Return to Transcripts main page


U.N. Imposes New Sanctions On North Korea; U.S. President Signs 500-Page Tax Cut into Law; Severe Weather Claims 39 Lives in Philippines; Two Palestinians Killed during "Day of Rage"; San Francisco Terror Plot Thwarted; SpaceX Launch Lights Up the Sky. Aired 12-12:30a ET

Aired December 23, 2017 - 00:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Tighter sanctions: the United Nations votes to strangle North Korea's oil supply.

Also U.S. President Donald Trump signs a sweeping new tax law.

Plus, head to head, the vote that solved nothing. Catalonia's political stalemate looks set to continue.

Hi, everyone, I'm Cyril Vanier, live from CNN HQ here in Atlanta. Thank you for joining us.


VANIER: "An unprecedented response to an unprecedented challenge," U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley's words as the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose even more sanctions on North Korea.

The move comes in response to the rogue nation's latent ballistic missile test. The new sanctions will further strangle the North's energy supplies, making it harder for Pyongyang to create weapons. The U.N. is also tightening restrictions on smuggling and the use of North Korean worker overseas.

U.S. president Donald Trump has tweeted, "The United Nations Security Council just voted, 15-0, in favor of additional sanctions on North Korea. The world wants peace, not death."

Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott explains how the impact of these sanctions largely comes down to one country.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: I think that one of the things President Trump in particular has been looking for is for U.N. member states to cut oil shipments to North Korea. And when we say U.N. member states, right, we really mean China because China gives North Korea -- I think it might even be 90 percent of its oil supply.

And so I think key here is that China agreed to these sanctions; Russia, who also, you know, has ties to the regime and who takes a lot of these foreign workers, about 40,000 foreign workers, I think, are in Russia, they have to be out of all these countries by the end of the year.

I think the fact that Russia signed out is very significant and I do think this could potentially be a gamechanger, if these countries actually implement the sanctions.


VANIER: North Korea was already fuming over the new national security strategy in the U.S. It identifies North Korea as a major threat and levies one accusation that Pyongyang strongly denied, development of a biological weapons program. Our Brian Todd has more on this.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kim Jong-un's regime using some of its favorite phrases to insult President Trump, calling him "gangster-like" and "arrogant."

Pyongyang was upset over the President's new national security strategy, a document which highlights what the U.S. sees as North Korea's desire for a missile program able to quote "kill millions of Americans with nuclear weapons," a threat the President promises to counter.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It will be taken care of. We have no choice.

TODD: But now Kim's regime is firing back with its own accusation that the quote "gang of Trump" is seeking to invade and control North Korea by starting a nuclear war. All of this just weeks before the winter Olympics start in South Korea.

KELLY MAGSAMEN, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We are all in a place of pretty heightened tensions over the past year. And I think as we are looking at the Olympics and beyond the Olympics, especially when the United States begin its military exercises again into the March and April time frame, the potential for escalation is pretty high.

TODD: But it's not just nuclear arms that are escalating tensions. The new Trump security plans says Kim's regime is also pursuing chemical and biological weapons which quote "could be delivered by missile."

South Korean government reports recently cited by Harvard University saying North Korea has 13 types of biological agents which it can weaponize within 10 days if Kim makes the decision to do that. The reports say anthrax and smallpox are the most likely agents that North Korea would deploy.

Could anthrax be deployed on a long missile could work and could it kill a lot of people?

ANDREW WEBER, FORMER ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: Yes. The Soviet Union did have warheads that were designed for biological weapons, long range missiles like the SS-18.

But it's really not necessary. You could deliver an anthrax attack in Los Angeles or Miami or New York covertly and have strategic impact and kill tens and thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people.

TODD: It is impossible to know for sure if North Korea is creating these types of weapons because the regime is difficult to penetrate and intelligence is limited. And the U.S. intelligence community has been wrong about chemical and biological weapons in the past, including in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Still, experts who study North Korea point to what they say is troubling evidence, including these photographs from two years ago as Kim toured the Pyongyang --


TODD: -- biotechnical institute which the North Koreans claim manufactures pesticides.

But some machinery on display raise alarm among WMD experts. Equipment such as these silver tanks which experts say are industrial- scale fermenters capable of producing anthrax on a large scale along with other machinery used to convert biological agents in sprayable form.

Andrew Weber track biological weapons for decades at the Pentagon.

Let's say a thumb-nail size quantity of anthrax, how many people could that kill from just the sprayer?

WEBER: Delivered in the right condition, that could kill thousands, maybe, even over 10,000 people.

TODD: From a sprayer in an urban environment?

WEBER: Absolutely.

TODD: Millions of South Koreans and tens of thousands of American troops in South Korea could be vulnerable to that kind of biological attack and using biological weapons could give Kim Jong-un one other advantage. Experts say it's much harder to trace who used a biological weapon than it is to trace a nuclear weapon. This week, North Korea put out a statement denying that it has a biological weapons program -- Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: The Republican tax cut bill that was rushed through Congress in recent weeks is now the law of the land here in the U.S.

Donald Trump signed the massive document on Friday at the White House. Critics say the legislation that was passed without any support from Democrats is heavily weighted in favor of corporations and the wealthy. The president explained why he decided to sign it now rather than wait for the New Year.


TRUMP: We were going to wait until January 7th or 8th and do a big formal ceremony, but every one of the networks was saying, will he keep his promise, will he sign it for Christmas, before Christmas?

And so I immediately called. I said, let's get it ready.

As you know, $3.2 trillion in tax cuts for American families, including the doubling of the standard deduction and the doubling of the child tax credit. The typical family of four earning $75,000 will see an income tax cut of more than $2,000.


VANIER: After the signing, the president immediately flew to Florida to spend the holiday at his Mar-a-lago resort. As you can see, he posed to chat with supporters who greeted him at the airport in West Palm Beach upon arrival.

Let's bring in Jessica Levinson, professor of law and governance at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Jessica, thanks for coming on. Donald Trump promised tax reform during the campaign. He promised it after being elected and here it.

After so many setbacks and controversies during his first year in office, does this put his presidency back on track?

JESSICA LEVINSON, LOYOLA LAW SCHOOL: I think that it would take a lot more than a tax bill to put his president back on track because there are so many other things that are happening domestically and abroad.

But I think that it's unquestionable that this is a big win for the Trump administration. This is the biggest overhaul of the tax system in the U.S. since 1986, when President Reagan overhauled the tax system. And it's a big win for corporations.

And I think that again President Trump was really looking for any type of legislative victory, anything specific or concrete he could point to in his first year in office. Until today, there really wasn't anything there, except a lot of false starts.

VANIER: As you say, the tax code hasn't been overhauled since 1986. That's more than three decades.

Doesn't this bolster Mr. Trump's case that he's a doer, that he's somebody who can get things done that others haven't been able to do?

LEVINSON: Well, I think the fact that he accomplished something bolsters his case that he can get things done. But I think accomplishing one thing out of the many, many things that he promises, doesn't necessarily seal the deal.

So I don't think that this is a case closed. I think that this is something that the establishment Republicans have wanted to do for a long time and I think that the Senate and the House clearly were very much behind him. And that's why he was able to accomplish something.

I think it's no question it is going to be something that the administration points to as a big victory. But it's one slice of a much bigger pie.

VANIER: Next year, 2018, is going to be a key year for the Republican Party, obviously midterm elections. They're going to need to run on this as one of their main achievements of 2017. Yet this bill right now, according to all the polling, is very unpopular with Americans.

So are Republicans going to be able to run on this and sell this or is it actually going to hurt them for next year?

LEVINSON: Well, I think that this bill is tailor-made to help people in the short term. So the individual tax cuts are only in place until 2025. The permanent tax cuts are in place for corporations.

But I think that there are a number of people who will, right before the midterm elections, be thinking about the fact that they may see a decrease in their tax bill and that's not by accident. But in terms of --


LEVINSON: -- what the Republicans will be able to run on in 2018, I'll say, there's just so many unknowns as we sit here today, almost a week before 2017 ends.

We don't know what's going to happen in the Robert Mueller investigation. That could be absolutely a seismic shift in terms of the midterm elections. We don't know what's going to happen abroad.

So I think there are a lot of questions. If you look at history, typically, when you have one party in power, when it's a Republican in the House, in the Senate and in the White House, then Democrats just, if you look at historical shifts, are going to do better. So all of this, I think we really don't know how much of an election talking point it will be.

VANIER: Certainly the Russia investigation still hangs as a massive cloud over this White House. In fact, it should be noted, Donald Trump wanted to hold a press conference after signing this bill to tout his achievement; his advisers were reportedly against it, because they didn't want him to get questions on the Russia investigation.

Jessica Levinson, thank you very much for joining here us on the show.

LEVINSON: Thank you.

VANIER: We're getting breaking news from the Philippines where Reuters News Agency reports that nearly 90 people are dead and dozens are missing after a tropical storm hit the southern part of the county, triggering mudslides and flooding. Officials tell Reuters the casualties were all on the main southern island of Mindanao.


VANIER: Coming up after the break, U.S. officials say they foiled a potentially deadly terror attack. What we know about the suspect when we come back.





VANIER: Palestinian officials say Israeli forces killed two demonstrators during a day of rage protest along the Gaza border. The Israeli military says about 2,000 Palestinians were throwing rocks and setting tires on fire.

It's the latest violence after the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has called the move "illegal" and says he can't accept the U.S.' role in the peace process.

Israel's prime minister meanwhile is celebrating the United States' commitment. CNN spoke exclusively to Benjamin Netanyahu. Take a listen.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: Our position is Jerusalem should remain a united, safe and secure city. Freedom of worship for all faiths which we guarantee. And, by the way, in the Middle East, we're just about the only ones that guarantee this freedom of worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

So, that's my vision of Jerusalem. Now since we have a different vision, they should come and negotiate.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Are you willing to negotiate Jerusalem?

NETANYAHU: I'm willing to put my position forward. They will put their position forward. That's what negotiations are for.


VANIER: We'll bring you more of CNN's exclusive interview with Israel's prime minister in the coming hours. So stay tuned for that.

Meanwhile, the U.S. authorities say they've foiled a terror attack in the state California. The accuse a former Marine of planning an attack in San Francisco and expressing support for ISIS. He allegedly said that Christmas was the perfect day to carry out his plot. CNN's Jessica Schneider has more.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The FBI has thwarted a plot that targeted San Francisco around the holidays. Authorities say Everitt Aaron Jameson was plotting to stage an attack on Pier 39 in San Francisco sometime over the Christmas holiday.

And the FBI agents who were tracking him online say he was modeling his planned attack on those over the past few years, including San Bernardino and most recently in New York City.

In fact, Jameson voiced his support for that truck attack in New York City on October 31st. That was when eight people were killed on a bike path.

And then the complaint says Jameson recently became a tow truck driver in his hometown of Modesto, California, leading to concerns that he could attempt that same time of attack that we saw in New York City.

The criminal complaint also details the letter that authorities found inside his home under a search warrant this week.

The letter said things like, "You all brought this upon yourselves and you've allowed Donald J. Trump to give away Al Quds to the Jews," that's a reference to Jerusalem.

Also he said, "We have penetrated and infiltrated your disgusting country."

Now top officials here in the U.S. have been warning as recently as last month about danger of a possible uptick in ISIS-inspired attacks right here in the U.S., especially with the collapse of the Islamic State's caliphate.

The FBI did a search of Jameson's home in Modesto, California, that's just 90 miles from San Francisco and they found firearms, empty magazines, ammunition and fireworks. Jameson is now in custody -- Jessica Schneider, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: Still to come, there's no easy way out of Spain's worst political crisis in decades. We'll discuss after the break.





VANIER: So this sight startled residents from California to Arizona on Friday night. Many assumed it was aliens but the white plume across the sky was actually SpaceX's final rocket launch of the year, it was carrying 10 satellites into orbit for SpaceX customer Iridium which operates sat phones and other such services.

Any hopes Thursday's elections in Catalonia would resolve divisions within Spain's central government and within the region are being rapidly dashed. Pro-independent parties won an absolute majority in parliament, breathing even more life into the separatist movement.

On Friday, Spain's prime minister dismissed a call from the former Catalan leader to talk about the country's future. But Carles Puigdemont says now is the time for all sides to work together.


CARLES PUIGDEMONT, CATALONIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I am open to meet the prime minister in another country in the E.U., I'm ready to do it because we should discuss the new political era that is beginning in Catalonia, in the Spanish state and in Europe.

It should be an era of political solutions and not by judicial repression, which is this delirious repression in which they he entered.


VANIER: The prime minister called Thursday's vote with the hopes the separatist movement. That failed. Now he's under pressure to resolve Spain's worst political crisis in decades.


MARIANO RAJOY, SPANISH PRIME MINISTER (through translator): I will make an effort to maintain a dialogue with whatever government comes out of these elections in Catalonia but as I have said, I will also make an effort so that the law is followed.

And it is good that I remind you of that. I hope there's a government that abandons the unilateral decisions and does not place itself above the law.


VANIER: Let's discuss this with our European affairs commentator today, Dominic Thomas.

Dominic, Mariano Rajoy refuses to talk directly to Carles Puigdemont, the face of this push for independence in Catalonia. But he's been down this road of intransigence before and it didn't resolve the crisis.

So what are the Spanish prime minister's options now?

DOMINIC THOMAS, CNN EUROPEAN AFFAIRS COMMENTATOR: The situation is absolutely remarkable. In fact, it's putting into question the suitability of Prime Minister Rajoy as the primary interlocutor in this particular crisis, because his hope, of course, was that the new regional snap election would return a very different government. And it did not do that. Not only did that not happen but a

remarkable, historically high, 82 percent of Catalonians weighed in on this election. And whether or not they weighed in favor of the separatist parties or not, I think the message was quite clear, that they feel like they can handle the democratic issues in this particular part of the country themselves.

So the unwillingness of the prime minister to speak to Carles Puigdemont, who, let's not forget, did extraordinarily well himself in this election and his political party, even though he was abroad in Brussels, in self-exile, came in second and, along with the two other separatist parties, were able to get a majority in the parliament.

Though, of course, not an absolute majority in the sense of the popular vote and that has left even greater ambiguity around this particular issue.

VANIER: What are the options for the separatists now?

Because they're taking a different tack than what we were seeing a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago they held a referendum and then they declared independence unilaterally. Now they're saying, let's talk, let's try dialogue, let's try politics.

THOMAS: They have said that in the past, that they wanted to try dialogue.


THOMAS: What has changed, essentially the configuration of the parliament remains about the same. The popular vote is not the separatists but the separatists hold the parliamentary majority.

But rather than being one unified party, they're now divided into three factions. So we do have some uncertainty as they go forward as to whether or not they will be able to reach consensus on how it is they would like to go into negotiations.

And let's not forget that Rajoy has not really said he's completely open to speaking to any representation in the parliament. He's very much underlining the fact that the party that came out ahead in this particular election, though without a majority, was one of the constitutionalist unionist parties.

So this remains a little bit unclear. What one could hope for is that, if some kind of negotiation can take place, it may be possible and this could arguably be the only outcome here, to revisit the relationship of the region to the central government and to address some of the real discrepancies between these different regions over infrastructure and taxation. And that might be the way forward.

But before that takes place, we need to resolve the absolutely, you know, glaring problem here, which is the fact that Carles Puigdemont finds himself in self-exile and Junqueras, the leader of the other independence party, ERC, is currently sitting in jail in Spain.

VANIER: Just quickly, in the meantime, who is actually running the region?

THOMAS: Well, the region is being run out of Madrid. And this will carry on into the New Year, when the results of the election are proclaimed by Prime Minister Rajoy. And at that point, the elected members of parliament will have to sit there.

And they will have to sit there physically. And if they don't, they can replace themselves. But this is what's going to be then important, is that the next stage, is that these parliamentary figures will have to pick a president.

And at that particular juncture, it's going to be extraordinarily difficult with Puigdemont in exile, if indeed he's still there, and Junqueras in prison.

VANIER: Dominic, as always, good to talk to you, my friend. Thank you very much.

THOMAS: Thank you.

VANIER: Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. We're back in just a moment with the headlines. Stay with us.