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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

President Biden Sticks to August 31 Deadline for Withdrawal; Biden Briefed on 90-Day U.S. Intel Review of COVID's Origins; House Passes $3.5 Trillion Budget Resolution. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired August 25, 2021 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. It is Wednesday, August 25th, 5:00 a.m. exactly here in New York. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Christine Romans.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Laura Jarrett. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. We have reports this morning from Qatar, Beijing, Germany, the White House, and Hong Kong.

And we start here after nearly 20 years, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is on its final countdown. President Biden says the military is on track to finish its breakneck airlift in Kabul by August 31st, rejecting those pleas to extend that deadline.

The State Department has contacted all of the Americans registered in Afghanistan now and instructed them to report to designated locations for evacuation.

ROMANS: Yeah, those evacuations have just surged in the last few days. At least 70,000 total since August 14th.

But the president has asked the military to be ready with contingency options to adjust the timetable for final departure, if necessary. Still, Mr. Biden is adamant that it is time to leave.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are currently on a pace to finish by August the 31st. The sooner we can finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.

Every day we're on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians.


JARRETT: While the military races to get everyone out of Afghanistan, two members of Congress made their way in. Democrat Seth Moulton and Peter Meijer, both military vets, said they flew to Kabul to conduct oversight of evacuation efforts, but did not give advance notice to House leadership or the Defense Department, triggering swift and fierce blowback. The Pentagon calling their trip an unhelpful distraction.

ROMANS: International security editor Nick Paton Walsh is live in Doha, Qatar, for us this morning.

And, Nick, the president made an admission that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago. That completing the mission there is dependent upon cooperation from the Taliban, and you have new reporting this morning about whether or not they really are cooperating, don't you?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yeah. I mean, look, it's important to point out, it's an exceptionally chaotic situation around the airport right now, even when the best of planning comes off. And it is quite clear that now if this is the final phase with the 31st of August deadline being stuck to, and the military on that base having to think about their own departure, we are into a very tight window now for those remaining desperate Afghans to get on to the base.

Now, I understand that some of that is occurring through kind of negotiated access with Taliban who are running the southern side of the airport. Remember, it's the military to the north with the crowded gate, where there's often chaos and people are being crushed. But for along time, the Taliban run the south. At times, if properly coordinated, it is possible for people to go through those southern checkpoints and get on.

Problems occur when uncoordinated groups sort of turn up and beg the Taliban there. And then, of course, the U.S., that they are negotiating with U.S. troops on that area to see if they can get through. People are getting through, I understand, talking to a source familiar with the situation, but it's a trickle. It's not a large number at this stage. Not that many of the SIV applicants, for example, who are desperately seeking to get out can get through. Some may be able to negotiate their own way on.

Remember, this is all about often who you know, who can escort you, who can get through those checkpoints. Others have to transport themselves. The fear is, of course, now we have this clear deadline, this clear denouement of this crisis and this 20-year war in itself, that we may see many desperately flooding towards the airport. The Taliban may well, as they said yesterday, prevent people from doing that. Their spokesperson very clear, they do not want to see Afghans leaving the country, quote, unnecessarily. So, that's a potential flashpoint, as well.

But we are in really now into the question of how many more are we going to see on the airport, departing. I understand from a source familiar with the situation that there are about a thousand who want to leave currently on that airport. That's not a reflection of a reduced ambition from the United States, because that I have done an extraordinary job getting over 70,000 office, just since this whole crisis started. But it is a reflection, I think, of the speed of air traffic.

Essentially, you bring people on, process them, get off much quicker. That's an extraordinary feat, frankly, by those on the airport.

The question now, of course, is how many can they get on? How many are they able to get out? And how many can reach the airport of the vital groups they want to help before the Americans there have to start thinking, along with the NATO allies, alongside them, who are all in the same boat win understand, according to this source, that they all want to get as much done as they can, before they absolutely have to leave. Yeah, a very fraught situation.


JARRETT: Nick, talk to us a little bit more about who exactly we're talking about. A top U.S. official said yesterday, quote, a lot of deserving Afghans will be left behind, presumably meaning U.S. allies. What do we know about who exactly is getting out and perhaps maybe even more importantly, who is left behind?

WALSH: Yeah, it's clear, you're a U.S. citizen, you're a priority, you're getting through. And a lot of U.S. citizens in Afghanistan are people who got their U.S. passport during the U.S. presence there, they may have families who don't have U.S. passports, so bringing with them immediate family. I understand, the ones who were allowed on. They are the priority. But those groups will include, most likely, lots of Afghan nationals themselves.

Then, there are, I think in the hearts of the American special forces on the base, the American diplomats on the base, there are those people with whom they worked. Now, they may well have applied for the SIV program, and they may have been considered not eligible. That's all at times confusing. And, of course, those who work alongside the U.S. diplomats, they are very much eligible for the SIV program, and possibly in the thousands, and quite likely somewhere still in Kabul, although I'm sure there are efforts to try to assist them.

So, those are people with good connections who will be leaning on their former connections and colleagues and those possibly inside the base to try to get them on. And then, of course, there are many Afghans who appeal to the Afghan security forces on those fences to get them in, as well.

It sounds, doesn't it, like an awful lot of essentially, personal connections and trading here. But that's how it's been functioning for some time, along, of course, with an exceptionally valiant set of measures being taken by it seems the U.S. military in what they call alternate routes to get very much important people to them on to the base.

So it isn't really a particularly clear process at this stage and the window for it is reducing.

JARRETT: You just worry about who gets lost in the shuffle.

ROMANS: Yeah, of course. Also, I guess the bigger picture for America's role in the global

community, the pullout of Afghanistan, so abrupt, shaking the faith of our allies, U.S. allies and America's position in securing the globe. What are people saying, what are countries saying, what are the consequences here?

This is the Biden administration. You'll recall that there was a lot of strain and strife during the Trump administration about America's position on the global stage. And here is the Biden administration that many thought would be more practical and predictable, Nick.

WALSH: Yeah. I mean, look, I have to say, having dealt with Afghanistan for many, many years Joe Biden, President Joe Biden finally saying, we can't keep doing the same thing, that's just enough to try to avoid having to admit that we've lost there, I felt that was a courageous decision. Obviously, the execution of it, as we've seen, hasn't been as good as it could have been. I think even they would accept they wanted to avoid the scenes we've been seeing around the airport, even though Biden himself said that they were, quote, inevitable.

The NATO allies have always dependent on the U.S. for their military presence there, so, you know, to some degree, the U.S. will be saying, well, fine, but you're only there because of our safety umbrella. So there has been posturing for domestic audiences, from people like the U.K.'s Boris Johnson, who has been saying, oh, well, through private talks it seems with "The Telegraph" newspaper, I would like to try to stay later on, but the G7 statement seems to have tried to create some kind of unity between all of them as a way forward.

On reality on the ground, if you have the Taliban saying go and you have a U.S. military to provide security for most of the other forces on that airport, they are dependent on essentially agreeing to leave. And I think it's fair to say that most of the other NATO troops there are having an exhausting emotional, at times, heart wrenching time to see people who they don't know who are desperate, people who they cared for over years, trying to get on to the base, to essentially save the lives of themselves and those of their families, and families torn apart.

So while I think there is a desire for everybody involved in this process to help as many people as they possibly can, you cannot do that if you are under fire, potentially, from a Taliban whose deadline you have ignored or you're ignoring your own safety and ability to function normally because of this need to help. So, it's an awful choice, frankly, but I think it's fair to say, once you strip away the public statements and look at the cold reality, these NATO allies know they can't function without American support, they know they're dependent upon them, and then it's a really messy job, getting people on the airport, and dealing with this awful climate about migration, dealing with their resettlement. So, an exceptionally hard task.

But I think, according to the source I spoke to, essentially, all the NATO allies involved in this are pretty much in agreement physically there that they need to adhere to this deadline and do as much as they can before they have to get out. ROMANS: All right. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much for spending

some time with us.


JARRETT: So helpful to get your insights, Nick.

ROMANS: This is the end of one big story that Nick has been covering for 20 years, and it's the beginning of a news story, which he mentions the resettlement, the next part of this story, even as these evacuations are underway.

JARRETT: Yeah, on the way.

All right. Ad then there's this -- the intel community weighing in on the origins of COVID-19. Why the public may have to wait a little longer to read what was found. That's next.


ROMANS: All right, to COVID now. President Biden has been briefed on the findings of a U.S. intelligence report on the origins of COVID-19.


The public, though, will have to wait a few more days to see an unclassified version.

David Culver is live from Beijing with the details.

David, what do we know about the report's conclusions?

DAVID CULVER, CNN NTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, it seems like even those waiting for a few days to see what comes out of this aren't going to get much, because it sounds according to White House officials that this was inconclusive.

You remember this, going back to late May was a decision from President Biden, who was facing a lot of pressure mounting as to what started COVID-19, to look at two likely scenarios in particular. One, that it was a natural origin theory, going from animals to humans. The other, that lab leak in Wuhan, something that China has refuted repeatedly.

Well, it seems like there's evidence on both sides that's mostly circumstantial. There is no so-called smoking gun. Now, this according to White House officials with us such an issue in trying to decide how much evidence mounted on each side, that they were going back and forth as recently as this past Friday. So, that tells you that they're not competent enough to move forward with any sort of definitive conclusion as to what started this outbreak.

Meantime here in China, they're playing off this as saying this is all politically motivated. We've seen them saying that for months now and they're continuing that rhetoric. What's more, Christine, is we have seen them step up in a relentless effort to push a propaganda of all sorts of other narratives, and calling on the WHO to investigate the U.S.

They believe there might be a lab leak, not the one in Wuhan, they're looking at Ft. Detrick in Maryland just outside of D.C. So that has been part of really a nonstop campaign that has played out for several months and has ramped up as President Biden has been waiting this 90- day intelligence community review.

So, where does it go from here? Well, experts look at this and say, without Chinese transparency, it is very unlikely that there's going to be any sort of definitive answer as to what started this virus, Christine.

ROMANS: Yeah, a virus that right now is killing a thousand people a day in the United States, still in the grips of this pandemic.

David Culver, thank you so much for that. I know you've been following this for some time. Thanks.

JARRETT: All right. In Washington, a major step forward in a divided House. President Biden's infrastructure agenda back on, but will it be enough to win passage in the Senate?



JARRETT: Welcome back.

House lawmakers adopted a critical piece of President Biden's ambitious domestic agenda Tuesday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was finally able to strike a deal with a group of centrist holdouts.

So what happens now?

CNN's Ryan Nobles has more.


RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Laura, this was a big step in the process, but there is still a long way to go for congressional leaders, as they attempt to push through these two big spending packages. One that $3.5 human infrastructure plan, and, then, of course, the $1.3 trillion hard infrastructure package.

It was the $3.5 billion budget resolution that finally got passed on Tuesday. This after some hand wringing between the moderate wing of the party and the progressive wing and really, most of the rank-and- file Democrats.

The speaker, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she's been moving this process along on a dual track, saying that basically in order to get one, you have to get the other. But some of these moderates tried to press her to just pass that bipartisan infrastructure plan without worrying about the reconciliation piece.

And they even said that they weren't going to vote for the big $3.5 trillion plan without a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure plan. Sounds a little bit confusing, but this is where they settle. The Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, agreed that she will, indeed, bring that package up for a vote, the bipartisan package up for a vote by no later than September 27th.

And as a result, those ten moderates that were holding out, they joined the rest of the Democratic Party and voted for the big budget resolution, which is the framework to begin the negotiations over that big $3.5 trillion package.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Not only are we building the physical infrastructure of America, we are building the human infrastructure of America to enable many more people to participate in the success of our economy and the growth of our society.

NOBLES: So this dual track that both Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi have been talking about, it continues to truck along, but these last few days show that even something small can derail the whole process and that there is still a lot of work -- a lot of work to be done, I should say, before any of this gets over the finish line -- Christine and Laura.


ROMANS: All right. Ryan, thank you so much for that. That was a big development yesterday for the president's economic agenda.

Meantime, House Democrats voted Tuesday to give the federal government more power to challenge changes to election laws that make it harder for racial minorities to vote. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act restores key protections weakened by a series of Supreme Court decisions. The Justice Department now has the power to review changes to state laws in places with a history of discrimination.

Now, the bill faces an uphill climb in the Senate, where Alaska's Murkowski is the only Republican expected to support it.

JARRETT: Yeah, if that passes in the Senate, it would be a huge deal to get pre-clearance -- what's known as pre-clearance back on the books here.


JARRETT: All right. A little programming note for you. Mass shootings, gun violence, and the NRA's role in setting U.S. law. A new CNN film, "The Price of Freedom," Sunday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.



JARRETT: Good morning, everyone. This is EARLY START. I'm Laura Jarrett.

ROMANS: Good morning. I'm Christine Romans. It is 30 minutes past the hour.

Time for our top stories to keep an eye on today.

CNN has learned only about a thousand people are waiting right now to evacuate from the Kabul international airport, another sign evacuations are continuing at a quick pace. The Taliban appear to be letting more people pass once they heard President Biden sticking to the August 31st withdrawal deadline.

Still, a major concern for women's safety. A Taliban spokesman is urging women, stay --