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CNN NEWSROOM

Saudis Confirm Death of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi; The Impact of Khashoggi's Reporting; Trump Defends Politician's Assault on Journalist; More Delays in Afghanistan Vote; Scenes of Desperation, Chaos at Guatemalan Border Gate; U.S. Charges Russian for Meddling; European and Japanese Space Agencies Launch BepiColombo. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired October 20, 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): The Saudis make a major announcement, admitting after weeks of denials that "Washington Post" contributor Jamal Khashoggi is dead.

Voters in Afghanistan go to the polls. So many people are running for seats in parliament the ballot paper looks like a newspaper.

Plus a mission to Mercury blasts off. What scientists hope to learn about the closest planet to the sun.

Live from the CNN Center here in Atlanta, I'm Cyril Vanier. It's great to have you with us.

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VANIER: So after weeks of denials, Saudi Arabia now admits what had long been suspected. "The Washington Post" columnist Jamal Khashoggi died while inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd.

According to state media, he died after getting into an argument and a fist fight with more than a dozen Saudi officials. Here is how the news broke on state television.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The investigation showed that primary discussions was inside the consulate of the Saudi Arabia; was not carried out in the proper way which led to arguments and hand to hand fight with the officials and Jamal Khashoggi which exacerbated the situation that led to his death.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VANIER: The White House has been quick to embrace the new Saudi narrative. Donald Trump was asked if the Saudi explanation was credible. Here's what he said.

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TRUMP: I do. I mean, it is again early. We haven't finished our review or investigation. But I think it is a very important first step and it happened sooner than people thought it would happen.

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CNN's Clarissa Ward has more details on all of this from Ankara in Turkey.

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CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: At around 1:00 am local time, Saudi state news announced that 18 Saudi nationals have been detained in conjunction with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

They also revealed some information about how it was that he died, saying that essentially he was being interrogated, that there was some physical altercation, some kind of a quarrel and in the process he died. They did not offer any information, however, as to where the body is.

Now 18 Saudi nationals have been detained but even more interestingly, two very prominent high-ranking Saudi officials have been dismissed of their official duties. One of them is General Ahmed al-Asiri. He is the former spokesperson for the coalition that is overseeing the war in Yemen. He is the number two in intelligence services, close to the inner circle of the crown prince.

He has been relieved of his duties. The second man, a very, very senior official who has been relieved of his duties is Saud al- Qahtani. He is thought to be one of the three closest advisors to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Now it was also announced that there will be a review that will take about a month to conclude, a report that will look into how intelligence services failed so miserably here. And what is particularly interesting though is who will be heading it, none other than the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman himself.

This a very strong indication that there is no way Saudi Arabia and particularly the king of Saudi Arabia is planning on doing anything to punish Mohammed bin Salman for this nor is there any indication that they are even willing at this stage to admit that he had anything to do with it.

Remains to be seen across the international community whether or not that will be enough, whether people will believe the Saudi narrative or conclude that it's simply a coverup -- Clarissa Ward, Ankara.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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VANIER: Joining me now, CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd as well as CNN global affairs analyst David Rohde.

Samantha, to you first. According to the Saudis, so this whole thing was a conversation -that turned into a fight, escalated into a death and then a cover-up.

Should we believe this?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I don't even think the Saudis are banking on Donald Trump being gullible enough to buy any piece of this story or the statement that came out via Saudi state media earlier today, every piece of this is unbelievable. It is unbelievable that a 15-man interrogation squad went to Istanbul without at least authorization or MBS --

[03:05:00]

VINOGRAD: -- Mohammed bin Salman, condoning this.

It is unbelievable that in 2.5 weeks since the operation the Saudis still do not know what happened and it is equally as implausible that the Saudis would think that anybody in the international community would take this as a credible investigation.

There's no secret sauce to investigating a murder. Every country has processes that they go through, sure. But taking witnesses and suspects and persons of interest away, putting them in a confined place so that only Saudi investigators can talk to them, really tells the world that the Saudis don't have any intention in a credible investigation.

They are just trying to launch a cover-up.

VANIER: Especially as all this happened in one building, which is Saudi sovereign territory, the Saudi consulate, and happened more than two and half weeks ago. It cant been that hard to find out who did what when.

David, one thing, the explanation perhaps conveniently leaves out as Samantha pointed out is how much the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman knew about this beforehand.

I don't want to belabor the point but is it possible that all or any of this happened without him knowing?

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: No, I do not think so. The Saudi intelligence services, one of the keys to holding power in Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed bin Salman ruthlessly consolidated power underneath him the last year.

So there is no way this many agents are sent to Turkey, as Samantha said, and there is absolutely no way they kill him and bin Salman doesn't know what has happened two weeks later.

And the really outrageous thing is that this --- the announcement called for a reform of Saudi intelligence.

Who's going to oversee that?

Mohammed bin Salman, the main suspect in this murder. And that is what makes all this have really no credibility whatsoever.

VANIER: And about him leading that reform of the intelligence services, you have to believe he can only lead to reform that will help him consolidate power. You cannot believe he's going to lead a reform of the intelligence service that will make it less responsive to him or less accountable to him in any way.

So both of you are telling me this story is implausible, very hard to believe. Congress -- Congress men and women from both sides of the aisle agree with you, judging by the reactions.

But Donald Trump, the U.S. president, says he finds this explanation credible.

So, Samantha, what does that tell us?

VINOGRAD: I think the president has been looking for an offramp for this crisis for days. Earlier this week, he said that rogue killers may have perpetrated potential assassination after an interrogation.

And to me that was the president probably starting to mimic or echo a narrative coming out of Saudi Arabia as a convenient way to say something bad happened; we're going to pretend it didn't happen but it was not the crown prince. It did not reach the highest echelons of Saudis deciding.

I don't blame the president in the sense that he wants to stay close to the alliance; 70 years of working together, we have a lot of shared interest. But I do blame the president for looking for an excuse not to hold the perpetrators accountable and to just grab at anything, the first thing that comes his way, to find, OK, this is going to be investigated thoroughly when everybody on his national security team, in the law enforcement community and the intelligence community and frankly any logical person is telling him this is a charade.

VANIER: Trump's under pressure to punish Saudi Arabia, has been under intense pressure for at least 10 days.

But, David, just as a matter of logic -- and maybe this is exactly what they're looking for -- you cannot believe this version of -- the Saudi version of events, that some intelligence officials just went rogue and then still impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia.

As a matter of logic, if you are Donald Trump and you said, I think this version is credible, then it stands to reason you are not going to punish the country for this.

ROHDE: That's true and I do not understand -- it would be much easier for the president politically to talk tough over the last two weeks, to call for justice here and then he could impose some very light sanctions on Saudi Arabia. It is very simple. This is what presidents have done for decades.

They can say one thing publicly and another thing privately. So I do not understand the strategy here.

And I would slightly disagree. I am not sure that this alliance was Saudi Arabia's going to produce the things the administration hopes. I mean, for years the Saudis were going to take care of Al Qaeda and stabilize Afghanistan. They were going to arm the Syrian opposition.

I am now doubtful of Saudi Arabia's ability to be this critical ally in the Middle East. Whether that is true or not there is a simpler way and a far more honest way to handle this crisis and that is to publicly challenge Saudi Arabia and demand a more credible explanation.

VANIER: Samantha, ultimately, do you think if you look at the Saudi side of things, this story can prevent the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman from ultimately becoming king?

Can it actually challenge his power?

VINOGRAD: I do not think so in any way, shape or form. I think that there is -- there are a few things going for Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom. There's no free press and there's no free speech and there's no separation of powers.

So all that he has to do domestically right now --

[03:10:00]

VINOGRAD: -- is continue to do what he's doing, which is consolidate power. He's pushed everyone who could be opposition to him out and, again, run through this theatrical charade of an investigation, name a few people as having been involved in it.

Frankly, give Donald Trump a few names to sanction, to David's point. He can submit names to Congress and say these are the people that were directly responsible for this operation, this rogue operation. And Donald Trump can say that he did something; MBS still continues on his trajectory to the throne.

And despite this horrific assassination, MBS continues on his planned trajectory.

VANIER: All right, Samantha Vinograd, David Rohde, thank you both for your insights. Thanks.

VINOGRAD: Thanks.

ROHDE: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VANIER: As a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi wasn't afraid to ask hard questions, even when doing so put his life at risk and sent him into exile. His reporting exposed corruption and secrets in the Saudi kingdom. CNN's Nic Robertson explores Khashoggi's life work.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): Jamal Khashoggi, a leading Saudi journalist and former government adviser, came from humble roots, getting his first boost studying journalism at Indiana State University, benefiting like many of his generation from a Saudi government grant for U.S. education.

Returning home, he reported for Saudi and regional newspapers. His first major break came in the late 1980s, an overseas assignment to a war zone, Afghanistan. At the time Saudi intelligence services were working with the CIA to oust the Soviets.

A source close to Khashoggi says he got to know many of the young Saudi jihadists flocking to the fight, including Osama bin Laden. He had connections and caught the attention of the then Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al Faisal.

The pair became close, despite Khashoggi's sometimes critical reporting. Following Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks, Khashoggi dared to ask the question few other Saudis would.

Why did 15 of our young men attack America in so brutal a way?

In 2002, the Saudi authorities battled Al Qaeda on their own streets. His knowledge of the terror group led to a job advising Prince Turki, which made him useful as the country struggled to contain the chaos of an insurgent movement at home.

In 2003, when Turki became ambassador to the U.K., then D.C. two years later, Khashoggi followed him. Eventually he returned to reporting. His criticism of the kingdom's conservative clerics would cost him his job. Khashoggi supported reform and modernization in the kingdom but opposed the methods used by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in stifling criticism.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI, JOURNALIST: I received a phone call ordering me to go silent. With no court decree, with just someone from the royal court, an official from the royal court, who was close to the leadership and ordered me to be silent. That offended me.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): He left Saudi and his family to begin a new life in America writing for "The Washington Post." (INAUDIBLE) about what he saw going on at home.

KHASHOGGI: Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, enjoys a great support from the Saudi republic and he is seen as the savior by young Saudis and by me and other Saudis. So he doesn't need this environment of intimidation, of cracking down on dissent.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Days before he disappeared, he told an interviewer that he didn't think he'd ever be allowed to return to Saudi Arabia. Friends say he knew the risks of angering the Saudi establishment.

Khashoggi went to the consulate in Istanbul to get papers so he could marry his Turkish fiancee. He had been apprehensive about the visit. What happened here, Tuesday, October 2nd, remains a mystery though it is now clear it was Khashoggi's last day alive. One of the few critics of the Saudi inner circle with a public profile in the West is gone.

And the consequences of his death for the crown prince, for reform in the kingdom and for the region at large are only just beginning to be felt.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VANIER: Meanwhile, in the wonderful world of U.S. politics, while they aren't getting any more civil, President Trump praised a U.S. congress man who body slammed a reporter.

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TRUMP: Any guy who can do a body slam, he's my kind of -- he's my guy.

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VANIER: So on Friday Mr. Trump was asked about those remarks praising Montana Republican Greg Gianforte.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you regret (INAUDIBLE) last night in your rally, the assault on a reporter by a congress man?

TRUMP: TRUMP: No, no, no. Not at all. That was a different world. That was a different league, a different world. No, he's just a great guy.

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VANIER: The president went on to explain there is nothing to be embarrassed about.

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VANIER: You may not remember how all this began. So I want to play you audio of the assault during Gianforte's election. This was May 2017.

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BEN JACOBS, THE GUARDIAN: There's not going to be time. I'm just curious --

GREG GIANFORTE (R), THEN-CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Speak with Shane please.

(INAUDIBLE)

GIANFORTE: I'm tired of you guys, the last time you came here, you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here.

JACOBS: Jesus.

GIANFORTE: Get the hell out of here. The last guy did the same thing. Are you with "The Guardian"?

JACOBS: Yes and you just broke my glasses.

GIANFORTE: The last guy did the same damn thing.

JACOBS: You just body slammed me and broke my glasses.

GIANFORTE: Get the hell out of here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VANIER: Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in June last year after he was convicted of body slamming Ben Jacobs, whose voice you just heard, a reporter for "The Guardian."

This did not stop Gianforte from winning the election.

At least 55 people are dead after a train plowed into a crowd celebrating a Hindu festival in Amritsar, Northern India. Police say the train barreled into people who were burning in effigy near the track as part of a celebration Friday night; 60 people were injured. A railway official says the crowd was cheering and using fireworks, which is why they did not hear the train coming. Government authorities have promised compensation to victims' families.

Cracking down on disinformation and propaganda, a Russian woman is charged with trying to sway the U.S. midterm elections and there may be more to it.

Plus 8 million kilometers, nearly $2 billion for a mission to Mercury. That's just ahead.

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VANIER: The polls have finally opened in Afghanistan for the country's parliamentary election after President Ashraf Ghani cast his ballot he wrote, "Today, we proved together that we uphold democracy with casting our ballots without fear. We honor the sacrifices of the fallen."

The election was delayed for three years because of security concerns. Actually voters in Kandahar province are going to have to wait another week because this powerful police chief here was shot and killed on Thursday. He had just met with a top U.S. general when a gunman opened fire. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that killing and warned voters to stay away from polling stations.

For more on that I am joined on the phone from Kabul, Afghanistan, by journalist Ali Latifi.

How is the vote going so far?

ALI LATIFI, JOURNALIST: So in the places where voting is taking place it's going fine. As you can see, I just voted. There are some issues in terms of logistics in places where people are not able to find their names.

But the biggest issue is that we have heard reports from 20 different sites across different provinces where -- including in Kabul, where people are not able to go, where there aren't ballot papers, where election commissions haven't shown up, where (INAUDIBLE) candidates haven't shown up.

We got reports of one center in Kabul where people have been waiting for more than three hours for --

[03:20:00]

LATIFI: -- the center to open. So this has become a really big issue for people (INAUDIBLE) challenges that they're facing.

VANIER: Are you able to judge whether a -- judge turnout, whether voters are actually going out, despite the security threats?

LATIFI: It's kind of hard to tell (INAUDIBLE) turnout right now. There are definitely some places where I was loading people were saying in other areas it's very crowded. But I mean the major issue for turnout (INAUDIBLE) security challenge.

The other thing is the registration process. The registration process was for a short window and it required to get a sticker on the back of your national ID, which created problems for people who wanted to travel to the district of Kabul or to other provinces because if you had evidence of your taking part in the voting process, that could create problems if you were (INAUDIBLE) by the Taliban.

But the turnout I would say is still -- seems to be (INAUDIBLE) than what it was in 2014 (INAUDIBLE) election.

VANIER: All right, Ali Latifi, thank you very much for your reporting and for all your observations. We appreciate it, thanks.

A caravan of migrants is weaving through Central America to reach the U.S. and right now, thousands are at a standstill in Guatemala on this bridge. Men, women and children are spending the night, packed together, stuck on the bridge that leads to Mexico.

Many of them are escaping political corruption and violence in their home countries and they want the U.S. to know that they are not a threat.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our message is we're not criminals. We are coming, we're here because we want to work. We need a job. We need a better life. That's why we're here.

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VANIER: But U.S. president Donald Trump does not believe that.

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TRUMP: Because many of those people, a percentage, a big percentage of those people are criminals and they want to come into our country and they're criminals and it's not happening on my watch, not going to happen. They might as well turn back. They're not coming into this country.

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VANIER: The U.S. president says Democrats are responsible for illegal immigration. Trump claims the Democratic Party is banking on the migrants to vote for them in the upcoming midterm elections. A surprising charge, to say the least, given that noncitizens cannot vote.

Now to allegations of Russian interference in U.S. politics. The Justice Department has accused a Russian woman of trying to influence voters in the 2016 election and in the upcoming midterm elections, 2.5 weeks away from now. CNN's Sara Murray is following the story.

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SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight the Justice Department charging a Russian woman with conspiracy for trying to manipulate voters in the 2018 midterms. As it cracks down on election meddling beyond special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

Elena Khusyaynova of St. Petersburg, Russia, allegedly managed the financing for social media troll agency that sent out these ads and memes to fan division between racial minority groups, political radicals and disaffected voters.

Soon after the Justice Department announced the charge against her, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned the American public of continuing efforts from countries like Russia to divide America along political lines.

The coordinated show of strength against election interference coming just weeks before the November midterms. The agencies called out Russia, China and Iran for ongoing efforts to manipulate voters in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections and warned Americans that foreign actors use social media to amplify divisive issues, spread disinformation and sponsor content through English language media, including RTE and Sputnik (ph).

There is no evidence the interference efforts have impacted voting infrastructure to prevent voting, change vote counts or disrupt our ability to tally votes in the midterm elections, according to the joint statement.

And when President Donald Trump was asked about this Russian hacking, he simply said that it had nothing to do with his campaign -- Sara Murray, CNN, Washington.

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VANIER: So the U.S. midterm elections are 2.5 weeks away. Tune into see what a big leadup event. That is a Florida governor's debate, moderated by CNN's Jake Tapper. That's on Sunday night in the U.S., Monday morning in Asia and Europe.

We are looking to the heavens now, so to speak, where the twin BepiColombo spacecrafts are on a seven-year mission to planet Mercury. The rocket carrying the two orbiters blasted off a short time ago from a European spaceport in French Guiana.

Mercury's considered the solar system's least understood planet. Scientists hope the European-Japanese mission will help unravel some mysteries about the solar system's origin.

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VANIER: The mission is not as straightforward as it might seem. You do not just aim at Mercury and go. The route to the solar system's innermost planet is full of twists and turns. CNN's Robyn Curnow explains.

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ROBYN CURNOW, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): BepiColombo has a long journey ahead, 8 million kilometers, to be exact. This spacecraft is headed to Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. To travel that far, scientists expect that it will take seven years to get there and it won't be easy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Flying around Mercury is one of the most challenging space flight endeavors that has ever been taken. We will have a very long cruise stage to get there. We have to mix different techniques to actually slow down the spacecraft as it falls towards the sun.

CURNOW (voice-over): The spacecraft is especially designed to withstand the sun's high temperatures as well as its gravitational pull. BepiColombo has to circle the Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury itself six times.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first hours, the spacecraft has to become autonomous. It means it has to deploy solar panels, get energy on from the sun and leave on its own without the batteries. And we take over control and we slowly configure it for the very long cruise stage that we need to reach Mercury.

CURNOW (voice-over): This joint venture between the European and Japanese space agencies doesn't come cheap. The cost?

$1.8 billion. But as one of the solar system's least explored planets, the flight's director says the knowledge they hope to gain is priceless.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: By understanding this environment, this planet as well, our scientists hope that they can actually interpret better how our solar system is formed and also other planets have evolved.

CURNOW (voice-over): When BepiColombo finally arrives in the year 2025, it will place two probes around the planet, these probes will roam Mercury for a year before sending their findings back to Earth.

Only two previous missions carried out by NASA have ever reached the planet. Scientists hope that in the years to come some of the mysteries of Mercury will finally be solved -- Robyn Curnow, CNN.

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VANIER: One more thing. We are on billionaire watch here. Some lucky soul in the U.S. may have just one $1 billion. It is not me, is not anybody else in the NEWSROOM. We have all checked our lottery tickets.

The Mega Millions lottery drew its winning numbers a little while ago. So far, no one has stepped up to claim what is the second largest payout in U.S. history. And if no winning ticket was sold, the jackpot will skyrocket even further to an astonishing amount, an estimated $1.6 billion. That's in the next drawing on Tuesday.

Not too shabby for a $2 dollar a ticket investment.

Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I've got the headlines for you in just a moment. Stay with us.