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The Lead with Jake Tapper

State Department: Up to 1,500 Americans Still May Need Evacuation; U.S. Con Concerned About Possible ISIS-K Attacks On Kabul Airport Crowds; Pelosi And Other Lawmakers Criticize Unauthorized Afghanistan Trip By Two Members Of Congress; Delta Airlines To Charge Unvaccinated Employees $200 A Month. COVID Rising; California Recall; Seven States Under Air Quality Alerts as Wildfires Ravage Western U.S. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired August 25, 2021 - 16:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Does the Biden administration know how many Americans, including legal residents, need to be rescued?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Crowds are still gathered at the Kabul airport racing to get out and only a few days left. And now there's a new fear that ISIS-K might attack.

The number of people in the hospital for COVID has tripled over the past month in the United States, reaching a level not seen since last deadly winter.

Plus, California's Governor Gavin Newsom facing a tough recall battle. Why even Democrats who voted for him are now telling CNN they're fed up.


TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with our world lead. The clock is ticking in Afghanistan as the evacuation effort enters its final week today. A source told me that the State Department briefed congressional staffers saying that 4,100 Americans are still actively trying to get out of Afghanistan. But hours later after we and others reported that number, the State Department took it back and claimed that the briefer misspoke.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken then said it's actually only 500 Americans who definitively need rescuing. And there are an additional 1,000 who may or may not need rescuing. And he said that number remains fluid. When asked, Blinken acknowledged that he is only talking about U.S. citizens, not including green card holders, legal permanent residents of the United States.

So the real number, if you include legal permanent residents, well, that remains a mystery. So far, no American troops and no American citizens have been killed since this all began according to the Pentagon, which is good news, though an unknown number of Afghans have been killed by both the Taliban and in the tragic crush at the airport.

In the last 11 days, more than 82,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan. And while these herculean efforts by the pentagon have been historic, the window is narrowing for those remaining Americans and Afghans who assisted in the war. The Taliban's grip on the Kabul airport is tightening, our sources say. And the Taliban says they're, quote, not allowing the evacuation of Afghans anymore, unquote.

The Taliban spokesman also told working women to stay home, lest they suffer the brutality of his fellow Taliban militants before such militants have been, quote, trained.

Still, President Biden is sticking to his deadline just six days from now despite pleas from top U.S. allies and members of both parties in Congress.

Let's go straight to CNN's Kaitlan Collins live for us from the White House.

And, Kaitlan, today, Secretary of State Blinken said there are only about 1,500 Americans in Afghanistan who may need rescuing. They're not including legal residents. I'm not sure why. But, either way, how does the Biden administration plan to get them out?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, they say they're in aggressive communication with the ones who remain there trying to get in touch with them about what their intentions are, if they want to stay, if they want to leave, how they're going to leave, if that is the case.

And it' notable in and of itself, Jake, that we are hearing the secretary of state come out and provide these hard numbers because the White House and administration officials have said for the last several days that the situation is so fluid they wanted to leave it at just several thousand have gotten out so far. So this is really our first specific look at this picture of how many Americans have gotten out and how many remain.

And I know you just went over some of those numbers. But I just want to remind people one more time what the secretary of state just said, which is that about ten days ago, 11 days ago when this evacuation was started in earnest, they believe there were about 6,000 Americans who were there in Afghanistan that were actively seeking to get out. So far, they've gotten about 4,500 of them out. The secretary of state said that they've given out 500 specific instructions because that did been the deal they had been waiting on specific instructions of which gate to come to, what time to come to the Kabul airport, given the chaotic situation outside. And he said for those remaining 1,000 that they have not given those

specific instructions to, that they are aggressively contacting them about what their intentions are. Now, the secretary of state reiterated that promise from President Biden to bring every American who wants to come home, home by August 31st. But he said that deadline is not a hard deadline for Americans. And if they want to try to get out after that, he said they are going to work with them to do so.

But, Jake, that situation becomes a lot dicier after the 31st because that is when the airport there in Kabul, which is currently being controlled by the U.S. military, is then going to be in the hands of the Taliban. And officials have made clear throughout the day there is no clear plan for what is happening to that airport after this. Whether or not regional powers try to help do air traffic control, what that's going to look like after that.

So I do think it's going to be a lot harder for the U.S. to actually get Americans out once this deadline has passed. And I think the White House realizes that.


And that's why they've been saying if you know of anyone who is having an issue getting out, let us know. One thing we should note that the secretary of state said, which is that they have gotten private commitments from the Taliban to allow and provide safe passage for not only Americans but also third-country nationals and Afghan allies who want to get out of the country past the 31st. That is not exactly what we've always heard from the Taliban publicly, Jake, but of course, a lot of that really does remain to be seen how that's going to be handled.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much. CNN is also learning that the Biden administration is deeply concerned about planned attacks against crowds at the Kabul airport by terrorists. The U.S. believes specifically the terrorist group ISIS-K wants to create mayhem.

CNN's Jim Sciutto has this reporting and he joins us now.

Jim, obviously this is a threat they're taking very seriously.


I'm told by a defense official that there's a very specific intel stream here, as you know with intelligence with threats like this they look for something that's credible and specific. And this is both.

Multiple pieces of intelligence specific to both planning, coordination, and target. The target being those crowds that we're seeing amassing outside the airport. The intention, it appears of this group ISIS-K, as it's known, or Islamic States Khurasan, to create mayhem at the airport, to kill as many as possible, create mayhem there, and disrupt the attempts of Afghans seeking to get out of the country. It's an interesting case here that you have both the U.S. and the

Taliban, in effect, who want to prevent this kind of attack. There's a battle within Afghanistan between the Taliban and this group going on right now and probably for much time to come.

TAPPER: Probably some of our viewers, this is probably the first time they've heard of ISIS-K. What can you tell us about them?

SCIUTTO: This is an offshoot of the Taliban, broke away from the Pakistani Taliban a number of years ago. That often happens. I mean, you can call them a more radical group, although hard to imagine how you get more radical than ISIS, but they are aggressive and they have enormous capability. And this is a sign of what Afghanistan is becoming now and will become even more so after the U.S. withdrawal, which is a giant magnet for extremists from across the world. There are reports of thousands of fighters flying in from all around the country as far as Xingjian (ph), as far as the former Soviet states, as far as the Middle East.

Afghanistan is the new training ground, the new recruitment ground for extremists around the world. And of course concern for the U.S. as we pull out, how does the U.S. manage that terror threat going forward?

TAPPER: And do any of these groups pose a threat to the U.S. homeland as opposed to the threat that they just pose each other within Afghanistan?

SCIUTTO: Well, intention yes. The current assessment is that they don't have the capability, but that is the concern overtime. But, by the way, if you could do without being under the watchful eye of the U.S., that allows capability to threaten people outside the country, including the U.S.

TAPPER: Jim Sciutto, thanks so much.

Today, Pentagon officials said about 19,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul over the past 24 hours.

But as CNN's Oren Liebermann reports for us now, there is growing confusion about who the Taliban are letting through their checkpoints on their way to the airport.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: In the span of ten days, the U.S. and its allies have moved merely nearly the equivalent of a packed giant stadium out of Afghanistan, the flights leaving Kabul international airport every 39 minutes.

The Biden administration is still working to keep its solemn promise to evacuate every American who wants out.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: We're aggressively reaching out to them multiple times a day through multiple channels of communication. LIEBERMANN: Secretary of State Tony Blinken said it was difficult to

track in real time every American in Afghanistan. But that the number was lower than originally believed.

BLINKEN: There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave to do so, along with the many Afghans who have stood by us over these many years and want to leave and have been unable.

LIEBERMANN: The Taliban now imposing even tighter restrictions on Afghanistan, one day after warning it wouldn't allow Afghans to reach the airport. Now, the Taliban working women to stay at home until security is in place for them.

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID, TALIBAN SPOKESPERSON: We want to make sure women are not treated in a disrespectful way or God forbid hurt. So we would like them to stay at home until security is at place for them in the offices.

LIEBERMANN: The founder of an Afghan girls' school burning records for her students' protection. She fled with her students to Rwanda.

Taliban checkpoints limiting movement in Kabul and beyond. In the crowds outside the airport, one Afghan woman tried about a dozen times to get through so she could join her husband in the United States, he told CNN's Kylie Atwood. Finally, she dressed her baby in yellow and sent a photo to marines who were able to spot the baby in the crowd. The family made it in.

On Tuesday, the first U.S. troops begin leaving Afghanistan, a mix of headquarters staff and maintenance no longer required in Kabul.

JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Those last couple of days, we will begin to prioritize military capabilities and military resources to move out.


LIBERMANN: For now, the mission remains focused on the evacuation, with the time raising down, it will soon transition to the withdrawal of U.S. forces and equipment, before the August 31st deadline.


LIEBERMANN (on camera): Part of the challenge in removing and evacuating what might be up to 1,500 U.S. citizens still in Afghanistan, other than, of course, the crunch of the time line and the security around the whole situation is where are they? It's one thing if they're all in Kabul that becomes relatively easy. And I emphasize relatively.

But if they're spread throughout the country, Kandahar, Herat, this becomes infinitely more complex and difficult with just days to go here -- Jake.

TAPPER: Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon, thanks so much. Two congressmen travel in secret to Afghanistan during desperate

evacuations. Were they providing necessary oversight, or are they showboating?

And get vaccinated or pay up. The latest way corporate America is pushing employees to get their coronavirus shots.

Stay with us.




REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We didn't want anybody to think this is a good idea and that they should try to follow suit.


TAPPER: Welcome back in our world lead.

That was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi clearly condemning the trip that Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton and Republican Congressman Peter Meijer took to Afghanistan. The two Iraq war veterans caught both House leadership and the White House by surprise, raising questions about what resources may have been pulled from the evacuation efforts.

Here to discuss is Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. He's a former assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs under President George W. Bush.

There's a lot of controversy and a lot of hand-ringing in the White House and the State Department and Congress about what these two congressmen did. They point out that this is frantic evacuation effort going on, this is a distraction. What did you think?

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.), U.S. ARMY: I don't know what the history is all about. The commander on the ground, I'm sure he had a couple of minutes to talk to the congressmen. They were on the military side of HKIA. So the security's already taken care of.

And, candidly, I think the troops probably appreciated a couple congressmen walking around patting them on the back and letting them know that America cares.

TAPPER: And there is an argument -- it's not the one that's prevalent in the newspapers today. But there is an argument I've seen of thank God somebody in the legislative branch is doing something to provide oversight of the executive branch.

KIMMITT: Right. The press doesn't seem to have a lot of insight on what's going on inside the airport. Congress does have an oversight responsibility. You've got people on the ground who understand based on their ex-military service. So, again, I think there is some benefit to this and the condemnation and histrionics, I don't get it.

TAPPER: So earlier today, a briefer from the State Department told congressional staff that they've evacuated 4,500 Americans so far, but about 4,100 Americans remain in Afghanistan wanting to get out. Then the State Department said, no, that number's wrong, the briefer misspoke. The briefer was an assistant secretary of state.

But be that as it may, then Blinken came out and said it's actually 500 American citizens definitely want to get out. There are about a thousand they're trying to ascertain if it's true or not. When pressed, Blinken said those are just American citizens, not permanent legal residents, which, as you know, have just as much of a right to get on one of these planes holding up their status.

KIMMITT: Yeah. I think that Secretary Blinken did a good job trying to lay out why this is so difficult to get the number on the ground. But they've also constrained their measure of success to American citizens and SIVs. I don't know what they mean by vulnerable Afghans because there are hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Afghans.

But I think it's just indicative of how difficult it is to get a number on how many American citizens and others either are in the SIV process, American citizens that may be permanent residents of the United States, but that came from Afghanistan and want to be with family. So, in that regard, I think Secretary Blinken did a good job trying to lay out how difficult this is to really get his arms around a number.

TAPPER: Yeah, without question, it's very complicated. You've been involved on an individual level trying to get people with special immigrant visas out of the country. It's difficult, right? I mean, you can't just walk up to the gate and say here's my paperwork, the Taliban are not letting a lot of them through when they get there because all the chaos at the airport. A lot of people in the military who are not permitted to leave the perimeter can't even see them. They don't even know what to do. It's a very chaotic process.

KIMMITT: Yeah. And I think there is an overriding concern about security as well. Everybody can have a piece of paper. You don't know if it's real. You let somebody in that could actually be a potential security threat. First time that happens, this is going to turn topsy.

TAPPER: Well, that's the other thing that I think people don't understand because I do hear. There are two arguments here. President Biden and others say I don't want one more American service member to be killed in Afghanistan period. For that reason there are some special operators doing secret things. But generally speaking, the U.S. troops are staying within the confines of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, within the perimeter.

There are others who say, what's our military for if not going and rescuing hundreds of thousands of Americans and special immigrant visa holders, et cetera? They should be securing safe passage, et cetera.

But there is a very real terrorist threat.

KIMMITT: Well, there is a real terrorist threat but also we are negotiating with a terrorist organization, which is the Taliban.

TAPPER: Although not declared officially a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

KIMMITT: But by the U.N.


KIMMITT: The U.N. has declared them a terrorist organization.

TAPPER: Oh, yeah, they're terrorists, no question.

KIMMITT: They're terrorists, no question.

And we are at their -- we are beholden to them to let these citizens, American citizens and SIV holders come into the airport.


So you can imagine if we started running around with Humvees around the city they would shut that down completely. This is the danger of negotiating with terrorists.

TAPPER: Yeah. I mean, if you were advising Biden, would you say have the troops go beyond the perimeter to help rescue Americans even knowing that that could expose them to an attack from the Taliban or ISIS Khurasan?

KIMMITT: Well, after the 31st of August, he's going to have to do that.

TAPPER: He's going to have to send people in there.

KIMMITT: He's going to have to send people, whether they're special operators. Secretary Blinken said this is going to be handled through diplomatic measures. But that diplomacy always says that you have a trusted negotiating partner. And anybody that trusts the Taliban will be sorely disappointed.

TAPPER: Right, and there's a lot of stuff that's going on that nobody's talking about in terms of U.S. service members saving people.

KIMMITT: Exactly.

TAPPER: All right, General. Thank you so much. Good to see you. Appreciate it.

It's not quite a mandate. The new way that one major company is encouraging its employees to get the COVID vaccine, that's next.



TAPPER: Three important headlines in our health lead today. One, Delta Airlines announced that it will impose a $200 monthly surcharge on the health insurance of unvaccinated Delta employees.

Also today, Moderna finished its paperwork formally asking the FDA to make its COVID vaccine the next one fully approved, not just emergency use. And, third, Johnson & Johnson which makes the only single-dose vaccine in the U.S., is testing a single-dose booster and says so far the results are strong.

As CNN's Nick Watt reports for us, these vaccine headlines come as a troubling trend emerges in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths.


NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): More than a million new confirmed COVID cases in the U.S. this past week, the most of any country on Earth and more than a thousand people are dying every day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The problem is people that are not vaccinated.

WATT: A hundred thousand Americans now in the hospital fighting this virus, first time since January.

GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON (R), ARKANSAS: I was informed that our ICU beds for COVID patients are full in Arkansas right now.

WATT: In Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Oregon, the National Guard now being deployed to hospitals. More than 180,000 cases reported in one week in kids, a huge spike.

DR. DAVID KIMBERLIN, PROFESSOR OF PEDIATRIC INFECTIOUS DISEASES, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA AT BIRMINGHAM: We're seeing many more children admitted who are very sick from this than we've seen at any point.

DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Good news here is a year in, we actually know how to get kids back to school safely.

WATT: Take Los Angeles, masks all around and more. First week of school, fewer than 2,000 confirmed cases among more than half a million students and staff. But, remember, younger kids still can't get vaccinated.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D), NEW YORK CITY: Here's the thing I care about the most and the thing we need the most. We need an accelerated focused effort at the federal level to get the vaccination ready for 5 to 11-year-olds.

WATT: Now, Delta Airlines won't mandate vaccination for employees, but just announced --

ED BASTIAN, CEO, DELTA AIR LINES: Starting November the 1st, we're going to implement an insurance surcharge such that if you're not vaccinated at that point, we're going to add a $200 monthly premium surcharge onto your health insurance cost.

WATT: Just in, early trial data from Johnson & Johnson shows a booster shot of its vaccine significantly upped those protective antibodies.

JHA: What I would expect that to mean is far fewer breakthrough infections if you've gotten that second shot.

WATT: Meantime, the number of people getting their first vaccine shot every day is up 70 percent in a month.


WATT (on camera): Now, Jake, you mentioned that Moderna has now applied for full approval of its vaccine from the FDA. Pfizer of course already has that full approval, got it earlier this week. Pfizer has now applied for approval for a third booster dose. And according to the White House, the plan is likely to be that you will get that eight months after your second dose pending, of course, the green light from the FDA -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Nick Watt, thank you so much.

Let's bring in Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine at George Washington University Medical Center here in D.C.

Let's talk about Moderna asking the FDA to consider its vaccine for full official approval, not just emergency use authorization. Not to mention Pfizer asking the FDA ultimately for approval for the third booster shot.

Do you think these steps will help win over vaccine skeptics one way or another?

DR. JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: I think they're helpful. Polls suggest that of the folks that have yet to be vaccinated, about a third might be swayed by full approval. It takes away some of the sort of faux narrative that suggests that these are just experimental vaccines.

So, I think every -- each one of these steps is important. More importantly, it really does open up for private entities, corporations, local governments to mandate vaccines without sort of the notion that you're trying to mandate a vaccine that's not fully approved. I think that's really the big impact for these full FDA approvals.

TAPPER: And Delta Air Lines, of course, is doing, instead of mandating it, they're going to penalize people who don't get vaccinated.

Starting November 1, the airline is going to charge their unvaccinated employees enrolled in their health care plan an additional $200 a month. The airline says -- quote -- "The average hospital stay for COVID-19 has cost Delta $50,000 per person. This surcharge will be necessary to address the financial risk the decision to not vaccinate is creating for our company."

We should note, I mean, obviously, the decision to not get vaccinated, in addition to the horrible health ramifications and people dying... DR. JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Right.

TAPPER: ... it is costing the United States a lot more. But you think the surcharge approach doesn't go far enough.

REINER: No, it's not enough.

Look, their big competitor, United Airlines, has mandated that all employees become vaccinated. Delta has mandated that new employees must be vaccinated. So what's the difference between a new employee and an employee that's worked for them for 10 years?

The virus doesn't know. The virus doesn't care. Delta has the opportunity to -- and the power to mandate vaccines for all 75,000 of their employees. The CEO said that 91 percent of pilots are vaccinated and somewhere about 80 percent of flight attendants.

Well, that's just not good enough. And I think if you're traveling on an on an airplane in an enclosed metal tube for several hours, you need to know that the airline is doing everything they can to promote your safety.

Look, I think the United States should mandate vaccines for all air travelers, the same way Canada has done. But, certainly, the airlines themselves should mandate that all employees are vaccinated.

TAPPER: Well, you praise our mayor here in Washington, Muriel Bowser, she required all health care workers in Washington, D.C., to get vaccinated.


TAPPER: She hasn't done that for all government workers, all teachers, all police. Should she?

REINER: Absolutely.

So, look, in February, I stood up for teachers to suggest that we should prioritize their vaccinations to protect them in the classrooms. But if you're a teacher of, let's say, sixth grade kids, all the kids in your class are unvaccinated -- or fifth grade kids. Every single kid is vulnerable.

Shouldn't the teacher reassure the parents by basically magnifying this concept that they are doing everything that they can to protect the kids under their charge? Every teacher in the United States should be vaccinated. And the unions need to embrace that as well.

TAPPER: And new numbers show COVID cases in children sharply up.

A report last week showed about 30,000 cases a week near the end of July. Now that number is four times higher, 180,000. Do you think that that's because of the return to school? Because of the Delta variant? What do you think it is?

REINER: All the above. Look, in the last week, cases have been up 48 percent in kids. Kids now represent 22 percent of all new infections. So to use the forest fire analogy, they are the fuel for this, for this virus. The unvaccinated are the drybrush.

And no child under the age of 12 is vaccinated. We have only managed to vaccinate about a third of the kids between 12 and 15, about 44 percent of the kids from 15 to 17. Not good enough.

So the virus is raging in all of these children who are unvaccinated, which is why, in schools, mask mandates are so important. They have no other protection. They're just -- they're literally sitting ducks.

TAPPER: All right, Dr. Jonathan Reiner, thank you so much. Good to see you, as always.

REINER: My pleasure.

TAPPER: If California were a country, it would have the fifth largest economy in the entire world. And now its leader, its governor, is in serious danger.

The cascade of emergencies that got him here -- that's next.



TAPPER: In our politics lead: President Biden plans to campaign for California's Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom in his contentious recall election, the White House just announced

Newsom may have once thought the California recall election would be a nonissue, given his landslide win in 2018 and given the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in California by five million.

But with an uptick in homelessness, and the wildfires, and the drought, and increased crime, and increased cost of living, and the pandemic, even some Democrats in California say they are frustrated with Newsom's leadership.

And, as CNN's Kyung Lah reports, that growing frustration within the Democratic Party could lead to Newsom losing his job as governor.


KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: How are you registered politically?



CHERRYL WEAVER, REGISTERED DEMOCRAT: Lifelong Democrat. LAH (voice-over): You would think rejecting the recall of Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom would be a no brainer for these three Los Angeles voters. But it's not.

WEAVER: I have to say I'm really leaning very heavily towards the recall.

LAH (on camera): To recalling the governor?


I'm disappointed in the Democratic Party in general.

LAH (voice-over): Disappointed with the party in control with a supermajority of California state government, while problems grow, wildfires, drought, crime, cost of living, but the worst for them, homelessness, which has expanded through the pandemic now in neighborhoods across middle-class Los Angeles, including their own.

HELSETH: It's like, let me work, let me pay my taxes, but provide me with safety and not be accosted by two homeless people within the matter of 15 minutes.

LAH (on camera): Is this Governor Newsom's fault?

SANDOVAL: I think, I mean, technically -- how can I even answer that? He's the leader. It's -- everything starts from the top, and it goes down.


GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM (D-CA): God bless you. And the best is yet to come.

LAH (voice-over): These women were part of the more than 60 percent of voters who resoundingly elected Newsom in 2018.

WEAVER: In my mind, when he was running, there was nobody else in the world that would have been better.

And, instead, it's become politics.

LAH: After an exhausting year crisis after California crisis, the once popular governor now fights for his job.

His battle cry?

NEWSOM: Vote no on this Republican-backed recall.

LAH: Blaming Republicans.

NEWSOM: Everybody backing Trump and the Republican Party sees an opportunity.

LAH: And reminding Democrats they outnumber Republicans 2-1 in the states.

NEWSOM: We turn on our base, we're going to win, unquestionably. It's not a persuasion campaign. People are locked in.

LAH: But all politics is local, says Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo, who warns there are trouble signs for his party.

(on camera): Do you think they're nervous, based on what you're seeing?

MICHAEL TRUJILLO, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I'm nervous. So they're definitely probably 100 times more nervous. Homelessness is -- I have never seen an issue like this so potent. It's making progressive voters moderate, because they're so upset.

NARRATOR: This is California.

LAH (voice-over): It's why you're seeing Republican challengers hammering Newsom on homelessness and cost of living.

LARRY ELDER (R), CALIFORNIA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: I was born here when the country was not nearly as affluent as is right now. And now we have a homeless problem? Are you kidding me?

LAH (on camera): How will it make you feel if a Republican is elected?


LAH (voice-over): Unwilling to vote for a Republican, but willing to risk sending a message to their party.

(on camera): Do you feel that Gavin Newsom is listening to you?

HELSETH: That's a good question.


LAH: So, that window of those women trying to figure out if they're going to vote yes or no on the recall, that window is closing, because this election is under way.

There -- here in Los Angeles County, there are some 400 drop boxes spread out across the county. So, by all intents and purposes, Jake, this is happening as we speak. The deadline is September 14. That is officially Election Day, the last time they can vote in person.

As far as when these disgruntled Democrats say they might vote, they might vote. They might send in the ballots or wait until the very end -- Jake.


Kyung Lah, thank you so much.

CNN's political director, David Chalian, joins me now.

David, how -- first of all, let me just start with the fact that this system in California is so screwy. It's a two-question ballot. DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right.

TAPPER: The first question, do you want to recall Governor Newsom? Second question -- yes or no? Who do you want to replace him with?

So, theoretically, Gavin Newsom could get 49.9 percent of the vote and lose question one. And then one of these trolls who's running for office could win, could get -- come in first with 15 percent of the vote and replace the guy with almost 50 percent.

CHALIAN: Yes, maybe even less, because there are 46 candidates on question two on the ballot. So just imagine how thinly the electorate can be sliced if it gets to a question two.

And this is why Newsom's strategy all along has been just vote no. Like, you don't have to pay attention to the question two at all. Just vote no on the recall.

Jake, what you heard there in Kyung's piece about the disgruntled Democrats, that's one potential problem for Newsom, but it's not what they think their biggest problem is. Talking to some Democratic strategist out there today working on the recall, the concern is the biggest problem is the not voting, just the not being dialed in, that Democratic voters are not the most reliable sort of non-regular voters.

This is happening on a Tuesday in the middle of September. It's a recall campaign. There's nothing else on the ballot. I mean, that's why their first ad out of the box was like Democratic superstar Elizabeth Warren trying to like grab the Democratic electorate in California by the lapels saying, hey, guys, this is happening, it's September 14, you got to mail in your ballot.


And, I mean, how are these Democratic -- disgruntled Democrats going to feel if they wake up and Larry Elder is their governor?

CHALIAN: This is why now, in addition to sort of sounding the alarm for Democrats, the Newsom effort right now is focused on contracting with Larry Elder.

The advertising they're doing right now is a vaccine contrast, tying Larry Elder as closely as possible to people who are opposed to the vaccine, to being a total Trump supporter, supporting the election lie.

They're trying to make him, because he is the front-runner for the alternative right now, into a Trump acolyte. I just want to remind you...

TAPPER: He is a Trump acolyte.

CHALIAN: And Donald Trump not so popular in California. He didn't even crack 35 percent last year.

TAPPER: Right.

CHALIAN: He lost to Joe Biden by nearly 30 points.

So, it is, hey, there's an election, you got to mail in your ballot, wake up, Democrats. And then there's, by the way, let me scare you about the alternative.

TAPPER: Well, a lot of people turned out in California to vote because they hated Donald Trump, right? That probably -- I don't have the polling information, but perhaps that was more of a motivator even...


CHALIAN: It certainly was a big motivator.

TAPPER: ... than enthusiasm for Joe -- for President Biden.

Will President Biden campaigning for Newsom help?

CHALIAN: It could. I mean, Kamala Harris, the vice president, is going out there on Friday, clearly bringing in the former California senator and trying to rally the troops. And I'm sure Biden will be out there also. He already has put out a message of support, so the Newsom team thinks than can be helpful.

Anything about rallying the base will be key here. There's no doubt about that. But it's very early, but I will say in the ballots that have been returned according to some of the trackers that are out there, 57 percent of them or so are Democratic ballots right now.

So, right now, the registration advantage you talked about earlier is playing to Newsom's advantage in the ballot's return, but it is way early and they are very concerned about maintaining enthusiasm. The one thing that exists in all the polling, the enthusiasm about this is on the Republican side. It's on the recall Newsom side. So they've got to build that enthusiasm among Democrats.

TAPPER: Yeah, the first major political story I covered in 2003 was the recall in California.

CHALIAN: I covered it, too.

TAPPER: Although -- right, although Larry Elder is not Arnold Schwarzenegger.


TAPPER: We should point out.

David Chalian, thank you so much. Appreciate it.


TAPPER: Right now in California, tens of thousands told to get out. Hundreds of homes wiped out. And the effects of these devastating wildfires stretch several states. We're going to go live on the ground there next. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Turning to our "Earth Matters" series, in our national lead, there are so many fires burning in the United States right now, seven states are under air quality alerts. The Caldor Fire, one of the nation's largest active wildfires is currently devastating northern California with residents there now experiencing the worst air quality in the country.

And as CNN's Dan Simon reports from just west of South Lake Tahoe, officials are increasingly worried about where the fire will move in the coming days as it approaches more densely populated areas.


GARY VICENTE, FIRE EVACUEE: I just grabbed my dog, ripped my phone out of the wall and ran out the door. I was out of there within 10 minutes.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's been a week now since Gary Vicente had to quickly leave his home in northern California. The Caldor Fire destroyed nearly the entire town of Grizzly Flats, and now there is fear the worst is yet to come, leaving thousands of evacuees in limbo. The fire bearing down on the iconic Lake Tahoe area, a popular tourist haven known for its stunning mountains and emerald blue waters. Today, it's obscured by smoke.

CAPTAIN KEITH WADE, CALIFORNIA FIRE PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER: This fire has shown the potential with the terrain and the weather we've been experiencing and the fuel load from the drought that it has almost a mind and a behavior of its own.

SIMON: The Caldor Fire has scorched more than 126,000 acres and leveled at least 461 single homes in less than two weeks. The urgency to stop it is so great that California's forestry fire chief says it's become the number one fire-fighting priority in the nation.

VICENTE: The hardest thing has just been the depression, not knowing whether I was going to lose everything or not.

SIMON: Gary and dozens of other evacuees are taking refuge in a Walmart parking lot.

Where are you sleeping at night?

VICENTE: I'm sleeping in the bed of my pickup truck, and the local community's been fantastic. Somebody came by and donated an air mattress so I don't have to have the ridges grinding against my back.

SIMON: At least nine large fires are burning in California, forcing the evacuation of more than 37,000 people.

Experts say the devastation brought on by an historic drought driven by climate change.

President Biden on Tuesday approving Governor Gavin Newsom's request for a presidential disaster declaration. Ninety-two large wildfires are burning across the U.S. seven states under air quality alerts. In northern California, all these dots of purple showing where the air is hazardous to breathe.

Over the state line in nearby Reno, the city recorded its all-time worst level. People advised to stay indoors. Schools canceled.

CRAIG PETERSEN, WASHOE COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT: Some of the symptoms are going to be burning, watery eyes, scratchy throat, burning chest.


SIMON (on camera): And as far as the air quality is concerned, I can tell you firsthand, Jake, it's been absolutely terrible. We've seen index levels literally fly off the charts. And it's supposed to be this way at least through the end of the week.

Now, in terms of the Caldor Fire itself, just 11 percent containment at this point, 17,000 structures remain threatened -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Dan Simon, thank you so much.

So, how many Americans and permanent U.S. legal residents still are trying to get out of Afghanistan? The moving numbers, next.



TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

This hour, the information millions of Americans have been waiting for, new data on the second shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That's ahead.

Plus, a massive investigation the January 6th Select Committee demanding information from Donald Trump's time in the White House, including any conversations in those awful last few post-election months about anyone trying to invoke the 25th Amendment to forcibly remove Trump from office.

And leading this hour, the looming deadline, a mad rush to get U.S. troops, Americans and Afghan allies out of Afghanistan in just six days. More than 80,000 people have been evacuated in the last 11 days.

The State Department told congressional staff earlier today there are still 4,100 Americans left trying to get out of Afghanistan. Then after we reported that number, the State Department said that the briefer had been incorrect.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said they're in contact with only 500 American citizens who remain needing rescue. And there are remain 1,000 that may or may not need rescuing. He underlined that the number is fluid. Blinken then was asked if this is just American citizens, not green card holders, legal U.S. residents. He said, yes, it was.

And now as CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports, questions remain about what happens after Biden's deadline passes in just six days.