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Fake Emergency; Cocaine Bust; Klobuchar On State Of Emergency; Legal Challenges For Trump; Tape Of R. Kelly; Mueller Staff Interview With Sanders; CNN Uncovers Another Kremlin-Funded Operation Using Facebook to Reach Americans; Gen. Joseph Votel Publicly Disagrees with Trump on Syria Pull Out; U.S.-Backed Fighters Try to Knock Out ISIS in Syria; Mike Pence Says Iran Doing Same as Nazis & Called on European Allies to Stop Undermining Iran Sanctions, Supporting Iran Nuclear Deal; U.S. Warns American to Avoid Haiti as Protests, Violence Grip Country; New Twist in Case of Alleged Attack on Jussie Smollett. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired February 16, 2019 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Hello, on this Saturday. You are live in the CNN Newsroom. You made it to the weekend. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York. Thank you for being here.
President Trump threatened to do it for several weeks and he finally following through. He declared a national emergency, signing the proclamation yesterday, making it official. The purpose of such an extreme measure, essentially to sidestep Congress and get the billions of dollars he needs to build a physical wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
The president says this will stop what he calls an invasion of drugs and human traffickers and gangs. He acknowledged in his announcement that he didn't really need to declare an emergency but did it for practical reasons.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn't need to do this. But I'd rather do it much faster.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: I didn't really need to do this, he says. Democratic leaders in Congress, they are lashing out, calling this a fake emergency, an abuse of power. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi using the president's own words, saying if you don't need to declare an emergency, then it's not one.
Legal challenges to the declaration have already been filed and the president made some early predictions as to how those challenges would fare in court.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will have a national emergency. And we will then be sued. And they will sue us in the Ninth Circuit. Even though it shouldn't be there. And we will possibly get a bad ruling. And then we'll get another bad ruling. And then, we'll end up in the Supreme Court. And hopefully we'll get a fair shake.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: CNN's Kristen Holmes is in West Palm Beach, not far from the president's Mar-a-Lago Resort. Kristen, any word, yet, from the administration officials as to how they would counter those legal challenges?
KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, there's been no public comment on that which isn't really surprising. We don't expect a public comment, when we're talking about a legal strategy moving forward.
But we have to keep this in mind. The amount of lawsuits is not a surprise to administration officials. We have been reporting for weeks that these officials were warning President Trump not to do this. That if he did this, it would create a huge legal problem and it would get tied up in the courts. So, luckily, they -- for them, they've had some time to prepare for this.
But there are already a litany of lawsuits that they're going to be looking at. The ACLU, another civil rights' group out of D.C., El Paso County. All of them have said they will file a lawsuit next week in order to stop this national emergency.
And I do want to note one thing here. Anyone who says that they know what's going to happen is not accurate. I talked to a legal analyst earlier today who wanted to stress the fact that there was no precedent for this.
Of course, we heard President Trump saying that, hey, other presidents have declared a national emergency before. It wasn't a big deal. But he stressed to me that this wasn't that kind of national emergency. Those national emergencies were in agreement with Congress. They were either giving sanctions, imposing sanctions on a foreign adversary or declaring a national emergency after a terrorist attack, like 911.
This particular circumstance, in which President Trump declared a national emergency because he didn't get what he wanted from Congress, in order to bypass Congress to then get what he wanted, that is not something we've seen before.
CABRERA: So, Kristen, that's the legal lay of the land, I guess. What's going to happen in Congress now? They certainly could put forward their own resolution, right?
HOLMES: That's right. So, they can push -- they can take up a resolution basically to stop this from happening, this national emergency from taking place. It will likely happen. Speaker Pelosi will likely bring this resolution forward. The House will vote on it. And it will likely pass in the House. Of course, we know the House is Democratic controlled. Now, here is where it gets sticky and incredibly awkward. Because of the rules of Congress, if it comes forward in the vote in the House, it has to, then, be taken up in the Senate.
The reason why this is such a delicate situation here is that you have a lot of Republicans who are up for re-election in 2020 who do not want to have to make a decision on this. They do not want to have to either choose to support the president or not. Because we know that both of these have political ramifications. But if this vote is forced, they will be on the record, either supporting the president or not.
CABRERA: All right, Kristen Holmes near Mar-a-Lago. Thank you.
The president got more than a few facts wrong, as he defended that emergency declaration, including that walls work 100 percent of the time. His own customs and border protection tweeted this video of a wall's obvious weakness. It shows undocumented immigrants using a ladder to scale a wall it. This was in Arizona about a month ago.
And then, just today, another example. U.S. Customs and Border Protection announcing the largest cocaine bust in a quarter century, at a massive shipping port in Los Angeles. Law enforcement officers discovered more than 200 pounds of cocaine, hidden under the floorboards of a cargo vessel arriving from Ecuador. The wall certainly would not have stopped that cocaine from getting into the country.
[17:05:00] Here's CNN's Tom Foreman now with a fact check of the president's speech in the Rose Garden.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: One of the president's chief claims to his fans that always gets a lot of applause is the idea that the wall has already been started.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're right now in construction with wall in some of the most important areas. And we have renovated a tremendous amount of wall, making it just as good as new. That's where a lot of the money has been spent, on renovation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOREMAN: The second part of that statement is true. There has been renovation just as there has been under every president. And that's all there has been. There has been no new wall construction. This is a fact.
There may be some started next month on a very tiny part of it. But for him to make that claim, with the other one there, makes this statement, at very best, misleading.
Another big claim. El Paso had a giant crime problem. They built a wall and the crime was solved.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When the wall went up, was it better? You were there. Some of you. It was not only better, it was, like, 100 percent better.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOREMAN: Yes, go to El Paso. They do have a huge wall, a huge barrier down there. And, yes, they had a huge spike in violent crime. It went way up, and it came way down. The problem is the wall was built down in this area, and crime actually went up after it. All of that had nothing to do with the wall. It happened before the wall. That claim by the president is simply false.
And one more he really likes to make is about how much drug traffic is coming in over that open land out there where there is no big barrier.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A big majority of the big drugs, the big drug loads don't go through ports of entry. They can't go through ports of entry. You can't take big loads, because you have people. We have some very capable people, the border patrol, law enforcement, looking.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOREMAN: We don't even know what he means when he says big drugs, big loads. Do you mean monetary value? Physical size? We have no idea.
We do know this. The Drug Enforcement Administration, the very people he's citing there say, no. Most of the drugs come through the official ports of entry. Look at heroin. What they said about heroin is the majority of the flow is through personally owned vehicles entering the United States at legal ports of entry, followed by tractor-trailers. You need some proof? Look, here are the pictures that the DEA puts out, showing some of those loads coming in here.
In fact, the only type of drug that is coming in illegally, that is more likely, according to the DEA, to come over open land where maybe a wall would slow them down or stop them, is marijuana.
So, again, this claim by the president is false.
CABRERA: All right, Tom Foreman, thanks for bringing us the facts.
Joining us now, Democratic Strategist and CNN Political Commentator Keith Boykin; and host of CNN's "S.E. CUPP UNFILTERED" at the top of the hour, S.E. Cupp.
S.E., do Republicans think this move is a winning strategy?
S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think in their -- you know, in the quiet places, no, I don't. I don't. I think Republicans, at least good ones, good conservatives, should be mortified by this. This is the opposite of limited government. This is government run amok.
This is executive, you know, stealing authority from the legislative branch. It shouldn't happen. It's appalling. It's indefensible. But, also, just strategically, I think Republicans are aware that this will put them in a very, very compromised position, come election season when, you know, most of them are up again in 2020.
CABRERA: Yes, speaking of 2020, the Democrats who are already on the campaign trail are jumping all over this. Here's what Amy Klobuchar had to say earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), MINNESOTA, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The national emergency that is, again, when you look at the declaration of national emergencies in the past, it has been for actual national emergencies. It has been for things like hurricanes and firefighters and earthquakes and things like that. That's the first answer. The second one is, where is he going to get this money? He's going to take it from other security priorities and disaster priorities for our country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: Keith, what is the best strategy for Democrats in the aftermath of this emergency declaration?
KEITH BOYKIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think the best strategy is to give Donald Trump enough rope to hang himself because he, clearly, is doing a horrible job of convincing Americans that there is a national emergency. Even when he made his announcement, he spent the first five minutes talking about trade policy in the U.K., and North Korea, and China, and everything else except the national emergency. Then, he goes off on a tangent about all these other things, about how great the economy is and the country is.
And then, he flies off to Mar-a-Lago for a golfing trip. Nothing says national emergency like the president of the United States going off for a weekend vacation to Mar-a-Lago. I mean, nobody takes this seriously. Nobody takes anything he is saying seriously.
And I think the more he talks about it, the harder it is for Republicans to defend it. Even if you don't want to be behind it, but realize you can't be opposed to the president, what are they going to think if the precedent that's set?
[17:10:00] What if a President Kamala Harris or a President Bernie Sanders decides to declare a national emergency for Medicare for all, or climate change? Or how about an income tax increase, something that maybe Democrats might support. Would Republicans want to go along with that? Do you really want to give the power to the president of the United States to declare a national emergency for any reason, just because he can't get what he wants from Congress? That's a horrible precedent.
CABRERA: Here's what I don't understand. Mitch McConnell had been warning the president ahead of time that he may not be able to, you know, support this. In fact, if there were a resolution in Congress, Republicans may push back on the president on this. We'll see how that plays out.
CABRERA: But this move, obviously, would energize the president's base. He knows immigration has been a winner for them. But when you look at 2020, and you look at where the polls show this move falling with the majority of Americans who don't believe this was a smart play. Why does the president continue to try to win the base and win people who he's already won? Because there hasn't been a sign of him losing this base.
CUPP: We just had this conversation, Keith, and I -- yesterday, I could not agree more. They have proven over and over again. They're loyal. They're not going anywhere. And so, I don't really understand the calculous either. That's one.
Two, he says, at his own rallies, as Tom just laid out, that he's already building it. He doesn't actually even have to. I'm not making a slight at his -- at his -- at his base. But they believe what he tells them.
And so, it doesn't -- I think if Trump decided, look, we're not going to get the wall. He'll blame Democrats. He'll come up with some justification. And his base will be there right behind him as they always have been.
So, he's doing this for an audience of, one, his base, at the expense of the rest of the country, even moderate Republicans.
CABRERA: On the other hand, he has made the conversation all about immigration. He loves the conversation, the focus being on immigration. Democrats, who took the reigns in January, have been forced to deal with immigration. Is that, in some ways, an effective play by the president in preventing the Democrats from pursuing their agenda?
FOREMAN: Well, two things. I mean, the president has the power of the bully pulpit. So, this conversation is something, maybe, that he wants. But he hasn't necessarily wanted it on all these terms. He's got to talk about DACA, at some point. He's got to talk about the humanitarian crisis for people who are applying for asylum who can't get into the country or who were being separated, parents from their children. He's got to deal with all those issues as well.
And the Democrats also have this advantage with this bill that may be introduced next week by -- in the House, that would force the House of Representatives to come on record and say that they are opposed to this. And then, the Senate has to vote, I think within 18 days, in response to that.
And then, you get Senate Republicans and House Republicans who have to take this difficult position of whether they're going to agree with Donald Trump who is the leader of their party, or they're going to agree with the principals that they supposedly believe in, about limited government, and strike down or try to strike down this executive order.
CABRERA: And then, I'm looking at some of the responses on the sheet here. Senator Rand Paul, about this national emergency, says this was a bad idea. Senator Marco Rubio says no crisis justifies violating the Constitution. We've heard from Senator Collins saying, this strikes me as undermining the appropriations process, the will of Congress and being indubious constitutionality.
CUPP: None of those of which are strong enough.
CABRERA: Are -- I mean, are those votes there, though, to override it? It wouldn't override this national emergency. It would end the national emergency if two-thirds of senators voted for a resolution, right?
CUPP: I don't -- you know, I was going to -- I was going to say I don't -- I don't think it would get the support, but I've been wrong before. And I am -- I am -- I am -- I am always surprised at how Republicans manage to line up behind this president with some very few exceptions, Syria being one of them.
But, at the end of the day, they line up behind him to pass his agenda, even when these things like -- you know, like this, for example, like his trade policies, are fundamentally unconservative. Fundamentally, like the opposite of what --
CUPP: -- the party used to stand for. Language that's actually in the Democratic Party platform, not ours. Somehow, they manage to get corralled behind him. So, we'll see.
CABRERA: Well, let's talk more about that hypocrisy because here's Donald Trump. I'm old enough to remember in 2014 when he tweeted this. Republics must not allow President Obama to subvert the Constitution of the U.S. for his own benefit and because he is unable to negotiate --
CABRERA: -- with Congress.
CABRERA: Keith, can Democrats, I guess, jump on this hypocrisy and do something with that?
FOREMAN: Yes and no.
CUPP: Yes, it's a tough one.
FOREMAN: Well, I mean, yes, they can. But, I mean, it doesn't matter anymore. We've already seen that Trump has been inconsistent and hypocritical about virtually everything. The whole premise of this conversation is based on a lie. The lie that Trump is it going to build a wall and that Mexico was going to pay for it. We've forgotten the whole Mexico part of the equation.
[17:15:00] The American taxpayers are now on the hook for Donald Trump's bold-faced lie or is it bald-faced lie. It's a lie either way. He up there and told his crowds, repeatedly, that Mexico is going to pay for something that Mexico never had any intention to do.
And his supporters continue to support him, even though they know it's a lie. So, pointing at hypocrisy, I don't know that it makes a difference for that 35 percent to 40 percent of Americans who still support Donald Trump. Because they are, in my opinion, hopelessly in bed with Donald Trump and all of his insanity.
CABRERA: I'm going to let you have a take -- a quick break, a quick breather. (INAUDIBLE) were talking. You are so worked up. Keith Boykins always good to have you. S.E. Cupp, thank you so much.
CABRERA: And make sure you tune in for S.E. at the top of the hour, "S.E. CUPP UNFILTERED" right here on CNN
Fast forward a couple of days. Amy Klobuchar is going to join New Hampshire voters to take their questions and discuss what's at stake for the country's future. My colleague, Don Lemon, moderates a CNN president townhall. That's Monday night at 10:00 Eastern right here on CNN.
And police in Illinois are releasing new details about a deadly mass shooting. What they are now piecing together in their investigation just ahead. Plus, a new CNN investigation looks at how Kremlin-backed organizations are using Facebook. The same medium they used to influence the 2016 election to target a new group.
And a new twist in the alleged attack on actor Jussie Smollett. Why did police release two potential suspects hours after their arrest? Details ahead.
CABRERA: Attorney Michael Avenatti says the tape he turned over to authorities in Illinois shows singer R. Kelly having sex with an underaged girl. This newly surfaced recording could provide new evidence after years of accusations against Kelly involving underaged girls.
I want to bring in Sara Sidner who's been covering this story from the beginning. Sara, what can you tell up about this video and the accusations against Kelly?
SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So, the accusations against Kelly include what Michael Avenatti says is a whistle-blower. Someone who knows R. Kelly, have worked with R. Kelly for some time, at one point. And who also says he knows and can identify the girl on that videotape. I can tell you what the videotape -- it is a VHS tape which indicates that this is a newly uncovered tape, but not necessarily a new tape. In other words, not necessarily that it was done in recent times. It may have been taped many, many years ago.
At this point, we can't verify the authenticity of how old the woman is, the girls is on this particular tape. But what we can tell you is some of the details on this tape which are disturbing and so I want to warning viewers about that. What you hear on the tape -- there are a couple of different scenes very well lit. The first scene is inside of a living room, it appears. It is white. It is -- lots of light there. You can see a man who appears to be naked coming into frame, into the camera. He appears to be R. Kelly.
And then, you see this girl, she refers to her genitalia as being 14 years old, repeatedly she does that about six times. He, then, responds a couple of times also referring to the age of her genitalia, saying that it is 14 years old. There are lots and lots of details. The tape goes on for 42 minutes. And so, in this tape, that has been handed over now to the state's attorney's office, there are lots of incidence of sexual activity, at the hands of a man who has been identified as R. Kelly by the client of Michael Avenatti.
Now, I will also tell you that the reason that the details are important is because they mirror a case back in 2002 when the state's attorney, here in Cook County, actually brought a case against R. Kelly . That case, he ends up being acquitted on. But there was a tape in that case. This is not the same tape, we are told.
But there was a case that had a videotape of a girl and a man, who they said was R. Kelly. They charged him with 14 counts of child pornography. But he was acquitted because the jury could not positively identify the girl or R. Kelly on the tape. And that was one of the things that the jurors had said they had difficulty with. And so, R. Kelly was acquitted.
I do want to mention that we have spoken to R. Kelly's attorney, Steve Greenberg. And he has said he has heard nothing about this tape. He has heard nothing about any new evidence, if you will. He has heard nothing nor has his client. And they certainly have not been contacted by law enforcement, at this point in time.
But those are the details that are now in the hands of the state attorney's office, according to Michael Avenatti. And where we go from here and why this tape is important is it could provide new evidence to the state's attorney for them to bring forth some kind of action. But we will have to wait and see if they're able to do that, if all of this pans out -- Ana.
CABRERA: And, Sara, do we know when this tape was? Because I started thinking about statute of limitations and that sort of thing, too.
SIDNER: Yes. Yes, those are all questions that we have and certainly that others have. As to whether or not this is going to be within the statute of limitation, if this has anything -- if there's double jeopardy issue. There's lots of legal issues here that could come up. But the only time we'll be able to figure that out is if there is an indictment or if there is some kind of movement from the state's attorney's office, at this point in time. As we -- as we stand here outside of R. Kelly's studio, we do know that there are some code violations at the studio, nothing to do with this potential new evidence. But there has certainly been a lot of attention placed on R. Kelly, because of the surviving R. Kelly series that was on Lifetime, because of this group of women who came out against R. Kelly after many decades of people accusing him of bad and illegal activity with minors.
And so, he is now getting things like his music is not being played on radio stations.
SIDNER: He is having his concerts cancelled, for example. A lot of issues happening to him now. But whether or not there's going to be a criminal issue, that remains to be scene -- Ana.
[17:25:03] CABRERA: All right. Sara Sidner, we know you'll be all over it. Thank you.
For the first time, prosecutors say they have evidence of Roger Stone communicating with Wikileaks. Details on what this means for his case ahead.
Plus, CNN uncovers a new Kremlin-funded operation. It's using Facebook, the same site they used to meddle in the 2016 election to target millennials.
CABRERA: Welcome back. The last 24 hours or so have yielded revealing new details in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. We learned Mueller's team interviewed White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders late last year. It was one of the team's last known interviews.
It's not clear what they talked about, but they probably asked her about the public statements defending the president.
Also, prosecutors have said for the first time they have proof Roger Stone, the longtime Trump associate, communicated directly with WikiLeaks. The judge in Stone's criminal case also put him and his lawyers under a partial gag order. It keeps them from speaking in and around the courthouse. So scenes like this from the day he was arrested probably won't be happening any time soon.
CNN has uncovered another Kremlin-funded operation that's using Facebook to reach social media savvy Americans. Facebook took a lot of heat for failing to prevent itself from being used as a Russian tool in the 2016 election interference.
As CNN's Drew Griffin explains, today, you can still see slick videos you'd never know are being paid for by Russians.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The messages are slick, filled with graphics, aimed at young left-leaning Americans getting news from social media. The videos have been viewed tens of millions of times with messages like this.
RANIA KHANLIK (ph), AMERICAN HOST, MAFFIC MEDIA'S SOAP BOX: It's pretty amazing that the same country that spent two years screaming about alleged Russia election meddling in 2016 is now applauding U.S. meddling in Venezuela.
GRIFFIN: What people watching these videos may not realize is that the Russian government is paying for this.
Soap Box, Wasted, Back Then are three new Facebook pages and all part of a growing brand of Russian-backed influence campaigns, according to Bret Schafer with the partially U.S.-funded German Marshall Fund.
BRET SCHAFER, SOCIAL MEDIA ANALYST, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE U.S.: This is clearly targeted at left-leaning Millennials who are going to be engaging with digital content. The production value is high. Most of this looks like it could have come from "Vice" or "BuzzFeed."
GRIFFIN: Yet, it is state funded?
SCHAFER: Right. It's definitely state funded. You can poll the German registration data.
GRIFFIN: We did. The Facebook pages are all run by Maffic Media, a Berlin company that's mostly owned by Ruptly, a subsidiary of R.T., funded by the Russian government. R.T. is considered the Kremlin's principle international propaganda outlet, according to this report by the U.S. director of National Intelligence. The report called R.T. part of the propaganda machine that contributed to the influence campaign of the 2016 election.
But Maffic's slick new Facebook pages aren't required to mention their Russian government funding.
SCHAFER: It should be clearly labelled. People are engaging with those accounts or watching these videos have no why where this information is coming from, so they don't have the information as consumers to be able to judge it fairly and accurately.
KHANLIK: If it's true that Putin is Trump's puppet master, well, then, Putin is really bad at it.
GRIFFIN: CNN spoke to Rania Khanlik (ph), an American who hosts Maffic Media's Soap Box. She says no one in the Russian government tells her how or what to think?
KHANLIK (ph): I can choose my own topics, write my own scripts, and produce my own content without input from anybody else.
GRIFFIN: Khanlik (ph) and Maffic Media's chief operating officer, J. Ray Sparks, also American, answered CNN questions from Berlin, Germany, Maffic's base.
When CNN pointed out that much of much of Khanlik's (ph) content seemed to be perfectly in line with much of the propaganda coming out of the Kremlin, she had this response.
KHANLIK (ph) If I oppose a U.S. war, does that automatically mean I'm going to be accused of being aligned with the Kremlin? For this Russia hysteria that we're experiencing now, I feel like this is a very, very dangerous McCarthyistic tactic to start saying that leftist views, anti-war views are just the Kremlin government's talking points.
GRIFFIN: The three new Maffic Facebook pages have 30 million views in less than six months. As to why none of those videos are labelled with a Russian government connection, J. Ray Sparks says his audience just doesn't care.
J. RAY SPARKS, COO, MAFFIC MEDIA: The general audience never is interested in these things. And the standard practice is to simply not mention them because the audience is not interested.
GRIFFIN: While Maffic runs its business from Berlin, CNN has learned the company hired up to a dozen Americans, some working out a rental office in Los Angeles. They are contracted, not directly employed, according to Maffic, to avoid labor and tax issues.
Drew Griffin, CNN, Washington.
CABRERA: A rare public disagreement. One of the top U.S. generals in the fight against ISIS flat-out disagrees with the commander-in-chief. Why he says President Trump's decision to pull troops from Syria could be a big mistake.
[17:34:52] Plus, an exclusive report from inside Syria, the battle to eradicate ISIS. We take you to the front lines of the final battle, next, live, in the CNN NEWSROOM.
CABRERA: We are awaiting what the president says will be big news concerning the fight against ISIS. He promised yesterday an announcement in the next 24 hours. It comes as the top U.S. commander leading that effort speaks out, telling CNN that he disagrees with the president's recent decision to pull American troops out of Syria.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, COMMANDER, U.S. ARMY CENTRAL COMMAND: It would not have been my military advice at that particular time. I think the capabilities, the pressure, the approach that we've had in place has been working. And so we were keen to kind of stay along that track and make sure we finished the mission for which we were assigned.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: As U.S. leaders disagree on strategy, U.S.-backed fighters on the ground are trying to knock ISIS out once and for all. The terror group still clings to a small sliver of land in eastern Syria.
CNN's Ben Wedeman reports from near the front lines.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[17:40:04] BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In its dying days, ISIS fights to the bitter end.
WEDEMAN: The small remote, otherwise unremarkable Syrian town, on the banks of the Euphrates River, where it is now finally cornered, reduced to a pinprick shadow of its former self, by a combination of Kurdish and Arab soldier, backed by U.S., British and French Special Forces.
WEDEMAN: And unrelenting coalition airstrikes captured in this exclusive video shot by freelance cameramen, Gabriel Shieen (ph).
WEDEMAN: It's been hard going with repeated ISIS counterattacks using their usual tactics, booby traps, suicide car bombs and human shields.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
WEDEMAN: Now, at the end, after years of war, ISIS' foes have scores to settle.
WEDEMAN: Syrian Democratic Forces commander, Abaz Sinco (ph), has fought ISIS, known here as Daj, across northern Syria.
ABAZ SINCO (ph), SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCES COMMANDER: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
WEDEMAN: "Daj is finished," he says. "We're avenging our martyrs."
WEDEMAN: It's black banner now in his hands. The battle, like the bombing, continues around the clock. These Arab
tribal fighters preparing to take open ground on the edge of town.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
WEDEMAN: The commander gives the final orders before they move out.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
WEDEMAN: An armored bulldozer designed to take the impact of improvised explosive devices leads the way and the troops follow.
WEDEMAN: Flairs illuminate the skies over Bahooz (ph).
WEDEMAN: The sounds of battle echo in the distance.
WEDEMAN: The final battle is in its final days.
Ben Wedeman, CNN, eastern Syria.
CABRERA: With me now, CNN global affairs analyst, Aaron David Miller.
Thanks so much for being here, Aaron.
Let's go back to something that we heard just before Ben Wedeman's report. Tell me what it means when a four-star general, the head of U.S. Central Command, says he disagrees with the president about pulling troops from Syria. In fact, he said he would not have advised the course of action. This is a man who is leading the war against ISIS saying this is a bad idea.
AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: The announcement to withdraw from U.S. forces in December represented an act of strategic, political and diplomatic malpractice. No coordination, no consultation. I'm not even sure that the Pentagon, at least General Votel, was actually informed of the decision. There's no question that the way in which this was done reflects badly, strengthening American adversaries and undermining its friends.
The issue of whether or not 2200 American forces in Syria serve the purposes, which frankly are varied and very confused with respect to U.S. policy in Syria, is another matter. I think, in the end, you have a willful president determined to untether the United States from wars in Afghanistan and Syria he considers unwinnable and a military committed to finish in a mission they believe they can complete. CABRERA: General Votel also told our Barbara Starr that Iran remains
the major threat to peace in the Middle East. Vice President Mike Pence visited the Auschwitz Concentration Camp yesterday. He said Iran is doing the same thing the Nazis did, promoting anti-Semitic hatred, making violent threats. Do you think that's a fair comparison?
MILLER: Anti-Semitism? Absolutely. The regime is becoming incredibly skilled propaganda-wise in promoting anti-Israeli, anti- Semitic and anti-American tropes. If Iran is Nazi Germany and the ideology the Iranians are pursuing is Nazism, then you might argue logically that the administration, just as we confronted Japan and Germany during the 30s and 40s during the Second World War, has an obligation, no, a moral imperative to essentially destroy Iran's position in the region and, in fact, get rid of the regime. And frankly, I think it would be nice to see a change in regime. But it -- in my judgment, it's impossible. And the Americans are taking on a role that will keep American forces in the Middle East and American resources bogged down for decades.
I think, morally, I understand where people are coming from, but I think the comparison, frankly, commits the United States to another complete and comprehensive war. And frankly, this president, if he's against anything, is against pouring additional resources into the Middle East.
[17:45:03] CABRERA: The vice president was talking today about taking on Iran, although not in the military sense. He's in Germany today at this global security conference. Listen to what he said a short time ago about discussions he had about Iran.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, we've had very frank discussions about the Iran nuclear deal. And here in Munich and in Poland, we called on our European allies to stop undermining U.S. sanctions against Iran, to join with us in further isolating Iran economically and diplomatically, and to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. This deal not only did not ensure that Iran would not obtain a nuclear weapon. It guaranteed that at the end of 10 years that they would have access to the world's deadliest weapons. We've made that case strongly.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: Keep in mind, we've heard from Americans, Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, that Iran is complying with that nuclear deal. President Trump, though, he pulled out of the Iran agreement. We know the Europeans, Russia and China are standing by it. How much damage is this disagreement doing to the relationships between the U.S. and all those other countries?
MILLER: I think we've created a self-inflicted wound. The Iranian nuclear agreement was far from perfect. It's a flawed but a functional accord, which our own intelligence community, IEA, most of the other intelligence services in the world believe that Iran is complying with. Iran's maligned activities in the region in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is another matter. I hear the vice president talking tough on Iran. I hear the national security adviser talking tough on Iran. I don't see the actions on the part of the United States to back up its words. You have a very risk-averse president who, frankly, Ana, given the fact that he's about to sit down with Kim Jong-Un in North Korea, another serial human rights abuser, totalitarian regime dictator, you have a president, in my judgment, who could -- would turn on a dime, if, in fact, he had an opportunity to sit down with -- he said as much -- with Iranian President Rouhani. So again, I think you've got a military more risk ready, a vice president more risk ready, a national security adviser more risk ready, and a secretary of state more risk ready. You have a very risk-averse president who's committed to moving, I think, in the other direction.
CABRERA: Aaron David Miller, good to have you with us. Really appreciate your expertise and perspective on all of this. Thank you.
MILLER: Take care, Ana. Thank you.
CABRERA: From one global hotspot to another. CNN is learning the U.S. is deploying additional Marines to its embassy in Haiti's central city of Port-au-Prince in order to ramp up security there as the U.S. tells Americans do not travel to the island nation.
Haiti has been gripped with violent protests for over a week now. Multiple people have died. Protesters are calling for the president to resign amid soaring inflation and allegations of corruption.
CNN's national correspondent, Miguel Marquez, is in Port-au-Prince.
Miguel, you're on the ground. Describe what you're seeing and the danger people are experiencing there.
MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anger and defiance is what we're seeing among many people across all parts of society here in Haiti. They are extraordinarily upset that the government seems to have done nothing, in their words, about the rampant corruption. Specifically, a fuel fund that was set up to help fund projects across the country. They say, all of that money has just been wasted. That caused nine days of utter chaos where people wanted the president to resign because in an official investigation, the president was named in some of those documents or his companies were. They believe that he is at the root of this corruption.
Now, the prime minister is going to speak tonight to the country in a couple of hours here. The president talking a couple days ago, about how he was going to have a plan to address some of the issues that the Haitian people have.
The issues they have right now are finding food, water and gasoline, and kerosene for cooking. There are lines throughout the city, particularly for water. Those basic essentials of life itself are difficult to come by until Port-au-Prince right now.
Everyone's eyes will be on the prime minister tonight to see if there's some dramatic development. If not, they will take to the streets again -- Ana?
CABRERA: Miguel Marquez, thank you for that reporting. Good to shine a light on what's happening there.
[17:49:41] Another twist in the alleged attack of actor, Jussie Smollett. Why did police release two potential suspects just hours after their arrest?
CABRERA: Another twist in the alleged attack against "Empire" star, Jussie Smollett. The two men arrested were let go and no charges were filed against them, leaving all of us with many more questions than answers.
CNN's Ryan Young has the latest.
RYAN YOUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ana, this case continues to have a lot of twist and turns. And 48 hours after arresting two men, who they call persons of interest, those men have been released. We're told both are Nigerian brothers picked up at the airport Wednesday night. Police did execute a search warrant. They got a lot of evidence from there, but since talking to them, they decided to release the two men.
Since that point, we have not heard from the actor. We reached out to the representation to try to figure out what they think about this arrest and the fact that the men were released. We have not heard back from him.
[17:55:07] Jussie Smollett called the Chicago department to say, his representative called the Chicago department. They say, on January 29, as Jussie coming back from the subway, he was attacked. He claims he had a rope put around his neck and fought back against the two attackers wearing a mask. Since then, 12 detectives have been working to try to figure out who attacked him. The image of the two persons of interests where put out about a day later. Since then, detectives were trying to track those people down. Now we know, even after being able to use Ride Share technology and taxi cab receipts, they got these two men in the area. They talked to the men and decided they were not going to press charge on them. They did allude to the fact that there's new evidence in this case. They're not sharing that with us.
It will be interesting to see if they get a chance to talk to the actor again to try to put the pieces of the story together.
CABRERA: Ryan Young, thank you.
I'm Ana Cabrera, in New York. Thank you for being with me. I'll be back in an hour from now.
My colleague, S.E. Cupp, continues our coverage of the news right after a quick break.