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South Africa's Ruling Party to Choose New Leader; Trump Lawyers to Meet with Mueller and Team; North Korea Nuclear Threat; Trump Impacting Central American Migration; Jerusalem Controversy; First Fans See "The Last Jedi." Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired December 16, 2017 - 03:00   ET

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


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CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): South Africa's ruling party ready to turn the Jacob Zuma page. The ANC chooses its new leader. We'll have a live report from Johannesburg in just a moment.

Plus, asked whether he would pardon Michael Flynn, the U.S. President says, "we'll see."

And "The Last Jedi" "Star Wars" episode 8 is out and, as expected, doing great in the box office. We'll hear from fans.

I'm Cyril Vanier at CNN Headquarters. Thank you for joining us.

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VANIER: So South Africa is facing a pivotal movement right now. The ruling political party is voting for a new leader at its national conference this weekend. The ruling ANC, that's the African National Congress, has run the country since the end of apartheid in 1994 when its leader, Nelson Mandela, became the country's first black president.

President Jacob Zuma is currently in power but he's in trouble over allegations of corruption and he's been at the center of the ANC's declining reputation. Thousands of delegates will be voting for his successor. CNN's David McKenzie joins us now from the ANC conference in Johannesburg.

David, who's in the running?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's -- the real two leaders are in the running. It's Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president, Cyril, and as well as the former minister and head of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is also the ex-wife of President Zuma.

In many ways this extraordinary conference, because it's really showing the divisions in this ruling party in South Africa, is a referendum of Jacob Zuma and his controversial rule in South Africa. So many scandals have beset the president over the years, particularly

in recent years. Just this past week, there's been several court cases where the current president was slammed for his alleged corrupt dealings with businessmen and with his allies and even family.

So this is a moment for the ANC, that at least one camp hopes, will consolidate a new direction for the ruling party, which ushered in democracy in this country but has rarely been seen to be damaged by these ongoing corruption scandals that have slammed the president for all this time.

So two people in the running. It's already delayed and we could see a very contentious vote here in a party that's usually trying to push unity, it seems this will be a fight to see who will replace Jacob Zuma as the head of the ANC -- Cyril.

VANIER: And David, what has all this done to the ANC's standing?

It's been in so much trouble over these accusations of corruption.

Is there any danger for the ANC that it could no longer be the dominant force of South African politics?

MCKENZIE: The ANC has been around for more than 100 years. It is still the dominant force in South African politics. But they are facing in a general election in 2019 and many analysts say that, depending on what happens here in these critical next few days, it could lead to possible further losses of the ANC's credibility and electoral standing.

There's even talk they might lose their simple majority here in South Africa at the 2019 election. So that's what's at stake. But behind the scenes, there's a lot of horse trading. There's a lot of allegations of vote buying and court proceedings that are trying to at times slow or stop this election conference outside Johannesburg.

So as I said, it's a critical few days. We could see very contentious voting process; 5,000 are delegates, Cyril, will effectively decide the future of South Africa's political landscape and potentially the future of Jacob Zuma.

If people aligned against him get in, you could see the president very quickly out as the head of state. He still has just over a year in power. But that could be much shorter indeed. And so South Africans and the region are going to be really closely watching this conference in the next few days -- Cyril.

VANIER: David McKenzie, you're our eyes and ears in Johannesburg there. Thank you very much.

And the European Union says it's ready to move on to the next stage of Brexit negotiations with Britain. By all accounts this will be far more difficult than phase one, which formally ended on Friday and which, by the way, was already was pretty difficult.

Complex issues on trade and security have to be worked out and time is short. Britain vows to leave the E.U. by March 2019.

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DONALD TUSK, PRESIDENT, EUROPEAN COUNCIL: As for the framework for future relations, it is now time for informal E.U. 27 preparations and --

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TUSK: -- contact (ph) with the U.K. To get more clarity on the division (ph) for should a second phase will be (INAUDIBLE) demanding, more challenging than the first phase.

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VANIER: Also unresolved, the length of the transition period before Brexit is finalized.

Here in the U.S., a key meeting and a probe of Russian meddling in the U.S. election could happen as soon as next week. Attorneys for President Donald Trump will sit down with special counsel Robert Mueller and his team.

The president's lawyers hope that means the investigation is winding down. However, lawyers representing others aren't quite so optimistic. This comes as the U.S. president continues to attack the probe and his investigators themselves, the FBI. Jim Acosta has that.

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JIM ACOSTA, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The president is ratcheting up his attacks on the investigators who are investigating the White House and Trump campaign officials under scrutiny in the Russia probe.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, it's a shame what's happened with the FBI, but we're going to rebuild the FBI. It will be bigger and better than ever.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump seized on recent revelations that an FBI agent was removed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team after sending texts that were critical of the president.

TRUMP: It is very sad when you look at those documents; and how they've done that is really, really disgraceful. And you have a lot of very angry people that are seeing it. It's a very sad thing to watch, I will tell you that.

ACOSTA: The president then once again denied any wrongdoing.

TRUMP: They're spending millions and millions of dollars. There is absolutely no collusion. I didn't make a phone call to Russia. I have nothing to do with Russia. Everybody knows it.

ACOSTA: Before refusing to rule out the possibility of pardoning former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators earlier this month.

TRUMP: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens. Let's see. I can say this. When you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.

ACOSTA: The White House attorney Ty Cobb threw cold water on that, saying in a statement, "There is no consideration being given to pardoning Michael Flynn at the White House."

It's not the first time the president has slammed the FBI, tweeting earlier this month that the bureau's reputation was in tatters, its worst in history. The president made his latest comments about the bureau after hour before he praised federal and law enforcement officials at an FBI academy, where he again blasted the news media.

TRUMP: You see, there's the fake news back there. Look, everybody. Fake news. No, actually, some of them are fine people. About, let's see, who's back there? Yes, about 30 percent.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Robert Mueller's merry band of Democratic donors.

TRUMP: But the president appears to be echoing complaints on conservative media and from GOP lawmakers about the Mueller investigation.

REP. MATT GAETZ (R), FLORIDA: It's as if when Bob Mueller picked his team he was fishing in the "never Trump" aquarium.

ACOSTA: The attacks on federal law enforcement officials come little more than a year after then-Trump surrogate and now White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted, "When you're attacking FBI agents because you're under a criminal investigation, you're losing."

Democrats worry the groundwork is being laid for the president to dump Mueller.

REP. DENNY HECK (D), WASHINGTON: I think the fact that Bob Mueller removed somebody for those text messages is, in fact, proof that Bob Mueller is committed to undertaking this investigation with the utmost of integrity.

ACOSTA: The president's intense focus on the Mueller probe is yet another distraction for GOP leaders who are trying to pass tax cuts before leaving for the holidays.

DOUG JONES (D), ALABAMA SENATOR-ELECT: OK. Well, thank you.

ACOSTA: Republicans want to move on the tax plan before incoming Alabama Senator Doug Jones is seated after defeating Roy Moore. Mr. Trump is ready for Moore to concede that race.

TRUMP: I think he should. He tried. I want to support -- always I want to support the person running. We need the seat. We'd like to have the seat. I think we're doing very well on the tax. We'll see what happens.

ACOSTA: While he was criticizing the FBI, the president had kind words for Russian president Vladimir Putin. One day after the two leaders spoke, Trump thanked Putin for praising Mr. Trump's performance on the U.S. economy -- Jim Acosta, CNN, the White House.

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VANIER: Earlier I spoke with political analyst Michael Genovese about this possibility, the possibility of a presidential pardon for Michael Flynn. Here's his take on it.

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MICHAEL GENOVESE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's a risky game. It's a very risky game because Democrats and a lot of independents and maybe even some Republicans would be persuaded that this might be a case of him obstructing justice.

Flynn has said he's going to talk. He has a tale to tell. He might have a number of people that he could bring down with him. And so the promise, the sort of luring Flynn with this promise or suggested pardon can be very powerful because, again, the president can get him off Scot free.

And so it's --

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GENOVESE: -- typical Trump. It's the Trump tease. He throws it out there, listens to our responses. And he can do it. He may not do it. But he loves to sort of stir the pot. And this is a case of him stirring the pot again with just a little comment, "we'll see."

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VANIER: Who is this for, though?

Is this a message for Michael Flynn?

Does it send a message to Flynn that he doesn't need to cooperate with the Russia investigation, as he's currently committed to do, because the president will take care of him and pardon him, come what may?

GENOVESE: Well, a lot of people thought the Joe Arpaio pardon a few months ago was such a sort of message that the president was delivering. And even the hint now to Mike Flynn or to others, Paul Manafort, Gates, others who might be implicated in the future, if they think they're going to get off with a presidential pardon, what would they spill the beans for?

Why would they give up the truth?

Why would they sell out their president if that president is going to pardon them?

So it's an incredibly unique situation. These things don't occur very often.

But its potentially explosive because, if the president does this, people are going to say, why did you do this?

They're going to be suspicious and there's going to be a big outcry and he may not be able to survive that.

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VANIER: OK, Michael Genovese, joining us earlier there from Los Angeles.

Now U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson says North Korea must earn its way back to the bargaining table. He spoke Friday during a U.N. Security Council meeting on Pyongyang's nuclear program.

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REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The United States will use all necessary measures to defend itself against North Korean aggression, but our hope remains that diplomacy will produce a resolution.

As I said earlier this week, a sustained cessation of North Korea's threatening behavior must occur before talks can begin. North Korea must earn its way back to the table. The pressure campaign must and will continue, until denuclearization is achieved. We will in the meantime keep our channels of communication open.

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VANIER: North Korea's U.N. ambassador calls his country's nuclear program self-defense and he blames U.S. for the tension on the Korean Peninsula. Paula Hancocks takes a closer look.

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PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is really the closest yet that we have seen the United States and the Trump administration get to having any kind of talks with North Korea.

You saw the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and also the North Korean ambassador to the U.N., Ja Song Nam, sitting in the same room, sitting at the same table and after the North Korean ambassador made his remarks, Rex Tillerson then intervened once again and made further remarks.

Now what we heard was not anything new. We heard from the North Korean ambassador that the reason the North Koreans feel they have to have this nuclear missile program is for self-defense, calling the U.S. hostile, saying that they're holding other countries to blackmail with their nuclear weapons, also saying that actually when you talk about proliferation, the U.S. needs to answer questions as the U.S. has a significant stockpile of nuclear warheads, 4,000, according to the North Korean ambassador. So effectively blaming the United States for having this nuclear and

missile program. Now the U.S. secretary of state flatly denied that and said that if anyone is to blame for these tensions and for the situation, it is the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

But we also heard from Secretary of State Tillerson that he blamed China and Russia for not doing more. He was quite blunt in his remarks to both of those countries, saying Russia has slavelike conditions for North Korean labor workers in their country and that money's going it back to North Korea. Saying China is allowing crude oil to go to North Korea.

Now both China and Russia rejected those comments from the U.S. secretary of state but really the comments we heard from every member of the U.N. Security Council today was nothing new.

But the fact that you had the representative of the United States and North Korea in the same room, both listening to each other, neither one walked out as the other was speaking, potentially that could be seen as progress -- Paula Hancocks, CNN, Seoul.

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VANIER: For years migrants from Central America have risked it all for a better life. Their destination has often been the U.S. But not always. Increasingly, they're staying in Mexico. And President Trump's tough stance on immigration is having an impact and many migrants say the trip north is just no longer worth the risk.

CNN's Leyla Santiago has more on this report shot just a few moments ago.

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LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Every day, hundreds cross this river, no questions asked.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was very easy.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): This is the other border affecting U.S. immigration policy, Mexico's southern border.

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SANTIAGO (voice-over): It's so easy to cross here, we found people from Guatemala openly crossing to buy cheaper groceries in Mexico.

What we didn't find, the flood of migrants that once crossed here, fleeing violence and poverty in the South America.

The reason?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After the new president of the United States, many people forget about a American dream. They don't want to go all the way up there because they know they're going to have problems. SANTIAGO: For years, migrants who cross the river came from here, about three hours north. This was just two years ago. Migrants on their way to the U.S., packing a freight train known as "The Beast."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only way the immigrants got to get to America.

SANTIAGO: Standing on top of the train today, it's empty. But months ago you would have seen hundreds of immigrants filling the tops of these train cars. So what's changed?

You ask anyone around here they'll tell you part of it is Trump talk. The other part, Mexico is cracking down on immigration coming in from the south.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): The Mexican government now patrols train stations, forcing smugglers to find new routes. The smugglers are also charging more money.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Since Donald Trump being president, he -- they raise the price up to like 7,000.

SANTIAGO (on camera): But before President Trump how much was it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was 3,000.

SANTIAGO: So it has more than doubled?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

SANTIAGO: Since President Trump?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right, right.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): Riding "The Beast" costs her much more. This 13-year old from Guatemala lost her leg when she fell off the train in January. Her dream was to one day make it to the United States. She's given up on that, not because of her injury but...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking foreign language).

SANTIAGO: -- because she's heard the U.S. is deporting everyone.

Her family now symbolizes migrants in the Trump era, many choosing to make Mexico their final destination.

SANTIAGO (on camera): So then the talking is working?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

SANTIAGO: Impacting Mexico?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Now the problem is going to be here instead of in the United States.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): Mexico has seen a 150 percent increase in asylum applications since Trump was elected. But many here don't consider his tough talk to be lasting policy, believing the flow of migrants will soon return.

For Jose Machado (ph), that time is now.

JOSE MACHADO (PH), GUATEMALAN MIGRANT: I beg for money to try to get into America.

SANTIAGO: He begs for money to get to Tennessee, where the 2-month- old daughter he has yet to meet is waiting.

MACHADO (PH): I'll go, try to see my family.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): Family ties for some make it worth risking the odds that Trump's tough talk will not turn into action -- Leyla Santiago, CNN, Chiapas, Mexico.

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VANIER: After this quick break, the White House dropping hints at its (INAUDIBLE) Israeli-Palestinian peace. Why that could stir up even more controversy -- ahead.

Plus a deadly earthquake rattles Indonesia. We'll have the latest on the conditions there. Stay with CNN.

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VANIER: Welcome back.

The White House is indicating it wants the Western Wall in Jerusalem to be part of Israel under an eventual peace deal with Palestinians. A senior Trump administration official said Friday that Israel would probably not sign a peace agreement if it didn't get the site in an area considered holy by both Jews and Muslims.

President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital earlier this month, setting off a series of protests. CNN's Arwa Damon has the latest.

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ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There have been growing numbers of people taking to the streets throughout the Palestinian territories. And with that comes to a growing toll of those who are wounded and those who are killed in the Gaza Strip.

There was one 29-year-old man was shot in the scene of some of the more intense back-and-forth that took place between rioters and the Israeli Defense Forces. A 19-year-old university student stabbed an Israeli border policeman in the shoulder before he was shot and later died of his wounds. There is a sense that, in the upcoming days and weeks ahead, things

will become even more confrontational. And there is also a very intense conversation that is happening between the Palestinian leadership, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, various different regional leaders, as they try to figure out the best way forward and how to capitalize on this momentum that they believe they have, not necessarily talking about momentum in the streets but momentum on a global level.

Remember just a few days ago the Organization of Islamic Cooperation met in Istanbul in an extraordinary summit, where they then signed a declaration that they would be recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine, urging other leaders to do so as well.

Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying that they had already begun an initiative at the United Nations to try to nullify America's declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

They are also going to the United Nations to look for alternatives, other nations that could step in and take on that very, very challenging role of trying to mediate talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There is an underlying sense here of uncertainty; there is, of course, the growing concern of more violence -- Arwa Damon, CNN, Jerusalem.

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VANIER: We go to Asia now, where residents of Indonesia are surveying the damage after a 6.5 magnitude earthquake rattled the island of Java.

At least two people were killed and seven others injured. And people in the capital, Jakarta, also felt the ground shake. That was about 300 kilometers from the quake's epicenter. Hundreds of buildings were damaged including a hospital that moved 70 patients to safer locations.

Officials say aftershocks were being felt in the region.

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VANIER: OK. Before we wrap up the show, I got to tell you about the latest "Star Wars." It appears that the force is strong with "The Last Jedi," the latest installment in the "Star Wars" saga. It made $45 million on its opening night in the U.S. That's a record bested only by its prequel, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." That made $57 million two years ago.

Ticket sales around the world now also reaching galactic heights -- this is my opportunity to use lots of "Star Wars" puns.

So far "The Last Jedi" has made $105 million worldwide. Fans and critics alike are giving it movie stellar reviews. Take a look. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Written well, acted well. The special effects of course were off the meter. It was just a great movie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The graphics, the whole plot, you know, it was funny.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was a roller coaster, let me tell you. I mean, you think things are good and then they're bad and you think they're bad and then they're good.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm like flabbergasted right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got here at about, what, David?

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About 4:15. yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): They already had tickets but earlier fans waited hours in the cold for the best seats at 9:20.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're here for the long haul.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Doing everything from "Star Wars" games...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, my Mace Windu is here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): -- to some homework.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is absolutely exciting because it's something --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a blessing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- yes, it is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Brian Rudolph (ph) saw the original "Star Wars" here at the Uptown in 1977. He brought his son, Daniel, and two buttons the theater gave him 40 years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they gave both these out. So it's kind of neat to come back to the theater and see the movies here, the "Star Wars" movies. And that's kind of our tradition. I hope he does it with his kids.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Well, if "Star Wars" is still going on, which I'm sure they will.

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VANIER: That's it from us. Back with the headlines I will be in just a moment.