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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Today: Biden Departs On High-Stakes Trip To Israel; House To Vote Today On Speaker, Jordan Still Short Of Majority; Biden's Nominee For Ambassador To Israel Facing Resistance. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired October 17, 2023 - 05:30   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Thank you for being up early with us. I'm Kasie Hunt.

It is just after 5:30 here in Washington where hours from now President Biden will leave on a high-stakes trip to a war zone. First stop, Tel Aviv, Israel, and then he'll go on to Amman, Jordan. His mission: to strike the right balance of support for Israel eliminating Hamas and easing the humanitarian suffering in Gaza while trying to avoid prompting a wider war in the region.

His trip comes on the heels of a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: He's coming here at a critical moment for Israel, for the region, and for the world. The president will reaffirm the United States' solidarity with Israel and our ironclad commitment to its security. The president will hear from Israel what it needs to defend its people as we continue to work with Congress to meet those needs.


HUNT: All right, let's bring in Yaakov Katz. He is a senior columnist and editor at the Jerusalem Post and the author of "Shadow Strike: Inside Israel's Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power." Sir, thanks very much for being with us this morning.

Let's start off with talking about the message that the U.S. president is sending here both to Israelis -- obviously, one of support -- but also to Iran. What do you see in it?

YAAKOV KATZ, SENIOR COLUMNIST AND EDITOR, THE JERUSALEM POST, AUTHOR, "SHADOW STRIKE: INSIDE ISRAEL'S SECRET MISSION TO ELIMINATE SYRIAN NUCLEAR POWER" (via Webex by Cisco): Well, Kasie, there's no doubt -- I mean, this is a strong message. A U.S. president has never come to Israel in the past, and there's been several wars in this country's 75-year history, at the time of a conflict that's ongoing. So just that mere touchdown of Air Force One tomorrow near Tel Aviv or

whatever airport they open up for him is going to be with a lot of symbolism and sends a clear message alongside those carrier groups -- the different aircraft carriers -- the Roosevelt, the Gerald R. Ford, the Marines, the bombers that have been deployed throughout the region.

This is all sending a message clearly to Hezbollah as well as to Iran -- do not expand this conflict. Do not widen it. Let Israel do what it needs to get done in Gaza. We're warning you that America takes this very seriously.

HUNT: You bring up Hezbollah and I'm curious what the conversation is like in Israel about what they may or may not do because it does feel a little bit like this Gaza incursion was imminent but has been kind of delayed some. And I was reading a little bit of the coverage that suggests that maybe because they're waiting to see what Hezbollah is going to do.

What is your understanding of that dynamic?

KATZ: Look, Israel is concerned about having to fight a war -- a multi-front war. A war on two fronts, right? It's one thing in Gaza.

We saw what surprise happened when Hamas invaded on October 7 and massacred over 1,200 people, and broke into Israeli homes and murdered babies and children and parents, and more. That was a big surprise and caught Israel off guard. Israel had to prepare for war. To have another war at the same time in the north is going to be complicated to fight at the same time.

But what we need to keep in mind is that they're all connected, right? Hezbollah is every day challenging the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) on the northern border.

And Hezbollah has more capabilities, Kasie, than Hamas. They have, according to Israeli military predictions, about 150,000 rockets and missiles that can cover the entire state of Israel. Tens of thousands of soldiers, and terrorists, and guerilla fighters that would be able to try to enter and invade Israel. The IDF would have to push them back.

So what we saw on October 7 -- I don't want to say it's peanuts because that was terrible, but Hezbollah can do a lot more damage to this country potentially.

HUNT: Right, yeah. Obviously, we don't want to -- nowhere are we minimizing the loss of life in the Hamas attack, but in terms of talking about strategic capability.


I want to read a little bit --

KATZ: Sure. HUNT: -- from this piece that you authored in Newsweek. You call for the U.S. to be more aggressive toward Iran, especially in terms of its deployment of military forces. You argue that "Instead of dispatching these carrier groups to the eastern

Mediterranean Biden should send it to the Persian Gulf and park the strike group there, just a few miles off the Iranian coast."

That obviously would be a pretty provocative move and there's a reason that President Biden's not doing it.

Why do you think this would be the way to go?

KATZ: Because Kasie, at the end of the day, who is in charge of all this? These -- this is a proxy war. We are a country, Israel, and we're fighting a war against terrorist proxies that are funded, are supplied, are directed by the Iranian Islamic Republic -- by the ayatollahs in Tehran. They are the ones orchestrating the entire chaos and all these attacks that we see throughout the region.

We could continue to fight this proxy war. We will go into Gaza and I have no doubt that Israel -- there will be a price to pay but Israel will defeat Hamas. If there's, God forbid, to be a war with Hezbollah, Israel will defeat, ultimately, Hezbollah with all the damage and the casualties that will come with it on our side as well as on the Lebanese side.

But at the end of the day, what that means is we're giving Iran immunity and the Iranians need to pay a price because they are the ones responsible for all of this. And the best way to do that is a direct threat by the American administration against the Iranians.

And you know how I know it might work? Because in 2003, when the U.S. was building up its forces ahead of the invasion of Iraq, that was the one time in history that the Iranians suspended their nuclear program and got afraid because they thought they would be next in line.

When they fear -- when they fear a credible military threat on the table they recalculate, and that has yet to happen. We need to present them with a credible military threat.

HUNT: All right, Yaakov Katz. Thank you very much for being with us this morning. I really appreciate your time.

KATZ: Thank you.

HUNT: All right, now to the other major story unfolding here in Washington. The House of Representatives set to vote to pick a speaker at noon today. Hardliner Republican Jim Jordan is, by CNN's count, still short of the 217 votes he would need to win the gavel, but he has been flipping a number of key holdouts and seems to be getting closer to the magic number.


REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): We need to get a speaker tomorrow. The American people deserve to have their Congress -- the House of Representatives working and you can't have that happen until get a speaker, so we need to do that. Plus, we need to be helping our dearest friend and colleague -- our dearest friend and closest ally, Israel. We need to help them as well.


HUNT: So, Jordan has been closing the gap but he continues to have a math problem. He can only afford to lose four votes and by our count, there are at least five who say they are a firm no. That includes Congressman Don Bacon of Nebraska.


REP. DON BACON (R-NE): I'm just trying to express honestly where a bunch of us are at. We've been walked on. And then everybody says OK, you've got to forget that. You've got to -- you've got to be with the team. And where were they at when they did this to Kevin?


HUNT: So that was a reference to Kevin McCarthy. He, of course, is the deposed speaker. That happened two weeks ago today.

Let's bring in CNN national politics correspondent Eva McKend. Eva, good morning. It's always great to see you.

I have to say my sense in talking to sources around this is that Jordan's momentum is moving. And while there are people who say that they will vote no, this group of relative moderates -- many -- some of them in districts that supported Joe Biden -- are much less willing to essentially nuke the entire effort and take Jordan down on the floor than the Matt Gaetz-led hardliners that were willing to take down Kevin McCarthy.

How do you see today playing out?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, I think you have the right pulse on things, Kasie. He still has a math problem but the numbers are going in the right direction for Congressman Jordan. Several moderate members who said they would never support him -- they've changed course.

And Jordan and his team -- they've really engaged in this intense lobbying campaign. And so, I think that's why they have the confidence to move forward today.

And then also, there seems to be this widespread recognition in the conference that the optics of the continued chaos that really has come to define the House in recent weeks -- that they're just bad for the party amid this crisis in the Middle East.

HUNT: Right. And again, the people who are the ones who stand in Jordan's way are the people who are least tolerant of the continued chaos and most interested in stability.

[05:40:00] And I do want to play -- one of the interesting holdouts is Congressman Ken Buck who has an interesting history as someone who has been on the right of the party but who has been a loud voice on something we haven't seen many of his colleagues focus on, which is the actual winner of the 2020 presidential election being Joe Biden. He is looking for a commitment from Jim Jordan on this topic.

Take a look at what Ken Buck had to say.


REP. KEN BUCK (R-CO): I think that Jim, at some point, if he's going to lead this conference during a presidential election cycle and particularly -- a presidential election year with primaries and caucuses around the country -- is going to have to be strong and say Donald Trump didn't win the election and we need to move forward. Hopefully, for Republicans, we get a Republican candidate in the White House.


HUNT: Let's not forget the role that the House of Representatives plays in certifying presidential elections here. And it does seem like it's going to be hard for Jim Jordan to come out and say what Ken Buck is demanding of him.

MCKEND: Absolutely, Kasie. This is actually really interesting because Congressman Buck and Congressman Jordan are aligned from a policy perspective, but this election denialism issue a problem for Buck.

Listen, Congressman Jordan can't run away from how closely aligned he is to the former president. And it's certainly an asset to some of those hard-right members. They like that they are getting a Trumpian potential Speaker of the House. But what we've seen is that Jordan hasn't made, sort of, the election denialism central to his pitch for the speakership to his colleagues.

Another key concern -- another knock on Jordan is that he's not known as a prolific fundraiser. As you know, Kasie, that's also key to the job. In addition to keeping the House in order you have to raise quite a bit of money for your members.

HUNT: Yeah. I mean, my sense might be that Kevin McCarthy is going to kind of fill in the gaps there.

But, you know, Eva, I'm -- as we're talking about this I'm flashing back to January 6, 2021, when on the floor of the House Jim Jordan apparently tried to help -- like, take the elbow of Liz Cheney, who was then a member of the body, and help her escape what was a violent mob outside the doors. And she looked at him and said "You did this." There was an expletive in there that I'm not going to repeat on TV.

She has been behind the scenes trying to warn people about Jim Jordan, according to our reporting. But it does seem at this point like that's not something that is front and center here. I just think it's worth taking a second to think about what a change

that represents. It's been a slow -- a little bit of a slow boil but I don't think we should lose sight of that.

MCKEND: We shouldn't. We shouldn't. But Jordan is sort of emblematic of where the party is right now and I think that is why we see so many moderate members shifting is because they are confronting reality.

HUNT: Right. And, of course, we shouldn't forget Jim Jordan endorsed by Donald Trump earlier in this process.

Eva McKend, thank you very much for being up early with us this morning. I really appreciate your time.

MCKEND: Thank you.

HUNT: All right. Families in Israel are, right now, preparing for a long war with Hamas. We're going to talk to a young Israeli who is getting ready to serve, along with two of her siblings.



HUNT: Welcome back.

President Biden will leave for Israel later today in what is set to be a high-stakes trip. According to an IDF spokesperson, the visit won't complicate or delay a possible Gaza incursion.

Among those waiting to see what happens next, Kinneret Hamburger, an IDF officer on reserve duty who also has siblings in the Israeli military. Kinneret, thank you very much for being with us today.

LT. KINNERET HAMBURGER, ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES (RES.) (via Webex by Cisco): Good morning. Thank you.

HUNT: So you are not the only member of your family to serve. Your parents have three of you who are going to be on duty here in whatever happens next. Can you just start by taking us inside your family conversations about what's happened and the family's role in what happens next?

HAMBURGER: Yes. I've got three other brothers. My older one is a combat paramedic. He's out defending our country right now, and so is my younger brother. And we've all been on duty since last Saturday, about 10 days ago. And to us, it's just obvious. It's obvious this is what we need to do.

It's obligation. We're all grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor so for us, not only is it a privilege to defend humanity and not just our people, but it's also an obligation when a terrorist organization declares war on humanity -- this time on Israel -- we all left everything we were doing and went to defend our country.

HUNT: Tell us a little bit about what you're giving up to do this. I mean, what was your life like? What were you doing before and what do you hope to return to?

HAMBURGER: Well, I'm just a 23-year-old Israeli girl. I'm a law student and meant to go into my second year of law. I love surfing. I love the beach. I love diving and traveling the world. Sitting with friends. Going out for a beer. I think just like any other 23-year-old around the world.

And this is the reality we're living. We just have to give it all up and go and defend our country -- defend humanity. This is exactly just the situation we're in right now.

HUNT: Obviously, we've talked a lot here as we've covered this story about the challenges facing the Israeli military as they try to go into Gaza. And there has been this sense that the operation perhaps was delayed or it was imminent but has been put off for a little while.

I mean, how do you feel when you think about -- I don't know if you can tell us whether you expect to be part of any incursion like that, but you did mention your brother is a combat paramedic. How it feels to think about him being part of that.

HAMBURGER: Look, I'm not going to go into all the practical meanings of what's going on but I could tell you that I'm sure and you should all be sure that we're going to defeat this terrorist organization. There's no other way. Just like the West defeated and are still defeating and fighting ISIS, we need to do the same right here.


This Hamas -- they're aiming not just for us. Right now, (audio gap) Israel. But we're going to win this war. And if we don't win this war, then the West is next. They're coming for the United States. They're coming for all of Europe. They're coming for the whole West. So either way, however we're going to do this, we're going to win this war for the sake of humanity.

HUNT: All right, Kinneret Hamburger facing a lot of things that most 23-year-olds don't have to, so thanks very much for spending some time with us.

HAMBURGER: Thank you.

HUNT: All right.

Meanwhile, Hamas releasing a hostage video of a young woman abducted during the attack on the music festival. How her family is reacting ahead.

And the U.S. still needs an ambassador to Israel. Why the nominee is facing resistance up next.


[05:55:03] HUNT: The United States is not only with a Speaker of the House during Israel's war with Hamas, we're also short a key ambassador as well. Jack Lew, Biden's nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel, is scheduled to have a confirmation hearing Wednesday and would need the support of all 100 senators if they want to schedule a quick confirmation vote. That scenario is increasingly unlikely.

Here is Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton on Sunday.


SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): Jack Lew is an Iran sympathizer who has no business being our ambassador. It's bad for the United States, it's bad for Israel. I know Democrats are saying that we need to confirm Jack Lew quickly to show our support for Israel. I would say it's the exact opposite. We need to defeat Jack Lew's nomination to show that we have a new approach to Iran.


HUNT: All right, let's bring in Jackie Kucinich. She's a CNN political analyst and the Washington Bureau chief for The Boston Globe. Jackie, good morning. Always nice to have you.


HUNT: The reality is -- I mean, Jack Lew has a background and the problem that a lot of these Republicans have is around his work as Treasury secretary under the Obama administration, which involved handling sanction money around Iran and the Iran deal. And he has been booed by -- at Israel events in the past. He has kind of gotten into it a little bit with Benjamin Netanyahu over how Netanyahu talked publicly about the Iran deal and what the Obama administration was doing at the time.

This does not seem like it's going to be smooth sailing for him.

KUCINICH: It won't be. I mean, eventually, he's likely to be confirmed because Democrats are united behind him. However, Republicans are going to make it difficult.

Tom Cotton is not on the Foreign Relations Committee, which is where Jack Lew's confirmation hearing will be held. However, Marco Rubio is and he said that while the United States needs an ambassador to Israel it needs to be the right person. So you can read between the lines there.

It seems that he's going to endure some pretty tough questioning and will this -- which will just push it down the road and maybe make it late October before there's a confirmation vote. But I'm certainly -- the unanimous consent, as they say, that you mentioned doesn't seem to be in the cards for Jack Lew.

HUNT: Right. Yeah, no. We should -- for folks who don't -- aren't as steeped in the process as we are -- KUCINICH: Yeah.

HUNT: -- unanimous consent would be all 100 senators signing off and saying OK, you can do this really quickly. If they don't do that, Lew has to go through the normal process, which takes --


HUNT: -- a while.

I mean, Democrats are out there saying look, we need an ambassador -- fair argument.

I'm curious. Have you picked up on any signs that there are any Democrats with concerns about Lew's nomination? I mean, Chuck Schumer obviously is a very strong supporter of Israel. He was there over the weekend. He's Jewish himself. And I remember asking questions of him about the Iran deal at the time it was all unfolding. It seems to me if something is going to derail it, it might be in there.

Do we have any sense of whether that's a possibility?

KUCINICH: I haven't heard anything, Kasie. But what I've learned about this particular set of Congress folk, both in the Senate and the House side, you never really know. That said, my understanding is that Democrats are united behind Lew. We'll see what shakes out though. It's going to be an interesting confirmation hearing to watch, for sure.

HUNT: Yeah.

All right, let's -- while I have you, let's talk a little bit about the speaker's race because we've got just about six hours now until Jim Jordan says he's going to go to the floor and basically dare people to vote against him. You and I have both covered these folks long enough to know that this group that says they're opposed to him less willing to tolerate chaos than the Matt Gaetz crew.

Do you think that they are going to hold or fold?

KUCINICH: And that is the question. Usually, if history serves, moderates usually fold. And not all these folks are moderates. A lot of them do have an axe to grind with Jordan. And they're looking down the line. You've heard several of them talk about what Jordan has been in the past and whether this is actually -- if he can be the uniter that he is presenting himself to be which, again, has not really been his reputation during his tenure in Congress.

Right now, he doesn't have the -- just if you look at CNN's web counts and other web counts, he doesn't seem to be quite there yet. However, on the floor, when you have momentum, sometimes people get swept up in that. And -- but I think with -- particularly with McCarthy and Scalise supporters, they're looking at this argument that oh, no -- we need to move on and we need to stop putting the House in chaos is ringing a little hollow.

HUNT: A little hollow, indeed.

KUCINICH: A little bit.

HUNT: I mean, it's -- it is just a remarkable change for the man that John Boehner, when he was speaker, christened a quote-unquote "legislative terrorist" to now be behind the scenes, making the argument hey, I'm going to be Speaker of the House. I'm going to keep the government open. I'm going to do all the things I'm supposed to do. You know, what a world we live in.

Jackie Kucinich, thank you very much --

KUCINICH: Thanks, Kasie.

HUNT: -- for being with us this morning.


And thanks to all of you for joining us this morning. I am Kasie Hunt. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.