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Trump Visits California's Fire-Ravaged Communities; Full Report on Khashoggi Death Tuesday; Netanyahu Faces Calls for Early Election; Uyghurs Forced into China's State-Run Re-Education Camps. Aired 3- 3:30a ET

Aired November 18, 2018 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): As the death toll from the California wildfires continues to increase, U.S. president Donald Trump visits the disaster areas, refusing to address the question of climate change.

And the U.S. government still hasn't made a final determination as to who is responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even though the CIA has.

Plus, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu scrambles to save his government. A meeting in the next few hours with his finance minister could decide his political future.

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


VANIER: So U.S. president Donald Trump took a grim tour Saturday of the destruction caused by deadly wildfires in California. Donald Trump sidestepped questions about the role of climate change in all of this. Instead, he implied not for the first time that poor forest management was partly responsible for the disaster.

Donald Trump said his administration would work with California to make the forests safe.


TRUMP: It's devastating to see it. I have to say the government officials have done an incredible job. When you look at this devastation and I guess at this moment, there are in this area, there are three deaths so far, three deaths. It's pretty incredible and it's horrible but it's also pretty incredible that it --


VANIER: And even more bad news on Saturday. Five more remains have been recovered from fire ravaged areas, bringing the statewide death toll to 79. And more names are on a list of the missing. Almost 1,300 people are unaccounted for.

Joining me from Los Angeles is CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein.

Ron, Donald Trump was consoler in chief during his visit to California. It's not something at which he has always excelled. How did it go?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: As you point out, it's a tough enough role for him anywhere, but especially in California, where he won less than a third of the vote, where he was this unbelievably heavyweight. You saw coincidentally but revealingly that his visit coincided with the calling of the last race in Orange County against the Republicans. They'll be down to single digits in the state congressional delegation, out of 53 seats it's almost an unimaginable number.

Donald Trump is deeply unpopular in California and he has exacerbated or rubbed raw those feelings with his tweeting about this, when he threatened on the first day of the fire to cut off aid to California. So I think it's not really -- if there's anyplace in the country where he can play this role, California isn't it.

VANIER: Wow. I was going to ask you the follow up whether you thought that California is a solidly Democratic state, today they roll in this dynamic, it's the first thing that you went to.

So you think it's a different visit because it's a Democratic state?

BROWNSTEIN: I think it's a different visit because he's had such an antagonistic relationship with the state. He has used the state more as a foil. He's sued the state over sanctuary state policies. He is trying to revoke the state's ability that it's had since the 1970s to establish own rules on clean air and on low emissions.

He's trying to open drilling off the coast. The list goes on and on.

And he has threatened to revoke state aid around the forest management practices. And there is a legitimate debate about forest management practices. But the problem is that he leans entirely on that and denies what almost everyone in California sees as the other major problem we have here, which is a changing climate.

VANIER: I want to address both of those things. Let's start with forest management and as a point of reference, I want to pull up the tweet by Donald Trump, which was his first and original reaction to these forest fires, deadly.

"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now or no more Fed payments!"

Now he told California today that the state has his backing, especially as it comes to funding. So he walked that back. But as far as forest management, I think that's interesting and

probably something the international audience may not be familiar with.

Is this just egregious or is he putting his finger on an uncomfortable truth that, yes, there is more that could be done and hasn't been done to save lives?

BROWNSTEIN: There's certainly a debate in California about how aggressively the forests in fact are pruned and managed.


BROWNSTEIN: But to -- there is no one serious, I think, in California who views that as the sole or even the principle cause of the problem.

What we're talking about is fundamental changes in the climate that are extending. I live here and it feels every six months we are reporting on what has been the deadliest or most costly fire in California history. In fact, we are talking about over a thousand people still missing.

Now imagine if that was happening in the Five Boroughs of New York, what the media attention would be. This is a disaster of historical magnitude.

And it is, again, as I say, coming six months after the last disasters. And the idea that he could say this would not be happening except forest management. Again, when he refused to deal with in any way the impact of the changing climate, which is very uncomfortable for him --

VANIER: So I want to play that.

BROWNSTEIN: -- California's own authority on this, that is what rings so hollow for people in California.

VANIER: I want to play that clip. This is when Donald Trump was asked about climate change.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does this change your opinion at all on climate change, Mr. President?

TRUMP: No, no. I have a strong opinion. We have to have forests that are very safe. We can't go through this every year. We're going to have safe forests and that's happening as we speak.


VANIER: I get the safe forest argument. I do not understand the first part of the answer. "I want great climate. We're going to have great climate."

What? BROWNSTEIN: It's nonsensical. I think there is a broad sense in the U.S., not just in California, whether you're talking about the hurricanes in the Southeast or the wildfires in the West or the extreme heat in parts of the Southwest, if this was the year that climate change transitioned to something that was going to happen to something that is happening.

If you live in California and you see the intensity and the frequency of these historic fires or these 100-year floods that now seem to come every two or three years, there is an undeniable sense that this is something that is happening.

Yet the administration on every front, whether dealing with emissions from power plants or undoing the fuel economy standards or withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty, in every possible way, they have moved to undermine any serious effort to deal with. Going to the extreme of trying to undo the authority of California and states that follow it to act on their own. And that is just a glaring -- it is a position that is intellectually untenable except as something in which there are so many concerns about the climate to an all-encompassing goal of increasing domestic energy production.

VANIER: All right. Ron Brownstein, great to hear from you today, both as an analyst and as a Californian. We appreciate it. Thank you.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you for covering this, Cyril.



VANIER: The U.S. is hoping to arrive at answers soon as to who murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. President Trump says he'll be getting a full report Tuesday. This comes after sources say the CIA made an initial assessment indicating that the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered Khashoggi's murder.

The State Department says they have not drawn a final conclusion yet and they will continue to seek all relevant facts. Our Jomana Karadsheh is following developments for us from Istanbul.

Jomana, you've been looking at this from day one and there are two things that I've seen that haven't changed from day one. Number one is that Saudi Arabia has always insulated the crown prince. Number two is that the U.S. has been trading extremely carefully with respect to Saudi Arabia.

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very, very carefully, absolutely, Cyril. If you look at it right now, over the past couple of days, we've been getting mixed messages, when you have the CIA assessment so far indicating that the crown prince ordered this operation.

We're not just talking about them basing this on Turkish evidence, you know, that Turkey says it has the audio recordings it shared with several intelligence, Western European and international intel agencies and governments.

They're also basing this on U.S. intelligence, too. And also the fact that we heard from day one from several U.S. officials saying an operation like this could not have taken place without the knowledge and the blessing of the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

At the same time you look at the administration and their position. It has been clear, we're talking about something that took place nearly 50 days ago. The CIA director, Gina Haspel, was here about four weeks ago. She was briefed by Turkey.

And some are questioning, when you hear statements coming from Donald Trump yesterday, how could he have not been briefed yet by his CIA director, who was here?

How has the U.S. administration not put this report on what happened after weeks of getting this intelligence or having their own intelligence assessment?

The issue is that there's no real smoking gun kind of evidence in this case. What you have, linking the crown prince to the killing, this is all based on assessments that the CIA would put together and also this lack of willingness from the U.S. administration to push Saudi Arabia too far, as we heard from Donald Trump yesterday, describing the kingdom as "a spectacular ally."

And also every time he is asked about this, he, you know, he reminds the American people that Saudi Arabia is very important when it comes to business deals and economic ties.

So it would seem that the U.S. president and the administration are prioritizing that over holding Saudi Arabia accountable for this killing. And you know, some officials here, Cyril, feel that we've seen this sort of stalling tactic from some in Washington and Saudi Arabia, hoping that this whole case would be forgotten and the world would move on.

VANIER: And there's another interesting part in that CIA assessment. It's not wholly surprising. They assess that Mohammed bin Salman will stay in power.

KARADSHEH: Absolutely.


KARADSHEH: This is a very interesting part, as you point out, a buried lead to an extent in that report we saw. You have to look at it in two ways. Some analysts think that he is going to survive this.

If you look at the international community and their position, I think it was pretty much summed up last week during the meeting between Donald Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron, according to a French spokesperson, they discussed this killing and believe something bad happened and those behind it should be held accountable.

But at the same time, saying they don't want to destabilize Saudi Arabia, feeling that that country is the cornerstone of everything in the Middle East.

So that seems to be the position of the international community that pretty much has turned a blind eye to a lot of the human rights abuses that have been taking place. But some will tell you that it is not up to the international community whether he survives this or not but up to the Saudi royal family.

So far domestically, over the past year, this is a young crown prince who has been consolidating power and locked up opposition and anyone that tries to speak out. So it's going to be very hard to see how he will not survive this at this stage. But, again, we'll have to wait and see what happens.

VANIER: Absolutely. Any damage from this arising for the crown prince's grip on power appears to have been contained at this stage. Jomana Karadsheh, reporting live from Istanbul, always appreciate it. Thank you.

Israel's prime minister is fighting to avoid an early election. We'll have the latest on the cabinet crisis live from Jerusalem, right after this. Don't miss it.




VANIER: Time could be running out for the government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His coalition is collapsing in the wake of the latest Gaza cease-fire.

The defense minister resigned and there are calls now for an early election. A source tells CNN a date for a snap vote could be decided soon and we're expecting to hear shortly from prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. He's supposed to be meeting with his finance minister in a last-ditch effort to save the government. CNN's Oren Liebermann is live in Jerusalem.

Oren, at this stage, can Netanyahu still save his government?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is certainly a chance. He's to make a statement shortly, that's the weekly cabinet meeting statement. But the meeting with his finance minister has been postponed to later on this evening. So it looks like we won't get a decision until later on.

It was the finance minister who was the first to call for early elections after the defense minister resigned on Thursday. A couple of hours later, the interior minister said let's go to early elections. As you point out, a source close to the education minister set a date for early elections would be set on Sunday.

Meanwhile, prime minister --

[03:20:00] LIEBERMANN: -- Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have shifted tack, saying no one should topple a right wing government and he'll make every effort to hold it together. But it seems like that windows is closing. There are a few critical hours ahead. We'll see how he can maneuver and what options he has.

At this point, elections are still likely, perhaps even very likely. But Netanyahu does have a chance to save his coalition, at least for a little while longer.

VANIER: Let me consider that scenario for a second.

If there is a new election, if there were a new election, would he have enough support to stay in power?

LIEBERMANN: All of the polling in the last few months and probably the last year, has showing Netanyahu's Likud Party not only holding on to its seats but even growing. That's as he faces multiple criminal investigation which it seems have only made him more popular.

All of the polling has shown he comes out the biggest party in the next elections and has the support to form a coalition. But members of his coalition have said, look, it's not a question of who the next prime minister is, it is Netanyahu.

The question, what coalition does he choose?

Does he choose the same right wing coalition, a unity government?

He will have or expected to have all of the seats to have all of the options when that election comes around. It will be interesting, Cyril, to watch how the polling goes. He is now under attack from the Right for last week's cease-fire between Israel and Gaza. That could damage him.

There are also a number of wild cards that could come in here, the Trump administration's peace plan, if that comes out; a couple of new parties that could shake it up. But the smart money remains on Benjamin Netanyahu to take the next election, just like he has the last few.

VANIER: What is the thinking on how this could impact Israel's attitude towards Hamas?

As you mentioned yourself, just over the last few days, we saw the worst flare-up between Israel and Gaza that we've seen since 2014.

LIEBERMANN: It's a tough question to answer. There's plenty of speculation and analysts weighing in. We know the Egyptians are still trying to work out some sort of broad cease-fire and a longer-term agreement between Israel and Hamas. That's in the background to all of this.

But Netanyahu is under pressure. If there's another escalation like that, he will be under pressure for a harsher response against Hamas, which means all of that could fall apart. That, despite the fact that it is the security administration, the security apparatus that was in favor of that cease-fire. It will be a very difficult time for Netanyahu if there's another escalation like we saw so recently.

VANIER: Oren Liebermann live from Jerusalem, thank you.

The APEC Summit in Papua New Guinea has ended with no joint communique. The country's foreign minister tells Reuters that conflicting visions for the region got in the way. The prime minister says a formal statement will be released at a later date.

China and the United States have been trading barbs and pointing fingers at this meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation.

China's President Xi stressed the need to uphold multilateral free trade. He said history shows there are no winners in cold wars, hot wars or trade wars. That was clearly pointed at the U.S.

Meanwhile, the American vice president Mike Pence announced development of a naval base on Papua New Guinea and on trade he said the days of China taking advantage of the U.S. are over.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: China has an honored place in our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. If it chooses to respect its neighbors' sovereignty, embrace free, fair and reciprocal trade, uphold human rights and freedom, the American people want nothing more. The Chinese people and the entire Indo-Pacific deserve nothing less.


VANIER: Members of a Chinese minority group say their family members are vanishing without a trace. A U.S. report estimates that 1 million Uyghurs, who are mainly Muslim, are being held in so-called re- education camps run by the Chinese government. CNN's Ivan Watson spoke to Uyghurs living abroad who are terrified for their missing relatives.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Everyday, Gulchehra Hoja steps up to the microphone and speaks to her homeland. Hoja is a journalist with U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C. She broadcasts in Uyghur, the language of an ethnic Muslim minority from the Western Xinjiang region of China. These days, Hoja lives in fear for her family back home.

GULCHEHRA HOJA, JOURNALIST, RADIO FREE ASIA: So, this is my brother. This is my last picture with him. We don't know where he is now. My cousins, father's side and the mother's side. They're missing same day.

WATSON: Hoja says, at least, 23 of her relatives went missing on February 1st, 2018. [03:25:00] WATSON (voice-over): She hasn't heard from any of them since. Six Uyghur employees of Radio Free Asia, say their relatives back in Xinjiang have disappeared in the last year.

MAMATJAN JUMA, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, RADIO FREE ASIA: Three of my brothers and two of my sisters are missing, I lost contact with my mom.

HOJA: Those region, all have camps.

WATSON: All feared detained in a shadowy network of Chinese prisons. Reports of the mass incarceration of up to a million Uyghurs, the subject of inquiry at a recent United Nations Human Rights panel in Geneva.

TAMARA MAWHINNEY, DEPUTY PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE TO THE UNITED NATIONS: We are deeply concerned by credible reports of the mass detention, repression and surveillance of Uyghurs and other Muslims and Xinjiang.

WATSON: After initially denying the existence of prison camps, Beijing now says it is sending an unspecified number of people for vocational training free of charge to combat the spread of terrorism. And adds that they are free to leave when they complete their courses.

This recent report narrated by Chinese state T.V. highlights one of these training centers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Most of the students are not proficient in Chinese. They are easily instigated and coerced by terrorist and extremist ideologies.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): If I had not come here to study, maybe I ought to follow those religious extremists and walked down the path of crime.

WATSON: Uyghurs outside of China express alarm at the number of people who are disappearing.

SEAN ROBERTS, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Virtually, every Uyghur I've spoken to in the last year and a half has family members who've been detained in these camps. This is a social engineering project that has very little precedent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The focus will be on building economic corridors based on existing international transport routes.

WATSON: The Chinese government wants to make Xinjiang an important international hub for its ambitious Belt and Road initiative. But Beijing has struggled to assimilate Xinjiang's indigenous Uyghurs.

HOJA: You cannot just force people to love you or accept you.

WATSON: In Washington, Gulchehra Hoja, says her 74-year-old mother described harsh prison-like conditions when she was detained last February.

HOJA: As my mother described, they mistreated people, they torture.

WATSON: After months under house arrest, Hoja says her mother's phone went completely silent last month. She fears she is once again in detention. With no word from her loved ones, Hoja is far from home, giving a voice to the voiceless -- Ivan Watson, CNN, Hong Kong.


VANIER: And that does it for CNN NEWSROOM this hour. We'll be back with the headlines in a moment. Don't miss those. Stay with CNN.