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Netanyahu asks for Immunity; Collins Open to Witnesses; Giuliani Willing to Testify; Thousands Flee Wildfires in Australia; Genocide Against Muslims in China. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired January 2, 2020 - 06:30   ET




JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, breaking news.

Tehran's military chief and seven others were killed overnight after their Blackhawk helicopter crashed in the mountains near Taipei. The general was on route to visit troops ahead of the lunar new year when the chopper vanished from radar right after takeoff. Five people on board survived.


Japanese investigators raided the home of former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. He was living there under house arrest while facing financial misconduct charges. He escaped in just a remarkable fashion from Japan and is now living in Lebanon with the support of the Lebanese government. It is not clear how he was able to leave the country since apparently his passports were confiscated. It's believed that he fled through Turkey with Turkish media reporting seven people in that country have been detained in their investigation into this. He is expected to speak to the media to tell his side of the story in Beirut next week.

BERMAN: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he will ask parliament to grant him immunity from the corruption charges he is facing. In March, Israelis will try for the third time to elect a majority government. The immunity request by Netanyahu is expected to delay any trial until after that election.

CNN's Oren Liebermann live in Jerusalem with just this latest twist in what is the eternal Israeli election.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And it's not ending any time soon by the looks of it right now, John.

Like any other parliamentarian in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the right to request immunity. He had 30 days to consider his request following the unveiling of the official indictment. And he made his request with four hours to go until that deadline. It's worth noting that since the immunity law was changed to its current format in 2005, there have been a few who have requested immunity. It has never been granted. Netanyahu, at this point, hoping to be the first.

When he made his statement last night, he didn't start by talking about immunity. Instead, he started talked about his achievements and saying he wants to lead the country for many years to come. Then, as he has in the past, he attacked the judicial system saying the immunity law is designed to protect politicians from what he called fabricated indictments and political charges. He made a quick statement there saying he would officially request immunity and then he shifted to what sounded a heck of a lot like a campaign speech and attacked his rival.

Well, his rival, Benny Gantz, the head of the Blue and White Party, put out a statement right after Netanyahu requested immunity saying, voters now have a clear choice in the elections in March. It's either vote for the interests of Netanyahu or the interests of the national interest. It's either vote for the kingdom of Bibi, or it's vote for the state of Israel.

So this, of course, quickly became a key campaign issue. And it will be until the March elections.

Where does this go legally? Well, Netanyahu's request has to be heard by what's called the Knesset house committee, except since there's no functioning coalition, there is no Knesset house committee to hear Netanyahu's request, and that means that legal proceedings against him are stuck, just like Israel's political situation.

Poppy, now the key question is, can a House committee be formed temporarily? That will surely lead to a political fight.

HARLOW: Yes, it's just remarkable all that has happened and all of this leading into the third election there to try to figure things out.

Thank you very much for that update. We appreciate it, Oren.

Also, take a look at this. A Jewish gathering at MetLife Stadium on New Jersey on New Year's Day. Nearly 100,000 people were on hand for the Orthodox religious celebration. Last night the event drew heavy security, of course, after the rise we have seen in anti-Semitic attacks. There have been 15 of those incidents just in the New York area in the last month.

BERMAN: Sports fans everywhere mourning the death of former NBA Commissioner David Stern. Stern took over the league in 1984 and reshaped it over three decades, seeing it skyrocket into this multi- billion-dollar business and really cultural icon and touchstone. His legacy also includes overseeing the launch of the WNBA and the NBA development league, the Dream Team. Stern suffered a brain hemorrhage last month, never regained consciousness. Basketball legends Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Scottie Pippen, I mean, Dwyane Wade, I've seen everyone, LeBron James, all paying their respects.


BERMAN: Stern was just 77 years old. And you knew him. HARLOW: I did. I mean it was a joy to get to know him. I knew him from

Columbia University, where I went to school, he went to law school, and through the league. And he was just such a warm, kind man. I remember him giving me advice years ago as I was starting my career in journalism. And, you know, we'll miss him a lot. And you laid out just how he transformed that league.

BERMAN: There's some amazing statistics. One of them is that in the years before he took over as commissioners, the NBA finals, they had games that were tape delayed. That's how insignificant the NBA was.

HARLOW: Right. That's right.

BERMAN: They weren't even showing the finals live. And now it's this just giant thing.


There was a team that sold the year he started as commissioner for $16 million. Chicago Bulls. The Clippers, when they sold a couple years ago, $2 billion.

HARLOW: Billion. Yes.

BERMAN: So it's just, in terms of money, influence, everything, he was a huge part of it. The players too.

HARLOW: Yes, yes, yes.

BERMAN: I mean Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, all those guys. But David Stern was a visionary to say the least.

HARLOW: Seventy-seven young. Just a reminder of how fragile life is. All right, our thoughts, of course, with his entire family and the league.

Ahead, another Republican senator weighs in on the impending impeachment trial, whether there should be witnesses called and when. Will it help break the impasse, though, between Pelosi and McConnell as Congress comes back?


BERMAN: The Senate will be back from the holiday break soon with the impeachment trial hanging over Washington. Republican Senator Susan Collins says she's open to hearing from witnesses. But what exactly does Susan Collins mean here? And what will the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, do about it?

Back with us, CNN political analyst Alex Burns and CNN political analyst Toluse Olorunnipa, he's a White House reporter for "The Washington Post."

Let me read you part of the quote from Susan Collins, which is, I am open to witnesses. I think it's premature to decide who should be called until we see the evidence that is presented and get the answers to the questions we senators can submit through the chief justice to both sides.

So, I would submit, we didn't see that here, but that's incredible Susan Collins-ness there, from the senator from Maine, Toluse.

HARLOW: Threading the needle-ness.

BERMAN: Because she says she's -- she's unhappy with Mitch McConnell saying he's coordinating with the White House and the idea that he's prejudged.


She's saying she wants witnesses, but she's also basically saying she wants the trial to start without any agreement on witnesses. She doesn't know about witnesses until she hears the presentations from both sides, which is what, by the way, Mitch McConnell is asking for.

How do you see it?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I would say that Susan Collins is doing, as you said, what she often does, which is straddling the fence. She is trying to placate both sides to a certain extent. You heard her say in those comments multiple times, you know, both sides -- I want both sides to be impartial. And I want both Democrats and Republicans to take this seriously.

But if you read between the lines of what she's saying, she is giving some light criticism to the boldness of Senator McConnell in which she said that he was going to coordinate directly with the White House, he's going to take his cues from the White House counsel's office, being very blatant about the fact that he wants to sort of rig this trial in a way that makes it very favorable to the president. That's something that makes several senators uncomfortable and she was voicing that in her own way in sort of couched language, but making it very clear that she's not comfortable with what Senator McConnell said, but also not saying that she's calling for witnesses right away. That's something that's important as well. If we don't see Republican senators directly calling for witnesses, it could make it easier for McConnell to continue along the path that he's on.

BERMAN: I just want to play that sound. I didn't realize we had the sound. We can actually hear Susan Collins say it for herself.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): What I don't understand is why the House, having issued subpoenas to Secretary Pompeo, for example, did not seek to enforce those subpoenas in court and instead rush to get the articles of impeachment passed before Christmas and yet have not transmitted them to us in the Senate.


BERMAN: It only proves my point more, Alex. There's more fence straddling from Susan Collins there saying, yes, she wants witnesses, doesn't quite understand why the House didn't do it, doesn't want them now. She's uncomfortable with all of it, but doesn't sound like she's going to do anything about it.

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And, look, Susan Collins is up for re-election in this year. And her political imperative, and I think also just the way she tends to be wired as a politician is to sort of seek out the space where she can sound the most reasonable to the largest number of people, even if she will ultimately disappoint many of them by choosing a side.

HARLOW: Look at the Kavanaugh hearing.

BURNS: Exactly. And the -- and the challenge for Democrats here who need to get a handful of Republicans to support their witness requests is to make their demands sound so reasonable that even the Susan Collins of the world ultimately have to make some concessions to them. Right now it doesn't sound like she's about to do that, at least not on the single most important question that's facing the Senate, which is will you have an agreement that includes witnesses up front.

HARLOW: On -- on her point that we just -- we just played about sort of the urgency that we heard, Toluse, from Democrats for a long time, and now this sort of indefinite hold, we don't know when Pelosi is going to transmit these articles. People like Jim Clyburn, I think he told you he'd be OK with an indefinite hold.

BERMAN: And forever.

HARLOW: Right, forever and ever and ever. He said that's what he would do.

But in all seriousness, Toluse, I think -- I mean how big -- or is there, in your mind, a growing by the day political risk for Democrats here because those sound bites of urgency, urgency, national security threat, this election, this year, now it's 2020. How can you say that three weeks ago and now hold indefinitely?

OLORUNNIPA: Yes, over the past several months we've heard a lot of process arguments from Republicans not as willing to defend President Trump's actions. And this gives them another argument on the process. It allows them to continue to say that this process has not gone well in the House, it has not been handled well. And this talking point is something that unifies Republicans, the fact that Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats rushed through this process because they felt that President Trump was a threat to national security and they needed to quickly act. And now that they're holding back these articles, that it makes it more difficult to make that case that this threat is so urgent. And I do think it makes it easier for Republicans to coalesce around another process argument and not have to defend President Trump on the substance of what happened with Ukraine.

BERMAN: You know what Republicans will not like to hear? It's Rudy Giuliani at the president's New Year's Eve party, because the former New York City mayor volunteered not just to testify but I think to try the case, to judge the case, to do dances at the case.

Listen to what the former mayor said.


RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: I would testify. I would do demonstrations. I'd give lectures. I'd give summations. Or I'd do what I do best, I'd try the case.


BERMAN: First of all, I'm not sure that anyone would agree that that's what he does best anymore is try the case, Alex, but Republicans don't want Rudy Giuliani anywhere near this at this point, do they?

BURNS: No, absolutely not.

I mean, ultimately, what matters is what President Trump wants Rudy Giuliani to do, right? But if the Republican Senate can do anything short of actually deploying physical force, they will stop Rudy Giuliani from making statements like that and following through on that promise or, to them, that threat to actually participate so actively in an impeachment process.


I completely agree, that there's a huge political risk to Democrats in sort of dragging out this gamesmanship around transmitting the articles of impeachment. I do think Rudy Giuliani is a reminder of the risk that continues to exist on the Republican side, which is that they don't really have a full sense of what kinds of facts may emerge from the president's side of this argument. And how the president and his very willing set of volunteer allies may step up and sort of make the case on their own. That Mitch McConnell may want to coordinate very closely with the White House. There are a lot of people around the president who are not necessarily going to be as disciplined.

HARLOW: Toluse, 30 seconds left. If this thing drags into February, which is looking more likely by the day, Iowa, February 3rd, what does that mean for the senators running for president?

OLORUNNIPA: Well, it could be a gift in disguise for them in that it would give them more time to campaign and they wouldn't have to be stuck in the Senate six days a week. But I do think that Democrats running for president do not want to be talking about impeachment for the entire month of January and February as they face voters. I think they want to have this behind them. So it could have a double-edged sword effect on this.

BERMAN: Yes, they don't really talk about it when they're out on the trail. It's when they're doing debates and national media that they get asked. But it's not an issue for them usually in Iowa and New Hampshire.


BERMAN: But, we'll see.

Toluse, Alex, great to have you here. Happy 2020 to both of you.

OLORUNNIPA: Happy New Year.

BERMAN: A state of emergency in Australia as wildfires rage out of control. We're going to have a live report from the scene with the race to save lives.



BERMAN: A warm start to the new year for many here in the United States, but millions in the Southeast bracing for heavy rain and flooding.

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers with the forecast.

Happy New Year, Chad.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Happy New Year to you too.

I think some people down here across the South, John, will pick up four inches of rain in 24 hours. So flash flood and flood watches have been posted.

This weather's brought to you by Celebrity Cruises. Visit to book your award-winning vacation today.

So here's the rainfall. Here's where it is right now. All the way across parts of Louisiana, into Georgia and Alabama. We even have the potential for some tornadoes today with severe weather. So this is a spring type event, even though we're not quite into spring.

Follow me here. And this is moving ahead the radar until tomorrow. The rain gets to New York, but that's not where the flash flooding is. It's that second round of rain that's going to come into Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. There's some snow, but really this is a wet weather event, not a white weather event. Everywhere you see orange, that's four inches of rain or more. And that is a widespread area. That's the area we're really looking for, for the potential for flash flooding. Be careful out there.

If you're out there this weekend, though, temperatures are above freezing. Either taking back presents or maybe buying some half-priced Christmas trees or anything you want to do. Temperatures way above normal.


HARLOW: Am I the only one who wants cold and snow? I think I am. I miss --

BERMAN: Minnesota.

HARLOW: Minnesota.

MYERS: Hey, I grew up in Buffalo.

BERMAN: Minnesota.

HARLOW: I miss it, man. It feels like -- doesn't feel like winter.

All right, thanks, Chad, appreciate it.

MYERS: You're welcome. All right.

HARLOW: The Australian state of New South Wales is now under a week- long state of emergency as crews try to get a handle on these raging wildfires. Triple digit temperatures, dry conditions, high winds could make these fires explode even more. Over the weekend, thousands are being forced to flee. Look at this, these drivers getting stuck in gridlock as they try to get away from the flames.

Let's go to our Anna Coren. She is live in Nowra, Australia, with more.

It is -- it is just growing by the moment.

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's been a hideous week here in New South Wales. And as you said, Poppy, it has been declared a state of emergency. And that is because we are expecting catastrophic conditions to return here on Saturday. Those soaring temperatures and ferocious winds, which will just stir up those fires that are burning, not only across New South Wales, but also Victoria, up and down the east coast. There are a hundred fires burning here in New South Wales, 50 in Victoria. Those New Year's Eve fires where we saw those hideous pictures of the inferno, apocalyptic conditions of people lost their lives. And the fear is that those conditions will return this weekend. So a mass exodus is currently underway.

It is summer here in Australia. People are by the beach here on the south coast. And they have been over the past few weeks. Well, authorities are telling them they have to get out now to avoid any further loss of life. The problem is that fires are breaking out across the state. So it's very difficult for these people to get out. They are trapped.

So where we are here in Nowra, about three hours south of Sydney, is a staging area, if you like, for much of that effort to get people out. But the warning has gone out.

Now, I should mention that the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, who has been heavily criticized for his lack of leadership, for his government's inaction on climate change, well, he was berated and heckled today at a town that was devastated by those fires on New Year's Eve. Residents there telling him that he should be ashamed of himself. That he allowed them to burn. So he is definitely feeling the pressure. People really across Australia just feel this government is not doing enough to help these people.



BERMAN: Anna Coren, the pictures really, really sad to see this morning. Please keep us posted and stay safe there. Appreciate it.

Meanwhile, CNN has obtained new evidence of what critics are calling an ongoing cultural genocide in China carried out against the Muslim Uyghur population. It includes demolishing cemeteries that are an essential part of life for so many local Muslims.

CNN's Matt Rivers, he's been on the story. He joins us here with what you've learned.


MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, John, we've been reporting on this story for a while now, the accusation that China is essentially trying to wipe out Islam and Islamic culture within its borders. And what we found here, after months of reporting, is another chilling example of that. More than 100 cemeteries destroyed and, in the process, affecting families across the world.


RIVERS (voice over): When Aziz Isa Elkins's (ph) father died, it was too dangerous for him to go to the funeral in China. Aziz is an ethnic Uyghur who lives in exile in north London, but he grew up in a western Chinese region called Xinjiang, an area activists say is the center of an unparalleled human rights crisis in the world today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not a normal state, normal country can't do like this. This is pure evilness.

RIVERS: Xinjiang is where the United Nations says the Chinese government has detained hundreds of thousands of Muslim ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs, over the past several years. Critics say China is doing that to try to eliminate Islam within its borders. Some detainees are seen here in leaked video blindfolded and shackled as they are transferred between places.

Former detainees have told CNN they're kept in a massive network of detention camps where inside allegations of torture abound. China's government denies that, says they're just offering vocational training designed to fight extremism. But last year we tried to see those camps for ourselves and were met with police.

RIVERS (on camera): Ma'am, can you tell me what that is? Is this something you don't want us to here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why you are here? You tell me, why you are here? Why -- why you are here?

RIVERS: We're here to film what we believe is a camp.

RIVERS (voice over): In London, Aziz tells us his father was buried in this tomb near his family home in central Xinjiang. In the past, he visited him the only way he could, by using Google Earth to see the tomb from above. But in June, the satellite image changed. Before, rows of tombs. Now, a largely empty, flattened field.

RIVERS (on camera): What happened to your father's remains?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. I don't know. I have no idea.

RIVERS: In a months' long investigation, working with sources in the Uyghur community and analyzing hundreds of satellite images, CNN has found more than 100 cemeteries that have been destroyed, most in just the last two years, like this one in the town of Oxtu (ph). A cemetery first demolished, then redeveloped with a manmade pond. Or this one in Shiar (ph), distinctive white tombs leveled and simply built over.

The AFP first reported on this destruction and visited some sites. At three different places they said they found human bones. CNN has also found multiple government notices online. In one case giving families just 15 days to move remains.

We showed these images to Ryan Thum, an anthropologist who studies Islam in China and uses satellite imagery to study this region.

RIVERS (on camera): There's no doubt in your mind what that is?

RYAN THUM, UYGHUR HISTORIAN, UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM: Right. No, these -- this is -- this is absolutely clear what this is. You can see the destruction encroaching. And now, if you look at Google Earth today, you'll see that this sort of flat surface, it now covers everything. And that is a phenomenon stretching right across the region of Xinjiang.

RIVERS (voice over): In response, the Chinese government did not deny the cemetery destruction. They said in part, quote, governments in Xinjiang fully respect and guarantee the freedom of all ethnic groups to choose cemeteries and funeral and burial methods. In public documents, official reasons for the destruction include wanting to build, quote, civilized cemeteries to promote progress.

Uyghur cemeteries are central to village life. A place to meet and connect one generation to the last.

THUM: It's akin to for an American seeing Arlington Cemetery raised and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier dug up and paved over.

It's a great act of desecration and a kind of open insult to Uyghur culture.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are stronger together.

RIVERS: Aziz believes it's a desecration that will have a backlash.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: we ca not live anymore with them together because they are committing genocide against the Uyghur people.

RIVERS: In Xinjiang, it seems, even the dead can't rest.


RIVERS: Now, here in the U.S., there does seem to be growing bipartisan support for action against China over these human rights abuses. The U.S. House passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in December by a vote of 407-1, which would allow the U.S. to put targeted sanctions on China over the crisis.