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Trump Prepares for First Foreign Trip; Presidential Election Now Underway in Iran; Philippines, China to Discuss South China Sea Dispute; Roger Ailes Dies at Age 77; Remembering Singer Chris Cornell; Car Slams Into Times Square Tourists; McCaskill: Mistake To Name Politician As FBI Director; Roger Ailes Dies At 77; WH Denies Flynn Disclosed He Was Under Investigation. Aired 1-2a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 01:00   ET

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


[01:00:00] ISHA SESAY, CNN NEWSROOM ANCHOR: You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. Ahead this hour, Donald Trump is leaving town but he can't escape his problems at home. U.S. President gets set for his first international tour during the roughest moment of his administration so far. Plus, the polls are open in Iran - their President Hassan Rouhani is facing a serious challenge from his right. And later, panic in New York's Times Squares after a car plows into tourists. Hello and thank you for joining us, I'm Isha Sesay. This is NEWSROOM L.A.

Well, Donald Trump flies out of Washington soon for his first overseas trip as President, but he leaves behind an embattled White House fending off the heat of multiple investigations. Now, a Special Counsel has been thrown into the volatile mix, a development that left the President visibly upset. We get the very latest now from CNN's Jeff Zeleny.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: President Trump fuming today over the appointment of the Special Counsel to lead the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt.

ZELENY: In his first press conference since the firing of FBI Director, James Comey, roiled Washington; the President denied asking his FBI Chief to stop investigating former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn's ties with Russia, as Comey wrote in a memo at the time.

TRUMP: No.

ZELENY: The President clearly, eager to move on - a prospect that is unlikely. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI Director assumes his role overseeing the Russia investigation. The President making a careful distinction saying, he had not engaged in collusion with Russian officials, yet making clear he was speaking for himself not anyone on his campaign.

TRUMP: There is no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero.

ZELENY: Asked whether he had done anything wrong that would warrant impeachment as some Democrats have called for, the President said this.

TRUMP: I think it's totally ridiculous, everybody thinks so.

ZELENY: Trump's advisors including a longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohn, meeting today to discuss an outside legal team. CNN has learned, everyone here knows he needs more firepower on this. One Republican close to the White House said, the President also defended his firing of Comey saying he believed it would be a bipartisan move.

TRUMP: But when I made that decision, I actually thought that it would be a bipartisan decision because you look at all of the people on the Democratic side, not only the Republican side that were saying such terrible things about to Director Comey.

ZELENY: As the President expressed disdain for the Special Counsel, Speaker Paul Ryan and most Republicans across Washington welcomed the move.

PAUL RYAN, HOUSE REPRESENTATIVES SPEAKER: The whole point is to have an independent investigation and follow the facts wherever they may lead.

ZELENY: Yet unlike Republicans who have sharply criticized Russia for interfering in the election, the President did no such thing.

TRUMP: Because believe me, there's no collusion - Russia is fine, but whether it's Russia or anybody else, my total priority, believe me, is the United States of America.

ZELENY: Now, this Russia investigation will still be hanging over the President's head as he embarks on Friday for a trip to Saudi Arabia, the first of five countries on an eight-day tour; his first trip overseas as President. Of course, all of these challenges and that Russia investigation will be waiting for him when he comes home right before Memorial Day. Jeff Zeleny, CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SESAY: Well, joining us to discuss all of this is CNN Law Enforcement Contributor and former FBI Supervisory - Supervisor, I should say, Steve More; former Los Angeles Councilwoman, Wendy Greuel; and CNN Political Commentator and Trump Supporter, John Phillips. We have a full house. John, let me start with you. When the news broke that the Special Counsel had been appointed, the White House put out this statement on Wednesday. Let me read it for everyone. "As I've stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know. There was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country."

A rather dignified, circumspect response. By Thursday, the President had slept on it and he had a slightly different take on things. Take a listen to this tweet - the first of two: "This is a single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" Followed up with, "With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign and Obama administration, there was never a Special Counsel appointed." Judging by those tweets and his comments at that press conference, is this a President who's going to cooperate with this process?

[01:05:02] JOHN PHILLIPS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND TRUMP SUPPORTER: I love the defiant tone. And he is going to cooperate and should cooperate, but you always have to be careful with these Special Prosecutors because sometimes they can really expand their investigations. Let's not forget that the Whitewater prosecutor was originally supposed to look into real estate transactions and they ended up out in left field.

I think this going to be a perennial for President Trump, because the bureaucracy did not want to be elected, they're going to leak information intended to damage him and his credibility, and he's got to just keep his eyes on the prize and focus on the issues that got him elected: immigration, keeping us out of endless wars; renegotiating trade deals. And if he can do that he's going to keep his base behind him and will be just fine.

SESAY: To that point, Wendy, the President starting this narrative of it being a witch hunt continuing down this road of he is being victimized. I mean, that is a narrative that will play with his base because they do feel he is being unfairly targeted in all of this.

WENDY GREUEL, FORMER LOS ANGELES COUNCILWOMAN: I think he's his own worst enemy. I mean, many of the things that are being investigated are based on comments he made, tweets that he made, things that he said in one T.V. interview and then contradicts in another T.V. interview. I think the Special Counsel that has been provided is going to look into the issue of how Trump's associates or Trump himself were engaged at all.

But it's also about the fact that everyone acknowledges that Russia tried to influence this election. People forget that that's part of what this Special Prosecutor is going to look at - that Special Counsel. And I think you've seen in the last 24 hours something that none of us would have expected which was Republicans and Democrats talking about - and individual that they both respect, that the former FBI Director Mueller who is going to look at the facts, is going to focus in on what happened and be able to come back with a credible report that is going to demonstrate where things went wrong or what didn't happen.

SESAY: Steve, I want to pick up on something that John just said. John said that this is, you know, a bureaucracy, that this investigation that's about to unfold and it will leak. Do you think that it will leak? I mean, this is Robert Mueller, the man who by all accounts is almost unimpeachable, has a sterling reputation. People say, these Special Counsel, especially, one a Special Counsel investigation with Robert Mueller at the helm will actually be a process that everyone can have faith in and the facts will be kept secret. Do you think that's what will happen?

STEVE MOORE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CONTRIBUTOR: I think the chances are much greater that it will remain secret with a Special Counsel, especially former Director Mueller than if I stayed where it was now. Because part of the reasons for the leaks is lack of confidence in the system and when you get a Special Prosecutor or a Special Counsel, you have a very small closed unit of FBI agents and prosecutors who have access to this information, and if something gets out, you're going to know how it got out. And so, the Special Prosecutor, the Special Counsels generally have more secure communications, more secure investigations; that's not to say that something can't get out but it's less likely.

SESAY: The President in that press conference with the Colombian President also said something that a lot of people are trying to pass, trying to understand. He talked about where he stands, at least, when it comes to the issue of collusion with Russia. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I respect the move but the entire thing has been a witch hunt, and there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign but I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero. I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things, so I can tell you that we want to bring this great country of ours together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESAY: John, what signal is the President sending there with those statements, those words about, you know, I can always speak for myself, not just to the country, but to his team?

PHILLIPS: Well, there is no collusion. He said that there was definitely no collusion on his part. I guess their fear theoretically could be some-

SESAY: Well, the investigation-

PHILLIPS: Could be some rogue employee that he doesn't know about but the odds of that happening are minuscule. That, by the way, is confirmed with what Joe Manchin, the Democratic Senator from West Virginia said on the Sunday shows. Weeks back who is, by the way, part of the leadership for the in the U.S. Senate. It what Dianne Feinstein said just recently, that's what Mike Morell the former head of the CIA.

SESAY: The investigation is not over yet. I mean, you might, indeed, be right. This investigation may not turn up anything, but the investigation has to be seen through to the end before a statement can be made.

PHILLIPS: Right, but who has the burden of proof. The accuser has the burden of proof. So, far we've seen no proof. We've seen no evidence. We have a lot of accusations, a lot of reckless accusations but we haven't seen any evidence to back them up. GREUEL: Well, I think you saw Senator Graham today say, this is about

a criminal investigation. I mean, he came out of that meeting with the Justice Department, Rosenstein, saying this is about criminal kinds of activity. So, you know, I think there's on the Republican side but there's also some concern on that piece of it. And you look at the last two weeks of everything that has happened that is a concern to the American people which is about Flynn and what happened with him and the fact that he is not willing to come testify now at this point in time and not going to adjust to the subpoena. And you look at the fact that who knew when that he actually was under investigation? You have Sally Yates saying, I told the White House-

SESAY: And then you have the New York Times reporting saying, that he told the transition team weeks before.

GREUEL: That's right, weeks before that he was under investigation. And so, I think there's a lot of smoke there where people - and we need to get through that smoke and the special investigator; this Special Counsel is going to help do that.

SESAY: Let's play the sound from Lindsey Graham after that meeting, that closed door meeting with the Deputy Attorney General on Capitol Hill where he talks about the shift in this investigation. Let's play that sound.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It was a good decision to pick a Special Counsel, a lot of confidence in Mr. Mueller. I think the shock to the body is now considered a criminal investigation. And Congress' ability to conduct investigations of all things; Russia has been severely limited, probably in an appropriate fashion. So, I think a lot of members want the Special Counsel to be appointed, but don't understand that you're pretty well knocked out of the game and that's probably the way it should be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESAY: So, we're going to get to the issue and the implication for the congressional investigations in just a moment. But Steve, you had that - you had Senator Graham there saying that is now - the shot to the gut is now that it's a criminal matter. Help our viewers understand what that means, this shift from it being a counterintelligence investigation to the words by Lindsey Graham, by his assessment now a criminal investigation.

MOORE: Well, I think - first of all, the FBI doesn't do the - the FBI Special Prosecutors do not do administrative cases. They do criminal cases and espionage cases. And espionage cases involving Americans are criminal cases. And so, what Senator Graham was saying is that the Special Prosecutor is now taking the case over, but what that does is limits the senate and the - and the Congress from doing their own investigations because they'd step on each other.

And so the Special Prosecutor now has precedence, and if the Senate was to - or the House of Representatives were to continue to investigate, it could compromise the FBI investigation - or I should say Special Counsel's investigation. So yes, it is a criminal investigation. It's the FBI only does criminal and espionage investigations, and espionage investigations involving Americans are criminal investigations.

SESAY: John, your thoughts on the implications for the congressional investigations and this notion that they now have to take a backseat. Some might say this is great for the Republicans; it takes the pressure off of them.

PHILLIPS: Well, we'd still have - we have a House investigation, we have a Senate investigation, we have an FBI investigation, we a Special Prosecutor. What we don't have is any evidence of collusion. So bring it on, go for it, keep it limited in scope and I'm confident that they're not going to find any collusion because it didn't happen.

SESAY: Wendy. He's very confident.

GREUEL: I'm glad you're so confident, but I'm not. And I think when you look at the American people and others and the Republicans as well as Democrats that there's something that happened here, and there are enough conversations that occurred and enough back and forth that something had to happen. Whatever it was, the President involved or not, this is a way we're going to get down to the bottom of it.

SESAY: Are you disappointed that the Congressional investigation will have to take a backseat if, indeed, Lindsey Graham is right by his assessment because of Bob Mueller's investigation in a sense that, as we talked about, what he uncovers will stay secret as opposed to Congressional hearings where - a large part of that testimony will be done in public.

GREUEL: I think you're hearing from everyone today that they're happy that Mueller was selected in this Special Counsel. Maybe they don't understand the ramifications of it, but I think the bottom line is people want the truth and if this is a way to get to the truth, by being in the way that there's a Special Counsel, then, let's go forward with that. And I think you're going to continue-

SESAY: What about the American people?

GREUEL: Well, I think there's a lot there that may or may not be part of what their investigation is going to happen. I mean, when you look at what's occurred within the last couple of weeks relative to the President of the United States, and the challenges that his credibility has been affected, there's going to be lots to talk about.

[01:14:53] SESAY: You know, I do want to us to get to the fact that we're standing by for the President to announce the new head of the FBI, as we understand it and the President himself said in that press conference, Joe Lieberman, Democrat - once Democrat, then independent is amongst the top picks. Steve, to you, how do you feel about the possibility of someone like Joe Lieberman, a lawmaker, someone who has taken a stand obviously because he was a politician being in charge of the FBI? [01:15:26] MOORE: If you're going to have a politician or former

politician involved with the FBI, Joe Lieberman would be the guy. I honestly am - I was taken aback by the possibilities of a former politician being head of the FBI, but -

SESAY: Why were you taken back?

MOORE: Well because the FBI is supposed to be completely apolitical and it's never, to the best of my knowledge happened before. It's always been Federal judges, Federal prosecutors, people who are given tenure that is supposed to insulate them a little bit from the political world and Joe Lieberman is going to be very familiar with the political world which means that his -- his world and his culture might clash a little bit with the FBI culture. That said, there are very few people in recent years in politics who I admire as much as Joe Lieberman and I don't question his integrity and he would be better than about a dozen other people who have been mentioned.

SESAY: OK. Well, let's play some sound now from Capitol Hill because let's face it, The reaction has been mixed to Joe Lieberman's name being floated here as being a top pick. I want you to listen to Senator Lindsey Graham and listen to what they have to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think Joe Lieberman is a pillar of credibility. I think he'd be a good choice. But now you have a special counsel the new FBI Director doesn't have to worry about riding herd of the investigation the man who appointed him.

SEM. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: I think it's a mistake to nominate anyone who's ever run for office. I'm somebody who spent a lot of time in law enforcement, this is a moment where we need a law enforcement professional that's never campaigned for a Presidential candidate, never campaign for office, never worn a party label to head the FBI.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESAY: John is Lieberman the right pick?

PHILLIPS: If you're going to the political route, I'd say he's perfectly fine the guy patriotic, the guy has respect across the aisles of both parties. He was a former Attorney General in the state of Connecticut and I disagree with the point that Claire McCaskill said. She was acting as if just because you're part of law enforcement you're apolitical. No, police chiefs are very political figures, they are politicians, they may not be elected by the voters but they are politicians. Many sheriffs get elected to office, the county level. A lot of those guys are very deeply political figures so I don't think that Joe Lieberman is necessarily any more or any less than those guys.

SESAY: Wendy, how do you feel about Joe Lieberman potentially possibly becoming the next head of the FBI? Is this something that will get through, you know, confirmation easily or do you expect a battle?

GREUEL: I agree with Claire McCaskill, I think that it should be someone within law enforcement. I think it should be someone who's above reproach on those issues. Lieberman is, you know, as a great Senator but I think we want someone who is going to bring back credibility to the FBI and not be impacted by politics and I don't think that a recently elected official, I mean, within the last decade, I don't think that's the right person.

SESAY: All right, but we've got to leave it there great conversation Steve Moore, John Phillips, Wendy Greuel appreciate it. Thank you, come back there be a lot more to talk about, thank you.

Quick break here, Mr. Trump is about to step onto the world stage in a big way. We'll preview his upcoming trip abroad next.

Plus the man who built Fox News into a global empire. We'll look back at the life of Roger Ailes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[01:21:13] SESAY: Hello, everyone. Problems with fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn are again rearing their head, and this time casting doubt on the Vice President and whether he had prior knowledge of a Federal investigation into Flynn. Our own Athena Jones reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The White House tonight is denying a New York Times report that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn told the Trump transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under investigation. The report what's reined focus on Vice President Mike Pence who lead the Trump transition effort. Pence has maintained the first time he learned of any investigation was months later in March when the retired General registered with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent, a move that seemed to surprise the Vice President at the time.

MIKE PENCE, UNITED STATES VICE PRESIDENT: Well, let me say hearing that story today was the first I heard of it and I fully support the decision that President Trump made to ask for General Flynn's resignation.

JONES: A Pence aide telling CNN today. The Vice President stands by his comments in March upon first hearing the news regarding General Flynn's ties to Turkey and fully supports the President's decision to ask for General Flynn's resignation. That despite the Vice President also receiving a warning about Flynn's foreign ties in a letter last November from Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D) MARYLAND: I sent him a very lengthy letter warning him of it.

JONES: The letter detailed Flynn lobbying work for a Turkish firm and the payment he received for a speech in Moscow that was quote, highly critical of the United States. During the height of the Presidential campaign, Flynn's consulting firm was paid more than half a million dollars by a Turkish own company. Cumming says Pence later told him he had no recollection of receiving the document.

CUMMINGS: When I asked him about it, later on, he said that, you know, he just had a fog and he doesn't remember getting it.

JONES: Pence to his often acting as a Trump translator dating back to the campaign.

PENCE: Donald Trump is a good man.

JONES: Is face ago a growing credibility problem. Just last week when he was dispatched to Capitol Hill after the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, Pence repeated the White House line seven times stating that the decision to fire Comey was based on a recommendation from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

PENCE: He provided strong leadership and to act on the recommendation by the Deputy Attorney General.

JONES: Only to be contradicted by the President hours later.

TRUMP: I was going to fire him, Comey. My decision, I was going to fire him regardless.

JONES: Athena Jones CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SESAY: Well, Donald Trump is about to take off on his first foreign trip. The visit was supposed to be a reset for an embattled new President, but the controversy surrounding him in Washington could just as easily shadow him abroad. He'll meet with a lot of world leaders beginning in the Middle East with stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the West Spank and then it's on to Europe, to meet with the Pope and attend summits with G7 and NATO leaders. Our own Nic Robertson is in Riyadh ahead of the President's visit and Middle East Expert Lisa Daftari is with me here in Los Angeles.

Nic, let me start with you first. How much attention is being paid to President Trump's troubles at home? In other words, can he leave them behind when he touches down in Saudi Arabia?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think to a degree he can leave them behind. That mean is certainly going to fail an entirely different place, one that is absolutely warm and welcoming. From when you drive in from the airport into centered area in the center of the city there are Saudi-American flags lining the route is going to be seeing on the huge billboards around here, pictures of himself, pictures of the King. So the welcome here is going to be big, the Saudis feel that this is huge. They're calling it an historic visit and of course, he is not meeting with the King here. He'll be meeting with as many 3,500 other regional Arabs and Muslims leaders who the Saudians have invited here as well. So this is being played out big, yes the narrative of the trouble the chaos, the difficulties are in back home are going to follow him, but the sound is we're expecting a lot.

We've heard from the National Security Advisor General McMaster outlining what President trouble do here and he'll give a speech and it will be a very important speech, then a speech that will need to be nuanced for the audience here and that is one that the United States, President Trump expects Arab and Muslim allies to do more to present a peaceful image of Islam. Of course, that's a difficult and the nuanced message to deliver but the Saudis for their part, expecting Trump to be able to support them and when it comes to Iran. Foreign Minister was briefing yesterday saying that they should be -- that Iran should learn to be a normal country.

The Defense, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis when he was here just a month ago talked about how the United States reinforce Saudi Arabia against Iran's mischief. So the other thing that is they expecting Trump to deliver on, is they expect in other words to be courageous in finding a way to get Palestinian and Israeli peace. So to the region, there's a lot riding on it and that would certainly cloud out, hear at least some of the troubles President Trump's having back home.

[01:26:42] SESAY: Lisa Daftari to you. The President has - to Saudi Arabia and his expected to make this speech but with all of that in mind, you can't forget the comments he made in the campaign, comments that some considered to be Islamaphobic. The President said things like Islam hates us I mean, how is that going to play into this speech and how will that play into how whether is receive comments his made in the past married up with what he says when is Riyadh.

LISA DAFTARI, MIDDLE EAST EXPERT: I think a lot of world leaders are very enthusiastic about speaking with Donald Trump and they're all on the same page meaning if they have an opportunity to sit down with the United states President, you know, they know that he was campaigning he spoke a different way when we has campaigning. Now you see him more interest aligned form policy coming out of the Trump administration meaning when he goes to Saudi Arabia, he knows this is a very opportunity moment he is going to do the reset. And when Saudi Arabia interested in that reset they are going to forgive very quickly on the harsh words that, that Donald Trump used during his campaign.

At this moment, you have all these nations coming together. They're looking forward to this new narrative that is going to come out of the White House. Meaning it's going to be a more Sunni aligned and a narrative one that is kind to the Sunni countries rather than kind to (INAUDIBLE) Iranian forces which was the Obama foreign policy entirely. So I think that when you have a President that's willing to kind of sit down with these leaders and listen to them and be on the same page with them whether it's regarding ISIS or with regards to how to treat and curb the Iranian regime I think everyone is going to be on board.

SESAY: Nic, this speech not the speech, this trip Nic, is it about anything more than the optics and the fact that people are going to be able to brush shoulders with the U.S. President or do you expect anything substantive to emerge from President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia and meeting with these gulf coast leaders? ROBERTSON: You know there's a hope there that the narrative that spit

out here and understating that the countries will have particularly between Saudi Arabia and the United States will be something different. There was a huge disappointment here if you get back to Europe spring, 2011. The Saudians were hugely disappointed in President Obama for not supporting their ally, the President there for not supporting in Egypt. So there was a real sense that President Obama that he wasn't doing right by the leaders his allies in this region and the real concern that they needed to stand on their own freedom, as

Saudi began to build their defense forces and security forces. Then I was one of the --they're now a -- the world's third largest defense and security spender. A $100 billion of that spend of the moment is with the United States. So this certainly is business to be done, the Saudi Foreign Minister was talking about more common work together on cyber security, on maritime security, that there would be more joint operations together, to some more practice and more training, but at a business level, there certainly does seem to be opportunity here as well, but I think really it's that more of a political reset opportunity after President Obama, who by the end of his tenure had not backed up his red line in Syria, had not as far as to the allies in the region we're concern done enough to support Sunni interests, the opposition inside Syria.

[01:30:14] There is this hope that because Trump does operate outside of the box, because he's nonconformist, because he often doesn't listen to his advisers, there's a chance for the leaders here, who know to deal with other leaders who like to get their own way, because, after all, that's how this region runs pretty much, that they know how to work with him, they know how to support him, encourage him, and say the right things to him and get in their ideas, their needs, their desires. We'll have to see how it plays out. But that's the hope here right now.

ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: We'll watch it closely.

Nic, there in Riyadh and Lisa in Los Angeles. Lis will be back with me shortly to discuss the elections in Iran. And I thank you both.

Next on NEWSROOM L.A., it's presidential election day in Iran. Voters are deciding whether to keep the moderate incumbent or to elect a leader who could take a harder line against the West.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: You're watching CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay.

The headlines this hour --

(HEADLINES)

SESAY: The Iranians are headed to the polls right now to elect their next leader. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei cast his ballot a short time ago. The moderate incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, is facing a challenge his right.

As Fred Pleitgen reports, Friday's vote could have serious implications for the future of Iran and its relationship with the West.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(CHEERING)

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A final push, fighting for every single vote. Moderate supporters in what they call a Rouhani street party, many telling us they want to see incumbent, Hassan Rouhani's course of trying to improve Iran's foreign relations continue.

UNIDENTIFIED IRANIAN: We are a peaceful country. We don't want to be recognized as a nation who is seeking war and aggression.

(CHEERING)

[01:35:17] PLEITGEN: Rouhani wants to build on the nuclear agreement brokered two years ago between his government and world powers that curbs Iran's nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief.

Rouhani says his course will bring foreign investments, economic growth and jobs to a country suffering from massive unemployment.

(SHOUTING)

PLEITGEN: But these people say that isn't working. Iran's very powerful conservative and hardliners, put on their own masked rallies. Fueled by the Trump administration's new hardline against Iran, they say the nuclear deal weakened the country and hasn't brought the promised benefits.

Ideological hardliner, Ebrahim Raisi, says he has a better plan, self- sufficiency.

"Our people are worried about unemployment and we know how to solve this problem," he said. We can create at least one million jobs and we have the means to do that."

Like in most countries, the economy is the main issue in Iran's election, and Hassan Rouhani's record is mixed at best. While the massive oil and gas sector has been booming since the nuclear deal, others, like manufacturing, are stagnating as foreign investment is only tricking in.

The two main candidates have their different views on how to jumpstart economic growth, making the election all the more important.

(on camera): While there is a fierce political battle between the conservatives and the moderates in this country, one thing both sides can agree on is they believe both sides will be pivotal in determining which direction this country takes in the future.

(voice-over): Both sides want a chance to shape Iran's political future, at least partial define this country's role in global affairs.

Fred Pleitgen CNN, Teheran.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SESAY: Well, joining me once again is Middle East expert, Lisa Daftari.

Lisa, in your view, what is at stake with this vote?

LISA DAFTARI, MIDDLE EAST EXPERT: This vote is much more important than the years prior. This is not just about the next four years. This is going to be about decades to come. Whoever is elected into office, whether it is a more moderate candidate or a more conservative one, will pretty much dictate who the next supreme leader will be. Khamenei is about 78 years old. Rumors have been flying about his poor health. He's in and out of the hospital. There have been rumors about him dying that have been proven to be false. So he's getting there and this is really going to be an important move. You see the push by Khamenei and his constituents and the Revolutionary Guards to push Raisi. The more conservative candidate into office, Rouhani, is the incumbent, who had a lot of popularity behind him. He came in as the candidate who was going to be more moderate. He wasn't that much more moderate on human right issues. And on the economy. He was supposed to fix the economy. That's what he promised. That's what the Iranians were hoping for. And even though the sanctions were loosened and even those they did strike that nuclear deal on his watch, the economy and unemployment are still abysmal in that country.

SESAY: Raisi is his nearest challengers, and does he really have the opportunity, does he really have the capacity to change the direction of the economy?

DAFTARI: Not really, because if Rouhani, with him more moderate approach to the West to working with different economies and entering the global community, wasn't able to do so, what makes the Iranians believe that now a more conservative isolationist-type candidate will be able to do so.

Now, if you talk to critics of the regime, whether ex-pat or inside the country, they will tell you this is entirely a sham election, a fake election, a fake system, because all of the candidates have to be approved by the council. All the candidates come from within the system. So whether Rouhani is a bit more reformist, it's all within the same system. They're all going to be made of the same cloth, which is the cost of the Islamic Republic, a vast government. And what I have been hearing a lot in interviews with the Iranians I do on a daily basis is to talk to people who are still talking about regime change or pushing and finding ways of really exposing the regime for the real problems that exist within society and, again, the crackdowns on journalists, on dancers, on writers, on bloggers. People going to prison for a mere Facebook post. And these are the real ills of society and not what we're watching in this election, unfortunately.

SESAY: That being said, how much of the views that the stance of the likes of Donald Trump on the minds of voters as they cast their ballots? You've been speaking to people. What are they saying? Or is it purely domestic?

[01:39:57] DAFTARI: It is domestic but I think Iranians are extremely politically savvy and they do look across the world and see what's going on in the United States. And a lot of people I interview say they understand why someone like Donald Trump was voted into the office because people in the world wants a change. And that change actually started not with Brexit but it started with the Arab Spring. And while Iran is not an Arab nation, Iran was the precursor to that Arab Spring. In 2009, when those young people in Iran came out on the streets in the aftermath of their election, they were telling the world, we outgrew the government and we want something different. And that catapulted into all these different political movements across the globe. And you can put Donald Trump's victory in that same list, saying that people want a change, something entirely different. And unfortunately, the Iranians were not supported in their 2009 revolution, they did not get the change that they wanted to, but that did not mean that this sentiment doesn't still exist right beneath the surface of their 75 million population.

SESAY: And from the U.S. perspective, they've had dealings with Rouhani in recent years, does the possible election stir concern, fear, or do they feel like Iran is largely being contained.

DAFTARI: It seems, even with Rouhani, the more moderate candidate, he was just the face of the regime and the supreme leader is much more important, and that was Khamenei. Look, we signed a deal with the Iranian government and we didn't see much of a warming of relations, unfortunately. So whether, you know, if a more conservative candidate comes in there and they want to, you know, truly turn their back on the U.S. and the West, I think it's going to be much more challenging to rectify or at least build upon the nuclear agreement. Right now, we have an agreement. It's a piece of paper. It has meant nothing about, you know, not getting Westerners stuck in Iranian prisons. It's meant nothing about certain flexing of muscles that we see the Iranian government continues to do, and in a sense of provocations, really, military and otherwise. So truly, I think it's going to be real change coming from within society and that's going to take time and years. And for the young people of Iran to really have these grassroots campaigns and to push the idea of really reforming themselves from within, because the man who stands at that podium is not -- has not been able to give them the change that they really are wanting.

SESAY: Lisa Daftari, joining us with some fascinating insight. Lisa, always appreciate it. Thank you.

DAFTARI: Thank you.

SESAY: China and the Philippines are gearing up to discuss one of the most disputed regions in the world. Just over an hour from now, top diplomats will begin their first high-level meeting about the South China Sea.

Our own David McKenzie takes a look at the warming relations between the two countries.

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(MUSIC)

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte touring a Chinese warship. The optics are clear, the two countries are growing closer.

It's a dramatic turnaround. In 2016, the Philippines won in court an arbitration case against the Chinese over disputed islands in the South China Sea, infuriating Beijing.

The ambassador of the Philippines to China told me that Duterte shelved that ruling, in part, because the U.S. didn't have their back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's why the president kept asking the U.S. ambassador, are you with us or not. He did not get a clear answer. The strategic answer was simple, don't put your eggs in one basket.

MCKENZIE: The military alliance compelled the U.S. to defend the Philippines in an attack. In a statement, the U.S. State Department told CNN that the alliance is, quote, "ironclad." "Our dependability and reliability has an ally have been established over decades."

But in the South China Sea, China has succeeded in turning dispute sandbanks into islands, then military inspiration.

GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: That genie is out of the bottle. The islands they have created, the developments that they've put down, the roots they are planting here in the South China Sea, are forever.

MCKENZIE: And China's military keeps getting strong. Chinese President Xi Jinping is personally overseeing a modernizing air force and navy, who are launching their first home-grown aircraft carrier.

President Trump seems reluctant to push the South China Sea issue as he depends on China to help pressure North Korea to stop its nuclear program. So analysts say China is freer to expands it's hard and soft power in the region.

But Duterte is welcoming billions in Chinese investment after the military shift.

(on camera): A cynic might say that the Philippines has sold out its sovereignty in the self-China sea to get investment from China.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the misunderstanding. We are trying to get investigates in China but not at the price of our sovereignty.

[01:45:07] MARKS: They have been a worldwide global influence economically for the longest time. They are now creating a proportional military capability to exercise that element of power in a way that can be perceived and should be perceived as a threat.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): It seems that, in Asia, the might of China's military and the lure of its money is hard to counter. David McKenzie, CNN, Beijing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SESAY: Next on NEWSROOM L.A., a car rams into pedestrians at one of New York's busiest tourist spots. We'll tell you about the accident in Times Square.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: Hello, everyone. It was right around lunch time that New York's bustling Times Square went into a scene of panic -- and a warning, the video we're about to show you may be disturbing -- as a car crashed into pedestrians in the busy tourist area. An 18-year-old woman was killed and at least 22 people were hurt when the car bowled people over in a horrible instant. Emergency officials say the vehicle was, quote, "out of control." The car then flipped in the packed street. The mayor says nothing suggests this was an act of terror. A source tells CNN the driver tested positive for PCP. He's being charged for aggravated vehicular homicide and multiple counts of attempted murder. It's really shocking.

Well, Roger Ailes has passed away at the age of 77 after injuring head in a fall. He turned FOX News into a juggernaut but his career came crashing to an end last year amid complaints about sexual harassment.

Our Brian Stelter looks at his long career.

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BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT & CNN HOST, RELIABLE SOURCES (voice-over): A television titan and GOP king maker --

ROGER AILES, FORMER FOX NEWS CEO: The secret to life? Find something you love to do, find somebody that will pay you to do it.

STELTER: -- whose career ended in scandal. Roger Ailes was born in Ohio in 1940. His hemophilia was sent to the hospital often as a child, making him a natural-born fighter who dreamed of a better life.

AILES: I always thought, you know, the only way to do it is hard work and you've got to be bitter and smarter than the next guy.

STELTER: Ailes graduated from Ohio University in 1962 and worked in local TV, eventually becoming the executive producer of the "Mike Douglas Show."

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the "Mike Douglas Show."

SETELTER: There, he met Richard Nixon, who later hired him as a media advisor. Hailed as a TV wizard, Ailes also worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He helped create this infamous revolving-door ad for the 1988 campaign, attacking Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime.

ANNOUNCER: While out, he committed other crimes, like kidnapping and rape.

STELTER: Ailes went back to the TV business back in the early 1990s, becoming president of CNBC. Then came the opportunity of a lifetime. Media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, tapped him to lead the FOX News channel and to stamp out what he thought was rampant liberal media biased.

[01:50:12] AILES: We just expect to do fine, balanced journalism.

STELTER: It launched in 1996. Less than six years later, it started it was number one in cable news.

AILES: I think my primary qualification for running a news channel is I don't have a degree in journalism.

STELTER: FOX cemented Ailes' reputation as a TV legend and changed the political landscape.

He ran the channel almost like a permanent campaign, lifting up Republican candidates and supporting conservative policies.

UNIDENTIFIED ANALYST: He found what the economists call market inefficiency, an audience that was not being served.

STELTER: Many media watchers believe that the conservative influence of FOX News paved the way for the election of Donald Trump.

But Ailes was not able to saver the victory. Four months before the election, former FOX News host, Gretchen Carlson, sued Ailes, accusing him of sexual harassment. Although he strongly denied the allegations, multiple women within FOX, including Megyn Kelly, came forward with similar stories. His wife, Elizabeth, stood by him, but two weeks later, he was out of a job.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with some breaking news, a media bombshell.

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Shockwaves as one of the most powerful men in the history of television and politics is ousted.

STELTER: FOX News eventually settled harassment complaints by several women, including Gretchen Carlson.

It was a staggering fall for the master mind behind a cable news juggernaut. His golden parachute? $40 million.

But legacy lives on at the channel he built and through the media revolution he launched.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SESAY: Our Brian Stelter there.

Well, medical examiners say that rock star, Chris Cornell, hanged himself after playing a show in Detroit Wednesday night. Cornell rose to fame as the lead singer of Sound Garden. He came from the same Seattle grunge rock scene that produced banks like Nirvana and Pearl Jam in the '80s and '90s.

Our own Stephanie Elam remembers another musician gone too soon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(SINGING)

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): His voice was unmistakable.

(SINGING)

ELAM: His music shaped a generation of rock music fans.

(SINGING)

ELAM: Singer/song writer, Chris Cornell, was a pioneer of grunge rock and formed one of the major bands of Seattle's grunge music scene.

(SINGING)

ELAM: With the ability to sing nearly four octaves, his vocal talent set him apart.

Born Christopher John Boyle in 1964, he grew up in Seattle, Washington, in an Irish Catholic family. And after his parents' divorced, he dropped out of high school to play music and help support his family.

In 1984, he formed the band Sound Garden with guitarist, Kim Thayll; drummer, Matt Cameron; and basis, Hiro Yamamoto, who would later be replaced by Ben Shepherd.

The album "Super Unknown" was, by far, their most popular, debuting number one on the Billboard charts and earning multi-platinum status.

(SINGING)

ELAM: The band won a Grammy award for the hit single "Black Hole Sun."

(MUSIC)

ELAM: And Grammy award for "Spoon Man," a song about a street artist who played the spoons on the streets of Seattle.

The band released six studio albums and their popularity had them playing sold-out shows around the world. And they became one of the most successful bands of the '90s.

(SINGING)

ELAM: Sound Garden broke up in 1997 and Cornell joined the group Audio Slave and also pursued a solo career.

(SINGING) ELAM: After reportedly struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, Cornell checked himself into rehab.

(SINGING)

ELAM: And by the mid 2000s, he sang the theme song to the James Bond movie "Casino Royale."

(SINGING)

ELAM: After getting back together, Sound Garden had just started a U.S. tour. Recently, he performed with the Zak Brown band. They played "Heavy is the Head" on "Saturday Night Live" earlier this year.

Chris Cornell leaves behind a wife and three children, and an imprint on rock music that will live on for years to come. Chris Cornell was 52 years old.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[01:56:02] SESAY: Chelsea Manning is out of prison and on Instagram. She posted this picture accompanied by the message, "OK, so here I am everyone." Manning was convicted in 2013 for leaking documents to WikiLeaks but was found not guilty of aiding the enemy. His sentence was commuted by former U.S. President Barack Obama and she was released on Wednesday.

Well, the Philippine president is known for a brutal anti-drug war that has left thousands of people dead, and now he's cracking down on smoking in public. Rodrigo Duterte's executive order sets a maximum four-month jail sentence for violators and a $100 fine. Mr. Duterte once spoked heavily. He quit after he was diagnosed with a rare disease. More than a quarter of Filipinos smoke according to a World Health Organization report for 2015.

Now, he was an artist whose gritting and groundbreaking work often challenged the establishment, but now decades after his death, Jean- Michel Basquiat has become a very exclusive member of the artistic elite. This painting of a skull from 1982 has been sold for more than $110 million. That is a new record for an American artist at auction. The buyer was a Japanese billionaire. Wow.

You're watching the CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay.

I'll be back with more news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[02:00:08] SESAY: This is CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles.

Ahead this hour --