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3 Dead, 20+ Others Hurt After Suspected Smuggling Boat Capsizes; 4 Families Separated Under Trump to Be Reunited This Week; Trump-Era Border Wall Construction Sites Turn into Ghost Towns; U.S. moves forward towards September 11th deadline for Afghanistan withdrawal; Why Partisan Attacks on Biden Are Not Sticking. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired May 3, 2021 - 15:30   ET




ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: The captain of a suspected smuggling boat that capsized off the California coast is now in custody. Officials say the vessel was severely overcrowded when the boat hit a reef and broke apart near San Diego Sunday morning.

Three people died. More than 20 were hospitalized. Border Patrol officials believe many of those on board were being smuggled into the U.S. illegally, Customs and Border Patrol agents say they are now ramping up operations to disrupt maritime smuggling off the San Diego coast.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: For the first time under the Biden administration, families separated at the border under President Trump are being reunited. The Department of Homeland Security announced that four families will be reunited this week.

Now one of President Biden's executive orders set up a task force to return families split up at the U.S./Mexico border as part of Trump's zero tolerance immigration policy.

CNN's Priscilla Alvarez has new reporting on this effort. So we've got the first few families. How many still to go?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN REPORTER: There are many to go, Victor. This is a long effort for the administration. Now, President Biden came into office condemning the Trump era policy of separating families at the U.S./Mexico border and now his administration is taking its first steps in starting to reunite those families.

As you mentioned, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announcing today that four migrant families will be reunited this week. Now he didn't go into specifics about each of these cases to protect their privacy, but he did give examples. In one case a mother from Honduras was separated from her children in

2017 at the U.S./Mexico border. Another mother was separated from her son at the border in 2017 as well. So two mothers going to see their children for the first time in more than three years tomorrow.

Now all of this stems from that task force that Biden set up in his first weeks in office to identify and reunify families who had been separated at the U.S./Mexico border under the Trump administration. Here's what the secretary had to say about that task force this morning.


ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: President Biden said, we must reunite these families. He directed the reaction of a task force of multiple departments and agencies in an all of government effort.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many kids left?

MAYORKAS: We have hundreds left. We have hundreds of families left and we will reunite them all.


ALVAREZ (on camera): So a lot of work cut out for the administration as they work on those reunifications -- Alisyn and Victor.


BLACKWELL: All right. Priscilla Alvarez for us there in Washington, thank you -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Meanwhile, President Trump's border wall continues to hang in limbo. The Defense Department has canceled all construction contracts. They were using funds originally intended for military missions.

CNN's Ed Lavandera has more on the sudden stoppages and the miles that remain unfinished.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Fly straight east out of Nogales, Arizona and you'll pass miles of rolling border wall built during the President George W. Bush era. Then it reveals a construction zone frozen in time. Steel border wall bollards are lift in stacks and construction equipment sits on staging grounds. Just weeks before President Biden was inaugurated, the Trump administration pushed ahead to build a four-mile stretch of new border wall into the Patagonia Mountains.

LAVANDERA: This is the end of the road, about 15 miles east of Nogales, Arizona. This is as far as the border wall construction got. And what you see now is this carved-out path sitting next to the pristine, untouched landscape. LAIKEN JORDAHL, CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY: So this trench, I

mean this is the footer where they hope to put these bollards. Eight to ten-foot deep trench.

LAVANDERA: And they literally stopped in mid-trench.

LAVANDERA (voice over): Laiken Jordahl has spent years campaigning against the border wall in these remote areas of Arizona.

JORDAHL: It's kind of a bizarre scene because we have this huge amount of devastation, this massive swath of land that's been blasted open and nobody knows what's going to happen next.

LAVANDERA (voice over): We revisited a number of the border wall construction sites we've reported on in the last year and this is what we found. Dozens of sites along the border have turned from bustling construction zones to ghost-like scenes.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration.

LAVANDERA (voice over): Vowing not to build another mile of wall, President Biden stopped construction after taking office. About 200 miles of border wall that was being constructed now sit in limbo and funding is approved for about another 75 miles. The Biden administration says, it's reviewing the construction projects.

SHERIFF JOE FRANK MARTINEZ, VAL VERDE COUNTY, TEXAS: I'm taking you to the border fence. It's up the road here.

LAVANDERA (voice over): Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez In Del Rio, Texas, takes us to what is supposed to be a two-mile stretch of border wall.

LAVANDERA: This is border wall that was started at the end of the Trump administration.

MARTINEZ: Yes. This structure that you see here and that structure there.

LAVANDERA (voice over): It's replacing an old iron fence a few hundred yards away from the Rio Grande.

MARTINEZ: I just think it's foolish to leave this project just as it is.

LAVANDERA (voice over): Construction equipment is still on site. Deep trenches are dug out. The sheriff might describe this little section of Trump wall as overkill, but he doesn't want to see it abandoned either.

There are also environmental concerns. At the end of the Trump era, crews were blasting into the Guadalupe Canyon in southeast Arizona.

LAVANDERA (on camera): When the Biden administration took over, construction stopped, but before leaving, construction crews used the remnants of old steel border barriers to block access to the new wall. Just a few months ago, all you could hear out here was the sounds of

heavy machinery, construction crews and explosive detonations blasting into the mountains. Now it is eerily quiet.

LAVANDERA (voice over): Laiken Jordahl says he wants to see construction money diverted to restoring the wilderness.

JORDAHL: It is enraging. Frankly, I'm so tired of watching these beautiful landscapes pay the price of politics, of really poor decision-making.

LAVANDERA (voice over): For anti-border-wall activists, the damage is done, and the question becomes, how do you repair a mountain landscape that now looks like this?


CAMEROTA: What an eye-opening report. Our thanks to Ed Lavandera.

So up next, new warnings from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about what could happen after the U.S. pulls troops out of Afghanistan.



BLACKWELL: There are warnings of bad possible outcomes and huge consequences as the U.S. works to meet President Biden's demand to have U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by September 11th. Now the latest warnings are from Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is at the Pentagon. So just a few months before the withdrawal deadline, what more are you hearing about what may be coming -- Oren?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, over the course of the past few days here, since the official beginning of the withdrawal under the Biden administration, there have been a number of Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces. A short time ago Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said these were more harassing attacks and don't significantly impact U.S. personnel or plans. That is the plan to continue the withdrawal plan as it moves forward here towards the September 11th deadline.

I got a chance to travel with Chairman of Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley over the course of the weekend and he cautioned there are bad possible outcomes on one end of the spectrum. But there's also the possibility of a stable Afghan government and the military able to govern and protect the country with a stable Afghan government.

It's difficult he says at this point to glean how this will go simply from the course of the past 48, 72, 96 hours but the U.S. has made it its mission to prepare for all of these potential outcomes as it moves toward that September 11th withdrawal date.

He says there's still a possibility for a negotiated outcome, a negotiated government and essentially a peace solution between the Afghan government and the Taliban. And that he says that is the thrust of the U.S. effort at this point.


An effort that will be supported by the military as we move forward here and as that withdrawal continues.

A crucial question here, when will the withdrawal end. Could it possibly be finished before September 11th? General Milley wouldn't put a specific date by which the U.S. could be out. He says there is a range here and the U.S. will work as quickly as it could as it protects its forces and works in a deliberate, synchronized, coordinated way.

But an interesting note here. A spokesperson for the German Defense Ministry says the Resolute Support Mission, the NATO mission in Afghanistan is looking at the possibility of being done with the withdrawal, being out by July 4th. Given the U.S. emphasis on synchronization and coordination with its NATO allies, it strongly suggests the U.S. is also looking at the possibility of completing the withdrawal potentially by that mid-summer timeframe.

BLACKWELL: Just two months away for that one. Oren Liebermann for us there at the Pentagon. Thank you so much.

CAMEROTA: So, new polls show a majority of Americans are now optimistic about future of the country. And that may be why Republicans are having a hard time getting their attacks against President Biden to stick. John Avlon has our reality check next.



CAMEROTA: Republicans seem to be struggling to find the right attack line against President Biden. Is he a senile puppet or a radical dictator? Nothing they have come up quite seems to fit. One Republican Senator even admitting the party, quote, needs to get better at it. Here's John Avlon with a reality check.


JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Never has negative partisanship seemed so desperate and flailing because the attacks on President Biden feel like spaghetti being thrown at a wall, but nothing seems to stick to the great frustration to Republicans.

Get this. In the last week we've seen retracked right-wing fantasies about Biden banning burgers and the VP's book being shipped to the border in welcome kits. Then there's dandelion-gate which a Newsmax anchor tried to make Biden giving a flower to the first lady seem bizarre. Or Tucker Carlson having one of his periodic meltdowns proclaiming that Kamala Harris is the real president, complaining that Biden is being covered like Jesus in aviator glasses. Now all of this is on the back of campaign attacks on Biden as radical, socialist, incompetent, senile and the rest of it.

So why isn't any of this stuff sticking? Let's look at the data. First, the idea that Biden somehow is incompetent runs into a buzzsaw when it comes to his record confronting the COVID crisis. This is the area where Biden earns the highest marks in a new CNN poll with 66 percent approval including 30 percent of Republicans.

On this front at least he seems to be making government work again. Second, look at the economy. Trump loudly predicted Biden would unleash a depression and a stock market crash.

Meanwhile, back in reality, the economy is booming on main street and Wall Street growing at 6.4 percent in the first quarter of the year with the hottest stock market during any first 100 days since JFK.

And all of this translates to optimism, a stunning 64 percent of Americans now say they are optimistic about the direction of the country. That's according to a new ABC/Ipsos poll, that's the highest rate since 2006.

So this is also a case where the personal is political because even in our polarized times 57 percent of Americans believe Biden cares about people like me compared with just 42 percent who said that about Trump at his 100-day mark. 54 percent of Americans say Biden is honest and trustworthy. Only 37 percent said the same thing about Trump.

And all that makes it difficult to demonize Biden. As Republican Senator John Thune told The Hill his tone is moderate and he's an affable person, he's a likable individual and it's probably harder to attack somebody who is relatable and likeable.

Yes, Biden just doesn't provoke the reflexive ire of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in large part because he's an older white guy. He's not a symbol of cultural change to folks in the base. And because he doesn't fit the identity politics attacks, he seems comparatively reassuring, not radical, almost regardless of his policies.

And it's not like Republicans don't have something to work with here, folks. Biden proposing to spend over $6 trillion to date. The problem is that Republicans have lost credibility on fiscal responsibility as Trump ballooned the deficit by nearly 8 trillion over four years and Republicans didn't say boo, so it's kind of hard to rally around the deficit and debt reduction now.

Bottom line -- Biden is popular and many of his policies are popular, at least right now. And that's at a time when a record number of Americans say that government should be doing more. And so Republicans are left shadow boxing with a phantom menace trying to gin up culture war gripes about Dr. Suess and coddling conspiracy theories in the place of real policy.

It looks small while Biden is going big in ways that might actually make a difference in people's lives. And that's your reality check.


BLACKWELL: John Avlon. Thank you.

Just into CNN, a House Republican lawmaker who voted to keep Liz Cheney in leadership the first time around, tells CNN that Cheney now has, his words here, less support than she thinks. The latest on the Republican feud ahead.



CAMEROTA: Now to our favorite story of the day. A Congressional hearing on energy and water development was interrupted by the Village People. Yes, you heard that right, Victor.

BLACKWELL: So almost immediately after it was called to order, some strange audio piped in from the background. First, it was from the movie "Galaxy Quest" and then this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And also, I asked this committee to support full funding for two important hydropower incentive programs within the U.S. Department of Energy's Waterpower Technologies Office and establish through the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Section 242 created a hydropower production incentive program --


CAMEROTA: I mean it was a water development committee.

BLACKWELL: You can sail the seven seas. You can put your mind at ease. It played in the background for almost 20 minutes before the subcommittee chair finally called a short recess to fix the technical difficulties and the hearing resumed without the bonus track.

CAMEROTA: I would submit in a much less festive way.


CAMEROTA: All right, The Lead with Jake Tapper starts right now.