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Pennsylvania Voters Speak Out; Battle Against ISIS; Gangs And Gold: Inside The Mines Keeping Maduro In Power; Three More NRA Leaders Step Down Amid Controversy. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired August 20, 2019 - 16:30   ET



ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: That's a tough status update when you're talking about ISIS, Bill.


It's honest, I have got you -- I have got to say, and it's not just happy talk.

And, look, to their credit, they have pummeled ISIS pretty well, I think. And so far as one can tell, they have done a pretty good job on that front.

The problem is Trump's general aversion to having -- leaving troops in places and to doing more than just pummeling the bad guys, which I'm all for. But it's not the -- there's a lot of other things one has to do to have an effective foreign policy -- means that I think we're not -- over the medium and long term, are we increasing the chances of stability in the Middle East, elsewhere? I'm doubtful about that.

HILL: The president, this is what he had to say just last month when it comes to ISIS. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We did a great job with the caliphate. We have 100 percent of the caliphate, and we're rapidly pulling out of Syria. We will be out of there pretty soon.

And let them handle their own problems. Syria can handle their own problems.


HILL: Obviously, that doesn't age very well.

It's also interesting too, as we listen to what Barbara just put out there about what's happening in Syria, with troops being pulled out, how things are being handled.

What is the sense in the White House? The president reverses course on things all the time. Is there a sense that there could be a change in strategy? KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But this is why defense officials didn't want the president saying something like what you just saw there, saying that they're completely destroyed, that they're gone, because they knew that, of course, while they had greatly weakened them, there were still pockets of them.

And they were essentially just trying to contain them, keep them out of urban areas. That's what defense officials on the ground were saying when the president was making comments like that one. That's why you saw the Defense Secretary, James Mattis, resign over the Syria troop withdrawal in December.

It came to a disagreement he had with the president, where the president thought he was right. And Mattis said, OK, you can think you're right, but I can't serve in this position anymore because of that.

So you see how the president's thinking goes against what some of his own closest military advisers have advised him to say about things like that.

HILL: This is going to continue to be an issue too, when we talk about things like forever wars, right?

And we're going to touch a little bit more on Afghanistan, because we did hear from the president on that today. But this is going to be an issue for Democrats as well. It is in every election. Americans want to see their sons, their daughters, their spouses come home. This is tough, and it can be tough to sell.

How are Democrats going to tackle this? Because they will need a plan too.

JENNICE FUENTES, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I think you have to go with the truth. And I think you have to go with what provides stability also for our forces.

I think we have lost a lot of good men. I mean, I come from a family of veterans. So, thank God I never lost a family member. But there are prices that are paid when you serve in the military under circumstances that are trying and are always trying.

And ISIS and dealing with the caliphate, this is not like flushing the toilet, you just walk away and say I'm done with it. No. I think this is what you mentioned earlier. If you don't have a foreign policy that is in place with diplomats doing their job and presses that are consistent, you do create a vacuum.

And that makes it very dangerous for our boys and women and men and women and for everybody on the ground, especially people who support us who are on the ground.

So, yes, we have made very -- strides in the caliphate, which I think at some point was as big as Great Britain in terms of space. But that doesn't mean that we are done. And I very much doubt that any Democrat running could say that we're done, that would be a good strategy.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And one of the most interesting things about this field is you do have three veterans.

I hope I'm not forgetting anyone, Tulsi Gabbard, Pete Buttigieg, and Seth Moulton. They have all served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and have been had been talking about it on the campaign trail and have presented plans.

So you do have this sort of first-person narration that you haven't seen in a lot of fields in the last couple cycles. And perhaps that will make a difference as we move forward and continue to have this conversation in debates and other forums.

KRISTOL: But there's a lot of isolationism in both parties.

The president said Syria can deal its own problems. Syria can't deal with its own problems. Half-a-million Syrians dead and we didn't intervene there. And, unfortunately -- and I very much am against Trump's America first foreign policy.

Unfortunately, the Democrats, partly for political reasons, partly because they are dovish on some of these issues, aren't being honest about what we have to do around the world, both diplomatically, but also in terms of military force and the threat of military force.

HILL: A week ago, President Trump bragging the American steel industry was growing. Now 200 people are losing their jobs.

The Trump policy that may be behind it all, that's next.



HILL: In our "NATIONAL LEAD," President Trump claims the steel industry is thriving thanks to him.

Yet, today, we are learning U.S. Steel is temporarily laying off about 200 workers in Michigan, and the president's tariffs may be partially to blame.

If the economy is the defining issue of the 2020 election, CNN's Martin Savidge found there's a divide emerging in the Rust Belt over whether the Trump economy is working for everyone.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Scranton, Pennsylvania, home to the sitcom "The Office," the birthplace of Joe Biden, in a state where white working-class voters helped propel Donald Trump to victory.

And if he hopes to win again, Trump's chances may hinge on those same voters and the economy. So I'm here asking people, how is the economy? And I'm getting two very different answers. COLLEEN DEAN, PENNSYLVANIA VOTER: Yes, I think things are definitely

good. There's more jobs in the area. The stock market is really high.

PAUL WALKER, PENNSYLVANIA VOTER: I think we're on the verge of a recession.

SAVIDGE: I quickly pick up on a theme.

(on camera): How are you feeling about the economy?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm feeling optimistic.

SAVIDGE: So if I ask you, how's the economy, you say?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have some concerns.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): How people view the economy here is directly related to how they see the president.

Jessica Statsman owns Diskin's Saloon, she's a huge Trump fan.

(on camera): Did you like the fact he was a businessman?



STATSMAN: Yes. That was one of the biggest things. I feel the country has become like a business.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Criminal defense attorney Paul Walker is definitely not for Trump. And he sees trouble ahead.

WALKER: And if this economy turns like I think it's going to, then it's going to turn on him.

SAVIDGE: Scranton is a factory town. Nationally, manufacturing jobs numbers are the highest they have been in the decade, according to the Department of Labor.

But there are signs hiring and production are slowing, bad news for manufacturing workers, a key part of the president's base, people like Trump voter Douglas Waltrop, an electrician. Economic forecasts suggest dark clouds, but he sees only sunshine where he works.

DOUGLAS WALTROP, PENNSYLVANIA VOTER: We got more work than we know what to do is right now.

SAVIDGE (on camera): Really?


SAVIDGE (voice-over): I ask another key question. Would voters stick with the president if the economy turns negative?

Union rep Joe Laboranti, a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton, doesn't think so.

JOE LABORANTI, PENNSYLVANIA VOTER: We're on a high right now. And if we go belly up, I think it's going to be a big, big difference.

SAVIDGE: While Trump voters say even if the economy turns bad, they would still back the president.

WALTROP: Right now, yes.

SAVIDGE (on camera): Would you vote different?

DEAN: Not necessarily, because I think the economy's always up and down.


SAVIDGE: And there was another question that I decided to ask these Trump voters especially. And that was, are there any Democrats out there they might consider?

Every one of them said no. I said, what about hometown Joe Biden? Even Joe Biden wasn't very much appreciated here -- Erica.

HILL: All right, Martin Savidge, appreciate it. Thank you.

A CNN exclusive, inside Venezuela -- how brutal, violent gangs are using torture, murder and gold mines to help Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro keep his hold on power.


[16:45:00] HILL: A CNN exclusive in our "WORLD LEAD." Deep in the Venezuelan jungle, a state-sponsored network of gangs are fighting over gold mines torturing, mutilating, and murdering miners to keep control. President Nicolas Maduro is using the lucrative mines as a financial lifeline.

CNN's Isa Soares has exclusive access to the mines. And I do want to warn you, some of the images you're about to see are graphic.


ISA SOARES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: On the fringes of the Amazon rainforest, a state-sponsored network of violent gangs and corrupt Venezuelan military hide amongst a farce land, rich in minerals, and seeking gold.

This has made this area murderous Eldorado and it's this that's giving him a financial lifeline.

We've come deep into Venezuela's mining arc to find out how Nicolas Maduro is holding on to power, unable to resist American pressure. He's given himself direct control over this land and he's bleeding it

dry. Enriching himself and buying the allegiance of the military and it all starts with a local miners, who with mouths to feed at home risk it all operating this lawless region.

We venture in 50 meters deep. It is a precarious operation. Inside the miners guide us through the various levels and galleries past evidence of a colonial thirst for gold. Along the way, I meet Darwin Rojas who has been mining here for three years now.

TEXT: The gold comes out of here from the earth.

SOARES: Back-breaking work in intense humidity.

TEXT: When you're working a large section of the mine, we could dig as many as 50 or 60 bags.

SOARES: Everywhere you look, speckle shimmer from above. This mine has been so productive for them because they have got 250 kilos of gold out of his mine just to give you a sense really on why it's called The Millionaire Mine.

If 250 kilos or just over 550 pounds is accurate, that's well over $10 million at global market prices all from one single dug hole. There are dozens around, thousands within Venezuela's mining arc. But not all or that shimmers is gold and these miners know it. These rocks need to be crushed, processed, scraped, and melted before you actually see the gold.

This nugget here, $315. But it comes at a cost to the health for the miners as well as the environment with mercury and other chemicals used to separate gold from grit poisoning everything you see around us. But this is business and these mills don't do it for free. And then there's an additional cost even if the miners are scared to admit it.

TEXT: Do you have to pay anyone else?

TEXT: No one else.

TEXT: Right, it's like that?

[16:50:00] TEXT: It's like that?

TEXT: It is more or less like that.

TEXT: More or less like that.

It's clear from what he's saying there are the forces involved. There are the people they have to pay in order to be continuing to work in these mines -- in these mines but clearly, they're not prepared to tell us who they are.

They have every reason to be afraid. These mines are run by a network of hooded militias called Pranes who according to a senior military source enter mines to extort steal and silence. They do so together with complicit members of the military who they bribe to operate freely.

TEXT: What kind of pressure, they kill people?

A local miner too scared to speak out about the gangs close to the mines opens up once his identity is hidden.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They mutilate people, they cut them, torture them, and the ones that speaker also tortured and mutilated. They killed him and throw them down those holes.

SOARES: One active senior military source confirms what we've heard in El Callao telling me these same groups used death squads to command obedience, battling each other and the military for control over this mining area. It's a pressure tactic of blood and bullets. I asked the miner if he blames Maduro.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the government has the capacity to put an end to the Pranes if he wants to do it but they're not going to do it because they benefit from it.

SOARES: This is echoed from the top. General Manuel Figuera was the former spy chief for the Venezuelan president until April the 30th when he defected.

MANUEL FIGUERA, FORMER SPY CHIEF OF MADURO (through translator): Maduro has knowledge of all of this and has done very little if anything.

SOARES: For years he was part of Maduro's inner circle with the U.S. Treasury sanctioning him of accusations, he oversaw mass torture, mass human rights violations, and mass persecution. Now with sanctions dropped, he's speaking out about corruption at the very top backing the U.S. assessment that Maduro's family are also profiting.

FIGUERA (through translator): There are companies linked to Maduro's family circle that buy the gold and negotiate the extraction of the gold in the south of the country. They sell one part of it to the Central Bank and other part they take out of the country without any kind of control.

SOARES: In Caracas, we find its network expands beyond Venezuela. In 2018, Maduro traded Venezuelan gold to Turkey, some in exchange for food which the government then used in their subsidized food boxes. But it didn't stop there.

According to a source at the Venezuelan Central Bank, 26 tons of gold were taken out of the bank to the end of April that were put into private airplanes and a destination Middle East and Africa.

That's $1.6 billion much of it is skirting U.S. sanctions. According to the source, several other shipments left Caracas this year to United Arab Emirates directly and also via Uganda on a Russian plane in exchange for Euros.

FIGUERA (through translator): Maduro is at the helm of a criminal enterprise. He has hijacked all the state's institutions to work in his service. This has allowed him to corrupt public servants and military officials in all the power structures in order to perpetuate his rule.

SOARES: This matches what we hear on the streets of El Callao. Here where gold is a standard currency, many like this gold seller are just a cog in the system which is controlled all the way from the top.

TEXT: What we hear is that everything is completely controlled by the government. Directly or indirectly, we're all working for them.

SOARES: But with the river of gold running deep and the economy shrinking by half in a span of five years, there is little sign Maduro and his men will turn their back on this blood gold. Here human misery goes hand in hand with environmental devastation. It's a free- for-all, a gold rush where the main winner is Maduro.


SOARES: And Erica, CNN contacted both the Venezuelan government and the Venezuelan Central Bank but obtained no response. The Venezuelan government has dismissed U.S. sanctions in the past saying there are an unjustified attack on the country in an attempt to get hold of its resources.

Now, we also reached out to the Turkish government but received no response. An Emirati official did tell CNN they take these matters seriously and that the UAE government is in compliance with international law but wouldn't comment on legal proceedings that said in another country, Erica.

HILL: It's a remarkable story. Isa Soares, I really appreciate you going there to bring it to us. Thank you. New turmoil inside of one of the most powerful organizations in this country.


[16:55:00] HILL: In our "NATIONAL LEAD," after weeks of controversy, three more NRA leaders stepping down. Country Music Singer Craig Morgan and NASCAR team owner, Richard Childress both board member along with the NRA's general counsel are the latest in a growing list of top NRA officials to step down.

Former NRA President Oliver North was ousted after an internal struggle of money and spending. The NRA has not responded to CNN's multiple requests for comment but does say none of those payments were improper.

Thanks for joining us here on THE LEAD. You can follow me on Twitter @ERICARHILL, tweet @THELEADCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.