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U.S. Airstrikes Hit Iranian-Backed Militia in Syria; House to Vote on Democrats' Huge Relief Bill Today; House Lawmakers Press for Answers About Response to Attack on Capitol; Concerning Virus Variants Spreading Around U.S. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired February 26, 2021 - 04:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[04:00:00]

KIM BRUNHUBER, CNN ANCHOR: Joe Biden takes military action for the first time as president launching an airstrike on Iran-backed militias in Syria. We're live in the region.

Also ahead, a severe blow to hopes for a $15 minimum wage in the U.S. as a Senate official rules that the proposal can't be included in Biden's coronavirus relief bill.

And the leader of the far-right Proud Boys group tells CNN, he has no sympathy for lawmakers targeted by the Capitol riot. We'll that for ahead this hour.

Live from CNN world headquarters in Atlanta. Welcome to all of you watching here in the United States, Canada and around the world. I'm Kim Brunhuber. This is CNN NEWSROOM.

The U.S. launched airstrikes Thursday against Iranian backed militants in Syria. They were in retaliation for a recent rocket attacks like this one last week in Erbil. One of the militant rockets killed a civilian contractor and wounded a number of Americans. The U.S. says the strikes killed a handful of militants on the Syrian side of a remote border crossing with Iraq. Ordering the strikes was Joe Biden's first known military action as president. We get more from CNN's Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon.

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OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The airstrike against the site in Eastern Syria along the Iraq/Syrian border is the first known military action under President Joe Biden. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said it was his recommendation and then Biden gave the final authorization for the strikes on Thursday morning.

A U.S. official familiar with the strikes said up to a handful of militants were killed in that airstrike. And they come after a series of rocket attacks against U.S. and coalition forces operation in Iraq. First in Erbil about a week and a half ago, then in Balad Air Force Base just north of the city of Baghdad and then the green zone in Baghdad itself. Austin said that part of the messaging here and Pentagon spokesman

John Kirby backed this up, was first that will be a response to these rocket attacks, and second to deter future rocket attacks. Austin made it clear that they're confident that it was Iranian backed Shia militias that were operating in these sites that were struck by the U.S. Air Force, and it was the same militias responsible for the rocket attacks.

Up until now the U.S. hadn't attributed the rocket attacks to anyone but now pinpointing it out Iranian backed Shia militias, and more broadly, holding Iran responsible for the actions of its proxies in Syria and in Iraq.

[04:05:00]

This comes at a crucial time for the Biden administration when it comes to Iran. As it tries to figure out what to do and how to work diplomatically about Iran's nuclear program. Also signaling that it wants to broaden out the agreement to include Iran's ballistic missiles and Iran's actions in the region.

Oren Liebermann, CNN, the Pentagon.

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BRUNHUBER: And CNN's Ben Wedeman is live this hour in Erbil, Iraq. So Ben, a small, calculated strike. What do you make of the size and scope of this response?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well I think there is a message being sent by the Americans that the 15th of February attack on the Erbil airport and other parts of the town and that the occasional missile and mortar strikes on the green zone in Baghdad where the U.S. embassy is located, will not go without a response. However, as was made clear by American officials, this was a limited response.

Apparently, President Biden was presented with a range of possibilities, some of them -- some of the strikes being proposed much harder, but this was limited. So it was a careful message.

Now we have in the meantime, Kim, gotten some more information on that strike. CNN was able to speak with a resident in the Syrian town of Abu Kamal, which is right on the border between -- on the Syrian side of the Syrian/Iraqi border on the Tigress River. They said that at 1:30 a.m. local time residents there were woken by a series of very loud blasts. Those blasts were coming from the direction of the Imam Ali base in that town. That is a base where sometimes Kata'ib Hezbollah, which is the Iraqi version of Hezbollah, supported by Iran does operate. And that is an area of Syria where they have been present for quite some time.

And it's important to keep in mind that this border between Iraq and Syria is very porous. The Syrian government obviously turns a blind eye to military forces, militias that are there and have in the past fought on behalf of the Syrian regime against its various opponents. So even though the strike was in Syria, it does have real impact on the ground here in Iraq, which is essentially a battleground, not necessarily always military, politically and otherwise between Iran and the United States.

It's a complicated situation and it's hard to tell whether this overnight strike by the United States on these targets is going to de- escalate the situation or have the opposite effect. You don't know at this point, Kim, how many there were any fatalities, in this airstrike.

BRUNHUBER: All right. Thanks so much. Great to have you there in Erbil. Ben Wedeman, we appreciate it.

President Biden and the King of Saudi Arabia have spoken by phone. They reaffirmed the important historic ties between the two allies. But by speaking with the King and not the Crown Prince, the call is also a strategic reset after the Trump era. The White House readout of the call doesn't show they discussed the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A U.S. intelligence report on 2018 killing is expected to further implicate the Saudi Crown Prince in its release is considered imminent. The president had said he would speak to the Saudi king first before making the report public.

Joe Biden's hopes to hike the U.S. federal minimum wage to $15 an hour took a hit when the Senate Parliamentarian ruled against including the raise in the COVID relief bill. But the ruling could now make it easier for Congress to adopt the Democrats enormous $1.9 trillion relief bill. CNN's Britt Conway reports.

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BRITT CONWAY, CNN WRITER/PRODUCER (voice-over): This is an unemployment line in Florida.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The American people are struggling.

CONWAY (voice-over): President Joe Biden is hoping his $1.9 trillion relief package will help. And the House votes on it today. It's as sweeping as it is controversial. Republicans say it's too big. Some calling it, a quote, liberal wish list.

REP. STEVE SCALISE (R-LA): This is the wrong plan at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What would they have me cut?

REP. JASON SMITH (R-MO): How much time do you have, Mr. President, to go through the litany of things in this bill that have nothing to do with COVID.

CONWAY (voice-over): But Democrats argue it's all related to the pandemic.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): We are still in a historic crisis with the health of the economy. REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY): COVID-19 pandemic is a once in a century

tragedy. It requires a once in a century Congressional response.

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CONWAY (voice-over): So what does it include? $1,400 stimulus checks for millions of Americans, enhanced unemployment assistance, nutrition assistance, housing aid, boost in tax credits for families and workers, optional paid sick and family leave, funding for education and childcare, health insurance subsidies, more money for small businesses, billions in aid to states and increased support for vaccines and testing. But one item that won't be in the Senate version, is the $15 federal minimum wage hike. It's a disappointment for many Democrats, but it might be the cut needed to get the bill across the finish line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got to pass it and make sure it gets implemented as soon as possible.

CONWAY (voice-over): I'm Britt Conway reporting.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BRUNHUBER: To Capitol Hill now where U.S. lawmakers have been pressing for answers about the failed police response of the January 6th attack. And the acting chief of the Capitol Police warns that security threats still face Congress. CNN's Jessica Schneider has details from Washington.

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JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Growing frustration from lawmakers.

REP. TIM RYAN (D-OH): Why wouldn't we have been prepared for the worst-case scenario? That's what the average American is sitting home thinking about.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The acting Chief of Capitol Police and the acting Sergeant at Arms grilled on their lack of preparedness and the breakdown of communication to Capitol Police officers on January 6.

REP. JAIME HERRERA BEUTLER (R-WA): They were getting no leadership. They were getting no direction. They had -- there was no coordination, and you could see the fear in their eyes.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Acting Chief Pittman admitted there were failures.

YOGANANDA D. PITTMAN, ACTING CHIEF OF CAPITOL POLICE: When there's a breakdown, you look for those commanders with boots on the ground to provide that instruction. That did not happen primarily because those operational commanders at the time were so overwhelmed. On January 6, our Incident Command protocols were not adhered to, as they should have. SCHNEIDER (voice-over): But Pittman also pushed back to the disbelief of the committee that even if leadership had seen that FBI bulletin that warned rioters pledge to go to war at the Capitol, Capitol Police would not have planned any differently.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even if it had moved up the chain, you wouldn't have done anything different?

PITTMAN: That is correct, sir. We do not believe that that document in and of itself would have changed our posture. We believe it was consistent with the information and intelligence that we already had.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): For the first time, Pittman disclosed just how many people came to Capitol.

PITTMAN: I think that we were well in excess of 10,000 that traverse the grounds. But as far as the numbers that actually came into the building, we estimate that that was approximately 800 demonstrators.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): And Pittman warn that the fencing and security will remain around the Capitol for now, because the threat from extremists is still looming.

PITTMAN: They want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible with a direct Nexus to the State of the Union, which we know that date has not been identified.

SCHNEIDER: Pittman stressed the fencing is not permanent, but it will remain until more physical upgrades are in place. But this enhanced security is already coming at a steep cost. Congresswoman Herrera Beutler says it amounts to $2 million per week. On Wednesday we'll hear testimony from the FBI, DHS and Defense Department about their role before, during and after January 6th.

Jessica Schneider, CNN, Washington.

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BRUNHUBER: Many members of the Proud Boys have been charged for their roles in the insurrection. Well, what are they thinking about it now? Take a listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think right now is a time to go ahead and overthrow the government by becoming the new government and running for office.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRUNHUBER: Sara Sidner's exclusive interview with one of the Proud Boy's leaders is just ahead.

Across the U.S. people are working to get vaccine shots into arms. Vaccination numbers are rising fast and U.S. authorities could clear a third vaccine soon. We'll have that coming up. Stay with us. [04:15:00]

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BRUNHUBER: U.S. president Joe Biden is halfway towards his administration's goal of giving 100 million vaccinations in 100 days. On Thursday he marked reaching 50 million shots. He's been in office just over 36 full days. While Mr. Biden warned there's still a long way to go, he celebrated his administration's hard work.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: The weeks before I became president the previous administration saw 6 million shots administered. This coming week we will administer over 12 million shots, double the pace in just six weeks that we've been in office.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRUNHUBER: And the U.S. could have a new vaccine option as soon as next week. Regulators will meet in the coming hours to discuss Johnson & Johnson's vaccine candidates and the green light could come this weekend. Amara Walker has that along with the concerns about the rapid spread of new COVID variants.

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AMARA WALKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the battle against the spread of COVID-19, new variants of the virus making the race to get Americans vaccinated all the more urgent.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Today, what we're seeing is a barrage of these new variants coming forward.

WALKER (voice-over): Experts are increasingly concerned about the rapid spread of COVID-19 variants, including new homegrown variants found in California, New York and the Northeast.

OSTERHOLM: While we need to be concerned about what we're seeing in New York and California or in other places around the world, we can't take our eye off, to me, what I think is the single most important variant right now in our headlights, and that is this B117, or the U.K. variant, which is rapidly spreading now throughout the United States.

WALKER (voice-over): At least 45 states have confirmed cases of COVID- 19 variants, according to the CDC. The seven-day daily average has ticked up to more than 72,000. In the last month, daily COVID deaths dropped 30 percent, and hospitalizations have decreased by 51 percent.

[04:20:00]

A new CDC forecast released Wednesday projects the daily COVID-19 death rate will continue to slow in the coming weeks, but they're also preparing for all scenarios, including the possibility of another surge.

ANDY SLAVITT, SENIOR ADVISER, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE TEAM: What we don't know is a perfect view of how the vaccines will handle the variants.

WALKER (voice-over): Vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna are testing out new strategies to get ahead of these variants. Pfizer announced this morning they are testing how well a third vaccine dose targets new coronavirus variants, and Moderna announced it was producing a version of its vaccine to protect against mutations found in the variant first identified in South Africa.

The company said the formula will be tested as a booster shot and a primary vaccine against the strain for individuals who have yet to be vaccinated.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, U.S. CDC DIRECTOR: We might ask that you consider waiting, so that others who don't have any immunity could get vaccinated before you.

WALKER (voice-over): But if you have already had COVID-19, the CDC director is also asking people who've already been exposed to wait for others to get the vaccine first, although it's not officially a CDC guideline.

And with more than 20 million Americans having been fully vaccinated against coronavirus, the U.S. is one step closer to having a third vaccine to distribute, after a vaccination like Pfizer and Moderna do.

The White House adding you should get any vaccine that's available.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: The sooner we get vaccine into the arms of individual, whatever that vaccine is, once it gets by the FDA for an EUA, if it's available to you, get it.

WALKER (voice-over): The FDA could sign off on emergency use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as early as Friday. But getting shots in arms still moving slower than hoped. Georgia this week opened four mass vaccination sites around the state, but they're not seeing the numbers they had planned on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't think we're going to get quite there because we're just not getting the turnout in some of our places.

WALKER: Now the Georgia Emergency Management Agency director referring to low turnout at a mass vaccination site in Albany just three hours south of here. There were so many doses left over they had to reallocate them at the three other mass vaccination sites.

Also, the Georgia Governor Brian Kemp announcing on Thursday that he will be expanding eligibility of the vaccine to include educators and K-12 staff, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caregivers and parents of children with complex medical conditions.

In Atlanta, Georgia, Amara Walker, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BRUNHUBER: U.S. lawmakers have adopted the Equality Act. Three Republicans joined House Democrats to pass the measure, 224-206. It amends the civil rights act of 1964 to protect people from discrimination based on gender, identity and sexual orientation in employment, housing, and services like restaurants. In a tweet President Biden called transgender rights human rights and called for the Senate to also adopt the act.

A former U.S. gymnastics coach has committed suicide after he was charged with human trafficking. A statement from Michigan's Attorney General said John Geddert's body was found on Thursday afternoon. The 63-year-old had been expected to turn himself in and be arraigned on 24 criminal felonies involving the abuse of young gymnasts including 20 accusations of human trafficking and two for criminal sexual conduct. U.S.A. gymnastics has been rocked by abuse allegations for several years, many athletes were victimized.

Still ahead, President Biden orders military airstrikes Iranian backed militias in Syria. We'll have the details and a live report from London coming up.

Plus, more details on the ruling against the $15 an hour minimum wage in the U.S. stay with us.

[04:25:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BRUNHUBER: And welcome back to all of you watching us here in the United States, Canada and around the world. I'm Kim Brunhuber and you're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

Just over a month into his first term and Joe Biden has ordered the first known military strike of his presidency. The targets were Iranian backed Iraqi militia based in eastern Syria, which according to the Pentagon, were behind at least three separate attacks on U.S. assets in Iraq.

The most recent was last week when a coalition base at the Erbil airport came under rocket and mortar fire. A civilian contractor was killed, and five Americans wounded.

We have CNN's Nic Robertson joining us from London. Nic, you know, this is Biden's first use of force as president. This is a marked difference from the Trump administration's approach in dealing with Iran's proxies. This is a lot more measured. So what message does this send to Iran? And what implications might there be for the nuclear deal?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, it sends a number of messages to Iran, and that is that President Biden is going to be tough where he sees Iranian-backed militias attacking U.S. interests and endangering U.S. and coalition personnel. There have been three attacks recently, the one in Erbil a couple of

weeks ago, the one on the green zone in Baghdad and another one at a base -- a coalition base just north of Baghdad, a place called Balad. So what we're being told by the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is that these were proportionate. That the targets were carefully selected that were known to be linked to the groups that were behind those attacks.

In fact, what has been targeted appears to be positions along -- at a border between Iraq and Syria on the Syrian side. And the implications of that are that whatever interests and perhaps control of the border and money gathering taxation interests, that those militia had in that area, that's going to be hampered.

But I think the bigger message in the region is that the United States will stand up to what it says Iran destabilizing influences in the region. That's a very important message for ally Saudi Arabia and of course, President Biden speaking with the Saudi King las night talking about Iran, talking about being tough on Iran's destabilizing influence in the region.

But as we stand at the moment, President Biden has said he's willing to get back into those multi-national JCPOA nuclear deals with Iran without Iran having to make good on all the places that is it has stepped out of the terms of that agreement so far.

Iran has not responded yet to that and there's a real fear that Iran may make a miscalculation in thinking that Biden's going to be soft and this action will very much show that he is going to be tough.