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U.S.-Backed Forces Assault Last ISIS Enclave in Syria; Elizabeth Warren Enters Race for the White House; Venezuelan Leaders Urged to End Standoff over Humanitarian Aid; Male Tiger Kills Prospective Mate at First Meeting; Interview with Grey Stafford, Animal Trainer and Zoologist; Grammys and BAFTAs to Honor Best in Entertainment. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired February 10, 2019 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Closing in on ISIS: U.S.- backed forces launch an assault on the last insurgent enclave in Syria. CNN reports exclusively near the front lines.

Plus one: U.S. Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren officially enters a crowded field of presidential hopefuls.

And a breeding program turns deadly. A tiger kills his potential mate at the London Zoo. We'll talk to wildlife experts.

Live from the CNN Center, I'm Cyril Vanier. It's great to have you with us.


VANIER: ISIS is facing another major defeat in Syria. On Saturday, U.S.-backed forces launched an assault on the terror group's last enclave in the country. The fighting centers on the town of Bagheuz Al-Fawqani near the Iraqi border. CNN's Ben Wedeman is on the ground and he filed this exclusive report from near the front lines.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The final push just began after sunset on Saturday when forces of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces pushed their way into the town behind me, Bagheuz Al-Fawqani, which is the last stronghold of ISIS in Syria or Iraq.

We have been told by officers here there may be as many as 1,500 civilians inside the town, although what we've seen over the last few weeks is that people are leaving, either paying their way out or sneaking out of the town. Those who are left are a few civilians.

But we are told that there are as many as 500 of some of ISIS' most battle hardened fighters. Although we are also hearing there's infighting along those fighters. There are those who, after weeks of steady coalition airstrikes, as well as artillery and mortar bombardment, have decided it is time to surrender and others who insist it is time to fight to the death.

So what we have seen all evening long is coalition aircraft flying overhead, striking targets, just about two kilometers from here, as well as fairly constant heavy machine gunfire, as well as artillery and rocket fire going into the town.

There doesn't seem to be much resistance yet. But we are told that in the morning is when ISIS may well counterattack -- I'm Ben Wedeman, reporting from outside Bagheuz Al-Fawqani in Eastern Syria.


VANIER: Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren formally entered the race for the White House on Saturday. She has long been a champion of the middle class and was the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Warren made her announcement at the site of the historic labor strike led by women an immigrants. In her speech, she slammed corruption in the U.S. political system and pledged to level the economic playing field.


SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MASS.), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The middle class squeeze is real and millions of families can barely breathe. It is not right.

The Trump administration is the most corrupt in living memory.


WARREN: But even after Trump is gone, it won't do just to do a better job of running a broken system. We need to take power in Washington away from the wealthy and well connected and put it back in the hands of the people where it belongs.


VANIER: Senator Warren laying out her goals, her vision and her campaign themes there. MJ Lee has more from Lawrence, Massachusetts.


MJ LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: If you listened to her speech, you might have lost count of the number of times she said "fight." This is going to be so central to her 2020 campaign, this idea that people come together and can take on a rigged system and take on government corruption in Washington.

She said there is a rigged system that props up the rich and the powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else. These are all themes that we have heard her talk about for many, many years now.

And if you listened to her speech, you got a pretty good blueprint of the policy positions that will be central to her 2020 campaign. Just to list a couple, she talked about her anti-corruption bill, about taking on Wall Street, her support for Medicare for all and the green new deal and also for her proposal that she put out last month to tax the wealthy. She also --


LEE: -- only said the word Trump twice in her speech. This is not surprising. We have seen a number of the Democratic candidates, when they're out speaking publicly, they're reticent to say the word Trump when talking to their supporters.

However, even if she was not willing to say the name Trump, we know it was all about trying to draw a contrast between herself and the president of the United States and making the case where why she's the best Democrat to take him on in 2020.


VANIER: Counting down to another U.S. government shutdown. It could happen this week. President Trump and lawmakers have until Friday to agree on how much money to pour into border security. If they don't come to an agreement, the federal government will grind to a halt again.

President Trump is asking for $5.7 billion to build more border wall but bipartisan negotiators have proposed less than half that.

Jessica Levinson joins me. She's a professor of law and governance Loyola University.

Let's start with immigration. The U.S. government will shut down again in less than a week if Democrats and Republicans can't cut a deal on border security.

Is there any movement on that?

JESSICA LEVINSON, LOYOLA UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL: No, I don't think there's much movement. I think that where we are is where we were about two weeks ago, with Nancy Pelosi saying, Mr. President, when I told you that you would get no funding for a border wall, I really meant it.

And so I think what my prediction -- and it's always dangerous to do this in American politics -- is that the government will stay open but President Trump will declare a national emergency and will say, I'm not going to be the one to hurt federal workers again.

I think he'll say that because it was politically unpopular the first time but he will say I need this border wall, I need it for your security, in part because it's been such an important part of his presidency and campaign.

And then we go to our favorite third branch of government, we go to the judiciary. And the question is whether or not it's permissible for the president to do that. VANIER: OK. So you think he will go down that road of declaring an emergency. But his calculus hasn't changed. If he does that, yes, he perhaps has a path to getting the money, perhaps, as you say the courts get involved. That opens up a whole set of other problems, though.

LEVINSON: It does. It sets up legal and political problems for him. Legally speaking, it's harder and harder to say this is an emergency when we have waited more and more time before we have to declare that emergency. So I think that there are really good legal reasons to say the president has the power to say there's a national emergency.

But there's no emergency here and let's talk about all the specific reasons why he can't actually divert military funding. Politically speaking, a lot of people increasingly are seeing that this is just an end run around the political process.

When this process started, there were Republicans who were controlling Congress, Republicans controlling the Senate and he was still unable to come to any consensus for the money.

So I think that politically what he's looking at is really making sure that he shores up his base, that that 36 percent of Americans who support him will continue to very vigorously support him. But for the rest of the country, I don't think that this will play particularly well.

VANIER: OK. Tell me about President Trump's rivals for 2020, because there's now a plethora of Democratic candidates and there's a significant one, an important candidate who officially declared her candidacy today, Democrat senator Elizabeth Warren.

What's she running on?

And do you think she is a real danger to President Trump in 2020?

LEVINSON: I think she's a real contender. I think she's been running for a long time and while today was the official announcement, I think the real news would have been after forming an exploratory committee if she decided not to run.

What she's running on, it's in a way similar to rhetoric we heard from candidate Trump in the sense of, I want to get money and corruption out of Washington, D.C. But obviously, that's basically where the similarities stop.

And what she is saying is, I will not be in the pocket of big money. That Washington, D.C., is fundamentally corrupt and she's running both as a former law professor and as someone who was the architect of the Consumer Protection Bureau and is saying to people, I will protect you.

I am the one who can ensure that America is truly a meritocracy and that we are essentially a bastion of inequality and I will fix that for you. So if you look at President Trump's tweets, I think that he sees Senator Warren as a real contender. You know, right now, she's not the one who really has the traction.

That's more California senator Kamala Harris. It's very early but she's --


LEVINSON: -- the one who has excited more people at this point.

VANIER: The White House has started to attack Democrats as socialists. We sort of saw the rollout of that term during the State of the Union address.

Is this still socialism, being a socialist, is this still a toxic word in U.S. politics?

LEVINSON: I think it is. And in part, because it's a really misunderstood word. It's one of those words that's taken on a pejorative tone, and unless you're Bernie Sanders, you want to run as far away from it as you can.

So I think President Trump is banking on the fact that what people know about socialism, is something that it's not good, that's not what America stands for and therefore we are going to throw out this word and people say, that means the government is going to take my money. That's not good, so I don't want a socialist.

The reality is that it's much more complicated and nuanced and that, in current American politics, frankly, we're not close to the type of socialism that really has anything to do with the term. So there's no real reality attached to it. But I think there's great political power attached to it.

VANIER: It's this real political scarecrow in the U.S. but I don't think the United States is in any danger of becoming a socialist country. Jessica Levinson, thank you so much for joining us.

LEVINSON: Thank you.

VANIER: Virginia's lieutenant governor is once again denying the sexual assault allegations two women have brought against him. We have also learned that should impeachment hearings happen, one of his accusers is prepared to testify against him. Kaylee Hartung has more.


KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Justin Fairfax has taken a leave of absence from his law firm. He's no longer the chairman of the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association but he's still lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, refusing to step down amidst allegations of sexual assault that have been brought against him by two different women.

Now Virginia's Democratic leaders and lawmakers are very widely calling for his resignation. A joint statement by Virginia's Democratic legislators here in Richmond say they acknowledge that he is owed due process. But they say given the serious nature of the allegations, they no longer believe he can fulfill the duties of lieutenant governor and he needs to address all of this as a private citizen.

The one prominent Democrat we can name who is not calling for Fairfax's resignation is the governor, Ralph Northam, who is embroiled in his own controversy. He gave his first interview since that racist photo was uncovered on February 1st to "The Washington Post" on Saturday.

And he said, quote, "It must take tremendous courage for women to step forward and talk about being the victims of sexual assault. These allegations are horrific, they need to be taken seriously.

"Lieutenant governor Fairfax has suggested and called for an investigation. I strongly support that."

Fairfax calling for an investigation say it will clear his name but maintaining all the while he will not resign. If he doesn't resign by Monday, though, there is one member of Virginia's house of delegates, a Democrat, who says he will introduce those articles of impeachment before the legislature. By no means would that mean that a vote on his impeachment would be imminent but it is undoubtedly a threat that Fairfax is hearing.


VANIER: And that was Kaylee Hartung reporting there.

And Justin Fairfax does not deny having encounters with his two accusers but in a statement on Saturday, the lieutenant governor writes, "The one thing I want to make abundantly clear is that, in both situations, I knew at the time and I know today that the interactions were consensual."

He adds that neither woman indicated the interactions were otherwise.

A new poll shows opinion in the state of Virginia is evenly divided on whether governor Ralph Northam should step down. According to "The Washington Post"/George Mason University poll, Virginians who are surveyed are split 47 percent for and against. This even though most of them say they were offended by the racist photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page.

Venezuela's standoff over humanitarian aid continues. The sitting president still will not allow lifesaving supplies to enter his country. He's imposed a blockade at the border, which the opposition leader condemns. As Stefano Pozzebon reports, both men are being urged to find common ground for the good of the people.


STEFANO POZZEBON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, exactly. There is not a solution in sight yet for the humanitarian aid stalemate on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Meanwhile here in Caracas, aid workers urge both sides to stop

politicizing the issue and saying that the aid should be allowed into the country, because a lot of people are desperately in need.

We were able to speak with the president of the International Red Cross Federation, Francesco Rocca. His presence here in the capital of Venezuela in CAS is itself a --


POZZEBON: -- sign of how serious the situation is for the Venezuelan citizen and how serious the conditions are for most Venezuelans. This is what he said about the issue of the aid.


FRANCESCO ROCCA, PRESIDENT, INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF RED CROSS/RED CRESCENT SOCIETIES: I would like to see this kind of respect for the humanitarian aid. I would like to really, I hope that both sides will clear the table from this kind of discussion, talking about a lot of aspects that must be fixed in this country.


POZZEBON: Rocca urged both sides to clean the table and allowing the aid -- and allow the aid to be properly managed, because both sides are saying that they're working for the best and the good of the people.

But as long as there is no political solution found and the two sides don't find common ground to show to each other, it really seems that even aid has become a political issue -- for CNN, this is Stefano Pozzebon, Caracas.


VANIER: A meeting between two endangered tigers in the London Zoo turns tragic. Coming up, why animals act the way they do and what can cause them to snap.

Plus a major storm hammers the islands of Hawaii. Residents are on alert as strong winds and big waves are expected this weekend. We'll have a live weather update when we come back.




VANIER: An attempt to make a love connection between two endangered Sumatran tigers has ended in violence and tragedy. Zookeepers say the male, named Asim, screen left, attacked and killed its prospective mate, who was called Melati, during a breeding attempt at the London Zoo on Friday. The pair had been in adjoining cages and seemed to be getting along

just fine until they were put together and that's when Asim pounced. Zoo workers managed to separate the tigers but it was too late to save Melati.

Joining me to shed some light on this is wildlife and animal behavior expert, Grey Stafford.

Grey, what would lead a tiger to suddenly attack and kill a potential mate?

GREY STAFFORD, WILDLIFE AND ANIMAL BEHAVIOR EXPERT: Well, it is something we do see in the wild, as well as a zoo setting from time to time. It's unusual, it's rare but it does occur partly because tigers are solitary animals for much of their lives, with the exception of females with cubs or when a male and female come together for breeding purposes. Tigers are generally solitary animals.

VANIER: So what are the dos and don'ts then when you're doing this?

Because the zoo explains it took the necessary precaution. The male and the female tigers were in adjoining cages for several days in order to smell each other and get to know each other.

STAFFORD: Well, the ZSL has done this for many, many years. It's one of the oldest and most renowned zoos in the world and so they do know what they're doing. But absolutely, you want to introduce these animals, maybe with a visual barrier at first. But it's also important to remember that --


STAFFORD: -- tigers have keen senses. Their sense of smell, vision and hearing is far and away and better than anything humans can experience. So even if they can't see each other right away, they're being introduced to one another.

Then you want to approximate where you might want to give them visual access to each other and eventually even tactile access through like a mesh barrier before you're ready even contemplate to put them together.

I also would imagine that the female probably was in estrous. That's probably when you would want to put the two animals together because that's normally when they would come together in the wild, too.

VANIER: Right. And apparently this was done gradually. And then when they came together and they were put in the same space, the first signals were positive. And then just something shifted and it got violent.

Is there -- what -- why would that happen?

Are there any explanations?

STAFFORD: There are a lot of different reasons. First of all, this is a new experience for both animals. Even the female that resided there long-term, this is a new situation for both of them. And the male is coming into a new environment.

But she's also experiencing a new environment because of his presence and his smells and so forth. So whenever you have a new learning situation for any species really, the potential for confusion, for fear and even for aggression can occur.

Now when you layer on top of that the kind of aggressive behaviors we see normally when tigers breed, it's not surprising that sometimes things can go very badly and in this case very tragically.

VANIER: There's a conservative aspect to this story, which is really important because Sumatran tigers are deemed a critically endangered species. This is the wording used by the World Wildlife Fund for nature.

All of this was part of a breeding program to actually help the survival of the species.

STAFFORD: Yes, that adds a layer of real tragedy to this whole thing. I'm empathetic for the keepers of the staff there, because they're working hard, trying to preserve a species. Unfortunately, this sort of thing does occur from time to time because of the nature of the animals you're working and the individuals, as well.

As you say, the Sumatra tiger is critically endangered. There may be a few hundred left and of those few hundred, far fewer are actually in a position to actually breed and add to the population. So I applaud the zoo for making this effort. I'm sorry that it worked out the way it did. But it should not deter us from trying to improve the numbers of this endangered species.

VANIER: But should the tigers have actually been in captivity in the first place?

This is the question that is being asked by Will Travers. He's the president of the Born Free Foundation and he tweeted about this. He's asking whether captivity is viable. He said their natural habitat is so much larger than a place like the London Zoo. Maybe this shouldn't have happened or this program shouldn't have been engineered in the first place. He wants to keep tigers in the wild.

STAFFORD: Well, I think most serious zoo professionals would love to see animals thriving in the wild. But as you say, their numbers are dwindling, they are listed as critically endangered.

And so without human intervention to foster reproductive programs to preserve that genetic material, we may say goodbye to the Sumatra tiger, like we have other subspecies of tiger over the last century or so.

So I disagree with Mr. Travers. Zoos are working very hard to preserve species like the Sumatran tiger and, yes, this is a setback. It's tragic and it's very sad. But it's also part of tiger behavior and physiology. We'll learn from this and hopefully have greater success next time.

VANIER: Grey Stafford, thank you very much for shining a light on this.

STAFFORD: You bet. Thank you.

VANIER: U.K. prosecutors are considering whether to bring charges against Queen Elizabeth's husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Last month, a car driven by 97-year-old Prince Philip collided with another vehicle. This was the scene.

Two women in the other car were injured. One had a broken wrist. The crash raised questions about whether Prince Philip was too old to be behind the wheel. Now Buckingham Palace says he's voluntarily surrendered his driver's license. He blamed the accident on sunlight obscuring his vision.

And parts of Chile have been devastated by flooding from heavy rain, more than twice the average annual amount in about 24 hours.



VANIER: The 2019 awards season is in full swing with two major ceremonies taking place Sunday. First off, the prestigious BAFTAs in the U.K. will recognize some of the year's biggest movies. And they also honor TV.

But tonight ceremony is seen as a precursor to the Oscars. Top film contenders include "The Favourite," "Roma" and "A Star Is Born." So watch this space.

Later, the biggest night in music, as it's called, will take place in Los Angeles. This year, women will be front and center at the Grammys as the top categories feature mostly female nominees.

Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I have the headlines for you in just a moment.