Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Blinken Postpones China Visit After Spy Balloon Flies Over U.S.; U.S. Unemployment Rate Hits Lowest Level Since 1969; Northeast Braces For Life-Threatening Arctic Blast. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 03, 2023 - 11:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. We do begin with breaking news. CNN has just learned that Secretary of State Tony Blinken's trip to China is off. Postponing the planned visit to Beijing after a Chinese spy balloon was found flying over the United States. The Pentagon is tracking this spy balloon, which the balloon itself is huge. It's about the size of three buses.

Officials tell CNN that President Biden has decided against shooting it down. I guess we can say at least as of now, because this really is developing. It's still not known what the Chinese are trying to do with this thing. Despite the apology issued this morning, the Chinese government now saying it's a wayward weather research balloon. Let's get to it. There's a lot of questions, even more mounting at this hour. First to Kylie Atwood, who's here with me. Kylie, what are you hearing from the State Department about Blinken's trip now being postponed?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: OK, so we just got off the phone with senior State Department officials, and what they told us is that this balloon is violating U.S. sovereignty and international law. That's why they're postponing this trip. The Secretary of State made a call earlier this morning to his counterpart, Wang Yi, and told him that the conditions aren't right for this trip to go ahead. They told us that he was supposed to leave tonight.

So this is a very last minute cancellation. They're saying it's postponed, but we don't have a date for when this is going to be rescheduled. And one question that I asked the senior State Department officials was, what are the conditions that are needed to reschedule this trip? And they aren't specifically saying that. What they're saying right now is they acknowledge that the Chinese side is saying that they regret this. But what the United States is very clear on is their own assessment that this is a Chinese spy balloon. It was over U.S. territory. It was over Montana. And that's why there are these frustrations.

And I do think it's important to note that there are other Chinese spy balloons that have been over U.S. territory in the past. And so the question is, you know, why is this different? What a senior State Department official said is the difference here is that it comes on the eve of this top diplomat's trip to China. And so it's really a question of timing here.

And they felt like they were going to have this wide ranging conversation with Chinese officials, and their agenda would have been dramatically decreased because they'd have to focus on this so much. So it wouldn't be a productive visit to make it this time.

BOLDUAN: You know, postponed and canceled I think just in this moment means exactly the same thing, right? It's changed -- it has -- right, It has changed. We'll see when a date is next set and what exactly that means. It's great to have to you. I'm so glad you're here, Kylie. Thank you.

So we do expect to learn more details about all of this at Pentagon briefing next hour. U.S. Military officials have said that they have been tracking this balloon for several days at least. Alex Marquardt has more on all of this in this side of it for us. Alex, so the military advised the President to not shoot down this balloon. Why?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Kate. They have been tracking this for several days. President Biden was briefed on this and was told by his senior most officials that it was not worth taking it down because of the potential damage that falling debris could do to both people and property on the ground. This is obviously a sophisticated intelligence balloon, but the Pentagon believes that it is not a threat to people, it is not a threat to the homeland.

And the Pentagon says that they have taken steps to limit the kind of, or the amount of intelligence that is able to gather on the ground. Of course, as Kylie was noting, it has flown over Montana, which has some of the most sensitive military and nuclear sites in the country. Now, China, of course, claiming this is a civilian craft used to study, among other things, meteorological conditions. It has very limited control, we understand, over its path.

It is carried by the winds. It does have surveillance equipment that China does indeed have some control over. But U.S. officials tell us that there is no motor, so it is floating through the air over the continental United States. And, of course, there are a lot of people questioning this decision so far by the Pentagon not to shoot this down. This was an option, were told on Wednesday when it was over a sparsely populated area in Montana airspace over Billings, Montana was shut down. F-22 -- F-22s were mobilized. Decision was made not to do this.

Of course, we're going to hear, we are already hearing a lot of calls that it should be shut down, including by Senator Marco Rubio, who's the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. But for now, Kate, this balloon continues to float over American airspace. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Kate, this is all really fascinating. Alex, thanks for that detail. Really appreciate it. And one of the surprising parts of this is that, well, China is apologizing, but suggesting the balloon is not spying on anything, rather doing scientific research. Mark Stewart has this for us. He's from Hong Kong at this hour. Marc, what else is China saying here? MARC STEWART, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Kate, you brought up a very important point. You brought up this idea of an apology. China is calling this regret. Regardless of the verbiage, this is so rare, so unprecedented. To see the Chinese government fall back on this, express some remorse, express some contrition. But as you mentioned, the government is pointing to this as perhaps some kind of accidental flaw, if you will.


We have a statement we received about two hours ago here in Asia from the Chinese foreign ministry, and there are some specific of it that are worth noting, not only does it say this was a civilian airship used for research and that it veered off course, there's a very specific phrase. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure, which is a French phrase meaning unforeseen circumstances.

Again, in bold print, it is so rare for China to make this kind of acknowledgement. Now, since this has unraveled, we have not received any response from the Chinese government. It is just past midnight here in Asia. But, Kate, this visit by Secretary Blinken was certainly well anticipated, and it was hoped that having a meeting like this would allow diplomacy if something like this, Kate, were to unravel.

BOLDUAN: Great point. Marc, thank you. Joining me now is CNN's senior law enforcement analyst Andrew McCabe. He's the former deputy director of the FBI. And Jamil Jaffer, he's founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University. Guys, thanks for being here. I think Marc Stewart used a great word, Jamil, for kind of where this is, as this whole thing is kind of unraveled. What do you think of Blinken postponing over this?

JAMIL JAFFER, EXEC. DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY INSTITUTE AT GEORGE MASON UNIV.: Look, I think it makes a solid point, which is to say, look, you can't get caught flying spy balloons over the United States without some consequences. So I think it's the right move for the secretary to postpone his trip. Not necessarily cancel it, but make clear that we're not happy that this happened.

Of course, we conduct these type of surveillance missions in Chinese -- in the Chinese neighborhood all the time. They do it to us oftentimes from outer space. But getting caught doing it is really the problem here. And that's why I think he's making this point very clearly that they violated the sovereignty in our airspace.

BOLDUAN: Yes, I want to get to the difference between a satellite spying and a balloon spying in just a second with you Jamil, because I've got some questions. But, Andy, what do you make of China's explanation about this balloon? Very clearly, the Biden administration does -- the Biden administration's assessment of this balloon is not believing what the Chinese are saying about this.

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I think that's the exactly correct way to look at the Chinese statement. I understand that it's unprecedented. They don't ever really express regret for anything. But if you look at the details of the statement, it doesn't clearly identify what this device is doing, why it's there. And the fact is, I'm pretty surprised that the statements we've heard coming out of the administration on this over the last 24 hours, have been very dismissive of the capabilities of this airship, when, in fact, it doesn't seem like anyone has any idea what's actually in that balloon.

It's also a potential intelligence collection gold mine for the United States. So, you know, I saw Secretary Esper's talk on this exact topic earlier today on CNN, and I have to say, I agree with them wholeheartedly. We are in a position to take this device down. We should do so for our own benefit and for the very clear message it says to the Chinese that this is not an acceptable act of surveillance on U.S. territory.

BOLDUAN: And, Andy, I think that's a really interesting point, because the assessment from military officials to the reporting is that the assessment and advice from the military to Biden is don't shoot it down because of the danger it could pose on the ground if you shoot it down, but you think -- that you think they should bring it down?

MCCABE: Yes, I do, Kate. I mean, look, I come at this from a very distinct perspective, right? The FBI is the lead agency for counterintelligence activity here in the United States. So that's what we do. We try to find out what the adversary is doing, what information they're trying to collect or steal, and we try to stop that. And I think we have a unique opportunity to do that here.

The first step in doing so is to understand what the adversary's capabilities are, what kind of equipment do they have, and what their intentions are. So by downing the vehicle and examining its contents, we have this opportunity to collect that sort of intelligence. We also have every right to do it. It is intruding over our territorial airspace, you could do it with the full knowledge of the Chinese if this is their vehicle and they can control it, you could demand that they bring it to the ground.

And if they're not able to do that, we, of course, have the military option to do so. So I think for many reasons, it is the prudent course, understanding the possible danger to people on the ground. But that seems like something that the U.S. Military should be able to manage.

BOLDUAN: Great point. Jamil, I noted that this balloon isn't inconspicuous, you know, to the U.S. government. It's not small by any stretch of imagination. What do you think just about, I mean, when we're talking about what does a spy balloon get you that a low Earth orbiting satellite doesn't get you? But even beyond that, do you see in this Blinken postponing the fact that the Pentagon is talking about it when there have been balloons that have floated over U.S territory in the past, could they be trying to establish some, and I'll call it a red line, but some new line of a no go zone with the Chinese government in this moment?


JAFFER: Well, I think Kate, that's really a possibility. I think it's making the point that Blinken is not going to go, that we might down it, demonstrates to them that we don't appreciate what they're doing here. It is different, you know, surveilling from outer space versus over our sovereign airspace. The two do make a difference. And, you know, getting in closer to the ground allows you to get better visibility, but it also allows you potentially to collect signals that might be closer to the ground that are making it out to outer space.

So there are benefits for the Chinese in conducting this cast surveillance, but there are obviously downsides, getting caught and having the U.S. take action. I think, Kate, Andy is right. That the collection goldmine that could come from identifying what's on this balloon, what they're collecting, the kind of capabilities they have. And by the way, there's a precedent for this, the Chinese forced down an American EP-3 spy plane in 2001, forced down in Hainan Island, held our airmen and air women hostage for 10 days and took all the surveillance equipment off of that plane and learned a lot about our capabilities.

So there's definitely a precedent here. So I think there's a good reason to really take action and get a little more aggressive than the administration is currently being. And Andy is right, the U.S. military should be able to take this thing down without causing problems on the ground.

BOLDUAN: Guys, thanks for coming on. Really appreciate it.

Now to a blockbuster jobs report out this morning, we want to turn to this developing story, the U.S. economy adding over half a million jobs in January, crushing the expectations. And unemployment hit its lowest level in decades. President Biden spoke just last hour touting the big gains. Listen to this.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And here's where we stand, the strongest job growth in history, the lowest unemployment rate in 54 years, manufacturing and rebounding at a faster rate than in the last 40 years, inflation coming down, real races -- real wages going up, but moderately going up and not going through the roof, the economy growing at a solid clip. Put simply, I would argue the Biden economic plan is working.


BOLDUAN: Stocks right now mixed at this hour after this report. Matt Egan is joining us with the very latest on this. Matt, what do you see in the numbers? Well market reaction and in the numbers that came out in this report.

MATT EGAN, CNN REPORTER: Well, Kate, this report was shockingly strong, 517,000 jobs added. That was twice what was expected here. A lot of people thought that hiring would slow down. It looks like it's actually speeding up, which is really incredible. The unemployment rate went lower 3.4 percent. So that is not just a new post COVID low. That is the lowest since May of 1969. I mean, think about that before man walked on the moon. Pretty amazing especially considering we had almost 15 percent unemployment back in spring of 2020.

Now, there was across the board strength in this report if you look at the sector breakdown, restaurants and bars added almost 100,000 jobs by themselves, government, healthcare, retail, construction, manufacturing, hotels, all of them adding jobs almost no weakness. Now, normally this kind of report would raise fears of an overheating jobs market that would worsen inflation. But there were actually some encouraging signs on that front wage at growth that slowed down. It's still too hot, but it is cooling off. Also, the supply of workers increased.

Now, if anything though, these numbers were so strong that some economists don't totally believe them. Moody's economist Mark Zandi, he told me he thinks that maybe COVID related issue or weather have overstated the jobs growth. But he said that anything about this report I mean, there's no reason to think that there'd be a recession right now or anytime soon. These numbers are too strong.

BOLDUAN: And adding to still confusing and what it means for the economy this coming year. Thank you.

EGAN: Thanks Kate.


BOLDUAN: Parts of the country are getting hit with dangerously cold temperatures, yes, even for winter. What people should be looking out for this weekend that is next.


BOLDUAN: Tens of millions of people across the Northeast are bracing, bracing for dangerously cold temperatures today and this weekend. Some places should see wind chills, could see wind chills as low as 100 degrees below zero. Athena Jones is in Boston and joining us now. Athena, what are they preparing for there?

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Kate. Well, luckily, it's not 100 degrees below zero here in Boston. Right now, it's about zero, maybe negative one. The temperatures are going to fall steadily throughout the day. We're looking at maybe five or six degrees around 6:00 p.m., and by around 11:00 p.m., negative seven. And so these are dangerously cold temperatures. These temperatures themselves could set records. And that's not even considering the wind chill, which is so dangerous here in Boston. It could get down to around negative 21 degrees tonight, as high as negative, in the negative 30.

So these are extremely cold, extremely dangerous temperatures. And that is why the city, the mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu, has declared a cold weather emergency, urging everyone to stay inside as much as possible. If you do go outside to layer up, Boston public schools are closed so that children don't have to commute in this cold weather, you know, walking long distances, waiting at bus stops. They're also opening warming centers all over. They're already open all over the city so that people will have a place to go.


One National Weather Service meteorologist warned us that it's not just the temperatures, it's not just the wind chills, it's also the wind gusts themselves, which could really ramp up overnight. We're talking about 35, 50 miles per hour wind gusts, and those could themselves lead to power outages. So it's obviously very dangerous to not have any heat in these kinds of temperatures. And so that is why there are warming centers available for folks out here. Kate?

BOLDUAN: When negative one is actually sounds warm relative to where it's going to go, you know that's saying something. Thank you so much, Athena. Let's get over to Chad Myers now, who's tracking all of this for us. I mean, Chad, talk to me about these temps and how long this is going to last.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It's going to last 36 to 48 hours, which is short compared to a big cold polar vortex in the middle part of the country. But right now, it's 84 degrees below zero with the wind chill here at Mount Washington, hard to even see what that is. But that's 182 degrees below the temperature of your body. That's where we're talking.

This is where we're talking about. Treat this as a blizzard. Get to where you want to be for the next 48 hours and don't plan on leaving. If you get stuck out here and your car dies or whatever might happen, you literally are putting your life in danger. This is a go now stay there kind of storm. Pets, people and property, temperatures are already falling. We're really seeing the gust.

That one gust there on Mount Washington was 98 miles per hour. Now, that's the highest part in the Northeast, but we are going to see those winds continue across the Northeast all day today, all day tomorrow. Wind chills will be well below zero everywhere from Pennsylvania all the way up even in toward Maine, moving you ahead to the morning. These are the coldest parts of the day.

Finally, though, by Sunday, we warm up some, Kate, but it will take a while. This is dangerous for the pets, the horses, the cattle, the farms, the orchards. We're going to lose a lot of things. I hope we don't lose too many lives. This is really bad.

KOTB: Yes. Chad, thank you so much.

So ahead for us, a vote one member of Congress that could have a big impact on the entire chamber. A fellow Democrat who has spoken out about Ilhan Omar's controversial comments in the past joins us next.



BOLDUAN: It was a vote about one member of Congress and one committee assignment, but the party line vote ousting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from Foreign Affairs could speak to something bigger, though, in that chamber. Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill. He joins us now. Manu, this in part has to do with Ilhan Omar's controversial comments about Israel in the past, but it also speaks very directly to the current dynamics on Capitol Hill. What are you hearing about this?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, very partisan breakdown of this vote on the House floor, Democrats accusing very pointedly Republicans of taking action against a minority member, an immigrant coming here and sitting on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Republicans who defended this pushing back, contending that her anti submitted comments, comments that were criticized on both sides of the aisle, were the reason why she should be removed from that, even though she had later apologized for that.

But there were some Republicans who were uneasy about this, several of them didn't want to cast this vote, didn't want this to be one of the first major votes of the new Republican controlled House, even though they ultimately voted for it.


RAJU: I just want to know how, you know, you feel about this being one of the first major actions of the new Republican majority to kick Ilhan Omar off the committee.

REP. NANCY MACE (R-SC): Well, certainly I'm concerned, representing a swing district that we're distracted from the real issues facing Americans who are struggling, talking about inflation.

REP. TONY GONZALES (R-TX): You know, if we start -- if we go down this road and we start kicking people off for X, Y, or Z, where does it stop? Reality, it won't stop. And then we will spend all our energy, all our time doing things like this and not what the American public put House Republicans in the majority to do.


RAJU: Now, that first lawmaker Congresswoman Nancy Mace indicated that she ultimately supported this because Kevin McCarthy, the speaker, agreed to create a new process going forward, a bipartisan process to eject members from committees. And so she said that she ultimately voted for it, although she did it reluctantly. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes, Manu thank you.

Joining me now for more on this is Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. He's co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus. Thanks for being here, Congressman.


BOLDUAN: You've had -- I'm going to describe it as a complicated relationship with the Congresswoman over her past comments about Israel. You have been outspoken about these past comments, but you seemed to be in a different place now. What do you make of the vote taking her off of Foreign Affairs?


GOTTHEIMER: Well, first of all, I should say that I don't think it's appropriate to kick any member off their committee for having a different view. And obviously, Representative Omar and I have had pointed exchanges and I've spoken out strongly when I've disagreed with what she said or position she's taken.