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Head-scratching Late Night Tweet from Trump; Struggling for Answers about the Niger Ambush; Bush Lashes Out against Bigotry in U.S.; Spain Prepares for Catalonia "Nuclear Option"; Chicago Art Institute Says Trump's Renoir is Fake. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 00:00   ET



[00:00:10] JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: This is CNN NEWSROOM, live from Los Angeles.

Ahead this hour.

After John Kelly's emotional and surprising defense of Donald Trump and his controversial call to a grieving military family, the U.S. President lashes out again with a late night tweet.

Meanwhile, the White House struggling to answer question about the Niger ambush, particularly why a soldier's body was left behind on the battlefield.

And independence interrupted as Spain starts the countdown to the nuclear option suspending Catalonia's autonomy.

Hello and welcome to our viewers all around the world. Great to have you with us. I'm John Vause. NEWSROOM L.A. starts right now.

Four days into the consolation call controversy and the Trump administration is attempting to clear the air. White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired general whose son was killed in action tried to clarify what the President meant by a remark described as insensitive by the grieving family of a fallen soldier who heard it and which Mr. Trump has repeatedly denied ever making.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: But let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me because he was my casualty officer. He says, "Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war."

And when he died, in the four cases we're talking about in Niger, my son's case in Afghanistan -- when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That's what the President tried to say to four families the other day.

(END VIDEO CLIP) VAUSE: This is just the latest in what seems to be a never-ending conveyor belt of self-inflicted wounds from a White House which waltzes from skirmish to destruction and then on to diversion.

Briefly on Thursday the world was reminded how it once was. In a rare public appearance former President George W. Bush delivered a point by point rebuttal of Trumpism.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone. It provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.


VAUSE: At the same time, another former U.S. President, Barack Obama, hit the campaign trail for the first time since leaving office, stumping for the Democratic candidate for New Jersey governor and speaking out against the politics of division.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some of the politics we see now we -- we thought we put that to bed. I mean that -- that has folks looking 50 years back. It's the 21st century, not the 19th century.


VAUSE: And then it was over, back to the Oval Office and business as usual.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How would you grade the White House response so far?

TRUMP: I'd say it was a 10. I'd say it was probably the most difficult, when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved. It hit right through the middle of the island, right through the middle of Puerto Rico.

There's never been anything like that. I give ourselves a 10.


VAUSE: Ok. A lot to get to this hour. Joining us CNN political commentators Dave Jacobson and John Thomas. Also joining us professor of political science Peter Matthews. Ok. This was quite a day of contrast. Let's start with John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. Dave -- he's a former general. His son was killed in action and he is out there defending a President who avoided the draft of bone spurs. And he's in this middle of a nasty feud with a grieving family of a fallen soldier. At the same time, we now know that Donald Trump made this statement.


TRUMP: I didn't say what that congresswoman said. I didn't say it all. She knows it and she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said.


VAUSE: It was blatantly wrong, all a lie. And despite what General Kelly had said just a few hours ago, Donald Trump tweeted this out just moments ago. The fake news is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson who was secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content.

[00:05:06] But she didn't because General Kelly came to the defense to clarify what she had said the President had -- explain that.


VAUSE: Right.

JACOBSON: This is emblematic of the schizophrenic nature that is our president, unfortunately. Let's not forget the whole reason we're having this conversion is because Donald Trump politicized the issue. This is something that's supposed to be a solemn service.



THOMAS: The congresswoman politicized the issue.

JACOBSON: No, no, no, no, no, no. It starts with Donald Trump creating this political firestorm because he excoriated President Obama over something that he thought he didn't do which he did which President Obama called fallen service members --

THOMAS: But the congresswoman who wouldn't even attend the inauguration saw a political point to dance on the back of a fallen soldier -- that's happening.

Should Trump have lied about what he said? Absolutely not. I have no idea why he did that. But it was initiated by a Democratic congresswoman looking to score some political points on a dead soldier.

VAUSE: Why can't the President just say hey, look I -- I didn't mean that? I chose my words badly. Clearly that was not the intention. I apologize to this grieving widow who's already going through so much right now. Done -- not a problem.

JACOBSON: I think because Preside Trump doesn't apologize. That's the problem. He says things like I've reached out to all the fallen soldiers. According to Axios from earlier, there's been about 43 fallen soldiers since Donald Trump has been president, nine of which haven't received any communication from Donald Trump.

But he goes out there, he says that he's reached out to all of them. So he's totally disingenuous. But more than that, he lies.

VAUSE: John Kelly also had some strong words for Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, especially about the part that she was actually listening in to this phone call.


KELLY: It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation, absolutely stuns me. And I thought, at least that was sacred.


VAUSE: John -- the congresswoman is a close family, has been for years. And also John Kelly was listening in on the phone call a well. Hypocrisy?

THOMAS: I think it's different having your chief of staff of a politician listening in who's making a call. I think his point was, he has said early on that he counseled President Trump not to make any of these calls because the only person that a grieving widow wants to hear from is somebody that their spouse served with in the military.

So this is, I think that his point was there's no need to politicize in having another elected official eavesdropping on the line just --

VAUSE: She wasn't eavesdropping. She was invited there by the family and the --


THOMAS: Well, he's saying he felt it was inappropriate.


JACOBSON: I guess for me like this the whole thing stems from Donald Trump opening up this can of worms. Like we saw a report today that Donald Trump had promised the family of one of the fallen soldiers a check for $25,000 and they never received it but then the White House just yesterday issued a statement saying that they sent out a check. They're not saying when.


VAUSE: -- in the "Washington Post".

JACOBSON: Right. Exactly. VAUSE: It was hours after the report --

JACOBSON: Well, the fact is like none of this would have been part of the conversation had Donald Trump not lied about Barack Obama.

VAUSE: It's a personal attack.


VAUSE: Peter -- just to bring you on this, John Kelly has this reputation of being almost above politics. He's serving this administration for the good of the nation. Does this full-throated defense of the President and what he's been saying about the congresswoman -- does that change his standing now? Has he now become political?

PETER MATTHEWS, POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR: Unfortunately I think he could very well be seen that way or at least half the nation and maybe more that Kelly was supposed to be this person that he was. In many ways he still is above the fray, a man of integrity who tells the truth. He took sides on a political issue -- on a politicized issue and he actually took one side over the other.

I think President Trump was, you know, it's very controversial that he did what he said about the congresswoman and about -- to mother of the fallen soldier. And the way he said it, he didn't come across very well and Kelly is defending it. So I think it was not a very good move on the part of the general. But he was trying to salvage his president in a sense.

VAUSE: Ok. Also I must say, Peter, not one but two former presidents back in the political spotlight, delivering a very stinging rebuke to the current occupant of the White House. Is this unprecedented?

MATTHEWS: I think it really is. And I think it was very remarkable President Bush's speech -- you know, I didn't agree on a lot of Bush's policy. But this time President Bush had to be admired for what he said about the character of America is being a nation built on ideas. Not a nation of bloodline, not of blood and soil.

(INAUDIBLE) any kind of European or any kind of white supremacy or supremacy or anything like that and President Bush took a firm stand against it and implicated President Trump for not doing it. So it's quite a contrast.

President Obama also spoke out against what President Trump has been doing and saying or implying that he condoned some of these things. And I think it was very unprecedented that two recent presidents, former presidents would actually say this about a current president. But I think both of them see how important it is that they speak out fully at this time.

[00:10:00] VAUSE: Yes. And I tell you it really was President Bush who sort of stole the spotlight today because he has been out of the spotlight for so long.

Who's fans of the George W. Bush fan club now? I mean there's always new recruits who signed up over the last couple of hours.

You know, he had this steamed (ph) criticism of the current president. This is what he said.


BUSH: We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it could seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity, disagreement escalates into dehumanization, we've seen nationalism distorted into nativism.


VAUSE: (INAUDIBLE) George W. Bush stayed out of it when Donald Trump viciously attacked his brother Jeb, during the primaries campaign, when Donald Trump attacked George W. Bush's administration, called him the worst president ever. He did not say a word. He has made it a point not to criticize the current commander in chief one president at a time.

JACOBSON: Or President Obama even.

VAUSE: Yes, absolutely.

So why now? What was the tipping point that made George W. Bush go on that stage and, you know, basically deliver this attack, not mentioning Donald Trump by name but saying this?

THOMAS: Right. Well, he was at a summit. He had to give a keynote, right. There were a lot of --


THOMAS: Condoleezza -- no, he was giving a speech. Obviously I think he meant it. I'm not saying that he didn't

Look, you know, Peter said there's a point that we don't rely upon bloodlines. Well, the Bush family is pretty blue blood. I think it's -- It's a sense he doesn't obviously like the state of our politics at all. Not just President Trump. He doesn't like it when a Democratic congresswoman exploits a fallen soldier for political gain.

I just don't think he like where we are on any side and he wanted to say his piece about it. It's his right to do it.

Look, Jeb Bush got smoked largely because of the Bush legacy. I think the Republican primary is hoping that the Bushes just like the Democrats felt the Clintons will disappear.

VAUSE: Dave -- this, ok -- you take John's explanation here on the one hand but it does seem that you know, there has been a level of toxicity or a level of unhappiness within George W. Bush about how things are going. And then finally he has let it all out.

JACOBSON: I thought it was a remarkable and frankly unprecedented one-two punch where you have two former presidents of the United States excoriating the current commander-in-chief. But both former Presidents were from differing political parties.

But I think this is really significant in a sense because it's not just George W. Bush. It's John McCain earlier this week. It was Bob Corker the week before. It was Jeff Flake, the Republican Senator from Arizona who wrote a book on this a couple of weeks ago.

You're seeing Republican and Republican and Republican come out one by one attacking the current commander-in-chief. And I think really what it is, is a splintering of the Republican Party away from Donald Trump -- there's the party of Donald Trump and then there's the GOP.

THOMAS: I think you're seeing not a splintering. You're seeing the establishment have enough of it and deciding to speak out against Donald Trump because he's not part of their group and he doesn't behave like them, either.

VAUSE: I want to ask Peter this because, you know, we've seen John McCain, George W. Bush, earlier it was Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president, all speaking out in defense of, you know, if you like, old school Republican values.

I'm just curious, are they trying to reclaim the party or is this, you know, basically the GOP obituary?

MATTHEWS: I don't really see it that way. I just see it as nonpartisan because people from both sides have been speaking out about this President being quite a danger in some ways. And what he's been saying and doing, not just in foreign policy and the nuclear crisis with North Korea but so many things.

When he condoned and equivocated on white supremacy at Charlottesville, for example. He's done so many that put us in a predicament as a nation. That's very concerning to a lot of our leaders and former leaders who are not just talking about being the establishment saving the establishment. We're talking about saving the United States of America and our heart and soul as a nation.

I thought it was brilliant how President Bush defined the United States as I have before as a nation of ideas, unlike other countries that actually do look towards soil and blood and race and ethnicity.

We don't do that. We believe that all people are created equal as Jefferson said and that we have to respect everyone with dignity. And I think the Presidents of both parties, other leaders like McCain have seen that this has not been the modus operandi of this President and they're very concerned about it.

VAUSE: Ok. You mentioned the reference that George W. Bush made to white nationalism. Let's listen to what he actually said.


BUSH: Our identity as a nation unlike many other nations is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. We've become of the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr. by recognizing one another not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

This means that people of every race, religion, ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.


[00:15:02] VAUSE: So John -- that's how it's done, ok. You know, there's no, like fighting on both sides.

THOMAS: Right.

VAUSE: You have very fine people out there as well. Why can't the current president do that?

THOMAS: Right. He had a good speechwriter. I mean there's nothing --

VAUSE: He drafted it himself apparently. He had a couple of (INAUDIBLE) out there but he drafted it.

THOMAS: I, unlike my Democrats, think George Bush is a smart guy, you know.


VAUSE: Every president owes Donald Trump a debt of gratitude right now.

THOMAS: By comparison, I suppose.

No. I mean the issue is Trump did say something like that, he just didn't say it the first go around after Charlottesville. And it would be nice.

Look, I'd love it if he behaved more in that kind of measured tone. But he isn't. And the voters understood that though when they put him into office. Our elected officials, believe it or not, are a reflection of us. We put them into office.

JACOBSON: But ultimately it's what his original message -- he equated white supremacists to protesters. I mean that's what he did at the end of the day. And he hasn't apologized for it as of today still.

VAUSE: Well, President Obama, who was at a rally in Virginia, hours ago campaigning for the Lieutenant Governor there and again, speaking out against the current state of politics in the U.S.


OBAMA: Instead of looking for ways to work together and get things done in a practical way, we would have folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonize people who have different ideas, to get the base all riled up.

(END VIDEO CLIP) VAUSE: You know, Dave, what I noticed about both President Bush and President Obama is that they're not talking about the news of the day. They're not commenting about what's happening in, you know, the 24- hour news cycle. They're talking about the much bigger issues which the United States is facing.

JACOBSON: Yes. It's a bird's eye view of how America is dealing with and grappling with this president -- what he's doing to our country.

But if you look at Donald Trump in the way he embraces politics, it's really identity politics. He is playing towards his base and it' that, you know, slice of the electorate that's angry, that's frustrated, that's largely not on the coast, it's in the middle that feels dismay. They feel like their jobs are being shipped overseas. And he's communicating to that 37 percent that is still approving of his presidency.

The fact is when you've got a George W. Bush presidency or a Barack Obama presidency folks on both sides perhaps don't necessarily agree with their policies but they do agree that, you know, we need something that's going to move forward in terms of the common good.

And I think those two presidents, the way -- their world view was, look, I've got to be a unifier regardless of whether you're on the blue team or the red team. And we're just not getting that from the President.

VAUSE: Big issues, new concepts -- meanwhile, back at the Oval Office.


TRUMP: It was probably the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels -- and even when you talk about lives saved, you look at the numbers. I mean this was -- I think it was worse than Katrina. It was in many ways worse than anything people have ever seen.


VAUSE: President Trump there basking in his own praise of the response to Hurricane Maria. But, you know, Donald Trump does not deal well with criticism. Do you think, he will lash out at either Presidents Bush or Obama? And if he does, will there be consequences?

Matthews: Absolutely, there'll be consequences because these are two men who are still admired by various people in the country. And they're rightly so.

He was lashing out at Puerto Rico, the victims of this hurricane. The fact that he blamed them for not taking care of their infrastructure, well, Puerto Rico is put into debt because the United States Congress passed a bill giving tax free income to corporations to go to Puerto Rico and make profits of low labor or cheap labor there. And then in the end those corporations left Puerto Rico when the tax break was taken away. So Puerto Rico is not to blame for this. And yet Trump was going after them and I think that President Bush and President Obama in criticizing President Trump were right in doing so. And he will lash back, I've got a feeling. He doesn't take things lightly and he may do it more subtly this time because they are former -- two former presidents. But he may not. He may go full force forward in a Trumpian way. We'll see.

VAUSE: We await the 3:30 a.m. tweets from the White House.

Peter -- thank you for being with us. Also Dave and John. Thanks so much.

MATTHEWS: My pleasure.

VAUSE: Well, coming up here on NEWSROOM L.A. top officials are demanding answers about the attacks that killed four U.S. soldiers. We'll have the very latest on the Niger investigation in just a moment.


VAUSE: Well, as the controversy over President Trump's calls to grieving military families persist, so do the questions about what led to the death of four U.S. soldiers in an ambush in Niger this month.

For more on the investigation, here's our chief U.S. security correspondent Jim Sciutto.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, the head of the U.S. military is demanding answers on the deadliest U.S. combat mission of the Trump administration.

JAMES MATTIS, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The loss of our troops is under investigation. We in the Department of Defense would like to know what we're talking about before we talk. And so we do not have all the accurate information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it.

SCIUTTO: Two weeks after the ambush, Defense Secretary James Mattis, officials say, is discouraged by the lack of information he's received from his own people on the ISIS attack in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers and injured two more.

The 12-member U.S. army team was meeting villagers in a town on the Niger-Mali border. They were walking back to their vehicles which were not armored when up to 50 ISIS-affiliated fighters attacked them with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The Americans fought back but were only armed with light weapons such as rifles.

COLONEL STEVE WARREN, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: There had been nearly 30 trips along this route already so they had reason to believe that they were in a permissive environment.

SCIUTTO: After 30 minutes, French aircraft flew by to try to disperse the attackers from the air and later to evacuate the wounded.

The U.S. had to rely on a private contractor to airlift out the dead. In the chaos, Sergeant La David Johnson was separated from the rest of the team and left behind.

Commanders launched a large joint U.S., Nigerian and French search and rescue operation. Forty-eight 48 hours later, Nigerian troops recovered his body.

Today Secretary Mattis attempted to answer hard questions about what went wrong. For one, why the military's own intelligence assessed it was unlikely the team would run into enemy forces.

MATTIS: This specific case contact was considered unlikely but there's a reason we have U.S. army soldiers there and not the Peace Corps because we carry guns. And so it's a reality.

It's part of the danger that our troops face in these counter- terrorist campaigns. But remember we do these kinds of missions by, with and through allies. It is often dangerous.

SCIUTTO: And as the families grieve, another question. Why was a U.S. soldier left behind on the battlefield?

MATTIS: The U.S. military does not leave its troops behind. And I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once.

SCIUTTO: Chief of Staff John Kelly was asked another hard question at the White House podium today. And that is, why are U.S. forces in Niger? His answer was that this is an advice-and assist mission to help train Niger forces to fight ISIS there and in his words a few U.S. service members on the ground helping those local forces so that thousands more U.S. service members don't have to join the fight.

Jim Sciutto, CNN -- Washington.


[00:25:02] VAUSE: Well, for more, I'm joined by Michael Krause. He's a former U.S. marine captain and State Department contractor.

Michael -- thanks for coming back.


VAUSE: Ok. It's no secret that the U.S. has troops on the ground --


VAUSE: -- in Niger. President Obama made the announcement back in 2013, right. It just seems like is there a lack of interest there? Or is it a lack of transparency. Which one is it?

KRAUSE: No, I don't necessarily think it's a lack transparency. I mean you can go back and look at, you know, NBC articles from 2013 that we were -- you know, Obama was sending troops.

Right now we have about 800 troops in there. Now, granted they're not all Green Berets. There's a lot of support personnel as well.

I think there's a lack of interest --


KRAUSE: Yes, maybe engineering assets and things like that.

I think there's a lack of interest around the world on what's going on.

VAUSE: Yes, that's what I mean.

KRAUSE: Monday, you know, we were in here talking about Somalia. We have troops in Somalia fighting al Shabaab. We're fighting whatever they want to call themselves now, ISIS of Greater Sahara in Niger. We also have individuals top fighting in the Philippines. We're fighting in Syria. We're just fighting in Iraq. We're fighting in Afghanistan.

So it is that global war on terror. I know people don't like to use that phrase anymore because it was a Bush phrase. But that's the truth. It is a global fight -- ISIS, al Qaeda -- they have different names with the same ideology. It doesn't matter -- they don't care about borders.

VAUSE: Just historically (ph), they're sending U.S. troops in small numbers to train and assist, you know, allies in a region.

KRAUSE: It's something we've been doing since the Cold War.

VAUSE: Yes. And even before that, I think. It's not a new policy. Ok.

There are a lot of questions though about what actually happened in Niger with the U.S. troops. Firstly, why were they armed only with rifles? Why were they in an unarmored pickup truck? Why there were no drones flying overhead?

KRAUSE: In terms of the ISR, assets, the intel surveillance and reconnaissance, you had the commander of AfriCom was in front of Congress, I believe, in March --


KRAUSE: -- and actually said that they only need about 20 or 30 percent of their ISR requirements. And we don't have a lot of helicopters as well. So he said we are deficient in terms of reconnaissance assets.

Now, if you're talking about the Green Berets and going out on unarmored vehicles and things like that, they're not going to take mRATs out in this type of environment. They may have wanted to try to be a little more, say low-key, blend in. VAUSE: MRATs -- what's that?

KRAUSE: MRATs are the armored personnel carriers that we all saw in Iraq. They're in the surge, the big armored things. Obviously they create a big footprint. They attract a lot of attention.

If you get in the back of a Hi-Lux pickup truck, a little Toyota pickup truck or a Land Cruiser maybe the enemy might not know they were there.

Now, Green Berets are the best at what they do. These guys are the best gunslingers. If we're going to get in a fire fight you want Green Berets on your side.

Light weapons to them, they're still going to have automatic weapons. They probably had 249-subs, most of the guys probably had two or three grenade launchers and things like that.

They can get out of a fight. The problem here is the enemy set up a very complex ambush with over 50 troops. And the enemy gets a say in what we do. The best plans can go awry because the enemy gets a say.

VAUSE: There's also some questions about a lack of intelligence, about what was actually happening in the region, some questions about what the locals were doing to try and keep this particular patrol in one spot for a little longer.

KRAUSE: It happened in Afghanistan and Iraq all the time, too. You're going to these meetings with the locals. We would go into Afghanistan and assure meetings with -- meeting with elders. You are going to a village, had a great meeting, drink some chai, you walk out - -

VAUSE: A lot of tea. A lot of sweet tea.

KRAUSE: Yes a lot of sweet tea. You're walking out and you're getting shot at.


KRAUSE: But that is the nature of these low-intensity conflicts in these countries. We don't have a lot of assets. The Green Berets are force multipliers. They go in, like you said, they train, advise, and assist. The thing is you have to assist on the battlefield.

VAUSE: Ok. People are making comparisons to Benghazi. Beyond what appears to have been a botched response, do you see any other similarities here?

KRAUSE: None at all.

VAUSE: Why not?

KRAUSE: You have four Americans killed in Benghazi, four Americans killed here. You did not see Ambassador Nikki Haley going on the talk shows talking about that there was a YouTube video that was responsible and things like that. There is no cover-up.

If you saw the clip with General Mattis, he's trying to get to the bottom of it. In Mattis we trust is a motto of veterans. We believe what Mattis says. He wants to get to the bottom of it because he wants to make sure it doesn't happen again.

VAUSE: right.

KRAUSE: You see Democrats or liberals, you know, whatever anti- Trumpers and things like that want to try to make this something like Benghazi. It's not even close. You've got Green Berets going out and doing the2ir mission in a combat zone.

Benghazi, you had a State Department facility that was lacking security with you had a horrible response to that. I mean the French -- and thank God for the French. Trump needs to call up Macron and say thank you. And on behalf of the American people I thank the French military as well because they saved lives.

[00:29:58] Those Mirage fighter jets getting there within 30 minutes, they didn't -- apparently didn't drop bombs because of the status of forces agreement in Niger. They were able to buzz the battlefield and most of those ISIS fighters probably came from Syria and Iraq and they know what happens when coalition airstrikes come in.

VAUSE (voice-over): OK. Good to see you --


VAUSE: Still to come here, Spain continues to deal with its worst political crisis in decades with Madrid on the verge of (INAUDIBLE) constitutional nuclear option to stop Catalonia's bid for independence.




VAUSE: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm John Vause with the headlines this hour.


VAUSE: Spain is taking its most decisive step yet to crush Catalonia's independence bid. Madrid says it will begin the process of imposing direct rule on the region. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's cabinet will meet Saturday to discuss specific measures.

The plan will then go to the senate for approval, where Mr. Rajoy's party has a majority.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We will carry on with triggering article 155 of the Constitution with the objective of restoring legality in Catalonia.


VAUSE: Article 155 (INAUDIBLE) government to suspend Catalonia self- governing status. The region's president wants direct talks with Madrid.

A European affairs competitor Dominic Thomas joins us now for more on this.



VAUSE: Everybody wants to know what happens next and the big question (INAUDIBLE) answer that, I guess kind of determines on how you interpret article 155.

This is what it says in English. The self-governing community does not fulfill the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain, the government (INAUDIBLE) lodge a complaint with the president, the self-governing community and fail to receive satisfactory therefore may following approval granted by the overall majority by the senate take all measures necessary to compel the community to meet said obligations or to protect the above mentioned general interest.

It is so vague, it is not definitive and some like it that this actually does not give Madrid the full authority to do what it wants to do.

DOMINIC THOMAS, CHAIR OF THE DEPARTMENT OF FRENCH & FRANCOPHONE STUDIES, UCLA, CALIFORNIA: Right. It's vague, it's never been used before and 100 percent when it was written with no intention of it every actually having --


THOMAS: -- so you can see now how confusing it is. As far as the Prime Minister's concerned, it's absolutely certainly clear and unambiguous all necessary measures to basically bring the region of Catalonia into line and to conform with what he sees as the constitutional measures here.

Actually whether or not he can do anything with it is probably secondary to the fact that if, paradoxically, after having waited after another extension for Puigdemont to declare independence, he never did. But he said that if the Prime Minister triggers article 155 Then he would immediately declare independence, right, so will get to that point.

And I think that the fact that he declares independence is perhaps actually exactly what the hardcore separatists want so that they can then claim that Madrid is overreaching in their particular region and arguably even play the card of victimization, which will help further galvanize support for the process of independence.

VAUSE: Because that is the question because right now Catalonia, it's not like an overwhelming desire to break away from Spain and the independence movement has a very slim majority in parliament.

THOMAS: Right, a very slim majority and of course as we know, that the vote that they had on the 1st, which the separatists are saying was absolutely conclusive, 90 percent had such a low turnout that anybody who was not in favor of the referendum stayed home, threats were made from Madrid. And it would be very unlikely that they would be able to win a successful referendum were they to have it.

Now that was two weeks ago. Since then, a lot of things have changed. I think on the one hand folks in Catalonia finding out the consequences of such a referendum but there are also a little bit tired of what happened since Madrid has been reaching into the region.

VAUSE: It does seem pretty clear if the senate approves article 155 on Saturday, with the special meeting, Madrid, at least in theory could take control of the 17,000 police force in Catalonia. And that raises a lot of interesting questions because this is the same police which refused to follow Madrid's directives to shut down that October 1st independence referendum.

What happens --

THOMAS: It will further divide the community because of course this is the local police force, whose families are involved in this and have been talking about nothing else for the past few weeks.

It puts them in an awful predicament and of course one cannot really determine how they will react until we get to see specifically what the orders are coming down from Madrid on this.

VAUSE: OK. There is one theory out there that article 155 goes into effect and Madrid gently quits on -- turns the screws so that they have think about this for a while, guys, and come back to us and talk and they can just keep turning the screws for a period of time and eventually they'll have their way with the (INAUDIBLE).

THOMAS: Well, if they invoke the article, this is at the cabinet meeting that then has to go to the parliament, there has to be a vote and there's some waiting time. I don't think that the separatists are really at this particular junction looking for anything but essentially a referendum or to have the referendum recognized.

What they will argue though is that Madrid is refusing to engage in discussions and Madrid has been acting in a rather peculiar way by talking about the fact that maybe the way out might be through a regional vote or something like that.

VAUSE: What's that going to prove?

THOMAS: Well, the regional vote, I think, would be just absolutely -- would be so hypocritical; on the one hand you ban a referendum and say it's unconstitutional and prevent people from going to the ballot boxes to express their democratic feelings about something.

So it would be first of all extremely risky as we saw the referendum on Brexit, the Italian constitution and votes elsewhere in Europe.

And I think the other aspect of it is the outcome would be completely undetermined and the loss aspect of it, of course, is that this looks like Madrid is trying to shape a vote. It sort of knows that they're not that many people that would support the referendum overall. So this might be the way out by humiliating the separatists and having them lose in a vote, that this could backfire.

VAUSE: We have said that a lot about elections and --


VAUSE: -- referendums in Europe over the last 12-18 months or so. And it's a very valid point again. Dominic, thanks for coming in.

THOMAS: Thank you.

VAUSE: Appreciate it.

Well, a U.S. company says it will resume the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370. Australia's transport minister says Ocean Infinity has agreed to a no-find no-fee deal, meaning the company won't benefit financially if it doesn't find the plane.

The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared in March of 2014 with 235 people aboard. Malaysia, Australia and China announced back in January they were suspending the search for the plane. But not over yet, by the looks of things.

We'll take a short break. When we come back, forget the fake news. Instead, let's focus on fake hues (ph). Why an art institute is calling President Trump's Renoir a re-knockoff.




VAUSE: There is one thing the U.S. president does not like, it's fake news. But this time it's not the news which is fake. Instead it's a famous painting he claims is an original. Here's CNN Jeanne Moos.



TRUMP: Fake news.

MOOS (voice-over): -- we're talking about fake art.

Is that really a Renoir in the president's Trump Tower apartment?

Visible in the background as Melania did an interview.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What a noation (ph) What does he get mad about?

What does he like?


MOOS (voice-over): Back when Tim O'Brien was writing his book, "Trump Nation: The Art of being The Donald," the Renoir was hanging in Trump's plane.

TIM O'BRIEN, BIOGRAPHER: And I asked him about the painting and Donald said, that's an original Renoir. And I said, no, it's not, Donald. And he said, that's the original. That's an original Renoir.

I said, Donald, it's not. I grew up in Chicago. That Renoir is called "Two Sisters on a Terrace" and it's hanging on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago.

MOOS (voice-over): The Art Institute confirms it's been there since it was donated by this art collector in 1933. The Institute told the "Chicago Tribune," "We are satisfied that our version is real."

Now the president's Renoir is being referenced in quotes, called a fake in various languages, the butt of jokes.

"His is signed by Wrenwahr, so it's all good."

MOOS: Next thing you know, the painting was popping up all over.

"Hey, I have one, too. Got mine at the gift shop in Art Institute of Chicago."

Before the election, "Two Sisters on a Terrace" hovered over a "60 Minutes" interview.

TRUMP: He's entitled to make a mistake every once in a while.

Theorized one poster, "Without a doubt, Trump bought a forgery but the master huckster can never admit he was swindled."

Biographer Tim O'Brien had a different take.

O'BRIEN: He believes his own lies.

MOOS (voice-over): Remember the bogus magazine discovered on the walls of Trump golf clubs?

Someone tweeted about the painting.

"Was it hanging next to his fake "Time" magazine cover?"

It is now. Somebody's been framed -- Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE) VAUSE: Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm John Vause. Please stay with us. "WORLD SPORT" is up next. Then I will be back with another hour of news from around the world. You're watching CNN.