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Trump Lawyer Wants Russia Probe Dropped; Russian Spy Poisoning; Conflict in Syria; Russia Votes. Aired 2-2:30a ET

Aired March 18, 2018 - 02:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Trump and his lawyer advocate an end to the Mueller investigation as we learn the special counsel's team has Andrew McCabe's memos about his conversations with the president.

And a diplomatic tit-for-tat: Russia expelling British diplomats just days after the U.K. did the same.

Plus voting now underway in Russia's presidential election. You are watching live pictures from Moscow at polling stations. Vladimir Putin is seeking reelection in a field that is crowded in name only.

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


VANIER: So Andrew McCabe is out of a job at the FBI. We know that. But his words may still have an impact. Sources tell CNN former deputy FBI director kept notes about his conversations with U.S. president Donald Trump. Those notes are now reportedly in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller.

We don't know exactly what's in them but a person familiar with the matter tells CNN that they may corroborate similar notes kept by fired FBI director James Comey.

The special counsel is looking into whether Comey's firing is an obstruction of justice. For his part, Mr. Trump tweeted earlier, "The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a fake dossier, paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC and improperly used in FISA court for surveillance of my campaign. Witch hunt."

Barely a day after McCabe was fired, Donald Trump's personal attorney called for the Justice Department to drop the special counsel's investigation into Russian election meddling. And President Trump chimed in as well. Boris Sanchez explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: As the president relishes in the firing of former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe via Twitter, his personal attorney, John Dowd, is making some eyebrow raising statements in a statement provided to the "Daily Beast" early on Saturday, he said he was praying for the Russia investigation to end.

And he apparently told them that he was speaking on behalf of the president as the president's personal attorney. He later walked that back to CNN. John Dowd writing, quote, "Speaking for myself, not the president, I pray that acting attorney general Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and attorney general Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe's boss, James Comey, based upon a fraudulent and corrupt dossier just ended on the merits in light of recent revelations."

Now we should note that a source close to the president says that Donald Trump didn't authorize John Dowd to make that statement. In fact, if you talk to people close to the president, you get the sense that they're annoyed that Dowd went in this direction, in part because it contradicts so much of what we've heard previously from the White House when it comes to the special counsel's investigation.

Over and over again, officials have told us they're 100 percent willing to comply with the special counsel in providing any requested documents or anything he needs. We've heard the president specifically say that he would not fire Robert Mueller. In fact, he said that he was looking forward to sitting down with him to prove that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Now there have been rumblings prior to this about firing of Robert Mueller, so much so that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle crafted legislation that would install safeguards to protect Robert Mueller from being fired. That legislation really didn't get anywhere but we should point out that, in the next week, there will be a spending bill that's voted on in Congress.

And there may be a push from some lawmakers to include some kind of language that would protect Robert Mueller from that kind of a move, by either someone at the Department of Justice or here at the White House -- Boris Sanchez, at the White House, CNN.


VANIER: And meanwhile, the former head of the CIA, who clearly is not a fan of Mr. Trump, didn't pull his punches. John Brennan writes this on Twitter.

"When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America...America will triumph over you."

Now Moscow just ordered the expulsion of 23 British diplomats from Russia and the highest levels of the U.K. government are discussing how to respond. The 23 diplomats matches the number of Russians ordered out of the U.K. last week, all of this after a former Russian spy --


VANIER: -- and his daughter -- you see them there -- were poisoned in Southern England.

But the Kremlin went a step further. The foreign ministry says it is closing the British consulate general in St. Petersburg and shutting down the British Council, which promotes U.K. cultural affairs across Russia.

British Prime Minister Theresa May had this to say on Saturday.


THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Today our ambassador in Moscow was informed by the Russian government of the action they are taking in response. In light of their previous behavior, we anticipated a response of this kind and we will consider our next steps in the coming days, alongside our allies and partners.

But Russia's response doesn't change the fact of the matter, the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion, other than that the Russian state was culpable.


VANIER: The Kremlin has been adamant that it had no role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The foreign ministry even denies that Russia was the source of the nerve agent that was used in the attack. Instead it said that poison might have come from the U.K., from Slovakia, from Sweden, the Czech Republic or even the U.S.

The Swedish and Czech governments were outraged and they publicly denounced it as disinformation.

Meanwhile British authorities say the full investigation into that assassination attempt could take months. We get the latest from Melissa Bell in Salisbury, England.


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: British police have once again appealed for help from the public. They want help from anyone who might have seen the car that belongs to Sergei Skripal on the morning of March the 4th, nearly two weeks since he and his daughter were found poisoned on park bench here in Salisbury Center.

The police continue their investigation and warn that it could take some time. Already they say they've pored through 4,000 hours of CCTV footage and this with the help of 250 police men and women from Britain's specialized antiterrorism unit.

There are a few key hours in the morning of March the 4th that remain something of a mystery and they're looking for anyone in the public who might have seen Sergei Skripal's car anywhere around Salisbury between those hours, about 9:50 in the morning and half-past 1:00, when the pair were then seen coming to Salisbury town center for that lunch at the Italian restaurant behind me.

But the police are warning that this could take some time. Perhaps they say investigation so complex is it could take not weeks but months -- Melissa Bell, CNN, in Salisbury.


VANIER: Apparently no target is off limits in Syria's civil war. A major hospital in Afrin was reportedly bombed this week amid an ongoing Turkish offensive. The hospital's general manager says nine people were killed. This video from the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces purports to show that destruction.

Turkey denies it's responsible and says the video is vile propaganda. The region of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus is another flashpoint. The Syrian government offensive continues there and thousands of people have been fleeing the area; 16,000, according to the World Food Programme. And many of them are in shelters around the capital.

In Miami, Florida, police say that they have recovered the last victims from beneath that pedestrian bridge that collapsed on Thursday. Crews dug through almost 1,000 tons of rubble to remove some of the last vehicles that were crushed.

For police, investigators and victims' families, that has been a harrowing process.


JUAN PEREZ, MIAMI-DADE POLICE DIRECTOR: It is heartwrenching when you do so to lose a loved one like this. I cannot even express the empathy, the compassion that they have and the empathy that I have to have to face them.

It's heartwrenching, it's hard to hold back your tears when you listen to them, you listen to every individual story.

But we finally got the last victim out. And it would not have happened if not for the work of the men and women from that fire department that is one of the greatest departments, I guess to me is the greatest department in America, folks, because they did not stop.

The only pause, the only pause from the rescuers was when we asked them to pause so we could pray over every victim and escort them out with our motorcycle unit to the M.E.'s office, that was the only pause in work.


VANIER: Five victims were found beneath the bridge; one died in hospital. Police believe the final death toll will stand at six although they do plan to go through the wreckage once again as a precaution.

Not much suspense expected in Sunday's presidential election in Russia. Voting has begun there and after 18 years in power, president Vladimir Putin is expected to easily win reelection.

Matthew Chance is in Moscow.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are eight candidates standing in this presidential election but of course there is only one serious contender --


CHANCE: -- and that is Vladimir Putin, who's already ruled Russia for the past 18 years as president and prime minister.

And who is expected to win again overwhelmingly in this nationwide vote. Opposition activists in Russia say that's partly because the Kremlin under Putin has steadily tightened its grip on the media and constantly promotes Putin on state television.

But also more importantly, the opposition politicians here have been killed or silenced or otherwise excluded from the electoral process. Indeed, the main opposition leader in Russia, Alexei Navalny, was not permitted to stand in these elections because of a criminal conviction which he says was politically motivated.

But it is also clearly true that President Putin has an extremely loyal following among many Russians. He's seen as the kind of strong leader who many believe here that their country needs.

And the fact that Putin has led Russia into a very deep confrontation with the West, most recently over the alleged use of a nerve agent by Russia in an attempted killing in Britain, does not appear to have dented his popularity. U.S. election meddling, intervention in Ukraine, Olympic doping, the Syrian conflicts, there are all areas where Vladimir Putin has shrugged off allegations of wrongdoing.

But at the same time allowed himself to be cast as an extremely powerful player on the international stage and that appears to have gone down pretty well with his supporters.

Of course it's a risky strategy that has provoked international sanctions that could yet escalate and that've already led to economic hardship among many Russians. So I think it's going to be very interesting to see in these elections how enthusiastic is the turnout and how much of the vote Putin actually gets. We will certainly be watching that very closely, as, of course, will be the Kremlin -- Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow. (END VIDEOTAPE)

VANIER: So more of the same expected in Russia and more of the same as well in China. The new Chinese government looks a lot like the old one. Li Keqiang is starting his second term as the country's premier. He has been appointed by President Xi Jinping after a rubber stamp vote by the country's parliament.

Mr. Xi is also starting his new term. He can now serve for life if he wishes after parliament approved an end to presidential term limits.

And that is it from us. Thank you for watching. I'm Cyril Vanier. "MARKETPLACE AFRICA" is next and we're back at the top of the hour with more.