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"Fire and Fury" in the White House; Pyongyang Calls on DMZ Hotline; Iran's Revolutionary Guard Claims Protests are Over; At Least 23 Killed in Rebel-Held Area of Damascus; Near-Record Setting Snowfall in Charleston. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired January 4, 2018 - 00:00   ET

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


[00:00:14] SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: This is CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles.

Ahead for you this hour:

Tales of infighting, semi-literacy and treason -- a new book claims to pull back the curtain on the Trump campaign and the Trump White House. Now the President is firing back.

Plus days of street protests in Iran -- the government says it's all over now. We'll go live to Tehran to learn if the uprising has truly been quelled.

And a winter wallop in the United States with rare snowfall in Florida, of all places; and blizzard conditions heading up the East Coast -- a great time to just stay at home.

Hello. And welcome to our viewers around the world. I'm Sarah Sidner.

NEWSROOM L.A. starts right now.

Dramatic day in Washington -- excerpts from a new book are creating a war of words between U.S. President Trump and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon. The book is spilling revelations that make the President look incompetent and there are accusations of treason leveled at the President's son and son-in-law among others for participating in last year's the meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer and Russian/American lobbyists.

Mr. Trump is said to be furious over Bannon's comments. According to sources, the President is privately telling people he is done with his one-time adviser.

Our Jim Acosta has the details.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The gloves inside Trump world are off and the fists are flying between the President and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon. In excerpts from a new book "Fire and Fury" by Michael Wolff published by "New York Magazine" and also obtained by "the Guardian", Bannon purportedly weighs in on Donald Trump, Jr.'s meeting last year with Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton that included campaign chairman Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Bannon told the author "Even if you thought that this was not treasonous or unpatriotic or "bad expletive", and I happen to think it's all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.

Bannon speculates that the special counsel's office is focusing on money laundering claiming that federal investigators have a path to Trump that goes right through Paul Manafort, Don, Jr. and Jared Kushner. "It's as plain as a hair on your face." Adding, "They're going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV."

That's a departure from Bannon told "60 Minutes" months ago.

STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: It's a total and complete farce. Russian collusion is a farce.

ACOSTA: In a statement the President questions Bannon's sanity saying "Steve Bannon has nothing to with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind. Steve was rarely in a one on one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue whom he helped write phony books.

Steve pretends to be at war with the media which he calls the opposition party yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It's the only thing he does well."

Press secretary Sarah sanders piled on offering the President's reaction.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think furious, disgusted would probably certainly fit when you make such outrageous claims and completely false claims against the President, his administration and his family.

ACOSTA: Writing in "New York Magazine" Wolff explains Mr. Trump and his team were shocked they won on election night and that the candidate's wife Melania was distraught. "Don, Jr. told her friend that his father or DJT, as he calls him, looked as if he had seen a ghost. Melania was in tears and not of joy."

The first lady's office slammed that account saying in a statement, "The book is clearly going to be sold in the bargain fiction section."

The book about the Trump White House illustrates how the feud between the President and Bannon has escalated since the former chief strategist was fired last summer.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I liked Mr. Bannon. He's a friend of mine but Mr. Bannon came on very late, you know that. I went through 17 senators, governors and I won all the primaries.

ACOSTA: Even Don Jr. is weighing in tweeting, "Wow, just looked at the comment section on Breitbart. Wow. When Bannon has lost Breitbart, he's left with, um, nothing."

The drama detailed in the book has somehow overshadowed a stunning tweet from the President on North Korea who said, "North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un just stated that the nuclear button is on his desk at all times. Will someone from his depleted and food-starved regime please inform him that I, too have a nuclear button but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his and my button woks."

Former Vice President Joe Biden told CNN that kind of rhetoric is reckless.

JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look. The only war that's worse than one that's intended is one that's unintended. This is not a game. This is not about his, you know, can I puff my chest out.

ACOSTA: As for North Korea, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said it's a quote "fact that the President's nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong-Un's but the fact is U.S. officials have said for years there is no actual nuclear button that launches the nation's nuclear arsenal.

[00:05:04] Jim Acosta, CNN -- the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SIDNER: And just a short time ago, Steve Bannon talked about the new book and his apparent feud with President Trump. Listen to what he said on Breitbart News tonight on Sirius XM Radio.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BANNON: The President of the United States is a great man. You know I support him day in and day out whether going through the country giving the Trump miracle speech or on the shore or on the Web sites. I don't think you have to worry about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SIDNER: Joining me now here in Los Angeles, former L.A. city councilwoman Wendy Greuel, radio host and conservative commentator Joe Messina and civil rights attorney Brian Claypool.

Oh my goodness. There is a whole lot to get to here.

We have heard quite a bit of details in that story that Jim Acosta just did. But let's back up a little bit and go back to one of the things that was revealed in this book. Let's start with that.

This is a comment that Bannon made about treason. He said that the three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower. He goes on to say in the conference room on the 25th floor with no lawyers. They didn't have any lawyers.

Even if you thought that this was not treasonous or unpatriotic or "bad expletive", and I think that it's all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.

First to you -- Wendy. Do you think that -- his comments in public have been that this is simply a witch hunt; this Russia investigation, there's nothing to see here -- but is this what he thinks privately? Is that what we're seeing play out here in this book, you think?

WENDY GREUEL, FORMER LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCILWOMAN: I think in this book he's kind of feels more free to say things he might not have said before. He's also getting ready to have to testify in this next month before Congress where he will be under oath ,having to tell the truth.

And I think this is a beginning of that kind of truth-telling that he is going to say what exactly happened. There has been this smoking gun as far as that meeting occurred. They should have told people that they were meeting with the Russians. They should have been more forthright and it's all going to come out.

SIDNER: What do you make of those comments or do you think this is one of those things where he's just talking off the cuff and everybody has an agenda in the administration, as well?

JOE MESSINA, CONSERVATIVE TALK RADIO HOST: Well, I think he is talking off the cuff. But I can tell you, to think that his handcuffs have been taken off I think is really not looking at Steve Bannon's history. He's never had handcuffs. He's never had a filter. He's never stopped himself from saying really what he wanted to say to whom he wanted to say it.

I mean some of the comments he made out Trump's kids -- he's talked about Ivanka back in the days when they were running for office. So I don't think Steve Bannon's worried about what he says or how he says it.

I do think there's a lot of bloviating going on in this book, if you would.

GREUEL: Bloviating -- one of my favorite words.

SIDNER: Speaking of bloviating -- there has been now, we learned this, the President's lawyers have sent out a cease and desist cable basically telling Bannon to stop talking, telling him that he has violated a non-disclosure agreement.

So Brian Claypool, I'm going to ask you, you're the lawyer in the room, do they have a case here?

BRIAN CLAYPOOL, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, let's let the political poker game begin in 2018, Sara.

But I'll tell you this. Two questions: does President Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner have a legal case against Steve Bannon? Michael Wolff? Absolutely. There's no evidence whatsoever on this planet as we sit here tonight of any treason. Treason is a war act. It doesn't even apply here.

And there's no evidence Sara, at all, of any of the Trump family or Jared Kushner having committed money laundering. So the Trump family and Jared Kushner clearly have a lawsuit if they want one.

But the big question is, would it be politically practical for the Trump camp to file a lawsuit against Steve Bannon and Michael Wolff?

My answer to that would be absolutely not because then you create all this discovery, in other words -- depositions, a ton of subpoenas that are going to be sent out.

And that information, Sara, created in a separate civil lawsuit could be used by Mueller in this Russian scandal investigation. So you don't want to open up a new can of worms.

SIDNER: Interesting.

We're going to move on to another potential political and legal issue. This is about money laundering.

Let's look what was said in an excerpt in this book also coming from Steve Bannon. He says this is all about money laundering. Mueller chose -- and he is talking about senior prosecutor Peter Andrew Weissman first, and he is an a money laundering guy.

"Their path to expletive Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner. They're going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV."

[00:09:56] Dave -- I'm going to let you -- Joe -- I'm going to let you get a stab at this first. He is talking in terms of legalities, obviously. But it doesn't seem like from that excerpt that he actually heard this, saw this. It seems like he is making an assumption here.

MESSINA: Yes. I give -- I don't know how come we're giving Bannon so much time and so much credit, you know. Here's a man that mainstream media as a whole looked at, didn't believe what he had to say, felt that he was a thug and bully and this is just the way he operated.

I think he's doing the same thing here. He's trying to sell a book. He's trying to make a name for himself. He's trying to bring himself back. And he doesn't have the power he had at Breitbart that he once had.

Again, as you saw earlier, look at the comments that are being made. He is losing his base. I mean Bannon is losing his base.

SIDNER: But we have to be clear that Michael Wolff wrote this book and he was given extraordinary access apparently in the White House.

GREUEL: By the White House. Yes, by the White House.

SIDNER: Yes. Yes.

GREUEL: I think, you know, the fact that they're trying to have, you know, send a cease and desist means they have something to hide. And again, Bannon may not necessarily, you know, have been someone who was shy about his comments before but this is farther than he has ever gone.

And, you know, I have to say I think that, you know, Trump created this Frankenstein. He is now exacting his revenge, Bannon is. So he created this guy to make him something that was part of his administration and now it's coming back to bite him.

SIDNER: What do you make of the fact that usually when there's something like this that happens in the Trump administration someone comes after the Trump administration that has worked there and the reaction usually from the White House is, we don't really know this guy. He really wasn't a big deal. He really wasn't a part of it. What are your thoughts, Wendy, on that? Is it fair?

GREUEL: Yes. They have tried that -- you know, they have tried that consistently to try to say these people are not engaged with us. And in fact, in every instance there is some relationship.

And you can't hide that Bannon was part of his team and, in fact, they brought him in and Kellyanne Conway at the end when Trump was running against Hillary and he was way behind and they thought we need someone to help us at this end, to get us over.

So it wasn't as though Bannon was just an afterthought. He was part of that particular campaign at the end and part of the administration from the beginning. The press release they sent out said he was on equal level with the chief of staff in the White House.

SIDNER: What are your thoughts, Joe? I mean, they did say a lot about Bannon. They said he was a good guy and they said many different things. He was clearly a part of this administration at some point.

MESSINA: Yes. You know what? I'm now one of those guys that's so far on the right with Trump that everything he does is perfect. I don't agree with all his tweets. And I don't agree with the way they pose some of these things, I mean lay some of these things out.

Yes, he was probably a real important part of the strategy but I don't think he was the strategy. He wasn't the one man that made it happen. Remember Trump beat 16 of our Republican primary candidates without Bannon. So --

SIDNER: And he pointed that out.

MESSINA: Well, he pointed it out but we saw it happen. And you know, I joke about the fact that he beat them sometimes with two- and three- word answers. These were seasoned Republicans.

SIDNER: Brian -- let me ask you about this. You know, as you look through some of the details that have come out in excerpts from this book, and we haven't even sent the whole thing yet. Is this something that the special counsel Mueller will be looking through to try and use in his investigation? I mean, could it be quite damaging to the Trump defense?

CLAYPOOL: Great question -- Sara. That's why I mentioned at the outset let the political poker games begin because I think deep down, this is some kind of a land mine that Wolff and Bannon are setting like they're setting like a trap or a bait, you know, and a trap for Trump to see if he takes the bait and runs with it and then hangs himself.

Because any information generated in any kind of civil lawsuit is going to be used, trust me, by Mueller in his investigation. So that's what's so intriguing about this.

Make no mistake about it. It's socially irresponsible for Bannon to make those comments. He has no legal basis to make them.

But what is Trump going to do? His cease and desist letter has no teeth because the book is already going out, right? So you're not going to take Bannon's comments out of the book.

SIDNER: Right.

CLAYPOOL: So what's he left with? Do I sue or not. And he shouldn't take the bait. He shouldn't sue because all that information, like you just said, could be used against him in that civil case in the Russian investigation.

SIDNER: I want to mention what Don, Jr. responded after all of this because, of course, he is one of the players in the -- being looked into in the Russia investigation. He said that "Steve had the honor of working in the White House and serving the country. Unfortunately, he squandered that privilege and turned that opportunity into a nightmare of backstabbing, harassing, leaking, lying and undermining the President. Steve is not a strategist. He is an opportunist."

Curious what both of you make of that response from Don Jr. being that, you know, obviously, he talks to his father frequently and they have conversations and it seems like this is very much a tit for tat. You came after me, I'm coming back after you. You're a nobody.

[00:14:58] GREUEL: Well, I think that has been what we have historically seen within this White House. There isn't any loyalty from people who were there, people who are -- who have left there. There's a lot of leaking going on.

And I think the loyalty and the challenge is that Trump hasn't been loyal to his people either. So I think we're going to continue to see this as it goes forward.

SIDNER: There is a lot of talk that Trump, in this book, that Trump is the one that is often stirring the discontent. Do you think that's a fair assessment judging from what you've seen and heard?

CLAYPOOL: I think Trump is a successful New York businessman. And he likes to see things done and I felt early on that he became president one of the problems he was going to have was not understanding that he's not the CEO. He can't hire and fire at will. He can't just make things happen by snapping his fingers as successful people do.

But even with that said, I think he's surrounding himself with people who are not used to the political process and frankly I'm happy with that. I'm tired of that. I've been in politics myself for years.

You've been in politics. You know that people get into rut. And as president, we don't want the rut. He wasn't voted in because he was a seasoned politician.

And I think that what's going on in the White House, I think Bannon has been part of that, too. I've heard that Bannon was like a bull in a china shop when he wanted something done. And if he didn't like the response, he let people know about it.

SIDNER: I'm curious how you think this book might play out with Trump's base or people who are on -- sort of trying to figure out if they want to stick with him or not.

MESSINA: I think the book is going to hurt Breitbart. I think the book is going to hurt Bannon. I think it's going to do nothing but strengthen the base with President Trump because again, this man is has been beat at, pulled at, clawed at for what -- almost a year now.

What positive things -- are you going to tell me that there's nothing positive we're going to pull out of anything that President Trump did? We don't see it posted. We don't see it talked about.

SIDNER: Do you think that this could have an impact on, for example, independents who may have voted for Trump, you know, last year or year before last?

GREUEL: I think it reinforces many of the things that people have been talking about -- the ineffective nature of him being that leader and making a lot of mistakes in that first year.

So I think that people who like Trump are going to, you know, say this book isn't true. And those that don't are going to say it proves what we have been saying. But I think it also is going to be a treasure trove of information for Mueller to continue to look at. And I think it's going to continue to be a distraction.

This is one of the you know, number one I think on Amazon already ordered that people are going to want to read that book and see what it says inside. And I think it's going to be a distraction for this administration.

SIDNER: All right. Wendy, Joe, Brian -- we are coming back to you because there's a lot more that we haven't even gone over. We appreciate your time. >

GREUEL: Thank you.

SIDNER: North and South Korea are making a significant move toward talks. Coming up, how this could drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington; and an expert's take on what the result might be.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SIDNER: The lines of communications between North and South Korea are open. Seoul says Pyongyang has called on their hotline three times in less than a day checking technical issues.

[00:19:57] That warm-up in relations comes with -- while many are condemning U.S. President Donald Trump's tweet taunting North Korea's leader about the size and power of his nuclear button.

The White House has no apologies though. Press secretary Sarah Sanders says the President is not going to cower or be weak in the face of Pyongyang's nuclear threat.

Our Paula Hancocks is joining us now, live from Seoul. Do we know what exactly has been said on the call any of the times? And if there's anything significant or is it literally just testing it?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well we know, Sara, that the very first call, they identified each other that it was themselves. And that was really the only transcript we had.

So the context we've had is that they didn't discuss Pyeonchang Olympics. They didn't discuss future talks. The guidance we've had from the South Korean side at least is that these are technical tests.

But, of course, without a full transcript or hearing it yourself you don't know how much more may have been discussed. But what we're being told is that this was really a test to check that the communication line was working. So twice yesterday afternoon, in fact the second one yesterday afternoon -- it was just after 6:00 p.m. local time.

There was a call from the North Koreans saying let's call it a day. So the South Koreans assumed that so they knew there wouldn't be another phone call then.

But then this morning there was another one, 9:30 a.m. local time which is 7:30 p.m. Eastern. And once again they said that they were checking the line when the South Korean said, do you have anything to report? They simply said, no. We'll let you know and then hung up.

So the context at this point is slim. The amount of information we're getting is slim. But the very fact that you have had three phone calls over the span of two days is significant.

SIDNER: Because it has been two years since the line was even open. Can you give us a sense of how concerned South Korea is with the rhetoric that's been going back and forth between the United States and North Korea?

HANCOCKS: We never get an official reaction from the government when it comes to, for example, the tweets that you hear from the U.S. President. We haven't had a reaction to that tweet from yesterday. And we've -- I mean I spoke to the South Korean president a few months ago and asked him about the tweets from the U.S. President and he simply said well we shouldn't take them too narrowly. So clearly they're playing a diplomatic game, trying not to react to, of course, what the President as a very close ally.

What happens in North Korea though is a different matter. We have seen the North Korean reaction. Once even directly from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un himself in response to perceived threats or tweets from the U.S. President. So certainly we might see some kind of reaction there -- Sara.

SIDNER: Paula Hancocks -- thank you so much, live for us giving us insight into the North and South now open phone line between the two. We appreciate your time -- Paula.

Joining us now is Stephen Noerper. Stephen is the senior director of the Korea Society -- a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promotion of greater awareness, understanding and cooperation between the United States and Korea.

Thank you so much for joining -- Stephen. We appreciate your time.

STEPHEN NOERPER, SENIOR DIRECTOR, KOREA SOCIETY: Thank you.

Let's begin with this. South Korea and North Korea taking diplomatic steps directly with one another without the United States' assistance -- how likely is this to garner results?

NOERPER: Well, we'll see. There's an opportunity here. Clearly there was a message that was delivered on New Year's Day by the North Korean leader that he would be willing to engage in some sort of direct contact. The South Korean administration has received that well and is proposing to sit down next week.

Today they turned on a military hotline. Perhaps they get together for the winter games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

SIDNER: Does this give some kind of indication that the United States is sort of being frozen out or cut out? And if so what does that mean for the South Korea-United States relationship?

NOERPER: Well, I don't think we can say that the U.S. is frozen out or cut out. There may be a wedge tactic that's being employed here but the U.S.-South Korea relationship is strong. And it's an alliance that's stood the test of 70 years so there's no question that there's a relationship that can withstand this.

But the United States needs to allow South Korea room. And the Moon Jae-In administration has to have the room to talk with North Korea and at least see if its overtures for talks that seem now to have been met by North Korea lead to anything substantial.

Clearly, opening up hotlines is a good thing. We need communications at time of high tensions. And let's see if we can get them to the Olympic Games. That would be extraordinary SIDNER: If North Korea continues to blast off ICBMs, do nuclear tests as it talks with the South, then what? I mean what happens then? Does the South just say ok, enough, we're going to, you know, go back to status quo?

[00:24:55] NOERPER: Yes. It creates a dynamic that is challenging because it means that the United States and other western powers are concerned about this type of evolution of technology both by way of nuclear and missile on the part of North Korea.

But at the same time, South Korea is encouraging engagement and trying to get to the negotiating table. However, South Korea's objectives really don't differ. They want denuclearization and they're concerned about those developments.

So if North Korea does both -- if it tests nuclear, if it launches missiles, and at the same time makes diplomatic overtures, together they don't really work. So the entire international community will be looking to see if North Korea holds back on any further testing.

SIDNER: Donald Trump Jr. the president's son, tweeted about the phone line being reopened between the North and south and he said he wondered why s Seemingly crediting his father for forcing talks. Is this because of President Trump's tough talk or is it something else?

NOERPER: Well, I think we can assume a few things. One is North Korea is feeling the bite of international sanctions. And secondly they're concerned about the level of tension. And they're having trouble reading Donald Trump.

And they don't know where the Americans are in terms of what we have seen by way of a large display of U.S. and South Korean coordinated military activity, the extended deterrence that is meant to counter the North Korean threat.

So North Korea seems to be in a little bit more of a pro-engagement mood and they realize that by approaching South Korea it maybe drives a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. But the U.S. and South Korea won't let that happen.

SIDNER: Why do you think Kim Jong-Un though is extending the olive branch now? There's been a lot of tough talk and is this something he kind of does or has done over the years?

NOERPER: No, it isn't something that he's done. And this will be just the hotline being turned on is first time in two years.

It may be a new diplomatic overture that accompanies his turn toward economic strategy. He had a two-pronged strategy that he announced, Byeung Geon (ph) policy and that basically means nuclear development and economic development.

And now that he has announced that they have reached some sort of fruition in terms of the nuclear front, he may be turning more towards economics. And certainly the sanctions don't help and makes more of a challenge for him. So that may lead him to be more pragmatic. Beyond that, it's his birthday. He may be trying to do something that is encouraging. And beyond that he seems to be a fan of winter sport and the Pyeongchang games will be big and so he may see a benefit to having North Korea at the table for the South Korean-hosted games.

SIDNER: What do you think South Korea makes? I mean are they nervous about the rhetoric that is quite fiery between the United States and the North?

NOERPER: I think that makes them very uncomfortable. It makes the South Koreans uncomfortable, other allies and frankly, the international community.

And the U.N. Secretary-General has warned that we not sleepwalk into conflict. Clearly the bombast in terms of the exchange of rhetoric between Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump is not healthy. And what it does is raise the specter of tensions that are high and that this time we need find ways to deescalate the crisis.

What you don't want is for a misunderstanding, a miscommunication or a misread to lead to some very open conflict. And that would have extraordinarily dangerous impact.

SIDNER: Stephen Noerper of the Korean Society -- thank you so much for joining us and sort of hash some of this out and get some understanding to the issue.

NOERPER: Hey -- thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Coming up, a tumultuous week in Iran but officials say the unrest is over with. We'll check in on the capital just ahead.

Plus another bloody day in Syria as the regime continues its relentless siege against the rebel stronghold near the capital.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[00:30:00]

(MUSIC PLAYING)

SIDNER: You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm Sara Sidner. The headlines for you at this hour:

(HEADLINES)

SIDNER: The head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard claims anti-government protests are over after nearly a week of unrest. On Wednesday, thousands of government supporters were seen marching through the streets instead. More now from Nick Paton Walsh.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This was the day the government had its voice heard and ensured its people hit the street, lavishly covered by state TV, the unrest chant of "death to the dictator" replaced with a more common to Iran of "death to America."

After days of measured and even sympathetic government responses and encouragement to the unrest from the White House, the major popular force that was out there to be seen was backing the status quo again.

At the same time, the anti-government unrest appeared to ebb partially. Rare videos like these from Tuesday night emerging. Yet it could return as fast and unexpected as it emerged.

WALSH: Protests spread very quickly at the start of those seven days. You can see here maintaining some of that reach during the week. But Wednesday, Iran's hardline Revolutionary Guard stepped forward to try and draw a line under the protests. Their head, Mohammed Ali Ja'afari (ph) saying there were never more than 15,000 protesters out and 1,500 at a time in one particular protest.

He declared an end to what he referred to as the sedition and even hinted a former official might have been involved in sparking the first protest.

WALSH (voice-over): So if this was meant as a wakeup call to Iran's ruling clerical elite, the more moderate president Hassan Rouhani, did it wake anyone up?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It took a few days for Rouhani to make a substantive statement, a few days for the supreme leader to make a substantive statement. We would hope that that indicates that they're in a little bit of a listening phase, trying to understand exactly what's contributed to these mobilizations and seeking to find a reasonable approach.

Now if you're more of a pessimist, then that silence might simply be a fact that they don't know what to do.

WALSH (voice-over): For now, the root economic causes remains as does a sense of Iran shaken by an unexpected rage from an unexpected part of its youth -- Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SIDNER: Ramin Mostaghim reports on Tehran for the "Los Angeles Times" and he joins us on the line from the Iranian capital.

Ramin, the Revolutionary Guard has announced that the protests are over. Are they?

[00:35:00]

RAMIN MOSTAGHIM, "L.A. TIMES": In Tehran at least we can say, yes. It's not over. We can say 100 percent. But the (INAUDIBLE) friends of the protests has already begun. So we can say in big cities like Tehran it is over.

But it can emerge just as suddenly as it happened last week any time so because the officials, the Revolutionary Guards, the government have tried to neutralize the protests. They haven't yet arrested the roots of the problem. The chronic problems are still there.

So as long as the problems are there, there is always likelihood of the reemerging of these protests. Anytime, anywhere in the country. But so far, in term of neutralizing the protests, yes, the IRGC commander is right.

(CROSSTALK)

SIDNER: Let me ask you about numbers, if you wouldn't mind, Ramin. The government sponsored news agency has said 15,000 people involved in the anti-government protests.

Is there any way to get an accurate number because it was in so many different spots in the country?

MOSTAGHIM: See, the government can always mobilize so it's obvious that government and officials and state-run enterprises, they have always upper hand in organizing people in their own favor. That is the capability, no doubt about it.

So their capability is in staging and orchestrating. Yes, they can orchestrate any time they want. Many number, 10 times more than the protesters. That is true. But we cannot say these 15,000 people just came on their own. And they have enthusiastically participated if circumstances change.

So we can say, yes. The mobilization part of the regime is still high and it means they can mobilize any number they want. But it doesn't mean the genuine power.

SIDNER: All right, Thank you so much, Ramin Mostaghim, there live for us from Tehran.

The Syrian civil war continues to grind on despite a peace deal brokered last May. At least 23 people were reported killed on Wednesday in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. Human rights observers say most of the deaths were the result of airstrikes by Russian warplanes.

The Syrian military has also been shelling the area and refuses to allow in humanitarian aid.

In North America, the freeze is on. The first major winter storm of the year could produce blizzard-like conditions with hurricane force gusts. We'll have more on that coming up.

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SIDNER: Every state on the U.S. East Coast from Maine to Florida is under a winter storm watch or warning right now. That's a 1,500-mile stretch, it's so cold in the typically balmy state of Florida, this fountain in Tallahassee froze -- see that there. Sheesh. More than 2,700 flights have been canceled for the coming day; 12 people have died because of the brutally cold weather in the United States.

Our Nick Valencia is in the southern city of Charleston, South Carolina, which has not seen a winter blast like this in decades.

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NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was a near record setting day here in the city of Charleston with five inches of snow falling reported at the airport. The record for the city about six inches. The last time the city saw this much snow was 28 years ago, this city more accustomed to gorgeous weather and picturesque scenery.

Well, it was certainly a picturesque winter wonderland type scenery and atypical images that we're not accustomed to here, specifically in Waterfront Park. We saw the iconic Pineapple Fountain completely frozen over. There were also some hazardous conditions caused by this weather event that swept not just here in South Carolina but really all up and down the Eastern Seaboard, touching all states along the Eastern Seaboard, affecting about 40 million people.

But the scenes here atypical in Charleston. There was snow on palm trees, frozen-over fountains and a lot of people that came out to check out something that they don't normally see. There's more concerns on Thursday for officials with those roadways expected to stay frozen. And there's no end in sight for the cold weather.

The next time the weather is expected to get above 40 degrees is on Sunday -- Nick Valencia, CNN, Charleston, South Carolina.

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