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Trump Spars with Macron as He Arrives in France for Armistice 100th Anniversary; Trump Appoints Matt Whitaker as Attorney General; California Wildfires; Victims of Deadly California Shooting Remembered; Tranquil French Forest Still Carries Scars of War. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired November 10, 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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GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The U.S. president takes a jab at his French counterpart ,Emmanuel Macron, just hours before he's scheduled to meet with him there.

This while Mr. Trump faces backlash in Washington over his pick for the U.S. attorney general, who will now be overseeing Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Also ahead, deadly fires burning the state of California, out of control there. We'll speak with a fire official about the devastation.

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

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HOWELL: Around the world, good day to you. President Trump kicked off his weekend in Paris criticizing his host the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Mr. Trump arrived for events marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War II (sic).

Shorty after his arrival he tweeted Mr. Macron had made, quote, "very insulting suggestion" that Europe's military should be built up to counter the actions of China, Russia and the United States.

He was referencing remarks that the French president made earlier in the week. We expect a response from President Macron when both leaders meet face-to-face in the coming hours. We'll continue to monitor. But live in Paris, let's go to Jim Bittermann.

Jim, what is the reaction to the tweet so far?

What more can you tell us about exactly what Mr. Trump was referring to?

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. In fact the French have a saying this tweet was -- really a -- characterizing the exchange exactly because the tweet refers to something that the French say was taken out of context.

Basically President Macron was talking earlier this week about the possibility that the U.S. would pull out of the intermediate range missile treaty with Russia, something the Europeans feel puts Europe at risk; more than the United States, certainly.

In any case, Mr. Macron, in an address to radio, to the radio audiences and also to a reporter from AFP, said that, in fact, it was important that Europe build up its forces to defend itself better against China and Russia and even the United States.

Mr. Trump reversed the order of that. He said it was very insulting that the French would say they have to protect themselves against the United States, China and Russia. The question of nuance but it may be the kind of thing they can work out when they meet about two hours from now when the two presidents get together for the bilateral meeting between the U.S. and France.

They'll have a lunch together with the two first ladies and move off to different directions. President Trump is going to a cemetery, American cemetery at Belleau Wood, where about 2,000 U.S. Marines lost their lives in a battle in World War I.

And Mr. Macron is going to Compiegne, where there's a replica of the train car in which the armistice between France and Germany was signed 100 years ago.

HOWELL: Things off to a bit of a rocky start. As the leaders come together, hopefully they'll see eye-to-eye on this. Tell us a bit more, the history, the significance of why these world leaders are coming together in Paris.

BITTERMANN: Well, World War I brought a tremendous catastrophe to the world. There was 40 million civilian and military casualties all told, including millions of military casualties; the French army lost 1.4 million alone.

And President Macron wanted to make this a centenary that people would remember, draw attention to the dangers of war, the outbreak of war. And so he scheduled the week of travels around the battlefields of Eastern France and then this weekend he'll be meeting with Chancellor Merkel but also more than 70 other world leaders who have been invited here.

They're going to gather and have a solemn ceremony at exactly the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, when the armistice was signed. Later on after that ceremony and after a lunch, there's going to be a start of what is called the peace forum, the French Paris peace forum, which will go on for about three days to talk about ways of improving world structures to deal with issues in a more peaceful manner.

HOWELL: Jim Bittermann, live in Paris. Thank you very much. We'll continue to monitor this.

My colleagues --

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HOWELL: -- Natalie Allen and Cyril Vanier will pick up the coverage here in the next hour.

As Mr. Trump begins his visit to France, he's escaping fallout from several controversies here in the United States. Among them, details about reported hush money paid to women, criticism from the former first lady, Michelle Obama, and accusations of voter fraud, accusations with no proof, mind you. Our Jim Acosta wraps it up for you.

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JIM ACOSTA, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Leaving for a weekend trip to France, President Trump is having trouble getting clear of some big storms brewing back home.

"The Wall Street Journal" reports the U.S. attorney in New York is gathering evidence that shows the president was involved in hush money deals with two women who say they had affairs with Trump, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels.

"The Journal" said the president was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the payments. Contrast that with his comments last April, when he claimed he didn't know about money going to Daniels.

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QUESTION: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No. No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA (voice-over): As he was leaving for Paris, the president was pressed on the other big legal mess hanging over him, the Russia investigation; specifically his decision to make Matt Whitaker his acting attorney general, a move that was a critic of the probe in charge of it.

TRUMP: I didn't know Matt Whitaker. He worked for attorney general Sessions. He was very, very highly thought of. And still is highly thought of. But this only comes up because anybody that works for me, they do a number on them.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president repeatedly claimed he didn't know Whitaker.

TRUMP: I don't know Matt Whitaker.

ACOSTA (voice-over): That's not true if you believe what Mr. Trump told FOX News next month.

TRUMP: I never talk about that but I can tell you, Matt Whitaker is a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker. ACOSTA (voice-over): Prominent D.C. attorney George Conway, husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, argued in a "New York Times" op-ed that Whitaker's election is unconstitutional, it's illegal and means that anything Mr. Whitaker does or tries to do in that position is invalid.

The president brushed off Conway's concerns.

TRUMP: He's just trying to get publicity for himself.

Why don't you do this?

Why don't you ask Kellyanne that question, all right?

She might know him better than me. I really don't know the guy.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The Democrats, who are about to take control in the House, are vowing to protect special counsel Robert Mueller.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: The American people spoke on Tuesday. They want a check on abuses of power. That's, I think, one of the issues that was on the ballot.

And so we have a number of options. One, we're going to have a funding the government vote coming up here in a couple of weeks. And we're going to insist that we protect the Mueller probe.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Even with all of that on his hands, the president is also sparring with, of all people, Michelle Obama.

In excerpts of the former first lady's new book, obtained by "The Washington Post," Ms. Obama said she will never forgive Mr. Trump for being a birther, saying, "What if someone with an unstable mind loaded a gun and drove to Washington?

"What if that person went looking for our girls?"

The president dismissed that and took a swipe at Barack Obama.

TRUMP: Look, she got paid a lot of money to write a book. And they always insist that you come up with controversial.

Well, I'll give you a little controversy back. I'll never forgive him for what he did to our United States military by not funding it properly.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president is said to be, quote, "on the warpath" about vote counts still underway in places like Florida. Mr. Trump complained of voter fraud. But when asked for evidence, he didn't have any.

TRUMP: Although I hear -- well, I don't know, you tell me. It is always the Democrats.

(END VIDEOTAPE) HOWELL: No evidence there. That's CNN's Jim Acosta reporting. Let's talk more about this with Jessica Levinson. She's a professor of law and governance at Loyola University in Los Angeles, joining this hour from L.A.

Good to have you with us today.

JESSICA LEVINSON, LOYOLA UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL: Thanks for having me.

HOWELL: The U.S. president in Paris and other world leaders, already there's a dustup between French President Macron and President Trump, who tweeted Mr. Macron made an very insulting, he said, suggestion that Europe's military should be built up to counter the actions of China, Russia and the United States.

During this sobering moment marking history, today's political reality seemed to tip things off to a rocky start.

What are your thoughts?

LEVINSON: This is part of what we've seen in the Trump administration, where America has been distanced from what our usual allies are. There have been tensions with a number of European countries. And there have been tensions as a result of President Trump saying things like the U.S. is overpaying to be part of NATO, which is important to our allies and which is also not true.

So I would say with respect to these particular tweets, my understanding is that President Macron has said these were taken out of context. This is not a great way to start a visit, where really the purpose is to pay your respects to --

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LEVINSON: -- an incredibly important historical event.

HOWELL: Want to shift to what is happening here in the United States. Mr. Trump leaves behind a controversy with the person who will temporarily take over that position of attorney general, Matthew Whitaker. He's on record being a sharp critic of the Russia probe, Mr. Whitaker.

And the president's response about whether the two have talked, whether they even know each other seems dubious at best. I want you listen to what Mr. Trump had to say on FOX News before Mr. Whitaker took this position. And then listen to what Mr. Trump had to say most recently. We'll talk about it.

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TRUMP: I never talk about that but I can tell you, Matt Whitaker is a great guy. I know Matt Whitaker.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: I don't know Matt Whitaker. I didn't know Matt Whitaker. I didn't speak to Matt Whitaker about it. I don't know Matt Whitaker. But in all fairness to Matt Whitaker, who, again I didn't know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOWELL: Does he know him or does he not?

I don't know. Let's pull up the tweet again. This most recent tweet from the president, basically saying the same thing that he doesn't know Mr. Whitaker. It is the same approach you'll remember he took with Putin. I knew him before the campaign and then he didn't know him.

What do you make of this strategy, if it is a strategy?

LEVINSON: I think this is kind of a distraction from the bigger question. The big question to me is, is the appointment of Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general even constitutional?

There's a serious question as to whether you could have someone who has not been confirmed by the Senate to be a so-called principal officer, meaning they're reporting directly to the President of the United States.

Second from that, again I think the question of whether or not the president knows Matt Whitaker is also somewhat of a sideshow when asking then the next question, which is, is Matt Whitaker just fundamentally conflicted out of being in charge of the Mueller investigation because of what he said about it and what he's written about it.

He's said there's a red line when it comes to this investigation. If Mueller was to shut look into the Trump family finances, he would be crossing a line and we would know that's a witch hunt.

He's also said there's ways to shut the Mueller investigation down without actually shutting it down, meaning just shrink their budget and essentially suffocate their investigation.

So I guess what I would say is, I'm less interested in whether the president actually knows Whitaker or thinks he knows him than I am with respect to whether or not this appointment was constitutional and whether or not Whitaker, if it is, can even oversee the Mueller investigation.

HOWELL: It is confusing, to say the least, Jessica, thank you again for your time and perspective.

LEVINSON: Thank you.

HOWELL: The U.S. president says that he's cracking down on illegal immigration. After speaking for weeks against a caravan of Central Americans heading for the United States -- and again you'll notice, the president stopped talking about that after the midterms -- he signed an order on Friday that would require migrants to seek asylum through legal points of entry into the United States.

That means migrants that cross the border illegally will have their asylum claims automatically rejected. Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit challenging that order.

Still ahead, Paradise lost. Nearly the entire town of Paradise, California, has been wiped out by a massive out-of-control fire. We'll take you there -- next.

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BRYNN PARROTT CHATFIELD, WILDFIRE SURVIVOR: Heavenly Father, please help us. Please help us to be safe.

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HOWELL: That is just one of the terrifying stories of people trying to escape the flames in California. Three massive wildfires hitting that state. The largest is the so-called Camp Fire in Northern California. You see on the map there in the northern part of the state, it ignited on Thursday and is already the most destructive in California history.

Look now from space. Wow. Officials say nine people at this point have died because of the fires; 6,700 structures have been destroyed so far. The fire wiped out the entire town nearly of Paradise, California. Our Dan Simon explored some of the damage there earlier, take a look.

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DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're in the business district. This is an example of what you're seeing all throughout Paradise, California. You could see these homes have just been totally leveled. You could see the flames also kicking up there in the middle of the rubble.

It is a smoky mess out here. It is like this all through the town. You could see this used car lot over here. You could see several of the cars have been charred. It's really just home after home, business after business, apartment buildings and restaurants and doctors' offices and schools and churches.

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HOWELL: That was Dan Simon reporting on the Camp Fire. That's just one of the wildfires in California. Further south, there's also the Woolsey and Hill Fires. They also happened on Friday, forcing residents of at least 75,000 homes to evacuate.

By phone, let's bring in Scott McLean. He's a deputy chief with CAL FIRE, the California Forestry Department's fire protection agency, joining now from Chico, California.

Scott, let's give our viewers a sense of where you are on the map in that state with relation to the fires that are raging in the northern and southern parts of the state.

The Camp Fire there affecting Paradise, the city of Paradise; Chico just in the west from Paradise. And from all of the images, Scott, that we've seen, the phrase "paradise lost" is an understatement. Tell our viewers about the situation as you're seeing it right now.

SCOTT MCLEAN, CAL FIRE: I was up on the firing line yesterday during the course of the whole day. About 9 o'clock, the skies turned to night and remained that way through the rest of the day, believe it or not.

We're looking at 90,000 acres as of this evening for the Camp Fire, which is only 5 percent contained at this time. The red flag warnings were canceled early this morning, the belief is that the winds will start die down. Our air traffic has viewed this quite extensively in that case, in which they were.

However, unfortunately, now we're looking at another red flag warning in Northern California starting tomorrow afternoon.

HOWELL: We understand the Camp Fire, the most destructive fire in California history. We're seeing the images right now, so much destruction, so much land that has been overtaken by these fires.

If you could help the viewers understand your efforts there to get ahead of the fires and make sure people evacuate as the fires continue to spread there.

MCLEAN: Right. This fire started roughly in the community Pulga, which is northeast of Paradise. It spread extremely rapidly because of the winds that pushed that particular fire. It started the first (INAUDIBLE) with about 10 acres in size and it rapidly grew by increments of 100 to 1,000 acres within minutes.

And then within the first hour or two, it was into Paradise proper. And that's after it went through another community called Concow. It went through the town, destroying everything in its path, being pushed by the significant winds.

Unfortunately, Paradise is an older town, so there's a majority of wood structures and as well as in a wooded area. The other aspect is that is a retirement community.

HOWELL: Right. You talk about the winds. You could get a --

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HOWELL: -- sense of what the winds are doing from these images that we're seeing now. Winds have absolutely been problematic.

What is the expectation among firefighters about whether they will help or hurt efforts over the next several days?

MCLEAN: The red flag warnings that are showing up again tomorrow, that brings more winds. It lowers the humidity down into the single digits if not the low teens. Couple that with the extremely dry vegetation. It is still very dry. Dry as it has ever been, whether it be grass, brush or trees, which are just so receptive to the fire, just like a bunch of matchsticks, if you will.

As those winds push the fires through the vegetation, which burns extremely easy, throwing off sparks -- excuse me -- embers that cause spot fires. So every ember that's thrown I guarantee you starts a spot fire well ahead of the fire. And that's what we've seen.

This fire burned all the way down into the eastern side of Chico into some grass fields that the firefighters were able to stop the progress in that area. The fire is predominantly burning north, northeast now.

HOWELL: We can never talk enough about the hard work that you and your teams are doing out there. We see firefighters right here, going house by house and community by community, trying to stop the fires.

Obviously, it is difficult to rotate people in and out; there's so much work to be done. We certainly will keep up with you and your efforts and appreciate everything you're doing out there.

MCLEAN: Right. You have to understand one last thing. The firefighters, both men and women, that risked their lives yesterday, rescuing. That's all they did yesterday primarily, was to rescue those individuals out of Paradise to get them to safety.

HOWELL: Scott McLean on the phone from Chico, California. Thank you.

Scott really lays it out there. You get a sense of what is happening on the ground.

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HOWELL: In the same area, a community of love, hope and unity. That's how the mayor of Thousand Oaks, California, described his city that is mourning after Wednesday's deadly shooting that happened there. Hundreds of people came together to join him at a vigil on Thursday to honor the 12 people that were killed in the mass shooting.

The victims were also remembered at another vigil in Las Vegas that experienced its own mass shooting last year. It is still unclear what motivated the suspect to carry out the attack. He was found dead at the scene.

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HOWELL: Police believe he shot himself.

One hundred years after the guns of World War I fell silent, another battle from that conflict still plays out in the forests of Northern France. It is nature versus millions of unexploded shells and poison gas. Nick Paton Walsh gives us a look now at the toxic scars that war left behind on the environment.

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NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One hundred years ago this tranquil forest was one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Today this unique memorial to past horrors still harbors one of the most toxic sites in France.

GUILLAUME MOIZAN, LOCAL HISTORIAN AND GUIDE: And you saw this 100- year-old erosion. We can truly feel the scars on the landscape here.

WALSH (voice-over): This is Verdun, the site of the longest battle of World War I. Over 300,000 French and German soldiers died here; 60 million shells were fired, at least one in eight didn't explode.

Each year, demining teams clear dozens of tons of unexploded bombs and small grenades, remove shells weighing tens of hundreds of pounds.

MOIZAN: Every year we still find unexploded ordnance in the forest here and of course in the farming land around.

WALSH (voice-over): After the war, the battlefields were described as completely devastated with 100 percent damage to properties and agriculture. Human life was considered impossible.

But the war left a far more toxic legacy at one site.

MOIZAN: It's a please where almost nothing is growing. Around it, we have the forest and we have an empty space. This is a place we call Place a Gaz.

WALSH (voice-over): At this site, 25 kilometers from the city of Verdun, French authorities burned gas shells to dispose of unwanted chemicals after the war. In 2007, an environmental survey found levels of arsenic up to 35,000 times higher than typical soil levels.

MOIZAN: I think it truly helps to understand what happened here, to be able to walk on the preserved ground. To me, the best museum we have in Verdun is the battlefield itself.

WALSH (voice-over): But even poison gas and years of war couldn't stop the march of nature.

MOIZAN (from captions): When you walk in the forests of Verdun, you see among the trees, it gives the appearance of a cathedral, the trees above the ground. And you can see all the holes, the shell holes, the trenches. So it has a very important memorial aspect.

It doesn't need a lot to grow back, even in places with concrete or masonry. Life has come back. Nature has done her work. It's a victory over man's destruction.

(END VIDEOTAPE) HOWELL: Sobering reminders of an very important moment in history. That was our Nick Paton Walsh reporting.

And we thank you for being with us for CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell at the CNN Center in Atlanta. "STATE OF AMERICA" with Kate Bolduan is up next. But first, your world headlines after the break.