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U.S. Hits Russia with Sanctions Over Election Meddling; Interview with Senator Bill Nelson; Trump Joins Macron and Merkel in Issuing Joint Statement on British Attack; Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired March 15, 2018 - 10:30   ET


[10:30:25] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we have important breaking news. The Treasury Department has just announced new sanctions on Russia. Certain Russian entities. Five entities, 19 individuals implicated. And I'm going to quote here, "Attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber attacks and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure."

If you read the indictment here, they talk about the fact flat out that the Russians meddled in the collection and that these sanctions are in part a response to that. One of the entities included here is the Internet Research Agency, and this is fascinating because this is one of the groups listed in the indictment last month by the special counsel.

Want to bring in our senior White House correspondent Abby Phillip to give us a sense of what is in here -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, hi, John. These sanctions announced today are an important step, especially considering all the back and forth between this White House and Congress over imposing sanctions on Russia for Russian meddling in the 2016 election. As you just mentioned it includes sanctions on the Internet Research Agency, which is that entity that was identified as being the forefront of the troll campaign online that according to the Intelligence Community was behind the interference in the 2016 election.

Now the Mueller probe, which is also going on right now, announced indictments on some of these very same individuals, so here is the White House and the Trump administration going further and now imposing sanctions on them. It also includes an individual who is identified as financially backing the IRA. That person is also tied very closely to Vladimir Putin.

Now these sanctions come at a time when the United States is also being looked at for how they are responding to Russia's alleged attack in the UK on this former spy, that attack using a very lethal nerve agent. The United States is now stepping up its response to that, issuing a statement along with its U.S. allies in Europe condemning Russia and a National Security official just told reporters that this is going to be by no means the end of the United States' response to Russia in an effort to get them to change their behavior. So, John, this is a first step, and an important one for this

administration which has struggled for the last several months to respond adequately to what everyone around them is saying is an escalating threat and aggressive behavior on Russia's part.

BERMAN: Abby, stand by. I want to pick up that point if I can right now with our senior State Department reporter Michelle Kosinski.

So, Michelle, why did it take so long?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, I mean, what the administration will say is that they have been working on this consistently. Remember this was all based on this new law. And this is what is so significant about this. There was a law passed in Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support to target the Russian actors responsible for meddling in the U.S. election, to make sure that this administration punished Russia basically for this.

It seemed to take a long time, there were delays, it was right up against the deadline, and then once the deadline was there, there was no immediate action by the administration to sanctions, so that drew a lot of criticism that, you know, why isn't this happening right now? The administration's response at that time was it's coming, we promise you there are sanctions coming.

So now today, here are these sanctions specifically targeted to the people and entities, not likely all of them, but a large group of them, who meddled in the U.S. election. So what is so striking about this, to listen to a call with administration officials, that they are spelling it out, that, yes, Russia absolutely meddled in the U.S. election, they're not mentioning whose side they were on, they're not mentioning that these Russian trolls tried to help Donald Trump and the presidential election or tried to hurt Hillary Clinton.

There is no political mention of it. Only that they meddled and here's what they did. They created these online personas, they posed as U.S. citizens, they organized political rallies. And I think it's also interesting to note that they're targeting Russia in other ways, too. Aside from the meddling, they said that Russia is also in the U.S. energy system. They've gotten into these energy companies. Administration officials say that they've managed to get these Russians out of the system. But they're also responsible for cyber attacks and they're going to be targeting Russia for those as well -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Michelle, stand by as well. I want to bring in Phil Mudd right now.

[10:35:01] And, Phil, I just want one thing not to get lost here, which is that almost every -- almost every, we're trying to cross- check here -- entity and individual who was listed in the indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller several weeks ago has now been hit with sanctions by the Treasury Department, which is fascinating, right?

So the special counsel is charging them with crimes, that's one thing. The Treasury Department, the U.S. government is now hitting them with sanctions. And this is the same special counsel investigation that the president himself has called a witch hunt. Now you have the government taking action in a very, very serious forum against people that the president says have been targeted in a witch hunt. Very, very interesting.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: This is fascinating, John. I think the timing is really the most significant piece here. Look, I expect the White House to come out and say all you who criticize us for not being tough enough on Russia, look at this document. But the Mueller indictment listing the Internet Research Agency and others was issued as you know in mid-March.

Why do you think the Treasury Department comes out now and says we're sanctioning the same people who are indicted by the Department of Justice? Treasury had no choice. What are they supposed to do? Say we're not going to do anything about the money involved with these entities that were named by Special Counselor Mueller?

One other question, if this were a priority by the White House, the president has been around for 14 months.

BERMAN: Right.

MUDD: In the midst of allegations about Russian collusion here. He could have told the Treasury 14 months ago, I want sanctions today. He evidently didn't do that.

BERMAN: All right. Phil Mudd, thank you very much. Again stand by if you will.

We're lucky to be joined for this breaking news by Democratic senator from Florida, Bill Nelson.

Senator Nelson, if I can, if I can get your reaction to this news that the Treasury Department issuing new sanctions on Russian entities and individuals.

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: I think Phil Mudd's analysis is right on. The sanctions were imposed last August. It's eight months later. Why did it take the administration so long? It is the hot breath of the Mueller investigation and the indictment of these very same entities a month ago that they didn't have a choice. They had to come out and impose the sanctions. So the question now is, why don't they impose the rest of the sanctions on the Russian government?

BERMAN: All right. Senator Nelson, we're going to have much more on this with you in just a moment. Stand by. We're going to have much on the breaking news right after a quick break.


[10:41:38] BERMAN: All right. The breaking news, the Treasury Department just issuing new sanctions against five entities and 19 individuals in Russia for various forms of cyber attacks and election meddling in 2016. This just happened moments ago. Let's get some reaction from Moscow. Our Frederik Pleitgen is there.

And, Fred, I'm sure the Kremlin hasn't had much chance to see this in response. But they're very much in the crosshairs over the last 24 hours between this and what is happening in the UK.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You're absolutely right, John. They haven't had much chance to respond. However, we can be pretty sure that they've seen it, in fact even before the announcement was made by the Treasury, a couple of minutes ago, there was an urgent alert sent out on the Russian state media agency TASS announcing that these new sanctions had been put in place. They had the numbers a little bit differently, but they did report about it very, very quickly.

Now for a lot of the folks who are now on that list, the entities on that list, it won't come as much of a surprise. We've talked about the main person on that list, Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Internet Research Agency, which, John, of course was the troll factory that conducted so much of the cyber operations in the lead-up to the U.S. election, and were in the Mueller indictment just a couple of months ago in February.

We found out that the actual activities of that Internet Research Agency and Yevgeny Prigozhin were so much bigger than any of us had really thought, them sending teams to the United States and organizing events in the U.S. trying to alter the outcome of course of the U.S. election.

Now we haven't heard from Prigozhin yet, him being the main guy. But we did hear from him after the Mueller indictment, he said he was very sorry and that he was being indicted and he also said that the Americans only see what they want to see.

There is one other thing that I want to mention, John, is that you also have the FSB and Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU, on this list as well. And interesting of course they have been sanctioned in the past as well. But still their bosses were in the U.S. just a couple of weeks ago -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Frederik Pleitgen for us in Moscow. Fred, thanks so much for being with us.

Joining me again, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson from Florida. We can't thank you enough for sticking around, trying to digest this and read through this at the very same time as we are, Senator. And the first two names on the list are the Internet Research Agency and as Fred was just saying from Moscow, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who funds that. And these are one entity and one individual that are just central, central to this special counsel's indictment more than a month ago.

The special counsel's investigation, which has been a witch hunt by the president, has come under direct attack by some of the president's allies. What do you make of it?

NELSON: Was this oligarch -- was he on the list of Treasury sanctions?

BERMAN: Yes, he was. He is the -- the first individual named in this government sanctioned list, interesting.

NELSON: Indeed. They are following, having to follow the indictments by Mueller. Otherwise it would look foolish that they're not sanctioning the very people that have been indicted for trying to mess in our democracy. But the question is, John, what about the other oligarchs? What about all of those entities in and around the bots? What about getting right to Putin? All of these people are reporting to Putin, taking orders from Putin.

[10:45:03] What about start looking at some of Putin's investments and bank accounts? So it could be a lot broader, but at least it's this, even though it's eight months after the sanctions were imposed.

BERMAN: It's very interesting this comes out this morning from the Treasury Department, you noted the timing. Last night, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was very, very biting words about the Russian involvement with the poisoning of a double agent in the UK. So all of a sudden there are parts of the administration taking a very public hard line on Russia. We have not heard it from the president's mouth yet. We may see him very shortly by the way. What do you think we should hear from him?

NELSON: Well, under any normal circumstance the person who speaks for the country, the president, would be making a very clear statement that we are imposing this because, and then lay out the reasons.

I'm curious if now the administration will impose sanctions on those that are involved in this attempted assassination in the UK. Let's see if Nikki Haley, our ambassador's words are backed up with actions from the Treasury Department.

BERMAN: I just want to bring up one small point again. The government is now sanctioning these individuals that were mentioned in the Mueller indictment, inside the Mueller indictment. The investigators make clear they believe that these entities and individuals, well, starting off just to sow chaos ultimately decided that they favored Donald Trump. They were trying to favor Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton in the election.

And this is something that just this week the House Intelligence Committee just came out and said, we saw no evidence that the Russians were trying to help Donald Trump. So is the government undercutting in this roundabout way the argument from the House Intelligence Committee?

NELSON: Well, the House Intelligence Committee is in chaos. They just said -- the majority said they're disbanding. But then you see the gallant, brave minority of the House Intelligence Committee issuing their own report which is very incisive as to all of the Russian activity and the attempts --

BERMAN: And Senator Nelson --

NELSON: -- to block those investigations into it.

BERMAN: Senator Nelson, I know you were watching yesterday as students across the country marched out, walked out of their schools in solidarity with the victims of the shooting at Parkland, Florida, right now to protest gun violence and to call for action. I want to -- your reaction to what you saw.

NELSON: It was the energy, the enthusiasm, the dedication, the determination. It gives me hope, it gives me more determination. I talked to him on the west front of the U.S. capital, and their intent and look at this March 24th march. It's not just one march, a big one in Washington. It's going to be in 500 cities across the country.

BERMAN: Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, again, thank you for being with us and helping us digest this breaking news. I really appreciate it.

NELSON: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: All right. Any minute now we're going to see and potentially hear from President Trump. Will he address these new sanctions? Will he address the rumors of pending staff shake-ups? Stay with us.


[10:53:11] BERMAN: All right. You're joining us at the right time. This is President Trump greeting the prime minister of Ireland, the Taoiseach, that's Leo Varadkar, right now with his visit to the White House. This is in advance of St. Patrick's Day. They'll head to Capitol Hill very shortly for the annual lunch up there with congressional leaders.

This is a wonderful tradition that really dates back in some ways to the Truman administration, the lunch up on Capitol Hill, to the Reagan administration. We will follow it throughout the morning.

Also new this morning, President Trump along with the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, issuing a joint statement blaming Russia for the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom. They called the attack a threat to sovereignty and a violation of international law.

Let's get straight to Nic Robertson with the very latest from London -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, John. Good morning. We're hearing from Theresa May as well today. She's been out to Salisbury, this is the town where that attack with the nerve agent took place. She has been speaking to people in the town there, she's been speaking with some of the police officers, ambulance workers, the first responders who came to treat the Skripals when they were first detected lying almost semi-comatose on a park bench in the middle of town. So she is sticking with that very strong, that very clear message, Russia is responsible.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: We do hold Russia culpable for this brazen, brazen act and despicable act that's taken place on the streets of what is such a remarkable city where people come and visit and enjoy.


ROBERTSON: And this joint statement that we're learning about today, that's coming in the last few hours from the United States, from Germany, from France, along with Theresa May, saying that all these countries agree and conclude with what Britain -- with what Britain has investigated so far. They say that there is no other logical explanation to this attack, that the -- other than Russia is responsible.

[10:55:00] So this support comes at a very key time for Theresa May. She's trying to build an international alliance of countries that see Russia as a threat. That's very clear in the statement, and for her to be able to hear of these new sanctions coming from the United States, that again is going to add weight to what she's trying to do, which is sanction Russia for this -- for its actions here with the nerve agent.

BERMAN: All right. Nic Robertson for us in London. Nic, thanks so much.

Nic mentioned the breaking news, the U.S. issuing new sanctions on Russia over election sanctioning meddling. Sanctioning businesses and entities actually mentioned in the Mueller report. That is a fascinating twist. We'll have the very latest next.