then nothing happens as a result of them.

So there is a lot of hard work that has to take place here. I hope this is not like some of the other press conferences he's held, and nothing happens because I'm looking for a plan from this president, not just the words he speaks because he never seemed to have a plan. Where is the plan to replace JCPOA, for example? There's no plan. And that's what really concerns me.

BOLDUAN: Made for TV or not, the words the president uses when he faces Kim Jong-Un will matter. You can be sure that Kim Jong-Un will take them to heart. Congressman, thank you for coming in. I appreciate it.

MEEKS: My pleasure.

BOLDUAN: After an often-combative confirmation hearing for Donald Trump's pick to head the CIA, Senator John McCain is now weighing in, urging his colleagues to reject Gina Haspel, reject her nomination. Why the question Gina Haspel didn't answer is McCain's biggest criticism.


[11:42:11] BOLDUAN: The American hero who suffered at the hands of torture as a prisoner of war for five years now rejecting a presidential nominee because of that very issue. John McCain speaking out against Trump's CIA nominee, Gina Haspel, saying this, "Her refusal to acknowledge torture's immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advise and consent and reject this nomination."

Haspel oversaw CIA black site in Thailand post-9/11 where enhanced interrogation tactics were used. Tactics that have since been deemed illegal Are they immoral?"

That was a key question during Haspel's confirmation hearing yesterday. The question, she had a hard time answering.


SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH, (D), NEW MEXICO: I want to see, I want to feel, I want to trust that you have the moral compass that you said you have. You're giving very legalistic answers to very fundamentally moral questions.

GINA HASPEL, CIA DIRECTOR NOMINEE: Senator, you know, we provided the committee every evaluation since my training report when I first joined in 1985. In all of my assignments, I have conducted myself honorably and in accordance with U.S. law. My parents raised me right.


HASPEL: I know the difference between right and wrong.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), CALIFORNIA: Please answer yes or no. Do you believe in hindsight that those techniques were immoral?

HASPEL: Senator, what I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to.

HEINRICH: Please answer the question.

HASPEL: Senator, I think I've answered the question.

HEINRICH: No, you've not.


BOLDUAN: Does that sound like a straight answer to all of you? Clearly not enough for John McCain. At one point in the hearing, Haspel said she didn't want to answer any hypotheticals.

This is anything but hypothetical when her boss had this to say about waterboarding in the days after his inauguration.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago, with people at the highest level of intelligence and asked them the question, does it work, does torture work? And the answer was, yes, absolutely.


BOLDUAN: Not really a hypothetical.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is joining me from Capitol Hill.

Ryan, what are you hearing at this moment? Despite John McCain speaking out, does Haspel have the votes?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Kate, Republicans here, especially those Republicans and Senate leadership seem to remain confident that Gina Haspel will have the votes net to become the next CIA director. John Cornyn, the second ranking Republican in the Senate said that he thinks that she'll be confirmed by a comfortable margin. But John McCain's decision to be public in his opposition is notable, not necessarily because of his vote, no one expected him to be able to come back here and cast a vote, but it was how he was going to impact other Senators who admire and respect him. That's one of the things we have done this morning, went in search of the Senators who may break away from the Republican Party and vote against Gina Haspel. One of those key Senators was Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He said this morning he's going to stick by her, he's going to vote in favor of Haspel. But another Senator Jeff Flake, of Arizona, also serves and represents Arizona with Senator McCain. He says he's now taking a second look at her because of what John McCain had to say.

And so at this point, Republicans remain confident. Of course, there may be some Democrats that come over and support her as well. The White house also confident that she will become the next CIA director -- Kate?

[11:45:43] BOLDUAN: A fascinating moment of inspection and review and debate of American values and morality against the backdrop of this CIA nomination. Truly fascinating.

Ryan, thanks so much.

NOBLES: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up, we're learning new details about the ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers. The Pentagon is expected to release the final report on the investigation. What we are -- what we already are learning about the new findings. Be right back.


[11:50:35] BOLDUAN: Any minute now, the Pentagon will release its final report on the ISIS ambush in Niger, which killed four U.S. troops last year.

Joining me now for more on this is CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what can you tell us about what the Pentagon is concluding here?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Kate, what we expect in just about 10 minutes is the beginning of a press briefing for reporters. Unfortunately, we will not get the report seven months later. That is expected to be declassified. But we will hear their version of what happened and how they think these four troops got killed last October 4th.

One interesting thing is the report concludes that they were on, at least in the beginning, an unauthorized mission, that they were told to go look for a high-value ISIS operative in this corner of Niger. They were not authorized, trained or equipped to do that mission. There were then switched to another mission to advise forces. That's what they were supposed to do from the beginning. They get ambushed by ISIS, which has a 2-1, 3-1 advantage over them. Heavily armed ISIS fighters. During the firefight, the U.S. troops get separated from each other, there is confusion. All of this resulting, obviously, to great tragedy to four American military families who lose their loved ones in this battle.

This quite candidly is not supposed to be what happens. U.S. troops are sent out heavily trained, heavily armed and very much disciplined to carry out the mission they're assigned. These young American forces, we are told, fought valiantly right until the end but, sadly, they were not given everything they needed to be successful -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Still so many questions of how it all went down.

Thank you, Barbara. Much more to learn here. I really appreciate it.

Coming up for us, new polls mean not such great news for Democrats going to midterm elections. What's giving Republicans a big boost right now and what are Democrats going to do about it?


[11:56:16] BOLDUAN: Red flag warning for the blue wave. A new CNN poll shows the once almost certain takeover predicted by so many for congressional Democrats, come November, is now much less certain. Like within-the-margin-of-error uncertain. Democrats ahead in a generic ballot by just three points now. That's down from a 16-point lead in February -- just in February. So what is really going on right now? Let's discuss with smarter people than me.

Let's discuss with smart people, CNN senior political analyst, Mark Preston's and CNN senior political reporter, Nia Malika Henderson.

Mark, what do you think we're seeing here?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALAYST: A couple of things. We've seen enthusiasm for Republicans voters increasing over the past 30 to 40 days. Enthusiasm amongst Democrats have held the same. Good news for Republicans. But Democrats still have an enthusiastic advantage when it comes to voting by about 10 points over Republicans right now, so Republicans have a lot more work to do.

We should note this is just a snapshot in time. We're a long way away from the election, but Kate, there's no question right now Republicans are in a better spot now than they were, say, about a month ago.

BOLDUAN: A snapshot in time? I have never heard this before, Mark Preston!



BOLDUAN: Nia, do you think it's something Trump is doing that's shifting this, or is it something Congress is doing that's shifting views here? When you look at the importance of President Trump on the congressional vote, 37 percent say it's extremely important.

NIA MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICS SENIOR REPORTER: Yes, and he's about 41, 42 percent if you look at the averages. I think he's good at branding the situation, branding the economy as great, branding the economy as his, something that he used to say the economy is terrible and it's all because of him that it's good. The job numbers have gotten great, it's about 3.9 percent. He's really focusing on his base in very major ways. You think about foreign policy, the moves on North Korea, the moves in terms of Israel and moving the capital to Jerusalem. Those are the kinds of things that if you're the base you're rallying behind this president. Even if you're sort of a diehard republican or Trump republican, there is a rally I think we'll see with Republicans certainly as this thing gets closer.

Like you said, it's a long, long way away. We'll have like a billion new cycles between a thousand now and then. For now, this is good news for Republicans. They pay attention to these numbers.


BOLDUAN: Even when they say that polls don't matter, it's all about the ground game.


BOLDUAN: Mark, here is a number that fascinates me, how the country would be so better off with "D"s and "R"s in Congress. The most important number is the "makes no difference number," 34 percent. What's that mean?

PRESTON: It's illustrative how much an anger is directed at Congress. They're looking at the fact that Democrats and Republicans can't get along. Let us be very clear right now this election is going to be one where states are endangered in California, a little in New York and a little bit in the west as well. While this national poll is a bright side in some ways for Republicans, really what's going to happen is in some states where Republicans will have to run against Democrats.

BOLDUAN: The billion news cycles until the elections.

Great to see you, guys. Thank you so much.

HENDERSON: Thanks, Kate.

PRESTON: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Good to see you.

And thank you all so much for joining me AT THIS HOUR. It's been a busy day, as always.

"INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now.