Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

Flynn Attorneys Stop Sharing Information with White House; 300 Dead in Deadly Terror Attack in Egypt; Navy Identifies 3 Sailors Killed Aboard Transport Plane; Trump Administration Infighting Threatens U.S. Participation at Major Global Summit; Clash over CFPB Director Position; Kellyanne Conway Under Fire for Moore Support; Funeral Today for Border Patrol Agent; Video of North Korean Defector's Daring Escape. Aired 3-4p ET

Aired November 25, 2017 - 15:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:00:13] ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. You're in the CNN NEWSROOM. I am Ana Cabrera, in New York. Great to have you with us this afternoon.

We begin this weekend with the possibility that former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, the man President Trump asked the FBI to stop investigating, may be working with special counsel leading the Russian probe. A source tells CNN that Flynn's attorneys tell others involved in the investigation, including those representing the president, that they can no longer share information about the case. "The New York Times" first reported this development and a CNN source says it could be a sign that Flynn is preparing to plead guilty. However, a White House attorney says don't make too much into this, lawyers can pull out of sharing arrangements for a variety of reasons.

I want to get straight to CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, talk to us about Flynn's role and the kind of information he could offer so they would be negotiating.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE REPORTER: Hey, Ana. So there's tons of various information places that they can go, that investigators can go, if Michael Flynn was cooperating, providing information. He was part of the Trump campaign. He was close to the president at the time. And he was in on meetings. He was in on meetings where certain foreign policy decisions were made, where strategy was discussed. Some of perhaps maybe issues of Russia came up. That's where he would be helpful to investigators part of Mueller's team.

Less obvious stuff, this is also important, that Flynn has his own relationship, his own contacts with Russia. Remember, he spent some time in Russia, went to a dinner, sat next to the Russian president. Perhaps there's information from those meetings when he was there that there could be information that can be helpful to investigators because the appropriate is larger than just an investigation into obstruction, and just contacts by people in the Trump campaign, it also stretches to people in Russia and what were they doing. So there he could be helpful as well.

But the key really is to get an inside picture perhaps of what was going on in the campaign. And that's obviously what's on everyone's mind and probably most important here.

CABRERA: If Flynn is cooperating, that wouldn't be surprising, considering he asked for immunity before.

PROKUPECZ: Right. That immunity came to the Hill, when Capitol Hill and Senators and congressional investigators wanted to talk to him. His lawyer essentially said he would only talk if they give him immunity, more out of concern that he somehow may perjure himself or find a way for perjury charges. It would be surprising to people at the White House and people close to the president and people close to Michael Flynn that he would be cooperating. All along, he has given indication he has done nothing wrong, and really what's important is that he has no information to give, he has no information to share, so his cooperation would not be fruitful for investigators. So it would be somewhat surprising.

What would not be surprising, Ana, is that he is working on a plea deal with Bob Mueller to end his case, admit to whatever it is the government wants him to admit to, and move on and deal with punishment that would ultimately be decided by a judge, so it wouldn't be surprising that he would be pleading guilty given everything that investigators seem to be uncovering about him, but it would be I think surprising that he would be cooperating with those investigators and providing information on people, whether from the campaign or wherever it is.

CABRERA: We know that he is concerned also about his son's potential legal outcome here regarding this investigation. That's another reason to cooperate.

Shimon Prokupecz, thank you for that reporting.

Joining us, former White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush, Richard Painter, and here in New York, CNN presidential historian, Tim Naftali, and conservative commentator, Carrie Sheffield.

I'll start with you, Richard.

Jay Sekulow says the decision to stop sharing information with the White House legal team doesn't mean that Flynn is cooperating. What else could it mean?

RICHARD PAINTER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ETHICS LAWYER: Well, I don't know. We'll find out. If he is preparing to plead guilty, he may not want to share information with other lawyers, may or may not be cooperating. We don't know. Only Robert Mueller knows. We know that he repeatedly lied about his contacts with the Russians and probably lied about contacts with the Turkish government, so he's in a heap of trouble. His son may be in trouble, too. Whether he rolls on other people and discloses other information is something only Robert Mueller would know at this point in time. I don't think it is useful to speculate. [15:05:28] CABRERA: Tim, Flynn used to be part of the current

administration. Given that fact, should the White House be concerned?

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I believe Richard is right, we shouldn't be speculating. If you look at the Watergate case, not Analogous, but useful way to think about how White Houses deal with legal jeopardy, when one member of the president's team turned on the White House, that complicated the defense strategies, the chief of staff and chief domestic. One of the things of having everyone on the same side, defense attorneys make sure everyone is speaking from the same page and that there are not openings that a prosecutor could use to look for new information. With Flynn leaving that group, that just introduces all kinds of mysteries that make it more difficult for the defense team.

CABRERA: Carrie, what's your take. Should the White House be concerned?

CARRIE SHEFFIELD, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: The president has been very clear that he said for months, I'm not sure if I agree with the characterization there was a turning. I think the president was clear, he said for months that if there was someone in my orbit doing anything untoward, unethical, I want this person or people rooted out. He said that repeatedly. I don't think this is a bombshell in any respect. I do think this is actually a reset button for the country, say what kind of country do we want to have, and "The Washington Post" reported for two decades, now is the moment when more people are more transparent about lobbying, more people on both sides of the aisle. Saw podesta group, tony was the brother of Hillary Clinton's campaign manager who was implicated in this probe.

(CROSSTALK)

CABRERA: That's so not related to what we are discussing.

When you talk about the president's desire to have these people rooted out, remind everybody this is a president who tried to prevent the former FBI director from investigating Flynn, who was his national security adviser at the time. And apparently, Flynn is now in contact with the Mueller investigation, maybe working on some kind of plea deal. You don't think the president should be concerned?

SHEFFIELD: I think what happened early in the administration, you're right, that the president never held office, never been a public servant, I think he was learning to understand the limits of his power. I am glad that he appears to have learned and understands his power. I think his impulse is to fight back. Someone hits me, hit back ten times harder. You can't do that with the FBI director. Kelly is anchoring him. You see the president when you have the Manafort indictment, his impulse was to perhaps do something in response. I think General Kelly is a stabilizing influence. I am sure you can speak more looking historically at the influence of chief of staff. I am glad General Kelly is that stabilizing force.

CABRERA: Richard, I can't imagine is handing out deals. What would Flynn have to offer to cut a deal? PAINTER: That's up to Robert Mueller. He is a professional. He

knows what he is doing. I think he will uncover what's happened here. There are a lot of people in this administration lying about Russia. Some of the lying is not illegal. If the president wants to continue to lie, say there was no collaboration with Russia, he can do that on Twitter. People lie under oath, lie on disclosure forms, financial disclosure forms, security clearance forms, they're going to get criminally prosecuted. This administration needs to start grappling with the truth. It is nauseating. I have been a Republican 30 years. George W. Bush, to bring out Hillary Clinton, is nauseating. They have to stop doing this, start telling the country the truth, all of them, including the president.

CABRERA: Guys, take a look at this. So far, 51 communications of various sorts documented between Trump associates and Russians. We should point out that winning U.S. presidential campaigns are approached by governments all over the world for obvious reasons. But we've also had nine blanket denials by those people in Trump's orbit about the contacts.

Tim, are those denials a problem, any haunting the Trump administration and is that what's the root of the problem here?

[15:10:00] NAFTALI: The root of the problem could be that some criminal activity occurred, we don't know. The blanket denials are problematic because they made it easy to prove falsehood. You say I never met someone, then evidence appears that you did --

(CROSSTALK)

CABRERA: Papadopoulos lying to the FBI.

NAFTALI: But not only lying in that instance, raises the question you have been lying all along. Blanket denials by the Trump team have definitely hurt them.

Number two, the other thing that's interesting, we saw with Manafort and it is likely with Flynn, they have other legal jeopardy issues that have nothing to do with Russian collusion. But they can use those, saying you may get a lighter sentence, plead guilty to what you did with Turkey, perhaps, case of Flynn, Manafort, the money received through Cyprus, help with the other case. The fact they have legal jeopardy outside of collusion with Russia makes them even more vulnerable to a prosecutor.

CABRERA: Carrie, do you have a problem with lack of transparency?

SHEFFIELD: Absolutely. I want transparency, disclosure, all lobbies disclosing all of that. I don't think anyone in the conservative movement would disagree with that, anyone seeking the public interest. I will say that I think that looking and talking to a lot of fellow conservatives, what we feel upset by the distraction of this, to say the reason President Trump won and both Houses of Congress were given to Republicans was to pass a conservative agenda. That's what the states where I am from care about. We want kitchen-table issues addressed. A lot of it seems to be distraction. So it is about saying let's not be distracted, be the signal in the midst of this noise. Yes, Mueller needs to have his power respected, but at the same time, let's not keep the eye off the ball.

CABRERA: Have to leave it there.

Thank you, Carrie, Tim, Richard Painter. Appreciate all of you.

Turning to what appears to be the deadliest terror attack ever on Egyptian soil. More than 300 people are dead, including at least 27 children, after more than two dozen militants stormed a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula. One carried an ISIS flag as he entered the house of worship. So far, no claim of responsibility.

Let's get to CNN senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman.

Ben, Egypt's military has been hunting for the attackers. What are you hearing?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We understand from the military, Ana, they carried out air strikes where they claim some vehicles used by the terrorists were hit. It is important to underscore the Egyptian military does not allow journalists, Egyptian or otherwise, into the Sinai. We have to take them at their word.

We did see the public prosecutor of Egypt did put out a statement in which he described in forensic detail what happened at the mosque, according to him. The statement said that five SUVs showed up outside this mosque carrying somewhere between 25 and 30 militants, some wearing combat fatigues, all armed with heavy machine guns. They surrounded the mosque, many entrances, also at the 12 windows of the mosque, let off some sort of explosion, and opened fire, killing, according to official news agency, at least 305 people, including 27 children. The public prosecutor, as you mentioned, did say that somebody, one of the attackers was carrying an is flag. Until now, ISIS itself hasn't claimed responsibility for the attack -- Ana?

CABRERA: Ben, this mosque has special significance. How so?

WEDEMAN: This is a mosque built by members of a Sufi order. The Sufis are Muslim mystics. They're traditionally, not involved in politics. They're much more focused on the direct connection between the individual and God, so they're not interested in forcing women to cover up, cutting off people's head, and what not. It's all about your spirituality, not forcing others to follow your line. And as a result of that, they are not looked on well by people like ISIS, who have, in the past -- for instance, we did see that earlier this year in one of the online magazines of ISIS, a commander in the Sinai warning Sufis they should either repent or be killed. Last year, they kidnapped and beheaded a 100-year-old Sufi mystic when he refused to repent in their terms.

One of the theories is that perhaps this mosque was targeted because of its affiliation with the Sufis. Others believe this is a town where many inhabitants cooperated with the Egyptian army, with the Egyptian security, and this was an attack in revenge for that. So we will wait and see to find out -- Ana? [15:15:53] CABRERA: Ben Wedeman, thank you.

Still ahead this hour, we know their names. The Navy today is releasing photos of the three sailors still missing in the Pacific.

Plus, looking at live pictures outside the funeral of a Texas Border Patrol agent. His death a mystery a week later. We go there coming up.

And later, stunning escape. The North Korean regime making changes along the DMZ after one of their own soldiers bolted across the border into South Korea. Why the North may be worried it could happen again.

You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:20:32] CABRERA: We're following breaking news. The Navy has identified three sailors who have been missing since their plane crashed off the coast of Japan Wednesday. Here are their faces. It comes after they notified families that search-and-rescue efforts ended.

CNN's Polo Sandoval joins us now.

Polo, tell us about these three young men.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the personal side of these heroes. The Navy had been holding off releasing information until they could notify families. Today, this information released by the government.

I want to tell you a little about these men, now identified by the U.S. Navy as Lieutenant Steven Combs, a man from Florida, assigned to provider's fleet of logistical support squadron 30. Airman Matthew Chialastri from Louisiana was assigned to "USS Ronald Reagan," as was Airman Apprentice Bryan Grosso from Florida. They did not survive the crash earlier this week. They were among 11 crew and passengers on a Navy transport plane that crashed as it approached an air carrier Wednesday in the western Pacific. At least eight of those individuals were rescued by officials, both from Japan and the U.S. They covered about 1,000 nautical miles in a desperate search for any sign of the three men. Sadly, presumed dead by the Navy and now family members are aware, their sons will not come home.

This investigation is on-going now, Ana. We understand Japanese defense minister said they believe engine trouble may be to blame, but the investigation is still on-going.

CABRERA: And yet, this is a tough year for the Navy, the Seventh fleet specifically, lost 17 servicemembers in a number of different incidents. What's going on?

SANDOVAL: Seventeen men and women there. Important to point out this has happened over time. When you look at the list, Ana, it is tragic to see lives are lost after these incidents. In August, the deadly collision with the "USS McCain" and a merchant ship. That left at least 10 sailors dead. Back in June, a missile destroy are, "USS Fitzgerald" collided with a cargo ship, seven dead there. Two fatal incidents out of the list were later determined to be, quote, "avoidable," and also the result of, quote, "numerous failings occurred on the part of leadership," according to a Navy report. So clearly some serious issues there. Some top Navy officers lost jobs over this.

Important to point out with the loss of the three men, it seems this was an accident. They're still investigating. As we mentioned, they believe engine trouble may be to blame. So a different situation. Nonetheless, tragic for the three men not coming home.

CABRERA: Polo Sandoval, thank you.

SANDOVAL: Thanks, Ana.

CABRERA: Infighting in the Trump administration is threatening to overshadow a major global summit. State Department officials tell CNN the U.S. is not sending a high-level delegation to next week's Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India. The main reason, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson doesn't want to support Ivanka Trump, who is leading the U.S. delegation at this event.

CNN senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, broke this story and joins us with more details -- Michelle?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: What we're talking about here is the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. It is a big event, put on by the State Department. This year, first daughter and senior White House adviser, Ivanka Trump, is headlining it. She leaves this weekend. She was invited by the Indian prime minister. And the theme is women's entrepreneurship.

What we are hearing from several sources, including senior ones in the State Department, as well as the White House, Rex Tillerson and his inner circle don't want to send senior people because they don't love the idea of Ivanka Trump leading the U.S. delegation here. From a senior State Department official, "They," meaning Tillerson and staff, "won't send someone senior because they don't want to bolster Ivanka."

Another rift at a time Rex Tillerson doesn't need more problems with the president. From a source close to the White House, "Rex doesn't like that he is supposed to be the top diplomat and Jared and Ivanka stepped all over him. So now he is not sending someone from the State Department and not supporting Ivanka Trump."

When you look at this event in past years, President Obama attended once, Secretary of State Kerry last year, an undersecretary and an assistant secretary of state. But originally, the acting assistant secretary for the region was slated to be on the trip. She was then pulled by Tillerson and staff. When I asked a spokesperson, who are the senior people going on the trip, the list hasn't been officially published, they did give me a short list of the top U.S. government officials, but none of them were from the State Department. There was an ambassador, but that person is already in India.

You could say, all right, this event was an Obama-era creation, the current State Department is trying to slash its budget left and right, and there's no permanent assistant secretary. But the answers back from sources, if you send a smaller delegation, fine. Wouldn't you send senior people and cut back in other ways?

We did get an on-the-record statement from the State Department and it says, "The department is committed to supporting women's economic empowerment and entrepreneurship. This summit is a prime opportunity to showcase the importance of these themes. The summit is really about the more than 1500 entrepreneurs, investors and supporters."

But they're obviously not commenting on this perceived Tillerson's Ivanka snub, and not denying this either.

Michelle Kosinski, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[15:26:41] CABRERA: Michelle, thanks.

"Thanks, but no thanks," that's the word from President Trump after saying he passed on an offer to be "Time" magazine Person of the Year. But the publication says that's not true. We'll explain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:31:24] ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Who's the boss at the Consumer Financial Protection Agency? That's an awkward question. Two dueling temporary leaders were appointed. How did that happen? The man running the agency, Richard Cordray, tapped his own successor Friday before he stepped down. He chose Leander English (ph), who was the agency's chief of staff. Hours later, President Trump named White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney to the same job.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who helped create that agency, tweeted, quote, "The Dodd/Frank Act is clear. If there's a director vacancy, the deputy director becomes acting director. Donald Trump can't override that."

The White House argues otherwise, saying the president can name Mulvaney under the federal Vacancies Act.

Let's talk this over with Alice Stewart, former communications director for Ted Cruz. And Richard Painter back with us, the former chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.

Richard, based on how you read the law, who is the boss come Monday?

RICHARD PAINTER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ETHICS LAWYER: Well, this is a difficult question. I think the intent of statute is that there's natural order set forth in the statute succession. And that Senator Elizabeth Warren is correct. The president is seeking to use his authority as head of executive branch to fill the vacancy under a separate law. This ultimately will have to be resolved by the courts. But what's lost on this discussion is that the person the president is

putting in there apparently has no confidence in the agency and no desire to support the agency in its mission. And this is a serious problem because the agency has been under attack. It is there to protect consumers. The consumer protection bureau is supposed to speak out for consumers, not for lenders and the big banks. This is an attempt to capture the agency and make it useless. That's what Congress needs to focus on as well as the issue of succession.

CABRERA: Alice, Richard brings up a good point. Mick Mulvaney, as a member of Congress, voted to kill the very agency the president now wants him to lead. In fact, here's what he said in 2014. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: It's a wonderful example of how a bureaucracy will function if it has no accountability to anybody. It turns up being a joke. That's what the CFPB really has been in a sick, sad kind of way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Sick, sad, a joke? Why is he the best fit to lead an agency he doesn't want to exist?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Because it is part of what the president has always talked about, is reducing burdensome government regulations. Mulvaney, at the time, he wanted to do away with it. He felt there was too much government regulation on consumers and businesses and that's a big factor in why he wanted to do away with it then. Who better, if this is part of President Trump's agenda, this specific aspect, who better to oversee the CFPB than someone like Mulvaney?

And to Richard's point, yes, it will be a difficult outcome come Monday as to who will be the boss. But clearly, in the Dodd/Frank Financial Reform Act, as Elizabeth Warren did say, it does stipulate that the deputy becomes the acting director in times of vacancy. At the same time, the Vacancies Act provides the opportunity for the president to put someone in position like this.

(CROSSTALK)

[15:35:02] CABRERA: I know, that's why we were discussing, it is not clear what should supersede what. And former Representative Barney Frank, who also created this statute, said it was specifically designed to operate independently of the White House, suggesting that Elizabeth Warren was right. Of course, they're on the same team.

Let's move to a different topic. I don't have a lot of time with you.

I want to use your expertise, Richard, given your ethics background. There was a situation where Kellyanne Conway got into hot water, now facing an ethics complaint filed by former Obama administration ethics czar because she said this regarding the Alabama Senate race and the allegations surrounding the Senate candidate Roy Moore. Watch. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR TRUMP ADVISER: Doug Jones, in Alabama, folks, don't be fooled. He'll be a vote against tax cuts. He is weak on crime, weak on boarders, strong on raising your taxes, terrible for property owners.

UNIDENTIFIED FOX ANCHOR: So vote Roy Moore?

CONWAY: I am telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Richard, do you agree with former ethics chief, Walter Shaw, who filed this complaint, that she violated the Hatch Act?

PAINTER: Yes. That's a slam-dunk violation of the Hatch Act, which says you cannot in official capacity support or oppose a candidate for political office in a partisan election. Support or oppose. You can't do that. You can't trash Doug Jones, candidate for the Alabama Senate. If she wants to push Roy Moore, put a pedophile in the United States Senate, she can do that on her own time, not on the White House lawn. It is clear violation of the Hatch Act. She violated the Hatch Act. That's a slam dunk.

CABRERA: Alice, this is the second time she's under fire for the Hatch Act. First time is when she plugged Ivanka products. This is what the White House said after that happened: "Upon completion of inquiry, we concluded Mrs. Conway acted inadvertently, is highly unlikely to do it again."

Here we are again. Is she in trouble with the White House now?

STEWART: Clearly, she was doing an interview, asked a question and answered it. As Richard said, the Hatch Act clearly states you can't advocate for or against a candidate. And in that interview, it is hard to watch that without seeing that she advocated for Roy Moore and against the Democrat. So I think it is going to be a difficult argument for the White House to make to say that she wasn't in violation. We'll see how it plays out. But it is hard to listen to that and not see that she's walking a fine line here in a gray area.

CABRERA: Alice Stewart and Richard Painter, thank you, as always. Appreciate your time and thoughts.

STEWART: Thanks, Ana.

CABRERA: Moments ago, in El Paso, Texas, dozens of Border Patrol agents lined the streets outside the funeral mass for Rogelio Martinez, the agent that died last week after being mysteriously found in a tunnel with head injuries and broken bones. Let's listen for a moment to the service.

(MUSIC)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:43:00] CABRERA: Family and friends of a Texas Border Patrol agent who died this week are remembering him today. Rogelio Martinez is being laid to rest in El Paso in a private funeral. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to attend. Martinez was just 36 years old. A father, a four-year veteran of the agency. He died mysteriously a week ago patrolling the U.S./Mexico border. Customs officials haven't released many details. He suffered blunt-force trauma, another agent was injured as well. Was this the result of an accident or an attack?

I want to bring in CNN's Scott McLean, in El Paso.

Scott, what do you know about how he died. The autopsy didn't provide conclusive information.

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ana, first, let me give you a sense of what we are seeing. It is a somber scene in El Paso. Members of the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs agents are filing into the church where the funeral service is about to get under way. Moments ago, we watched the flag-draped coffin be carried by family members inside that church. After, it will go to a nearby cemetery where he will be buried. There are plenty of officials, law enforcement from all over the country and across the state. You mentioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions as well. He is here. There are plenty of friends and family as you can imagine. I spoke to some people last night, former colleagues of Martinez that are from Border Patrol station on the other side of the state. About 20 former colleagues ended up here to pay respects to their friend, a guy they said always had a smile on his face.

You mentioned the autopsy report. That showed at least preliminarily that he died from trauma to the head. Full results won't be ready for several weeks. Meantime, we don't have many answers as to what transpired. The FBI, as you imagine, don't have much to go on. That area where it happened is essentially in the middle of nowhere, 12 miles from the nearest town, pitch black. There's no camera footage as far as we know. There may not be any radio communications.

And one person the FBI knows would have witnessed at least part of it, the other agent injured. He says he can't remember a thing. Last thing he remembers is going into work. Beyond that, nothing. At this point, a week later, it remains very much a mystery.

[15:45:25] CABRERA: And tragic at that.

Scott McLean, thank you for that.

Coming up, stunning video of a North Korean defector running for his life, under fire, crossing the border into South Korea. See what happened to him, and the swift reaction that the Kim Jong-Un regime is now taking.

You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [15:50:11] CABRERA: A swift reaction from North Korea after a soldier's dramatic defection. A U.S. government official sharing this photo from the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea, showing North Korean troops digging a trench, even planting trees near the spot where the soldier escaped.

That brave soldier is being praised for his daring desertion by a man who knows what he may have gone through.

A former defector sat down with CNN's Anna Coren to explain the brutal conditions inside North Korea, and why a young soldier would risk his life getting away.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can see him moving at a good rate of speed.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Speeding down a deserted road on the DMZ, a North Korean soldier is attempting something the U.N. command says no one has ever done before.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can see some KPA soldiers come out of this building here, as the vehicle quickly moves passed him.

COREN: Using an army Jeep, he drives within meters of the South Korean border and, under a rain of bullets from his own comrades, he runs across the demarcation line, defecting.

"There's been many defectors, but this is the first one I want to praise for bravery. He was heroic. I never thought to do this b3ecause it is a suicide mission."

The 32-year-old Kang Ri-hyuk would know. He spent 10 years as an officer in the North Korean People's Army, based on the DMZ. While he thought about defecting, he never imagined pulling such a daring escape.

Instead, he crossed the border into China and made his way to Thailand and to South Korea four years ago.

That's where he met his wife, also a defector, who does not want her identity revealed, fearing for the safety of her family back in Korea.

"Conditions were harsh. Everyone was hungry, even the soldiers," he says.

"The U.N. is sending rice and fertilizers, and it all goes to the ranking officials. There are many soldiers who die from diseases because there is no medical treatment."

The latest defector, the third this year, suffered serious injuries to his arms and abdomen from at least four bullet wounds. By the time he was admitted to hospital, he had lost more than 50 percent of his blood and was almost dead.

While surgeons were operating, they discovered dozens of parasitic worms, some up to 27 centimeters long, which doctors say were the result of poor hygiene and malnutrition.

(on camera): Back in the 1990s, famine and starvation plagued North Korea, but the U.N. says malnutrition is still a major problem. More than 40 percent of the population is undernourished and one in four children face chronic malnutrition.

And While North Korean soldiers are treated better than civilians, life is still a constant struggle.

(voice-over): This exclusive footage obtained by a South Korean Christian mission, shows North Korean soldiers physically plowing the soil instead of using livestock. And here, they are foraging through a bird's nest hunting for chicks, presumably to eat.

The pastor who heads the mission has rescued hundreds of North Koreans. He says while this footage is bleak, it's not hunger that motivate defectors, but rather the desire for freedom.

"North Koreans are thirsty for the outside world and are frustrated by the reality they face," he explains. "Those who defect, including soldiers, are hungering for information and have a strong desire to get out."

Kyung says he, too, wanted a better life, especially for his new family. Now working as a journalist, he occasionally broadcasts loudspeaker messages to the North Korean soldiers and has this message for his fellow defectors.

"Congratulations on your defection. Happy South Korea. I wonder if you heard my broadcast and it helped with your decision. I hope we can meet and have a sojourn."

Anna Coren, CNN, Seoul.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[15:54:08] CABRERA: That's a big smile on his face.

Closer to home now, tax reform is front and center as Congress returns to Capitol Hill this week. Don't miss CNN debate night Tuesday night at 9:00, "The Fight Over Tax Reform." Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Maria Cantwell and Tim Scott debate how the new plan could affect you and how much you should pay in taxes every year. That's Tuesday night, at 9:00 eastern, here at CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CABRERA: Voting is now under way for CNN Hero of the Year. Here is one of this year's top-10. Meet Stan Hayes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STAN HAYES, CNN HERO: I have been competing in barbecue for years. Besides being a nourishing meal, it's comfort food.

After a disaster, it's extremely emotional. Everybody's lives are in their front yard. We decided to get a bunch of barbecue families together and help.

Welcome and thank you for coming out.

Over the last six years, we responded to tornados and floods and hurricanes. The core group are all pit masters or grow masters. Our volunteers come from everywhere.

Come on guys.

Our goal is to be in the area within 24 to 48 hours after disaster strikes. We put the word out through different groups. And that way we know where the meals are going.

You guys need any meals?

To know that you are a little part of lifting their spirits up --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't know what a hot meal means to anybody who has lost everything they own.

HAYES: -- you can't help but --