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Obama Knew of Russian Meddling in August 2016; Rescue Workers Scramble after Chinese Landslide; Hundreds Sent to Temporary Housing after U.K. Cladding Fire Tests; Republican Senators Oppose Health Care Bill; Qataris Respond to Boycott with Patriotism; Rescue Workers Scramble after Chinese Landslide. Aired 4-5a ET

Aired June 24, 2017 - 04:00   ET

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


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GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Pointing the finger, U.S. President Donald Trump questions whether the former president, Barack Obama, did enough to combat Russian hacking.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Rescue and recovery efforts underway as China's president calls for an all-out effort to find more than 140 villagers feared to have been buried in a landslide.

HOWELL (voice-over): And he says it was a joke. But it wasn't funny. Johnny Depp apologizes for comments that seemed to consider Donald Trump's assassination. But he's not only the first Hollywood celebrity to talk that way about Mr. Trump.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and all around the world. I'm George Howell.

ALLEN (voice-over): And I'm Natalie Allen. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.

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HOWELL: It is 4:00 am on the U.S. East Coast. The U.S. president blaming his predecessor for not doing enough, doing more to deal with Russian interference with last year's presidential election.

ALLEN: "The Washington Post" reported Friday that the Obama White House learned of Moscow's meddling in August 2016, several months before the election. Here is what the president told FOX News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I just heard today for the first time that Obama knew about Russia a long time before the election and he did nothing about it. But nobody wants to talk about that. To me, you know, in other words, the question is, if he had the information, why didn't he do something about it? He should've done something about it. (END VIDEO CLIP)

ALLEN: It's not accurate to say the Obama administration did nothing about Moscow's cyber operation; 35 Russian diplomats were expelled and two Russian properties in the U.S. were closed.

HOWELL: And the president giving that interview to a friendly news channel, FOX News channel.

The question now is, what did the Trump White House, what are the plans to do with that?

Here's our White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway, here is what she had to say on CNN on Friday. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP COUNSELOR: The White House is -- the president has met with his national security team many times. He has an initiative or a commission on voter integrity and he himself used the power of the bully pulpit to express his resistance towards any type of outside interference.

So, you know, again, I've answered the question several times --

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: But is that --

CONWAY: -- ongoing process, you're dealing with a very new report. So we will look at that as well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOWELL: In that interview, Alisyn Camerota asked several times that question to find evasive answers. So far, there's no evidence of Russian interference that it actually changed the votes or affected the outcome of the election.

ALLEN: But "The Washington Post" article does show how far the Kremlin was willing to go to try to disrupt the process. CNN's Jessica Schneider has the details.

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JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A new report reveals Russian president Vladimir Putin gave direct orders to defeat Hillary Clinton and help elect Donald Trump as president.

According to a bombshell report by "The Washington Post," the Obama administration knew Putin was directing cyber attacks during the 2016 campaign three months before the election.

Intelligence obtained from deep inside the Russian government was couriered by the CIA to the White House in August and it detailed Putin's direct involvement in the hacking meant to disrupt and discredit the presidential race. TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: When you go back, this was a moving picture. It's not like we had an immediate clear snapshot of what the Russians were up to. It evolved over time.

At first we thought they were simply trying to do what they always do, which was pull information, see if they could get something that they could use later down the road. Then it looked like they were trying to basically interfere in the election mostly by creating doubt about our institutions.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Former deputy national security adviser to President Obama Tony Blinken defended the administration's strategy to keep the information quiet.

BLINKEN: As we were deliberating this, we thought, the more we play this up in public, the more we play their game. We actually create even further doubt by making this into a big public matter.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): But a former senior Obama official felt differently, telling "The Post," "It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked."

President Obama reportedly issued a stern warning to Putin at the G20 summit in China in September. And "The Post" details Obama's authorization to plant cyber weapons, so-called "digital bombs," in Russia's infrastructure that could be used to retaliate. But Obama left office before the planning was complete.

Lawmakers are questioning why more wasn't done to stop the Russians or alert Americans.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: I greatly admire President Obama. I wish that he and the administration would have acted differently here.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Meanwhile, the Russia probes are moving forward on Capitol Hill. Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta --

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SCHNEIDER (voice-over): -- will meet behind closed doors with members of the House Intelligence Committee next week.

Podesta's emails were hacked and distributed by WikiLeaks at the height of the campaign. Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expanding its investigation to look into political interference by both the Obama and Trump administrations.

The committee sent a letter to former attorney general Loretta Lynch, Friday demanding she disclose any conversations with the Clinton campaign or the Democratic National Committee about the FBI's investigation into Clinton's private e-mail server.

SCHNEIDER: This letter to Loretta Lynch is being seen as a way to appease both Democrats and Republicans. While the Democrats on the committee push for an obstruction of justice investigation against the president, Republicans are widening the probe to include potential political interference into the FBI's investigation of Clinton's e- mail server -- Jessica Schneider, CNN, Washington.

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ALLEN: President Trump ended his saga on possible tapes of his talks with the former FBI director right where he started it, on Twitter.

HOWELL: And the White House is letting that explanation stand as its official statement to congressional investigators, who had asked for any recordings if they existed. Our Sara Murray has more now from the White House.

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SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump may have come clean about the existence of tapes from his conversations with former FBI Director James Comey.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So you never know what's out there, but I didn't tape. And I don't have any tape.

MURRAY (voice-over): But he's showing no sign of regret over his original message.

TRUMP: My story didn't change. My story was always a straight story. My story was always the truth. But you'll have to determine for yourself whether or not his story changed. But, I did not tape.

AINSLEY EARHARDT, FOX AND FRIENDS FIRST CO-HOST: That was a smart way to make sure he stayed honest in those hearings.

TRUMP: Well, it wasn't very stupid, I can tell you that

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth.

MURRAY (voice-over): Comey testified earlier this month. The President's tweet prompted him to share memos detailing their conversation, in hopes of spurring a special counsel investigation.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I needed to get that out into the public square.

MURRAY (voice-over): The Justice Department named former FBI Director Robert Mueller special counsel for the Russia probe last month, a move that came after the President's dismissal of Comey. Now the President is raising questions about Mueller's tie to Comey.

TRUMP: Well, he's very, very good friends with Comey, which is very bothersome. But he's also -- we're going to have to see. I mean, we're going to have to see in terms. Look, there has been no obstruction. There has been no collusion. There has been leaking by Comey.

MURRAY (voice-over): The President also accused Mueller of hiring partisan to staff the investigation.

TRUMP: I can say that the people that have been hired are all Hillary Clinton supporters.

MURRAY (voice-over): Despite those concerns, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that today's briefing, where cameras were again band, that the President has no plans to remove Mueller from his post.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Nothing has changed on that in terms of his position on it. While he retains the authority and he want to serves at him I believe. Steve and I had a healthy exchange with -- but that he has no intention of doing that.

MURRAY (voice-over): And after earlier this week saying he didn't know if the President believes Russia interfered in the election. Spicer today said Trump quote, think it was Russia.

SPICER: He's concerned about any country or any actor that wants to interfere in elections. I confirm that he stands by that.

MURRAY (voice-over): And the Russia cloud hangs over his presidency, Trump is trying to turn the focus (ph) to his agenda. Today, signing of bipartisan reform to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

TRUMP: We've done a lot. This is a big one. We have a lot of good ones coming.

MURRAY (voice-over): The President is also praising the GOP push to appeal and replace ObamaCare underway in the Senate, talking up prospects for the draft proposal just like early opposition from at least five Republican senators.

TRUMP: It's a very complicated situation from the standpoint. You do something that's good for one group but bad for another. It's a very, very narrow path. But I think we're going to get there.

MURRAY (voice-over): Sara Murray, CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: A lot of issues to talk about in Washington.

With us from London is Leslie Vinjamuri, who teachings international relations at SOAS University of London.

Leslie, good to see you and thank you for being with us.

LESLIE VINJAMURI, SOAS UNIVERSITY OF LONDON: Thank you.

ALLEN: First of all, should congressional investigators get more assurance about these tapes outside of a tweet?

And, of course, this comes at the same time the White House is not letting reporters videotape their briefing. So it's more like the tweet word is the word. VINJAMURI: It is an interesting question whether or not there are tapes. I think a lot of people would like to see this. I suspect that Mueller is mulling over whether or not to subpoena tapes.

I don't think Congress is likely to get very far right now with the tapes because nobody knows if they exist. It's very difficult to prove the absence of something. But it is distressing that there's this back-and-forth on Twitter.

Of course we've seen throughout the 150 days --

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VINJAMURI: -- or so of the Trump presidency on a variety of issues. But the tapes are really critical because it's the one thing that confirm the nature of those conversations, those private conversations between former FBI director Comey and President Trump to understand whether or not there were things said that were really not appropriate, that constitute undue pressure on an independent investigation led by Comey at that time.

So they're really critical. But I don't see the tapes, if they exist, coming out anytime soon. And you're absolutely right to point out that there is grave concern for the media and the public about the fact that the briefings are being kept off record, as it were, at least they're not being subject to live audio and video recording. And that's reduced dramatically over the last few months.

ALLEN: It has and here we are now, learning about this "Washington Post" report. As far as President Trump's questions about why the Obama administration didn't do more when it learned last August, four months before the election, that Russia was hacking into the U.S. election system.

Does Mr. Trump have a point?

VINJAMURI: Well, there are several things on this. Remember that Donald Trump has spent much of the last several weeks and months denying the validity and the credibility of the allegations that Russia did interfere in the U.S. presidential elections.

So this is remarkable not only for the evidence and the reporting that's coming out of "The Washington Post" but it's also Donald Trump saying actually there was an issue and why didn't President Obama respond?

It is an unfair critique I think in many respects but there is a very question mark about the choices by the past administration how to deal with this. It's an incredibly difficult issue, as we just heard. The evidence wasn't there in one chunk. It was come out very slowly.

And there was a very serious concern on the part of President Obama not to take measures that would either make things worse in terms of the integrity of the presidential elections and also very significantly not to be seen as partisan with this intervention, which is incredibly difficult. And remember the broader context, that nobody thought Donald Trump was

going to win this election. So even if there was a concern about the disinformation campaign, I think there was probably a sense that it was rational to wait to get as much evidence as possible, not to be wrong in any allegations, to be absolutely sure and then to revisit this question at a point when we were through with the U.S. presidential elections.

Difficult choice and we're going to be vetting that choice for weeks and months to come, undoubtedly.

ALLEN: Yes, also "The Washington Post" said, in political terms, Russia's interference was the crime of the century and they didn't get much more than kind of a slap.

VINJAMURI: That's right.

ALLEN: Thank you, Leslie, for joining us.

VINJAMURI: Thank you.

HOWELL: Still ahead here on NEWSROOM this hour, a landslide strikes rural China. What we know at this point about rescue efforts -- ahead.

ALLEN: Also, putting safety first, evacuations overnight in London to make sure there's no repeat of the Grenfell fire disaster.

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ALLEN: And welcome back.

Rescuers in China are scrambling to save victims after a horrific landslide. State media report a family of three has been saved from the rubble. But 141 people are still missing and 46 houses buried.

The rescued family is reportedly a couple and their baby girl. They're being treated at a local hospital.

HOWELL: Wow, those images just really tell you the story.

The landslide struck a village in Southwestern China in Sichuan province; 780 rescuers responded to the scene so far. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has called all of them to do all they can to reach the victims.

ALLEN: We're getting some startling images of what this area looked like before and after this massive landslide.

So picturesque there. You see here the buildings before the disaster and then what the

valley looks like now, covered in rubble.

It's hard to believe that is just rubble. That is all kinds of things, trees, mud, rocks, boulders. You can't imagine.

Our Matt Rivers is in Shanghai and he's been following developments.

Matt, they did pull out three people and Xi Jinping says keep working.

Any news on any others?

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At this point, no. What we've heard from state media reports in this very remote area of Sichuan province is that they have detected signs of life. So they do believe that they have a chance at least of reaching other people.

But at this point, as least as far as we know -- and, again, this is ongoing -- but as far as we know, they haven't been able to pull anyone else out of the rubble other than that family of three, pretty remarkable considering all three people in the same family able to be pulled out at the same time.

This happened at 6:00 am this morning and that certainly has something to do with the number of people that are buried underneath all of that rubble that you showed in those pictures and that video because given that time of the morning, most of the people in this village were probably in their homes, some of them probably even asleep, completely unaware of what was barreling down towards them.

The landslide happened right at 6:00 am. It happened in a high part of this mountain and it came crashing down into the valley floor, which is seemingly where this village was.

This is a remote village, difficult to access. And so rescuer workers have been streaming in by the hundreds all day long. It started with a couple hundred rescue workers; it got up to 500 in our latest numbers from authorities that there's nearly 800 people digging through the rubble, using heavy equipment, using bulldozers and backhoes, trying to get to the people that remain buried at this point, 141 people still unaccounted for.

And the challenge facing rescuers moving forward, it is supposed to rain over the next couple of days, we're told. And also the fact that the nearest hospital is actually --

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RIVERS: -- four hours away. So even if they can pull people out, they still have quite a long road ahead of them, to try and get them the treatment that they need. But still, this is in the first 24 hours of this happening. Rescuers are still calling this a rescue operation.

The hope here is that it doesn't swiftly turn into a recovery operation. But given the amount of damage we've seen, that could very well happen.

ALLEN: All right. Thank you so much, Matt Rivers for us there in Shanghai.

More fallout from the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London. Hundreds of families have been moved to temporary shelter now. They are out of their homes for the next month or so because of concerns that the cladding on their buildings in North London is flammable.

HOWELL: Similar cladding is at the heart of the investigation to last week's fire at Grenfell Tower, a fire that killed at least 79 people. Safety checks are underway at apartment buildings across the United Kingdom. Local London officials say Grenfell has changed everything.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I realize it's disruptive to people's lives but it's particular (ph) safety comes first. If it's not safe, then people need to go.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What we found that while the insulation was safe, the external cladding was not up to the standards that we wanted. It was not fire retardant.

Obviously, this was very disappointing. We shared that news with our residents and, on Thursday night, we had a public meeting with local residents, where they shared a number of concerns about fire safety that I hadn't been aware of.

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HOWELL: Let's now bring in Kuldeep Virdi. He is a professor emeritus of structural engineering at City University in London, live via Skype this hour with us.

Good to have you, sir.

Looking back here at the Grenfell fire, if it was the cladding, how would that have helped this fire to spread so quickly?

And why are authorities so concerned about other buildings?

KULDEEP VIRDI, CITY UNIVERSITY: Well, because it was been determined that the cladding has flammable material. Therefore, there is a serious risk of fire. And, of course, we have seen evidence of the in the council (ph) building and, therefore, the authorities have made a risk assessment and they decided that the fire associates could not cope with a fire of this magnitude.

Therefore, they've decided to vacate many of the buildings.

HOWELL: Kuldeep Virdi, so on the side here, we're seeing these images inside the Grenfell Tower following this fire. If we could take these images full because I want to talk about the gladding that was on the exterior. I want you to tell us about this cladding.

What is the process to remove it?

How difficult is it to go back to buildings, to identify which buildings are affected and then strip them of this cladding?

VIRDI: I think the decision as to which buildings to be stripped of the cladding is straightforward because we would know what materials were used in those buildings and if it was the case that the material was flammable, then you decide to remove the cladding.

The question whether it's easy to remove or not, I think it's not very difficult because these panels are not very heavy, made of aluminum and some polymer materials. So handling them is not too difficult.

Of course, when the cladding is at, say 20 stories high floor, then you have to take care that the persons removing the cladding are also safe. So there has to be consideration of safety of people removing the cladding.

But as for the weight of the cladding, elements are concerned, it's not too heavy. Should not be too difficult.

HOWELL: We hear this from officials. They say that Grenfell changed everything. In this case, we're talking about a particular set of buildings.

But with regard to the scope and scale of this problem, look, could we be talking about hospitals?

Could hotels be concerned about the cladding on their structures?

How common is this type of cladding?

And how far could it go?

VIRDI: My understanding is that this type of cladding was used for all the buildings where they decided to do two things: one, to improve the appearance of the building and, second, to improve the thermal insulation. So the aluminum on the outside is there for appearance and the insulation there is to improve the performance of the buildings, retaining heat, et cetera.

So from an energy point of view, this would have been a good product. But, unfortunately, it's turned out that another aspect of this is whether the material is flammable or not. And I think we have seen the case that the material was flammable.

It is not the case that all cladding systems have (INAUDIBLE) material, only some of them do. So I think the authorities would have a sense which buildings have this kind of panel and then these buildings will be to be refurbished. These panels will have to be removed and something else will have to be put in place.

[04:25:00]

HOWELL: Obviously, the fire in London has drawn attention to this type of paneling, this cladding. Now the question, you know, certainly in the United Kingdom but what

other countries, what other buildings around the world could be affected by this?

Kuldeep Virdi, thank you so much. Thank you for your time.

VIRDI: You're welcome.

ALLEN: Still ahead here, we revisit our top story. More on the blockbuster report, new claims about Russian interference in the U.S. election. More about it, coming up.

HOWELL: And when Hollywood and Washington collide, Johnny Depp becomes the latest celebrity to stir controversy with a bad joke about the U.S. president. But it's no laughing matter for the White House. We're on live across the United States and around the world this hour. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

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HOWELL: 4:29 am on the U.S. East Coast. Welcome back to our viewers around the world and here in the United States. This is CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell.

ALLEN: I'm Natalie Allen. The headlines this hour.

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GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The Russian foreign minister gave a seemingly sarcastic response to "The Washington Post" reporting that essentially showed the former Obama administration had information on Russian meddling but the question now, what did they do and did they do enough?

Now let's bring in CNN's Diana Magnay following this story live from Moscow.

Diana, it's great to have you with us. The allegation that President Putin himself ordered a plan to disrupt and discredit the U.S. electoral process, how are officials responding there?

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a pretty limited response so far. We have had a text from the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, saying the show must go on.

I think publicly, always, the Kremlin has wanted to appear as though they are not following every twist and turn of the Russia investigation. And, in fact, they've used pretty much the same terminology as Donald Trump himself to describe what is going on in the United States and the media coverage of the Russia investigation and all the new revelations as a kind of witch hunt driven by a hysterical fake news media.

Privately, though, one would expect there to be some consternation behind the very secretive doors of the Kremlin if what "The Washington Post" reports is true because for two reasons.

First of all, this allegation that the CIA was told that Putin himself, President Putin himself had directly ordered the hacking of U.S. electoral systems from a source deep inside the Kremlin, ""The Washington Post" reports.

And for the second suggestion that President Obama put into motion a plan to implant, I suppose, ticking cyber time bombs in Russian cyber infrastructure that could be detonated, triggered at anytime.

Now as you just said, we don't know how far that plan is in motion. But I think both of those two allegations will concern the Kremlin very much, that there is a source inside the Kremlin -- this is a notoriously unleaky body -- and, secondly, the possibility of these cyber implants -- George.

HOWELL: We did hear from President Trump basically pointing the finger at his predecessor, questioning why Barack Obama didn't do more, this coming from President Trump.

But when you consider the present landscape here, Diana, where the Trump administration has imposed new sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, it's the exact opposite effect than what the president campaigned on, warmer relations with Russia.

How is that being perceived there?

MAGNAY: You're absolutely right. It is completely the opposite of what President Trump campaigned on and also the opposite of what Russia wanted.

What did they want out of improved Russia-U.S. relations?

Well, rehabilitation on the world stage; they wanted an end to sanctions. Remember, they are politically pretty isolated now that G8 is G7. Sanctions alongside the oil price, of course, have had a fairly stifling effect on the Russian economy.

And President Putin clearly hoped that a Trump administration rather a Clinton administration would improve those ties. But as it turns out, because of these various investigations and the fact that the Russia probe simply will not go away, it has now become effectively politically toxic for President Trump to be seen to cozy up to the Russians.

Not actually that that seemed to make much different when the president met with Sergey Lavrov in that rather extraordinary Oval Office meeting alongside the Russian foreign -- sorry, Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador in Washington. But, nevertheless, this is why you'll hear from the Kremlin this

terminology that it is inveterate Russophobes -- was the last thing they said -- in the Congress who are trying to ruin U.S.-Russia relations. But it does effectively President Trump's hands.

So we do have this supposed meeting in two weeks' time between the two leaders at G20 on the sidelines, which may or may not happen. But I think it is highly unlikely that much will come of that -- George.

HOWELL: Diana Magnay live I Moscow, thank you for the reporting.

[04:35:00]

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Something else on Donald Trump's desk, he says he's supportive of his party's latest attempt to overhaul U.S. health care with the Senate's latest version of its bill.

HOWELL: But not all Republicans feel quite as optimistic. Ryan Nobles explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, a growing chorus of opposition to the bill from within the party.

SEN. DEAN HELLER (R), NEVADA: This bill that's currently in front of the United States Senate is not the answer. It's simply not the answer. And I'm announcing today that, in this form, I will not support it.

NOBLES (voice-over): For conservatives, the bill doesn't go far enough. But moderates like Nevada's Dean Heller, who faces a 2018 reelection bid in Nevada, have concerns the bill negatively impacts too many people.

The bill calls for major changes to the future of Medicaid, a point Democrats are seizing on.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-N.Y.), MINORITY LEADER: The president said the House bill was mean. The Senate may be meaner.

NOBLES (voice-over): Under ObamaCare, states, if they choose to participate, receive federal funds to expand Medicaid to provide health coverage for low-income Americans. The House bill would end Medicaid expansion in three years and give states a block grant to fund Medicaid as they see fit.

The Senate version phases out Medicaid expansion more slowly, starting in 2021, but makes deeper cuts to the overall Medicaid program by sharply reducing federal funding over time.

While the Senate proposal does extend Medicaid's expansion life a few years longer than the House bill, the ends result is the same: low- income adults will likely be kicked off the rolls.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is going to hurt the people that worked hardest to elect Trump.

NOBLES (voice-over): Republicans argue that the federal government cannot afford the increased costs and that ObamaCare is leading to out-of-control premiums and Americans losing coverage.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: I really want some freedom in choice allowing Americans to buy health coverage that fit their needs and that they can afford.

NOBLES (voice-over): It is this argument that is at the core of the decision-making process for undecided GOP senators, both sides of the argument calling for major changes with just a week before the Senate leadership has promised the bill will be brought to the floor for a vote.

Still, the White House remains cautiously optimistic.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a very complicated situation from the standpoint you do something that's good for one group but bad for another. It's a very, very narrow path. But I think we're going to get there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: Our Ryan Nobles reporting there from Washington -- George.

HOWELL: Colombian rebels have freed two Dutch journalists abducted last Monday. Derek Volt (ph) and Eugenio Funder (ph) were handed over to members of Colombia's human rights office early Saturday. The officials say the guerrillas who kidnapped them are from the National Liberation Army. It's the second largest rebel group in Colombia, behind FARQ.

Still ahead this hour on CNN NEWSROOM, life at the center of a diplomatic crisis. We head to Qatar to look at how that country is responding to the growing pressure from its neighbors.

ALLEN: Also here, a look at weather conditions in China as rescuers rush to save lives after a massive landslide. Derek will have that.

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HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM.

The White House is calling a dispute between Qatar and other Gulf nations a family issue, that they should work out together. Doha is accusing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE and Bahrain of trying to limit its sovereignty after telling Qatar that they would only lift sanctions if a series of demands were met. ALLEN: Let's look at those demands. The list includes closing the Al Jazeera news network, stopping the development of a Turkish military base, reducing ties to Iran and cutting ties to terror groups, a link that Qatar denies.

CNN producer Gul Tuysuz joins us now from Istanbul with more about it.

This list of demands, it certainly seems like these countries are overreaching with such demands.

GUL TUYSUZ, CNN PRODUCER: Well, Natalie, this move came very suddenly and very surprisingly but, of course, there's a backstory. The nations that are carrying out the so-called blockade on Qatar have said this is a move to try to stop Qatar from funding and supporting terrorism.

But the backstory is that Qatar basically has a very active foreign policy. It's a strategic and critical partner in crises around the region and has been pivotal in trying to establish communication lines between different groups that might not always be able to speak to each other and facilitating even communications for some Western governments.

And the impact of that foreign policy has been huge compared to how small Qatar really is. And that's been a source of irritation for its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which views itself and is the dominant player in the Gulf.

And this list of demands, when you look at it, shutting down Al Jazeera, stopping Turkey from establishing that military base in Qatar, it does feel like it's a capitulation being asked of a country.

The Qatari officials came out and said this so-called blockade is what they've been saying it is all along, that it's not about combating terrorism, that it's not about stopping funding for radical agents around the region but that it's a way to bring in Qatar's very active and so far very effective foreign policy and really bringing it under the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Right. And now Washington is saying, you guys deal with this, figure it out and solve it. So it's up to the region.

Who's helping out here?

And I think there's a time limit on these demands.

TUYSUZ: Right, there's this time limit; it's 10 days. And many countries in the region have offered to help. Turkey, for example, is one of them. And of course in the list of demands, they have been mentioned as well. Saudi Arabia doesn't want Turkey to establish that base in Qatar.

But all of these mediation efforts and a lot of the hopes were that, by the time that aid rolled around, right now, the Islamic holiday that we're in, that the situation would be resolved and that things would go back to some sort of -- it would get to some sort of detente and that it would be resolved. But that hasn't happened yet and many other countries, while helping and trying to mediate, have not been successful so far -- Natalie.

ALLEN: We thank you, Gul Tuysuz for us there in Istanbul -- George.

HOWELL: Saudi Arabia said that it foiled an attack near Islam's holiest site on Friday. A suspect reportedly planned an attack at Mecca's Grand Mosque but blew himself up in a nearby home. He was surrounded by security forces and exchanged fire with them before that blast. At least five people have been arrested in connection to the alleged plot.

[04:45:00]

ALLEN: A recap now on the developing news we're following in China. A family of three has been rescued alive from all of this rubble of the landslide. State media report the couple and their baby are being treated at a hospital; 141 people, though, are still missing; 46 houses were buried.

HOWELL: This disaster happened in a village in Southwestern China in the Sichuan province; 780 rescuers have responded to the scene. The Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on them to do all they can to reach the people trapped in the rubble.

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ALLEN: Still ahead here, Johnny Depp, the actor, is apologizing for a joke about the U.S. president. He's hardly the first star to stir up controversy, though. Next, what happens when show business takes on politics.

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[04:50:00]

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ALLEN: Actor Johnny Depp is apologizing for remarks he made about presidential assassination. He says he was just trying to be funny but his joke backfired.

HOWELL: It wasn't funny, yes. He's hardly the first person, though, in Hollywood to make a political comment that stirred controversy. Stephanie Elam has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Actor Johnny Depp knew what he was about to say to a crowd in the UK would get a rise out of people.

JOHNNY DEPP, ACTOR: When was the last time an actor assassinated the president? I want to clarify. I'm not an actor. I lie for a living.

ELAM: For the record, the answer to his question is April 1865, when actor John Wilkes Booth killed the president, Abraham Lincoln. Critics have condemn Depp for what he said but he is far from the only celebrity to engage in these kinds of comments. Yes, Hollywood has long the tended to lean Left, but this kind of extremist talk is new.

In January, Madonna said this at the Women's March in Washington.

MADONNA, SINGER: Yes! I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House. But I know that this won't change anything.

ELAM: In Snoop Dogg's video for "Lavender," he shoots a clown version of the president with a gun.

And graphic images of Kathy Griffin, holding a mock bloodied head of President Trump, made her a target of a Secret Service investigation, according to her lawyers. It also cost her a job. CNN called the photos "disgusting and offensive" and fired her as its New Year's Eve cohost.

At issue is free speech versus security. Threatening the life of the U.S. president is a federal crime that can result in a fine or up to five years in prison or both. A lot of Hollywood stars are very public about their liberal politics, but these incidents cross a line.

JOE BEL BRUNO, MANAGING EDITOR, VARIETY: Really, there hasn't been anybody saying enough is enough. And I think that needs to come from Hollywood, from the left wing, from somebody who can say, hey, you know what, I voted for Hillary Clinton, but let's not incite --

[04:55:00]

BRUNO: -- violence against the president of the United States.

I might not support him, but, you know, there is a fine line that we -- you know, that we can't cross over.

ELAM: As for Depp, the White House released this statement, quote, "President Trump has condemned violence in all forms and it's sad that others like Johnny Depp have not followed his lead. I hope that some of Mr. Depp's colleagues would speak out about this type of rhetoric as strongly as they would if it were directed to a Democrat-elected official."

Now an update to the story, Johnny Depp did release a statement to "People" magazine saying, quote, "I apologize for the bad joke I attempted last night in poor taste about President Trump. It did not come out as intended and I intended no malice. I was only trying to amuse, not to harm anyone."

It is worth pointing out that it is probably not very likely that Depp will be arrested for this. But perhaps it is food for thought for anyone in thinking about speaking in public about harming the president of the United States -- Stephanie Elam, CNN, Hollywood. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: All right, before we go this hour, we want to show you what looks like a man in a gorilla suit.

(CROSSTALK)

HOWELL: That's what it looks like --

(LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: But it's a gorilla. And it's not computer generated graphics, either. Check it out.

HOWELL: All right, here it is, Zola (INAUDIBLE) Dallas Zoo where (INAUDIBLE) this week spinning and splashing, having a really good time there. Look at that. The (INAUDIBLE) says playing is natural behavior (INAUDIBLE) animal is content and comfortable.

ALLEN: He is. Some gorillas are known to use sticks to check the depth of water when they cross streams and lakes.

They're no dummies at all. So if you think Zola is thrilled now, imagine what it would be like if he were in the wild.

(INAUDIBLE) certainly appreciate (INAUDIBLE).

(LAUGHTER)

HOWELL: We'll take that.

ALLEN: Adorable.

Thanks for watching this hour. I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell. The news continues here on CNN right after the break.