Return to Transcripts main page


NFL Pauses Anthem Policy; Russian Spy Butina Has Ties to U.S. Intel; Drugmakers Tackle Rising Costs; Iowa Tornado Outbreak; Almost 300 Killed in Nicaragua's Crackdown on Protests. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired July 20, 2018 - 09:30   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: So it appears this morning the NFL is looking to avoid a public relations nightmare, calling a timeout on its new national anthem policy.

Back in May, NFL owners decided to institute a controversial new rule, forcing individual teams to suspend or fine players who would protest the national anthem. They were allowed to remain in the locker room if they wanted during the anthem.

But the season is getting closer and closer and this morning the league is rethinking the policy. Our Christine Brennan joins me now with more.

What a mess this whole thing has been for the league and now this.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: Absolutely, Poppy. The reason we are even talking about it today is that the Associated Press reported that the Miami Dolphins were considering potentially suspending players up to four games if they did not abide by this new policy.


BRENNAN: In other words, if they came out of the locker room and protested in some way rather than staying in the locker room.

Once that story broke yesterday, the Miami Dolphins story, the Associated Press reporting that there could be a fine of up to four -- a suspension of up to four games, which would one more game, if it was four, one more game than Jameis Winston got. He received a three-game suspension for sexually assaulting an Uber driver.

So one more game for standing or protesting the anthem than you got -- than he got, a star player got, for sexual assault of an Uber driver.

Well, with that in mind, this thing, the PR nightmare was in full- blown PR nightmare at this point for the NFL and that's why they have halted it as of last night.

HARLOW: Why can't they figure this thing out? I mean, these are a bunch of highly paid, highly intelligent, one would argue, individuals. And they cannot seem to get it right here. I mean, I just -- I don't know. It seems like they keep thinking it will go away and then this puts it back in the headlines.

BRENNAN: Exactly. I'm astounded. I certainly know a lot of these NFL people. I have covered them for years. I cannot believe they have gotten themselves into this mess.

And when this was announced, Poppy, in May, there was a torrent of criticism immediately about, what are you doing here?

The idea was to tamp it down. And, instead, of course, it inflamed the whole situation because, as a journalist, if I'm at a game, I'm looking to see who stayed in the locker room when they come running out after the anthem and then want to interview them afterwards.

Of course, the NFL took something that was basically dying, just a non-issue and had it go, you know, up to some incredible level of interest once again. And so that happened in May. That, to me, would have been the moment where the NFL said, look at the reaction over 24- 48 hours. Let's pull back right now.

Instead, they waited two months. The NFLPA, the Players' Association, the union has filed a grievance and the whole point of this is they should have worked together with their players and their union on this. That's what they heard in May. And now it's come to that realization here in July.

HARLOW: Remind people of why and how this all started and who was at the crux of it because this was about fighting and being a voice for those who were not heard in this country.

BRENNAN: This was all about social injustice and about the way that African American young men were being treated by the police and, of course, the terrible horrors of police killing a couple of African American young men. This was two years ago.

During preseason, Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, decided to sit and then talk to a Green Beret. And the Green Beret said, don't sit, kneel.

And that's when this started. And frankly, if the NFL had gone to Kaepernick right then and said let's talk about these issues, it might have nipped it in the bud. Instead, it grew and grew and grew.

And then of course President Trump entered it in September of last year during the Alabama Senate race and that -- again, it was basically dead at that point and Trump inflamed the whole thing.

Again, it was basically dead, no one was talking about it and then the NFL owners in May inflamed it again.

HARLOW: But important note at the top, Christine, about Jameis Winston and the three-game suspension for that versus four games being considered here for making your voice heard. BRENNAN: Exactly. Right, which is why this became such a huge issue overnight.

HARLOW: Thank you, Christine. Nice to have you.

BRENNAN: Thank you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Russia's ambassador to the United States this morning is blasting the arrest of a woman accused of acting as a foreign agent here in the United States. Ahead for us, how federal prosecutors say she used sex and lies to make political connections in this country.





HARLOW: Russia's ambassador to the United States is calling the case against an accused Russian agent a farce. The ambassador says he will be demanding that this woman, Maria Butina, is released from jail immediately.

On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled she was a flight risk, ordered her held without bond until her trial. And our Sara Murray explains how prosecutors say she used sex, lies and guns to infiltrate American politics.


SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The young Russian gun lover twice applied for visas to attend the National Rifle Association's (INAUDIBLE) annual meeting. Twice Maria Butina said she was denied.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much.

MURRAY (voice-over): Then the NRA came to Moscow. Butina hosted a gun conference and charmed NRA board member David Keen and his associate, political operative, Paul Erickson.

By April 2014, visa in hand, Butina was on her way to Indianapolis for the NRA's 2014 annual meeting.

There she snapped a pic with NRA chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, and began blazing a path in U.S. political --


MURRAY: -- circles in what authorities allege was a covert Russian operation.

Her relationship with Erickson quickly turned romantic. Whether he was duped by his young lover, who used him for political connections or wittingly lured into a spy operation to influence U.S. politics ahead of the 2016 election is unclear. An unlikely match, Erickson is nearly twice Butina's age.

PAUL ERICKSON, POLITICAL OPERATIVE: If you want power, if you want influence, you see a candidate that you like, show up and work for them. Drop everything.

MURRAY (voice-over): After growing up in South Dakota and graduating from Yale, he sought to make a name for himself in GOP politics. Along the way he crossed paths with now disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and worked at a --


MURRAY (voice-over): -- the Virginia man who (INAUDIBLE) in the 1990s.

Erickson also launched investment schemes and faced lawsuits because of them. He's currently under investigation for fraud by the U.S. attorney's office in South Dakota.

Butina's upbringing, starkly different.

MARIA BUTINA, RUSSIAN SPY: My story is simple. My father is a hunter. I was born in Siberia. For such places like Siberia or forests of Russia, this is a question of survival. Everyone has a gun.

MURRAY (voice-over): After graduating from a local university and dabbling in the furniture business, she set off to Moscow to pursue political ambitions. There she launched her gun rights group and linked up with prominent Russian official, Alexander Torshin, who became a staunch ally.

By fall 2014, she was trading e-mails with her lover, Erickson, about how to obtain long-term visas. Her Russian handlers wanted her to have a more permanent U.S. foothold, prosecutors said.

By summer of 2015, Butina was enrolled in graduate school at American University on a student visa, all part of her cover story, according to prosecutors.

By then, Butina already become a fixture at exclusive NRA events, accompanied Torshin to the 2016 annual prayer breakfast and worked with Torshin and Erickson to try to establish back channel communications between candidate Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Erickson's involvement in the alleged Russian operation is murky. Authorities found a note in his handwriting that read, "How to respond to FSB offer of employment."

But it's unclear if the Russian intelligence offer was for him, Butina or something else entirely.

Recently she grew despondent, lamenting it wasn't safe for her to return to Russia. She graduated from American University in May 2018. But a friend didn't spot her at any commencement celebrations.

With school behind her, she was planning a move to Sioux City with Erickson, a man, prosecutors say, she expressed disdain for living with.

A day after buying moving boxes, she was arrested.

MURRAY: Now U.S. authorities did not explicitly name Paul Erickson in the indictment surrounding Maria Butina nor has he been charged with a crime in relation to the Butina case. He did not respond to CNN's request for comment -- Sara Murray, CNN, Washington.


HARLOW: All right. Sara, we'll be watching it. Thank you.

Ahead, the president versus Big Pharma. Facing growing pressure from the president, three major drugmakers are lowering some of the prices of some of their drugs. Our Dr. Sanjay Gupta will be here with me to explain what this really means for you at home -- next.





HARLOW: This morning, drug giant Merck says it will lower the cost of some of its prescriptions by more than 10 percent. Some a lot more. It's the third major big drug company to announce this month that they're going to do this.

And this, of course, comes on the context of growing pressure from President Trump, from Congress and from the public to do just that. Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins me now.

Sanjay, let's just talk first about Merck because this is the latest announcement overnight. They're lowering the price of, I think, six of their drugs by about 10 percent. One of their drugs by 60 percent. But I was reading through the names and a lot of these were not drugs that I'd heard of.

Are these the most commonly used ones?

How do you see this?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, they're not some of the most commonly used ones and they're not some of the most expensive ones. There are drugs on the list, as you probably saw, Poppy, that cost tens of thousands of dollars a month to use.

So the impact overall, I think, is going to be a little bit hard to assess right now. And the impact on the viewers, you know, consumers who are watching this, little bit hard to assess as well. Let me give you a little bit of frame of reference on this. Drug

prices go up all the time. You know that. And they go up way out of proportion to inflation.

So if you look at Pfizer, for example, one of the other drug companies that lowered some of its prices, for Viagra, one of their more popular drugs, costs about $1,800 for 30 pills. That was last year.

Right now it costs about $2,021 for 30 pills. So it's gone up and that's the price after this rollback that we're talking about.

So, you know, we pay a lot for medications, more than any other country, as you know. And that average per person, that is unlikely to change, I think, with some of these rollbacks that we are talking about.

Finally, let me just make one point, Poppy, I guess you'll appreciate. There's a net price and there's a list price. The list price is what people pay after the negotiations and rebates happen with their insurance companies and their pharmacy benefit managers. Very few people pay the actual list price, which is what's going down.

So it may not have that big an impact.

HARLOW: When you look at this, it is interesting, just a side note here, that the CEO of Merck, Kevin Fraser (ph), called out the president, stepped off of one of his advisory boards after the whole Charlottesville debacle.

Now they're doing this. I mean, the president even took to Twitter, criticizing him, Kevin Fraser (ph), after, of course, this was taken.

This comes, Sanjay, at the same time as the Trump administration --


HARLOW: -- we've learned this week -- is exploring importing drugs from other countries. They think that would help lower costs overall.

Is there an issue there in terms of those drugs -- I would assume would not necessarily be FDA approved.

GUPTA: Right. And that's been the big concern. They may have gone through an approval process in their own countries but not necessarily the FDA. And there's been a lot of opposition to this for a long time, predominantly from Republicans.

Don't re-import these drugs; it hasn't gone through our approval process. They are raising it and for a very specific situation.

You remember the whole Martin Shkreli situation, where he raised the price from $13 to $750 and it boggled people's minds. That's the sort of situation that the importation of drug from other countries they're seeking to address. When there's a generic drug, there's really no competition for that drug. And people can do whatever they want with the drug prices as a result. What they are saying is, well, we'll actually provide some competition

by allowing some of these drugs to come in from overseas. That's a proposal. Again, not everyone is on board with this, not even for this very specific use of it. But we will see. The president has been talking about it since the campaign.

HARLOW: Net-net, just final thought, how big of a deal is this, that these companies have said they will lower prices?

The president can say this is a win for him.

Is it really going to save the average American a lot?

GUPTA: I don't think it's going to save the average American a lot. I don't think it's going to save that screen that you showed in terms of the per capita spending that much. We're still going to be one of the biggest drug spenders in the country (sic).

So these do seem a little bit more in name than in real impact.

And if you look at the language from these drug companies, they're saying until the end of the year. Who knows what happens in '19?

Until the end of the year, that's going to be pretty quick.

HARLOW: Like six months.

GUPTA: Exactly.

HARLOW: Sanjay, thank you. Have a good weekend.

GUPTA: You too, Poppy. Get some rest.

HARLOW: All right, I'll try.

Coming up, new images of devastating today in Iowa after more than 2 dozen tornadoes ripped through the state.






UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a tornado. That's a tornado. Let's go. Come on.

Let's go.

HARLOW (voice-over): All right. Look at those stunning, stunning images. This is a tornado overnight in Iowa. Cleanup efforts are --


HARLOW (voice-over): -- Central Iowa this morning after reports of up to 27 tornadoes across the state. You see one ripping through a house right there. The storms also brought heavy rain, damaging wind and hail, destroying homes, businesses, flipping cars and injuring several people.

Wow. This is drone video also of the aftermath in Pella, Iowa, where more than 400 people were in the big Pella manufacturing plant there. Of course, they're known for Pella windows.

Amazingly, only a few suffered minor injuries. There have been no reports of fatalities, despite these 27 tornadoes. But states of emergency do remain in effect for several towns and countries (sic) across the state.

Many people are heading toward the U.S. border, seeking asylum. Many of them are coming from countries like Nicaragua, which is in the midst of deadly unrest, as protesters call for the ouster of the country's authoritarian leader, Daniel Ortega.

The Ortega regime has deployed paramilitary forces and police to counter the protesters. So far, nearly 300 people have been killed in three months of protests. Demonstrators are fighting against what they say is the government's control of the media, electoral fraud and corruption. Our Robyn Curnow reports.


ROBYN CURNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was the day of people's resistance was met with overwhelming state violence. Months of rebellion in Nicaragua was confronted brutally, as authoritarian ruler, Daniel Ortega, looked to silence dissent, pitting gunfire and snipers against locals wearing construction helmets and fashioning crude rockets out of plumbing material.

Videos which we can't verify ourselves, shared on WhatsApp by local bloggers, show a friend being shot.

Off camera, he says, "Be strong, my friend."

Locals said, by dawn, hundreds of police were swarming the streets, sweeping away what was left of the rebellion. The siege had built over the past week. Police surrounding one church as they moved in. The death toll rising, with 10 killed in the past week and over 270 dead since the unrest began.

President Daniel Ortega has led Nicaragua to the brink, accused of hoovering up its wealth and a corrupt nepotism that has seen his wife sponging up power in key positions. Pension reforms to try to keep the pilfered state coffers afloat were eventually scrapped after protests.

But the collapse continued. The U.S. has sanctioned key officials for corruption, representation and extrajudicial killings and pulled its diplomats out. Central America's poorest country now facing a question of whether the brutal crackdown will end the violence or foment longer, angrier unrest.

Adding to the regional turmoil that has sent thousands north through Mexico to the U.S. border, yet another reason Central America is slowly emptying northward and spiraling toward greater suffering -- Robyn Curnow, CNN.


HARLOW: Gives you a sense of why so many more are fleeing through Mexico up to the United States, some of them seeking asylum. All right, we will keep an eye on that. We have a lot of news ahead. Let's get after it.