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NC Bathroom Bill in Place; Assassinated Russian Ambassador's Funeral; Freezing Temperatures and Snow Slow Evictions in Aleppo; Search for Survivors in Mexico Explosion. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired December 22, 2016 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Special session was unconstitutional. At the end of the day, you had state Democrats pointing at Republicans saying that they did not stick to their word on a deal that was brokered earlier this week. For now, House Bill 2 stands as law in the state of North Carolina.


VALENCIA (voice-over): Frustration boiling over in North Carolina. Lawmakers failing to repeal the state's controversial bathroom bill after more than nine hours of closed door meetings and negotiations. Known as House Bill 2, the legislation requires transgender people in public buildings to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender assigned at birth.

ROY COOPER (D), NORTH CAROLINA GOVERNOR-ELECT: The legislature had a chance to do the right thing for North Carolina and they failed.

VALENCIA: Incoming governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, slamming the Republican-controlled legislature for their actions during Wednesday's special session, which was called solely for the purpose of overturning the law.

COOPER: I'm disappointed that we have yet to remove the stain on the reputation of our great state.

VALENCIA: The law signed by outgoing Republican Governor Pat McCory in March sparked outrage across the country and resulted in economic losses for the state, with businesses, sports associations and cultural figures all pulling out of the state in protest and the Justice department filing a suit to challenge the measure. McCrory, who has blamed his election loss on the bill, pointing the finger at Democrats Wednesday saying in a statement, quote, "this was at least the third time that pressure from the left sabotaged bipartisan good faith agreements for political purposes."


VALENCIA (on camera): Are you planning on voting no then against the repeal?

COLLINS: I plan on voting no on anything that's done here because it's all unconstitutional.

VALENCIA (voice-over): The bitter back and forth coming as each side accuses the other of playing politics and failing to live up to the terms of a reported deal to ensure the repeal of the contested bill.


VALENCIA: An estimated $42,000 in taxpayer money was wasted yesterday because these lawmakers couldn't come to an agreement. The legislature is expected to stay closed until they reconvene next year, January 11th. But there is a strong possibility that H.B. 2 won't even be on the agenda. Democratic lawmakers telling me yesterday was the best chance they had at repealing the so-called bathroom bill.


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Nick Valencia for us in Raleigh this morning.

Nick, thank you.

Good morning. I'm Erica Hill, in today for Carol Costello. Thanks for being with us.

Russia is blaming the U.S. for frosty relations between the two countries, telling CNN any dialogue between them is, quote, "minimal." The Kremlin issuing this statement, quote, "we have no business to business contacts, no contacts with our parliament, no cultural contacts, no contacts between public organization and it is not our fault."

The State Department, however, disputes that, saying there hasn't been a break in dialogue.

CNN's Matthew Chance is following all this for us, joins us today from Moscow.

So, Matthew, obviously here the U.S. and Russia have disagreed on a number of different issues, but why this statement now?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it came out of an interview that the press secretary for President Putin, Dmitry Peskov, did yesterday in which he said we only have minimal contacts with -- the Kremlin only have minimal contacts with the United States. The -- you know, the U.S. then pushed back. The Pentagon saying that's not true. Just a few hours ago we spoke to the Russians about air safety inside Syria. The State Department pushed back as well saying, look, there was a phone call on Tuesday night between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

And so the Russians then sort of issued a clarification saying, yes, we have these minimal contacts, but we don't have these substantial ones. And I think that's what they were trying to say. They were trying to paint this very bleak characterization of the state of affairs between Washington and Moscow, which is that on a whole range of issues, from NATO expansion to the conflict in Syria, to, you know, sanctions over Ukraine, the Russians and the Americans are not really engaging in the kind of dialogue that Russia thinks they should be engaging in given their two kind of very important powers on the international stage. And I think that was the only point that this Kremlin spokesperson was trying to make.

HILL: We'll dive a little bit deeper into that in just a moment, but I do want to ask you quickly about the funeral today, which, of course, is for the Russian ambassador who was killed in that attack earlier this week in Turkey. Bring us up to speed on that and who is there today.

CHANCE: Yes, well that funeral is now over. It was a big state occasion, actually. It was broadcast live on state television. There was a short memorial service earlier this morning at the Russian foreign ministry where Andrei Karlov, who was this ambassador from Russia to Turkey, was laid to rest.

President Putin, the Russian president, was in attendance, paying his last respects. The foreign minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, did the eulogy, saying that Ambassador Karlov had the highest human qualities and he was a great -- he made great contributions to the development of relations between Russia and other countries.

[09:35:13] You know, if this was intended, and this is the suspicion, if this was intended to draw a wedge, drive a wedge between Russia and Turkey, whose relationship has been very rocky over the past year or so, then it seems to have failed because both the Turkish and the Russian leaders saying they're not going to be distracted from their policy of normalizing relations and they're going to work together even closely -- even more closely, in fact, to try and find a solution to the crisis in Syria, with Russia and Syria on opposite sides of that conflict. And so this seems to have brought them just a little bit closer together, Erica.

HILL: Matthew, stay with us. We want to bring in now Jill Dougherty, of course, a global fellow for the Woodrow Wilson Center, former CNN Moscow bureau chief.

Jill, I want to jump on one of the things that Matthew has brought up in terms of the message here being from what was heard from the Kremlin from the press secretary that the relationship right now with the United States is not necessarily the one that Russia wants. And this, of course, comes on the heels of this meeting earlier this week between Russia and Turkey and Iran, trying to figure out a plan for Syria. The U.S. was not invited to that. So there's clearly a broader message that's happening here, Jill, not just one to the United States, but I would make the case globally.

JILL DOUGHERTY, FORMER CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: Yes. And, you know, Erica, this is actually nothing new. I mean, Dmitry Peskov is talking about something that people have been talking about for well over a year, two years. The State Department decided, in order to punish Russia for what it did in annexing Crimea, and also bringing troops into Ukraine, punish them by the silence treatment. And the U.S. basically has cut off communication with Russia on what's important. A lot of people don't know this, but there is a commission. It's called the U.S./Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission. And it's been around for quite a long time. And it has a whole lot of what they call baskets, arms control, agriculture, health, you name it. And it gave a way of both countries to talk about it.

So the United States, after Russia had this action in Ukraine, said, we are not going to talk with you. And that is something that actually the Russians are now bringing up, but some Americans have brought this up, too. So I think this is kind of getting us ready for the Trump administration, you know, a message is, we should get back to talking. And they're right, Secretary Lavrov --Minister Lavrov talks with John Kerry and they also have this deconfliction so planes do not run into each other in Syria. That's on the military side. But basically they aren't talking. And I think everybody knows it. The question is, who makes the first step to go back and continue the conversation?

HILL: Well, Matthew, is there a sense of who may make the first step? Is this really just Russia setting the table for perhaps in its eyes a better relationship with a Trump administration?

CHANCE: Well, I think that's certainly what Russia wants. I mean they've said as much. They've said they've not got rose-tinted spectacles when it comes to the issue of what Trump will be like as president in terms of his relationship with Russia. But they -- they don't think things are going to change in a second, as the Kremlin told me this morning. But they are hoping for more constructive dialogue.

And, you know, and I suppose they've got good reason to be hopeful as well because all throughout Donald Trump's election campaign, one of the main, most consistent platforms or lines he followed is that he wanted to build a better relationship with Russia. Wouldn't it be great if we could do a deal with Moscow he said over all sorts of issues. He wants to cooperate over Syria and the fight against Islamic terrorism, which, of course, is exactly why Russia says that it's there. It's a -- he said the U.S., under him, would look again at recognizing Crimea as being a legitimate part of Russia. Of course, that's not the situation right now. And he criticized NATO, which, of course, was music to Russia's ears. That Russians have consistently been criticizing the expansion of NATO and increased military exercises near or on its borders by the western military alliance.

And so the Russians have good reason to be hopeful that under -- under President Trump there's going to be much more to talk about. They're going to have much more in common and deals may well be -- be able to be done. Of course it could go badly wrong. I mean Trump wouldn't be the first incoming U.S. president that wants to reset the relationship with Russia, and -- and failed to have done that. And so, you know, it's very much up in the air.

HILL: Jill, in terms of these -- these next few weeks, we, of course, have 29 days until the inauguration at this point, as you -- and as you said, there is some dialogue happening. We know the State Department also pushing back in a statement saying there's diplomatic engagement on a wide range of issues. But, Jill, does anything happen in these next 29 days or are we essentially at a stalemate here until there is a new administration? DOUGHERTY: I don't think they're going to do much let's say

concretely. They're not going to bring back that -- probably that presidential commission. I mean maybe Trump continues it. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he does something else.

[09:40:12] But I think what the Russians are doing right now is, they know we've got like a month, just a few weeks, so they are kind of setting the ground. And you look at Syria, what they're doing. The price for them is increasing. This very sad assassination of their ambassador. The Russians don't want to be there forever in Syria. They want to end it. And they want to end it so that they are the people who are at the table when there is some sort of solution and that they are the key force not only in Syria but in the Middle East. And they are beginning succeed in that, at least in this stage, and that sets them up well in negotiations with Donald Trump.

HILL: Jill Dougherty, Matthew Chance, thank you both.

Still to come, we will take a look at what's happening in Syria. First the airstrikes and the shelling, now thousands of people in eastern Aleppo facing heavy snow, as you can see there, freezing cold temperatures, as they wait for safe passage out. The latest on those evacuation is next.


HILL: In Syria, evacuations for residents of eastern Aleppo are now entering their final stages. That's according to the Red Cross, which says the evacuations are being slowed by heavy snow and bone-chilling temperatures. It's not clear how many people remain in that city, which has been bombed to rubble by Syrian military and Russian warplanes. The Red Cross, however, says all hospital patients have been able to get out.

We're also hearing today from the little girl, Bana, who captivated the world with her tweets out of Aleppo as the bombs were falling around her.

[09:45:05] CNN's Muhammad Lila is at the Turkish/Syrian border.

Muhammad, what's the latest this morning?

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, the latest is that the weather has just been slowing things down. Yesterday there was snow. Today there's rain. And if you've ever lived in a place where you get rain right after the snow, you know that leads to, a whole lot of mud. Some of the people being evacuated from that besieged area have been evacuated in their own personal vehicles. But the vehicles are literally getting stuck because the ground is a blanket of mud.

Now, imagine waiting months to be evacuated. You finally get on a vehicle driving out of this war zone and you have to wait for a tow truck to show up to tow you out of the mud. That's the reality that some people are going through. The U.N. also, though, saying today that in the last 24 hours they've

evacuated specifically 4,000 armed rebel fighters from the eastern part of Aleppo. And they've also told us that the only people remaining in eastern Aleppo right now are more armed fighters and their families. Those are the last wave that are expected to leave.

Now, all of this happened as there is new video and an interview done with that seven-year-old Bana Al-Abed who captivated the world and became a media darling when she tweeted and her mother tweeted about the conditions in Aleppo. Here is some of what she said.


BANA Al-ABED (through translator): There was bombing and our house was bombed, but we survived. We felt afraid and went down the basement. There were a lot of stones and dust. We were about to die. But thank God we survived. My school and my garden were bombed. I miss my house.


LILA: You know that's such captivating testimony, so emotional testimony. But like so many things with covering this conflict, even a seven-year-old girl has now become a bit of a polarizing figure. Of course there are so many hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter who praised her courage, and, you know, she gives a unique window into life and what was happening in eastern Aleppo as they were facing those bombs almost every day. But there are critics out there who say, look, she is exactly that. She's a seven-year-old girl and she shouldn't be put in front of the cameras and she shouldn't be used by either side to further this bloody conflict that's killed hundreds of thousands of people on both sides.


HILL: That reaction coming both before and now, of course, intensifying a little bit after we saw those pictures of her sitting there with President Erdogan, to your point, as we're seeing more of that.

In terms of the evacuations, Bana and her family, of course, made their way to Turkey. Do we know where everyone else is going?

LILA: Well, they'll all being evacuated to the Aleppo countryside. And the problem with the countryside is that, you know, it's not developed. They don't have the infrastructure in place to look after all of these people. There are some international relief groups on the ground. Turkey, which is right next door, has some of its relief groups on the ground. And they are scrambling right now to build portable housing, to build sewer systems, to build drainage systems and fencing and all those things that you need to house people temporarily.

But, again, look at the weather. The ground is literally a blanket of mud. It's hard enough to build these things when the weather is nice. Now you have heavy construction equipment trying to break ground and all they're doing is moving mud around from one part to the other. So just when people are being evacuated from eastern Aleppo, that doesn't mean they're out of the woods just yet.

HILL: And an important point to make. Muhammad Lila joining us from the Turkish/Syrian border. Muhammad, thank you.

Want to turn our attention now to Mexico, where search teams and desperate families are combing through the charred rubble of a fireworks market outside of Mexico City, looking for those who are still missing. We now know at least 33 people were killed, dozens more hurt when huge explosion tore through that market on Tuesday.

CNN's Sara Sidner joins us now from the site of those explosions.

And since we last spoke yesterday, Sara, of course, the number, the death toll has increased.

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and, you know, we want to emphasize that authorities are still here looking through the rubble. But the families have been at the morgue, at the hospitals, trying to identify their loved ones. We now know that some of the families did have the bodies returned to them. They had to use all sorts of DNA testing to try and figure out who was who because some of the bodies are so badly charred.

Here's a look at what everything looks like this morning. And again, there are crews that are out here digging through what was about 300 market stalls. One thing I should mention this morning that is very interesting. The newspaper here, the local newspaper, "Raformer" (ph), had this very interesting article about how this may have happened because they had put reforms in place after 2005 and 2006 where there were fires and explosions, some of whom actually left people injured, but no one died. And what they did was they separated these buildings. So they put them further apart. And one of these things that they were supposed to do was put these major fireworks behind glass to contain them if they did explode. And what the newspaper "Reformer" revealed was that some of those fireworks were being left outside of the glass and they have pictures of that. And that may be one of the reasons why you saw such a terrible chain reaction.

But, of course, the investigation still ongoing. There has no -- not yet been a cause of this. We haven't found out from investigators exactly how this happened, but this investigation by the newspaper "Reformer" kind of gives you an idea of how it might have escalated because some of the vendors had left some of those big fireworks outside of the contained area where they were supposed to be.

[09:50:22] HILL: That does give you a clue into what may have happened. Although, we should point out, of course, the investigation is ongoing.

In terms of the victims, obviously some very serious injuries, very serious burns. At least one minor, from what I understand, has actually been airlifted to Texas for treatment, correct?

SIDNER: Yes. There have been several minors that have been airlifted to Texas. We also know of a three month old baby that has been identified and has died in this fire from severe burns. I have seen some pictures that have shown the charred bodies. They are just awful because what they show you is the moment of death. You can see people were sort of inside this market, families were inside this market, people were buying fireworks for the Christmas holiday and you see scenes that are just absolutely horrific of charred bodies. And you can see why authorities are having a hard time because some of them are unrecognizable. You can tell it's a body, but you would not be able to tell who it is. And you can only tell they are children because, of course, the bodies are very, very, very small. Terrible scene here in Tultepec.

HILL: It is. Sara Sidner for us this morning. Sara, thank you.

A reminder that we are waiting to hear from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She's actually set to speak at any moment. Of course speaking just out of Berlin after the deadly terror attack there earlier this week. So just to let you know, we are keeping an eye on this and will bring you more as soon as we have it.

We'll be right back. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.


[09:55:01] HILL: And this is a live picture of Berlin. Doesn't look like a lots happening, but it will be shortly. The reason we're staying on this picture for you is that we are awaiting a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This, of course, on the heels of that deadly attack on the Christmas market in Berlin earlier this week. So we'll bring you more on that as soon as we have it.

For the moment, though, let's get you a check of some of the top stories we're following at this hour.

In Mississippi, a church member is arrested, charged with deliberately setting fire to the Hopewell Baptist Church in Greenville last month. Nobody was injured in that fire. It was put out quickly. The church, though, was also vandalized. Spray painted on the walls, "vote Trump," as you see in those pictures there. Well, authorities are still investigating whether the suspect is the same man responsible for that vandalism.

If you thought e-cigarettes were somehow safer, take a look at this video. A California man was smoking his e-cigarette on a city bus, put the device away and then moments later it explodes in his pocket. He suffered minor burns to his right thigh and hand.

By now you have likely heard the story of the "Jeopardy" contest who died from cancer before she was able to see her appearances on TV. City Stowell's final episode aired last night, ending her six-game winning streak. Host Alex Trebek paid tribute to her and Stowell's brother spoke out earlier on "New Day."


GREG STOWELL, BROTHER OF JEOPARDY CONTESTANT WHO DIED OF CANCER: That's kind of an emotional roller coaster. It's bittersweet. I got to be there in person for the tapings, so I kind of knew the outcome. And despite knowing the ultimate outcome, I, you know, still ended up cheering for her and -- with my wife and kids.

I got to be there when she actually got the notice that she would be scheduled for the tapings, and she was absolutely glowing. It's something she had been trying to do for -- you know, since she was an early teenager she tried and made it to one -- like the regional written test part. And competing against, you know, kids that were in college.

Cindy wanted to donate her money to the Cancer Research Institute. And any viewers who wanted to donate any money to the Cancer research Institute can do so easily through I think she kind of felt that she wanted to do some good with it.


HILL: Wanted to do some good with it, donating all of those winnings to cancer research before her death.

The next hour of CNN NEWSROOM begins after a short break. Stay with us.