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Russia Claims It May Have Killed ISIS Leader Al-Baghdadi; Trump Lashes Out on Russia Probe in Tweetstorm. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired June 16, 2017 - 06:00   ET


[06:00:00] CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: -- some investigating here. They're still trying to get more information. We haven't heard anything yet from ISIS themselves. But I would just say if he has been killed, of course, it would deal a big blow to the group. But let's just look at the past few weeks. We have had major terror attacks in London, in Baghdad, in Tehran, in Kabul. So clearly it is still business as usual for ISIS. So a lot of questions. We're trying to get more answers -- Alisyn.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: OK, Clarissa, stick with us. We have many more questions for you but first let's go to the Pentagon. How will we know if the ISIS leader is dead?

CNN's Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon with the reaction to these reports.

How is this being received there, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn, the U.S. military, the U.S. Intelligence Community looking at these reports. And what we know is every time they get one of these reports, they proceed by looking at social media, at communications intercepts, at any telephone intercepts that they can monitor to see if there is any indication from ISIS operatives that Baghdadi in fact has been killed. They will be looking for that. They don't have that right now.

Will the Russians even have a body to show the world? A dead body, you know, that would be the actual evidence that would be the most confirming.

As to where Baghdadi may be, the key calculation that the U.S. has been looking at for the last several weeks, was Baghdadi actually in Raqqa when the city began to be surrounded by U.S. backed rebel forces that are closing in on the city? Did he stay there? Did he stay in the location he felt comfortable with, with his own security or did he make a move?

And I want to put up a map and show everyone. This area southeast of Raqqa from Deir Essor to Mayadin, is an area that the U.S. is focusing on very heavily right now for a number of reasons. They have intelligence. They have talked about it that large numbers of ISIS fighters have moved into this area southeast of Raqqa. That leadership is there. They are not saying Baghdadi, but that ISIS leadership is there, commanding control is there. U.S. Special Forces very heavily focusing on that area anyhow to see

who they can find and who they can locate in that region. Still a long way to go on this report -- Alisyn, Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: I appreciate it, Barbara. Thank you.

Let's bring back Clarissa Ward. Also joining us is CNN military analyst, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

Good to have you both.

General, if it's true and Baghdadi is gone, what do you make of the theory of cutting the head off this particular snake? How big a difference would it make?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, first, Chris, what I'd say is what you said earlier that you're taking it slow. What I'd suggest is take it even slower. I've been involved personally in many of these kind of situations where a reported incident of the killing of key leaders or findings of specific things occur and they all turned out to be true because this is the land of rumors.

If it did happen, it's a good thing. But there are many people who might be willing to take al-Baghdadi's place so the organization will continue and it will continue to metastasize throughout the world using the ISIS brand as we've seen over the last couple of years. But I'm not going to take this too seriously because there have been at least five reported killing of al-Baghdadi over the last three years. He was allegedly injured in Tal Afar a few weeks ago. He was supposedly killed in al-Qaim in Iraq across the border from Syria.

He has been noted to be in Mosul in Iraq and about six different other places, which is one of the reasons they call him the ghost. He was hurt allegedly in 2014, so badly that he couldn't move and his back was injured and it evidently severed part of his spinal cord. So all of these rumors, unless you see more than what we used to call single source human, one individual saying that's happened, you just treat that as a rumor. You have to get multiple confirmations, perhaps some DNA, and as Barbara just said, the body of the individual. And I wouldn't believe the Russian sources based on anything they're hearing out of Syria.

CAMEROTA: And Clarissa, let's just dive into some of the details of what Russia is saying because those two sound a little fantastical that there was this May 28th airstrike that killed 30 leaders and 300 ISIS fighters? I mean, you know a lot about how this group operates. Would they all have been clustered like that?

WARD: Well, it's very hard to believe that they would, Alisyn. It just goes against everything that we've seen in terms of how ISIS comports itself because this is not a new threat. The threat of drone strikes, the threat of airstrikes, the threat from the coalition, the threat from the Russians. ISIS has adapted to this threat. It has become incredibly savvy. You usually only see ISIS personnel moving around in much smaller groups than this. And many of the leadership as Barbara had alluded to are believed to have left Raqqa and moved much closer to the Iraqi border.

[06:05:03] Also we saw a press conference, Alisyn, that the Russian Defense personnel gave just last week, I believe, in which they talk about all the operations that took place at the end of May. There is no mention of a major strike potentially killing 330 ISIS personnel. Among them senior ISIS leaders. Potentially among them the leader of ISIS itself. So for a number of reasons, I would say there are red flags that leave one feeling as you just heard from the general a little bit skeptical about this and just wanting to take a deep breath and try to drill down on some of the details because certainly some of this doesn't seem to add up.

CUOMO: So, General, where do you put the most weight in terms of area for reason of skepticism? Is it that supposedly in March the leadership had moved away from Raqqa? Is it that this doesn't really comport with what we understand about Baghdadi's typical practices or is it on the intel side that not only that you have no reaction from ISIS but that supposedly the U.S. intel isn't picking up chatter about this?

HERTLING: I put it on both, Chris, frankly. If something like this had happened, there would have been a lot of talk about it. What the Russians are reporting through TAS, their state-run news agency, is that this strike occurred between 2115 and 2145 hours on the night of 28 May. Now 28 May was two days into Ramadan. There is the potential for large groups of people coming together to break the fast. But as Clarissa just said, not 300, not 30 major leaders doing that outside of Raqqa because they know they're being targeted.

It just doesn't happen that way. So I'm very suspect. You would have heard chatter. And the Russians had they struck something where they knew they would have killed 300 before they even thought Baghdadi might be there would have considered it a huge victory and would have reported that in the first place. They didn't do it. It's just now that they're reporting it.

CUOMO: Certainly makes Russia look good in terms of the idea of fighting against ISIS and not just propping up Assad.

CAMEROTA: Yes. Certainly if it's true. But anyway, thank you very much for helping us with this breaking news. Obviously we will stay on it all morning and see what we can develop.

Now to our other top story. President Trump lashing out at reports that he is being investigated for possible obstruction of justice. The president expressing his frustration in a series of tweets and continuing to attack his one-time rival Hillary Clinton.

CNN's Athena Jones is live at the White House with more. Tell us what's happened overnight -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. You're right, the White House has refused to answer questions about the special counsel investigation for some time. Yesterday, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodged those questions eight times during the off-camera briefing. And the president ignored my shouted questions to him during an event in the Roosevelt Room. But he hasn't been entirely silent about this issue, taking his anger over the probe to his favorite medium, Twitter.


JONES (voice-over): President Trump lashing out on a day when many sought to overcome partisan bickering. Sending out a flurry of tweets blasting the Russia investigation. Attacking Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, though not by name, as "bad and conflicted people." Denouncing the possible obstruction probe against him as a witch hunt, and lashing out again at Hillary Clinton 219 days after the election.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: I think it would be good for Donald Trump to watch his tweets a little more carefully.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: What do you think of that? When he calls the Mueller's investigation a witch hunt?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think you know me. What he does, not what he says. I learned that a long time ago.

JONES: The president's campaign also attacking Democrats in a fundraising e-mail an hour before the congressional charity game, saying, in part, "Democrats have absolutely nothing to offer our country. All Democrats have done is obstruct President Trump and maniacally scream the word Russia until they're blue in the face."

This as the "Washington Post" reports that the special counsel is investigating the finances and business dealings of President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner.

SARI HORWITZ, REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: They reported that they are looking at obstruction with President Trump. And so you can see that Mueller is really expanding his investigation.

JONES: Sources have stressed to CNN that there are no allegations Kushner committed any wrongdoing. His lawyer said any such scrutiny of Kushner's business would be standard practice.

CNN reported last month that the FBI has been looking into Kushner role on the Trump campaign. Including his involvement in the campaign's data analytics operation, his relationship with fired national security adviser Michael Flynn and his contacts with Russians.

The Justice Department issuing an unusual statement Thursday night. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein warning Americans to exercise caution before accepting as true any stories based on anonymous officials.

Amid all of these developments, Vice President Mike Pence hiring a private lawyer to help answer questions that may come from Mueller's investigation.

[06:10:08] Aides say Pence's decision has been in the works for weeks and was not prompted by anything in particular.


JONES: Now as part of the congressional probes into these matters, Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, met in a closed session with the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday to clear up a number of questions that he couldn't or wouldn't answer during the open public session last week. The committee held a similar closed briefing with NSA Director Mike Rogers on Monday -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right, Athena, thank you very much.

So if the president remains an example of the problem with the tone in Washington, take a look at the solution, my friends. Democrats and Republicans unified on the field of play. Forget about politics. They were on one knee praying for Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, to get through his battle.

He is still in the hospital, still in critical condition. Doctors say he did show signs of improvement after a second set of surgeries. Last night was about charity, it raised more money than ever for needy kids. The Democrats won the game. But there was no loser. They actually gave the trophy to the GOP and the GOP put it in the office of Steve Scalise.

The first pitch there -- who threw out that first pitch? Good. It was one of the Capitol Police officers threw out that first pitch. David Bailey. You remember him. He got hit. Continued to advance against the shooter. Continued to try to get to Scalise to help him even after hit. And now recovering so fast he's able to throw out the first pitch.

And again, that trophy went to Scalise. Everybody hoping that he gets well. But just as important and I'm sure that Scalise would love this gesture as well, making this more than just about the game. Try to carry it forward. Disagree, but don't let that hostility wind up toxifying everything you try to do.

CAMEROTA: Well, that's what every is saying. I mean, that's what, you know, both sides of the aisle are saying yesterday and today and that beautiful shot of them all together praying for Steve Scalise. And let's hope it can be sustained. I think that they want to sustain it and we shall see if they can do that even if -- you know, as the president tweets in a different tone.

CUOMO: And he is showing an example of how bad it can get. Just 24 hours after the shooting. The president was back at it.

CAMEROTA: So while these lawmakers were putting aside their differences, President Trump was launching a Twitter tirade over what he calls the phony Russia investigation. So we bring you all of the latest and the significance of it next.


[06:16:26] CAMEROTA: All right. So President Trump is lashing out against Hillary Clinton. He's also calling the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, quote, "a witch hunt." Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence is lawyering up.

We have a lot to discuss on the Russia investigation, et cetera. Let's bring in our political panel. Here's CNN political analyst David Gregory, CNN political commentator Errol Louis, and CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein.

Great to have all of you. Happy Friday.


CAMEROTA: David Gregory, the president is frustrated obviously with this Russia investigation. He doesn't like all of these daily threads. He thinks there is nothing to see here. And now Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, seems to be sending out a message to Americans and journalists in keeping with this. So let me read it to you.

He says, "Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous officials particularly when they do not identify the country, let alone the branch or agency of government with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated. Americans should be skeptical about anonymous allegations. The Department of Justice has a long established policy to neither confirm nor deny such allegations."

I get it. Anonymous sources are frustrating to them. There's leaks and they don't think that anybody should be staking sort of their stories and truth on these.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I don't think the deputy attorney general should be spending his time, you know, telling Americans what to believe about stories attributed to anonymous sources when there's a lot of journalism that is based on that because people can get in trouble for telling the truth anonymously, and it is something that journalists rely on.


GREGORY: Yes, you can over -- yes, I mean, throughout our history. How about just in the daily course of putting out information? So I think that was -- I think there's a better use of his time. But there's no doubt that it's coming from the Justice Department under Attorney General Sessions who's saying they want to kind of tighten this up. I think there is frustration. And I think it's reasonable frustration about the leaks coming out about the investigation.

I think the president is both right to be frustrated because I think these are early days in the investigation. It's easy to extrapolate too far based on some of the leaks. And the president is both personally self-destructive and lacks discipline. But he is also trying to keep momentum going around those people who would trash the investigation, the investigators and the media to use it to his political benefit. All these things are going on all the time. But Rosenstein I think

did something that was quite unusual. And I just think kind of pointless for a deputy attorney general to do.

CUOMO: Well, let's -- so down David's road, but let's take another step, Errol, put your lawyer hat on for a second. You know, Rosenstein, there had been some speculation about well, if the special counsel is going to look at obstruction, what does that mean for Rosenstein with the role that he played? Yes, he appointed the special counsel. But he played a role in that and now comes this. Never seen anything like it from anybody in any kind of position like the one Rosenstein is in. It seems like something he would have been asked to do by the White House. What does it mean politically?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, it feels like something that was maybe published under duress. Right? He is told to put something out. And so he puts this thing out.

I think what it means politically is almost nothing in a way because he doesn't take the additional step that's needed when you make a statement like that. You're supposed to point out on this date they got it wrong using anonymous sources. On this date this story was, you know, completely unfair using anonymous sources. He doesn't make any reference to that.

GREGORY: He didn't correct it.

LOUIS: He is cautioning people to not trust something and it is like, OK, I'll take half a step with you. Maybe I shouldn't trust it.

CUOMO: And the irony --

LOUIS: Tell me why it's wrong.

CUOMO: -- that the president wants to ignore that Russia was doing exactly this to infect our election, but he wants a deputy AG to call it out when it may suit him.

[06:20:10] LOUIS: Exactly right. I mean, so you don't get it both ways. Also, it smacks of a -- sort of a prebuttal. Right? That they sense that something is coming down the road and so they want to kind of go on the record maybe and say, well, you know, you never know what's going to come out with these anonymous sources because perhaps they know that on Friday or Saturday or Sunday, we're going to hear something that is based on anonymous sources.

CAMEROTA: And so to that end, Ron, we have word that Vice President Pence is lawyering up. He's hired a lawyer or a team. So what do you make of all this?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, I think, you know I'm a lawyer, the lawyering up, what we've seen in previous White House scandals is that it becomes consuming and large numbers of officials have to do it.

I have a slightly different view on this. I am more in the view that this is significant and troubling because it continues a pattern. You know, I think it was Maya Angelu who said when someone tells you who they are, believe them.

CAMEROTA: Believe them.

BROWNSTEIN: And what -- you know, and we have seen from President Trump is a willingness to break norms over and over. He fired Sally Yates. He's fired Preet Bharara. He fired James Comey. He has attacked individual judges who have disagreed with him and he has attacked the media as the fake news. He is giving us every signal but if he believes the Mueller investigation becomes a through threat to him and his administration that he may do the same thing again.

And the key question really isn't his trajectory, it's what congressional Republicans frankly who have the majority do because so far every time he has broken a window, they rather obediently swept up the glass after, you know, maybe some initial grumbling. And so I think the real question is, is he getting a signal today from the rest of his party and the political system of the country and the bipartisan way that this would be a bridge too far?

This would be completely unacceptable outcome. And I'm not sure that is the answer. I mean, the verb that Paul Ryan managed to come up with about the possibility was that he would be surprised if the president did it. Not that he would be outraged. He would be surprised. So I think that this is significant. The unusualness of the statement I think is a marker of just how far off the normal road we are on and that it could get stranger yet if the political system does not send a clear signal.

CUOMO: Well, what's the surprise? You're saying be surprised if he would, if he fired Mueller?

BROWNSTEIN: No, I'm saying -- right. I'm saying the fact that Rosenstein put out a statement this strange.


BROWNSTEIN: To me it's just another step on a path that could lead toward the president deciding at some point to fire Mueller. Even that we're having the discussion that that's a possibility is deeply unusual because that is a form of intimidation by itself.


BROWNSTEIN: And I think, you know, the question is, is the president getting a signal from a Republican congressional leadership that has been willing to defer to him each time he has broken a norm from not releasing his tax returns to firing James Comey? Is he getting a signal that would be treated differently? And I'm not sure the answer is yes.

GREGORY: I think that political danger is until and unless there's a cratering of support among Republicans for the president, you're not going to see congressional leaders step up. That said, I think we can leaven this with the fact that whatever your concerns are about Rod Rosenstein, he apparently was tough enough -- first of all he named the special counsel. He -- you know, he was upset about the fact that he felt he was being used.

I actually think in this case, this is Sessions. I don't think the White House has to pick up the phone on this. I think Sessions knows how the White House feels. We're going to, you know, speak out about these leaks.

CUOMO: And Rosenstein went out with it and it's his name on it. It's a weird move.

GREGORY: I agree.

CUOMO: And it certainly sends some kind of a signal that maybe he might be acquiescent.

GREGORY: Well, look, there is a special counsel. This is moving forward. There are congressional investigations. And we have a president who seems to be breaking every norm. But there -- you know, but there is this oversight. So, you know, I think both things are happening at the same time. I am troubled and I think Ron is by this how cowed Republican leaders seem to be that they won't call him out because they're afraid. Clearly they're afraid.

CUOMO: And, Errol, I mean, we only have a few seconds left, but all of this against the backdrop of attempting unity by Congress during this ball game and for Steve Scalise. You have been around a long time. I want to believe they will sustain this.

LOUIS: Well, I would love to believe that, too. I talked with one of the members in fact right before they took the field yesterday. And even at that point, maximum height of bipartisan unity there were doubts being expressed that the unity was going to last beyond sundown honestly.

CUOMO: You remember after 9/11. I remember when the pieces started to be written about how the cabs are honking their horns again. You know, that even after something like that, eventually you regress to the norm. But we'll see what happens.

CAMEROTA: Let's not be jaded yet.

CUOMO: Let's hold out hope.

CAMEROTA: All right.

CUOMO: All right. So more topics for you this morning. The search for the missing continues in London. That big inferno we showed you. We told you it was going to take a long time and it is. The Queen paying her respects at the scene.

[06:25:00] We have a live report from there and the information about why it is so hard to figure out the toll. Next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CAMEROTA: We do have some breaking news for you right now. Russia is claiming that it may have killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Russia's Defense Ministry says they are investigating whether one of their air strikes killed one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.

CNN's Diana Magnay is live in Moscow with details -- Diana.

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What they are saying is that on May 28th, on an evening meeting, they had intelligence that there were beating of hundreds of ISIS operatives at a command post south of Raqqa and Russian air forces went in and hit that meeting and that various high-level ISIS operatives were killed, 300 other ISIS fighters alongside. And they say they are working to confirm whether al-Baghdadi was one of those killed. Now it would be very surprising for two reasons. First of all would such a high profile leader of this group had been --