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Trump Breaks Silence on Anti-Muslim Remarks; Freeway Shooting Suspect in Court; Pope to Arrive in Cuba in a Few Hours; Pope To Arrive In Cuba In A Few Hours; Police: Man Claims Child Was Possessed, Punched Her; Russia Deploys Fighter Jets To Syria. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired September 19, 2015 - 11:00   ET


[10:59:50] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, a lot of political news today. On the Democratic side -- the Vice President. You have Donald Trump reacting in that tiny little matter of Pope Francis arriving in Cuba today -- just a small little story there.


SCIUTTO: Exactly.

Well, good to have you on and it's nice to be here. It's 11:00 on the East Coast. I'm Jim Sciutto, in today for Fredricka Whitfield.

NEWSROOM starts right now.

We begin this morning with breaking news on two major political stories.

Donald Trump breaking his silence with a string of tweets for the first time since he failed to correct a supporter who called President Obama a Muslim and seemed to insult Muslims in general. Trump tweeting this morning, "Am I morally obligated to defend the President every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him? I don't think so." He is scheduled to speak tonight in Iowa.

New reports that Vice President Biden could be closer than ever to announcing a White House bid. Let's go to our team of reporters and our Sunlen Serfaty is in Manchester, New Hampshire for the -- rather Suzanne Malveaux, we are going to go to first. No, it is Sunlen Serfaty -- she is live up first in Manchester Democratic Party state convention. Actually, no -- you are in Michigan. It is Suzanne who is in Manchester.

Sunlen, tell us what's going on there?



SERFATY: -- Pope Francis, that controversial moment with Donald Trump and how he is going to react to it. I want to read to you the series of tweets that we heard from Donald Trump this morning. As you noted breaking his silence since this happened on Thursday. In progression these quotes -- tweets saying quote, "This is the first time in my life that I have caused controversy by not saying something." The next one saying, "Someone made a nasty controversial statement about me to the President, do you really think he would come to my rescue?" And this next tweet really a note to that exchange and really almost an excuse as to why he didn't interject there. He says, "If I would have challenged the man, the media would have accused me of interfering with this man's right of free speech -- a no-win situation." And the last one tweeting, quote, "Christians need support in our country and around the world. Their religious liberty is at stake. Obama has been horrible. I will be great."

So Jim as you can see there, the first defense coming from Donald Trump; as you noted though he will be in Iowa later today. Here, everyone wants to know, will he address these controversial comments? His controversial moment with that voter.

We have heard from some of the candidates already this morning most notably Martin O'Malley, the Maryland Democratic candidate, the governor who said that it's everyone -- as a leader, their goal is to speak out against this. They need to speak out against comments like this -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Sunlen Serfaty. Of course, Donald Trump addressing the issue about the President. He didn't address the questioner's comments about Muslims in America in general.

We are going to go now to Manchester, New Hampshire where Hillary Clinton is speaking. She has just taken the podium. Let's have a listen to her comments now.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Are we going to win this election in 2016? Yes, we are.

Thank you. My heart is just racing. I am so, so excited to be here. Grateful for everything you and the state have meant to me and to my family. I am honored to have the support of so many proud New Hampshire Democrats and especially, especially your terrific governor, your amazing senator who used to be governor. You know, Maggie and Jeanne are women who know how to solve problems. And they bring common sense and common purpose to everything they do. I also want to thank Congresswoman Annie Kuster, all the state senators and representatives, executive councilors, local leaders, grass roots organizers and especially volunteers who are working their hearts out for this campaign.

I have a great idea. I think we should just transport all of you everywhere we go around the country together.

[11:04:54] You know, as much fun as this is, as exciting as the atmosphere in here is we have work to do as Democrats. I want to be your partner to build our party here in this state and across our nation to keep our progress going. We have come a long way, haven't we, these past six and a half years? And thanks to the hard work and sacrifice -- SCIUTTO: Let's bring in CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein,

he's editorial director the National Journal; and CNN political commentator and Donald Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord. You have been listening to Hillary Clinton there speaking at a Democratic rally in New Hampshire.

Ron, I wonder if I could begin with you first. You saw Donald Trump's responses this morning defending himself on Twitter after that backlash the last 48 hours. What's interesting about his tweets, defending himself, he gets to the allegations against the President being a Muslim but he doesn't get to the other comment.


SCIUTTO: And we were live on the air on Thursday night when that question happened because the questioner talked about Muslims in America in general being a problem. He doesn't answer that criticism, does he?

BROWNSTEIN: No, he doesn't. He doesn't address that at all in this. And look, I think this whole exchange is kind of a nice crystallization of the challenge and really the problem facing Donald Trump. On the one hand a lot of his core coalition believes this sort of thing. You know, you look at the last CNN/ORC poll 54 percent of the people who said they were supporting Donald Trump in the Republican race also said they believe the President is a Muslim. So he has challenges in that his base, you know, is kind of pushing at the boundaries of political dialogue on a lot of these issues.

On the other hand, I think it is a mistake to say he is completely immune from the laws of political gravity. And these sorts of exchanges are part of the reasons why you see what I wrote about last week, a big gap with white collar, college-educated Republicans much less likely than blue collar Republicans that say either that he is qualified for the presidency or that he has the temperament and personality to succeed as president. Only 40 percent of Republicans with a college degree in the ABC/Washington Post last week said he had the temperament and personality to succeed as president. And I do think the challenge here is as you risk alienating your base if you get more reasonable in quotes.

On the other hand the other Republicans are listening and this could seed doubts among them.

SCIUTTO: Jeffrey I want to give you a chance to respond. Donald Trump said he is not obligated to respond to questions about the President. Is he obligated to stand up to a questioner who makes a broader criticism of Muslims in general in America as this questioner appeared to do?

JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all Jim, I don't think there is anything -- I mean the implication here and all this sort of media-induced firestorm, is that it is somehow a slur to say that someone is Muslim.

SCIUTTO: No, no. Jeffrey -- to be fair, that was not the point. The questioner said "We have a problem" -- and I'm paraphrasing here but "We have a problem in America. It's Muslims in America." I mean it's not -- he was talking about Muslims in America being a problem.

LORD: Right. Jim you and I know and Ron knows that every other day, when we pick up a newspaper or turn on the television, we are seeing that authorities have unraveled some plot by Islamic extremists in this country, all of whom are Muslims. So to say that we have a quote/unquote, "Muslim problem" is not to say anything outrageous. It's a simple statement of fact. There is no bias or bigotry to it.

SCIUTTO: No. Well, I'm sorry to say -- you can say you have -- no, no. I have to disagree with you there. You can say you can Islamic extremist problem. You can't say you have Muslim problem any more than you can say you have a Christian problem if people who carry out crimes happen to be Christians -- right?

LORD: But Christians aren't committing crimes because of their religion, are they?


SCIUTTO: Well, here's the thing though -- the question is can you fairly paint the whole faith with a brush because of what a tiny percentage of members of that faith do? That's what the questioner was doing.

BROWNSTEIN: Can I -- I'm sorry Jeff. Jeffrey go ahead.

LORD: I mean I just find this exasperating. In general, I just think this is the kind of media. You know, Rush Limbaugh has a word for this kind of thing. He calls the media the drive-bys. And the reason he does that is he says they come into an area, they shoot up the whole place, you know, in a media firestorm. Then, they move on to the next one. That's really what this is. This is a typical drive-by situation.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you a question. I mean Ron, if you think it is the media because we had Chris Christie criticize Donald Trump. We had Lindsey Graham and they are not fans of the media either.

BROWNSTEIN: I know. I think this is -- look, this is a telling moment. And again, I think it is something that a lot of the people who support Donald Trump will see nothing wrong with. And in fact, see admirable that he is kind of not quote, "giving in to political correctness". I do think though that it tends to bound his support.

And what we are seeing already is this clear distinction. And the challenge that Trump creates for the Republican Party, you know, is that this really is of a piece with what we saw from his announcement statement on Mexican-Americans and on undocumented immigrants. And essentially the risk is that he is essentially portraying a party that is uneasy with the diversity that is transforming America.

[11:10:06] And that is a very difficult position to be in.

LORD: Oh I don't think so -- Ron. SCIUTTO: Jeffrey, I want to give you a chance to respond.

LORD: I don't think so. I mean his announcement speech he was talking about illegal immigrants, not immigrants. There is a vast difference. And you know, in terms of President Obama --

BROWNSTEIN: He was talking -- but, Jeffrey, he talked about -- there are 11 million, roughly 11 million undocumented by all estimates. There is a vast difference within that population itself and he was kind of painting all of them with a very disparaging brush.

LORD: What he was saying, Ron, which is well-documented that there is in fact a very high crime rate with illegals in this country. I mean Governor Perry said this about how many illegals he had in jails in Texas who had committed all kinds of crimes. That was Governor Perry, not Donald Trump.


SCIUTTO: I want to ask you both a question here.

BROWNSTEIN: I would just say that the best academic evidence is that there is no higher rate of criminality. Look, the broader point, the broader point as several conservative writers have pointed is that, you know, Donald Trump -- the overall world vision is very insular and defensive. I mean the core idea is that the idea of America is being taken away by the changes that are happening.

And I think that if you look at what the implications of that for the Republican Party it is a very stark fact. Mitt Romney in 2012 won a higher share of the white vote than Ronald Reagan did in 1980, a man that you worked for and he lost by five million votes. It is likely that the minority share of the vote will be even higher, almost certain they'll be even higher in 2016.

And the risk of the entire tenor of the Republican debate that Donald Trump affecting like a gravitational pull is that it is further alienating this emerging next America in a way that will force the Republicans to win an unrealistic share of white votes going forward in order to prevail. And this is I think a big moment for the party and one that could have implications far beyond his candidacy -- whatever happens to him in the coming months.

SCIUTTO: Jeffrey and Ron -- it's a fascinating discussion. I want to keep this up. This certainly won't be the last day we talk about it. Thank you for joining us -- both of you.

LORD: You bet. Thanks -- Ron.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: This is just into to CNN. Donald Trump will appear on "STATE OF THE UNION" with Jake Tapper tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. Eastern.

Please stay with us. We'll be right back.


[11:15:40] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

The man police say terrorized drivers for weeks in Arizona is in court now according to local affiliates. Police arrested Leslie Allen Merritt last night after storming a Wal-Mart where he was shopping. They say he's the man who shot at passing vehicles along Interstate 10 in Phoenix -- a story we've been covering closely on CNN.

Governor Doug Ducey was quick to tweet, "We got him!" -- just moments after the arrest. But the area can't breathe a complete sigh of relief just yet. Police can only link him to four of the 11 shootings. And there may be more gunmen out there they warn.

Here is CNN's Nick Valencia.


NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: After more than two weeks of terror, police make an arrest in a string of highway shootings.

FRANK MILSTEAD, ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY: The weapon and the man who we believe that was responsible for what started this spree in Arizona is in custody.

VALENCIA: Though authorities have declined to name the suspect, two government officials told CNN the detained man's name is Leslie Allen Merritt Jr. CNN affiliates say this is Merritt arriving at an Arizona state police office. He was arrested Friday night at a suburban Glendale, Arizona Wal-Mart in connection with at least four of the 11 shootings -- most of those occurred along busy Interstate 10.

BART GRAVES, ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY: He was arrested at that Wal-Mart with a woman and a five-year-old child. They were not taken into custody. And he was.

VALENCIA: A Phoenix city councilman told CNN the break in the case came after the suspect pawned a 9-millimeter handgun. Police say their lab results showed it was the same gun used in at least four of the highway shootings.

MILSTEAD: The subject is in custody because the weapon that he owned is forensically linked to these crimes.

VALENCIA: The suspect is only connected to first four shootings. Police are unclear whether there are more suspects.

MILSTEAD: Are there others out there? Are there copycats? That is possible. We will continue to investigate.

VALENCIA: As of September 10, there have been no other shootings reported. In Friday night's arrest, police accused the suspect of starting the spree on August 29th. Late last night, affiliate KNXV tried to get a reaction from Merritt's father.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would you like to tell me about him or say anything on his behalf?

LESLIE MERRITT SR., FATHER OF ALLEGED I-10 SHOOTER: Yes, I'd like -- yes, I will say plenty on his behalf. Whoever said he is the I-10 shooter is a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) moron. Have a good night.


VALENCIA: Merritt's father did give an extended interview to a local affiliate as well as the local Arizona newspaper. He is standing by his claim that his son is innocent. Meanwhile Merritt Jr., well, he is being arraigned sometime in 11 am Eastern hour. We just got our hands on the mug shot, Jim. And he's being charged with discharging a weapon within city limits -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Let's hope the shootings stop. Nick Valencia in Atlanta.

Still ahead, anything but jail time -- why the general who led the investigation against Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance says there is a better option as he heads inside a military courtroom.


[11:22:42] SCIUTTO: Pope Francis is now just a few hours away from landing in Havana, Cuba kicking off his historic trip to Cuba and here in the United States. His plane is due to touch down at 4:00 p.m. Eastern. He will be greeted at the airport by Cuban president, Raul Castro. Both of them are expected to deliver speeches there.

CNN correspondent Patrick Oppmann is live in Havana. So much anticipation there -- Patrick. The two previous popes visited Cuba, of course. This visit, particular excitement, isn't there?

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Jim. Look behind me. We have an altar set up in Havana's Revolution Square, the center of this communist-run government. Something that's only happened twice since the revolution took power here with the visits of John Paul II and Pope Benedict.

It's somewhat surreal to see on one side of me Che Guevara and in front of me, a huge billboard of Jesus Christ; so a lot have of contradictions in front of us. And right now we are seeing some tourists come in obviously getting everything ready for the enormous mass tomorrow. It is expected to be the Pope's largest mass while in Cuba.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans coming across from the island to be here and there is particular excitement. Two reasons, really. One, of course, this Pope being Argentine is a native Spanish speaker. He'll be able to address Cubans directly. He won't really on a script. He won't have an accent and perhaps many Cubans can understand. And they have already heard him speak in an unprecedented message that was televised two nights ago.

So there is a lot of excitement. And then this is a Pope, of course, who played a crucial role in reestablishing U.S./Cuban relations. And so it's something of a victory lap and we know the Pope is coming here with, we expect, requests of this government to keep pushing Open Cuba, to keep pushing for more freedoms, more religious freedoms. And that is something he will speak to Raul Castro, we expect.

And Raul Castro will be there today in just a few hours when the Pope, for the first time, touches down in Cuba.

SCIUTTO: Patrick, I have to tell you, I'm a little jealous of you. I've been to Cuba a couple of times, the excitement incredible but also just a moment in history for the church and for the country.

Patrick Oppmann -- thanks very much for joining us.

The visit to Havana was scheduled after the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations. And the Pope, himself, as Patrick just referenced there played an active role in the super secret diplomacy that led up to that historic breakthrough.

[11:25:06] Father Juan Molina joins me now. He's the head of the U.S. Bishop's Latin-American office. Father Molina -- thanks for joining us today.

Last year, Father, you will remember Pope Francis personal lobbied both President Obama and the Cuban president, Raul Castro to reach a deal to swap prisoners and the next step to end decades of Cold War animosity. Can you describe the impact that his efforts, Pope Francis' had on making this come about? Can you hear me, Father?

Sorry, we lost Father Molina there. We'll try to get back to him later.

As we wait for that, a reminder that CNN's Chris Cuomo will take a look at how Pope Francis became a rock star around the world. The CNN special report: "THE PEOPLE'S POPE" is this Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

And coming up, disturbing new details in the death of Boston's Baby Doe -- we are now learning just how she may have died. Please stay with us.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

The visit to Havana was scheduled after the U.S. and Cuba re- established diplomatic relations and the Pope, himself, as we mentioned earlier, played an active role in the diplomacy that led up to that historic breakthrough.

I am joined again now by Father Juan Molina. We had a little technical difficulty earlier.

Father Molina, can you hear me now?


SCIUTTO: Fantastic. You are head of the U.S. Bishop's Latin-American conference.

As I referenced before, last year Pope Francis personally lobbied both President Obama and the Cuban president, Raul Castro to reach a deal first to swap prisoners but also this bigger picture goal -- ending decades of Cold War animosity. Can you describe his effort -- how essential it was to the thaw in relations between these two countries?

[11:30:00] MOLINA: Sure. And this effort really is new for him since the time when he accompanied Pope John Paul II to Cuba in 1998. Right afterwards, he also wrote a book and talked about the need for an approachment between the two countries.

This has taken quite a while for the pope and then archbishop and now coming to this point of him really talking to both parties about the need for dialogue, sitting down together and try to work out the differences that they have had.

So this is not a new effort by the pope in many ways since he has been involved for several years. He sees the need for it. He sees also that most of Latin America looks at the United States through the lens of Cuba.

That is, in seeing how the United States relates to Cuba and also, Cuba relates to the world especially to the United States.

SCIUTTO: Tomorrow, as you know, Pope Francis is going to celebrate mass at revolution square at Havana within sight of a sculpture honoring the atheist, Cheg Rivera? Two very contradictory images and messages, how does Cuba navigate that? How does the pope navigate that?

MOLINA: Pope Benedict also celebrated in the same square. I happened to be there a couple of years ago. I think that the Cuban people see the images and relate perhaps to both. I think also the very fact that the pope is there also means that faith is being accepted by the Cuban people.

It was never left by the Cuban people. It seems to me being agent to put both together and create a story in a way of reconciliation and moving forward, I think it is important to look at that.

SCIUTTO: No question. The other issue is personal. Raul Castro is going to be greeting the pope later today. He, himself, is a long- time atheist although he has said the pope has made him consider praying again. Do you think we will witness in our lifetimes a religious shift in Cuba because of the pope?

MOLINA: I think in a way that religious shift has already started. It is not only a religious shift, but also of the entire society. There are many, many, many reasons to believe that and many steps have been taken by both the people and the government and also those of us who have been walking along the Cuban people, along with them, can see that there are changes.

That's why the pope, I think, one of the themes that he is going to be talking about, is his accompaniment. He mentioned that word in his speech to the people of Cuba. That's a big thing for the church, to accompany these people on a journey that hasn't ended that had a start but it really hasn't ended. So I think there is hope for a change in mentality.

SCIUTTO: That is part of his message to appeal to people beyond the church and part of his personality. Father Molina, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate having you.

Just a reminder to our viewers, CNN's Chris Cuomo is going to take a look at how Pope Francis became a rock star around the world. The CNN special, "The People's Pope" airs this Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll be right back.




SAMUEL BURTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Would you let a stranger drive your kids around? That's exactly what Mary Inman does. She uses Shuttle, an app like Uber to arrange rides for her two boys.

(on camera): When you first heard the idea for this shuttle service, were you like who would like their kids go with a stranger?

MARY INMAN, SHUTTLE CUSTOMER: No. Being city dwellers, my kids are familiar with taxis and Ubers and Lift.

BURTON: It is a big step going from your being with your kid in an Uber to sending them alone in this Shuttle service.

INMAN: Are you saying what kind of irresponsible parent am I?

BURTON: That's what everybody wants to know.

INMAN: These people have designed a really great system. The people who are driving are women who have a lot of experience with children. It does take a little bit of getting used to, but I think my kids' experience has made us all feel very comfortable about it.

BURTON (voice-over): The boys say riding the Shuttle is like carpooling with neighbors.

(on camera): Is there any type of special thing you have to tell them so that they know it is you and you know it is them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: They usually say the pass code thing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: They have the app. We know our passwords and the passwords also have a picture of us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have pickle for Myles and chicken for Devin.

BURTON (voice-over): Shuttle vets every driver before trusting them to drive the kids. There is also technology in place to assist and monitor the humans.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Every single shuttle ride is monitored at Shuttle headquarters by a full-time Shuttle employee. Rides can be monitored by parents on their app.

BURTON: The service is only available in California's bay area for now. Shuttle's ambition and a challenge is to do to scale without losing track of a single ride. Samuel Burton, CNN, San Francisco.


SCIUTTO: There are disturbing new details in the death of Bella Bond, who until yesterday was known simply as Baby Doe. Police are now saying that the boyfriend of Bond's mother, Michael McCarthy, is responsible for her death.

A source tells CNN that McCarthy is claiming he thought the child was possessed so he punched her. It's unclear whether the punch killed the baby.

The toddler's mother, Rachelle Bond, is charged with accessory to murder after the fact. Bella's remains were found on a Boston shoreline back in June. Our Sara Ganim examines how investigators finally got a break in the case.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Her name was Bella.

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After nearly three months of investigation, Baby Doe finally has a name, Bella Bond.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bella, happy 2nd birthday, Monkey, yes! Yes! Whoo!

GANIM: This is Bella at her 2nd birthday. Friday, authorities revealed she's the mystery toddler whose composite picture captivated millions when she was found wrapped in a trash bag on a Boston shore in June.

[11:40:02] DANIEL CONLEY, SUFFOLK COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: And the tragedy of her death is compounded by the fact that her short life ended not by illness or accident. But we believe by an act of violence in the very place where she should have felt safest, in her home.

GANIM: Authorities have determined earlier this year from pollen on her had polka dot pants that Baby Doe was likely from the Boston area. According to officials, it was a tip this week that led them in an intense 24-hour search resulting in the arrest of Bella's mother, Rachelle Bond, and her boyfriend, Michael McCarthy. McCarthy charged with murder and Bond charged with accessory after the fact.

CONLEY: We alleged that McCarthy caused Bella's death. That he did so intentionally, that he and Bond took specific steps to keep Bella's death a secret and to avoid prosecution. GANIM: Neighbors say they remember a troubled household. According to CNN affiliates WHDH and WCBB, court documents show Rachelle Bond had an arrest record that included drugs and prostitution.

YESSIOMARA TORRES, NEIGHBOR: It's shocking and it's sad because she's so young for that to happen. I feel sorry for that little girl. She should have been in better hands.

GANIM: An official from the Department of Children and Families tells CNN between 2001 and 2006, Rachelle Bond had her parental rights terminated for her two other children. The agency also said they had been in contact with Bella, twice in response to neglect.

The agency did not say why she was not removed from her mother's custody. Neither McCarthy nor Bond has issued any statement since their arrest. Officials say they are blaming each other for the child's death. It's still unclear exactly when or how she died.


GANIM: Jim, this is the house where Bella lived. You can see this makeshift memorial that's been growing here in front. It has things like well-wishers that she plays dolls and dress up in heaven with the angels.

Authorities expect that on Monday, we'll have more information about how and when she died. Both McCarthy and Bond are expected in court Monday morning for their first hearing -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: It is a heartbreaking story. Sara Ganim, great to have you on it. Please stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.




DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Isaiah Bird's mantra is no excuses. This 7-year-old was born without legs.

ISAIAH BIRD, BOY BORN WITHOUT LEGS: I don't let that stay in my way. No excuses at all.

GUPTA: The mantra comes from Bird's wrestling coach and also a mentor, Miguel Rodriguez, who met the little boy at a dark time for Bird's family, homeless after Hurricane Sandy. Bird didn't even have his own wheelchair.

MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ, COACH AND MENTOR: He has been through so much in life but he never feels sorry for himself. The fact that he never complained about not having legs, the fact that he said to me, I can do it. That's what caught my eye about him.

GUPTA: Rodriguez encouraged Isaiah to take up wrestling, a sport he could compete in without the use of his legs. Isaiah started to win.

RODRIGUEZ: He took third place at the New York State wrestling championship, sixth place, internationals. Parents and coaches tell their kids the total opposite. You go hard on him. You take him down.

GUPTA: For Bird, wrestling is just beginning. He has also taken up surfing and he is not stopping there.

BIRD: I want to win so bad, I want to earn things. I don't complain because I do it. I never give up.


SCIUTTO: That is one inspiring story we are turning overseas. Russia's aggressive military buildup along the Syrian coast is causing a great deal of concern in the Pentagon especially worrisome is the arrival of at least four Russian SU-27 fighter jets known as flankers.

This is the first time he has sent a major force since they investigated Afghanistan in 1979. What is not at all clear is what Russia is up to or what its ultimate objective is.

For some insights, we want to bring in CNN military analyst, Rick Francona, former Air Force intelligence officer. Why is Russia suddenly exerting itself in Syria?

RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They want to maintain their presence there. You know, Jim, as you mention, the Russians haven't really done much outside their own border since the fall of the Soviet Union. They have a naval base on the Mediterranean.

It is the only one they have in that area and they want to maintain that. They see that the Assad in the area and they want to make sure their interests are not marginalized when the government changes and there's --

SCIUTTO: There's a bigger message here, too, is there not? About Vladimir Putin asserting himself abroad in a place where a U.S. policy is, frankly, failing. Is this partly about replacing the U.S. or attempting to replace the U.S. as a dominant player in the Middle East, a dominant outside player in the Middle East?

FRANCONA: Yes, I think that's a fair assessment. What we see in Syria is them losing, and they want to make sure that they don't lose what little bit they have. And Syria is the one place in which they feel they can do that.

[11:30:00] And you're right. Our policy is not having the desired effects so the Russians have stepped in. From a military point of view, Putin's doing a very good job here. They brought down a very good force package to do what they need to do.

But, why is he doing this? Why does he think he can get away with this? If you look at our reaction to what he's doing in Crimea and is doing in the Ukraine, he feels he can get away with this right now. SCIUTTO: No question. I have to ask you this as well because it's such a messy situation in Syria now. You have Russia propping up Assad, Assad also fighting ISIS, which the U.S. is fighting, but the U.S. wants Assad gone.

I mean, you have this messiness and you've had U.S. officials say, listen, if Russia is there to fight ISIS, we're fine with that. We welcome anybody who's doing that, but it seems their main goal is to support Assad. But if supporting Assad also weakens ISIS, does that serve American interests?

FRANCONA: Yes, I think we got to reassess what our original goal was. When we talked about this years ago, it was, we wanted Assad to go. He has to go. That was the bottom line. Then we saw the ascent of ISIS and ISIS has become a new factor in this whole equation.

So I think that we may be willing to talk to the Russians about a joint operation to go after ISIS, and then we'll worry about Syria down the road. And I think the Russians are open to that.

Because they seem to be willing to talk about the future of Syria, that doesn't involve keeping Assad there, as long as they maintain their presence there. I don't think they care.

SCIUTTO: And now we see that the U.S. and Russia are establishing some sort of contact which is necessary, isn't it? Because you have U.S. and coalition war planes flying in the same air space that those Russian fighter jets will be flying.

FRANCONA: Exactly and you've got -- so you've got the Syrian Air Force. You've got the U.S.-led coalition, and now you've got Russian high-performance fighter jets in the region. Anytime you've got that many aircraft in that small of an air space without coordination, you're setting up a real, real problem.

SCIUTTO: No question. Too close to comfort. Colonel Rick Francona, thanks for joining us on this weekend.

Still ahead, Pope Francis just hours away from his first appearance on his historic Cuba/United States trip, we will talk to the one man who has been invited to the White House and may be part of an historic meeting with the pope. Please stay with us. We'll be right back.



SCIUTTO: Part of the pope's message in Cuba and the United States is inclusion and acceptance and that is resonating with many gay Catholics, who in the past have felt very much shut out from the church.

Our next guest includes himself in that group. He is Aaron Ledesma, the author of the blog, "The Gay Catholic." Aaron, you got a very special invitation, invited for the arrival ceremony for the pope when he visits the White House on Wednesday morning this week, a personal invitation from President Obama. Tell us how that happened.

AARON LEDESMA, INVITED TO ATTEND POPE'S WHITE HOUSE VISIT: Well, it all started back when I was first starting "The Gay Catholic" blog. And I was looking for motivation one day and I saw that Pope Francis was going to be at the White House and I just thought of, how cool would it be to see the two governing bodies that I believe in, who support who I am as a person, come together for an historical moment. And so, I reached out to the White House asking for an invitation and I got a call two weeks later saying I was allowed to go.

SCIUTTO: It's great to be there. There was a powerful moment early in Pope Francis' term that you say helped you feel more welcome in the church after you stopped going to mass. Two years ago, the pope took a much softer tone on homosexuality saying, quote, this is on a flight to some reporters who were joining him.

"If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?" Those words still resonating today with many Catholics, how did that change your view of the church?

LEDESMA: I think that was a defining moment for my experience as a Catholic. It opened my eyes to the possibility of not having to abandon my faith, to be who I was or who I am. And not to abandon who I am for my faith. And so when he said that, it was a moment of realizing, I am welcomed in the Catholic Church. And it definitely was one of the biggest reasons that I do go back to church now.

SCIUTTO: Aaron, I got to tell you. I've been speaking to a lot of Catholics in advance of this visit, and many non-gay Catholics have said that those words inspired them as well, just as this broader message of inclusion, whether gay or not, just across the board.

I do want to ask you, though. There's a report in the "Wall Street Journal" that says the Vatican is not happy that the White House invited transgender activists and the first openly gay episcopal bishop to this greeting ceremony you'll be at.

The Vatican apparently concerned that the optics of that might suggest the pope is endorsing their activities. And this is a key question here because the pope is talking about openness, but he is not and maybe cannot change the church's teaching on this. What is your reaction to that conflict?

LEDESMA: I did see that article and I can only speak to my experience, and my experience is that the church is opening and welcoming. And I think that's what Pope Francis has been doing for the past two years. Expressing love, compassion, and understanding for all Catholics, not just people in the LBGT community but all Catholics.

And his message is clear, if you are seeking the Lord, who are we to judge? And I think that's what's important about all of this and not just the guest list to the White House though I am honored to be one of the 15,000 people there on Wednesday.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this. There are going to be a lot of people there, as you mentioned. I doubt you'll get a chance to speak to him, but if you had a moment to speak to him, even a couple of words, what might you say?

LEDESMAN: I think I would just hug him. But I think I would just say, thank you, for welcoming me back to the church and for inspiring me to seek a life of happiness with God. And I would say, welcome to the U.S.

SCIUTTO: I'm sure he would accept that hug. Aaron Ledesma, thank you for joining us. I'm jealous you'll be in that room. It will be a powerful moment.

LEDESMAN: I'm looking forward to it.

SCIUTTO: CNN's Chris Cuomo will look at how Pope Francis became a rock star around the world. The CNN's special report, "The People's Pope" airs this Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern. We have much more just ahead in the NEWSROOM. It all starts right now.