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Russia Claims It May Have Killed ISIS Leader Al-Baghdadi; Trump Lashes Out on Russia Probe in Tweetstorm. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired June 16, 2017 - 07:00   ET


[07:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Well, we wait a long with you, Lilly and Victoria.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But the work goes on.

CAMEROTA: Understood. Understood. And you've always made that clear in all of our segments. Thank you, ladies, for being here and being willing to talk this morning. We are watching along with you.

And thanks to our international viewers for watching. For you "CNN TALK" is next. For our U.S. viewers, we're following breaking news. And NEW DAY continues right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. If you're just joining us, welcome to your NEW DAY. We are following breaking news. Russia claims it may have killed one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, ISIS leader Ibrahim Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Russia's Defense Ministry says it is investigating if one of their airstrikes in Syria took him out. They are using qualified language. So are we.

CAMEROTA: Now we should tell you that we've had many reports in the past about Baghdadi's death. They turned out not to be true. So again we are approaching this with caution. Al-Baghdadi's whereabouts have been unknown for some time. If his death is confirmed, it is of course a major blow to the terror group.

So let's begin our coverage with CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward. She is live for us in London. She of course has reported extensively from the war zone in Syria.

What are your thoughts with this news, Clarissa?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're getting more information now from the Russian Defense Ministry as to exactly what they think happened. They're essentially saying that on May 28th they carried out an airstrike south of Raqqa targeting an ISIS military council meeting. They say that during the course of this airstrike, some 330 ISIS personnel were killed. Among them 30 mid-level or what they describe as mid-level field commanders.

Now already, Alisyn, I would say that raises a little bit of a red flag. ISIS are pretty savvy now. They've been dealing with airstrikes and drone strikes for several years. They understand that it is not advisable to move around in large groups or to meet in congregation in large groups. So that does sound a little strange, to be honest.

Russia's Defense Ministry is saying that they have heard from various channels that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself was also attending this meeting. They say that they are now looking into trying to confirm that. Of course, it's very difficult to confirm that. How do you confirm that without some kind of DNA evidence? Is there even a DNA sample of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi out there? Would they be able to recover the body if it really was 330 people killed in a single strike?

And I should say that is a very large amount of people to be killed in a single strike. Certainly a lot of questions yet to be answered here, Alisyn. But I would say that of course if it turns out that they have indeed killed Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, this would be a huge boom for the Russians and huge blow to ISIS -- Chris.

CUOMO: And we know that the immediate effect is exactly that. It is a PR reward for Russia, especially in light of this illusory promise that we've been getting about that they could be more helpful in the fight against ISIS when the perception is they are just boosting the Assad regime in Syria.

So how will we know if they really did take out the ISIS leader?

CNN's Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon with more. The optics are obvious but how do we figure out the reality?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, look, without a dead body and a recognizable face to show the world, how on earth would you know if Baghdadi has been killed or he's just still in hiding somewhere?

What U.S. intelligence will have to do now is what they have always planned to do if they got any kind of reports about Baghdadi being killed. They will look on social media for any evidence of ISIS chatter about any of this. They will look at intercepts, communications, eavesdropping, people they talk to in the region and on the ground. They're going to look for any confirming evidence.

And right now, they don't have it. But this whole area of Syria that we are talking about is extremely interesting for U.S. intelligence and U.S. military right now. Let's put up a map for a minute. Raqqa. This city, ISIS self-declared capital, has been undergoing assault from the air and by fighters on the ground for several weeks. It is isolated. They have isolated some ISIS fighters in the city. But we know over the last couple of weeks many ISIS leaders have fled south indeed to a town called Mayadin. And it is in that region that U.S. intelligence now is very looking carefully to see if they can find evidence of any ISIS leaders on the ground -- Chris, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, Barbara, thank you for all that reporting from the Pentagon.

So let's bring in CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, CNN terrorism analyst Bob Cruickshank and CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon who is live for us in Irbil, Iraq.

General, I want to start with you. What's your level of skepticism about these Russian reports?

Very high, Alisyn. Very high. This is a report without any forensics, without any -- without the Russians giving us where they're getting the information from. There have been multiple reports over of the past couple of years about Baghdadi being killed.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: One report that he was killed in Iraq and before that, another report.

[07:05:05] There have been multiple reports over the last couple of years about Baghdadi being killed. In fact there was one just a few weeks ago that he was in Al Qaim, Iraq and was killed there. Before that it was Tal Afar. So there have been multiple killings of Mr. Baghdadi. And they have all proven to be false. There is a reason he is called the ghost.

There is just too much to this story that makes me skeptical. 300 people and in one strike. That doesn't make sense. That would have been reported especially if it happened on May 28th, which is the second day of Ramadan. We would have heard about that from sources on the ground. Plus we haven't seen anything that proves that the strike hit some place where al-Baghdadi was and he hasn't been seen in the last two years since he made this speech at the mosque in Mosul.

CUOMO: Paul Cruickshank, it is great to have you on here. Just so the audience understands you're a constant source of information and intel about these types of issues. Much of our skepticism has been fueled by your insights this morning. So highlight the points that people need to keep in their mind when considering whether this could be true.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, yes. I think there needs to be deep a skepticism about this unless there is corroborating information that comes out. One of the reasons is that intelligence has indicated that much of the ISIS leadership have relocated to the town of Mayadin on the border with Iraq. Barbara was alluding to that. So unlikely that he would have been in this area south of Raqqa.

Very unlikely that he would be meeting with more than 300 ISIS fighters and seeing their commanders. They just don't do that. He, especially, doesn't do that. He has taken elaborate security precaution over the last few years as General Hertling has pointed out. The last time he's been spotted in such a large gathering was that in that mosque in Mosul in the summer of 2014.

Also there has really been total silence from ISIS publicly on this and also we heard nothing from U.S. intelligence to suggest that they picked up any chatter whatsoever, any communications within ISIS to suggest some concern that their own leader has been killed. And of course this claim coming from the Russians who have every interest in portraying themselves as taking the fight to ISIS when most of their airstrikes have actually been against other groups in Syria. So I think deep skepticism about this claim until proven otherwise.

CAMEROTA: Arwa, give us the perspective from Iraq.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, the points have all been very well made in how we should be viewing the possibility that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was even attending a high-level meeting that would have had many of his senior lieutenants added.

It's also worth adding this to the entire conversation. When we have in the past seen key leaders killed, whether it was Zarqawi, Al Qaeda in Iraq's leader, which is, of course, the previous incarnation of what is now today ISIS. When we saw bin Laden killed. That did not necessarily hamper the organization's operations to the degree that then saw them disintegrate. These are organizations, especially when it comes to the expertise that one like ISIS does have, they have leadership in place to move in and take over.

They are also, as has already been mentioned, quite savvy when it comes to how they are moving around, how they have their key operative continue to be able to carry out what it is that is necessary, whether they're giving direct orders or not. When it comes to the specific battle field at this stage inside Mosul and what is the start of the battle for Raqqa itself, those efforts are just as intense as they always have been, and has also already been pointed out if in fact this did take place at the end of May, we have seen significant attacks that have been claimed by ISIS where individuals at least inspired by ISIS have continued to carry out these kinds of attacks.

So it's worth again emphasizing that even if the leader of ISIS has been killed let's not assume that that means an end to the organization itself.

CUOMO: Arwa, important perspective. Thank you. And remember, she is in a place where there's an active warfare going on right now.

General, while I have, I want your take on something. The reports are that yes, 4,000 more American fighting men and women are going to be deployed to Afghanistan. We know that the White House word has been that we're not winning there. We've heard that from General Mattis. That means we'll have over 12,000 troops back on the ground. They're being called advisers in support. But as you well know better than any of us, that doesn't mean they're not in harm's way.

[07:10:02] Do you think the president should have to make the case to the American people and that Congress should vote on this kind of move before that many people are back in harm's way?

HERTLING: I do, Chris. And I've said so many times before. You know, if you look at the clause, we've seen principles of waging war, you have to have a strong force, you have to have the support of the government and you have to have the support of the people. Now we have a very strong force that's been in and out of Afghanistan.

We have not seen the support of the people through the vote of Congress and now we're giving more authority to the secretary of Defense to make troop movements to Afghanistan without considering a whole of government approach and without making the commander-in-chief responsible specifically for those moves.

So, yes, right now there is no end state. There's not a new strategy as the president promised. And I'm very concerned that we have one individual, although I trust James Mattis explicitly having one individual making these decisions without pulling the rest of the government together and without getting the support of the American people through Congress.

CAMEROTA: Arwa, Paul, General, thank you very much for all of the perspective on this possible breaking news. We'll obviously follow it throughout the morning.

CUOMO: All right. Now to our other top story. We had the horrible shooting in Virginia. And the hope was that there would be something better out of our politics afterwards because we had learned that everything is too fragile. We should be at our best.

The president is sending a different message. He is once again lashing out, being personal, being insulting. Not just saying that reports that he's being investigated for possible obstruction of justice will lead to nothing. He's saying that people who are behind them are bad. A series of tweets continuing to attack Hillary Clinton seven months after the election. Suggesting that the special counsel is up to no good.

CNN's Athena Jones live at the White House with more. This is not the kind of approach to unity the president promised just 36 hours ago.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Chris, that is right. You know, the last tweet overnight that we've seen, it was on the -- on the baseball game last night. He sent out a lot of tweets. And look, the White House is refusing to answer any questions about the special counsel's investigation. Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodged such questions eight times during yesterday's off-camera press briefing, referring all questions to the president's outside legal team.

The president himself ignored my shouted questions during an event in the Roosevelt Room. But he has not been entirely silent on 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. 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, had met in a closed session with the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday to clear up a number of questions that he couldn't or just wouldn't answer in the open -- the public session last week.

[07:15:16] The committee also held a similar closed session with NSA Director Mike Rogers on Monday -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, Athena, thank you very much for that.

So what do President Trump's tweet mean to the Russia investigation. We discuss with our political panel, next.


CUOMO: President Trump lashing out against anybody in his way. Hillary Clinton, the Russia probe, the special counsel, the Democrats, us. A flurry of tweets literally calling Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation a witch hunt, saying that people who are investigating these things are bad and up to no good. This comes as the "Washington Post" reports that Mueller is now looking at Jared Kushner's business dealings.

Let's bring in our political panel. CNN political analyst David Gregory, Abby Philip, and CNN political reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza.

[07:20:02] David Gregory, I know that none of this is unusual. I know that we've seen it all before. But after Virginia? After his speech which was well-intended and appreciated. Not 24 hours later he is back at it and you could argue worse than ever.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think that's right. I suppose in his mind he would separate it out, you know, from the general discourse in the country. But there's no question that -- you know, that he is back at it and it's hurtful.

I think -- look, I think from the president's point of view he is doing two things at once. He is, you know, politically minded about how he can lash out at everybody coming at him with regard to this investigation and keep cementing the idea that this is wrong, that it's some kind of conspiracy, and there's a real constituency for that. And the other side of it is that he just simply doesn't have any discipline and he is self-destructive.

I think we're seeing both of those things at once. And it is such a contrast to, you know, the congressional ball game the other night and when something horrible happens, there is at least the ability for us to look at our representatives in Congress and in Washington and see their humanity.

I thought the best moment of this week out of a horrible moment was a piece about who is Steve Scalise. Who is he? What does he care about? What about his children? What kind of guy is he? Because it reminds us whatever political differences there are in Washington of people who are trying to do a good thing, who are serving and are trying to raise up the importance of institutions.

CAMEROTA: Absolutely. That was so on display. I mean, even the conversations that we had in the heated moments right after the ambush. You know, you saw Mo Brooks. He was on with us. Jeff Flake was in front of reporters. And there was just such a letting down obviously of the guard. I mean, they were just at their most core vulnerable humans.


CAMEROTA: And that is something that I think that we will carry with us for a long time.

But, Abby, in terms of President Trump's tweets, you know, what do they actually matter? I mean, the investigation continues at pace.

ABBY PHILIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and they seem to be moving pretty closely to the talking points that the Republican Party has put out to try to defend the president. But they do very little except to point to a couple of things. One that this Russia investigation is something that is on his mind constantly. He is tweeting early in the morning, he's tweeting late in the afternoon when there is nothing on his schedule, he is tweeting. And that, you know, really defies what the White House has wanted us to talk about this week.

You know, they keep saying this week is about apprenticeship. And the president keeps saying when he has the microphone that this week is about Russia. It's about going after the people leading the investigation. So it's really problematic for that reason.

It's also problematic because to David's point, the president has never identified the connection between his own rhetoric and the kind of discord we are seeing out here in the public. He doesn't seem to see a connection between those two things. I think his tweets yesterday in particular highlight that for him they are separate. But for the rest of the country, that rhetoric contributes to the overall environment and it was telling that less than 24 hours after the enormous tragedy that is where the president's main megaphone went.

CUOMO: And Chris Cillizza, let's be clear about why the president has done this. It's not out -- you know, so many of his opponents want to say well, you know, he's not smart. He's very smart. He does this because it works for him. It works for him two ways. One, it does bash what he believes needs to be bashing and it provides a great distraction.

I don't think that it's wrong for him to approach the Russia investigation in his mind because it works for him. We're not talking about the fact that he just hired his son's wedding planner to oversee New York housing when she has no housing experience according to the "Daily News." You can read it, it's on the front page.

And we're not talking about this maniacally secretive health care deal that is going on right now. So him talking about Russia may seem self-destructive. But may it is in fact politically constructive.

CILLIZZA: Well, and I'll add one more to that which is, Chris, I do think that you have seen Donald Trump since the special counsel was appointed via Twitter and occasionally in other rhetoric, but mostly via Twitter, do what he can to begin to raise questions about why is this special counsel exist at all? Why is he asking these questions? And why are they not focusing on Hillary and not me? I think what he is doing there -- I guess I'm skeptical what he is

doing is building a case to fire Bob Mueller because I think even Donald Trump understands the peril in that.

[07:25:08] But I do think what he's doing is, if the findings of the special counsel do not comport with what Donald Trump wants them to look like and what he is doing is laying a long-term case to say well, we knew that this was a -- I said this was a witch hunt from the start. I told you. They knew what they were going to conclude before they even started investigating. And so I think he is doing some of that.

I'll also add one other quick thing. I think Donald Trump likes to be liked. He like to -- he wants people to think or be praiseworthy of him. Twitter gives him literally a direct and immediate response in that way. Sure there are people who respond to his tweets with negative stuff. But there's -- on every tweet he has, there's 80,000, 90,000, 100,000 likes. There's plenty of reason for Donald Trump to think, see, I knew it. People really do like my message no matter what the media says. This is sort of an instant gratification feedback loop for him.

CAMEROTA: OK. So let's talk about the unity that we saw on display last night with this baseball game and both sides coming together. Obviously talking about their colleague Steve Scalise and praying here for his speedy recovery. And we also saw something unusual. A joint appearance by the leaders of both parties. Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi. They don't come on television together. In fact, they usually come on to criticize each other. But here they were last night on CNN.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: Tonight we're all Team Scalise.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: What we are trying to do is tone down the rhetoric, lead by example and show people we can disagree with one another. We can have different ideas without being vitriolic, without going to such extreme.



CUOMO: Of course she's got the LSU on there because Scalise is from Louisiana.

CAMEROTA: That's right. So look, now the onus is on them to walk that walk.

GREGORY: Look, it's on all of us. I mean, I think that, you know, this is not specific to the Trump era. You know, we've lived through times, and I'm obsessed with the civil war at the moment because I'm reading this classic book about it. And if you want talk about times of great peril in terms of how divided we were. Right? It's not even close. We have also survived political violence in this country. But we have to take these moments to remind ourselves that we have a common humanity as citizens we do. And that we have to assign some of that to our political leadership.

And our political leadership has then the opportunity here and the need to lead us in that and not to demonize each other. So out of something horrible, maybe there's a moment to give that momentum.

CUOMO: And you hope that the recognition we call humanity is that certain things matter more. GREGORY: Right.

CUOMO: And that comes in the sharp focus when someone is trying to take your life.

Our panel, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

And you know who communicates this message better than any of us could ever hope to? The man who's going to be on the show with us next, who is calm in a moment of crisis, who took us through what was going on. Congressman Mo Brooks. He is with us again to talk about the game, talk about how he's doing and what we should all do moving forward.

Great to see you, sir.