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CIA Concludes Saudi Crown Prince Ordered Jamal Khashoggi's Death; California Wildfire Survivors Face Long Road to Recovery; Trump Answers Written Questions from Special Counsel; U.K. Prime Minister May Moves Quickly to Fill Vacant Cabinet Posts; "Yellow Vests" Demand President Macron Lower Fuel Prices; Republican Mia Love Now Leads in Utah; Trump's Favorite Portraits of Himself. Aired 4-5a ET

Aired November 17, 2018 - 04:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The Saudi crown prince personally ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It is a damning conclusion from the CIA, according to sources. CNN has the latest reaction in a live report ahead.

Crews continue searching through burned debris. The number of names on a list of missing continues to rise in the state of California. Wildfires spike to more than a thousand people.

And the U.S. president says he's answered all the questions from the special counsel Robert Mueller and insists he answered them himself.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and all around the world. I'm George Howell. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


HOWELL: 4:00 am on the East Coast. The finger now pointing directly to the Saudi crown prince for ordering the murder of "The Washington Post" columnist Jamal Khashoggi. That is the word from the CIA, according to sources.

It is based in evidence analyzed by the CIA, evidence including a phone call where the prince's brother urged Khashoggi to go to the consulate in Istanbul. Khalid bin Salman denies making that call.

The Saudi government says it's shifted its story -- you've seen that story shift a bit since Khashoggi disappeared from the consulate last month. But it has remained firm that the crown prince was not involved.

Let's go live to Beirut, Lebanon. Our Ben Wedeman following the story.

Ben, what is the reaction there?

We've heard a flat denial and even a dare to make that information public.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. What we heard is a spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., say they've heard a lot of versions of events coming out but they have yet to see the actual evidence with which these claims are based upon, which is just another denial from the Saudis of what is a steady stream of damning revelations about the October murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

What we're seeing is this report from the CIA or claims by sources at the CIA that Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had a phone conversation with Jamal Khashoggi in which he told him that in order to obtain the papers that would allow him to remarry, he should go to Istanbul.

And Khalid bin Salman assured him he would be safe in doing so. According to this story in "The Washington Post," he made the phone call at the direction of his brother, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Obviously the Saudis are denying all of this.

But certainly this is sort of the latest indication that, indeed, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, was aware of this operation despite the fact that the Saudi attorney or attorney general is saying that this was a rogue operation that went disastrously wrong -- George.

HOWELL: Ben, there any indication that any of this new information somehow puts the crown prince's role in jeopardy?

WEDEMAN: It certainly would tarnish his reputation that has really been under a magnifying glass since the beginning of the saga around the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

But according to "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" and CNN's own reporting, U.S. officials believe that he will remain in power. But it certainly creates a pariah status for the young crown prince, who has been the effective leader of Saudi Arabia now for several years, given that his father, King Salman, is in very poor health and it's believed that he is suffering from dementia.

So certainly we know President Trump wants him to remain in power, given that he sees him as a key player, for instance, in the struggle against Iran. Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Trump, is also very close with Mohammed bin Salman and, of course, we have heard word from the White House that, sometime early next year, the U.S. plans on putting out its so-called deal of the century to resolve the Arab-Israeli --


WEDEMAN: -- conflict and Saudi Arabia is supposed to, in theory, play a central role in that.

All of that now is up in the air and in doubt, given the belief clearly from the CIA that Mohammed bin Salman was the man who ultimately ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. HOWELL: While the evidence coming out seems to be contrary to the

story, the evolving story that we've heard from Saudi Arabia, Ben Wedeman, thank you for the reporting. We'll keep in touch with you.

Let's talk more about this now with CNN global affairs analyst, Aaron David Miller. Aaron is a V.P. and distinguished scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center.

Good to have you with us this hour.


HOWELL: -- CIA points the finger directly at the Saudi crown prince.

How significant an impact will this have?

AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think it's going to bring the administration to a proverbial moment of truth. For the last 40-plus days since Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the administration has been trying to figure out a way to navigate through this, maintaining a relationship that they believe is critically important to America's Middle East policy, its oil policy, its arms sales policy on one hand and how to avoid having to take dramatic and punitive action against Saudi Arabia on the other, if it were proven that Mohammed bin Salman, AKA MBS, ordered or had direct foreknowledge of this operation.

What the CIA did in putting this out -- and clearly the agency had come to this conclusion some time ago; the administration, I'm sure, was aware of most of this -- has now become public, which means it's going to be an issue Congress, the media and the international community as well.

So I think the administration it's reaching a point where it's going to have to decide how to act. It's already sanctioned 17 individuals but clearly that didn't pass "The Washington Post" test in Congress. Frankly, U.S.-Saudi relationship is out of control and the administration is going to have to figure out a way to reset it.

HOWELL: Before this reporting, Turkey had been putting pressure, a great deal of pressure, given that it holds the cards to this investigation.

How does that square with the U.S. president trying to find ways to remove the Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, in order to possibly ease pressure on Saudi Arabia?

MILLER: Well, if that report is true -- and NBC had reported it out -- it may have been a suggestion I doubt, frankly -- it's one of the dumbest idea I think I've ever heard. I've worked for half a dozen secretaries of state who came up with some pretty hair-brained schemes but nothing that even remotely resembled trading in order to placate Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one authoritarian, in order to get another authoritarian off the hook.

I mean, it's a fundamental undermining of both the American values and interests and I doubt, frankly, if the administration would even consider seriously acting on turning Fethullah Gulen over to the Turks in order to somehow dissuade Erdogan, who's in a bitter rivalry with the Saudis for a variety of reasons.

HOWELL: It is a complicated web here and, look, complex is very important here, Aaron.

Does the president take the CIA assessment seriously, given that he has discounted his own intelligence agencies many times in the past?

Does that give him some wiggle room here to get out of this?

MILLER: Yes. I think you've identified a critical issue.

Is the president going take issue with the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community and try to figure out a way to discount this report or downgrade it or trivialize it and somehow find a way to let Mohammed bin Salman off the hook?

That's the pattern over the last 18 months, the tacky intelligence reports and analysis that didn't square with his views of the world or what his sensibilities and predilections were.

I think it's going to be extremely difficult, given the horrific nature of this crime, given the fact that the Saudis have been lying on this from the very beginning. The most recent Saudi report went back to the notion that the killing of Jamal Khashoggi was accidental. It was supposed to be a rendition back to Saudi Arabia and the dismemberment of his body was done on the spot without authority from Riyadh.

I think this strains the bounds of credulity to the breaking point. I think the world knows it, I think Congress knows. The real question is whether the administration is prepared to act.

HOWELL: Aaron David Miller, thank you again for your time.

MILLER: George, thank you.

HOWELL: Now to the fires burning in the state of California.


HOWELL: Three hours from now the U.S. president leaves the White House to head out west to meet with survivors of the world wildfires in that state's history and the death toll there continues to rise. Eight more bodies have been discovered in Northern California.

That means that 74 people have now died in these fires and the list of the missing continues to grow. More than 1,000 names are now listed. Our Nick Watt has the very latest from the fire zone.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am loyal to Paradise. It's like a tether. My heart is tethered to that town. I value that town and the people and everybody I knew there, everybody I helped there, they just meant so much to me.

I blossomed when I moved to Paradise.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Right now Central and northern California has the worst air quality in the world. Smoke lingering in a 250-mile radius. Today, schools as far away as San Francisco still closed due to that danger. Classes canceled on college campuses in Sacramento and Berkeley.

According to CAL FIRE, firefighters have battled 500 blazes in the state in just the past 30 days alone. California's governor says this is the new abnormal.

JERRY BROWN (D), GOVERNOR OF CALIFORNIA: Going forward, we're going have to take a lot of steps. We're going to have to manage our forests better, we're going to have to build our cities more smartly, we're going to have to build shelters so that people can escape when these terrible fires get out of hand.

And, yes, we're going to have to deal with climate change, all of that.

WATT (voice-over): Meanwhile 145 evacuees and workers in shelters around Butte County are suffering from norovirus, 25 of them hospitalized as a result of the gastrointestinal bug. Health officials now working to create separate shelters for the sick.

Butte County, with 10 percent of its homes now turned to ash, facing crisis.

ED MAYER, BUTTE COUNTY HOUSING AUTHORITY: So we have a town of approximately 14,000 houses and associated commercial activity that's literally been burned off the map.

WATT: Exactly what sparked these fires is still under investigation. Up in the north of California, people are pointing the finger at the local utility company, claiming that it was faulty equipment that started the blaze.

Here in the south, authorities have said that the smaller Hill Fire was caused by human activity, unclear if that was accidental or arson -- Nick Watt, CNN, Westlake Village, California.


HOWELL: Nick, thank you.

Again, firefighters making some progress with regard to containment but smoke is now the issue and so dangerous when it comes to breathing that smoke.


HOWELL: Still ahead here, CNN's chief White House correspondent returns to the White House for now. Coming up --


HOWELL: -- we'll look at the lawsuit that could keep one of our correspondents out of the White House if it goes one way or the other.

What's at stake?

Stay with us. We'll tell you about it.

Plus Britain embattled prime minister's determined to get her controversial Brexit plan through even as her own political future hangs in the balance. Live around the world and in the U.S., you're watching NEWSROOM.





HOWELL: Welcome back.

President Trump says he has answered written questions from special counsel Robert Mueller, questions about possible collusion with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign. The answers have not been returned back to Mueller. At this point, the president met up with his legal team at least three days this week. But he says he answered the questions himself.


TRUMP: My lawyers are working on it. I'm working on it. My lawyers don't write answers. I answered them very easily. I'm sure they're tripped up because they like to catch people up with, gee, was the weather sunny or rainy. He said it was rainy. He told a lie. You have to be careful answering questions with --


TRUMP: -- people that probably have bad intentions.

There should have never been any Mueller investigation. There was no collusion. There never has been. You would have been notified a long time ago if there was. They never should have. They've wasted millions and millions of dollars. There should have never been a so- called investigation.


HOWELL: Another story around the White House. Many of you have been following the story around my colleague Jim Acosta. He's back in the White House press room thanks to a judge's ruling. Remember, the Trump administration revoked the press pass of CNN's chief White House correspondent after a heated exchange with President Trump. Brian Stelter reports the decision is only round one. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: This has been a day unlike any in White House press corps history with White House correspondent Jim Acosta being granted his press pass back after a nine-day battle between CNN and the White House.

Of course, all this started at that post-midterms press conference, when Acosta and President Trump had a combative exchange. A few hours later, Acosta went back to work and found out the Secret Service was taking away his press pass.

Now we don't know exactly who made that call. Perhaps it was President Trump that decided to revoke the press pass. But this was fought over in court this week with CNN filing a federal lawsuit alleging First and Fifth Amendment violations.

Today in court, Judge Timothy J. Kelly granted CNN's request for a temporary restraining order, which forced the White House to return the press pass.

Kelly said he was granting the order in a very limited way based on the Fifth Amendment violations; basically it meant that Acosta's due process rights were violated because he wasn't given any notice or any way to appeal.

Now the judge did not rule on the First Amendment issues involving freedom of the press. That might come later during further litigation. But now the ball is kind of back in the White House's court. It's unclear if the administration will try to continue this legal battle back and challenge CNN's lawsuit or it will more quietly settle out of court.

I spoke with CNN lawyer Ted Boutrous, who said CNN would be happy to resolve this in a peaceful way and not have to return to court and for the remaining weeks and months that this case could go on.

But Boutrous said CNN will continue its litigation if the White House puts up a fight or tries to take away Acosta's press pass again.

As for the administration, well, President Trump says they're going to come up with new rules and regulations to govern the behavior of White House correspondents. He says he doesn't want anybody to behave badly during news conferences. If so, he says he might just walk out.

But the reality is the president enjoys those back-and-forths. He enjoys the exchanges with reporters like Acosta. So it'll be interesting to see if the White House follows through on that claim that they're going to come up with new regulations to govern the behavior of reporters.

And of course if those regulations seem inappropriate, they seem excessive or radical, well, CNN will end up right back in court. But for now, Acosta's back at work, ending a strange nine-day period that made a lot of people in newsrooms concerned. The good news today for press freedom groups is that Acosta's press pass is back -- Brian Stelter, CNN, New York.


HOWELL: Brian, thank you.

Let's talk more about this with Natasha Lindstaedt, a professor of government at the University of Essex in England via Skype.

Thanks for your time this morning.


HOWELL: Let's talk about my colleague, Jim Acosta, now back in the White House. There's a promise of new rules to govern how reporters engage with officials when they're asking their questions. We don't know what those rules will be.

But does the White House have the discretion to arbitrarily create rules to govern the press and, if the rules are deemed unfair, can the press challenge those rules?

LINDSTAEDT: That's a really good question but this is one of the critical components of any democracy, is that there is free press. And that means that they don't have obstacles standing in their way and rules that dictate how they're supposed to behave, that they should be free to be able to ask questions, ask follow-up questions.

That's what they were attacking Jim Acosta on, that he was being too aggressive. But this is what journalists are supposed to do, to keep the executive branch in check.

So for a functioning democracy, you have to have complete press freedom and this is really something dictatorships do. Often they put journalists in prison. So it's a little bit harsher but they also employ these types of tactics, of creating little rules about what they can say and do.

HOWELL: The president has described it as no big deal, that he's fine with what happened. But he did have this to say about how he would react after these new rules are established. Let's listen to it. We can talk about it in a moment.


TRUMP: Nobody believes in the First Amendment more than I do. And if I think somebody's --


TRUMP: -- acting out of sorts, I will leave. I'll say, I appreciate you coming and I'll leave. And those reporters will not be too friendly to whoever's acting up.


HOWELL: So with regard to the First Amendment, the president says he supports the First Amendment but the First Amendment doesn't say anything about officials determining whether they feel good or bad about a reporter's behavior.

But what do you make of the president's plan to walk away if he doesn't feel good about the questions that are being asked of him?

LINDSTAEDT: Well, Donald Trump has very mixed feelings about the First Amendment. He loves it when people are lauding him and saying wonderful things about him but he doesn't like it so much when anyone criticizes him. And I think this is something he completely misunderstood about the job of being president.

At times you're going to have to answer difficult questions and face challenging questions from reporters that you may not want to answer. This something that all the presidents in the past have done and they haven't ran out of the room, sort of pouting that they didn't get questions that they liked.

It's really unpresidential for him to say I'm going to walk out of the room if he gets a question he doesn't want to answer.

HOWELL: It'll be interesting to see. Natasha Lindstaedt, thanks again for your time and perspective. We'll stay in touch with you.

Britain has a new Brexit secretary. Still ahead, the prime minister of Britain acts quickly to shore up support for her unpopular deal on Brexit with the E.U.

Plus this --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think there's anything we have established at this point that's going to fundamentally deter them from continuing this kind of operation.

HOWELL: Question propaganda experts, they're still spreading lies on U.S. social media and getting rid of them is proving to be a real challenge. Stay with us.






HOWELL: Welcome back to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Atlanta. I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you.

(HEADLINES) Following events in the United Kingdom, and the British prime minister Theresa May wasting no time rebuilding her fractured cabinet following a disastrous rollout of Brexit, the plan for Brexit. The terms of the agreement cost her two cabinet secretaries and five other officials. It was an embarrassing setback. But Ms. May is not backing down.

She is determined to get the deal through a skeptical Parliament. Here's CNN's Nic Robertson.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: After such a hard and terrible day for Theresa May on Thursday, Friday was all about regaining the initiative, regaining the momentum she began earlier in the day on a British radio chat show, answering questions from voters, some very tough questions that what she did was what she did yesterday, on Thursday, which was repeat her message that deal she has on offer is the best deal delivering on what she says the British people asked for.


THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: We're not going to be locked in forever to something that we don't want. What we're doing is negotiating a deal that means that we can take back control of our borders, free movement will end once and for all.

If we take back control of our money, we won't be sending vast sums of money to the E.U. every year. We take back control of our laws, we won't be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. We'll come out of some of the things that people have been really concerned about for years, come out of a contra (ph) policy, common fisheries policy.

We're out of the customs union, out of the single market. I think that's what people voted for and that's what I'm delivering.


ROBERTSON: And another key part of getting that Brexit deal back on track, getting it in front of the European leaders just about 10 days from now, was replacing some of those cabinet resignations she's had over the past 48 hours.

There she was able to replace perhaps the most important post of all, relative to Brexit, that of the secretary of state for overseeing Brexit; a relative unknown politician, a Leaver, someone who has supported her position on Brexit so far.

So from her perspective, this is somebody who doesn't look they're likely to challenge her, somebody whose remit, we understand, is mostly going to be organizational level at the U.K. and rather than actually in Brussels, doing any of the negotiation.

This fits with Theresa May's track record up to now. She has had firm hands on this negotiation. That's the way that she's dealt with it so far. But another piece also of making sure that she has support and momentum was hearing from some of those cabinet ministers, people thought might resign.

Key among them, Michael Gove from the environment ministry.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How confident is the prime minister today?

MICHAEL GOVE, BRITISH ENVIRONMENT SECRETARY: I absolutely do like her. I've had a very good morning with a series of meetings with my colleagues here in defera (ph), just making sure we have the right policies on the environment, on farming and on fisheries for the future.

I'm also looking forward to continuing to work with all of my government colleagues and all my colleagues in Parliament in order to make sure that we get the best future for Britain.


ROBERTSON: So that support from the likes of Michael Gove, from having those key cabinet positions refilled, momentum is on her side.

What could knock her off track?

Well, this much talked about vote of no confidence, so far that has completely failed to materialize -- Nic Robertson, CNN, London.


HOWELL: Nic, thank you.

Let's talk about this with CNN European affairs commentator Dominic Thomas joining us from Paris.

Dominic, let's talk about the possibility of that vote of no confidence.


HOWELL: How concerning should that be for Theresa May?

DOMINIC THOMAS, CNN EUROPEAN AFFAIRS COMMENTATOR: It's been a concern for her really ever since she's been in office. It seems like every few weeks there's been discussion of this. The key numbers to look at this is essentially in order to trigger a vote of no confidence, they've got to get 15 percent of their Conservative MPs to sign on for this, which is the magic number of 48.

And they seemed to be gathering momentum for that just a few days ago. But things have begun to slow down again. I think this was a core group of Brexiteers that are confronted with is a situation where they have to decide, if they were to actually remove Theresa May and force an leadership challenge, the interesting question would therefore be who would come along, who would be able to unite this party and do they really, deep down, want to be shepherding the Brexit through at this particular moment when the deal seems to be struggling, when there seems to be such lack of support for any kind of parliamentary vote on this particular question?

So it would yield just even more uncertainty.

HOWELL: Despite the resignations, we're continuing see the prime minister make the rounds to gain support for this Brexit plan. That is described as resoundingly unpopular.

Do you see her gaining any traction in her efforts?

THOMAS: Well, she's trying to promote this, sell this plan. She's argued about the best deal they're going to end up with. And the European Union seems to be rather unyielding on this particular deal, arguing this is the deal that is the best that they can possibly strike.

We've also seen other E.U. leaders speak out, who are very concerned about the particularities of this and only transition to this deal because they do want to make sure that the integrity of the common market is maintained and that the U.K. does not end up with some kind of deal that would be unfair to other E.U. members.

So the interesting development here -- and I think it's potentially a problem for Theresa May -- is she's arguing that she's now going to be essentially the chief negotiator. And all along she's been doing this.

Just a few weeks ago she talked about the fact that the deal was almost 95 percent concluded. And then announced earlier this week that they struck a wonderful deal with the European Union that then ended up with people not only resigning from the cabinet but the Brexit secretary.

And you would have thought that would have been the person with whom she would have had the greatest understanding on this particular deal. So there's some concern that yet again as she did with the Chequers deal, as she has all along the way, is that she keeps coming up with new plans and new solutions for which there does not seem to be support within her party, let alone across the political spectrum, should she ever get any kind of hope of getting this deal through Parliament.

HOWELL: Dominic, important to point out, this deal is the deal. The E.U. not going back to renegotiating anything more on this. This is it and Britain must now -- the United Kingdom must now choose its path with this deal.

Talk to us also about the appointment of Stephen Barclay as the new Brexit secretary, who is a loyalist to Theresa May.

What does this tell you?

THOMAS: It's interesting to see. There's so many people who have resigned from this government over the past year. And it's becoming increasingly difficult for her to find people that qualify to fill this post.

This is somebody who doesn't have much experience, has got some limited work with her in government. She's also brought the former minister, Amber Rudd, the controversial home secretary back into the fold, who's a supporter of hers, although a Remain supporter.

And there's some indication that she's trying to get people around her that can help her shepherd this deal through the houses of Parliament. But the fact remains that the Labour Party is not going to support this. They would rather have a general election.

The Brexiteers see in this deal so many of the things they claimed they wanted out of the Brexit deal are not there. There's no ultimate long-term resolution on the Irish border problem.

And the question of the lingering belonging and alignment and obligations too the European Union that would come from being in the customs union and then potentially Northern Ireland remaining in the single market, all of these questions have been there along the way.

And there seems to be no solution to them. And it's very hard to see how Theresa May's going to manage to get this deal going anywhere as we move along. The only thing really in her favor is the March deadline is fast approaching and this deal may, for some people, paradoxically, be a better deal than simply walking away from the European Union, with what would ultimately be a hard Brexit.

HOWELL: The deal is the deal. So again, the U.K. must now make its decision on whether to go with it or not. Dominic Thomas, thank you again for your time.

THOMAS: All right. Thanks, George.

HOWELL: Major roadways across --


HOWELL: -- France could shut down this weekend. That's because protesters have started blocking roads across the country. They are demanding that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, do something to make fuel there cheaper. They call themselves Yellow Vests with reflective gear that motorists are required to keep in their car in case of an emergency.

We'll continue to follow that story for you.

Votes are still being counted more than a week after the U.S. midterm elections. We take a look at the congressional races that are still unsettled.

Plus the so-called Russian trolls, they are back, though they really never went away.

How were they involved in the U.S. midterm elections?

We take a look. (MUSIC PLAYING)



HOWELL: More than a week after the U.S. midterm elections six House seats and one Senate seat have yet to be officially decided. Our Tom Foreman takes a look at these still undecided races.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All this time after the midterm election, there are still six House districts where it's not quite settled yet as to what might be happening.

Some are down here in Southern California, areas that were actually strong for Reagan Republicans a long time ago, where the Democrats seem to be looking pretty strong right now. Those races hopefully will be settled in fairly short order and we'll know if that's going to be the final result there.

This is one of the more notable ones here, up in Utah. Look at this. Mia Love was behind for a pretty good bit of time here, behind Ben McAdams. But as the counting went on, it kept closing and closing, the gap got tighter and tighter and now she's just going into the weekend edged ahead by 419 votes.

If that holds, it will be interesting for a couple of reasons because not only is it one of the few Republican possible seats still, if things go the way they look at the moment, but President Trump, in the initial --


FOREMAN: -- reaction to the early voting, dissed her.

He said, "You didn't embrace me," you didn't show that you were loyal to Donald Trump. That's why you lost.

And now she may win. So of the last two seats out there that look like they possibly could go Republican at this point, if things go the way they're with the vote right now, of the last two at this moment, one of them will be something that Donald Trump has already sort of shown the door and yet who may be around with no real reason now to be loyal to him.


HOWELL: Tom Foreman, thank you.

U.S. tech companies and government agencies are trying to keep Russian connected accounts from spreading lies and propaganda. On social media still just before this month's midterm elections, thousands of Americans were following pages that may have been from Russian propaganda farms. CNN's Fred Pleitgen looks at how those factories keep trolling along.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): The Russian troll factory, once known as the Internet Research Agency, is still up and running, now operating as various new legal entities under the name Project Lakhta, according to a U.S. criminal complaint.

CNN has obtained video of this flashy business center in St. Petersburg where several of Project Lakhta's firms are now apparently working. They're putting down more cash to harm America. Company financial records in a U.S. criminal complaint reviewed by CNN shows huge budget increases since 2013, especially in 2018.

Around 650 million rubles, almost $10 million in the first six months of this year alone, although the prosecutors say not all the money goes to operations targeting the U.S.

BRET SCHAFER, SOCIAL MEDIA ANALYST, HAMILTON 68: It's essential to look at these efforts as consistent and persistent as opposed to they rally around a specific geopolitical event or election. The way that they actually gain influence is by talking to these specific populations over a period of time.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): A former employee we're not naming out of safety concerns tells CNN Project Lakhta's operatives constantly create new online identities using special tools caught anonymizers along with virtual private networks and varying cloud services to mask their origin.

SCHAFER: I don't think that's anything we've established at this point that's going to fundamentally deter them from continuing this kind of operation, because, frankly, it's been pretty successful.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): According to the criminal complaint, Project Lakhta is part of a sprawling business empire controlled by this man, Russian tycoon, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Nicknamed "Putin's chef" because of his close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin and because of his restaurant empire. Putin has denied the two men are close.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): I know him but he is not among my friends. This is misrepresenting the facts. He's a business man. He has restaurants and some other businesses but he is not a state official. We have nothing to do with him.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Prigozhin clearly has major dealings with the Russian state. A firm linked to him runs a mercenary company active in Syria that even attacked U.S.-backed forces there.

CNN also spotted the man who appears to be Prigozhin in this video from Russian state TV, a meeting between Russian officials and Sudan's president, Omar Al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for severe human rights abuses. Prigozhin's firm tried to push back on the special counsel's

indictment, arguing, like President Trump, that the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt.

On Thursday a federal judge refused to dismiss the indictment charging Prigozhin's company with having a role in Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Meantime cyber security experts say Project Lakhta's trolling efforts are expanding in the United States and elsewhere. Their message, unabashed and unapologetic, like this recent online meme planted by the group, which reads, "Remember, 90 percent of online trolls are paid professionals." -- Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Moscow.


HOWELL: Fred, thank you.

At this hour, a resupply mission is in orbit, speeding toward the International Space Station. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The launch has been initiated and we have liftoff of the NG CRS-10 mission, taking Cygnus to the ISS. We have got engines at full power and nominal attitude.

HOWELL (voice-over): And that happened at the top of this hour. The Antares rocket launched into a blaze of light from Eastern Virginia, it's carrying a cargo, spacecraft, packed with 7,400 pounds or 3,300 kilograms of supplies and experiments. It will reach the space station in two days.

Still to come here on CNN, presidential portraits: Donald Trump has been the subject of many creative images but which renderings are --


HOWELL: -- his favorites?

A survey coming up.





HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell.

The images of the U.S. president Donald Trump can be found just about anywhere in the world, including in creative oil paintings but of the presidential portraits that exists of him, which one does he like the best? Our Jeanne Moos canvasses to check out his favorites.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Portraits of the president as he likes to see himself. These are few of President Trump's favorite paintings.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's a challenge to paint.

MOOS: But not for Michael Israel. He specializes in speed painting.


MOOS: He can knock out an upside down President Trump in about seven minutes.

It was one of Israel's paintings done at a charity auction that Trump bought with a $20,000 check from his own charitable foundation.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Took money from other people and bought a six-foot portrait of Donald. I mean, who does that?

MOOS: The guy who beat Hillary making his portraits presidential.


MOOS (voice-over): This one hangs in the U.S. ambassador's residence in Switzerland. The artist, Steve Penley (ph), often shows up on FOX News with his patriotic paintings.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The cliches actually are what works, that's why they're cliches.

MOOS: If President Trump likes, if you can bet his detractors are going to mock it.

Critics suggested portraits like these replace the one at the ambassador's residence. At the other end of the artistic ideological spectrum, John McNaughton's (ph) crossing the swamp. President Trump replaces George Washington crossing the Delaware.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today, Trump endeavors to cross the swamp of Washington, D.C., as he carries the light of the truth, hope and prosperity.

MOOS: Some of the passengers, like Nikki Haley and Jeff Sessions, have jumped ship or been pushed. A critic added a roll of paper towels.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let them eat paper towels.

MOOS: And then there's "The Republican Club," hanging in the White House, spotted during a "60 Minutes" segment. All those Republican presidents looking so fit. Some have compared this to dogs playing poker, but artist Andy Thomas says President Trump called to say how much he liked it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I always try to make the presidents look as nice as I can.

MOOS: But no matter how nice a president looks, the opposition still tears him to shreds -- Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


HOWELL: Thank you for being with us this hour from Atlanta. Let's do it again. Another hour of NEWSROOM right after the break. Stay with us.