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Multiple Explosions Hit Sri Lanka Churches and Hotels; Yellow Vest Protesters Clash with Police in Paris; The Effects of the Russia Probe. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired April 21, 2019 - 03:00   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): I'm Cyril Vanier from the CNN Center and we are tracking breaking news coming out of Sri Lanka.

Hospital sources say at least 25 people have been killed in at least five explosions. At least 150 were wounded. Police say two of the blasts were at hotels and three were at churches, some in the capital of Colombo.

Now the blast struck as Christians celebrate Easter Sunday. The prime minister has held an emergency meeting with cabinet members and military commanders. Let's go to our Nikhil Kumar who is tracking this for us.

What have you learned?

NIKHIL KUMAR, CNN NEW DELHI BUREAU CHIEF: So the information is still only just coming in. But what we do know all points to a devastating set of attacks of Sri Lanka. Five sites were hit, three of them were churches.

As you pointed out, it's Easter Sunday. From the hospital, one of the main hospitals, at least 150 people were brought there injured earlier today on Sunday. At least 25 have died. That number is expected to go up in a few hours as we get a fuller picture of what's actually transpired.

The government is scrambling to make sure that those who have been injured at these sites, three churches and two hotels, that medical attention can be brought to them as soon as possible. The government has held a high-level emergency meeting and the prime minister has condemned the attack and called for people to avoid speculation.

We don't know who did this, who might have done this. We're still waiting for a fuller picture. The information we do have so far points to a devastating attack on this very, very holy of days for Christians around the world and in Sri Lanka.

VANIER: With due respect paid to the fact that there has been no claim of responsibility and it's not helpful to speculate, I want to ask you, what is the Sri Lanka security context?

Are there any known threats in Sri Lanka?

KUMAR: Well, today's attacks, it must have brought back memories for people in that country. In recent years we haven't seen attacks like this but this country does have a history of regular attacks during the civil war, which lasted decades there, ended around 2008, 2009. So there is that background.

But as I say, there were specific forces pitted against each other in that war. When it comes to these attacks, we don't know. We don't know who might have orchestrated this. And the government so far has not made any accusations or pointed any fingers in any direction.

The focus very much is trying to bring medical attention to those injured, get a better sense of what happened and how many people have been killed in the locations. So far we have five, three churches and two hotels.

VANIER: Nikhil, thank you very much for your update.

That the five places were attacked within a short, apparently, timeframe suggests a high level of coordination. We can at least say that at this stage.

And I can bring you a last piece of information. Sadly, we can confirm that 75 people have been killed across these attacks so far. That's the death toll so far and it's coming to us from hospital sources.

I know you're gathering information from your sources and so are we on our end. So we'll get an update from you again as soon as we can. Thank you, Nikhil.

In France now, Catholics are getting ready to celebrate Easter on their side with their first Sunday mass since last week's Notre Dame fire. Celebrations that were set to be held at the cathedral will now be held elsewhere in Paris.

In the days following the fire, donors have pledged almost $1 billion to rebuild the church but those donations angered Yellow Vest protesters, who argue their needs are being ignored. CNN's Melissa Bell reports on their latest protest.


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Order has been restored this evening largely. We did see much more violent scenes earlier, a great deal of tension between Yellow Vest protesters and riot police.

The Yellow Vests had vowed this Saturday even before the events in Paris this week to try and get as many people out on the streets for what they were hoping would be another Black Saturday. All these protests have been going on for months now; the numbers of people turning up --


BELL: -- have been falling. There was a spike in violence and the numbers have been going down. Then there was the fire at Notre Dame and the ensuing row over the donations.

So many of France's biggest corporate names have announced they're donating substantial amounts to the reconstruction of the cathedral. That, say the Yellow Vests, speaks not so much to the controversy of the tax rebates but fundamentally because of the fact that some people are in a position to donate 230 million euros, that, they say, speaks fundamentally to what they've been protesting about ever since they took to the streets at the end of November, the inequalities that exist between French, those at the very top and those at the very bottom, those who struggle to make it at the end of the month and those who have those amounts of money.

They did manage to get the numbers out, 9,000 on the streets compared to 5,000 last week. That does give an indication they were able to get their numbers out. And yet, it seems, for the time being, calm has been restored to the streets of Paris and, largely, the Yellow Vest protest was contained here at the Place de la Republique -- Melissa Bell, CNN, Paris.


VANIER: Joining us is CNN European affairs commentator, Dominic Thomas, the chair at UCLA's Department of French and Francophone Studies.

Dominic, a pleasure to have you on the show again. Antigovernment protesters argue that there is little money to tackle economic injustice but an abundance of money to rebuild old buildings. They feel that's a double standard.

What's your view on that?

DOMINIC THOMAS, CNN EUROPEAN AFFAIRS COMMENTATOR: Yes, I think that's what this situation somewhat paradoxically has further brought to the front. The extraordinary question around the Yellow Jackets, is they were able to take to the streets in these fluorescent jackets with the goal of bringing attention to the difficulties that these French families were facing.

These are predominantly people living outside of major urban centers, whose standards of living have not risen, who've been disproportionately hit in rises petrol and diesel prices. So they've been taking to the streets. Alongside them you have people who are simply against Emmanuel Macron's policies.

The irony is that, at the same time it took a fire at Notre Dame to bring attention not just to this iconic building in France but to the state of French heritage sites and churches and monuments and so on. So there's a coalescence of the two.

Having said that, I think one of the most striking aspects of this on social media were the parallels being established between Victor Hugo's defense in his novel about Notre Dame and, of course, the attention to his other famous work, "Les Miserables." The two here coming together, those struggling to survive and, at the same time, this money that was suddenly produced to bring attention to these monuments.

VANIER: Dominic, the money offered is largely coming from private donors -- wealthy families, big businesses in France.

Does that negate the protesters' point?

THOMAS: I don't think it does. Because I think Emmanuel Macron's policies have been scrutinized since he came to office. Some of the most significant policy measures that he's been able to implement have concerned tax cuts. So the major tax cuts have gone to the wealthiest in society, the largest corporations, the very individuals that are here find themselves, many would argue, in a position to make these donations.

And what the Yellow Vests would argue is there are these enormous disparities in French society between those that are barely getting by, those that have seen minimum wages increase in micro levels for the past decade, and those that seem to be thriving in French society.

So the irony of this particular moment, it galvanized attention around these monuments but also exposed some of these greater inequalities that have been the source of turmoil, one could argue, going back most recently to 1968.

VANIER: And, as if this collision of these two news stories had been scripted, the Notre Dame fire happened on the day, the evening, that Emmanuel Macron was supposed to release a speech on TV, addressing reforms and addressing the concerns of the protesters. He had to cancel that speech. Explain to us what happened next.

THOMAS: Yes, that's thing that Emmanuel Macron has been involved in a months-long process of consultation, of traveling around --


THOMAS: -- the country and, arguably, you know, listening and trying to hear about the sort of the things that are really, you know, French people are struggling with.

In the aftermath of the early demonstrations he imposed a 100-euro a month raise. He fixed some of the taxes that were about to come out.

So here we have Emmanuel Macron, endeavoring to respond not just to the crisis around the question of Notre Dame but also to speak to the French people. And I think, in many ways, he overly focused on the question of the buildings, of the monument, of the physicality of this or the technicalities of rebuilding and inadvertently has been really involved in a standoff over the Yellow Jackets and has not found a way to communicate with the French people in a meaningful way.

VANIER: Dominic, I think we'll be talking about this again. Thank you so much. THOMAS: Thank you, Cyril.

VANIER: The polling stations are open in Egypt where voters will decide on a controversial change to the constitution. Sunday is the second of three days of voting for the amendment. The change could keep president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in office until 2030.

It would also give the president more power over the judicial and legislative branches and boost the role of the powerful military.

Voters in Ukraine are casting ballots right now for their next president. Surveys show the favorite is comedian turned politician Volodymyr Zelensky. You're watching polls from Kiev right now. Volodymyr Zelensky is the front-runner ahead of the incumbent, president Petro Poroshenko. Phil Black has details from Kiev.


PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Petro Poroshenko mounted a spirited effort to try and turn around the momentum of his campaign with regular TV and public appearances, rallies and press conferences.

He goaded his opponent, Volodymyr Zelensky, into debating him and it finally took place at a soccer stadium in front of more than 20,000 people. He never gave up criticizing Zelensky, saying he is not fit for office, not ready, strong enough to be president or commander in chief of a country still at war.

But Poroshenko struggled to cut through Zelensky's popularity. The actor and comedian said he's not a politician, just a regular guy who wants to wipe out a broken system of corruption and self-interest, which he says is represented by Poroshenko, essentially just like the character he plays on television. And the show surfeit (ph) of the people.

Zelensky plays a schoolteacher, who improbably, accidently becomes Ukrainian president, who goes into battle against oligarchs and corrupt officials and cronies. That performance, his likability, his campaign platitudes of promising to do things better than the other guy, have made him the clear front-runner in this presidential campaign.

So how did Ukraine get to this point?

Well, after the revolution of 2014, Poroshenko rode a wave of hope and optimism to the presidency, promising to turn the country around. But five years on, the war in the east against Russian-backed separatists grinds on. The economy's recovery has been fragile and slow; poverty and quality of life are big issues here and corruption endures across government and key institutions.

The general view among many Ukrainians is that Poroshenko hasn't done enough. They are disappointed. They want change. They want something new.

Enter Volodymyr Zelensky, the total unknown with a warm smile but few detailed policies. But it's been enough to convince many Ukrainians to vote for him or at least vote against the status quo -- Phil Black, CNN, Kiev.


VANIER: The New IRA may be responsible for the murder of a journalist in Northern Ireland. That's according to police. Lyra McKee was shot and killed Thursday at a riot in Londonderry. Two teenagers have been arrested under terrorism laws. Authorities say they are trying to find out if the suspects acted alone or colluded with other people.

And the U.S. president keeps up his Twitter tirade about the Mueller report. We'll hear from the former director of the Nixon Presidential Library about parallels between Trump and Nixon. Stay with us.





VANIER: We continue to track the breaking news out of Sri Lanka. Hospital sources say at least 75 people have been killed in at least six explosions. At least 150 people were wounded. Police say three of the blasts were at hotels, three were at churches, some in the capital, Colombo.

Now the blasts struck as Christians celebrate Easter Sunday. And the prime minister has held an emergency meeting with cabinet ministers and military commanders. We will continue to track this story and bring you the latest as and when we get it.


VANIER: Even though many Republicans say it's time to move on after the Mueller report, President Trump is not following that advice. He is blasting the report again, tweeting, "Despite the fact that the Mueller report should not have been authorized in the first place and was written as nastily as possible by 13 or 18 Democrats, who are true Trump haters, including highly conflicted Bob Mueller himself, the end result is no collusion, no obstruction."

A quick fact check here; much of what the president said is false. Yes, the investigation found that there was no collusion but, no, it does not exonerate him on obstruction.

Joining me is Tim Naftali, a CNN presidential historian, former director of the Nixon Presidential Library.

Tim, could the Russia investigation, I've been wondering about this over the last few days, could it end up being the single best thing that happened to Mr. Trump's presidency?

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I don't see how that could be the case. This could be -- the Russian investigation could be an excellent thing for the American people.

If the White House joins the rest of the government in taking seriously the problem of Russian intervention in our electoral process, that's a very good thing.

If people around the president, especially elected members of Congress, push the president to reach a higher standard in his conduct, that would be a great thing for the American people.

Even though the special prosecutor chose not to attempt to indict the president, he found an appalling pattern of behavior by the president, appalling pattern of deception, lying and attempts to create a false record.

Now if, as a result of this investigation, the Trump White House behaves more presidentially, then, yes, this will have been a great thing for the American people and I guess, by association, the Trump presidency.

OK, but let me rephrase my question.

For Trump, in a very narrowly defined sense of what is good for the Trump presidency, what is good for this president himself and even for his chances of reelection, for his political survival and even for the prospect of thriving politically, I ask my question again.

Could it be the best thing that has happened for him?

NAFTALI: Well, if the Mueller investigation had led to the exoneration of Donald Trump's conduct as president, then maybe this would be the greatest thing for him.

But the -- what it did was it created a narrative that is very damaging to Trump. Oh, he --


NAFTALI: -- wasn't found guilty of a crime. But Americans and others expect their leaders to meet a much higher standard than whether or not they've committed a crime or not.

VANIER: But do they, though?


VANIER: Because clearly these standards are a little different from what they were a number of years ago. Otherwise -- I mean, Donald Trump has smashed the standards that were in force for previous presidents. He had just rewritten the standards.

NAFTALI: No, Cyril, I think the judgment, the verdict is still up in the air as to the extent to which Donald Trump has altered permanently or the norms of the presidency. I'm not convinced yet that the American people are prepared to embrace a cheater and a liar for more than four years.


VANIER: So I ask you, Tim, respectfully, I ask you this question again. The huge question -- remember the expression, the cloud over the Trump presidency that was ubiquitous in our reporting and all the written articles about Trump at the beginning of his presidency?

That cloud was about collusion and Donald Trump spent two years saying there has been no collusion. Now I, like you, have read volume two of the Mueller report, I understand what it says. We'll get to that in more detail in a second.

But the big question being asked about this Trump presidency was, was there collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia?

And emphatically the -- a two-year, multimillion-dollar, 400-page investigation has answered no.

NAFTALI: If the only question people were asking was whether the Trump campaign had coordinated directly with the Russian government, then the answer is yes. It's no. And then the investigation has no tentacles. It will not affect anything else.

But I don't believe, A, that that was the only question, because that wasn't the only question that the Mueller investigation was asking.


NAFTALI: The Mueller investigation was asking a series of questions. And the answers to the questions, other than the one about direct collusion with Russia, the answers are damning to this administration.

Now that doesn't mean that 48 percent of the American electorate or 49 percent will turn against Trump. And that's why the 2020 election will be a very competitive election and, I dare say, no one could really predict what will happen.

But to argue that the cloud's gone simply because the answer to the first question is no collusion, I think, is to misunderstand the effect of the Mueller investigation and its outcome.

VANIER: I suppose -- there's one thing I want to make clear in this conversation, because you are coming at it from a -- from a principled standpoint. What did we learn from the Mueller report, fully agree with everything you're saying.

But I'm asking you about, I'm coming at it from a standpoint of political expediency.

Do you not think that Donald Trump is going to spend the next two years, saying no collusion, no obstruction, I told you so?

And do you not think that that line is to, at least some extent, going to work?

NAFTALI: Well, look, one thing that I studied deeply is the way in which the American people separated themselves from Richard Nixon. And as the evidence of amorality and that lying mounted, Richard Nixon found that he -- that fewer and fewer Americans supported him. Now I'm not suggesting that will happen again.

But there are core values in this country and many countries. And I'm not convinced that those core values have disappeared completely since 1974.

What I will -- what I share is that the -- that attorney general Barr's summary of this report was certainly very useful to Donald Trump. I think the actual report itself is far less useful to Donald Trump.

Now we'll watch how the Democrats play this. The Democrats might overplay their hand. They might give Donald Trump the opportunity to argue that Democrats are more interested in continuing the fight than in making this country stronger and better and richer.

So a lot of how this plays out, I believe, will depend on how the Democrats react.

And, Cyril, I think it's a bit too early to judge how the American people will react. We just got the report out. It's possible that you will find people responding to it the way that some --


NAFTALI: -- elected and former elected Republican officials have reacted to it.

Kasich, former governor of Ohio, is appalled by the behavior shown by Trump in volume two in the obstruction of justice investigation.

Mitt Romney is appalled by the portrait of Trump depicted by the Mueller investigation. That's just two people.

VANIER: Both frequent critics of the president.

NAFTALI: Pardon me?

VANIER: Both frequent critics of the president, I might add.

NAFTALI: But they both have followings. I'm just suggesting that we should not jump to any conclusions about the effects of the Mueller investigation. I recognize that I am talking about details that many Americans will not read perhaps.

But there is now evidence, not simply from one person but multiple sources, that shows a pattern of dishonesty at the highest level in the United States. And that pattern will affect the way in which, I think, some elected Republicans will deal with this president and may turn off some of those suburban Republicans who voted for the Democratic Party in the midterm elections. And they might do it again in 2020.

So, yes, the AG Barr's summary helped Trump a lot. But when you -- when you look at the details, he wasn't exonerated. His conduct wasn't exonerated. He wasn't found guilty of a crime but that's not the same as saying he was exonerated.

And that, I think, is an argument that not just Democrats but Never Trumpers and those who are Republican and conservative have been concerned about the principles of the American leadership, that's an argument they're going to make over and over again and that's not going to end.

VANIER: All right. Tim Naftali, I really value your perspective on this. Thank you for your time.

NAFTALI: Thank you, Cyril.

VANIER: OK, before we close the show, we have an update on the breaking news out of Sri Lanka that we've been following. Officials say at least 137 people have been killed in at least six explosions. State media report three of the blasts were at hotels. Three were at churches, some in the capital, Colombo.

The blast struck as Christians celebrate Easter Sunday. The prime minister has held an emergency meeting with cabinet ministers and military commanders. We'll bring you all the details we have on this story as they keep coming in to us here at the NEWSROOM. All right, stay with us here on CNN.