Return to Transcripts main page


Trump White House; Middle East Violence; Qatar Crisis; Protests in Poland; Crisis in Venezuela; China Steps Up Internet Crackdown; Toronto Steps Built for Fraction of City's Estimated Cost. Aired 3- 3:30a ET

Aired July 23, 2017 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The U.S. Congress is poised to impose new sanctions on Russia and lawmakers are making sure that the president can't easily water them down.

Plus: escalating tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The U.N. Security Council plans an emergency meeting.

And Web censorship in China.

What's behind Winnie-the-Pooh being shut down?

We'll be in Beijing.

Thanks for joining us, everyone. I'm Cyril Vanier from the CNN NEWSROOM in Atlanta.


VANIER: So let's begin with the promise of new action in the U.S. Congress to punish Moscow for meddling in the 2016 election.

House and Senate negotiators reached a deal Saturday on a new sanctions bill. And even though President Donald Trump has shown little inclination to criticize Moscow, signing the bill might become a political necessity.

Congress appears set on fast-tracking the sanctions and getting the bill to the president, possibly within days. Here's Kaitlyn Collins at the White House.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: House and Senate negotiators announced Saturday that they had come to an agreement on a new bill that would place sanctions on Russia, North Korea and Iran.

Now these sanctions against Russia would be in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election as well as their military aggression in Ukraine and Syria. Now according to House majority leader Kevin McCarthy's schedule, this

could come to vote as soon as Tuesday. It would go to the Senate after that and then it could hit Donald Trump's desk before August.

Now a key party of this bill is a congressional mandate that would require a review if Donald Trump decided to end or ease these sanctions against Russia. This is a key part of the bill that the White House has pushed back on as it has been crafted.

But if Donald Trump decided to veto this legislation, he would almost undoubtedly face backlash from Democrats and Republicans alike, who think that the president should take a tougher stance against Russia.

Meanwhile all this is going on, Donald Trump has been very active on Twitter, blasting Hillary Clinton, James Comey and the special counsel. His most notable tweet Saturday was about pardons, though. Let's take a look.

"While all agree the U.S. president has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crimes so far is leaks against us?

"Fake news."

Now this tweet comes after a "Washington Post" report that claimed the president and his legal team were exploring his pardoning abilities and seeing just how far his authority does go.

Now a source familiar with the discussion told CNN that a curious Donald Trump was asking questions in an informational way. Donald Trump's lawyer, John Dowd, pushed back on "The Washington Post" report, calling it "nonsense," and saying that his team is cooperating fully with the special counsel's investigation.

Back to you.



VANIER: All right Let's get more on all of this. We're joined by a CNN NEWSROOM regular, Ellis Henican, who joins us now, who is the author of a "Trump's America" column in Metro Papers.

Ellis, good to have you back with us. Look, I want your thoughts on a number of things. Let's start with this tweet, one of these many tweets that Donald Trump wrote today.

"While all agree the U.S. president has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is leaks against us?"

I was a little surprised that Donald Trump would want to insist on this, the idea that he's been figuring out what is his power to pardon.

ELLIS HENICAN, METRO PAPERS: Well, let's take this baby apart if we can. First of all, the "all agree" part. It's not true that all agree. There is some debate among legal scholars about how far the president's pardon power goes, especially whether he has the power to pardon himself.

That has never been ruled on by a court. There is nothing about it in the Constitution and no president has tried it before.

So we don't really know whether he has the power to do that. It's a little funny to be focusing attention on that because one part of the pardon is an implicit admission of guilt.

And as you know, Cyril, Donald Trump does not admit that he is guilty of anything.

VANIER: Yes, that's what sounds strange to me.

Why would you go and emphasize that?

Because the optics of it are bad. It sounds like you're preparing for potentially being found guilty of something, either you or your inner circle.

HENICAN: Yes, but look at it from his point of view. I mean, he is very -- likes this negotiating stuff. And I think part of the message to his opponents, his enemies is, hey, if you guys really come at me as hard as I fear you might, I've got a couple of bullets left to shoot.

And let me show you what one of those bullets is. I think that's really the message there.

VANIER: Tell me now about the Russia sanctions.

Is it normal?

Is it common for Congress to tie the hands of the president in the way they're doing here?

HENICAN: It is not. And, indeed, that is what they --


HENICAN: -- have done, if this agreement holds up until the vote this coming week. The Trump administration worked hard to water down the Congress' power to stop the president from easing those sanctions. And Congress, it seems, has been unwilling to do that.

But, no, normally Congress and the president are on the same side on these things. That's not true this time.

VANIER: Yes, I want to make sure our viewers understand this. Congress is writing into this bill a provision that would stop it from -- that would give it the power to stop Donald Trump from easing sanctions on Russia.

Is this all because of the Russia investigation that's going on? HENICAN: Well, yes, and the fact that Trump and those around him have telegraphed their desire or at least their openness to easing some of these sanctions.

I can't imagine that Congress would have acted, had the president not suggested that he was of a mind to do that. But it's a -- it's kind of Congress saying, hold on a second, Mr. President, not so quick on easing those sanctions.

VANIER: Right. And one of the more striking things to me is this is one of the rare, possibly the only thing since Donald Trump came into power, where there is broad bipartisan support. Both sides agree on this.

HENICAN: It's interesting, isn't it?

Don't forget, Cyril, those congressmen and senators are getting ready to head home next month for a long summer recess. And they would like to be able to tell their constituents, hey, look, we did actually accomplish something in Congress this year.

Now it wasn't necessarily something that the president wanted us to do. But it does give those incumbents, who are going to have to stand for re-election at some point, a chance to say, it wasn't a total waste this year.

VANIER: And, look, does Donald Trump actually have to sign this when it gets to his desk?

HENICAN: No. He could veto it. But be careful. Depending on how strong the vote is -- and it looks like it's going to be pretty strong -- they could actually override the veto if, in fact, he did that.

VANIER: All right. So it looks like more sanctions are coming Russia's way and, as we heard earlier, Russia, Moscow not happy about that at all. Ellis Henican, thank you so much for joining us on CNN NEWSROOM.

HENICAN: Yes, Great seeing you, Cyril.


VANIER: OK. So what does Russia think about these potential new sanctions?

Well, Moscow is not happy. Here's Phil Black.


PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When CNN reached out to the Kremlin spokesman and asked how Russia views the possibility of further sanctions being put into place by the United States, he replied with two words, "quite negatively."

That is a powerful understatement. The Russian government really does not like sanctions. It resents them. It sees them as an attack on its sovereignty, really against the very stability of its government.

And so that is why much of its foreign policy in recent years has been designed to try and have sanctions lifted; notably, those that were put into place by the United States and by the European Union in response to Russia's behavior in Ukraine.

Now if these sanctions do become a reality, it is likely that Russia will retaliate. The key question is how because Russia's ability to hurt the U.S. financially is pretty limited.

And so that's why, in these circumstances in the past, Russian officials have talked about an asymmetric response, essentially retaliating, coming back against the United States in some other less predictable way but one that is still designed to cause some degree of pain and inconvenience against American citizens or businesses or the country itself.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The bill is passed.

BLACK: An example: when the U.S. Congress passed what's known as the Magnitsky Act, which was designed to punish Russian human rights abusers by freezing their assets and banning them from having visas to enter the United States, the Russian government responded by banning American families from adopting Russian orphans, even in cases where the adoption process was already underway, even in cases where the American families had already met the child they were working to take back home with them.

So when the Kremlin spokesman says that Russia views the possibility, the view of the sanctions quite negatively, that really is an early understated response. And it is very likely that Russian officials, particularly the foreign ministry, will have a lot more to say about this as the legislation is debated and voted on in the U.S. Congress -- Phil Black, CNN, Moscow.


VANIER: And the Magnitsky Act that Phil mentioned there was also what Donald Trump Jr. claimed he discussed with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya when they met in 2016. She wanted that repealed.

American business man Bill Browder pushed Congress to pass that act in 2012, after his tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky , uncovered a massive corruption scheme involving Russian officials.

Magnitsky later died under mysterious circumstances in a Moscow prison.

Well, earlier, Bill Browder spoke to CNN's Ana Cabrera about why he believes Putin's number one priority is repealing the act.


BILL BROWDER, AMERICAN BUSINESS MAN: Putin is very afraid that his money -- and he's got lots of it -- will be eventually seized under the Magnitsky Act -- [03:10:00]

BROWDER: -- which is why he's so interested in having it repealed.

ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So this is all about Putin's personal finances, is what you're saying. Trump, we know, and Putin talked for about an hour or so at that G20 dinner. This was a previously undisclosed conversation they had.

The Trump administration has said it was just small talk; it was at a dinner. But we've learned it was an hour long and President Trump admits they discussed adoptions. He said that, in a sense, that it was no big deal.

Do you think Putin was actually working him on the Magnitsky Act in that conversation?

BROWDER: Well, so the deal that they're trying to do here is Putin -- so after the Magnitsky Act was passed, Putin tried to come up with the most vicious thing he could do. And so what he did was he banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American families.

And these were not healthy orphans. The Russians didn't allow healthy orphans to be adopted. Just these sick ones with HIV, Down syndrome, et cetera. And so he basically -- and these kids were being brought to America and nursed back to health. He was basically, effectively taking these children hostage.

This discussion about adoptions is not a discussion about adoptions. This is a hostage situation, in which Putin has taken his own orphans hostage in order to try to get America to back off the sanctioning of torturers and murders coming out of Russia.


VANIER: Supporters of Putin's move maintain that it was because American parents were abusing their adopted Russian children and not because it was a retaliatory measure.

Now the U.N. Security Council is set to meet on Monday over the latest wave of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. This after another Palestinian was reportedly killed on Saturday in clashes with Israeli forces.

Officials say three other Palestinians were killed the day before, as were three Israelis in a West Bank stabbing attack. And now Israel has identified the victims of that attack. They were the members of the Solomon family, seen here. Israel says their killer was a Palestinian, who was shot and taken into custody.

The latest violence stems from restrictions Israel placed on Jerusalem's Old City and al-Aqsa mosque after two Israeli police officers were shot and killed last week. For more on the tensions, here's Oren Liebermann.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are in the community of Halamish, this is an Israeli settlement in the northern West Bank and it is very much a community in mourning now, as three Israelis were killed here inside their home on Friday night when police say a young Palestinian man breached a security or got through the security fence around the settlement, got into the home and killed those three Israelis.

The community now preparing for those funerals, as investigators try to figure out how the security was breached here. But that right now is only part of the story. The bigger picture here and what's going on in the area in the region is tension in and around the Old City of Jerusalem.

We saw clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers on Saturday night and that's very much an extension of the tension and the clashes we building throughout the week.

The question, where does that tension go from here, up or down?

Palestinian factions have called for a day of rage on Sunday, a day of demonstration. Largely those calls are symbolic and yet even if it doesn't bear itself out on the streets, it is indicative of where those tensions stand right now and a fear on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side that the attack here in Halamish will lead to copycat attacks and that this wave of violence perhaps is just starting.

That is the pressure on leaders, not only here but throughout the region, even perhaps pressure on the U.S. to try to find some way to ease this tension as quickly as possible before it gets worse, heading into what could be a very difficult week here in the region -- Oren Liebermann, CNN, Halamish.


VANIER: Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is heading to the Gulf region. He's going to try to patch up the growing rift between Qatar and its neighbors. However, Turkey is not seen as an independent broker, since it has military interests in Qatar.

Thousands of Turkish soldiers have been sent to the country since that diplomatic crisis began in June. Qatar. And ending that Turkey-Qatar military cooperation is one of the Gulf countries' demands.

Coming up after the break, for days, thousands of protesters have rallied against efforts to overhaul Poland's judicial system. And now they are demanding immediate action from the president.

Plus: censors in China are tightening their grip on the Internet. Some of their targets: a popular messaging app and a cartoon bear. The latest from Beijing -- after the break.






VANIER (voice-over): That right there is some of the outrage in Poland. They're chanting, "We want a veto," after the upper house of parliament passed a controversial new bill on Saturday. It gives the government the power to remove all of the country's supreme court justices and to pick their replacements.

The president has 21 days to sign or veto the bill. Any critics view it as a power grab, even an attempt to undermine Poland's democracy. Protests have erupted across the country.


VANIER: More demonstrations are planned in the coming days, all trying to influence the president into vetoing the bill. Our Muhammad Lila reports from Warsaw.


MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thousands of ordinary people here in Poland continue to flood the streets to protest what they say is a move by the country's ruling party that would infringe their basic democratic rights.

If you look around, you'll see many people hold holding candles. They say those candles are a symbol of hope and they're chanting slogans, like "free court system" or "we want a veto."

And this all has to do with a controversial piece of legislation that's been proposed by the country's ruling party. If that legislation is approved by the country's president, it would give that ruling party unprecedented power to appoint and remove the country's supreme court judges.

And here is why that's important. If you think back to Democracy 101, one of the basic hallmarks of a free and stable and healthy democracy is an independent judiciary.

Well, these people here are protesting, saying that if this bill becomes law, then this country will effectively no longer have an independent judiciary because whoever is ruling the country, in this case the Law and Justice Party, would be able to appoint supreme court judges that support that country's own mandate.

Now for its part the ruling party says that this is part of the democratic process. And the ruling party should be allowed to have that control over the supreme court system.

But if this flood of protests that we've seen not just in Warsaw but in fact right across the country is any indication, there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people right across the country, that are demanding that the president veto this legislation. And that's really what it comes down to, the last effort or the last

hope really of the protestors who are protesting is that the president will exercise his veto power.

And all eyes now are going to be on a meeting that takes place Monday between the president and the head of the country's supreme court system. We know that this legislation will come up.

And we know that the president himself has 21 days to decide if he is going to approve it or if he will listen to the demands of the protestors and veto the legislation. Certainly, that's something that many of the opposition parties are hoping for -- Muhammad Lila, CNN, Warsaw.


VANIER: And the former Polish president Lech Walesa is also against the bill. He says the changes could weaken Polish democracy.



LECH WALESA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF POLAND (through translator): Our generation led Poland to freedom in an incredibly difficult situation and based it on the separation of powers.

This is the most important thing that we managed to do. If anyone wants to disturb this most important victory, you, the young people, cannot let that happen. So that there is no doubt, I will always be with you --


WALESA (through translator): -- despite my condition, even if they arrest all of you here.


VANIER: One Warsaw resident told CNN that he remembered how his own parents protested in 1989 against Poland's then Communist regime and he called these demonstrations the same moment.

The opposition in Venezuela is increasing pressure on President Nicolas Maduro. Opposition leaders are calling for a two-day nationwide strike this coming week. On Saturday, police clashed with protesters trying to stop the president's plans to rewrite the constitution.

Mr. Maduro is not backing down, however. This despite the threat of economic sanctions from the United States.

Meanwhile, a violinist who has become a symbol of anti-Maduro protests was wounded on Saturday. The 23-year old has become famous for playing the violin amid violent clashes. Well, he tweeted a video from the hospital this time, saying that

bullets will not stop the opposition. About 100 people have now died in around three months of protests in Venezuela.

China is ramping up its censorship on the Internet. Web users are reporting problems with WhatsApp, a messaging platform especially popular in Asia. Sensitive words and images are being banned, including pictures of certain Disney characters. Matt Rivers explains.


MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: If you are not a fan of online censorship -- and full disclosure, neither are we -- then it's been a tough week here in China for a number of different reasons.

Let's start with one of the world's most popular messaging apps.

RIVERS (voice-over): You've likely heard of it called WhatsApp, owned by Facebook. It's been allowed in China for years.

But this week it was at least partially blocked. It worked for some people but not for most. Experts told CNN it was likely the government's doing. As to why, we're not sure. Government agencies haven't commented and neither has WhatsApp.

Next up, Winnie-the-Pooh. That's right, the lovable, honey-eating children's character is now taboo in China because of this picture. It's Chinese President Xi Jinping on the left and former U.S. President Barack Obama on the right.

People online said it beared (sic) a striking resemblance to this: portly Pooh and his taller, skinnier pal, Tigger. When the image started floating around again recently, the censors cracked down. You can't hardly find Pooh anywhere on Chinese Internet. No word on whether Piglet or Eeyore would be next.

On a much more somber note, though, we saw the passing last Thursday of prominent Chinese political dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, in prison since 2009 for writing a pro-democracy manifesto. He died of liver cancer in a Chinese hospital.

Critics worldwide blamed the Chinese government for his premature death. Fearing domestic backlash, government censors went to work. Social media posts mentioning Liu's name were deleted. Online searches with his name were blocked. Even simple candle emojis were deemed illegal in some sites.

CNN's signal in China has been cut by government censors every time we mention his name.

One of the last known photos of Liu was with his wife, Liu Xia. At first glance unremarkable. But notice the mugs they're holding. Yes. That's Winnie-the-Pooh on there, perhaps a final subtle act of defiance. RIVERS: Finally, in order to get work done, most foreigners use

something called a virtual private network or a VPN. It allows us to access the Internet through servers based in other countries. That allows us to get around China's firewall and allows us to access sites that it blocks.

RIVERS (voice-over): Think Facebook and Twitter. Bloomberg reported that China might try and ban individual VPNs by next February, making access to outside Internet that much harder. CNN hasn't confirmed those reports. The Chinese government has denied it.

RIVERS: What is clear, though, is that the Chinese government's paranoia over what happens online is here to stay and perhaps even growing, meaning that censorship is alive and well in China -- Matt Rivers, CNN, Beijing.


VANIER: Let's stay in China. Days of rain have led to intense floodings in parts of the northeast of the country.


VANIER (voice-over): Firefighters in one city had to transport food and water supplies by foot because the area's bridge was destroyed. You see it there.

They also saved a couple trapped on the rooftop of their home. Tens of thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate because of the storms and it's not over yet. Another round of rain is expected to reach China's northeast on Wednesday.



VANIER: Let's bring this one up just before we wrap up the show. This one's a little weird.

Canadian officials have torn down a staircase that was actually built to teach the city of Toronto a lesson. Here's what happened. Here's the story. A community needed to build eight steps to access a garden. The city said it would cost at least $65,000 to build them. So a resident made the stairs himself for $500.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was a person around here, which is kind of a homeless person. I engaged him to help me because I'm 73 years old, can't do this much anymore. So within 14 hours. we built the steps.

VANIER (voice-over): But the city of Toronto is having none of it. They said his stairs were not safe and that the new ones would be ready in just a matter of days.

Now the mayor of Toronto is calling the original estimate -- remember, $65,000 -- "absolutely ridiculous."

Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I will be back with the headlines in just a moment, under two minutes. Stay with us.