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At Least 2 Dead in Iran Anti-Government Protests; Pence: :The Time Has Come" To End Iran's Corruption; NYT: FBI Probe Possibly Triggered By trump Campaign Aide. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2017 - 07:00   ET



[07:00:21] CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning to you, everybody. And welcome to the last day of 2017. We're glad to spend it with you. I'm Christi Paul.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Victor Blackwell. Good morning to you.

Breaking news -- anti-government protesters in Iran now spreading across the country. They are now violent and deadly.

PAUL: And I want to just give you forewarning here. What we're about to show you is disturbing. I don't want you to be caught off-guard. But there are images of bodies lying in the streets after a burst of gunfire. Here we go.


PAUL: On this video here was tweeted by a human rights organization and I want to let you know what we know right now. Two anti- government protesters were killed overnight, at least five shot were shot. And Iran officials say their security forces had nothing to do with it.

BLACKWELL: So, there are videos added to social media and they appear to show these large groups of anti-government protesters, some of them fighting with police. Now, CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of these videos, but in some, the crowds appeared to be chanting, we don't want an Islamic republic and death to the dictator.


BLACKWELL: So, this is one of dozens of these demonstrations happening now and they started on Thursday and you see how they have spread across the country.

PAUL: A top Iran official is issuing this stern warning to protesters this morning saying they will pay the price for disorder.

CNN senior international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen is with us now. He has reported from Iran nearly a dozen times. Fred, we know that the people there are frustrated, but help us

understand, when you have two anti-government protesters who were killed and Iran officials say there is a security forces had nothing to do with it, who is responsible then? And are they searching for somebody?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, I'm not sure whether they are searching for somebody or whether or not the security forces were responsible for those deaths. Certainly it seems as though the protesters are going to blame the security forces for those deaths. All of this apparently happened in a town, smaller town in Iran during a melee where the government says that people are trying to storm a government building.

So, it certainly seems at least in some places, these protesters are becoming a bit more violent but it's really been interesting, Christi, to see how these protests have evolved over the past three days when they started mostly as economic protests. A lot of people there have discontent because of the economic situation. And then you had food prices rise, some gas prices announced to be rising as well.

So, it started with economic protests but now it seems to have evolved into more of a political message which interestingly is not necessarily directed at one or the other political faction in Iran, because usually, you have the hardliners against the more moderates, but in this case, aimed at all politicians and the entire power structure. And that's certainly something that we really haven't seen much of in Iran over the past couple of years. The other big thing, of course, is that while most of these demonstrations by themselves are fairly small, they are very widespread throughout the country and not only happening in cities but in smaller towns and villages as well.

So, certainly almost something unprecedented at least over the past couple of years in Iran, Christi.

PAUL: Yes, no doubt about it. Fred Pleitgen, we appreciate your perspective. Thank you so much.

BLACKWELL: All right. So, we are getting reports of Internet slow downs and outages across parts of Iran, but those are not stopping protesters from trying to get the world's attention.

PAUL: Yes, we want to share with you several images from social media users here. Now, we cannot independently confirm these images but wanted to show you what we are finding. That's a woman standing in a busy street there without her head scarf waving a white shawl. This is apparently part of a social media campaign using #whitewednesdays that protest a law enforcing women to wear hijabs. This has become the latest semblance act of Iranian women's struggles.

BLACKWELL: All right. Joining us to discuss is Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of "Losing An Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy."

Also, Siraj Hashmi, commentary writer and editor for "The Washington Examiner".

Gentlemen, good morning to you.

And, Siraj, I want to start with something you wrote about in the context of the tweets that have come out from the president, from Sarah Sanders, also the vice president recently. You say that this administration is clearly trying to make up for the shortfall of the Obama administration and their reluctance to get involved during the 2009 green movement. Explain that.

SIRAJ HASHMI, COMMENTARY WRITER AND EDITOR, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Right. Arguably, the strongest criticism made against the Obama administration in 2009 was that he set up the green -- well, he didn't set up the green revolution but he let it fail in the sense of being soften his rhetoric and condemning the disputed election of Ahmadinejad in 2009 when it was clearly there were probably the biggest protests that we have seen, at least within the last ten years, with the exception of these protests that we are seeing within the past week.

One of the things that I think President Trump is trying to do is set a different course because now, they are not looking at the Iran nuclear deal, they just decertified it back in October. And one of the things they are trying to do is actually focus on possible regime change. I wouldn't say they are actually looking to do that but if they are -- if the Iranian people are looking more toward that, I think that's something that they are more welcomed to.

PAUL: Trita, there's an article in "The Washington Post" that says -- that asks the question: is this a revolution? They say, no, not yet. What would it take for us to see what you would characterize as a revolution in Iran? Are they edging close to one based on what we are seeing this hour?

TRITA PARSI, PRESIDENT, THE NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL: I don't think what we are seeing right now is something that would lead to a revolution regardless of what the intent or motivations may be. As your reporter said, these are very ferocious protests that have grown very fast and spread around the country, but they are still much, much smaller than what we saw in 2009.

Moreover, unlike in 2009, they lack both leadership and organization. They have grown quite impressively absent that type of leadership and organization, but for it to really be able to pull that type of a potent political challenge, it's difficult to see it doing so without some degree of leadership. And, so far, we have not seen that.

That does not mean that the grievances of the population are not legitimate or anything of that kind. On the contrary, they are quite legitimate. But in the absence of organization, it's difficult to see that this actually could be able to overthrow the government.

BLACKWELL: You know, Siraj just mentioned the possibility that this administration is looking toward regime change. I just want to read one of the tweets that come out from the president which he takes just an excerpt from his speech at the United Nations and he writes that oppressive regimes cannot endure forever and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice, the world is watching. This is on the one on the screen here.

Trita, you say the tweets from the president and from the administration broadly are not necessarily hopeful. Why?

PARSI: Well, certainly not from Donald Trump. I think we have to keep in mind that just in this past year, he has really managed to turn the Iranian people against him. He imposed the Muslim ban which disproportionately affected the Iranian nationals more than any other nationality. Iran has been affected by this. He has come out strong against a nuclear deal that still remains broadly supported by the population and his talk about the dictatorship, et cetera, doesn't sound really genuine, mindful of the fact he has been hugging, not only Saudi Arabia, but many other dictatorships in the region and beyond.

So, I don't see the Iranian people looking toward Donald Trump as an inspiration. Support of Donald Trump is not a political plus in the Iranian political context.

PAUL: So, Siraj, when we look at that and we see the president's tweets, we see the vice president tweeting about this as well, beyond tweets, do we know what the president's plan is for dealing with Iran?

HASHMI: Right now, it's tough to say. There is a lot of conflicting reports coming out of Iran, as you've probably seen a lot of social media videos and tweets cannot be independently verified because the Iranian state news agency is trying to control what comes out of the country. So, when you're looking at the intelligence reports that are coming to Donald Trump and the White House, you're looking at what would be, you know, similar to what we probably saw during the green revolution.

I would agree with Mr. Parsi arbitration point about this being an disorganized or no leaders right now, however, this is a bubbling populist movement that we can see in Iran where people on both sides, both hardliners and probably reformers are kind of coming together and protesting the state of power currently in Iran.

[07:10:12] And that's something we cannot ignore, that's spreading to different parts of the world rightly now.

BLACKWELL: All right. Siraj Hashmi with "The Washington Examiner" and Trita Parsi with the National Iranian American Council, thank you so much for being with us this morning.

HASHMI: Thank you for having us.

PARSI: Thank you.

PAUL: Thank you, gentlemen.

Vice President Mike Pence is reacting to the unrest in Iran.

I want to get over to CNN political reporter Dan Merica. So, Dan, walk us through what we are hearing from the vice president


DAN MERICA, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Hey, Christi. The vice president is following up forceful statements by Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, and President Trump, tweeting yesterday, let me read to you what he is saying.

POTUS and I stand with peaceful protesters in Iran. We're speaking out for freedom and we condemn the arrests of innocents. The time has come for the regime in Tehran to end terrorist activities corruption and their disregard for human rights.

President Trump tweeted earlier that the world is watching. That phrase had a number of experts thinking does that mean the president is going to weigh in more forcefully on the Iran protest? That hasn't (INAUDIBLE) yet. He sent one tweet. He hasn't followed that up. So, that remains to be seen.

But President Trump, Mike Pence and the Trump administration will be far from the first American administration to weigh in on Iranian politics, an issue that has befuddled many past administrations before. All of this is clearly colored by President Trump's past statements on Iran. He was hard line on Iran during the 2016 election, called this a number one state sponsor of terror. He decided to decertify the Iran deal earlier this year and there are more decisions upcoming that will obviously be colored by what happens with this anti-government protesters and how the Iranian government responds to them -- Victor and Christi.

BLACKWELL: All right. Dan Merica for us there in West Palm Beach -- Dan, thanks so much.

All right. There is this new report from "The New York Times" identifying a former Trump aide as a possible catalyst for the FBI investigation. The entire look into the Russian meddling issue in 2016 and the election. We'll talk about that next.


[07:15:18] PAUL: Well, this morning, there is a new "New York Times" report that's adding to the pieces of intelligence in the Russian investigation, even pointing to why the FBI began investigating in the first place.

BLACKWELL: Yes, this is major. According to the report, campaign aide George Papadopoulos, you've heard this name before. He has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. They knew that Russia had thousands of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton months before the information became public.

CNN's Sara Murray has details for us.


SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: On an otherwise sleepy day on the president's vacation in Mar-a-Lago, the White House was left grappling with yet another "New York Times" bombshell. This one centered around George Papadopoulos who was a foreign policy aide to President Trump back when he was in his campaign and revelations that he told people he was aware that Moscow had damaging emails about Hillary Clinton and may have helped attract law enforcement's attention to this question of whether there was any collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russians in efforts to meddle in the election.

Now, before this report came out, the White House went out of their way to downplay Papadopoulos' role during the campaign.

Here's what Sarah Sanders had to say about it a couple of months ago.

SARAH SANDRES, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It was an extremely limited. It was a volunteer position and again, no activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign in that regard.

MURRAY: Now, the White House took a cautious role in its response to this bombshell report over the weekend. Ty Cobb, who is the president's counsel within the White House, put out a statement that said: Out of respect for the special counsel and his process, we are not commenting on matters such as this. We are continuing to fully cooperate with the special counsel in order to help complete their inquiry expeditiously.

But if you dig into this "New York Times" report, there are a couple of things could be troubling for the Trump White House, including the notion that George Papadopoulos actually helped weigh in on some of then-candidate Trump's foreign policy speeches, as well as helping to facilitate a meeting just two months before the election between then- candidate Trump and the Egyptian president, both things seem well outside of the spectrum of a low level volunteer.

Sara Murray, CNN, West Palm Beach, Florida.


BLACKWELL: All right. Joining me to discuss, CNN political commentators Marc Lamont Hill and Ben Ferguson.

Gentlemen, good morning to you.



BLACKWELL: All right. So, Ben, let's start here. The president, the White House, his supporters, the members of Congress, have said that, in part, this investigation began with a dossier. It appears now, according to "The New York Times," that it started with this conversation between Papadopoulos and an Australian diplomat in May of 2016 saying three weeks earlier, he had gotten the information about Russia having dirt on Clinton.

It seems to hallow out the center point of trying to taint the FBI investigation by saying it started with this dossier, does it not?

FERGUSON: Well, it could be a combination of both. We don't know exactly what triggered this. This could be part of what triggered it or could be overall looking at the page and saying, OK, we are hearing this, there is a dossier.

We just don't know. The bottom line is this individual deserves to be in trouble for what he has done. Clearly, I think he has tried to, you know, big-time people and overstate his involvement until the campaign. He also doesn't tell the truth very often and the reason he to plead guilty to lying to the FBI.

I put a big asterisk next to this mainly because the individual is not trustworthy. Obviously, he wanted to be a bigger deal than he was in the campaign clearly. He may have been running around trying to get access to other people.

BLACKWELL: But according to "The New York times" he made higher ups aware along the way, every step, that he was trying to arrange these meetings between Russian representatives and senior campaign aides, although Sam Clovis, who was a senior aide to the campaign, or adviser to the campaign, said that -- he suggested that he should make the trip.

FERGUSON: Again, I put a huge asterisk next to someone that's been busted lying to the FBI. And my point is this. I do think that there is probably a good chance that this had some sort of involvement in the opening of this case.

Easily, the dossier could have been there. I doubt it was one central conversation with the Australians that would have triggered this big of an investigation. They, obviously, were looking for different things. This may have been a part of the puzzle here.

Again, I think this guy should be in trouble.


FERGUSON: I think he should have gotten busted by the FBI for lying to them. You don't lie to the feds. Period. End of discussion.

BLACKWELL: We get it. But we should also say that much of this reporting is based on documents, based on emails and those often in those cases break some of the major elements.

Let me Marc in. Marc, the president said no fewer than a dozen times, I think the number that we have is 16 times in that "New York Times" interview with the grill room in Mar-a-Lago, there was no collusion.

[07:20:10] Does this revelation from "The New York Times" conflict with that assertion?

HILL: It certainly makes that assertion a little more doubtful. It's not a smoking gun, by any stretch, but it's certainly a challenge for two things. One, the idea that Papadopoulos is some low level (INAUDIBLE). It's entirely unbelievable at this point he is setting up meetings and attempting to leverage the influence that he does have. He is trying to schedule things between Putin and Trump.

Obviously, Jeff Sessions had some doubt about that because of inexperience. But nevertheless he was (INAUDIBLE) important point this guy overstated his power and his authority. That is very true and very Trump-like. But what isn't true is that he didn't have influence on this campaign and Trump's administration spinning this as a low level guy lying and exactly not what happened. Also the idea that there was no meddling is really hard to believe when there is so much intelligence going on here.

As you said, it's not just about an Australian diplomat and a low- level function. It's about emails and about other people confirming. There is a lot of stuff here that conflicts with the Trump administration's claims at the onset there is no there there. We have to dig deep.

BLACKWELL: Ben, one of the other elements reported here was that, you know, this interactions, this involvement between Papadopoulos and the campaign was not short-lived. That he was influential in trying to set up this meeting between candidate Trump and the president of Egypt, Sisi, two months before the election. I mean, how can this line of low-level coffee guy continue when he has this degree of involvement throughout the summer and into the fall?

FERGUSON: Look, I think there is two things here. One, if you have this much influence, you'd actually be a part of the campaign and people would know who you are instead of it coming out because of an FBI investigation. So, I think you had an individual here --

BLACKWELL: Or possibly they know him and now it's just inconvenient to know him.

FERGUSON: Let me expand on my point here. You have an individual that, I think, had some access to the Trump campaign. No one would deny that. And I think you try to use that for his own personal gain to build his status, maybe with the people around the world that he wanted to have connections with or do business with or just be a big- timer with. That, again, this is the same guy that lied to the FBI.

So, you know, he may be walking around talking to a bunch of people going I have the ear of Donald Trump when he doesn't. He may have the ear of one campaign staffer that he talks to on a regular basis but never at an official capacity with the campaign.

BLACKWELL: But this is also someone that the candidate, himself, pointed out in a newspaper interview saying that he was an adviser. This wasn't someone who came along and saddled up next to Donald Trump. I have to get Marc back in here. Let me give 15 seconds and I get to Marc.

FERGUSON: Victor, this is one important point, though. The president did not point him out in an interview. The interviewer went through a list of multiple names asking about the names and the president responded. He did not bring up his name independently.

There was a long list of people that the president was asked about who were around this table and around the campaign. The president never brought his name up saying he is somehow in the campaign.

BLACKWELL: OK, that's not the way I remember it but if someone asked me about someone and I don't know who they are, I will certainly tell you I don't know that person. Marc, let me get you in before we have to wrap this up.

HILL: It's not as if Donald Trump stumbled saying I'll not sure he is. The president was asked about him. The president said I know who he is and Donald Trump was being honest. Why? Because Donald Trump listened intently, according to sources, according to emails and all of the evidence, (INAUDIBLE) according to all of the evidence Donald Trump was intrigued by the idea of Papadopoulos linking him to Putin. So, he was getting the conversation.

Second, Al Sisi, the president of Egypt, he arranged a meeting. Coffee boys don't arrange a meeting with one of your most significant partners in the Middle East. Trump wanted to be two things in foreign policy in the summertime. One was to reinforce a relationship with Russia and second was deal with Israeli/Palestine (INAUDIBLE)

This guy was not a low level functionary. It was a key player in the campaign and proven to be a liar and (INAUDIBLE) key questions about Trump.

BLACKWELL: All right. We've got to wrap it up there. Marc Lamont Hill, Ben Ferguson, thank you both.

FERGUSON: Good to be here.

PAUL: All right. There is going to be frigid temperatures but some determined party-goers tonight in the Big Apple. Here is a live look for you at Times Square. I know it's empty right now, but a lot of people will be there, including the founder of the me-too movement. We are talking to her next.

Happy New Year to all of you in New Zealand, because it's already 2018 there. Auckland, look at their celebration there, an impressive fireworks display just a little while ago, a half ton of pyrotechnics in this one. It took five months to prepare.


[07:29:33] BLACKWELL: Breaking in the Iranian demonstrations, we are getting this tweet from the founder and CEO of the Telegram. Telegram is a secured messaging platform. It says that Iranian authorities are blocking access to the Telegram for the majority of Iranians after our public refusal to shut down.

Of course, we know many of the videos, much the reporting we are getting out of Iran comes through social media. We saw this in 2009 with the green revolution there as well. These videos we are seeing in cities across the country, these anti-government protests, many of this reporting, these videos, are coming through applications, apps like Telegram.