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Trump Returns to "Campaign Trail"; Kremlin Denies It Meddled in U.S. Election; U.S. Vice President and German Chancellor to Meet; New Arrest in Death of Kim Jong-nam; Prosperity on the Streets of Pyongyang; Pruitt to Head EPA; Pro-Trump Luchador Earns Jeers and Cheers in Mexico. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired February 18, 2017 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Donald Trump left Washington for the weekend, but it is the vacancies in his administration that are triggering concern.

Meanwhile, in Munich, Vice President Pence will be speaking shortly, the White House hoping he will reassure European allies.

Later this hour, a surprising look at the cosmopolitan side of North Korea. Our Will Ripley was in the capital, Pyongyang.

Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us. I'm Cyril Vanier, live from Atlanta. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


VANIER: U.S. President Donald Trump is returning to a familiar and what's been a very successful setting for him after a turbulent first few weeks in office. Later on Saturday he will headline a campaign- style rally in Florida. The president is spending the weekend at his Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-lago.

His aides say he will be busy working on the effort to repeal ObamaCare and finding a new national security adviser. Athena Jones has more on the names in the mix.


ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there. The president is spending a third consecutive weekend here at Mar-a-lago in Palm Beach. A senior administration official says it will be a working weekend. All kicking off with the rally on Saturday afternoon at the Orlando Melbourne International Airport.

It will be a campaign-style rally, according to the White House, paid for by his campaign and something aimed at getting around the media filter that we've heard the president talk so much about and being able to talk directly to the people.

He's also going to spend some time meeting with potential replacements for his now former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

He is slated to meet with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton; also with Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster and with the acting national security adviser, Keith Kellogg, who is a retired lieutenant general.

The president's top aides are down here in Florida with him for the weekend. They will be joined by the newly confirmed Office of Management and Budget director, Nick Mulvaney, and also by the Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price, to talk about next steps when it comes to repealing and replacing ObamaCare and tax reform.

So that senior administration official making it clear that the president will not be vacationing here at his vacation home. Back to you.


VANIER: Athena Jones reporting there.

U.S. President Donald Trump has dismissed allegations of Russian contacts as "a ruse" and as "fake news." But Russian interference in U.S. politics is being taken seriously on Capitol Hill.

FBI director James Comey on Friday briefed U.S. senators in a closed door meeting about what Russia had been up to. At least three official investigations are expected. One Democratic senator said the Senate Intelligence Committee has already put safeguards in place to ensure that the White House does not destroy any relevant documents.

For Russian reaction let's bring in CNN's Clare Sebastian in Moscow.

Clare, that big question in Washington is how much contact the Trump campaign team had with Russian operatives.

Is there any information to be gleaned on that question in Moscow?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Cyril, it was interesting. When we asked the Kremlin about this news of these constant contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives earlier in the week, they basically pushed it back on the media, saying don't read your morning newspapers, it is difficult to distinguish fake news from real news and you shouldn't be listening to anonymous sources.

But they certainly didn't deny it and this is something that we have heard from high-ranking Russian officials in the past. They never made a secret of the fact that they said there were contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, certainly never suggesting there was anything unusual about it.

But I think it is interesting to look at that Kremlin response, how they pushed it back on the media because certainly something we are hearing, not just from the Kremlin but from other politicians here, is a sense of concern that both the media and Trump's critics in government might be putting pressure on him to turn away from Russia and that it might eventually become politically expedient for him to do so.

So at the moment the strategy here is to kind of keep a lid on it a bit, we're seeing less media coverage. The Kremlin, when asked to talk about the relationship yesterday, said, we never looked at it through rose-colored spectacles about how it would develop.

Certainly they're trying to keep quiet or quieter about it compared to the euphoria that we saw in the wake of Trump's election and his inauguration -- Cyril.

VANIER: I wonder, how is this affecting U.S.-Russia relations but how does it look at the moment?

I know it's all tentative at the moment but almost a month into Trump's presidency, how does that new relationship look like at the moment?

SEBASTIAN: Well, I mean we've seen very mixed messages certainly from the Russians' point of view coming out of Washington.


SEBASTIAN: Initially, of course, there was a lot of hope around statements from President Trump about how he might -- he might recognize Crimea, about how NATO was obsolete.

But certainly a lot of those hopes here have been shattered. We saw President Trump tweeting last week that Crimea was taken by Russia, suggesting perhaps that the Obama administration was too soft on Russia.

We've had Defense Secretary Mattis saying NATO was a fundamental bedrock for the U.S., and that certainly is something that Russia will be concerned about. There was a particularly strong response from Russia to those comments by Defense Secretary Mattis, saying that Russia should be approached from a position of strength. That was something the Russia defense minister called "fruitless" -- Cyril.

VANIER: All right, Clare Sebastian, reporting live from Moscow, thank you very much.

And a U.S. delegation is in Germany right now for the Munich Security Conference. Vice president Mike Pence is expected to have a formal meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel in a couple of hours.

After their respective speeches, Ms. Merkel expected to speak any moment now; we will keep an eye on that. This is Mike Pence's first overseas trip as vice president and it is meant to soothe unsettled European allies.

But it is not just Europe that is concerned. On Friday, U.S. Senate Republican John McCain slammed President Trump without using his name, saying the conference founders would be appalled.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZ.: What would von Kleist's generation say if they saw our world today?

I fear that much about it would be all too familiar for them and they would be alarmed by it. They would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism.

They would be alarmed by the hardening resentment we see towards immigrants and refugees and minority groups, especially Muslims. They would be alarmed by the growing inability and even unwillingness to separate truth from lies.

They would be alarmed that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.


VANIER: Let's bring in Nic Robertson now; he's in Munich, our senior international affairs editor. He joins us live.

Nic, I think there's concern from several parties on both sides of the Atlantic on how the big relations here between Europe and the U.S., between -- within the West are developing.

What your view on that?

Mike Pence here, essentially to try to bridge the divide right now that has begun to be created between Europe and the U.S.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, in way it is damage control. You heard (INAUDIBLE) secretary of state speaking earlier in the week about, really, to the European allies, to say that, while we're ready to work with Russia, we share the same concerns that Europeans have about what Russia is doing in the world right now, annexing Crimea, going into Ukraine.

All of these things, if you will, is what the Europeans want to hear. They heard from the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, earlier in the week as well, speaking at NATO, saying, you know, we support NATO; the alliance is important. We need to transition it and change it in some ways; we need more money.

But all of this is setting up the groundwork for what Mike Pence is doing. He is on the stage here in Munich with Angela Merkel, as you say, both about to give speeches.

We are told he will give a speech of reassurance, something that's going to follow on from Tillerson and from Mattis and reassure European allies about the importance of the relationship between the United States and Europe.

Why is that important?

It is because, Donald Trump, President Trump has been quite clear in so many things that he's said that he's not particularly interested in the unity of Europe, not particularly interested in NATO, thinks it is obsolete.

The message from the White House is trying to change that narrative but you think about some of the damaging things that President Trump has actually said in terms of the relationship with Europeans -- and specifically Angela Merkel.

He said she's been soft on the refugees. That was a mistake. His competitor, President Putin, he said that Germany is trying to take business away from the United States and unfairly sets the value of the euro too high.

So when you have statements like that, that have been very personal, Mike Pence is not just coming here to reassure the Europeans, he is here to rebuild those bridges with Angela Merkel and the Europeans incredibly worried, particularly when they hear as they saw just about 36 hours ago, President Trump giving a very long press conference.

There were elements of that that will worry them because they would realize that that would cost them political support in their own countries if they support President Trump, his message and some of the things he says are very unpalatable in Europe, particularly on the refugee issue.

So there's a lot of work for Mike Pence to do here.


VANIER: All right. Nic Robertson, senior diplomatic editor. Of course, we will want to find out how those speeches develop, what we glean from those speeches, both from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and from the U.S. vice president, Mike Pence as and when they happen. Thank you very much.

We are also following developing news this hour out of Malaysia. Authorities say they have arrested a fourth suspect in the suspicious death of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

This latest suspect is reportedly North Korean. Our Saima Mohsin is in Malaysia and she joins us now with the latest.

Saima, this investigation, we are learning in dribs and drabs since Monday and it is being fleshed out for us.

What do we know now?

SAIMA MOHSIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it does, Cyril, this is an Asia-wide murder mystery, as you know, involving several countries. So bear with me as I mention a lot of nationalities here.

The latest suspect, the fourth to be arrested, a man believed to be North Korean because he was carrying an ID card, it is called an ICAD, that basically allows foreigners to work in Malaysia.

It stated that he was a DPRK citizen and that he is 46 years old, Ri Jong Chol. Separately we have spoken to police ourselves, the team here in Kuala Lumpur, and he told us that he was arrested in a condominium. He didn't actually give us any information about whether he was in possession of anything.

We asked, you know, what did he have on him at the time, as they have mentioned other things in the past.

Now, of course, the first suspect to be arrested was a woman carrying a Vietnamese travel document at Kuala Lumpur International. Then a Malaysian man, arrested at his home, we believe. And it was him who led to the other suspect, the female from Indonesia, Siti Aishah.

Now interestingly, Indonesian police chief spoke to CNN and he told us that she believed she was involved in some kind of a prank, kind of like a just-for-laughs TV show. And apparently this is something she has done several times before for money.

And when she sprayed something, it was allegedly, according to him, a dangerous substance was in the sprayer but unbeknownst to her. She feels she was duped into being part of the plot -- Cyril.

VANIER: All right, Saima Mohsin, thank you very much. She has been keeping us updated on this investigation from Kuala Lumpur. Thanks a lot.

While this has been happening this week, North Korea has been celebrating what would have been the 75th birthday of late leader Kim Jong-il. The festival included fireworks and dancing.

But North Korea doesn't really have that much to celebrate. The country's per capita GDP ranks 211th in the world. It is known to have widespread malnutrition and starvation.

Fresh sanctions imposed last year will cost the country an estimated $800 million per year. But that isn't clear when you walk the streets of Pyongyang, as CNN's Will Ripley reports from inside North Korea.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a mocha, a cafe mocha.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They sip designer coffee, send text messages to friends.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How did it turn out?

RIPLEY (voice-over): Even take selfies.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, it looks good.

RIPLEY (voice-over): This could be any coffee shop in any city, not what you'd expect in Pyongyang.

"Even here in North Korea, during holidays or on weekends, we sit with friends, talk about work and life," says Ri Jyong Yee (ph), a commercial manager. North Korea watchers say this is light years away from how most people live in one of the poorest countries in the world.

RIPLEY: What do you think is the biggest difference between your life here in North Korea and the rest of the outside world?

"We're a socialist country. I think that's the main difference," says researcher Yun Sol Mi, a socialist country with a high end department store, selling everything from gourmet groceries to flat screen TVs, all despite unprecedented sanctions over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

Outside observers say this is not the norm, that life is vastly different in other parts of North Korea. The U.N. World Food Programme says millions face serious food shortages and many suffer chronic malnutrition.

"Pyongyang is the capital, the face of our country," says economist Ri Gi Song (ph).

"So it's true Pyongyang develops faster but our state policy is to grow both urban and rural areas simultaneously."

The nation's supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, promised to strengthen the military and economy at the same time. In the showpiece capital, we do see plenty of construction, new high-rise apartments, more cars on the streets.

RIPLEY: We see people with smartphones, with new clothes, new sneakers. The West would call these people middle class.

"Our society doesn't have a so-called middle class," he says.


RIPLEY (voice-over): "But in the near future, we hope to have everyone living above the middle class."

Ri says North Korea will never embrace capitalism. But in recent years, some private enterprise has been allowed in. Markets supplement what the state distributes. But Ri says some day those markets will disappear because the government will provide everything people need.

We don't know how the rest of North Korea lives. Those are places and people we're not allowed to see -- Will Ripley, CNN, Pyongyang.


VANIER: Isn't that great reporting from Will in Pyongyang?

Coming up after the break, the wrestling may be fake but the boos are real. How an American became Mexican wrestling's ultimate villain -- ahead.



VANIER: Welcome back. The U.S. Senate has confirmed President Trump's controversial pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Now Democrats and environmentalists call Scott Pruitt a climate change denier but Republicans have a different take on it. They say he will put a stop to years of bureaucratic overreach that has been killing jobs.

The head of one energy group said this, "We expect the EPA to return to sensible policies that both protect the environment and recognize the need for reliable and affordable coal-based electricity."


VANIER: We're joined now by Emma Ruby-Sachs, deputy director of Avaaz, a global activist movement coordinated mostly online.

One of the issues that matters most to your members is climate change. You are currently campaigning to, quote, "end public subsidiaries to dirty energy, keep fossil fuels in the ground and push for investment in renewable energy."

You cannot be happy about Scott Pruitt being confirmed as head of the EPA in the U.S.

EMMA RUBY-SACHS, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, AVAAZ: You know, in some ways it is not surprising. These are the promises that Trump made on the campaign trail.

But this guy, I mean, he smells of corruption. He has got really close ties to the fossil fuel industry. He questions whether climate change is real. He wants to roll back -- he's actually sued the EPA, I think, five times --


VANIER: It's more than that, I think it's at least a dozen times.

RUBY-SACHS: OK, well, you have got the numbers. It is not a good situation. This guy, he's going to try and dismantle the EPA from the inside out, is our best bet. But this is not a new thing. This is what Donald Trump has promised and it is a call to Americans and to the world to step up and fill the gap.

VANIER: What specifically are you worried about?

RUBY-SACHS: We had this incredible moment in Paris a couple of years ago. You know, I was there. And it was unbelievable to see every country in the world sign onto a path to 100 percent clean energy.

And undermining that, pulling out of that, eliminating the United States from the --


RUBY-SACHS: -- the global progress towards renewables, that's the worry I have.

And, honestly, I feel like, as Americans, we're scared of being left out of the global economy because the swoop towards renewable energies is happening anyways and we're going to be left behind if we don't act now.

VANIER: So you have got an environmental concern and actually a business, economic concern?

RUBY-SACHS: I think that's pretty clear. You know, there was an article that came out, a study that showed that renewable energies in the U.S. are creating double the number of jobs as the fossil fuel industry. That alone should make us worry.

But we've got China right now about to launch a whole carbon pricing system. And India is promising to get itself off of coal by 2050. These are major economies as well as major governments that are moving towards renewables really fast.

VANIER: But, you know, on the economic impact of this, there's at least one person who would disagree with you and that's the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell here in the U.S.

He was instrumental in pushing through the confirmation of Scott Pruitt. This is what he said and why he lauded Scott Pruitt as new head of the EPA. He said that Mr. Pruitt understands balance, the need for balance, when it comes to environmental action.

And by that he meant balance between protecting the environment but also helping the economy. He comes from a coal-rich state, where the economy depends on the coal industry.

Do you understand that argument and the need for balance?

RUBY-SACHS: You know what I do understand is that there is a whole world of people out there in the U.S. and around the world who are worried about how to feed their kids now. And for what they know and what we've seen in immediate impact, they're not sure that climate will have the same right-now effect on their ability to survive.

And what the economics are showing us and what the science is showing us is that renewable energy can lift them up, too, and they can be part of an economic future that's sustainable, that has growth. And that fossil fuels aren't going to help their children in the next 30 to 50 years. That fear, that very real fear --


VANIER: But you know, Mr. Mitch McConnell comes from Kentucky, those people, a lot of them make a living from coal.

So I guess you can't answer those people specifically, right?

Your answer is more global, if I understand correctly?

RUBY-SACHS: Well, it is definitely what is happening in the global economy. But if you look at India, for example, that was set to build 1,000 coal plants and now is shifting solely to renewables, they've made this bet, this transition, that says that their people will find more jobs and cheaper electricity if they move to renewables now.

And that's the same for the U.S. states. There's a transition time, there always is. But that immediate fear about jobs, that's not going to be solved by relying on an industry that is set to die globally. It will be solved by moving with the future and pushing renewables.

VANIER: All right, Emma Ruby-Sachs, deputy director of Avaaz, thank you so much for your time today.

RUBY-SACHS: Thanks a lot for having me.


VANIER: All right. We're going to look at what is happening on the West Coast of the United States now with Derek Van Dam from the CNN Weather Center because, Derek, we have this important story out of California, a storm that has turned deadly.

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Unfortunately, two fatalities already and we are starting to see the full brunt of the storm with visuals coming in to CNN. This is from one of our affiliates just outside of Los Angeles in Studio City.

A large sinkhole formed; two cars dropped into this 20-foot sinkhole. Firefighters arrived here and found one car upside down in rushing water, you can see there on your TV screens. Firefighters lowered a 20-foot ladder to the driver, allowing her to climb out to safety.

She explained she was in the vehicle when the sinkhole formed. She explained while she was driving, she felt the car pitch to the left; it tumbled into the sinkhole, the airbags deployed, water started coming in. She was able to climb onto the top of the car, where she screamed for help.

She thought she was going to die and then she heard the firefighters come to her rescue.

You can see the second car falling into the sinkhole as well. Fortunately, that driver was uninjured in the event, was able to escape without injury.

These are just some of the stories that are taking place right now in the U.S. state of California with this monstrous storm.

We have several swift water rescues taking place because we have experienced over 200 millimeters of rainfall in such a short period of time and there's more rainfall to come. Look at this drought buster just ongoing as we speak.


[03:25:00] VAN DAM: Take a look at this video of a landslide that was captured in the San Bernardino National Forest, something you don't get to see that often, fortunately. No one injured in this particular event.

VANIER: All right, Derek Van Dam, bringing us hourly updates on this story in California.


VANIER: Those pictures there --

VAN DAM: Very compelling.

VANIER: Fortunately, no fatalities in that particular situation.

VAN DAM: In that one, that's right.

VANIER: Derek, thank you very much.

Relations between the U.S. and Mexico have taken a hit under U.S. President Donald Trump. His hostile rhetoric has made him the ultimate bad guy for many Mexicans.

But for one American working in Mexico City, Mr. Trump has been a boon to business. Our Shasta Darlington has more, from the wrestling ring.


SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In today's Mexico, it's hard to dream up a more despised character for the lucha libre ring.


DARLINGTON (voice-over): A Donald Trump-loving gringo, who goes head- to-head with the country's beloved national heroes.

Sam Polinsky , a pro wrestler from Pittsburgh, came up with the idea after moving to Mexico 10 months ago.

SAM POLINSKY, LUCHADOR: You need to have the ultimate villain in order for the people to buy into it and really believe. Right now, there's no more an ultimate villain than Donald Trump.

DARLINGTON (voice-over): And so Sam Adonis, El Rudo de Las Chicas or The Ladies' Bad Guy, was born. He says if he voted, it probably would have been for Trump.

POLINSKY: I'm not the biggest fan of Hillary Clinton.

DARLINGTON (voice-over): But his character is just for show. Lucha libre is all about the bad guys. Mexicans love to hate them. The more vicious, the better. Thousands of fans pile into the Arena Mexico, looking for an escape.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking Spanish). DARLINGTON (voice-over): "Whether it's a good guy or a bad guy," he says, "you can shout and get everything off your chest."

"I come to release all of the tress from the week of work," says this man.

And the Trump-loving gringo, "He is a great character to have fun with," he says, "totally worth it."

Fans are rarely disappointed by the wild acrobatics as good guys battle evil. A string of over-the-top characters, like a snake-toting baddy and a mini blue gorilla.

DARLINGTON: When you're this close, you can actually see the sweat flying through the air.

Sam Polinski gets into character before each show, with bleached locks and a roll-on tan, fueling the anti-Trump fury, at least in the arena.

POLINSKI: Nine times out of 10, when I go in the arena, the same people that were cursing at me and screaming at me want a picture with me or want an autograph.

DARLINGTON (voice-over): But they still love to see him take a beating in the ring.


VANIER: All right. That's it. Thank you very much for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I'll be back with the headlines in just a moment. Stay with us.