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Fight against ISIS; Tense Pause in Protests as Haitians Gather Food, Water; Police Believe Actor Jussie Smollett Orchestrated Attack; Trump's National Emergency; Interview with Robert Weissman of Public Citizen. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired February 23, 2019 - 03:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Last days for the caliphate: ISIS is barely clinging onto its last patch of territory in Syria. We're live near the front line.

The U.S. sends more aid to the Venezuelan border. CNN is there as it arrives.

Angered and devastated: "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett reacts after reports that he allegedly orchestrated a hate crime against himself.

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

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VANIER: So the self-declared ISIS caliphate may be down to just a few dozen tents in Eastern Syria. The terrorists are under siege in their last Syrian enclave, the town of Baghouz al-Fawaqani. The largely- Kurdish U.S.-backed forces say the jihadists' defeat could be days away.

With the victory near, U.S. president Donald Trump has put out a tweet that reads a lot like a threat to America's allies.

"The United States," he writes, "is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them. The U.S. does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they're expected to go. We do so much and spend so much. Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100 percent caliphate victory."

CNN's Ben Wedeman has been covering Baghouz al-Fawaqani from the front lines. For the latest he joins me live from Eastern Syria -- Ben.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, it does appear that with the improvement of the weather, we've been hearing airplanes overhead, so perhaps there will be airstrikes on that area that is just 700 meters by 700 meters.

It is an open area. Those who are inside -- a spokesman told me he estimated just over 1,000. It includes fighters and civilians. And what we heard from the commander is that the civilians are indeed being used as human shields.

We also heard yesterday that quote-unquote, "it would just be a few more days" before victory would be announced.

Now one interesting bit of news that we've learned is that yesterday, not far from here, there was an attack by two, believed to be ISIS members, on motorcycles, on a vehicle that belonged to the Syrian Democratic Forces.

In that attack, two of the SDF fighters were killed. In the evening, there was a raid on what was believed was a sleeper cell that launched that attack on the Stade de France. But that really underscores the ongoing threat from ISIS, unrelated to their control of dwindling territory. -- Cyril.

VANIER: And, Ben, the U.S. president is threatening to release hundreds of captured ISIS fighters.

What do you know about foreign fighters and how they might be dealt with?

WEDEMAN: The whole two tweets from President Trump left a lot of people confused. I went to the spokesman for the SDF, Mustafa Bali, this morning. He said a few things off the record, which I can't repeat. The official reaction was, no comment.

The question is, yes, we know there are at least 800 foreign fighters in the custody of the SDF. President Trump, it's not all together clear if he's in a position to quote-unquote "release them."

And the worry is, of course, that, if they're released they'll somehow make their way back to Europe and pose a serious threat there.

It's also worth noting that, yes, the majority of special forces from the U.S. are from the U.S. But there are significant representations by the French special forces, by the British special forces. We saw them near the front line.

So it's not as if they're not also playing a part in this operation. But the question of the fate of these foreign fighters and their families, it's a very serious one, because apparently, the U.K. doesn't want to take its nationals who have moved to the Islamic State and are now in SDF custody.

And the idea that somehow the United States is going to be in a position to somehow --

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WEDEMAN: -- release them has left a lot of consternation among its allies on the ground, specifically, the Syrian Democratic Forces -- Cyril.

VANIER: Yes, this has been a vexing matter for Western European countries, France, the U.K., Spain, Germany and others, who have nationals in Syria.

What do they do with them?

This is something they've been dealing with for a number of years. Ben Wedeman, thank you to you and your team for your reporting from Eastern Syria. Thanks, Ben.

We turn now to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Another shipment of U.S. aid for the country has arrived in neighboring Colombia. It was airlifted to the town of Cucuta and is meant to help Venezuelans across the border.

But it is also part of Washington's efforts to undermine sitting president Nicolas Maduro, who has rejected international help. But opposition leader Juan Guaido is urging supporters and the military to bring the supplies into the country.

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JUAN GUAIDO, INTERIM PRESIDENT OF VENEZUELA (through translator): And, once again, the message to the Venezuelan armed forces, seven days for humanitarian aid to enter, a week for you to do the right thing, to put yourselves not only on the side of the constitution. We are authorizing the entrance not only of humanitarian aid but also humanity.

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VANIER: Guaido says thousands have registered to deliver the aid. CNN's Nick Valencia has more from Cucuta where the supplies are being stockpiled.

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NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: These supplies here are part of the U.S.-led humanitarian mission to help those affected by the crisis in Venezuela. These items, for the most part, arrived February 8th and are still sitting here on the border of Venezuela, prepositioned in Colombia. Nicolas Maduro is not allowing them in, not allowing his people to get help.

The U.S. is still forging on and on Saturday three more C-17s carrying basic goods, commodities that could feed up to 3,500 children, 25,000 adults, arrived on the border here, things like rice, beans, lentils, basic goods that you could find in an everyday supermarket but not right now in the current conditions of Venezuela.

These are some high-energy biscuits also intended to help the children. We're hearing terrible reports of children starving in the country. Sanitary napkins, things like that; hygiene kits to help those that are currently suffering. This aid has been called politicized by the Maduro regime. His deputy

going so far as to say that these items contain carcinogens. It was earlier that I spoke to U.S. State Department's Julie Chang, who is part of this humanitarian mission and I asked her if there is any concern that this humanitarian aid might provoke Nicolas Maduro to doing something drastic.

She says that the U.S. isn't the one politicizing the crisis. That's on the Maduro regime -- Nick Valencia, CNN, reporting on the Colombia- Venezuela border.

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VANIER: In Haiti, protesters and civilians are gathering food, water and fuel. Those basic goods are extremely expensive and hard to find after nine days of riots and violence.

On Saturday, a tense calm ruled the streets. But just a day before, it was a lot more chaotic. Protesters are demanding the country's president and prime minister resign. They blame the administration for soaring inflation, high fuel prices and corruption.

The Haitian president Jovenel Moise refuses to step down. Meanwhile, more than 100 Canadian citizens, who had been stranded in Haiti for days, have finally arrived home, sending their faces and their words. The joy of getting there safely was clear.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was chaotic. Extremely difficult. But I would like to thank God, because God gave me a chance to be here today. It wasn't easy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was organized and exciting and stressful but we're home. We're home. So there's a lot of relief right now.

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VANIER: But back in Haiti, those are still foreign missionaries. Aid workers and others were caught in the unrest.

Miguel Marquez has the latest from Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

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MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For nine days, Haitians took to the streets, fighting with police, lighting fires, tires on fire, creating roadblocks across the city, essentially shutting down the main city here, Port-au-Prince, for nine days.

In the last 24 hours, there has been a lull, a very tense lull at the very best, people basically looking for the very basics of life, food, gas and water, all of them in short supply throughout the city.

Large crowds of Haitians gathered looking for water. Gas stations were, for the most part, shut across the entire city. The ones that were open were just -- were heavily trafficked by both those in motorcycles and cars, people just looking for the ability to fill up their tank so they can get to work, assuming that things get --

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MARQUEZ: -- back to normal here in the city in the next couple of days.

Protesters want the president to resign. They say they will not accept anything else. They say that he is implicated in a broad corruption scheme that has engulfed the country.

They say that not only must the president resign but that the country itself has it to go back to tabula rasa, as they say, erase everything, go back to the constitution and start all over again -- back to you.

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VANIER: And that was Miguel Marquez reporting there in the Haitian capital.

The Munich Security Conference is wrapping up in Germany. Now we've heard from a host of national leaders already, defense officials and security experts as well, and we're not done yet. Iran's foreign minister is set to make an address in the coming hours after harsh, if expected, criticism from U.S. vice president Mike Pence.

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MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The time has come for our European partners to stand with us and with the Iranian people, our allies and friends in the region.

The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join us as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to give the Iranian people, the region and the world, the peace, security and freedom they deserve.

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VANIER: And Pence's immediate predecessor also spoke at the conference. Everywhere Joe Biden goes, he seems to fuel speculation about a presidential run. On Saturday, he took shots at the Trump administration and its future.

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JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The America I see does not wish to turn our back on the world or our allies. The America I see values basic human decency, not snatching children from their parents or turning our back on refugees at our border.

I promise you, I promise you, as my mother would say, this, too, shall pass. We will be back. We will be back. Don't have any doubt about that. (END VIDEO CLIP)

VANIER: For more on all of this, CNN's Nic Robertson is live in Munich.

Let's start with Iran. The U.S. came into this conference really selling its hardline policy against Tehran.

Where do we stand on that?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: You know, we haven't seen a long line of European nations, in particular, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, that recently created this new financial instrument to continue doing business with Iran because they're still signed up to that international nuclear treaty with Iran and, of course, President Trump pulled out of that.

I think Mike Pence's words didn't draw the type of applause that Joe Biden's words drew and I think that's an indication. We will hear from the Iranian prime minister and he's likely to push back quite sharply on Trump.

I think you'll hear a debate throughout the morning on Syria, here, where there will be Turkish involvement, American involvement, Russian involvement in that debate. And we may well hear more about the bigger picture for the region.

But I think in broad terms here, Mike Pence has not been offered the sense that Europe is going to get in lockstep, particularly on Iran, with the United States. There was pushback from German chancellor Angela Merkel on the INF, on Nord Stream 2, that gas pipeline coming from Russia, bypassing Ukraine, bringing Russian gas to Germany.

So there's been toward this U.S. administration right now, more sort of pushback, I would say, rather than applause.

VANIER: Reporting live from Munich in Germany, Nic Robertson, thank you very much.

A U.S. actor, not mincing words after reports that he may have staged a hate crime against himself. We'll have the new details after this.

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VANIER: Actor Jussie Smollett says he is angry and devastated at new reports that he may have orchestrated the alleged hate crime against himself. Smollett appears in the TV drama "Empire" but the story he told about being attacked in Chicago last month may be unraveling. Our Ryan Young has details.

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RYAN YOUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation tell CNN that Chicago police believe Jussie Smollett paid two men to orchestrate the assault.

The men who are the brothers who were arrested Wednesday were released without charges Friday after Chicago police cited discovery of new evidence. The sources tell CNN that the two men are now cooperating fully with law enforcement.

Smollett told authorities he was attacked early January 29th by two men, who were yelling out racial and homophobic slurs. He said one attacker put a rope around his neck and poured an unknown chemical substance on him. Smollett gave his first detailed account of what he says was a hate crime against him and the aftermath in an interview with "Good Morning, America" that aired Thursday. Take a listen to his account.

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JUSSIE SMOLLETT, ACTOR: I see the attacker, masked, and he said, this MAGA country (INAUDIBLE), punches me right in the face so I punched him right back. And then we started tussling, you know, it was very icy.

I noticed the rope around my neck and I started screaming. And I said there's a (INAUDIBLE) rope around my neck. I want them to see that I fought back.

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YOUNG: The sources tell CNN that there are records that show the two brothers purchased the rope found around Smollett's neck at an Ace Hardware store in Chicago -- Ryan Young, CNN, Chicago.

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VANIER: Late Saturday night, Smollett's attorney released a statement saying, "As a victim of a hate crime who has cooperated with a police investigation, Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals that he is familiar with.

"He has now been further victimized by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack. Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying."

It raised eyebrows when President Trump announced her as his pick to be U.N. ambassador and now State Department spokesman and former FOX News host Heather Nauert is withdrawing her name for U.N. ambassador. There were questions about her lack of qualifications to hold the post and in the past few days, word has also come out that Nauert employed a nanny who was not authorized to work in the country.

Nauert's nomination was never sent to the Senate for confirmation. The president is expected to announce a new nominee soon.

Before President Trump declared a national emergency to fund his border wall, polls showed the American people opposed such a move by 2-1. Even members of his own party warned against it. But he did it anyway.

At stake are billions of dollars in Defense funds that Congress approved for other military projects. Now the acting U.S. Defense chief must decide which of those programs to cut and divert the money to border wall construction.

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PATRICK SHANAHAN, ACTING SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: One of the things I'll be doing starting tomorrow is starting to step through and it's the process at this point. So just like you get a sense of we're not stepping into something we're not prepared for, at the same time, we haven't delineated what projects we would go do.

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VANIER: Now Congress will not be idle. House Democrats are expected to seek a joint resolution that would disavow the president's declaration. If it passes, it would then go to the Senate, which would also vote on it. A passage there would send it to the president --

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VANIER: -- and he is likely to veto it. Outside of Congress, a fight in court has already begun. The advocacy group, Public Citizen, has filed a lawsuit, while the American Civil Liberties Union, environmental groups and others also say they plan to sue.

Public Citizen filed its lawsuit just hours after President Trump signed the emergency declaration. I asked the group's president to explain why it is suing.

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ROBERT WEISSMAN, PRESIDENT, PUBLIC CITIZEN: Every reason that the president has put forward for claiming it as an emergency is manufactured and fabricated and refuted by the government's own evidence, as was evident in the press conference, where he announced the national emergency.

That's going to be, I think, the ultimate issue in our case and other cases that go forward. If you claim a national emergency, you have to actually show there's an emergency.

VANIER: But since the late '70s, I believe it's 60 national emergencies have been declared and presidents have had fairly wide latitude in declaring what they thought at the time and in their circumstances were national emergencies.

WEISSMAN: Yes, that's right and the statute of the National Emergencies Act, which creates the framework by which presidents can declare an emergency, it does give pretty big discretion to the president. But the word "emergency" has to mean something.

It's also important: those cases mostly involved foreign policy issues and relatively small actions by the government. This case involves the president trying to use emergency authority to override the core mission, purpose and constitutionally allocated authority of the Congress over spending decisions.

He wanted money for the wall. Congress said no, as explicitly as possible. The government was shut down for a month over this question. He couldn't get the money and that's why he's declaring an emergency.

So he's doing it in an area where his power is at its lowest and where the Congress' power is at its highest. I think that's going to make a big difference in understanding this so-called emergency.

VANIER: To be clear, I looked at the list of national emergencies that have been declared and to my surprise, I found that the U.S. is still living under -- I think it's upwards of 30 national emergencies. As you say, many of them have to do with foreign policy.

I'll give you a couple examples. The situation in Burundi was considered a national emergency a couple of years ago. It's still a national emergency. The Central African Republic considered a national emergency, still a national emergency.

That means every year, the president re-signs this. You are not fighting those, you're not arguing that those are not national emergencies; whereas, my question here is that I could see that the public would say, hold on, those aren't national emergencies, either.

So if we're setting the standard, then we have to -- if there's the latitude for that to be in effect, then the president can probably do what he wants on the wall.

WEISSMAN: Well, I think the argument's going to go the other way but everything you said is true. And the reason I think it's going to go the other way is that the allegations here, the claim of emergency, is actually refuted by the government's own evidence.

The president himself said in his press conference he didn't really need to do it, which also refutes the idea that there's an emergency. The thing that's really different this time than in all those cases you said before, is that, first of all, almost none of those cases involved any spending authority whatsoever.

And the couple that did, they did not involve doing something that was contrary to Congress' specific intent. And I think that's what's going to make the difference in this case.

VANIER: I read your public statement on the Public Citizen website.

Part of it reads, "The danger of Trump's action to America is not limited to the outrage of wasting taxpayer money or the immorality of building a wall that is only to symbolize disdain for and antagonism to people of color seeking refuge in our country."

So it sounds from your statement like your opposition to this national emergency is as much political as it is legal.

WEISSMAN: Well, I think the issues merge a little bit but, absolutely, we are worried that, if the president is able to get with this fabricated, fake national emergency, he's going to do it again.

I mean, I think you've heard a number of Republican senators worrying about what's going to happen with a future Democratic president. My bigger worry is what's going to happen with this president.

And if he's able to get who -- he's authoritarian by nature. I think if he's able to get away with it this time, we're likely to see, almost certain to see other national emergencies declared by this president with possibly very serious repercussions for civil liberties and civil rights in our own country.

VANIER: What is the concrete next step now that you have filed your suit?

WEISSMAN: We're going to move pretty quickly, I think. We're going to ask for a summary judgment soon, so we're going to ask the court to resolve this issue based on the filings that we've submitted and that the government will submit in a --

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WEISSMAN: -- response. I think there is, as you reported, there are going to be a number of cases that will be filed in the next couple days. This will move pretty quickly in the first courts and then it will take a little while before it rises up, probably to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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VANIER: Robert Wiseman of Public Citizen speaking to me earlier.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is known to throw his weight around but he wants people to know he can throw others around, too, literally. It's not a metaphor. Matthew Chance takes a look at a photo op showcasing Mr. Putin's martial arts skills.

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MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is classic Vladimir Putin. The Russian president bolstering his macho credentials on the judo mat.

In carefully choreographed hand to hand combat, the political strongman grapples with members of the Russian national judo team, throwing a few of them effortlessly to the ground.

It doesn't all go Putin's way; he gets flipped himself. And in a sparring session with one Olympic medalist, the president seems to hurt his finger. Nothing serious, says the Kremlin, just the nature of the sport. But his opponent was careful to sing Putin's praises on Russian television straight after.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Well, for his age, I'm sure no other president in the world can take him down in a one on one fight. That's for sure.

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CHANCE (voice-over): Putin was certainly throwing his diplomatic weight around with these two presidents just hours before, meeting his Iranian and Turkish counterparts in Sochi, Southern Russia, to discuss or dictate the future of Syria.

When U.S. forces eventually leave the north of the country, he told them, Syria's government will be taking over. They both agreed.

Casting Putin as a tough-guy man of action has become a staple of the Kremlin propaganda machine. Who could forget these images of the Russian leader, barechested on horseback and fishing in a Siberian river?

Many Russians are extremely proud their 66-year-old president is so fit and youthful. And although Putin's popularity may have dipped from its all-time highs, most Russians still see him as their champion -- Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.

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VANIER: Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier, we'll have the headlines again for you in just a moment. Stay with us.