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Russian Spy Poisoning; Russia Votes; Trump Lawyer Wants Russia Probe Dropped; China Opposes Trump's Signing of Law on Taiwan; TV Personalities Find Key Jobs in Trump Administration. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired March 18, 2018 - 03:00   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): Moscow is set to expel some British diplomats after the U.K. did the same. We'll take a look at where the cycle of retaliation could go next.

And Russia's presidential election underway. President Vladimir Putin expected to win Sunday's vote handily.

Plus it turns out the former number 2 at the FBI who was just fired kept records of his talks with the president. Those records are now with the special counsel.

I'm Cyril Vanier at the CNN Center. Great to have you with us.

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VANIER: So the highest levels of the U.K. government are now discussing how to respond after Moscow ordered the expulsion of 23 British diplomats from Russia; 23 diplomats, that matches the number of Russians ordered out of the U.K. just last week.

All of this after a former Russian spy and his daughter -- you see them there -- were poisoned in Southern England. But the Kremlin went further. The foreign ministry says it's also closing the British consulate general in St. Petersburg and shutting down the British Council.

British prime minister Theresa May had this to say 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.

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. (END VIDEO CLIP)

VANIER: The Kremlin is adamant that it had no role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The foreign ministry even denied that Russia was the source of the nerve agent used in the attack. Instead it said the poison might have come from countries like the U.K., Slovakia, Sweden, the Czech Republic or even the United States.

Well, the Swedish and Czech governments were outraged by this accusation. They publicly denounced it as disinformation.

Let's go to Moscow and talk to CNN contributor Jill Dougherty, who's following this.

Jill, what I always wonder when diplomats get expelled is, is that really intended to hurt the target country?

Or is it political theater to show that governments are doing something?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think it can hurt in the sense that you eliminate personnel. If those personnel were, let's say, undercover intelligence, as often is done in embassies, that could hurt their ability to collect information.

It also, if they were other personnel who do passports or something like that, that could also hurt operations.

And then also giving visas to people from that country to visit the other country. So there can be an effect; it is not just symbolism. But I think you know more interestingly is Russia now accusing these other countries of carrying out research on that type of chemical weapon, nerve agents, et cetera?

So they are being are really striking back with counter charges and one of the more interesting ones that we've noticed here is this kind of inoculation on the chemical weapons front.

Russia now, its defense ministry, accusing the United States' instructors of hiring militants in Syria to carry out what are called false flag chemical attacks, the use -- I should say the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

And what would that do?

Well, it would be a big pretext to launching coalition attacks on Syrian government forces, et cetera.

So I think you know is something that Russia has a very large field now diplomatically, et cetera, in which it has been trying to cast blame on the West instead of itself for use of any type of chemical weapons or nerve agents -- Cyril.

VANIER: But that's interesting.

How does the Syria aspect of this story fit in to the current Russia- U.K. feud?

DOUGHERTY: Because there are international agreements for not using chemical weapons. So the ultimate charge from the West is, if this happened by Russia, which the U.K. and the West believe, then why does Russia have these agents in the first place?

Why does it have these chemical weapons, which supposedly everybody gave up many years ago, according to convention?

So this is actually much more serious. It gets into --

[03:05:00]

DOUGHERTY: -- can the West trust Russia to stand by agreements on very important things like chemical weapons?

And don't forget of course, everything, the entire story in Syria is replete with accusations on using chemical weapons and, Cyril, it gets even more complicated because the Russian defense ministry is accusing, is saying that those chemical weapons were brought in on humanitarian convoys by -- brought in by NGOs. And they -- there has been a lot of criticism for Russia on not allowing humanitarian aid to get into some of these areas that have been attacked. So this is quite complex and it's a much broader story than you might immediately think.

VANIER: It is interesting, you have to wonder also how Britain is going to respond to Russia's latest not sanctions but punitive measures which themselves were in response to Britain's punitive measures. You have to wonder where this is going to end and where Britain wants to take this.

Jill Dougherty, speaking to us from Moscow, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

And British authorities say that the full investigation into the assassination attempt could take months. We'll get the latest now from our 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: And polling stations have opened and voting is underway in Russia's presidential election. Officially there are eight candidates but president Vladimir Putin is expected to win reelection after 18 years in office. And he is expected to win easily.

CNN's senior international correspondent Matthew Chance is at a polling station in Moscow.

Matthew, describe to us what the mood is like on election day in a country like Russia.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Obviously, it's a vast country of 11 time zones and we have just come to this one polling station in Central Moscow, trying to gauge exactly that.

I can tell you that before this vote took place before election day, there was -- there was a kind of mood that this was a foregone conclusion, a sense of inevitability across the country because, even though there are eight candidates who are standing in this Russian presidential election, there's really only one contender and that's Vladimir Putin.

All the opinion polls, of course, and all the popular opinion has been pointing to the certainty that he is going to win an overwhelming victory. Now because of that, because of that apathy amongst the voters, the Kremlin has been very careful to try and cultivate as much enthusiasm and voter turnout as it possibly can.

Vladimir Putin just a couple of days ago appeared on national television, appealing to Russians to come out and do and to make their choice.

And you can see the scene behind me here -- maybe you can't see the full extent of the amount of people here -- but there are dozens of people in this, the first few hours after the voting station has opened, who have turned out to cast their ballots.

You see people moving into these polling booths here to put their crosses next to their preferred candidate. You see here, here's a list of the -- photographs of the eight individuals who were standing for election here. They're all arranged in alphabetical order, conveniently Vladimir Putin is right bang in the middle of that row of candidates.

And so, yes. And there was a mood of apathy, I'd say. I think we're going to have to look at final voter turnout when this election process is ended to try and really assess how much enthusiasm there really is in this country for this, what would be Vladimir Putin's fourth presidential term. VANIER: Matthew, the Western view of Russia is that it's not really a democracy because the outcome of a given presidential election --

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VANIER: -- is never really in doubt.

But is that something that matters to most Russian voters?

CHANCE: Well, I think it matters to some Russians, to a lot of Russians but obviously not all of them. Vladimir Putin has very high approval ratings. I think there is a sense which is often underplayed I think in the West, which is that Vladimir Putin is genuinely popular amongst many, many Russians.

Yes, it has just a veneer of democracy. The media here is tightly controlled by the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin is constantly promoted on state television, the source of news for most Russians.

Also the opposition here would argue strongly that their candidates are silenced in one way or another. They've been killed, they've been prevented from standing in this election.

Alexei Navalny, who is the main opposition figure in this country, was not permitted to stand as a candidate in this election because he has a criminal record, criminal conviction which he argues is politically motivated particularly to exclude him from this election process.

But what Russians -- what a lot of the Russians who support Putin say, when you speak to them, is that he is force for stability. He is somebody who delivered this country from the chaos of the 1990s. He raised living standards throughout the course of the 18 years or so that he's been in power, either as president or prime minister.

And he's a man, he's a product of this country. He's someone who is, as I say, genuinely popular amongst many, many Russians.

VANIER: Matthew Chance, reporting live from a polling station in Moscow, thank you very much. We appreciate your update. We will continue to come to you throughout the day. Thanks.

The personal attorney for U.S. president Donald Trump wants the Justice Department to just drop the investigation into Russian election meddling. John Dowd made that statement originally on behalf of his client. Then he walked that back to CNN, saying it was just his personal hope that it would end.

The statement comes a day after former FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, was fired. So far no response from the Justice Department. But Donald Trump chimed in on Twitter, writing 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: Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading this Russian investigation. CNN's Laura Jarrett breaks it down.

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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 -- [03:15:00]

LIPPMAN: -- 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.

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VANIER: Before he became U.S. president, Donald Trump was a TV personality so perhaps it should not come as a surprise that he leaves unfriendly voices from TV for advice. We'll take a closer look after the break.

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VANIER: China is slamming President Trump's signing of a new U.S. law on Taiwan. The Taiwan Travel Act encourages visits between U.S. and Taiwan officials. China says it firmly opposes the law and that it violates the One China principle.

For more, CNN's Steven Jiang joins me live from Beijing.

Steven, I wonder what your thoughts are on the timing of this. Right now the U.S. and China have a complicated relationship. The U.S. is also reported to be preparing a package of economic measures against China.

Where does this fit in?

STEVEN JIANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Cyril. The timing of this is very interesting because the type of reactions we have seen is not surprising at all, considering how important and sensitive this issue is for the Chinese government.

They consider Taiwan a breakaway province that must be reunited with the mainland by force if necessary. So this is really a red line for China when it comes to international relations. They simply do not want to see anyone cross it.

But the timing is very, very important because, as you mentioned, Mr. Trump, in his second year of this presidency, has increasingly focused on China when it comes to addressing trade deficits the U.S. has with the rest of the world.

You have seen the tariff announcements he made recently and officials have told us there were other upcoming measures against China in the work as well. So this is very, very, increasingly complex but also critically important bilateral relations.

And you also have heard officials say Mr. Trump may take harder lines against China in other areas, such as the South China Sea. So this Taiwan issue, coming back to the forefront again, is certainly adding more complication to that relationship.

But also here domestically, Cyril, this is very interesting because the National People's Congress, China's rubberstamp parliament, is meeting right now in Beijing. And you remember they approved a constitutional change just a week ago to pave the way for President Xi Jinping to stay on forever.

And that, of course, according to analysts, according to many analysts, part of the reason is for Mr. Xi to have time to realize his political goals, one of which is reunification with Taiwan.

So all this is, of course, are really making this Taiwan issue again at the forefront of this relationship and very interesting timing that Mr. Trump's signed this Taiwan Travel Act -- Cyril.

VANIER: Yes, we will see how that part of story develops. Steven Jiang, thank you very much. Thanks for joining us on the show.

And now a powerful cyclone has torn a path of destruction across Australia's Northern Territory.

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VANIER: Donald Trump's TV viewing habits are well documented but it goes further than you might think. It seems some of the president's most trusted advisors are not in the West Wing. They're on the small screen.

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VANIER: Here is Randi Kaye.

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RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Minutes after his hiring became public, Larry Kudlow shared what the president told him.

LARRY KUDLOW, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE ECONOMIC ADVISER: He said you're on the air. And he said I'm looking at a picture of you. And he said very handsome. So Trumpian.

KAYE (voice-over): In response to Kudlow's hiring, radio host David Rothkopf tweeting, "Only a president who views everything through the lens of TV could think Larry Kudlow was suitable to be national economic adviser, because he's not an economist in any sense of the word. He just plays one on television."

But Kudlow is not the only TV personality to see their profile rise in recent days. Former FOX anchor Heather Nauert left broadcasting not even a year ago to work as spokesperson for the State Department.

HEATHER NAUERT, SPOKESPERSON, STATE DEPARTMENT: Good afternoon everybody.

KAYE (voice-over): With Rex Tillerson's departure, Nauert was bumped up to fourth in line at the State Department, despite have being no prior experience in diplomatic affairs.

KAYE (on-camera): And another FOX personality could be joining the administration, Pete Hegseth is currently a FOX morning show host, but is reportedly being considered to run this crawling department of the Veterans Affairs that employs just under 400,000 people. Hegseth has no experience in either health care or management, but is an Iraq war veteran.

KAYE (voice-over): President Trump doesn't just hire media types, he consults them to. He's dined recently with FOX News personalities Jesse Watters and Geraldo Rivera. Reportedly, gossiping about politics and TV. Afterward, Watters tweeting a picture of the menu, signed by the president, "To Jesse, you are great!"

The president once called FOX News host Kimberly Guilfoyle to discuss pulling out at the Paris Climate Agreement.

KIMBERLY GUILFOYLE, FOX NEWS HOST: I spoke to him about it. And this is something very much so on his mind.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Take a good long look in the mirror.

KAYE (voice-over): And it's widely known the president leans on host, Sean Hannity for advice. He not only consulted Hannity on the Iran nuclear, but Hannity had also reportedly advised the president to release a controversial GOP memo alleging corruption and anti-Trump bias by FBI officials investigating the Trump campaign.

Hannity painted it to be a massive political scandal.

HANNITY: This makes Watergate like stealing a Snickers bar from a drug store.

KAYE (voice-over): Presidential advisors in the age of Trump -- Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.

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VANIER: The sketch comedy show, "Saturday Night Live" is putting its own parody spin on the White House firing of former FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe. Here's their take on U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions, trying to explain this latest shakeup.

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KATE MCKINNON, COMEDIAN, "JEFF SESSIONS": Hello. Look at me, I still got a job.

ALEX MOFFAT, COMEDIAN, "ANDERSON COOPER": Sir, sir, can you give us the exact reason McCabe was fired?

"SESSIONS": Well, yes. Of course. Mr. McCabe was in clear violation because of his lack of candor, what -- I don't know, I can't even dance around. Trump made me do it.

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VANIER: Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I'll be back with the headlines in just a moment. Stay with us.