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Feds Investigating Bezos' Claim against "National Enquirer"; Trump Misses Magnitsky Act Deadline in Khashoggi Murder Case; Acting U.S. Attorney General Questioned by House Democrats; France Recalls Ambassador amid Diplomatic Row with Italy; Finding Purpose after Human Trafficking. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired February 9, 2019 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Pointing fingers: why Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is hinting Saudi Arabia may be seeking revenge against him.

Despite the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, president Nicolas Maduro refuses to allow American aid into the country. Our correspondent at the border.

Plus the CNN Freedom Project. How a cutting-edge fashion initiative is helping survivors of human trafficking one threat at a time.

We're live from the CNN Center here in Atlanta. I'm Cyril Vanier. It's great to have you with us.


VANIER: The ripple effects of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' explosive allegations against the "National Enquirer." Federal prosecutors are now looking into whether the alleged blackmail by the tabloid and its parent company violates its immunity deal.

There's new questions, too, about the magazine's alleged ties to Saudi Arabia. Alex Marquardt breaks down this complex tale of alleged blackmail, sex and politics.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The "National Enquirer's" parent company hitting back today at stinging allegations and revelations by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, saying in a statement, it believes fervently that it acted lawfully, that it was in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with Bezos.

American Media Inc. or AMI also promising to launch an internal investigation into Bezos' long list of claims against them, including what he called extortion and blackmail when AMI threatened to leak risque photos of him. Sources telling CNN federal prosecutors are also looking into his accusations. In his blog post, Bezos alleges that AMI had a cozy relationship, not

just with the Trump White House but with Saudi Arabia. Also alleged in published reports last year. AMI put out a 97-page glossy magazine heralding the kingdom's new crown prince and his vision ahead of his trip to the U.S.

The Saudi embassy in Washington claimed they had no involvement or knowledge of the AMI publication with Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the cover, a man the CIA has concluded ordered the violent murder of Jamal Khashoggi of "The Washington Post," which Bezos owns. The Saudis have called the finding false.

But the Associated Press reported that according to sources, embassy officials got an electronic copy of the pro-kingdom magazine about three weeks before it came out. Today a top Saudi official says he has no idea of any relationship with AMI, adding, "It's like a soap opera," and told CNN that as far as he knows, the Saudis did not press AMI to publish negative stories about Bezos.

The biggest of which was the expose on Bezos' extramarital affair, which people around him believe was a political hit job, alleged payback for his newspaper's dogged reporting of President Trump and of the Saudi crown prince's role in the Khashoggi murder.

Trump and Pecker have a well-documented history. The tabloid paying a so-called catch and kill fee to Karen McDougal once before the 2016 election for

her story about her alleged affair with Trump, which he denies.

Pecker then flipped, cooperating with Robert Mueller's team in exchange for immunity to detail those payments made by Trump's lawyer. That turn didn't dampen the president's rejoicing amid the "Enquirer's" splashy story about Bezos' infidelity, calling the Amazon CEO "Jeff Bozo" on Twitter and saying this about Bezos looming divorce from his wife of 25 years.


TRUMP: I wish him luck. It is going to be a beauty.


MARQUEZ: No doubt this is a complex web of allegations and personal history but what Bezos, without proof, is saying here is clear: that AMI had reasons to protect and to promote the Saudis.

At his newspaper, "The Washington Post," and their relentless covering of the Khashoggi murder angered AMI's friends, driving home the point that this expose of his affair and the attempted blackmail were politically motivated -- Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: But even as Bezos is pointing to ties between the "National Enquirer" and the Trump White House and Saudi Arabia, well, the U.S. president ignored a legal deadline to tell Congress whether he thinks the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Under what is called the Magnitsky Act, he had 120 days to determine whether the Saudi crown prince was responsible and, if so, whether to impose sanctions. The White House says the president has discretion not to act on committee requests but lawmakers say he's violating the law and they're pushing for action.

Republican senator Lindsey Graham said he believes there will be strong bipartisan --


VANIER: -- support to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia. This is coming from a presidential supporter. Mr. Trump has previously not agreed with the CIA's conclusion that the Saudi crown prince personally ordered the killing.


CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem joins us.

You're a former assistant security at the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama.

Juliet, Jeff Bezos is pointing a finger, multiple fingers in multiple directions. But one of them is pointed at Saudi Arabia.

In his now infamous post, Jeff Bezos writes, "For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve."

What do you make of this alleged Saudi connection?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: And I'm glad you said alleged, because this is just coming from Bezos. But Bezos, as he said in his memo, has surrounded himself with some of the top security officials who are outside of government, former CIA and FBI.

And we knew he was doing an independent investigation of how the pictures and other not complimentary things between him and his mistress came out. So he's hinting of the Saudi angle, I would view as more than wild speculation.

Whether he can prove it, I don't know. But the only other country he mentioned in his statement and obviously, he's the focus of Saudi and the royal family's anger because of "The Washington Post's" persistent investigation of the Khashoggi murder.

VANIER: So in this explanation, you're saying the "National Enquirer" story on Bezos' love affair could be Saudi Arabia's payback for "The Washington Post's" coverage of Jamal Khashoggi's murder?

KAYYEM: That's absolutely right. Remember, "National Enquirer" exists in large measure to defend Trump or silence critics of Trump. So that's Stormy Daniels angle or all the pieces that came out in the campaign going after Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton. So it existed to create a persona near or around Trump. And one of

those is clearly to undermine Jeff Bezos, who Trump has said he does not like. He has tweeted against him, he hates "The Washington Post."

So what is possible -- and from the speculation from Bezos -- is that the Saudis have their independent reasons for going after Bezos, collected this information through their very sophisticated intelligence apparatus and fed that information to the "National Enquirer."

And that's why the "National Enquirer" was essentially, it -- maybe it doesn't satisfy the legal components of blackmail but to you and I that read a lot like blackmail.

VANIER: Yes, for a layman that's --


VANIER: -- not from a legal standpoint but it hits you when you get the emails, that's what that is.

You and I talked about the Khashoggi murder at the time after it happened. Saudi Arabia was getting all the heat at the time but it has now weathered the storm. That's the question I'm asking myself.

Why would they go back and bring any kind of coverage related to Khashoggi back on themselves?

KAYYEM: So they may have been -- they may not be as sophisticated as we think they ought to be. Killing Khashoggi, the thought they could get away with that was unsophisticated in many ways.

The other is because their interests align with the Trump White House interests they may have every reason to believe as they did with the Khashoggi murder that they get a little slap on the wrist and that's about it.

What is the difference between a royal family running the government and a democracy like ours is, there's accountability here. So the media has been going after the Saudis, as well as the Senate. So it is a coincidence of timing.

But the fact that the White House today failed to answer the Senate Foreign Relation Committee's questions about the Khashoggi murder and failed to acknowledge the Intelligence Committee has no doubt in their mind about who specifically is responsible for the murder, is another piece of evidence that Trump White House is here and exists to defend the Saudi royal family and MBS and for reasons that may have to do with financial reasons or whatever else.

There certainly aren't have policy reasons behind the Trump White House's behavior.

VANIER: We don't have proof or information. CNN reached out to the Saudis and they said we're not involved but what we do have is this nexus of interest that points in one direction. Juliette Kayyem, thank you so much for joining us.

KAYYEM: Thank you.


VANIER: There were lots of heated exchanges between the Trump administration's acting attorney general and House Democrats on Friday.


VANIER: During his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Matt Whitaker said he has not spoken with Trump about the Mueller investigation and he has not denied funding for it.

But Democrats say Whitaker failed to answer some key questions about his oversight of the Russia probe. Here are some of the combative exchanges.


REP. JERRY NADLER (D), NEW YORK: In your capacity as acting attorney general, have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?

MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Mr. Chairman, I see your five minutes is up and so I --

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: My question is very specific, have you spoken to the president or his legal team about what you've learned in the Mueller investigation or the related criminal investigations that may involve the president, yes or no?

WHITAKER: Congressman, as I specifically answered earlier to a question --

CICILLINE: Just so we're clear, you're not going to answer the question, so I'm going to move on.

REP. STEVE COHEN (D), TENNESSEE: Are you overseeing a witch hunt?

WHITAKER: Congressman, as I've mentioned previously, the special counsel's investigation is an ongoing investigation and so I think it would be appropriate for me to --

COHEN: But you wouldn't oversee a witch hunt, would you?

You'd stop a witch hunt, wouldn't you?

WHITAKER: Congressman, it would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation.

REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: There's no sentence in the Constitution that says, quote, the sitting president of the United States cannot be indicted," unquote, correct?

WHITAKER: Congressman --

LIEU: Yes or no?

WHITAKER: As, you know, I would --


-- LIEU: -- right here.

WHITAKER: I have a -- I have a copy --

LIEU: Is that --


LIEU: -- is that sentence in this Constitution?

It's not, correct?

I'm not trying to trick you. It's not a hard question.


VANIER: President Trump has repeatedly said there's been no collusion between his campaign and Russia and he's often called Mueller's investigation a witch hunt.

Let's bring in political analyst, Michael Genovese. He's in Los Angeles.

So the one thing you can say for sure, Matt Whitaker did nothing to endear himself to Democrats.

MICHAEL GENOVESE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that wasn't his goal. He has two audiences. One is the president. And I think the president will be thrilled at his testimony, especially that first opening line before his seat even got warm. He got snarky and said to the chairman, your five minutes is up.

Unprecedented, rude, snarky. The president must have loved it.

The second audience he's speaking to is his next employer. He's becoming now, because of his very snarky performance, the darling of the Right. He's going to get a big paycheck out of this. He's going to get a great, cushy job.

So I think he's succeeded at what he wanted to do today.

VANIER: Yes, something tells me we'll see him on TV again, perhaps in a different capacity.

But the substance of this is more important obviously. Is there any evidence that would occur in any way interfered with the Mueller investigation?

Because he did answer that question. He says no. GENOVESE: There is not and that's part of the reason why I'm surprised that he was so deft at basically trying to avoid answering questions. There are a lot of questions he could have been very firm on.

Did you talk to the president about this?

And he hesitated; he hemmed and hawed. And then he finally said no.

Well, why not just go, no, absolutely not, that would have been inappropriate?


VANIER: What does that tell you?

GENOVESE: Well, it tells me, number one, that if the Democrats were also asking some gotcha questions, that they were trying to get him and trick him up.

But it also tells me that while he was somewhat forthcoming, he was also very vague about a lot of things. As you noted there's a lot of questions he failed to answer, some very simple questions that the answers should be crystal clear. He should say no and he kept on avoiding and definitely trying to disengage from the conversation.

VANIER: I'm sure the Democrats, who were throwing, lobbing those questions at him, some of them remain unsatisfied, skeptical of his answers, et cetera. But if his mission was essentially to clear this area of political land mines for the White House, would you agree that he did that?

GENOVESE: I think he did that partially because he didn't get into any great trouble. The thing we're talking about is his dodging of questions rather than his answering of questions.

And so confuse rather than answer. I think, in that sense, he didn't give the Democrats much ammunition. So he was very successful at achieving his own goals. But he also proved today that he was the president's attorney and not the attorney general of the United States.

VANIER: And I was going to ask you about the next steps. But the next steps don't involve Matt Whitaker, because William Barr, the president's pick for the job, is likely going to be confirmed next week. So the Whitaker part of the story is probably over.

GENOVESE: Maybe not because some Democrats say after he leaves office they still want to bring him back and they may even subpoena him because they were very unsatisfied with his responses this time around.

But if the story is not over, the drama, most of the drama is over. He'll be in office --

[03:15:00] GENOVESE: -- a week, maybe two at the most. And he'll move on to greener -- I mean that in terms of money -- pastures. But I don't think his days of testifying are over.

VANIER: Michael Genovese, thank you for joining us.

GENOVESE: Thank you, Cyril.

VANIER: Rio de Janeiro is observing three days of mourning after fire swept through football club's training center on Friday, killing at least 10 teenage players and injuring three others.

A Brazilian state-run news agency reports the flames erupted while members of the popular Flamengo club were asleep. Some family members and friends were overcome with emotion. The team's president called it the biggest tragedy in the club's 123-year history.

Staying in Latin America, Venezuelan opposition leader is warning the military against rejecting humanitarian aid from the U.S. He said doing so could be considered a crime against humanity. The aid is currently stockpiled in neighboring Colombia but Venezuela's president refuses to let it in. CNN's Isa Soares is at the Colombia-Venezuela border.


ISA SOARES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Flour and vegetable oil, rice, medical kits, nutritional supplements: this is the first batch of U.S. aid coming in to Colombia, standing in a warehouse at the moment, waiting to be going into Venezuela.

We're about 300 meters or so from that blockade on the Venezuelan side of this bridge. This aid is going to waiting here until there's a decision exactly how to take it into the country.

But let's are be realistic here. This is a drop in the ocean for what the people of Venezuela truly need. To give you a sense of why I'm saying this, because of this (INAUDIBLE) emergency medical supplies. This is for 10,000 people, for a period of 90 days. There are more than 30 million Venezuelans living the country and Juan Guaido said last week up to as many as 300,000 people are in need, almost at the point of dying because of a lack of medical supplements.

So this is more of a symbolic move. It is the latest political chess move to put pressure on Maduro and, more importantly, to put pressure on the soldiers to let this aid in. A short time ago we heard from one of Juan Guaido's representatives here in Colombia.

I want you to listen to what he had to say. He had the message to the soldiers on the other side of the Venezuelan border. Take a listen.


LESTER TOLEDO, GUAIDO REPRESENTATIVE (through translator): I want to send a message to the army men who are a few meters away from us and can hear us. Soldiers, this help is also for you. Here comes food for your

children. Here comes medicine for the people that are suffering. Here comes help for the children. Your job is not to condemn them. It is to help them.


SOARES: We heard a similar message from the U.S. ambassador in Colombia, who said this here is legal and it is urgent. Now really the pressure remains how long this is going to be here, how long until it goes across the border. It truly now depends on those Venezuelan soldiers, to see whether really this appealing to their humanity has any impact on whether those three shipments move at all -- Isa Soares, CNN, at Tienditas Bridge on the Venezuelan-Colombian border.


VANIER: OK. We take a short break. When we come back, the war of words between France and Italy. Why the dispute between these two neighbors is so bitter.

And you will see how a charity and a reality show give victims of human trafficking a new direction, helping the healing process with just a needle and thread. Stay with us.





VANIER: France and Italy are in a diplomatic feud over statements from their politicians. France has recalled its ambassador from Rome over what it says were unprecedented and repeated criticisms by Italian officials. Melissa Bell reports.


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For months now, French president Emmanuel Macron and Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, have been each other's favorite targets, regularly trading barbs ever since the populist Italian government took power last year.

MATTEO SALVINI, ITALIAN INTERIOR MINISTER (through translator): I hope the France will be able to free themselves of a terrible president.

BELL (voice-over): But for Macron, the Italian government has acted irresponsibly and rising nationalism is like leprosy. But for Paris, this was the final straw, a meeting on Tuesday between the Italian deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, and France's own populists, the Yellow Vests.

That led Paris on Thursday to recall its ambassador to Rome for the first time since World War II because of what the French foreign ministry described as repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outlandish claims.

But the rancor is such that it now not just threatens the world of politics but of art.

Every day some 20,000 visitors come to The Louvre to marvel at Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa. Some Italians believe that she should be back in Italy but she was brought here by da Vinci himself. A special exhibition is planned in the autumn to mark the 500 years of da Vinci's death. Italy is now threatening to cancel the loan of several of his works.

Back in Paris, the former Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta, who now teaches politics, says that nothing much surprises him anymore.

ENRICO LETTA, FORMER ITALIAN PRIME MINISTER: I think this is really the true madness of this story. In a word, Italy and France are the two superpowers of culture. I think we have to work together on many issues because, at the end of the day, it will bring a lot of negative consequences for both countries.

BELL: Those consequences go far beyond just an exhibition here at The Louvre, where they are about the future of Europe. They stem from division that threatens the future of the European Union itself.

The fault line that divides on one hand Europe's populists and, on the other, Emmanuel Macron, who has positioned himself as their enemy ahead of this spring's European elections -- Melissa Bell, CNN, Paris.


VANIER: A new purpose in life is part of the recovery process for so many survivors of human trafficking. Now a reality TV show and an airline and a nonprofit are bringing hope to those survivors. As part of the CNN Freedom Project, Zain Asher explains that hope is changing their lives.


ZAIN ASHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hosted by actress Alyssa Milano, Project Runway All Stars features aspiring fashion designers who compete each week for a chance to break into the industry.

In a recent episode, designers were asked to create a look using materials commonly found on a Southwest Airlines flight and during travel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The winning designer is Irina.

IRINA SHABAYEVA, FASHION DESIGNER: Thank you so much. Thank you.

ASHER (voice-over): Irina Shabayeva was chosen as the winner with her design, using paper cups and a red clutch purse made out of a leather aircraft seat cover. Shabayeva then took her creation to Rethreaded, a non-profit organization that employs women who are victims of human trafficking. They collaborated with Irina to come up with a line of products inspired by her winning design.

SHABAYEVA: We created about three products. One of them is the red clutch recreated on the show. There is also another duffle that we recreated and some smaller accessories. They're all handmade --


SHABAYEVA: -- by these women in Jacksonville, Florida. The program's just also giving them a new purpose and a career even and really rethreading their life.

ASHER (voice-over): These women don't just learn a new skill to get back on their feet but they go through the healing process with a sense of community and belonging.

RENATA BRYAN, RETHREADED: I didn't know what I was good at. I didn't know what I could do with my life. I had literally given up. So the start was by me just basically showing up here, from the day that I came to the door, they have been just hands-on training.

And then I have my survivor advocate standing beside me and my mind was just changed drastically.

ASHER (voice-over): As part of a retrofit program in 2013, Southwest Airlines replaced the leather seat covers on their fleet of aircraft. This change helped kickstart their Repurpose with Purpose program. And through this, Southwest donated 27 pallets of leather from seat covers to Rethreaded.

BRYAN: Southwest Airlines, the partnership we have with them, we were able to create an entire new line. We went from only working with T- shirts to working with T-shirts and leather. And so that's really huge because not only do we get to see all these beautiful products that are made but the winner gets even heavier hands-on training with industrial machines (INAUDIBLE).

ASHER (voice-over): (INAUDIBLE) employment opportunities in everything from production to sales, marketing and finance, Rethreaded has changed the lives of over 40 women since the non-profit was formed in 2012.

BRYAN: Today I have regained my independence, I can set goals and I set dreams that I have a confidence that today we are actually achieving. I know what it's like to be out there, so today I get to give back and I get to speak to other survivors and be first hands-on with them to help inspire them and bring hope so that they can see my life changes and hopefully it will impact them in a more positive way.

ASHER (voice-over): And now their story has become one thread in a TV reality show, bringing the issue of human trafficking to a much larger audience -- Zain Asher, CNN.


VANIER: And CNN will be partnering with young people around the world. Its first student-led day of action against slavery. That will be March 14th. It is the third annual #MyFreedomDay. We spoke with New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.

And we asked her, what makes you feel free?



The ability to speak my mind, say exactly what I think, that freedom of expression is critically important and something that I will always defend.


VANIER: And tell the world what makes you feel free. Share your story using the hashtag #MyFreedomDay.

All right. Thank you so much for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I've got the headlines for you in just a moment.