Return to Transcripts main page


A Friend Of The Gunman Has Been Arrested On Federal Weapons Charges On The Dayton Shooting Massacre; President Trump And Anthony Scaramucci Exchanged Attacks On Twitter; Exclusive Interview With Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI); CNN Exposes Secret: Private Army That Does "Anything Putin Says." Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 12, 2019 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Authorities saying in a crucial purchase that allowed so many people to be gunned down so quickly.

Crackdown. As the Trump administration promises more controversial raids on undocumented workers, it is also taking new action that could dramatically cut the number of t could dramatically cut the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter and stay in the United States.

Too mooch drama. Former White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci says he is done supporting President Trump. What was the final straw? And does it matter to the president as he hits back at Scaramucci tonight?

And Putin's private army. CNN investigates a secret fighting force that is doing the strong man's bidding. Tonight, the Kremlin is so rattled that a key Putin ally is falsely accusing our courageous correspondent of being a spy.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I am Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We are following breaking news on the Dayton shooting massacre. A friend of the gunman has been arrested on federal weapons charges. Authorities say he admitted to buying items used in the attack, that includes the high capacity 100 round magazine that allowed the shooter to kill nine people and wound 27 others, in less than 30 seconds.

Also tonight, President Trump is lashing out after his response to the Dayton and El Paso shootings cost him support of a once loyal aide. Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci tells CNN he no longer supports Mr. Trump's reelection. And he thinks Republicans should consider replacing him at the top of the 2020 ticket.

This hour, I will talk with Democratic congressman David Cicilline. He is on the Judiciary Committee.

And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by. First, let's go to justice correspondent Jessica Schneider.

Jessica, what more are you learning about the arrest of the Dayton gunman's friend and his alleged role in the attack?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, prosecutors say this friend facilitated Connor Betts' access to the firearm accessory that was used in the mass shooting, plus the 100 round double drum magazine and body armor.

24-year-old Ethan Collie, he was closely tracked by investigators. FBI and ATF officials interviewed him hours after the shooting. And they found out that Ethan Collie was the one that purchased the upper receiver of the AR-15, plus the magazine and body armor, and then even stored it at his own apartment. Prosecutors are saying that Collie, by doing this, was helping Betts kept it all out of view from his parents.


BEN GLASSMAN, U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO: Collie indicated that he purchased these items for Betts and stored them at Collie's residence in order to assists Betts in hiding the items from Betts' parents.


SCHNEIDER: And prosecutors also revealed that Collie watched and then helped Betts assemble the AR-15. That was about ten weeks before the shooting. And that Betts picked up the drum magazine and the weapon and the body armor from Collie's apartment about six to eight weeks before the shooting.

Now prosecutors do not allege he knew about the plot in advance but they are now charging him with possessing a firearm while doing drugs, drugs they found in his apartment, and also lying about that drug use when he filled out forms to buy weapons.

And Wolf, prosecutors also say he is held in the county jail. And he does faces up to 15 years in prison for these charges.

BLITZER: We also got new information that attorney general Bill Barr is now considering legislation that would even make charges of mass murder more severe, the punishment would be even more severe.

SCHNEIDER: That's exactly right. And the attorney general talked about it today at a conference. The attorney general Bill Barr spelling out his plan to make mass shootings a capital crime that will eligible for the death penalty. This is something we did report shortly after both shootings in El Paso and Dayton. And now attorney general Barr says the proposed legislation will be put forward after labor day. It is something that's currently under consideration at the justice department. Will have to be passed by Congress.

And Barr says that this really comes from a direct order from the President to look at ways to measure and address mass shootings and domestic terror attacks, including developing tools to assist in detecting potential mass shooters, Wolf, before they strike. But of course this would have to be passed by Congress. This is something that would likely go to Congress for consideration sometime in early to mid-September.

BLITZER: We will see what happens on that front.

Jessica Schneider, reporting. Thank you.

And now to President Trump and the fallout for his handling of the Dayton and El Paso shootings.

Let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the President returned to twitter tonight after his once loyal defender, Anthony Scaramucci, said enough is enough.

[18:05:06] JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And just this afternoon President Trump and Anthony Scaramucci exchanged attacks on twitter. The President said Scaramucci just wants to be on TV. Scaramucci says the President has lost his fastball.

But the White House is also firing back. Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham is accusing Scaramucci of acting in a self serving way. But now that the mooch is loose, the question is whether other Republicans will follow.


ACOSTA (voice-over): It is a mooch mutiny as former White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci is bolting from Trump world, announcing he will not back the President in next year's election.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I think you have to consider a change at the top of the ticket when someone is acting like this.

ACOSTA: The reasons, Scaramucci points to his handling of mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton and his divisive rhetoric.

SCARAMUCCI: He is giving people a license to hate, to provide a source of anger, to go after each other, and he does it on his twitter account. So let's just stop for a second and think about this.

ACOSTA: That rare scathing criticism from Trump loyalist turned defector after the President slammed Scaramucci over the weekend tweeting, Anthony who would do anything to come back in should remember the only reason he is on TV and it is not for being the mooch.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham says Scaramucci is just out for attention, saying in a statement he worked at the White House for less than two weeks, and is certainly no expert on this president. This is also of self serving on his part and the media plays into it. It is embarrassing to watch.

But the President's critics say Mr. Trump has learned little from the El Paso shooting and is still targeting Latinos, noting new administration policy aimed at making it tougher for legal immigrants to receive government assistance like food stamps.

KEN CUCCINELLI, ACTING DIRECTOR, UNITED STATES CITIZENSHIP AND IMMIGRATION SERVICES: We are simply making a fact that what Congress had already put o the book. So there's no reason for any particular group to feel like this is targeting them. This will apply across the board.

ACOSTA: Announcing the change, top immigration official Ken Cuccinelli predicted there will more ICE workplace raids like the operation last week in Mississippi which left migrant children in tears.

CUCCINELLI: I think you can expect to see more of that as part of the message this administration. We are going to enforce the law.

ACOSTA: On vacation in New Jersey, the President isn't taking a break from twitter, retweeting a wild, unproven conspiracy theory over the weekend that the Clintons were somehow behind the apparent suicide of sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The retweet is part of this long pattern of spreading false conspiracy theories.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: I think the President just wants everything to be investigated, perhaps there's public interest in knowing more about that. But again, this is all speculative and is not for me to go further than where the DOJ and FBI are right now.

ACOSTA: One actual occurrence that isn't getting much attention from the President, the fact that it has been two years since white supremacist violence that erupted in Charlottesville, one of the low points of the Trump presidency.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Excuse me. Excuse me. You had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.


ACOSTA: It is not clear whether Scaramucci's defection from Trump world will much effect on the rest of the Republican Party. The President has spent much of his vacation so far fundraising and planning for a rally in New Hampshire later on this week. The reality is that the White House has weathered other high profile defections in the past. They have not resulted in some sort mass exodus inside the Republican Party, Wolf.

BLITZER: Important point indeed. Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Congressman David Cicilline, he is Democrat who serves on the judiciary and foreign affairs committees.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. We now know, as you just heard, that the Dayton shooter had a friend buy the high capacity magazine and body armor used in the attack.

First of all, do you support a ban on high capacity magazines like these?

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D-RI): Yes, Wolf. Actually, I'm the sponsor of the assault weapons ban legislation which currently has 196 co- sponsors, it includes a ban on high capacity magazines. Absolutely, these are weapons of war that don't belong in neighborhoods of communities. They ought to be banned, period.

BLITZER: But is there bipartisan agreement on this? It sounds like a lot of Democrats are with you, but what about Republicans?

CICILLINE: Yes. We don't have Republican support. But I mean, the important thing to remember, Wolf, we passed two important pieces of gun safety legislation in February. Some of the first legislation we passed. Universal background checks and closing the Charleston loophole.

Universal background checks is important because background checks work. Since they have been put into place, three million gun sales have been denied to people that are disqualified from possessing a firearm because they have a criminal conviction or some other disqualifying information. So we know they work.

But one in five guns is purchased without background check. That's where legislation would fix. It have been sitting on Mitch McConnell's desk since February. The Senate ought to come back and pass those two bills, and then the House would send over many more proposals to reduce gun violence in this country. But Mitch McConnell needs to do his job, bring the Senate back into session. They have been sitting on his desk for months.

[18:10:13] BLITZER: He made it clear they are not coming back during the recess which continues until around mid-September.

There's been some talk, as you know congressman, of your committee, the Judiciary Committee returning to Washington during the summer recess to vote on gun control measures. So would that put pressure, do you believe, on the Senate majority leader to act?

CICILLINE: Absolutely. It would give us an opportunity to remind the American people that we have passed two important gun safety measures that will save lives that are sitting on Mitch McConnell's desk. And then if the Judiciary Committee comes back, we can pass some addition gun safety legislation, send that to the floor as well to keep pressure on Mitch McConnell.

We have a gun violence epidemic in this country. And it is time Mitch McConnell is willing to stand up to the power of the gun lobby, and do what's right for the country. So I hope by coming back and passing additional legislation on the committee, it will give us opportunity to keep more pressure on the Senate Republican leader to act.

The American people expect us to do something to reduce gun violence in this country. There is a lot of common sense proposals that we can send over to the Senate. We sent two already. And hopefully that keep pressure on him.

BLITZER: I also want your thoughts, congressman, on the Trump administration's new immigration rule announced today. This will penalize legal immigrants that use public services like food stamps, Medicaid. If it is harder to immigrate legally, could this actually incentivize illegal immigration?

CICILLINE: Yes, it pierces a hole in the President's claim that he is focused on immigration. Because his announcement today focuses on legal immigration. People come to the country the right way, who follow the law, and he is attempting to reduce their access to this country or their ability to stay here.

This is part of his effort to demonize immigrants, to undermine what we know, that this is a country built by immigrants that were stronger because people all over the world come to America to build a better life for themselves and their family. We are all immigrants to America. And this really does expose the President's real objective here. And that's to demonize communities of color, to demonize immigrants, to make it more difficult for people to come to America.

And he is really betraying the great history of our country. But we see this really as part of ongoing efforts to demonize immigrants because he thinks it plays to his base and he thinks it is advantageous politically.

BLITZER: It follows the immigration raids that we saw in recent days in Mississippi. The acting commissioner of customs and border patrol defended those raids on CNN Sunday saying illegal immigration is not a victimless crime. How do you respond?

CICILLINE: Well, I think what we all want of course is comprehensive immigration reform that gives people a path to citizenship. We have already passed legislation to protect dreamers, to protect individuals on temporary protective status. That's also sitting in the Senate awaiting action. We need to do a comprehensive immigration bill.

But look, we benefit from immigrants coming to this country that make extraordinary contributions here in my state and all across America. We are a country that was built by immigrants. And we ought to be fixing the broken immigration system to give people a pathway to citizenship, to secure our borders.

But these raids are heartless and cruel. You notice the President doesn't go after the employers who are exploiting and taking advantage of workers. But he is going after and breaking up families, people whoa re coming here working, trying to do better for their families, fleeing unspeakable violence, and I think, you know, not allowing individuals to access the asylum system. This is wrong. This is not who we are as a country. It undermines the founding values of America.

BLITZER: Congressman Cicilline, you serve on the Judiciary Committee. I want your reaction to Jeffrey Epstein's death. This is someone that was a key figure in an investigation with enormous implications. How could he die in federal custody? CICILLINE: It is really very, very disturbing. Look, I was a

criminal defense lawyer before I got in politics. And the notion that someone who attempted suicide would be taken off suicide watch is just incredible. Just does not happen. And it is hard to explain the circumstances of his death in light of his attempted suicide.

I hope Mr. Barr is serious when he says it will be thoroughly investigated. There are serious irregularities here. We ought to all be concerned. Obviously, the most important part is that the victims of his crimes will ever see full justice, won't have their day in court. But I hope the attorney general will seriously investigate this. And I think the Judiciary Committee will play a role if we have any sense that this is not reviews thoroughly.

BLITZER: Congressman Cicilline, thanks so much for joining us.

CICILLINE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

All right. We are going to have more on breaking news on the Dayton shooting.

Also ahead, we are learning more about the El Paso massacre and how the suspect's manifesto was in influenced by the President and right wing media.

And stand by for a CNN exclusive. An army for hire that is secretly working for Vladimir Putin. The story is making the Russians so nervous, they are spreading lies about our CNN correspondent.


BLITZER: We are back with breaking news. As a friend of the Dayton gunman is arrested on federal weapons charges. Authorities say he admitted to buying the 100 rounds used in the slaughter as well body armor for the shooter.

Let's bring in our analyst.

And Dana Bash, does this development add some major momentum now in the battle over gun control?

[18:20:13] DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It could, Wolf, but you know, you just never know with this topic, with this atmosphere in Washington. Yes, we have seen and heard more forward leaning president, a more forward leaning White House, and even under severe intense pressure maybe I would say a toe in the water of more gun control from the Senate Republican leadership.

But the reality is that with this kind of thing, momentum tends to build fast and you tend to need to seize on it when moments like this happen. And the Senate majority leader has made clear he is not going to bring back Congress before labor day.

So two weeks, three weeks doesn't seem like a lot of time, but when the political forces have been, you know, against any kind of gun control for so long, it is hard to see this particular development. Now, it could be this on top of everything that we saw last week

possibly, but I have been in and around these debates too long to bet on one thing or series of things really changing the minds of people in Washington.

BLITZER: Very important point indeed. I have been around a long time and agree with Dana.

You know, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, with us from NPR. Lulu, we are seeing more of the scrutiny of the under the investigation of the El Paso shooting. You saw the review in "New York Times" over the weekend. They found hundreds of examples where the rhetoric in that so-called manifesto was reflected in the right wing media in earlier stances. Is this more widespread than people thought?

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, NPR'S WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY: I think it is. And I think what we have to understand about what's going on is when the President speaks, when his words are echoed in right wing media, there are people listening. There are people listening who will act on it. There are also people listening all over this country.

And I was talking to a Latino Trump supporter on my show. And I was interested in what he was hearing from the President at this particular moment. What were his thoughts about what was happening since his community had been targeted. And he said I only hear what I want to hear.

So there is two things going on. Some of the people who support him only hear what they want to hear. And some who support him are actually listening to these words and acting on them.

BLITZER: Elena, the President's role, supposed role in stoking these kinds of anti-immigrant feelings has turned off one of his earlier supporters, Anthony Scaramucci. But the rhetoric from the President over the past two-and-a-half, three years really hasn't changed much.

ELENA PLOTT, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE ATLANTIC: I think that really is the most salient point when discussing Anthony Scaramucci kind of turning on this president. And you know, from the moment that Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign, he was, you know, using racial animus a kind of the bedrock of his appeal.

And for somebody like a former senior White House official to only say now that he feels turned off by the President's rhetoric, you have to wonder is this another moment when you have Republicans as this administration nears the end of a first term and perhaps beginning of a second, at what point did they feel it is strategic for them to cut ties with this president.

BLITZER: And Joey Jackson is with us. Two years ago today as all of us remember, Heather Haier was killed by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville who used this card that mowed her down and go after other counter protesters. The President said at the time, they were quote "very fine people on both sides." We have been hearing this kind of rhetoric for years now. So why now? Why do you think Scaramucci acted now? JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think he acted because it is

time. And you know what, I give him credit for doing that. I know he is not an elected official and that's no matter. The fact is that he is an influential member of the Republican Party.

I'm waiting for other people to step up and other people to act and other people to show some courage. And there's time to exhibit courage and there is time to exhibit leadership. If ever there was a time, it is now. How dare the President at that time equate moral equivalency between these two groups.

You know, Wolf, I remember we used to have a president, could be Republican, could be Democrat, but they stood for America. They stood for the people. They stood for the values we all stand for. And I also remember John McCain.

You remember that debate with Obama when someone went asked Obama that he is an Arab. What you hear McCain say, no, he is a fine man, he is a decent man, he is good family man. We have fundamental disagreements on policy. And that's where it should be.

And this whole issue of demonizing people of color, demonizing, you know, immigrants and Mexicans coming from drug countries and infestation, going you know, (INAUDIBLE), it is just despicable, it is deplorable. And I would hope that other members of the Republican party would rise up and say something about it. If ever there was a time, Wolf, the time is now.

[18:25:13] BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There is more we are going to be discussing.

But we will take a quick break. We will be right back.


[18:28:58] BLITZER: We are back with our experts. As the Trump administration today has announced the new rule that could dramatically limits legal, legal immigration into the United States.

Lulu, let's talk about this. It is going to make it harder for low income legal immigrants in the United States to stay in the United States. And it seems to be an effort by the President to go forward with what he calls a merit based system.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what's really interesting about this is first of all it is going to have an absolute chilling effect. I mean, this is something that was in the works a long time. The President's adviser Stephen Miller has been really putting a lot of effort into getting this going.

And from the many immigration lawyers and experts that I have spoken to, they all say the same thing. This really, really will have dramatic impact on legal immigration in this country. So people who might be going and having a hard time, who need food stamps, now they may not want to go and get them. The won't want to feed their families because they are afraid that that is going to jeopardize their legal entry into the country. So that's the first part of this.


The second part of this is that I don't think we can talk about it without looking at exactly what we've seen from this administration from the day one. You've started with the Muslim ban. You've seen just restrictive immigration policies across the board, TPS, every single step of the way, there has been a limiting of immigration. This is one more part of this.

And the president says he wants a merit-based immigration system. There is merit-based immigration in this country already. The H-1B visa is for high-performing people that come to this country, and that's been limited too. So we've seen limits every single step of the way. And I think that this is just part of that.

BLITZER: Let me get Dana to weigh in. What do you think, Dana?

BASH: Absolutely. I mean, it is no secret that some of the president's advisers, Stephen Miller, the leader on this, have been trying to not just deal with illegal immigration, but legal immigration specifically those -- in those areas from those countries that do come to the United States and require some assistance to get started perhaps.

There's the merit-based question. There's also back when I guess it was a couple years ago at this point, the president was talking to Democrats about comprehensive immigration legislation.

One of the things that the president and his team in particular wanted to do was end so-called chain migration, so somebody who is in America more easily bringing members of their family along. This new rule done with the stroke of a pen, not with Congress, would also -- would be able to probably curb that chain migration that the Trump administration couldn't get through Congress couldn't because the deal fell apart.

So this is not just important to look at on this specific granular level of this new rule but also the big level, which is that this is another example of this president doing -- making changes without Congress, the kind of changes that when Barack Obama used executive authority, Republicans who now support this president threw up their arms and said he was acting like a monarch.

BLITZER: Joey, will we see legal challenges to this announcement today?

JACKSON: Without question, Wolf, and we should. I mean, it's nasty, it's inhumane, it's un-American. Already, we've heard from the New York State attorney general saying she would go after it and file challenges to protect all immigrants, the immigrant population in New York, presuming that others throughout the state, other attorney generals. In addition, the immigration law center will do so, and they should.

And to Dana's last point, an excellent one, and that is that, look, the fact is that we have Congress and Congress enacts policy. Remember, they are the people who make laws and pass laws and the president simply enforces the laws. And so I think it's certainly an exceeding of that authority.

And I also think you're not treating people in a fashion which affords the Constitution. People are entitled to equal protection under the law.

And I just don't get and can't wrap my head around this vitriol surrounding immigration. We're going -- we're doing raids and we're pulling people out of places, separating children from their parents, and not only with regard to the last child separation, but you've seen it on T.V., where these raids are, kids are just beside themselves because their parents are gone. Something needs to be done. It will be subjected to legal challenge.

And I am hopeful that the legal will succeed and there will be another challenge, and that's in 2020, and that will change immigration policy a lot. It's called the next election.

BLITZER: You know, Elena, there was this huge immigration raid in Mississippi in recent days, and it's caused a lot of heartache when you saw that one little girl, for example, crying she misses her daddy.

PLOTT: I think you raise the Muslim ban. It's important to remember how that was choreographed by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon at that time. It was choreographed in such a way without interagency coordination, anything like that, so, as to effect, maximum chaos. Of course, we remember that the airports were entirely off guard. It was absolute mayhem.

And this is sort of the same thing. I think when evaluating this administration's immigration policy and what seems to be an entire lack of compassion surrounding it, choosing the very first day of school for these children to initiate --

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A week when there's been attacks.

PLOTT: Exactly. To initiate raids, arrest their parents away from them, it gets to a point where you have to accept the reality that it's not coincidental.

BLITZER: Yes, there's a lot going on. Everybody stick around, there's more news we're following, including CNN's exclusive report on a secret militia that does what Vladimir Putin wants. We're going to tell you how we know this story is getting under the skins of top Russians.



BLITZER: Now to the investigation of Jeffrey Epstein's apparent jail cell suicide. CNN has learned that the financier and convicted sex offender wasn't checked for hours before his death. Our National Correspondent, Brynn Gingras is joining us from New York. Brynn, the attorney general of the United States says he is appalled by what happened.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, appalled and angered, Wolf. Now, we know that Epstein was supposed to be checked on every 30 minutes, according to a source. But as you just said, he was left alone for hours, and that goes against protocol.

Now, this particular correctional center, we're told, has a great reputation. It's actually considered one of the best run facilities in the Bureau of Prisons system.


However, obviously, something went wrong here.

We're told from a source that the DOJ was told about the fact that Epstein was taken off suicide watch. However, again, Barr says he's angry and ordered a full investigation.


WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I was appalled and indeed the whole department was and frankly angry to learn of the MCC's failure to adequately secure this prisoner.

GINGRAS: Attorney General William Barr not mincing words today on the apparent suicide of multimillionaire and registered sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, inside New York City federal lockup.

BARR: We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation.

GINGRAS: The Justice Department inspector general and the FBI launched investigations this weekend. A source tells CNN it's believed Epstein hanged himself while in a special housing unit a month after federal prosecutors accused him of paying and recruiting girls as young as 14 to have sex with him in two states.

Three weeks ago, Epstein was placed on suicide watch after prison guards found him with marks on his neck, but a source tells CNN Epstein wasn't on suicide watch this weekend. Regardless, protocol requires prisoners have cell mates shortly after coming off suicide watch, according to the source, but Epstein was alone.

The prison also calls for guards to check on inmates like Epstein every 30 minutes. But the source adds the two guards charged with watching Epstein were both working overtime shifts. Bureau of Prisons would not comment.

BARR: We will get to the bottom of what happened and there will be accountability.

GINGRAS: As for the federal investigation into Epstein's alleged crimes, the Southern District of New York closed the case against Epstein but continues to look into employees and associates who may have helped him recruit young girls.

To those victims who were denied justice when Epstein died, Barr had this to say.

BARR: Let me assure you this case will continue on against anyone who was complicit with Epstein. Any co-conspirators shouldn't rest easy. Victims deserve justice and they will get it.


GINGRAS: And as for those victims, it's unclear if any of them will see any of Epstein's millions. But civil lawsuits continue to be filed, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brynn Gingras in New York for us with the latest, thank you.

Just ahead, CNN's exclusive new reporting on the secret fighting force that's doing whatever Vladimir Putin wants around the world. Stand by for stunning details. Russian officials are so unnerved, even before this report airs that a key Putin ally is trying to try to smear CNN's courageous Correspondent, Clarissa Ward. She is standing by live, she will join us next.


[18:47:39] BLITZER: Tonight, exclusive CNN reporting exposing a secret private army that does the bidding of Russia's Vladimir Putin. CNN has learned the reach of the shadowy fighting force is expanding, apparently led by a Putin ally, linked to U.S. election interference.

We are joined by our Chief International Correspondent, Clarissa Ward.

Clarissa, you have been doing some very important brave recording on this. Tell us what you learned?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, everybody knows that hybrid warfare is one of the most valuable tools Russian President Vladimir Putin has in his arsenal, whether it's misinformation campaigns, election meddling as the U.S. saw in the 2016 election or increasingly the use of mercenaries. Russian mercenaries are popping up as we learned in countries across the globe, often unstable countries.

They are being used to boost Russian influence, but also to outmaneuver geopolitical rivals, such as the U.S. And, officially, the Kremlin says they have nothing to do with these mercenary groups, whatsoever. But we sat down in a television first with a former fighter with notorious group Wagner Group and he told us a very different story.


WARD (voice-over): This is Oleg. For years, he says he worked as a hired gun in Syria for a shadowy Russian mercenary group called Wagner, that has become a valuable tool for the Kremlin. OLEG, FORMER WAGNER FIGHTER (through translator): Wagner is Putin's

instrument for resolving issues by force. When action has to be taken immediately, urgently, and in the most concealed way possible. I cannot say it is an army in the proper sense of that word, it's just a fighting unit that will do anything that Putin says.

WARD: This is the first time a former Wagner employee agreed to speak on camera. And Oleg asked us to disguise his identity.

Private military contractors are illegal in Russia. Officially, Wagner doesn't exist. But CNN has discovered that the group now has hundreds of fighters operating on three different continents and this is the man believed to be behind that expansion, dubbed Putin's chef because of lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin, Yevgeny Prigozhin is also sanctioned by the U.S. for funding the Internet Research Agency accused of meddling in the 2016 election.

[18:50:05] OLEG: I'm a mercenary, and 90 percent of participants of the company were like me, and they were motivated by money.

WARD (on camera): What sort of training was it? Where did it take place?

OLEG: You know, I didn't have any training as such, not then anyway. I spent six days in the training camp in Molkino. I went to a firing range twice, and shot a machine gun once. That was it.

WARD (voice-over): CNN traveled to the remote village of Molkino to try to get to Wagner's training camp and found that the group has a surprisingly close relationship with the Russian military.

(on camera): The only way to get in to the Wagner barracks is to get through that check point which is manned by the Russian military, because this actually belongs to a Russian special forces unit.

(voice-over): Not far from Molkino, there is a monument to fallen Wagner fighters. Visitors are not welcomed, so we approached with a hidden camera.

(on camera): It looks less like a memorial than a fortress.

(voice-over): A guard soon comes up to us.

Is the church only for Wagner, I asked. I don't know for whom, he says. For the people who were in Syria, I pressed him. I don't know, I'm telling you, he says. I'm just guarding here.

He begins to get suspicious of our questions, and we decide to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, he's going to call. Let's go.

WARD (on camera): Yes.

They didn't let us inside, which is not surprising, because in that compound is the only tangible, visible proof that Wagner is real.

(voice-over): No surprise, perhaps that the monument is funded by a Prigozhin-owned company.

It was five years ago in Crimea that mysterious, unidentified fighters dubbed little green men helped Moscow wrest the province from Ukraine even as the Kremlin feigned ignorance.

It was a success and Moscow's use of mercenary forces has since grown. Analysts say none of this could happen without Putin's approval.

(on camera): Do you think that part of the mission of Wagner is to help Russia restore its role to become a major global superpower again?

OLEG: Yes, one hundred percent. This is the top priority for Wagner.

WARD: And so, it's trying to be a rival to America?

OLEG: Russia is trying to suppress the U.S. in every way possible using legal and illegal means. It's trying to smash it, get the better of it somehow. What will come of it as a result? Nothing good, I think.

WARD (voice-over): But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wagner is still a worthwhile gamble, an expendable fighting force with no accountability.


WARD: Now, CNN has tried, of course, to reach out to Yevgeny Prigozhin through his lawyers. We received no response. We also wanted to contact the Wagner Group, but given that they don't officially exist, they don't actually have an address or an e-mail or a phone number.

And, finally, Wolf, we also tried to reach out to the Russian minister of defense and perhaps no surprise there, we also did not receive a response.

BLITZER: Remind our viewers about Yevgeny Prigozhin, Clarissa, and why is he a concern for the United States?

WARD: Well, there is a real concern for the United States, because this is a man who is very close to the Kremlin, who has been sanctioned for his role in meddling in the U.S. election, who was believed to be behind the troll factory as it became known, that was pumping out misinformation to American voters and indeed to voters in many countries across the world. And now, it's also believed he is indeed behind these mercenary groups and specifically this Wagner Group.

And he is behind another propaganda outlet that put out a 15-minute video essentially disparaging our work and our team's work that we did for a second part in this series. The question becomes, Wolf, is Yevgeny Prigozhin simply a front man for the Kremlin? And, you know, some analysts believe that's the case. But one thing that all analysts agree on is that Prigozhin could not be doing what he is doing certainly at least without the blessing of the Kremlin, Wolf. BLITZER: We get to that video in a moment, but why would he build a

mercenary army for Putin to use?

WARD: Well, there is a number of reasons. The number one reason, though, is plausible deniability. If something bad happens, if something goes wrong, the Kremlin can shrug and say, it's nothing to do with us. And they did just that. In Syria, 100 Wagner fighters or thereabouts were killed by U.S. airstrikes after they launched a very full, hearty attack on a U.S. base -- supported base in Syria.

[18:55:00] And the Kremlin essentially said it's got nothing to do with us. Number two, Wolf, they're cheap and they're expendable. They're an expeditionary force. They're kind of an experiment. They don't have to be very good at what they do as long as they're able to secure oil fields or secure diamond mines.

And they can be used for all sorts of military adventures. And that's what we're seeing now and what we'll be talking about in part two tomorrow, looking at their expansion into Africa, Sudan, Central African Republic. This is not stopping anytime soon.

BLITZER: Your reporting -- and it's excellent reporting, Clarissa -- already has struck a major nerve, judging by the elaborate Russian smear campaign that's been now leveled against you personally.

WARD: Yes, we were a little surprised. I mean, all of us in this industry at this stage I think are familiar with the Russian propaganda machine. What was striking about this video was that it was 15 minutes in length, a lot of it showing hidden camera footage that had clearly been taken of our team as we were working in the Central African Republic, footage of us in our hotel lobby, footage of us at the airport, footage of a man in my hotel room after we had left claiming that I was sitting on a chair and offering him hundreds of dollars to essentially as a bribe to say bad things on camera about the Russians.

It's very clear that they went to great lengths to produce this piece of material. And one can only assume, Wolf, that that's because our reporting has hit something of a nerve. But this is important. And I'll tell you, because three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic just a year ago working on a story about the activity of Russian mercenaries.

That's why we went, and that's what we will be bringing you the next part of our series tomorrow night -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're looking forward to it. Great reporting. Clarissa, thank you so much for that report.

We're going to have much more news right after this.


BLITZER: Finally, it's been exactly two years since the racist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended in a neo-Nazi driving his car into protesters, counterprotesters, I should say, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Two state troopers policing the protests also died in a helicopter crash.

In Charlottesville, mourners have been visiting the site of the rally. Tonight, a service is being held to honor those who stand up to white supremacy. And as Americans are grieving once again for victims of racist violence, this time in El Paso, we were struck by a pledge made by children who visited the Charlottesville memorial. They vowed not let race or gender determine their actions, promising and I'm quoting now: I will see people for who they are and not for who I want them to be.

May those words take hold, and may Heather Heyer's memory and the memories of those lost in the senseless violence be a blessing.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can always tweet me and Instagram me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNsitroom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.