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Aired December 14, 2018 - 01:00   ET


[01:00:00] GEORGE HOWELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Live from CNN world headquarters in Atlanta, we want to welcome our viewers all over the world. I'm George Howell. The CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.

Around the world the day to you we start with an escalating diplomatic dispute between China, the United States, and Canada. China now saying to Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are both under investigation. They are reportedly being detained on suspicion of activities that endangered China's national security. Experts warned that this could be retaliation for the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhouo. Canada arrested her earlier this month on behalf of the United States.

Let's go live to Hong Kong for this story. CNN's Will Ripley followed the details. And Will, what more are you hearing from Chinese officials and Canadian authorities about the detention of these two men?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, China and Canada are viewing this situation very differently. Canada was -- Canada was requested by the United States to arrest Meng Wanzhouo, the high profile CFO of Huawei, one of the pillars of the Chinese economy. Meng Wanzhouo is a big name in China similar to Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg in the U.S. and so for the Chinese, this move is infuriating, humiliating. They feel that Meng Wanzhouo was being used as a political pawn. The United States playing dirty in the trade war and they are demanding her immediate release and returned back home to China.

However, the Canadians see it differently. They say that because they're just simply fulfilling their treaty obligations with the United States to go through the judicial process and extradite Men, to the United States where she could face up to 30 years in prison on charges of evading Iran sanctions. They are really caught in the middle here. China threatening that if they don't get their way, there will be grave consequences.

And then, of course, just a week and a half after this arrest, you now have two Canadians taken into custody. And while we don't know for sure if this is retaliation, clearly, George, the timing is highly suspicious.

HOWELL: It is suspicious as the Chinese would have said about the arrest, the detainment of Meng Wanzhouo. Can you tell us though more about the background of these two men?

RIPLEY: Yes, they are both pretty well known in China. Michel Kovrig is a former diplomat. He works with an NGO that specializes in crisis management as the International Crisis Group but he's very well- connected politically in Beijing, has been considered really to be quite friendly towards the Beijing government.

So these charges coming as a big surprise to many people who know and work with him. Michael Spavor is a businessman. He travels back and forth very regularly to North Korea. He brings investors over there to -- you know, potential investors to meet with officials in North Korea. That country is always looking for a possible economic cooperation and investment despite international sanctions and whatnots.

Spavor actually orchestrated the visit by Dennis Rodman to North Korea where he met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. And you've seen pictures of Spavor and Kim Jong-un and Rodman out in the press. And so again, you know, two men, two Canadians that were not believed to be involved in any illicit activity but China now saying that they were involved in activities that endanger the national security of China, potentially very serious charges.

What we don't know are these arrests connected. They obviously happen on the exact same day, and what exactly activities is China alleging that these men are involved in and what is the link to the Huawei situation. Those are all questions that are still unanswered at this point.

HOWELL: All right, so will we have individuals who have been arrested, detained, and the backdrop the trade tensions that continue between these countries. Where do things stand as of now?

RIPLEY: Well, it's -- obviously the discussions between the U.S. and China on trade are ongoing and should be theoretically separate from this issue. However, President Trump made things a whole lot more difficult for the Canadians and frankly a lot easier for Meng Wanzhouo attorneys. When he told Reuters a few days ago that he would intervene potentially, that he might step in and help her out if it meant a more favorable trade deal for the United States.

That makes it very easy for China to argue that this is a politically motivated case which also makes the extradition process to the United States much more complicated and difficult for the Canadians who immediately jumped in and said to President Trump don't confuse politics with our extradition treaty. They're two totally separate issues. But from the Chinese viewpoint, they think that the United States is using Meng Wanzhouo and Huawei as a pawn.

In state media, in China, she's been called a political kidnapping victim. And they feel that her right, her human rights have been violated as a result of this. That's frankly a bit ironic for China to say that given their own abysmal human rights record. But nonetheless, it's a -- it's a big battle that's brewing, Canada caught right in the middle between its two largest trading partners tugging at this much smaller less powerful country demanding that they each get their own way.

[01:05:05] HOWELL: It is a curious situation here. Will Ripley, following the details for us, live for us in Hong Kong. Thanks for the reporting, Will. Moving on, now to the United Kingdom and the issue of Brexit. The British Prime Minister's spending a second day in Brussels hoping the European Union will help to bail out her Brexit deal. E.U. leaders on Thursday showed some sympathy for Theresa May one day after she survived the confidence vote triggered by her own party. But they seemed confused, bewildered over what she wanted them to say or do. Listen.


JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER, PRESIDENT, EUROPEAN COMMISSION (through translator): If we go into negotiations on the future relationship, we need to have a well-constructed proposal and cogent ideas for my British partners and France. And then we'll look at that.

I do find it uncomfortable that there is an expression perhaps in the U.K. that it's for the E.U. to propose solutions. It is the U.K. leaving the E.U. and I would have thought it was up to the British government to tell us exactly what they want.


HOWELL: CNN's European Affairs Commentator Dominic Thomas joins us this hour from Los Angeles. Dominic, a pleasure to have you.


HOWELL: What are the chances that the E.U. will help Theresa May out are given that they've made it very quite clear, very crystal clear that this is the last deal this is the only deal and there's no room for renegotiation.

THOMAS: Right. Well, at this point there's a sort of a game of tennis taking place you know over the channel where Theresa May keeps going back and forth. And what the European Union is saying to her the problem is not with us. Secondly, the European Union is concerned that the -- that the dynamic will shift in such a way that they will be blamed for any kind of failure and they've got their own problems they want to deal with.

What's so extraordinary is that Theresa May keeps going to Europe to try and sweeten the deal but the real issue she faces are back at home where she is not sufficiently consulting and with the various constituencies who while she is away all conspiring to either overthrow her or to come up with a variation of the deal. And ultimately the European Union has set a red line when it comes to Northern Ireland that they do not want to compromise the question of the border over the deal. And the same red line is the one that she faces back in the United Kingdom.

But beyond that, the Labour Party and other and other parties are more interested in seeing her PM-ship come to an end, HOWELL: You talk about that red line, the border between Northern

Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, this backstop arrangement that really doesn't seem to have any easy solution to it, Dominic. Can the E.U. offer any degree of clarity that could help the British Prime Minister to push this through Parliament?

THOMAS: Ultimately the answer to that is no. It's very simple. The E.U. -- the U.K. wants to leave the European Union. If you remain in the European Union, you solve the border problem. If you remain in the customs union and the single market, you can potentially solve the border problem. And if Northern Ireland joins up with the Republic of Ireland and becomes a united country, that would also solve the problem. That's probably the most unlikely scenario.

But ultimately if you leave the European Union, the European Union is absolutely determined to not compromise the integrity of its borders, of its customs union, and of the single market. And if that's what you want to do without signing up and going along with that, then that border is going to come up between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

And so that's just one of the issues and that she faces. But I still think that we've gone beyond that particular issue right now and that there are far greater issues that she faces both within her party where a 117 people voted just the other day and of no confidence and the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party in the Liberal Democrats that want some kind of path to a general election which they believe they are going to do well in .

HOWELL: OK. Let's push just a bit further into a British politics. Given where we are right now, the British Prime Minister surviving this vote of no confidence and Brexit still inching along though still quite unpopular. Does it give rise to the possibility of other options like of course No Deal? Does it raise the possibility somewhere down the line of a second referendum?

THOMAS: Yes. Well, there's all these are possibilities and nobody really knows where this could go. If there was a referendum, George, the question would be what would the question of the referendum be. Would it be, shall we remain or leave the European Union? Do we accept Theresa May's deal or no deal and there are all kinds of options along those line? Do we revoke article 50 or not? So a lot of unpredictability there.

And there is, of course, a possibility in two kinds of directions that yes she survived and the no-confidence vote in her party that was in a way the easiest one to trigger because it only required 15 percent of conservative MPs to push for that and then a straight up-and-down vote within the party. She survived that. She was weakened but she survived that. But Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the opposition could also and put down and request a motion of no-confidence.

[01:10:17] Calling for a general election is more complicated. He'd need two-thirds of the vote but he could table a motion of no- confidence and for that, it could be a straight up and down vote. And if you win by one, you force a general election. The one thing to remember here is that the hardcore Brexiters, their whole reason for living is to make sure that the Brexit deal goes ahead. And secondly, they wanted to go ahead on their terms.

They have nothing to lose in fighting and in disrupting. They've been doing this for years in European politics one could argue and British politics. The question will be at what point does Theresa May -- it would seemed inconceivable for her to let this go all the way to another meaningful vote on the 21st of January is what is she going to do between now and then. Is she going to reach out to those that are looking for either a softer Brexit and so on or are we going to be faced with more potential disruption as we head into the holidays.

But you're absolutely right, if nothing happens at the end of March the U.K. will end up leaving the European Union and there doesn't seem to be much appetite for a no deal.

HOWELL: Dominic Thomas, we appreciate your time joining us from Los Angeles. Thank you.

THOMAS: Thanks, George.

HOWELL: Now to France. The gunman who carried out the shooting attack at a Christmas market is dead. French prosecutors say police killed the 29-year-old Cherif Chekatt after a two-day manhunt. Our Senior International Correspondent Ben Wedeman has this report for you.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The manhunt went on for more than 48 hours but finally at 9:00 p.m. local time, French police were able to neutralize or kill Cherif Chekatt, the man who killed three people and wounded more than a dozen others in Strasbourg's Christmas market two days ago.

Christophe Castaner, the French Interior Minister said that it happened as follows. Three members of French security forces came across a man they suspected was Cherif Chekatt. They tried to question him. However, Chekatt fired at them. They returned fire and killed him.

It comes -- brings to an end of manhunt involving hundreds of security forces not just in France but also the security forces of Germany and Switzerland as well. This was a man who had a very long criminal record. Despite being only 29 years old, he had 27 convictions mostly relating to violence and theft going back to the age of 13.

French police believe however it was during the time that he served in prisons in France, Germany, and Switzerland that he was radicalized. I'm Ben Wedeman, CNN, reporting from Paris.

HOWELL: Next here on NEWSROOM. A devastating tragedy for a migrant family hoping to start a new life in the United States. We'll have the details on that story ahead for you. Also, it's been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the entire world. Why a loose ceasefire in Yemen may or may not make a difference. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[01:15:00] HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM I'm George Howell. A Guatemalan girl died in while she was in the custody of U.S. Border Protection. The seven-year-old girl and her father were detained last week in New Mexico for illegally crossing into the United States. She was in custody for eight hours when it was found that she had an extremely high fever and was flown to hospital.

The Washington Post reports she had no food or water for several days. But border patrol says food and water is typically provided to migrants in custody. There are a lot of questions in this tragedy and to talk more about it let's bring in Peter Simonson. Peter is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico joining this hour from Albuquerque.

Peter, first of all the ACLU has pointed out this took a week before it came to light to learn about this tragedy of the seven-year-old girl, how she died in CBP custody. What are your initial thoughts?

PETER SIMONSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ACLU, NEW MEXICO: Well, I have a lot of thoughts. I think the first and foremost one is that this is yet another tragedy in this administration's war on poor immigrant families. And like the tragedies that we've seen before, this one also befalls a child.

It's an unspeakable tragedy to try and imagine what that young girl must have suffered through before she ultimately perished. It's just that -- there's the imagination. And you know, we're going to do everything we can as an organization to get to the bottom of it, call upon authorities to conduct the full and transparent investigation. But you know, we're huge challenges these days in the realm of immigration and this is just one symptom of it.

HOWELL: The ACLU is quoted in that report again by the Post reportedly blaming lack of accountability and a culture of cruelty within CBP's culture for the girl's death. And they're demanding more transparency given that again it took a week for this to come to light. Do you see the need for serious reforms here?

SIMONSON: We have long needed reforms of the Border Patrol and CBP generally. This is an agency that is the largest armed force in U.S. territory short of only the military. It operates with virtual impunity. It does not count with the same kinds of accountability mechanisms that you see in many of our municipal police these days. It's refused to use implement the use of body-worn cameras, its use of force policies and policies for systems systematically investigating use of force incidents are deficient. It doesn't have any sort of civilian oversight apparatus.

So for a very long time, we've known that this is an agency that suffered from a lack of accountability and under this administration's reign it's only gotten that much worse.

HOWELL: A lot of questions here for sure. Customs and Border Protection is expressing condolence to the family of this seven-year- old girl saying that agents took every possible step to save her life. CBP says it routinely provides food and water. But clearly, in this case, something fell short, something didn't happen while she was in their custody for several hours.

SIMONSON: Yes. And you know, there's a lot that we don't know right now. And so I'm a little hesitant to sort of leap to conclusions but I do have to say that you know, we've heard any number of reports about the short-term custody facilities that Border Patrol uses, concrete cells that are cold, that people are denied food and water for long periods of time, denied medical care. They're very harsh conditions often times. And to hold a child in those conditions, it just makes no sense.

[01:20:05] And sooner or later you just have to wonder if an incident like this is going to occur, we need rigorous oversight of this agency. As I said we've long needed that. We not -- we need it now more than ever. And while we hear so much debate right now about the need for further enforcement on our border, the reality is what we really need is not more resources, we need more oversight. We need more accountability.

We have so many border personnel stationed on our southwest border right now that if you line them up evenly across the entire span of the southwest border, they would be in eyesight of one another. We should be talking about ways that we ensure that this agency does its job in a -- in a professional and constitutional way. And right now we have none of those guarantees. This is just one example of that.

HOWELL: When you talk about the conditions, it raises the questions about how CBP is able to adequately accommodate families that they arrest. Again, so, we're seeing more of these families that are crossing the border from the -- from Mexico into the United States and courts -- of course limiting their abilities to keep families with children in detention. Even hearing from CBP's Commissioner who testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the holding cells there, that they're incompatible with the new realities of parents with children. What more needs to be done a given what we're seeing, the change that we're seeing at the border?

SIMONSON: Well, I mean, you know, where it concerns the way we treat these families, we have to ensure that they're given a fair opportunity to apply for asylum, that they aren't treated like criminals out of the gate. These are people that are coming to our -- to our border fleeing unspeakable violence in many instances. Violence that we most of us Americans just simply can't imagine. They need to be treated like what they actually are which is people seeking asylum. And that means given a proper nutrition, proper access to water, medical care, sleeping conditions that are you know, that would accommodate children.

You know -- and I think the real backstory here is we don't know if CBP if this death resulted from CBP's negligence, but it almost certainly is the consequence of these harsh border policies that this administration has implemented that deny asylum to deserving poor immigrant families and force these families to seek access to our country through some of the harshest most dangerous parts of the border.

HOWELL: Peter Simonson, again, thank you for taking time to give us your thoughts and insight into this case. Again, a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in the hands of CBP custody. We'll continue to follow the story.

Now to tell you about a milestone, a major milestone in the war in Yemen, a ceasefire in the rebel-held city of Port of Hodeidah. This came in the form of a handshake that you see playing out right here. It's between Yemen's internationally recognized government supported by Saudi Arabia and the Iranian back Houthi rebels. It will open up humanitarian corridors so that people can move to safe areas and also to establish prisoner exchanges.

So why is the port city of Hodeidah so important? My colleagues Cyril Vanier has this look for you.


CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, if you want to understand why Hodeidah matters, look no further than this right here. The Ports of Hodeidah, you see almost everything in Yemen is imported whether it's food, fuel, medicine, humanitarian aid, everything that people need in the country. 70 percent of the country's imports actually arrived through Hodeidah. That means approximately ten million people depend on her data for things like bread or rice.

So millions may live or die based on what happens there. Yemen is already the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. What does that mean? It means that pictures like this. Scenes like this one have become commonplace. A child dies of preventable causes every ten minutes according to the United Nations. Right now, eight million people don't know where their next meal is coming from.

Let's look at the map. The red areas are the parts controlled by the Houthis. A couple of years ago, they came down from their northern mountain hideouts. They took the capital. They took the second largest city in the country. In blue is the part of the country controlled by this -- the Yemeni government backed by the Saudi-led coalition.

Now they control the airspace which has been crucial in this war and all the coastline but they wanted Hodeidah because it is so strategic. And that's why Thursday's handshake is considered a potential breakthrough. You have the two warring parties, the Yemeni foreign minister and a representative for the Houthi rebels were shaking hands giving diplomacy a real chance for once.

What did they actually agree to? Well, first of all, that the fighting has to stop across the district of Hodeidah. And they've got three weeks to do this and to move troops out of the ports and the city over to the outskirts. Also, the U.N. will increase its presence at the ports for supervision.

So how optimistic should we be in light of this new agreement? Well, a few hours ago Becky Anderson spoke to the Yemeni foreign minister. Here's what he said.


[01:25:38] KHALED AL-YAMANI, FOREIGN MINISTER, YEMEN: Hodeidah for the first time will see peace, will see tranquility, and will see a flourishing environment when the U.N. monitoring process will take place.


VANIER: Officially the minister is optimistic and that's a good thing. But everything we know about this war should give us pause. You see these are -- we just saw the troops that are in or around Hodeidah ready to fight. If they don't leave very soon or if there is renewed fighting, then it might mean that we are back to square one. Back to you.

HOWELL: Cyril Vanier, thank you. In Washington D.C. on Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed two measures against Saudi Arabia. While this deals at least a symbolic blow to the kingdom and the White House, it is by no means a done deal. Our Manu Raju has this report from Capitol Hill.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The United States Senate delivering a major rebuke to Saudi Arabia and the White House over the Jamal Khashoggi murder that allegedly came at the ordering of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia as well as the war effort that's occurring in Yemen.

First, the United States Senate voting to pull back U.S. support for the war in Yemen. A bipartisan vote pushing this measure forward. And then overwhelmingly, essentially a unanimous, a voice vote in the United States Senate saying that they condemned the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his role in the Khashoggi murder and saying that they will not stand for it, the United States Senate will not stand for it going forward.

But there are questions about whether or not it will go for beyond the United States Senate. The House Republicans, the leadership has not made a commitment to move forward on the resolution condemning the Crown Prince as well as they've taken steps to block that Yemen resolution from going forward because they are siding with the Trump administration and saying they do not believe it should pass. They've taken steps to deny a vote on that effort.

But nevertheless, for the first time that Congress has spoken at least partially with some voice the United States Senate delivering a rebuke to the kingdom as well as to the White House in saying that things need to change. Now, the questions will they change and the questions will the President be confronted at least with a resolution saying that they need to blame the Crown Prince for this action or will he decide to veto it if it does come to his desk as soon as next week. Manu Raju, CNN Capitol Hill.

HOWELL: Manu, thank you. Still ahead here on NEWSROOM. Donald Trump breaks his silence about the sentencing of his former attorney, what the U.S. President said about accusations that Michael Cohen broke the law at his direction.


GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our viewers all over the world. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM, live from Atlanta.

I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you this hour.

A second Canadian is in Chinese custody in a potential possible act of political retribution. Beijing saying Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are suspected of endangering China's national security. This comes after Canada arrested a Chinese Huawei executive on behalf of the United States.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is in Brussels. She's meeting with leaders there on Brexit, hoping to seek reassurances on some aspects of the deal which she negotiated. Parts of the Brexit plan are quite unpopular in the U.K. parliament as May was forced to cancel a vote on Tuesday that she would have likely lost.

In France police have shot and killed the 29-year-old Cherif Chekatt, the gunman in Tuesday's Christmas market attack that left at least three people dead and more than a dozen people wounded. Police say Chekatt opened fire on officers as they approached to question him on Thursday, then they returned fire killing him.

The U.S. President Donald Trump's inaugural committee is being investigated now for possible financial abuses. A source telling CNN that federal prosecutors are investigating whether the committee misspent some of the donations that it raised for the 2017 inauguration. The story first reported by the "Wall Street Journal".

According to the paper, officials are also looking into whether donors gave money to gain access to the administration -- a pay for play as you could call it. The committee has denied any wrongdoing.

The probe into the inauguration originated from another investigation, the federal probe of the former Trump attorney, Michael Cohen. On Thursday, the U.S. President tried to distance himself from the actions of his long-time attorney and fixer but as my colleague Jim Acosta reports, Mr. Trump was likely more involved than he suggests.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, CNN has confirmed President Trump attended an August 2015 meeting where the then candidate along with his former attorney Michael Cohen, and the publisher of the National Enquirer David Pecker discussed ways to downplay stories about the GOP contender's relationships with women that could damage the campaign.

Still, earlier in the day, the President maintained he wasn't aware of any kind of financial arrangement he had made with the tabloid.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have to go check. I don't think they even made any payment for that tabloid, ok. I don't think we made a payment to that tabloid. I was asking the question. I don't think we made a payment.

ACOSTA: In an interview with Fox, the President claimed federal prosecutors in New York were out to embarrass him by forcing Cohen to administration he paid hush money to a porn star and a Playboy Playmate to cover Mr. Trump's affairs just before the 2016 election.

TRUMP: Because what he did was all unrelated to me except for the two campaign finance charges that are not criminal and shouldn't have been on there. They put that on to embarrass me. They put those two charges on to embarrass me. They're not criminal charges.

ACOSTA: But that's not true as the payments Cohen said Mr. Trump directed him to make were found to be crimes. Even the parent company of the "National Enquirer" admitted in the case that it was also part of the hush money scheme.

The President seemed to have an answer for all of that as well insisting it was Cohen's job not to break the law.

TRUMP: Let me tell you, I never directed him to do anything wrong. Whatever he did, he did on his own. He's a lawyer, a lawyer who represents a client, who's supposed to do the right thing. That's why you pay them a lot of money --

ACOSTA: Yet, even as the President said he relied on Cohen to stay out of hot water, he mocked his former fixer's legal skills.

TRUMP: He did very low-level work.

HARRIS FAULKNER, FOX NEWS HOST: Why did you need him?

TRUMP: He did more public relations than he did law. But he did -- you see him on television. He was ok on television.

ACOSTA: The President tends to downplay the roles of his former aides who find themselves in legal jeopardy. Consider what he tweeted his now convicted foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. Few people knew the young low-level volunteer named George who has already proven to be a liar.

And don't forget how the President referred to his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, now a convicted felon.

TRUMP: You know, Paul Manafort worked for me for a very short period of time.

ACOSTA: But the President is defending his former national security adviser Michael Flynn who's asking for now prison time in his legal saga.

[01:35:02] TRUMP: They took a general that they said didn't lie and they convinced him he did lie and he makes some kind of a deal. And now they're recommending no time. ACOSTA: But that's not exactly true. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying

to federal investigators about his contacts with the Russians during the transition period in late 2016. Yet the President repeated that claim later in the day.

TRUMP: Well, the FBI said Michael Flynn, a general, and a great person -- they said he didn't lie. And Mueller said, well, maybe he did. And now they're all having a big dispute.

ACOSTA: The President was spreading other falsehoods away from the Russia investigation claiming once again that Mexico will somehow pay for a border wall, tweeting, "I often stated one way or the other Mexico is going to pay for the wall. This has never changed. Our new deal with Mexico and Canada is so much better than the old, very costly and anti-U.S.A. NAFTA deal that just by the money we save, Mexico is paying for the wall."

Democrats are say hold on.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: What money is he talking about that's going to go pay for the wall. It just doesn't -- it just doesn't measure up.

ACOSTA (on camera): The President also claimed that he's making progress in a search for a new White House chief of staff telling reporters that he's down to five candidates. A source close to the White House tells CNN the outgoing chief of staff John Kelly is confiding to friends he's relieved to be leaving that post.

Jim Acosta, CNN -- the White House.


HOWELL: Joining now to talk more about this is Olivia Nuzzi. Olivia, who is the Washington correspondent for "New York Magazine", joining us this hour in Washington, D.C. Thank you again for your time.

OLIVIA NUZZI, Washington CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK MAGAZINE": Thank you for having me.

HOWELL: Let's start with what we've learned. A source telling CNN that the President's 2017 inaugural committee is being investigated by federal prosecutors in New York for possible financial abuses related to more $100 million in donations raised for his inauguration. Politically, how big of a deal is this for the Trump White House?

NUZZI: Well, I think the issue for the Trump White House is that this is just never ending. It seems like every week basically since he took office, there is some sort of legal issue plaguing this White House. And I think that they thought that this investigation would have come to a close months ago.

At one point Rudy Giuliani, the President's attorney was out there speculating about that. And that did not happen. And it's just this constant drip, drip that is a big problem, especially going into 2020. So politically I think that is what the biggest issue is. When will this end? What will the result be? And how many more things like this where you have new investigations and new facets of the Mueller investigation emerging that we did not know about previously or were unconfirmed recently -- unconfirmed previously going into 2020.

HOWELL: You talk about new investigations and drip, drip, drip. Does this broaden the net of people who could be asked some serious questions?

NUZZI: Oh, certainly. I mean you saw in that "Wall Street Journal" story initially and that CNN since had confirmed. There are new names being mentioned in regards to the investigation like Stephanie Winston Wolkoff who was an aide to Melania Trump, the first lady and who was an executive in the inaugural committee. She was one allegedly on a recorded tape that was found in Michael Cohen's raid.

And remember, very recently the President was condemning the Mueller probe, condemning this investigations into him, into his associates saying that the raid of Mr. Cohen's offices was a violation somehow.

And now, of course, we have the President out there defending -- or coming out against Michael Cohen, saying that he was a bad lawyer as he said for a couple of weeks or months now and saying that he didn't direct him to do anything wrong. That Michael Cohen should have known better and he had nothing to do with this which is, of course, a pretty shaky argument to be making as president of the United States.

HOWELL: You bring that up. It is interesting though to see the President, you know, when people are either caught in the cross hairs of an investigation or caught in the spotlight of a bad news story the President seems to dismiss this account there -- a connection to him, saying that they were a paper boy, or water boy --

NUZZI: Right.

Copy boy --

HOWELL: Copy boy. Yes.


NUZZI: Right. Water boy. Water boy would be a new one.

HOWELL: Well, can the President walk away from this, whether it's the water boy, copy boy or whatever the case. Is he able to get away from these things because again, he was very closely tied to Michael Cohen.

NUZZI: Right.

I mean Michael Cohen worked for the President for over ten years at the Trump Organization, they were very close. Of course, during the campaign, he was not just a lawyer but he was a spokesperson. He had a very famous moment this network on CNN during one show talking, defending the President, defending his poll numbers, getting into a fight with an anchor. [01:39:54] He threatened the reporter at a publication that I worked for during the campaign, "The Daily Beast" in a very colorful way that I don't believe I can repeat on television.

He was very active in the campaign as a spokesperson. And, of course, he was representing the President as an attorney. So it's ridiculous to suggest that he was not a very close aide, that he was not considered a trusted adviser.

But the President has a history of doing this. Anytime anybody in his orbit is in any sort of trouble that might reflect negatively on him, he just is dismissive and has this sort of ludicrous explanations for what their connection really was.

HOWELL: The last question that I have for you this day is that age- old question. What did he know? When did he know it?

NUZZI: Right.

HOWELL: And why not just tell it straight? We know that the President despite what he said in the past, that he was in the room during an August, 2015 meeting with his attorney Michael Cohen and David Pecker. David Pecker the head of the company that owns the "National Enquirer". This is about hush money payments.

Mr. Trump insists no crimes were committed. He even questioned whether a payment was made during an interview on Fox News. But prosecutors say it is a felony criminal matter and again, the President implicated here.

NUZZI: Well, I think that explains why not just say it the way that it is? Why not just tell it straight?

It's a very serious issue. It's a very sticky issue. And it's this sort of intersection of a serious legal issue where the President may have done something wrong, may have been involved in the situation in which he could be in legal jeopardy.

Certainly people close to him who he was working with are in legal jeopardy as we see with Michael Cohen who was just sentenced to three years.

And it's also an intersection with his personal life. It is a very serious story with implications for his marriage, implications for his relationship going back years and years. And I think it is a very difficult predicament for him to be in.

And it's almost, it seems like it's an impossible thing for him to talk about without incriminating himself not just in his presidency, not just how he won the election but also as a human being and in his relationships. Even if that sounds silly or besides the point I think that might be factoring into how he's thinking about this.

HOWELL: Olivia Nuzzi, we appreciate your time today. Thank you.

NUZZI: Thank you. HOWELL: And in another closely-watched case, a woman accused of being a Russian spy appeared in a U.S. federal court. The 30-year-old gun lover admits she tried to infiltrate Republican political circles.

Our Sara Murray has this report.


SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Russian national Maria Butina admitting she conspired to act as an illegal foreign agent as she pleaded guilty in D.C. federal court today.

A.J. KRAMER, D.C. FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER: She was satisfied with her lawyers and made the decision voluntarily.

MURRAY: Wearing a green prison jumpsuit and a tattered undershirt beneath it, Butina spoke clearly with a Russian accent as she entered her please. Butina admitted she acted at the direction of a Russian official who CNN has identified as former Russian banker Alexander Torshin while attending American University and failed to notify the U.S. government.

As she cooperates with investigators, Butina is providing information about how her boyfriend, Republican operative Paul Erickson, aided her activities in the U.S. and telling investigators about her contacts with Russians.

The plea agreement reveals Erickson involvement in Butina's ploy was more extensive than previously known. Butina kicked off her plan around March of 2015 working closely with Erickson on a plot called The Diplomacy Project.

According to her plea, Butina's plot to build relationships with politically intellectual Americans and advance Russian interests included attending National Rifle Association meetings and organizing a Russian delegation to attend a 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in D.C.

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

MURRAY: According to the plea, she proposed getting 125,000 dollars from a Russian billionaire to attend conferences and arrange other meetings. At one 2015 political event she asked Donald Trump about his views on Russia position.

MARIA BUTINA, ALLEGED RUSSIAN SPY: If you be elected as a president, what will be your foreign politics especially in the relationship with my country?

TRUMP: I believe I would get along VERY nicely with Putin. Ok.

MURRAY: That same year she invited an NRA delegation to Moscow to build closer ties. Afterwards she sent Torshin a message saying "We should let them express their gratitude now. We will put pressure on them quietly later." Butina also attended the NRA 2015 annual meeting, meeting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Soon after announced his bid for president with Butina in the audience.

At the 2016 NRA meeting Butina and Erickson tried to lay the ground work for a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their efforts fell short.

Erickson's role in aiding Butina has been a focus of the investigation. But so far, he has not been charged with any crimes.

MURRAY (on camera): Now, the Russian government had previously claimed that Butina was being tortured while she was in custody So there was a vibrant back and forth about the state of her mental health in court today. At one point her lawyer said she is doing well mentally and even though she's in solitary confinement, she's allowed out for a couple of hours in the night and also now allowed visit with a Russian Orthodox minister.

[01:45:04] Back to you -- guys.


HOWELL: Sarah Murray -- thank you.

Next here on CNN NEWSROOM -- ten delegates from hundreds of countries agreed to make the hard decisions needed to curb global warming. We will look into that ahead.


HOWELL: 1.5 degrees. Let's turn to those crucial climate talks that are taking place in Poland. Many scientists agree that if the earth's temperature rises more than 1.5 degrees, then it could produce disastrous environmental results.

Delegates from nearly 200 countries at the COP 24 summit are trying to negotiate a plan to limit global warming and move the Paris climate agreement ahead.

But reports say disputes over finances have been a major sticking point. Ironically, the very place where these talks are taking place is the heart of Poland's coal country.

Our Nick Paton Walsh has that part of the story.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): If there's a glimmer of hope for climate change on the planet it's not down here. A thousand meters mining underground, women are seen as bad luck, and everyone greets each other with "God bless you".

(on camera): It's quite startling this far below the earth to see how divorced this world is from the global challenge above of COP 24.

(voice over): This coal helps make steel even for cleaner technologies so nobody feels change is coming soon.

"Global warming is overrated," he says. "It's based on political motives to lower coal use."

Poland has the motherload of coal. It does indeed. Black gold is at the core of life and prestige here. Mining hasn't lost any of its sparkle.

In this tiny block of flats, coal this is how in the damp they keep themselves warm, the real constant in this former miner's life. But it's also what they wear, how they wash and even in where they worship.

This was once a mining community. But now the men in overalls are here to fix gas supplies and former teachers know change can't be stopped.

"We care about the environment," she says. "But it is regrettable our families won't have jobs. The coal stoves are going away," another adds. "I even use gas now."

They were teaching three-year-old children how to separate rubbish, she asks and what to do with it. A paradox too, then for a summit about how the world will measure emission reductions. Technicalities that are both easy to dismiss but also vital to ensure a drop and save our planet.

(on camera): A lot of this is about presentation, and about convincing people of the trillions of dollars they've got to spend to prevent catastrophe.

[01:50:04] But there is something also utterly vital (ph) missing. And that's a message of international consensus.

The summit thrown by a refusal to welcome a key scientific report last weekend led by Russia, you have space here but few people from the United States who were are listed as here on floor mat.

People keep coming to ask him where is America.

Their joined by Kuwait who share a space around this engine with Saudi Arabia who mark their office like this.

(on camera): No one inside. This is the Saudi room, though, yes.


WALSH (voice over): but the joke isn't funny anymore, not with 12 years to avoid global disaster.

The U.S. instead found itself chanted down by protesters as it promoted fossil fuel use.

It's a different world here for Barack Obama's former climate change envoy Todd Stern. TOOD STERN, FORMER CLIMATE CHANGE ENVOY: There's been a certain amount of chucking those eggs at a more political level as well. And having the U.S. not engaged in that instrumental way and not engaged that that senior political way from the President and you know down to -- really to my level. That's -- that makes it more difficult here.

The worst thing you can do is look at the ITCC (ph) report and say oh, my God, look where we are, and put your, you know, put a pillow over your head and say I can't think about this. And let's just go see walls.

WALSH: But even if there is success here, it is outside these walls in daily lives globally, but the great change must come.

Nick Paton Walsh, CNN -- Katowice.


HOWELL: Nick -- thank you.

Still ahead here on NEWSROOM -- space tourism may be a giant leap closer as a supersonic plane reaches incredible new heights.


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

The possibility of supersonic spaceflight for tourists just became more real as a rocket-powered plane soared to the edge of the earth's atmosphere on Thursday.

Look at that -- that's more than 50 miles up there, about 80 kilometers.

Here's CNN's innovation and space reporter, Rachel Crane with this.

RACHEL CRANE, CNN INNOVATION AND SPACE REPORTER: A truly historic day for Virgin Galactic and Sir Richard Branson. Their space vehicle just went faster and higher than ever before.

It traveled at nearly three times the speed of sound and even crossed the U.S. boundary of space when it went 51.4 miles above earth. The test pilots that were flying the vehicle were even awarded commercial astronaut wings by the FAA.

Now, I had to chance to speak with Sir Richard a little while after Unity, their spaceship touched down. Take a listen to what he had to say.


CRANE (on camera): Richard -- first of all, congratulations to you and your team. I mean this has been 14 years in the making and now you've finally done it. How do you feel right now?

SIR RICHARD BRANSON, FOUNDER, VIRGIN GALACTIC: Completely exhilarated. Massive mixed emotions as the spaceship was going up. Tears of relief, tears of joy. But now everybody here has got the biggest -- biggest smile on their faces ever.

[01:55:02[ You know, after 14 hard years of trials and tribulations trying to get to space we're finally there. And this really will open a whole new era of space travel.

CRANE: You say tears of relief, what do you mean by that?

BRANSON: Well, I mean -- the test pilots are testing a space ship. Doing these test flights to make sure that if anything is going to go wrong, it's going to go wrong when they're on board and not when people are on board in future months to come.

CRANE: So what's next? I mean how soon will you be strapping in to that space ship, to become Virgin Galactic's first commercial passenger? I know that you and your family even are planning to be those first commercial passengers.

BRANSON: My guess would be roughly six months from now. Now we've actually been into space and we've tested the craft to its ultimate. You know, we'll be able to examine it and make a few little alterations, go up again, then go up again. And then I look forward to going up, you know, in maybe five or six months' time.

CRANE: Now, I know you were looking forward to proving your critics wrong. I mean the people who said that you'd never make it to space. What do you have to say to them now that you've pulled this off today Richard?

BRANSON: I always -- I always think with the critics that the best way of proving critics wrong is to prove them wrong. And you know, I don't blame them for wondering whether it would ever happen. It did take 14 years.

But it's all the more satisfying now it has finally happened. And I've actually already had a couple of critics send me lovely notes just saying thanks for proving us wrong.

CRANE: Everyone loves to pit you and Jeff Bezos against each other in this race to commercial space flight. And you've said many times, it is not a race but real talk. I mean has today put you guys in first place?

BRANSON: We've had a good day today. Obviously safety is paramount. But Virgin Galactic just happens to put people into space before -- before anybody, any other commercial space or company.

So Jeff will create the most fantastic space ship company. He'll be a formidable rival. Maybe we'll find ways of working together in the years to come.

CRANE: But right now you guys have a little bit of a head start, you say?

BRANSON: We have a little bit. We had the first commercial space ship going into space with astronauts on board than has ever happened in history. And so it is a momentous -- a momentous day.


CRANE: That's right, you heard him. Sir Richard Branson thinks that he himself will be floating in space in about just five to six months. Now of course, several more tests are needed to be done before then.

But soon thereafter, 600 customers who have spent $250,000 dollars a ticket should be on their way to a ride of a lifetime.

HOWELL: Rachel crane out of this world -- Cool. Very cool to see that. Thank you for the report.

And thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM.

I'm George Howell at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

More news right after the break. Stay with us.