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Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper Discusses Tuberville Releasing Almost All Military Nominee Holds; U.S. Pressuring Israel On Civilian Deaths, IDF Encircling Southern Gaza City; Virginia Home Explodes After Suspect Fires Flare Gun; Federal Prosecutors To Use Trump's Continued Embrace Of 1/6 Rioters Against Him At Trial; FAA Announces Special Committee On Pilot Mental Health. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired December 05, 2023 - 13:30   ET



MARK ESPER, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Yes, look, great news, Brianna. Frankly, it is long overdue.

I am surprised that he backed down. That is startling as well.

But I spoke to a few Senators in recent days and, of course, there was a plan to operate a rule change, a temporary rule change that would allow the Senate to move most of these nominees through, except for the four stars.

I think he saw the writing on the wall and probably did not want to see that happen, probably thought that would hurt him.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Yes, he's obviously, as Manu said, was going to get rolled. But he had this changing reason, as I mentioned, for why he is doing this.

He still seems to be supporting hanging onto the holds for the four stars, by saying it should be looked at individually to see if some of them are "Woke."

What do you think about his reasoning for that and how it risks politicizing individual promotions of generals?

ESPER: Well, you know, myself and my predecessors, seven or eight of us wrote last spring that we thought this was a wrong move, that military officers should not be held up en block, that they were not implementing this policy or developing this policy, but they were being politicized as a result.

Look, if a member wants to hold up individual officers, that is fine. In fact, they can have that, they can have a talk and try to work it out behind the scenes.

I think, at this point at least, however many four stars are left, it should be able to quickly expedite and process them through.

I've argued that while Tuberville was doing this, which I thought should not have happened, it was wrong, I thought Chuck Schumer should have been moving as many officers through as he could.

Hopefully, this will all happen fairly quickly. It will take some time to move even 10 officers through if Tuberville decides to hold up each one of them. But at least, there is light at the end of the tunnel now.

KEILAR: Yes, four stars are important, you know? Obviously, they are the most decorated of these generals and these flag officers we are seeing here.

We originally had you on and I want to talk to you about what we are seeing in Israel. And Israel facing pressure from the U.S., to be more careful as it targets Hamas and to make sure that they are minimizing civilian casualties.

I wanted to talk to you about that because we heard an Israeli government spokesperson saying this morning that Israel is open to constructive feedback on minimizing civilian deaths.

But really, as long as it is consistent with Israel's goal of destroying Hamas. I think what we are hearing there is not a lot of receptivity on the part of Israel there.

In your view, does Israel risk a lot here, if, for the legitimacy at which it is executing its war, increasingly comes into question?

ESPER: Well, look, they are a democracy. They've signed up for the Geneva Conventions. They are bound to conduct themselves by the laws of land warfare.

And they should. It is important, not just in terms of tactical success on the ground, but it's also important with regard to how history records this moment in time and the strategic narratives, and how they are received after the fact, and what that means for the population of Gaza going forward.

So I think, for all those reasons, it is important that they take care, as much as it is important for the United States and other Western militaries to take care and conduct operations in accordance with the laws of land warfare.

I would hope we would see in the next phase less use of airstrikes, particularly with 2,000-pound bombs, and more use of infantry on the ground, which would be more precise, more discerning, and take better care to avoid collateral damage, and certainly, civilian casualties.

KEILAR: Are you seeing that as they zero in on Khan Younis, and expand their war in Gaza?

ESPER: It is hard to see that, Brianna. Because, like most people, I'm dependent on what the media reports on the ground, many of your reporters and others are able to get in. But it is hard to see the day-to-day combat, what is happening.

Now we do see airstrikes. It is hard to tell how big those are. And are they hitting in the really, really dense civilian areas? It is hard to tell.

But look, the outcome overtime we will see casualties. But they do need to take care. It is important as you conduct this war because, otherwise, again, they will have to deal with an enraged population after the fact in Gaza.

Because this will end at some point. And then there has to be -- the outcome has to be some type of governance of Gaza. And you have to figure out how you do that, and not create an even greater threat on your border once that happens.

KEILAR: Yes, certainly. That is obviously a warning that they are getting from so many folks in America, who have learned this lesson in a very difficult way.

Secretary Esper, great to have you. Thank you so much for taking the time.

ESPER: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: And coming up, a huge explosion leveling a home in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington D.C., just as police were trying to execute a search warrant. All of it caught on video. We will have the details on the investigation.



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Police and federal officials in Arlington, Virginia, are on the scene, examining the aftermath of a powerful house explosion.

The blast happened last night, inside the home of a man police say had been firing multiple rounds from a flare gun.

When officers responded to the scene to try to serve a search warrant, authorities say the home suddenly burst into pieces, with the resident still inside.


Neighbors captured the explosion on a video.

We should warn you, though, some of the images you are about to see might be disturbing.

CNN's Gabe Cohen has the details.




GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, police have the area in lockdown today, as officers sift through what is left of that house behind me, just across this field.

The rubble, still smoldering throughout the morning. If you look, you can see debris in the trees, and littered all across this neighborhood.

And we have watched as FBI and ATF agents have combed the area through fields and backyards, looking for any evidence.

And this afternoon, we are getting new video, just obtained by CNN, showing another angle of that massive blast. Take a look.





COHEN: Now police had been at the scene for close to four hours when that House exploded. They say, because the man who lived inside was holed up in the house, shooting flares, 30 to 40 of them across the neighborhood.

Remarkably, none of the officers who were outside that house were seriously injured.

We are still waiting for an update from police as to whether or not the man who was inside survived the blast.

We are expecting to get more information during a police press briefing coming up at 2:30 Eastern. We will be there.

Back to you.


SANCHEZ: Gabe Cohen, thank you so much for that.

Still plenty of more news to come on CNN NEWS CENTRAL. We are back in just a few minutes.



KEILAR: Just in, Justice Department prosecutors say they plan to present evidence at former President Trump's trial next year that his continued support for capital rioters helps to show he intended to inspire violence on January 6th.

CNN senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez, is joining us on this.

Evan, what more are we learning about this and how significant it is?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is significant, Brianna, because it is one of the things Donald Trump is not actually charged with. He is not actually charged with trying to inspire the insurrection on that day.

What he is charged with is inspiring to block the certification of the -- of Joe Biden's victory.

So what prosecutors are saying, though, is that all of his comments, certainly his embrace of the Proud Boys, things that he has said about the rioters, defending them, playing, for example, a national anthem sung by members of the January 6th rioters at one of his rallies, shows his intent was to block the certification of Joe Biden's victory on January 6th.

So I'll read you just a part of what prosecutors say in their finding.

They say, "Evidence of the defendant's post-conspiracy embrace of, particularly of violent, notorious rioters, is admissible to establish the defendant's motive and intent on January 6th."

So they're using the former president's own words, his embrace of the rioters, some of the violent rioters who are in prison. Some of them who have been convicted. His promise that he might pardon them after -- if he wins office again in 2024.

All of those things, they are going to use against him in this trial, which is coming up on March 4th.

Again, this is something that we have all speculated about, what they're going to do to try to show try to tie Donald Trump to the violence on January 6th. This is how prosecutors say they are going to do it.

KEILAR: Yes, look, you can have remorse for something even if you don't think you caused it or it was unintentional. We have not really seen that in the case from him after the fact. That could be very compelling.

Evan, thank you very much for the very latest there.

And still ahead, tackling mental health stigmas. The Federal Aviation Administration is establishing a special committee to look into pilots' mental health rules.

Stay with us.



SANCHEZ: The FAA just announced it's convening a special committee to change mental health rules for pilots. It comes just one day before the first ever National Transportation Safety Board summit, centered on how the airline industry deals with pilots' mental health issues.

Let's bring in CNN aviation correspondent, Pete Muntean. Pete, the stigma surrounding mental health conditions and pilots has

dogged the FAA for some time. Why is it that they are addressing this now?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, never before has this stigma been talked about so openly. But what is interesting here is the head of the NTSB tells me, it is the FAA that created this stigma.

Here is the problem. Pilots must report any mental health issue to the FAA, but then they risk losing their medical certification and their ability to fly, their livelihood.

The reality is that so many pilots lie to the FAA so that they can fly. And if they are caught, they face very severe penalties. You see the bind there.

The FAA just announced it is convening a special rulemaking committee to take another look at its policies.

Here's where the FAA says about its mission. "Provide recommendations to the FAA on ways to identify and break down any remaining barriers that discourage pilots from reporting and seeking care for mental health issues."

The spark that lit the fire under the FAA happened on October 25th. That is when off-duty co-pilot, Joseph Emerson, was riding in the cockpit of an Alaska Airlines flight. They say he essentially tried to crash the plane.

Emerson told police he thought he was in a dream, recently experimented with magic mushrooms, had been depressed for months, if not years.

That incident inspired the NTSB to convene tomorrow's first-of-its- kind mental health summit. We will speak from experts in the aviation and mental health fields. Also pilots who have been caught in this broken system.

Of course, there are pilots who are pretty skeptical of this new FAA announcement. The FAA special committee has until the end of March to suggest new rules to the agency.


SANCHEZ: Now, Pete, it strikes me that, just yesterday, we were here talking about issues with the air traffic controllers. Do we think some of these new rules, reconsideration of the rules might apply to them?

MUNTEAN: Pilots need to hold a medical certificate. So do air traffic controllers. And they have been under tremendous stress lately.

Not only because of the severe understaffing that the FAA had had problems within the air traffic control workforce, but also the fact that controllers are working overtime, in some cases, six-day weeks with 12-hour shifts.

So they, of course, need some mental health help here, too, and because of that stress that is facing them. So hopefully, this can potentially lead to some new rules suggestions for them as well.

SANCHEZ: Yes, major implications for travel connected to this story.


SANCHEZ: Pete Muntean, thank you so much for the reporting.

MUNTEAN: You bet.

SANCHEZ: Still more news to come on our breaking news. Justice Department prosecutors say they plan to present evidence at Donald Trump's trial next year about his embrace of some January 6th insurrectionists. What it could mean for his case.