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Trump: NATO Is "No Longer Obsolete"; North Korean Nuclear Site "Primed And Ready"; Exclusive Look Into U.S. Fight Against ISIS; Trump Removing Subsidies in Obamacare; Manafort to File as Foreign Agent; U.S. Commander Making Final Preparations to Liberate Raqqa; Is Kansas Race Sign Trump Losing Support. Aired 1-2a ET

Aired April 13, 2017 - 01:00   ET


[01:00:00] ISHA SESAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT AND ANCHOR: You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. Ahead this hour, changing his tune. Donald Trump now says NATO is no longer obsolete. Plus, new satellite images of North Korea and a nuclear test site that experts say is "primed and ready." And CNN talks exclusively to the American leading the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Here's what he says about the coming assault on Raqqa. Hello, and thank you for joining us. I'm Isha Sesay. This is NEWSROOM L.A.

In a matter of hours, U.S. President Donald Trump did a complete 180 on foreign policy positions that were the bedrock of his campaign. Remember when he criticized NATO? Allies were worried for months. But now, Mr. Trump meets with the NATO Secretary-General, gets assurances the alliance will be battling terrorism, and the President is suddenly changing his tune.


DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.


SESAY: And what about Russia? Mr. Trump said he'd build a stronger relationship with Moscow. Now, he admits it's not looking good.


TRUMP: It would be wonderful, as we were discussing just a little while ago if NATO and our country could get along with Russia. Right now, we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all- time low in terms of a relationship with Russia. It would be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia. And that could happen, and it may not happen. It may be just the opposite. I can only tell you what I would like to do. I would love to be able to get along with everybody.


SESAY: Well, the top U.S. diplomat echoed the President's comment after the talks with Russia about Syria. CNN's Michelle Kosinski has more from Moscow. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Four hours of crucial contentious talks with Russian officials, including an unscheduled meeting with President Vladimir Putin himself. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov finally faced the press.

REX TILLERSON, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: The current state of U.S.-Russian relations is at a low point. There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIA MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS (through translator): The many hours we spent with Rex Tillerson together and the presence of the Russian federation were not spent in vain. We understand each other better.

KOSINSKI: The most, that was most likely to come from this, an agreement to keep on talking. A working group to tackle the most critical issues. President Trump also weighed in today from the White House.

TRUMP: Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of the relationship with Russia.

KOSINSKI: But dark shades of the deep divisions still seep through all the attempts at common ground. Russia still won't accept Syrian President Assad's responsibility for the chemical attack, repeatedly insisting on a full investigation. The U.S.'s view-

TILLERSON: The facts that we have are conclusive. That the recent chemical weapons attack carried out in Syria was planned, and it directed and execute by Syrian regime forces.

KOSINSKI: Tillerson says Assad's days are numbered. Russia explained at length why ousting him now could be disastrous. On the delicate issue of Russia's interference in the U.S. election-

TILLERSON: As to the question of the interference with the election, that is fairly well established in the United States. It's one that we know is a serious enough to attract additional sanctions.

KOSINSKI: While Lavrov again, called for more information.

LAVROV: Not a single fact has been confirmed. Who saw those facts? We don't know. Nobody has shown us anything.

KOSINSKI: The rhetoric on both sides has been stark and relentless. And still yet to meet, Presidents Putin and Trump, who laid out the problems here most bluntly today.

TRUMP: Putin is backing a person, that's truly an evil person. And I think it's a very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world. But when you drop gas or bombs, this is an animal. KOSINSKI: Defending the missile strikes on Syria that Russia

considers illegal.

TRUMP: That's a butcher. So, I felt we had to do something about it. I have absolutely no doubt we did the right thing.

[01:05:00] KOSINSKI: What you didn't hear out of this, though, was Russia backing away from supporting Assad any time soon. And a State Department official I talked to said, they see the chances of this happening in the near term at next to zero, that Putin is deeply worried that if Assad suddenly goes now - that's a power vacuum. That terrorist rush in. That Russia isn't blind to Assad being a terrible choice, but at this point, they see him as the best, if not the only choice. So, what the U.S. wants Russia to do is convince Syria to look again at a cease-fire. Then the political process. The problem is though, nobody knows how long this could take or really how willing Russia will be to play. Michelle Kosinski, CNN, Moscow.


SESAY: Let's turn now to Josh Lockman, a lecturer in International Law at the University of Southern California; and CNN's own Paula Newton who joins us from Moscow. Good to have you with us once again. Josh, to start with you, was any headway made in the eternal search for common ground between the U.S. and Russia when it comes to Syria?

JOSH LOCKMAN, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA INTERNATIONAL LAW LECTURER: Well, I think it's possible that there could be some headway. If we take a step back and just look at what's happened over the last two weeks, there's been a dizzying turn of events. And we've seen 180 not only on Russia from President Trump, but also on Syria, NATO, and a host of other issues. So, what I would anticipate happening is that the Kremlin, while they have obviously been the greatest benefactor to Bashar al-Assad and his regime over the last 10, 15 years, it's possible that he can be controlled and persuaded to drop support for Assad if the right incentives are offered. And that's what remains to be seen, whether the United States can pressure Putin and the Kremlin enough to pull away support for Assad and look towards a political process that sees an end to this regime.

SESAY: Paula, you hear Josh there keeping the door open to a deal being struck between the U.S. and Russia. But less than an hour after that Moscow press conference between Lavrov and Tillerson, Russia vetoed the U.N. Security Council Resolution that would have condemned last week's chemical weapons attack, which would seem to send a signal that they're not changing their position anytime soon.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No. And this is going to be a very, very long process. What they're working towards now is that this summer, the G20 meeting in Hamburg, they are hoping to put together some type of a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. They will continue, what they've called this working group. So, it's now April. They will keep going for the next two to three months, and see start ticking off the issues in Syria and how far they'll go on. Remember, that when you look at Syria in terms of the common ground there, it's fighting ISIS. We'll see how far that's progressed as well.

But Josh says, it's a political solution that cease-fire - and Russia's been frustrated, as well. They cannot get obviously, the opposition rebels, any of the groups to get on side with any kind of a cease-fire. Those talks have collapsed over and over again. And at that point in time, Russia and the United States can start to see some common ground beginning to be formed. What's key here is, how far they can get in the next few weeks before those all-important bilateral meetings, which will hopefully happen between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. And then perhaps something can be decided.

Going back to that U.N. issue though, and many people made light of this yesterday and Donald Trump drew attention to it. China abstained from that resolution, normally, it would have voted with Russia, saying that look, we don't have the facts, we can't condemn a chemical attack because there's been no investigation. They didn't do that, they abstained. And that is definitely the United States trying to put more pressure on Russia, trying to isolate Russia a little bit more to nudge them further into that political agreement in Syria.

SESAY: Josh, to pick up on that, China's abstention in that vote, is that noteworthy to you? Is that a successful line of strategy for the U.S. to follow in terms of isolating Russia, getting closer to China to bring about a change in Russia's behavior?

LOCKMAN: I think it's very noteworthy. As Paula mentioned, China has largely followed or vice versa in vetoing many resolutions not just on Syria but others that seem to intervene into the internal affairs of sovereign nations around the world. So, we've seen, obviously, something of a sea change from China, which would normally veto a resolution like this. But it depends, again, on what happens with this political process and if there is a resumption of a political process. But I would anticipate that China may start abstaining more from these types of resolutions.

SESAY: And let me pick up on the political process and the path ahead. Paula also made the point, it has been noted that there's a working group, at least a working group agreed was upon as an outcome of the meeting between Rex Tillerson and Sergey Lavrov. Is this really a vehicle we should put hope in or on, so to speak, that this will be the way to yield an agreement between Russia and the U.S, or will that come about via back channel talks so to speak?

[01:10:10] LOCKMAN: This working group could serve as a vehicle and pick up where the Geneva process was, but it remains to be seen especially with regard to some of the - what will be seen I think in the Kremlin as inflammatory statements by President Trump, possibly accusing Russia of either being complicit or engaging in a disinformation campaign on the Syrian chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime. These types of whether, you know, tit for tat comments by Trump and or Putin might disincentivize 10:40 some of that working group going forward, I think.

SESAY: Yes. And Paula, final question to you. As Josh mentioned, there has been a lot of heated rhetoric, President Trump calling Assad a butcher. We heard from Secretary Tillerson saying that the Assad regime is coming to an end, made those comments in Moscow. Is there anything to indicate that the comments made by Tillerson about the end of Assad's time in office, is there anything to support that, or is this more just wishful thinking on the part of the U.S.? Especially, they're not going to intervene any more forcefully?

NEWTON: Well, that you just hit the key issue there. They're not going to intervene any more forcefully. You know, Donald Trump was very blunt in the interview he did. We're not going into Syria. There won't be any ground troops in Syria, so then how can you say it's an end to a regime if you're not really willing to basically do anything to implement that regime change? Again, it's an issue of how far they can nudge the Russians along, and how far they can get in these cease-fire talks?

I think the vacuum of power issue in Syria is a real one. And I think Russia makes a lot of headway with the United States when they talk about what is the wisest choice here. You know, the U.S. military is very keen to tell the Trump administration, I know, I can tell you. Do not lead ungoverned spaces anywhere on this planet, because at that point in time, the radical, the extremist, the terrorist will get into those spaces. They do - Syria is already a mess. They don't want to exacerbate it at this point.

SESAY: Josh Lockman and our Paula Newton in Moscow, my thanks to you both. I appreciate the great conversation. Thank you. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is speaking publicly for the first time since the deadly chemical attack and the U.S. missile strike in his country. Let's go to CNN's Ian Lee, he joins us now from Istanbul. So, Ian, as we just laid out for our viewers, the first interview from Bashar al-Assad since the attack - the chemical attack since the U.S. airstrike on that Syrian air base. Would it be safe to assume we will see and hear a defiant President al-Assad?

IAN LEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Isha, we don't know what that interview or what entails in that interview. That's going to come out in about five hours from now. But I think you're right, we are going to hear probably the same talking points that we've heard over the past few years, that Assad and his forces are fighting terrorists, that he's going to be defiant about this chemical weapons attack, saying that it wasn't him despite the United States and Turkey coming out saying it was, in fact, the Syrian regime. And also, expect him to remain defiant that he isn't going to be leaving. That he still sees himself as the legitimate President of Syria.

SESAY: And Ian, the reality is, President al-Assad's alliance with Russia appears stronger than ever. So, to that point, we read this interview as principally an opportunity to send a message to his critics, I'm thinking President Trump here, and that this interview is mainly for international consumption.

LEE: Well, as long as President Assad has Russia on his side, Isha, he is in power. He's in control of the battlefield. It was the Russians who came in and were able to reverse the course of the games and really break what was seen as somewhat of a stalemate and put Assad - put Iran and its allies, Hezbollah, on the front foot and make gains against the Syrian rebels. So, as long as Assad has the Russians on his side, and the United States isn't willing to commit to ground forces or commit to military action to oust Assad, he is the man in control of Syria, and in power, at least for the time being.

SESAY: Ian Lee, joining us there from Istanbul, Turkey. Ian, we appreciate it. We will, of course, bring clips of that interview to our viewers when it is released. Ian, thank you. Time for a quick break. Journalists in North Korea taken on a mysterious early morning trip.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not even 5:00 a.m. yet. Got woken up a few minutes ago, with a call for reminders saying that we need to put on suits, bring light gear, and leave the hotel right now for a major event.


[01:15:00] SESAY: Meanwhile, experts say another weapons test could be coming soon. Stay with us for details.


[01:17:15] KATE RILEY, CNN WORLD SPORTS ANCHOR: I'm Kate Riley with your CNN WORLD SPORTS Headlines. Despite being targeted by a bomb attack Tuesday, the Borussia Dortmund team took to the pitch on Wednesday on a Champion League clash. Moving, tribute before the match, the song made famous by Liverpool's football club "You'll Never Walk Alone," fans in English by both sets of fans and to the match, it was goals galore. Ultimately Dortmund fell 3-2 to hands of Monaco in their first leg match.

In what could have been the final on any given year by Munich hosted Real Madrid in the first leg. The home Bayern Munich would take an early lead, Arturo Vidal was able to get on board. Vidal exclusion penalty kick though. Cristiano Renaldo would take over for the group scoring two goals to give Real Madrid a 2-1 win. He has now scored his 100th goal in European completion, the first player ever to do so.

And in the other game, Champions League quarter-final debutants Leicester City face Atletico Madrid away in Spain, just before the half hour mark. Antoine Griezmann scored the penalty to put Atletico ahead not bad seeing as his miss his previous score that he's taken was scored, 1-0 it ends. The result actually saves both parties the next leg will be on April the 18th. And that will be at Leicester's King Power Stadium. And that's a look at all your Sports Headlines. I'm Kate Riley.


SESAY: Well a group that monitors North Korea, warns that a major nuclear site is put primed and ready 38 North publish report that these satellite images. The group says they show increased activity at the site. North Korea may just be getting ready to celebrate some upcoming national holidays, but any action could also be interpreted as a challenge to the U.S., we presently moved a Naval strike team towards the Korean Peninsula. U.S. President Donald Trump says he believes China wants to help.


DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade; we talked a lot of things. And I said the way you're going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea. Otherwise, we are just going to go it alone. That will be all right, too. But going it alone means going it with lots of other nations. But I was very impressed with President Xi. And I think he means well and I think he wants to help. We'll see whether or not he does.


SESAY: Well joining us now, Alexandra Fields in Seoul, South Korea, and Matt Rivers there in Beijing. Welcome to you both, Alex let's start with you, we heard 38 North talking about a nuclear site being primed and ready. What more you were hearing, what more is being seen about stepped up activity? [01:20:13] ALEXANDRA FIELDS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look,

this stepped up activity Isha, is in line with what U.S. intelligence officials have been saying, which is that North Korea is capable of carrying out another nuclear test and they could do it with absolutely no warning at all. The first indication you would have would be from seismic sensors. You've got this U.S. Base monitoring group along with others who are closely watching, observing that main nuclear site in North Korea. These latest images were recorded just yesterday, April 12th, and they do show it is continued activity at that nuclear site. Some activity around the administrative center, and the command center and also the north portal. This comes after other images were released last month, which showed activities around the tunnels there. And at the start of the year, it was 38 North that flag activity that this site seemed to be preparing to be up and running once again. If North Korea conducts another nuclear test, it would be the country's sixth nuclear test. The last test happening back in September, that one was timed to coincide with North Korea's national day, which is why a lot of attention is being focused on North Korea and their intentions right now. It isn't just those satellite images.

As officials here in South Korea have been quick to point out, you got an important holiday on Saturday in North Korea, the celebration of the founder's birthday. It would be very much in line that North Korea to time their nuclear test or their missile launches to coincide with different events that could create maximum exposure for them. Of course, you really cannot predict when a test would happen when a missile launch would happen. But we know that there is added provocation for North Korea right now to act some would say. We're waiting to see how they could or would or may respond to an action that they call highly provocative, which was the U.S. decision to redeploy that naval carrier strike group to the waters off the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. has said that it was a response to provocation from North Korea, but it's certainly a perceived as a threatening move by the North Koreans, Isha.

SESAY: Certainly is. Alex, appreciate it. Let's go to Matt Rivers now, Matt with all eyes on North Korea and what they may do next, we're hearing that China has turned back a fleet of North Korean coal carrying cargo ships. This is being viewed as significant, but is it a sign of more muscular action from China towards North Korea?

MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well It's certainly a change than what we've seen from China in the past. We learned about the ships actually from President Donald Trump who during that news conference said that's what China has been doing, actually turned away the most recent fleet of ships carrying coal from North Korea. But that is a continuation of a policy that China has been enacting for right around two months now, back in the middle of February. That China announced it would suspend all imports of coal from North Korea for the remainder of the year. There is a U.N. sanctions regime that now says there's a limit to how much total coal can be purchased from North Korea by the rest of the world. China says it was nearing that limit, and so it stopped that. That Is certainly a change from what we've seen in the past because China is -- has been the biggest buyer of North Korean coal. It is one of the ways that the Kim Jong-un regime makes a lot of it hard currency, it's one of its most important exports and China has been one of the biggest buyers. So President Trump has been asking China to do more, using its economic leverage to influence the Pyongyang regime, and China has, at least in terms of coal, done so.

Now, we need to add in the caveat here that we just got trade data for the first quarter of 2017, and total volume of trade between China and North Korea actually went up almost 40 percent. So even though coal imports have stopped, for the time being, that hasn't prevented China from continuing to trade with North Korea. And it calls into question exactly how willing China is to use its economic leverage the way the Trump administration wants them to.

SESAY: Some much-needed perspective there. From our own Matt Rivers, there is in Beijing, China and Alexandra Fields joining us there from Seoul, South Korea. Thank you so much.

Well, CNN's Will Ripley is in North Korea right now. Officials there told him and other journalists to prepare for a big event on Thursday. He filed this video as he was getting ready to go out without knowing where he was headed.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's not even five a.m. yet we got woken a few minutes ago with a call from our minders saying that we need to put on suits, bring light gear and meet at the hotel right now for a major event. Last minute we were told to dress like this, and go to, you know potentially go through a lot of security it means what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well its number one event, usually the leader would be there. We've been to events before like this we had the whole security thing.

RIVERS: We've been given these press bands which we will not have to wear on our arms anywhere that we go to identify we're members of the media. So, we have been told that we need to leave our cell phones here in

the vehicle. In the past, this has meant that we are going on the event where Kim Jong-un will be present. So I'll check in with you whenever we are finished. It could be hours from now. We'll see.


[01:25:30] SESAY: Well I can tell you we are just as intrigued as excited as you are and hope to find out what exactly Will Ripley saw what exactly he experienced. The moment he calls, the interview here at CNN, we'll get him on the air. So we can find out what the big reveal was, so stay with us for that.

Meanwhile, police have detained a suspect in connection with an attack on a German football club Borussia Dortmund. They say that suspect and another fall on the Islamist spectrum. Three explosions hit near a bus carrying the team on Tuesday, wounding one player. Let's bring in Journalist Chris Burns CNN's former Berlin Bureau Chief, Chris good to have you with us. What more can you tell us about these individuals that the authorities are speaking to, were they previously on their radar?

CHRIS BURNS, JOURNALIST: Isha, they are looking into that. They are not giving a lot of information. We hope to find out more today. Over my shoulder is the stadium Borussia Dortmund. This whole stadium was filled with some 80,000 people, the largest in Germany, including the Interior Minister Thomas de Maizere, to make a point that this is a secure game, it was secure. But there was massive, massive police presence, just even downtown you can see that. Loads and loads of police vehicles and police in full gear, making sure that this went off without a hitch, just a day after those three bombs went off near the bus that was bringing the team of Borussia Dortmund to the stadium here. It was put off for a day because of that.

One of the players, Marc Bartra, was injured in the arm and hand. He was operated on, but it was miraculous that nobody else was injured in that bus. It was quite a big surprise that it did happen that way. The bombs went off about 100 meters away, so it could have been much much worse. Although one the bombs were packed with metal pins. One of those pins went through the headdress one of the seats in the bus so it could have been much much worse. But the team was shaken, very shaken. And they lost 3-2 last night to A.S. Monaco. So a fair amount of bitterness among some of the fans today. Back to you.

SESAY: Yes. I don't know that you can be surprised that they were shaken and maybe didn't perform on the pitch. Chris Burns joining us there from Berlin, we're pleased that things are getting back to some form of normalcy. Chris Burns, thank you.

Quick break now. U.S. President Donald Trump is looking to get healthcare reform back on track. Just ahead, how he plans to get Democrats to the bargaining table. Plus, a military showdown is looming against ISIS in Syria. The U.S. General in charge of the operation is speaking exclusively to CNN about when that battle will start.


[01:31:56] ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay.

The headlines this hour --


SESAY: Staying with U.S. matters, he couldn't repeal and replace Obamacare as he promised, so now Donald Trump is threatening to not reimburse health insurers who cover low-income Americans. He tells the "Wall Street Journal" he doesn't want to hurt people but he thinks the move would force Democrats to the negotiating table. Seven million people qualify for the cost-sharing subsidies, which reduce co-payments and deductibles. Without the reimbursements, insurance companies would pull out of the marketplace.

Joining me here in L.A., Wendy Greuel, a former L.A. councilwoman; and in San Diego, Gina Loudon is the host of "America Trends" and a Donald Trump supporter.

Ladies, welcome, again. Thanks for staying around.

Gina, what happened to letting Obamacare collapse and letting the Democrats carry the blame can?

DR. GINA LOUDON, HOST, AMERICA TRENDS & DONALD TRUMP SUPPORTER: That is exactly that. When you remove subsidies, you expose what the real costs are --


SESAY: This is him intervening. This is him tipping the scale to bring about collapse. This isn't him sitting back --


LOUDON: But he really has to. He really has to, though, Isha, because this was passed without going through the budget. This never went through the budget. These are unconstitutional costs. These have to go through Congress, through the budget, and they didn't. This was passed on a straight party line vote. So when the real costs of these premiums emerge, as they will, when they're not subsidized by government, the Democrats are going to have to own this.

SESAY: Wendy, this is how Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, is responding. He says, "President Trump is threatening to hold hostage health care for millions of Americans, many of whom have voted for him, to achieve a political goal of repeal that would take health care away from millions more."

He's call thing a cynical strategy that will fail. Is he right?

GINA GREUEL, FORMER L.A. CITY COUNCILWOMAN: Absolutely. When you talk about seven million people who are now getting health care, who will lose that health care going forward, or the 21 million who would have lost it under Trump care, he's trying desperately to salvage a loss that he had a few weeks ago. The fact is that he could not get something passed that was going to be damaging as noted to many of his voters. I can't imagine that my colleague here, who is on the show, wants to look in the eyes of those families and say, we are not going to provide health care for you because we want to prove a point. We want to hold them hostage as Chuck Schumer says. This is about people's lives and health care is something the public cares about, and the voters who voted for Donald Trump also care about this. And the polls show people want Obamacare to stay.

[01:35:49] SESAY: Gina?

LOUDON: I do agree with you that there will be plenty of blame to throw around here. But the blame unfortunately is going to be on the Democrats, who passed this illegally without putting it through Congress or running it through the budget. Don't forget, all this will do is open it up so people have a choice as to whether or not they want to buy Obamacare. This isn't forcing anyone to do anything. It's quite the opposite. But I do hope that this will bring Democrats to the table, because we would hate to see anyone not have health care in this country. We want that. We just don't want it done unconstitutionally or illegal.

SESAY: Let's shift gears and talk about Paul Manafort, who is planning to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. Paul Manafort, of course, was Donald Trump's campaign manager at one point, and for him to do so, to register in this way, he will be following in the footsteps of Michael Flynn, who also filed retroactively.

Wendy, if this does happen, what does this do to the White House in terms of optics? Optics of the kind of people President Trump has at one point had in his inner circle?

GREUEL: Well, I think every day we find someone else who has had a relationship with Russia. Particularly someone who didn't register as a foreign agent. It just seems unbelievable to me that you can do that retroactively. I think it begs the question that Congress should have legislation that says there are consequences. If you don't register when you're serving as that foreign agent. When you see that Manafort was in charge of the campaign for Donald Trump, there's a lot of questions that have not been answered. They are not going to get away from this Russia issue dogging the Trump administration.

SESAY: That's the point that this keeps alive the questions swirling about this White House about their relationship with Russia. It just keeps that smoke billowing over the White House.

LOUDON: Well, there's certainly a lot of questions. As Comey says there have been questions since July, but no answers. There is zero evidence of any sort of collusion between Trump and Russia. And in fact, if we're going to go talking about people around President Trump who had anything to do with Russia in any sort of way, or this registering, what about John Podesta? John Podesta is the one thread that goes all the way through the Hillary administration --


SESAY: He's not in the White House.

LOUDON: His brother -- but his brother is now also retroactively registering. And so this is just people crossing their "I"s and dotting their "T"s because the media has made such hay out of a nonstory. There is no evidence of any collusion whatsoever after investigating this and talking about it ad nauseam since July. Those are the words of Comey.

SESAY: I believe the investigation is still going on in the Senate and House and intelligence agencies are still conducting an investigation. So we can't categorically say there isn't anything there. But time will tell.

Wendy Greuel, Gina Loudon, thank you both so much.

GREUEL: Thank you.

LOUDON: Thank you.

SESAY: Well, the U.S.-led military push to dislodge Syria from the Syrian stronghold of Raqqa could get under way soon, possibly within months. Since 2014, the terror group has lost a huge amount of territory in its so-called caliphate. Those losses are shown in green on this map here.

Our Nick Paton Walsh spoke exclusively with the U.S. commander now making the final preparations to liberate Raqqa.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He commands the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and flies now over a battlefield that seems to go from impossibly complicated to worse day by day. But the next key fight for is' de facto capital Raqqa is now very close.

LT. GEN. STEPHEN TOWNSEND, COMMANDER OF FORCES IN IRAQ & SYRA: I certainly hope that the assault on Raqqa is under way by this summer.

PATON WALSH (voice-over): Completed by when?

TOWNSEND: Don't know. Up to them.


TOWNSEND: It's up to them.

PATON WALSH: Would you be surprised if you're still fighting that fight by 2018?

TOWNSEND: In Raqqa city? Yes.

[01:40:10] PATON WALSH (voice-over): Another long, hard fight, he may need more U.S. boots on the ground for it. TOWNSEND: Right now, I think we have the resources to do the task

we're doing right now, which is complete the isolation of Raqqa. After the isolation of Raqqa, will come the assault. And we're still evaluating what resources we need. If I need more resources, I'll go to my leadership, my chain of command and tell them what we need to get the job done.

PATON WALSH: Now he must evaluate another complexity after President Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against the Syrian regime backed by Russia for a chemical weapons attack in Idlib.

(on camera): Has your thinking about Russia or Syrian regime involvement and Raqqa had to change since the air strikes in the past weeks or so against Syrian regime targets by the U.S.?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, I would say that probably our thinking has changed a little bit. But I'm not -- I couldn't say specifically how.

PATON WALSH: Are you having to take into account the possibility the Syrian regime might use sarin against assets here?

TOWNSEND: Sure, we have to take that into account. I'm not greatly concerned about that.

PATON WALSH: Is that a risk in your mind?

TOWNSEND: Of course, it's a possibility, so it's a risk. But I think it's a very small risk.

Let me just say on that last question, I don't think the Syrian regime wants to pick a fight with the United States or the global coalition against is. If you take what you just said a step further, that's what they're doing. They're choosing to directly fight the United States and the global coalition. I don't think they want to do that.

PATON WALSH (voice-over): U.S.-backed rebel Syrian forces are isolating Raqqa from the north, east, and west, and may soon move to isolate from the south, nearer where Russian and regime forces are. But he says he is not coordinating the Raqqa push with Russia or Syria at all.

(on camera): Do the regime or Russian forces have any role in your planning for the liberation of Raqqa?

TOWNSEND: Right now, we are not planning -- we are not -- we're not planning or coordinating with them. They're not each located near Raqqa.

PATON WALSH: But they don't figure as part of your operations to liberate that city?

TOWNSEND: We think they have their hands full doing their tasks in Syria, and they're probably happy to let the Syrian Democratic forces and the coalition tackle Raqqa.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SESAY: Our Nick Paton Walsh there.

Next up on CNN NEWSROOM, a conversation with a comedian about voter regret and political issues right here in the U.S.


[01:45:11] SESAY: Usually elections in Kansas don't have many surprises. It's a lively, conservative space with a Republican governor. Mike Pompeo won his congressional district by more than 30 points in 2016. So most people expected Republicans to easily win the seat he vacated during a special election this week. They won, yeah, they did, but it wasn't easy. Ron Estes won with a margin of seven points. Or let's put it another way. There was a 24-point swing to the Democrats. Some believe that's a warning shot to Republicans, and a sign that maybe, just maybe Donald Trump is losing support among Democrats who voted for him for president.

For more joining us now is Trae Crowder, a comedian and author of "The Liberal Redneck Manifesto."

Trae, it's so good to have you with us. Thank you for joining us.

TRAE CROWDER, COMEDIAN & AUTHOR: Thank you, Isha. Thrilled to be here. I appreciate it.

SESAY: Well, you are from the deeply conservative south and also a proud liberal. I want to play a clip from your YouTube channel why many viewers are struggling financially and would benefit from Democrat policies but voted for Donald Trump.



CROWDER: So when I see poor voters come out in droves for this guy where the unemployment rate is in the 20s, it blows me away. And when the rest of liberal America is asked to explain it, they just go, well, they're just a bunch of ignorant bigots. Trump's the king bigot. Who wants Kombucha? Well, it ain't that simple, Tristan.



SESAY: And, Trae, give us a reality check, would those voters be disappointed so far?

CROWDER: Well, you know, I say that anecdotally I have -- you know, I know some people that know some people. I've got some cousins, I've heard tell of people being disappointed so far of feeling a semblance of regret. But it's important to note that we're only a few months in. This type of thing takes some time. It's just the same way they feel about their favorite college team. It takes a couple of losses to admit that this season is over. So I do think that will -- I think it's happening. I think it will continue to happen. But I think it's a little early yet and we need to give it some time for them to come around.

SESAY: Shifting from your cousin's cousins to you, has this president turned out to be as you expected or worse?

CROWDER: I'll be totally honest, worse. And that's because it's a cartoon. It's cartoonishly bad for me from my political perspective. I kept telling myself when he won, ok, but it cannot be as bad as it seems like it will be. But he's really stepped up to the plate and proved me wrong in a lot of ways. It's been -- no, I ain't happy at all.

SESAY: Let me ask you this, going back to the folks. How much support for Donald Trump among Democrats, especially in the south, how much of that is actually for him and how much of that is really just outright a rejection of the Democratic Party and where it is today?

CROWDER: I mean, I think both of those things are huge. But I do think it has a lot more to do with the latter than the former, at least initially. Because when he first became popular and winning counties like my home county, I was stunned, because I promise you right now, I know these people. If you would have polled rednecks five years ago, what do you think about Donald Trump? It would have been almost universally negative. He's a silver spoon Yankee, thinks he knows everything, everything they hate. But the fact that they fell in line with him shows how desperate they were for somebody to speak to them. I think it's a huge "F.U.," frankly, to the other side, to a lot of these people.

SESAY: I was going to ask you about something that's been making the headlines. We've been talking about it here at CNN, just this motion when Donald Trump was out of office, he spent a lot of time lambasting President Obama for playing golf and all the amount of money it took when he was away to cover those travel costs. Now we're hearing that this White House will rack up costs more than President Obama's more than eight years in office. How does that kind of image, how does that play with the people who voted for Trump where you're from?

[01:50:02] CROWDER: Well, it shouldn't play worth a damn, you know. It's one of those -- a cognitive dissonance thing. A lot of the hardcore Trump people think pam Obama is the antichrist literally.

SESAY: They literally think that?

CROWDER: Well, some of them. I'm just saying the disdain is so deep seated there, they just don't want to see that. To answer your question, like logically, I have no idea how they can reconcile it. But there's a lot of things about them I don't understand. I grew up with them.

SESAY: Just super quickly, how do they feel about you? How do they feel about you that you're out there, I don't know, what are you doing, mocking them? Are you trying to start a conversation? I mean, anyone coming around to hang out with you or are you a loner these days?

CROWDER: First of all, to answer one of your questions, it comes from a place of love. I love the south, I love where I'm from, I love my people. I just want us to do better. What I perceive to be better. And that's where it's all coming from. I'm not trying to mock or degrade anybody with any of my comedy. But how do people feel about me back home? There's a lot of people praying for me, let's put it that way.


SESAY: Trae Crowder, on that note, we're going to leave it that, but we'll add our prayers for you.

Thank you so much for joining us. Yeah, thank you for all the great stuff on YouTube.

CROWDER: Oh, thank you. My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SESAY: Take care.

Next on NEWSROOM L.A., the statue of a strong little girl gets in the way of a symbol of free market capitalism. We'll tell you who won the showdown on Wall Street.



[01:55:46] SESAY: The artist who created a powerful symbol of bullish capitalism says it's being weakened by the statue of a little girl. The fearless girl has been starring down the bull on Wall Street for the past month. She was put there to get companies to put more companies to hire more women. The artist of the bull wants the fearless girl moved. He says she changes the bull's message about a better America. The New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, says she's staying at least until next year because she sends a positive message about the role of women.

You're watching CNN NEWSROOM from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay. I'll be right back with more news after this.