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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Trump: Attempt To Overturn 2020 Election Was My Decision; Five Americans Released from Iran En Route To The US; Fox Poll: 61 Percent Of Registered Voters Say Biden Doesn't Have The Mental Soundness To Serve As President; Protecting New York During The U.N. General Assembly; Inside Wagner's Criminal Organization In Africa; Sandy & Lonnie Phillips' "Survivors Empowered" Helps Those Impacted By Mass Shootings. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired September 18, 2023 - 20:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: We've covered his case closely here on "Out Front" for over a decade, and Levinson's family said in a statement tonight about the released Americans: "Today's good news," and they did say it was good news and they mean it. But they said, "It does not end our family's nightmare and ongoing pain nor does it mask or excuse the shameful cruelty and unending lies of the Iranian regime."

Thanks so very much for joining us.

AC 360 starts now.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Tonight on 360: When does an admission amount to a confession? A key question now that the former president admits the work into overturning the 2020 election was "my decision."

Also tonight, an exclusive look at security on land and on water as world leaders including President Biden gather here in New York for the UN General Assembly.

And later, another exclusive, CNN's Clarissa Ward on dangerous ground in the Central African Republic where Russia's Wagner mercenaries are still making money even though their leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is dead.

Good evening. Thanks for joining us.

We begin tonight with the legal and political twofer, how the former president may have undermined a likely defense in his federal election subversion case, and potentially alienated supporters on a central issue to many evangelicals. One could cost him votes, the other perhaps his freedom, both from a single interview with NBC's Kristen Welker, which aired yesterday.

On the legal side, he made it harder for his defense attorneys in the January 6 election diversion case, to claim that he was merely acting on advice of counsel in trying to overturn the election that he lost.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS: You called some of your outside lawyers, you said they had crazy theories. Why were you listening to them? Were you listening them because they were telling you what you wanted to hear?

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know who I listen to? Myself. It was my decision, but I listened to some people. Some people said that. Like guys like Bill Barr, who is a stiff, but he wasn't there at the time, but he didn't do his job because he was afraid.


COOPER: So when asked why he relied on advice for counsel, his answers is he didn't rely on advice of counsel, he relied, he says on himself. It was, he said "my decision."

He also claimed that Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger said he didn't do anything wrong in that call when he asked for Raffensperger to find him 11,780 votes. That was false, one of more than a dozen false claims he made in the NBC interview, which is not exactly news, of course.

What is news, though, is the answer he gave when asked about abortion, and his position on a proposed federal ban on it after 15 weeks of pregnancy.


WELKER: If a federal ban landed on your desk, if you were re-elected, would you sign it at 15 weeks?

TRUMP: You're talking about a complete ban?

WELKER: A ban at 15 weeks.

TRUMP: Well, people are starting to think of 15 weeks, that seems to be a number that people are talking about right now.

WELKER: Would you sign that?

TRUMP: I would -- I would sit down with both sides and I'd negotiate something and we will end up with peace on that issue.

For the first time in 52 years, I'm not going to say I would or I wouldn't, I mean DeSantis is willing to sign a five-week and six-week ban.


COOPER: We'll be talking about this with our political panel coming up, but first constitutional scholar and Harvard Law School Professor, Laurence Tribe joins me. He is the author of "To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment."

So Professor Tribe, did the former president undermine his own defense by saying it was his decision to go after the results of the 2020 election?

There's obviously been a lot of talk that he may argue at trial that he was just listening to legal advice.

LAURENCE TRIBE, PROFESSOR, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: I think he threw his own defense, not just under a bus, but under a freight train. It's very hard to say that I was relying on legal advice as a defense at trial, when you tell the world through Kristen Welker and NBC, that he was relying on his own advice.

It is said sometimes that only a fool hires himself as a lawyer to defend himself. I don't think Trump is a fool, but he is certainly a narcissist. He just has to say that he is responsible for everything. He doesn't depend on anybody. That's all very nice politically.

But in the courtroom, he's just blown that defense, the defense that I was just relying on by lawyers, and therefore I didn't have the state of mind that it takes to commit these crimes. He's just blown that out of the water.

COOPER: I mean, he did sort of, you know, hedge it a little. He said while it was his decision, he also said he, "listened to some people." I mean, does that give him wiggle room to still attempt the advice of counsel defense, because he said -- well, he also said that, you know, he didn't trust and didn't respect the lawyers who were arguing the counter argument, which were basically the White House counsel and legitimate attorneys.

TRIBE: Well, you know, he can say he relied on astrologers and he relied on other people, all kinds of people, but the specific defense that says, I was just following the directions of my lawyers, it is a very narrow defense.

It's not just like saying, you know, I read the papers, I listen to everybody. That won't do.


If you are accused of the various crimes that Jack Smith has obtained indictments for, and you say that well, it may be that I did these things, but I was innocent because I was basically a pawn following my lawyer's instruction, that's not an easy defense under any circumstances.

But when you have said publicly what Donald Trump said, then that defense is just not going to fly with the jury, especially if you're not willing to take the stand because he has a right not to.

But the only way he could explain all of that to the jury is by giving up that right and taking the stand, but he is not likely to because everyone knows that he would perjure himself. So he's really gotten himself into quite a corner.

COOPER: The former president's defenders argue that if he genuinely believed the election was stolen, then there's no corrupt intent, I mean, is it that simple? TRIBE: It's not that simple. You can believe that money was stolen from you, but it doesn't give you the right to break in to Fort Knox and take an equivalent amount back from the government.

So that even if he did genuinely believe that he had won the election, which is pretty hard to believe, given what everybody was telling him and gave him that there are instances where he actually said, "I can't believe I lost to that guy, Biden," even if he actually believed that, it wouldn't get rid of his criminal liability.

But again, the only way he could possibly convince even one juror and get a hung jury that he was just an innocent guy who convinced himself that he was incapable of losing, the only way he could do that would be to take the stand and testify under oath.

But I think even though he says he would love to testify under oath, he's always said that he's never done it in any of these proceedings, so we'll just have to see.

COOPER: You've been vocal in arguing Section 3 of the 14th Amendment bars the former president from appearing on a ballot in 2024, because he incited the January 6 insurrection.

A co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society initially agreed with that with you, but is now echoing an argument made by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, which is essentially, the phrasing of that section specifically, a "officer under the United States" doesn't actually refer to a president.

Can you just explain for non-lawyers what that's all about?

TRIBE: It is pretty hard, because it doesn't make any more sense legally than it does logically or in terms of common sense.

The Constitution in its appointments clause does talk about the president's power to appoint officers. And those people are not elected, they're appointed. But where it refers in a totally different part of the Constitution, enacted not as part of the original Constitution the way the appointments clause was, but as part of the 14th Amendment after the Civil War, where it refers to civil or criminal officers of the United States. It obviously includes the president.

The president is an officer. What else would he be? The Constitution in Article II uses that word to describe the presidency nine times? There's no reason to think that just because officers are appointed, rather than elected in Article II of the Constitution, which was enacted in 1787, and then became the law in 1789, no reason to believe that because there, officers doesn't refer to people like the president, that somehow the president is exempt from the disqualification principle.

It's sort of like a king complex. He says, you know, everybody else has to abide by an oath, anyone else who takes an oath to the Constitution and then engages in insurrection against the Constitution can never again, hold office, except if it's the president. Well, that just suggests that when we rebelled against King George, we really intended to have another kind of king above someone who can take an oath to the Constitution with his fingers crossed, then try to overturn it and say, give me another chance. It doesn't make sense.

So why Mr. Calabrese changed his mind on this bizarre basis, probably the least persuasive of all possible reasons to doubt the applicability of the disqualification clause is quite beyond me.

It's not a new argument. There have been people who made is quite silly argument about the president not being an officer years ago, it wasn't new and yet somehow, Mr. Calabrese says well, I now I know by that bizarre argument.


COOPER: Professor Laurence Tribe, I appreciate it. Thank you.

Ron DeSantis just responded to the former president's abortion remarks and his refusal to commit to signing a 15-week federal ban, should he be re-elected.

Florida's governor telling Iowa radio listeners: "I think all pro- lifers should know that he's preparing to sell you out." Joining us, two CNN political commentators on the left and right, respectfully, Van Jones and Alyssa Farah Griffin.

I mean, Alyssa, a typical Republican candidate, refusing, you know, bashing the strict abortion law like Ron DeSantis signed would lose support among evangelicals, conservatives. Do you think this impacts him there at all?

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It probably fundamentally does not, and it just further underscores how Donald Trump has just upended all of the rules of Republican politics.

At the end of the day, even him coming out and saying something closer to 15 weeks and criticizing Governor DeSantis, at the end of the day, voters are going to remember that he put three conservative justices on the Supreme Court that led to the overturning of Roe.

I actually think that Donald Trump for once is being a bit politically expedient in reading the tea leaves and knowing that running on something like a six-week ban would be political suicide in the general election for Republicans.

Listen, he got some criticism, the Susan B. Anthony list came out after he had some other pro-life groups, but it won't fundamentally change things. And at the end of the day, he's about 40 points ahead in Iowa.

COOPER: Van, do you think a six-week ban would be political suicide?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: In a general election, I think it would and you know, Trump lies about the lies that he lies about. I mean, this is just like nuts. He literally is the reason that we don't have Roe v. Wade. He was bragging about it. But now he's looking down the road and he's seeing Republicans lost their shot at taking the House because of this.

You're seeing red states, purple states everywhere. This is a banana peel. The Republicans caught this car and the car is running over them.

And so Trump, to your point is trying to get out of the way, but I think Democrats are doing a pretty good job of holding his feet to the fire.

All of this abortion extremism is he is author of, the champion of, the legal enabler of. He can't get out. He can't get away from it.

COOPER: In the NBC interview when he was pressed about a federal ban, he said it could be state, it could be federal, I don't frankly care. Do you think he's actually being honest there that he doesn't actually really care there?

GRIFFIN: No, I would go further. I'm not sure if he has any personal conviction around the issue of abortion, I would actually guess that he's probably personally pro-choice, but he is known since he ran in 2016 that he had to do what was politically expedient.

There was this famous interview that he did that said something along the lines of women who get abortions should be punished. And pro-life groups were like, whoa, whoa, that's not what we believe.

He has since then has kind of been learning what Republican orthodoxy is on this issue, but he can read the tea leaves well enough to know that 15 weeks is kind of the safe place to be in a general election.

But if I could just point out, this shows how different the world is in the post Roe era. I come from the world of Republican politics where someone like a Mike Pence or even a Donald Trump saying 15 weeks as reasonable for abortion access, that would have gotten you thrown out four years ago. It shows how much the tide has turned in this country.

COOPER: Van, obviously, in 2022, this was a big issue that brought people to the polls. Do you think it's going to be in 2024?

JONES: Absolutely. I think --

COOPER: Because there are a lot of Democrats back in 2022, who didn't think, when I talked to Nancy Pelosi about this, Congresswoman Pelosi the other day, she was the person saying, this is the issue to run on.

JONES: I think that when you have something you take it for granted, when somebody takes it from you, you take it personally, and I think that's what happened.

I think people for 50 years, whatever it was, it was a no brainer, of course, women had the right to control their own bodies and then when it got taken away, people got very, very concerned and also these stories about what's happening to real people, women who have ectopic pregnancies and have to go two states away. And I mean, there is horrible stuff happening.

So this is not going away, it's getting worse and worse on the ground with real people. It's going to be motivated.

COOPER: You know, I mean, you agree with this?

GRIFFIN: Well, I would just mention, I think Republicans were behind the ball in the messaging of this as well. If you're going to say you're pro-life, then you need to be the most pro-women party.

We need to have prenatal care. We need to have access for adoption care, for you know, paid family leave and that's something that we're kind of coming up from behind trying to catch up on.

COOPER: Just briefly, you know, his answer is like, he's going to solve the war in Ukraine in 24 hours. He is going to solve the abortion issue by getting such. They are so ludicrous and I understand the first time he ran, it was so ludicrous, people thought it was sort of charming and ignored it and maybe some people believed it.

I mean, he was -- Obamacare, he was going to create a whole new thing within the first 24 hours. Does anyone believe -- even his hardcore supporters actually believe that?

GRIFFIN: Listen, I think he caters to voters without a college education. I think that he meets them sounding not like a politician, and they actually see that as authentic and it resonates. It's gotten him this far.

But I mean, some of these statements are so ludicrous. They're demonstrably untrue. He didn't build the wall, he didn't replace Obamacare. But at the end of the day, if his opponents aren't litigating that case, I'm not even sure it really matters.

COOPER: Yes. Alyssa Farah Griffin, Van Jones, thanks so much.

Coming up next, what went in securing the freedom of five Americans after years of captivity in Iran and what Iran gets out of the deal and the controversy over that.

And later, Clarissa Ward's exclusive reporting of the Wagner group from where it is still doing its deadly, lucrative business in the Central African Republic.



COOPER: Five Americans held for years in Iran, one for almost eight years are airborne, due to land in the Washington area in the overnight hours. They're en route from Qatar, where they first tasted freedom earlier today.

Securing that freedom involved a swap for five Iranians held in this country and $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets. The deal is coming under criticism mainly from Republicans including former Vice President Pence who late today said if he is elected president: " We will never ever pay ransom to terrorists or terrorist states."

More now from CNN's Becky Anderson who joins us live.

So, Becky, you were on the tarmac when all this happened. Just explain what you saw today.


The tarmac just behind me there, that's Doha International Airport. That flight from Tehran, Qatar Airways flight arrived there at around late afternoon, Qatar time around 10:30 AM Eastern Time.


The doors opened and out came those five US detainees, plus two family members, and if I said that this was emotional, I will be really understating what happened.

There were smiles. There were hugs. There were tears as the US ambassador to Qatar met those individuals.

Let me show you what evolved.


ANDERSON (voice over): Smile smiles, hugs and tears, as five Americans detained inside Iran for years are finally freed and on their way home.

Among them, Siamak Namazi. He was arrested in 2015 while on a business trip to Iran and charged with having relations with a hostile state. After nearly eight years in prison, Namazi was Iran's longest held American prisoner. Feeling abandoned by the US earlier this year, he appealed directly to President Biden in an unprecedented interview with CNN from inside the notorious Evin Prison.

SIAMAK NAMAZI, AMERICAN HELD PRISONER IN EVIN PRISON: Honestly, the other hostages and I desperately need President Biden to finally hear us out to finally hear our cry for help bring us home.

ANDERSON (voice over): Also freed, dual Iranian-American citizens Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi. Tahbaz, an environmentalist was arrested while on a trip to Iran in 2018. Shargi, a businessman who moved with his wife to Iran from the US in 2017 was also detained in 2018 on similar charges to that of Namazi.

ANDERSON (on camera): For years their fate tied to tensions between the two countries, but with the help of a common friend in Qatar, breakthrough diplomacy brought us to this very moment.

ANDERSON (voice over): Iran freed the dual citizens in a deal to release five Iranians held in US prisons, and to unblock $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds from South Korea. That cash moving from Seoul to Switzerland before being transferred to Doha, after the Biden administration last week issued a sanctions waiver clearing the way for the money to move.

The role of Qatar now changing from mediator to guarantor ensuring Washington's demands that Iran's billions are strictly controlled, and spent only on humanitarian goods, like food and medicine.

But critics worry even with Doha's oversight, the moneys could be spent however Tehran decides. There is also concern this latest deal enables what many critics have dubbed Tehran's hostage diplomacy.

But for the freed Americans today at least, politics will likely be a secondary concern, as they finally get to go home after years of mental and physical anguish.


COOPER: What more do we know about how the deal came about?

ANDERSON: And that's fascinating, absolutely fascinating. It's been in the works over a couple of years now, indirect, on and off talks between the US and Iran.

But these are indirect, of course, brokered by Qatar, the state of Qatar where I am now and it was only in the last seven months that this deal materialized, and only in August that this deal was actually signed off on.

I'm told that the negotiations around the release were relatively straightforward. It was the negotiations around the release of the money, the $6 billion from the South Korean account into the Swiss account then ultimately here today to two bank accounts in Doha. That was the really difficult part, that according to a regional source that I spoke to here today -- Anderson.

COOPER: Becky Anderson, thanks so much.

Coming up, one is oldest US president ever; the other his possible Republican opponent only three years younger. Tonight, Harry Enten joins us to talk about how voters assess the question of age after the former president made some gaffes of his own.

Later, an exclusive look at how New York monitors security threats when world leaders including the president gather for the UN General Assembly.



COOPER: And Biden's age has been one of the main attack lines of Republicans in recent months, the former president who is just three years younger than Biden may have undermined that recently when he repeatedly said that Biden wasn't old, rather it was an issue of competence. Then a day later, this past Friday, the former president appeared confused Biden for former President Obama and then stumbled over how many world wars there had been.


TRUMP: The country is very divided and we did with Obama, we won an election that everyone said couldn't be won. We have a man who is totally corrupt, and the worst president in the history of our country, who is cognitively impaired, in no condition to lead, and is now in charge of dealing with Russia in a possible nuclear war. Just think of it.

We would be you World War Two very quickly if we're going to be relying on this man.


COOPER: As we said, there's been a lot of reporting over concerns about President Biden's age. What about the former president? For that we turn to our senior data reporter, Harry Enten.

So Biden is 80, former President Trump is 77. What do Americans think about the age factor for the former president?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: Yes, I mean, the one thing I should say is whenever I talk to people who are outside the news industry about this race, the one thing they say is these guys are all old. These guys are old.

And you know, Fox News asked this question: Is Trump mentally sound enough to basically serve as president of the United States? The majority of voters said no. They said no. Fifty two percent said no, just 46 percent said yes and that number has been pretty stable over the past few months.

So you know, we talk about Biden all the time, but the fact is, Trump, if -- you know, if he was the guy, and let's say there was a younger Democratic nominee, I think we'd be talking a lot more about Trump's age at this point.

COOPER: There's some new polling also on how many voters think both Biden and Trump would actually complete a second term.

ENTEN: Yes, this polling is not pretty for President Biden. In fact, less than a majority in the 30s think that Biden would complete a second term. At least Trump is over 50 percent on this metric.

Of course, you know, it was interesting comparing it with a president from years past to a lot of people thought was old, remember Ronald Reagan when he was running for a second term and basically, you know, made fun of his age in that debate. I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I will not exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience and everyone cheered.

The vast majority of voters thought that Ronald Reagan would have finished a second term into the 70s. So the fact that Biden is in the 30s on this metric is something that is truly unusual, truly different, and should be truly worrisome for him.


COOPER: And how have voters attitudes regarding the current president's age changed over time?

ENTEN: Yes, you know, when we compare it now versus where we were back in 2020, what we see is that we have seen clear movement in terms of the percentage of Americans, percentage of voters who say that Biden does not have The mental soundness to serve as President of the United States. That number has gone up by about 20 points since 2020.

So this is something where voters have been looking at Joe Biden, looking at him being president and they're not liking what he's seeing. And I think that's one of the reasons why at this particular point, Joe Biden and Donald Trump are basically even in the polls, despite the fact that President Trump or former President Trump has been indicted four times.

COOPER: Right.

ENTEN: Age, to me, is the big issue for Biden at this particular point.

COOPER: All right, Harry Enten, thanks so much.

ENTEN: Thank you.

COOPER: Tomorrow, President Biden addresses the U.N. General Assembly here in New York. We'll also be meeting with leaders of Israel and Brazil. Thursday, he meets with Ukrainian President back in Washington.

President Zelenskyy arrived here in New York today, visiting wounded Ukrainian soldiers recuperating at a hospital in Staten Island. So many world leaders descending on New York's obviously huge security challenge. Tonight, in a 360 exclusive, John Miller was given rare behind the scenes access to see how New York law enforcement prepares.


KIMBERLY CHEATLE, DIRECTOR OF U.S. SECRET SERVICE: This is a national special security event. We have 170 or so protectees, foreign heads of state that are here with their spouses that we're responsible for protecting. And I think in the last 10 years, it is the largest United Nations General Assembly that we've hosted.

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST (voice-over): Kimberly Cheatle is the Director of the U.S. Secret Service, the agency that protects the President of the United States, but is also responsible for protecting every world leader attending the United Nations General Assembly.

The NYPD is a key partner with resources on the ground, in the sky, and on the water, to protect what is annually the largest gathering of world leaders anywhere on the planet. 151 heads of state, 41 foreign ministers. That's nearly 200 security details.

COMMISSIONER EDWARD CABAN, NYPD: Their job is to discuss the future of our world. And our job is to make sure they can do it without disruption.

MILLER (voice-over): At a pier in Brooklyn, 315 police cars are gathered to be deployed in the motorcades that will run through the city day and night. That means traffic closures, frozen zones, and detours in a city that's already snarled with traffic on a good day.

(on-camera): That's a lot of choreography.

JOHN CHELL, CHIEF OF PATROL, NYPD: A lot of choreography, but we dance well. We have our federal partners, our intelligence bureau, constantly monitoring threats. And quite frankly, it's New York City. We're always at a threat level, one way or the other. And we're always prepared to move and to protect this city.

MILLER (voice-over): At the NYPD's command center, police access feeds from thousands of cameras, hundreds of license plate readers, even a map that tracks flight patterns, an early warning system in case a plane goes off course. And if there's an incident or attack --

EUGENE MCCARTHY, DEPUTY INSPECTOR, NYPD OPERATIONS: Immediately, this room, as you can see, through its ability to withdraw all our cameras and all our technology would be immediately be pumping information out to our incident commanders in the field as well as keeping the top level of the executives at NYPD informed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Between Park and 3rd.

MILLER (voice-over): At the Secret Service, a protective intelligence cell scans all active threats, not just to the President of the United States, but against any of the world leaders under their protection in New York.

CHEATLE: So we're looking at the technological aspect of it, we're looking at the cyber aspect of it, and then we're looking at the human threat itself.

MILLER (voice-over): They have planned and practiced for every scenario. Chemical weapons, biological attacks, even a nuclear device coming into the harbor on a ship. This NYPD counterterrorism launch is equipped with advanced radiation detection technology.

JUDITH R. HARRISON, ASSISTANT CHIEF OF COUNTERTERROISM, NYPD: So this vessel is part of our fleet with our maritime unit. We actually have three vessels. This vessel has radiation detection equipment in the bow of the vessel that will be able to detect any radiation emanating off of any objects.

The strategy is to be able to detect any anomalies and to be able to address that and to check it out and see what it is and make sure everyone in the area safe. We want to do that as far out as possible so that we can get a jump on anything and be able to clear the area, shut down the waterways, you know, anything that we may have to do to neutralize the threat.



COOPER: I'm joined now by our Chief of Law Enforcement and Intelligence Analyst, John Miller. Should full disclosure, he's a former NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism. So you -- he was actually in charge of New York City Police Department's role in securing the U.N. General Assembly.

First of all, I'm glad to hear they have a plan for a nuclear device on a boat. I -- clearly, no one's going to say what the plan is, but as a citizen of New York, I'm relieved to hear that. What is different now about this than when you were doing it?

MILLER: Well, one of the things that's different today is, you know, two of the countries who are visiting the U.N. are at war, Russia and Ukraine. One of them this time is not us. But anytime there's anything going on in the world, you know, the ripple reaches New York. And we learn that again and again.

During -- actually, It was yesterday was the anniversary, but during the 2016 General Assembly, we had bombs go off on the west side of Manhattan during the U.N. conference. That was, you know, inspired by ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and those were the ripples of a different war coming to New York.

You can lock down, you know, a box around the U.N. in those hotels where the world leaders are staying, but you can't lock down a city. You know, you remember that ended in a running gun battle in New Jersey where the bomber was captured. So, all of this prep, the partnership between the Secret Service, the NYPD, the FBI, the Coast Guard, the other agencies, it's all for good reason.

COOPER: Yes. John Miller, really fascinating. Thank you.

Coming up, another 360 exclusive. Russia's move to consolidate the operations of the Wagner Group in Africa after the mysterious death of former boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. Our Clarissa Ward returns to the Center for the African Republic years after first reporting on Wagner's dealings there. She joins us next.



COOPER: A report you'll only see on CNN from Clarissa Ward now, the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group was left leaderless after its former boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin died in that mysterious plane crash last month, two months after the failed coup. That left significant questions not only about its military future in and around Ukraine, but also its often secretive and very lucrative operations throughout Africa. The Central African Republic has been home to Wagner forces for years now. Clarissa Ward actually reported on their activities there four years ago. She's now gone back to see what Prigozhin's death has done to Wagner's lucrative mission there in CAR.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the Central African Republic, the message from Wagner is clear. It's business as usual. Less than one month after their boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash, mass mercenaries still guard the president and cut an intimidating figure on the streets of the capital.

Faces covered, as Wagner protocol dictates, they are unapproachable and untouchable. These are the first images of Wagner fighters in the country since Prigozhin's death.

(on-camera): So there clearly still very much a presence here in Bonneville (ph).

(voice-over): That presence runs deep. The markets are full of cheap sachets of vodka and beer made by a Wagner owned company and the locals seem to like it.

(on-camera): (Speaking Foreign Language)

Is it a don't drink French beer?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking Foreign Language)

WARD (on-camera): Only Russian beer.

(voice-over): We've come back to the center of Prigozhin's empire in Africa, right as his death raises questions for the regimes he protected and the mercenaries whose loyalty he inspired. Our last visit was in Wagner's early days here. Run like the mafia, providing guns and fighters and propaganda in return for gold, diamonds and timber. Using intimidation and brutality along the way.

(on-camera): That car full of Russians have been following us for quite some time. We don't know why. We don't know what they want.

(voice-over): But in this lawless, war scarred country, one of the poorest in the world, that ruthlessness and the security it brought is celebrated by many.


WARD (on-camera): Wow. That is quite the t-shirt.

GOUANDJIKA: Yes, beautiful t-shirt.

WARD (voice-over): Presidential adviser Fidele Gouandjika says the nation is in mourning for Wagner's dead leader. GOUANDJIKA: He was my friend. He was my friend. Best friend. A friend of all Central African people.

WARD (on-camera): Why exactly was Mr. Prigozhin so popular here, in your mind?

GOUANDJIKA: Because our country was in war. So Mr. Putin give us soldier with Prigozhin.

WARD (on-camera): So aren't you nervous now that he's dead, that things might change?

GOUANDJIKA: Mr. Putin call our president. He told him that everything will be like yesterday. Nothing will be changed. Nothing.

WARD (voice-over): But according to a diplomatic source here, hundreds of Wagner fighters left the Central African Republic in July after Prigozhin's failed mutiny. Those who remain, including his top lieutenants, have agreed to work for the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Fighters have already been pulled back from frontline outposts to population centers in an effort to cut costs, the source says. What's less clear is what becomes of Wagner's civilian presence here. This is one of the last places that Prigozhin was seen alive during his final tour across Africa. It's called the Russian cultural center, only it has no connection to Russia's official cultural agency and was run until recently by Prigozhin's closest associate here.

Photographs taken on that visit show a new face, a woman known as Nafisa Kiryanova. After days of asking for permission to visit, we decide to film covertly.

(on-camera): So, but you were here then when, Yevgeny Prigozhin, when he was here, in the photographs. There's the photographs of you with Prigozhin together here.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh my God, can you show me that?




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it was just over in that corner.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And this is Mr. Prigozhin, no?




WARD (on-camera): Do you think he knew they were going to kill him?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My gosh. What is the question there? Who know such things?

WARD (on-camera): What does it mean for your work here? Does it change anything?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does it change anything if, I don't know, the president of your country dies? Does it mean that your country stops to exist?

WARD (voice-over): She shows us one of their daily Russian classes. As we step back outside, we see a Wagner fighter.

(on-camera): Hi. Who are you?

(Speaking Foreign Language)

WARD (voice-over): You can just make him out retreating to the back of the center, where, according to the investigative group The Century, Wagner sells its gold and diamonds to VIPs and manages its timber and alcohol operations.

(on-camera): Who is that?


WARD (on-camera): A person?


WARD (on-camera): Can we see what's there? That's weird.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, actually, so what are you going to see there?

WARD (voice-over): Like most of Wagner's activities here, it's clear there is still so much that is hidden from view. We've pushed the visit far enough. It's time to go.

No matter who takes over here, Western diplomats say they don't expect much to change. At the local Orthodox Church, the Greek lettering has been painted over. Its allegiance now is to the Russian patriarchy. And even in the skies above the empire Prigozhin built, Russia's dominance lives on.


COOPER: And our Chief International Correspondent, Clarissa Ward, joins us now. I mean, it's so fascinating to see you back there. Now that Wagner's existing leadership has agreed to work for the Russian Ministry of Defense and CAR, do Russian authorities acknowledge control over Wagner's activities in Africa?

WARD: No, they don't really acknowledge anything. And so what you have to do is kind of parse through the breadcrumbs and try to work out what's going on. So we know, for example, that on September 1st, there was a large delegation primarily of personnel from the Russian ministry of defense who visited the CAR.

They visited a number of other countries in Prigozhin's African empire as well. Among them, the deputy minister of defense, but also interestingly, a senior spy master from the GRU that's military intelligence who had been in charge of an assassination squad.

And so you start to put the pieces together that, OK, this is going to be some kind of a collaboration. The MOD will be responsible for parts of it, but military intelligence may also be taking a broader role. But make no mistake, Anderson, is still a fluid situation. Nothing has yet been set in stone.

COOPER: It's incredible to see. Clarissa Ward, thank you so much.

Coming up next, my Champions for Change, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips. See how they have turned their grief into action by helping other survivors in mass shootings.



COOPER: Now for Champions for Change, all this week, we're bringing you stories about everyday people who are lifting humanity up and changing the way things get done. My Champions for Change are Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, who founded Survivors Empowered to help survivors of mass shootings. They know the pain of loss firsthand.


COOPER (voice-over): Sandy and Lonnie Phillips have been on a journey for more than a decade. It started the night they lost their daughter, Jessie, in the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting.

SANDY PHILLIPS, CO-FOUNDER, SURVIVORS EMPOWERED: We received a phone call from the young man that was with her. And when I picked up the phone, I could hear the screaming, going on in the background and the chaos. And he said, there's been a shooting. And I said, oh please, God. Brent, tell me that she's not dead. And the line went silent. I let out a scream.

LONNIE PHILLIPS, CO-FOUNDER, SURVIVORS EMPOWERED: And at that moment, I knew that my wife would never be the same, and I would no longer have a daughter.

COOPER (voice-over): Sandy and Lonnie asked their son Jordan to fly to Colorado to bring his sister home.

(on-camera): Joining me now is Jordan.

(voice-over): I met him the day after the shooting.

JORDAN PHILLIPS, SON OF SANDY AND LONNIE: We want to bring her home and celebrate her life with family, friends, and anybody that she's somehow touched.

COOPER (on-camera): Yes.

COOPER (voice-over): Just five months later, another mass shooting that shocked the nation, Newtown. Sandy and Lonnie flew in to support other grieving parents.

S. PHILLIPS: We saw the parents of those children walking into the community center and they were like zombies. And I said to my husband, we can help them. We can do what wasn't done for us

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How are you guys doing?

COOPER (voice-over): So what they've done is create a non-profit called Survivors Empowered. I first spoke to them about it for 60 Minutes back in 2019.

L. PHILLIPS: It's Lonnie, just checking in on you.

COOPER (voice-over): The goal, to help with everything from mental health resources to preparing survivors for media attention.

(on-camera): It's so interesting, though, what you're doing. You're not trained therapists, you're not counselors, and yet, you're -- have upended your lives and reaching out in a very individual way to people.

S. PHILLIPS: Yes, that's compassion.

COOPER (voice-over): Their efforts have taken them across the country to some of the worst mass shootings in American history. With all they've learned, they created the Survivors Toolkit, along with Gabby Giffords organization.

S. PHILLIPS: What we're trying to do with the toolkit right now is to get it to every mayor in America. So they've got it on hand when, not if, but when this happens in their community.

COOPER (voice-over): Tragedy struck the community of Uvalde 10 years into the Phillips's journey. Even for them, it was too much to bear.

S. PHILLIPS: Our first response was to Sandy Hook. And for me, emotionally, Uvalde was our last. Uvalde took everything out of me.


I don't know that I'll ever be able to physically respond to another mass shooting because of Uvalde.

L. PHILLIPS: That was like bookends for us. COOPER (voice-over): They now focus on building up the next generation of survivors.

DION GREEN, FOUNDER, FUDGE FOUNDATION: My dad got shot five times. We were shoulder to shoulder and not one bullet touched me. I still don't understand.

COOPER (voice-over): Dion Green's father was killed in a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.

GREEN: Sandy gave me her heart. She gave me her ear. And she gave me her shoulder to lean on.

COOPER (voice-over): Now he travels the country offering support. I followed her lead and took the choice to help others as well.

S. PHILLIPS: We really try to make our legacy, which is really Jessie's legacy, all about the future. Because we have found joy again. And I want other survivors to find that joy again.


COOPER: Be sure to tune in Saturday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern for Champions for Change, one hour special right here on CNN.

That's it for us. The news continues. The Source with Kaitlan Collins is next right after a quick break. I'll see you tomorrow.