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Trump Depends Son's Meeting With Russians As "Totally Legal"; GOP Lawmaker: Trump "Should Be Straightforward" About Russia; Venezuela's Maduro Survives Apparent Assassination Attempt; Renewed Iran Sanctions To Go Into Effect Tomorrow; Pope Declares Death Penalty "Unacceptable"; Search For Missing Toddler Uncovers 11 Starving Children; Russia Tasks Actor Steven Seagal With Improving U.S. Ties. Aired 3-4p ET

Aired August 5, 2018 - 15:00   ET


[15:00:00] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: -- the story is still evolving on the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting. President Trump now taking a firm stance on the true purpose of the meeting, tweeting, in fact, today, "This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics and it went nowhere."

Well that message very far from the initial statement from Donald Trump Jr. That we later learned was dictated by President Trump himself, saying this, "We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children," with no mention of dirt on Hillary Clinton. So this shift comes as sources tell CNN the President is concerned about his son becoming entangled in the Russia probe.

CNN's White House Correspondent Boris Sanchez is in New Jersey near the President's golf resort where he is staying for his working vacation. So we know this meeting is of interest to the Mueller team. What is the White House position on this latest Trump approach and strategy, if you will?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yet another denial, Fred. President Trump today on Twitter dismissing recent reporting from CNN and others that he is concerned about the legal implications that the Russia probe may have for his son Donald Trump Jr. and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Sources have told CNN the President has become agitated by the steady stream of information coming from the Russia probe and that that's part of the reason that he's lashed out against Robert Mueller so aggressively and directly in the past few weeks.

Now you noted that in that tweet the President acknowledges the true nature of this meeting at Trump Tower in June of 2016 between Trump campaign officials and Russian nationals promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Previously we'd heard a number of different stories from the White House about this meeting, denials that ended up turning into admissions. We heard from the White House legal team suggesting that the true nature of this meeting was about adoption and the President had nothing to do with crafting that initial explanation from Donald Trump Jr. Just today, one of his attorneys, Jay Sekulow, acknowledged that when he said that the President had no involvement in crafting that adoption story, he was wrong. Listen to this.


JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: I had bad information at that point. I made a mistake in my statement. I talked about that before. That happens when you have cases like this. I think it's very important to point out that in a situation like this, you have, over time, facts develop. That's what investigations do. I agreed to go on your network and others days within being retained on this and had a lot of information to process. I got that one wrong.


SANCHEZ: While the White House has had difficulty sticking to the script, the President maintained again in that tweet today that he had no knowledge of that June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower. Though, sources have told CNN that his former Attorney Michael Cohen is prepared to testify to Robert Mueller that the President not only knew about it but then he approved it. Fred?

WHITFIELD: All right, Boris Sanchez, thank you so much.

All right, let's talk more about this. Not everyone in the GOP is ready to end what the President calls a rigged witch hunt. Listen to Senator Marco Rubio talking about the Russia investigation this morning.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I believe it is the best interest of the President and of the United States of America and the American people for that investigation to run the course for all the truth to come out and for -- I think it's the best thing that could happen for him and I think that's the best thing that could happen for the country.


WHITFIELD: All right. Joining me right now, CNN Contributor and former General Counsel for the Federal Election Commission, Larry Noble. Also here, TIME Magazine Contributor, Jay Newton-Small, good to see you both.

All right, so Jay, you know, what kind of political consequences could the President, you know, face here? Because the story, this is like a game of ping-pong. It just keeps going back and forth. No one looks good here because everyone, while they're coming up with a new story, they're also admitting that they just didn't tell the truth.

JAY NEWTON-SMALL, CONTRIBUTOR, TIME MAGAZINE: Well Fred, I think the whole point of this is to muddy the waters. And it's sort of to be able to sort of give people the ability to choose your own adventure here, you know? So, you know, if you want -- WHITFIELD: Door number one, door number two, OK.

NEWTON-SMALL: If you want ending, you do understanding. If you want that ending, you don't (INAUDIBLE). But that's what they really what they need and what they -- here is for the base voters to believe some version of their ending, right? Like, that is fake news, that is, you know, not at all -- in some way he was never involved, didn't know the meeting was happening, wasn't about Russian meddling in the election. It wasn't about dumping dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Just sort of muddying the waters and confusing people so much with all these different versions of the story that people don't know what to believe, and it gives people do who want to believe something ammunition to say, well, this is what I believe.

WHITFIELD: But the President now is kind of giving, Larry, some finality, right? Like once and for all, it's about the dirt. It's about getting information on an opponent, and then saying that's perfectly legal. But really, is that perfectly legal coming from a foreign adversary?

[15:05:05] LARRY NOBLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, it's not. The law provides that you cannot solicit or accept a foreign contribution. A foreign contribution would include anything of value. If the Russians were offering him up on research on Hillary Clinton, that is something of value. And if they said --

WHITFIELD: That's like currency.

NOBLE: That's like currency. That's in a cause (ph) something. And if anybody from his campaign said, yes, we'd like to follow up on that, that's soliciting a foreign contribution. That's illegal. I think --

WHITFIELD: But people have to be telling -- why? His people have to be telling him, don't do that.

NEWTON-SMALL: I've actually been curious about this and would love to get your opinion. Is it something of worth if it's something stolen to begin with, right? Because they're offering them stolen information from, you know, to begin with.

WHITFIELD: Like WikiLeaks and --

NEWTON-SMALL: Yes, exactly. So is that still considered something of worth?

NOBLE: Yes. If the Russians paid anything -- people to do this, put any money into this, yes. And if they were paying anything to disseminate the information, if they talked about how we'll put this out on Twitter or on Facebook, yes, that's something of value. At least it's something that has to be investigated. And no lawyer should be saying to their client, don't ware, this is not illegal.

And this is the confusion has brought about with the Hillary Clinton. Which is they also currently paid somebody to do a research on Donald Trump. And e was a foreign national. It's Michael Steele. He was a foreign national. But they paid him. And if they paid fair market value, that's fine. That's business.

He's conducting a business that paying him for that business. That's different than a foreign national giving it to you for free. And that's what may be illegal in the Senate (ph).

WHITFIELD: And so now you've got a lot of Republican lawmakers who were really, you know, striking a delicate balance here, you know, trying to support the President while at the same time be tough on Russia. Here's what one Congressman suggested today.


REP. ED ROYCE (R), CALIFORNIA: The President should be straightforward with the American people about the threat to our election process that Russia or Putin in particular, is engaged in ongoing. We are in a position now where we have got to show Putin that he'll have to pay a steep price if he doesn't stop this interference now.


WHITFIELD: Jay, isn't it a little late for that? You know, I mean, you know, the opportunities have been missed in really driving home that message. Granted, you know, midterms just a couple months away, maybe it's not too late in terms of circumventing some real trouble, but have the windows of opportunity has been missed?

NEWTON-SMALL: I mean, you had five different officials come up to the White House podium this week saying this is a very serious problem, we're going to -- you know, we're taking this incredibly seriously, we really need to monitor this. And that was apparently done with the President's knowledge and endorsement. But then the President undermined it by repeating, you know --

WHITFIELD: Because, again, it's to choose your own adventure, right? And so they're trying to drive out the Republican base here as much as they can. And so they need to give Republican base red meat to get angry and talk about these things. And so his job on Twitter is really speaking directly to that Republican base and speaking directly to, you know, those people who he's trying to drive out and vote in 2018.

But at the same time, he's trying, you know -- the government is actually being responsible in governance and doing its job. And so he's also governing. But ultimately, it's about spinning the message for the right number of people, for enough people to hear that dog whistle and say, don't believe what you hear, this is the actual truth thing. And it makes people question things enough that their loyalties remain intact and that they can still go out and support the President and say yes, I believe him fully.

WHITFIELD: So Larry, a few things. You know, this -- whether it's a strategy, whether it's intentional that, you know, changing of the version of events in terms of this, you know, meeting, at first, the appearances were to protect the, you know, candidate, the President. Then protect the son by the President, you know, getting involved in the statement. And now the President changing the story. And Jay Sekulow falling on the sword. Bottom line is all of this now is about protecting the family. No longer just about protecting the President.

NOBLE: That's what it looks like. I'm not -- I may be a bit cynical. I'm not 100 percent convinced that if it came down to --

WHITFIELD: What part are you cynical about?

NOBLE: Well, all of it.

WHITFIELD: Exactly, but --

NOBLE: Whether or not it came down to protecting Donald Trump Jr. or himself, whether or not Donald Trump Jr. would be in trouble. Because even the statement that, you know, Donald Trump Jr. didn't know about any of this or it was perfectly legal, he's still saying he didn't know anything about it. He, the President, didn't know anything about it. I also thought it was interesting that Jay Sekulow did what Rudy Giuliani had to do, which was come out and say, I spoke without knowing the facts.


NOBLE: And so this seems -- you know, I have a feeling that this is not the last version of the truth that we're going to hear about this meeting. I think more is going to come out and I think each time something comes out, they change their story. What is refreshing is that Sekulow and Giuliani at least say, well I didn't have all the facts, which could better than saying my client lied to me where Donald Trump just says that's fakes news even though there are some video and we can think something, he just denied saying it. So --

WHITFIELD: Interesting.

[15:10:05] NOBLE: You know, but I do think that what's going to happen in the end that more is going to come out about that meeting. Because it doesn't exist in a vacuum. We know all the other contacts that they've had. And Mueller apparently knows a lot more. And so I think Trump is going to have to come up with different stories as time goes on.

WHITFIELD: Is that also a prelude, what Sekulow is saying? You know, I didn't have all the facts, might that be a prelude to a graceful exit too?

NOBLE: It could be. I mean, so far neither Sekulow or Giuliani have taken it graceful -- or made it look like they're going to take a graceful exit. Giuliani looks like he's really enjoying himself. I'm not sure how much Sekulow is enjoying himself. But it's an awkward position for a lawyer to be in.


NOBLE: Normally when I had clients, I would find out what the client had to say before I would make any public statements.


NOBLE: I want to make sure somebody --

WHITFIELD: And even if they're going to say, I don't have everything yet, but this is what I can tell you -- that's not what happened here.

NOBLE: I'm not going to talk about that.


NOBLE: I don't know many lawyers that go out there voluntarily without the facts and make statements and then have to withdraw them. More likely they were told something.

NEWTON-SMALL: And they could get disbarred for that, right, for making untruthful statements. And so it's particularly dangerous for his lawyers in this case versus just staff, right? It's different if Sean Spicer comes out and says, well, the President fired Comey because, you know, because of the investigation into Hillary Clinton and then the President tweets three days later, no, it was because of the Russia investigation and Sean is revealed as basically either knowingly lying or inadvertently lying, right? With lawyers, it's different because you are expected to be fully briefed, fully read in, and to responsibly tell the truth as an officer of the court. And that's a real danger for them.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jay, Larry, good to see you both. Thanks so much.

All right, still ahead, Venezuela's President says he was the target of an assassination attempt. The attackers targeting him with explosives mounted on a drone. Who he believes might be responsible, next.


[15:16:15] WHITFIELD: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro survived an apparent assassination attempt after at least two drones armed with explosives went off as he was giving a speech. A second explosion sent a group of soldiers scattering. You'll see it in video. Maduro blamed what he called far-right elements, including Venezuelans living in the U.S.

CNN's Rafael Romo joining me now. So Rafael, this was actually an assassination attempt?

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDITORS: Well, Fredricka, let me begin by saying the whole episode was broadcast live on the Venezuelan government's national TV network, and the footage clearly shows the camera shaking. And we're seeing the moment there. And the President and First Lady and the top military command surrounding him rattled by some sort of blast. Then there was a second explosion, and soldiers broke ranks and scattered. Video also shows bodyguards surrounding President Maduro with shields and taking him off the stage. The official version is that drones armed with explosives detonated near the President. And Maduro himself reappearing on national TV hours later said he was the target of an assassination attempt, Fred.

WHITFIELD: So he's also blamed the United States, right, in some way for involvement in this. To what extent?

ROMO: Yes. He says that those responsible for planning and financing the attack are people who live in Florida. There's a lot of Venezuelan immigrants in Florida, but he didn't accuse the U.S. government directly. But this is what National Security Adviser John Bolton said this morning about the issue.


JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I can say unequivocally there was no U.S. government involvement in this at all. If the government of Venezuela has hard information that they want to present to us that would show a potential violation of U.S. criminal law, we'll take a serious look at it. But in the meantime, I think what we really should focus on is the corruption and the oppression of the Maduro regime in Venezuela.


ROMO: And meanwhile, Fred, the economic crisis in Venezuela is growing worse and worse. The international monetary fund says that inflation there is going to hit 1 million percent this year. Back to you.

WHITFIELD: Rafael Romo, thank you so much.

All right. Still ahead, both Democrats and Republicans working to clearly define who they are in the run up to the midterm elections. Will both parties be able to put aside internal fights to pull out a big win in November? That's next.


[15:23:19] WHITFIELD: As the fall midterms move closer, both parties are working to make their messages clear. The only problem so far, settling on what the messages should be. For Republicans, is it time to get on the Trump train? Governor John Kasich says that's been a problem in the run up to a special election in Ohio this week.


GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: The chaos that seems to surround Donald Trump has unnerved a lot of people. It's really kind of shocking because this should be just a slam dunk and it's not.


WHITFIELD: And for Democrats, it's not just about the 2018 midterms. Possible rivals to Trump in 20 are trying to set themselves ahead of the pack, like Senator Elizabeth Warren.


SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The rich and powerful profit when the government doesn't work for working people and they have learned that the best way to stop us from changing the system is to set working people against each other. So they have become the experts at the politics of division. Frankly, it might be the one thing that Donald Trump is really good at. That and kissing up to two-bit dictators. Yes.


WHITFIELD: All right. The question for both sides, shift to the extremes or battle for the middle? Joining me right now, Maria Cardona, CNN Political Commentator and Democratic Strategist, and Doug Heye, CNN Political Commentator and Republican Strategist. Good to see you both.



WHITFIELD: OK. So Maria, you first on the Democratic side. Here's what Congressional Candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says Democrats should be doing.


[19:25:00] ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D), CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE IN NEW YORK: Swing voters don't vote for the person who's moderate enough, the person who is most timid, the person who backs down from their starting point. That is not who the swing voter votes for. The swing voter votes for authenticity. The swing voter votes for the person they think is championing them the most. The swing voter votes for the person who thinks puts them first. And the swing voter, as was mentioned earlier, as I've been saying on the campaign trail, is not just red to blue, it's nonvoter to voter. That's our swing voter.


WHITFIELD: All right. So she's talking about the swing voter. You know, swinging for -- you know, voting for authenticity. You know, is she right? Is it, you know, not an issue of, you know, right down the middle?

CARDONA: No, I think she's exactly right. And I think the reason why Democrats have done so well up until now, we've swung from red to blue 43 state legislative seats. We won Conor Lamb's district. There are 119 districts that are more progressive than Conor Lamb's district. We only need to flip 23 of them in order to take over the house.

And the reason why Democrats were doing so well is because they are responding to the constituents in their districts, in their races. They are speaking to those voters.

WHITFIELD: And what are they saying?

CARDONA: It depends on what the district is. For example, you have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who, one, in her --

WHITFIELD: It sounds much better when you say it.

HEYE: I'm not going to try.

CARDONA: Thank you. Well (INAUDIBLE). But she will most likely win her seat. Why? Because she inspired. She was authentic to the voters in her district. Conor Lamb won his seat. Why? Because he was authentic and he spoke to the voters in his district. It doesn't have to be one side or the other. As long as you are speaking to the needs and the passions of the people in your district, you are going to do well.

And that's why I think Democrats are doing well because there are, I think, probably three themes that bring everything together. Health care. It is a huge issue in a lot of these districts because we see Republicans time and again trying to take health care away from millions of Americans. You have the economy. Even though the numbers might look good on paper, you have a lot of people who for which the economy is not doing them as good as it should. And you have this culture of corruption and the divisive politics that Elizabeth Warren was talking about.

WHITFIELD: And then Doug, you know, John Kasich sees it a different way. I mean, he says there are obstacles for both Republicans and Democrats. Listen.


KASICH: So, you know, I think Donald Trump decides where he wants to go. And I think they think they're firing up the base. But I have to tell you, at the same time he comes in here, I was with some women last night who said, hey, you know what, I'm not voting. And they're Republicans. I'm not voting for the Republicans. This is the problem the party has now.

The problem the Democrats have is I don't know what their message is, George. You tell me. It's sort of like anti-Trump but no message. You can't win elections if you don't have --


WHITFIELD: All right. So he is saying that both parties have an identity crisis. Do you see it that way?

HEYE: I do. And with Republicans, it comes down to me to, say, the first Friday of every month. When we generally get pretty good, if not outstanding, jobs numbers, or the previous Friday where we had a really good GDP numbers. This is what Republican congressional candidates want to talk about, they want to talk about growing jobs and growing wages.

And instead, the first Friday of every month, or as we're talking about today, we're not talking about jobs and the economy because Donald Trump has tweeted something.


HEYE: And what he hasn't tweeted is about how Republican policies or his policies are driving the economy, driving jobs, which is a great message for Republicans. Instead, we talk about all kind of weird things about Russia, which takes Republican candidates off message. But I will say also with AOC, which is I think an easier way to refer to her, at least for me --

CARDONA: You just don't want to say it.

HEYE: We have to be careful to that. I disagree a little bit with what Maria said. She's not speaking to the voters of her district. She's speaking to voters of Network Nations or in California or in the Mideast or in the Midwest. She is trying to be the international or national superstar for Democrats right now. She has a congressional race to win. And she needs to focus on that. Or she could catch herself by surprise.

WHITFIELD: So in other words, you're saying, you know, the message is being crafted also by the geography. It's not just about the economy, which really is a kind of universal, you know, concern, just as health care, you know, as you mentioned. But geography is going to make a big difference. So the strategy of the campaign, the message, Republicans and Democrats is going to be different.

CARDONA: I think that's exactly right. And even though Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is speaking to the progressives in the party and not necessarily literally speaking to them right now and not in New York, she is reflecting the reason why she got elected. And what she's trying to do, which I think is smart, is to fire up the progressive base. It doesn't mean that she's going to go and, for example, she's not going to be in Ohio this Tuesday in the special election we have there, right?

Again, it is all about geography. And you're going to speak -- Democrats are speaking to the issues and to the voters that are in their districts. But I think the reason why I believe Democrats have the advantage even though this is not going to be easy, it's not a slam dunk by any means, I don't like talking about a blue wave because we need every single voter we can get, and we cannot take anything for granted.

[15:30:13] But the reason I think that there is as much energy and mobilization as there is, is because for the most part, historically, midterms are about the President in power. And the President currently in power has horrible approval ratings. He is dividing American against American, ethnicity against ethnicity, socioeconomic status against socioeconomic status.

And you see in poll after poll that Americans want Congress to be a check on the President, not a blank check on the President, which is what a lot of spineless, cowardly Republicans that are in office right now in Congress and in the Senate have been doing. WHITFIELD: So, Doug, are there internal divisions within the party? Not just the Republican Party but Democratic Party too, which really might stand in the way of clear messaging?

HEYE: Sure. I mean, if you look at what happened in the New York primary, two very different visions of what the Democratic Party would be. And a bit of chickens before they're hatched with Joe Crowley.

But, again, this is where, you know, we're going to find out who is the most motivated and whether or not the Trump voter essentially acts as an Obama voter, meaning when their candidate is on the ballot, they are there and they are enthusiastic and motivated, but when their candidate isn't on the ballot, as we saw with Obama in 2010 and 2014, they don't show up.

And by comparison, when I worked at the Republican National Committee in 2010, our magic number for Obama was 46. We felt if he was below that, that we'd take back the House. He was at 45. Trump is obviously well below that.


HEYE: We also know there's a silent Trump vote, people who vote for Trump who don't want to say that they do. And then it's all going to come down to base motivation.


HEYE: This is not going to be about the middle.

CARDONA: Yes. But what's interesting about what you're saying is the other challenge I think we're seeing with Republicans are women. You see Republican women that are leaving the Republican Party in droves.

And what do we see on the front pages lately, Fredricka? The family separation issue. The family separation issue.


CARDONA: If you ask suburban Republican women, these disgusts you and you do not want to be affiliated with a party that supports that.

WHITFIELD: We'll see influential there --

HEYE: And we have Republican women on the ballot who are losing in very tough races.


HEYE: So whatever happens, we will have less women.

CARDONA: That's right. That's right.

WHITFIELD: Doug, Maria, we'll keep it there. Thanks so much.

CARDONA: Thanks, Fred. HEYE: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Appreciate it. All right. A fraying relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

President Trump is poised to impose new sanctions tomorrow, but does Iran still have leverage? That's next.

And from Enron to the sub-prime mortgage crisis to Bernie Madoff that is, sorry about that, Bernie, the 2000s were a time of economic turmoil. See how it all unfolded in a new episode of "The 2000s" tonight at 9:00 p.m.


[15:37:25] WHITFIELD: The U.S. is preparing to reimpose sanctions on Iran starting tomorrow. This phase targets manufacturing, but there's a bigger round coming in November aimed at oil sales.

And these are the first new sanctions to go into effect since President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement. At the same time, Iran's regime confirmed that it is conducting military exercises in a key shipping lane in the Persian Gulf.

With me right here is Aaron David Miller. He is a CNN Global Affairs Analyst and was an Adviser to the White House in his two decades at the U.S. State Department. All right. Good to see you.


WHITFIELD: Let's talk about these sanctions, you know, on the horizon, really right around the corner. How impactful might that be? Does that impose some leverage the U.S. might have over Iran?

MILLER: First of all, a lot of pain for the Iranian economy. The reality has plunged to record lows, inflation is up, and employment is up. Seventy percent of the purchasing power over the working class has declined over the last couple years.

So, yes, it's going to cause extreme economic dislocation. The real question is what's the purpose of this?

WHITFIELD: I was going to say, what's the idea?

MILLER: I mean, that's the whole point. Is it to moderate the regime's behavior and force it back to the negotiating table in terms of a more acceptable to the Trump administration? Or forget regime behavior modification? Is it to change the regime?

I'm not entirely sure. I think the administration would like to change the regime, but I don't think this is going to do it.

WHITFIELD: So when the President just days ago said, you know, "Yes, I am willing, you know, to meet," and I'm no psychologist, but the demeanor was a little different, you know. And the demeanor said, you know, I'm willing to talk as opposed to I am putting myself in a position where I'm going to talk to you.

Does that make a difference? How is it received from Iran's point of view after he's, you know, pulled the U.S. out of the agreement and then says, let's talk?

MILLER: Badly. The Iranians clearly -- and let's be clear. This is a repressive regime, a human rights abuser. So there's no brief for the Iranian regime vis-a-vis the Iranian public.

I think the President is right. I think we should be talking to the Iranians, if only to mitigate the possibilities of an inadvertent or even a willful confrontation, which I think would be a disaster, which you got to figure out what you're going to talk about. And having just resigned, taken the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal in May, there's great suspicion and profound mistrust.

So with an agenda, sure. The question is what is that agenda?

WHITFIELD: So these military exercises in the Strait of Hormuz, is this Iran's way preemptive to the sanctions to say, we will not be bullied with the Strait.

[15:40:06] MILLER: You know, these training exercises have been run for years, these pass exercises in the Gulf. And I think what's significant about this latest round is that far from sparking the possibility of a confrontation, people have decided on both sides to sort of low key this.

But yes, it's a demonstration, here we are. And we'll defend our interests to the extent that they're able to do that.

WHITFIELD: What's your prediction? Will the U.S. and Iran go to the table, go to the mat whichever way you want to look at it?

MILLER: You know, a lot of lot of people are predicting a la Kim Jong-un, a summit somewhere in the Middle East within the next year. Unpredictable, volatile administration. But I don't think so.

This is not North Korea. This is President Obama's agreement. And for that reason alone, I think this particular President is going to be very wary of staying away from an agreement and the Iranians.

WHITFIELD: Aaron David Miller, always good to see you.

MILLER: Fred, and you too.

WHITFIELD: Thanks so much. All right. The Catholic Church making its stance clear on the death penalty.

Next, more on the Pope's new ruling that could affect U.S. politics.


[15:45:32] WHITFIELD: Pope Francis never one to shy away from church reform has made a big change to the Catholic Church's official teachings. He has proclaimed the death penalty inadmissible in all cases because it is a "attack" on the inviolability and dignity of the person.

The pontiff went on to say that Christians should work with determination for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

Joining me right now, CNN Religion Commentator Father Edward Beck. Father, good to see you.


WHITFIELD: All right. So put this in context for us, how significant would this change be?

BECK: Fred, it's very significant because it used to be this small loophole in Catholic teaching that said if you needed to protect society against an unjust aggressor, that was the only reason, then possibly capital punishment was permitted. But we all know with modern incarceration means, you don't need to kill someone in order to protect society against the aggressor.

So Pope Francis has said, "No, this does not stand under no conditions. Everyone's human dignity must be respected, and they must not be put to death, no matter what the cause."

And so it's a big change because politicians and others who have used that little loophole, well, the church says that you can in this instance, they no longer have that. Pope Francis says there are no instances where it's permissible.

WHITFIELD: So any idea what provoked this change now?

BECK: Well, it's been coming for some time. I think you'll remember when Pope Francis was here in 2015. He spoke before Congress, and he said, "I want to work toward abolishing capital punishment worldwide." He said that to all those gathered.

But, you know, church teaching takes some time to evolve and to put into practice. John Paul II talked about it. Benedict talked about it. And now, finally, it is happening as legality, as part of the law of the church.

You know, I've heard, Fred, some say, well, it's probably to deflect from all the abuse stuff that's back in the news again. I'm not sure if politically that is a reason or not, but certainly it's a great opportunity to focus on where the church is supposed to be and the mission it's supposed to be about and Pope Francis has used that opportunity.

WHITFIELD: And he's a Pope that pays attention to politics. So meantime, 53 percent of Catholics in the U.S. support the death penalty. And there's also the Roman Catholic governor of Nebraska, Pete Ricketts, who has worked significantly on imposing the death penalty in his state.

In fact, Nebraska is scheduled to execute a prisoner named Carey Dean Moore in just nine days. So it would be the state's first execution in 21 years. And Ricketts has acknowledged the Pope's perspective but is proceeding with the execution.

So is there a way in which to kind of explain this conflict?

BECK: Fred, I have to tell you this really bothers me. I mean, Governor Ricketts, a Catholic is on, if you'll forgive me, very rickety moral ground. There is no moral ground for what he's saying.

This is a state in 2015 that abolished the death penalty. This governor worked with his own money. He put $300,000 of his own family money into a referendum to bring back the death penalty. This is a supposed Catholic now.

I'm sure he may have his reasons, but no one has been executed in Nebraska for 21 years. Now in seven days or ten days, they're going to execute somebody.

Guess who's up for re-election? Governor Ricketts. He has made capital punishment one of his platforms.

And so I can't help but think that this smells a little to me. I mean, this Governor -- not only this governor, but for him to call himself a Catholic and listen to the Pope, he can obey the law and he can give a stay of execution. He can grant clemency.

He doesn't have to execute somebody just because it's even the law of the state. But he's worked to make that there.

Pope Francis cannot agree that a politician, this Governor, can do in a way this one has.

WHITFIELD: Father Beck, thanks so much for being with us.

BECK: Thank you, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Now to some other top stories we're following right now. Crews are sifting through wreckage after a train derailed in Pittsburgh.

The freight train flew off the tracks, crashing into a port authority rail below right around 1:00. Officials say there were no injuries. All rail service into and out of the city is now suspended.

Officials anticipate a long rush hour tomorrow morning.

[15:50:08] And other stories. The childhood home of the late holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. The incident happened Friday right -- Friday night, rather, in Romania.

An investigation is under way and police already have a list of suspects according to the county council.

The National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania called the act, grow, task endangered an attack on all victims of the holocaust. And we now know that it was flat tires scraping the asphalt that sparked the catastrophic wildfire in California. There have been seven deaths from the Carr Fire, and the blaze is still spreading.

Crews from Australia and New Zealand are heading ride in California tomorrow to help firefighters battle the flames.

And you can see here just how quickly the fire is spreading. We've sped up this image for you, but take note of the dates turning in the top right corner. It moved fast, turning anything it touched into ash.

It is now the sixth most destructive wildfire in California's history and continues burning nearly two weeks later.

And the search for a missing toddler led to the rescue of 11 children who police say were living in "heartbreaking" conditions.

Police raided a makeshift compound in New Mexico, looking for a 3- year-old who has been missing since November 2017. There they found 11 children that official say looked like third world country refugees.

Their words, the kids range in ages from one to 15 years old. They were found living in conditions with no running water, no food, and wearing dirty rags for clothes. The missing toddler was not among the children found.

Two men and three women were taken into custody. And authorities believe the women are the children's mothers.

All right. Well, it's not only President Trump choosing some star- studded advisors.

Up next, the American celebrity chosen by Russian President Vladimir Putin.


[15:56:55] WHITFIELD: Well, another Hollywood star is finding his way into politics and the White House is no stranger to star power. Just last month, Kim Kardashian made her way into the Oval Office. Singers Kid Rock and Ted Nugent have visited the White House. Even rapper Kanye West had some time with the President inside Trump Tower in New York.

And it was actor Sylvester Stallone who convinced President Trump to pardon the late boxer Jack Johnson. But this time, an American actor caught the attention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

CNN's Matthew Chance has more.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It may be his controlled application of extreme violence that endears Steven Seagal so much to the Russian authorities. His direct to video movies like this one Driven to Kill about a Russian mobster are certainly popular.

The actor's latest role, though, as a diplomat seems strangely out of character. But the friendship between Seagal and Russia's real life tough guy President Vladimir Putin has been long standing.

The Russian leader himself a judo black belt, awarding the U.S. martial artist a passport in 2016 after Seagal had relentlessly asked according to Russian officials.

Seagal has also been an outspoken supporter of Russian policy, like it's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, even taking to the stage there in 2014, at a charity concert, which he hinted that his possible diplomatic role.

STEVEN SEAGAL, ACTOR: My greatest desire is to bring Russia and America together, it always has been. And music is the language of the gods, it's the one language that all people understand, it's the one language that brings all people together.

CHANCE: Bringing himself together with authoritarian leaders in the form of Soviet Union seems to have become something of a pass time.

This year, Seagal has been pictured eating carrots with President Lukashenko of Belarus, the last dictator in Europe and hanging out with Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin leader of Chechnya accused by human rights groups of committing appalling abuses.

Seagal has been involved in facilitating U.S.-Russian contacts too. Back in 2013, he says he played a role in bringing the U.S. congressional delegation to Russia in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing carried out by Chechen brothers.

SEAGAL: They asked me about that meeting and I knew about that meeting before they did. That's the truth.

CHANCE: The Russian foreign ministry likened Seagal's new role to that of a U.N. goodwill ambassador, adding that the martial artist turned actor turned diplomat received no salary for his contribution.

Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.


WHITFIELD: All right. Hello again, everyone. Thanks so much for joining me this Sunday from Washington, D.C. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.