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McMaster: Saying "Radical Islamic Terrorism" Not Helpful; Ex- Labor Secretary Tom Perez Becomes Democratic Party Leader; Rep Lee's Bill: Remove Bannon From National Security Council; Trump Won't Attend WH Correspondents' Dinner; U.S. Soldiers Help Iraqi Troops Near Front Lines; Crash Near Mardi Gras Parade Leaves Up To 14 Injured Aired 8-9p ET

Aired February 25, 2017 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Is a no. He's not going. We'll look at why. Also, the Democratic Party now has a brand new chairman. And the new leader of the party is already in a Twitter war with the president tonight. But first, CNN can now confirm the head of the House Intelligence Committee was asked by the White House to reach out to the media in an effort to knock down stories about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. That news follows exclusive CNN reporting that the White House asked the FBI to do the very same thing, but the FBI said it could not.

Also this weekend, the sign that the president and his new National Security Adviser are not quite in agreement at least when it comes to putting labels on potential terrorists. Our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott has that.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Now, President Trump's new National Security Adviser appears to want a more moderate approach to the Islamic world than his predecessor, Mike Flynn, and the president himself. Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster held a meeting with his staff at the NSC a few days ago. According to several people who attended the meeting, he said that the term "radical Islamic terrorism" was unhelpful, because terrorists like ISIS are perverting the religion, and therefore, their behavior is un- Islamic.

Now, both the president and Flynn have frequently used that term to describe jihad terrorists. McMaster made the argument that this only plays into their propaganda. That this is a religious war against Islam, and that hurts U.S. efforts to work with Arab and Muslim allies to defeat terrorist groups. Now, we're told McMaster had a strikingly different tone than Mike Flynn who was forced to resign last week after the controversy over his discussions with the Russian Ambassador. Now in contrast to President Trump who has praised Vladimir Putin, McMaster said Russia was an adversary. So, all of this really repudiation of President Trump's language and word view, the president doesn't seem to be that bent out of shape about it.

The White House acknowledging a difference of opinion on language, but not about the approach to fight terrorism. President Trump does seem to be impressionable to the opinions of his aides and so career staff, many of whom agree with McMaster's world view, are hoping he can push a more moderate U.S. foreign policy. Officials say his arrival and his discussions with staff are really boosting morale, which was sinking under Flynn. We'll have to see whether his views will carry the day. Elise Labott, CNN, Washington.

KEILAR: All right. Elise Labott, thank you so much. I want to get Jamie Metzl in here to talk about this. He's a former staffer on the National Security Council. He's a senior fellow right now in the Atlantic Council. And Jamie, tell me a little bit about, I guess, from the vantage point of having had experience on the NSC, and then as you look at H.R. McMaster now being on, and you just heard Elise's report, he sees things a little different than President Trump. How do you see that working out?

JAMIE METZL, ATLANTIC COUNCIL SENIOR FELLOW: Well, first on the National Security Council, the National Security Council, as you know, was established in 1947 to really bring all of the branches of governments together. And the president needs the National Security Council and especially the principles committee to make sure that he or she someday, is getting the best possible advice for making very, very important decisions. And it's been very important since 1947 that the NSC is not politicized. And that's why there's never been a political commissar and who has been part of the -- has been a full member of the National Security Council. And if that is changing, which it looks like it is where in fact it is, and based on the executive order from the Trump administration, that's very, very concerning.

At the same time, H.R. McMaster coming in, he recognizes that the president is going to need the best possible unpoliticized advice. And there's all kinds of opportunities for political inputs in the White House. But if the advice is being politicized or if the members of the National Security Council are afraid to truly speak their mind, it's not just that the administration suffers, the country suffers. And that's something that's very concerning. But the shift from Flynn to McMaster certainly appears to be a very positive step in the right direction.

KEILAR: I hear democrats and I hear republicans saying they feel that this is a step in the right direction. And I think -- just to make clear for people what can sometimes maybe be a little opaque to them, when you're talking about the National Security Council and the president chairs a meeting of the National Security Council, you know, he's chairing a meeting of sort of, like, the top folks, right? And that's what has been changed a little bit, where Steve Bannon has been added. We should mention that under President Obama, his top aide, David Axelrod, would attend the meetings, but he wasn't on that principles committee formally as Steve Bannon is.

[20:04:58] And then there's this other issue, you mentioned it, positions like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of National Intelligence, those are two of the folks who have formally, at least, been pulled off the principles committee. Do you see McMaster adding them back in, either formally or maybe not -- you know, not formally, but essentially doing that? METZL: Well, certainly, General McMaster will want to have, as any rational actor in the White House would want to have. And the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, participating in all principles committee meetings. I mean, that this -- those are critically important figures in our system of government. So, I can say with all certainty that General McMaster will want that. And the question is, will this nonsensical -- maybe is the right word -- executive order that takes them off of the principles committee and adds Steve Bannon, who is separate from his -- the positions that he's expressed, which are extremely questionable, but let's put that aside for a moment.

But having a political commissar on the principles committee as a full member, something that we've never done. That's what they do in China; that's what they do in the Soviet Union; and they do that in order to politicize the advice that leaders are getting and to make sure that everybody recognizes that you're being watched. And we don't want to have a system like China or the Soviet Union. We have our great tradition that has served us well. And I'm from Missouri and they say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." And we have a good system.

KEILAR: But you -- but you look at McMaster, and I know that you and many others draw some comfort from him being there. And this conversation that was reported where he said this description -- you know when you're talking about ISIS or you're talking about Al-Qaeda, to name it, radical Islamic terrorism, not being helpful, is that something -- I mean, what does that tell you about his philosophy, but also about how he will be able to counsel President Trump if they see this differently?

METZL: Yes. So, certainly General McMaster is somebody who has a stellar reputation. Not just as a phenomenal military officer, but someone with tremendous courage, who actually studies the courage and even the lack of courage that American military showed during the Vietnam War. So, he is going to speak his mind and especially to the president and internally. But there are big differences of opinion. And this issue of whether the words, "radical Islamic terrorism" should be used, those -- that dates back to even before the campaign. And so, he is going to have to be part of a little bit, I mean, civil war is too strong of a word, but there is going to be a struggle inside the White House for who holds sway.

And eventually, over time, the Bannon faction and the McMaster faction, I think, will have to have some kind of reckoning. And we don't yet know what's going to happen, but whatever happens will have implications for our country.

KEILAR: Yes. We don't know who has more impact, more sway, and as you said, that is to be determined. All right. Jamie Metzl, thank you so much. We appreciate it. The Democratic Party has a new leader and a new Twitter war with Donald Trump tonight. How does Tom Perez plan to guide the DNC, who he calls an, "all-out battle" to deny Donald Trump his second term. You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [20:10:00] KEILAR: Democrats made a big decision today about their

party's future and how to rebuild after that bruising defeat in the 2016 election. They elected Tom Perez as a new Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. CNN's Ryan Nobles was there for the vote in Atlanta.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brianna, it was certainly a dramatic afternoon here in Atlanta, as democrats picked their next chairman, and it would be the former labor secretary Tom Perez, but it wasn't easy. Perez fell one vote short on the first ballot before capturing the nomination on the second ballot. But he understood that this is a fractured party. And that he needed to welcome in those progressives that didn't necessarily support him. That's why he brought up the man who came in second, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, and made him his deputy chairman. Take a look at that moment.


TOM PEREZ, CHAIRMAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: I would like to begin by making a motion. It's a motion that I have discussed with a good friend. And his name is Keith Ellison. And the motion I would like to make to the body is a motion suspending the rules, if I may, to appoint Keith Ellison Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee.


PEREZ: Now, I'm not -- I'm not sure


PEREZ: Tell me the phrase I'm supposed to utter? That was fine? OK. I'm not -- did I hear a second?


PEREZ: All for?


PEREZ: Opposed?


PEREZ: The silence -- the silence is deafening. The motion passes. Congressman --


NOBLES: Perez and Ellison have a big job in front of them now, not only do democrats not on the White House or either the senate or the house in Washington, they also have a serious deficiency with state legislatures across the country and they own far fewer governorships. Perez promised to get the Democratic house back, in order, unify the party and become a true check on Donald Trump. Brianna? KEILAR: Ryan Nobles, thank you so much.

And joining me now is someone who cast a vote in the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Congresswoman Barbara Lee from California. And we should note, Congresswoman, you voted for your colleague, Keith Ellison. So, you were in the Keith camp. And so I wonder what your reaction was to your guy losing, even though we should point out, he is the number two now to Tom Perez.

[20:14:59] REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, first of all, this campaign for chair was run with character and conviction. And I was a very proud supporter of Congressman Keith Ellison. He's an unbelievable leader, he cares about our party, and I'm so proud and pleased that our new chair, Mr. Perez, Chairman Perez, has appointed him as deputy chair, because that's an indication of party unity. And I certainly know we have a lot of work to do with regard to party building. But I think, given the fact that we're coming out of here united, we're going to win some elections because both of them are going to be leading this party.

KEILAR: There's a big challenge if you could speak to that, and some of that has been in the last several years, democrats have lost governorships, they've lost seats in State Houses. Hundreds and hundreds of them. And those are the incubators that grow talent that could eventually run for president, right? And then, you have the issue of redistributing, fund-raising, keeping the party relevant, can you -- can you talk to some of these challenges and how you see the party working toward them?

LEE: You're absolutely correct. And this means that we cannot do business as usual. And one thing I know about Keith Ellison and Tom Perez is that they intent to work on a 50-state strategy, a grassroots strategy, a door-to-door strategy, we've got a plan that we must execute with regard to gerrymandering. And this is going to be a party of inclusion. And we've got a lot of work to do, but I tell you, we had a panel, and it was a panel of young people who had organized the phenomenal marches.

We had this panel yesterday here at the meeting, the DNC meeting. And the momentum, the movement toward resistance, young people who want to be engaged. We're going to have to garnish their energy and convince them that they have a home in the Democratic Party. And that means we must listen to them, we must engage them, we must encourage them to register to vote, so that we can win the house in two years and the senate, and move on, and make sure that Donald Trump, first of all, that his agenda is not perpetrated really on the American people.

KEILAR: You -- and speaking to that, you are a co-sponsor on a bill that urges the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council. You say that his bigoted ideology threatens the security of our nation and our international standing. So, you know, obviously, that this isn't something that's really going to pass, because republicans control the house, and certainly the republican-controlled senate isn't going to take this up. And so tell me what the point of this. It's obviously symbolic, even though it's not normally Congress' role to get involved in something like this. LEE: You know, whether it passes or not, that's not the issue. We have to make our statement, we have to be that point of resistance, and we have to galvanize the public and educate the public with regard to the dangers of having a Steve Bannon, you know, a White nationalist, a supremacist on -- white supremacist out in the National Security Council. No experience, his ideology is un-American, and so, the public needs to understand that a part of what we are doing, and we have over 70 co-sponsors, it's make sure that the resistance movement and that the people have some information and have a vehicle to organize around. Also, with regard to the Democratic Party and our DNC, unanimously, my resolution was adopted here at the DNC meeting saying that Steve Bannon must be removed from the National Security Council. This is a very dangerous moment, and Steve Bannon is a very dangerous individual in the White House.

KEILAR: How much of the messaging for the Democratic Party is going to be rallying around opposition to Donald Trump versus rallying around a cohesive message for democrats, sort of, I guess, the negative for your folks versus the positive of something to believe in, not just something to not believe in?

LEE: Well, first of all, we have to make sure that we resist Donald Trump's un-American agenda. We have to make sure that our democracy is preserved. And when you look at what is taking place as it relates to the Russian influence in our elections and the investigations that must move forward, we have to resist and make sure the public understands the dangerous moment that we're in with this Trump administration. Secondly, we have to preserve and protect health care for 30 million people. So we must resist the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. There's no way we're going to allow 30 million people to lose their health care.

[20:20:00] KEILAR: But their -- it seems, Congresswoman, they are saying that's not going to happen. And it seems pretty clear that republicans are stymied at this point for a way to actually repeal it. It sounds more like they're going to kind of tinker with it, which is actually something Hillary Clinton supported doing, changes, obviously not repealing.

LEE: But people are resisting in the streets. There's a movement that has developed of young people who are raising their voices around all of these issues. That's why, perhaps, they're backing off now. But also, we have so many other issues to address. Look at the entire religious ban that he is attempting, the wall that he is proposed to build. You know, the immigration policies that he puts forth, the deportation, the fact that ICE raids now are occurring. So there's much to resist.

KEILAR: But what's the difference there, I also want to know, because when you look at deportation numbers, I mean, President Obama deported almost a million more people than George W. Bush.

LEE: When you look at what has taken place in terms of the Trump administration now, this net has been cast more broadly, you know, when you're talking about people who have committed heinous crimes, yes, the Obama administration prioritized them for deportation. But when you look at what this administration is doing, families are scared, young people are terrified. This net is cast much too broad. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform. And so we have to resist this agenda. It's an un-American agenda, and we have to protect our constituents, that's our very first priority.

KEILAR: All right. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, thank you so much. Joining us from Atlanta where she cast a vote today in the race for the Democratic National Committee chairman.

And we're also following a major announcement from the president tonight. Mr. Trump revealing via Twitter that he will not be at this year's annual White House correspondents' dinner. Only a handful of presidents have missed at least one of the events while in office. Richard Nixon being one of them. His former speechwriter and lawyer is going to join me next. You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


[20:25:00] KEILAR: President Donald Trump announcing via Twitter that he is skipping the time honored White House Correspondents' dinner, an event that started all the way back in 1920. President Trump tweeting earlier, "I will not be attending the White House Correspondents' Association dinner this year. Please wish everyone well and have a great evening." Mr. Trump will be the first president to miss this dinner in more than 35 years. The last was President Reagan who skipped in 1981 while he was recovering after being shot. Reagan still called in by phone, however, and I want to talk about what this means for an already contentious relationship between the press and the White House. With me now is economist Ben Stein, he served as a speechwriter and lawyer for President Richard Nixon. He also worked on the other side as a journalist. Ben, I suppose you're not particularly surprised by this development.

BEN STEIN, FORMER SPEECH WRITER AND LAWYER FOR PRESIDENT NIXON: I'm not surprised and I'm not disappointed. I don't know, I don't blame Mr. Trump one bit for doing it. I mean, he's a punching bag day after day after day in the media, especially what's called the mainstream media. And I don't blame him for not wanting to go and be a punching bag in person.

KEILAR: OK. So, you -- did you hear what he said yesterday at CPAC where he's talking about the media?

STEIN: I saw some of it actually on CNN as you were (INAUDIBLE) it. Yes, I guess (INAUDIBLE)

KEILAR: So he said -- he said that he called the media "the enemy of the people" which is what we heard him say before on Twitter, so he said that out loud. He accused the media of making things up, of making up sources. Is that --

STEIN: Well, I think that -- sorry, I beg your pardon, I'm sorry.

KEILAR: I was going to say, is that -- I mean, do -- is that something you would give credence to, or what is going on there with what he's saying? STEIN: Well, I wouldn't say -- well, I wouldn't say that all of the media is the enemy of the people. Look, every day you pick up The New York Times, every day they're slamming, slamming, slamming him. I'm a great fan of CNN, I watch it quite faithfully, every day CNN is slamming him, slamming him, slamming him. Every day, they're looking for a scandal. They're just turning the woods upside down looking for a scandal. They're hoping, I think, to do to him what they did to Nixon a long time ago. And, you know, still haven't found any real scandals.

And with all due respect, I don't blame him for being furious at them. And I think he's got a lot of company. I'm out there giving speeches all around the country all the time, people -- an awful lot of people are not great fans of the media, and they see the media as an unelected aristocracy and a feat corps of (INAUDIBLE) snobs as Vice President Alben called them a long time ago, who are dumping all over the mainstream of America. And I think Mr. Trump has a lot of company.

KEILAR: Do you think some of what goes on is self-inflicted by Mr. Trump?

STEIN: Mr. Trump is not the smoothest operator. I mean, he's not Bob Hope. He's -- and he's thin-skinned and he fires right back. I agree. Some of it -- no doubt, there's no doubt some of it is self- inflicted, but I think this general idea that the press can just hack and hack and hack away at the president, that he is expected to sit there and take it, is not a sound idea. And I noticed day after day, week after week, everything is negative. Not one positive response. I mean, here's a guy who picked a person generally among the legal profession, and a lawyer is well known -- awful lot of lawyers -- very well respected guy, the Supreme Court Justice we hope. And hardly any positive coverage of that. He is doing what his constituents ask him to do.

KEILAR: Well, no, no -- can I -- may I counter that, Ben? Because when --

STEIN: Oh, please. Of course, that's why you're there.

KEILAR: -- Gorsuch went up and spoke to a Democratic Senator, we covered in depth the fact that Gorsuch had said something that actually endeared him to democrats. And that actually a lot of establishment republicans appreciated, and it actually, many people thought, tempered Gorsuch or at least revealed him as they felt to be a moderate, that they think he is. I mean, how are we covering this in a negative way? Maybe a nuanced way, or Donald Trump goes to the African-American History Museum, and he talks about countering bigotry, and we cover that as well. Now, you think --

STEIN: Yes, you did cover that.

[20:30:00] So, that's one -- that's one of -- or two of hundreds of stories, most of which are extremely negative. And God bless you for doing that positive stuff, but look at the way they slammed him for not covering right immediately, the desecration of the Jewish cemetery outside St. Louis. I mean, this is a guy, and this -- look at the way the media is endlessly playing him off as an anti-Semite. This is a guy who has a Jewish son-in-law, his own daughter converted to Judaism, who's never been quoted saying a single anti-Semitic word, and they're constantly slamming him as being a racist or a white supremacist or something, without any evidence of it at all, I think with the greatest respect -- and I appreciate you're pointing out things where I was mistaken -- but with the greatest respect, this is a guy that they are just smearing, smearing, smearing all the time. I don't blame him for wanting to fire back at them. If he were as smooth as Ronald Reagan, he would handle more smoothly. But no one again will ever be as smooth as Ronald Reagan.

KEILAR: You -- well, you said you think the press is trying to do to him what they did to Richard Nixon.


KEILAR: So, give us your perspective on that, because a lot of people look at what happened to Richard Nixon and they say, I mean, what -- it was what Richard Nixon did to himself. The tapes from the Oval Office showed that six days after the Watergate break-in, he was discussing -- himself -- he was discussing a cover-up. You know, the smoking gun tape. So, I mean, how did the media do that to Richard Nixon?

STEIN: The media picked one tiny little thing that he did, one tiny, tiny little thing he did.

KEILAR: What tiny little thing?

STEIN: One tiny little thing that which is just to discuss a cover- up. He didn't do the cover-up. They didn't follow through with the cover-up payments that he discussed. They just discussed it. This is a guy who brought more peace to the world than any president in the 20th century -- open relationship with China, first strategic or implementation talks with the Soviet Union and leading to an agreement, ended the war in Vietnam, brought on the prisoners of war, saved the life of the state of Israel. And so, they focused on one--

KEILAR: So, you think with the Watergate scandal and what was uncovered was phooey.

STEIN: It was not a good thing. Shouldn't have done, obviously. But compared with his achievements -- nothing. And I think they are doing the exact same thing to Mr. Trump, whose achievements by the way, compared with Nixon are nil, but I think they are trying to -- same thing. They are trying to undo him, basically, before he even gets started. And I think it's just extremely unfortunate. The country has real problems, and for them to be focusing on trying to bring down this guy before he's even gotten started is a serious mistake. We have real problems.

KEILAR: All right. Ben Stein, thank you so much, sir.

STEIN: Thank you.

KEILAR: We certainly appreciate you joining us.

And coming up, you know? President Trump talks a lot about his cabinet. He's often blaming democrats for stalling confirmation -- confirmations I should say, but is he losing sight of other important positions, like 2,000 others to be exact? A CNN review shows that's how many vacancies Mr. Trump still needs to fill and most of them do not need senate approval. We have more on that next.


[20:35:00] KEILAR: Donald Trump has been President of the United States for just over a month now, and according to his CNN review of the available data, he has nearly 2,000 jobs in his administration that is yet to fill. Some of those vacancies do require senate confirmation, but the vast majority do not. David Cohen is a professor of political science at the University of Akron in Ohio, and he also co-authored this book, "Buckeye Battleground: Ohio, Campaigns, and Elections in the Twenty-First Century". So professor, how -- not only unusual is this, but what are the difficulties of having these -- this many vacancies?

DAVID COHEN, UNIVERSITY OF AKRON POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR: Well, first of all, it's not unusual that the presidents take a long time to fill all of the positions that they have to, once they transition into office. I mean, it could be up to a year to get all of those positions filled, and every president runs into this challenge. But the Trump administration has been pretty lax in terms of appointing people to these positions. You know, for example, The Washington Post tracks some of the real key positions in the cabinet, 500-plus positions. The Trump administration has appointed only 34 people to these positions, and only 14 have been confirmed. That's a pretty slow pace, and there are some serious implications to that. That is, you know, besides the fact that the cabinet is not filled, a lot of those deputy cabinet and sub-cabinet positions that are really, really crucial to actually running our Executive Branch, those positions are largely unfilled as well.

KEILAR: He complains that it's democrats who are getting in the way of him filling his cabinet. He has also had delays on his part though for appointing people, as you have noted, and also a delay in some of the background check paperwork. Should this have been something that his transition was more on top of?

COHEN: Well, first of all, his transition is right up there with the worst transitions in history. I would -- I would say, it's probably the worst transition we've had. Previously, probably the Clinton administration had the worst transition before that. And honestly, it was -- it was like the keystone cops were in charge, and for a while, you had Chris Christie who is in charge of the transition and all the work that he did, the new transition folks came in and they literally threw it -- threw it in the wastebasket. And so the transition team was way behind to begin with. But, you know, our democrats slow walking in some cases, probably, but there's an issue with a lot of his appointments. And the fact is many of them haven't had their paperwork together. Many of them have been very controversial. And in some cases, the president himself has vetoed some of the sub- cabinet picks that people like Rex Tillerson have submitted to him because some of these people have been critical to him at some point in the past, whether it be during the campaign or during the transition. And so, you know, there's a whole host of reasons why the positions aren't being filled, but he is lacking.

KEILAR: If you don't have these deputy cabinet positions filled and the sub-cabinet positions filled, how does that hinder governing?

COHEN: It very much hinders governing because, you know, everybody, we're -- sorry, most people are focused on the high-profile cabinet positions. And these are important positions because they set the basic policy for that cabinet department, and they're the ones that, you know, have to liaise with the president. But it's those deputy cabinet positions and the positions below the deputy cabinet that are really important because they are the ones that actually run the departments. A cabinet head is not a day-to-day administrator. It's the people below them that are the day-to-day administrators to those departments. And we're talking departments that have -- some of them, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. And it seriously unhampers the ability of the federal government to be able to run. And, you know, when we're talking about the Department of States or the Department of Defense, that can be a serious issue.

[20:40:23] KEILAR: Now, it certainly is a national security of diplomacy. David Cohen, thank you so much, from the University of Akron. We appreciate it.

And coming up, a CNN exclusive report on the war against ISIS. U.S. soldiers now the closest that we've ever seen to the fighting on the ground in Mosul.


KEILAR: U.S. troops this weekend are very close to the front in the intense battle to push ISIS out of the Iraqi City of Mosul.

Americans are helping Iraqi forces target ISIS fighters in western Mosul. But officials are worried about the hundreds of thousands of civilians living there. The battle may soon be all around them. CNN's Ben Wedeman is in Iraq this weekend.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, we're hearing from residents inside the city that ISIS is beginning to round up families to use them as human shields. We're also hearing from residents that ISIS fighters are starting to consolidate in west Mosul's old city, perhaps to make a final stand. Now, as Iraqi forces are pushing into the city, they are getting critical assistance on the frontlines from the Americans.


[20:45:13] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We go ahead and bring up the smoke for (INAUDIBLE) take it now and I move up and try to mark that location.

WEDEMAN: American soldiers, they decline to share their names, are setting coordinates for ISIS positions, just a little over a mile away from the extremists. They never fired their sniper rifle but used it to identify targets. Nearby, they assembled a drone.

Pentagon officials say U.S. service personnel are operating ever closer to the action.

The bombardment of western Mosul is intense and steady. Iraqis flying Russian-made Mi-35 attack helicopters blasted ISIS targets inside the city.

Rapid response forced Major (INAUDIBLE) says, "Resistance has been stiff because ISIS fighters realized they're cornered. "They're surrounded," he tells me, "There's no escape. Either they die fighting or they surrender."

The airport on the southern edge of the city is in ruins, the runway strewn with concrete blocks. The fighting is proceeding at an accelerated rate. Iraqi forces may be eager to avoid a repeat of the grueling three-month offensive to liberate the eastern part of the city.

Taking Mosul airport was really just the first step. Now, these Iraqi forces are heading into the city proper. That's when the real battle will begin.

A battle in which Americans may play an even greater role.


WEDEMAN: And this battle couldn't end soon enough for the hundreds of thousands of civilians still inside the city. They're in dire conditions. We are learning that the markets are now almost empty of food. That heating fuel is going for $40 a gallon, and that people are drinking water out of wells and the river. Brianna?

KEILAR: Ben Wedeman, thank you so much.

And coming up, police say it was a toxic nerve agent that took out Kim Jong-un's half-brother. The now a bigger question, who supply this internationally banned weapon of mass destruction?


[20:50:00] KEILAR: We are back with a terrifying turn in what has become an international murder mystery. Malaysian authorities now confirm that a highly toxic and banned nerve agent -- you may have heard of it, it's known as VX -- was used to assassinate North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother. Today, police raided an apartment in connection with this investigation and they also interviewed one of the women accused of carrying out the hit. South Korea has said from the start, North Korea is behind the murder, and if that's true it means one of the most dangerous, unstable regimes in the world, now has its hands on a weapon of mass destruction. CNN's Clarissa Ward reports.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Some of the last moments of Kim Jong-nam's life. He approaches airport security to complain that someone grabbed his face and that he is feeling dizzy. He's escorted to the airport medical clinic. A Malaysian newspaper shows a photograph of him slumped over in his chair, apparently unconscious. He dies before reaching the hospital.

In a twist that reads like the script of a Hollywood thriller, Malaysian authorities now confirm that the half-brother of North Korea's dictator was killed by VX, an internationally banned, highly lethal nerve agent that can kill within minutes.

ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: If you get any of it on you, you are dead. There is nothing a doctor can do for you. You know, you just die. You get a microscopic dot on you of this -- of VX and you die.

WARD: South Korea is pointing to the volatile North Korean state, and the leader himself as the prime suspect. The dramatic assassination took place in broad daylight, moments after Kim entered the crowded check-in hall. Malaysian police claim that two women, who can just be made out here, wiped Kim's face with some kind of liquid. One of the women can be seen walking off, wearing a bizarrely eye-catching LOL t- shirt. Two female suspects, one from Indonesia and one from Vietnam, are now in custody. And it gets more surreal. Indonesian authorities say one of the women told police she believes she was participating in a prank for a T.V. show. A claim, Malaysian officials dismissed.

KHALID ABU BAKAR, MALAYSIA'S INSPECTOR GENERAL OF POLICE: These two ladies were trained to swab deceased face. And after, they went with -- they were instructed to clean their hands. And they know it is toxic.

WARD: The hunt is now on for these four North Korean suspects who left the country on the day of the attack. Among them, a senior official with the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur. In yet another bizarre twist, police said someone tried to break in to the mortuary where Kim's body is being kept, after which they stepped up security.

ABU BAKAR: We know who they are. So, no need for me to tell you.

WARD: So, why would North Korea's erratic leader want his own half- brother dead? Of more concern to U.S. officials, is how the dangerous dictator got his hands on one of the most deadly chemical weapons in the world, and what else he could do with it.

BAER: It's a nerve agent that has terrified intelligence agencies in the west for a long time because it's so lethal. Saddam Hussein was accused of having it. In fact, he didn't. They couldn't figure out how to weaponize it. What disturbs me is they have figured out how to weaponize it and deliver it. Now, would he use it on South Korea? Would he use it on the United States? There's simply no way for us to know.

WARD: Clarissa Ward, CNN, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE) [20:55:06] KEILAR: Thank you, Clarissa.

And coming up after the break, breaking news from New Orleans. A crash near a Mardi Gras parade. We'll have those details after a quick break.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KEILAR: We have some breaking news right now on CNN. What looks like a major accident at a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. Witnesses say that a truck plowed into a crowd of people watching the parade. As many as 14 people are reported injured, 12 of them critically. We have no reported fatalities at this point. But this is something that happened in the mid-city section of New Orleans, not far from the French Quarter. A source says the crash appears to have been caused by a drunk driver. Of course, we are watching this incident very closely. We will update you when we learn more.

Up next on CNN, "THE HISTORY OF COMEDY", back to back episodes, at 9:00 Eastern, "The Funnier Sex", and at 10:00, "THE COMEDY OF REAL LIFE." I'm Brianna Keilar in Washington. Hope you have a great week.