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Interview With Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH); Congress Releases Ethics Report On George Santos; Israel To Expand Gaza Ground Operation?; President Biden Touts Progress With China. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired November 16, 2023 - 13:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Minutes from now, President Biden will speak after hailing progress with China, but then calling President Xi Jinping a dictator. The blowback from Beijing and Biden's live remarks ahead.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: Plus, notifications that Israel's ground offensive in Gaza could be expanding to the south. Leaflets are being dropped in the area, warning civilians to move toward known shelters, all of this with the IDF more than 36 hours into its raid at Gaza's largest hospital. Questions still remain about what was found inside.

And Congressman George Santos says he will not seek reelection after a damning ethics report, one that found -- quote -- "substantial evidence" he used campaign funds for personal purposes, including Botox and OnlyFans.

We're following these major developing stories and many more all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

KEILAR: President Biden says he made progress with Chinese President Xi Jinping in their four-hour meeting yesterday. But did Biden squander some goodwill with an off-the-cuff remark after their high- stakes summit?

Relations between the world's two biggest economies, the U.S. and China, are at the lowest point in half-a-century. Yesterday, Biden sat down with Xi in an effort to ease those tensions and to gauge Beijing's posture on global flash points from Ukraine to Gaza, the leaders vowing to reopen high-level military communications and to combat the illicit fentanyl trade.

But it was this exchange after the talks between Biden and our senior White House correspondent, M.J. Lee, that made headlines.


M.J. LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And, Mr. President, after today, would you still refer to President Xi as a dictator? This is a term that you used earlier this year.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, look, he is. I mean, he's a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country that is a communist country that's based on a form of government totally different than ours.


KEILAR: And we will be hearing from President Biden later this hour to see if he adds to those remarks.

Let's go now to M.J. Lee, who asked that question.

M.J., tell us about what has happened after this remark, which, keep in mind, he may, Biden, be speaking the truth, but in the world of diplomacy, you have to be very careful about how you speak the truth.

M.J. LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's a really good point, Brianna.

And, for sure, Chinese officials were not pleased about that comment in particular, the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying overnight that these comments were extremely erroneous and irresponsible. But, as you say, these were unplanned off-the-cuff comments that the president made at the end of a lengthy press conference.

You could see that Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was sitting in the front row, perhaps for a moment seemed a little fidgety, a little uncomfortable. But what I can tell you is that the White House today is not at all dwelling on that moment.

They are very much trying to focus on what they say was real progress that was made yesterday after that four-hour summit between President Biden and President Xi, where they said that they were able to accomplish what they set out to accomplish. And that was in the big picture to try to take down the tension between those two countries,of course, some of the deliverables that you mentioned, the reestablishment of the military communications between the two countries, the announcement on cracking down on fentanyl.

And we heard the president saying afterwards that, going forward, if there is a problem, there is a conflict between the two countries, that he is confident, that the two leaders will be able to pick up the phone and actually talk through the issues.

So, in the bigger sense, Brianna, I think U.S. officials are going to be touting this as having been a successful summit. A lot of planning obviously went into this. The stakes were incredibly high. And they say that they are now in a much better place in terms of at least being able to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and misperceptions between the two countries.


KEILAR: And, M.J., Biden talked about Israel after this meeting. What did he say?

LEE: Yes, it was interesting. At this press conference that came after the Biden-Xi summit, there

were a lot of questions that were focused on the Israel-Hamas war. The president fielded questions about the hostage negotiations. He said that he remained mildly optimistic, but stopped short of offering any details about why he thought this.

On the Al Shifa Hospital and Israel's claim that there is a Hamas command center under it, I pressed him a couple of times on that, and he said he was absolutely confident, based on everything he knows, that that is the truth, though, obviously there have been questions about what kind of intelligence the U.S. actually has to back that up.

And then just on the duration of the war, he said he simply couldn't predict how long this was going to last, but he said, how this will end, have to end with a two-state solution, and that he had told the Israelis that what isn't acceptable is for the Israelis to reoccupy Gaza.

So, again, a lot of focus here on the ongoing situation in Israel and Gaza -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Certainly, there is.

All right, M.J., thank you so much, and we will be awaiting President Biden's remarks here in a bit -- Pamela.

BROWN: Yes, and, Brianna, we just heard M.J. talk about what the president has been saying as he is meeting with Pacific nation leaders, standing by his refusal to call for a cease-fire in Israel's war on Hamas that has left more than 11,400 people dead in Gaza. That is what the Palestinian Ministry of Health said today, citing medical sources in the Hamas-controlled enclave.

Now, in the meantime, the pressure is growing for Israel Defense Forces to release proof of the Hamas command center they say is behind -- underneath, rather, Gaza's largest hospital, Al Shifa. IDF troops raided the facility yesterday, and a spokesman says Israeli forces remain active today in and around the hospital.

Now, the IDF released video from inside the hospital, saying it shows military equipment used by Hamas. Gaza's government media office, which is run by Hamas, said Israel is lying. CNN cannot verify either side's claims.

Let's bring in CNN's Oren Liebermann in Tel Aviv, Israel, for more on this.

So what is happening inside the hospital right now, Oren?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: So, Israeli troops are still inside the hospital complex.

This has been since early hours of Wednesday morning, and they remain inside there going slowly and deliberately, according to the IDF, looking and operating in specific areas, as they gather what they have called concrete evidence that Hamas has used the hospital for its own operations.

You just saw there that was IDF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus showing weapons he insists were found inside the hospital, as well as ammunition, protective vests. But that's a far cry from what the IDF has for years claimed and has even published 3-D renderings of, and that is a Hamas infrastructure underneath the hospital, a Hamas operation center.

That is something we have not seen any evidence of to this point. A senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that will take time, even as doctors and health officials inside the hospital insist that Hamas doesn't use it for its own purposes, that it is a medical facility, the largest in Gaza, that has effectively been knocked out of commission for several days now because of IDF operations.

It's important to note it's not just the IDF's credibility and Israel's credibility that is at stake here. You heard from President Joe Biden just a short moment ago, and we have also heard John Kirby from the National Security Council say it. The U.S. has very much backed Israel up on this claim that Hamas has facilities underneath the hospital.

But, Pamela, to this point, we have yet to see those facilities or evidence substantiating those claims right now.

BROWN: All right, Oren, thank you so much for that as we await to see further evidence of the fact that there is a command node under that hospital, as Israel said.

I want to bring in CNN's Nada Bashir in Jerusalem.

Nada, Israel is sending indications of its plans in Gaza. Tell us about these leaflets that were dropped.

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Well, this is certainly raising concern around the situation in Southern Gaza, today, reports of leaflets dropping in neighborhoods on the eastern side of the city of Khan Yunis, the largest city in Southern Gaza, these neighborhoods said to be near the perimeter fence which separates Israel from the Gaza Strip, leaflets warning citizens there to move and head towards known shelters.

Now, we're hearing these reports from people on the ground, including rights groups who say they have heard from their colleagues on the ground, but, of course, CNN is not on the ground and cannot independently verify the details of this leaflet.

But what this suggests or perhaps signals is that we could begin to see a further spread of the Israeli ground incursion into parts of Southern Gaza, particularly now as Israel declares control over Northern Gaza.

And this is a huge point of concern, as we know, because there are some 1.5 million Palestinians, people inside the Gaza Strip, according to the U.N., who are now internally displaced, as we saw in the early weeks of the war, Israel dropping leaflets in Northern Gaza, warning civilians there to evacuate southwards.


They have, according to the Israeli military, established evacuation routes. We have seen those videos of hundreds from Northern Gaza walking that long distance to Southern Gaza. Now, of course, there are fears that there is simply nowhere safe, if indeed we do begin to see ground incursions spreading towards Southern Gaza.

We heard yesterday from the Israeli defense minister indicating that the IDF is looking to further move its forces further south. This is a process that could take months. But, of course, as we know, there are hundreds of thousands of people, families, children in Southern Gaza now taking shelter, many of them, hundreds of thousands of them taking shelter in U.N.-run schools.

And, of course, important to underscore that, while we have seen that evacuation push for civilians to move to the south, we have continued to see airstrikes in the south. We have seen hospitals completely overwhelmed in the south.

But this suggestion that we could begin to see a ground incursion in the south has certainly raised alarm -- Pamela.

BROWN: All right, Nada, thank you so much -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, let's discuss this now with CNN national security analyst Beth Sanner. She served as deputy director of national intelligence.

Beth, why do you think we have not seen the evidence of this Hamas command center underneath the hospital that Israel's military insists is there and that said it would release? And how important is it that they show this?

BETH SANNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it is obviously pretty important that that was the justification for their going into this hospital and all the criticism about it. They kind of have to show that.

But I guess it is early. I'm kind of surprised, frankly. I'm surprised that they haven't found it, especially with what the United States has said to back up the Israeli claims. So, either they know something we don't know, or the evidence that they had wasn't as good as what they thought.

KEILAR: Or has it changed perhaps? I mean, is there a way that this could evidence could have been hidden, or is that not really a possibility?

SANNER: A tunnel is a tunnel is a tunnel. You know, you block off an entryway? I don't know. I think we're just going to have to wait and see on this, but it's not a good look.

KEILAR: You mentioned the U.S. backing that the Israelis have gotten on this. President Biden telling CNN that he was absolutely confident, based on

intelligence he'd seen, that Hamas was operating a command center underneath the Al Shifa Hospital, although he wouldn't share the intel. That's not that unusual.


KEILAR: How much is President Biden putting U.S. credibility at risk? And is he going out on a limb here?

SANNER: Yes, I mean, I think this is the thing that I have been saying, is that U.S. interests and Israeli interests are not 100 percent aligned here.

We have our own interests to protect. We have our own reputation to protect. And so, you know, personally, I don't want to criticize President Biden, but, like, I never use the word absolutely when it comes to intelligence. That is when people turn around and accuse me of intelligence failure.

So there's only one way to have absolute certainty, and that is you have overhead that actually really shows that or radar or something, photographs, something that is, like, really factually based. I don't -- I have no idea whether we have that or not, but I would be more circumspect myself.

KEILAR: So, short of photographs, if I -- what kind of intelligence would Biden have to see to give him that level of confidence? It would be photographs.

SANNER: Probably, or some kind of radar imagery that would show that that facility underground exists. And there are tunnels everywhere.

KEILAR: That's right.

SANNER: So you can see maybe a tunnel, but is it a command center? I don't know.


KEILAR: How do you discern between the two?


KEILAR: There's also just so little visibility, right, outside into what is happening inside of this hospital. How is it possible to verify it or to know exactly what is going on?

SANNER: There is no way to do that, period.

KEILAR: Period.

KEILAR: Well put there.

OK. So you heard Nada reporting on these leaflets that are being dropped on Southern Gaza, which is raising this possibility of now that is expanding, that sort of zone of warfare is expanding, and the IDF is taking more control of the ground.

How could that impact negotiations for hostages?

SANNER: Well, obviously, this is the thing, I think, everybody has been focused on, is that we have these competing priorities, right? We want the IDF to go quickly because we want this to end. We want the hostages back.

And that is front of mind for this administration and for many, obviously, the families and all of us, get those hostages back, right? And then you also have the collateral damage that is just growing and growing and growing.

So, these dilemmas are coming together because anybody who thought that the war was going to be confined and not go to every place in Gaza really wasn't paying attention to the fact that the head of Hamas is called the butcher of Khan Yunis. Hamas is -- owns Gaza.


KEILAR: Yes, and Hamas, of course, known for its brutal tactics.

SANNER: Correct.

KEILAR: And he is known for the most brutal among those tactics.

SANNER: Correct.

KEILAR: Such a good point to make there.

Beth, thank you so much for your insights. We obviously have much more to discuss, and we will in the days ahead.

SANNER: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: A damning ethics report out, and now Congressman George Santos says he's out too. He's going to be anyways, the embattled Republican saying he will not seek reelection after a panel found -- quote -- "substantial evidence" that Santos used campaign funds for personal use.

We're talking about spas and even a porn site. We're live on the Hill with more.

Plus, the never-before-seen video of Alec Baldwin firing prop guns while filming the movie "Rust," this is footage that was captured days before a live round killed the movie's cinematographer. What this could mean for potential charges in the case.



KEILAR: The House Ethics Committee just dropped a bombshell on embattled New York Republican Congressman George Santos. It just released the findings of its ethics probe into his conduct and said there is substantial evidence that Santos used his office for personal financial gain and that he lied about it. The report details multiple allegations of fraud and also spending that had nothing to do with political campaigns, for example, paying off personal credit card bills, a $4,100 purchase at Hermes, Botox, excessive travel expenses, and purchases at the online subscription service OnlyFans, AKA a porn site.

The report also says the committee found even more illegal activity allegedly committed by Santos and has now referred those actions to the Department of Justice.

What is not in the report is a recommendation to expel the congressman. That, though, could change here in the next 24 hours.

CNN chief congressional reporter Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill with more on what the committee found.

First, though, Manu, Santos already reacting to this report with a bombshell of his own.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, saying that he will not run for reelection, even as he blasted this committee, suggested that this is only aimed at smearing him, calling it biased, even as it is a bipartisan panel that came up with this recommendation.

Santos just two weeks ago told me that he -- quote -- "absolutely" would run for his seat again, even if he were to be expelled by the House, a clear different approach now, saying that he will not run for reelection. He blamed it on increased press scrutiny and said he wants to spend time with his family amid all of this.

Now, this report could potentially change the calculation on Capitol Hill, saying that he fraudulently exploited every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit. Now, this is also part of the indictment that he is facing on 23 counts of fraud, things that he has pleaded not guilty to in federal court.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I did ask him about that allegation that he used donors' credit cards for his own personal financial benefit. And this is what he said.


RAJU: You bought designer goods. You benefit yourself with a donor's money.

REP. GEORGE SANTOS (R-NY): So, essentially -- essentially, everything I do, everything I have ever spent in my account is going to be deemed as, oh, my God, George Santos stole money. George Santos bought designer clothes.

That's what I buy. I mean, I have been a client of the same stores for many years. And if you go and you go through my closet, you will see. It's not like I amassed and bought all my clothes, all my shoes in the last campaign.

So it's very -- that's what I say. Narratives can be built, and I will accept that. That's fine, but I will go defend it. The government has the burden of proving guilt. I have the benefit of proving my innocence.


RAJU: Now the question is if that kind of explanation will be enough to convince Republicans in particular not to expel him from the House.

We do expect the Republican chairman of the House Ethics Committee, Michael Guest, tomorrow to file a resolution calling for his expulsion. Now, that vote would not happen until the end of the month at the earliest, so they will give members some time to decide how to vote. Likely, we could expect Democrats to vote in lockstep to kick George Santos out of the House.

That's the expectation at the moment. The question is, will Republicans join them? There need to be two-thirds majority in the House. And, Brianna, there are members who are concerned about actually expelling someone who has not yet been convicted in a court of law.

In American history, there have only been five members who have ever been expelled from the House. Two of them were convicted in court, the latest being James Traficant in 2002. The other three were because -- were kicked out because of their ties to the Confederacy.

So you can see how rare it is to take such a dramatic action here, but potentially George Santos could face this, given all the scrutiny he's facing, given this damning ethics report and given the lack of support he has now on Capitol Hill -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, another twist, maybe towards the end of the story here, though.

Manu Raju, thank you for all of your tough questions on this story. We do appreciate it -- Pam.

BROWN: All right, Brianna, let's get some reaction now from a fellow Republican member of Congress.

Joining us now is Congressman Warren Davidson of Ohio. He is a member of the House Freedom Caucus.

Congressman, thanks for being here with us today.

So, you just heard Manu's report, the House Ethics Committee releasing its report this morning on your GOP colleague George Santos, saying there is substantial evidence that he used thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal use. Following the release of this report, New York Governor Kathy Hochul is now calling for Santos to resign.

You voted not to expel him two weeks ago. There could be another vote after Thanksgiving. Where do you stand today? REP. WARREN DAVIDSON (R-OH): Yes, I haven't read the report. I look

forward to reading it.


Certainly have a lot of respect for Michael Guest. And my understanding is, they're presenting this as findings of fact. Now, that's not the same as a trial. And I thought that it was relevant that Manu pointed out that it has been rare that someone's -- extremely rare that someone's been expelled from Congress without a conviction.

So I think that's where the default is for normally people in both parties, although lots of times things get politicized. I have never even spoken with George Santos. So, I haven't really had a lot of desire to get to know him.

But, on the other side, when you look at the precedent is, well, someone gets their day in court, they get the benefit of innocent until proven guilty. On the other hand, I look forward to reading the reports and saying, yes, does this really make sense as a presentation of facts, and will make a decision based on that.

BROWN: Well, let me just tell you. Here's a quote from the report, since you say you haven't read.

It's -- the panel concluded Santos -- quote -- "sought to fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit."

It sounds like what you're saying is, where you stand today, you would not vote to expel him, despite what the Ethics Committee found. Or are you -- just tell us where you stand exactly.

DAVIDSON: Yes, I mean, the default is, I'm looking for somebody that would be convicted. They're innocent until proven guilty.

On the other side, we do bring proceedings all the time in the House that say, hey, we should probably expel somebody or fire somebody so. i will look forward to the presentation of the facts. I haven't heard them or read them all myself.

But I will say, primarily, this is between George Santos and the people that sent him here. And I imagine there's probably mixed feelings in his own district.

BROWN: Right. The people that sent him there, of course, didn't know all of this when they initially sent him there, right?

And I think that is part of the issue here. But -- so, basically, you're undecided. Is that correct?

DAVIDSON: Yes, I'd say that's accurate.

BROWN: OK. And I wonder how much is -- you being undecided, how much does it have to do with this being a numbers game, given the tight margin for Republicans in the House?

DAVIDSON: Yes, I don't think that's the factor.

I think the factor is, the precedent has been in both parties that people don't get expelled unless they're convicted of a crime. And, frankly, sometimes, then that's been controversial to expel people after they're convicted of crimes.

Normally, when you see campaign finance issues -- and there have been some in my time here where members have been accused of doing things with their campaign finances, sometimes without their knowledge with other people in the campaign. And they get a chance to make restitution, pay fines, work that out with the FEC.

And, normally, those aren't things that result in criminal prosecution, though. Those are things that are considered errors of omission, rather than real flagrant violations of the law. And it sounds like where the Ethics Committee has come down at the end of this is, they see findings of fact that indicate criminal violations.

BROWN: Yes, that is certainly what the report is indicating.

I want to ask you about the speaker's, the new speaker's stopgap funding bill, calling it -- you called it disappointing and a -- quote -- "bad decision."

I'm wondering, I mean, would it have been possible for the new speaker to pass a spending bill that you and other Freedom Caucus members liked, you were on board with, and passed in both the House and Senate, where there wouldn't be a -- the shutdown of the government?

DAVIDSON: Well, our job isn't to run the Senate. Our job is to run the House.

And I think there was a chance for us to do what we said we would do. And one of those things is, we said we would cut spending. One of those things, we said we would change policies.

And, look, two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate already voted to cut spending. That was part of the debt limit deal. This C.R. that Speaker Johnson put on the floor and passed with 93 Republicans voting no, only two Democrats voting no, had no cuts whatsoever. So it didn't even implement what is supposed to be the spending level as part of the debt ceiling deal.

BROWN: Of course, they would argue this was previously agreed upon.

But I want to ask you about looking ahead. Your colleague Congressman Chip Roy said members of the House Freedom Caucus will give the new speaker 10 days to figure out a plan that satisfies their demands. Well, what happens if Speaker Johnson doesn't satisfy those demands after 10 days? And is there room for compromise here?

DAVIDSON: Well, Chip Roy can speak for Chip Roy. He can't speak for a group. And, frankly, if that changes, then I'm in the wrong group.

I have been part of this group since I got elected. I was the first member that the House Freedom Caucus backed in a primary, and I came in, in June of 2016. And so, look, I have a longstanding relationship with the Freedom Caucus. I think we're -- collectively make principled stands, but we need to do that together.

Chip doesn't speak for the whole group. I don't like giving these kind of ultimatums. I have got a great relationship with Speaker Johnson, and I had a great relationship with Speaker McCarthy. It doesn't need to be personal.