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Suicide Blast Kills U.S. Service Members in Syria; Thousands of Coast Guard Active Duty Members Miss First Paycheck; Interview with Senator Chris Van Hollen; Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired January 16, 2019 - 10:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

[10:00:38] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. It is the top of the hour, 10:00 Eastern. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto. We're following the breaking news, sad news out of Syria this hour. A deadly suicide attack on a U.S. patrolled area of Manbij. And we could now report that U.S. service members were killed in this attack.

The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS tweeting moments ago, quote, "U.S. service members," plural, "were killed during an explosion while conducting a routine patrol in Syria today. We are still gathering information and will share additional details at a later time."

HARLOW: We also have video coming in of the moment that this blast occurred. Before we play it for you, a warning, the images are extremely graphic and disturbing. But watch this take place.

There you go.


HARLOW: You see pedestrians just walking down the street, again, in this U.S. patrolled city of Manbij.

Here's what we know right now. Several casualties reported again in an area where several U.S. soldiers deployed, waiting more details. ISIS has claimed responsibility this morning. We are also being told the president has been fully briefed on this.

And the timing here. This attack comes less than a month after the president announced his plan to withdraw U.S. troops -- we've got U.S. 2,000 in Syria, to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and then declared that ISIS was defeated in Syria.

Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon this morning.

And, Barbara, look, we have not confirmed it but ISIS is claiming responsibility.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: ISIS is claiming responsibility. It is not confirmed. There are many cases where they do claim responsibility for attacks and it turns out to be another perpetrator. Nonetheless, we know that President Trump on his holiday trip to Iraq had been told by top commanders ISIS was not fully defeated in the area and that ISIS was still very much present in certain areas of Syria.

This area of Manbij in northern Syria up against the Turkish border is unsettled for any number of reasons. There's a lot of players in the area. The Turks to the north are trying to push back. The U.S. backed fighters in the area, they would like to see a zone across that border where there are no Kurds. Some of those are PR units that the U.S. has been backing. The Russians want Assad to take control of the area.

So there's a lot of reasons there may be violence in this particular region. The U.S. has conducted about a dozen joint patrols with the Turks in recent months to try and bring some stability to Manbij. But this is the big uncertainty. The president now calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, not immediately anymore as he did initially. They are working on a withdrawal plan.

This area of northern Syria could well be one of the first areas they come out of. So the question now, is there new vulnerability in this area for the U.S. troops that are there. Do some of the bad actors perceive that this is their time to make a move because the U.S. is leaving? There is no answer to that question, of course, but it's one of the questions being asked today as we find out tragically multiple U.S. military members have been killed in this suicide blast -- Poppy, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, and if it is ISIS, it outright belies the claim that ISIS has been defeated.

HARLOW: Defeated there.

SCIUTTO: In the area.

HARLOW: Exactly.

SCIUTTO: If you're able to carry out a complex attack like this.

Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

HARLOW: So the White House has been briefed on this ongoing situation. Let's go our senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns who joins us outside the White House.

Outside of that official statement that the president has been fully briefed, are you getting any reaction from your sources in White House given that this is less than a month, Joe, after the president said, look, we're going to pull our troops out of Syria and the claim that ISIS have been completely defeated there?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: So far no information from aides here at the White House. As you say, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has put out a statement saying the president had been briefed. This is sort of the typical statement you see in a situation like this from the White House. The president has been briefed. She says he's going to continue to monitor the situation and has now referred questions on the situation to the Pentagon where Barbara Starr is, of course.

But it's also important to just look at a little bit of the history of all this. Barbara referred to some of it, the idea that the president would make this precipitous decision and an announcement to remove troops from Syria, creating a great deal of confusion, quite frankly, particularly for United States allies including the Kurds of course who are concerned about their safety in a situation where Turkey might turn on them because Turkey sees the Kurds essentially as a terrorist organization in Syria.

[10:05:27] So all of this in -- with the background of the president of the United States putting out a number of tweets, a number of announcements suggesting that in fact this was a good reason to leave simply because Syria no longer had a problem and the United States no longer had a problem, if you will, with ISIS.

Let's just look at one of the tweets. "We've won against ISIS. We've beaten them and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land and now it's time for our troops to come home." But it's also interesting that on December 30th the president wrote on Twitter, if ISIS hits us, they are doomed. So that raises the question of how the president of the United States might respond now that we have this news out of Syria.

Back to you.

HARLOW: Joe Johns, thank you for that reporting at the White House.

SCIUTTO: Joining us now CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. He's former Army commanding officer in Europe. He also commanded U.S. forces in Iraq.

General Hertling, I don't have to tell you about attacks like this. You I know forces serving under your command suffered attacks just like this on the ground in Iraq. First I would just ask you this. What does it take for a group such as ISIS to carry out an attack like this? And does it show that they still have a capability, a presence in northern Syria to be able to target U.S. forces in this way?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It certainly does, Jim. I'm going to counter what you said a minute ago in terms of it being a complex attack. There's nothing simpler than someone going with a suicide vest and torching it off. It's easy to do. But having said that you are right in the complexity of getting it approved. Usually it takes a great deal of work to put a suicide bomber together. And what I mean by that is you not only need the willingness of an individual to wear the vest, you need someone to make it, which is sometimes challenging.

But usually in these kind of terrorist cells, you also need someone to bless him to go into these attacks which is usually some type of ISIS or terrorist imam. A guy who says yes, you're allowed to do this according to the Quran. So all of these things come together to make it a little bit more difficult. As devastating and as gruesome as that blast appears on the tape that

you just showed, there's even more to it than that because each one of these vests more than likely has projectiles within it.


HERTLING: So you not only have injuries and maiming and destruction based on the blast alone, but it is shooting probably nails, screws, shotgun pellets great distances. So even though it hits that small place where you saw the last take place.


HERTLING: It was probably affecting quite a few people in a much larger radius than just the front of that group of stores.

HARLOW: General Hertling, Russia has a great interest in the future of Syria and a particularly keen interest on this area. And I'm wondering sort of how you think that could possibly be affected here obviously if the U.S. does go through with the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria.

HERTLING: Yes, well, there was --

HARLOW: That is something that -- go ahead.

HERTLING: Yes. There was a report from a Kurdish commander yesterday. I can't -- certainly can't confirm this but I saw this from one of my colleagues, that a Kurdish commander did in fact travel to Moscow saying that should the United States withdraw, will you help us? And the report back to the Kurds were that Moscow was very willing to help the Kurds. So any time the United States leaves a vacuum some place, other people will go in and fill it.

Now Barbara also used the terms safe zones. Having heard that term multiple times throughout my career, what I will tell you on that is that zones that are attempted to be established like that are never foundered, there's never really a zone and there are almost never safe because there's a lot of players in these areas trying to get the upper hand and work their own particular agenda. And certainly in northern Syria, especially in this area of Manbij, there's a lot of people trying to play. It's very complex here.

SCIUTTO: General, Poppy mentions Russia, of course Iran also interested in this area greatly. It's early but you've dealt with attacks as a commander on the ground before.


SCIUTTO: Would you be concerned that a country such as Russia or Iran would help pave the way for an attack like this on U.S. forces to help pressure them out? You have any experience where outside players --

HERTLING: That's hard -- yes, that's hard to say, Jim. But what I will say is usually there are support for these kinds of actors. [10:10:02] Don't know who it was in this case. But what I go back to

is the fact that any time any military commander or government says that they have defeated a terrorist organization like ISIS, like al Qaeda.


HERTLING: Name that tune. They are never defeated. They always go underground until you can actually squanched that ideology. They are not defeated in northern Syria and even in Iraq as the Iraqi government has said. They will continue to conduct these kind of attacks and they will attempt to get support from larger governments wherever they can find it.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes. Four weeks ago today, the president tweeted, we have defeated ISIS in Syria.

General Mark Hertling -- Lieutenant General, thanks very much as always.

HARLOW: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Here at home, it is now day 26th, nearly a month, of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. And there have been a lot of shutdowns. The impact being felt coast to coast. Where do the negotiations -- are there negotiations? Where do they stand?

HARLOW: Also two major Iowa newspapers calling on Iowa congressman, Republican Steve King to step down after his racist remarks. The pressure is building. Will he cave and will the president actually say anything?


[10:15:32] HARLOW: All right. So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling on President Trump to postpone the State of the Union address. It is set for January 29th. But that is if the shutdown continues. She wants him to postpone it. Why? She's citing security concerns. She says if the president prefers, he can submit his address in writing.

For his part, the president is hosting what's called a problem solvers caucus, a bipartisan group of House members, at the White House next hour. Yesterday a separate group of rank-and-file Democrats declined his invitation for a meeting. And the president later told supporters in a phone call, we will be out for a long time.

SCIUTTO: The impacts of the longest government shutdown on record are really getting hard to overstate. Food banks now across the country under strain from 800,000 federal workers either furloughed or deemed essential and required to keep working, though without getting a paycheck. That group includes airport security screeners, many of whom are protesting that fact by calling in sick.

Food inspections have taken a major hit. But now the FDA is calling back hundreds more inspectors, though they will not get paid. And the Coast Guard has now become the first Armed Service of this nation to go unpaid in a government shutdown.

CNN's Rosa Flores, she's at a Coast Guard station in Miami Beach.

Really to see that tweet from the commandant of the Coast Guard, talking about just how unprecedented this is.


SCIUTTO: How are members of the Coast Guard reacting?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Some service members feel forgotten. And of course we're not hearing from them. We're hearing from their spouses, because they're not allowed to talk to the media.

But, Jim, it's important to note the work that these men and women do because these brave men and women conduct drug and migrant interdictions in the high seas, they secure ports. Whenever there's a hurricane and waters start rising very quickly, these men and women rush to save Americans and take them to safety. But instead of getting a paycheck yesterday, they've got a note from the top service official saying, quote, "Today you will not be receiving your regularly scheduled paycheck. To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time in our nation's history that service members in USA Armed Force have not been paid during a lapse in appropriations."

There are nearly 42,000 U.S. Coast Guard personnel who are actually active duty military. These men and women are serving at home and abroad. They have DOD e-mails, they have DOD badges, but their paychecks come from the DHS buckets and not from the Department of Defense. That's why they're caught in this mess and they're not getting a paycheck. Meanwhile their families are having to scramble. They're having to apply for loans, apply for grants, go to food pantries to get food.

Now service members are not allowed to talk to the media, but spouses are being outspoken. CNN spoke to one. Take a listen.


KAYLA, WIFE OF COAST GUARDSMAN: There's so much stress and it's not something that we should have to go through. I've spent so much time stressing about this, contacting people. And at the end of the day we're a military family. I'm a Coast Guard spouse. And yes, we're proud to be here and serve, but at the same time it's a little disheartening to have to reach out to people for money or take community resources.


FLORES: Now when the government fails to do its job, when it fails to pay the bills, it's usually nonprofit organizations, groups, businesses, that chime in, Jim and Poppy. That's what we're seeing right now, whether it's nonprofit organizations or companies that are stepping up to bring assistance to these servicemen and women. The bottom line here is that the most powerful country in the world has servicemen and women out there serving their country without a paycheck -- Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Yes. By the way, the biggest Defense budget in the world as well. No money for those members of the Coast Guard.

Rosa Flores, thanks very much.

Joining me now to discuss all of this is Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen from Maryland.

Senator, thanks very much for taking the time this morning.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Jim, it's good to be with you today.

SCIUTTO: First I'd like to get your reaction to the news just into CNN that the speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is asking the president to delay the State of the Union address due to security concerns resulting from the shutdown. It's quite a remarkable step to take for a speaker of the House even from the opposing party. What's your reaction? Do you support that move?

VAN HOLLEN: Jim, yes, I do support that move, both for the security reasons that Speaker Pelosi outlined. But also, look, the president of the United States should reopen the government before he has a big show and a big State of the Union address here on Capitol Hill.

[10:20:07] We should be focused all our energy on ending the shutdown. You just heard the pleas from a spouse of one of the folks who's serving us in the Coast Guard. And we have it in our power to do it just by voting on two bills that Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats passed on their very first day that have overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate. So the Senate also has to do its job here and step up.

SCIUTTO: But is it politics or security? I mean, he's a sitting president of the United States. He was elected. It's a constitutional requirement to report on the State of the Union to the Congress. It sounds in your answer there like the motivation here is as much political as security related.

VAN HOLLEN: No. The reality is that the Secret Service that Speaker Pelosi indicated is furloughed. I mean, some of them are furloughed. Some of them are there without pay. We just heard from folks at the FBI the other day that said even those who were still on the job and in the line of duty at the FBI are being put at risk because their whole support team that conducts investigations and supports those who are currently on the job, by their going missing, they put at risk everybody else.

And so really what we should be doing is making sure that those folks in the Secret Service and others around the country get paid on time and all of them can go back to work.

SCIUTTO: To do that, it appears that either one side is going to have to blink or they're going to have to compromise. I mean, I was up on the Hill yesterday. I spoke to Democrats and Republicans yesterday. Everybody threw their hands up in the air when I asked them what's the way out of this.

Would you support an exchange that looks like this, more money, perhaps billions of dollars, for a barrier on the border in exchange for long-term protection for what are known as Dreamers?

VAN HOLLEN: Jim, the first thing that has to happen is reopening the government because what's happened here is the president has taken all of these federal agencies who have nothing to do with homeland security and held them hostage. I'm going to a hearing after this for the person who's going to be -- proposed to be the new head of the EPA. That has nothing to do with homeland security. So stop holding all these federal agencies hostage. Let's open them up.

Absolutely, let's have a discussion over the most effective way to provide for border security. Everyone here wants secure borders but we need to do it in a smart --


VAN HOLLEN: In a smart way. Lindsey Graham, Senator Graham, who's an ally of the president proposed just the other day, let's reopen the government. Let's take a three-week period to try to resolve some of the issues you've just raised which we've tried to do with the president in the past, you know that, last summer. The president pulled the rug out from under a bipartisan effort to deal with all these issues.

So -- but the key thing here is, as Lindsey Graham, said, let's reopen the government and then we can figure out how to resolve the issues.


VAN HOLLEN: When it comes to most effective border security.

SCIUTTO: Listen, I hear you and it is true and I've challenged Republican lawmakers by saying, listen, both parties, you know, supported measures as recently as a month ago to reopen government. But the fact is you hear messages. Chuck Schumer just told members of his caucus stick together. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, she has said I won't give the president one dollar for his wall.

What's to keep Americans from concluding that the goal here for Democrats is primarily to deny the president a victory on the wall here rather than come together and find a solution?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, Jim, we've always been here to find a solution, but I think people know well that the notion that you're going to take the entire government hostage, parts of the government that have nothing to do with homeland security, in order to extract what he wants on one item is not the way to conduct business in the most powerful country in the world. And it's not -- do you know what the president actually requested this year for border security in their budget? It was $1.6 billion.

SCIUTTO: Yes. VAN HOLLEN: The Senate appropriations committee gave that to him.

Then it's 5.7. But it will be $30 billion at the end of the day. The president will just keep threatening to shut down government every time he doesn't get something he wants. That's a very dangerous game to play. We're already seeing the negative consequences.

Let's come together, let's resolve the homeland security issues. We can have a big and constructive discussion on that issue. But for goodness sakes, why are you shutting down the rest of government when in fact as you know Senate Republicans supported by 92-6 a bill to open many of these agencies just a short while ago.

SCIUTTO: It's a fair point. I know that the one thing two parties agree from what I've heard is that people are suffering, and the people who are suffering don't deserve to suffer.

VAN HOLLEN: And that's why Lindsey Graham's proposal, I mean, coming from an ally for the president, is a good one.

[10:25:01] I'd like to reopen the government for the rest of the year, but for goodness sakes, let's at least reopen it for a period of time and have a serious discussion about the way forward.

SCIUTTO: Senator Van Hollen, thanks very much for joining us.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you, Jim.

HARLOW: So still ahead for us, new details into what the Special Counsel Robert Mueller knows about the connection between Paul Manafort and his Russian associate that he shared that polling data about the Trump campaign with. New filings show the two men were talking, they were in communication before Manafort resigned as campaign manager.