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DeSantis Campaign in Trouble?; Trump Renews Calls to End Obamacare; Israeli Forces Operating in Southern Gaza; Ex-U.S. Ambassador Accused of Spying For Cuba. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired December 04, 2023 - 13:00   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: This just into CNN: A former U.S. ambassador has been accused of spying for a foreign government. Attorney General Merrick Garland is expected to address the stunning new charges in just minutes. We're going to bring you the very latest.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: And new video showing Israeli ground forces now operating in Southern Gaza, the first apparent sign that the IDF is beginning to expand combat operations to all of Gaza. Meanwhile, an urgent push is under way to get Israel and Hamas back to the negotiating table.

And staff shortages are a major problem that may affect air travel safety. A brand-new report from "The New York Times" claiming some air traffic controllers have been pushed to the brink. They actually found some were drunk and others asleep on the job. We will have details ahead.

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

SANCHEZ: We want to get straight to that developing story we're following, an ex-U.S. Ambassador just arrested accused of having spied for Cuba, providing secrets to the island for some 40 years.

CNN's Evan Perez is here now.

So, Evan, court documents were just unsealed. What did they reveal?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they show, Boris, that according to prosecutors, Victor Manuel Rocha, who's 73 years old, was working for the Cuban government.

Again, according to the Justice Department, he was working for the Cuban government and the Cuban intelligence services since at least 1981. It appears that, in November of 2022, the FBI received a tip that he was working for a foreign government, and so they introduced him to an undercover agent.

Someone called him, essentially reached out to him via message on WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service, and then they began having these conversations. In all, they set up three covert meetings in Miami, one of them -- the first one happening at a church on Brickell Avenue in public, and they began having these conversations.

And according to prosecutors, all of these conversations were recorded, and they have a lot of admissions, they say, from Rocha during this period. According to them, he talked about how -- he talked about his outreach to companeros, again, his compatriots in Cuba.

"I want you to tell my compatriots that I appreciate and very thankful for this alert." Again, he's talking to an undercover agent. He says, since the Direccion de Inteligencia, the Direccion de Inteligencia, right, which is the Cuban intelligence services, "asked me to lead a normal life, I have created the legend of a right-wing person."

And then he also goes on to talk about how, my number one concern, my priority, was the action the part of Washington that would endanger the life and the leadership of the revolution itself. Again, according to prosecutors, this was something that he's been doing since '81.

He served as the ambassador to Bolivia in -- from 1999 to 2022, but he served in a number of other posts for the State Department, including in the Dominican Republic, in Argentina, and the National Security Council, all of this while in the service of the Cuban government.

Of course, one of the important parts of this, Boris, you and I were just talking about during the 1996 shoot-down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes that happened just outside of Cuban waters in international waters...


PEREZ: ... he was a leading, one of the top diplomats in the Cuban -- the U.S. interest sections in Havana, which was obviously the highest level at that point of U.S. diplomacy in the island of Cuba.

SANCHEZ: Yes, that was a civilian craft. There were no arms on that plane, and the Cuban government shot it down. The makings of a spy novel, it sounds like.

PEREZ: Right, exactly.

And, look, we expect him to appear any moment now in federal court in Miami, where we will hear for the first time whether he has any response to these charges.


PEREZ: He was arrested on Friday, and so today is the first time he's appearing before a magistrate in Miami, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Right, and we're going to hear from Merrick Garland, the attorney general, on this as well.

PEREZ: Right.

SANCHEZ: Evan Perez, thanks so much for the reporting -- Brianna. KEILAR: New today, Israeli troops have now advanced into Southern Gaza, and this marks a new phase in which the whole of the Gaza Strip is now a potential battlefield.


Nearly one million Gazans fled to the south when it was designated as the safe zone earlier in the war, and now those people are wondering where they're supposed to go next.

This new push also raises questions of whether humanitarian aid will be able to keep coming in through the south. And as this offensive against Hamas expands, the White House is both publicly and privately pressuring Israel to increase protections of civilians and to resume hostage negotiations.

Israel estimates 137 hostages remain in Gaza after 110 were released during last week's temporary truce.

Let's go to CNN's Ben Wedeman. He is live for us in Jerusalem.

Ben, what have you learned about these operations in Southern Gaza?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, it appears so far they are preliminary. They haven't gone way into the southern areas of the Gaza Strip.

For instance, Al-Jazeera Arabic shared video of an ambulance crew that is driving northward along the Salah al-Din street, which is the main northwest highway in Gaza -- highway -- probably more like a street -- where they encounter an Israeli tank.

So it doesn't appear that they have really made a massive push into Gaza. Now, we under -- the southern part of the Gaza Strip. We know that over the weekend, they did drop leaflets on towns to the east and north of Khan Yunis, the biggest city in the southern part of Gaza, warning residents to leave those areas immediately.

So that may suggest that there could be a push from Israel proper into Gaza in the direction of Khan Yunis. But what we have seen over the weekend was pretty intense bombardment in -- around Khan Yunis, in and around Khan Yunis, but also in the northern part of the Gaza Strip.

Now, the commander of the Israeli armored corps said that they have almost achieved all of their objectives in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. But we know they're still encountering some resistance by Hamas fighters there. But it does appear that the focus is going to be on the south.

But we haven't yet seen a major push. The problem is, of course, there are hundreds of thousands of people who thought they might be safer in the south. That doesn't appear to be the case.

And we know that one of the options that Israeli and American officials were considering is that all of those people who had gone to the south and those who were already in the south, can go to the north now, which doesn't seem like a very viable option, given that the northern part of Gaza has been at the receiving end of some of the most intensive Israeli airstrikes Gaza has ever seen -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, those airstrikes not letting up, and so much of the housing completely destroyed in Northern Gaza.

You talked about what this means, obviously, for those displaced to the south. What is this focus on the south, even as we're really waiting for it to evolve, going to mean for aid getting in?

WEDEMAN: Well, we know that, Saturday and Sunday, 100 trucks came through the Rafah Crossing from Egypt into Gaza; 85 crossed in today.

But, before the cease-fire, the Israelis did conduct airstrikes around the Rafah Crossing, and there's no indication that that crossing, the Gaza side of it at least, is going to be immune from those airstrikes anymore. So there's a very good possibility that, if those airstrikes intensify, the Egyptians are going to stop sending -- allowing trucks, aid trucks, into Gaza.

And, of course, even to do that, they need Israeli permission. So this could imperil the flow of aid into Gaza even more, and we know that things are getting very bad. There was a bakery in Deir al Balah, which is in the southern side of the Gaza Strip, that got hit overnight in an Israeli airstrike. People were desperate.

They basically went there, looted the sugar, the cooking oil, the flour, and even the wood that was in the bakery so that they could heat their homes and cook their food -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, it is desperate and going to get more so.

Ben Wedeman, thank you so much for the update -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: So the White House is putting more pressure on Israel to come up with plans for Gaza after the war is over.

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials over the weekend. It comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is vowing to continue ground operations in Gaza until all goals are met.

CNN's Natasha Bertrand is live at the Pentagon for us.

Natasha, the White House says they're trying to get truce negotiations back on track. What more are you hearing from officials?


NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, Boris, in terms of the truce negotiations, obviously, we have seen them come to somewhat of a halt, given that last week there was a breakdown in the negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

And it appears now, of course, that the White House is trying to get things back on track here, but it remains to be seen just how these negotiations are going to play out. We saw, of course, that the Qataris, of course, they have been key intermediaries between Israel and Hamas, and as well as with the United States being a key player in all of this.

But what appears to have happened, of course, is that Hamas was refusing, according to our sources, to release the Israeli -- the women that it was holding. And the Israelis wanted a list, of course, of all of the women and children hostages that Hamas was prepared to release. And Hamas was simply not willing to provide that.

And so at this point, it does seem like there is an impasse. And according to U.S. officials, it does appear that there is not going to be any serious negotiations for the foreseeable future or a restart of the truce for the foreseeable future. But, of course, they remain optimistic.

SANCHEZ: And, Natasha, we have seen a number of incidents, examples of tensions boiling over across the Middle East.

We're now learning that U.S. forces were involved in situations in Iraq and the Red Sea as well. Tell us about that.

BERTRAND: Yes, so a really significant escalation yesterday in the Southern Red Sea, where the USS Carney, which is a destroyer that is in the vicinity there, was -- responded to a number of missile attacks that the U.S. says were launched by Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen that were aiming at commercial vessels, three commercial vessels in the Red Sea, that were actually struck.

Several of them were struck by these missiles, and including one ballistic missile was actually launched at these vessels as well. And so they caused minor damage, no serious injuries, but, of course, the concern is that one day they might. And in addition to this, the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, they also launched drones that the USS Carney was forced to down and destroy.

So this is obviously very concerning to the Pentagon here. The Pentagon continues to insist that they are going to respond to this at a time and place of their choosing, but they have responded before to these kinds of attacks by U.S. -- by Iran-backed proxy forces in the region, and that has not deterred them so far.

And so the question for the Pentagon continues to be, what kind of additional response are you willing to take in order to make sure that the U.S. and its partners and its allies are protected in the region? Because there are 14 different countries represented on these commercial vessels operating in the Red Sea.

And so the fear is that this could really begin to escalate and potentially spiral, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Yes, more than 75, at least 75 attacks on U.S. or coalition forces in the region since October 7.

Natasha Bertrand from the Pentagon, thank you so much -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Let's talk about this now with our military analyst, retired Army Major Mike Lyons.

I wonder if you think if the U.S. military posture, Major, is enough right now to be a deterrent.

MAJ. MIKE LYONS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, thanks for having me, Brianna.

First of all, deterrence is strategic. It's not something that you flip a switch. It's not a visceral response to something that the enemy does. You go back to the days of speak softly, carry a big stick with Teddy Roosevelt, that was initial United States deterrence back in the early part of the 20th century.

The problem right now is, the country really hasn't communicated that deterrence. We don't -- there's no red line, where everybody's waiting for something to kind of happen. It's been this response. I mean, what the Houthis have done already, for example, would have been an act of war back during the Cold War.

If another nation or pretend nation-state fired at a U.S. warship, we would not -- it would be well-known that we would go after them and the response would not necessarily even be reciprocal. It would be increased. Israel's trying to figure out what deterrence is now inside of Gaza, but part of this administration just can't figure out strategically what's the red line.

They don't want to communicate it, because, frankly, it all goes back to Iran, and they don't want to -- for whatever reason, they don't want to seem to be on the side that they're going to make them more angry. However, I'm not of the people that think that the Iranians don't want a conflict with us, because they keep sponsoring these attacks that are attacking Americans.

KEILAR: These latest attacks, as we heard Natasha mention there, hitting commercial ships, but really not doing as much damage as they could, you didn't have anyone who was really injured or anyone who was killed.

Does the equation change if that is different?

LYONS: Yes, unfortunately, it will, but it shouldn't have to because it should just be the act itself.

It's kind of like you commit a crime and no one was necessarily killed on it or something. It just doesn't make sense. I mean, deterrence would be, again, from a strategic perspective. We don't expect any firing on any ships in that region. We think there should be a free passage of commerce within the Red Sea into the Persian Gulf.


That's into the Suez Canal. If that gets blocked, clogged or locked up, or somehow there there's conflict in there, it's going to shut down world commerce. And so, again, this is where the United States has got to take a better leadership role with getting our allies and making sure that these acts are not permitted to happen. I don't care what they fire. If they fire anything, that's good enough for a response back that says, you're not going to do that again.

KEILAR: Where's the line between showing you won't be bullied, the U.S. won't be bullied, maybe hitting command centers of the Houthis, and getting drawn in to a broader conflict that the U.S. does not want?

LYONS: I understand that. I understand that the Saudis don't want this other conflict with Yemen because of their history with them as well.

However, there has to be a set of rules that we all agree that at least that the United States is going to communicate and live by. And that's why I said it's strategic. It's not this visceral response back right away for them doing something. It's sitting down with them first and letting them know, this is what our response is going to be.

So, your question, basically, what's the red line? And it appears where this administration works is, the red line is a U.S. casualty. But, again, from my perspective, I don't think that cuts it. I think that we could get well out ahead of this problem set before then by preventing that from happening, preventing them from attacking any U.S. forces there, not only in the Red Sea, but also in Syria and also in Iraq.

KEILAR: Major Lyons, we really appreciate you talking about this. Obviously, this is really heating up, and it's -- there's a lot to discuss. Thank you.

LYONS: Thanks.

KEILAR: The Biden reelection campaign targeting former President Trump's vow to repeal and replace Obamacare. How the president's team plans to use it to their advantage.

Plus, more turmoil for Ron DeSantis. The super PAC supporting the Florida governor's White House bid abruptly lets go of several key staffers. What this could signal for his campaign with just six weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses.




DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (R) AND CURRENT U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're also going to fight to give much better health care than what you have right now. This is a newer subject, but Obamacare is a disaster.

And I said, we're going to do something about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SANCHEZ: That's former President Donald Trump in Iowa over the weekend digging in on his recent calls to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

But with more than 40 million Americans covered under the ACA, the Biden campaign is seizing on those threats by the Republicans' 2024 front-runner by getting ready to unveil a series of health care measures that Biden aims to pass in this second term.

CNN's Arlette Saenz is live for us from the White House.

So, Arlette, walk us through the details in this health care plan that's being put forward by the White House.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Boris, President Biden and the campaign have seized on former President Donald Trump's threats to repeal and replace Obamacare.

I'm told that President Biden even expressed surprise to his own aides that Trump would revive this topic after they had failed to do so back when he was president and as Obamacare has increased in popularity.

But beyond just the attacks on Trump and laying out what's at stake if Obamacare is taken away, advisers acknowledge they also need to start talking about what President Biden would have to offer in a second term when it comes to a health care agenda.

In the coming weeks, the president is expected to ramp up his messaging push on this front. And some of the items that a second-term agenda when it comes to health care could include is trying to extend and expand those price cuts that came for insulin and other drugs that are currently being provided under Medicare, trying to expand that to all Americans.

There is also likely to be a push to make permanent those enhanced federal premium subsidies that help care on the Obamacare exchanges be a little bit more affordable. Those are set to expire right now in 2025. There is likely going to be a push to try to make those permanent as well.

Additionally, allies are trying to see if there's any work around to try to expand Obamacare or give access to Obamacare coverage in those states, the 10 states that did not approve Medicaid expansion. And then there's also the talk of the possibility of reviving the idea of the public option. That is something President Biden campaigned on back in 2020.

It could be something he could talk about once again as he's seeking a second term. But the White House recognizes that this debate over health care is one that they believe could play to their advantage. They saw how health care was a potent political issue in past campaigns. They're hoping that might be another potent political issue heading into 2024, especially as Trump has reinjected this back into the conversation, making these threats to end Obamacare.

SANCHEZ: Surprising that Trump would do that, Arlette, because, as you pointed out, it has not historically been a winning issue for him.

Arlette Saenz from the White House, thanks so much -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And here is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis this morning taking a tour and speaking with workers at a factory in Gilford, New Hampshire. He's there after spending the weekend campaigning in Iowa and after some major shakeups to his Never Back Down super PAC that were announced.

Three key senior staffers were abruptly let go. That included an interim CEO who had only been on the job for nine days.

CNN's Steve Contorno is following this story for us.

Steve, you do not have to be a political expert to know that people being let go after just nine days is not a good sign. You were there following his trip to Iowa. What can you tell us?

STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: Well, Brianna, that's right.


And these kind of shakeups are really unprecedented at this stage of the race for candidates who still believe that they are working toward the nomination. And the DeSantis campaign really believes that he is.

And they sort of dismissed what transpired over the weekend as, you know, just unimportant in the grand scheme of a campaign. However, they're not happening in a vacuum. These three departures on Saturday follow the exit of a previous CEO just nine days earlier, as well as Adam Laxalt, a former attorney general from Nevada, one of Governor DeSantis' best friends, exiting the super PAC board as chairman.

And, of course, he had his own campaign shakeup and revamp over the summer that included replacing his campaign manager. So this continues to happen time and time again. And a lot of this stuff doesn't get to voters, per se. And I talked to a lot of people in Iowa over the weekend, and none of them had any awareness that this was going on.

But it's one of those things that is important because it reflects the overall candidate often, how their campaign operates. And it's one of these things that just continues to overshadow DeSantis every time he's trying to take a step forward.

For example, this weekend, he was in Iowa announcing that he had completed the full Grassley, he had visited all 99 counties, something he had been working toward for months. And yet this overshadowed that a little bit. And the next day, he sort of dismissed it as if nothing happened. Take a listen to what he had to say instead about his efforts in 2024.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't care what they say about me. I don't care the arrows that they sling at me. I don't care about any of that, because it's not about me. It's about you. And it's about the future of this country.

So I will be able to lead because it's not going to be about my issues. It's going to be about your issues.


CONTORNO: So DeSantis is trying to portray himself as someone who is principled, someone who is -- there's not a lot of drama around, someone who won't have the chaos of an administration like we saw under former President Donald Trump.

And yet all these staff shakeups, all these changes he has had and some of the leaks that have come out of his operation and concerns about the fund-raising that he has suffered from over the past few months, it sort of undermines that message.

And that's one of the biggest concerns that his supporters have expressed and some of the people privately have told me, is that, look, we're trying to make this look like we're a more professional version of Trump, and yet we continue to have this kind of chaos and drama that we said we're above.

KEILAR: Yes, we see this video of him out of New Hampshire. He's trying to look like all is well, but, again, it looks like he's really trying. I mean, you're really getting that vibe off of him, Steve.

Steve Contorno, thank you so much for that report. We do appreciate it.

And the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments on the multibillion- dollar bankruptcy settlement with Purdue Pharma. At the heart of this case, should the Sackler family be immune from future lawsuits, despite the devastating public crisis caused by their drug OxyContin?

What we're hearing from inside court, we will have that next on CNN NEWS CENTRAL.