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Trump Lawyer Wants Russia Probe Dropped; Russian Spy Poisoning; Russia Votes; Bridge Collapse; Puerto Ricans Still Dying in Hurricane Maria's Wake. Aired 12m-12:30a ET

Aired March 18, 2018 - 00:00   ET

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


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CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Zeroing in on the Russia investigation, U.S. president Donald Trump says it should never have started and his personal lawyer wants to cancel. This comes after the removal of another thorn from the president's side.

And Russia answers in kind: Moscow decides to expel 23 British diplomats, its feud now escalating, its feud with the dispute with the U.K. over an attempted assassination.

We'll have a special CNN report, why Puerto Ricans are still dying from Hurricane Maria more than months after it hit the island.

Thank you for joining us, everyone. I'm Cyril Vanier, live from CNN HQ here in Atlanta.

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VANIER: The lawyer for U.S. president Donald Trump wants the Justice Department to simply drop the special counsel's investigation into Russian election meddling. John Dowd, personal attorney to Donald Trump, made his statement after the former deputy FBI director, Andrew McCabe, was fired on Friday.

The Justice Department hasn't responded to Dowd's demand. The president, however, chimed in. On Twitter, he wrote this.

"The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a fake dossier, paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC and improperly used in FISA court for surveillance of my campaign. Witch hunt."

We've also learned that Andrew McCabe kept notes on his conversations with Donald Trump while serving as interim FBI director. We don't know what's in those notes but here's who does: Bob Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation. CNN's Laura Jarrett breaks it all down.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Not only did former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe keep notes on his conversations with the president but CNN has confirmed that McCabe turned those memos over to special counsel Robert Mueller's team and sat down for an interview.

One major topic covered during that interview, the firing of former FBI director James Comey, a topic that Mueller's team has pursued while they investigate among other things whether President Trump obstructed justice in his dealings with top law enforcement officials.

Now the McCabe memos could help bolster how Comey describes some of his more past controversial interactions with the president, that Trump has said never happened, including requests for loyalty and to go easy on former national security adviser Michael Flynn, especially if McCabe documented those conversations contemporaneously with the events.

But McCabe's knowledge of what happened to Comey, at least in McCabe's view, also explains why he believes he's been subjected to what he calls a pattern of attacks on his reputation and credibility.

He told CNN during an interview that the president taunted him repeatedly about his wife's failed state senate campaign in 2015 and even asked who he voted for in the 2016 election. President Trump did not, however, ask him to end the Russia investigation -- Laura Jarrett, CNN, Washington.

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VANIER: Daniel Lippman is a reporter at "Politico." He joins us from Washington, D.C.

Daniel, Mr. McCabe kept records of his interactions with the president and we now know that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has those records and he's also interviewed McCabe.

What is the risk here for Donald Trump that Bob Mueller has the records and can read them?

DANIEL LIPPMAN, POLITICO: This is probably one of the reasons why Trump and Jeff Sessions have been attacking Andrew McCabe because they want to bloody him up a little bit before any results of the Mueller investigation implicate Trump.

They're probably worried that McCabe could be a very key supporting witness to possible obstruction of justice charges or any other wrongdoing by Trump in handling the Russia inquiry.

And so they want to discredit him as a witness and you saw that with the actions late this week, where they stripped him of his pension but risk is that it's almost like --

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VANIER: Which, by the way, let's make it clear, that was not the official reason that was given for him being fired. LIPPMAN: Yes, the official reason is that lied about authorizing leaks to the media and this all resulted from some of the FBI's handling of the Clinton investigation, which, Trump remember, he said that they handled very poorly, even though most Democrats probably agree with Trump on that but that seems to be a fig leaf to how Trump actually believes that the FBI mishandled his Russia inquiry.

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VANIER: Several reasons, Daniel, have actually being raised by the president himself in his tweets today. And he tweeted multiple times about the reason for Mr. McCabe's departure.

He brought up Mr. McCabe's wife, who is a Democrat; the president has apparently berated him per McCabe for that, for the fact that she took Clinton money. There's also the special counsel investigation. There is his connection to James Comey, his former boss. So several reasons have been mentioned.

You're telling me you think the singular reason why McCabe was fired was to impugn his character.

LIPPMAN: Yes, I think there's a concerted effort by this president to hurt McCabe's character and reputation because if Robert Mueller presents evidence of obstruction of justice charges, he was probably going to be a key witness because he was around and he was a senior aide to James Comey and you saw James Comey respond on Twitter today --

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VANIER: Yes, we will get to that --

LIPPMAN: -- saying that, Mr. President, I will be speaking up very soon when I have my book and you can -- the American people can judge whether they trust me or whether they trust --

VANIER: Yes, let's put it up on screen. I was going to get to that a little later.

Catherine, let's put it up on screen now. Here's what James Comey said.

"Mr. President, the American people will hear my story very soon."

He's obviously referencing his book -- very lots of secrets around his book but it is going to come out, his version of the story of why he got fired.

"... and they can judge for themselves was is honorable, who is not."

Listen also to the statement by President Trump's personal attorney, John Dowd. He says this, "Speaking for myself, not the president, I pray that

acting attorney general Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and attorney general Jeff Sessions" -- this is the important part -- "and bring an end to alleged Russia collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe's boss, James Comey, based upon a fraudulent and corrupt dossier. Just end it on the merits in light of recent revelations."

And I have to tell our viewers, by the way, some parts of that statement weren't there in its earlier version. He had not said that he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the president; in fact, he had said that he was speaking on behalf of the president.

But the essence of that is you've got somebody in Trump's inner circle, saying this is all about the Russia investigation and we got to end it.

LIPPMAN: And I also mentioned the dossier, when, in fact, the FBI's application to do the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, which approved some of those wiretaps on Trump campaign officials and advisers, the dossier was a small part of that.

They also had corroborating information that a person like Carter Page was a target of Russian intelligence. And so the dossier was not a huge factor in everything. It was just a supporting piece and so the Russia inquiry goes ahead full steam and we're going to see the Paul Manafort trial coming up.

That'll be very interesting because if -- it was such a complete fabrication, this whole inquiry, why have so many people pled guilty, like Michael Flynn and Richard Gates?

What are they pleading guilty to if they didn't do anything wrong?

VANIER: Yes, and just before I let you go, I want to show you something -- it's not a question, really; it's just I want to share this statement with our viewers.

This is from the former head of the CIA, John Brennan. He tweeted this about President Trump.

"When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America...America will triumph over you."

This is not a pundit. This is not just somebody who shoots his mouth off. This is the former head of the CIA.

Daniel Lippman co-author of a very useful and handy daily newsletter at "Politico," thank you for joining us.

LIPPMAN: Thank you. VANIER: Moscow just ordered the expulsion of 23 British diplomats from Russia and now the highest levels of the U.K. government are discussing how best to respond to that.

The 23 diplomats -- that matches the number of Russians ordered out of the U.K. last week after a former Russian spy in his daughter -- that's them -- were poisoned in Southern England.

But the Kremlin went a step further. The foreign ministry says it is also closing the British consulate general in St. Petersburg and shutting down the British Council, which promotes U.K. cultural affairs across Russia.

British Prime Minister Theresa May reacted on Saturday.

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THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Today our ambassador in Moscow was informed by the Russian government of the action they are taking in response. In light of their previous behavior, we anticipated a response of this kind and we will consider our next steps in the coming days, alongside our allies and partners.

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MAY: But Russia's response doesn't change the fact of the matter, the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion, other than that the Russian state was culpable.

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VANIER: The Russian state disagrees with that. The Kremlin has been adamant that it had no role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. The foreign ministry even denies Russia was the source of the nerve agent used in the attack.

Instead it said the poison might've come from countries like the U.K. itself or Slovakia, Sweden, the Czech Republic or even perhaps the U.S. The Swedish and Czech governments were outraged by this, publicly denouncing it as disinformation.

Meanwhile British authorities say that the full investigation into the assassination attempt could take months. We get the latest from Melissa Bell in Salisbury, England.

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MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: British police have once again appealed for help from the public. They want help from anyone who might have seen the car that belongs to Sergei Skripal on the morning of March the 4th, nearly two weeks since he and his daughter were found poisoned on park bench here in Salisbury Center.

The police continue their investigation and warn that it could take some time. Already they say they've pored through 4,000 hours of CCTV footage and this with the help of 250 police men and women from Britain's specialized antiterrorism unit.

There are a few key hours in the morning of March the 4th that remain something of a mystery and they're looking for anyone in the public who might have seen Sergei Skripal's car anywhere around Salisbury between those hours, about 9:50 in the morning and half-past 1:00, when the pair were then seen coming to Salisbury town center for that lunch at the Italian restaurant behind me.

But the police are warning that this could take some time. Perhaps they say investigation so complex is it could take not weeks but months -- Melissa Bell, CNN, in Salisbury.

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VANIER: Apparently no target is off-limits in Syria's civil war. A major hospital in farina was reportedly bombed this week after an ongoing Turkish offensive. The hospital's general manager says nine people were killed. This video from the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces purports to show the destruction.

Turkey, however, denies it's responsible and says this video is just vile propaganda.

The region of Eastern Ghouta outside the capital, Damascus, is another flashpoint for violence. The Syrian government offensive there continues; thousands of people fleeing the area at present, 16,000 according to the World Food Programme, so far.

Many of them are in shelters now around the capital, Damascus.

So there are eight candidates in Russia's presidential election but only one real contender. Why is the Kremlin concerned about voter turnout? We'll tell you more.

Plus emotion in Miami as workers pay their respects to the victims of the deadly bridge collapse. We'll bring you the latest in the recovery process. Stay with us.

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VANIER: There isn't much suspense in Sunday's presidential election in Russia. Voting has begun and, after 18 years in power, President Vladimir Putin is expected to easily win reelection.

Matthew Chance is in Moscow.

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MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are eight candidates standing in this presidential election but of course there is only one serious contender and that is Vladimir Putin, who's already ruled Russia for the past 18 years as president and prime minister.

And who is expected to win again overwhelmingly in this nationwide vote. Opposition activists in Russia say that's partly because the Kremlin under Putin has steadily tightened its grip on the media and constantly promotes Putin on state television.

But also more importantly, the opposition politicians here have been killed or silenced or otherwise excluded from the electoral process. Indeed, the main opposition leader in Russia, Alexei Navalny, was not permitted to stand in these elections because of a criminal conviction which he says was politically motivated.

But it is also clearly true that President Putin has an extremely loyal following among many Russians. He's seen as the kind of strong leader who many believe here that their country needs.

And the fact that Putin has led Russia into a very deep confrontation with the West, most recently over the alleged use of a nerve agent by Russia in an attempted killing in Britain, does not appear to have dented his popularity. U.S. election meddling, intervention in Ukraine, Olympic doping, the Syrian conflicts, there are all areas where Vladimir Putin has shrugged off allegations of wrongdoing.

But at the same time allowed himself to be cast as an extremely powerful player on the international stage and that appears to have gone down pretty well with his supporters.

Of course it's a risky strategy that has provoked international sanctions that could yet escalate and that've already led to economic hardship among many Russians. So I think it's going to be very interesting to see in these elections how enthusiastic is the turnout and how much of the vote Putin actually gets. We will certainly be watching that very closely, as, of course, will be the Kremlin -- Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.

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VANIER: Police in Miami, Florida, say the operation to recover victims from beneath a collapsed bridge is complete now. On Saturday crews dug through 950 tons of rubble to remove some of the last vehicles crushed by the bridge on Thursday. For police investigators and victims' families, that process has been just harrowing.

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JUAN PEREZ, MIAMI-DADE POLICE DIRECTOR: It is heartwrenching when you do so to lose a loved one like this. I cannot even express the empathy, the compassion that they have and the empathy that I have to have to face them.

It's heartwrenching, it's hard to hold back your tears when you listen to them, you listen to every individual story.

But we finally got the last victim out. And it would not have happened if not for the work of the men and women from that fire department that is one of the greatest departments, I guess to me is the greatest department in America, folks, because they did not stop.

The only pause, the only pause from the rescuers was when we asked them to pause so we could pray over every victim and escort them out with our motorcycle unit to the M.E.'s office, that was the only pause in work.

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VANIER: Five victims were found beneath the bridge and one died in the hospital. Police believe the final death toll will stand at six though they plan to go through the wreckage once more just as a precaution.

Hurricane Maria's wrath haunts Puerto Rico. The hurricane is still killing people six months on. We will tell you how after the break.

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VANIER: Ask Puerto Ricans and many will tell you they are the forgotten people. It's been nearly six months since Hurricane Maria ripped through the island, a U.S. commonwealth, and people are still dying, especially those who lack basic services like electricity.

Leyla Santiago reports.

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LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It shouldn't be so difficult for Miriam Rodriguez seeing this machine.

MIRIAM RODRIGUEZ, PUERTO RICO RESIDENT: That takes me back. It makes me so angry.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): When this machine for sleep apnea stopped working, her husband, 77-year-old Natalio, stopped breathing in the middle of the night in Maunabo, the southeastern part of the island.

RODRIGUEZ: Suddenly he started to shake (INAUDIBLE) I saw him lying dead on the floor. And I couldn't do nothing to help him. That's why I say that. If we had electricity, normal electricity at that time, he could be alive still today. He could be alive.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): She blames Hurricane Maria for wiping out the island's power. At least 120,000 customers still don't have power nearly six months later. The night her husband died, months after the storm, Miriam says their generator ran out of gas, leaving her home without power for the machine her husband needed to breathe. Natalio's grave is one of many this year. CNN has identified at least

five deaths from 2018, identified by families, doctors or funeral homes as related to Hurricane Maria. Among them, Gallio Salinas Santiago (ph). His family tells us he died of a heart attack in the parking lot of Maunabo's clinic, waling for the clinic to open. The mayor says after Maria, the town can't afford to run the once-24-hour service. Carmen Rodriguez Martinez, her family tells us she died because she didn't have power for the machine she depended on for oxygen.

Dr. Arturo Torres (ph) listed Hurricane Maria as a contributing factor on her death certificate.

SANTIAGO: Is Maria still killing people?

DR. ARTURO TORRES (PH): Yes. Yes. I'm sure that my case is not an isolated case since there's no electrical power in many places that would accelerate the end of the -- of the life of that person.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): Cemetery workers tell us the number of deaths have doubled since the storm, pointing to dozens of graves they believe are related, graves that cemetery workers tell us will not be getting a headstone anytime soon because families can't afford them after Maria.

Natalio's family paid $4,000 for his funeral. Still owes $1,000. To qualify for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency the death must be certified as hurricane related. But Puerto Rico's list of certified deaths hasn't changed since early December.

The official death toll stands at 64 even though the government's own death statistics in 2017 show an increase of at least 1,000 more deaths after Hurricane Maria compared to the previous two years. The Puerto Rican government has now ordered a review of deaths since Maria.

Dr. Torres says the elderly and those with complicated health conditions are too vulnerable to resist the challenges brought on by Maria.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking Spanish).

SANTIAGO: So just last week, just last week they had a death.

Do you think you'll have to write Maria again on a death certificate?

TORRES: I don't discard it. My opinion, yes.

SANTIAGO: That's hard to hear.

Is it hard to say?

TORRES: It's hard to say, yes.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): Even harder to accept, that six months later... RODRIGUEZ: It was a normal death but wasn't.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): -- Maria is still destroying lives -- Leyla Santiago, CNN, Puerto Rico.

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VANIER: And CNN will continue to report on the aftermath and the aftereffects of Hurricane Irma (sic) in Puerto Rico for as long as it takes.

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VANIER: And thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I will be back with the headlines in just a moment.