Return to Transcripts main page


Leaving the Nation in Turmoil; Fixing a Mess in a Diplomatic Way; Iran to Have a New Leader. Aired 3-4a ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 03:00   ET


[03:00:00] GEORGE HOWELL, CNN HOST: The U.S. President looks ahead to his first trip abroad, leaving behind him a White House in turmoil. We will have the details of that story ahead.

Also, voters in Iran casting ballots in the nation's presidential election, a vote that could decide the country's relations with the west.

CNN is live on the story and the South China Sea. Hopes for an end to the dispute between China and the Philippines as the two nations prepare to talk.

Live from CNN world headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to our viewers all around the world. I'm George Howell. CNN Newsroom starts right now.

The President of the United States looking ahead to his first trip abroad, leaving behind him a White House that is in turmoil. The firing of his FBI director also now the former FBI director who is now stepping in as special counsel to investigate possible collusion with Russia between the Trump campaign or the Trump administration.

A lot of questions here as CNN's Sara Murray explains.


Believe me, there is no collusion. Russia is fine.


SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump seething today over the news that a special counsel will oversee the FBI's Russia investigation. Carefully insisting that he did not personally collude with the Russians during the 2016 campaign.


TRUMP: I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch-hunt and there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero.


MURRAY: Many in Washington cheered the news that former FBI Director Robert Mueller would serve as special counsel in the investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians but the president stood.


TRUMP: I think it decides the country. I mean, we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.


MURRAY: Trump also sharply denies that he ever asked ousted FBI Director James Comey to back off his investigation into retired General Michael Flynn.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape, or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn. And also as you look back...


TRUMP: No. No. Next question.


MURRAY: And the president dismissing the notion that any of his actions could warrant criminal charges or impeachment.


TRUMP: I think it's totally ridiculous. Everyone thinks so.


MURRAY: Trump defiant tone on Thursday a far cry from the measured statement the president released as soon as the special counsel was announced.

On Wednesday night, Trump simply wrote, "As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know. There was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly."

But even as he decried the Russia probe as a witch-hunt today, Trump appeared eager to turn the focus back to his agenda.


TRUMP: There was no collusion. And everybody, even my enemies have said there is no collusion. So we want to get back and keep on the track that we're on. Because the track that we're on is record setting.


MURRAY: The president using his appearance with the Colombian president to tout his upcoming foreign trip. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Tomorrow as you know I'm going to Saudi Arabia, going to Israel, and going to Rome. And we have the G-7. We have a lot of great things going on.


MURRAY: And devoting part of his day for the hunt to a new FBI Director as former Senator Joe Lieberman emerges as an early front- runner for the job.


TRUMP: We are very close to an FBI director.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When is the next one?

TRUMP: Soon.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is Senator Lieberman a top pick?

TRUMP: He is.


MURRAY: And now that a special counsel has been named to oversee the Russia investigation, there is a sense among some of Trump's allies that the president can use a little bit more firepower to defend him.

To that end, a circle of his advisers huddled in Washington on Thursday to discuss the possibility of having the president hire outside legal counsel.

Sara Murray, CNN, the White House.

HOWELL: The man who appointed the special counsel is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He was on Capitol Hill Thursday testifying behind closed doors to the full Senate. The hearing was classified so we don't have a full picture of what Rosenstein told lawmakers.

One senator, however, said Rosenstein revealed he knew FBI Director Comey was about to be fired even before writing a legal justification for Comey's dismissal. Listen.


CLAIRE MCCASKILL, (D) UNITED STATES SENATOR: Deputy attorney general declined to give details concerning Comey's dismissal because he is anxious to give wide latitude to Robert Mueller as to make determination as to where his investigation should go and what it should include.

[03:05:08] As a former prosecutor I respect that decision. He did acknowledge that he learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo. (END VIDEO CLIP)

HOWELL: So timing is important here. It comes down to timing. The firing of Comey is important because the president initially said that Rosenstein's memo is a catalyst for dismissing the FBI director. Then the president back tracked, telling NBC that he had already decided to fire Comey and that the memo didn't matter. Now he is suggesting that Rosenstein's memo played a key role. Which is it? Take a look here.


TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. There is no good time to do it, by the way.

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS HOST: Because in your letter you said I accepted -- I accepted the recommendation. So you already made the decision.


TRUMP: Yes, well, they also -- I was going to fire regardless.

Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision and I also got a very, very strong recommendation as you know from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.


HOWELL: John Flannery is a federal former federal prosecutor joining now from Washington. John, a pleasure to have you with us this hour.


HOWELL: Thank you so much for being with us. Let's talk about that news conference to start. The president talked about these allegations of collusion with the Russians. His denial was predictable, but the way he worded it that has some people taking note. Let's listen.


TRUMP: There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can only speak for myself and the Russians. Zero.


HOWELL: So again, he is careful to say that he speaks for himself. But is this leaving the door open to the possibility that he might not be able to speak for others in his campaign.

FLANNERY: Well, it almost sounds, you know, having seen too many CIA movies and spend too much time in the Washington area, like he is talking about he has cut outs to protect him from having direct contact.

And you have to be very suspicious about how he carves out special attention to protect Flynn. And that's very interesting I think. You know, Shakespeare said, "Guilt spills itself for fear of being split." It's almost his consciousness of guilt to protect Flynn suggests the avenue for a decent investigator to find out what was really going on and what the contacts were about and who is doing what for whom and under what authority.

HOWELL: So you know, this is all conjecture, but when you hear that, you hear something about Michael Flynn possibly?

FLANNERY: That's what I hear, yes. And I hear that because even in his focus with Comey when Comey was the FBI Director, he's telling him, just lay off Flynn. He is discouraging him from doing that and right after the march -- I'm sorry, the May 3rd appearance before the Senate when Comey comes forward and confirms the investigation and he talks about elements of it and he contradicts Mr. Trump's belief system that there were wiretaps in his place on Fifth Avenue, by May 9th, he is out of a job.

And it takes him, that is Mr. Trump, the attorney general who is supposed to be excluded from these things and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to decide to fire him. And it's like they are killing the investigation. It really does seem about Flynn. We have other reports since in which there are a number of contacts, at least 18 according to the report today, 18 contacts between Russians and the campaign staff of Mr. Trump.

HOWELL: You talked there about Rosenstein. One of bigger revelations that came out of the briefing today, his briefing to senators, it was about the timeline. Rosenstein telling lawmakers that he knew FBI Director James Comey was getting fired one day before he wrote the memo to the White House that ultimately recommended that firing. What do you make of that contradiction?

FLANNERY: Well, I think that changes the view that Rosenstein was just a dupe by the president and perhaps the attorney general instead of participant. Because he knew the day before he wrote the memo giving a false explanation for why they were firing Comey. And that raises another question.

Isn't he now a logical subject of investigation for any cover up or obstruction or effort to impede an investigation with sessions and with Mr. Trump?

HOWELL: I want to focus on something that Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters today after the session. Here's what he said and we can talk about this on the other side as well.



LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) UNITED STATES SENATOR: The take away I have is that everything he said was that you need to treat this investigation as if it may be a criminal investigation.

[03:10:01] So I think the biggest legal change seems to be that Mr. Mueller is going to proceed forward with the idea of a criminal investigation versus a counter intelligence investigation.


HOWELL: All right, John, so this talk of a criminal investigation. What is it, do you think, that senators heard during that briefing that would make them think the focus of this special prosecutor is criminal investigation.

FLANNERY: Well, first of all, the charge to go forward empowers Bob Mueller, the former FBI Director and former U.S. attorney in Massachusetts and California to conduct a criminal investigation. But here's the problem about that. The hill often gives immunity to people and there by compromises a criminal investigation. So they shouldn't do that.

The second thing they should do is they put the witnesses under oath. And they should proceed with care. There is no reason why the intelligence committee cannot continue its investigation. And to say that some people might invoke the Fifth Amendment as I heard them say as well, is something that would happen with or without the appointment of Bob Mueller.

Because a good lawyer is going to say what can you say and they are going to be told honestly what a witness might say and they are going to say maybe you should invoke the Fifth Amendment. Because you don't have to even tangentially be a witness against yourself in what may be a criminal investigation.

HOWELL: John Flannery, we appreciate your time and insight on a very complicated situation here. Thanks for your time.

FLANNERY: Thank you very much.

HOWELL: All right. As we mentioned earlier, the president has several foreign visits ahead. His first trip later Friday will be stopping in Saudi Arabia. After Riyadh, the president travels to Israel and then on to Europe where Mr. Trump is set to meet with the pope and to attend summits with NATO and G-7 leaders, all of these meetings to come at a precarious time for the president. They could be a refreshing break from the crisis that he's facing Washington or they could worsen the problems.

CNN's international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson is live in Riyadh following this expected visit of the President of the United States. Good to have you with us, Nic, this hour. So let's talk about this.

Two very different Donald Trumps. So, you know, you remember the Donald Trump of the campaign trail? The Donald Trump who would say many things that seemed controversial towards Islam. Again, we're seeing a different Donald Trump headed towards Saudi Arabia, but will those words haunt him from a year ago?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, certainly it's trying to put distance between himself and those comments. And I was here about a year or so ago talking to Saudis here in Riyadh about Trump and that was their perception. This was a man who was very sort of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim and the

travel bans he tried to institute in the beginning of his presidency certainly reinforced that message but it's not the way it's being played here by the leadership in Saudi Arabia.

President Trump's drive around the city here, he will be passing Saudi and American flags on so many of the street lights here. He'll see billboards with himself and the king and the message here is that this is a very, very special visit. This is one of the popular newspapers here on the front page. There you have King Salman right there and the message next to him, history begins to be written now here.

So the message is that this is an historic visit. Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said that they see this as a reset in the relationship between the west and the Arab and the Muslim nations.

So this is something that will be a departure from President Obama that they hope Trump can be tough on Iran. That they hope and they believe in the foreign minister's words that Trump can be a courageous leader and help find a solution for Palestinian and Israeli peace.

These are very, very, if you will, high achievements that are sort of setting on all things for Trump to deliver on. President Trump for his part is coming here and he's not just going to meet with King Salman, the Saudi -- the Saudi leader, but he is going to meet as well with more than 35 different Arab, Muslim regional leaders and he's going to deliver according to his National Security Adviser, General McMaster, a message that is going to say to these leaders, we need you to preach a more peaceful, tolerant view of Islam.

Now, that's going to need to be a very nuanced message. McMaster has hinted that it will be, but it needs to be nuance because so many of the leaders feel that that's the message they propagate already.

So the fact that the Saudis are rolling out the red carpet in big style, huge style. That they are associating themselves and putting so much hope in President Trump. It really shows you largely they are ignoring what he said on the campaign trail and investing a lot in the Trump presidency.

HOWELL: So Nic, the speech that you talk about will be very important speech. CNN though, had also learned that it's being drafted by Trump adviser Steven Miller. Steven Miller has been criticized in the past for history of Islamophobic views.

[03:15:04] So given that, the speech still very important. Are there any concerns about what the president might say when he is there?

ROBERTSON: President Trump has been hugely criticized and widely observed for a very chaotic beginning to his presidency. And part of it is because it appears on the surface that he doesn't grasp the nuance of what worries and troubles other people, and allies witness the issue over the possibility of giving away the classified intelligence to an adversary, Russia.

So the pressure on him here is to be given a speech that is nuanced to be able to deliver that nuanced message and perhaps not get caught up on the sort of ample servings of praise that he's going to get from leaders in this region.

We've seen this already from King Abdullah of Jordan when he went to the White House with Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas when he went to the White House, they were very wholesome in their praise for President Trump. We know President Trump likes to hear positive messages back about himself. So certainly what's going to hear from here.

But he is going to hear from the Saudis and from others what they want him to deliver on. Now that is all very good, but if he strays in this carefully phrased message that with respect that the United States wants these leaders to reshape the way that they are propagating and supporting Islam and the message in their country, that's a very, very difficult message to deliver, particularly here, if you will, in the country that is home to Islam's two holiest sites and the king is custodian of those two holy sites.

So, you know, in that context, the speechwriter is going to have to walk a very fine line, George.

HOWELL: The U.S. President soon to arrive there. Our international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson live in Riyadh. Thank you so much for the reporting and we'll stay in touch with you as the president is soon to arrive there.

Fired months ago, but Michael Flynn still causing problems for the Trump White House. How the administration is handling all the questions coming at them. That's later this hour.

Plus, it's presidential election day in Iran and voters have a big decision to make there. CNN is live in Tehran following the story. Stay with us.


HOWELL: Welcome back. The polls are open in Iran this hour. Voters are picking their next president. Five contenders are vying for that role. The moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani seen here on the left is seeking a second term.

[03:19:59] His chief rival is considered to be Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi is a hard line conservative cleric and a harsh critic of the west.

CNN is covering this story live in Tehran. And our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen presently there at a polling station in north Tehran. Fred, I see the scene there. What, can you tell us about the mood as people go to the polls?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, George, there is a pretty high turnout. We've been out here for about 2 or 2.5 hours and really a long line in front of this polling station.

I want to walk you through the polling station. If you come with me through the process, because what you have here is you can see the ballot boxes. There's two of them. This one is for the presidential election, this one is for a municipal election.

And actually one of the reasons, George, why the turnout is expected to be really high is because they have municipal elections at the same time. And so obviously people who have big municipal issues they'll be voting as well. So folks register here on this side. Then if we keep going you can see that there is quite a long line here of people who have been waiting for a very long time.

In fact, the gentlemen as you see right here, he saw him earlier, about two hours ago when he was cuing outside so it does take quite a long time. Now one of the things that you will also see here, George, is on this side it's all men. The women's section to vote is actually separate here is over on that side.

So the men's and women's vote is separated here in this election as in all around elections. But you know, you were asking about the mood. As even the folks are coming out here today, George, they really understand that this is a very, very important election for their country.

They believe that the two candidates while they do see eye to eye on certain issues especially on the issue of the economy which by far and away is the most important issue, they had very, very different ideas and that's why I think you're going to see very high turnout.

You've also seen that in the campaigns leading up to this as well that both sides, the moderates and the conservatives have been doing a lot to try and get the vote out.

In fact, just a couple of nights ago, I walked around the streets at Tehran at night. And there was actually a Hassan Rouhani street party that was going on there where people were trying to get passersby in their cars to give their vote to Hassan Rouhani. So that's how intense the campaign has been running up to this vote, George.

HOWELL: Senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen, live for us in Tehran following the vote there as people pick their next president. Thank you so much. Fred, we'll stay in touch with you as well.

Moving on now to Brazil. That nation's president is vowing not to give up amid an ongoing corruption scandal. Report say the top Brazilian court is investigating Michel Temer after a major newspaper accused him of paying a jailed politician hush money. The defiant Mr. Temer says that is not true.


MICHEL TEMER, PRESIDENT OF BRAZIL (through translator): I won't resign. I repeat, I won't resign. I know what I did and I know my actions were right. I demand a full and quick investigation to clear up the situation for the Brazilian people.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HOWELL: In the meantime, the meat processing company at the center of

the corruption allegations against Mr. Temer apologized to Brazilians for bribing public officials. In a statement, JBS says the company could not justify what it did.

Members of the Venezuelan Supreme Court have seen their assets frozen by the United States Treasury. And American citizens have been barred from financial transactions with the eight justices. Officials say they made rulings that undermine the authority of Venezuela's democratically elected legislature.

In the meantime, opposition groups there they continue to face off with the president of that nation Nicolas Maduro and his supporters. The National Guard throw tear gas, they used water cannons against anti-government protesters in Caracas on Thursday. The opposition accuses Mr. Maduro of creating a dictatorship. They want him to step down.

Thorn apart by violent protests Venezuela is a country on the brink of collapse. That government is cracking down though, they are intimidating journalists even taking CNN's sister network CNN Espanol off the air. So we went under cover with much of our filming done overtly so as to avoid the risk of being arrested.

CNN's senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh has this story and we warn you going into the story, it does contain graphic video.

NICK PATON WALSH, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Pain is never worse than when it's needless. Danielle is 14 and elsewhere would probably have kept her leg. But in Venezuela vital medicine for chemotherapy is short. And so with the odds the bone tumor in her leg wouldn't spread.

"Just a little cold water," the doctor says. "Careful," she cries. It was removed yesterday but often happened with amputations strangely, she can still feel it.

[03:25:02] "It feels strange," she says, "because I feel a leg that isn't there. It's gone."

Does it make you feel angry as a doctor, a procedure like this is necessary when you can prevent it if you have the right medicine?

ROSA SILVA MARTINEZ, DOCTOR: Yes. That is very sad for us.

WALSH: This is a society crumbling from inside where a government who tried to control everything from wages to health care to food prices now seems to control nothing. Where the body of a murder victim lies in the streets of Valencia, now a common curiosity and rather than a scandal.

Doctors sneak us in to a public hospital to show why diseases now this once oil-rich nation thought to have vanquish decades ago are coming back. Wounded protesters making do with water bottles to drain gunfire wounds. "The medicines were brought by my family members," he says, "in fact, they also have bought the water to bathe me. Everything."

The doctors who once enjoyed modern sanitary conditions are now themselves at risk of infection and they say when patients die from waiting.

"When there was looting last week in Valencia," the doctors says, "11 dead arrived here. The wounded arrived at about 9 o'clock and they can't get medicine. They will be treated for some 12 hours later. People die here from gunshot wounds because we can't treat them."

Patients wait for hours for the universal free health care the socialist government once promised. Yet now its mismanagement means it cannot pay for. Instead, they seek to conceal the embarrassment even firing the health minister after revealing child mortality and malaria figures. So now there is silence rather than an end to the suffering.

Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Valencia.

HOWELL: Venezuela's government has repeatedly said its problems have been exaggerated by hostile foreign media. The government also claims the drop in oil prices and actions of opposition-friendly tycoons have contributed to their problems.

Now to the heart of New York City, a tragic scene that played out in the city's bustling Times Square, this all happened right around lunchtime. A car crashed into pedestrians. This video shows you the moment that the car flipped over into a packed street.

An 18-year-old woman was killed from this, at least 22 others were hurt. A source tell CNN the allege driver tested positive for the hallucinogenic drug PCP. The suspect has been charged with aggravated vehicular homicide and multiple counts of attempted murder.

The man the White House just can't seem to escape. More on the troubles of Michael Flynn and what they could mean for the Trump team going forward.

Plus, the South China Sea is up for debate. Two regional powers there agreed to sit down over the disputed territory. CNN has the story as the news continues.


HOWELL: Welcome back to our viewers all around the world. You're watching CNN Newsroom. It is good to have you with us. I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you this hour.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was among the first to vote in that country's presidential election which got underway just hours ago. The moderate President Hassan Rouhani is seeking a second term. His chief opponent is Ebrahim Raisi, a hard line conservative cleric.

The U.S.-led coalition in Syria bombed a pro-regime military convoy it says was advancing near a military base on the Syrian-Jordanian border. Pentagon says two U.S. aircraft were dispatched as a show of force to get the troops to turn around.

The U.S. President Donald Trump flatly denies any collusion between his campaign and the Russian officials during the 2016 election. But then qualified president -- the president qualified a statement, rather, saying that he could only speak for himself and not for others on his team.

Mr. Trump made the remarks on the eve of his first overseas trip as president. Problems with the fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn are again rearing their head. This time casting doubt on the vice president and whether he had any prior knowledge of a federal investigation into Michael Flynn.

CNN's Athena Jones has more.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The White House tonight is denying a New York Times report that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn told the Trump transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under investigation. The report puts renewed focus on Vice President Mike Pence who led the Trump transition effort.

Pence had maintained the first time he learned of any investigation was months later in March when the retired general registered with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent. A move that seemed to surprise the vice president at the time.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, let me say hearing the story today was the first I heard of it. I fully support the decision that President Trump made to ask for General Flynn's resignation.


JONES: A Pence aide telling CNN today the vice president stands by his comments in March upon first hearing the news regarding General Flynn's ties to Turkey and fully support the president's decision to asked for General Flynn's resignation.

That, despite the vice president also receiving a warning about Flynn's foreign ties. In a letter last November from democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings.


ELIJAH CUMMINGS, (D) UNITED STATES REPRESENTATIVE: I sent him a very lengthy letter warning him of it.


JONES: The letter detailed Flynn's lobbying work for a Turkish firm and the payment he received for a speech in Moscow that was, quote, "highly critical of the United States." During the height of the presidential campaign Flynn's consulting firm was paid more than half a million dollars by a Turkish owned company.

Cummings says Pence later told him he had no recollection of receiving the document.


CUMMINGS: When I asked him about it later on, he said that, you know, he just said in a (Inaudible) and he doesn't remember getting it.


JONES: Pence who was often acted as a Trump translator dating back to the campaign.


PENCE: Donald Trump is a good man.


JONES: He is facing growing credibility problems. Just last week when he was dispatched to Capitol Hill after the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, Pence repeated the White House line seven times, stating that the decision to fire Comey was based on a recommendation from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.


PENCE: He provided strong leadership to act on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.


JONES: Only to be contradicted by the president hours later.


TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. My decision. I was going to fire regardless.


JONES: Athena Jones, CNN, the White House.

HOWELL: Ana Navarro is a CNN political commentator and republican strategist joining now from Miami. Ana, a pleasure to have you with us this hour.


HOWELL: The Trump team has clearly had a very rough week. We saw the president today speaking out on some of these issues but one person who typically defends the president was not front and center, the vice president. What do you make of Mr. Pence taking such a low profile in the middle of all of this? NAVARRO: Well, he's got his own questions hanging around him and he's

got his own answers and explanation to give. It came out today that the transition team that the transition team which Vice President Pence was the chair of knew beforehand that Michael Flynn was doing this lobbying work for Turkey and that he had been informed.

[03:35:06] So, you know, he has his own tough answers to provide. And I think -- I think that's why you are seeing a very coy Mike Pence right now.

HOWELL: So there is some reporting that's been published on and certainly invite our viewers to check this out. But it points to, you know, while Vice President Pence has always proven to be a loyal soldier of the president, these latest dramas that seem so episodic, that they are starting to wear on him. Your thoughts.

NAVARRO: You know, I haven't -- I haven't reached a conclusion yet because my initial perception of Mike Pence is that he is practically a boy scout, right? But when you see all these events happening, some of which he knew or should have known, you've got to either come down to on the point of, you know, that this administration is keeping him out of the loop and that he doesn't know stuff which is not good, or you've to come down on the side of he does know stuff and he is pretending not to, which is not good.

And it is hard to reconcile with I think this perception that a lot of us have of this very religious and very conservative Boy Scout, you know, Mike Pence.

HOWELL: Mr. Trump has said today that he believes that he is the victim of a witch-hunt with these investigations. He told reporters that he believes the appointment of a special counsel to look into these matters of possible collusion with Russia that it quote, "hurts the country terribly." What do you make of that?

NAVARRO: I think it's a rather short sided and stupid reaction by President Trump. I think he should embrace this. This country needs answers. We and we should all be happy that a person like Robert Mueller who democrats and republicans both hail as somebody of impeachable integrity has been assigned this job.

It is a unicorn. It is very hard right now to find in America somebody that gets kudos and commendations both from republicans and democrats. Robert Mueller is one such person.

And look, I think -- I think Donald Trump needs to stop complaining. It is very unpresidential to go out there and whine. He is looking now a little bit like president snowflake and complaining all the time, woe is me. It's not a very presidential look, it's what leaders do.

Let's get some answers. If you got nothing to hide, if you got nothing to fear, then you really should have no reservations about somebody of the integrity and record and legacy of Robert Mueller looking into all of these issues. It should benefit Donald Trump and his administration if anything to get this dark cloud from, you know, that has been chasing them for the last four months out of the way. They are not going to be able to get an agenda through. They're not

going to be able to focus on the important policy issues if they have got to be dealing with this crisis management. It's not even daily. It's hourly. There seems to be a new revelation and a new scandal that comes up on hourly basis.

And it is a huge distraction in Washington for the White House and for the republican Congress and for the media. So the big things aren't going to be addressed because we are all dealing with this.

HOWELL: Ana Navarro, thank you so much for being with us.

NAVARRO: Thank you.

HOWELL: Russia has dismissed the various investigations into the Trump campaign nearly as much as the president has dismissed them and their tone has remained steadily scornful through this latest development.

Our Diana Magnay is following this for us live in the Russia capital this hour. Diana, good to have you with us. And we understand that Russian officials as of late poking some fun at all the talk about Russia here in the states.

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, George. Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister was in a meeting in Cyprus with the secretary general at the council of Europe and was asked whether he was OK with pictures being taken of their meeting. Let's take listen to how that little exchange went.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These pictures will not cause any problem for you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Depends on what kind of secrets you pass on to me.


MAGNAY: That exchange then posted as a tweet on the ministry of foreign affairs' Twitter feed here in Russia. Of course they had also posted the exchange that Sergey Lavrov have had with reporters at the White House when he was asked about James Comey's dismissal. And he said he was fired? You're kidding me. You're kidding me.

And of course this led to surprise and apparent trolling by Russia and the sort of scorn they seem to be pouring on the chaos in the United States.

[03:40:03] I wouldn't say that it is particularly unusual though. I mean, if we cast some line back a bit, the Russian embassy in the U.K., for example, when President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats because of hacking the U.S. elections and imposed sanctions at the end of his tenure.

The picture that the Russian embassy in the U.K. posted was with a duck with the word lame over it. So I don't think we should think that there is anything particularly unusual when you are cast as the international bogey man, George. There is only so much of a response that you can make.

And of course, making fun of it one approach. But also in a very serious fashion the Russians are trying to address this dismissing all the allegations against them saying they do not interfere in other country's affairs.

And that's a meeting with the Cyprus foreign minister yesterday. Sergey Lavrov also referred back to this supposed secret that was post from him by President Trump. This classified information and said listen, if my memory serve me well six to eight weeks ago that the United States imposed a laptop ban on people coming from several Middle Eastern countries. That is no secret. If that is the problem then I don't understand where the secret lies. George?

HOWELL: Secrets and senses of humor. Diana Magnay, thank you for the reporting.

Still ahead here on Newsroom, Beijing accused of tightening its regional control. As top Chinese leaders hold a crucial meeting with a new ally.


HOWELL: Welcome back. The United States says two Chinese jets have intercepted an American aircraft over the East China sea. The U.S. plane was on a mission to detect radiation in the airspace above the sea. Similar aircraft have been used to gather evidence of possible nuclear tests by North Korea.

The Chinese planes were using SU 30 fighter jets. A U.S. Air Force statement called the interception, quote, "unprofessional."

Just south of where that intercept happened, the South China Sea is one of the most disputed regions in the world. Right now top diplomats from China and the Philippines are holding their first high level meeting about that area.

The two countries are key players in a messy territorial dispute over the South China Sea through the relations have been warming up.

Let's get the very latest on that from David McKenzie live in Beijing this hour. David, first of all, let's talk about the U.S. and Philippines having this long standing relationship. Though, it appears to be shifting.

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. It does appear to be shifting. And that says a lot about the power of China in the region, George.

And just a few years ago, South China Sea appeared to be all about confrontation by the different claimants of those disputed islands and now it seems that many countries, including the Philippines appeared to be getting into the Chinese orbit.

[03:45:04] The question is, is the power of China unstoppable in Asia.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte touring a Chinese warship. The optics are clear. The two countries are growing closer. It's a dramatic turn around.

In 2016, the Philippines won a court of arbitration case against the Chinese over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, infuriating Beijing.

The ambassador of the Philippines to China told me that Duterte show that ruling in part because the U.S. didn't have their back.


CHITO SANTA ROMANA, PHILIPPINE AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: And that's why the president kept asking the U.S. ambassador, are you with us or not? He did not get a clear answer. The strategic logic is very simple. Don't put your eggs in one basket.


MCKENZIE: A military alliance compels the U.S. to defend the Philippines if attacked. In a statement, the U.S. State Department told CNN that the alliance is, quote, "iron-clad." "Our dependability and reliability as an ally has been established over decades."

But in the South China city, China has succeeded in turning disputed sand banks into islands then military installations.


JAMES SPIDER MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: That genius is out of the bottle. The islands that they created, the development that they put down, and the roots that they are planning there in the South China Sea are forever.


MCKENZIE: And China's military keeps getting stronger.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is personally overseeing and modernizing the air force and navy. Recently launching its first homegrown aircraft carrier.

President Trump seems reluctant to push the South China Sea issue. As he depends on China to help pressure North Korea to stop its nuclear program. So analysts say China is freer to expand its hard and soft power in the region.

With Duterte welcoming billions in Chinese investment after the military shift.


MCKENZIE: A cynic might say that the Philippines has sold out its sovereignty on the South China Sea to get investment from China. SANTA ROMANA: Well, this is the misunderstanding. We are trying to

get investments of China, but not at the price of our sovereignty.

MARKS: They have been a worldwide global influence economically for the longest time, they are now creating a proportional military capability to exercise that element of power in a way that is, can be perceive and should be perceived as a threat.


MCKENZIE: It seems that in Asia, the might of China's military and the lure of its money is hard to counter.

And in another sign of a shift in China you had early today, George, a meeting between Xi Jinping, the President and an envoy from the new South Korean president here in Beijing. It shows that the challenges in that relationships are going to at least by the two sides try to move beyond that.

Those challenges were brought because of THAAD missile system being deployed in South Korea and to defend South Korea against North Korean threats, that is being something that Beijing did not want.

And now it appears with the new president in South Korea there is again a move by China to try and warm those relations up. With Xi Jinping it appears taking the lead on that. George?

HOWELL: David McKenzie, live for us in Beijing. Thank you.

Still ahead, the U.S. senators doing what few others have done before being funny. Stay with us.


HOWELL: It was an artist who's brainy and groundbreaking work often challenged the establishment. But now decades after his death Jean- Michel Basquiat has become a very exclusive member of the artistic elite.

The painting here, take a look here of a skull from 1982 has been sold for more than $110 million. It's a new record for an American artist at an auction. The buyer was a Japanese billionaire and a handful of other works have broken the $100 million dark putting Basquiat in the same elite as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso.

All right. Now time to talk about more a dozen tornados that struck the central part of the U.S. once again on Thursday.

Our meteorologist Derek Van Dam following the story at the International Weather Center. Derek?

DEREK VAN DAM, CNN METEOROLOGIST: George, here's one of the tornados that was spawned about two hours to the south and west of Oklahoma City. This is known as rope tornado, and while very ominous sight to see if you are driving along some of these roadways across central Oklahoma, fortunately it's across a very rural part of the state. But I mean, this is incredible. We have had a multiday severe weather

set up for the past several days. And Thursday alone saw 300 reports for hail and wind damage with 19 confirmed tornados. And some of those reports extend as far north as upstate New York.

Here's another vantage point of the Waynoka, Oklahoma tornado that occurred. Well, we're not done yet, folks. To a lesser extent we are expecting severe weather today. Not as widespread as what we experienced on Thursday but really are bulls eye at centralized across northwestern Texas and southern Oklahoma with a slight risk into Missouri and southern Indiana and Illinois for large hail and damaging winds and isolated tornados.

We really have all the culprit ingredients coming together for our multi day severe weather set up to continue. It's all thanks to this low pressure system centralized across the Texas Panhandle. We are drawing in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico at the surface level then we go up in height and we see a change in wind direction, this is called wind shear.

And there is a coincidence why we have our intersecting winds right at that bull's-eye where the severe threat is greatest. Again, parts of Oklahoma and into northwestern Texas. It's cold enough on the back side of the system, believe i or not that we're measuring this rainfall and snow, but not in inches. In feet.

Just outside of Denver, they have over three feet of snow in the higher elevations. Here's the storm system with the snowfall across Wyoming into the Colorado Rockies. Time in the south there's a flair of thunderstorms just warming across the northwestern Texas and then into the afternoon hours. We see that erupt across Kansas into Oklahoma and Missouri and Illinois and Indiana. So, another busy day in the CNN Weather Center. George?

HOWELL: Those storms are no joke. Derek Van Dam, thank you. We'll stay in touch on it.

DAM: All right.

HOWELL: U.S. senators are generally not known for the sense of humor. But one particular moment caught on camera on Capitol Hill is proving too irresistible even for lawmakers.

Jeanne Moos explains.

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Now the metaphor called Cheech and Chong.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That looks like a quarter pounder, man?


MOOS: The U.S. Senate, bipartisan Cheech and Chong. Republican Senator Ben Sasse who just finished a work out and democrat Chuck Schumer holding his fingers as if he were holding, well, let's let Senator Sasse describe it in a tweet. "Holy moly, it looks Senator Schumer and I are smoking reefer outside a wedding."

To which Senator Schumer replied with a line from "Anchorman."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That escalated quickly.

MOOS: Escalated into viral fame as Senator Sasse told Glen Beck.


BEN SASSE, (R) UNITED STATES SENATOR: Somebody had to have a photo shop version of it that ad Schumer with a huge (Inaudible).


[03:55:04] MOOS: One conservative web site started a caption contest with entries like "Bartender, I will have a double."

Many seem to think, "It was nice to have you guys providing a bipartisan laugh during this grim days," while others couldn't get over Sasse's use of the word reefer as in the 1936 cult classic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Smoking the silver stripe reefer they find a moments pleasure, but at a terrible price.

MOOS: Sasse may have been using reefer ironically. He is savvy enough to do a Dave's not here imitation from Cheech and Chong.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Open up, man. It's me, Dave.


MOOS: One constituent tweeted, "maybe you all should try that. You might be amazed what you get done." Suggesting a little reefer madness might counteract the political madness in Washington.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Marijuana, the burning weed with its roots in hell.


MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

HOWELL: Thank you for being with us. I'm George Howell. The news continues here on CNN with my colleague Max Foster live in London.