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Iranians Warned before Seizing U.K.-Flagged Ship; British Airways Cancels Flights to Cairo; Tulsi Gabbard Joins Puerto Rico Protests; Seventh Week of Mass Marches in Hong Kong; High Temps Scorch the U.S.; Trump Says He'd Vouch for A$AP Rocky; Feds' Probe into Trump Hush Money Payments Is Over. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired July 21, 2019 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): We have ourselves a standoff over oil tankers. The U.K. tells Iran to release the ship it captured in the Strait of Hormuz, even as Britain holds an Iranian vessel.

Hong Kong braced for another day of mass protests. Demonstrators want a controversial bill totally removed. We'll be on the ground in a moment.

Why Donald Trump is trying to get a New York rapper out of a Swedish jail and what Sweden's got to say about that.

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


VANIER: So the U.K. government has sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council, accusing Iran of illegal interference when it seized a British flagged oil tanker. The letter states the Stena Impero was in Omani waters when Iran's military captured it on Friday. The U.K. says there's no doubt because Britain seized an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar two weeks earlier.

In a tweet, Iran's foreign minister accused Britain of piracy in Gibraltar but claimed Iran is upholding international law. Britain's foreign secretary called that flat out wrong.


JEREMY HUNT, BRITISH FOREIGN MINISTER: They see this as a tit-for-tat situation following Grace I being detained in Gibraltar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Grace I was detained legally in Gibraltarian waters because it was carrying oil against E.U. sanctions, to Syria and that's why Gibraltarian authorities acted totally with respect to due process and totally within the law.

The Stena Impero was seized in Omani waters in clear contravention of international law. It was then forced to sail into Iran. This is totally and utterly unacceptable. It raises very serious questions about the security of British shipping and indeed international shipping in the Straits of Hormuz.


NATO, France and Germany have all condemned the Iranian action but the U.S. secretary of state says Tehran does not appear willing to change its behavior.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The Iranian regime has to make a decision that it wants to behave like a normal nation. To date we've seen no indications that the Iranians are prepared to fundamentally change the direction of their nation.

If they do the things we've asked them to do on their nuclear program, their missile program, their malign behavior around the world -- I mean, you can just watch their actions.

These are actions that threaten. We saw the statements of Foreign Minister Hunt. Hunt; I spoke to him yesterday -- with other actions, these are not the actions of a country that looks like it's headed in the right direction.


VANIER: The U.K. has advised British ships to avoid the Strait of Hormuz. And the U.S. Maritime Administration is warning ships to exercise caution in that region as well. Here's the latest from CNN's Matthew Chance in Abu Dhabi.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly looks like Iranian retribution for the seizure by the British authorities earlier this month of an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar.

Officials say it was suspected of delivering oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. Iranian state media has broadcast these dramatic images of the British-flagged vessel, the Stena Impero, being surrounded by fast military patrol boats, then boarded by balaclava- wearing Iranian forces descending by rope from that helicopter hovering above the deck.

Iran says the vessel violated maritime law by entering the Strait of Hormuz, a busy shipping lane in the Persian Gulf, in the incorrect direction. The British foreign minister says there could be serious consequences if the situation isn't resolved quickly but added that London is not looking at military options and wanted to find a diplomatic solution.

That may well be what the Iranians had been aiming for, grabbing a bargaining chip in the form of a British tanker to swap for the one that Britain has seized. But it is an extremely risky game. Given the broader escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf region, the

U.S. and Iran have been engaged in a standoff really since the Trump administration pulled out of a nuclear deal with Iran last year and began ratcheting up sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

The U.S. accuses Iran of mine attacks against vessels in the Persian Gulf. And the two countries say they've recently downed each other's drones. So it's easy to see how this latest incident, this seizure of a British-flagged tanker, could dangerously escalate -- Matthew Chance, CNN, Abu Dhabi.



VANIER: CNN intelligence and security analyst Bob Baer joins us now from Colorado.

As a former CIA agent, Bob, what's your threat assessment of Iran right now?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: I think it's high. This was a clear provocation. The Iranians intend to force this issue about the nuclear accord and sanctions. This is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps behind taking this tanker. I've had many, many years' experience with them and they right now have the upper hand in Iran. They think they can break the sanctions and they will continue acts like this until something loosens up.

VANIER: So what would be their next step then?

Because so far we've seen them shoot down a U.S. drone, place mines reportedly on tankers. We saw those explosions, now seized a tanker.

What would be their next step?

BAER: They'll escalate. It could occur in Iraq, for instance, an attack on American troops, consular offices there. That's been a worry of the Americans. They will do something. But they'll do it gradually.

They know exactly what they're doing. And I don't even think at this point that they would mind some sort of strike on Iran because the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at that point could say, look, we're under attack. It would unite the country.

VANIER: How much leverage is this actually giving them, though?

BAER: Well, it's not a question of leverage. It's a question the economy is so bad in Iran they've got to do something.

VANIER: But that's my question because my understanding of this is that the U.S. president, Donald Trump, gave himself and gave the U.S. a ton of leverage by strangling the Iranian economy. And now as I see it, the Iranians are trying to mitigate that leverage and sort of balance the playing field a little bit by showing that they can disrupt freedom of navigation.

BAER: Well, that's exactly it. And they can. They can close the Strait of Hormuz. Our Navy there is not capable of protecting it. Don't forget, they've got rockets, they've got these fast boats that can swarm our fleet and tankers. They've got all sorts of things they can do.

What I can tell you about the Revolutionary Guard Corps is they are not going to give up Syria and Lebanon and Iraq and submit to the United States.

I mean, Trump did not plan this out well. And again, there's also the question of fairness because that 2015 accord was a good one and the Iranians were abiding by it and the moment Trump --


VANIER: You know everybody doesn't agree with you on that. The assessment that it was a good deal. You'll find many people who say it wasn't a good deal. But we'll table that for the moment. Sorry.

BAER: Well, for the Iranians, it was the most they were going to give at the time. And they were promised, if they got rid of their nuclear capabilities, that we would not -- we would lift sanctions. And we completely reversed that. That was the agreement made by the past administration.

VANIER: So what's the best response from Western countries now?

If you're the U.S. president and you look at this and you know your end goal is to just squeeze Iran and bring them to the negotiating table, hopefully, and you're seeing these acts of seizing tankers, shooting down drones, first of all, are you worried?

And, second of all, what do you do?

BAER: I'm worried about accidents that could happen in the Gulf at any time. Clearly what the administration is hoping, by strangling Iran, its economy, that they'll have to give up.

There's even talk among Iranian exiles there's going to be a coup in Iran. I certainly don't see that. But they're hoping that at some point these people give up. I don't think they will. It's not the way the hardliners operate in that country.

VANIER: Bob Baer, thank you very much.

BAER: Thank you.

VANIER: British Airways announced Saturday it is suspending flights to Cairo for seven days. BA says it's a security precaution. The airline didn't cite a specific threat but the U.K. foreign office is warning of a heightened terrorism risk to aviation.

German airline Lufthansa for its part also suspended Cairo flights but also said trips would resume on Sunday. Protests in Puerto Rico are still going strong. Thousands of people are demanding the island's governor resign. But he is refusing to do so. The public outrage was sparked by a leak of offensive text messages between the governor and his aides.

Protesters say Ricardo Rossello and his administration are hopelessly corrupt. Nick Paton Walsh is in San Juan.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's this growing sense of momentum now, really night after night. While the protest numbers are small, they're noisy and they're looking forward towards Monday, where they hope they will possibly have hundreds --


WALSH: -- of thousands, maybe a million, quote, organizers, of people on the streets, paralyzing parts of San Juan and a key highway.

Here behind me there are people who have been out all day long and the night before and the night before that, sadly clashes on Wednesday night briefly with the same singular message. They want governor Ricardo Rossello to step down immediately.

In operative, imaginative, sometimes profane in their slogans here, they've also found themselves joined recently on the streets by Democratic candidates. One particular, Tulsi Gabbard today told me she thought he should resign immediately.

Obviously what will happen next is a bit of an open question because most likely his immediate successor would come from the same political elite that everyone here is quite so furious about.

Governor Rossello himself, well, a bit of an air of business as usual. Certainly on Instagram. Releasing statements suggested he's not even contemplating the resignation that everybody here, small in their number, although increasing in momentum across Puerto Rico, want to get.

Today he responded to further allegations in the local media about him having private bank accounts, in which he benefited, with extraordinary anger, rejecting that entire allegation.

It doesn't make much of a difference, though, to many here whose minds are already made up, who continue to grow in their numbers. And as I say, looking toward Monday's protests and the growing sense of momentum really about how long governor Rossello can really stay in power -- Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, San Juan, Puerto Rico.


VANIER: Protesters aren't giving up either in Hong Kong. More marches and rallies are planned over the coming hours. Demonstrators have been at it for weeks now. Many want the city's chief executive, Carrie Lam, to step down. They also want democratic reforms.

And they want the complete withdrawal of a hugely controversial extradition bill. It would have allowed people to be extradited to Mainland China. Lam announced the bill was suspended last month. For many people, that still isn't enough. CNN's Anna Coren is in Hong Kong.

Anna, you're at the scene of the protests. Set the scene for us.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Cyril, the protest is due to begin in the next 15 to 20 minutes. We're here at Victoria Park in the causeway. There are thousands of people who are gathering here. You can hear the loudspeakers, getting people mobilized, ready.

Despite the heat, despite the humidity, they are turning out by the thousands. They're going to walk through the heart of Hong Kong up to the final court of appeal. The police have said, no, they're not allowed to go that far.

We have to remember, these protests have been going on now for more than a month. We saw a million people turn to the streets on the ninth of June, 2 million people a week later. And these protests have not stopped.

Despite the temperature, despite the constant turnout for these protests, people are not getting tired. They are still wanting to come out and participate. This is all despite Carrie Lam coming out early this month, declaring that the very controversial extradition bill was dead. For these protesters, Cyril, it is not good enough. They want her to formally withdraw the extradition bill.

And to date she hasn't done that. So these protesters feel that she is not listening to them. They're going to continue marching for as long as it takes -- Cyril.

VANIER: Anna Coren, reporting live from Hong Kong. You said those protests are going to start momentarily. We'll be talking to you throughout the coming hours. Thank you, Anna.

An explosion at a gasoline plant has killed 15 people in China's central Hunan province. That is according to state broadcaster CCTV; 15 others are severely injured.

These images show a cloud of smoke in the aftermath of the blast. An investigation into what caused the explosion is ongoing.

Scorching temperatures continue across the U.S. Up next, how millions of people are finding creative ways to beat the heat.

Plus an American rapper sits in a Swedish jail at this hour. But the U.S. president is trying to change that. How Donald Trump is trying to get A$AP Rocky released.




VANIER: Across the U.S. it is sweltering hot as a heat wave from the East Coast to the Midwest sends temperatures soaring to potentially dangerous highs. More than 150 million people across 30 states are under a heat advisory. Some areas seeing a heat index above 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Celsius.

In Michigan, more than 350,000 customers are without power after severe weather ripped through the state.


VANIER: As the U.S. president fights to get an American rapper out of Swedish jail, Sweden's prime minister says their court system is completely independent and will not swayed by outside pressure.

Mr. Trump told the prime minister A$AP Rocky is not a flight risk and that he personally vouched for his bail. Point of fact, Sweden doesn't have a bail system. The rapper has been jailed for weeks on assault allegations. David Culver has the details on this story.


DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With all the pressing matters U.S. president Donald Trump has on his foreign policy agenda right now, including rising tensions with Iran and North Korea, he's also using his political sway for this.

TRUMP: The situation in Sweden.

CULVER (voice-over): "The situation in Sweden" that the president refers to involves jailed American rapper and music producer, Rakim Mayers, who goes by A$AP Rocky.

TRUMP: I personally don't know A$AP Rocky but I can tell you that he has tremendous support from the African American community in this country.

CULVER (voice-over): A$AP's more than 10 million Instagram followers have not heard from him for nearly three weeks now.


CULVER (voice-over): The Grammy-nominated artist is in custody in Stockholm.

Swedish authorities detained him on suspicion of assault in connection with a brawl on June 30th.

This edited video posted by TMZ appears to show A$AP in a confrontation in June. But additional edited videos uploaded onto A$AP's Instagram paint a different story. A$AP ROCKY, RAPPER: Look, this what the shame is (ph), we don't want no problems with these boys. They keep following us. Look at them. They keep following.

CULVER (voice-over): A$AP telling his fans that these men kept following him and harassing him and his entourage, even alleging they threw headphones at his bodyguard.

The Stockholm district court decided Friday that A$AP Rocky should stay in custody until July 25th as the prosecutor continues to investigate, claiming that he is a flight risk.

The rapper's lawyer says the court's decision was expected but unfair, according to a report from Reuters. The lawyer says his client, quote, "believes he was assaulted and has acted in self-defense."

President Trump tweeting Saturday that he called Sweden's prime minister and told him that A$AP, quote, "was not a flight risk and offered to personally vouch for his bail," despite the Scandinavian country not having a bail system.

It's earned the president praise from some celebrities, Kim Kardashian thanking Trump for helping A$AP and his commitment to justice reform.

Singer Justin Bieber weighing in, too, tweeting to the president, "I appreciate you trying to help him. But while you're at it, can you also let those kids out of cages?" a reference to the migrant crisis along the Mexican border.

CULVER: As for how Sweden's leader is responding, through a spokesman, the prime minister acknowledged that he spoke with President Trump. He characterized it as a friendly and respectful 20- minute phone call Saturday but telling the president that his government neither can nor will try to influence the judicial process with respect to A$AP Rocky's case. Both sides say they will likely talk further on the matter in coming days -- David Culver, CNN, London.


VANIER: President Trump is stepping up his re-election strategy as he is hardly shining in the latest poll. A new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" survey finds that Mr. Trump's approval rating among voters nationwide is 45 percent. His disapproval rating, 52 percent.

But there's no hand wringing at the White House just yet. "The New York Times" says the president's advantage in the electoral college may be even larger in 2020 than it was in 2016. That's because his polarizing campaign will do better state by state, even if he loses the national popular vote.

Political observers say it may even lessen the political cost of action like his racist tweets attacking four minority congresswomen.

Julian Zelizer joins me. He is a CNN political analyst and professor at Princeton University. Julian, I want to review several things that have been happening. Number one, the president showed this week that he's going to continue to run on race and immigration. Racist language is not an accident. It is a tool for his campaign.

Is there any comparison to that in history?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: We've seen bits of this even in modern presidential elections. In 1988, for example, George H.W. Bush ran an ad about the furlough program of his opponent, the Democrat, and played on racial antagonisms.

But never has it been elevated as the centerpiece of a campaign in the way that he's going to do in the next few months. So we really are in uncharted territory. This is the message. It's not a way to sell another message. And it could be a very ugly, divisive campaign.

VANIER: "The New York Times," after looking at polling data in swing states, concluded that Mr. Trump could actually continue to lose popular support yet win the next presidential election by an even bigger margin because of the electoral map and the way the electoral college votes could stack up.

How do you feel about that?

ZELIZER: Yes. There's been two studies out in the last week that reached that conclusion. And many of the battleground states that we won, such as Wisconsin, might still go his way. The white rural vote is very important in these areas and he's still very popular.

In states like Miami -- or in Florida, the Republican shift has been pretty pronounced since he's been in office. So you could have a situation where he does worse with the popular vote, yet come 2021, he's the president of the United States.

VANIER: Something that flew under the radar a bit but Trump got some good, in fact some very good legal news. The hush money payment case appears to be over. Prosecutors have finished their investigation and they haven't filed any new charges. Just to remind our viewers, this is the case about paying women just before the election, women who had alleged affairs --


VANIER: -- with Mr. Trump in order to keep them quiet. This is major news for him and it's good, it's good news for him.

ZELIZER: It was a very damning case. There was evidence that he had explicitly been part of violating campaign finance laws. But this now goes away.

And it's a reminder, once again, the biggest jeopardy he's been in is not through the courts because of fears of indicting a sitting president and the difficulty of proving some of these cases.

It's always been in Congress. At this point, the Democrats in the House are sitting tight. And so with this case going away, I think the president's feeling pretty good going into the summer about his legal problems, not necessarily about his political challenges.

VANIER: And how should he feel going into next week?

Because Robert Mueller is going to testify. And as we know, the special counsel -- the former special counsel was once considered the biggest threat to Trump's presidency. And the American people haven't yet got to hear Mr. Mueller speak, except very briefly and there wasn't much substance to that press conference back in May.

So what's at stake here?

ZELIZER: I don't think as much as some people anticipate. The timing is everything. If this had been a few months earlier, when the report came out, when there was a real vibrant discussion in Washington about whether an impeachment process was warranted, I think this might have had a pretty big impact.

But now we're in the summer. Congress is about to go away. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pretty much said impeachment is not going to happen. And Mueller himself is not going to say that much, beyond what's in the report and what we've already seen.


VANIER: He's told us as much, right?

He's warned us about that.

ZELIZER: Yes. And he's doing this because he feels now it's his obligation to comply with the House demand. But he said in his press conference, this is what I have to say, he said it in writing, he put the report out.

It's really about what Congress wants to do with the report rather than him saying much more. So I think it will be dramatic. A lot of people will watch. But I am not convinced that the political impact will be very consequential.

VANIER: So it may not move the needle that much, even though the Democrats fought really hard to get more time with him and they got more time. Three hours before two separate committees.

All right, Julian Zelizer, thank you so much for speaking to us today.

ZELIZER: Thanks for having me.

VANIER: One more thing. The U.S. is marking a milestone in space exploration, the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. Crowds were treated to a light show projected onto the Washington Monument. It featured scenes of the Apollo 11 mission from liftoff to re-entry. I think that's what you're seeing there.

And fireworks soared over the NASA Space Center in Houston, Texas. They were set off at the exact time of day on Saturday that astronaut Neil Armstrong made his small step and his giant leap for mankind. Fifty years on, that historic mission remains one of humanity's most stunning achievements.

Tune in on Monday for a special program, "First Steps: 50 Years after Apollo 11." It's hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The program features astronaut Michael Collins and members of the Mission Control team who made the impossible possible. Don't miss that.

Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM today. I'm Cyril Vanier. And we'll be back with the headlines in just a moment.