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CNN NEWSROOM

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe Fired; Moscow Expelling U.K. Diplomats; Trump Attorneys Want to Move Porn Star's Suit; U.S. Accuses Russia of Targeting Power Grid; Engineer Warned of Cracks in Bridge before Collapse; Chinese President Reelected for Life; The Evolution of Sarah Sanders. Aired 5-6a ET

Aired March 17, 2018 - 05:00   ET

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


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NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Outrage in Moscow over accusations that the Kremlin was behind the poisoning of a former Russian spy. We'll tell you how Russia is retaliating, live to Moscow this hour.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Plus the FBI's second in command is out of a job, fired just two days shy of his retirement and it is raising a lot of questions.

ALLEN (voice-over): And later this hour, the evolution of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Some say she is losing her focus.

HOWELL (voice-over): 5:00 am on the U.S. East Coast and live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, we want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. I'm George Howell.

ALLEN (voice-over): And I'm Natalie Allen. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.

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And we begin with developments from one hour ago, Moscow is now expelling 23 British diplomatic staff from Russia and closing the British Council in Russia, it's all in retaliation for the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the U.K.

HOWELL: That's right, this move comes as relations between the West and Russia grow worse after the poisoning of a former Russian spy. Britain's ambassador to Russia was summoned Saturday morning to the Russian foreign ministry. Here's what he had to say after leaving that meeting just a short time ago.

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LAURIE BRISTOW, U.K. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: We gave Russia the opportunity to explain how the material was (INAUDIBLE) and we asked Russia to declare that material, that (INAUDIBLE) capability to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Russia denied that. Therefore, we announced certain steps. Russia

today has informed the (INAUDIBLE) of the steps that Russia will be taking to (INAUDIBLE).

As our prime minister made clear in the Houses of Parliament, we have no dispute with the Russian people. But a very large part of the work of my embassy here in Russia has been -- is to (INAUDIBLE), including Russia and the United Kingdom.

But we always do what is necessary to defend ourselves, our allies and our values against an attack of this sort which is an attack not only on the United Kingdom, but (INAUDIBLE) international (INAUDIBLE) system which all countries, all countries including Russia, depend for their safety and security.

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HOWELL: That interview happened just about an hour ago and our senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, following the story, live for us in Moscow this hour.

Matthew, we've always been talking about this symmetrical response, that was expected. But it seems that Russia's actions go well beyond that.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They certainly go beyond the straight mirrored response of 23 diplomats, which was expected and which would have been a conventional response in a situation like this.

They certainly handed a list, according to my sources at the U.K. embassy here in Moscow, of names, of British diplomats, who have been made persona non grata and who now face expulsion within the next.

But they have gone additionally further than that, they have basically issued a statement which says that the operations of the British Council in various cities across Russia -- this is the British cultural institute that oversees educational and artistic programs -- that is being stopped. So the British Council is being shut down.

But also the consulate general in St. Petersburg, Russia's second city, that is also being -- operations there are also being ceased. And so it goes significantly further than a straight tit-for-tat response to the British decision earlier this week to expel 23 Russian diplomats over that ongoing saga of the nerve agent attack on the streets of Salisbury in England -- George.

HOWELL: Matthew, all that happening with a major presidential election playing out in Russia. Tell us more about that.

CHANCE: Well, that's right. It is 24 hours from now, just under, in fact, that voting will begin in this country to choose the next president of Russia. But, frankly, it's not that kind of democratic contest.

This is more of an appointment of Vladimir Putin than it is a proper democratic election, in the sense that there is only Vladimir Putin that stands any chance at all of being elected to the presidency.

There are other candidates; there are eight people, in fact, standing for the presidency but none of them are polling even in double-digit figures in percentage terms. So Vladimir Putin is set to be anointed yet again for a fourth term --

[05:05:00]

CHANCE: -- for another six years. And so that has been heavily criticized, of course, by people that want more democracy in this country. And one of the things that Russia will be looking for very strongly is turnout.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, made an appeal to the nation just yesterday, urging Russians to turn out and cast their ballots. And the reason that he wants people to turn out is because there is no democratic competition here, he wants to kind of get turnout as a way of offering legitimacy and giving legitimacy to his re-election.

And so we'll be watching very carefully how many people feel motivated to turn out in this election and, to what extent, we're going to be trying to gauge this as well, to what extent this latest standoff, this attack in Salisbury, the standoff with the United States over election meddling, to what extent that is having an impact on Vladimir Putin's standing in this country.

HOWELL: Yes, that is the big question, how does that play into the minds of voters?

We'll have to wait and see. Matthew Chance, live in Moscow, thank you for the reporting.

ALLEN: A development Friday out of Washington, fired two days before his retirement, former FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, is the latest to get the ax. McCabe was let go late Friday night by U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions, who acted upon a review by the Justice Department's inspector general.

HOWELL: The Department of Justice says McCabe was fired after determining he lacked candor with investigators reviewing the FBI's probe of The Clinton Foundation. McCabe denies any wrongdoing. CNN U.S. Justice reporter Laura Jarrett has more on this story from Washington.

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LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: For over a year, President Trump has used Andy McCabe as a political punching bag but McCabe is now firing back.

In an interview with CNN and a blistering public statement, McCabe saying in part, "I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey."

And just two hours after McCabe's firing late on Friday, a presidential tweet arrived with Trump calling it a great day for the hard-working men and women of the FBI, a great day for democracy.

Trump went on to say, "Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choir boy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels at the FBI."

But the backstory underlying McCabe's termination here is a bit more complicated. CNN had reported earlier this week that McCabe was the subject of a blistering internal review conducted by the Justice Department and the FBI about accusations that he misled investigators about his role in approving other FBI officials to talk to the press about an investigation back in 2016 into The Clinton Foundation.

Now McCabe says he'd never misled investigators and he did nothing wrong. But attorney general Jeff Sessions confirmed at least in part those internal reviews late on Friday saying those reports concluded that Mr. McCabe had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor, including under oath on multiple occasions.

As for McCabe, the loss at the chance of early retirement is perhaps the most serious blow. It's because he was fired on Friday when he was 49, he did not make it to 50 and that means he will lose out on at least a significant portion of his pension -- Laura Jarrett, CNN, Washington.

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HOWELL: A lot to talk about. Let's break it all down with our political analyst also professor of political science at Cypress College, Peter Matthews, plus our CNN law enforcement contributor and retired supervisory special agent at the FBI, Steve Moore.

Gentlemen, good to have you both with us at this hour. What an hour it is, as these big stories tend to break on a Friday night, going into focus right here. The first question many people may wake up to ask, is this politically motivated or was this a fair move?

The President of the United States has chimed in on this on Twitter here within the last few hours. Let's read this quote from the president, where he says, "Andrew McCabe fired, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI, a great day for democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choir boy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI."

Steve, first to you, given that tweet, does this look to be fair or personal?

STEVE MOORE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Leaving the tweet aside, it's kind of distasteful. But, as an FBI agent, this is the only thing that's made sense to me since this --

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MOORE: -- whole thing started, when Comey started talking about the Hillary Clinton e-mails. From day one at the Academy, it is drummed into us that, if you ever

lie, if you ever even have a shortfall of candor during an internal FBI investigation, you are gone. If you are going to rip us off, rip us off for $25 million not $25 because we'll fire you for either.

They fire dozens of agents a year for candor violations. And so he knew, you do not even shade the truth in an FBI investigation internally.

HOWELL: McCabe saying he was not misleading to investigators.

Peter, the same question to you, does this look to be fair or personal?

PETER MATTHEWS, CYPRESS COLLEGE: I think there's definitely a political side to it as well. I know what was said is fine, it's true about the shortfall of candor. But the political side is the president has never left McCabe alone for the last several months, even hammering him for a long time.

And that's interference. Political interference on a legal question, an issue of integrity at the FBI, it actually is not very good for the organization itself. You saw him, actually the president, slamming the FBI leadership.

That's not good for the United States and the people of America who look up to the FBI's integrity. That's so important. So we have to wait to see what the details of the report were. McCabe said once the report came out, once he actually finished the report and witnessing, then his testimony. Then what happened was it was indicated that he was going to corroborate Comey's testimony about it, Comey's claim that he was -- that he corroborated but not the President Trump was interfering.

So what was happening was it looked like the president wanted to put pressure on McCabe and on the FBI. So that's not good. We have to have law enforcement be independent of the political side of the president.

HOWELL: And all of this related, of course, to what happened, allegedly, in 2016 of October, McCabe allegedly authorizing information to be leaked to a reporter at "The Wall Street Journal." McCabe himself is speaking out. Here's what he had to say in a quote.

He says, "Here is the reality. I'm being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey."

But you know, we see McCabe, again, speaking freely here.

What difference will that make, Peter, first to you, what difference will it make with the overall investigation?

MATTHEWS: It will make a difference in the public perception of the investigation, the fairness of it, the politicization of it or the lack thereof. That's what's important with how the public perceives it as well because we do have elections coming up. And this is a big political act.

Unfortunately, as many of the FBI agents don't want to be political, nevertheless it has become political unfortunately and I think the president has a lot to blame here, his interferences. So I think it has to do with the public perception of this as well. I'll let the other gentleman deal with the legal aspect -- the FBI aspect of it.

HOWELL: All right, Steve, this question to you, you know that you can't speak publicly unless you are authorized to do so. We are seeing McCabe do that right now, make his points very clear.

What difference do you think it will make with the investigation?

MOORE: I agree, I think it will make only a public difference, it's not going to make a difference of opinion at all in the FBI. Again, I'm not saying there wasn't politics going on here and this wasn't -- that this might not have been a hit, whatever it was.

What I am saying is if you lie or don't even give the full truth in an internal FBI investigation, you are gone. Every agent knows that. So if they were after him, he certainly served himself up on a platter with this one.

And the agents are not going to feel too sorry for him, although, you know, Trump gloating over the body is really kind of -- really sad.

HOWELL: The allegation, again, that McCabe was not completely truthful with the information, that is front and center here and the reason for what is happening at this point. Let's talk about the optics.

Steve, I want to ask you this question. We are talking about a man who put in a great deal of time, his public service and now fired two days shy of his retirement. In fact, two days shy of his birthday, Steve.

The optics there?

MOORE: Yes, we all retire on our 50th birthday. I understand the optics are bad here. But, there are two sides to it. It is either in some people's eyes the view that Trump was going after this guy and wanted to get him before he got out the door.

The other view is, when an FBI agent of any level, any rank lies, if he had retired, there's really nothing you can do. It's the integrity of the Bureau to go after him, that's the other view.

So people are going to differ on this. All I want to tell the public out there is, regardless of what happened --

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MOORE: -- politically, if he did lie -- and by the way, Oprah -- I have done OPR investigations.

For them to believe he misled them intentionally, they really had to -- they know what it was going to cost him. They empathized but they went after him and they are not the president.

HOWELL: Peter, one other question to you, talking about McCabe, who has certainly been a lightning rod for the president on the Mueller investigation, the president tweeting about McCabe several times, one tweet asking why Sessions didn't replace McCabe sooner, as in this example.

You see "Why didn't Sessions replace acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got big dollars, $700,000 for his wife's political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives. Drain the swamp," says the president.

Peter, the question, as McCabe's star goes down for the moment, does Sessions' star rise?

MATTHEWS: Not necessarily. Depends on how this whole thing plays out in the end. The fact is, that it is true, McCabe's wife ran for state senate and received a lot of money from Terry McAuliffe, who is a very close Clinton confidant and the Virginia governor.

And this doesn't look good at all for dollar democracy, which I wrote my book about, the apparent corruption of money in politics. In this case, McCabe also had every right, his wife had a right to run for the state senate, despite the fact of who her husband was.

But there's a perception of this conflict of interest or some kind of untoward appearance which should have been avoided at any cost, if possible. And I'm not sure what McCabe could have done actually but maybe recuse himself from the whole situation. We'll have to look and see what happens in the end and see how the results turn out.

HOWELL: Peter Matthews and Steve Moore, thank you so much.

MATTHEWS: Thank you.

ALLEN: Coming up here, another story involving Donald Trump, his personal attorney now representing the president in the case against adult film star Stormy Daniels.

HOWELL: And in the U.S. state of Florida, officials there say someone tried to warn them about that bridge that collapsed on Thursday but they got message too late. We'll have that story ahead. Stay with us.

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ALLEN: There is a new attorney involved in the case of porn actress Stormy Daniels versus Donald J. Trump. What makes that important is the attorney represents President Trump. That attorney also represented --

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ALLEN: -- pro wrestler Hulk Hogan in his lawsuit against "Gawker" and Melania Trump in her suit against the "Daily Mail."

HOWELL: The Trump legal team filed a motion to move the case from California state court to federal court. And they claim Daniels could owe as much as $20 million for violating a non-disclosure agreement.

This comes after Daniels' attorney says she's been physically threatened to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Mr. Trump. Daniels' attorney spoke earlier with our colleague, Anderson Cooper.

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ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Why would the President of the United States join in an effort for a document -- for a nondisclosure agreement that he, himself, didn't sign, which his attorney apparently just did on his own that had nothing to do with the president, for an act that he said he didn't commit?

MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS' ATTORNEY: Well, I hate to repeat myself, but I'm going to in this instance. Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive. Anderson, that's a very good question. It doesn't make any sense.

We also now have the threat, and it's set forth in the papers, the position if you will, that if President Trump is going to seek in excess of $20 million in damages against my client.

This is truly remarkable. I don't know that there's ever been an instance in American history where you had a sitting president carrying out a personal vendetta and seeking in excess of $20 million against a private U.S. citizen, who is merely trying to tell her version of the facts.

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ALLEN: CNN legal analyst and author of "Make It Rain," Areva Martin, joins us from Los Angeles to talk about it.

Areva, thanks for joining us.

AREVA MARTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Thanks, Natalie.

ALLEN: This is the first time that attorneys for the U.S. president himself have joined a legal action regarding Stormy Daniels, real name Stephanie Clifford.

What does this tell us?

MARTIN: Well, it tells us that the White House can no longer deny knowledge of the settlement and of the negotiations that happened with respect to Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels. We have seen this White House deny, deny, deny.

Deny that there was an affair. Deny that the president had any knowledge of the negotiations and the settlement agreement that Michael Cohen entered into with respect to the allegations that Stormy Daniels was making, that he and the Trump administration wanted to keep quiet.

The president is now a defendant in a lawsuit and Stormy Daniels is the plaintiff. So this also will move forward with both of them as parties and the White House at this point is pretty much all in.

ALLEN: And his attorneys are claiming she could owe as much as $20 million for violating a nondisclosure agreement. The initial complaint filed by Clifford's attorney in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Mr. Trump claims the nondisclosure agreement isn't valid because the lawyer for Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen, signed it on behalf of Mr. Trump.

Is that a valid issue or is this a risky move by Ms. Clifford and her lawyer?

MARTIN: Well, that's the crux of the issue here, is was the settlement agreement entered into between Michael Cohen, Stormy Daniels, signed by both of them but not signed by Donald Trump, is that agreement valid?

Stormy Daniels' lawyers are taking the position that the absence of Trump's signature makes that agreement null and void. That's what they went into court; they filed an action in court, asking the court to basically issue an order saying that they were no longer bound by this nondisclosure agreement and essentially saying that the arbitration that was triggered by Mr. Cohen, that that also is invalid because of a lack of signature.

Now Trump's lawyers are claiming the liquid damages cost in that nondisclosure agreement, which pretty much obligated her to pay $1 million every time she disclosed what's in that nondisclosure agreement, and they are claiming that she made disclosures 20 times.

Now I've watched a lot of the broadcasting on this story and what I have heard her say is, I can't talk about it. So I'm not sure where they, you know, how the math is working out, where they are getting these 20 times that she allegedly disclosed information in the NDA.

ALLEN: Right and she's been asked about it directly on late night TV, other interviews, an interview here on CNN. And she just goes mum.

But I want to ask you, why have Mr. Trump's lawyers moved to try this in federal court?

MARTIN: So federal courts and state courts have very different rules of procedure. They are governed very differently. Sometimes lawyers are just more familiar with the court procedures, with the rules of procedure in one court over the other.

Some lawyers like to be in federal court because the judges tend to be more strict. They tend enforce the rules more strictly than they do in state court. Also as we know, none of the parties here, Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, Stormy Daniels, none of them live in Los Angeles County.

So in the federal system, when you have parties that are involved --

[05:25:00]

MARTIN: -- in a lawsuit and they're from different states, there's something called jurisdiction based on diversity because the parties are diverse in terms of their geographic locations.

So that gives the defendant in this case, Trump and his team, the right to go into federal court and say this matter shouldn't be heard by some local state court, this should be heard by a federal court.

And also defendants do this as a legal maneuver. They do it to disrupt the plan that the plaintiffs had because the plaintiffs picked what they thought to be a friendlier venue. So we'll see if the plan of the Trump team to get this into federal court works to their advantage.

ALLEN: Meantime, her lawyer remains vigilant. He tweeted this, "How can President Donald Trump seek $20 million in damages against my client based on an agreement that he and Cohen claim Mr. Trump never was a party to and knew nothing about?

"The fact that a sitting president is pursuing over $20 million in bogus damages against a private citizen who was only trying to tell the public what really happened is remarkable, likely unprecedented in our history. We are not going away and we will not be intimidated."

What do you think about his comments?

MARTIN: That's been the claim from the beginning. Stormy Daniels' attorney has been claiming that this is all about intimidating her, harassing her and forbidding her from telling what he says is the truth about an affair that happened between her and Trump in 2006- 2007.

And from every account, this attorney is not going away. He is not backing down. He is on every cable station pretty much every day, telling the same story and what we now know is that Stormy Daniels herself has given an interview to "60 Minutes" that's scheduled to air probably March 25th, if it goes as planned where she is supposed sit down and tell the intimate details not only of the affair but efforts by the Trump's team to intimidate her, even what the lawyer says physically threaten her. So she has a lot to tell and she is prepared to do so, despite the NDA.

ALLEN: She is taking on a formidable opponent in Mr. Trump, who loves a good fight. We'll wait and see what happens next. We thank you so much, Areva Martin for us in Los Angeles.

MARTIN: Thanks, Natalie.

HOWELL: The president of China, Xi Jinping, begins his second and possibly unlimited term in that office. What he is doing to secure his power, we'll explain ahead. Plus another high-profile firing in Washington, this time it is former FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, and it happened less than two days before his official retirement. We'll tell you about it coming up here as we push on. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

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HOWELL: Live coast to coast in the United States and to you viewers around the world, you are watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell.

ALLEN: And I'm Natalie Allen. Here are our top stories.

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HOWELL: This other major story we're following here in the United States, the developments of the former FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, fired late Friday by the U.S. attorney general, the firing happening less than two days shy of his retirement.

McCabe was let go after the Department of Justice determined that he lacked candor with investigators reviewing the FBI's probe of The Clinton Foundation.

ALLEN: McCabe denied any wrongdoing and said in a statement that, "It is part of this administration's ongoing war on the FBI and the efforts of the special counsel investigation, which continue to this day. Their persistence in this campaign only highlights the importance of the special counsel's work."

McCabe has been regularly taunted by President Trump on social media. Mr. Trump reacted again late Friday by tweeting that it was, quote, "a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI. A great day for democracy."

Let's talk about it with Kate Andrews, she is a U.S. political columnist for "City A.M.," a newspaper based in London.

Kate, good morning to you and thanks for joining us. First let's talk about the timing of the firing, just before he was about to draw a full pension from his two decades at the FBI. The Justice Department pulls the rug out.

KATE ANDREWS, "CITY A.M." So sorry, I think I've lost you.

ALLEN: Yes, let's talk about the timing of the firing. Just before Mr. McCabe was to draw a full pension from his two decades serving at the FBI, the Justice Department fires him.

What about the timing? ANDREWS: Yes, the timing of it does seem political, really especially because, as you say, Trump has been taunting him for quite a while now and has gone so far as to suggest that he could be looking at losing his benefits if he were to be fired.

So that is a very particular time to remove McCabe. Of course, if the allegations are true and there has actually been misconduct, then there are going to be questions to be asked if somebody so senior who has potentially misbehaved should receive a full pension and should receive full benefits footed by the taxpayer.

I know that as things become even more politically divided, it can be very unpopular to say that both sides have a point but I think actually when it comes to this story, the criticisms of McCabe could be legitimate as well as the way that the president has handled it, as can also be criticized.

ALLEN: Right. We still just don't know, we're kind of in the dark over the particulars of this. McCabe contends that this is part of Mr. Trump's war with the FBI.

So the question is, was this a move to undermine the Mueller investigation?

ANDREWS: Well, it is really important to remember that the president did not snap his fingers and just have McCabe removed. This was an internal investigation from the Justice Department's inspector general. He found some findings he wasn't comfortable with --

[05:35:00]

ANDREWS: -- he referred them on to the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility. And as your former guest, Steve Moore, pointed out, this is an independent body with very high ethical standards. And their priority would have been to find out if McCabe had broken the rules within the FBI, which they take very seriously.

The public is losing faith in the FBI; I think a lot of that criticism falls at the feet of the president, who has publicly tried to undermine the body on multiple occasions. But these independent bodies really need to make sure that, when they go to the American people, they can say with all certainty this has been carried out in a just and fair and honest manner.

And they found allegedly -- it hasn't been released yet but it sounds like they have found that McCabe did get up to misconduct and they said that his candor was just not up to scrutiny. And that is a really big problem.

So I think that you can criticize McCabe and I think that if these allegations do turn out to be true, then it is right that he is removed.

That doesn't mean that the president has handled the situation well. He is being a bully, we see this consistently, that he uses his Twitter feed to attack those that he politically disagrees with. And, actually, you could argue that the president has really

undermined himself here. If he had stayed quiet, a lot of people might think that the right course of action has been taken. But he's actually pushing scrutiny upon himself because he is making it into a political act.

ALLEN: Right. McCabe would have been a witness for Mueller's investigation. He was number two under James Comey.

So how could this affect the investigation moving forward?

ANDREWS: It is hard to believe that Mueller would let this stand in his way of getting the evidence that he needs from McCabe, from Comey or from anybody else. I think you actually have to separate the two situations.

McCabe could still be a good witness to whatever James Comey experienced. And also at another time in a different investigation, has acted poorly. We're focusing right now on the allegations against McCabe and the way he handled the 2016 inquiries into The Clinton Foundation. That is separate from the Russia investigation.

I think it is almost very taxing and tiring on the American people that there are so many investigations going on. But they are all very important and we have to find the facts in each and every one.

And it might be that McCabe has good information about the Russia inquiry and it also might be the case that he got up to misconduct and acted poorly when it came to The Clinton Foundation.

ALLEN: We will see if there is more that is revealed about the details of his firing and the investigation into him, for sure. Kate Andrews, we always appreciate you joining us. Thanks for your analysis.

ANDREWS: Thank you.

HOWELL: New U.S. sanctions on Russia reveal what could be a sinister plot by the Kremlin. U.S. officials say that Russian hackers have targeted the U.S. power grid.

ALLEN: They may be getting ready for a cyber attack to cripple the United States. CNN's Jim Sciutto has more on what is at stake.

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JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Vital U.S. infrastructure, including the power grid, under cyber threat by Russian government hackers, potentially giving the Kremlin the ability to turn off the lights.

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI detailing a two-year multistage effort by Moscow targeting the U.S. energy grid. The hackers first gained access to small energy-related companies, planting malware that allowed them to move into larger networks. Once inside the energy suppliers, the Russians collected information on the facilities' control systems, attempting to acquire the ability to turn those systems off.

JAMES LEWIS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: They're identifying targets. They're positioning malware so they could pull the trigger when they wanted to.

But they're also sending the United States a message: "We are in a position to cause harm if we wanted to do it. And so you, the U.S., should be a little more careful."

SCIUTTO: The Russians targeted other crucial sectors, as well, including nuclear power, water, aviation and manufacturing. Experts see the intrusion as a possible precursor to an unprecedented Russian cyber-attack that could, in the event of war, devastate the U.S.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: This is our livelihood that's at stake. You know, our heating, our cooling, our electricity, our economy is at stake. And again, the Russians, they're taking advantage of a very, very weak America that has not been willing to see its commander in chief stand up to the Russians. We need a strategy against Russia, not one-off sanctions.

SCIUTTO: Ukrainian officials say Russia did the same to Ukraine in 2016 launching an attack on its electric grid that led to widespread power outages. Yesterday, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry warned Congress that the U.S. isn't ready.

RICK PERRY, U.S. ENERGY SECRETARY: I will tell you that I am not confident that the federal government has a broad strategy in place.

SCIUTTO: Some Democrats say that the U.S. response to election interference was not sufficient --

[05:40:00]

SCIUTTO (voice-over): -- to deter Russia from attacks on other critical infrastructure.

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: There should have been a stronger response in the cyber realm with the Russians to say, "Hey, you bring a knife to this fight, we'll bring a gun." That's the kind of language that -- that Putin understands. I'm not sure he understands any other language.

SCIUTTO: The president's nominee to be director of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command shares those fears.

LT. GEN. PAUL NAKASONE, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DIRECTOR NOMINEE: I would say right now, they do not think that much will happen to them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They don't fear us.

NAKASONE: They don't fear us.

SCIUTTO: By naming Russia as being behind these probing cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, that is one step, it shows Russia that the U.S. is on to them, in effect. But the U.S. has done that with election interference and the election interference says the director of the CIA continues.

There is a debate now in the government about what other steps could be taken, including offensive measures to deter Russia and stop these attacks going forward -- Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.

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ALLEN: The White House says President Trump is in comprehensive preparations to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Next here, what the North is doing to prepare for that meeting.

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HOWELL: We have some new information to share with you about the deadly bridge collapse that took place in Miami, Florida. Transportation officials say that the lead engineer in the bridge's design firm left a voicemail for them on Tuesday with this warning.

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DENNEY PATE, FIGG BRIDGE ENGINEERS: I was calling to share with you --

[05:45:00]

PATE: -- some information about the FIU pedestrian bridge and some cracking that's been observed on the north end of the span, the pylon end of that span we moved this weekend.

So we've taken a look at it and, obviously, some repairs or whatever will have to be done. But from a safety perspective, we don't see that there is any issue there.

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ALLEN: The bridge, which was still under construction, fell two days later, killing at least six people. Officials say they didn't get the voicemail until Friday. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the disaster and says it is still too early to tell exactly what caused the collapse.

HOWELL: Now we're learning about one of the victims. Alexa Durant (ph), an 18-year-old university student, she was driving with a friend when that bridge fell. Recovery workers expect to find more victims as they continue searching through the rubble.

The diplomatic wheels between North Korea and the United States are indeed turning. The North is making a significant diplomatic move by sending its foreign minister to Sweden. Talks between him and Swedish officials have been extended by one day now into Saturday.

ALLEN: Meantime U.S. President Donald Trump reassured his South Korean counterpart that he still intends to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by the end of May. But the White House is not offering details on how the president is preparing for that meeting.

HOWELL: And in China, the president of that nation, Xi Jinping, has been officially reelected as the head of state. This comes as no surprise, in fact. The Chinese parliament had already voted to abolish presidential term limits.

ALLEN: That means he can potentially rule indefinitely and Mr. Xi also has a powerful ally in his new vice president. CNN's Matt Rivers reports from Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

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MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Xi Jinping has officially started his second term as China's president, with the country's rubber stamp parliament electing him president again Saturday morning, just to my right at the Great Hall of the People here in Beijing.

His second five-year term had always been all but guaranteed but all signs indicate that this won't be his final term as president. That is because, just under a week ago, the parliament approved changes to the country's constitution, which eliminated the two-term limits for the presidency.

So that allows Xi Jinping to stay in office indefinitely if he so chooses. Reports in state media say that a steady hand is needed during a challenging global period and that, by removing restraints on the presidency, the office will now be in line with the unlimited terms of Xi's two more powerful position, general secretary of the ruling Communist Party and head of the military commission.

Critics, though, will tell you that those reasons are just excuses to create a new dictator here in China, going back to the kind of strongman reign that proved to be so disastrous for this country under Chairman Mao Zedong, the founder of Communist China.

Mao's successors pushed for term limits, trying to institutionalize the peaceful transition of power so as to avoid going back to the days of one-man rule. Xi seems to have turned the dial back, though, becoming the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao himself.

Another interesting development is that Wang Qishan, the president's long-time right-hand man, the former leader of Xi's anti-corruption drive and once a key figure in China's diplomacy with the United States, he has been appointed as vice president.

Since Wang retired from his party leadership post last year, many analysts think this unusual move will turn the ceremonial vice presidency into a powerful position, paving the way for the two allies to join hands again and rule this country for years to come.

Make no mistake, though; today is all about Xi Jinping. He begins his second five-year term with more power than ever. Not in decades has one man had more say over the lives and fortunes of nearly 1.4 billion Chinese citizens -- Matt Rivers, CNN, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

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ALLEN: We're going to turn to the war in Syria now. Under fire and desperate for aid, an exodus of people still streaming out of Syria's Eastern Ghouta. A U.N. official says more than 12,000 people have fled in just the past few days.

HOWELL: There is an area that has been pounded by the government assault for quite some time and there are reports that rebels are blocking residents from escaping that area. The U.N. special envoy for Syria has called parts of Eastern Ghouta "a hell on Earth."

ALLEN: We turn to Washington. When reporters ask questions, Sarah Sanders usually answers with a bite. But lately the White House press secretary seems to be dodging the tough questions. We'll have that story when we come back here.

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ALLEN: The Trump administration has conducted its share of combative news conferences, to say the least.

HOWELL: Kind of, yes.

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ALLEN: And it's been no different in current press secretary Sarah Sanders' briefing room. But recently she seems to be taking a different tone.

HOWELL: And it is raising some legitimate questions, like how much does she really talk to the president?

CNN's Tom Foreman takes a look.

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TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The press secretary had to know more scorching questions about Stormy Daniels were coming. But her answers proved lukewarm at best.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Obviously we take the safety and security of any person seriously.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Had she discussed the latest with the president?

No.

Could she answer anything more?

SANDERS: I would refer you to the president's outside personal attorneys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clearly Sarah Huckabee Sanders does not know what President Trump is thinking.

SANDERS: Good afternoon. I'm sure you missed me. All smiles all the time.

FOREMAN (voice-over): It wasn't always this way. When she took the job almost eight months ago, Sanders routinely and decidedly slapped down unfavorable questions about Trump's conduct, past and present.

TRUMP: Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Even when she was patently wrong.

SANDERS: The president in no way, form or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence.

FOREMAN (voice-over): The president tweets a female Democratic senator would --

[05:55:00]

FOREMAN (voice-over): -- do anything for campaign contributions.

Was that about...

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: -- sexual innuendos?

SANDERS: Only if your mind is in the gutter would you have read it that way. And so, no.

FOREMAN (voice-over): -- the president shares anti-Muslim videos critics believe were staged. Sanders' response:

SANDERS: Whether it is a real video, the threat is real and that is what the president is talking about.

FOREMAN (voice-over): But now her tone appears clearly more cautious. Asked if the president knew about a payment to Stormy Daniels by his attorney, her answer:

SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Has the president talked to his attorney about it?

SANDERS: I don't know. I'm not sure. FOREMAN (voice-over): And on it goes. In just one briefing, she was asked, is Trump glad the Justice Department is investigating use of the FISA courts?

SANDERS: I haven't spoken with him to determine his feelings.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Does he think a indicted governor should resign?

SANDERS: I haven't spoken with him about that.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Would the president allow a suspected terrorist on the no-fly list to buy a gun?

SANDERS: We haven't spoken about that specifically.

FOREMAN: Maybe it is temporary and, to be sure, no press secretary knows everything about any president. But as the questions get tougher about Russia, about the president's personal life and about the rapid-fire changes at the White House, more often the press secretary seems to be saying, don't ask me -- Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.

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ALLEN: I have no comment on that story.

You have no comment.

HOWELL: The thing about it, you know, those answers always have to score with the facts and facts are stubborn. They don't go away.

ALLEN: There are going to be follow-up questions. That's the nature of that job.

That is CNN NEWSROOM for this hour. Thanks for watching. I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell. For our viewers here in the United States, "NEW DAY" is next. For viewers around the world, "AMANPOUR" is ahead. Thanks for being with us.