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General: "Tens Of Thousands" Of ISIS Fighters Still In Syria; Turmoil In Virginia, VA. Lt. Gov. Tells WAPO He Won't Resign Despite Assault Allegations; Gov. Northan On Calls To Resign: "I'm Not Going Anywhere"; Trump Heads To El Paso Today To Rally For Border Wall; Grammy Award Historic Wins For Women, Hip Hop On Music's Biggest Night. Aired 10:30-11 ET

Aired February 11, 2019 - 10:30   ET



BEN WEDEMAN, CNN WAR CORRESPONDENT: Is there bombardment bombing from the US-led coalition, but they say there are also incoming rounds from Syrian regime positions across the Euphrates River, as well as from over the Iraqi border from the Iraqi army. They say food is running very short. That some of them have to eat the grain that is normally fed to livestock.

Now, what's interesting was, as we were coming away from the front lines, we ran into a convoy of about 21 trucks full of people who fled the town within the last 24 hours. Approximately 700 people on that convoy. And, we've been hearing from for days from senior Syrian Democratic officials that they had estimated 1,500 civilians, perhaps in the town now they say, they made a serious underestimation that there may be thousands left, Jim.

And, what we also saw before that, in fact, we were woken up this morning by intense small arms fire just a few hundred yards from the front lines. It was an ISIS counter-attack. We were up on the roof where we've been doing live reports for the last three days. Rounds started as zing over our heads, and at one point, we heard a huge explosion. It appeared to be an incoming mortar round landing right next to the building we were at.

We ran down into the street, and what we saw was some -- a lot of the SDF soldiers were running away from the front as well as some of their vehicles were leaving. And what has what followed was an intense battle. We understand that the SDF lost many of the positions they were able to take since the offensive began on Saturday night local time.

And so, this battle, which commanders were telling us would take, perhaps it would be over today, perhaps tomorrow, it may be a few more days at least before Isis is completely crushed in that last bit of land they control. Jim, Poppy.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Ben Wedeman there on the ground, close, yards away, as you said, from the front lines there. Please stay safe. Joining us now CNN Military and Diplomatic Analyst, Rear Admiral John Kirby. So, you hear, and this is why it makes a difference, put people on the ground, right? They're going to give you the latest information. Within the last 24 hours an ISIS counter-attack there.

And you hear General Votel talking about thousands, thousands, and thousands of fighters, ISIS fighters still in Iraq and Syria. How does a pullout happen in those circumstances? And, how do you do that pull out without allowing ISIS to regroup without that US presence there?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well so, first of all, doing a withdrawal in these kinds of conditions means you have to do it very, very carefully, because force protection is obviously going to be, and should be, a high priority. You want to get our troops out safely. You want to get their stuff out safely. That takes time and planning. And, in an active environment, such as, the one Ben just described it becomes that much more precarious

And then, number two, there the question is, you can't Jim, I mean, if you want a sustainable defeat of ISIS, you have to be there after the territory has been taken away from them so that they can't reconstitute in that territory, or try to rebuild some of their capabilities. And, we've been saying this for years and years. I mean, even in the Obama administration, a sustainable defeat is only possible with boots on the ground, and those boots really need to be indigenous boots. The Kurds, the Syrian democratic forces, who continue to need our support.

So, pulling out like we're planning to do will remove that level of that foundation of support to allow them to continue some sort of sustainable victory over ISIS once the territory itself is taken back.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Important context there for the comments we just heard from General Votel. And he's also the one who, less than a week ago, told Senator Angus King in that congressional testimony, that indeed he was not asked by the president, or consulted by the president before he made the decision to announce a troop withdrawal from Syria there.

And now, he's saying not only did he not know, which shows the president didn't make the decision on the advice of his generals, but that he disagrees. And, by the way, the president wrong in the facts that there are thousands of ISIS fighters still in Syria.

When you combine all of that, what does it do to the strength of ISIS?

KIRBY: Well, I think it certainly sends a message to ISIS, and supporters of that group, that there is division inside the American government. That we're not unified in our approach. And, that they can now find gaps, they can find windows, they can find ways to continue to reconstitute themselves.

Two of the things that General Votel said in that interview that I thought were really interesting, and it's easy to drive by it is, they still have resources, and they'll have leadership on the ground. Those are two very important characteristics of a network's ability to reconstitute, regenerate, and to grow in strength.


KIRBY: And, I think those two things are not gone, even if the territory is gone, they still have the ability to continue to spur attacks, and to plan attacks outside the region. And I think that's what he was getting at.

SCIUTTO: And there'd been intelligence that the ISIS leader was in that part of Syria as well.

KIRBY: That's exactly right.

SCIUTTO: I want to ask you on a different topic. I want to ask you on Saudi Arabia, because the Trump Administration had a deadline imposed in bipartisan votes by Congress, at a deadline on Friday, to report back on its findings on the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

This, under the existing law Magnitsky Act, which requires penalizing foreign countries that violate human rights. The president blew-- but the White House blew by that deadline. It claims it's fully within the law, but you have Republicans, like the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, saying the administration has to follow the law here.

I mean, who's right? What does the law require? The administration says they're fully within their rights to blow by this, but you have Republicans saying no.

KIRBY: Yes. They clearly violated the deadline, which was written into the law. So, to say that they're following the law, I think, you know, if you do from a technical perspective, they're not. What's really important here is, what they are doing is slow rolling this.

In this whole episode just shows you the degree to which this administration has all gone all-in on Saudi Arabia. And it also shows you the degree to which their entire Middle East policy, to the degree there is one, is about Iran. And, they see Saudi Arabia as the the biggest wait against Iran, a counterweight against Iran. And, they're not willing to do anything that would maybe decrease or weaken and that counterweight.

HARLOW: Admiral Kirby, sorry to interrupt, but we just got a statement reporting from our team on the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and how he's responding to this criticism of the White House on this, this morning.

He says, "America is not coming covering up for a murder." He said, this it-- He's in Budapest, Hungary right now. And, he said the president made very clear, he couldn't have been more clear, as we get additional information we will hold all those responsible accountable. That's what Pompeo was saying.

You have the Saudi Minister of State Foreign Affairs, over the weekend, who called it a mistake. And I quote, he said, "Mistakes happen." I mean, so it seems, do you read that as the Saudis thinking that the administration isn't going to hold them to account here?

KIRBY: I think that's exactly how the Saudis are looking at this. They know that they have some-- they have leverage over Trump. It's hard to understand what that is, but they-- I think it's about Iran. And, they're gonna use it. I think they absolutely are seeing signs from the Trump Administration that they're going to continue to get away with this.

I think what both sides are doing, Saudi and the administration are just playing for time. They're hoping we're not going to pay attention to this anymore. They're hoping Congress is going to get wrapped up in other issues. And, we're just going to drive past it. And, it's really important that we don't.

And, I think the administration is being disingenuous in the extreme when they say that they're in compliance with the law, and that they're going to hold Saudi Arabia accountable. They've done precious little to do that. And, this idea that well, we need more information, more intelligence is coming in, I don't see any evidence that additional information is being gathere,d and collected, and brought into this process.

I think they know everything they're going to know, and they just made a conscious decision to drive past it.

SCIUTTO: The president received that information, and then cast doubt, as he often has, on the findings of the intelligence community, which reported to him this was a murder, likely with approval from the top. He said well, maybe they did, maybe they didn't. I mean, it's so--

So, when Pompeo says he couldn't have been more clear, well he could have been clear.

KIRBY: Could have been a lot more clear.


SCIUTTO: Rear Admiral, John Kirby, thanks very much.

KIRBY: Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. So, still to come for us, new response this morning from Virginia's Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, as he faces another sexual assault allegation. We'll have a live update next.




SCIUTTO: This just in on a story we've been following this whole morning. Virginia's Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, is speaking out, fighting to keep his job, and asking for due process amid accusations that he sexually assaulted two women. Remarks come, this morning, from an interview that he gave to the Washington Post.

HARLOW: Let's go straight to Richmond, Virginia. Jessica Dean is there. What is the Lieutenant Governor saying now on these?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a brand new interview, as you said from the Washington Post. And, he wanted to say, and did say in this, "Everyone deserves to be heard, even when faced with these allegations, I am still standing up for everyone's right to be heard, but I'm also standing up for due process."

So, it's important that Fairfax, coming out and and saying again, that he wants everyone to be heard. He is-- We have reported here on CNN, that he is for an investigation. He's called for the FBI to be involved in that investigation. We also learned this morning that one of the delegates that was planning to bring forth Articles of Impeachment against Lieutenant Governor Fairfax is now backing off of doing that. We are told from persons close to a meeting that happened yesterday, that he spoke with some House Democrats, and they said they weren't ready to take those steps just yet. He said he would back off, but they promised that if he did that, that they would support some sort of independent investigation.

So, that is where that stands right now. But, Justin Fairfax saying he will not resign, and asking for due process in this whole situation guys.

HARLOW: OK. Thank you for that update Jessica. Also to you, the governor, the current governor, Ralph Northam, at this point, just gave his first interview on all of this, and raised everyone's eyebrows. I think with the comments that he made about white privilege and slavery.


DEAN: Yes. That's right. He was talking with Gayle King on CBS this morning. And he, essentially said, to her he was going back and talking through some Virginia history. And he was talking about the first Africans to come here to Virginia, and called them indentured servants.

Well then, Gayle said to him, well you mean slavery. And that was what a lot of people were saying. Was, you know, did he mean to say slavery? He was using indentured servants. That raised a lot of eyebrows, so much so that the governor put out a statement this morning. Just to read you in part there, he said:


RALPH NORTHAM, GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA: "During a recent event at Fort Monroe I spoke about the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia and referred to them in my remarks as enslaved. A historian advised me that the use of indentured was more historically accurate -- the fact is, I'm still learning and committed to getting it right."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DEAN: And again, he's also saying, he's not going anywhere. Poppy and Jim, he sees this as a teaching moment. He wants to bring the State together. The question is, can he do that?

HARLOW: Yes. Important question Jess. Thanks for the reporting.

SCIUTTO: A lot of folks in that capital facing serious challenges. Now, the president says that money is needed for a wall and fast. This, to combat what he has called a crisis at the border. Next, we're going to take you right to the border for a look at the facts at the border. What's really happening as Federal agents line up along the real ground.




HARLOW: All right. The president not waiting for a border deal to make his case on wall funding. He's going straight there to the border to El Paso, Texas to hold his first rally of the year.

SCIUTTO: And 500 miles south of there, after new warnings of a caravan from this president, Border Patrol agents have lined up right across the river from where the migrants are being housed in Mexico. Looking in there on vehicles and horses. Joining us now from Eagle Pass, Texas, CNN Correspondent, Martin Savidge. What do you see in there?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Morning Jim. Morning Poppy. Well, the security surge in Eagle Pass is nothing short of remarkable and it continues to grow. The latest to arrive are 100 members of the Texas National Guard. That's on top of the 258 Federal troops that were here, and on top of the 500 Texas State Patrol that are here, and the 1,300 Customs and Border Protection as well as Border Agents. It all adds up to 2,158, and as they say it keeps going.

Let me show you this remarkable scene on the banks of the Rio Grande River. And this is just the tip of the iceberg here. That's primarily Texas State Patrol. They're all lined up. The vehicles are running. There's an officer inside, and they're pointed in the direction of Mexico. And, you can see they're almost touching. This stretches as far as the eye can see, all the way down the riverbanks here.

But then, let me show you. As you look at the Rio Grande River, and we swing to reposition, Mexican authorities have done their own kind of counter-positioning. These are the Federales. They're set up on the other banks of the Rio Grande. And, their vehicles, and their people, are pointed to all north in the direction of the United States.

As for the caravan, it was 1,800. It arrived a week ago, but now the numbers have begun to dwindle. Mexican authorities say that the people in the caravan have begun to realize their chances of getting asylum will take months and months. And already, 100 members of that caravan have said they want to go back to their home country. They can't afford to wait. Mexican authorities believe that that number is going to go up as the realizations, that's in of what they are facing here.

And, one last thing I'll point out to you is that, this really looks like a virtual wall that's been erected by law enforcement in this community. Poppy and Jim.

SCIUTTO: Good point.

HARLOW: It is. Martin, thanks for the reporting, and for being there on the ground in Eagle Pass, Texas. Again the president heads to El Paso tonight. Quick break. We'll right back.




SCIUTTO: It was a little bit of a big night last night. Music's biggest night. The rapper Childish Gambino snagged two major awards. There were a lot of awards handed out.

HARLOW: Jim's favorite artist.


HARLOW: Women dominated major categories. Michelle Obama rocking the house. Stephanie Elam with us. Steph, we are wondering, did you get to go into the awards? We want to know?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. Not last night. I came back to the office to watch the show. Took off the gown. Took out all of the different things that were on to come back and watch the show like everybody else. But, sometimes, that's sometimes the best seat, because you get to see everything, right?

And there was so much going on. Starting off with that opening of Camila Cabello big hit Havana, but it was different. First of all, you're opening up the Grammys with these big Latin acts. That was definitely a new move here, and you saw them. There's J Balvin. I talked to him on the Red Carpet. He said-- I asked him, like what is it about now that, you know, English Language stations are playing your music. He's like the timing's just right, you don't need to deep understand the words to know a good beat.

It's true, and that really set off the show, which actually was a pretty well-received show. Alicia Keys doing a great job, posting it. Showing also why she earned her place as a host with her 15 Grammys herself, and playing two pianos at one time. Talking about all the songs she wished she wrote.

It was just a fantastic moment there too. And, she had some famous friends come out and help her out, in the likes of, I don't know, Lady Gaga, maybe Jennifer Lopez, Jada Pinkett Smith. Oh and Michelle Obama, who when people saw her, in fact all of these superstars who wind up being star struck, because Michelle Obama was there. She actually had to tell them to like be quiet we have a show to do, so she can actually speak.

Take a listen to what she said while she was up there on stage. Oh, okay, the sound is not there, but the whole moment was about it being inspirational, why music is so important to our lives. And so, she spoke a little bit about that. But really, the Grammys has been under pressure, because of the perception that there have not been enough women included. And so, they really went out of the way, and there were a ton of women winners, and a lot of female performances. It was a overall, a really well-received show. Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Alicia Keys on two pianos.

HARLOW: Amazing, right?

SCIUTTO: That's showing off.