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House Races Intensify Weeks from Midterms; Afghanistan "Insider Attack" Kills U.S. Service Member; Microwave Weapons Suspected in Attacks on U.S. Diplomats. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired September 3, 2018 - 13:30   ET

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


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JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: -- these are 11 seats moving towards Democrats that are currently held by the GOP.

HARRY ENTEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, that's exactly right. And when I look at what these race ratings are doing moving towards the Democrats -- and that's been a trend we have seen all year -- I think the big question was whether or not Donald Trump's unpopularity would funnel down and hurt House Republicans.

And that's exactly what is going on here, is that if Republicans have been trying to separate themselves -- at least some of them -- into more moderate swing districts, separate themselves from Donald Trump, these new race ratings show that has so far been unsuccessful.

SCIUTTO: Mark Preston, you look at a number, this from a NBC Washington -- rather; "The Wall Street Journal" poll, to Harry's point, that among independents -- of course, independents, they turn on elections like this -- among independents, they prefer a Democratically controlled Congress by a margin of 48-26.

That speaks to what Harry is talking about, does it not?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: It certainly does. And it talks to the whole idea of having a check on power. What we have seen over the past couple of years -- and seen this in past administrations as well, Democrats enjoy this as well. Barack Obama did in the first couple of years of his presidency -- but you're talking about a Washington right now that is run entirely by Republicans.

That in itself causes independents a little bit of heartburn. And then you add in Donald Trump to the mix, who has seemed to thrown Washington on its head. So it doesn't really seem to be a whole lot of checks and balances going on here in Washington, specifically with all of the developments we have seen in the Russia probe.

So that's why we're seeing these Republicans right now be very, very concerned. Republicans certainly in suburban districts, Republicans in states where Hillary Clinton did well, these are folks right now that are very, very much concerned. SCIUTTO: Rachael, of course, as the president goes out, he's been hitting the campaign trail for some time, these rallies, he's got a big friendly audience there and he will push in those rallies the idea of a red wave coming.

Does it appear that the numbers back that up at all?

But Trump's endorsement seemed to work in the primaries, in Republican primaries, he had a very good record there. Plays differently in the general election.

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. No doubt about it. Him endorsing our primary, sure, he's the kingmaker. But when it comes to the general election, Republicans will tell you that the number one thing they're watching is his approval numbers.

I've been told over and over again by my House Republican sources, that if his approval is in the mid-40s, they have a shot at keeping the House. That was at 36, according to an APC poll last week. So that's a problem for them.

I can tell you, being up there, covering the House Republicans for the past couple of years, you know, I know some of them very well, I have heard a lot of panic over the past two weeks.

And some people have even told me they think they're going to lose the House privately and that has a lot to do with what happened a couple of weeks ago, with the president's top lawyer flipping on him in court; his former campaign chairman being convicted of bank and tax fraud and two House Republicans also being indicted for either corruption of some sort or another.

And there is a fear amongst Republicans that this plays into the Democratic narrative, that there is corruption in Washington and that Democrats need to take the House to be a check, again, on this Republican -- Republicans in Washington, including the president.

Last thing I want to say, Jim, is that we have also learned this week that Republicans are having tough conversations about which vulnerable Republicans they're going to let go because they have a finite amount of resources and almost 50 really tough battleground districts.

So right now they're talking about who they can't even save and they're letting them go. And that's a bad sign for them.

SCIUTTO: That's tough. That's a political triage, right in that sense.

Harry, let me ask a question, a tough question, you'll hear from Republicans, you'll hear from the president sometimes, you'll even hear from family and friends, I'm sure.

If the polls were wrong -- and I know there is debate about whether the polls are wrong -- I'm just saying, is there a different approach that polling outfits are taking this time around, to take into account missed signals in 2016? ENTEN: I think the biggest one is that a lot of pollsters are now waiting by college education much more so than they used to. Remember, Donald Trump did particularly well among white voters without a college degree.

And a lot of the good pollsters, if they weren't waiting by that in 2016, they are making sure they have an adequate amount of white voters without a college degree in their sample.

But the other thing I would point out is, forget the polls. Look at the special election results so far. Go back to Pennsylvania 18, just a few months ago. Conor Lamb would not have won that special election if this national environment isn't as bad as the polls suggest it is.

So I'm just looking across a slew of indicators and they're all pointing in the same direction, that it's a bad year for the Republicans.

Is it bad enough that they lose control of the House?

We'll wait and see. But certainly right now it is pointing that way.

SCIUTTO: Right. As you said, the most important poll is the poll on Election Day.

Harry Enten, Mark Preston, Rachael Bade, thank you very much for taking time out of your Labor Day holiday.

ENTEN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next, the Pentagon is now confirming the death of the ISIS leader --

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SCIUTTO: -- in Afghanistan.

But how significant is this for the larger war there?

Plus scientists now believe that microwave weapons are behind the mysterious attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba and in China. We'll be live in Havana -- that's ahead.

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SCIUTTO: It is the hardest job for a commander of forces at combat. Just a day into his new assignment, the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan announced that a U.S. service member was killed --

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SCIUTTO: -- today in what is being described as an insider attack. Barbara Starr joins us now live from the Pentagon.

Barbara, what do we know about the circumstances here?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jim. Very early word coming out of Afghanistan that one service member was killed, another wounded in Eastern Afghanistan in one of these so-called insider attacks.

What that generally means is they believe the perpetrator was someone who was a member of Afghan security forces or, at least, in an Afghan uniform at the time. No word on what happened to that alleged perpetrator.

We're told the wounded member is in stable condition and, of course, they are now conducting next of kin notification on the man who was killed. And his name will be made public in the next 24 hours after that notification is completed.

It comes at a very tough time for General Austin Scott Miller, first full day on the job, under a lot of pressure to make progress in the fight against both the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan, with the 15,000 U.S. forces he has on hand -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: America's longest war, Americans are still dying there. We're getting confirmation of -- I suppose what you can call a victory there, the killing of the ISIS leader in Afghanistan.

Put this into perspective; of course, the Taliban still the primary adversary there. But ISIS had been building its presence.

STARR: ISIS has been, over the months, and there is now a lot of focus in these areas of Eastern Afghanistan, where ISIS has taken hold. So they are now confirming that, about a week ago, they did kill the so-called leader of ISIS in Afghanistan.

I say so-called because this will be the third self-declared leader of the organization in that area that they have killed in the last two years.

So what it underscores, of course, is U.S. forces consistently going after these people, these targets, when they can find them.

Considered a very major and significant threat for U.S. forces to go after them, a top priority. Right now as far as the Taliban goes, what the U.S. is hoping -- and the emphasis, I think, is on hoping -- there can be some kind of political settlement with the Taliban, that somehow they can get to a cease-fire and somehow they can get them to the negotiating table.

SCIUTTO: The Taliban is carrying more and more deadly attacks. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you very much.

There is a new commander of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. During a ceremony in Kabul, outgoing U.S. Army General John Nicholson handed off the missions flag to incoming General Scott Miller. This just yesterday. Miller assuming the role as Afghanistan deals with terrorism, poverty,

uncertainty heading into a new election cycle.

Joining me to talk about this now is CNN military analyst, retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling. He served as Army commanding general not only in Europe but also in Iraq in combat there.

Thank you, Gen. Hertling, for joining us today.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's a pleasure, Jim.

SCIUTTO: General Miller, interesting bio because he was one of the first U.S. service members on the ground there after 9/11. So he has experience there as long as America's longest war.

To your knowledge, what does he bring to the conflict and what particular challenges will he face?

HERTLING: Yes, he was on the ground there 17 years ago, Jim. Scott Miller is a good special operator, he was one of the initial forces that went in, probably -- I think he was a major at the time, perhaps maybe a lieutenant colonel.

But you talk about a long war, you're seeing the evolution of rank structure and the folks who were young men, fighting this war when it first began, to eliminate Al Qaeda from that particular country, supported by the Taliban, is now back as the four-star general in charge.

I think he's the 15th four-star in charge of the operation there, the NATO command and the U.S. Command in that forces.

His background, as I said, is a special operator. He's taking over from General Nicholson, a good friend of mine, who is more of a conventional force guy, an infantry man who really knows Afghanistan as well, has been there 31 months in command of that force.

Imagine that, almost three years without a day off, fighting that force, not only conducting the military operation but also doing the things related to Afghan governance and economic means.

So Mick is leaving, left yesterday during that change of command. His statement in his change of command ceremony was pretty telling about what he sees as the future of the fight.

SCIUTTO: Well, it would be amazing to think that he might command someone during his time there who wasn't born when the conflict began, as we're coming up on -- as you said, we're passing -- coming up on 17 years.

Taliban commanders there, they're now offering to talk to the government about peace, making peace, speaking about ISIS as their number one enemy. Have a listen.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Our enemy is first ISIS and then government.

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SCIUTTO: This is a --

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SCIUTTO: -- Taliban, who just, in the last few weeks, made a horrible assault on the city of Ghazni. They've been killing children in their schools.

Is this really someone that the U.S. can sit down across from and believe they could reach a substantive agreement with?

HERTLING: Well, you have to pull people into peace talks. Certainly that's part of the diplomatic effort. But Jim, you've hit it right on head, this is duplicitous on the part of the Taliban.

They, in fact, waited for the movement of U.S. and Afghan forces out of Ghazni province before they attempted their attacks there and tried to ambush many of the Afghan and U.S. forces, taking over a province that had been deserted because the forces had gone other places to fight ISIS K, the Khorasan Group, and as well as the Haqqani Network.

So, yes, the Taliban are not to be trusted. But certainly they should be attempted to be brought in to determine the way ahead for Afghanistan, if they're going to play a role. But, truthfully, they think they have the upper hand; they may have a great deal of momentum on their side from that attack in the middle of August.

But, truthfully, you have to be wary, both on the part of the Afghan government and the U.S. forces there, pulling them completely into the tent.

SCIUTTO: No question. Gen. Mark Hertling, thank you very much.

HERTLING: Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, there is a new theory about what happened during a series of bizarre attacks on U.S. diplomats abroad. Dozens of unexplained serious injuries, including head injuries, forced the U.S. to bring home staff from both China and Cuba. Speculation at the time was that it was some sort of sonic attack.

But now the scientist who led the investigation tells "The New York Times," the main culprit is likely some kind of microwave weapon. CNN's Patrick Oppmann has been following the story from Havana, where the attacks first started.

Patrick, what is the evidence here, what happened at the embassy there that led authorities to suspect it was this kind of attack?

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You had these very precise attacks, U.S. officials say, always in diplomats' homes or hotel rooms. And caused them to have brain damage, things that -- injuries that resembled concussions but they had no outward signs of any physical injuries.

So how do you explain a concussion when no one can actually point to injuries they sustained?

And first they thought it could be a sonic weapon. They backed off that, now saying sonic weapons really don't work this way. And they have a new theory and they will admit they don't have any evidence to back up the theory but say it does fit in with microwave weapons.

And this is not some science fiction term. There are actually countries with microwave weapon programs, talking about the former Soviet Union. This is using a highly concentrated beam of energy.

But I was talking to one of the Cuban investigators, a neurologist, and he said, listen, from what the U.S. described to us, diplomats in their homes being hit by a very precise beam, not seeing where the weapon was located, microwave weapons don't work that way.

So here we are two years from the beginning of these incidents and both sides still can't agree on basic science -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: One thing is for sure, people have been injured in a horrible way, something happened. Patrick Oppmann, thank you for staying on the story for us.

Coming up, Tropical Storm Gordon gaining strength along the Gulf Coast. We'll tell you where it is headed next.

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SCIUTTO: The breaking news: we are tracking tropical storm Gordon as it max its way over South Florida. The storm moving very quickly, gaining strength. Parts of the Gulf Coast are now under hurricane watch.

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SCIUTTO: Coming up, as the process begins tomorrow for what could be one of the most lasting legacies of the Trump presidency, his pick to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. Democratic senators now say they are planning to ask tough questions on hot button issues. Details ahead.

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(MUSIC PLAYING) BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everyone, I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN. Thank you for being with me on this Labor Day Monday. Here's what you need to know today.

The president is keeping it low-key this holiday. No public events even as he faces a week of high stakes. He will hit the road to campaign for Republicans with midterm elections just barely over two months away.

But tomorrow begins the process to what could turnout to be the president's most enduring legacy, the makeup of the United States Supreme Court.