Return to Transcripts main page
THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
New Details About Pulse Nightclub Shooting Emerge; Senate Fireworks Over Gun Control; Critics Blast Obama Strategy In Syria, Iraq; Fifty One Diplomats Call For Strikes Against Assad; Obama: ISIS Fight Running On "All Cylinders"; Six Fires Torch California, Forcing Evacuations. Aired 4:30-5p ET
Aired June 21, 2016 - 16:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[16:30:01] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: What was it about?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So, we're learning from officials that he left the house angry that day, and he left with a bag of guns. That is what the wife is telling investigators, but she did not call police, and now we're learning more about what he did in those hours after he left the house and before he opened fire in that nightclub.
BROWN (voice-over): CNN has learned the Orlando terrorist, Omar Mateen, went to Pulse nightclub earlier that Saturday night posing as a regular customer, paying the cover charge and getting a wristband. Law enforcement officials say he then left before returning two hours later to carry out his attack, as the gay club prepared to close early Sunday morning.
Investigators believe he had been casing club security, but they're still trying to figure out what he did in between the time he left the club and returned.
LORETTA LYNCH, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We're working to identify anyone he had contact with that night, up to obviously and including any phone contact, any kind of electronic communication that he had, and we're still processing all that information.
BROWN: Adding to the mystery of his motive was the purchase of plane tickets the day before the attack. Investigators say Mateen bought three tickets for a July trip to California for himself, his wife, and his child, a focus of the investigation remains on his wife, Noor Salman.
CNN has learned she told investigators Mateen was angry when he left their Fort Pierce home Saturday and carried a bag full of gun with him. She claims she pleaded with him not to leave, grabbing him by the arm. She maintains she didn't know his specific plans. Investigators also continue to interview his associates to see what they may have known in advance of the attack and whether Mateen had prior plots in the works.
JEFF ASHTON, ORANGE COUNTY STATE ATTORNEY: If anybody knew that this was going to happen and was a participant and helped it, that that person will be prosecuted either in state or federal court, one of the two.
BROWN: A day after the Justice Department took heat for redacting parts of the 911 transcript release to the public, Attorney General Loretta Lynch told reporters in Orlando today her department is now considering releasing the 911 calls during the attack.
LYNCH: We are looking to be as transparent as possible and to provide as much information as possible. Over the course of time, we certainly are open to that.
BROWN: And we have also learned that investigators are scrutinizing video of the gunman practicing with the rifle he used during the rampage.
In fact, staff at that range told investigators that he was shooting from the hip rather than the shoulder, which prompted staff to tell him not to do that. Also, Jake, we have learned that the wife, the gunman's wife, has retained a lawyer. It's unclear exactly what that is, but, of course, we're trying to figure that out.
TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown, thank you so much.
Democratic lawmakers attacking Republicans after the failed gun control votes. Democrats saying that Republicans -- quote -- "want to sell to ISIS."
And now the White House is weighing in. Stay with us.
TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.
New fireworks today in Congress' battle over gun control, after the Senate voted down four amendments designed to strengthen background checks and prevent suspected terrorists from obtaining weapons.
In response, some Democrats are accusing Republicans of selling guns to ISIS.
CNN senior political reporter Manu Raju joins me now.
Manu, that's a pretty stark accusation, Republicans selling guns to terrorists.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Jake.
And Democrats are not backing off this at all. This really started when Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut who launched that 15-hour filibuster last week trying to call and push Republicans on the issue of gun control, vented to "The Washington Post" and said that Republicans chose to sell weapons to ISIS.
Now, afterwards, Elizabeth Warren, the progressive firebrand, someone presume to be on Hillary Clinton's short list to be vice president, tweeted that she agrees, that Chris Murphy said it accurately and said it correctly.
Now, today, I had a chance to question Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid about whether or not that rhetoric was responsible.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: I don't criticize them at all for saying what they did, because, actually, it's true.
JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As we see it, it is without question possible for suspected terrorists to buy guns because Republicans are protecting their ability to do so.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Now, it's clearly not backing down at all, Jake, and this comes, of course, days after John McCain accused President Obama of being -- quote -- "directly responsible" for the attacks in Orlando because of his policies in Iraq in dealing with ISIS, but McCain later sort of walked back that remark, saying, well, he actually meant his policies were directly responsible.
But, as we can see here, Democrats are not backing down, probably because they sense a political advantage in this fight and taking it to Republicans, Jake.
TAPPER: All this heat, I would imagine, won't necessarily help the efforts of moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who is attempting right now to pull together a compromise that would allow people who are on the terrorist watch list or the no-fly list to be blocked from purchasing firearms. What is the status of that legislation?
RAJU: Well, that's right, Jake.
She has actually a bipartisan group of senators who are trying to push this forward. But what she does not have are the numbers. What she's having on the right, the Republican leadership is skeptical about elements of her plan, and similarly on the left, Democratic leaders also believe there are a number of flaws in her bill.
So while she may have some support in the middle getting broad bipartisan support, 60 votes in the Senate is going to be incredibly difficult. The White House, the Justice Department has raised some concerns about this as well.
And we're not even talking about the House, the Republican-controlled House, even if it gets out of the Senate. Very difficult to see this get past the House, so a lot of work for her ahead. TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, thanks so much.
More in our politics lead, some breaking news. Pennsylvania Congressman Chaka Fattah, a Democrat, was convicted in a federal court today. The 59-year-old, who represents West Philadelphia, was found guilty on all 23 charges he faced, including racketeering, money laundering, and fraud. Prosecutors say Fattah stole money from federal grants and nonprofit funds to pay off debt from his failed mayoral campaign in Philly back in 2007.
He has been in office, the Democrat, since 1995, and he was already losing his House seat after being defeated in a Democratic primary back in April.
President Obama says the United States military is firing on -- quote -- "all cylinders" when it comes to the war against ISIS, but our next guest says the president doesn't necessarily have an effective strategy when it comes to the war against ISIS. And he's a Democrat.
Then, raging wildfires growing, burning dangerously close to each other, the flames so strong, smoke can be seen from downtown L.A.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Our World Lead now, welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Today the deadly violence in Syria spilled in Jordan, a critical ally in the anti-ISIS coalition. Six Jordanian security guards were killed this morning in a car bomb attack. The first of its kind not far from a massive refugee camp along Syria's border with Jordan.
The bloodshed just another indication of the regional instability caused by this five-year-long civil war and the rise of ISIS. And it comes as dozens of diplomats, service members, and various officials in and out of the Obama administration voice concern that there is no actual U.S. strategy in Syria and Iraq despite the rosier picture the president continually paints.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: ISIL is on defense, and it's now been a full year since ISIL has been able to mount a major successful offensive operation in either Syria or Iraq. This campaign at this stage is firing on all cylinders.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Now, dozens of ISIS leaders have been killed and Iraqi forces backed by the U.S. military have retaken large portions of ISIS territory, but do those successes equal a strategy? Is the United States firing on all cylinders?
No, not according to former and current members of the military in the Obama administration who have said to me on background that years into this effort the U.S. lacks a coherent plan to accomplish the mission that the president has stated, destroying ISIS. Here is retired Marine General James Mattis, former CENTCOM commander testifying before the U.S. Senate last year.
GENERAL JAMES MATTIS (RETIRED), FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: I don't know what our policy is on Syria. I don't know what the political end state is that people want to accomplish, and if you wander into a war without knowing that, you're probably going to get lost. We've been somewhat in a strategy-free environment for quite some time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: To this day in speeches, General Mattis refers to Syria and Iraq as a strategy-free zone. Former secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, told "Foreign Policy" magazine a few months ago that in Obama administration discussions, quote, "we seemed to veer away from the big issues. What was our political strategy on Syria?"
Last week, 51 current diplomats noting that more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed and millions more displaced wrote in an internal memo, quote, "The status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous humanitarian, diplomatic, and terrorism related challenges. The United States cannot contain the conflict with the current policy."
Secretary of State John Kerry in response called the memo important. Several sources told me they think the current plan is essentially just to buy time until President Obama leaves office.
Joining me now to discuss this all is Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. He serves on the Armed Services Committee and he deployed to Iraq four times while in the Marine Corps. Congressman, thanks so much for being here.
REPRESENTATIVE SETH MOULTON (D), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Thanks for having me, Jake.
TAPPER: Do you think that the United States when it comes to Syria, Iraq, and ISIS is in a strategy-free zone as General Mattis calls it?
MOULTON: Actually, I agree with General Mattis and the problem is we do have military plans and the president is actually right when he says the military fight against ISIS is going pretty well. I've been out there. I visited the troops.
ISIS hasn't gained territory since May of last year. But if we don't know ultimately what we're fighting for, what the political solution is to maintain the peace, then we could find ourselves coming back into Iraq five years after we finally defeat ISIS.
The same way that we're back in Iraq today five years after we defeated al Qaeda in Iraq back in 2007-2008.
TAPPER: Now, much of the push back on this from the military and from Obama administration officials is, hey, what's your plan? As you know, those diplomats, dozens of them, signed an internal memo pleading with the Obama administration to launch strikes against the Assad regime, and here is what Vice President Biden told Charlie Rose this morning about that scenario.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's not a single, solitary recommendation that I saw that is a single, solitaire answer attached to it how to do what they're talking about.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Congressman, do you think that there is a strategy that would work?
MOULTON: I mean, look, Syria is very difficult, but clearly we want a political transition from the Assad regime. We need an interim government that does not include Assad and we need plan going forward to make sure that they can choose a leader that the Syrians like. Three out of four Syrians in a recent poll said they want a political transition, but where is our political work?
[16:50:07]I mean, we're clearly supporting Special Forces on the ground in Syria. What are they fighting for if we are not clear about what that end state is? In fact, by the sheer fact that we are taking military action in Syria, you would think we are trying to have a military overthrow of the Assad regime and yet that's not really our strategy.
If you ask the administration in private, they'll say we want a political transition. So it's really incoherent. Now if you go to Iraq, we do actually have a prime minister that we like. He is far better than Prime Minister Malaki, who is about the worst prime minister imaginable a few years ago.
Prime Minister Abadi is doing the right things. He is pushing it back against the Iranian influence. He is trying to reform the government. There is a lot more that we can do on the political front to help support him and make sure that he can actually enact these changes.
TAPPER: As you know, President Obama said that we are firing on all cylinders there. I know people in the service right now. You speak to them all the time. That does not square with what they tell me. Do you think that is an honest statement, we are firing on all cylinders?
MOULTON: No. We are firing on the military cylinders and the military progress against ISIS is going fine. We are not firing on diplomatic cylinders at all. I was in Iraq a few months ago back in March. It was very clear from the diplomats that they feel like their hands are tied.
That there are diplomatic politics things that we could be doing to help. We could be minimizing the Iranian influence on Shi'a government. We could be empowering the Sunnis so that they actually have a voice in the future of Iraq. We could be managing the rift with the Kurds. These are very clear political steps that we could take to help Prime Minister Abadi bring his government back together and create some sort of political stability.
So that after we are done defeating ISIS on the military front we can actually go home and ensure that Iraq will be stable for the future and maintain the peace and won't have to keep sending troops back again and again.
TAPPER: Congressman, do you think that what the Obama administration policy right now is when it comes to Syria and Iraq is just buy time until the next president takes office?
MOULTON: Well, no, I mean, they are very serious about wanting to defeat ISIS. The problem is that they are just working on military solution. The military campaign is going well, but I just don't see the political end game here.
When General Mattis says you have to know what you are fighting for he is absolutely right. I had a platoon of Marines in Iraq and I made sure that every Marine down to the most junior private understood what our mission is, understood what we were fighting for.
If you heard General Petraeus talk about the surge, he always talked about the mission of the surge to create military progress so that we could create a space for political progress. So his military mission was very closely coordinated with Ambassador Crockers' (ph) political work during the surge.
And that is why we made both military and political progress in Iraq during the surge even with a very difficult prime minister. That kind of coordination, that kind of high level strategy that tells the troops what they are fighting for and risking lives for on the ground doesn't seem to be there today.
TAPPER: Congressman Seth Moulton, thank you so much and as always thank you for your service.
MOULTON: Thanks, Jake.
TAPPER: Temperatures soaring well into the triple digits and fuelling six separate wild fires out west. Now there are concerns two of the fires could merge.
TAPPER: Welcome back. In our National Lead today, California is battling not one, not two but six wild fires burning across the state all the way from the northern tip of the state to San Diego county nearly 24,000 acres in total.
Making conditions even worse, temperatures hovering in the triple digits in many of those areas affected by the wildfires. Erratic winds are feeding the fast moving conflagration.
CNN correspondent, Stephanie Elam, is live in Duarte in California, where two wild fires are burning next to each other. Stephanie, how threatening are flames to homes in that area?
STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'll put it to you this way, Jake, about 770 homes have been evacuated from here in Duarte where we are and there reason for that is where I'm standing is right in front of a house. You look right behind me you can see the flames in the wilderness.
This community backs up to the Angeles National Forest so when you take a look at how close they came that's why they made the decision to evacuate some of these people.
They're probably not going to get back in here for a while. The other concern is the winds. If the winds keep moving to the west other communities going in the direction of Los Angeles will be facing more evacuations. That is a possibility here.
But as you said, there are six fires burning in the state. All of those fires take resources. They are doing a dance here making sure they have resources in all places they need to, to battle these fires.
But Jake, keep in mind summer just started and this is a part of life here in California when you have this wilderness right up against these communities. So we are probably looking for more of this heading into the next few months -- Jake.
TAPPER: Tell us about the status of the people of California. Have there been injuries or fatalities?
ELAM: No, we have not heard any fatalities at this point. They really are stressing to people here that if they say it is time to prepare that means it is time to go. Be prepared, be alert, and pay attention to the news so that we know what is happening, and so you can get out of here. You are not in the way of the first responders.
TAPPER: And the high temperatures, Stephanie, are really making matters worse.
ELAM: Not only is it hot, it is really hot. Yesterday, it was over 100 degrees out here. You also have winds which can drive the flames and then you add on top of it the fact that it is low humidity here. It's the perfect situation for fires. So that is why they are concerned that there could be more in the area.
TAPPER: All right, Stephanie Elam, thank you. Stay safe.
That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Trump change --