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White House in Crisis; U.S. Health Care Reform; Turkey Media Crackdown; Poland Protests; Texas Truck Deaths; Afghan & U.S. Officials Claim Russia Arming Taliban; New Comic Book Imagines "Calexit". Aired 2-3a ET

Aired July 25, 2017 - 02:00   ET




ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): 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 in exclusive CNN reporting, Russia may be arming Taliban fighters.

Plus, how thousands of Polish protesters took on their nationalist government and won -- for now.

Hello and a very warm welcome to our viewers right around the world. I'm Isa Soares and NEWSROOM L.A. begins right now.


SOARES: Now the clock may be ticking for Donald Trump's attorney general. "The Washington Post" is reporting the U.S. president and his advisers are talking about the possibility of replacing Jeff Sessions.

Now in a tweet on Monday, Mr. Trump referred to Sessions as "beleaguered," as you can see there. He's furious at his long-time backer for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

The president also faces a big test of his presidency on Tuesday. A crucial vote in the U.S. Senate 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 talking to Senate staffers on his past meetings with Russians. More now from our Jessica Schneider.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 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, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S SON-IN-LAW: 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 (voice-over): Kushner's brief prepared statement outside the West Wing came after 2.5 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 (voice-over): 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.

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 "The 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 "The 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.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, should Jeff Sessions resign?


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): 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 MAYOR OF NYC: I believe that Sessions made the right decision under the rules of the Justice Department.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Jessica Schneider, CNN, the White House.


SOARES: Well, Christina Bellantoni is the assistant managing editor of politics for the "L.A. Times." She is 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 are 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 confidantes are flowing 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 (R), 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 and investigators and, of course, our beleaguered AG looking into Crooked Hillary's crimes and Russia relations?"

Time after time, 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 them 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 issue.

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 in Washington.

SOARES: What position does this put him in?

BELLANTONI: It's a terrible one. He's out there -- you have seen him, came out in a press conference on Friday saying, look, I will serve him as long as he wants me to serve him. That's what I'm here to do, 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 scandal, 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 -- it's infrastructure week or 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: Let's talk about Jared Kushner because he was the first to be questioned (INAUDIBLE) in the Senate investigation, two-hour session. He gave quite a lengthy statement, basically saying he did nothing improper, he did nothing wrong.

But I want, from what you have seen -- and it was a 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 in context," 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 is describing himself as very busy, overworked --


SOARES: -- 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 you -- 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. 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 campaigns, 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. One other one of his arguments, he said 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, I'm Hillary Clinton from Russia, meeting request was just hang out with Don Jr. today. So that's what 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, I know so many political aides, who are terrified their e-mails will get out there and leak. They are very careful about what they're responding to people in the e-mail, people that work for the White House, those e-mails are all discoverable later or in the archives. They're a lot more careful.

And 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 skillset and experience and more about the president trusts him.

The president wants people that are loyal surrounding him. And 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 the White House presser 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 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.


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 international viewers, 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 weren't with him to begin with.

SOARES: Christina Bellantoni, thank you very much.

Well, we may get more answers from President Trump on the political fate of attorney general Jeff Sessions in the coming hours. Mr. Trump welcomes Lebanon's prime minister to White House later on Tuesday. The two leaders will take questions from reporters at 3:00 pm Eastern time, that is roughly 8:00 pm if you're in London.

Now Turkey is facing what's been called a major test of its press freedom; 17 journalists and staff from one of the country's last remaining opposition newspapers on trial. They've been charged with terror-related offenses following last year's failed coup. But activists and protesters say the case is politically motivated.


SOARES: So 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 --


DAFTARI: -- 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 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 --


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: Now Israeli crews have begun dismantling the metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount, also known as the Noble Sanctuary; that's in Jerusalem's Old City.

Those detectors had infuriated Muslims and set off fierce clashes, if you can remember. The prime minister's office says they'll be replaced. But advanced smart inspection technologies. Israel installed the metal detectors after two Israeli police guards were shot and killed on July 14th.

Removing the detectors comes hours after Israel's prime minister reached an agreement with Jordan to let Israel's embassy staff in Amman return home. It's not clear how or if the two the events are connected.

The departure includes an embassy security guard, who fatally shot a Jordanian man who attacked him. A second Jordanian man also died in that same incident.

Now pressure from thousands of protesters may have swayed Poland's president to veto a controversial judiciary overhaul. We'll look at what might come ahead -- next.





SOARES: Now in an apparent bow to pressure, Poland's president vetoed a controversial judicial reform bill that his own party pushed through parliament. Protesters are calling it a victory for democracy. But many people seem surprised. Our Muhammad Lila reports now from Warsaw in Poland.


MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 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.

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

LILA (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): 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 young people and old people go out on the streets for a reason, the government, and right now the president, he'll listen to us.

LILA (voice-over): 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (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 centers will have to be restored.

LILA (voice-over): Despite the looming threat of a new law, for now, at least, protesters are still calling this a victory.

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

LILA (voice-over): And for now, with the eyes of thousands of protesters, that flame of a free and healthy democracy lives on -- Muhammad Lila, CNN, Warsaw.


SOARES: Joining us on the phone is Radoslaw Sikorski, he's a senior fellow at Harvard and the former foreign minister of Poland.

Thank you very much, sir, for joining us. Now as we saw and we heard in that piece from our Muhammad Lila, it seems the protesters have won a major fight.

But is the country celebrating or is there a sense that perhaps this is just temporary?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI, FORMER POLISH FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, first of all, the law that is going in is pretty radical itself. It will replace potentially all the court chairmen, people who are (INAUDIBLE) the courts in the country.

But, yes, it seems to be slowing down, the ruling party, in its onslaught on an independent institution. They've taken over the constitutional tribunal, public media, (INAUDIBLE) the civil service, the army and the judiciary was to be next. And after that, the NGOs and the media.

SOARES: Well, let me ask you this in this case.

Can the Polish parliament challenge the president's vetoes?

Do they have the numbers that support him in parliament?

SIKORSKI: No, they don't. The president has been pliable to the ruling party hitherto but now he seeps to be defending the constitution. And they cannot go around him.


SIKORSKI: So the judicial reform will have to be a compromise. We'll see what the president's view will be on reforming the NGO sector and the media.

But there seems to be a view inside the ruling camp that some of those centralizing reforms have gone too far.

From your experience, Mr. Sikorski, from what you're hearing on the ground, is there talk there in Poland that this veto could have been a political maneuver from the president's part, him vying for a second term for him?

Where does that leave him with his ruling Law and Justice Party?

SIKORSKI: Of course, he's fighting for his second term. Every politician does that. And to get it, he needs 51 percent; whereas the ruling party only needs about a third of the votes, just about a third, in order to have majority in parliament.

So they have the freedom fest (ph). And he needs to attract some of the noncore electorate. And that's what he's trying to do.

SOARES: Mr. Sikorski, I appreciate you taking the time there, speaking to us, a senior fellow at Harvard and a former foreign minister of Poland. Thank you, sir. Now in Switzerland, a manhunt is underway after five people were wounded in a chain saw rampage. Authorities have identified the suspect as a 51-year-old Swiss national with no fixed address, who lives in a forest. Police believe the attack, which began in an insurance office in Northern Switzerland, is not linked to terrorism.

Now the driver of a sweltering truck full of undocumented immigrants, found in San Antonio, Texas, has been charged. At least 10 immigrants have now died. Four of them were from Mexico. Dozens of others suffered heat-related injuries.

The driver told authorities he didn't know what he was transporting. Officials say he didn't call for help, even after seeing at least one person dead inside.

Time for a quick break. "STATE OF AMERICA" with Kate Bolduan is coming up for our viewers in Asia. And for everyone else, the Taliban are claiming responsibility for explosions in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Coming up, the latest on both those attacks.

Plus, CNN has exclusive video, showing Taliban fighters with Russian arms. Why Moscow could be supplying them with weapons. We'll bring you that story next.


[02:30:12] ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR: You are watching CNN NEWSROOM. live from Los Angeles. I'm Isa Soares.

Let me bring you up to date on the main news headlines this hour.


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

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



NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 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 the loss brought down the Soviet empire. But now Moscow may 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.


PATON WALSH: "These were given to the fighters by the Russians via Iran. The Russians have given them these weapons but they're using them against us, too. We captured six of them with these guns when they attacked."

With these weapons, too, the Taliban fighter in the mask claims were provided free by neighboring Tajikistan by the Russians.

"These were 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 are new or rare, various markings missing or scratched off. Even this Chinese-made scope is readily available online.

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

UNIDENTIFIED U.S. COMMANDER: By arming belligerents who are legitimizing belligerents to perpetuate attacks like we saw two days ago is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.


UNIDENTIFIED U.S. COMMANDER: Oh, no. I'm not refuting they're sending weapons.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Russians have said they are you know, they maintain contact with the Taliban but we have lots of valid reports from people that they are arming the Taliban.

PATON WALSH (on camera): There's no smoke without fire, is there?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. We believe there's no smoke without fire.

PATON WALSH: These pictures aren't 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 to the true extent of Moscow's involvement here

(voice-over): Russia said claims they are arming the Taliban is, quote, "They're utterly false," and made to coverup for American failure.

They talk to the Taliban, they say, purely to promote peace talks.

(on camera): They denied to you they are arming the Taliban.

[02:35:28] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. They have denied that. The issue of contact with the Taliban which the Russians, that was

something that concerned us, as well. So no contacts will be made with non-state groups.

PATON WALSH (voice-over): Another new agenda, another new fuel to Afghanistan's endless fire.

Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Kabul, Afghanistan.


SOARES: A new comic book is not too far from some parts of reality. "Calexit" imagines a world in which California resists an autocratic U.S. government. We'll talk to the writer, next.


SOARES: Well, we all want a life that looks more like movies on the screen or fantasy stories we read in comic books. But a new comic known as "Calexit" isn't quite an escape from reality. It's similar to it. In the way Brexit, Britain's exit from the European Union, there's a new movement called Calexit, or California's exit from the United States. It's been a topic of debate. Now, it's the focus of this comic, which portrays people in the state of California rebelling against an autocratic U.S. government.

Joining me now is the writer of "Calexit," the series, Matteo Pizzolo.

Matteo, thank you for being on the show.


SOARES: Paint us a picture for an international audience what the backdrop is. What's the political backdrop? What are the enemies? Who is the battle between?

PIZZOLO: So the setting is there's a fictitious president, an autocratic leader who gets elected president. And he passes an executive order to deport all immigrants. So we're starting from, obviously, more heightened level than what is realistic or, at least, realistic yet, knock wood. We follow these characters who are in this occupied state living under, you know, a fascistic occupation.

SOARES: We can show the map of what the occupied state looks like in your cartoons. This comic series, when I was looking at some of the examples we have, has a couple of similarities to what's going on in the United States. I want to bring up some examples if we can. There's boycotting of the first daughter's new line of lingerie. You can see it here. We're among the first to report, apparently, certain retail chains are boycotting the first daughter's new line of lingerie. That's the first example. The other one, you have federal investigators are currently looking into whether this collusion can be broken up anti-trust 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 have you used that as political fodder for your own series?

[02:40:14] PIZZOLO: The work keeps being re-contextualized by the news cycle. We started working on it a year ago. It was informed by the contentiousness of the primary season. Even like-minded people seemed at each other's throats. And in California, dealing with the major drought we had really brought home that there's a lot we need to work together to solve, a lot of problems we need to solve, but everyone is at each other's throats. That's where it started from. But then the -- 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. We're doing the artwork now. And we are responding to -- it's a product of the Trump era now, even if that's not where we started. We are -- we're not running away from that. We are taking responsibility for where we are in our historical point in time and trying to bring some of it and bring some point of view to it without letting it become a polemic. We want to follow the characteristics first.

SOARES: You're clearly politically minded. The topics you're hitting home with are political, too. What are you trying to achieve with the comic series?

PIZZOLO: We want the book to celebrate the spirit of resistance and we're hoping it will be inspiring. We don't have characters that are just thinly repeating what we personally believe. We're telling a story we think celebrates resistance at a time when I feel people need that. One thing that's been --


SOARES: Why? Why do they need that?

PIZZOLO: There are a lot of, a significant number of people who feel more at risk than a year ago. I think that entertainment can be escapist and also inspiring. One thing we are struggling with is trying to make sure no one puts the book down more depressed than when they picked it up.

SOARES: Very good point.

PIZZOLO: So we added a section in the back where we're interviewing real-life political organizers and progressive leaders that we think are doing cool and inspiring things. In that way, it's episodic, and it 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. We're trying to balance as best we can.

SOARES: It's interesting because I have seen the last couple of years series and movies that touch on the topic of resistance. That's definitely something new, almost a trend that you're seeing whereas "The Man in the High Castle," "Game of Thrones," other series where you touch on this. This is something people pick up on, given the political climate.

PIZZOLO: Yes. And that is something that has always resonated. Again, talking about the history of entertainment in California, we can go back to "Star Wars" or NWA or all sorts of things. People really believe in standing up for one another.

SOARES: Matteo, thank you very much.

PIZZOLO: Thank you.

SOARES: You are watching CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles. I'm Isa Soares

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