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Deadliest Day Yet as Scenes of Horror Unfold in Israel, Gaza; Now, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) Ally to Plead Guilty, Give Substantial Help to Feds; Workplaces, Stores Grapple with CDC's New Mask Guidance. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 17, 2021 - 10:00   ET



NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: We found out later that that was targeting tunnels. And the Hamas tunnels, what the Israeli Air Force were targeting last night with an intensive bombing run in Gaza, taking out, they described, more than nine miles of Hamas tunnels, which they say vital to Hamas to move around the battlefield.

Now, this seems to indicate, and judging by the rocket that have been fired out of Gaza today, one of them hitting a residential house in Ashdod, just up the coast from here, that the hope that there would be a sort of a ceasefire, if you will, a cessation of hostilities, that seems to have gone. I mean, the evidence of what we are seeing here is these troops here are preparing or being prepared to fire more artillery rounds at targets in Gaza.

And as you just described, the situation in Gaza, heavy, heavy airstrikes overnight, causing some civilian casualties there as well.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: Nic Robertson on the ground right near the Gaza border, we appreciate your reporting very much.

Back here in the United States, a majority of Democratic U.S. senators are now calling on Hamas and Israel's military to reach a ceasefire agreement right away.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: In a joint statement first obtained by CNN, they write, quote, to prevent any further civilian loss and to prevent any further escalation of conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories, we urge an immediate ceasefire.

CNN's Manu Raaju is on Capitol Hill. And, Manu, what is different here, right, is that you have Democrats, in effect, putting pressure on the Biden administration to put more pressure on Israel here to pull back in addition to Hamas and the Palestinian side.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it. And that letter is also interesting because it represents a real cross section of the Senate Democratic caucus. You have people as liberal as Elizabeth Warren as and Bernie Sanders, of course, the Independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, but also more moderate members, like Senator Mark Warner, who is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Angous King, another independent, also one of the more moderate members of the Democratic caucus, all making that call and urging for a ceasefire, as in, you're right, in effect, putting pressure on the Biden administration.

And we're starting to see also some Republicans also make that call as well in this one statement that came out last night, the first bipartisan statement that we know of, two key members in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Todd Young and Senator Chris Murphy, also making a similar case. They said, both sides must recognize that too many lives have been lost and must not escalate the conflict further. We are encouraged by reports that parties are exploring a ceasefire. We hope that the ceasefire can be reached quickly and that additional steps can be taken to preserve a two-state future.

So, all this leading to questions about how the Biden administration respond, what the president will do and undoubtedly these calls will only ratchet up if no ceasefire is eventually reached. Guys?

SCIUTTO: Manu Raju, we'll see what effect that pressure has. Thanks very much.

President Biden facing pressure, as we said, to take action, end the violence, engage with both Israelis and Palestinians here to reach some sort of ceasefire and soon.

HARLOW: Well, let's go to the White House. Our John Harwood is with us this morning on this.

John, the top U.S. envoy dispatched to the Middle East to deescalate or try to deescalate tension here, stating the obvious here, which far too many people have died. The question is what will the Biden administration do about it?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's the question and whether or not -- as Manu just indicated, whether that pressure on Capitol Hill, as well as pressure from elsewhere in the world is going to have an effect on the administration.

They've had a relatively muted stance so far. Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, in Copenhagen this morning said, well, we will support the party should they seek to seek a ceasefire, but they're not doing what some, like Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations recommended this morning, which is that the United States should introduce a ceasefire resolution at the United Nations. The House also says the United States ought to convene Arab representatives to put pressure on Hamas.

The administration clearly does not want to pressure Israel to a significant extent at the moment, but how tenable that stance is going to be the longer this crisis plays out is a way open question. And the administration says it's working behind the scenes, lots of phone calls. We know that Joe Biden has not wanted to make the Middle East a focal point of his foreign policy efforts, but it is forcing itself on to his agenda and this week may tell whether or not he decides he has to take a more overt role in this conflict. SCIUTTO: Yes. As always with presidents, it's not the crisis you want, right, it's the crisis you get. John Harwood, thanks very much.

For more on these escalating tensions, why they're happening now, what can be done, I'm joined now by Natan Sachs. He currently serves as the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution.


Mr. Sachs, thanks so for taking the time this morning.


SCIUTTO: So, first of all, let's just note the history here, because we have seen escalations in this conflict before in multiple administrations of both parties. We always talk about what the U.S. can do to sort of bring it to an end. I mean, it's not -- it's very limited power, is it not, that the U.S. has here on both sides. I mean, it seems to me these things end when the two sides are exhausted.

SACHS: Well, it's a mixed bag. One the one hand, the U.S. -- this is not about America and the U.S. does not have much influence on whether things flare up. But once they start, all eyes do look to the world to try to figure out how much time is left. The Israelis, of course, keenly care about what the United States says and does.

It's not all about pressure on Israel. That is part of the story. There is the question of what the two parties want, as you say. Have they achieved what they think is the strategic goals or not? Do they have their victory image, all these grim reasons for things to continue?

Last time, it continued for 51 days despite efforts of ceasefire. I do think this time, there is some very cautious optimism that we could have a ceasefire because the two sides have basically exhausted what they want. But the U.S. involvement is critical. Without, it's hard to see it moving.

The U.S. can't do it alone, though. The U.S. is not the only actor. Very important actors are the Egyptians, who have contact with Hamas, which the U.S. does not, and, of course, the U.N. on the ground and on the background, also Cutteries, who have a lot of influence over Hamas, Israel bringing the influence over Israel, of course.

SCIUTTO: I was there in Israel during the last conflict and the images now, the patterns just so familiar, almost identical.

Natan, bring us back, if you can, to what the initial spark of this latest round was, which was evictions of Palestinians from East Jerusalem. I mean, do you look at that as a significant change in this conflict? And how will that be settled?

SACHS: Well, in one sense, this is a very different round. So, the images are the same as you saw. Although, in Israel, we've seen much more range by Hamas and much more ability by Hamas to actually target the majority of the Israeli population. So, in that sense, there's a change. But in many others, it looks like just another round.

However, as you said, the background starts in Jerusalem. We see a mix of national and religious elements coming in with the potential eviction of Palestinian families from homes that Jews owned before 1948. And now there this is almost this private kind of selective right of return, where the demand to return that property. Of course, the Palestinians lived there for decades are themselves dispossessed from other homes inside Israel.

And then and you saw riots, of course, on Al-Aqsa mosques, which brings in really a very strong motive -- Muslim symbol for Muslims around the world, not just Arabs, by the way. Tied into all this, you have Hamas seeing an opening, seeing an opportunity to take control of events and to take the events from Jerusalem and from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip where it itself has control. So, in that sense, it is different.

There is a lot of bad here, including communal violence that has broken out in Israel. That is unprecedented, or at least not in many decades.

I'll say one point of optimism though. Because Hamas was really not trying to change something fundamental about the Gaza Strip here but rather to take control of events from the West Bank and from Jerusalem and to take control of its own narrative, having Palestinian elections being canceled, it has basically exhausted that. It's already achieved that.

The Israelis, on the other hand, have mostly achieved their plans going in and targeting, as a reporter said, targeting mostly the tunnels under the Gaza Strip. They're calling it the metro or the subway. That gives some small room for optimism that perhaps they're ready for a ceasefire. But anything could come in the way. We saw attempts in the past, and it lasted, as you saw, for many, many weeks.

SCIUTTO: And it could just be a small spark. And your point about the greater rocket capability is notable. And that -- listen, that's often with help and money from Iran.

One difference this time is that this follows the Abraham Accords, as they were called, negotiated under Trump administration, which normalized relations between Israel and Gulf partners but, in effect, set aside the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Have those accords helped or hurt in these circumstances?

SACHS: Well, the accords were plan B. If you remember, when Trump came in, he declared that he was the best negotiator ever and so he would bring peace, and I think he'd hope for a Nobel Peace Prize. Peace for the Palestinians, between Israel and the Palestinians, failed almost, you know, within a year. Palestinians broke off contact with the Trump administration over their decision to recognize West Jerusalem or Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Then, towards the end, the administration pivoted to the Abraham Accords, which I should make clear, I think are a very good thing, but they're good for the parties involved, for Israel, for the UAE, in particular. They're not good for the Palestinians. They were sidetracking of the Palestinians. Then that is something that hasn't helped the situation on the ground and in some ways maybe hurt.


What we saw them was almost a manifestation of something that Netanyahu himself wrote about many years ago before he was prime minister about the myth of Palestinian centrality, saying that everyone in the west thinks that the Palestinian issue is the core of the Arab-Israeli problem, he said it's not. And the Abraham Accords seem to buttress that position. Now, we're seeing it disproved in the worst possible way.

SCIUTTO: Yes, Palestinians is the odd man out, in effect. Natan Sachs, thanks so much for helping us understand this.

SACHS: Thank you very much for having me.

HARLOW: Well, happening now, a close ally of Congressman Matt Gaetz is in court now, expecting to plead guilty and to cooperate with federal investigators. This as Congressman Gaetz attempts to downplay the sex trafficking allegations against him. We'll give you a live update ahead.

SCIUTTO: Plus, as many people are now ditching their masks in the wake of new CDC guidance for those vaccinated, to be clear, some experts worry the CDC did get the science right but the public messaging wrong. How can the Biden administration clear up this mask confusion? Is there a way?



HARLOW: Right now, a former ally to Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz is in a Florida courthouse, where is expecting to plead guilty to six federal crimes, including trafficking of a child.

SCIUTTO: This is key. Joel Greenberg has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in ongoing investigations that could spell trouble for Gaetz himself.

CNN's Randi Kaye is live in Orlando with more. Listen, prosecutors ask a lot in return if they're going to reduce a sentence here, and that usually means, as Elie Honig was telling us last hour, giving the goods on someone else who may be involved. What do we expect to hear in that courtroom today?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to both of you. The hearing is supposed to last 30 or 40 minutes or so. And this really will make official Joel Greenberg's cooperation with the Justice Department. As you said, he was facing 33 federal counts. He's now pleading guilty to just six federal counts. But they are serious. One of them does include that sex trafficking of a child.

What all this means for Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz is still in question. Gaetz is not mentioned in that 86-page plea deal document that we have seen. There are also no charges against Matt Gaetz. I want to be very clear on that. But the question is, as you said, what does Joel Greenberg know? What can he offer the government on Gaetz and even others?

Here is the key part of the plea deal. Greenberg admits that he had sex with a 17-year-old girl seven at least times, paying for that sex. He also says that he introduced that girl to others. So, the question is who are those others? Who are the other men who could be involved?

And you have to wonder, as you said, why would the Justice Department make such a deal. Why would they let him plead guilty to just six counts instead of those 33 he was facing? He must have good information experts, are saying, like our own experts, he must have good information and some names that he can offer to the government. Poppy?

HARLOW: Randi, Congressman Gaetz has actually been talking about this investigation. What has he said?

KAYE: Yes. I should say, first of all, he has said that he's done nothing wrong in this case at all. He said he has not had sex with a minor. But he has been talking about it. He has this America First tour. He's been going on the road talking about the allegations. But over the weekend, he was at a Republican event in Ohio. He did address the allegations and here's what he had to say about them.


REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): Just imagine the irony here. I'm being falsely accused of exchanging money for naughty favors, yet Congress has reinstituted a process that legalizes the corrupt act of exchanging money for favors through earmarks.


KAYE: So, he's basically comparing the allegations against him to these naughty favors or earmarks in D.C. He makes light of it. But there are serious allegations against him. The federal government is trying to figure out whether or not Congressman Matt Gaetz was involved in prostitution, sex trafficking, having sex with a minor. So he can play it down to his Republican crowd but the Justice Department may see it very different, depending on the information that they're getting from his former friend, Joel Greenberg.

HARLOW: Okay. Thank you, Randi, for that reporting. We appreciate it very much.

KAYE: Sure.

SCIUTTO: Well, the CDC's new guidance on masks is fairly simple on the surface. If you're vaccinated, you can stop wearing a mask in many circumstances. But in practice, it's proving more complicated because it often depends on where exactly you live and work. We're going to discuss those differences next.



SCIUTTO: The CDC's new mask guidance, good news, saying that if you have been vaccinated, it's now safe not to wear your mask in many circumstances. But it has triggered issues and questions for businesses as well as local officials who have to balance that new guidance with state and county mandates or retailers' rules for their stores, often which, Poppy, differ. It's a confusing kind of mishmash.

HARLOW: It really is. The former U.S. surgeon general, Jerome Adams, was on CNN this morning and he said the country has a, quote, little bit of whiplash from this sudden change. He also says the science is right, but he thinks the CDC fumbled the messaging to the public.

Let's see what Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips thinks, Chief Clinical Officer for Providence Health System. You know, I don't know how much it helps anyone to sort of, literally, Monday morning quarterback on this, but I guess for anyone watching right now, what should they know? How they handle this when one grocery store says, fine, no mask, the other says wear your mask?


What should we do?

DR. AMY COMPTON-PHILLIPS, CHIEF CLINICAL OFFICER, PROVIDENCE HEALTH SYSTEM: I think the excellent news is that CDC says that the weight of the evidence now is that people who are fully vaccinated are very low risk for both getting the virus as well as transmitting the virus, so keep that in mind, right?

But then, like we've seen from the beginning of this pandemic, that local circumstances matter, and that local jurisdictions, if they're seen evidence of circulating

virus in their community, are allowed to make rules.

So we still have this patchwork, even though the CDC has said this great news exists, that we have this local patchwork of rules. And then that puts employers and places like chain grocery stores at real challenges because their rules in one state might be different than the rules in another state.

The big thing is if everybody gets vaccinated, the whole confusion goes away. So that's the take home message.

SCIUTTO: I mean, listen, I'm less bothered by this as -- than many people are because I just think it's kind of straight forward, right? If you're vaccinated, it's now safe. The trouble is, and this has been true since the beginning of this, as you know, Doctor, that you have the science, the medicine, which is clear here than any other politics in this, and we don't have law in this country. And you couldn't get one passed that would say, hey, here is a card that proves you've been vaccinated, and, therefore, gains you entry. So what is the alternative? If you can't do that legally, what's the best thing to do? Is this sort of the best of imperfect choices, I guess?

COMPTON-PHILLIPS: It is. Like when there are no right answers, you just have to make good decisions. And so that's what we're in the space of right now, is how do we make the best decisions possible? And at some point, we have to actually allow for both private responsibility as well as the opportunity for businesses to do business on their terms.

And so I know that some people are very much anti-vaccine passport to allow them to do things, but if you have a credential that allows you to say, hey, I've been vaccinated, I can go into this sports venue, or I've been vaccinated, I can get on this cruise ship, it actually gives individual freedom. You have to go to that sports venue, you don't have to go on that cruise ship, right? But if you have done your part to put an end to the pandemic by getting vaccinated, you can actually participate back into voluntary events that we all want to do again.


HARLOW: We talked about this late last week when the guidance came out but so much of it is -- I mean it is all predicated on trust, trust your neighbor, trust a stranger sitting next to you, trust the person at the grocery store you've never met. And you have got the National Nurses United Organization, which is huge, and represents a lot of folks, saying this. The newest CDC guidance is not based on science, does not protect family health and threatens the lives patients, nurses and other frontline workers across the country.

I mean, we know kids aren't vaccinated, young ones yet, at least. What do you make of their concern here?

COMPTON-PHILLIPS: Well, I think that there will continuously be, again, this argument saying what does the evidence show, and we don't have our children vaccinated yet, right? We don't because they haven't been allowed to be vaccinated, still aren't under the age of 12.

That said, the vast majority of people who had death and even the ones who have the long COVID-19 symptoms tend to be on the older side and tend to be exposed to higher levels of virus and circulation. And so the fact that we've been able to start knocking back the amount of virus and circulation and that we have the majority now of our seniors vaccinated means that the worst implications of the pandemic are starting to get abated, are starting to go away.

And so I actually think that the CDC is making a logical call of how do we balance science and public good with individual responsibility.

SCIUTTO: The rate of vaccinations has slowed down a bit, partly because you're getting through the population. But you're also starting to get a portion of the population that is just either less excited about getting vaccinated or flat out refusing to. What can be done about that to get us closer to that herd immunity figure? COMPTON-PHILLIPS: Well, fortunately, a lot of jurisdictions and a lot of creativity and a lot doctors' offices are doing the right things. And that's rather than waiting and staying at some centralized place for people to come to us, they're starting to get vaccines to where people live, work and play. And making it really, really easy for people to get vaccines out into communities, and that's how we start getting it. People who may be hesitant and may just find it really inconvenient to be able to make it down to some super center to get vaccinated. So I think the easier you make it, the faster we'll get to herd immunity.

HARLOW: Thank you so much, Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, always good to have you.

COMPTON-PHILLIPS: Always a pleasure.

HARLOW: Well, ahead for us, a Republican congresswoman from South Carolina says the sheriff lied about the situation surrounding the death of a mentally ill man in police custody.


We have a live report from Charleston, next.