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White House in Crisis; Blast Kills Dozens in Lahore; Afghan, U.S. Officials Claim Russia Arming Taliban; New Comic book Imagines "Calexit"; Controversial Bill Blocked after Protests in Poland; Turkey's Media Crackdown; Kermit the Frog Puppeteer Speaks. Aired 12- 1a ET

Aired July 25, 2017 - 00:00   ET



[00:00:08] ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR: This is CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles.

Ahead this hour -- a whirlwind of news out of Washington. President Trump's son-in-law talks about Russia, Mr. Trump considers firing his attorney general, and the Senate ponders a health care vote.

In Afghanistan, a Taliban resurgence with a deadly bombing in Kabul.

And an exclusive CNN reporting, Russia may be arming Taliban fighters.

Plus opposition journalists go on trial in Turkey, testing the country's freedom of the press.

Hello and a very warm welcome to our viewers right around the world. I'm Isa Soares.

And NEWSROOM L.A. begins right now.

It has been a tumultuous start to the week at the White House. U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly considering replacing his attorney general. In a tweet on Monday, Mr. Trump referred to Jeff Sessions as beleaguered, as you can see it there. Well, he's furious at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

According to the "Washington Post", the President and his advisers are talking about replacing Sessions. Mr. Trump also faces a big test of his presidency, that's coming on Tuesday, a vote in the U.S. Senate to begin debate on health care legislation.

Amid all of this, the White House says the U.S. President is very proud of his son-in-law. Jared Kushner made a rare public statement on Monday after meeting with Senate staffers on his past meetings with Russians.

Jessica Schneider puts it all in context for you.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Tonight in a rare public statement, the President's son-in-law is trying to set the record straight before Senate investigators and the cameras.

JARED KUSHNER, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISOR: Let me be very clear. I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did so.

SCHNEIDER: Kushner's brief prepared statement outside the West Wing came after two and a half hours on Capitol Hill where he was questioned behind closed doors by staff members from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

KUSHNER: The record and documents I have voluntarily provided will show that all of my actions were proper and occurred in the normal course of events of a very unique campaign.

SCHNEIDER: Kushner kept his on camera comments brief but reiterated the President's line suggesting that the Russia investigation is a political excuse.

KUSHNER: Donald Trump had a better message and ran a smarter campaign, and that is why he won. Suggesting otherwise ridicules those who voted for him.

SCHNEIDER: Kushner released an 11-page statement detailing four meetings with Russians between April and December 2016. He acknowledged a previously undisclosed meeting at the Mayflower Hotel with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in April 2016 that Kushner said was a short meet-and-greet. Kushner met again with Kislyak in December where they discussed U.S. policy in Syria.

Kushner admitted he suggested using the Russian embassy to communicate confidentially but stated emphatically, "I did not suggest a secret back channel. I did not suggest an ongoing secret form of communication for then or for when the administration took office."

Kushner downplayed that June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and others writing that he didn't know what the meeting was about and claiming he never read the full e-mail chain that promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.

But Kushner's statement shows Don, Jr. e-mailed him twice, once to set the meeting and again to change the meeting time. The subject line of both e-mails read, "Russia-Clinton Confidential".

Kushner says he left the meeting when he realized it was a waste of time, e-mailing his assistant, "Can you please call me on my cell? Need excuse to get out of meeting."

As Kushner was headed to the Capitol this morning, President Trump was tweeting. "So why aren't the committees and investigators and, of course, our beleaguered AG looking into crooked Hillary's crimes and Russia relations?"

President Trump's use of the word "beleaguered" seemed to be his second slam against one of his top officials, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It came in the wake of a "Washington Post" report that intelligence intercepts of conversations between Russians indicate that Sessions discussed the campaign with Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak at least twice during the election. Sessions initially failed to disclose his contacts with Kislyak and then denied the conversations were campaign-related.

President Trump vented his frustration with Sessions' decision to recuse himself in March from the Russia investigation in a "New York Times" article last week. Sources tell CNN the President and Attorney General have not spoken since the interview.

And the President rolled his eyes when asked about Sessions during a photo-op with interns inside the East Room today.

[00:05:00] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, should Jeff Sessions resign?

SCHNEIDER: CNN caught up with former campaign adviser Rudy Giuliani, who denied he is being considered to replace Jeff Sessions and said Sessions was right to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER NEW YORK CITY MAYOR: I believe Sessions made the right decision under the rules of the Justice Department.

SCHNEIDER: Jessica Schneider, CNN -- the White House.


SOARES: Well, Christina Bellantoni is the assistant managing editor of politics for the "L.A. Times". She's here with us now. Christina -- thank you so much for coming on the show. There is so much for us to talk about, and it's only Monday.


SOARES: Right. Let's break some of those stories that we heard there from Jessica Schneider down.

So let's start with the "Washington Post". We've come out in the last three hours or so talking about Sessions and what they're reporting. They're basically saying, if we can bring it up, President Trump and his team are privately discussing the possibility of replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and some confidants are floating prospects who could take his place were he to resign or be fired. It's according to people familiar with the talks.

Now, things started to heat up somewhat last week, of course you know this, when President Trump, I think -- correct me if I'm wrong -- it's fair to say that he pretty much threw Sessions under the bus in the "New York Times" interview. Let's take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sessions should have never recused himself. And if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.


SOARES: But then he didn't stop there. He went further with this tweet as you can see. "So why aren't the committees investigating, of course, our beleaguered AG looking into crooked Hillary's crimes and Russia relations?"

I mean time after time after attacking him, throwing him under the bus. What is he trying to do? Is he trying to push Sessions out?

BELLANTONI: It's hard to ascribe motivation to really Donald Trump's tweets, to what he's telling the "New York Times". He's inconsistent in a lot of his statements.

What we do know is that Senator Sessions was one of Trump's first endorsers during the campaign when most of the rest of Congress was looking the other way. They didn't want to have anything to do with Donald Trump's campaign.

Sessions was loyal from the beginning. He was out there campaigning for him. And he was really critical to the transition, which had to be put together on the fly.

So you're now taking somebody that's one of your most loyal supporters that you actually do see eye to eye with on many policy issues from immigration, other Justice Department issues on down, and kind of pushing him aside.

Now, he has not made it a secret that he thinks Sessions should not have recused himself. He thinks that that -- he has said publicly and he has talked about it privately as well in a lot of reports we've seen that he thinks that that reflects poorly back on him, that it suggests something went wrong with the Trump campaign or Trump's children or Trump's son-in-law.

So it's an ugly situation, but the importance of this is if Sessions does quit or is fired, Trump can appoint somebody else who might fire Robert Mueller-- the guy who is doing the special counsel investigating this very same issue. But even if that goes away, you still have four congressional committees that are looking into the issues.

SOARES: But look, if my boss turned around to me and said to me four times or three times that I was, you know -- and spoke to me about myself in those words, I would feel very uncomfortable to be working for him or for her.

BELLANTONI: And it's incredibly unusual.

SOARES: What position does this put him in?

BELLANTONI: It's a terrible one. I mean he's out there. You have seen him -- came out on a press conference on Friday saying, look, you know, I will serve him as long as he wants me to serve him. That's what I'm here to o is serve the President. But it's a terrible position to be in when you're trying to get out there and do your job. They announced this last week that big opioid sort of scandal that they did a big bust. There are other things that his department can be doing. But this is a big distraction from that.

But again, it falls in line with a lot of things President Trump does. He will be talking about one thing. You know, it's infrastructure week or, you know, technology week, and then all of a sudden he's out there tweeting about Hillary Clinton and the election again.

So he's inconsistent in his own messaging. And he's not sticking with his team at this point.

SOARES: If he does go, what could this mean for the Russia investigation?

BELLANTONI: I mean it could mean that Trump could get somebody that would either fire Robert Mueller, replace Robert Mueller. It might mean nothing.

He has -- Trump has said personally that he does not think Sessions should have recused himself, that that reflected poorly back on the White House. But he can't undo that action, so right now Sessions just has to kind of go about doing his job.

We know that he was at White House on Monday, and he wasn't meeting with the President. He had several other meetings including one related to health care.

SOARES: Right. Ok. So we'll watch this space when it comes to Sessions.

Let's talk about Jared Kushner because he was the first to be questioned, as you obviously know, in the Senate investigation. Two- hour session and he gave quite a lengthy statement, basically saying he did nothing improper. He did nothing wrong.

[00:09:58] But I want -- from what you've seen, and it was very lengthy, this is what he said. Over the course of the campaign, I had incoming contacts with people from approximately 15 countries. To put these requests into context, he goes -- he went, I must have received thousands of calls, letters, and e-mails from people looking to talk or meet on a variety of issues and topics, he said, including hundreds from outside the United States. While I could not be responsive to everyone, he went on to say, I tried to be respectful of any foreign government contact.

Now, he basically in there described himself as very busy, overworked, didn't have time to read fully his e-mails. He also alluded further on to his lack of experience.


SOARES: Why is he in charge of so much if really he can barely keep up? Did the whole Russian cloud hanging over the administration, having heard him, did he put that to rest? BELLANTONI: It's hard to answer all those questions, right? You

know, you have to look at each issue in isolation. During both the campaign and the transition, we know that the Trump campaign was understaffed compared to Hillary Clinton's campaign. We know that the transition was put together on the fly because no one, not even the campaign, thought that he would win the presidency.

So you can understand, yes, they probably were getting thousands of e- mails. They probably weren't reading all of them.

Another one of his arguments was that he didn't really read the e- mail. He just kind of accepted the meeting request, and the meeting request wasn't hey, secret info on Hillary Clinton from Russia. The meeting request was just hang out with Don, Jr. today. So that's when he accepted on his calendar.

You can kind of get that and you can get that when you come from the world of business like President Trump himself, you play by different rules than politics.

In politics, you know, I know so many political aides who are terrified their e-mails are going to get out there and leak. They're very careful about, you know, what they're responding to people in e- mail. I mean people that work for the White House, those e-mails are all discoverable later, are in the archives. They're a lot more careful.

So it suggests sort of the tempo and the tenor of the types of people that work for President Trump. But then as you point out, Jared Kushner is responsible for a lot within this administration. I think that's less about skill set and experience and more about the President trusts him.

The President wants people that are loyal surrounding him, so he's made all of these issues his top priorities and given them to somebody who has security clearance, has a lot of influence in that White House with basically no political experience.

SOARES: And it seems that he was proud, at least from White House press today, that he was proud of his son-in-law's statement.

Let's talk about President Trump because today we saw him making a last-ditch pitch on really health care. It's the eve of the Senate vote.

This is what the President had to say today. Take a listen.


TRUMP: For the last seven years, Republicans have been united in standing up for Obamacare's victims. Remember -- repeal and replace. Repeal and replace. They kept saying it over and over again. Every Republican running for office promised immediate relief from this disastrous law.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SOARES: Doesn't he have a point? Every Republican really voted to repeal and replace Obamacare. So where does this leave everything going into tomorrow? For our international viewers --


SOARES: -- put it into context for us.

BELLANTONI: Well, there's all kinds of Senate parliamentary games going on right here. Effectively tomorrow they're going to decide to start considering a health care bill.

And to do that, John McCain, who has brain cancer, is returning to Washington to cast a vote so that they can start considering the bill.

That doesn't mean the bill will pass. In fact, a lot of people don't even know what's in the bill because they're still going to be planning lots of amendments and most of the Republicans that Mitch McConnell needs to vote for this measure to make it pass are saying, hey, it's either too conservative or too moderate. They haven't found a happy medium.

So for President Trump, it's very strange for him to be going after his own party. And listen to his language. He almost never says "We, Republicans", "the Republican Party" or "my Republican party".

He's talking about they and them. And that offends a lot of people on Capitol Hill that work with him to begin with.

SOARES: And I know you're not a betting person, but how would say they're going -- do you think it will pass tomorrow?

BELLANTONI: I do not think it will pass tomorrow. I think they might start considering the bill, but we're not going to see this measure become law. It's just made everyone too squeamish when you've got a lot on the line for the 2018 midterm elections.

Those votes are going to come back to really haunt not just senators but the Republicans in places here like California where if the Democrats are going to win back the house, it starts here in California.

SOARES: Christina Bellantoni -- thank you very much.

I'm going to take you to Pakistan because the Taliban say they are responsible for a bomb blast killing more than two dozen people. Video shows the moment of the explosion in the Punjabi capital of Lahore -- you're looking at there.

Officials say the attack targeting police happened at a vegetable market at a city landmark on Monday. Now, the bombing wounded at least 54 others. The Punjabi Province chief minister on Twitter expressed his anger and said terrorists can never destroy their resolve.

[00:15:05] The Taliban also say they are behind a suicide attack in Afghanistan. As the terror group rachets up an offensive across the country, a car bombing Monday in Kabul killed at least 29 people.

A Taliban spokesman says the bomb targeted a bus carrying Afghan intelligence staff. But a spokesman for the interior minister says all the victims were civilians.

U.S. President Donald Trump is considering sending more troops to Afghanistan as the Taliban show no signs of slowing.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Afghan officials claim the Taliban is getting help from Russia. They say Moscow is supplying the militant group with weapons to fight ISIS in Afghanistan.

Our Nick Paton Walsh reports that Russian arms have indeed fallen into the hands of Taliban fighters.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Decades of war in Afghanistan mean enemies have turned friends and back again but one new devastating alliance risks redrawing the map here. The Russians once fought the Taliban here -- then called Mujahedeen -- the loss brought down the Soviet Empire.

But now Moscow may actually be arming their old enemies, the Taliban, according to American and Afghan officials, bolstered by exclusive images obtained by CNN.

This is a breakaway Taliban group in the west with what they say are Russian government-supplied weapons they've seized from a mainstream Taliban group they defeated.

"These were given to the fighters of Mullah Hibatullah by the Russians via Iran," he says. "The Russians are giving them these weapons to fight ISIS in Afghanistan but they're using them against us, too. We captured six of them with these guns when they attacked."

And these weapons too, the Taliban fighter in the mosque claims were supplied free by the neighboring Tajikistan, by the Russians.

"These pistols have been brought to us recently," he says. "They're made in Russia and they're very good stuff."

Small arms experts told us there's nothing here tying the guns to the Russian state. They aren't new or rare, various markings missing and scratched off. Even this Chinese-made scope is readily available online.

But the American commander here was outspoken on the Russian threat.

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, COMMANDER, NATO FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN: Arming belligerents or legitimizing belligerents who perpetuate attacks like we saw two days ago in Mazari Sharif (ph) is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.


WALSH: Afghan officials expect Russian deliveries for at least two months.

SADIQ SADIQI, DIRECTOR, AFGHAN GOVERNMENT MEDIA AND INFORMATION CENTER: The Russians have said that they are, you know, They maintain kwon tact with the Taliban. But we have lots of other reports from people that they are arming the Taliban.

WALSH: There's no smoke without fire, is there?

SADIQI: Absolutely. We believe that there's no smoke without fire.

WALSH: These pictures are an incontrovertible proof the Russians, if they did this, would have tried to hide their tracks. In Afghanistan, war torn as it is, the truth is often masked behind countless agendas.

But these pictures will spark questions. As for the true extent of Moscow's involvement here, Russia said claims they're arming the Taliban are quote, "utterly false" and made to cover up for American failure. They talk to the Taliban, they say, purely to promote peace talks.

Have they denied to you that they are arming the Taliban?

SADIQI: Absolutely. They have denied that. The issue of contact with the Taliban by the Russians -- that was something that really concerned us as well. So no contacts will be made with non-state groups.

WALSH: Another new agenda, another new fuel to Afghanistan's endless fire.

Nick Paton Walsh, CNN -- Kabul, Afghanistan.


SOARES: The voices in Poland were heard. Thousands of demonstrators are celebrating a surprise political victory in a battle over who controls the courts.

Plus a new comic book is not too far from some parts of reality. "Calexit" or "California's Exit" imagines a world in which California rebels against -- rebels against an autocratic U.S. government. We'll talk to the writer next.


SOARES: Well, we all want a life that looks more like movies that we see on the big screen or the fantasy stories we read in comic books. But a new comic known as "Calexit" isn't quite an escape from reality -- it's actually very similar to it. In the wake of Brexit, Britain's exit from the European Union -- you've all heard about it -- now there's a new movement on the rise. It's called Calexit or California's exit from the United States.

It's been the topic of debate, and now it's the focus of this near- future comic which portrays people in the state of California rebelling -- rebelling against really an autocratic U.S. government. Joining me now is the writer of the "Calexit" series and that's Matteo Pizzolo. Matteo -- thank you very much for being on the show.


SOARES: Paint us a picture for an international audience --


SOARES: -- what the backdrop is -- what the political backdrop is. Who are the enemies? Who is the battle between?

PIZZOLO: So the setting is there's a fictitious president who is -- he's an autocratic leader who gets elected president and he passes an executive order to deport all immigrants.

So we're starting from obviously a more heightened level than that is realistic, or at least realistic yet, knock-wood. And we follow these characters who are in this occupied state, living under, you know, a fascistic occupation --

SOARES: And we can show the map of what the occupied state looks like in your cartoons. But, you know, this comic series from when I was looking at some of the examples that we have has a couple of similarities to what's actually going on in the United States.

And I want to bring up some examples if we can. You know, there's boycotting of a first daughter's new line of lingerie. If we bring it up, you can see it here where among the first reports, (inaudible) apparently certainly retail chains are boycotting the first daughter's new line of lingerie. That's the first example.

And then the other one, you have federal investigators are currently looking into whether or not this collusion can be broken up with antitrust laws. I'm turning this off. It's depressing.

How much of what is happening right now, the political scene we're seeing in the U.S., how much of have you used that as political fodder for your own piece, for your own series?

PIZZOLO: Yes. I mean the work keeps being recontextualized by the news cycle. So we were working on it -- we started working on it a year ago and it was really informed by the contentiousness of the primary season where even like-minded people seem like they were at each other's throats.

And in California, dealing with the major drought that we had, really brought home that there's a lot that we need to work together to solve a lot of problems we need to solve, but everyone is at each other's throats. And that's where it started from.

But then, you know, there was the election and the news cycle doesn't feel grounded anymore. And we try and keep the book grounded, but it's hard because real life has become so heightened.

So as we're working on it, we're writing the scripts, we're doing the artwork now, and we are responding to it. It's certainly -- it's a product of the Trump era now even if that's not where we started.

So we are -- we're not running away from that. We are taking responsibility for where we are in our historical point in time. And we're trying to bring some of it in and bring some point of view to it without letting it become a polemic because we really want to follow the characters first.

SOARES: I mean you're certainly very politically-minded and the topics you're hitting home with are political too. What are you trying to achieve with this comic series. ?

PIZZOLO: Well, we want the book to really celebrate the spirit of resistance. And we're hoping that it will be inspiring. We're not -- again, we're not trying to proselytize. We don't have characters that are just thinly repeating what we personally believe.

We're telling a story that we think celebrates resistance at a time when I feel people need that. One thing that's been really --

SOARES: Why? Why do you think they need that?

PIZZOLO: Well, I think that there are a lot of -- a significant number of people who feel more at risk now than they did a year ago. And I think that entertainment can be escapist but it can also be inspiring.

[00:24:59] And one thing that we're struggling with is we're trying to make sure that no one puts the book down more depressed than they picked it up.

SOARES: Very good point.

PIZZOLO: So we added a section in the back where we are interviewing real life political organizers and progressive leaders that we think are doing very cool and inspiring things.

And so in that way, even if -- because it's episodic, sometimes it ends on a down note -- there are still things in the back that should make you feel inspired and that are constructive and optimistic. So we're trying to balance as best we can.

SOARES: And it's interesting because I have seen the last couple of years, series and movies that touched on the topic of resistance, isn't it? That's definitely something -- almost a trend that you're seeing where it's "The Man in the High Castle" --


SOARES: -- "Game of Thrones" -- all these series really touch on this. This is something that people are picking up because given the political climate, you would say.

PIZZOLO: Yes. And I think that that is something that has always resonated, you know.

SOARES: Yes. PIZZOLO: Again, talking about the history of entertainment in California, we can go back to "Star Wars" or NWA (ph) or all sorts of things. I think people really believe in standing up for one another.

SOARES: Matteo -- thank you very much.

PIZZOLO: Well, thank you.

SOARES: Now in an apparent bowing to pressure, Poland's president vetoed a controversial judicial reform bill that his own party has pushed through parliament. Now protesters are calling it a victory for democracy. But many people seemed surprised.

Our Muhammad Lila reports now from Warsaw.


MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For weeks they've been flooding the streets, young and old, by the thousands -- many holding candles standing, they say, so their democracy won't be extinguished. Today they won a major battle.

As you walk through this crowd today, you can tell how different the mood is. That's because these people here aren't protesting. They're celebrating.

In a surprise move, appearing to bow to the protesters' demands, Poland's president Andrzej Duda refused to sign a controversial bill that would have allowed the country's ruling party to replace every judge on the Supreme Court.

ANDRZEJ DUDA, PRESIDENT OF POLAND (through translator): This law, which has been passed through parliament, will not come into effect. Those laws have to be amended so that they can be adhered to and admitted and agreed by everyone.

LILA: The bill had drawn widespread condemnation from both the E.U. and the United States. With Poles taking to the streets saying the new law would give the ruling party unprecedented power, edging Poland closer to the old days of authoritarian rule.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When the young people and all the people go out on the streets for a reason, the government and right now the President, he'll listen to us.

LILA: The question is what happens now? The President is sending the law back to parliament. They can either revise it or scrap it altogether. Today Poland's vice minister of justice, a member of the ruling party, insisted the justice system is corrupt, inefficient, and badly needs a much bigger overhaul.

MARCIN WARCHOL, POLISH UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE, JUSTICE MINISTER (through translator): We will have to discuss the new shape of the disciplinary procedures against the judges. We can talk about the new law. But one thing is certain. The ethical standards will have to be restored. LILA: Despite the looming threat of a new law, for now at least,

protesters are still calling this a victory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The message that they (inaudible) people right now in Poland is you have to go out on the streets every time when you see that the law that is against the constitution is passed in the parliament.

LILA: And for now, in the eyes of thousands of protesters, that flame of a free and healthy democracy lives on.

Muhammad Lila, CNN -- Warsaw.


SOARES: Now, after a diplomatic crisis with Jordan, Israel is removing the metal detectors that set off recent violent protests in Jerusalem.

And it's being called the trial for press freedom itself -- the case that could prove to be a litmus test for journalists in Turkey.

We'll bring you both of those stories after a very short break.




ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): You are watching CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles. I'm Isa Soares. Let me bring you up to date with the main news headlines this hour.


SOARES: I want to take you to Turkey now, which is facing what's been called a major test of press freedom.

In a case that's electrifying the country, 17 journalists and staff from one of Turkey's last remaining opposition newspapers are on trial. They've been charged with terror-related offenses following last year's failed coup. But activists says the case is politically motivated.

Let's get some context on this. Lisa Daftari is the editor-in-chief of "The Foreign Desk" and joins us now.

And, Lisa, good to have you on the show. Always good to get your insight. We know from anyone who has followed press freedom in Turkey, we know the government have heavily restricted the media.

But I want to put it for our viewers into our context just how much. Have a look at these numbers. They've shut down 150 media outlets. They've jailed an estimated 160 journalists. It ranks 155 out of 180 on press freedom index. I mean how do you see this?

How worrying is this?

LISA DAFTARI, "THE FOREIGN DESK": Right. And you just said it perfectly. It's proper to put it into context as to what Erdogan is doing and what his bottom line is. So a year ago last week, we celebrated -- we commemorated one year since this failed coup attempt in Turkey.

That coup attempt was a justification for Erdogan to make a major power grab.

And if you ask people inside the country, the opposition particularly, they would say that that power grab was leading up to the coup anyway. That's why there was this attempted coup attempt anyway.

Basically this was him getting on his way to becoming this de facto dictator, taking out wholesalely (sic) people like judges, teachers, journalists, anyone who is anti-government, anyone who is anti- Erdogan.

And he is not a big fan of criticism, so, as we know in this country as well, the press is what shapes the public opinion. And, of course, he's going to be targeting these journalists in a very symbolic move.

SOARES: And of course this newspaper, it's "Cumhuriyet" -- I'm not sure I can pronounce it correctly -- is one of the few remaining independent newspapers in the country.

I mean how much do you think this is a factor for being on trial in the first place?

DAFTARI: Well, they're still considered an opposition paper, so I think that that is what -- you know, there's a lot -- funny enough; Erdogan had an interview --


DAFTARI: -- last month, where he said we only have two journalists in prison right now. The rest of them were armed robbers.

So he's obviously hiding a lot of this -- the other power grabs, this awful, awful crackdown, human rights abuses. And, again, the larger plan here being to take out anybody who stands in his way.

SOARES: So what is Erdogan's argument here in terms of when he faces these journalists?

What is he saying?

They've just rallied against him in terms of the coup?

They led to the coup?

They are -- (CROSSTALK)

DAFTARI: Well, he's calling the charges terrorism. He's calling the charges terrorism. But what it truly means is that they incited this anti-government, anti-Erdogan sentiment within the country and he wants to take out any voice that will lead to that kind of dissent.

SOARES: Well, the well-known group Reporters without Borders, who had that index we just showed, said that today press freedom is on trial, that's their words.

What could you think be the implications, Lisa, for press freedom in Turkey, following on from this -- ?


DAFTARI: I think that the future of Turkey with regard to human rights, with regard to those -- we saw this in Iran as well, for those who risk their lives to come out and speak out.

And usually we see with that echelon of society, whether they're bloggers, photographers, many times dancers, many times journalists, writers, poets, people who are able to express themselves with their art are the first to be cracked down upon because they incite others. They inspire others.

And we've already seen such a pivot over the last decade in Turkey. I think Erdogan's plan to create this dictatorship for himself has been a long time in the making. We're just seeing it come to a height because of these journalists, because of these rights groups that are now more focused on Turkey after the coup.

But, again, this is something that's been in the making for much longer than we've been focused on.


SOARES: And on the World Press Freedom Index --


SOARES: -- this according -- this is Reporters without Borders, by the way; these are not our numbers -- if we can bring up -- I mean Turkey is ranked 155 out of 180 in terms of press freedom or lack thereof of press freedom.

Briefly talk to us a bit about the political climate in Turkey at the moment.

DAFTARI: It's an interesting thing to talk about, Turkey, inside the country and Turkey on the global stage.

So I think Turkey, under Erdogan, has been basically isolating themselves and going at it alone, meaning Erdogan has had this opportunity to kind of quiet out all buzz from around the neighbors and to say, I'm going to focus on making my reign ironclad. Again, another page taken from the Iranian regime, is to say, we're

going to make our reign ironclad at home so that we can then focus on the neighborhood. And that's exactly what Erdogan did.

He focused on taking out the opposition and, you know, focusing on Fethullah Gulen, who is the individual who's being held --


SOARES: -- extradite --

DAFTARI: -- extradite and he's here in the United States and he has become the buzzword for any problem in Turkey and has been blamed for a lot of the incitement and, I think, the future of Turkey.

And if you've ever visited Turkey, it's such a pivot from the last decade into a very pro-Islamist, very anti-feminist, very anti-human rights environment. And it's a shame because you have a lot of freedom-loving people there.

SOARES: It's not just a shame. it is -- this is very worrying for press freedom right around the world. Lisa Daftari, thank you very much.

DAFTARI: Of course.

SOARES: And still ahead, the man behind everyone's favorite Muppet, Kermit the Frog, says he was fired without warning. But Disney has a different take on the matter. Puppeteer Steve Whitmire speaks to CNN. That's next.





SOARES: Now it's not easy being green. Don't take my word for it. Just ask Kermit the Frog. After almost three decades of voicing the world's most famous Muppet, puppeteer Steve Whitmire has been replaced.

Whitmire says he was devastated when Disney fired him without warning. But according to Disney, the move was a long time coming. Our Michael Holmes sat down with the man once behind the Muppet.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, it's the Muppets. Yay!

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He's the Frog who needs no introduction. For decades, Kermit has ruled the puppet world, the lead muppet born from the imagination of the legendary Jim Henson more than 60 years ago. Henson so loved Kermit that he did the voice and the movements himself until his death in 1990.

Then and for the next 27 years, this man, Steve Whitmire, became the voice and personality of Kermit. When he got the call, he was both thrilled and terrified.

STEVE WHITMIRE, PUPPETEER: It was really scary and obviously an incredible honor.

HOLMES: The Muppets, with Kermit at the helm, are a multi-million dollar business, but Kermit became Whitmire's life. He felt he was Kermit.

WHITMIRE: To try to step into a character, you know, Jim had done Kermit for 35 years and to try to step into that character was just an awesome responsibility.

HOLMES: But Whitmire's dream job ended as a nightmare last year when he was told he was being recast, in essence fired from being Kermit.

WHITMIRE: It was absolute shock. It was exactly the same feeling as the moment I was told Jim had died. It was the worst thing that could happen to this character. It's not the worst thing that could happen to me although it's pretty bad.

HOLMES: The Muppet Studio owned by Disney said the firing was a long time coming, releasing a statement which says, quote, "The role of Kermit the Frog is an iconic one that is beloved by fans and we take our responsibility to protect the integrity of that character very seriously.

"We raised concerns about Steve's repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of many years and he consistently failed to address the feedback. The decision to part ways was a difficult one which was made in consultation with the Henson family and has their full support."

There were allegations too from the children of Jim Henson. A son said Whitmire made outrageous demands. A daughter said his performance strayed from what her father envisioned. Whitmire says he could refute all the allegations but chose not to in detail.

WHITMIRE: Most of these things have no basis in truth and I don't want to get into a war of words with the Henson's when the real issue here is between Disney and me.

HOLMES: Do you accept any of the criticism?

Do you think, wow, I could have done things differently? I could have listened more now for yourself?

WHITMIRE: I don't think so. If anything had been framed to me as your career is on the line over any particular event, then I would have paid attention.

HOLMES: Whitmire has been replaced by fellow Muppets performer Matt Vogel. For Whitmire acceptance of reality but he says the little green frog will always be part of him.

WHITMIRE: I think there are people who will notice. I think Disney knows that the vast majority of people probably won't. I think if it jumps around on the screen and it's green and it says the right catchphrases, unfortunately people are going to see this Kermit.

HOLMES: How Kermit might evolve as that character beloved by children and adults yet to be seen, but a new chapter underway -- Michael Holmes, CNN, Atlanta.


SOARES: And that does it for me. Thank you very much for watching CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles. I'm Isa Soares. "WORLD SPORT" is up next. You are watching CNN and we are, of course, the world's news leader.