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Attack on Iranian Consulate in Damascus; Iran vows a decisive response to the attack; Israeli Forces Withdraw from Gaza Hospital; Netanyahu Faces Continued Protests; Risks of an expanded conflict and the political calculus within Israel amid ongoing protests; Biden Campaign's Focus on Black Voters; Speaker Johnson Struggles with Ukraine Aid Dilemma. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 01, 2024 - 14:00   ET




BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: We begin this hour of CNN News Central with major breaking news. At least five people, including a top Iranian military commander, have been killed in an attack on Iran's consulate building in Damascus, Syria. This is all according to the Iranian ambassador there. Video footage from the scene shows smoke pouring out from a building next to the Iranian embassy. Iran's ambassador is claiming that the building was hit by six missiles fired by Israel. Let's get the latest now with CNN's Natasha Bertrand, who's been tracking this story. Natasha walk us through the details.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah Boris, this is a very significant attack. According to Iran's ambassador to Syria, at least five people were killed in this strike that essentially leveled Iran's consulate in Damascus. And he put the blame squarely on Israel. Now we have not gotten confirmation from the Israelis about whether or not, these were their missiles that destroyed this building, but we are learning from Iranian state media that a top Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander was killed in this attack. This veteran commander of the IRGC who was the head of the IRGC's ground forces. The IRGC is of course, Iran's military wing, and importantly, he was a member, according to Iranian state media, of Iran's Quds Force, which is responsible for some of the more dramatic operations that Iran carries out around the world. And so Iran has now said that it is going to respond quote decisively.

And the question of course is how is this going to escalate the conflict. The State Department is responding at this hour, and they are saying that they are in conversations with partners in the region to try to gather more information about just what happened here. But importantly according to State Department spokesperson Matt Miller. He said we were always concerned about anything that would be escalatory or cause an increase of conflict in the region. And so the U.S. of course does not want to see this escalate. And It is important to note that we have seen a dramatic drop-off, to the point where they have completely ceased in attacks by Iran-backed militants in Syria and Iraq on U.S. troops who are stationed in those countries. The question now of course is as Iran vows to respond extremely decisively to this attack on its consulate in Damascus, will those attacks start up again?

Is there going to be some kind of dramatic ramification here because of this strike? But again, still no word from the Israelis on whether this was a strike carried out by their fighter jets, by their missiles. But of course, the State Department continuing to try to get in touch with all of the relevant partners in the region to figure out what happened.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, concerns had somewhat eased that the conflict in Gaza would escalate beyond and further in the region. But now that appears to be potentially changing. Natasha Bertrand, thank you so much for the update. Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: After a two-week siege, Israeli troops have withdrawn from Gaza's al-Shifa hospital. It's not the first time that they've raided that hospital, but this time it reportedly resulted in hundreds of deaths and entire city blocks being reduced to rubble. A witness in Gaza telling CNN, quote, it feels like a horror movie. Israel says Hamas and affiliated militants were using the medical complex as a base to regroup. Let's go to CNN's Melissa Bell, who is live for us in Jerusalem. And Melissa, protests, obviously, where you are, have been calling on Prime Minister Netanyahu to resign. They continue, what details have emerged in the aftermath of this hospital siege?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a great deal of anger amongst these crowds about exactly the kind of images you've just been talking about. Those scenes of devastation nearly six months on, not just from the start of this war, but also, of course, for this crowd here from the hostage-taking that provoked it. And we've been hearing, the crowds are petering out now, we've been hearing from hostage family members. But also, and I think it's important, Brianna, what we've seen in this crowd today are a lot of former soldiers. IDF soldiers, commanders, former IDF commanders were extremely unhappy about how this war has been prosecuted, how long it's lasted. Have a listen to what one former IDF head had to say.



YAIR GOLAN, FORMER ISRAELI KNESSET MEMBER: I doubt that the military operation was crucial to the destiny of Israel. We need to remember we have experienced a terrible massacre of Israeli civilians. No nation is willing to take such an ordeal and say, all right, it's okay. So I think this is the most just war we ever conducted in the near past. But I think that right now this war is terribly conducted by this government.


KEILAR: All right, Melissa Bell, live for us in Jerusalem. Thank you so much for that report. Boris. SANCHEZ: Let's discuss the developments in the Middle East with CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger. His new book is out on April 16th. It's called New Cold Wars. David, I'm excited to read the book. Let's start with a conversation about the breaking news we led the hour with. The apparent strike on the Iranian consulate building in Damascus, Syria. The Iranian ambassador pointing the finger at Israel. Israel says it doesn't comment on foreign media reports. What do you make of the attack and the likelihood that this was potentially the IDF?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it seems that's the highest likelihood that it was the IDF. Not a certainty. It's a fascinating and in some ways risky move. You're going to now bet about how the Iranians will respond. The Israelis until now have taken the position that they will go after Israel. The Iranians will go after Israel, the Iranians will go after Israel, the Iranian commanders or anyone else who they believe are masterminds behind the attacks on Israelis from Lebanon and all that. But the problem is here that they are still deeply engaged in Gaza. And the whole effort has been to keep this war from spreading to the north. And this may well give the Iranians an excuse to do that until now, as you've heard from Natasha Bertrand. We've seen something of a calming down and this could undo all of that and inflame the situation pretty quickly.

SANCHEZ: David, put that into context for us in the prism of where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right now, because he is at a point of vulnerability as we've watched these protests escalate over recent days and especially into the weekend, as we saw with Melissa Bell, with tents being set up outside the Israeli parliament. What is the significance of the timing here?

SANGER: Well, there are two possibilities that come immediately to mind. One is that the timing was merely a military moment of opportunity where they knew where these commanders were and they had an open shot at them and one where they thought they might be able to minimize civilian casualties, although right now we don't know what those casualties may have been. The other is that Prime Minister Netanyahu sees the risk of an expanded war as politically beneficial, potentially to him that. You know, his entire reason for staying in office has been to defend Israel in the wake of the October 7 attacks and, of course, the American concern is that he has done this in the hardest possible way, in a way that has cost at least 30,000 lives so far, and those protests that you saw marked sort of the end of that period of grace that Netanyahu had where the Israelis sort of took the view that even if he was not their preferred leader, he was their wartime leader. And you're now seeing that fracture. He may see some benefit in the war revving up.

SANCHEZ: Well, that is the criticism from some of the folks that are calling for new elections. They say that he's capitalized on this tragedy and this war to further cement his position in leadership and dodge severe criticism of his handling, not only of the war, but of the lead up to the war and the intelligence failures that led up to October 7th. As we watch these protests ramp up, is there in your mind enough support for new elections in Israel that may see Benjamin Netanyahu move on as prime minister?


SANGER: I think there is probably growing support, but it's pretty remarkable within Israel about how much support there is for the war, even with the Western criticism of the excesses of the civilian casualties. You heard in that earlier report some Israelis saying this war has been conducted in the worst possible way. Whether or not it has been the militarily worst possible way, it has certainly eroded support for Israel around the world. Here in the United States as well, you hear American officials quietly saying that they're having a very hard time even defending the American continued provision of arms to the Israelis when they're talking to their allies. So, you know, we're at a break point right now. Where Netanyahu is trying to hold together his coalition internally and trying to create the conditions that would enable him to put off those investigations you referred to. Because once those start, he's not going to be in control of the agenda.

SANCHEZ: Right. I do want to ask you about the inflection point also coming as Israel has vowed this operation into Rafah. The U.S. has tried to dissuade Israeli officials. From pursuing it, they see it as potentially a huge, a major catastrophe for Israel in the context of that, the global optics, as you described it, the world waning in its support for Israel and its cause. Is there an opportunity for the U.S. here, as we understand that they're going to be holding virtual meetings between Biden administration officials and members of Netanyahu's government? Is there an opportunity really here for the United States to try to persuade Netanyahu to move away from an operation into Rafah or to perhaps reconsider the way that it's executed?

SANGER: Well, the argument that the U.S. has been making is if you're going to go into Rafah, do it in some other ways, using commando raids, going after the militants here, the way Israel, a generation ago, went after the perpetrators of the Munich tragedy at the Olympics, they hunted them down over a period of years, but obviously didn't engage in the kind of broad bombing we've seen here. It's possible that Netanyahu may be able to at some point say, I wanted to go into Rafah, we needed to, but the Americans wouldn't let me. And that might actually be somewhat to his political advantage. So far, though, that's not what he's done in the months leading up to this. He has listened to the Americans and then gone on with his plans anyway. But in this case, so much of the population of Gaza has been pushed down to the southern end that if he goes into Rafah right in the midst of that, you're going to see probably horrific civilian casualties and I suspect the Americans are saying to him that could be a breakpoint.

SANCHEZ: David Sanger, always appreciate your perspective and expertise. Thanks for being with us.

SANGER: Great to be with you.

SANCHEZ: Look forward to reading the book. Thanks again. Still ahead this hour on CNN News Central. The Biden campaign has a new strategy, the very specific voting group they are building the president's schedule around. And fast food workers in California getting a major pay raise today. But could the new minimum wage backfire? We'll discuss. Plus, he's already serving two life sentences and now convicted killer Alec Murdoch just got handed more time in prison. The crimes he was just sentenced for coming up. things. You're one sick pigeon. Them dishes kept the rain off our

beaks. We just have different priorities is all. Satellite-free DirecTV. Never thought I'd see the day. Well, our lifespans are quite short.



KEILAR: President Joe Biden's re-election campaign is plotting out a potential path to victory in November, with a key voting block now getting a big share of their attention. CNN is learning the president's travel schedule is being built in part around maximizing his time in black communities. And that's because his campaign now believes a win could very well hinge on black voters. Concerning them, the fact that former President Donald Trump is making headway with those voters in recent polls. We have CNN's Isaac Dovere here with us now. Isaac, tell us about what the campaign is doing and just how worried they are about losing some black voters. It's not as if they would have to lose all or a significant portion. This is really something that happens in the margins.

EDWARD-ISAAC DOVERE, CNN SENIOR REPORTER: Yeah. And importantly, it's not as much worrying about black voters moving to Trump because that doesn't seem to be happening in large numbers, but not showing up. If you look at the states where Joe Biden wants to win, wants to be competitive and hopes for a second term, those battleground states, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, those all have large concentrations of black voters in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, right? You go through the list there. And that is the focus here of getting people to turn out, to make up part of the winning coalition that Biden will need to have in November. You go through the list of what black turnout has been over the last bunch of years. And when black voting, black voter turnout has been higher, it has led to good things for Democrats winning presidential elections.


That's what they're thinking about here. But if you look at what happened in 2016, Donald Trump won 8% of black voters, according to CNN exit polls in 2020, 12%. Again, not a huge hit, but he has played into a level of disenchantment and disengagement among a lot of black voters, feeling like the political process isn't doing much for them, and there's really no point. And if they don't show up, then those are votes Joe Biden's going to need to make up elsewhere, and it's harder to do.

KEILAR: How confident are they that he can perform close to what he did in 2020? And what are they doing to try to make that happen?

DOVERE: It's a big challenge. And the hope here for the Biden campaign is to be able to say, look at the things that Joe Biden has done. Look at student loan relief. Look at programs that came out of the American Rescue Plan. All sorts of things that have been to move wealth in a direction for black Americans where they want it to be. It's a huge growth in that area. But what they have been trying to do is go to black voters who have not been hearing from politicians. I was in Wisconsin talking to people for this article that's up on our site, and they said to me that in some of the community engagement they've been doing, they call it relational organizing, having people pick up their cell phones and text their own contacts, or go to community events and say, look, I just want to have a conversation with you. Talk about this. That half of the people that they're contacting that way were not in the voter file there, which means that they weren't being talked to by the campaigns in 2022 or in 2020. This is a generation, essentially, of black voters that have now to be engaged by the Biden campaign if they want to get them to where they need them to be in November.

KEILAR: Yeah, really interesting. And they have a lot of work cut out --


KEILAR: -- for themselves. Isaac, thank you so much for the great reporting.

DOVERE: Thank you.

KEILAR: Boris.

SANCHEZ: Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Mike Johnson is in a fight for his own political future, with his gavel being challenged by a member of his own party. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene threatening Johnson with a motion to vacate, much like we saw happen with his predecessor, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Johnson, meantime, has found an unlikely ally, the lawmaker responsible for ousting his predecessor, Congressman Matt Gaetz. Gaetz tells CNN he's strategizing with Johnson, and the speaker is aware that his fate is tied to a Ukraine aid bill. Let's bring in CNN's Melanie Zanona with more details. Melanie, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have been pushing for this bill that Gaetz has been adamantly opposed to. So what does it tell us that Gaetz is now strategizing with the House speaker?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, I think it's very clear that Speaker Johnson is paying close attention to the demands of his right flank. Remember, he already infuriated Republican hardliners when he put that bipartisan spending deal on the floor late last month, and so he cannot afford to infuriate them again when it comes to Ukraine, or else he could face a floor vote on a motion to vacate his speakership. That is why you've seen Johnson strategizing and consulting with Republicans like Matt Gaetz, and Johnson has been working over the recess break to put together a Ukraine proposal that is the least politically damaging for his speakership. Arman Raju caught up with Matt Gaetz about some of his conversations with the speaker. Here's what he had to say.


REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): I'm glad that the speaker hasn't rolled over to the $95 billion Ukraine supplemental that the Senate passed, and I think that he's forging a better path on that issue as we speak. I talk to the speaker often. He's a good friend of mine. We've sat next to each other for seven years. I gave the speaker some unsolicited advice that we've got to get into a fighting posture, and I was very pleased with how the speaker received that advice.


ZANONA: Now, Johnson has not yet finalized a Ukraine bill, but he has offered clues about what it might look like, including turning the aid into a loan. That is something that Donald Trump has floated, and clearly that would be a way to try to get some skeptical Republicans on board with Ukraine funding. But Johnson has to be careful here because he does need significant Democratic support to get this thing over the finish line. So some really big decisions for Johnson in the coming days that will not only have implications for Ukraine and its war against Russia, but also implications for his speakership. Boris.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, that motion to vacate hanging like a cloud over the conference. Melanie Zinona, thank you so much. Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Let's talk more now with CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger is with us here. It's interesting. He's looking for a proposal on Ukraine aid with some innovations. So this idea of a loan is sort of interesting, but I just wonder if you think that there's a path forward to him doing all of that and keeping his job as he talks to some of these folks.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: There may be, if he can convince enough Democrats that the loan makes sense, where would it be? Or there's some talk about getting what they call a pay for, you know, balancing it out, getting the money from somewhere else.

KEILAR: So it's not deficit spending?


BORGER: So it's not deficit spending. And all of this is just moving numbers around. And I don't know that a lot of Democrats are going to buy that. So I think not only does he have to get a buy-in from people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and conservatives, even Matt Gaetz, but he has to get a buy-in from the Democrats because his margin is so narrow, he has no room to maneuver. So his job is on the line and money for Ukraine is on the line. And that is, you know, that's the most important thing here. And by the way, a lot of Republicans want the aid to Ukraine. So he's got a job he's got to do.

KEILAR: Do you think at a certain point, some of these Republicans who are inclined to do the motion to vacate, to fire Johnson, or at least consider it, start to realize that, you know, they're just going to go through this, all this drama all over again and look terrible.

BORGER: They look goofy, but they look like they can't govern. They have the slimmest majority you can possibly have. And they look like they don't know what they can do with it. I mean, this has been the least productive Congress in recent memory. And this is something that's hanging over their heads, that's very important to most people in the House, by the way. And, you know, they look, they look absurd and ridiculous. And it's not going to help them with the voters in the election.

KEILAR: So you just heard Isaac Dovier's reporting about how the Biden campaign is trying to target Black voters because they really are, could be the key in these states that matter so much to him. How does he break through?

BORGER: Well, I think he does it in a bunch of ways. He's traveling to all of these areas, it's going to be helpful. But I personally think he's got to use a lot of surrogates. Joe Biden is somebody these voters are not enthusiastic about. And so what he's got to do is use different surrogates who might appeal to these voters and get them out there on the campaign trail and also remind them of what he has done, you know, child care tax credits. Remind them what it was like during COVID and how bad things were, and remind them about the American Rescue Plan and what he has done for them.

And I think people have amnesia, you know, they have a little bit of amnesia about Donald Trump and what Donald Trump did or did not do for Black voters. And so I think he's got to get that message out there. And it's not, you know, it's not going to be easy because the poll numbers show that somewhere upwards of 20% now of Black voters in these states, in some of the battleground states, say they're going to vote for Donald Trump. I'm not sure that I believe that, that it will turn out that way. But it's, it's a big hole for them because they won that vote by such a majority and they have not one vote to spare.

KEILAR: Yeah. And he's been creeping up with the support from Black voters Donald Trump has over the elections, marginally.

BORGER: Right.

KEILAR: But that also matters, especially when you have some folks who might say, I'm not going to participate. I don't want to participate in this. You mentioned amnesia. There are also a lot of people who seem to have amnesia about January 6th.

BORGER: Right.

KEILAR: Right. And the possibility of violence in politics. That Donald Trump is very aware of, and yet we saw over the weekend or on Friday, he shared a video that included this picture of President Biden tied up and gagged in the back of a pickup truck. And I just think we need to be very clear about what this kind of thing means when Donald Trump knows what some of his supporters are capable of.

BORGER: Well, it's, it's a permission slip for people to act inappropriately and violently and lower the level of political discourse in this country. And it, it, you know, it also, I'm also would include the way he acts towards judges in his court cases and what he sends out on Truth Social. It is a permission slip for people to behave badly. And in that particular case, to behave violently. And, you know, that is also something I think that the Biden folks need to remind people of, because, you know, this election is going to be won or lost by people who are not enthusiastic, right?

They're not enthusiastic. And they have a few choices. They can decide they want to vote for Biden or Trump. They can stay home and sit on the couch or, and this is really important, they can be so fed up, they'll decide to go with an independent candidate. Like an RFK Jr. And that will hurt Joe Biden tremendously. And so, you know, they've got to point out to these voters, look at what he's doing here and, and remind them what it was like.