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Trump White House; Crisis in Venezuela; Crisis in Syria; Australia Terror Plot; "Detroit" Attacks Racial Injustice with History. Aired 2-2:30a ET

Aired August 5, 2017 - 02:00   ET




NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): U.S. President Donald Trump may be on vacation but the special counsel is not taking a vacation. New action in the investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. election and a possible connection to the Trump campaign.

CNN is inside Damascus, Syria, where there's new confidence that the Assad regime may win the civil war.

And a harrowing story of race and violence. Our guest saw the 1967 Detroit riots firsthand and, 50 years later, helped shape the new movie about it. "Detroit" movie is very powerful. We'll talk about that later in this newscast.

Thanks for joining us. I'm Natalie Allen in Atlanta. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


NATALIE ALLEN: Our top story: U.S. President Donald Trump is taking his first official vacation but it may not be very restful, as special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation continues inching forward.

"The New York Times" now reporting Mueller's latest move is a first, asking the White House for official records. His office is seeking any documents relating to fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, seen right here.

They are reportedly looking into whether the Turkish government secretly paid Flynn to lobby against an opponent of the Turkish president.

Neither General Flynn or his lawyers have responded to "The New York Times" report but White House special counsel Ty Cobb issued this statement, quote, "The White House will not be discussing any specific communications with the special counsel out of respect for the special counsel and his process.

"Beyond that, as I have stressed repeatedly, we continue to fully cooperate with the special counsel." The U.S. Justice Department on Friday said it may go after journalists

as it tries to stop an explosion of unauthorized leaks within the administration. In other words, they're going to -- it looks like they're going to blame the journalists.

U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions said the number of federal investigations into leaks has tripled since Mr. Trump took office. Sessions said his agency is reviewing the circumstances under which journalists can be subpoenaed.

House Speaker Paul Ryan was asked whether reporters should feel threatened.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: I have not seen what Jeff said about this. Leaks are a bad thing. Leaks are concerning because leaks can often compromise national security. But that's the problem of the leaker, not the journalist.


NATALIE ALLEN: Larry Sabato is director for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He joins us now via Skype.

Larry, as always, thank you for joining us.


NATALIE ALLEN: And as always, lots of politics to talk about here, following another week watching Washington. According to "The New York Times" reporting just in the past few hours, the special counsel now, Robert Mueller, recently asked the White House for documents related to the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, "The Times" reporting that this is the first time Mueller has asked the White House to hand over records.

This comes after yesterday's news that Mueller has issued grand jury subpoenas over Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer last year. This investigation appears to be really gaining momentum.

Is it?

SABATO: Yes, I think it actually is. This is the first grand jury, of course. This is the one operating out of Alexandria, Virginia, as opposed to the new grand jury, which is in Washington.

But looking at "The New York Times" piece -- and it's certainly in depth; it has a lot of detail in it about what the FBI's looking into, it's pretty clear that General Flynn appears to be in a heap of trouble.

That's not the same as an indictment. We haven't had an indictment. They're still investigating. And even an indictment doesn't guarantee guilt by any means. But it's obvious that General Flynn is in trouble because his finances

and the kinds of people who were paying him, particularly from abroad or representing other countries, these things are all under scrutiny right now.

It's not good for him; he didn't register as a foreign agent. There's a connection to Turkey. But now it appears that the FBI is also looking at his relationships with agents of other countries. So this is a serious matter and General Flynn will probably end up regretting his service of a total of 24 days as national security adviser.

NATALIE ALLEN: Meantime the attorney general Jeff Sessions, who has been disparaged by his boss recently, is apparently working on cracking down on leaks. This administration is fixated on leaks and controlling the message, even going as far as to look at the independent news media --


NATALIE ALLEN: -- and question whether anonymous sources, whether that's OK.

SABATO: Some leaks can be very damaging and they can't be supported, like for example President Trump's leak to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in the Oval Office, which we all remember. That may have been the most damaging leak.

But leaks are not always a good thing. But I'm old enough to remember two leaks that were very positive and made a big difference: the Pentagon Papers, which told us in 1971 how the American government had lied for years about what was really going on in the Vietnam War, very useful for the public.

And then of course, Deep Throat, during Watergate, Deep Throat's advice to Woodward and bernstein helped them crack the Watergate case. And his number one piece of advice applies to the current scandal, follow the money. That's what mueller is doing with respect to General Flynn.

And I'll bet before it's over, it's what he does with respect to President Trump.

NATALIE ALLEN: Larry Sabato, we appreciate it, as always. Thank you for joining us.

SABATO: Thank you, Natalie.

NATALIE ALLEN: Two of the most recent leaks were also among the most shocking. Transcripts in "The Washington Post" of private phone conversations last January between President Trump and other world leaders.

Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull downplayed having his conversation made public. But the transcript of Mr. Trump's conversation with the Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto, is making headlines there. Our Patrick Oppmann reports from Mexico City. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Mexicans have been riveted by the release of transcripts to "The Washington Post" of a conversation that took place between their president, Enrique Pena Nieto, and U.S. president Donald Trump that is casting doubt on who will pay for the wall that Trump wants to build between the two countries.

This conversation that took place in January was supposed to be a private conversation and, in the conversation, Trump begins initially trying to flatter the Mexican president, saying that he's eloquent and speaks better English than Trump. And then he begins to bully him, saying that is Pena Nieto doesn't agree to pay for the wall, he will impose tariffs on Mexican products going to the U.S. and essentially cause damage to the Mexican economy.

Trump also says at one point that he might send soldiers into Mexico if Pena Nieto can't get the drug war under control. And this has been bit of a bombshell in Mexico, to read these transcripts of what was supposed to be a private conversation.

Many here say that Pena Nieto held firm and told Donald Trump again and again that he would not pay for the wall. Others said that he should have pushed back harder, that much of what Trump said about Mexico and his comments to Pena Nieto were insulting and undignified.

Still, though, these two men, at the end of the conversation, were unable to come to an agreement, at least in January, of who would pay for this wall. They finally said that they would leave the political problem, as Donald Trump called it, that the wall presents by not talking about it anymore, at least in public.

That strategy, if there was a strategy, has backfired, because everybody in Mexico is talking about this now. It is once again very much in the public eye, the wall that Donald Trump wants to build between these two countries and who is going to pay for it -- Patrick Oppmann, CNN, Mexico City.


NATALIE ALLEN: CNN is exclusively reporting that the FBI was following social media, including Facebook, social media platforms on Election Day. Analysts were monitoring a suspected Russian campaign to spread fake news online.

The U.S. intelligence community has agreed that Moscow worked to undermine Hillary Clinton and promote Donald Trump. Clinton's campaign press secretary shared his thoughts about the news earlier.


BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm freely willing to admit that I can't say that this changed the results of the election. But even if it didn't, it's still a problem that Republicans and Democrats should be able to come together and solve. Marco Rubio said during the campaign that in the next campaign it

could be the Republicans that are the target of the Russian government or another government. S So why not let's mutually resolve to get to the bottom of this and stop these foreign attempts to meddle with our democratic process?


NATALIE ALLEN: The U.N. Security Council is getting ready to vote on a new resolution against North Korea. It proposes fresh sanctions, banning four major exports from that country.

If it is approved, one diplomat says Pyongyang could lose up to $1 billion. All of this comes after North Korea was widely condemned for testing two intercontinental ballistic missiles recently. A vote is expected perhaps on Saturday.

In Venezuela, the country's new constituent assembly took office Friday. It's quite controversial because this assembly has the power to rewrite the constitution. And that has backers of president Nicolas Maduro celebrating but his critics fearing the assembly will hand him sweeping powers and further erode democracy.


Coming up here, another of President Trump's top officials in the spotlight. We'll electoral you why national security adviser H.R. McMaster is facing a conservative backlash.




NATALIE ALLEN: The United States has made a largely symbolic move to reassert President Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal. The climate deal was acclaimed by countries in the world who all signed it. But the U.S. has now formally informed the United Nations of its intentions to get out.

The process of quitting the agreement cannot actually start until at least 2019.

Major conservative media outlets went after President Trump's national security adviser this week. Some fear H.R. McMaster could be the latest White House official forced out of office.

Mr. Trump is trying to end those rumors, telling "The New York Times," "General McMaster and I are working very well together. He is a good man and very pro-Israel. I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country."

For more now, here's CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): An extraordinary media campaign coming from the right wing against President Trump's national security H.R. McMaster. Conservative media outlets such as Breitbart and "The Daily Caller" hitting McMaster over policy disputes.

CNN has learned it's almost open warfare between McMaster and Steve Bannon, the president's chief strategist and former Breitbart executive, according to administration officials, all dating back to fired national security adviser Mike Flynn.

MICHAEL WARREN, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": There is this battle and I think that it does come down to a difference in opinion between McMaster and Bannon and the view, I think, that McMaster sort of clearing out Mike Flynn, the former national security adviser, Mike Flynnites. That's a problem that Bannon allies see as sort of going directly to the heart of Trump's own agenda.

STARR (voice-over): McMaster has fired five top NSC officials tied to Flynn, causing some fury. McMaster had been at odds with President Trump on some national security issues, such as more troops for Afghanistan, and had been undercut by Bannon.

And he has been under fire for taking the routine step of extending former NSC adviser Susan Rice's security clearance. Some conservatives accuse Rice of mishandling classified information involving Trump campaign associates.

A senior administration official says McMaster wrote letters to all past national security advisers, extending their clearances.

Now political media across the spectrum are running stories within hours of each other, suggesting McMaster could be pushed out.


STARR (voice-over): And fringe right-wing personality Mike Cernovich is soliciting tips on the national security on, using imagery of McMaster being controlled as a puppet, a cartoon the Anti-Defamation League calls anti-Semitic.

A national security staffer who worked for George W. Bush says it's unconscionable.

MICHAEL ALLEN, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL OFFICIAL: I think there is an extraordinary amount of backstabbing going on.

STARR (voice-over): With retired General John Kelly as chief of staff, there may be a willingness to allow McMaster latitude to run the NSC. Whether McMaster stays on the job may depend on Kelly's influence on the president.

One current administration official tells CNN Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis are pressing for West Wing stability.

MICHAEL ALLEN: I think General Kelly is going to protect H.R. McMaster because I think this is part of what he is trying to do and that's guarantee that we have a cohesive, crisp, decision-making process. And that's what the White House needs right now because it's been a rough ride for the last six months.

STARR (voice-over): Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.


NATALIE ALLEN: An update for you now on the war in Syria. The mood is repeatedly shifting in the capital because the government has made gains with, of course, the help of Russia's support. As our Fred Pleitgen reports, confidence is growing that the Assad regime can win the war.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You can really feel how the Russians are increasing their influence here in Syria, not just on the battlefield itself, where, of course, they are supporting the Syrian army and its allies with airstrikes, but also with forces on the ground as well but also into shaping the way that this country is going to look like in the future.

Now one of the things that the Russians have been doing is they've been creating what they call so-called cease-fire zones or safe zones at various places in the country. What they do is they broker local cease-fires with various rebel groups to then try and free up elements of the Syrian army so they can fight somewhere else.

And the most recent of these ceasefires took hold only on Thursday and that was north of Homs in a place called Talbiseh, which has seen a lot of fighting in the past. The Syrian army says it then takes the troops that are in places like that and it puts them on the front lines in the fight against ISIS.

And there's certainly been some gains made by the Syrian military in the fight against ISIS, not necessarily around the Raqqa area, where those U.S.-backed forces are also fighting, but further to the south near an area called Deir ez-Zor, where the Syrian military is trying to fight and win back that town.

Senior members of the Syrian military say that they are fully on board with that plan, that they are now fully focusing also on tackling ISIS first. So you can really see how the Russians are influencing things here in Syria and one of the things that that's done is it's actually done a lot for the mood here in Damascus itself.

A lot more people out on the streets; you can feel that the city is a lot calmer than it was before and many more people are saying that they now believe that possibly the calm here in this town could last for quite a while -- Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Damascus.


NATALIE ALLEN: In Australia, two suspects charged in the pair of shocking terror plots appeared in court Friday after days of police raids and searches across Sydney. The accused appeared by video link and did not enter pleas.

Authorities say they had ISIS support and had wanted to blow up an airliner. For more about the plot, here's Brian Todd in Washington.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Two terror plots in Australia connected to one another show ISIS' growing ambition to strike Western targets. Two men living in Sydney have been arrested for trying to bring down a passenger plane with an IED.

DEPUTY COMMISSIONER MICHAEL PHELAN, AUSTRALIAN FEDERAL POLICE: This is one of the most sophisticated plots that has ever been attempted on Australian soil.

TODD: Australian officials say the plan was to place a bomb in checked luggage aboard an (INAUDIBLE) Airways plane. But the plotters, after getting to the airport, aborted the plan. Authorities aren't sure why. Police only got wind of the plan 11 days later.

What's new and frightening about this plot is that according to Australian officials, this was a do-it-yourself bomb. They say a senior ISIS commander sent part of the bomb assembled, along with other loose parts, including weapons grade explosives, from Turkey to his contacts in Sydney via air cargo.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: This is an IKEA model of terrorism. The fact that they were in touch directly to provide guidance with these plotters in Australia. The complex logistics of the plot. The supply of explosives. The imagination and ingenuity that went into it take ISIS into whole new ball game when it comes to international terrorism.

TODD: Officials say one of the suspects was going to plant the IED on his own brother, who was to be an unsuspecting --


TODD (voice-over): -- mule in the attack.

CRUICKSHANK: His plan was for his own brother to bring this device on board, not knowing what it was. The idea being that his brother would have been killed in this attack, sacrificed.

TODD: When the bomb plot didn't work, Australian officials say the alleged terrorists tried to make a device that would release a dangerous chemical in closed spaces, possibly public transportation facilities. The chemical, hydrogen sulfide, a toxic industrial substance that smells like rotten eggs. Hard to make, experts say and difficult to deploy as a weapon, but potentially deadly.

(On camera): What does it do to the body when you breathe it in?

PAUL WALKER, WMD EXPERT, GREEN CROSS INTERNATIONAL: It attacks the respiratory system and eventually the nervous system. In a very small amount, 20, 30, 40 parts per million, would kill you in a few minutes.

TODD (voice-over): Officials say there is no evidence the device was completed but a U.S. Homeland Security official tells CNN the Australia plots highlight the need to ramp up aviation security in America and not play whack-a-mole with each new threat.

(On camera): Terrorism experts say look for ISIS to continue these types of plots as the group loses territory on the battlefield. They say ISIS will continue to use IEDs and laptop bombs, chemicals and other weapons on Western targets. And they say ISIS will probably get better at evading security -- Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


NATALIE ALLEN: ahead here, we look at a new film set during a painful chapter in American history, focusing on race riots from 50 years ago. But many say the film, "Detroit," is still relevant today.






UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, here we go.

NATALIE ALLEN (voice-over): "Detroit": these are more scenes. The drama dives into the civil unrest and a particular bloody incident in the city of Detroit in 1967. Director Kathryn Bigelow says she was inspired after something that took place recently, the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Nationwide protests were sparked after a white police officer killed the unarmed black teenager.

Joining us now via Skype is Michael Eric Dyson. He recently wrote the nonfiction book on race relations, "Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America" and a Detroit native. He was a consultant on the film.

So glad to have you with us, Michael. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, AUTHOR: Thanks for having me, Natalie.

This film is being called a riveting, powerful, a hard-core masterpiece but it's also called very hard to watch.

You grew up in Detroit. You were a consultant. Race relations very much part of your life's work.

Was it painful to work on this film?

DYSON: Well, there's no doubt it dredged up some very painful memories, memories of, you know, an epic seizure of pain and chaos that that city was subjected to. There's no question that -- I was only 8 years old but I can remember it vividly; the trails of smoke in the sky, asking my mother what was going on.

She talked to me about A Blind Pig which, of course, is an after-hours joint that was --


DYSON: -- raided by the police. But at that time, I had no idea what a sightless mammal had to do with anything that I saw as an uprising or a rebellion or whether it was called a riot.

But I remember the city going through tremendous change. And I remember afterward there was white flight to suburbs and people scattered from the city, leaving it a predominantly black city.

And I know that race relations suffered an enormous blow as a result of that rebellion. But in truth, African American people had been suffering for so long before then, and that was just the powder keg that set it off.

ALLEN: You went to the premiere. You know how movies can be so impactful when everyone is filing out, no one is saying a word. I'm curious.

What was it like when this film was over?

DYSON: Well, look, the people of Detroit gave it a standing ovation. It was remarkable, I think, because many people felt, for the first time, finally, this film is addressing an issue that needs to be addressed; that is, police brutality.

And it's difficult to address it in the present. There's so many competing interests, so many -- the police people are upset that they feel that they're being misrepresented and people of color feel that their communities are being besieged by this brutality.

But if we look at a historical event to say this particular event is something that occurred, that needs to be addressed, that has to be grappled with, then -- and it happened in the past -- and even though it has consequences with the present, people don't feel personally indicted in the same, way though the system needs to be held accountable and people who participate in that system certainly have to as well.

And I think that, in Detroit, people were so grateful that this director had finally come to grips with it. And you mentioned earlier that she's a white woman and that's been a source of controversy for some.

But, you know, black people collectively demand of white Americans, look, you've got to grapple with race, too. You can't just leave it up to black or Latino people or people who are minorities. You have to weigh in yourself and deal with your white privilege and forms of persistent white bigotry.

And this is what she does with this film. She takes advantage of her own privilege as a white filmmaker to be able to make the film in the first place but she raises some disturbing and troubling questions about what we're going to do about police brutality and how we can come to grips with it.

ALLEN: It starts nationwide this weekend, #detroitmovie. We thank you so much for your thoughts, Michael Eric Dyson. Thanks for coming on.

DYSON: Thank you, Natalie Allen, I appreciate the opportunity to come on.

ALLEN: And that is CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Natalie Allen and I'll be right back with our top stories.