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Interview with Council on Foreign Relations Adjunct Senior Fellow Gayle Tzemach Lemmon; Interview with Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro; GOP State Legislatures Introduce 253 Bills to Restrict Voting in 43 States. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired February 26, 2021 - 10:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Overnight, the U.S. military carried out airstrikes at a site in Syria used by Iranian-backed militia groups, the first military action -- that we know of at least -- under President Biden. A U.S. defense official tells CNN the original plan was to strike two targets, but the second location scratched at the last minute because of concerns over the potential for civilian casualties.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: With us now to talk about this and the broader implications, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has also reported extensively throughout Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. She's also the author of the new book, "The Daughters of Kobani," about all-female militia and their fight against ISIS in Syria, now a "New York Times" bestseller, it's an important read.

And, Gayle, thank you for being with us on this important news. Your read on this is that this is the Biden administration sending a message saying we know where you are. How significant is it beyond the strike itself?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, ADJUNCT SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: It's significant, because it's aiming for payback for three rocket attacks in one week in Iraq without provocation and without further escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Iran. And also, without complicating life for U.S. ally Iraq, right? And making it harder for the Iraqis, who are trying to not have any further skirmishes between the U.S. and Iran on Iraqi soil. So it's really payback without provocation is the goal.

SCIUTTO: Yes, interesting they did so inside Syria because you did have similar attacks by the Trump administration inside Iraqi territory. That said, the standard here, not that different from the Trump administration, right? I mean, you had rocket attacks on a U.S. base. Didn't kill an American, did injure an American. And an immediate payback for that, right? So not a dramatic change from -- I mean, if you want to call it a Trump standard, but at least the practice under Trump after rocket attacks like this. TZEMACH LEMMON: Yes, and actually the Trump administration had

continued a lot of the Obama administration policy in Syria. And it's interesting because there is shared concern across parties about Iran and its sort of train-and-equip of Iranian-backed militias across the region. And the U.S. is making a distinction between Iran and the militias that it backs, and that's part of why the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria has been seen as a bulwark against it (ph).

HARLOW: So, Gayle, obviously the next question becomes, OK, so what does this mean for getting Iran back to the table to talk about the JCPOA, right? The Iran nuclear deal, because it's believed that these militia groups and those three strikes were all backed by Iran.

TZEMACH LEMMON: Yes, and it's so interesting, right? The U.S. is really making a distinction between Iran and the diplomatic outreach that happened last week, and the Iranian proxies that are really expanding the influence and the footprint of Iran across the region. And the Syrian civil war -- and the Iranians have been all in on the side of Assad -- has really expanded the opportunity that the Iranians have to grow their influence.

SCIUTTO: Your book is about the all-female fighting forces among the Syrian Kurds, who are so central to America's effort fighting ISIS inside Syria. Of course, the U.S. abandoned those allies under the Trump administration, two withdrawals -- although they weren't complete withdrawals, but two withdrawals by tweet under President Trump.

I wonder, has the U.S. reputation there, have those relationships recovered from that? Or is there lasting damage?

TZEMACH LEMMON: It is so interesting, because the story in "Daughters of Kobani" really goes into this. There is a deep connection between the United States and the partner force that fought ISIS for the United States and for the world, right? To eliminate the physical caliphate of ISIS.

And when I was there in December of 2019, that was the thing that struck me was that so much of what has been built since 2014 has endured. There are women leading the Civil Council still, and every town that's been taken over after ISIS, there are women's councils in all these towns.

And the relationship between the U.S. and the Syrian Kurds and Arabs who are partners in the ISIS fight really endures much more than you would expect, because I think people are deeply hopeful that the future will look different from the past.

HARLOW: Gayle, thank you so much for being with us on this news, we appreciate it.



HARLOW: Well, officials are scrambling, trying to find enough space for the growing number of migrant children that are now crossing the southern border into the U.S. The pandemic is making it even more complicated, and the Biden administration has now reopened a Trump-era detention facility, a very, very -- a decision that is getting a lot of blowback for them. We'll talk about it, next.


HARLOW: Right now, there is a scramble at the U.S.-Mexico border, hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children are entering this country each day. And to deal with it, just days ago, the Biden administration made the controversial decision to reopen a Trump-era detention site. And now another detention site in Florida is reportedly being looked at.


With me now is Julian Castro, he was secretary of the Housing and Urban Development administration, the Obama term. He also is formerly a presidential candidate and former mayor of San Antonio. Mr. Secretary, thank you for the time this morning.


HARLOW: So this facility, we have some images of it. It reopened this week in Carrizo Springs, Texas. It's just about two hours from San Antonio.

In June of 2018, you said President Trump's child separation policy and the detention in these facilities crossed a line. These children now are unaccompanied minors, they're not separated from their families -- that's an important distinction -- but I wonder if you think by putting them in this Trump-era detention facility and reopening it, President Biden has, in your mind, crossed a line?

CASTRO: Well, you made a very important distinction there, Poppy, which is these are not children that have been separated from their parents. There is a lot of confusion.

The other important distinction is many of those images of kids in cages that we see are ICE facilities. This is not an ICE facility, this is a facility that is contracted to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Having said that, I think it's the wrong direction to go in. What I believe we need to do instead is to speed up the placement of these unaccompanied minors with host families that often are relatives that already live in the United States.

The Biden administration has said that there are basically two reasons why they need to do this. Number one, for COVID distancing requirements. Look, that's understandable, you want to keep people safe. But secondly, because there's a surge.

I understand both of those explanations, but I also believe that these types of facilities have been used as a crutch because the bureaucracy at HHS is taking too long to place kids. So they need to improve that and eventually be able to phase out these facilities.

HARLOW: Right. So it's not an ICE facility, but as I think you know, it's not a state-licensed facility, and it's really int he middle of nowhere --

CASTRO: It is not --


HARLOW: -- it's like two hours away from any major city, so there are major concerns right now from folks about the ability to monitor it. It's basically a contractor that runs it.

And I just ask, you know, what would you do instead? Because you're a Democrat who's messaging to the Biden administration, this is the wrong decision.

CASTRO: I would invest in personnel and in policy to find those unaccompanied minors their host family as quickly as possible. Look, do I believe that when a child shows up at the border who's 14 years old and you have a choice to make as a government, what are you going to do to make sure that that child, who does not have parents here, they're not with them, what are you going to do to make sure that child is safe? You have to place them somewhere.

The answer to that of course is yes. But here's the thing. In that "Washington Post" article that broke the story, the person from HHS said that on average, they think that these kids are going to be there 30 days at this facility --

HARLOW: Which is -- violates the Flores agreement --

CASTRO: -- first of all, I think you could --

HARLOW: -- which is 20 days.

CASTRO: Yes, you -- you can improve the accommodations. They don't have to be these types of facilities that are in the middle of nowhere, that are unlicensed, that I think are probably scary for a lot of these kids to have to live in.

But secondly, you can make sure that HHS has the resources to find those families much quicker so they don't have to stay anywhere near 30 days --

HARLOW: Right, well --

CASTRO: -- that's where I think we're failing right now.

HARLOW: -- there's also not even a nominee from the White House yet to lead ICE or CBP.

Look, President Trump is reportedly this Sunday going to blast the Biden administration over immigration overhauls at CPAC. The idea here is he believes it'll help Republicans in the 2022 midterms, and at least one Democrat, who represents part of the border , town in Texas, agrees.

Here is what Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez just told "Politico." Quote, "The way we're doing it now is catastrophic and is a recipe for disaster... Biden is going to be dealing with a minority in Congress if he continues down some of these paths."

Do you think he's right? Are you concerned about the political backlash for your party?

CASTRO: What I think we need to do is to make sure that we have a common-sense immigration policy and that we lead with compassion, especially when it comes to children who are seeking a better life here.

It's night and day between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Look, Donald Trump had a dark heart when it came to immigrants. He and people like Stephen Miller have this vision of America as a white country basically, and they did everything that they could to slow immigration, stop immigration, deport people when they could, basically to torture these kids by separating them from their parents.


Joe Biden is very different from that. I think he's moving generally in the right direction. I think on this decision, to reopen this facility, they shouldn't use it as a crutch. What they should do is invest in the resources at Health and Human Services Department, Office of Refugee Resettlement so that those kids can get placed more quickly. And if they do have to place kids somewhere, they should improve the accommodations for these children.

HARLOW: Right. So final question, not on this topic, on the topic of unity that I think the country has been hoping for. The Biden administration right now is pushing through this $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. It's not going to have a single Republican in either chamber supporting it.

You told my colleague Ana Cabrera, just in December, if there is anyone who can foster more bipartisanship, your words, quote, "it is certainly Joe Biden." Are you worried that we're not seeing as much of that as you had hoped for?

CASTRO: I'm worried for the Republican Party because I think that poll after poll shows that the vast majority of Americans, even Republicans, support --

HARLOW: That's true.

CASTRO: -- President Biden's proposal. So basically, you have a Republican Party that has gone off the rails, we saw that on January 6th. They refuse to acknowledge reality, the fact that Joe Biden won the election. And now, they're not lifting a finger to help all of those millions of Republicans, Democrats, independents -- just Americans -- who are still struggling, whose small businesses are closed, who are out of work, who are on the brink of eviction, who desperately need Congress to act. See, Republicans are stuck in this do-nothing mode --

HARLOW: What -- OK.

CASTRO: -- as we saw here in Texas last week, you can't put people in charge of government who don't believe in government in the first place. They're going to fail you every time, and Republicans are failing Americans by refusing to support a desperately needed investment.

HARLOW: Yes, we have to go, I'm out of time. But they did propose a counter-proposal. I hear you, but they did lift a finger in terms of making a counter-proposal that was not acceptable to the Biden administration. We'll have you back, Julian Castro, it's a very important topic. Thank you.

CASTRO: Thank you.


SCIUTTO: Important topic for sure.

Well, in the wake of former President Trump's 2020 loss, bills now being introduced by GOP legislatures across the country to restrict access to voting, your voting. Critics call these pieces of legislation -- even some Republican critics -- nothing less than voter suppression. We're going to have more on this, next.



HARLOW: Former President Trump will take the stage on Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. He's planning to apparently resurrect his false claims about the 2020 election.

SCIUTTO: Well, CNN's Dianne Gallagher has been looking into this and how those lies are now fueling efforts to impose very restrictive voting laws.


DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The 2020 election is over, but Republicans in dozens of states are still using the baseless claims surrounding it, spread by former President Trump and his allies, to push new restrictive election bills.

Experts say the link is clear.

JESSICA HUSEMAN, REPORTER, PROPUBLICA: It's just as much about keeping people who will not vote for them away from the polls, as it is energizing their own base and getting them to be angry about election security, which is exactly the playbook that Trump used in the last year.

GALLAGER (voice-over): The Brennan Center for Justice says it's tracking at least 253 restrictive voting bills in 43 states. That's roughly six times the number from this time last year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bill receiving a constitutional majority is declared to have passed the house.

GALLAGER (voice-over): In Iowa, both Republican-controlled chambers passed a bill that would reduce early voting days, Election Day poll hours, and make it harder to absentee vote. That now awaits the governor's signature.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bill carries and is on its way to rule.

GALLAGER (voice-over): In Georgia, the house and senate are advancing bills that would drastically change election laws and restrict access to mail-in voting, even eliminating early voting on Sundays.

In Arizona, voting rights activists are sounding alarms.

ALEX GULOTTA, ALL VOTING IS LOCAL ARIZONA: There are bills that would really harm access to voting, particularly for people of color, for low-income families, for Native Americans. And they're rushing through because we have to fix a problem that doesn't exist.

GALLAGER (voice-over): Most of the voting-related bills proposed in the Grand Canyon State focus on the mail-in voting process. Popular for decades in this sprawling scenic state, more than 80 percent of Arizonans voted by mail in 2020.

One bill would require mail-in ballots to be notarized; another lets voters request a ballot by mail, but you'd have to make the journey to turn it in in-person. A bill that zeros in on the state's permanent early voter list advanced out of committee just this week.

MICHELLE UGENTI-RITA (R), ARIZONA STATE SENATOR: If you are not voting, then you're not going to notice being removed.

GULOTTA: IT's not just one bill, it's 50 or more bills, right? And so it's the cumulative effect of all of them. Will they all get through? Probably not. Will a coalition of scrappy advocates be able to stop all of them? Probably not.

GALLAGER (voice-over): Now some Republicans are skeptical of the more extreme proposals.

RUSTY BOWERS (R), SPEAKER, ARIZONA STATE HOUSE: Some of them I think are valid, we need to clean voter rolls and make sure that people are here to vote, that's pretty standard stuff. But other things are not as acceptable to me.



GALLAGHER: Now, look, a lot of Republicans say this is just as much about election security as it is about restoring confidence in elections that of course was shaken by lies that largely many members of their own party spread. Jim, Poppy, in talking to activists and Democrats, they're

increasingly worried about just the sheer number of bills -- it's kind of overwhelming -- that are being introduced. They're hoping that something can happen on the federal level that could basically counteract what's happening here on the state level.

SCIUTTO: And that is a legislative priority for the Biden administration, Voting Rights Act. We'll see where that goes, going forward. Dianne Gallagher, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Thank you, Dianne.

And thanks to all of you for joining us today and all week, have a good, healthy weekend, we'll see you on Monday. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto. NEWSROOM with Kate Bolduan starts after a short break.