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Russians Charged with U.S. Election Meddling; Florida School Shooting; Oxfam Denies Cover-up; PyeongChang Olympics 2018. Aired 12mn-12:30a ET

Aired February 17, 2018 - 00:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A sprawling indictment against Russian citizens reveals extensive efforts to meddle in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

This as the U.S. president visits victims of the Florida school shooting. And the FBI admits it failed to follow up on an important tip about the gunman.

Plus CNN is in Haiti, speaking to its foreign minister as a sex scandal engulfs the Oxfam aid agency.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, welcome viewers around the world. I'm George Howell. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


HOWELL: There is a major development to tell you about in the Russia investigation here in the United States. A grand jury has indicted 13 Russian operatives and three Russian entities for their alleged roles in meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Those charges from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, include the following: conspiracy to commit bank fraud, aggravated identity theft and also conspiracy to defraud the United States.

The indictments paint a picture of an elaborate campaign. Part of the goal: to allegedly hurt the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and to boost the chances of Donald Trump. It says the Russian operatives communicated with unwitting members of the Trump campaign.

The U.S. Justice Department made the significant announcement about this on Friday. Listen.


ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.


HOWELL: After the indictments were announced, President Trump had nothing to say about the attack on the United States and democracy but rather he did tweet this about how it related to him.

"Russia started their anti-U.S. campaign in 2014, long before I announced I would run for president. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong. No collusion."

Later, President Trump released a more formal statement saying, "It's time that we stopped the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations and farfetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors like Russia and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions."

One of the targets of the indictment is a Russian based company called the Internet Research Agency. That group also often called a troll farm. CNN's Matthew Chance has a look at how it allegedly sought to sow discord in the United States.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In May 2016, a small group of anti-Islamic protesters gathered outside a Muslim community center in the U.S. city of Houston.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Down with the Nazis.

CHANCE (voice-over): Across the street, a counter rally formed. And the two sides hurled abuse in a stark illustration of American division and discord.

The organizers were thousands of miles away, in St. Petersburg, Russia, working for a secretive organization which, according to a recent U.S. indictment, had a strategic goal: to sow discord in the U.S. political system.

Its name, the Internet Research Agency, dubbed the Kremlin troll factory by former employees who smuggled out these rare cell phone images. In 2016, CNN spoke to a Russian journalist who went undercover as an Internet troll there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The U.S. elections are the key issue for the Kremlin. And of course, Russia has invested a lot of effort into them. That's why the troll factories are working, I have no doubt.

CHANCE (voice-over): It was during the --


CHANCE (voice-over): -- Russian-backed rebellion in Ukraine in 2014, that evidence first emerged of pro-Kremlin troll factories, filled with bloggers paid to spread false information online about the conflict. And this is the Russian oligarch, who, according to the U.S.

indictment, bankrolled the troll factory operation. Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as Putin's chef, because one of his companies provides catering services to the Kremlin, has denied any guilt.

"Americans are very impressionable people," he told Russian state media. "They see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. I'm not at all upset that I'm on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see one."

But it is the devilish work of Russia's Internet trolls and the social divisions they have incited that the U.S. has now moved firmly against -- Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.


HOWELL: A lot to talk about here and let's break it all down with political analyst Michael Genovese and CNN law enforcement contributor, Steve Moore, both from Los Angeles, with us at this hour.

It's good to have you gentlemen to talk about this indictment. It is extensive, it's granular with fact and detail. It shows how Russian operatives came to America to study the culture, to open social media accounts and to sow discord around this election.

Fair to say it is not a hoax, as the U.S. president has always described it. In fact, let's listen to just a bit of that.


TRUMP: The Russia story is a total fabrication. It's just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics.

This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.

The entire thing has been a witch hunt.

How many times do I have to answer this question?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you just say yes or no on it?

TRUMP: Russia is a ruse.

I've been in office for 11 months. For 11 months they've had this phony cloud over this administration, over our government.

It's a Democrat hoax that was brought up as an excuse for losing an election that, frankly, the Democrats should have won because they have such a tremendous advantage in the electoral college. So it was brought up for that reason.


HOWELL: Again, not a hoax, right?

So with what we know now, Michael, can the White House continue to deny the facts?

MICHAEL GENOVESE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they can and they might, because Donald Trump seems incapable of making that transition. To do so, to say that, yes, the Russians influenced our election, they -- some of our campaign aides were unwitting, perhaps, associates of theirs.

To do that, the president would see his election as delegitimized. And he's a very sensitive person. And so it's not surprising that here's an attack on the United States' democracy but he sees it as an attack on himself. He takes it very personally.

And everything is about Donald Trump. And you would think that finally, with all of this evidence we might see the president say, well, we were attacked, let's defend the United States. Instead, he keeps on defending himself.

HOWELL: Steve, this question to you from the standpoint of the investigation. The indictment suggests there were unwitting members, unwitting members of the Trump campaign, who were contacted by these operatives, pretending to be grassroots groups and conservatives. The key word again, "unwitting members."

It doesn't, though, exactly say how the meddling might have impacted the election.

Are these positives for the White House, in your view?

Or should they not be overly confident at this point?

STEVE MOORE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: I think it's positive in the short term if you consider the fact that the special prosecutor has two objectives here. Number one, to determine whether Russia was involved in interfering with the election, I think this is going to put that to rest.

The second question they have to answer is, did the Trump administration intentionally participate in this?

So in round one, the answer is no, they didn't actively participate in it. However, there was an attempt to influence the election.

So it's a mixed bag for the Trump administration and it is pretty devastating to the Soviet -- I'm Cold War -- the Russians again. But what is interesting to me is there's no -- been no flat denial. If they want to see a devil, let them see a devil. It's -- there's not been a denial.

HOWELL: Michael, same question to you.

GENOVESE: Well, I think the Russians feel that they can meddle with impunity, that the president won't respond. The president is not going to take them on. And so you get comments from Russians that are basically saying, yes, we did it, so what?

None of the people who are indicted would be brought to the United States. There will be no extraditions. They will not be put --


GENOVESE: -- on trial. But what this does is establishes for the special prosecutor, Mueller, the fact the position that Russians were involved and Russia is -- the Russian question is at stake here.

So the president, if he wants to pull away from the investigation, even fire Mueller, it's going to look very bad. It would look like he's obstructing justice. And so the Russian end has been established and that's, I think -- that changes the arithmetic of this whole equation.

HOWELL: All right, gentlemen, given the detail provided in this indictment, there are many demanding that the president take a more clear position in the U.S. response to Russia.

But as of this point, there has been no cabinet level panel to examine the problem. There have been no methods to discuss, to defend against it in future elections. And the president just recently has refused to enforce the sanctions that were passed in a bipartisan nature against Russia.

Steve, first to you. Given his oath of office, his oath to defend and protect the United States against threats, both foreign and domestic, how much pressure does this indictment, just the details that we've been able to get from it, how much pressure does that put on the White House?

MOORE: It's going to put a lot of pressure on it, because his base are the type of constituents that are going to be most offended by Russian interference in an election. And it wasn't just to -- it wasn't just to elect Donald Trump. It was to cause great consternation in the United States, basically put us at loggerheads.

Trump's base should be very angry about this and they should be talking to their congressmen and senators. And I believe that pressure will come from below and push him into some things.

HOWELL: Steve Moore, thank you so much for your time.

Michael Genovese, we appreciate your insight.

As we continue to read through this indictment and get a little more detail into what the intelligence community, quite frankly, has been saying for a long time this certainly gives a window into a lot of that.

Gentlemen, thank you.

The U.S. president this hour is in the U.S. State of Florida, that's where he took time to mourn the loss of 17 people killed in Wednesday's school shooting. Before heading to his Mar-a-lago resort, the president visited a hospital on Friday. He spoke with two of the wounded people there and said that it is, quote, "very sad" that something like this could happen. But the president did not answer questions about whether changes are

needed with gun laws here in the U.S. The president also met with law enforcement officials, thanking them for their response to the shooting.

As for the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, he plans to plead guilty to the school shootings to avoid the death penalty, this according to his attorney. But a troubling admission from the FBI. The FBI failed to act last month on a crucial advance bit of information that it had about Cruz's potential for violence. Our Brian Todd looks into it.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: New and alarming details of missed and of mishandled warning signs. The FBI says it was given information on January 5th on a tipline. The caller provided information that Nikolas Cruz was erratic, armed, had a desire to kill people and showed the potential of conducting a school shooting. This information was never passed on to the Miami field office.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The potential of the FBI to miss something is always there. We do our best. We have (INAUDIBLE) protocols to prevent these things. We will be looking into where and how if something, the protocol broke down.

TODD (voice-over): This, in addition to a separate notice given to the FBI regarding disturbing social media posts predicting a massacre, including these, saying, "I want to shoot people with my AR-15. I want to die fighting, killing S-ton of people." Jim Gard (ph), a former teacher of the shooter, tells CNN that faculty

received an e-mail in late 2016, prompting them to be on the lookout for Cruz and to let administrators know if he was seen with a backpack.

TODD: Describe that e-mail and what it said?

JIM GARD (PH), TEACHER: It was very simple. It just said, if he comes on campus with a backpack, let me know.

TODD (voice-over): CNN affiliate WPLG is reporting on a school document, recommending in January 2017 that a threat assessment be conducted to determine if Cruz was a danger to the school, the document issued after he was involved in an assault.

CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the document. It's not clear if the threat assessment was ever done and the Broward County School Board has not commented.

Signs at every turn that the 19-year-old shooter was troubled and violent. Police records show 39 calls to the shooter's home over the past seven years for various reasons, including reports of, quote, "mentally ill person," "child or elderly abuse" and "domestic disturbance." Not all of the calls refer to the shooter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know how often but there was definitely police cars in the driveway. TODD (voice-over): Shelby Speno's (ph) home is just two doors down. She said they and the other neighbors had many encounters with Cruz over the years.


TODD (voice-over): On one occasion, her daughter said she saw Cruz shooting toward a neighbor's yard with a gun.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She just said, "Mom, that redheaded kid is shooting chickens." The people behind us had chickens. And I looked out the window and I saw him with a -- it was a long gun, I don't know anything about guns. So I just saw it was a long gun.

TODD (voice-over): Cruz lived there with his adoptive mother until she passed away last fall. He was the taken in by the residents of this Pompano Beach home. A neighbor captured this video of what he says was a regular and frightening occurrence. The shooter wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, firing a weapon in his backyard.

He lived at this home until Wednesday's deadly rampage. Police say he fired 100 rounds during the rampage. They detailed the moves the shooter made, some of them seem calculated, others haphazard.

After being dropped off by an Uber, he entered the school building and began firing into rooms on the first floor before moving to the second and third floors. Police say he finally exited the building and blended in with fleeing students.

He then made stops at this nearby Walmart, then this McDonald's. After leaving the area, he was apprehended in nearby Coral Springs.

As the investigation moves forward and the Parkland community searches for solace, many here are asking, with so many warning signs, why wasn't he stopped?

TODD: A question that is now placing serious pressure on the FBI director. Florida governor Rick Scott in a scathing statement said the FBI's failure to take action against the killer was unacceptable and Governor Scott is calling for the FBI director, Christopher Wray, to resign -- Brian Todd, CNN, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.


HOWELL: Brian, thank you.

In Mexico, authorities say that an earthquake that struck Friday caused only property damage; thankfully, no loss of human life. And that is a huge relief in that country, where hundreds of people died from major earthquakes just last September.

People fled from shaking buildings in a panic during Friday's 7.2 magnitude earthquake. The epicenter was less than 400 kilometers away from the capital, Mexico City.

Still ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM, CNN heads to Haiti to learn more about charity workers accused of using prostitutes while assisting earthquake victims there.

Plus medal action is underway at the Olympics with men's figure skating coming to a close. The very latest just ahead.




HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell.

The British charity Oxfam says that it has set up a commission to review the agency's practices after several staff members were accused of using prostitutes while deployed to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. The aid group denies trying to cover up their behavior. Our Cyril Vanier reports from Port-au-Prince.


CYRIL VANIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Barbed wire, tall walls --


VANIER (voice-over): -- this compound is like many others in Port-au- Prince. Yet this is one of the villas at the center of the Oxfam prostitution scandal.

The security guard is edgy. No cameras allowed.


VANIER (voice-over): This apartment complex was rented by British aid agency Oxfam back in 2010 at the height of the earthquake relief effort. And Oxfam confirmed to CNN it is one of two locations in Port-au-Prince where their staff brought prostitutes.

We spoke to neighboring store owners who were here at the time. Some of the vendors, like Joel Charles (ph), knew NGOs like Oxfam were staying in the area. But Joel (ph) says he was surprised to hear of the allegations.

The man of the center of it all left the country seven years ago. Roland Van Hauwermeiren, a Belgian national. He ran Oxfam's operations in Haiti during the earthquake. In an internal investigation, he admitted bringing prostitutes to his personal villa but those details were not made public at the time.

He was forced to resign in 2011. "The Times" newspaper in London first reported the allegations and CNN has been unable to reach Roland Van Hauwermeiren for comment. On Thursday, he spoke to Flemish media and hit out at what he calls "exaggerations."

ROLAND VAN HAUWERMEIREN, FORMER OXFAM HAITI OPERATIONS DIRECTOR (through translator): I don't feel good about the people who, of course, are told by perhaps less professional journalists that Oxfam is an instrument that keeps sex orgies with the money from good civilians. That is really not true.

VANIER (voice-over): Back in Haiti, authorities are launching their own investigation to find out exactly what happened. The foreign minister tells me he hopes it will lead to arrests and ultimately prosecution.

Prosecuted where?

ANTONIO RODRIGUE, HAITIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): A Haitian court, a Haitian court because the alleged actions were committed in Haiti and it involves Haitian women. So definitely a Haitian court.

VANIER (voice-over): Mr. Rodrigue also says Oxfam is not currently in danger of being expelled from the country.

At a public park in Port-au-Prince, emotions are mixed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): From what I'm hearing about the NGOs, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the youth, they are poor and living miserably. And if things don't change, it will always be the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It's something that's not good for the country.

VANIER (voice-over): Exploitation is a word we heard a lot here, after a string of scandals involving NGOs in recent years, Haitians feel let down by aid groups.

RODRIGUE (through translator): These people who came to help, they profited from the misery, the vulnerability, its abuse, its exploitation. What happened is horrible.

VANIER (voice-over): Cyril Vanier, CNN, Port-au-Prince.


HOWELL: Cyril, thank you so much for the report.

Still ahead here on NEWSROOM, an historic performance from the U.S. skater Nathan Chen. But it wasn't enough to offset his lackluster program on Friday. We have the very latest from the Winter Olympics still ahead.




HOWELL: We're just about halfway through the Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, and all eyes right now are on the men's figure skating. The reigning world champion, Yuzuru Hanyu, won -- [00:25:00]

HOWELL: -- back-to-back Olympic golds. The 23-year old has been described as the most complete athlete in figure skating. The U.S. skater Nathan Chen made a major comeback after stumbling through Friday's short program. The 18-year old did a record six quadruple jumps in the free skate but did not medal.


HOWELL: Thank you for being with us. I'm George Howell. "WORLD SPORT" is up next. But first your world headlines right after the break.