Return to Transcripts main page


Iran Defends Presence of Troops in Syria; Korean Diplomacy; Oxfam Denies Cover-up in Prostitution Scandal; President Expresses Sympathy for Ex-Staffers Accused of Assault; Day 2 Action Underway at Winter Games. Aired 12-12:30a ET

Aired February 11, 2018 - 00:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Tensions running high after the downing of an Israeli jet. Iran, Israel and Syria trade accusations. We will be live in Jerusalem.

North Korea's master stroke. Did Pyongyang drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea? The American vice president says no. I'll ask my guest.

And the weather hasn't been doing the Olympic Games any favors. We will see if everyone is getting back on track, literally, on Sunday.

Great to have you with us. I'm Cyril Vanier at the CNN Center here in Atlanta.


VANIER: So let's start with this developing news out of the Middle East. The sequence of events here is crucial so bear with me. It's a little complicated. Israel says it launched attacks on Iranian targets in Syria after the downing of one of its jets.

The F-16 was hit by Syrian fire Saturday and crashed in Israel. It was returning at the time from a raid on what Israel says was an Iranian command center located in Syria. That attack was apparently a retaliation by Israel, which says an Iranian drone had entered its airspace.

CNN's Ian Lee in the Golan Heights recaps the full story.


IAN LEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A thermal camera tracks a drone in the early morning hours. Israeli officials say it is Iranian and gives the series of events.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

LEE (voice-over): The command to shoot comes after it penetrates Israel's airspace. An attack helicopter giving the final blow. The unmanned drone originated near Palmyra in Syria at an Iranian base called T4, that according to Israeli officials.

Eight fighter jets scrambled to take out the command and control center. They encountered heavy Syrian antiaircraft fire, triggering sirens across Northern Israel and the Golan Heights.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Before 5 o'clock in the morning, we hear the sirens, two sirens. We take -- I take my wife and my children. We take them to the shelter and then we hear -- sometimes we hear airplanes in the air.

LEE (voice-over): Amid the heavy fire an F-16 crashes. The pilot and copilot eject safely, one seriously injured. The other lightly. A helicopter takes the pilot to a hospital. Israel's military says this is the first plane they've lost in combat in decades.

In retaliation, Israel launches another wave of airstrikes, targeting both Syrian and Iranian positions, including antiaircraft batteries. Israel's prime minister had this message for Iran.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: Israel holds Iran and its Syrian hosts responsible for today's aggression. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect our sovereignty and our security.

LEE (voice-over): The incident, raising tensions in the Golan Heights to a new level.

LEE: Israeli leaders have been watching the ongoing civil war in Syria just right over there for years. One thing that concerns them the most is someday, when they are looking over this frontier, they'll see Iranian soldiers looking back.

LEE (voice-over): Israeli officials have warned against an Iranian military buildup in Syria and Israeli warplanes have launched dozens of strikes on advanced weapons targets over recent years.

For its part, Iran is warning Israel against further military action, calling the downing of an Iranian drone "ridiculous." Iran's foreign ministry saying Iran has a legitimate right to be in Syria.

His latest clash could mark a turning point with Israel's long-enjoyed air supremacy in the region taking a hit -- Ian Lee, CNN, in the Golan Heights.


VANIER: CNN's Oren Liebermann is in Jerusalem.

Oren, since the since the start of the Syrian civil war, have we ever come this close to a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is as close as it has ever gotten, Cyril. Normally the confrontations between Israel and Iran are Israel, according to foreign media reports strikes a weapons shipment destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is an Iranian proxy. This is much closer than that. Israel and Iran almost directly

engaging each other on Syrian soil, perhaps not directly engaging but we should say indirectly engaging. It is important to note the Iranian response, which is that the accusation that it's Iranian, an Iranian drone is too ridiculous to be assessed, they say they're just Syrian soil helping Iranians.

Regardless of if that is true or not, this is the highest tensions levels have gotten between Israel and Iran in quite some time and certainly since the start of the Syrian civil war. These are not two countries that get along so it is always tense there.

But as Ian just pointed out, this now appears to be a new level. And the critical question is, what --


LIEBERMANN: -- happens over the next 24 hours -- Cyril.

VANIER: Yes, everyone has escalated their military response here: Syria, Iran, Israel. So now they're at a crossroads.

Do you keep escalating this or do you contain the conflict?

Where do you see this going?

LIEBERMANN: We were looking for a couple of different things to see if they happened overnight. Remember we're still in that critical first short period. So even if it does not happen right now, there is still quite a bit of time and I'll have a much better response to where does this go at the end of the day.

We were looking for any move from Hezbollah in Lebanon. We did not see any. We were looking for any move from Hamas in Gaza to see if there's any coordination there. We didn't see any.

Critically the Russian response, urging all sides to calm down here. Russia has tremendous leverage over both Israel and Iran in the Middle East so they would be a critical factor in trying to ease the situation here.

And when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put out his statement late last night, on Saturday night, discussing the day's events, one of the things he pointed out in Hebrew is he has spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin, restated his position and then the Russians put out their own statement, saying we want everyone to calm down here.

If it does not escalate, I would say the Russians are a key part of that. And now we're back to seeing where this goes, seeing if it does escalate. At the moment, over the last few hours, there has been no rhetoric that we have seen and no moves that we've seen but we're still in the early stages here -- Cyril.

VANIER: Oren Liebermann, reporting from Jerusalem, it's just a little after 7:00 in the morning local time where you are. We will see, as you say, how it develops throughout the day. Thanks. Let's follow our Olympic diplomacy watch that we've been on all week.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is back in Washington now after visiting South Korea for the Olympic Games.

On his way back he said there is, quote, "no daylight between the United States, South Korea and Japan" with respect to North Korea. Also a senior ministration official addressed one of the more awkward moments of the opening ceremony, when the vice president found himself just meters away from the North Korean envoy. So the official says the vice president purposely ignored the North Korean delegation at the opening ceremonies.

Elise Labott reports.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The vice president wrapped up a six-day swing through Asia, watching the start of Olympic Games. The vice president watched a speed skating competition with South Korean president Moon where American and Korean athletes were both competing.

But the goodwill spirit of the games has been somewhat overshadowed by the propaganda battle between the U.S. and North Korea here in PyeongChang.

Pence's visit to the region this week, in addition to hosting the U.S. delegation, was about trying to deny North Korea a propaganda victory for its decision to participate in the games.

On Friday, Pence attended the opening ceremony of the Olympics in PyeongChang and of course all eyes were on the picture of the vice president, sitting just feet away from the North Korean delegation, which included Kim Jong-un's sister, Kim Yo-jong.

There was a lot of speculation about whether Pence would meet with the North Korean officials and he didn't rule it out but in the end there was no interaction either at the opening ceremony or the reception beforehand.

Now neither the vice president nor the Korean delegation made an overture towards the other, both rebuffing South Korean President Moon's efforts to bring them together.

The U.S. has been wary about South Korean President Moon's efforts at what he calls Olympic diplomacy, trying to use the games as a way to engage the North. Pence wants to keep the focus on North Korea's nuclear and missile threat and its human rights abuses.

So we went to Tokyo and Seoul to emphasize the strength of the military alliances with those countries and he met with North Korean defectors, now North Korean media is slamming Pence for his tough rhetoric, essentially saying, when you come to someone's party as a guest, you should just enjoy it.

Vice President Pence said he did not want North Korea hijacking the games. But the excitement here about North and South Korean athletes marching together and competing together, the visit of Kim's sister, President Moon hosting her for lunch and now an invite by Kim Jong-un for President Moon to come to Pyongyang, all very powerful symbols to compete with -- Elise Labott, CNN, PyeongChang, South Korea.


VANIER: Let's go further on this. Robert Kelly is associate professor of political science at Pusan National University.

Robert, let us talk about this "no daylight" claim. John Kelly says the U.S. and South Korea are on the same wavelength. Yet the U.S. wants to continue to isolate North Korea while Seoul -- we just saw this -- has accepted an invitation to North Korea.

So no daylight between the two, really?

ROBERT KELLY, PUSAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: Yes, that's sort of a diplomatic term right that sort of is intended to paper over what are obvious differences. Yes, I think you're correct. I think it's pretty clear that at the elite level, at the very top, they're pretty big differences between what Donald Trump and the United States and Moon Jae-in on South Korea think about how to approach North Korea.

That said, I actually don't think the breach is --


KELLY: -- that wide. I think there's been sort of a significant overplaying of this. There have been all sorts of issues between the Americans and South Koreans going back over the 70-year history of the alliance.

I do not think that the Olympics is actually really such a big deal. But Donald Trump is very unpopular in Korea. And the North Koreans see that and I think they've stepped into that breach and it's sort of a smart move on their part.

They stepped into the breach between Moon and Trump and they're trying to widen it.

VANIER: By the way, I said it was John Kelly who made that "no daylight" quote. Obviously that's a mistake. I misspoke. That came from U.S. vice president Mike Pence.

Listen, isn't it harder for the U.S. to deal with this version of North Korea, when they are actually engaging diplomatically with their neighbor?

KELLY: Well, it's a little bit trickier, of course, for the Trump administration because of the Trump rhetoric from last year, fire and fury and the rest of it. That puts Trump in a tough position but ultimately it is best for the Americans and I think for everybody if the South Koreans really take ownership of North Korea and figure out how to deal with it right. The South Koreans are culturally closer obviously. Right this is ultimately an inter-Korean issue and should really be resolved by them.

It is good that they are talking, certainly talking is better than where we were six months ago, when people thought we were on the verge of a major conflict.

Ultimately, I think the Americans kind of take the back seat and let the South Koreans pilot this thing. The problem is that for a year the South Koreans really didn't participate at all and Trump, with this instinct for attention and megalomania, I suppose, just kind of stepped into it and turned North Korea into this enormous issue.

And now the South Koreans are trying to fight their way back in and I think that is where a lot of this tension is coming from. If the South Koreans had pushed back on Trump earlier, we would not be here.

VANIER: If you look at the bigger picture, ultimately, nobody thinks that North Korea is going to abandon its nuclear weapons program now, so --

KELLY: Right.

VANIER: -- is there any advantage in this sort of appeasement that we are seeing?

KELLY: Discussion with North Korea does open up possibilities of some kind of deal that could help normalize things. I would not call it appeasement, either. The South Koreans haven't really made any kind of major concession to North Korea.

Allowing the North Koreans to come to the Olympics isn't a concession. Going to Pyongyang isn't a concession. Ultimately Moon, you know, if he were to like make some kind of like major concession on North Korea, he would face crushing criticism from a conservative press here in South Korea and also from the United States.

So I don't actually think it is appropriate to characterize it that way.


VANIER: -- is there any advantage to these -- to these overtures, into these symbolic acts?

KELLY: Sure, to the extent that they encourage both sides to maybe a little more generous in negotiations and actually make some kind of deal because they're feeling some kind of inter-Korean spirit from the Olympics or something, that could help.

But I do not actually think it's going to happen either. I would be very surprised if in three or four months we're not in fact where we normally are and the North Koreans are screaming about American exercises in South Korea and South Koreans are screaming about North Korean missile launches.

The likelihood of this is actually going to lead to some kind of breakthrough is actually much, much less than the press has made it out to be.

VANIER: All right, Robert Kelly, thank you so much going on the show.

KELLY: Thanks.

VANIER: Aid agency Oxfam is facing allegations that some of its senior employees paid for sex in Haiti. Now apparently this occurred shortly after the earthquake there in 2010.

An investigation by "The Times" newspaper alleges Oxfam covered up the alleged sexual misconduct. "The Times" also says a confidential Oxfam report found that -- this is a direct quote -- "Children may have been among those sexually exploited by aid workers."

Now CNN has not independently reviewed the reports and the aid agency says allegations involving underage sex workers were never proven. British government officials say Oxfam did not inform them of the sexual allegations involving minors; Oxfam is also denying a cover-up and it says it launched an internal investigation as soon as it learned about the allegations.

The aid agency says four staff members were dismissed and three others resigned.

Still ahead on CNN NEWSROOM, President Trump has given short shrift to accusations of domestic abuse against two former White House staffers.

Does he really believe that these allegations have no merit?

We'll take a look.





VANIER: Two White House aides who quit last week over allegations of domestic abuse still have the sympathy of the U.S. president. Donald Trump lamented in a tweet, quote, "People's lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation."

Former staffers, Rob Porter and David Sorenson, both deny the accusations against them but their denials don't square with detailed testimonies from their alleged victims. Porter's first wife released this photo of a black eye that she alleges he gave her in 2005.

Daniel Lippman joins me now, co-author of "Politico's" daily newsletter, "Playbook."

Daniel, Mr. Trump in his tweet describes the allegations of abuse as, quote, "mere allegations." And I just want to make it clear to our viewers that we now know these allegations have been looked into thoroughly. You can't just treat them as random hearsay at this stage.

DANIEL LIPPMAN, "POLITICO": Yes, the FBI and their background checks for Mr. Porter, because he had that senior White House job, they looked into these allegations. They found them highly credible. And that made it harder for him to get a permanent security clearance.

And so they haven't been adjudicated in a court of law but when these highly trained, highly skilled FBI investigators have found that they weren't just made up, that lends more credence than just hearsay.

VANIER: And it's what help up Rob Porter's security clearance.

LIPPMAN: Yes, because those allegations were not public and Rob Porter, who had access to highly sensitive intelligence in his job, since he was the man managing the paper flow to the president, that made it -- opened him up to blackmail because someone could threaten him and say, well, we're going to reveal all this damaging information on you unless you do X.

VANIER: So to follow the logic here, the president is presented with a case where he's told your own FBI -- they spent a year looking into this and they deemed it so credible that actually they held up this guy's security clearance.

The president -- and if the president doesn't deem that at least credible, then that means there's apparently no such thing as a credible accuser for Donald Trump. That means a woman bringing a credible accusation of abuse or misconduct against a man.

Why can't he conceive of that?

LIPPMAN: So Trump himself on Friday, when he spoke up for Mr. Porter, he wished him well and he didn't actually talk about the female accusers. He didn't say hope they're doing OK. And I think the reason why is that Trump himself has been accused of sexual assault in the past.

And if he criticizes his own staff for their conduct with women, then that opens him up to charges about his personal life.

And so he really can't be seen as condemning women or it looks hypocritical.

VANIER: So that's what I wanted to get to, is he in a political trap here?

Each time accusations surface, whoever the accused is, he has to side with the accused; otherwise, he could be seen as undermining his own case.

Is that what's going on?

LIPPMAN: I think that's an element of it. I think he worked with Porter for the last year. He really respected him and even Democrats like Porter's professionalism in his job at the White House. He was one of the adults in the room.

So it's sad to see him go but when you abuse your wives in such a violent manner, that opens you up to questions about your own personal character and your judgment. And so I think Trump himself, he doesn't want to concede and --


LIPPMAN: -- any of his staffers and because he hired them. So he doesn't want it to look like he actually hired people who were wife beaters.

VANIER: All right, Daniel Lippman, it appears that the #MeToo movement has not penetrated the walls of the White House. Daniel, thank you so much for joining us today.

LIPPMAN: Thanks for having me.

VANIER: And we've got a lot more ahead on CNN NEWSROOM. Take a look at this.


DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Coming up after the break, we are going to talk to Olympian Erin Simmons from Snowbird Cross. You are not going to want to miss this.




VANIER: All right. To the Winter Games now in PyeongChang, South Korea, six medal events are scheduled for Sunday and the early medal tally is Germany currently has the lead with two golds.

CNN "WORLD SPORT's" Amanda Davies joins me now from PyeongChang.

Amanda, tell us, what is going on?

AMANDA DAVIES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Cyril. Yes, Sunday was actually a day that was meant to see seven golds decided. But that is now only going to be six because of the winds, which I'm pretty sure you'll be able to see and hear behind me.

It is brutal today so there's no surprise that one of the blue ribbon events of the games has been canceled. That was the men's downhill. The course is a good deal higher than where we are here.

And the high winds on the slopes forced the organizers to reschedule just hours before the start. It's pretty tough on the skiers, who woke up for what for many of them would have been the biggest day of their sporting careers.

But those on the alpine circuit are used to it and Keitel Yansrud (ph), one of the skiers, has actually tweeted, saying, "Downhill canceled due to strong winds. It's imperative with fair conditions and I applaud the decision. Thanks, FIS Alpine @Olympics."

The wind didn't affect 17-year-old U.S. sensation Red Gerard, though. He flew through the air to take gold in the snowboard slope style, competing in his first Olympics. Gerard did make a couple of mistakes in his first two runs but he very much pulled it out of the bag in this third to claim the USA's first gold of the games, a really dramatic finish, though, with Gerard just getting the better of two Canadians who were hot on his heels.

Max Parrot, who took silver and the comeback king, Mark McMorris, who suffered a near-fatal accident just last March. He has bounced back in a great way to take bronze. It's a huge day in the men's speed skating and the luge competition as well.

Plenty to be talking about on the next edition of "WORLD SPORT," which is on air in about 10 minutes or so.

But as things stand, Cyril, yes, as you say, it's Germany who topped the medal table with two golds.

VANIER: Amanda Davies in PyeongChang, good to hear from you. Thank you very much for the recap. And by the way, this is the largest Winter Games in history, more than 100 events scheduled. That means that some of the lesser-known sports, of which there are quite a few, often get overlooked. One of them is snowboard cross.

So our Derek Van Dam, who always finds a good gig in this building, took a look at the sport. He got some lessons from a medal-winning pro.


DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: We are in the presence of greatness here.

I am totally intimidated just to be standing next to you.

This is Erin Simmons, an Olympian from Steamboat Springs. Erin competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics, world championships and multiple X Games as a snowboard cross athlete. She's even taken home some hardware.


VAN DAM: OK, and any medals?

SIMMONS: Three silver medals.

VAN DAM: Where are those now?

SIMMONS: Almost gold. They're in a little case at home.

VAN DAM (voice-over): Turin, Italy, was the first time that snowboard cross was introduced to the Olympics. SIMMONS: It was the inaugural year for snowboard cross, super fun.

VAN DAM (voice-over): The sport involves up to six athletes racing down a narrow, undulating course --


VAN DAM (voice-over): -- with the objective to reach the finish line first. Of course, it's a lot harder than she makes it look.

VAN DAM: Can you give me a couple tips and inside info?

SIMMONS: Mainly stay low, controlled, you know, parallel with your board.

We're checking out every feature, what we feel might be the best line, coming in to it, going off of it, connecting to the next feature. You basically are trying to absorb stuff and pump down the other side.

You want to land about here.

VAN DAM (voice-over): With Olympian training and 20 years experience under my belt, it was time to find out if I had what it takes to be a snowboard cross athlete.

SIMMONS: One, two, three, go.

There you go, nice.

Up. Stay on top. Come down.

VAN DAM: Whoo!




SIMMONS: You did it.


VAN DAM (voice-over): I think I'll leave this one to the pros.


VANIER: You looked awesome, man. Yes, good gig.

VAN DAM: I was nervous because I'm not used to riding down a course with jumps --


VANIER: Oh, come on. That looked easy. VAN DAM: I seek out deep, fresh, powdery snow and that was far from it, trust me. She even told me how physical the start line can get. She's actually collided midair in some of her competitions, back in the X Games. It's just incredible that these men and women who do the downhill snowboard cross and they really just -- because it's such a narrow course they really get into it.


VANIER: Can I say something that says something about my human nature and the mean spirit inside me?

I thought -- I hoped you were going to fall --


VAN DAM: You wanted me, you know. So were the producers and the camera men, too, but I didn't.

VANIER: So you did awesome.


VANIER: Thank you very much. Thanks for watching. Quick break. Headlines next.