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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Biden Defiant on Afghanistan Withdrawal Chaos; Rural Areas Near Haiti Earthquake Epicenter Are in Ruins; Goldman Sachs Cut Growth Forecast Due to Delta Variant. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired August 19, 2021 - 05:00   ET



LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. It's Thursday, August 19th. It's 5:00 a.m. in New York. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Laura Jarrett.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Christine Romans. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We begin, though, with President Biden brushing criticism aside, defending U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, even as reports on the ground paint this increasingly grim picture, trying to project confidence and accountability. Mr. Biden repeatedly pledged the withdrawal would be orderly.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The jury is still out but the likelihood there's going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.


ROMANS: Yeah. That was July 8th. That is a sound bite that has come back to haunt this president.

But now, with an interview with ABC News, he is changing his tune.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: You don't think this could have been handled, this act could be handled better in any way, no mistakes?

BIDEN: No, I don't think it could have been handled in a way -- we're going to go back in hindsight and look, but the idea somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens.


JARRETT: With a major self-inflicted blow on foreign policy, the president who has billed himself agency the foreign policy expert now left with a credibility gap, rattling U.S. allies with cold comfort for what the future holds.

We get more now from CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Laura, President Biden defiant and defensive with his posture toward Afghanistan, not giving an inch in terms of saying any mistakes were made, in fact saying the opposite, saying it was not a failure and chaos was inevitable.

In an interview that he taped Wednesday here at the White House with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, the president did give a window into that August 31st deadline, that's a deadline he has had said with the troops withdrawn from Afghanistan. The question, though, what happens to the Afghan nationals who have served alongside the U.S. for the last two decades?

STEPHANOPOULOS: We've got 10 to 15,000 Americans in the country right now, right? And are you committed to making sure that the troops stay until every American who wants to be out is out.

BIDEN: Yes, yes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How about the Afghan allies, we have about 80,000?

BIDEN: Well, that's not --

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that too high?

BIDEN: That's too high.


BIDEN: The estimate we're given is somewhere between 50,000 and 65,000 folks, total, counting their families.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does the commitment hold as well?

BIDEN: The commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out everyone that should come out. And that's the objective. That's what we're doing now. That's the path we're on, and I think we'll get there.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So America should understand that troops should have to be there beyond August 31st.

BIDEN: No, Americans should understand that we're going to try to get it done before August 31st.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But if we don't, the troops will stay?

BIDEN: If we don't, we'll determine at the time who is left.


BIDEN: And if American forces -- if there's American citizens left, we're going to stay until we get them all out.

ZELENY: The president continuing that defiant tone, scheduled to be at the White House all day on Thursday, having meetings with advisers but no other public events on the schedule. Of course, it was intended to be the august recess. The vacation that's been largely interrupt interrupted.

But it's not been interrupted by telephone calls with many world leaders. That has been one surprising point in all of this. Of course, he's governed as someone who wanted to rebuild alliances but so many questions from allies across Europe and beyond about what the Biden administration has done. In fact, he's only spoken with two former leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But so many who have been partners over the last two decades say they feel neglected and confused by what this White House is doing.

So, no question, this is very much a central challenge, the biggest one of the Biden presidency.

Again, he'll be here at the White House all day today -- Laura and Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much for that.

Let's bring in CNN White House correspondent John Harwood.

You know, in that interview, John, with ABC News, the president appears defensive, somewhat missing the point. The criticism isn't about the final decision to pull out of Afghanistan, but the method of execution and what went wrong here.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I think he is certainly defensive. And I think that defensiveness is getting in the way of acknowledging mistakes that would be in his interest to acknowledge would help him get past this.

On the other hand, I think he doesn't believe he's missing the point. He thinks his critics are. The point being that the immediate collapse, unexpected which he acknowledges of the Afghan government security forces proves his point that this war was not worth continuing.


And that second under those circumstances, there's no way you could avoid a mess. And then, third, having gotten -- having the government collapse and had the scenes of panic and chaos ensue, that the military has in fact gotten control of the Kabul airport. And they're undertaking this evacuation. We have not had large-scale loss of life. We have not incurred U.S. casualties. So, I think the president's belief is that's the point. And that he's going -- and the military is going to do the best they can to conduct that evacuation and bring this to a conclusion. JARRETT: So, John, how does the president pivot here to refocus on

pretty domestic priorities. We're still in the middle of this pandemic. He's trying to get everybody vaccinated who haven't been vaccinated. His infrastructure deal is sort of hanging on now potentially by a thread when it was once a clear path for victory.

How is he refocusing now?

HARWOOD: Well, he's trying, given the dominance of this story and the importance of this situation to do that. We saw that yesterday with the announcement on booster shots. And the steps he's taking, including telling nursing homes they might lose Medicare and Medicaid funding if they do not vaccinate their employees or mandate vaccinations. So, he's trying to stay on top of that situation.

He conducted a meeting in the last couple of days, his aides have, with congressional leaders to try to keep that infrastructure deal on track. A senior administration official told me for all of the criticism he's taking on Afghanistan, that Democrats in Congress recognize that his success is going to be their success. And they believe they remain on track. It's challenging, and you've got discord within the Democratic caucus and the House willing to proceed.

But I think they're trying to juggle as many balls as they can, recognizing -- but this as Jeff Zeleny said in that piece is the most challenging of his presidency.

ROMANS: Yeah, and, Jeff, also in that piece, talked about sort of rattled nerves among the global allies. What does this mean for Biden on a global scale? In Italy, they're counting on Biden to steady the ship here. What can he do to repair that damage if there is damage?

HARWOOD: Christine, I think the most important way he can steady the ship is by ramping up and sustaining the evacuation of American citizens and Afghan allies from Afghanistan, about 6,000 so far, according White House officials. Military leaders yesterday said they were processing about 500 people an hour into the Kabul airport. They have about 60,000 people by President Biden's accounting, still to get out.

He said yesterday he would extend that August 31st deadline if there are American citizens still to get out. But it's very important to see what the status of those Afghan allies is going to be. That would be a confidence-rattling situation for the administration, if in fact many of those people get stuck behind and suffer adverse consequences for the Taliban.

So, the president was a little equivocal on whether or not he would extend the deadline for non-American citizens who the United States wants to get out but the most significant thing that the Biden administration can do right now is get up to that 5,000 to 9,000 evacuates they have set as a target. Sustain that as long as possible. And see how many of those people they can not only get from Kabul out to safety, but also get out in the countryside to the Kabul airport so they can evacuate them. Huge logistical challenge. They depend to a significant degree on the

cooperation of the Taliban. That is a shaky position to be in. But the administration believes they have some leverage over the Taliban, including financial leverage.

The IMF has frozen special drawing rights. The Treasury has frozen billions of dollars in Afghan assets in U.S. financial institutions. So, they're doing -- holding what leverage they can to try to continue that cooperation and get those people out.

JARRETT: See if that leverage works.

John Harwood, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: John, by the way, has one of the best desks in the --

JARRETT: He does have a good background.

ROMANS: I really love his background. Well done, sir. Well done. Nice to see you, John. Thanks.

JARRETT: All right. Still ahead for you, with little help in Haiti, desperate earthquakes are turning to dwindling basics. CNN is on the ground with a look at why aid is so slow to arrive.



JARRETT: Welcome back.

The death toll from the earthquake in Haiti now reaching 2,200 people, with more than 12,000 injuries. With no support yet from the central government, locals are using what tools they have to try to help a desperate situation made worse by the delay in aid. And anger is growing among the survivors.

CNN made the trek to one of the hardest hit towns. Matt Rivers reports from Haiti.


MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Driving into rural Haiti is not easy. Miles and miles of tough on paved roads.

But it's at the end of those roads where some of the worst damage from this earthquake lies. This is Karai (ph), a fishing town of 30,000, where hundreds of structures have been destroyed. Kilim Rashard (ph) lost everything when the ground shook.

I lost my business and my home, she says. I have six kids to send to school, and I don't know what I'm going to do.

Hers was just the first home we saw. Up the street, we couldn't drive past this home because, like so many others here, what remains could collapse at any moment. [05:15:05]

So these guys behind me aren't professionals. They're just locals with hammer, wood, and nails, trying to figure out a safe way to bring that severely damaged building behind me down to the ground. They told us, in the nearly 5 days since this earthquake happened, they still have not had one representative from the central government show up.

It's a tough place to get to, but as some pointed out to us, we managed to do it. So why hasn't the government?

Anger, a persistent sentiment for many. This man's family was injured when their home collapsed.

Do you think that the government can come here and help you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think so. I don't think so. I don't think so.

RIVERS: So you're not waiting for them?


RIVERS: And are you frustrated with that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, very frustrated. I'm very frustrated. I'm very frustrated.

RIVERS: No matter the reason, the reality persists: people in need are growing increasingly desperate.

I need help, she says, and no one is helping me. So far, I think it's only God who I think will help me right now.

The place where she might pray for that, the church in the town center, also destroyed. Thankfully, fewer people died during this earthquake, compared to previous similar quakes. Imagine, as one person told us, if it had happened on a Sunday morning when church was full.


RIVERS (on camera): When church was full. Critics would say it's a mixture of corruption and a lack of will leading to this government inaction. Others will point to the recent assassination of the Haitian president causing turmoil on the government. Others will point to the fact that infrastructure here in the country wasn't very good to begin with.

Consider this bridge that we saw, just outside of where we are right now in the city of Jeremie, this is a crucial bridge leading into the city. And it wasn't in good shape before this earthquake. But now there is damage on that bridge, large trucks, the kind of trucks that you need to move large amounts of aids, supplies quickly, were not able to pass over. We actually saw trucks being unloaded. The supplies being put on small vehicles that could cross over. But that's just a good example of both of the damage that Haiti

continues to have multiple, multiple, multiple days after this earthquake, and also the challenges facing those even with good intentions trying to get aid to those places. It's just not easy -- Christine, Laura.

JARRETT: Frustrating situation.

ROMANS: Matt Rivers, thanks for bringing that to us.

All right. The delta variant disrupting the booming economy forecast, hiring hospitality and the bottom line.



ROMANS: They call it the delta drag. Goldman Sachs has cut its GDP forecast as the delta variant surges across the country. The bank now estimates growth of 5.5. percent for the third quarter, 6 percent growth for the year.

Look, that is still a robust forecast. That is still strong economy. But it does show that the delta variant is cutting into economic activity.

Major retailers are struggling to find workers for warehouses. Amazon, Walmart and Dollar Tree and others are raising wages. They're offering signing bonuses and other incentives. Online shopping has surged during this pandemic. Companies scrambling to add staff ahead of the holidays.

And once again, the hospitality and entertainment industries are concerned about the pandemic. Southwest Airlines, Airbnb, Disney, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Tyson Foods have all warned the variant is hurting business now. At the same time, corporate America is holding on to a record amount of cash. The data shows the world's largest non- financial companies had a record, get this, $6.8 trillion on their balance sheets at the end of the second quarter.

It's a clear sign businesses are worried about the delta variant hurting the global economy. And the irony here, so many people who were against the economy sort of shutting down because of coronavirus, they don't support mask mandates or vaccinations --

JARRETT: The very things that will help us out.

ROMANS: The very thing that get us out of the economic doldrums.

JARRETT: Yep. All right. Well, another big school district in Florida says students have to mask up. Now, the president is backing the school officials willing to defy governors playing politics with public health.



JARRETT: Nearly three dozen people are unaccounted for in Haywood County, North Carolina, after severe flooding from Tropical Depression Fred. Ground, aerial and swift water rescue teams were sent to areas hit hardest by the storm. The Pigeon River peaked at historic level of just over 19 feet late Tuesday. Authorities say there are 54 people currently in shelters with bridge and road closures throughout the county.

ROMANS: New evacuation orders in northern California as the mass massive Caldor Fire burns out of the control, fueled by strong winds and bone dry terrain. This fire growing fast over the past 48 hours, from 2,500 acres to more than 62,000 acres with zero containment. The wildfire leveled much of town of grizzly flats in El Dorado County.

EARLY START continues right now.


ROMANS: Very good Thursday morning. This is EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

JARRETT: And I'm Laura Jarrett. Almost 21 minutes past the hour here in New York. It's time for our top stories to keep an eye on today.


BIDEN: If there's American citizens left, we're going to stay until we get them all out.


JARRETT: President Biden vowing to keep troops in Afghanistan until all Americans who want to leave are out. He stopped short to making the same commitment to America's Afghan partners however. The goal remains to be out by August 31st.

ROMANS: COVID-19 booster shots will be beginning to be available to all Americans September 20th, pending a greenlight from the FDA and CDC. The head of the World Health Organization opposes the plan saying it's critical to get vaccines to those who are vulnerable first.

JARRETT: President Biden is ordering the education secretary to ramp- up pressure on governors that have been bullying school officials over requiring masks in schools.


BIDEN: Some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures, that is, children wearing masks in school, into political disputes for their own political gain.


JARRETT: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Governor Greg Abbott have been perhaps the most vocal in trying to withhold funding for the districts that imposed mask mandates.

ROMANS: Two storms to keep an eye on this morning.