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Blinken: "Much More Needs to be Done" to Protect Civilians; Biden, Xi to Hold Critical Face-to-Face Meeting at Summit Next Week; FBI, DOJ Investigating Suspicious Letters Sent to Election Offices in 6 States; One Week for Congress to Avert Government Shutdown. Aired 9- 9:30a ET

Aired November 10, 2023 - 09:00   ET



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KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Strong words and the most direct condemnation yet of civilian deaths coming from America's top diplomats. Secretary of State Tony Blinken saying, quote, too many Palestinians have been killed in the Israel-Hamas war.

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN ANCHOR: And election officials on alert this morning after a string of suspicious letters were mailed to election officers across the country, some containing fentanyl. One Georgia election official calling it domestic terrorism.

BOLDUAN: We are now days out from yet another government shutdown. And right now, Congress has no plans and no clear path to avoid it.

I'm Kate Bolduan, with Omar Jimenez. John and Sara are off.


(MUSIC) BOLDUAN: Secretary of State Tony Blinken coming out with his strongest comments really yet in urging Israel to do more to protect civilians in Gaza. Israel has agreed to small windows, pauses each day for civilians to get out of the combat zone in northern Gaza, today ending just minutes ago.

Blinken, though, making clear the administration doesn't think this is enough.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: Much more needs to be done, to protect civilians and to make sure humanitarian assistance reaches them. Far too many Palestinians have been killed. Far too many have suffered these past weeks.


BOLDUAN: Blinken said this just as more explosions were being seen this time near two of Gaza's hospitals where Israel says Hamas has placed some of its headquarters underneath.


The extent of the damage there not known, but both hospitals report they are still operating and treating patients. We also have new video to show that is showing the aftermath of an apparent strike near a third hospital al Shifa Hospital in Northern Gaza. You can see people who are bloodied and pleading for help in the courtyard in the aftermath of it.

This is a hospital housing many people seeking cover. And a fourth hospital, this one for children has been surrounded by tanks. That hospital's director has been asked for help in evacuating doctors and patients there.

Let's go over to CNN's Oren Liebermann joining us from Tel Aviv.

Oren, let's talk first about the comments from Secretary Blinken today. What are -- what could be the impacts of those words?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, we'll see if it forces Israeli leadership and the IDF to change how they operate. But, so far, there are certainly no indications of that on the ground, with the IDF saying they have surrounded Gaza City. And we can clearly see from those videos, the IDF moving deeper and deeper into the heart of Gaza City, including, according to hospital leaders there, they are surrounding some hospitals with strikes taking place very close to and according to those officials impacting those hospitals.

That, of course, as Gaza's health sector already under a tremendous amount of pressure with a number of hospitals already having to close or shut down different departments. And that has placed an even greater strain on health system there and the ability to treat Gaza civilians there and Palestinians. This comes as the Palestinian ministry of health in Gaza run by Hamas and in the West Bank report that the death toll now, the number of Palestinians killed here has surpassed 11,000, including 4,500 children and 3,000 women. That perhaps part of what compelled Secretary of State Blinken to say more needs to be done here. The suffering on the part of Palestinians, he says, is tremendous.

Meanwhile, as you pointed out, the humanitarian corner that the IDF allowed closed just a few moments ago. We saw pictures coming out of Salah al-Din Street in Gaza, one of the many north-south corners. Thousands more seemed evacuated today.

We'll wait for the official number on top of tens of thousands yesterday and tens of thousands the day before trying to get out of northern Gaza where the IDF has focused a lot of their efforts there, and we have seen the results of that, the destruction as the IDF tries to destroy Hamas and go after its underground infrastructure, Kate.


BOLDUAN: Yeah, and so many people taking advantage of, as we're seeing video here, of these evacuation windows to get out by foot, by cart as you can see, in the videos coming in for days now.

Thank you, Oren, so much.


JIMENEZ: Well, Kate, we're following brand new details this morning about the highly anticipated sit-down between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The meeting which has been months in the making is set for next Wednesday in the San Francisco area, and it comes as multiple crises unfold at once.

CNN's Arlette Saenz is at the White House.

So, Arlette, I mean, so does the White House expect this to ease growing tensions between the two countries here?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Omar, President Biden is facing a big task as he is preparing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in the San Francisco area next Wednesday. It comes as he's working to try to stabilize the relationship, trying to prevent it from deteriorating even further after there have been tensions and strains over the course of the past year.

Now, it's unexpected that there will be a major thaw in relations simply from this meeting. But aides say the fact he's sitting down with Xi is a positive sign as well.

Now, in announcing this meeting today, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, quote, the leaders will discuss issues in the U.S., PRC bilateral relationship, the continued importance of maintaining open lines of communication, and a range of regional and global issues.

Now, senior administration officials say they are hoping that this will start to present a framework that the U.S. can have in trying to maintain competitive relations in China, while also trying to avoid any misperceptions or surprises of between the two countries.

But aides have also been realistic that there may not be any concrete outcomes coming from this exact meeting. It will be the second time the two lead are meeting since Biden became president.

But officials say that President Biden is prepared to raise a host of issues in this sit-down with Xi Jinping. That includes pushing President Xi on trying to reestablish the military-to-military communications which China had ended about a year ago. There is also expected to be discussions about the conflicts in Israel and Ukraine, as the U.S. has really urged China to take a more constructive role in both of those conflicts.

They are also expected to talk about some issues of agreement, things like climate change and officials say the president is prepared to push Xi Jinping on issues where they disagree. That includes issues related to human rights as well as the situation relating to Taiwan.

But, of course, this meeting is also playing out, as you're seeing significant global tensions in those conflicts in Israel and Ukraine. But President Biden is hoping this meeting with Xi will help stabilize the relationship between the two countries that are seeing these tensions over the course of the last year.

JIMENEZ: Well, a lot of threats to keep an eye on there.

Now, on the home front, I want to shift because I think it's important to note that President Biden also announced new protection for veterans in observance of this Veterans Day.

I mean, how significant are these changes and what are these protections?

SAENZ: Yeah. You know, President Biden often says that one of the country's only and most sacred obligations is offering support for veterans and their families and he's announcing steps today to do just that. That includes offering free healthcare and nursing home veterans to the veterans of World War II. They are also trying to speed up eligibility for veterans who are exposed to toxic burn pits to a program that will offer additional benefits, and they're also launching these programs to protect veterans and their families from fraud and scams.

Now, while the federal government is observing Veterans Day today, tomorrow, President Biden will travel out to Arlington National Cemetery where he will lay the traditional wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and also deliver remarks for veterans. Of course, the president has promoted veterans as part of his unity agenda, something that he believes draws bipartisan support.

JIMENEZ: Arlette Saenz at the White House, thank you so much. Kate?

BOLDUAN: So, this morning, election officials across the country really are being forced to a new level of high alert after a string of suspicious letters were mailed to election offices in at least six states. Some of the letters mailed to Washington state contained fentanyl. You see all the six states right here.

A letter addressed to Georgia is also suspected of containing the extremely dangerous drug that honestly really should be considered poison. The Justice Department and the FBI, they are now investigating.

CNN's Nick Valencia is following this. He's joining us now.

Nick, what's the latest?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, hey there, Kate. Good to see you.

Investigators are treating all these letters as if they are linked. They were sent out at the same time. That will lead investigators to track down who is responsible for this.

In fact, early this morning, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger indicated that there could be already a potential suspect that's been identified.

Raffensperger, of course, is secretary of state here in Georgia and Fulton County, maybe a familiar name to a lot of our viewers,, is one of the election offices that was targeted and it has drawn the ire of the former president as well as been a target for far right conspiracy theorists, election deniers.

And it was yesterday that Brad Raffensperger, he called on elected officials and political candidates to denounce his activity.


And earlier this morning on "CNN THIS MORNING", he talked about how all 159 countries here in Georgia are now going to be prepared in the 2024 cycle for more suspicious activity.


BRAD RAFFENSPERGER, GEORGIA SECRETARY OF STATE: We're going to make sure that we prepare all 159 counties and prepare them for events such as this. so, make sure there's Narcan available for all the election officers that do received an incoming mail, and train them in that use.

ROBB PITTS, FULTON COUNTY, GEORGIA COMMISSSIONER: There are crazy people out there who will go to any extreme to disrupt, interrupt, bear, open, transparent elections in our country. It's my personal belief that this is probably a forerunner to what we can be prepared for in 2024. (END VIDEO CLIP)

VALENCIA: You know, Georgia officials are being very full-throated at a press conference yesterday. That was Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts and likely because Fulton County has been the target of harassments and threats towards election workers, poll workers here. You remember Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman. They were targeted by far- right conspiracist theorists.

So, it is certainly a concern here in Georgia and beyond. You have several states being targeted by these letters. Of course, Kate, all this happening amid a backdrop of threats and political intimidation against election officials nationwide -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, Nick, thank you so much for putting that all together and following this for us.

Let's talk more about this. Joining us right now is special -- is retired FBI supervisory special agent Dan Brunner.

It's good to have you back in, Dan.

Let's talk about this. So, they've got multiple investigations that federal authorities have right now. The FBI -- what will they, should they, and are they, do you think, doing at this moment to track down people behind these suspicious letters?


The FBI and all these six different states, but most importantly, all 56 divisions are aware and prepared for this incident. This is not a new incident them. Unfortunately, we go back to 2023 ricin case, I was involved in an investigation in 2010, a very similar incident in New Jersey.

They're going to be working closely with postal inspectors. They're going to be getting all that material to Quantico, to the labs to be tested. They will be looking at the stamps, the DNA. They will look at fibers. They are going to try to determine the origin of the envelopes, where they were purchased, the point of entry of where they entered the postal line, with the postal inspectors. Each one of these things, each one of these are clues towards the investigation.

Most likely, FBI headquarters is going to be coordinating all six divisions and getting them all together and getting all the materials, so that there's one division, which has one clue and Georgia has another one. They will be brought together so there's one repository, one person and one organization, one unit at headquarters that is going to bring it all together.

They are looking for identifiers. They're going to work at -- they're going to work with the FBI behavior analysis unit at Quantico. They are going to look at way the letters were written, what type of language was used to indicate who may have been the person who wrote the letters. The indications may additionally lead to more leads. The fact that there are far left organizations symbols on there may be

something that is going to throw them off. My gut instinct says it's a little bit too much of them trying to claim responsibility, and in fact, that Fulton County was targeted as well as specifically also leads me to believe that it could be.

But most importantly, the FBI and U.S. Postal Service will not leave any lead unturned and look at both directions.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, they are not leaving any assumptions, right? I mean, they just go after -- first, they follow the leads and then they will figure the motivation.

So you mentioned ricin. And when you hear suspicious letters, you think of ricin. You think of anthrax scares. You don't necessarily think of fentanyl.

And the fact that even in wash state, they detected fentanyl in the letter. You mentioned Fulton County, Georgia, it's suspected that fentanyl, the letter contained fentanyl. Will we know about -- what we know about fentanyl is how deadly it is. A few grains of table salt equivalent of fentanyl can be lethal.

It's a drug I generally think we should be calling it a poison. What do you think of this? I don't know, this evolution now that they are putting fentanyl in letters like this?

BRUNNER: Well, it's something that the FBI hazmat teams are prepared for. I'm not an FBI hazmat expert. There are plenty of FBI agents who are extremely knowledgeable and they work with homeland security. They work with all the other hazmat teams state, and local agencies.

So they are prepared for this type of incident. I think that having fentanyl changes the envelope, changes the perspective of how this will be addressed.


I don't know if the amounts were deadly enough to cause damage to the air of the individual who was opening it. Obviously, as the Georgia secretary of state just stated, this is going to change the election process, but it's not going to halt it.

I don't think that everyone is going to adapt. I think all 56 FBI divisions are going to work with all their state partners in preparing their election officials, in getting them understanding of how to open the mail-in ballots. I think that's going to change the election in 2024, versus how it was in 2020. All these mail-in ballots are going to have to be looked at with a little bit more scrutiny, a little bit more testing, but I think that the goal of the individuals is the going to be -- is not going to stop the process.

BOLDUAN: It's also just a scary new tentacle of the terrifying scourge that fentanyl is in all communities. Now this going -- now this is kind of like a new avenue and a new horrific use that fentanyl is being put to use for. Dan, thanks for coming in. Appreciate your time.


JIMENEZ: Well, Kate, with one week left until a government shutdown, some not so encouraging words from senior Republican congressman. He tells CNN what you would say after hosting a family for Thanksgiving. The House is a mess.

Plus, exclusive CNN reporting about who could be called to testify in former President Trump's classified documents case. It includes everyone from Mar-a-Lago's plumbers to the chauffeur.

And two Florida sheriff's deputies are in the hospital after being what's described as a violent ambush. We'll show you the shocking video of the suspect ramming his car into them.



BOLDUAN: Fully divided Congress, a very new House speaker and just days left before the next government shutdown -- a recipe for a real mess for sure. Federal funding expires on November 17th. So maybe we should not be surprised.

A senior Republican describes it this way to CNN. Quote, Speaker Johnson will have to thread a difficult needle while walking a high wire in gale-force winds.

CNN's Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill, joining us now.

Sounds like you do something everyday, Lauren, and do you it so well. Where do things stand with this one? What are you hearing? Is there anything on the table?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, we are all waiting to see what Speaker Johnson decides to do. What we do know from a source that I spoke with this morning is that we are expected to see some legislative text tomorrow at some point. That will, of course, outline the path that Republicans are deciding to move forward with.

But what exactly that path looks like, Kate, right now is an opened question. As of yesterday lawmakers talking late into the evening said they do not have a good sense of which way Speaker Johnson was actually going to lean when it came to whether or not to pursue this two-step strategy where you have a number of government agencies that would be defund on one day, other agencies that would be defunded on a later date. That is the preference of some members of the House Freedom Caucus.

Then you have moderates and people who are veteran appropriators, who have been arguing behind the scenes to Johnson that this is just a short-term fix, that the better way to go about a funding showdown with the Senate Democrats and the White House is to try to pass as many of their individual spending bills as possible, and then set themselves up for January when they can have a larger funding fight.

In the meantime, the argument from some of those members has been let's just do a short-term as clean as possible spending bill that might include some kind of Israel aid or some kind of debt commission, but nothing that would really set up a massive showdown with the United States Senate. It's just not clear what Speaker Johnson is going to do. As you noted, this is really his first big test as a newly minted speaker.

And so far this week, he's had a couple of setbacks. They tried to pass a number of individual spending one-year bills on the House floor this week. There were differences between the moderates and the hard- liners on two of those bills. They had to pull them.

Obviously, it just shows you that this speaker has the same problems that Kevin McCarthy dealt with when he was speaker of the House just last month -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: While it is confusing and while there's no clear path and while we may see legislate you have texts. One thing I want to ask you about this step-by-step shutdown, I -- not in all the years I've covered shutdowns have I ever heard of this is even a concept. Is this a new thing?

FOX: Well, this is something that conservatives have wanted Speaker Johnson to pursue. But you are not alone in your confusion, Kate. A lot of Republican senators have also argued that they have no idea how that would actually work in practice -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Stand by, stand by, my friend. Good to see you, Lauren. Thank you so much.


JIMENEZ: Stand by, stand by.

Well, let's bring in CNN political analyst and White House reporter for "The Associated Press", Seung Min Kim, and Bloomberg national politics team leader Mario Parker.

We have a lot to talk about.

Seung, I want to talk with you because we're kind of picking over the conversation. McCarthy isn't speaker anymore, but he was the last time we flirted with a government shutdown, which is ancient history six weeks ago at this point.

Take a listen to what he told our Manu Raju yesterday about the current Speaker Mike Johnson.


MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Will the speaker confront the same problems you had?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): No. Look, you get a honeymoon. But it was personal. It was been ethics complaint. We can't go through it again.


JIMENEZ: So, I mean, the question is, is this going to be different from the McCarthy-era fights?


SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the former speaker is certainly right that Speaker Mike Johnson does have a little bit of a honeymoon era right now with his fellow House Republicans. And I do think that no matter how controversial his move last week on Israel aid was with Democrats, some Republicans and certainly, the White House, being that aggressive on Israel did actually earn him some goodwill with conservatives, that he was going to have to cash in and beg to use at a later date. That later date may be coming up soon.

McCarthy and conservatives hard right in this conference was certainly very versatile. Mike Johnson does not have that among other House Republicans, neither among moderates or among the hard-righters conference, that he is broadly well liked.

But once you get down to brass tacks and you have to govern, he is certainly facing the same problems the former speaker did with the narrow, narrow majority that House Republicans have and with the coalition that you have in the House. You have moderates running for reelection in districts that Biden won in 2020, and you have the hard right, who are unyielding and don't want to compromise on issues of spending nor on many other issues. That is an incredibly difficult, you know, tightrope to walk for speaker Johnson.

We know he's in the more conservative side of things, but as a leader, as someone who has to actually govern, this really is a test for him. We don't know how he's going it deal with those issues just yet over a week away from a shutdown.

JIMENEZ: Of course, really, the first major test outside of getting the speakership himself. I want to stay on Capitol Hill but on the Senate side because Joe Manchin announced he wouldn't be running for reelection. Obviously, a very slim margin for Democrats on the Senate side especially since West Virginia Governor Jim Justice seems to be a strong candidate on the Republican side out of West Virginia right now.

What options do Democrats have right now? How are they preparing for potentially a power shift in their ranks?

KIM: So I think that at best, what Democrats are preparing for right now is perhaps a 50-50 Senate. Right now, Democrats control the Senate, 51-49, and even if Joe Manchin were to run for reelection, the West Virginia, keeping the West Virginia seat was going to be seen as very hard. I think that it's really safe to say that basically, West Virginia is a safe Republican seat with Manchin not running for reelection.

That means that there is a really tough -- Democrats have to hold onto their seats. It's actually pretty conservative as Montana and Ohio. Very difficult challenge for Democrats in the year ahead.

JIMENEZ: Yeah, yeah. Seung Min Kim, stand by for us because I want to bring in Mario parker here.

All right. So, Mario, with Manchin retiring at this point, some of them obviously worried about him launching a presidential bid that could threaten President Biden's campaign. How do you see a potential launch for the presidential bid affecting a campaign like Biden's?

MARIO PARKER, WHITE HOUSE & POLITICS EDITOR, BLOOMBERG: Oh, there's deep consternation on the part of Democrats that Manchin could jump into the race. This is probably the worst scenario for Democrats as well, you saw in his statements and glimpses may be when he talks about canvassing the country, speaking if there's an appetite for Americans for some type of movement, right, that word movement is the right hit at that No Labels --

JIMENEZ: Like he's feeling things out, you know?

PARKER: Exactly, exactly.


PARKER: I mean, again, to Seung Min's point, the Democrats are facing a tough map in 2024, the last thing you need is Manchin kind of coming in and muddying up the system even more, and bloodying up President Biden.

I mean, Bloomberg, for example, this morning, we have a poll shows that the seven swing states that will essentially decide the election, Biden is trailing former President Donald Trump, who is currently the front-runner by about six percentage points. And a lot of those states that Democrats will be essentially defending Senate seats in lot of swing states as well.

JIMENEZ: And just quick really fast, give me 15-second elevator pitch on top issues from those polls looking at immigration over things like the war in Israel. Is that a problem for Biden?

PARKER: That is a problem for Biden, right, because he's cast himself as this foreign policy hawk that's going back to traditional values. Americans are showing they really want him to focus more on the border.

JIMENEZ: Yeah, we'll see what happens. Thanks for being here.

Seung Min Kim, thanks for being.

There we'll very much more of course coming up on all these topics later in the show.


BOLDUAN: Thanks for being here and thanks for being there. You, too.

All right. Coming up for us, a plumber, a maid and a woodworker. Prosecutors say they are the eyes and ears of Mar-a-Lago, and now they may be called to testify in one of the federal criminal trials against Donald Trump.

Also, this. Why Robert de Niro's production company is having to pay his former assistant $1.2 million?

We'll be right back.