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Trump "Weighed In" on Son's Statement; Lawmaker: U.S. Could Destroy North Korea; Crisis in Venezuela; Sicilians Taking a Stand against the Mafia. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired August 2, 2017 - 00:00   ET



[00:00:07] JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: This is CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles.

ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: Ahead this hour --

The White House now admits Donald Trump help craft the response for his son's Russia meeting as any father would.

VAUSE: Plus there's no good options for dealing with North Korea. One U.S. lawmaker says the President is considering destroying North Korea with a military offensive.

SESAY: And later, fighting back against the Mafia, Sicilians say they're finding strength in numbers.

VAUSE: Hello everybody. Great to have you with you with us. I'm John Vause.

SESAY: And I'm Isha Sesay. NEWSROOM L.A. starts right now.

The story about Donald Trump, Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer last year is changing yet again.

VAUSE: After repeated denials from the President's lawyers, the White House now says Donald Trump acted just like any father, offering direction but not dictation on his son's statement about that now- infamous meeting in Trump Tower.

Our coverage begins with CNN's Jeff Zeleny.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: New questions tonight for the White House over President Trump's hands-on role crafting an explanation of his son's Russia meeting during the heat of the 2016 election.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The President weighed in as any father would based on the limited information that he had.

ZELENY: The White House acknowledging for the first time the President helped write a statement about a meeting that his son, Donald Trump, Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort had with a Russian lawyer and four others in Trump Tower.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responding to a "Washington Post" report that said the President dictated that misleading statement.

SANDERS: He certainly didn't dictate but, you know, he -- like I said he weighed in, offered suggestion like any father would do.

ZELENY: But those words directly contradict the President's own lawyer who insisted Mr. Trump didn't help write the statement saying the meeting was about Russian adoption with no mention of accepting dirt on Hillary Clinton's campaign.

JAY SEKULOW, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S LAWYER: I wasn't involved in the statement drafting at all, nor was the President. I'm assuming that was between Mr. Donald Trump, Jr. -- between Don, Jr. and his lawyer. I'm sure his lawyer was involved. That's how you do it.

ZELENY: Attorney Jay Sekulow who's representing the President in the Russia investigation said it again and again last month of television. The President had no role.

SEKULOW: But I do want to be clear that the President was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue a statement. It came from Donald Trump, Jr.

ZELENY: The statement was drafted aboard Air Force One on July 8 as the President flew back to Washington from the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Initially the meeting was described like this in a statement to the "New York Times".

"We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular. But it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up."

Yet only days later, the real purpose of the meeting became clear when Donald Trump, Jr. released e-mails showing it was part of Russia and its government support for Mr. Trump from officials trying to take down the Clinton campaign. The President's son replied, if it's what you say, I love it.

Tonight it's the latest case of conflicting signals as the White House tries to move beyond the cloud of the Russia investigation. But the questions put the new White House press secretary back on defense.

SANDERS: That statement that was issued was true and there were no inaccuracies in the statement. I think what the bigger question is -- everybody wants to try to make this some story about misleading. The only thing I see misleading is a year's worth of stories that have been fueling a false narrative about this Russia collusion and based -- a phony scandal based on anonymous sources.

And I think that is -- if we're going to talk about misleading, that's the only thing misleading I see in this entire process. ZELENY: Leading Republicans see it differently on Capitol Hill where two investigations are under way in the potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I don't know what role the President played, if any. Here's what I would suggest. That when you put out a misleading statement it's going to be hard to convince people to stop looking at other things.

ZELENY: Now that is Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina speaking what many Republicans here are saying that it erodes the credibility of the White House -- all these changing stories on Russia -- the President's lawyers saying that the President was not involved in crafting that statement.

The White House press secretary saying he was involved and in some respects a different day, a different story. But the White House now saying the President was involved trying to deflect all of this saying there's simply nothing to see here on the Russia investigation.

Of course that congressional investigation about the House and the Senate as well as the special counsel will have the final word on all of that.

Jeff Zeleny, CNN -- the White House.

VAUSE: Well, joining us now, CNN political commentators -- Democratic strategist Dave Jacobson and Republican consultant John Thomas. Good to see you both.

SESAY: Gentlemen.

VAUSE: John -- let's start with you. So, here we go. The father knows best defense.

[00:05:00] But you know, I used to watch "Father Knows Best". Jim had to say he taught Betty, Bud and Kathy the difference between right and wrong, or it's not a good thing to lie.

Why didn't he simply release his tax returns? In this case, did Donald Trump teach Junior how to shade (ph) the truth?

JOHN THOMAS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean Trump and all the Trump family, they've run their real estate development company. It was a family operation. It was clear that they all kind of, you know, as one brain.

I'm not surprised. In fact, the earlier explanation, earlier July that the President wasn't involve in crafting a statement seems strange to me, especially the way the President likes to try to control the message from his top-down --

VAUSE: That's the only thing that seem strange to you.

THOMAS: But anyway -- so this revelation -- the only thing that seems damning is that they changed their story. I don't think the fact that Donald Trump was involved in crafting the message with his son is any big deal.

SESAY: Dave -- I just want to ask you -- to pick up the point of John there. The White House saying there's nothing to see here. Is that, in itself, damning?

DAVE JACOBSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's totally disingenuous from what Trump's lawyers said to multiple media outlets. Look, it's not America first, it's Trump first.

And I think this is a president obviously who loves nicknames. We ought to really call him by a new nickname which is Trump -- the Donald Trump -- sorry, Donald the Devil, right. This is a guy who embraces political cannibalism. This is a guy who lies through his teeth repeatedly to the American people.

And that's why you're seeing this sort of rift within the Republican Party. Today Lindsey Graham criticized the President for this obviously. And then you've got Jeff Flake who put up this expose, talking about how the Republicans really shouldn't be doubling down on Donald Trump.

So I think you're going to see more of this in the weeks ahead.

VAUSE: Ok. Look, the question though -- John. Whether or not he weighed in, you know, that's debatable at this point here. What was in his mind? How much did he know? We just don't know.

But if you look at the reporting from the "Washington Post" it was pretty clear that the President did not take the advice of those around him. And he did not take the advice of his lawyers or his communication team.

He thinks that he know better than everybody else. And that's causing a lot of problems right now for the President.

THOMAS: I mean that's the issue that plagued his administration. I mean he doesn't take advice well from his comms team. I mean that's -- they've all been washed through. We'll see if he takes the advice of General Kelly.

But you're right. I mean the "Washington Post" article said -- I believe it makes sense that all of his team was saying, you've just got to come clean.

VAUSE: Get in front of it -- yes.

THOMAS: Just say it. Just say it -- because eventually it's coming out because there's so many leaks. And that's what he should have done. He should have hung a lantern on the problem.

VAUSE: Did Reince Priebus leak this story?

THOMAS: I would -- look, I don't have it on good authority but it makes perfect sense. Within 24 hours of him being fired all of a sudden --


THOMAS: -- somebody at a high level who happened to be privy of what happened here.

SESAY: I mean -- yes. I mean again, I'm sure it will come out.

THOMAS: It seems to make sense.

SESAY: There are no secrets in Washington these days.

But Dave -- I mean it also begs the question, the President's intervention in this situation as reported by the "Washington Post".

As to whether he truly understands the magnitude of the legal jeopardy he could potentially be facing here. Does he get it?

JACOBSON: Well, I don't think that him purely dictating this statement is necessarily breaking the law. But the question that Robert Mueller's going to investigate is the intent of potential corruption at the highest level of our government. He's going to tie this to the Comey firing and everything else related to the potential obstruction of justice.

And I think this fans the flames and I think that's what really hurts the President. I don't know that he understands that.

THOMAS: And I don't President Trump believes he's in any legal jeopardy. I think that is part of the problem because he looks at it, believing well, I didn't collude with Russia. I would know. So therefore I didn't' do anything wrong.

Now, it's just a public relations fiasco. We ought to clean that up.

JACOBSON: But optically like it begs the question like why did you misled the American public and not tell people about this so-called secret meeting with Vladimir Putin. I mean that's another thing that exacerbates this issue.

VAUSE: There's a whole lot of issues out there when it comes to credibility for the President. Politico obtained the transcript of the interview that Donald Trump did with the "Wall Street Journal" last week. And the President talked about that much criticized speech he delivered to the Boy Scouts.

You know, some people said it was inappropriate. It was political. But this is what the President told the "Journal".

"I got a call from head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them. And they were very thankful. So there was -- there was no mix."

The problem is that no one from the Scouts has actually said they made that call. And in a statement to CNN, they told us the chief scout's executive message to the scouting community speaks for itself. In other words, the criticism of Donald Trump's speech stands as it is.

John -- who is the President talking to?

THOMAS: It could have been a donor to the scouts. I mean I feel like the President might be going like this when he says, well, somebody from the scouts -- you know.

Look, I believe somebody made the call. It just wasn't the head of the Scouts especially because they took such a bold step to rebuke him.

JACOBSON: Here's the problem. Donald Trump's credibility has been flushed down the toilet. And that's a real issue for the American people because when something serious happens, when there's an act of war or we need to go to war or perhaps defend, you know, our allies abroad and he has to go before the cameras and make a compelling case to the American public, they're not going to believe him. That's the issue here.

[00:10:08] SESAY: John -- is that the case among Trump supporters? Or is this wishful thinking on the part of Trump?

THOMAS: No, I mean I think there are so many daily back and forth between media, between the Democrats and Trump. It's all -- it's getting blurred. I mean it hurts for us to keep up with it.


THOMAS: How is the average person -- while the Democrats certainly are ingrained that the President can't be trusted -- I don't think the base at this point cares or even is keeping up with it.

VAUSE: Did you (inaudible) on Monday?

THOMAS: It feels like a day is like a week.

VAUSE: Exactly. This is when the President was introducing John Kelly as his new chief of staff. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So as you know, the border was a tremendous problem. And now close to 80 percent stoppage and even the President of Mexico called me. They said their southern border, very few people are coming because they know they're not going to get to our border which is the ultimate compliment.


VAUSE: Ultimate compliment indeed. But after those comments from Mr. Trump the government of Mexico issued a very brief statement.

"President Enrique Pena Nieto has not been in recent communications via telephone with President Donald Trump."

And you know, John, if this is a one off, it probably wouldn't matter because but this is a trend which began before inauguration when, you know, the story came out that Trump wanted a military parade and they denied it. They said it wasn't going to happen.

And then there was the Freedom of Information Act which said yes, the Pentagon freaked out because Donald Trump wanted a military parade the day of the inauguration.

They lie about things they don't have to lie about.

THOMAS: I mean yes, it was the inauguration crowd size and things like that, you know. Pick and choose your battles.

VAUSE: Choose them wisely.

THOMAS: Yes. What I just don't understand about that is Trump's right. Illegal immigration is down.

VAUSE: It's a true story (inaudible) -- why did he have to do the extra flourish --

THOMAS: I'm not sure.

VAUSE: It's pathological in a way, isn't it?

SESAY: And that being said you're using the world pathological -- Dave, it brings it back to General Kelly. I mean it's one thing to manage the Twitter. It's one thing to manage the scripted speeches has been keeping the President reading from a prompter.

But also -- but then you have this off -- you know, off the cuff moment. How do you guard against that?

JACOBSON: I don't think you can. That's the problem. And this was like helpful during the campaign. It worked during the campaign. But it's something entirely different when you're governing.

And this is the problem with Donald Trump. The last time he met with the Mexican president was at the G-20 meeting, I believe, where right in front of the Mexican president he said that Mexico was going to pay for the border wall.

I mean this is emblematic of how he's sort of eroding our relationship with our allies across the globe. It's a real issue.

THOMAS: Well, there's no -- there's no permanent fix to this solution. But I think if you're General Kelly what you do is you try to minimize the distractions that do get the President off-message. And that means end the leaks, create power as the chief of staff yourself so you control what gets to the flow that gets to the President.

And every good chief does that to the President. Right now, before General Kelly, people would just go to Trump and he was putting out fires himself in a hundred different places.

SESAY: But what about that moment when he --

(CROSSTALK) VAUSE: He was pretty specific. The president of Mexico called --

SESAY: Yes, absolutely. That is a very specific --

VAUSE: Is there another president of Mexico.

THOMAS: I'm not saying that the President is going to be perfect. But if you limit the number of things that --

SESAY: You mean don't have him speak to the press?

THOMAS: No, no. I'm not saying to limit his communication. I'm saying limit what the information, what gets to the President. You might be able to control the message.

JACOBSON: I believe there's a truth to what you're saying -- John. But I also think there's no way to tame the beast. At the end of the day, he's going to read the "New York Times" in the morning at 6:00.

The chief of staff is not going to be there. And he's going to tweet and no one's going to be able to control that.

VAUSE: What you're saying is basically the President continues to be distracted in a way by many of his own self-inflicted wounds. And you go try and minimize that. But that is what is causing, you know, increasingly unhappiness within the Republican Party, among Republican lawmakers.

Senator Jeff Flake -- he's taking both (inaudible). His new book is called "The Conscience of a Conservative: Rejection of destructive policies and a return to principles".

Here's one of the more critical ones. "I've been sympathetic to this impulse to denial as one doesn't ever want to believe the government of the United States has been made dysfunctional at the highest levels, especially by the actions of one's own party."

You know, John -- you know, the message in the book to Republicans in Congress, it seems to be grow a spine and stand up to this President. I mean this book is damning.

THOMAS: Yes. Also he needs to sell books. You know, so he had to say something that's going to get us to talk about his book -- I mean.

VAUSE: Right.

THOMAS: So look --

VAUSE: But it's a genuine book. I mean it's right --


THOMAS: And there are -- and there are members -- you're right. There are members within the party that think that they should stand up to the President. I think as long as the President retains his base of support the members are going to get in line behind the President.

SESAY: But don't you think this (inaudible) thing then maybe encourage others to come out in some speech.

THOMAS: I mean you would think that John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins would have caused some of that to happen but --

JACOBSON: I think at the end of the day like Jeff Flake knows that voters are going to hold Republicans' feet to the fire when it comes to 2018, he's up for reelection obviously. He's one of the most vulnerable Republicans on the upcoming election.

[00:15:00] And at the end of the day like Republicans haven't delivered anything meaningful in terms of legislation, in terms of big victories through the Congress. And so at the end of the day, when you've got this continued chaos and this friction within the Republican Party, it hurts all these folks who are going to be on the ballot next time.

VAUSE: But you say, you know, that Trump still has the support of his base then the rest of the GOP will fall in line. Nixon had support of, you know, Republicans on the day he resigned from office. So the base and the Republicans are not going to deserve (ph) a Republican president. If something is going to be done about this President -- I guess this is for you, Dave -- then the Republicans in Congress will have leave first and not worry about all the polls.

JACOBSON: Right. There's 70 House seats that are going to be targeted by the DCCC and the Democrats this coming cycle. We only need to pick 24 seats. And so all those folks increasingly as we get closer to the election if that generic ballot still has Democrats leading by double digits, they're going to get spooked and they're going to start moving away and putting distance from the President.

SESAY: John -- you believe that.

THOMAS: Yes. Dave's analysis is right. I just think Trump will probably do better than people think in the midterms.

VAUSE: Very, very quickly. Do you know who's happy with that right now? Who is really, really happy? Look at this. Spicy -- Sean Spicer. He is grinning -- where's the photo? There he is. That's a happy man.


SESAY: Haven't seen that for a while.

VAUSE: Because he doesn't work at the White House.

THOMAS: He's not looking in the rearview mirror. Thank you.

VAUSE: He could return -- who knows?

THOMAS: He's good.

SESAY: Maybe he's leaving (inaudible) or something.

THOMAS: I wouldn't be surprised about that.

SESAY: We shall see.

VAUSE: Ok. David, John -- thank you.

SESAY: Gents -- thank you.

VAUSE: Ok. A short break here.

As the White House considers its strategy, a U.S. Senator is spelling out what a military response to North Korea would look like. More on that in a moment.

SESAY: Plus the Venezuelan democracy seems to be getting weaker by the day. Why the government says two opposition leaders were snatched from their homes in the middle of the night.

Stay with us.


SESAY: Hello everyone.

The White House says all options are on the table in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program and that includes military action.

VAUSE: Senate Republican Lindsey Graham put that possibility into very stark terms.


GRAHAM: There will be a war with North Korea over their missile program if they continue to try to hit America with an ICBM.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every military expert says there is no good military option.

GRAHAM: Well, they're wrong. There is a military option to destroy North Korea's program and North Korea itself. He is not going to allow -- President Trump -- the ability of this madman to have a missile to hit America.

If there is going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there. If thousands die, they're going to die over there and they're not going to die here. And he's told me that to my face.


SESAY: Well, Kaori Enjoji is a journalist who joins us now from Tokyo. Kaori -- thanks for joining us.

When Senator Graham talks about thousands dying over there, you know, over there on Korean Peninsula, a significant portion of that number could well be South Korean given their proximity to Pyongyang. I have to ask you how this kind of bellicose rhetoric coming out of

the U.S. -- how is that going over in the region?

[00:19:59] KAORI ENJOJI, JORUNALIST: Well Isha -- any mention of military action, any mention of war I think in most countries strikes alarm and there is no exception to that whether it be here in Japan or in South Korea.

Having said that here in Japan this morning Senator Graham's comments not getting a whole lot of play in the local media. Instead I think that people are focusing more on Secretary of State Tillerson's comments which seems to contrast quite starkly with the Senator's comments because he is saying that at some point the U.S. might want to dialogue and that the U.S. is not seeking for regime change at the moment.

I think the Japanese stance since Monday is unchanged as you can hear from the chief -- the government spokesman today and that is that now is the time to increase pressure on North Korea and the situation is on high alert.

So I think there's being -- there is a lot of focus, of course, on Tillerson's comments today and not a whole lot especially in Japan on Senator Graham's comments.

Having said that, when you have missiles landing so close to home -- I mean these are waters just off the coast of Japan in the exclusive economic zone -- I think people are genuinely concerned that these are waters that are frequented by shipping vessels. There are fishermen out there on a daily basis. There are flights going through the airspace there.

So when this all is going through that kind of space and unintended accident and something like that, sparking a more intentional and more different kind of response, I think that is a genuine concern in the region right now.

SESAY: Kaori Enjoji joining us there Tokyo. We appreciate it. Thank you so much.

VAUSE: Philip Yun joins us now from San Francisco. He's the executive director of the Ploughshares Fund and a former adviser on North Korea to U.S. President Bill Clinton. Philip -- good to see you.


VAUSE: Keep in mind the statement from Senator Lindsey Graham that the President is considering military options to destroy North Korea. A few hours after that the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a rare appearance in front of reporters and said this.


REX TILLERSON, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel.

We're trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy. We're not your threat but you are presenting an acceptable threat to us. And we have to respond.


VAUSE: Two very different statements in both tone and substance. Which one will be heard loudest in Pyongyang?

YUN: Well, I think it's not clear which one they will hear. And that's part of the confusion here. You've got mixed messages and in an area that miscalculation could be catastrophic. That is not good.

I mean Lindsey Graham is a smart guy. He knows that the military option would be catastrophic. He said that himself. And so I just don't think that it's a realistic option. I don't think that the South Koreans who are going to be essential to any kind of unilateral attack or preemptive strike would stand for it.

So in certain ways Lindsey Graham is almost -- is drumming Donald Trump's message, which is to try to put pressure on China to do something. And the problem is I don't China is really going to do anything because it is not credible to them.

And so I think they are going to prefer to as the Japanese in the previous report. Most are going to try to just focus on what Secretary Tillerson has said which I think is the right approach.

VAUSE: Well, Tillerson also told about the possibility of sitting down and having talks with North Korea. That's not a change in U.S. policy. That's always been there with preconditions being that basically any talks address Pyongyang's nuclear program.

So have we reached the point now though the denuclearization of North Korea is just simply no longer realistic?

YUN: Well I think what people are going to -- people are not going to say that, admit that that is not realistic. I think from the public -- from the talking point standpoint they are going to say this is something that I think ultimately is the long-term goal.

But I think as a pro forma, as de facto or whatever, North Korea is a nuclear state. They've got nuclear weapon. They're working on a delivery system that over a period of time will eventually hit the United States if we maintain status quo.

So that is why we have to do something about it. And I think at the very least we have to do talks about talks with the hope that we can get a freeze and just keep them from actually having the capability of sending a nuclear device -- a nuclear weapon to the United States, the continental United States.

That is what our objective is. We have a little time to do that. And that's what we should be focusing on. VAUSE: Yes. That time though is getting shorter and shorter. So with that mind, there's all the focus as you mentioned on China to try and rein in North Korea.

[00:24:55] The U.S. President lashed out at Beijing over the weekend. The administration is now expected to announce some punitive economic measures to force China to do more. So -- with that on one hand, on the other hand, again we have Tillerson with, you know, a very different take. Here's what he said.


TILLERSON: We've been very clear with the Chinese. We certainly don't blame the Chinese for the situation in North Korea. Only the North Koreans are to blame for this situation.

But we do believe China has a special and unique relationship because of the significant economic activity to influence the North Korean regime in ways that no one else can.


VAUSE: He's kind of saying the same thing but boy, the tone and the delivery is just, you know, night and day compared to the President.

YUN: No, I think that's absolutely right. And I think what they are trying to do here is as I said, the Chinese have been playing good cop in this game, in this high-stake stand off. The United States has been playing bad cop. And that really works if you two are -- if the two are coordinated. In fact, they are not.

So what has to happen is the United States and China have to really talk and get some understanding about what the future of the Korean Peninsula is going to be, what it looks like. And then if they are able to do that what can happen is the United States is serious about solving this problem, not just containing it what's going to have to happen is the United States is going to have to give much more benefits, more carrots.

And then the Chinese will agree, knowing it is not really regime change that the United States is pushing for. They'll be willing to use more sanctions and more sticks to us get hopefully a solution and a freeze.

VAUSE: And finally here, some questions have been raised about just how successful North Korea's missile launch was last week. 38 North is reporting maybe it didn't have the range or the payload capability initially thought. This is their conclusion.

"While North Korea's ambitions reach beyond the West Coast of the United States, places like Washington D.C. If they want to accomplish that with this missile they will have to change the design substantially. This missile's design may not stretch that far without breaking but North Korea may try anyway. If so, they probably won't succeed this year or next."

So what's your take on that?

YUN: Well, I have a tech -- I am inclined to agree. I think that the key takeaways over the last three tests -- one in May and two in July is that they are getting better at it. And clearly the capabilities were they're able to shoot at much higher and for much longer period of time that at some point it will happen.

In certain cases it does not really matter whether it's going to be two years from now, three years from now, five years from now. The bottom line is status quo. If we keep on doing what we're doing which is more sanctions and nothing else they will eventually get to where they will be able to hit the United States. They will be able to miniaturize and make a nuclear device onto this missile and eventually hit the United States.

So that is something we have to work on. We have time. That is the key thing and we've got to move forward to keep them from getting that threshold capability.

Just as a perspective under the grandfather Kim Il-Sung, he did only 15 tests. Under Kim Jong-Il, the father, he did 16. Under this -- under the grandson who's only been in power now for five years he's done 80 tests. And depending on how rapidly they do this they could do -- reach progress a lot sooner than any of us are thinking.

And we have to be aware of that. So time is not on our side.

VAUSE: And so -- not on our side here either, we are out of time. I want to know who's helping North Koreans right now but maybe that's a discussion for another time.

Philip -- as always, great to have you with us. Thank you.

YUN: Thank you.

SESAY: We're going to take a quick break here.

New sanctions are not stopping the Venezuelan president from targeting political opponents. How the government in defending the arrests of two prominent opposition leader.


SESAY (voice-over): You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay.

VAUSE (voice-over): Thanks for staying with us. I'm John Vause. We'll check the headlines now.


SESAY: Joining me now from Caracas is "The Wall Street Journal" reporter, Anatoly Kurmanaev.

Anatoly, thanks so much for joining us. So in the face of mounting international condemnation for last weekend's vote, on Monday, President Maduro threatened to crack down on his opponents and declared some would end up in jail.

Early Tuesday, two leading opposition politicians were yanked from their homes and taken into custody.

My question to you is this, is this move to take these two men borne out of fear and desperation on the part of the Maduro regime?

How do you see it?

ANATOLY KURMANAEV, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": I think that's a bit definitely a big part of it, Isha. I think on one hand, President Maduro, he has to appear strong to his core supporters, to the military. Keep in mind that, on Sunday, Maduro pretty much went ahead and invented a number of (INAUDIBLE) in the election. The first time this government has done this in pretty much 20 years it's been in power. And in the face of this blatant fraud, Maduro has to show he supports his people, for instance, taken of him that don't worry, I can do anything I want.

And this is part of the reason he's still position, people have been having jailed.

SESAY: OK, so you mentioned opposition there so let's pick up on that.

Does the taking of Ledezma and Lopez, does this embolden the opposition or power them?

What's the reaction?

What's your sense of next moves here?

KURMANAEV: The reaction from (INAUDIBLE) very strong, very -- they said they will not back down, this just makes them stronger, that the two leaders, they were fully aware what they were doing badly when they released videos condemning Maduro, which led to where rearrest.

And they were promised to depression Maduro. They promised to keep fighting his government on the street and international community in congress, which they control.

But of course there's a lot of confusion inside the opposition lines, the (INAUDIBLE) people (INAUDIBLE) are scared. This illusion that what happened Sunday to the elections are worried about what's coming back next.

So it's been difficult for the opposition to get people back on the street again, in these last few days, and it's going to be a big test (INAUDIBLE) their ability to successfully challenge this government if they can reactivate basically the streets, the street pressure and maintain the process as Maduro tries to install the new national assembly (INAUDIBLE) assembly that's going to have powers to do anything it wants.

SESAY: President Trump on Tuesday released a statement, making clear the U.S. position. Let me read it. "The United States holds Maduro, who publicly announced just hours earlier, that he move against his political opposition, personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr. Lopez, Mr. Ledezma and any others seized. We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners."

Anatoly, forceful --


SESAY: -- words, which, of course, come after the U.S. sanctioned Mr. Maduro himself. But besides words and symbolic actions, is the U.S., is it will to go after Venezuela's oil industry with sanctions?

What other effective options does the Trump administration have at its disposal to bring about a change in Maduro's position and actions?

KURMANAEV: That's a very good question, Isha, and apart from (INAUDIBLE) from Trump just today, just a couple of hours ago, we also got a statement from State Secretary Tillerson, who basically said that Maduro has to go. But the U.S. administration is looking for ways to make Maduro go, which is pretty unprecedented, especially in a post-Cold War world, where the United States openly says that it wants to change the government of another country.

SESAY: So critics of President Maduro talk of his intention of being at the helm of a kind North Korea-like state, where all freedoms are denied and he is in full, complete control. All power rests with him and the regime. You're there on the ground. You are in Caracas. You follow the situation for a long time.

What is your sense of the end game here, on the part of President Maduro?

KURMANAEV: Well, this is a crucial week, Isha, I think is a week or the next 10 days that will decide exactly where (INAUDIBLE) goes. On one hand, we see a North Korea scenario, where President Maduro installs this new conceding (ph) assembly that's going to go ahead with banning political parties, banning elections, jailing opponents and ruling with an iron fist.

Or on the other hand, Maduro can use the assembly again as just another bargaining chip. It's just another negotiation tool to waive all the opposition, to force them to sit down and create some sort of agreement, possibly an agreement to leave all the stage pre-election, which, of course, he would lose in return for amnesty for him and is immediate circle

Or just some sort of an agreement where both sides can coexist together, can find some sort of space for coexistence, the sort of soft approach and a lot is going to depend, Isha, on who wins the presidency of the conceding assembly that's managed to take office as early as tomorrow. And it's very difficult to predict exactly which way the chips will fall.

SESAY: Which we we're watching closely to see what happens on Thursday if the constituent assembly indeed does take office.

Anatoly, we appreciate it. Thank you so much. Do take care out there. Thank you.

KURMANAEV: Thank you, Isha.

VAUSE: Coming up next here, going to the mattresses against the mob. Why many Sicilians say their days of paying for protection are over.




VAUSE: The mafia in Sicily has long been accepted as just a --


VAUSE: -- part of life. You want protection, you pay the mob.

SESAY: But now many Sicilians are taking a stand, saying they won't be intimidated anymore. Our own Nina dos Santos has the story.


NINA DOS SANTOS, CNNMONEY EUROPE EDITOR: For more than a century, the Cosa Nostra has held sway over Palermo's streets, demanding a share of trade and absolute loyalty.

But 25 years since some of the Mafia's most violent episodes, Sicilians are fighting back, refusing to pay the pizza (ph) or protection money upon which the marks whole business model was originally built.

Backing those taking a stand is Idio Pizzo (ph) or goodbye to the racket.

DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Italian).

DOS SANTOS (voice-over): The grassroots movement providing legal, moral and social support.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The idea came in about 2004, when a few of us wanted to open a bar and we thought to ourselves, what do we do if they come and ask for protection money?

Change is difficult because the Mafia has been in this city for 150 years. But we are seeing a cultural shift. For the first time extortion is being discussed openly.

DOS SANTOS (voice-over): With over 1,000 firms signed up, Idio Pizzo's (ph) community is growing, thanks in part to million-dollar donation from the E.U.

DOS SANTOS: Less than a generation ago refusing to pay protection money could be a death sentence for a business. Those shops that wouldn't comply faced being taught their owners were sometimes threatened or even worse.


DOS SANTOS (voice-over): But today, such defiance actually seems to be rewarding. Shopkeepers say that sales are up and visits from the Mafia are down. And while authorities reckon that the Cosa Nostra has diversified into drugs and money laundering, the fall in income from racketeering is a problem for the world's most famous crime syndicate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Cosa Nostra members who are aware of the possibility that one of their big things can report to the police keeps them away.

Five Italians, Cosa Nostra, came up with an only judicial or law enforcement agency's level. It must involve all the population.

DOS SANTOS (voice-over): In the village of Kakamov (ph), 40 kilometers from Sicily's capital, is a man who knows the Mafia well.

Giorgio Schumacher (ph) says his cousin was gunned down by the mob when he ran for mayor. When he set up his own bar, they soon made their demands.

GIORGIO SCHUMACHER (PH), CAFE OWNER (through translator): They pretend to be your friend. First, they borrow money. Then they borrow the car. Then they try and get you to buy stolen goods from them.

They try to trap you. They try to compromise you.

DOS SANTOS (voice-over): Schumacher (ph) refused to pay and called in the cops. But that nearly cost him his livelihood. Locals shunned him, fearing mob revenge, until Idio Pizzo (ph) came to the rescue.

SCHUMACHER (PH) (through translator): They got their friends to come from Palermo to my bar every weekend. So every Friday and Saturday, I got busier.

DOS SANTOS (voice-over): Thirteen years later, Schumacher (ph) has a thriving pastry company, selling all over Italy. Like a growing number of Sicilians ,he's found the best protection from the Mafia today is joining the ranks of those who refuse to pay -- Nina dos Santos, CNN, Palermo, Italy.


SESAY: You think they're still sleeping with one eye open?

VAUSE: Oh, absolutely. Yes. Dangerous stuff out there.

OK. You have been watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm John Vause.

SESAY: And I'm Isha Sesay. "WORLD SPORT" starts right after the break.