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U.S. Troops Killed in Syria; Moving the State of the Union Address; McConnell Chastises Democrats; Gillibrand Response to Franken Accusations. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 16, 2019 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:20] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. A big, breaking news day. Thank you for sharing it with us.

U.S. soldiers killed sadly in a marketplace bombing in Syria. ISIS claims responsibility for that explosion, which comes weeks after President Trump said ISIS is beaten and it's time for American troops to come home.

Plus, new signs the government shutdown is hurting the economy and a new power play from the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. She calls on the president to delay his State of the Union Address or just submit a report in writing if the shutdown isn't resolved this week.

And a new 2020 contender for the Democrats, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York joins the growing list of would-be Trump challengers.


SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: I think this is a moment for all of us to ask ourselves what we are called to do. Only light can drive out darkness. Only what's right can defeat what's wrong. And I feel very called at this moment to make that difference.


KING: Back to politics a bit later.

But we begin with the sad, breaking news out of northern Syria. Authorities say U.S. service members have been killed in a massive suicide bombing blast in Manbij. We've also video -- we have some video of the scene at the very, very moment of the explosion. We want to warn you, these images are quite disturbing. You see two people walking on a sidewalk with a small group behind them. Suddenly, a huge explosion. The two people fall to the ground.

Our chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward is live from northern Syria.

Clarissa, let's start with what the -- what's the latest we know about this tragedy? CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the latest

we know we're hearing from the Turkish president, Recep Erdogan, that 20 people were killed in this attack. That is from the Turkish president. Sources that we've been trying to talk to here on the ground still not able to give a concrete answer. You can imagine, John, what a chaotic scene it is here.

We were in the town of Manbij just a few days ago. We drove past the U.S. base, saw the American flag flying above the U.S. base. And we were on the street where this took place (INAUDIBLE). It's right next to the old suk (ph), the old market.

But even when we were there, John, I can tell you, there was (INAUDIBLE). We passed a funeral during the time that we were there for two local security officers affiliated with the Syrian democratic forces, or SDF, who had been killed by a bombing the day before. And this is the sort of thing that you're still seeing, even in these so- called liberated areas in northern Syria.

There is a sense that the dangers are still very real, that ISIS sleeper cells are still here and that they're still able to launch an attack like this. This is certainly the worst attack we've seen in quite some time. You just saw on that video, a massive explosion. We know that U.S. servicemen were killed in that explosion. We don't know how many. We don't know what they were doing there. But certainly, based on our experience, John, it is fair to say there's a significant U.S. military presence in the town of Manbij, John.

KING: Clarissa, stay with us. We want to come back to you in a bit for a conversation.

But I want to get straight now to the Pentagon and our Barbara Starr.

Barbara, a, do we have any more information about the numbers or about how the Pentagon is analyzing this? And, b, help us with the context. We know this happened as the military has started the process of at least pulling equipment out with the troops to follow in Syria.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is exactly right, John. And, no. What we do know is that the Pentagon behind the scenes is working very hard to try and put together some kind of statement still many hours later about exactly how many U.S. military personnel were killed, how many were injured, whether potentially others were also hurt in this incident, contractors, people that work with the U.S. military, we do not have those solid answers.

President Trump has been briefed on the situation since early this morning according to the White House.

And this now poses a critical problem for the president. If ISIS was responsible, and there's -- they've only claimed it. There's no proof yet as to who did this attack. But if they were responsible, did the president's announcement that troops were leaving Syria quickly, I think his words were, you know, now that he was indicating they would come home as soon as possible, did that potentially embolden ISIS? Did ISIS feel then that there was a vulnerability, they could make a move, they could try and launch such a significant attack?

These are the questions that are being asked that we have no real answers to at this point. But it's really raising the question for the president, what he wants to do next in Syria, how quickly he wants to now withdraw U.S. troops and what the security situation will be in this very area of northern Syria because the Turks, just to the north across the border, are very concerned that all of this poses a terrorist threat to them and nobody can really predict what comes next, John.

[12:05:20] KING: Appreciate that. Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon.

Barbara, come back to us when we learn more. Obviously, this is going to be a tragic day and days ahead for at least one and perhaps more American families. Barbara, let us know.

We also have Clarissa Ward back in the conversation. And we're joined by CNN military and diplomatic analyst retired Rear Admiral John Kirby.

I want to come back -- start, admiral, with the point Barbara just made. In Washington there's this great piece of confusion. The president tweeted this on December 19th, we have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency. The president making clear he wants out. And at the beginning he said he wanted out ASAP, 30 days, get them home. That's a huge, logistical challenge to begin with, but the president setting the tone there.

Listen to Senator Lindsay Graham, just moments ago, saying, not only is this a sad tragedy, but he hopes it's one that will get the president to reconsider.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: To those who lost their lives today in Syria, you were defending America, in my view. To those in Syria who are trying to work together, you're providing the best and only hope for your country. I hope the president will look long and hard about what we're doing in Syria.


KING: There's sadness, but there's also confusion here in Washington. From your experience at the State Department and the Pentagon, how does that confusion factor, and we'll go back to Clarissa in a minute, to what's happening on the ground?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, there's confusion, not just here, John, but over there as well among our allies and partners and certainly the Kurds, who are now casting about for some more reliable partner, which is why they've approached Assad and the Russians.

And I think all the confusion about what we're doing and on what timeline certainly has not helped us at all. And certainly I think, in my view, has made our troops more vulnerable on the ground there. I mean, look, this is a time for decisions. And I think Senator Graham

is right, the president ought to take a look at this and, clearly if ISIS is responsible, really take a look at his decision making and either, a, withdraw that withdrawal order, reverse it, or make the withdrawal the priority and just focus on getting our troops out. Right now they've got them doing all these many different things as they've -- as they've muddied the waters about the withdrawal and extended the timeline.

KING: And, Clarissa, back to you in the field. The president is right when he says significant gains have been made against ISIS. But forgive the analogy, ISIS is like cancer. Getting most of it is good, but unless you get all of it, you still have a problem.

What is the situation on the ground? Are those working with the United States, whether it's the Turks across the border or the Kurds inside Syria, are they ready to take up the responsibility if the U.S. troops left tomorrow?

WARD: No, they're not, John. In a word, they are absolutely not. And if you talk to the Kurdish-led security forces here or the civilian leadership they'll tell you the same thing, they have very real concerns because when the U.S. withdrawals, you're looking at a power vacuum. And guess who thrives in a power vacuum? It is, of course, ISIS.

We were just down right by the front lines today closer to the Iraqi border, John, and this is what I was hearing from commanders. They were saying, listen, we've got a few more villagers to go before we take all the territory that ISIS originally had. But what we can't do is get into the minds of the people who are left behind. We can't understand who exactly is loyal to ISIS, who may be a member of a sleeper cells. We can't change the mentality of those people who have been living under ISIS for many years.

And, by the way, what are these people now going home to? You're talking about miles and miles of rubble, entire villages that have basically been levelled to the ground. These are the exact type of conditions that ISIS and groups like ISIS thrive in. When they go underground, they become an insurgency, they take advantage of the power vacuum, they seize on the malaise of the people, and that's when they hit back and that's why Kurdish forces here on the ground are very concerned about this U.S. withdrawal and what it means for security here, which, by the way, is tenuous at best, as we have seen today, John.

KING: As we have sadly seen today.

Clarissa Ward on the ground for us, appreciate your brave reporting. Admiral Kirby, in studio.

We'll bring you more information. We know it's an anxious day. We're having a Washington conversation. It's an anxious day for families around the country who know that their loved one is deployed there, trying to find out what happened. We'll bring you the latest as soon as we get it. Coming up for us ahead, Speaker Pelosi tries to pull the plug on one

of the president's most high-profile event of the year.


[12:13:32] KING: Democrats offering a new tact. You might call it a new power play on this, day 26 of the partial government shutdown. Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying the president should cancel or at least delay his upcoming State of the Union address on January 29th. She says the president should do that unless -- unless the shutdown is resolved this week.

Now, it's still an open question, or is it? Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, just moments ago here on CNN, being a little more straightforward, saying the State of the Union is off. The Democrats' argument? They say the event requires too much security from officers who, at the moment, are not being paid because of the shutdown. Speaker Pelosi offers this alternative.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), HOUSE SPEAKER: This is a housekeeping matter in the Congress of the United States so that we can honor the responsibility of the invitation we extended to the president. You can make it from the Oval Office.


KING: CNN's Lauren Fox live on Capitol Hill.

Lauren, what's behind Pelosi's move here?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, if you read that letter from Nancy Pelosi, the language is pretty cordial, but it is ultimately up to her whether the president gets to come before a joint session of Congress and deliver that State of the Union Address.

I want to read just a little bit of that letter from her. She said, sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest we work together to determine another suitable date after government has reopened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union Address in writing to Congress on January 29th.

Now, it's important to remember that this is a high-security event. And that is the rationale that Nancy Pelosi uses in her letter. She's trying to say to the president, look, you've got members of cabinet -- you have members of the cabinet here, you have members of the Supreme Court and you also have the entire Congress and the vice president sitting in one room. That is a high-security event. She says unless that government shutdown end and furloughed workers are getting paid, it's not worth having the public address, that the optics here could look tough for the president of the United States and Congress as they both have failed to come to the agreement on how to end this government shutdown, John. [12:15:32] KING: Another wrinkle. Day 26. Still no signs of any tangible progress, though, for people who are missing paychecks. Coast Guard today missing its first paycheck.

Thank you, Lauren Fox, live on Capitol Hill.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Dana Bash, Michael Bender with "The Wall Street Journal," Carl Hulse of "The New York Times" and CNN's MJ Lee.

So, security, Secret Service, other security officers not getting checks. That's Pelosi's rationale. Is it her reason?

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I don't -- I don't think so. I mean you could -- you could have had this event.

I -- a couple of things that I thought of immediately this morning. I was up there yesterday talking to members saying, this is going to be a strange State of the Union if the government is shut down, and I think Nancy Pelosi, one, is showing -- she is reminding Trump, she's got power right now. This is up to her. And he can come if she decides that he can come.

Two, I don't think the Democrats wanted to sit there and be lectured by the president, who gets to give a pretty uninterrupted address there, interrupted, of course, only by applause and boos. But I don't think that they wanted that during the shutdown. It would have been -- it would have been really a tricky situation under any circumstance.

KING: Would have been a tricky situation for the president as well --



KING: To stand before the American people at a time, today, today, that's 13 days from now. The speech is scheduled 13 days from now. It would have been a tough challenge for the president if -- Speaker Pelosi has planted her flag. She's not moving in these negotiations so far. Would have also been tough for the president to stand there, you're right, he has this big, high podium from which to lecture the Democrats, but he also has to talk to the country about, why are we still doing this?

BASH: Yes, exactly. I think I'm probably in the minority at this table because coming out of the break I said, I think that she did him a favor. Certainly she has her own very real political reasons. And, of course, you hit the nail on the head on that. But, yes, the president might think going in that he's got the upper hand physically and also because he's the one giving the speech, but he has to say something other than wag his finger and say, give me my wall. He has to say something that makes it more understandable and a little bit comprehensible why he is not cutting the deal that he promised on the campaign trail he could cut because of all his years in business. And it's not happening. It's a complete stalemate. KING: And out in America people are saying, what about me, the 800,000

plus who are missing their check. Coast Guard for the first time missing a check today. And then the domino effect in their communities with restaurants and other services and other businesses and federal contractors. They're saying, why are you having a Pelosi-Trump conversation. But we're having a Pelosi-Trump conversation because the only way to fix that for them is for one of these two or both to move.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And even by day 26, it was not clear that there was going to be anything to push President Trump over the edge to make some kind of concession over something to click in his head that this has been going on for much too long for his political good.

But I do think the point about the economy is an important one, and that's going to be the dynamic for us to watch as we get these stories pouring in from across the country about real families who are not getting paychecks and are struggling because of the missing paychecks, whether that ends up making an impression on Trump in a way that nothing else has so far, particularly given that the economy and the economic growth has been the rare, one bright spot that has been consistent for the president.

And, remember, something that he is planning on running on for his re- election, if he feels like that is going to be severely damaged, then I do think we can see a scenario where he starts to change his tune.

KING: The question is, how does he change his tune? Does he say, I'll take no wall money? That was the original plan that, at the last minute, he backed away from. Or does he then try to cut a traditional Washington deal where I'll take half or I'll take a third or whatever. We don't know that.

But we do know right now is everybody's waiting on this economic impact, looking at the polling. So far about a half dozen Senate Republicans have started to get squeamish about this. That's not enough. It would take probably twice that to get the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to move. Until then, the Republicans, even though the polling shows Americans -- a majority of Americans blame the president, Mitch McConnell, on the floor today, trying to say, look at the speaker.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: One dollar. One dollar. That's the amount that the new speaker of the House recently said she'd be willing to invest in physical barriers at our southern border.

For federal workers who are now stretching every dollar until Democrats lose interest in dead-end political games, the speaker's one-dollar punchline is not very entertaining.


[12:20:00] KING: This is what we have. This is -- we're going to have the posturing and the finger-pointing, and it's necessary. Both sides feel the need to make their case politically. But do we know the answer? Is the president prepared to back down and take less than the nearly $6 billion he has demanded? Do we know the answer? Is Speaker Pelosi willing to go to her liberal caucus and say, we have to give him half of that or what's the number to get a deal? We don't know, right?

MICHAEL BENDER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": No, we don't know and I can tell you neither does the White House right now either. They're frustrated with the inside politics questions here on Nancy's -- Nancy Pelosi announcement this morning. We reported at "The Wall Street Journal" last week the White House was talking about who to use the State of the Union in order to -- as a cajole against lawmakers if the shutdown still continued. All those plans are going to be wiped out if they cancel the -- cancel that meeting.

And the bigger question that you brought up as well, federal workers are missing paychecks. That's a big deal. And there is -- and there are cracks inside the White House right now on that point. There's a -- there's a faction inside the White House that is saying, this is no longer a messaging war, Mr. President. These -- people losing their paychecks is a real issue that we need to find a way out of.

You showed the clip of Mitch McConnell here. There's a lot of people in the White House that are hoping Mitch McConnell bails them out yet again.

KING: He -- but he's hesitant to bail them out yet again because he, with the vice president in the room, and other White House officials back and forth on Capitol Hill, passed a piece of legislation that the president then backed away from at the last minute. So I -- there -- there will be no deal without Mitch McConnell in the end. The question is, when does he decide to raise his cautious hand?

BASH: My impression in talking to people around him is that he saw it as his job to negotiate out of a shutdown when he was minority leader and there was a Democrat in the White House, but in this situation and it is not just that there's a Republican in the White House, but it's this Republican who is, shall we say, an unreliable negotiating partner for him. He got very burned at the end of December, like you talked about. Don't -- I don't expect to see him jumping to save the day any time soon.

KING: Right. And so the president --

BASH: Because he can't without the president.

KING: Right. And the president has some members of the Problem Solving Caucus down at the White House now. Some of them are Democrats. It's good that people are meeting. I think people should meet. Eventually they're going to have to cut a deal, but there's no reason, right? No reason (INAUDIBLE)?

HULSE: The problem with this is, it's not a typical Washington negotiation.

KING: Right.

HULSE: Usually you split the difference. But you can't split wall or no wall.

KING: Right.

HULSE: So how do you get to that resolution?

As far as Senate McConnell talking to Senate Republicans yesterday, the polling is, yes, as you said, the president's getting the blame, not them. So right now they're kind of comfortable where they are. Let the president and Nancy Pelosi fight this out. I don't see Mitch McConnell rushing in here at all.

KING: Right. And there's also the two Americans polling in the sense that Republicans don't want the president to cave.

HULSE: Right.

KING: They want the wall. Democrats don't want the speaker to budge at all. They don't -- they want the president to get a big zero. So we have -- that's one of the splits in the (INAUDIBLE).

Nationally, people blame the president and the Republicans. But if you look at the bases, which is -- sorry for the people not getting a paycheck, but the politicians pay attention to the party base.

We'll continue on this one as well.

Up next for us, though, the 2020 Democratic field gets a little bigger. And for all those longshots out there, a little history, it was on this day in 2007 a little known junior senator from Illinois said this.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Even in the midst of the enormous challenges we face today, I have great faith and hope about the future because I believe in you, and that's why I wanted to tell you first that I'll be filing papers today to create a presidential exploratory committee.



[12:28:10] KING: Today, some fresh entries in the somewhat chaotic and already getting crowded Democratic presidential field. And an early Me Too movement test for the 2020 hopefuls. This last night from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.


SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: I'm going to run for president of the United States because as a young mom I'm going to fight for other people's kids as hard as I would fight for my own, which is why I believe that health care should be a right and not a privilege.


KING: Another potential prospect for the Democrats, Congressman Seth Moulton. He has said repeatedly he's not running, but he now is scheduling a trip to New Hampshire in just two weeks to meet with state Democrats. Keep an eye on that one.

Senator Sherrod Brown, not in yet, but he has a listening tour that sounds an awful lot like a warm-up lap.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you're going to go to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina which are the four first states in the primary schedule. That sounds like you are running for president.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO: Well, Connie and I have not made that decision. We will make that decision in the weeks ahead.


KING: You might remember, the Me Too reckoning that helped drive the 2018 midterm revolt already creating some 2020 fractures among the Democrats. Some Democratic donors don't like how the newly declared Senator Gillibrand called for Senator Al Franken's resignation over groping accusations. This morning, the senator said she was following her conscience.


SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: I will stand up for what I believe in, especially when it's hard. And with Senator Franken, it's, you know, sad for many people, but after eight allegations of sexual harassment and groping, credible allegations at the time, I just couldn't stay silent. My job was not to stay silent. I couldn't defend it. And I had to do what was right. And if some wealthy individuals, if that makes them angry, that's on them.


[12:29:57] KING: It's a fascinating question as she heads into this field, which is completely wide open. She understands that women were the majority in the Iowa caucus in 2016. Women were in the majority in the New Hampshire primary in 2016.