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Biden Authorized Strike On Al-Qaeda Leader After Months-Long Intel Op; Pelosi Lands In Taiwan Amid Threats Of Chinese Retaliation; Trump & Pence Support Dueling Candidates In AZ GOP Primary. Aired 3- 3:30p ET

Aired August 02, 2022 - 15:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: It's a brand new hour on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Victor Blackwell.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: And I'm Alisyn Camerota. There are two big international stories that continue to unfold at this hour. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a Hellfire missile in a U.S. drone strike on Sunday morning. And now, CNN has identified the house in Kabul, Afghanistan where it happened.

BLACKWELL: And right now China is threatening to start air and sea military exercises around Taiwan. This is a direct response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's arrival there.

The House Speaker is the first high ranking US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years. A Taipei landmark flashed a sign that read 'Speaker Pelosi, welcome to Taiwan'.

CAMEROTA: China, meanwhile, is not mincing words. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement that read in part: "This is a serious violation of the one China principle and it has a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations.

CNN's National Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood joins us now. So Kylie, tell us what the reaction has been to all this.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes. Well, the Biden administration is really trying to bring the temperature down right now. You see China, rhetorically, raising the temperature and also doing a number of things.

Taiwan has said that a number of the government websites in the country have faced threats, cyber attacks in the last 24 hours as this trip was about to occur. We know that there have been war planes that China has sent into Taiwan's self-declared airspace. But the Biden administration is really warning China not to go too far here, because they - what they don't want to see is China overreact to this and then things to escalate out of control.

And so the Biden administration is making a few key points here. They're saying, listen, her trip is consistent with other lawmaker visits to Taiwan. But, of course, we should note, she is the most senior U.S. official to visit in 25 years. Twenty-five years ago, Xi Jinping wasn't president.

And they're also making the case, however, that the Biden administration has been very clear in their support for Taiwan, but they haven't changed the overall one China policy and that is what Pelosi also said in an op-ed that she wrote in The Washington Post that posted just as soon as she landed in Taiwan.

But she made the argument that because Taiwan is facing this incredible pressure from China right now, saying very clearly that they are under threat. She said that is why she has to visit. That is why she decided to make this visit and make it very clear that U.S. support for Taiwan stands in the face of these increasing threats from China.

BLACKWELL: All right. Let's see, we'll hear more about her visit there. Kylie Atwood, thank you.

CAMEROTA: Now to the American operation that killed the leader of al- Qaeda. Analysts believe one of these men could be the replacement for the 71-year-old Ayman al-Zawahiri. Over the weekend, a precision U.S. drone took down al-Zawahiri ending a decades-long manhunt and a months-long operation. There were no civilian casualties in the residential neighborhood in Afghanistan where that strike hit.

BLACKWELL: Al-Zawahiri, was the most wanted man in the world. There was a $25 million bounty on his head and the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands. He was the successor to Osama bin Laden and his personal doctor. Al-Zawahiri helped plot the September 11 attacks and at least two other bombings that killed Americans overseas.

CNN's Barbara Starr joins us from the Pentagon. So, Barbara, what have you learned about how the - they were able to pull this off?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we're really talking about here, bottom line, is a $25 million operation led by the CIA. So what might be most interesting is what they're not telling us. So what we know is that this was an area of Kabul, where for many months, they had tracked Zawahiri and his family. They believed he was hiding out there. They had been able to track him. How exactly they were doing that, they do not tell us.

We have every reason to believe, we are told, no American personnel were on the ground in Kabul. So it suggests that he was being tracked by drones or through communications intercepts, essentially listening in eavesdropping on operatives that he might have been in touch with any communications that he might have had.


And this had all been going on and developing since April, we're told. President Biden continuously getting briefed on it and then it was last Sunday when top advisors sat down with the President, the President made the final decision to go ahead after being assured that there was very minimal chance of civilian casualties, so here's the next thing that's really interesting. They do not have they - have acknowledged, they do not have DNA on any

of the remains, but that they are convinced it's Zawahiri based on visual evidence and other intelligence. This would be after he was hit by to Hellfire drones - Hellfire missiles on a drone over Kabul. They say they have this visual evidence that it is him and that he is dead. Victor? Alisyn?

BLACKWELL: Barbara Starr for us at the Pentagon, thank you.

CAMEROTA: Let's talk about this with David Sanger. He's our CNN National Security and Political Analyst. He's also White House and National Security Correspondent for The New York Times. And William Cohen who served as Secretary of Defense under President Clinton.

Secretary Cohen, I want to start with you. It's really interesting to hear all of the preparation that went into this. I mean, from the small model of the safe house where al-Zawahiri was hiding that was presented to President Biden, so he could understand the balcony and the rooms and all of that stuff to the technology, as Barbara was just describing, of how you can pull off a precision strike in the middle of a crowded residential neighborhood. So what jumps out to you?

WILLIAM COHEN, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE UNDER PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, Alisyn, first, let me thank you and Victor for having me on with David Sanger this afternoon who's one of the real experts in terms of National Security.

What it really points to is the persistence, the - you mentioned precision, and I would add patience and concern for human life. This is what that operation signaled to the world, I think, is that we have the patience, we have the ability, we have the technology to carry out a precision strike with minimum damage to anyone else in the region, so that's an extraordinary thing.

Barbara Starr has said that it would seem to be all through technology, I would like to think there was someone on the ground, someone - maybe several people that we have on the ground as far as assets are concerned, just so the Taliban and the others are worried that they're being watched and listened to and spied upon, just to keep there on their heels as much as possible. It may be technology alone, I would hope we have some human intelligence on the ground that helps us as well.

BLACKWELL: David, expound on this line from the piece you wrote from The Times on the killing of al-Zawahiri where you said that this speaks volumes about what the U.S. has accomplished in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, but also a lot about where the U.S. failed.

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Victor, I think Secretary Cohen got it, the key element, technologically, I mean, it would have been unimaginable in the months after the September 11th attacks 21 years ago that the United States would have been able to carry out a attack of this kind. We obviously searched for bin Laden and Zawahiri and other members of al-Qaeda for many years. And it was over that time that they developed the surveillance

capability, the human assets and then the ability using these Reaper drones, which is what we assume they used in this case to go do such a precision hit that left other family members in the building alive.

On the other hand, you have to consider the fact that Zawahiri was in Kabul, a capital that the United States helped control for two decades. And he felt comfortable enough to come back after the United States withdrew and the Taliban took control, which gives you a sense of how quickly the Taliban went back to the way that they were prior to September 11th.

Remember, the reason the Taliban was ousted to begin with was that they were harboring al-Qaeda operatives in the country. And clearly they must have known or someone must have known that Zawahiri was back in the country. So it tells you that a lot has gone back to the way it had been prior to 2001.

CAMEROTA: Secretary Cohen, does it surprise you that it took 21 years?

COHEN: Well, it doesn't really surprise me because if you're looking for a single individual that is capable of masking their whereabouts not using technology, blending in with a mass of people or in a cave, depending on whether it was bin Laden or now Zawahiri, it's difficult to go after a single individual and so on I think it took time and we wanted to be sure.


That's one of the reasons I mentioned our concerned about President Biden could have said just take out the building or just take out the neighborhood will surely get him. But he was concerned, as most presidents, I think, are concerned, and that's what separates us from other countries who want to minimize the killing of innocent civilians if we possibly can.

So I think all of those constraints considerations about who we are and what our message is to the world becomes important and contributes to the long delay. I just think it's because we are concerned about human life and others on.

BLACKWELL: David, Speaker Pelosi is now in Taiwan. We just reported that air and sea exercises from the Chinese military will begin soon. There was this forceful statement from the Chinese government. What are the implications of this visit? Should the U.S. look at this as more than bluster or are there some serious consequences of this visit? Not the first, I should say, of a U.S. official.

SANGER: Sure. There are serious consequences that are possible. I think everybody is trying to judge how the Chinese are going - to the Chinese government is going to temper or accelerate its moves. Not a surprise that they have conducted exercises. They've done that before when Speaker Pelosi and others were not there.

The surprise here is that they chose and it was a choice to make this big a deal of it. Obviously, we've had Speaker of the House go before Newt Gingrich in 1997, very different strategic environment as Secretary Cohen will tell you, because he was in office during that time.

But at the same time, I think there are some guardrails on the Chinese government here. They are highly reliant on Taiwan's semiconductor, the most sophisticated and largest semiconductor maker in the world. They don't want to do anything that would cut off their supply before they can make the same kind of chips themselves. I think they want to make a deep statement before the party Congress that will anoint Xi Jinping as president for at least another term, but maybe for life.

But at the same time, I think they are a little concerned about what the reaction would be around the world if they did a full scale invasion and I see no indication that they are ready to go do that. They've been watching what happened with Ukraine pretty carefully.

BLACKWELL: David Sanger, Secretary Cohen, always good to have you, thank you.

COHEN: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: It's primary day and five states and several Trump-backed candidates who are election deniers are on the ballot. What's at stake, next.

BLACKWELL: And Russia is issuing a new warning to the U.S. about a proposed prisoner swap involving Brittney Griner. Details ahead.



CAMEROTA: Voters in five states: Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, Washington and Arizona are heading to the polls today.

BLACKWELL: Several Trump-backed election deniers are facing off against incumbent Republicans who voted to impeach the former president. CNN reporters are covering all of the key races.


SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm Sara Murray in Norton Shores, Michigan where Republicans are turning out today to cast their ballot for the candidate they want to see take on Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, this fall. Tudor Dixon was confident as she voted here this morning after picking up an endorsement from former President Donald Trump. But her opponents like Kevin Rinke are already bashing her as the establishment candidate in race.

They're up against a number of election deniers including Garrett Soldano and Ryan Kelley who faced charges for his alleged participation in the January 6th riot. Kelley pleaded not guilty. After a chaotic Republican primary, voters finally get to make their choice today. JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORREPONDENT: I'm Jeff Zeleny

in St. Louis, Missouri. Voters have about four more hours left to cast their ballots in a race that has the nation's attention. That is the Republican Senate primary contest. It's effectively a three way tie going into Election Day. At least that's what Republican officials believe, between former governor, Eric Greitens, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler.

Of course, former President Donald Trump weighed in last night with an endorsement of sorts for the two Erics. Clearly not making a choice between Greitens or Schmitt, but Missouri voters clearly will make up their own minds in this race. Democrats believe if Greitens wins, he's, of course, a disgraced former governor, they could have a shot at winning this seat.

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR U.S. CORRESPONDENT: I'm Kyung Lah in Scottsdale, Arizona where voters are heading to the polls to make their voice heard in key statewide and Senate races. This will be another test on whether or not Donald Trump holds on to the Republican Party here in this critical battleground state.

Key races we're watching: The race for governor where the Trump-backed election denying Kari Lake is running against Mike Pence-backed Karrin Taylor Robson and in the U.S. Senate Trump-backed Blake Masters is on the ballot. He too has embraced Trump's election lie. Donald Trump, in fact, has endorsed a slate of candidates up and down this ballot, all who believe his 2020 election lie.


BLACKWELL: All right. Let's discuss now with Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates and CNN Political Commentator, Ana Navarro. Welcome to you both.

Bill, let me start with you. And after eight hearings and all of the evidence of the action and in some cases inaction of the former president related to the big life 2020, now there could be a full slate of Republicans nominated for statewide office who are selling that lie.


BILL GATES, MARICOPA COUNTY SUPERVISOR: Well, I'm certainly concerned about that. But today we're really focused on at the Board of Supervisors, working with the county recorder. We run the election here, so we are laser-focused on the election. But unfortunately, some of these candidates are sending around this misinformation, these conspiracy theories of, for example, saying that certain pins that need to be used or - and so it's a challenge. And what we want to do is just run a good election as opposed to dealing with people who are saying that the last election was stolen.

CAMEROTA: Bill, I'm not sure it matters if you run a good election. Kari Lake is saying, if we don't win, there's some cheating going on. She's already setting up the voters to believe, I mean, basically, she must be concerned about not winning, because she's already basically saying that something would be amiss. I mean, how do you fight that, Bill?

GATES: Well, I've already spoken out and said that that's highly irresponsible of Kari Lake to be saying this. But what we've done, again, remember, we dealt with the audit out here. So we've gotten good at this, I would argue. We just continue to put the facts out there. And for those people who are willing to listen to it, that's great. Unfortunately, some people will not. But again, to me, it is the height of irresponsibility, someone who wants to be the governor, the secretary of state, the attorney general to continue to push these lies and raise questions about our electoral system.

BLACKWELL: Ana, what do you see when you watch what's happening in Arizona?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I see a candidate, Kari Lake, who when it comes to sanity, when it comes to truth, when it comes to democracy, when it comes to facts is a very, very shallow lake. Listen, I think it's absurd and it's happening all over the country in these Republican primaries.

It's not about ideology, it's not about issues, it's about truth or lies. It's about team normal or team cuckoo birds. It's about who is ready to be a proxy for Donald Trump and a minion for Donald Trump and continue being a propagandist of Donald Trump's lies or who is willing to not do that.

And frankly, what we've seen before these elections is that because of Donald Trump, because of these lies, Republicans - races that they could have won very easily, candidates who could have won these races easily have been defeated by Team cuckoo bird and it's putting Republicans in a very difficult position, whether it's Pennsylvania or Ohio or Georgia. And now the same is happening in Arizona.

I mean, Gov. Ducey who Donald Trump loathes because he was not willing to go along with his lies, could have walked, danced, rolled into the - into winning a re-election campaign in Arizona, but for this issue.

CAMEROTA: Bill, I'm just curious, what is your plan? What is your plan when you're trying to run a fair, and open, and transparent and free election, when, let's just say, somebody like Kari Lake doesn't win and says that there was all this fraud or anybody, any of the election deniers don't win, what's the plan?

GATES: Well, let me be clear, our job here, in addition to running the election on the board of supervisors, we certify the election. So first of all, if people have concerns in how this election is being run, they need to share them with us. And my colleagues and I, we will look at all the facts. And in the end, if we believe a certain candidate has received the most votes, we're going to certify them as the winner, then those candidates who have lost, they have the right to go to court and they can argue that for some reason there - the certification was wrong. When that's done, it's over.

But here's the problem, because of what happened in 2020 and, unfortunately, a lot of my fellow Republicans here in Arizona went along with this, now, it's just like this - it just - the election goes on forever. That was sort of the story of the audit. Well, this has to stop and it has to stop now.

And we're going to be committed to giving the facts, providing the facts following up on any issues. But in the end, when we've certified a winner and the courts are done, it's done. We have to do it this way, because our democracy is at stake.

BLACKWELL: Ana, the former president, former President Trump, says that he's proud to announce that in the primary race for Senate in Missouri, Eric has his complete and total endorsement. Is it Eric Greitens? Is it Eric Schmitt?

CAMEROTA: Is it Eric Trump?

BLACKWELL: He'll tell you after they win, but that's not really - the absurd part is that they're both claiming it.


CAMEROTA: Well, of course, they are.

BLACKWELL: They're both are like running with I'm the Eric.

CAMEROTA: Because that's what he wants. That's what he intends.

BLACKWELL: What's it worth if you don't - give me the last name.

NAVARRO: Well, first of all, I'm not sure that if he was playing, if he was being too cute by half or if he actually couldn't remember their last names. That I haven't figured out, but what I will tell you is that it is absurd that one of those Erics running, the disgraced former governor, who had to resign and has had horrible accusations of abuse, of physical abuse brought out by his ex-wife is actually tied for first place, could literally win today.

And we go back to this idea that there's all of these flawed candidates, it's going to be driving the Republican Governor Association, it's going to be driving Mitch McConnell crazy that there were all of these Republicans who could have easily won most of these races and instead they lost primaries. And the ones that are now running are people that, frankly, make it that much harder for Mitch McConnell to be the majority leader or for there to be governor - Republican governors in those states.

These people are ready to cut off their nose, to spite their face for no other purpose as they continue worshipping at the altar of Donald Trump and that is putting Trump over party. It's not even just party over country, it's putting Trump over party, over reason, over rationale, over sanity, over intelligence, over self-interest, I mean, I just can't even begin to explain it to you.

CAMEROTA: I mean - but, Ana, we - one of Donald Trump's MOs that we have seen for years and people who have studied him say is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. And this is the perfect example, he can't lose, basically, because he doesn't let - he doesn't want to lose an endorsement. I mean, if he gives an endorsed me, he doesn't want that candidate to lose and so isn't this crafty? NAVARRO: Of course it is. They're going to - I mean - but, again, I

don't know that it wasn't - it's not more of I can't remember. I don't know who these Erics are and I can't remember the last names. But it plays into that where he can take credit for whichever Eric wins. I mean, it's - literally, this is a - an episode of Veep. You can't make this stuff up.

CAMEROTA: Ana Navarro, Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, thank you both very much for your time. Great to talk to you.

BLACKWELL: The White House names its team to tackle the monkeypox outbreak, but this won't silence critics who say the administration was caught flat footed and needs to do more before it is too late.