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Veterans Demand Action After Burn Pits Bill Is Blocked; Sen. Toomey Defends Decision To Delay Burn Pit Benefits Bill; Biden Tests Positive Again For COVID But Feels "Well"; Protests In Sudan Erupt After CNN Investigation Shows Russia Plundering Sudan Gold To Fund War In Ukraine. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired August 01, 2022 - 14:30   ET



MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: But it's important to remember that this bill has had that mandatory spending provision all along. And Republicans have supported this bill in previous votes.

That is, up until last week when 25 Senate Republicans decided to change their stance and voted against this bill unexpectedly.

This has some Democrats saying Republicans are playing politics and that they were just upset over this unrelated deal that Democrats struck on health care and climate change.

But Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who has been vocal about his fiscal concerns from the beginning, has gone out and defended his vote.

He's also criticized comedian, Jon Stewart, who has been an outspoken advocate on this issue and has been outside the capitol protesting with a group of veterans.

But Jon Stewart, he's unfazed. Take a listen.


JON STEWART, COMEDIAN & VETERANS ACTIVIST: You can attack me all you want. And you can troll me online and tell me, if Schumer would just take out his $400 billion, it's not in there.

Here's the beautiful thing. I don't give a shit. I'm not scared of you.


STEWART: And I don't care.

These are the people that I owe a debt of gratitude to. We all owe a debt of gratitude to. And it's about time we start paying it off.


ZANONA: Just as a reminder, this bill would expand health care access for military veterans who were exposed to burn pits. Those were commonly used in Iraq and Afghanistan up until about 2010 to burn hazardous materials but can have short-term and long-term health consequences.

So lawmakers are trying to expand the health care access for those people.

Chuck Schumer says he plans to bring up the bill for a vote sometime this week. And he's going to offer two amendments, votes to Republicans, in hopes of resolving this issue.

But despite all of this last-minute drama, we are expecting the bill to pass, especially as the pressure continues to mount on Republicans with each day that passes -- Victor?

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Melanie Zanona, thank you very much.

Joining us now, retired Army Reserve Captain Le Roy Torres. He's the co-founder of the veterans organization "Burn Pits 360" and has suffered health problems from his exposure to burn pits during the war in Iraq.

Captain Torres, thank you for a few minutes of your time.

You heard from Melanie the expectation is that the bill will pass. Are you confident that it will pass when it's brought up this week?


Thank you for having me on today.

Just, first off, I want to thank those families and my wife who is out there right now for the fifth day. They're representing so many veterans and the families of the fallen.

And we have faith that the pressure is going to continue. I was taught in the Army never to quit, never accept defeat. And we're going to keep the pressure on. And I have faith we're going to get this bill passed and onto the president's desk.

And just having President Biden's support and Secretary McDonough this weekend and the awesome support we've had throughout the weekend, I know that, seeing the resilience in these families that are going to press onward.

BLACKWELL: You mentioned that your wife is out there protesting. I wonder if you have had or your organization has had any communications with the Republican Senators who reversed their support from their vote in June.

TORRES: You know, just -- I was there in June. And just to hear the 84-14, but I'm yet to hear from any of those Republicans, which includes my own Senators from Texas, which is very disheartening and disappointing for us. BLACKWELL: I want you to listen to a portion of this interview that

Jake Tapper did with Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey, in which he suggests that you and others who are suffering from these health challenges from the toxic burn pits, are being used by Democrats. Watch.


SEN. PAT TOOMEY (R-PA): People take a sympathetic group of Americans, craft a bill to address their problems and then sneak in something completely unrelated that they know could never pass on its own.

And dare Republicans to do anything about it because they know they'll unleash their allies in the media and maybe a pseudo celebrity to make up false accusations.


BLACKWELL: What's your reaction to what you heard there?

TORRES: You know, that reaction just brought to mind the fist bump from the Senators when they voted this last time. That fist bump was a punch in the gut to every veteran and Gold Star family.

And I'll be glad to share my medical history with Senator Toomey of what I've endured over the last 13 years, so even losing my state police job. It cost me my job.


That had to go -- we had to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court for justice. And it's still not over for me, the fight for my civilian job loss.

So many have been affected, losing their homes, taking their lives. It's disheartening. It's heart wrenching to hear this.

BLACKWELL: For people that do not know your story, I can see you're wearing an oxygen tube right now. Your job is with the Department of Public Safety in Texas. You had to leave, medical discharge from the military.

Walk us through, what has the exposure to these burn pits meant to your physical health?

TORRES: Going back to 2010, I was diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis. And it included fibrosis. For almost 10 years I was given the wrong medication. I thought I was having migraine headaches.

But in 2018, it was discovered that I had a toxic brain injury, which is called toxic encephalopathy, which I was described oxygen as a rescue med to help me with these cluster headaches. It's also affected my cognitive ability, my short-term memory.

Here recently, the last two years I've been battling G.I. issues. I've had a horrific flare-up this morning. My specialist says I can't do anything for you anymore, you need specialized health care. We've done everything he can. He goes, next thing is go to the hospital.

This is where everything has been -- the last 13 years has been a nightmare, not only for myself, but for my family and for many others who have suffered from these issues, from these invisible wounds of the war that followed us home.

BLACKWELL: All from the fumes of these burn pits in Iraq where trash, medical waste were burned sometimes around the clock and those fumes obviously affecting so many who have served.

Captain Le Roy Torres, I thank you for your time, I thank you for your service. I hope you're well. Thank you, sir.

TORRES: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: It's day two of round two of isolation for President Biden. He is still testing positive for COVID. New details next.



BLACKWELL: President Biden is still testing positive for COVID today. That's according to his physician. Now, this is the second day of the second isolation at the White House for the president. He has what's called a rebound infection.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond is at the White House.

How does the president say he feels?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to his doctor, Dr. Kevin O'Connor, President Biden, quote, "continues to feel well."

And we just heard from the White House press secretary, who said that the president is not experiencing any recurring symptoms. And she also said that he is continuing to essentially go about his work from the White House residence.

We know that President Biden is now on day two of what will be, once again, at least a five-day isolation period. We know during the first isolation period, we were hearing from the president was starting to go stir-crazy within a few days.

So you can anticipate this time, especially as he's not experiencing any new symptoms, that that will likely be the case as well.

But he is continuing to work according to the White House. Just yesterday, we know that he face timed some veterans who were protesting this stalled burn pits bill in front of Congress.

The president said that he had actually planned on going there himself and delivering pizza, but instead he conferenced in via Facetime from the Truman balcony of the White House. We know there are six close contacts of the president from the second

time around testing positive for coronavirus. The White House says that all six of those individuals continue to test negative, as do all of the 17 initial close contacts of the president.

But President Biden now on day two of a five-day isolation period. He'll continue to work. And, again, the White House says that he's feeling well at the moment -- Victor?

BLACKWELL: Good he's feeling well.

Jeremy Diamond, for us at the White House, thank you.


Demonstrators in Sudan are calling for a change in leadership after a CNN investigation exposed Russia's plundering of gold mines in the African nation. The fallout in our exclusive reporting is next.



BLACKWELL: In Sudan, military authorities are on a manhunt for people suspected of providing information to CNN.

This all centers around an investigation that exposed Russia is plundering gold mines there to help fund Putin's war in Ukraine. This is according to multiple former and current Sudanese officials.

After CNN's investigation aired on Sunday, thousands of protesters hit the streets of Khartoum. They want military rule there to end.

Here is part of what CNN's Nima Elbagir exposed.


NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Further, his tentacles stretch right across Africa. We've discovered some of its most notorious operatives are working on Sudan.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner. Mikhail Potepkin Brecostions (ph) head of Sudan Ops. And Alexander Sergeevich Kuznetsov, Wagner's key enforcer, previously convicted of kidnap and robbery, working with this man, Sudanese General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, AKA, Hemeti, in a quid pro quo for training and weaponry.

We traveled 200 miles north from the capitol, Khartoum, to gold country to take a closer look at Wagner's main moneymaker, artisanal gold.

Miners bring rocks they extract here to be processed. And 85 percent of Sudan's gold is produced artisanally.

(on camera): This right here, it may not look like much. This is what's left after the rocks that the miners have brought in is milled.


Now, they've taken what they can out of it, but this gets sold. And when it's properly processed with someone who has superior technology, you can make 10 times what those miners over there are making.


BLACKWELL: Fantastic reporting from Nima Elbagir. She's with us now from London.

So we're seeing the reaction on the streets. We know that there's search for military officials. What are you hearing?

ELBAGIR: Just this sense of outrage, Victor, continues to permeate and continues to motivate many of those shocked by the numbers that were exposed in our reporting.

We've been speaking to many of those involved with that anti- corruption investigation on the ground.

And one source told us that he believes that what is motivating military authorities right now is fear. That's why they're falling back on the old strong-arm tactics that they used to such devastating effect in the past.

His hope, this source, this source's hope is that this time it won't work. Given the level of impoverishment in Sudan, to see those numbers, it brought to mind such starkness when compared with what the average Sudanese is suffering through, Victor.

BLACKWELL: Retired Admiral John Kirby was on CNN this morning. He says this is proof that sanctions are biting, that they're working. Are they impactful?

ELBAGIR: I think it's definitely one way to look at it. What we know is that Russia has been preparing for sanctions for years now since the annexation of Crimea.

They first came into Sudan in 2017. They spread out into the African continent.

So it's well and good for Rear Admiral Kirby to say this means what we're doing is working, but what are they doing to stop the sanctions evasion?

Because what we proved in our investigation is that the sanctions evasion is also working. It is funneling billions of dollars towards that Russian war effort in Ukraine.

And it's resulting in a spilling of blood not just in the battle fields of Ukraine but also in the streets of Sudan.

And we haven't really heard from the U.S. government, from the administration any cohesive plan to try to bring a stop to that -- Victor?

BLACKWELL: What is the likelihood -- we talked about the protest in Khartoum, that there will be the change, any change that these protesters are calling for?

ELBAGIR: Well, what we have seen from the pro-democracy movement in Khartoum really just this continuing commitment. They are out there week after week.

On average, eight or nine protesters will die every fortnight in Sudan protesting for change. The violence with which the protests over the weekend were met, really local groups are saying showed such an escalation in the repression and that shows the vulnerability of the authorities right now.

And for a -- for many people in Sudan, while there's fear and concern, that means there's hope. That means there's a vulnerability to the authorities right now.

And they say if only the U.S., the international community can actually stand with them, they believe that there could be change in Sudan -- Victor?

BLACKWELL: Nima Elbagir, with the reporting, joining us from London. Thank you Nima.

ELBAGIR: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: America lost two icons this weekend. How NBA legend, Bill Russell, and TV star, Nischelle Nichols leveraged their fame to fight for civil rights.



BLACKWELL: The country lost two trail blazers over the weekend. Their careers broke racial barriers. And NBA Star Bill Russell, and Actress Nischelle Nichols.

Russell played his entire 13-season career with the Boston Celtics. He became the first black head coach of any major American professional sports league.

He won two NCAA titles, nine NBA titles, two as a player -- nine as a player, two as a coach, and there's the Olympic gold medal.

As much as Russell is remembered for his basketball career, he was also a civil rights activist. He marched with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, backed Mohammad Ali's opposition to the Vietnam War and condemned segregation in Boston's public schools.

President Obama awarded Russell with the Medal of Freedom. And he tweeted today, "We lost a giant. As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher as a player and person." Bill Russell was 88 years old. Nischelle Nichols was 89 when she died Saturday. Now when Nichols

started playing lieutenant when "Star Trek" began in 1966, she was a television rarity, a black woman in a notable role.

She is widely known for participating in one of the first interracial kisses on U.S. television when a character kissed Captain Kirk.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr called her the first non- stereotypical role portrayed by a black woman in television history.


On word of her death, NASA tweeted, "We celebrate the life of Nischelle Nichols, 'Star Trek' actor, trailblazer and role model who symbolized to so many what was possible. She partnered with us to recruit some the first women and minority astronauts and inspired generations to reach for the stars."

It's the top of a brand-new hour on CNN NEWSROOM. It's good to be with you. I'm Victor Blackwell.

We are 99 days out from the November midterms.