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Interview With Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA); Capitol Prepares For Right-Wing Rally; California Recall Election. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired September 14, 2021 - 15:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Top of the hour. I'm Alisyn Camerota.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: I'm Victor Blackwell. Good to be with you.

Right now, eight months since the attacks on the national on the nation's Capitol, we are witnessing another assault on democracy. It's happening in today's recall election of California's governor.

So the polls in California are close -- they close, rather, at 11:00 Eastern tonight. But Larry Elder, the prime contender to replace Gavin Newsom, is already planning for his own loss by trying to plant doubt about the results.

Now, Elder says, if Newsom wins, it would be based on Democratic cheating.

CAMEROTA: Of course, he's echoing former President Trump's lies.

So is that the new GOP playbook? Try to win and just claim voter fraud if you don't?

Let's go to CNN's Josh Campbell at San Francisco's City Hall.

So, Josh, how is Election Day going so far?


We are inside City Hall. This is serving a dual purpose as both an election processing center, as well as a voting center. And I want to show you something that really gives you a picture of how this mail-in ballot is impacting things.

These stanchions that you see down there, these were set up to corral any crowds that come to vote at the last minute. Of course, you can see it's almost completely empty back there. Authorities here tell us that they think that's because two reasons. First, there were so many people that cast their ballot by mail. And, secondly, they're preparing for possibly the after-work crowd, people who may be coming in to vote whenever they get off work.

So you see a number of people behind us here answering questions, taking some ballots that people decide to drop off. We will show you that ballot, of course, to remind people here what voters are faced with.

There are two questions. Do you want to recall Gavin Newsom, the current Democratic governor of this state? And, if so, who do you want to select? And, of course, we will hope to get results later on in the day at this processing center.

We're not going to hear until 8:45:00 p.m. local time about what this initial wave is actually looking like as it relates to voting.

Showing you some of the numbers, they have already received over 200,000 ballots here that they have processed, some 580 locations in the San Francisco area here that will be sending their ballots to this location to be processed, so a lot of work going on here behind the scenes.

Of course, in San Francisco, this is a largely blue area. We don't expect that Gavin Newsom won't get much support here. But what we're hearing from Democratic consultants is that they're focused on the turnout. This is, of course, a statewide race. And so they're hoping that the volume from this area, the Bay Area, will help possibly offset any surges in other, redder areas of the state.

Finally, I want to mention something that you led with, and that is this big lie, the election fraud. God bless the poll workers here, the people who volunteer their time. I can tell you most of the people that have come have been very respectful, though we have heard -- it's almost like 2020 conspiracy theory redux, people coming to talk about Dominion votings and calling mail-in voting a fraud.

Yet you see these people patiently doing their job, trying to ensure a safe ballot process. And that's what we're seeing behind us.

BLACKWELL: All right, Josh Campbell for us there.

Josh, thank you so much.

Let's discuss further now.

Marisa Lagos is now with us. She's a correspondent for the California politics and government desk at KQED, the public broadcast station in Northern California, also co-hosts the podcast "Political Breakdown."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let's start here with, should the governor, if he wins tonight, is this specifically due to Larry Elder being out front, not just that he keeps his job, but that the alternative is Larry Elder?

MARISA LAGOS, KQED: I mean, I certainly think, Victor, that's probably helped fire up some Democrats who polls were showing this summer we're kind of lackadaisical, maybe not that engaged.

But, look, this is a state where Republicans are outnumbered nearly 2- 1 by Democrats. The whole game for the governor and his team was to get turnout. They were not trying to persuade voters. They were just trying to get their base out there. And it looks like it's working. [15:05:07]

We don't have to just rely on polls. Data trackers that are looking at all those ballots that have been returned so far show that basically twice as many Democrats have already returned ballots as Republicans. So, if that trend holds, then Newsom should be breathing easy tonight.

But, of course, we have to see. A lot of people will probably also be voting in person. And observers expected that we would see a kind of surge of more conservative votes in person, but it's still going to be tough to catch up to the numbers of just those ballots already turned in by Newsom's core base.

CAMEROTA: Marisa, it's so funny, because I hear so many voters say that after Donald Trump's win, they don't believe any of the conventional wisdom. The ballots returned, the polls, they're not counting on anything, because there's always possibility of a surprise.

But back to Larry Elder and what he's planning, it's nice of him to telegraph for us his game plan if he loses. So here he is explaining it.


LARRY ELDER (R), CALIFORNIA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: We have lawyers all set up already to go to file lawsuits in a timely fashion.

They're going to cheat. We know that.


CAMEROTA: OK, so he's already, before the ballots are counted, saying that there's going to be cheating.

And, obviously, we have seen the impact that those kinds of statements from Donald Trump have had on this country, the violence, the division, . What happens in California if Larry Elder loses, and then makes a big stink and claims that there was voter fraud?

LAGOS: Well, I mean, practically, we saw all of those lawsuits in 2020 get thrown out too. So unless there's some compelling evidence that we're unaware of that Elder has come up with, I mean, there's no reason to think that this election is insecure.

I think, if you talk to voting elections officials across the state in both red and blue counties, they will tell you that exact same thing. I actually think this is posing a big problem for the Republican Party here, right? They have spent most of this year trying to sort of fire up their base to boot Newsom out, and now you have the top candidates saying, oh, it doesn't matter anyway, this election is rigged.

I'm seeing the former head of the Republican Party here Ron Nehring on Twitter absolutely blasting Larry Elder, because he feels, I think, that this is going to potentially suppress the conservative vote. So we may see court cases. I mean, obviously, those will be dealt with where they're supposed to.

But I have seen no evidence. And I think that this is potentially going to make this margin even bigger for Newsom if Republicans hear this message and just decided to stay home.

CAMEROTA: Marisa Lagos, thank you very much.

LAGOS: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: OK, now to this.

The U.S. Capitol once again will be surrounded by fencing. This is a protective measure that the Capitol Police have just approved. And they say it's because they're bracing for violent or armed protesters who plan to show up at this right-wing rally this Saturday.

BLACKWELL: So, this is the Justice for J6 rally. It's organized by a former Trump campaign staffer to support the Capitol insurrectionists.

And we're learning, in the days after January 6, former President Trump's behavior was so alarming, it prompted his top military officer to take extraordinary steps to make sure that his rage about the election loss did not lead to a nuclear attack. Those are the revelations from a new book.

The name of it is "Peril" to be released later this month. CNN obtained an early copy. And the book details the pressure then- President Trump put on his vice president, Mike Pence, to overturn the election results.

CAMEROTA: Here's their conversation, according to "Peril."

Would you like to play President Trump or Vice President Pence?

BLACKWELL: I will take Pence.


So here's Trump: "But wouldn't it be almost cool to have that power?"

BLACKWELL: "No, I have done everything I could and then some to find a way around this. It's simply not possible."

CAMEROTA: "No, no, no, you don't understand, Mike. You can do this. I don't want to be your friend anymore if you don't do this."

BLACKWELL: And scene.

CAMEROTA: Joining us now, Margaret Talev, CNN political analyst and managing editor at Axios, and Alice Stewart, CNN political commentator and a Republican strategist.

Ladies, great to have you here.

Margaret, the bombshells keep coming from Bob Woodward's new book. Jamie Gangel brought us some excerpts of that. And we knew that there had been a conversation where President Trump had pressured Vice President Pence, but we didn't know, frankly, that it wasn't Mike Pence that had the spine of steel.

He called former Vice President Dan Quayle and said, is there anything I can do? You don't understand the pressure that I'm under. And Dan Quayle said, no, Mike. No, there's nothing you can do. You have to listen to the parliamentarian.

I mean, it's just a fascinating new insight into how that all went down.

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, Alisyn, I think that the excerpts that are out now as part of the early rollout of this book, combined with the reporting that they have done, that we have done over the last several months, gives us so much insight into both the president's -- former president's mind-set about trying to pull troops out of Afghanistan by bypassing the system and the president's plans to try to bypass the democratic system to try to stay in office.


And we're talking about all this against the backdrop of this California recall. Like, look, if you live in California, you know the lay of the land. You know it's about half Democrats, about a quarter Republicans. The rest are independents.

You know that, if a Democrat retains his office, it doesn't mean that anything was stolen. But that debate and that conversation, that whipping up of an audience of a base just days ahead of another protest scheduled for the Capitol essentially to commemorate the January 6 protesters, that is what is driving so much concern.

And the excerpts of their reporting shows why, because the former president was quite intent on using any lever he had or thought he could try to have and to try to pull everyone in his wake in to assist that effort.

BLACKWELL: Well, listen, it seemed to work and have taken over the party, Alice.

There's this poll from CNN that shows -- the question here is, how important is it for you to believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election?; 59 percent of people believe that that is required to be part of the party. I mean, three out of five here think that's the cost of admission to be a member of your party.

Where does this go on -- a few days ahead of this rally for January 6?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Let me just say, Victor, I don't know any of those people in that percentage, because most of the people that I speak with in the Republican Party, the rational-minded people, recognize the fact that we had free and fair elections, and Joe Biden is the duly elected president, and there was not widespread voter fraud.

(CROSSTALK) BLACKWELL: That's a small minority, though.

STEWART: Exactly.

But the key moving forward is that, for all intents and purposes, Donald Trump is the de facto head of the Republican Party. And the base of the party will continue to rally behind him and stay behind him. But we need to grow from that.

Politics is the game of addition. We need to grow from that. And I think what is concerning is what we had -- what we're hearing in the excerpts from this book is that there's been a sense during the 2020 election, Donald Trump, for some purposes, stayed in his lane and was able to be someone that we could trust that wouldn't step outside the lane.

But once they lost and wouldn't accept the results, the guardrails were down, which is why we had people like Mike Pence come in, General Milley come in, and concern about what he would do. And inciting the insurrection was a bad outcome.

And it should not have happened. And the more concerning information that we're going to hear out of this book is the lengths that people had to go to with regard to the president's efforts to try and withdraw troops from Afghanistan without full input from the military.

CAMEROTA: But, Alice, on that note, I just want to ask you, because what we're seeing in California seems like it's a blueprint of the Republicans' new game plan for elections, which is try hard to win, if you don't win, claim immediate voter fraud, and then try to install Republican loyalists into state positions that could fudge the results somehow.

And then, if neither of those things work, take up arms and go for a violent protests in the nation's Capitol, as we will see this coming -- well, as Capitol Police fear we will see this coming weekend.

And so, I mean, what do you think of that Larry Elder already claiming voter fraud? That just seems -- it seems to be the new Republican mantra, instead of losing.

STEWART: It's a bad formula for defeat.

And, look, it didn't work for Donald Trump. It did not work in Georgia for the two key Senate races. And it's not going to work here in California. And when this recall does not go through, it is because of Larry Elder, and not Governor Gavin Newsom.

This was supposed to be a referendum on the governor and his failed leadership with COVID. And it's become about Larry Elder. And the fact that, as you say, he is already acknowledging that he may potentially lose this and is going to blame it on voter fraud is ludicrous. California has 2-1 Democrats.

Of course, early voting will be in favor of the Democrats. But in this recall election, this should be about not just turning out the base that Larry Elder really caters to, but those Democrats and independents who have been frustrated with Gavin Newsom. Those are the people that need to come out.

And with -- this nonsense about voter fraud before any vote has been counted is not going to get people up and vote.

BLACKWELL: Well, you say nonsense. They see strategy. And we will see how far this goes once the votes are counted, actually.

Alice Stewart, Margaret Talev, thank you both.

STEWART: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: So, the U.S. military says its final drone strike on a car in Kabul was to take out a legitimate terrorist target.

But a CNN investigation is casting doubt over that claim.

CAMEROTA: Plus, the shortage of school bus drivers is dire now across the country. It has prompted the National Guard to step in.



CAMEROTA: OK, a CNN investigation is raising new questions about what happened during that deadly drone strike in Kabul just hours before U.S. troops left Afghanistan.

The Pentagon says a missile successfully targeted an ISIS-K member in a vehicle with explosives bound for the airport. However, mounting evidence suggests that that strike killed an Afghan working from a -- working with a U.S. aid organization, along with nine other civilians, including children.


BLACKWELL: CNN senior national security correspondent Alex Marquardt is with us now.

So what's the result of this investigation?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, guys, this CNN investigation does raise serious doubts about whether the strike in Kabul was actually on an ISIS-K target, as the Pentagon has claimed.

Now, as you mentioned, this happened two weeks ago. A car was targeted by a Hellfire missile fired by a drone in what Central Command called a righteous strike.

But we have spoken with family and colleagues of the victim who was targeted. He's a -- he was a 43-year-old father of seven named Zemari Ahmadi. And they say he was an aid worker. Nine others were killed in the strike, including seven children, three of whom were just toddlers. Now, we have spoken with two bomb experts who have consulted with CNN.

They dispute the military's claims that there was what the military called a significant secondary explosion after the strike, which the Pentagon has said was proof of more explosives in the car.

All told, CNN has spoken with 30 different people for this investigation, which was led by journalists Sandi Sidhu and Julia Hollingsworth. Three of those people who they interviewed were colleagues of Ahmadi's who were with him that very day. A U.S. official with knowledge of this operation who spoke was CNN told us that the U.S. military never knew who was driving that white Toyota Corolla that Ahmadi was in.

The military was following it based on intelligence and chatter that they had been monitoring. The officials said that they saw the car leave an ISIS-K safe house, and that they followed it for eight hours before launching the strike.

Now, remember, this came after that horrific suicide bombing at Kabul Airport, which killed more than 170 Afghans and left 13 American service members dead. The Biden administration at the time had been warning of another imminent ISIS-K attack.

But now there are significant questions about whether this aid worker, Ahmadi, who worked for a U.S. based NGO for 15 years, was, as the U.S. has claimed, an ISIS-K facilitator with explosives.

Here's what Secretary of State Tony Blinken had say earlier today about that strike.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): The guy the Biden administration droned, was he an aid worker or an ISIS-K operative?

ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The administration is, of course, reviewing that strike. And I'm sure that a full assessment will be will be forthcoming.

PAUL: So, don't know if it was an aid worker or an ISIS-K operative?

BLINKEN: I can't speak to that. And I can't speak to that in this setting in any event.

PAUL: So you don't know or won't tell us?

BLINKEN: I don't know because we're reviewing it.


MARQUARDT: So Secretary Blinken there under tough grilling from Senator Rand Paul.

The Pentagon also says it is investigating, but insists that the strike was based on what they called good intelligence -- Alisyn and Victor. CAMEROTA: Alex Marquardt, thank you very much for the investigation.

And joining us now to discuss this and more, we have Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California. He's a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for being here.


CAMEROTA: Can we just start with the investigation into that drone strike? Do you believe the Pentagon and the military's version of events? Do you think they're being truthful?

GARAMENDI: That's what we're going to investigate. Congress is investigating it. The military is and certainly the intelligence community.

We will find out and we will find out in short order. At the moment, what we know is what I believe is that we really don't know. And we're going to have to find out. And that's the process that's under way.

CAMEROTA: I mean, the Pentagon, the U.S. military says that they killed an ISIS-K terrorist in that drone strike, and that two other civilians were killed.

But witnesses say -- I mean, this is according to CNN and "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" -- that 10 civilians were killed, seven of them children. So how do you explain that discrepancy?

GARAMENDI: Well, certainly, it's inconsistent.

And the fact of the matter is that drone strike did kill children. And was the driver an ISIS-K or not? That's what the investigation will ultimately show. It also shows the risks and speaks to the concerns that the American military had at that time, just days after the horrific bombing; 13 American soldiers were killed.

And we still don't know the exact number of others that were killed in that. So there was a very intense situation, and there was a lot of information that there would be an additional bombing. Now, where -- what actually happened? Was this fellow ISIS-K or not? No doubt that there were children killed. That's a fact.

Beyond that, it remains to be determined in a thorough investigation. And we will know, I believe, in short order what the facts are.

CAMEROTA: OK, I want to move on to what Secretary of State's Tony Blinken said today. He appeared, obviously, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


And he still had a hard time answering the question of how many people, our allies and Americans, exactly the U.S. needs to help evacuate from Afghanistan. So here's that exchange.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have the numbers for SIV and for...

BLINKEN: So, the SIV numbers, that, we're tabulating right now, because we're trying to account for everyone who has come in. Some people remain in transit countries. Other people are now in the United States.


CAMEROTA: Congressman, do you think that should -- that question should be easier to answer?

GARAMENDI: No, I don't.

Let's go back to where we were two-and-a-half months ago. On the 25th of June, Ghani was in the U.S. Capitol and in the president's office assuring all of us that everything -- that the military was there, they were strong.

A month-and-a-half later, he left town, the total government collapsed and chaos ensued, most of which was on CNN and other stations. The reality is, it was a very chaotic situation, as people suddenly became aware that there was no government, and that the Taliban were going to take over Kabul.

So, in that situation, 120,000 Afghanis and other -- citizens from other countries were evacuated in a 14-day period, an incredible show of the ability of the American military to do something.

Now what is left in Afghanistan? Well, there's -- the numbers range from 200 to 100 or less than 100 Americans. Why they are still there, what their situation is, I think that the State Department and the intelligence community has more information, doesn't want to share that information for what should be obvious reasons.

With regard to the Afghan men and women that supported us over those 20 years, we know that perhaps 100,000 or 120,000 have left. There are others in other countries that have left. And we continue to work to bring out of Afghanistan additional Afghans who worked with us.

Some of that is done by private organizations. There's a military veterans organization that is very, very good at this. We continue in my own office to continue to work at this. I know the State Department is working very closely.

Wrong word. The State Department is working through others with the Taliban government to identify Americans and others that want to leave and should leave. So it's a work in process, obviously, a very difficult situation all the way around.

CAMEROTA: Congressman, while I have you, I just want to quickly get your comment on this new book by Bob Woodward called "Peril" in which he reports that General Milley, Joint Chiefs, was so worried by President Trump's unhinged behavior after the election that he, General Milley, called a secret meeting in his Pentagon office of top military brass and basically said to them, if you get calls, no matter who they're from, there's a process here, there's a procedure.

No matter what you're told, you do the procedure, you do the process, and I'm a part of the procedure, meaning he didn't want them responding really to calls from the commander in chief, unless he was involved.

As a member of the Armed Services Committee, do you see that as an end-run somehow around the commander in chief?

GARAMENDI: Of course.

Trump was unhinged by the election, by his loss in the election. And he displayed that clearly from the evening of the election right on through to today. And he remains unstable with regard to his election loss. He clearly was deeply engaged in the 2,000 -- excuse me -- 1,000 January 6 insurrection.

He brought those people. He encouraged them to come. And he then encouraged them to march on the Capitol. All of that is known. The investigations of all of this will -- are under way now. The select committee is delving into all of these communications.

And it does not surprise me one bit that Woodward is ahead of the game. He has an incredible ability to get the facts out.

CAMEROTA: But does it surprise you to hear that General Milley -- I mean, I'm talking about what General Milley did.


CAMEROTA: You think that that's legitimate, that he would call a secret meeting and say don't listen to the commander in chief, basically?

GARAMENDI: I believe that Milley would do that.

Now, did he do it? Well, that remains to be seen, but I -- what I know of that general and his role as chief of staff is that he would call a meeting, given the concerns of an unhinged president at that period of time.

CAMEROTA: Congressman John Garamendi, we really appreciate you being on. Thank you.