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Biden to Address Nation as America's Longest War Ends; 1M+ Without Power for Possibly Weeks After Hurricane; College Students in Afghanistan Stranded; Florida Punishes School Districts Defying DeSantis on Masks. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired August 31, 2021 - 06:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. It is Tuesday, August 31. I'm John Berman here with chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins.


Great to see you.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Thank you for having me. It's nice to be here in person.

BERMAN: A lot going on today. Brianna is off.

President Biden will address the nation this afternoon to mark the end of America's longest war. This photo, which we saw first overnight, shows the very last American service member to leave Afghanistan.

In all, 123,000 people were taken out of the country. One hundred and twenty-three thousand in about two and a half weeks. An unprecedented evacuation mission.

But as many as 200 Americans remain in the country, and that represents a broken promise from President Biden. He said the U.S. would stay to get them out. The U.S. did not stay.

There are thousands of Afghan allies in the country still, as well.

This morning, the Taliban is celebrating the U.S. withdrawal. We have this new video which shows Taliban fighters exploring a hangar at the Kabul airport. The head of U.S. Central Command says some military equipment was removed from Afghanistan. Other items disabled.

COLLINS: Meantime, more than a billion homes and businesses in the southeast, a million homes and businesses in the southeast are without power this morning after Hurricane Ida, and that could last for weeks.

On top of the catastrophic damage, severe flooding and the lack of electricity, now comes the scorching heat. Temperatures in Louisiana and Mississippi could hit 103 degrees today. At least two deaths have been reported, but that is expected to rise as they assess the damage from the storm.

The Louisiana National Guard rescued nearly 350 people on Monday, who were trapped by flood waters.

But we begin with the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. CNN's Clarissa Ward joins us now.

Clarissa, the president is expected to address the nation later this afternoon about what is the situation on the ground in Kabul, and defend his decision not to extend that deadline past August 31. What do we know, and what are you hearing?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So Kaitlan, first, let me explain where I am. I am here on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, and you can see behind me, if that truck isn't in the way, the white flag of the Taliban. That is the flag that is flying here at this border crossing.

There are Taliban fighters just a few yards away from me. And as many people are now trying to leave Afghanistan, border crossings like this are starting to clog up.

What we're seeing at this one, though, is that the Pakistanis are saying, You cannot come in. We cannot cope with the flow of more refugees.

According to the U.N., some 1.4 million Afghan refugees already live here in Pakistan. And so this border is basically closed to Afghans.

That hasn't stopped them lining up. There's a large group of them, some of them very sick. They're desperately hoping for medical attention. The Pakistanis have been providing some dispensation on that front.

But really, this is just a window into what Afghanistan's new future is. With the U.S. evacuation complete, and a lot of insecurity on the ground in terms of stability, in terms of violence, in terms of the economic situation, many people are now on the move. And they're looking for different ways to try to get out of the country as they fear that it will no longer be possible through the Kabul airport.

BERMAN: So Clarissa, first of all, I'm very curious about what you're hearing the situation is or the feeling is inside Afghanistan, particularly the capital city of Kabul.

Look, the sun has risen on Afghanistan for the first time in 20 years with no U.S. troops in country. But I'm also curious about what you just said about the border there, because if the U.S. is gone and if the flights have stopped out of the Kabul airport, which they have, the overground border crossings are the only way for people to get out. If Pakistan is not letting people across, that effectively means there's no way out.

WARD: That's what the U.N. is really concerned about. You have 3 1/2 million people, by their estimate, who have been displaced from their homes inside Afghanistan due to the violence. And if we now see a real deterioration in the economic situation, as many people fear, I mean, in Kabul today, long lines and very tense scenes outside of almost every bank because Afghans are running to the bank, and they're trying to take all of their money out. They don't feel secure about this situation. They want to make sure that they have all their finances in order, and that they can start looking into, if they need to, moving.

Again, as you said, a lot of people now choosing to move via land borders to Uzbekistan, to Pakistan, to Iran, but many of these neighboring countries are just saying, Hold on a second, we can't cope with this.

And that's why there are so many countries that now have a vested interest in trying to make the situation inside Afghanistan work. And you asked about what the vibe is, what the mood is in Kabul. We have been speaking to people there.

The day started with jubilation. There was celebratory gunfire late into the night. But now the hard work begins, even for the Taliban. Now the real graft (ph) starts of learning how to govern the country, which by the way, even 20 years ago, they never really had a firm grip on how to do that.

And securing the country. We spoke with a Taliban source who said it's very difficult, because ISIS-K fighters have essentially, using his words, melted into the Taliban, making it almost impossible for the Taliban to distinguish between who is ISIS and who is the Taliban.

So make no mistake, John, they have a lot of hard work to do. And there are plenty of people among them, according to the State Department, one to 200 Americans, and countless other Afghans who are fearful for their lives and worrying about what this new era will bring with it -- John, Kaitlan.

COLLINS: And Clarissa, yesterday we heard from General Frank McKenzie who runs Central Command. He was talking about the difficulty facing the Taliban, including how they led thousands of ISIS-K prisoners out of those prisons when they were going around and taking over parts of Afghanistan.

We did hear from Pakistan's foreign minister earlier. He said he does think the Taliban is going to announce the formation of a government in the coming days now that the withdrawal from the U.S. has happened.

What do you think that's going to look like? Is there any chance they're at all cohesive enough to actually form that government, and what is that going to look like?

WARD: So it's a really good question, Kaitlan. There is a huge amount of pressure on the Taliban right now to form a transitional government that is inclusive and that is full technocrats, which is to say that is full of people who actually know what it means and what it takes to run a country.

And I have spoken to officials in Pakistan who privately concede that they're concerned about this, that they want this to be an absolute priority for the Taliban, because the Taliban does not know how to run a modern education system. The Taliban does not know how to run hydro dams. These are the things that require people with experience and expertise. The one thing that people are hopeful about is that, because the

Taliban is at least putting on a more pragmatic show these days, and because they want to be accepted by the international community, and because they want access to desperately needed financial aid, they're hopeful that they are going to take a more conciliatory approach to governing and to ruling, and that they will be more open to power sharing and to having a more inclusive government.

But the proof will be in the pudding. It's supposed to be announced in the coming days. Let's see what they come up with.

BERMAN: Right now the world is watching, although only really watching, because there isn't much the rest of the world can actually do directly. And I know that there's some 40 million people inside Afghanistan are watching and waiting, as well.

Clarissa, it's amazing to have you there. We're going to come back to you, because what happens at that border is crucial to Afghanistan in the next few days, and also crucial to the some hundred to 200 Americans who are still trapped in the country.

Kaitlan, normally, we have to go to you and you're on the lawn at the White House to find out information about what's happening. This time I just have to look to my left.

Listen, President Biden speaking this afternoon. What is it -- this is the third or fourth time we've heard him in two weeks with a direct address about Afghanistan. What is that the White House or the president wants to accomplish with this?

COLLINS: Well, I think what he is going to talk about today is obviously defending the big picture, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying that this is what they think Americans wanted to see.

And there is polling that does reflect that. I think the questions that face them now are how this, of course, was executed and how this went down and the fact that there are still Americans left in Afghanistan who, according to the State Department, want to leave.

And one thing that I was thinking about yesterday when we were listening to the secretary of state speaking, listening to the head of Central Command speaking, is a promise that President Biden had made, in his own words, one that he decided to make back just a few weeks ago when he did an interview with ABC News.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to do everything in our power to get all Americans out and our allies out. The commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out and everyone that should come out, and that's the objective. That's what we're doing now. That's the path we're on. If there's American citizens left, we're going to stay until we get them all out.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COLLINS: So I mean, people push back on that, saying the U.S. government warned people time and time again since April to leave Afghanistan. There are still people there, though, who want to leave. And so I do think that's something that the president wants to discuss today in his remarks.

BERMAN: Yes. That was pretty unambiguous, what he just said to George there. If there are American citizens still in there who want to get out, the United States will not leave. The U.S. is gone, and there are still American citizens who want to get out.

COLLINS: Every single U.S. troop member has left Afghanistan now as of that deadline, as of one minute before that deadline actually hit in Kabul, which is just notable in and of itself. Also, questions about not extending the deadline. He is expected to defend that decision during the speech.


BERMAN: Is there unanimity in the White House about the president's messaging? One of the things that I'm struck by is he's not movable on the policy or how he addresses the policy. He hasn't modulated his tone, for better or for worse. And some people may say it's better, he made a promise, he's sticking to it. Others say, well, he's got to adapt to the chaotic situation there. Is there unanimity within the West Wing about this?

COLLINS: I think they all back his decision. I do think that the White House realizes that this hasn't been a well-executed or perfectly handled exit from Afghanistan. They obviously have seen the issues.

They were very shaken after those 13 U.S. service members were killed, and it was a very somber day in the West Wing.

So I do think that they stand by, of course, the original point. But there are obviously questions about how it went down.

BERMAN: I have a lot more questions for you. But it's good. I just have to look over here to get some answers.

COLLINS: Yes. All morning.

But up next, we're going to talk about more than a million homes and businesses are now without power in Louisiana, and the big issue is that it could stay that way for weeks after Hurricane Ida tore through the state bringing catastrophic damage and flooding.

There you see those homes, those businesses, just water all over the place, of course, and in a place no one has ever wanted to see that again in New Orleans.

CNN's Nadia Romero is live in New Orleans with more. Nadia, what are you seeing now that we can actually see the damage and assess this, and what are officials telling you about what they expect the next few days to look like? NADIA ROMERO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Kaitlan.

And we have to wait for daylight to really look around and see what's around us, because we're still without power, and that power has been out for day two, potentially day three for some people here in New Orleans.

So we have about 25,000 workers from power companies all over the country. 32 states and D.C. who are here right now. They have a big task at hand: restoring power for more than a million people.

And you can see behind me those power poles that were damaged by Hurricane Ida. Well, perhaps, Kaitlan, the worst of it is in LaPlace, Louisiana, where about 350 people had to be rescued from rising flood waters.


ROMERO (voice-over): Across Louisiana, destruction and devastation in the wake of Hurricane Ida, but it's still far too dangerous for many to assess just how much damage is done here. More than a million Louisianans are still in the dark, and power in some of the hardest hit areas, like Jefferson Parish, is expected to be out for weeks.

CYNTHIA LEE SHENG, JEFFERSON PARISH PRESIDENT: We have no electricity. We have very little to no telecommunications. We have low water pressure, so we don't have clean drinking water. We're surviving now, but it's going to be a rough time. So we don't want our citizens to come back.

ROMERO: The entire city of New Orleans is also without power. The mayor urging residents who evacuated to stay away until it's safe to return.

MAYOR LATOYA CANTRELL (D), NEW ORLEANS: Where we have sources of power, it's generators only, and so it does speak to the need for fuel.

ROMERO: People waiting in lines for hours at some gas stations, looking to fill the tanks of their generators and cars.

The deadly Category 4 storm slamming into Louisiana midday Sunday with roaring winds up to 150 miles per hour and heavy flooding leaving many neighborhoods under water.

Debris filling the streets and falling trees destroying many homes and businesses.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We saw the tree -- that tree swaying back and forth, and then about five minutes later, the whole thing just snapped and fell over there on the house.

ROMERO: This Coast Guard video shows the damage in Grand Isle, Louisiana, from above. And in LaPlace, Louisiana, boats are now the only way to navigate some of its water filled roads. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have been through all the storms and they

expected it to come and be bad. We didn't expect it get this close to LaPlace. It wasn't supposed to be that close, you now? And so I'm not going to take that chance again.

ROMERO: Urgent search-and-rescue efforts are now underway.

GOV. JOHN BEL EDWARDS (D), LOUISIANA: I don't want to mislead anyone. Robust search-and-rescue is happening right now, and I fully expect the death count will go up considerably throughout the day.

ROMERO: Governors activating nearly 5,300 National Guard troops to help.

MAJ. GEN. KEITH WADDELL, ADJUTANT GENERAL, NATIONAL GUARD We worked really hard across southeast Louisiana. We rescued 348 people. 48 pets, and we were able to get those folks to safety.

ROMERO: President Joe Biden pledging to help Louisiana and other states severely impacted by the hurricane.

BIDEN: We're going to stand with you and the people of the Gulf as long as it takes for you to recover.


ROMERO: So once the storm ends, the danger isn't over. In Mississippi, a highway was washed away by flood waters. Two people died and about a dozen others were injured.

And in Louisiana, we've learned of a man who was killed by an alligator when he was walking through flood waters. And Kaitlan, think of this. About 32 million people here in the Gulf Coast now under a heat advisory. And it's so dangerous, because it's so hot down here along the Gulf Coast. There's no AC. People are operating with no hot water, and that could continue for weeks -- Kaitlan.


COLLINS Yes. And Nadia, that's probably the reason you're seeing officials like the mayor of New Orleans say if you evacuated, do not come home yet. Because we are just not ready to welcome people back, given you're still assessing the damage.

Nadia, as the sun comes up, let us know what you're seeing and what officials on the ground are saying. Thank you for your reporting.

Next, hundreds of university students and staff remain trapped in Afghanistan this morning. We'll talk with the school's president about the desperate effort to get them out.

BERMAN: Plus, Florida bringing in portable morgues as the governor punishes school districts for defying his ban on mask mandates.



BERMAN: This morning, hundreds of students, relatives and staff from the American University of Afghanistan are stuck in the country and trying to get out.

According to "The New York Times," the group from the university tried to get out on Sunday on buses to the Kabul airport, but after hours of waiting for clearance, they were notified that the airport gates were a security threat, and their evacuations were called off.

Joining me now is the president of the American University of Afghanistan, Ian Bickford, who we should note was able to get out of Afghanistan days before that.

Thank you so much for being with us. Tell us what happened on Sunday when these students and faculty tried to get out.


Well, first, I should say Sunday was the last day of the two-week-long effort to help our students relocate from Afghanistan to safe sites where they can continue their learning without fear.

Sunday was -- was our, we thought, our best hope. We organized a convoy of more than a dozen buses. Something like 500 students, close to 600 students, family, staff, faculty boarded those buses with the -- with the sincere hope that they would be given permission to enter the airport, board flights, and -- and begin their journey to a better life.

In the course of the day, it became clear that not only would the airport gates not close, we did not receive permission to enter the airport, but the security threat increased dramatically. And it was the best thing for us to ask our students to return home and stay safe.

BERMAN: How many? What are the numbers you're talking about this morning in terms of people who want to leave? And can you explain exactly why, why they want to get out?

BICKFORD: Thank you for that. We have been attempting to -- to move 1,200 students, faculty, staff and family members out of Afghanistan. The numbers of our total community are much greater. Many of them also would like to -- would like to leave Afghanistan.

And the reason is clear. The American University of Afghanistan represents the brightest light of the American engagement in the country. We were the target of a brutal, deadly attack in 2016. The future of our students, our faculty in the country, our staff in the country remains unclear. We don't know the level of persecution they'll face.

But it's very important that they're able to continue their studies so that they can -- so that they can bring their ambition, their optimism and their hope for Afghanistan back home, perhaps in the distant future, but still, they're very hopeful that their country will -- will resume some level of free and fair civil society.

BERMAN: There was some confusion based on some "New York Times" reporting about whether or not the Taliban was given a list of some kind of a roster of names of students or faculty or people associated with the university. What do you know for sure about this?

BICKFORD: Well, look, I know very little for sure about -- about how the entry into the airport, in fact, worked. Nobody outside really does.

It's very simple confusion. No fault. The -- the fact is our buses never even approached the point of the Taliban check point and so there's no reason to believe that any list of names, passport numbers or other identifying information was passed to the Taliban.

However, you know, I am aware of speculation about how -- how this might work. It simply wasn't the case for us.

BERMAN: Any direct threats to your students who are still there?

BICKFORD: Yes, absolutely. Many report -- many report anything from harassing behavior, entering homes by the Taliban, asking who's there, what they do, whether they're -- including whether they're students at the American University of Afghanistan.

Some have received calls from -- from people adopting fraudulent identities, claiming to be representatives of the university, asking for identifying information. And others have -- have received direct threats to life and safety.

BERMAN: I've got to let you go here, but any -- any promises of assistance from the U.S. government at this point?

BICKFORD: Well, we're working on it. We're hopeful, and we believe that if the U.S. government recognizes that the American University of Afghanistan is the legacy of the -- of the American engagement there, they will do the right thing and help us to continue to get our students to safety. Thank you.

BERMAN: Ian Bickford, president of the American University in Afghanistan, thanks for being with us this morning.

BICKFORD: Thank you very much.

BERMAN: Florida governor Ron DeSantis, punishing schools in Florida that have required students to wear masks, even as portable morgues are brought in to handle the overflow of coronavirus deaths.

COLLINS: Plus, are Florida residents beginning to turn on Republican governor Ron DeSantis over his handling of the pandemic? We'll look at those numbers next.


[06:29:08] COLLINS: Florida schools are now being punished for requiring mask wearing. The state's Department of Education is now withholding funds from some counties where wearing a mask is mandatory, which of course, is in defiance of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis's ban.

This comes as 14 portable morgues have been brought in to help the state with a, quote, "unprecedented" number of COVID-19 deaths.

Leyla Santiago is live in Miami.

Leyla, we know that Florida is seeing some of the highest case rates in the nation right now, some of the highest numbers that we have seen, of course, even before vaccinations were widespread in the U.S. What are you hearing from officials on the ground about their level of concern right now?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Listen, Kaitlan, where we are right now, Jackson Memorial, one of the larger health systems in south Florida, they have freight trucks, refrigerated freight trucks on stand-by as a way to prepare for possible over-capacity at morgues.

So that really paints the picture as to what they're dealing with inside these hospital walls.