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Russians Charged with U.S. Election Meddling; Florida School Shooting; Oxfam Denies Cover-up; PyeongChang Olympics 2018. Aired 2- 2:30a ET

Aired February 17, 2018 - 02:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Sprawling charges against Russian citizens reveal major efforts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election. This as the U.S. president visits victims of the Florida school shooting. And the FBI admits it failed to follow up on an important tip about the gunman.

Plus aid agency Oxfam struggles with pay-for-sex allegations in Haiti. CNN is there with the what the foreign minister is saying.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to our viewers around the world. I'm George Howell. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


HOWELL: There is a major development to tell you about in the Russia investigation here in the United States. A federal grand jury has indicted 13 Russian operatives and three Russian entities for their alleged roles in meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Those charges from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, include the following: conspiracy to commit bank fraud, aggravated identity theft and also conspiracy to defraud the United States.

The indictment paints of a picture of an elaborate campaign; part of the goal: to allegedly hurt the candidacy of the Hillary Clinton and to boost the chances of Donald Trump. It says that Russian operatives communicated with unwitting members of the Trump campaign. The U.S. Justice Department made these significant announcements on this on Friday.


ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.


HOWELL: One of the targets of the indictment is the Russian-based group called the Internet Research Agency. Now that group often called a troll farm. CNN's Matthew Chance takes a look into how it allegedly sowed the seeds of discord in the United States.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In May 2016, a small group of anti-Islamic protesters gathered outside a Muslim community center in the U.S. city of Houston.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Down with the Nazis.

CHANCE (voice-over): Across the street, a counter rally formed. And the two sides hurled abuse in a stark illustration of American division and discord.

The organizers were thousands of miles away, in St. Petersburg, Russia, working for a secretive organization which, according to a recent U.S. indictment, had a strategic goal: to sow discord in the U.S. political system.

Its name, the Internet Research Agency, dubbed the Kremlin troll factory by former employees who smuggled out these rare cell phone images. In 2016, CNN spoke to a Russian journalist who went undercover as an Internet troll there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The U.S. elections are the key issue for the Kremlin. And of course, Russia has invested a lot of effort into them. That's why the troll factories are working, I have no doubt.

CHANCE (voice-over): It was during the Russian-backed rebellion in Ukraine in 2014, that evidence first emerged of pro-Kremlin troll factories, filled with bloggers paid to spread false information online about the conflict. And this is the Russian oligarch, who, according to the U.S. indictment, bankrolled the troll factory operation. Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as Putin's chef, because one of his companies provides catering services to the Kremlin, has denied any guilt.

"Americans are very impressionable people," he told Russian state media. "They see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. I'm not at all upset that I'm on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see one."

But it is the devilish work of Russia's Internet trolls and the social divisions they have incited that the U.S. has now moved firmly against -- Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.


HOWELL: Matthew, thank you so much.

Now for more on how the White House is responding and handling this development, our Jeff Zeleny picks up the story from here.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JEFF ZELENY, CNN SR. WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: President Trump spending the weekend at his presidential retreat in Mar-a-lago, Florida. Now, of course, in the wake of the indictments back in Washington, certainly hanging over the Trump administration once again.

For more than a year, the president has been saying the Russia meddling investigation is a hoax, a witch hunt. That was proven to be not true, at least in the view of the Department of --


ZELENY: -- Justice, handing down 13 indictments in the most sweeping case yet of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Now, of course, the president has said that simply nothing happened. He has recounted the fact when he talked to Vladimir Putin last November in Vietnam during the APEC Summit that he believed Vladimir Putin's denials of any Russian meddling.

But the Department of Justice today said that was simply not the case. They went song and verse in a 37-page sweeping indictment about how the St. Petersburg Internet factory simply meddled in the election, in this U.S. election here. The president though had this to say on Twitter in response.

He said this, "Russia started their anti-U.S. campaign in 2014, long before I announced I would run for president. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong. No collusion."

So certainly President Trump seizing on the fact that he said that there was no suggestion there was collusion. He did not talk about the fact that Russia, indeed, meddled in the election, at least in the view of the Justice Department, which, of course, follows in the line of all of the thinking of the top U.S. intelligence chiefs here in the United States.

So as this goes forward, of course, this is the beginning, not the end of the findings of the Mueller investigation. Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist for the White House, spent more than 20 hours this week alone before Bob Mueller's team.

What was he asked, what did he tell?

That, of course, will come in the days and weeks and months to come perhaps. But the president, for now, spending the weekend here at his retreat in Florida, perhaps playing some golf. But clearly the Russia investigation still weighing on the Trump presidency -- Jeff Zeleny, CNN, West Palm Beach, Florida.



HOWELL: A lot to talk about here and let's break it all down with political analyst Michael Genovese and CNN law enforcement contributor, Steve Moore, both from Los Angeles, with us at this hour.

It's good to have you gentlemen to talk about this indictment. It is extensive, it's granular with fact and detail. It shows how Russian operatives came to America to study the culture, to open social media accounts and to sow discord around this election.

Fair to say it is not a hoax, as the U.S. president has always described it. In fact, let's listen to just a bit of that.


TRUMP: The Russia story is a total fabrication. It's just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics.

This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.

The entire thing has been a witch hunt.

How many times do I have to answer this question?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you just say yes or no on it?

TRUMP: Russia is a ruse.

I've been in office for 11 months. For 11 months they've had this phony cloud over this administration, over our government.

It's a Democrat hoax that was brought up as an excuse for losing an election that, frankly, the Democrats should have won because they have such a tremendous advantage in the electoral college. So it was brought up for that reason.


HOWELL: Again, not a hoax, right?

So with what we know now, Michael, can the White House continue to deny the facts?

MICHAEL GENOVESE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they can and they might, because Donald Trump seems incapable of making that transition. To do so, to say that, yes, the Russians influenced our election, they -- some of our campaign aides were unwitting, perhaps, associates of theirs.

To do that, the president would see his election as delegitimized. And he's a very sensitive person. And so it's not surprising that here's an attack on the United States' democracy but he sees it as an attack on himself. He takes it very personally.

And everything is about Donald Trump. And you would think that finally, with all of this evidence we might see the president say, well, we were attacked, let's defend the United States. Instead, he keeps on defending himself.

HOWELL: Steve, this question to you from the standpoint of the investigation. The indictment suggests there were unwitting members, unwitting members of the Trump campaign, who were contacted by these operatives, pretending to be grassroots groups and conservatives. The key word again, "unwitting members."

It doesn't, though, exactly say how the meddling might have impacted the election.

Are these positives for the White House, in your view?

Or should they not be overly confident at this point?

STEVE MOORE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: I think it's positive in the short term if you consider the fact that the special prosecutor has two objectives here. Number one, to determine whether Russia was involved in interfering with the election, I think this is going to put that to rest.

The second question they have to answer is, did the Trump administration intentionally participate in this?

So in round one, the answer is no, they didn't actively participate in it. However, there was an attempt to influence --


MOORE: -- the election.

So it's a mixed bag for the Trump administration and it is pretty devastating to the Soviet -- I'm Cold War -- the Russians again. But what is interesting to me is there's no -- been no flat denial. If they want to see a devil, let them see a devil. It's -- there's not been a denial.

HOWELL: Michael, same question to you.

GENOVESE: Well, I think the Russians feel that they can meddle with impunity, that the president won't respond. The president is not going to take them on. And so you get comments from Russians that are basically saying, yes, we did it, so what?

None of the people who are indicted would be brought to the United States. There will be no extraditions. They will not be put on trial. But what this does is establishes for the special prosecutor, Mueller, the fact the position that Russians were involved and Russia is -- the Russian question is at stake here.

So the president, if he wants to pull away from the investigation, even fire Mueller, it's going to look very bad. It would look like he's obstructing justice. And so the Russian end has been established and that's, I think -- that changes the arithmetic of this whole equation.

HOWELL: All right, gentlemen, given the detail provided in this indictment, there are many demanding that the president take a more clear position in the U.S. response to Russia. But as of this point, there has been no cabinet level panel to examine

the problem. There have been no methods to discuss, to defend against it in future elections. And the president just recently has refused to enforce the sanctions that were passed in a bipartisan nature against Russia.

Steve, first to you. Given his oath of office, his oath to defend and protect the United States against threats, both foreign and domestic, how much pressure does this indictment, just the details that we've been able to get from it, how much pressure does that put on the White House?

MOORE: It's going to put a lot of pressure on it, because his base are the type of constituents that are going to be most offended by Russian interference in an election. And it wasn't just to -- it wasn't just to elect Donald Trump. It was to cause great consternation in the United States, basically put us at loggerheads.

Trump's base should be very angry about this and they should be talking to their congressmen and senators. And I believe that pressure will come from below and push him into some things.

HOWELL: Steve Moore, thank you so much for your time.

Michael Genovese, we appreciate your insight.

As we continue to read through this indictment and get a little more detail into what the intelligence community, quite frankly, has been saying for a long time this certainly gives a window into a lot of that.

Gentlemen, thank you.


HOWELL: The U.S. president this hour is in the U.S. state of Florida. That's where he took time to mourn the loss of 17 people killed Wednesday in a school mass shooting. Before heading to his resort in Mar-a-lago the president visited a hospital on Friday. He spoke with two of the wounded there.

He said that it is "very sad that something could happen like this." The president there smiling there, giving a thumbs-up, in fact, with some of the officials there. He did he not, however, answer questions about whether changes should be made in gun laws in the United States.

Mr. Trump's visit comes as funerals for the victims begin. Services for Meadow Pollack and Alyssa Alhadeff were held on Friday. As you may remember, Alyssa's mother spoke passionately earlier on CNN. Her gut-wrenching plea, she begged the president to do something about the gun problem in the United States.

As for the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, he plans to plead guilty to the school shootings to avoid the death penalty. This according to his attorney. CNN has also exclusively learned that in a private Instagram chat room

Cruz used racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric and showed an obsession with violence and guns.

And now a troubling word about an apparatus FBI breakdown. It failed to act on a crucial warning that it received that might have helped it to avert tragedy. Our Drew Griffin has details for us.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight a startling admission from the nation's top law enforcement agency. Just six weeks ago, a tipster called the FBI tip line and warned them about the possible school shooter.

The caller provided information, the FBI statement reads, about the shooter's gun ownership desire to kill people, erratic behavior, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.

What did the FBI do? Apparently nothing. In the statement released hours ago, the FBI admits it did not follow protocol. The tip never made it to the Miami Field Office, never made it to the agents who could have possibly followed up.

ROBERT LASKY, FBI SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE, MIAMI DIVISION: On behalf of myself and over 1,000 employees of the Miami Field Office, we truly regret any additional pain that this has caused.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): The attorney general now demanding an investigation. It is just one more warning sign missed on the path the confessed killer was taking that led him to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this past Wednesday. Newly obtained records by CNN show the Broward County sheriff's office was called to the shooter's home more than 30 times since 2010.

In 2016, during one of those calls, an incident report shows deputies and mental health professionals wrote the suspect suffers from mental illness, was seeing a therapist and according to the report, he has mentioned in the past that he would like to purchase a firearm. Despite reports from his mother that he was cutting his arm, a therapist on the scene deemed him to be no threat to anyone or himself at the present time.

Fellow students tell CNN the shooter was strange, constantly acting up in school, getting in fights and eventually expelled. Joshua Charo says he and others felt the danger had passed.

You thought he would never come back to the school?


JOSHUA CHARO, JUNIOR, MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL: I think no one knew he would come back to the school.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Charo, 16 years old, spent a year in ROTC class with the shooter. A student he says that was quiet except when it came to talking about guns.

CHARO: He always liked to talk about guns. He was always asking people what kind of guns were better, if they knew which model worked best for certain hunting activities.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Did he ever talk about hunting?

CHARO: Oh, yes, a lot. He talked about hunting a lot. That and guns were usually the only two things he would talk about when we ever spoke.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Charo says he lost touch with the shooter. Then out of the blue, a message.

CHARO: He requested to follow me on his new Instagram before everything happened, like two or three weeks ago.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): That shooter's Instagram account, like his social media postings, in hindsight, all additional possible warnings. Now in the wake of the mass shooting, police, the FBI, school officials and students wonder what could have been done.


HOWELL: The reporting there from CNN's Drew Griffin.

Drew, thank you.

Still ahead here on NEWSROOM, CNN heads to Haiti to learn more about charity workers accused of using prostitutes while assisting earthquake victims.

Plus Japan dominates the men's figure skating finals to win its first gold at these Winter Olympic Games. The latest from PyeongChang, South Korea, as NEWSROOM pushes ahead.




HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell.

In Mexico, authorities say that the earthquake that struck on Friday caused only property damage; thankfully, no human life was lost. That is a huge relief in that country where hundreds of people died from major earthquakes just last September.

People fled those shaking buildings there in a panic during Friday's 7.2 magnitude quake. The epicenter, less than 400 kilometers from Mexico City. Nearly a million homes and businesses lost power in the capital and in four nearby states. The British charity Oxfam says that it is reviewing the agency's practices, this after several staff members were accused of using prostitutes while deployed in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake relief efforts that were taking place there.

The aid group denies that it tried to cover up their behavior. Our Cyril Vanier spoke to Haiti's foreign minister about the scandal.


CYRIL VANIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Barbed wire, tall walls: this compound is like many others in Port-au-Prince. Yet this is one of the villas at the center of the Oxfam prostitution scandal.

The security guard is edgy. No cameras allowed.


VANIER (voice-over): This apartment --


VANIER (voice-over): -- complex was rented by British aid agency Oxfam back in 2010 at the height of the earthquake relief effort. And Oxfam confirmed to CNN it is one of two locations in Port-au-Prince where their staff brought prostitutes.

We spoke to neighboring store owners who were here at the time. Some of the vendors, like Joel Charles (ph), knew NGOs like Oxfam were staying in the area. But Joel (ph) says he was surprised to hear of the allegations.

The man of the center of it all left the country seven years ago. Roland Van Hauwermeiren, a Belgian national. He ran Oxfam's operations in Haiti during the earthquake. In an internal investigation, he admitted bringing prostitutes to his personal villa but those details were not made public at the time.

He was forced to resign in 2011. "The Times" newspaper in London first reported the allegations and CNN has been unable to reach Roland Van Hauwermeiren for comment. On Thursday, he spoke to Flemish media and hit out at what he calls "exaggerations."

ROLAND VAN HAUWERMEIREN, FORMER OXFAM HAITI OPERATIONS DIRECTOR (through translator): I don't feel good about the people who, of course, are told by perhaps less professional journalists that Oxfam is an instrument that keeps sex orgies with the money from good civilians. That is really not true.

VANIER (voice-over): Back in Haiti, authorities are launching their own investigation to find out exactly what happened. The foreign minister tells me he hopes it will lead to arrests and ultimately prosecution.

Prosecuted where?

ANTONIO RODRIGUE, HAITIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): A Haitian court, a Haitian court because the alleged actions were committed in Haiti and it involves Haitian women. So definitely a Haitian court. VANIER (voice-over): Mr. Rodrigue also says Oxfam is not currently in danger of being expelled from the country.

At a public park in Port-au-Prince, emotions are mixed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): From what I'm hearing about the NGOs, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the youth, they are poor and living miserably. And if things don't change, it will always be the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It's something that's not good for the country.

VANIER (voice-over): Exploitation is a word we heard a lot here, after a string of scandals involving NGOs in recent years, Haitians feel let down by aid groups.

RODRIGUE (through translator): These people who came to help, they profited from the misery, the vulnerability, its abuse, its exploitation. What happened is horrible.

VANIER (voice-over): Cyril Vanier, CNN, Port-au-Prince.


HOWELL: Cyril, thank you so much.

Still ahead, a surprising win in an Olympic skiing event by the only athlete at these games competing in two separate sports.




HOWELL: A great deal of shock and awe at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Japan wins its first gold medal of these games in men's figure skating after Yuzuru Hanyu's nearly perfect performance and the Czech Republic's Ester Ledecka made the run of her life to capture the gold in the women's SuperG skiing event.

Let's bring in CNN's Christina Macfarlane following the story live in PyeongChang, South Korea.

It's good to have you with us.

CHRISTINA MACFARLANE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, George. Let me tell you when Yuzuru Hanyu wins, a whole nation rejoices. It was incredible to see --


MACFARLANE: -- a largely Japanese crowd in floods of tears in the ice arena earlier, following his skate. After putting in a record- breaking performance in the short program on Friday, there were big questions as to whether Hanyu's fitness would hold out for the free skate today because he was still recovering from a long-term injury.

And in the end he did just enough skating on the edge of his endurance and then at the end getting down on one knee and passing the ice as stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh bears rained down from the crowd.

Now just to explain, Hanyu is a huge fan of the fluffy bear and uses it as a lucky mascot. And he's swamped by them every time he competes.

Also in action was America's Nathan Chen, who said he wanted redeem himself after a poor skate in the short program that saw him finish a dismal 17th. And I tell you today, he did just that, making history with six quad jumps -- that's four rotations in the air -- signing off these games by actually winning the free skate today but overall finishing fifth.

If nothing else, showing us what he's capable of at just 18 years of age and he will be back for Beijing for sure.

Meanwhile, you mentioned the skiing in the mountain cluster. There was high drama in the women's SuperG. America's speed queen Lindsey Vonn in action for the first time after so much buildup. She has been speaking a lot about racing for her grandfather here, who passed away late last year.

But sadly after a strong and a really fast start she made a serious mistake toward the end of the race that almost brought her to a dead stop ending her chances of a medal. Instead it was a rank outsider, Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic, who pulled off the race of her life to take the top spot.

But the most extraordinary thing about this lady, George, as you mentioned, she is the only athlete here competing in two different sports, skiing and snowboarding. And because of that, she never really expected to win. But it turns out she is a much better alpine skier than she thought.

HOWELL: That's awesome. Christina Macfarlane, thank you so much. We'll stay in touch with you.

All around the world people are welcoming the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Dog. The theme this year, Best Fortune World Party. Take a look here at how Hong Kong celebrated on Friday.

Excitement there in the streets. These celebrations featured local and international performers, including a collaboration between Chinese drums and a Western marching band. Exciting.

Thanks for being with us. I'm George Howell. Your world headlines right after the break.