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Trump's Approval Ratings Dip Could Affect Midterms; Holden Beach, NC, Ordered to Evacuate Ahead of Florence; U.N. Warns of Humanitarian Catastrophe with Attacks in Syria; Al Qaeda Leader Threatens U.S; Report: What U.S. Sees as Greatest Threat to Country. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired September 11, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] REP. RYAN COSTELLO, (R), PENNSYLVANIA: I would add, for Republicans, Florida and New Jersey are two prime pick-up opportunities. And you look at the House and the president in virtually every House district is under water. In a district like mine and a lot of suburban districts, he has been under water since the day he was sworn in. But the numbers you saw in August, which I think are partly attributable to the McCain funeral and being able to balance what an independent Republican is and a statesman is versus a lot of the stuff that comes out of the president's mouth and some of the fights that we don't need to have fights over. It creates more of an uphill battle and challenge for Republicans.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: You are saying the president is responsible for the dip in his ratings?

COSTELLO: Oh, there's no question about it. There's no question about it. And everyone in America knows it. The challenge for Republicans is to get out and say what we did and be able to identify your own independent brand and why you are running for reelection and where, when appropriate, you break with the president.

SCIUTTO: Breaking with the president, that is a rare thing from Republican lawmakers, particularly in the primaries. And granted, you can understand that. It's mostly Republicans, probably a majority of Republicans who vote in the primaries in the general. Do you think and do you see more Republicans willing to say, hey, wait a second, here's where I disagree with Mr. Trump?

COSTELLO: You see that and continue to see that, particularly on Congress and our enhanced Russian sanctions against what the president would like to see on the issue of trade. At the same point in time, we have to balance that with a very good economy and consumer confidence at an 18-year high. It's interesting, if you look at polling, voters approve of the president's policies about 10 percentage points more than they approve of the president. If you look at President Obama, there were times where folks approved of President Obama at a clip 10 points higher than his policies. Sort of the inverse. Going into Election Day, it will be critical that we get out the message as to why as an independent Republican member of Congress you vote for that candidate because Democrats are energized. If you look at the generic ballot and the intensity gap, to be a Democrat, you have to be against the president. That's all your voters are looking for.

SCIUTTO: It came out in a CNN poll yesterday that 36 percent overall approval for the president, but a 49 percent approval for his handling of the economy. Just that disparity that you talk about.

There's a lot of talk -- and you are a Republican lawmaker yourself and I know you are leaving the House -- about how the Republican Party is now Trump's party. Do you believe this election has the potential to turn that on its head, that if Trump has weakened Republicans in these races, do members of the party, like yourself, who said this before, said, listen, we have to claw this party back to our vision of the GOP?

COSTELLO: I believe so. Number one, because you always need to make sure your political party is bigger than any one individual. Number two, some of his policies are not traditionally Republican policies. Third, just the tone and tenor are not presidential. I think there are a lot of Americans that look to the president beyond their policies and say, I'd like my president to be a role model. When you are not getting that kind of feel out of the presidency, as members of Congress, and as figures in the political party, you need to make sure you are speaking out against that. I believe that is also attributable to some of the dip.

SCIUTTO: Ryan Costello, thank you very much for taking the time.

COSTELLO: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next, we are tracking a massive hurricane heading straight for the Carolina coast. A million and a half people being told, ordered to get out now. One of those places is Holden Beach, North Carolina. We'll talk to the major there. That's next.


[13:38:26] SCIUTTO: A monster hurricane is turning towards the Carolina right now, and officials along the coast are urging people to get out before Florence makes landfall.

The mayor in Holden Beach, North Carolina, said everyone has to be off the island by 8:00 in the morning tomorrow.

Joining us now live is Mayor Alan Holden.

Mayor, thank you for taking the time. I know you have a lot on your hands in these hours and days.

The first question is, are people listening to those evacuation orders. It's a real challenge at this time, and a lot of people choose to stick it out.

ALAN HOLDEN, MAYOR, , HOLDEN BEACH, NORTH CAROLINA: The corporation has been extensively well received and we have no problem with compliance. Everything seems to be moving along very well.

SCIUTTO: That's good to hear. I know it's a difficult decision for you and other local leaders when

the storm is coming your way. You are never quite sure where it's going to hit and so on. But what made you make this decision to make the evacuation order?

HOLDEN: First of all, I lived on this island 69 years. We have seen a lot. We haven't had a hurricane since Hazel in '54. We had storms. But this one is scary. The unpredictability and magnitude of it is unlikely to be anything in recent memory. So we have to anticipate the worst happening. So we have a lead time of about eight hours to close off our water and sewer systems. We are taking that into consideration. And we decided the best thing is to do is do it at 8:00 in the morning, everyone vacate out.

[13:40:08] SCIUTTO: There's just one bridge to get off the island? Is that proving a challenge as people head out?

HOLDEN: We have one high-rise bridge, built in 1995. It's in great condition. Our island is nine miles long and about 2100 homes on the island. Evacuation has not been a problem. The police chief will close the bridge when the wind gets to 45 miles per hour sustained speed.

SCIUTTO: You have a history there, personally, and the island goes back decades with storms and warnings like this. Put this in context as you see this coming, is it one of the biggest you've seen in a long time? How do you feel about it? How is the community going to weather this?

HOLDEN: I'm very reluctant to order evacuations. I believe in staying here unless it's absolutely in the total best interest of everyone. In this case, the uncertainty decides the storm. And certainly, without a doubt, we made the right decision. Even right now, we don't know where it's going to go or how much power it will have when it arrives. One other concern is the high tides that we have been experiencing the last three or four days. If the storm arrives at high tide, it's going to be really bad for us. We are running a few feet above normal already.

SCIUTTO: Listen, we know you have a lot on your plate and we wish you luck in the coming days and hours and we hope you get through it just fine.

HOLDEN: I appreciate that. And I will just say that all the state and local officials and the town staff and the citizens that work together extremely well. And it's going to be a unique experience, but I'm sure we will get through it and everywhere will come away better than some might hope. We don't want anybody to get injured or anybody to lose any property anywhere in the country, but it sure would be nice if this thing would put it I reverse and was going out to sea for everybody's sake.

SCIUTTO: We will be looking out for you.

Mayor Alan Holden, thanks very much.

HOLDEN: Thank you, sir.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next, we will take you to Syria where U.N. officials warn the worst humanitarian catastrophe this century could be unfolding there. The Syrian government is stepping up its attack as fears of imminent slaughter loom.

We will talk live with a humanitarian volunteer on the ground. He's will give us a firsthand account of what it's like there. All of that is coming up.


[13:47:15] SCIUTTO: The specter of this century's worst humanitarian catastrophe hangs over Idlib Province in Syria as Syrian government forces step up attacks against the last rebel stronghold in the country.

Just in now, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis says that Bashar al Assad has been warned about the possible use of chemical weapons again in Syria.

CNN senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is in nearby Damascus.

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Jim. The situation in and around Idlib Province in the north of Syria continues to intensify. When you look at where most of the airstrikes have been taking place it's in a lot of places in Idlib, but specifically in the south of Idlib Province. That's where a lot of these casualties happened and where the air and the artillery strikes happened as well. The Syrian government is providing video showing some of their planes and rocket launchers firing towards Idlib Province. They also said, from the other side, from the rebel side, there have been some cross-border firing in the other direction and some people were killed on the other side as well.

The message that we're getting right here in Damascus is they say this offensive could be imminent and could happen any time. They also as long as the wheels haven't been set in motion, there could still be room for diplomacy. We know that meeting today in the United Nations, the U.S. and Russia going at it, once again. And there was another meeting with the U.N., with the Russians, Iranians and the Turks to try to find some sort of compromise.

But, of course, Jim, with every moment that goes by and with these airstrikes continuing in Idlib, the chance of staving off an offensive grows dimmer by the minute -- Jim?

SCIUTTO: Fred Pleitgen, in Syria, thanks very much.

I want to bring in now Ismail al Abdulla. He's a volunteer with the White Helmets, a humanitarian group made up of Syrian civilians. He is in Idlib.

Thanks so much, Ismail, for joining us here.

We know you are in a dangerous place at a dangerous time. Tell us what the situation is like on the ground there now.

ISMAIL AL ABDULLA, VOLUNTEER, WHITE HELMETS: Since Assad's forces and Russians started the offensive on Idlib, they started on the west side of Idlib. Then they moved to the southside and they had the countryside with 32 airstrikes and five bombs and the casualties at least 20 people including six kids and 14 women. They targeted two hospitals and they put them out in addition two centers of that. Our centers and there are 200 the bombing in the two days, last two days made the people more afraid, scared about the future of the province. And all the world know that this is the last strong hold of the area of people that can live in. There's no other place to go for those millions of people. The international community said maybe United Nations say this maybe will be the worst situation in this century maybe and for sure it will be. People now preparing for big massacre, making mask for chemical weapons. You hear in U.S. and Russian news that they will use chemical weapons to attack. People more than afraid about their lives and kids. They have experience in Tehran. And in December 22, 2016, and me and my family are here now, very scared about our future and the future of the territory.

[13:51:42] SCIUTTO: Ismail al Abdullah, to you and to the civilians there, we want to let you know we wish you safety, and thank you for the work you're doing.

Well, he is the al Qaeda leader who is still on the run after planning the 9/11 attacks with Osama bin Laden. New words today from Ayman al Zawahiri.

Plus, 17 years later, CNN is reporting what the U.S. now sees as the greatest terror threat to the country? Details on that report, next.


[13:56:52] SCIUTTO: As the nation pauses to reflect again on the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda is issuing a new threat. The group released what it claims is an audio from its leader, its current leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, urging followers to conduct more attacks on the United States.

Meanwhile, a new report examines the deadliest threats facing the U.S. 17 years after 9/11. CNN has obtained a copy of the report by the Department of Homeland Security.

Our law enforcement analyst, Josh Campbell, is here with me now with details.

Josh, I know you have been through the report. What are the highlights?

JOSH CAMPELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Hi, Jim. As America honors the fallen from September 11, government officials continue efforts to identify and thwart other attacks at home and abroad. A large part of that is drawing lessons learned from past incidents, and identifying patterns, trends that might help stop future loss of life.

In the new DHS assessment obtained by CNN, the government analyzed 99 terror attacks linked to foreign terrorist organizations from 2014 to 2018, which included attacks in North America, Australia, and Europe. What they found was, despite rising fears globally about lone-wolf terrorist attacks inspired by extremists, DHS assesses it is, instead, those attacks actually directed by foreign terrorist organizations, and involving trained recruits that remain the most deadly. According to analysis, directed attacks in the study resulted in an average of 10 times as many fatalities as the other incidents.

Now, DHS also studied the methods used in various terrorist attacks, including the most fatal form involved the use of firearms when compared to incidents involving vehicles as ramming devices and knives. The fact that organized attacks directed by foreign terrorist groups remain the most deadly doesn't mean the government will be throttling back on their efforts to identify lone wolves that may be inspired by terrorist groups. Past tragedies such as the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando show the mass harm these individuals can still inflict on communities compared to larger conspiracies.

The bottom line, Jim, from the report, although, thankfully, it has been quite some time since the last major terrorist incidents in the United States, the Intelligence Community is nevertheless working to analyze and share best practices with federal, state, and local counterparts in order to help stay ahead of those that want to cause harm -- Jim?

SCIUTTO: Josh, for those big directed attacks from abroad, do they still single out al Qaeda as the number one? Are they concerned that ISIS is capable of similar things?

CAMPBELL: Both ISIS and al Qaeda remain key figures. Obviously, there are other groups, some of the spin offs that continue to plot in other parts of the world. They continue to inspire. Although groups like the Islamic State are being crushed on the battlefield, they nevertheless continue to push out that kill, kill, kill messaging that continues to spread and inspire. It is still a main concern.

SCIUTTO: No question. As you mentioned, affiliates, AQAP, that has ambitions, we always hear about targeting commercial aircraft.

Josh Campbell, thank you for walking us through it.

That's it for me, Jim Sciutto, filling in for Wolf Blitzer today.

Coming up next, NEWSROOM with my colleague, Brooke Baldwin, and that starts right now.

[14:00:10] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everyone. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN. Thank you so much for being with me on this Tuesday afternoon.