Return to Transcripts main page


New Details on American Arrested in Russia on Spying Charges; Whelan Arrest Follows Maria Butina Guilty Plea; Trump Rejects Pelosi's Plan as Shutdown Enters Day 11; Kim Jong-Un Slams Sanctions, Sends New Warning to U.S. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 1, 2019 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANCHOR: New details about the U.S. citizen that Russia is accusing of spying. Paul Whelan is a retired U.S. Marine. According to his family, Whelan was in Moscow for a wedding when he was arrested Friday. Whelan's twin brother told CNN family members are asking for help from the government.


DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF PAUL WHELAN (voice-over): My family members have been in contact with people at the State Department and at the embassy in Moscow, and we have heard that they have received an announcement from the Russian government that Paul's been detained. They have not yet been able to have consular access with Paul. I believe there's a 72-hour window so we're waiting for that to pass.


NOBLES: CNN is covering that story from all different angles. CNN senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, is in Moscow. CNN correspondent, Martin Savidge, is in Michigan, where the Whelan family lives.

Martin, let's start with you.

What have you learned about Paul Whelan?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Ryan. He's 48 years of age. He lives in a suburb of Detroit, and he works as a global security consultant for a major auto parts manufacturer here in the Detroit area. He was traveling, though, to Russia as part of a personal trip. At least according to his family. They say he left here on the 22nd, got into Russia, and that, as a former Marine, which he is, he was attending the wedding of another former Marine who was marrying a Russian woman. The wedding was supposed to take place on the 28th. Normally, when he's traveling, the family says Paul keeps in very close contact because his older parents live here. But on the 28th, everything went silent. They became gravely concerned. In fact, so concerned that actually when it was revealed he was detained by Russian authorities, they were somewhat relieved because they feared for his life. They know how serious the circumstance is, but at least it's better than fearing that someone is dead. The company he works for says he was not over there in any kind of

official capacity. David, his twin brother, talks about the sort of work that Paul does.


WHELAN (voice-over): He was responsible for looking at the physical security of sites for his employer. To make sure that things couldn't be stolen or broken into, to remove the opportunities for people to have access to things they shouldn't have access to. But it wasn't cybersecurity. It wasn't bodyguard type of security. It was much more about the physical plant.


SAVIDGE: The company that Paul Whelan works for company, he has worked for them since 2018. The company issued a statement confirming he does work for them, but also stressing he was not over there for any kind of corporate business. They say they have no facilities in Russia.

He has worked for other American companies in Russia, but again, that was not his job at the time. His family is absolutely astounded that in any way he could be accused of spying -- Ryan?

NOBLES: Wow. A lot of unanswered questions so far.

Martin Savidge with the story from Michigan.

Let's move now to Moscow and our senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance.

Matthew, the timing of this American being detained is very interesting with Maria Butina pleading guilty in federal court to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. That, of course, Vladimir Putin's New Year's message to President Trump. What do you make of all this?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Look, the timing has certainly been commented on. It may or may not be relevant. No avoiding the fact it was just two weeks ago that Maria Butina, the pro-gun lobbyist held in the United States, from Russia, of course, after pleading guilty to conspiracy. U.S. prosecutors alleged she attempted to infiltrate conservative groups like the National Rifle Association, the Republican Party, in order to influence prominent and important Americans. She faces sentencing shortly. It could be six months, it could be a couple years, depending on which lawyer you want to listen to.

But it's something that's absolutely angered the Russians. They have expressed outrage at this, launched an Internet-based campaign to try to get her released. However, a week or so ago, Vladimir Putin gave an annual press conference, which he does every year, in which he was asked about this. He said we're not going to take measures of retribution. We're not, for instance, going to arrest an innocent person and try to swap them for Maria Butina. I'm paraphrasing, but that's essentially what he said. Then here we are on December 28th, this Paul Whelan was detained, caught spying, according to the FSB, the counter espionage agency here. So, yes, a lot of question marks being raised over the timing.

NOBLES: All right. Matthew Chance, thank you for that perspective from Moscow.

Let's talk more about this and get some analysis on the Whelan arrest. Joining me now is Steve Hall, a CNN national security analyst, a retired CIA chief of Russia operations. So he knows a lot about what goes on in Moscow.

Steve, just kind of top line this for us. Paul Whelan's family says he was there for a wedding. There just traveling on personal business. The Russian government is accusing him of spying. From your view, what do you think is going on here?

[11:05:25] STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's my assessment that this is precisely what we would expect out of the Russians, which is they understand the Butina connection. They don't want Maria Butina to stay in the United States any longer than she has to. Her sentencing is coming up. This is not coincidental. This is the Russians doing what they do well, which is reciprocity. They're going to say you arrested a Russian citizen and now we're going to arrest an American citizen on the hopes of putting pressure on the American government to try to get whatever it is that they want, whatever end result they want out of the Butina affair. Probably, I would imagine, short if no sentence followed quickly by deportation to Russia.

Remember, this is not just the Russians who do this. The Canadians are involved in a similar situation right now with the Chinese. The North Koreans have made a habit of arresting Americans and calling them spies for many years. This is just something that autocratic regimes who are able to do this without the rule of law oftentimes do. That's what Vladimir Putin is up to right now.

NOBLES: Whelan's family is insistent he's not a spy. You know a thing or two about spies having worked in the CIA, especially in Moscow. I would assume there are American spies operating on some level in Russia. Would his family even know if he was involved in that type of intelligence operation?

HALL: Well, again, this is not that situation. This is a situation whereby you have simply almost a random American -- although it is interesting that this individual, that Mr. Whelan did have security responsibilities for the company he worked for, because, of course, that allows the Russians to say well, look, we have a former American military officer. He's a Marine, and he worked for security. Therefore, he was up to no good. It's my assessment he was not up to no good. He was simply there for a wedding. This is politics, geopolitical pressure that Putin is trying to exert on somebody we do know was working for the Kremlin, which is Maria Butina.

NOBLES: That extends out. Will the Russians then provide anyway evidence of what they believe led them to believe that Whelan is a spy?

HALL: Oh, of course. The Russians are magnificent, probably top of the line, I'd say, in terms of fabricating evidence. If you have questions about that, look up Kyle Hatcher on the Internet and see what they did to an American diplomat, where they fabricated story, an entire story as to why he was up to no good, and he was not. The Russians are definitely capable. Again, this is the great thing about living in an autocracy where you don't really have a judge that does their job or any other rule of law, they can make up whatever they want, and they will. Just wait for it.

NOBLES: Now the question is, should the Americans attempt to negotiate for Whelan's return back to the United States? And what would be the process to bring him home safely, and could it involve Maria Butina?

HALL: I believe it's going to have to involve Maria Butina. Again, it's my assessment that's the thing motivating Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin to do this. Then it becomes a political and a policy issue as to whether or not we'll look at the laws Maria Butina broke when she was working for the Kremlin and whether or not there's a way to reach an agreement with the Russian government to say, you have an innocent American, we have Maria Butina, let's see if we can't work something out. That's a policy issue that has to be worked through by both governments. This is the price of doing business with Russia or any autocracy, you have to deal with folks and sometimes barter like this.


Steve Hall, your insight and experience in this realm is invaluable in trying to unpack a story like this. We certainly appreciate you being on. Thank you.

HALL: My pleasure.

NOBLES: Coming up, 11 days in, and President Trump is taking aim at the Democrats' plan to reopen the government. So where does that leave negotiations right now?

[11:09:14] Plus, a New Year and a new warning for the U.S. Why North Korea says it may be forced to find a new way to settle peace.


NOBLES: It is a New Year and that means new attacks from President Trump. With the government shutdown now into its 11th day, the president is slamming the Democrats' plan to reopen government as soon as the new Congress convenes on Thursday with the Democrats in control of the House. President Trump tweeting, "The Democrats, much as I suspected, have allocated no money for a new wall, so imaginative. The problem is, without a wall, there can be no real border security, and our country must finally have a strong and secure southern border."

CNN's Jessica Dean is following it all from the White House.

Jessica, where do negotiations stand right now to get the government funded?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Ryan. Right now, we remain at this stalemate. You really got at the crux of it there. On one side, you have President Trump who says we will have a wall, and I want $5 billion for it. And on the other side, the Democrats who are saying look, we're going to vote to reopen the government. We have this package we put together. It has $1.3 billion, but only for border security. We're not funding wall. So you can see they're not anywhere closer at this point to coming to an agreement on the wall and the funding for the wall.

President Trump talking to FOX News yesterday. Listen to what he had to say.


[11:14:57] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (voice-over): I'm in Washington. I'm ready, willing, and able. I'm in the White House. I'm ready to go. They can come over right now. They could have come over any time. I spent Christmas in the White House. I spent New Year's Eve now in the White House. And you know, I'm here. I'm ready to go. It's very important. A lot of people are looking to get their paycheck. And so I'm ready to go any time they want. No, we are not giving up. We have to have border security, and the wall is a big part of border security, the biggest part.


DEAN: You see there, really digging in on the wall, not coming off that.

This is day 11 of this partial government shutdown. It's been five days since we laid eyes on the president. As you heard him talk about, he did cancel his plans to go to Florida for both Christmas and New Year's. But Twitter has been his main mode of communication. Typically, you would see him, he would be talking to reporters, pushing out the information he wanted to in the shutdown in person. But really, we are just heard from Twitter. That's been his main mode of communication. We have seen a lot of tweets, Ryan, but so far, no movement from the two sides getting any closer to the middle there.

NOBLES: Very good point, Jessica, about the way he has chosen to fight this battle while being holed up in the White House.

Jessica Dean, thank you, from Washington.

So let's talk more about this. David Drucker, CNN political analyst and senior political correspondent at the "Washington Examiner," and Catherine Rampell, a CNN political commentator and opinion columnist at the "Washington Post."

David, I'm wondering, if you're Mitch McConnell and see this maneuvering from Nancy Pelosi, which you probably assumed was going to happen, how do you respond to this? Do you pass a bill you have already passed in the Senate, which is essentially the one they'll send back to the Senate, or do you wait on President Trump before you move this any further once the Democrats send it your way?

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think Mitch McConnell has made it clear he's going to wait for President Trump and the Democrats to cut a deal. He thought he had a deal with the president, and he had the entire Republican conference essentially voice vote a deal and then the president backed off it. It was a deal none of the Republicans liked but the president asked them to do it, then he changed his mind. I don't think you'll see Mitch McConnell get in the middle, risk another vote that the president decides to throw away. This is up to Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and President Trump. Once they have a deal, you'll see enough Republicans in the Senate onboard to get that done. But I think we're looking at this to possibly last quite a while because the president and the Democrats are far apart on the issue of the wall specifically. Not necessarily border security, but the wall, because of all the politics that's wrapped up in that.

NOBLES: Of course.

So, Catherine, a big part of that politics involved the House Freedom Caucus, that relatively small group of conservative House members that were the ones who got in the middle of the deal to begin with. This is what Mark Meadows said after the plan from the Democrats came out. He said, "Nancy Pelosi's newest funding proposal doesn't represent any serious attempt to secure our border or find a compromise. A $1.3 billion Democratic wish list that includes zero money for a border barrier is a nonstarter" -- notice he says barrier, not wall -- "and will not be a legitimate answer to this impasse."

What's Mark Meadows attempting to accomplish? Is this really to make the process more complicated than it is?

CATHERINE RAMPELL, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It seems that way. Look, there was a deal. The White House signaled that it was going to support that deal. It passed the Senate by voice vote. Paul Ryan, who is still in charge -- I know that everybody wants to lay the blame at the feet of Nancy Pelosi, but Paul Ryan is still technically in charge. He refused to bring the bill to the floor for a House vote. And so look, I think it's silly to wait for Trump to give his endorsement to whatever the deal is, because he changes his mind all the time. I think what you need to see happen is you need to see basically the Senate and the House work through a veto-proof majority on both sides. And we had it at one point in the Senate. With Nancy Pelosi taking over in the House and the Democrats taking over in the House, it seems possible they could corral the votes and sideline Mark Meadows and the rest of the Freedom Caucus because they're no longer going to have power, but for some reason, everybody is waiting on Trump to decide that he's going to give his finicky endorsement to whatever comes through.

NOBLES: David, I'm interested in the optics of all this. Jessica Dean made this point in her report about the way the president has chosen to go about this. He's basically, he made a big deal about not going to Mar-a-Lago, which for him is a big deal, but he chose to stay behind closed doors the entire time he was in Washington. Didn't make some kind of grand gesture of taking his motorcade down Pennsylvania Avenue and asking Nancy Pelosi where she was. What do you make of kind of the public posture the president has over the past two weeks, and was it a missed opportunity?

DRUCKER: Yes, look, I think he's really been squandering the advantage he has with the presidential bully pulpit. There's so much of a conventional communication strategy that actually would have helped him. Every time he angry tweets, which is basically all he's been doing for two weeks, he's speaking to a base that wants to see him fight. For all the voters in the middle, for all the soft Republicans who don't appreciate his style of leadership, he could be speaking to him, and he needs them to win in 2020 and win on issues. He could speak to them to put pressure on Democrats to come to the table more swiftly and deal in terms that are more advantageous to him. Instead, he's doing what he's always done, that he believes works, except we know from the 2018 elections, it doesn't work and it didn't work the same as it did in 2016.

[11:20:34] If he continues down this path -- that's why I think it's likely this shutdown continues for a while because I don't think it's going to create a scenario in which Democrats feel pressure to come to the table more in his direction. Over time, that could change. As voters sort of internalize the fact that Democrats now control the House, they might expect more compromising positions from them because it's no longer Republicans in control of all of government in Washington. But for now, I think the president is missing a real opportunity here to at least try to reframe the issue and put more pressure on the Democrats by continuing with the tweets and the tweets only. And particularly, as we have seen this morning, the angry tweets. But you know, this is what he likes to do. So this is where I think we'll be for a while.

NOBLES: Catherine, that point that David makes is an important one about how he's retreating to his base. But what's interesting is on this particular issue about border security and then if you extend it out to the wall, he has a lot more broad Republican support, maybe even some Independent support. Isn't there an opportunity to kind of expand his mandate here in these negotiations as opposed to retreating back to the people he knows will always have his back?

RAMPELL: I think, to some extent, he likes having an enemy. He likes having a fight over the wall almost as much as he wants the wall. I'm on Trump's fundraising e-mail list. He sent out two or three fundraising e-mails in the last 24 hours trying to raise money off this fight over a wall. I think perhaps he thinks it's advantageous to him to play up this enemy, right, who is trying to block him from getting what his base really wants. Of course, if you look at the overall polling numbers about funding for a wall, most Americans are not in support of it. We just had a midterm election that arguably was a referendum on issues like this, and Democrats overwhelmingly won. Whether that's a successful strategy is different from whether Trump thinks it's successful.

NOBLES: Which is much of how Washington has been for the past two years.

Catherine Rampell, David Drucker, thank you both for being here. Happy New Year. We appreciate it. Thanks.

DRUCKER: Happy New Year.

NOBLES: Coming up, North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un has a new warning for President Trump: Impose more sanctions and there could be consequences. So how much progress has been made since that historic summit? And what does it mean for their relationship moving forward?


[11:27:30] NOBLES: New promises and new threats from North Korea. In his New Year's speech, Leader Kim Jong-Un said he's willing to sit down with President Trump at any time, but Kim also warned his country could take a new path if the U.S. pushes ahead with sanctions.


KIM JONG-UN, NORTH KOREAN LEADER (through translation): If U.S. does not keep the promise it made in front of the world and misinterprets our people's patience and makes one-sided demands and continues down the path of sanctions and pressure on our republic, then we have no choice but to defend our country's sovereignty and supreme interests and find a new way to settle peace on our peninsula.


NOBLES: Joining me now to discuss this is CNN national security analyst, Samantha Vinograd. She served on the national Security Council under President Obama.

Sam, we heard from Kim Jong-Un at the same time President Trump in his New Year's message touted his relationship with North Korea as a big success and he's in no rush to figure things out over there. Seems to be a disconnect between the two leaders, at least in the public face they're presenting to their people.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Ryan, the more things change, the more things stay the same. It may be a New Year, but North Korea isn't taking a new approach. Kim Jong-Un is threatening the United States and putting the blame on us and saying we should lift sanctions, which is one of his favorite things to do, while concurrently continuing to build his nuclear program. Arguably, from an analytic perspective, the threat from North Korea has increased over the last 12 months despite the summit in Singapore rather than decreased as President Trump would like to say.

NOBLES: What do you make of the way Kim Jong-Un presented himself in the speech? It seems different. He's in a library, wearing a suit as opposed to a military uniform. Does it represent a shift for Kim in terms of how be presents himself to the world?

VINOGRAD: He was also surrounded by pictures of his family. This isn't just a message to President Trump. This is a message domestically as well. From a domestic perspective, Kim Jong-Un has done a really good job over the last year. Think about it. He has continued to stockpile fissile material and the stuff that used to make nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Pompeo said that himself. He's marching ahead with the crown jewel of his nuclear program while continuing to be embraced on a world stage and inching even closer toward integration with South Korea and other world economies. The last thing he needs to do is convince the United States to lift sanctions so that he can get the economic benefit of this warm embrace from the global community. That's probably going to be his New Year's resolution.

NOBLES: So from one hot spot to another, let's go to Syria. All of a sudden, another change in tune from the president here. He told FOX last night he's not in favor of a rapid withdrawal. In fact, listen to what the president said in that interview.