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Afghan Firefight Involving U.S. Troops; Obama to Announce Executive Actions on Guns; New Attacks Among Establishment GOP Rivals; Candidates Address New Hampshire Drug Addiction; GOP Plot to Take Down Trump. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 5, 2016 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:06] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.


We have breaking news. A fire fight involving U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

We want to get straight to CNN's chief national correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

New details. What are we learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: This was a joint U.S./Afghan counterterror operation, took place in southern Afghanistan in Helmand Province near the town of Marjah. During that operation, one U.S. servicemember was killed, other casualties as well. This was a joint U.S./Afghan operation, so those casualties could be a mix of U.S. and Afghan. During that operation, a medevac helicopter came to evacuate the wounded and a mortar round went off nearby that helicopter. The concern being that that mortar round damaged the helicopter, may have damaged the rotor blades so they're checking its ability to fly. U.S. military making clear that helicopter was not shot down. No one injured on board the helicopter, but prior to that there was a fire fight and one U.S. servicemember was killed in that fire fight. It's a reminder, John and Kate, there is still a war going on in Afghanistan. There are still thousands of U.S. troops there and they are still going on counterterror missions. There's been a lot of talk about how their role has changed. That they've retreated to their bases, only doing security force protection, but the fact is they're doing counterterror operations as we saw today. Those operations can be dangerous and deadly.

BOLDUAN: A very harsh reminder of that.

Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Let's bring in CNN military analyst, Major General James "Spider" Marks, for more.

General, thanks for joining us.


BOLDUAN: This comes on the heel of just about two weeks ago, six U.S. servicemembers were killed in a suicide bomb attack that the Taliban claimed responsibility for. This joint operation we're talking about today, U.S./Afghan forces in a firefight with the Taliban. As Jim was talking about, this helicopter possibly being hit by mortar fire. What does this tell us, what does this tell you about the state of play right now in Afghanistan?

MARKS: Clearly what we're seeing is several things. Number one, counterterror are mission for the U.S. remaining forces that are in Afghanistan. Clearly, there are other coalition forces and clearly we are doing this in concert with the request of the Afghan government and as we continue to train and grow the Afghan military, this is all being done together. The second thing is that what this really tells you is the decreased size of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was probably done at a timeline and a schedule that was not coordinated with the ability of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Bear in mind, since 9/11, the Taliban has controlled more space today in Afghanistan than they did at the start of 9/11. So we have seen an increased rise in terms of Taliban capabilities and a decreased presence of the United States. So this is a challenge because we don't have sufficient forces to push back on the Afghan -- on the Taliban in al Qaeda, and as a result we don't have increase in the capabilities of the Afghan security forces. That's the challenge we see right now.

BERMAN: Perhaps explains why the president made the decision to extend the current troop levels through the year. 10,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan until end of 2016, half that past that. Perhaps they'll determine any more reductions will be dangerous.

Thanks, General.

BOLDUAN: You saw that picture in bottom of your screen. President Obama is minutes away from making a very big announcement on new executive actions he'll be taking regarding gun control. You're looking right here, live look at the White House East Room where the president will officially unveil these new measures. We'll bring this to you live as soon as it begins.

BERMAN: The administration has already laid out some key parts of this plan, including expanding who would be considered a gun seller, which could increase the number of background checks, at least some.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski is at the White House for the announcement.

Michelle, any new details this morning?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, we know this announcement is going to be a room packed by people affected by gun violence. In fact, the person who will introduce President Obama is one of the parents from this Sandy Hook massacre from three years ago. Back when the president tried to do executive actions, more than two dozen of them. They couldn't go very far, obviously. Back then. the president said he's gone as far as he can within the law. It's up to Congress to do more. Well, months ago he and his team decided to scrub the law, as they put it, and find any additional leeway to make changes.

[11:05:06] We already knew going in that whatever he was going to do was going to be kind of on the margins of the margins of what the law would allow it. Those limits are really evident when you look at what they want to do here. What they're trying to enact. I mean, for the background checks, it's not even really a change in the law. I mean, it will have the effect of expanding or wanting to expand how many people register and then how many buyers of guns will have to go through background checks but it's really a clarification, based on a legal designation of who is a private gun seller versus who is in the business of selling guns.

Enforcement is another question. I mean, they have penalties if you don't register and if these background checks are not done, but how is the federal government going to make these people register? How are they going to know if people don't? Those enforcement questions with every one of these actions that the president is announcing today -- John and Kate?

BERMAN: Is it will be interesting to see if he addresses any of those details or at least White House staff does.

Michelle Kosinski, thanks much.

BOLDUAN: Let's bring in CNN senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin.

You heard Michelle lay out what we know. Obviously, the devil is in the details, what details the president will offer. What's clear, the limits the president has here, that he can do with these executive actions. He and his advisers adamant that he is within his presidential authority, that he is not irresponsibly bypassing Congress. Do you think he's on firm legal ground from what you see?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I do think he's on firm legal ground. I also think it is not that big of deal.

BOLDUAN: Because he can't do much.

TOOBIN: The law, which was passed by Congress, says you have to register as a firearms dealer and perform background checks if you are engaged in the business of selling firearms. The question is, what do the words "engaged in the business" mean? What the White House is doing today and the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms is saying is we understand the definition to include people who may not previously have been thought to be firearms dealers. If you sell firearms for profit, if you sell firearms in their original packaging, these are indications that are you a firearms dealer, even if you sell small numbers of firearms. You're going to have to perform background checks. That's the gist --


BERMAN: As you pointed out, the pageantry in the White House in the lead up to, it the pageantry doesn't match up to it. TOOBIN: It doesn't. The politics are a little peculiar because

Republicans are saying he's exceeding his authority.


BERMAN: Some. Some are. If you read more deeply, a lot of conservative writers are saying, what the president's done here is, perhaps, helpful to, you know, gun advocates because he's created outrage or -- among gun owners who want to keep the laws from changing, at the same time, and getting nothing in return for it. He's not making any significant changes.

TOOBIN: That may be.

I'm sorry. Go ahead, Kate.

BOLDUAN: To Jeffrey's point, there are at the very same time, folks who already saying, they're going to challenge this. There are going to be legal challenges to this, which makes me think, what will this look like?

TOOBIN: I'll tell you how this will work. This is a criminal statute and it's a law that there have been prosecutions of individuals for failing to register as firearms dealers. So, what -- how this would play out is if one of these people who is newly covered under the law was charged by federal authorities with failing to register or selling guns in violation of federal law, they could go to court and say, Judge, throw this case out because the federal government is misinterpreting the law.


TOOBIN: All of that would take at least a year to go forward.

BOLDUAN: Correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think the administration has covered how many more people would be covered under this clarification of the law.

BERMAN: Not only that, but I don't know they're going to enumerated specifically on paper exactly how they're expanding this. Isn't it possible they keep it deliberately vague?

TOOBIN: Not really. Just today the BAFT put out a pamphlet, "Am I a Firearms Dealer." It's a detailed --


BOLDUAN: Like you said in the original packaging.


TOOBIN: Right, all those qualities. As with anything legal, there are going to be questions that are not easy to answer. I think it is true that BATF is putting out guidance about how to tell who's who.

BOLDUAN: Jeffrey, one of the things that is challenging and confusing about gun laws is you have federal gun laws and then state by state gun laws. What does this mean for the state by state gun laws that vary widely?

[11:10:07] TOOBIN: It means nothing. The federal government cannot tell states what to do. One of the things we've learned in the course of lots of research of gun laws is that there are states like New York and Massachusetts where it's very hard to buy a gun. So, much of the crime that takes place in the northeast where gun laws tend to be stricter come from guns that were purchased in Georgia and North Carolina, places where it's -- Virginia -- much easier to buy a gun. Guns, of course, handguns, are very portable.

BERMAN: Another place where gun laws are stricter, both places where we've seen mass shootings.


TOOBIN: As is often pointed out by gun rights advocates.

BERMAN: This is more of a political question than it is a legal question. The question then is why do this? Is the answer because the president in the last year of his term wants to be seen as doing something, anything?

BOLDUAN: Anything?

TOOBIN: Absolutely. He's probably say that himself. I think he is -- he has said, look, I recognize that the best thing I could do is get new laws passed about gun. After Sandy Hook he tried very hard and he couldn't even get it through Democratic Senate.

BOLDUAN: You made the point --


TOOBIN: Democratic Senate, he couldn't get it through. So, I think your point is accurate, but I also don't think it's any real secret. I think the president is saying, look, I'm going to push my authority as far as it will go, but, you know, we have a system where Congress makes the law.

BERMAN: The ironic effect of that -- and Kate was just showing me an article -- every time the president has tried to crack down on guns, any time the rhetoric has been heated up, gun purchases --


BOLDUAN: More people buy guns.

TOOBIN: That's right. The term you often hear from gun buyers is, I'm worried about confiscation. The federal government is going to come confiscate my guns.

BOLDUAN: And top Republicans don't help that rhetoric. Donald Trump just saying yesterday, this is one step closer to taking away guns. TOOBIN: This is so far from confiscation. This is trying only to

make it somewhat more difficult to buy a gun in the first place, but taking guns away, it has absolutely nothing to do with that.

BOLDUAN: A lot more to discuss. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Important programming note for you. Moments from now, President Obama will be addressing the nation, announcing his actions on gun control. We'll bring that to you live. We'll have full coverage of that. We'll see what more detail comes out from President Obama in just a few minutes.

BERMAN: And another important programming note. This Thursday, President Obama joins CNN's Anderson Cooper for a live town hall on gun violence in America. That's at 8:00 p.m. eastern right here on CNN.

We do have other news for you today. Word this morning that the Republican establishment is plotting a Trump takedown. And a new question, WWMRD, what would Mitt Romney do?

BOLDUAN: That doesn't roll off the tongue well.

BERMAN: It sort of does. Reports he's talking behind the scenes.



[11:16:21] BERMAN: Full speed ahead on the campaign trail today. Actually, more than full speed as candidates speed through New Hampshire and Iowa. New attacks amongst the establishment rivals. Shows they're going for blood here.

Today, Marco Rubio's super PAC released two new ads in New Hampshire, slamming Chris Christie's records, his scandals, some might say, but most of all, his relationship with President Obama.


ANNOUNCER: Chris Christie could well be President Obama's favorite Republican governor. Why? Christie's record. He instituted an Internet sales tax, supported Common Core and liberal energy policies. Incredibly, Christie even backed Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. Chris Christie, one high-tax, Common Core, liberal energy-loving Obamacare, Medicaid-expanding president is enough.

Conservative Solutions Pac is responsible for the content of this advertising.


BERMAN: Could not humanly be more touching in that commercial.


CNN's Manu Raju is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he just finished up three town halls.

Manu, what do you see?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: When he speaks to voters, he does not go after his rivals by name. He talks in more hopeful optimistic tone and talks in doom and gloom tones, and talks about what the president is doing and social conservative issues, like abortion, things that resonate with Iowa voters. He does make implicit attacks about Ted Cruz when he talks to voters about the way he sought to overhaul the nation's intelligence service.

Afterwards, we talked to him and asked him specifically about what he thought of Ted Cruz's position on immigration and also national security as well as those attack ads on Chris Christie and he did not hold back. Here's what he had to say.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R), FLORIDA & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have a very different view on national security than Ted Cruz. He has voted for and supported a containment budget that would reduce national security. I think we need to rebuild the U.S. military. He's in favor of weakening our intelligence programs. I'm in favor of strengthening and expanding them.

This country cannot afford a president that's not going to reverse the direction Barack Obama has taken our country. We can't have another president that supports Common Core or gun control or expanding Obamacare. These are serious policy disputes. There's nothing in those ads that's inaccurate. It's the truth.


RAJU: So that last part, of course, is referring to Chris Christie and those super PAC ads.

I had also asked him, what about this effort by Ted Cruz to take a more hawkish line on immigration? He said, look, Ted Cruz supported massively expanding H1B visas during that 2013 immigration debate. Obviously, Rubio sees Cruz as a rival in Iowa. He doesn't need Cruz to be doing as well as he is in the polls and he needs to cut into Chris Christie who is surging in New Hampshire. Those are the two front wars he's fighting right now. It's really interesting seeing how this plays out, guys.

BERMAN: It is really interesting right now.

Manu Raju, in Cedar Rapids, thanks.

BOLDUAN: The key primary state of New Hampshire, Republican candidates are gathering there to speak at a forum. The topic, though, goes far beyond politics today, taking on the epidemic that has exploded in that state. It's become such a problem that many voters believe it is now more important than jobs or the economy in terms of taking on.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is there for us.

So, Phil, they're talking about drug addiction today. Why has that become such a crucial campaign issue?

[11:20:00] PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, 400, that's the amount of deaths estimated in the state of New Hampshire related to heroin or painkiller overdoses. You mentioned the interest in the state on this issue. More than 25 percent of likely New Hampshire voters list this as the top issue they're concerned about, above terrorism, above the economy. Obviously, when something like that occurs, politicians are going to start paying attention. At this forum alone today, you'll have Jeb Bush, you'll have Chris Christie, you'll have Carly Fiorina. What's been most interesting about this issue, Kate, is it's gone just beyond politics and maybe a couple proposals to try and address it. It's had poignant personal stories from the candidates themselves. You had Carly Fiorina talk about her daughter. You had Ted Cruz talk about his half-sister and her addiction, Jeb Bush and his daughter's addiction. Most notably, a video from Chris Christie's campaign stop that ended up on "The Huffington Post," viewed more than eight million times talking about a personal story of a friend of his from law school that dealt with addiction. Christie, who has made this a serious issue as he's risen in the polls, talking last night in the town hall, saying this is more than just enforcement, more than just tough love, this has become a very personal issue. Take a listen.


CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R), NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is not about morality. I don't want my kids to use drugs and neither do you. I don't want my friends to use drugs and neither do you. Most of us would say to them, don't do it. Or have said that to them but some are going to do it, so we need to make sure they understand, when that happens, when they fail the prevention part of the piece, that we need to let them feel like it's OK to ask for help.


MATTINGLY: Guys, a very serious issue in the state, getting serious attention and proposals from the candidates today and throughout this primary process.

BOLDUAN: And so sad how many personal connections many of these candidates have.

BERMAN: But that's life. It's wonderful in a certain way to see all these candidates taking it head-on right now because it's important to the voters there. It's important to people in this country.

BOLDUAN: Epidemic in New Hampshire.

Phil, thanks much.

BERMAN: The plot to take down Trump. Reports the GOP insiders are whispering behind the scenes. We're going to speak to an official who says Trump could flat-out ruin the party for generations. BOLDUAN: Ouch.

Moments from now, President Obama will be revealing his controversial executive actions on guns in America. You're going to hear who will be standing with him during his big announcement. We'll be right back.


[11:25:55] BERMAN: Brand-new details surfacing this morning on a plot to take down Donald Trump. "Politico" reports ad man and former advisor to George Bush and Mitt Romney, Alex Castellanos, has, quote, "been meeting with top GOP donors to gauge interest in launching an anti-Trump vehicle that would pummel the Manhattan businessman on the television air waves."

BOLDUAN: These are the latest rumblings amid the panic among some in the GOP establishment as Donald Trump remains, in their view, stubbornly ahead of the pack.

Here to discuss is CNN political commentator, S.E. Cupp; and CNN political commentator, Patty Solis Doyle; and Republican strategist and former chief of staff to Senator Mitch McConnell, Josh Holmes.

Great to see you guys.

There's a lot to get to, especially this, Josh, your words in this article. You do not mince words. You say, "The party needs to deal with the fact that Trump and Cruz could, in your words, utterly destroy the Republican bench for a generation if they become the nominee." Why?

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, Kate, if you look at the health and success of any national political party, it resides in its ability to appeal to voters that are far beyond its typical base. We're looking at the center left, center right of the electorate and whether or not people can understand your point of view from a certain candidate's point of view. What you see out of Cruz and Trump significantly is they're going the opposite way. They're trying to exclude people from adding to that political base. To be honest, the Republican Party has done a great job over the last six years of actually broadening that base significantly, controlling 68 of 98 state legislatures, 32 governorships, the majority in the House and the Senate. The Bench is doing well right now, partly because they have dynamic voices in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Colorado, Florida and others that can appeal to a purpose elector rat. Right now, you're seeing the two front-runners for the GOP nomination doing anything put.

BERMAN: Well, S.E., let me put this to you because last night at the Trump rally in Lowell, Massachusetts, not far from where you grew up, not exactly a red state, you saw lines of people waiting to get in to see Donald Trump.

BOLDUAN: In the cold. BERMAN: In the cold. Then there's Ted Cruz who basically says, look,

have I the secret sauce to winning a general election which is to actually appeal to the conservative base. They will show up if I'm the nominee, unlike Mitt Romney or John McCain, who they didn't feel to be sufficiently conservative. So could they somehow succeed in a general election?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I want to be careful not to lump them too closely together. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are two very different candidates. Ted Cruz walks around with a copy of the constitution in his back pocket and Donald Trump has shown very little concern for the constitution in things he's proposed. They're two very different candidates. The group Donald Trump is appealing to, let's be very clear, has always existed. He didn't invent them. They don't belong to Republicans. There's always been a group of people in this country for centuries that have been afraid and angry and think that other people are the reason. So, therefore, we must keep them out. The know-nothings in the 1850s tried to do this. They were anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic. They ran on a third-party ticket and all they did was get a Democrat elected to the White House. I think you'll see a very similar thing.

There's a group of people that's been found Democrats appealing at one time, Republicans appealing at one time. The only difference is that finally, and I don't mean that in a good sense, but for the first time, Donald Trump is actually speaking directly to them. This would have been ruinous in years past and that's why politicians don't directly speak to this very small group of angry, scared voters in the way that Donald Trump is. And for probably many reasons, he's being successful in harnessing that very small group's excitement. But whether he can turn that into a White House bid is, I think, a completely different story. There just aren't enough of them to turn that into a general election strategy.

[11:30:03] BOLDUAN: But, Patty, on one side, let's say, of the GOP spectrum, you have Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. On the other side of the spectrum, you then have this battle for the GOP establishment, Rubio, Christie, Jeb Bush --