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U.S. Navy Ship And Russian Ship Almost Collide At Sea Coming Within 50 To 100 Feet From Each Other; Sen. Merkley Voices His Opinion That Trump Is Simply Wrong On His Take With Mexico And The Word Asylum; Merkely Saying The Circumstances In Mexico Are So Difficult And Horrific That People Will Continue To Find Ways To Get To The U.S. Border. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired June 7, 2019 - 07:00   ET



BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: helicopter operations. They were on a steady course according to the Navy because they were having helicopters come back to the deck, and you need a steady course, of course, for that helicopter to land on a moving warship at sea. So they were on a steady course. They say the Russian ship approached them, closing, moving to within 50 to 100 feet of the U.S. ship putting both the crew, obviously, and the ship at risk. It was at that point that the U.S. Navy ship went full engines back as they say. That means putting it into reverse and hitting the gas at the same time to move away in reverse as fast as they could to avoid a collision.

The Navy, we know from a U.S. official, as is typical practice has imagery of this entire incident. At this hour, the imagery is still classified, but we can also tell you that U.S. officials are working very quickly to see about declassifying the imagery to show it to the world because they are pushing back very hard against the Russian account. The Russians say, of course, they - as you might expect, the Russians say they are not at fault, that the U.S. Navy is at fault. We know that the imagery is out there, not declassified yet to show the world. It may come in the coming hours. John, Alisyn -

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN NEWSROOM HOST: Barbara, please bring us any updates as soon as you get them from the Navy. Thank you very much for that breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN NEWSROOM HOST: I think the fact they're even considering declassifying that and releasing it to the public shows how angry they are. All right, democratic front runner Joe Biden has reversed course on a major issue for democratic voters. The former Vice President declared he no longer supports the Hyde Amendment which bans federal funding for most abortions.


JOE BIDEN, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: I make no apologies to my last position and I make no apologies to what I'm about to say. I can't justify leaving millions of women without access to the care they need and the ability to exercise their constitutionally protected right. If I believe healthcare is a right, as I do, I can no longer support and amendment that makes that right dependent on someone's zipcode.


BERMAN: I want to bring in Frank Bruni, New York Times Op-ed Columnist and CNN Contributor, Susan Glasser, CNN Global Affairs Analyst and New Yorker Staff Writer, and Jeffrey Toobin, CNN Chief Legal Analyst. Frank Bruni, Joe Biden says he feels that way two days ago and for decades before that he felt differently.


BERMAN: Why the shift?

BRUNI: Well, I mean, there are two things going on here. One is the shift is the democratic party or at least the democratic candidates for president have moved to the left, right? And he was further toward the center on this, and he obviously made the determination that that was not a politically profitable place to be.

But the other thing that I find so interesting about this is we've all talked about Joe Biden's campaigns in the past and the sort of wobble of - wobble in them and how they haven't been so successful. I don't understand given that this was out there, given that they should have been prepared for this how in the space of less than 48 hours they say, yes, he stands by his old position and then, again, less than 48 hours later they say - he comes out and says, "no, I've changed positions."

This isn't - just so viewers are clear on this, this isn't that he had had this position for decades and it hadn't be reiterated or revisited, you know, recently. They came out Wednesday and said this remains his positions. They even said it almost as a point of pride. Beyond that, you saw some reporting in various places where they were saying, oh, these other candidates who might make an issue of this, they've often voted for the Hyde Amendment attached to other bills. I guarantee you that was coming from the Biden campaign. That was strategy one, and again, less than 48 hours later you have a complete about face.

CAMEROTA: Susan, do you understand how and why this about face happened?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I mean, the understanding is pretty simple on one level which is that clearly it's not politically sustainable and they'd rather take the hit now early on in the campaign than have it, you know, eat away at him bit-by-bit. But remember, this is a reminder of how much Joe Biden has many votes like this in his career because if you spent five decades essentially in public life, you spent that long on Capitol Hill, the politics have changed pretty dramatically. Abortion is just one example, and I think we could be looking at a situation where every week we're talking about this or that vote in Biden's past that no longer makes sense in the politics of today. Look at the debates that we're already having about the crime bill in the 1990s for example. There's a lot of other examples I think where Biden could be eaten away at from his own long past record of voting.

BERMAN: Well, I think his democratic opponents will try, but Jeffrey, the big question I have is are there new rules that apply in politics? To an extent, Donald Trump may be responsible for breaking it because he's flip flopped on God knows how many issues -


BERMAN: - and it may be that democratic voters - maybe, and I don't know that they don't care. They just want someone who they think can beat the president.

TOOBIN: Well and - but I've always thought the we are more interested in flip flops, we in the news media than voters are. I mean, people change their minds. It's kind of embarrassing. Mitt Romney had changed his mind many times. This - but all politicians do it to a certain extent. What interests me is just how much the Democratic Party has changed on this.


Remember, you know, 1992 Bill Clinton talked sort of abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, that abortion was something that they were sort of ashamed of being supportive of. Now, it's changed to abortion is part of women's healthcare. It is something that is just another part of supporting women's health. And the idea that you could somehow wall it off as this sort of embarrassing, not quite - you know, something you're sort of ashamed to support, that's over in the democratic party.

CAMEROTA: Because it's been attacked. I mean, the reason it's changed is because from the right wing it has been so attacked and the access to abortion has been so constricted that I think that it is causing this backlash of democrats to be much more vocal and supportive of it.

TOOBIN: There are - I think that's a main reason. I don't think it's the only reason. I think that the fact that there are so many women in power in the democratic party independent of the assault on abortion rights now just says that, you know, with a democratic party is not going to be ashamed of it's support of abortion rights anymore under any circumstances, and Biden just has to catch up on that.

BRUNI: And as another striking thing here that's worth mentioning which is he said, "I don't apologize for my position in the past and I'm not apologizing today." Remember, Joe Biden wouldn't apologize expressly for the personal space thing. It's interesting in this new era, especially when so many of the democrats are apologizing in things their past, he's taking a more Trumpian I don't apologize approach, and I think that's really interesting.

BERMAN: That gets to the point I was making, though, because that - the thing about the personal space - didn't seem to hurt him after the campaign launch.

BRUNI: No. BERMAN: That happened before the launch. The launch happened, he went way up in the polls. I want to see where this goes. And Susan, you know, Joe Biden has a real opportunity here but also a test which is these debates that are coming up. I mean, Joe Biden needs to get through this and I'm very curious to see how he performs.

GLASSER: Well, that's right. With so many candidates, of course, at the bottom of the ticket, they're struggling right now is the determination of whether - who's going to actually get in. They only have room for 20 candidates on the stage. Only 20, right? That tells us everything. But, you know, for Biden it's almost as crucial as it is for one of these people that you've never heard of in a sense that he doesn't have to break through. He has to maintain his position at what has been perceived up until now as a weak front runner, a front runner in terms of every poll shows that he is leading. Of course, he has name recognition. He has decades in the public eye, but Biden has never shown that he could win convincingly a multi-candidate debate. Remember, he ran in 2008 against Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama. He wasn't the winner of those debates, and can he stand out now? Can he dominate the field? It's really uncertain. And as we saw in 2015 and 2016 with the republican primaries when they had so many candidates, it really was the debates and Trump's ability to dominate on that stage that was the beginning of how he put together this upsetting surprise run. And I think for Biden, I don't know.

CAMEROTA: I want to talk about impeachment and where the democrats are. Nancy Pelosi still is not moving forward, but Jerry Nadler is - it sounds like behind closed doors trying out some new arguments for why it is time to begin an impeachment inquiry, and that is - and you can tell me if you think that this holds water - he's making the case that if every - if there were an impeachment inquiry, it would be headed by the Judiciary Committee - his committee - and that that would streamline it. That would centralize it. So right now there are all of these different committees, as you know, doing these disparate investigations, and maybe it is getting in the way of some of their legislative agenda. So if everything were just funneled through the Judiciary that it would free up the other committees and make it sort of easier to get their arms around. That's one. And also, it would allow them to speak about it on the House floor, which right now the - that you're not allowed to disparage. I didn't know that that you were not allowed to disparage people. I think I've caught some people breaking that rule, but...

BERMAN: We should have...

TOOBIN: Yes, that's right.

BERMAN: We should have those rules here. I'd feel better after this show (inaudible)...

CAMEROTA: But anyway, that seems to be his practical argument lately.

TOOBIN: You know, I think the democrats should stop talking about investigating and do investigating. You know, all this talk of it, should there be impeachment, should there be oversight, they ought to hold hearings. You know, they're holding a hearing on Monday with John Dean who, with all do respect, is a figure from the 1970s. You know, this - I don't think democrats are helped at all by this sort of process arguments about how we should do it or when we should do it. Like hold some hearings. Talk about the substance of the investigation, not this process talk.

You know, I - it's June already, and the Intelligence Committee hasn't held any serious hearings. Oversight has held a couple. The Michael Cohen hearing was a serious, important hearing. The Judiciary Committee hasn't held any significant hearings about investigating the president. Do that. Don't talk about this.


BERMAN: And you can find people who don't have any privilege argument. Corery Lewandowski, for instance, has no argument for privilege. He wouldn't be able to refuse a subpoena.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. Like get to work. Don't talk about it. This is not helpful.

BERMAN: A cynic might look at it this way, Frank. Who would be the star of an impeachment hearing led by the House Judiciary Committee?

BRUNI: Well gee, that would be Jerry Nadler. And if you concentrate it all in one place, then he has the spotlight all to himself. I do think that's a point worth making, and that's one of the things going on here. But I also think nothing that Nadler is saying directly addresses Nancy Pelosi's hesitation here which is that she thinks this is a potential political loser. And so, he's - everything he's saying is an interesting argument if you're going to move forward and all that, but he hasn't addressed that question and I think that is the question. Is this a smart political play for democrats in terms of what happens to Trump in November 2020?

CAMEROTA: Well, Susan, I mean, you know their argument that half or whatever - 59 of them believe that talking about it out loud, having hearings will actually be politically advantageous whereas Nancy Pelosi thinks she's seen this movie before and that beginning impeachment investigations will ultimately reelect Donald Trump.

GLASSER: You know, it's really a circular argument, isn't it? If you don't have an investigation and a real unearthing of the facts and the evidence, how are you supposed to get people to support something that you haven't yet established in an authoritative, public way needs to be done. And I think that's what's striking to me is that democrats have been engaged in a circular argument rather than actually looking at the facts. I was recently on Capitol Hill and I was stunned that even many members of Congress, democratic members of Congress, critics of the president were saying to me, "well, yes I haven't really gotten through the whole Mueller Report. You know, I'm working on it. You know, it's very interesting."

And when Mueller gave his statement last week, you know, what did you find in the polls? You found many people, even Republicans saying I wasn't aware of what is in this report, and they seemed to react and respond to the gravitas of the statement as offered by Mueller. And so, it's surprising, A, that he hasn't chosen to testify about his own work, or B, the democrats aren't focusing on that. But again, if even members of Congress, democratic members of Congress have not read this report, I think is anyone really surprised that the public doesn't support impeaching the president on the basis of a report that people have not read, that the public has heard more about, that there haven't been hearings on? I mean, it does seem like to a certain extent that Congress is a dereliction of duty. If they use these very noble sounding arguments, and Chairman Nadler does as well. He invokes every big, grand sounding, constitutional privilege when he talks about the need to investigation, but so far we've seen more of that than we have of actual investigation.

TOOBIN: And also, just every time you use that figure of like 50 some democrats want impeachment, remember, there are more than 200 democrats in the House of Representatives. That means three quarters of them have not supported an impeachment yet.

CAMEROTA: It's a little early for math, but OK. I take your point, Jeffery. All right, thank you very much. Susan, Jeffrey, Frank, thank you. All right, we have a big update now on our breaking news. The U.S. Navy just released those images that we were talking about of this near collision between a U.S. and Russian - between these U.S. and Russian warships. So we have that declassified image. We're going to bring it to you next.



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BERMAN: All right, this is the breaking news this morning. The U.S. Navy tells CNN that a Russian destroyer almost collided with one of its cruisers in the Philippine Sea. The ships came so close together that the Navy says they were forced to throw its cruiser into reverse and hit the gas to avoid a crash, and CNN has just obtained an image of this near collision. CNN's Barbara Starr has been doing terrific reporting all morning long on this dangerous incident. You're at the Pentagon with the breaking details. Barbara, what have you learned?

STARR: Good morning, John. Let's go right to it and put this image up that CNN has just obtained from a U.S. official. What you are looking at from overhead is you are seeing on the - the U.S. Navy ship is on the left. The Russian ship is - well, as you look at it, the U.S. Navy ship's on the right, but you see that Russian ship coming from behind and coming in front of the U.S. Navy ship. It is coming up along the right-hand side of the U.S. Navy ship, and it came, according to the Navy, within 50 to 100 feet as it came up along the right-hand side of the USS Chancellorsville, a warship that was in international waters conducting helicopter operations in the Philippine Sea earlier today.

The Russian ship, according to the Navy, comes within 50 to 100 feet. This is so dangerous. This is so close. There is such a chance of a crash, of a miscalculation. Just as you say, John, the U.S. Navy says that they had to throw the ship into full reverse, which means putting the ship essentially into reverse gear and hitting the gas at the same time to make sure they were out of the way of this Russian ship.

Now, earlier today Russia said that there was an incident, said the U.S. Navy was at fault, but we are beginning to see some of the first images, and we do know at this early hour the Pentagon is working to try to try and declassify further imagery. John, Alisyn -

BERMAN: And Barbara, again, just as we look at this image I want to point people to wake here because you see the wake of that Russian destroyer coming in at the angle there, and those ships are so close.

STARR: Well, that's exactly right. That gives you an indication of what the Navy says the Russian course at sea was while it was on a steady course because helicopters were trying to land on the deck of the U.S. ship and, of course, they have to maintain a steady course at sea to land aircraft on board their decks.


The Russian ship makes what this wake shows is a turn and comes up alongside of it. I'm not sure our viewers can see at the very, very right you see some fuzziness. What that actually is is cloud cover. We believe this image was taken from one of the U.S. aircraft helicopters that were overhead at the time documenting this. Typically U.S. Navy ship crews maintain cameras ready when they are in the vicinity of other ships to document in case there are one of these incidents. But this image, just as you say, John, is some of the evidence so far that the Russians were conducting pretty unusual maneuvers at city - at sea. Very dangerous business. John -

BERMAN: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, we'll let you get back to the reporting on this. Thanks so much for bringing us this information and that stunning image. Alisyn -

CAMEROTA: All right, John, let's get reaction to this breaking news with democratic Senator Jeff Merkley. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, great to have you here in studio. What do you see when you look at that declassified picture that was just released?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D-OR).: Well, it's really hard to make out exactly all the circumstances that led to it, so we're going to learn a lot more as the day progresses. We have had several instances, including with the USS John McCain not so long ago, where there were collisions at sea. So this is the sort of thing that get imminently analyzed. What went wrong? What were the communications? Who was on - on watch? Who had the established course? Who had the right of way under the rules of sea?

CAMEROTA: Well, it sounds like the U.S. ship was in international waters, and if you look at that wake - I mean, I understand that these are first images and we need more information, but if you look at the wake - OK, so the Russian ship is on the left. They are the - it appears that they were charging towards a U.S. warship, and the Navy believes - I mean, it sounds like from Barbara Starr's reporting that this was probably not incompetence, that it was probably intentional. Do you see a provocation there? MERKLEY: Well if it was intentional, there's absolutely a provocation, but so many times with these collisions, the first reporting turns out to be wrong. So I certainly want to understand the details behind it. They were on a collision course. Who first noticed it? Who had right of way under the rules of sea? And why would the Russians want to have a collision of two major - I'm not sure they would really desire to have the two ships hit each other. That serves no ones purposes.

CAMEROTA: Great point and, of course, all of this is even more questionable with the timing because as we know in St. Petersburg President Vladimir Putin of Russia is meeting with the President of China, Xi, and they have just declared themselves best friends. And so, there's a feeling of tension. How do you interpret that?

MERKLEY: I don't know that that plays over into this instance. Most of these circumstances at sea occur because of failed communication. They occur because people have set course and the commander on watch was not paying attention. I just - I don't know. I doubt this has to do with the meeting between Russia and China declaring themselves best friends. That doesn't make any sense to me.

CAMEROTA: OK. Let's move on to what's happening at the border. As you know, the U.S.-Mexico border, there are basically an unprecedented - at least in recent years - number of migrants showing up. I think 144,000 in just the month of May. That was a 32 percent increase over just the month of April which was also another record month. How do - you've been to the border seven times I believe? What do you think is leading to this spike in numbers?

MERKLEY: So when the surge started to happen a number of months ago, I called up all the people I had been connected with and said, "what's going on?" And they said, "it's very clear what's going on. When the president started talking about a national emergency, when he started talking about sealing the border, the Coyotes and the international crime syndicates that move people north basically put out the word and advertised this is your last chance." And so, we've seen this -

CAMEROTA: So you - just to be clear, so you think that the spike in numbers is because of President Trump's policy? You don't think it's because of what's happening on the ground in Guatemala and Honduras and the poverty and the violence, et cetera?

MERKLEY: Those circumstances are horrific, and I've gone down there with Senator Carper and a delegation to look at them. Absolutely the circumstances are enormously challenging, including extortion on a street level that you just can't imagine where every business has to pay extortion, and if you don't pay, you die or they say they'll kill a member of your family or they'll gang rape your daughter. That's horrific. That is not a big change. There has been some change, some concern with the elections coming up in Guatemala. That makes more tension, but in general the folks I've spoken to on the ground, they're saying the big change is the message that this is your last chance. President Trump - if you're ever going to escape these dire circumstance, you have to come now. CAMEROTA: Because, as you know, President Trump blames you guys in Congress. He says, "what have you don't to stop these migrants coming?"


And to that end, Congressman Will Hurd who represents - who's district is the 23rd and represents the largest swoft (ph) of border between the U.S. and Mexico says that basically the migrants and the Trump administration are both kind of misusing the asylum definition and that not all of the claims are a legit asylum claims, and that that's part of why we're seeing the number spike is that more people are claiming it than used it.

MERKLEY: Well, it - under asylum, there is the ability to claim asylum if you have threat of persecution because you're a member of the group, and in the past, that has included persecution by gangs, which is very real. It has included domestic violence, which is very real. Sessions tried to walk that back. That's being adjudicated in the courts, but only about 15 to 20 percent of the individuals who apply for asylum are winning those asylum cases because the burden of proof is very hard. So the main question here is are we going to treat people with respect and dignity as they await their hearing because most of them are going to be deported home because they don't win their asylum cases.

CAMEROTA: Yes, but back to my other point which is what has - I mean, President Trump says that Congress isn't tackling this.

MERKLEY: Well, President Trump is simply wrong on this as he is on so many other things. He has politicized the border in a massive way. He's tried to have a core argument that if we mistreat migrants, we will discourage them from coming. When people are fleeing death, that doesn't work. And furthermore, it's immoral and evil to say I'm going to inflict trauma on children as a strategy to discourage people from coming.

CAMEROTA: And are you sitting down with any of your republican colleagues to try to solve this?

MERKLEY: We are having conversations, but here's the thing. We had a bipartisan plan in 2013. We passed it in the Senate, but it takes bipartisanship. My republican colleagues are saying the president has politicized this so much as a campaign issue we can't get in front of that train. So the circumstances are now much more difficult than they were before. And let's recognize about these conversations with Mexico. What we're demanding is that Mexico, in order to avoid these tariffs, proceed to do what's called a safe third party treaty which means that they would have to accept for asylum anyone passing through their country who actually wants to seek asylum in the United States. Well, this is something that Mexico is not going to agree to. And furthermore, the circumstances in Mexico are so difficult and horrific that people will continue to try to find ways to get to the border with the United Sates.

CAMEROTA: Senator Jeff Merkley, it is complicated. Thank you for explaining your position on all of it and responding to our breaking news.

MERKLEY: Good to be with you.

CAMEROTA: Great to have you here in studio. John -

MERKLEY: Thank you.


BERMAN: All right, Alisyn, three Americans dead in five days at the same resort in the Dominican Republic. Now, another couple says they got sick at the same resort last year. Their stories next.