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White House Denies Wrongdoing in FBI Conversations About Russia Reporting; U.S. Soldiers Help Iraqi Troops Near Front Lines; Kim Jong- nam Killed with VX Nerve Agent; Miracle Surgery Gives Wyoming Man a New Face. Aired 12-12:30a ET

Aired February 25, 2017 - 00:00   ET


[00:00:00] CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR: Another attack on the media from Donald Trump. It's been a ruckus day between the U.S. president and the press.

Plus deadly and fast. Dr. Sanjay Gupta looks at the lethal substance at the center of the murder mystery of Kim Jong-un's half brother.

And a miracle surgery. A man shows a new face to the world after doctors spent 50 hours recreating his features.

Hi, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier in Atlanta.

Senior White House officials are pushing back against CNN's exclusive reporting denying any wrongdoing in asking the FBI to speak out against reports of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians. The administration confirms it spoke to the FBI about those communications but in an unprecedented move White House press secretary Sean Spicer blocked CNN and other news organizations from an informal press briefing on Friday.

We've got a lot of ground to cover. Let's begin with CNN's Jim Sciutto.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight the White House vehemently defending, asking the FBI to deny reports of communications between Trump campaign associates and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

The administration's intense pushback follows CNN's exclusive reporting of the White House request. Senior administration officials insisting it only asked for the denial after a top FBI official himself volunteered that "The New York Times"' story on those communications was inaccurate.

White House officials, who asked not to be named, today outlined their timeline of events, saying, the conversation happened on February 15th, after a 7:30 a.m. meeting led by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe asked Priebus for five minutes alone after the meeting ends.

This according to senior administration officials and calls a report linking Trump campaign advisers to Russian intelligence total B.S.

Priebus, the White House says, asked McCabe, quote, "Can we do anything about it?" And whether there is something the FBI can do to, quote, "set the record straight." Later, in separate conversations, McCabe and FBI Director James Comey tell Priebus the FBI cannot comment on the reports.

Priebus then asks Comey if he can cite McCabe and Comey as, quote, "top intelligence officials" in pushing back on the story himself in TV interviews last Sunday, which he did.

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I have talked to the top levels of the intelligence community and they have assured me that that "New York Times" story was grossly overstated and inaccurate and totally wrong.

SCIUTTO: The direct communications between the White House and the FBI were unusual because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts concerning pending investigations.

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: You don't want the appearance of political influence with respect to an investigation or prosecution. That's why the protocols are in place.

SCIUTTO: President Trump on Friday ranted against the leaks that have plagued his administration, making a case reporters should only used named sources, even as White House officials spoke to reporters asking not to be named.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm against the people that make up stories and make up sources. They shouldn't be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody's name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.

A source says that Donald Trump is a horrible, horrible human being. Let them say it to my face.

SCIUTTO: Mr. Trump also criticized the FBI directly, tweeting, quote, "The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security leakers that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. Find now."

(On camera): Now on the larger question of the existence of communications between advisers to Trump during the campaign and Russian officials and other Russians known to U.S. intelligence, Reince Priebus in his comments seemed to say that there's nothing to these reports but the fact is the FBI is still investigating those communications, as are both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE) VANIER: And Mr. Trump took his war with the media to the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, promising a crowd of right-wing activists that he will be taking action against the critical press. His words have some people worried that picking and choosing outlets for Friday's press briefing could be just the beginning. Take a listen.


TRUMP: As you saw throughout the entire campaign and even now, the fake news doesn't tell the truth.

[00:05:07] Doesn't tell the truth. So just in finishing, I say, it doesn't represent the people. It never will represent the people. And we're going to do something about it.


VANIER: Now Ari Fleisher, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, gave his commentary on that to our Brooke Baldwin earlier on Friday.


ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He speaks in an offensive fashion. I get that, we all do. But then he meets with the press corps almost more than anybody I can think of. He held a marathon news conference, open to everybody, took questions from everybody. He's done sit-down interviews with the "New York Times," "The Wall Street Journal," the "Today" show, "60 Minutes," "TIME" magazine. You name it, he is tremendously accessible. He came back on Air Force One and did his own on-the-record meeting with reporters on Air Force One. Almost unheard of.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I hear you, Ari. But if I could just jump in.

FLEISCHER: The press has so much access to him.

BALDWIN: You would disagree with him -- you would disagree with him in calling the media the enemy of the people, yes?

FLEISCHER: I already. I already have. I tweeted that, I said that publicly. Yes, I think that's too hot, it's wrong. They're not the enemy of the people. But my point here, Brooke, is the press has this tendency to think everything is about themselves, to hyperventilate, the First Amendment is under threat because of the things he says, but then they ignore all the things he does that are tremendous for the media. He is making journalism interesting and great again.


VANIER: Earlier I spoke to CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein about President Trump's feud with the press.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The narrow way to understand it is obviously a portion of President Trump's base that is, you know, very hostile to the media and that responds well -- you know, Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant, last year when Donald Trump was just going in the primaries, said something I thought was really revealing. He said that Donald Trump has made himself into our hero by attacking all of our enemies, not necessarily because they agreed with him on all the issues but because he was willing to go after many of the targets that conservatives, for example, on talk radio, would go after. So that's one way of understanding.

I think the broader way, though, is that Donald Trump as president and as candidate has moved systemically to delegitimize and undermine pretty much every institution he views as capable of challenging him. It's not just the media. His attacks on the intelligence community and comparing, you know, what they have done to what happened in Nazi Germany. And for that matter his attacks on critical -- any critical voice in Congress.

When Lindsey Graham and John McCain, senators in their own party, have questioned him he has said that they are pining for World War III. So I think there is a systematic effort to undermine voices that he sees as capable of resisting his agenda and that is something that I think is different than we had usually seen in American politics.

VANIER: And then today the White House excluded -- on Friday the White House excluded CNN, "The New York Times," "Los Angeles Times," Politico and BuzzFeed from a White House press briefing. I mean, how seriously do you view that?

BROWNSTEIN: I view it very seriously. I think that, you know, what that did -- well, as I said, what we are seeing is unlike what we have seen. Sure there are presidents who are critical of the press. There are not presidents who have essentially tried to convince the country not to listen to all of the institutions that maybe offering an independent and critical view of them and to undermine them in every way.

We have been heading in America toward a more separated media environment in which more -- not all, but more Americans expose themselves only to outlets that share their underlying views. But what President Trump and his administration is doing is I think systemically trying to encourage his base, his audience, not to listen to any differing, you know, views and they are taking that to an extreme. I think it is going to be a big challenge if they are excluding any main stream media outlets in the future, any mainstream out that's willing to participate under those circumstances. I think it will face a lot of questions from their colleagues and even from their audience.


VANIER: Coming up after this break, Malaysia says Kim Jong-nam was poisoned with VX nerve agent at a Kuala Lumpur airport. Now we're learning if the airport says passengers traveling through there may be at risk of exposure. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[00:11:33] VANIER: Welcome back. Iraqi troops are slowly winning back important parts of western Mosul. A commander tells CNN his forces are now within one kilometer of major government buildings in that city.

Earlier this week, they also recaptured the airport and an important military base. American soldiers are helping the Iraqi troops with the offensive.

Our Ben Wedeman takes a closer look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We go in and bring up the smoke for megabyte and take it now and move up and try to mark that location.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): American soldiers -- they decline to share their names -- are setting coordinates for ISIS positions just a little over a mile away from the extremists. They never fired their sniper rifle, but used it to identify targets. Nearby they assemble a drone.

Pentagon officials say U.S. service personnel are operating ever closer to the action. The bombardment is western Mosul is intense and steady. Iraqis find Russian-made MI-35 attack helicopters blasted ISIS targets inside the city.

Rapid Response Force Major Wissam says resistance has been stiff because ISIS fighters realize they're cornered.

"They're surrounded," he tells me. "There's no escape, either they die fighting or they surrender."

The airport on the southern edge of the city is in ruins, the runway strewn with concrete blocks. The fighting is preceding that in accelerated rate, Iraqi forces maybe eager to avoid a repeat of the grueling three-month offensive to liberate the eastern part of the city.

(On camera): Taking Mosul airport was really just the first step. Now these Iraqi forces are heading into the city proper. That's when the real battle will begin.

(Voice-over): A battle in which Americans may play an even greater role.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, outside western Mosul.


VANIER: Malaysian police have revealed what they think killed the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. And it's shocking. They say it was a banned chemical weapon called a VX nerve agent that can cause death within minutes. Kim died earlier this month after what appeared to be a brazen attack

at the Kuala Lumpur airport.

Senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward has more on this bizarre murder mystery.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Some of the last moments of Kim Jong-nam's life, he approaches airport security to complain that someone grabbed his face and that he is feeling dizzy. He's escorted to the airport medical clinic.

A Malaysian newspaper shows a photograph of him slumped over in his chair apparently unconscious. He dies before reaching the hospital.

In a twist that reads like the script of a Hollywood thriller, Malaysian authorities now confirmed that the half-brother of North Korea's dictator was killed by VX, an internationally banned, highly lethal nerve agent that can kill within minutes.

ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: If you get any of it on you, you're dead. There's nothing a doctor can do for you. You know, you just die. You get a microscopic dot on you of this -- of VX and you die.

[00:15:04] WARD: South Korea is pointing to the volatile North Korean state and the leader himself is the prime suspect.

The dramatic assassination took place in broad daylight moments after Kim entered the crowded check-in hall. Malaysian police claim that two women, who can just be made out here, wiped Kim's face with some kind of liquid. One of the women can be seen walking off wearing a bizarrely eye-catching LOL T-shirt. Two female suspects, one from Indonesia and one from Vietnam, are now in custody. And it gets more surreal, Indonesian authorities say one of the women told police she believed she was participating in a prank for a TV show, a claim Malaysian officials dismissed.

KHALID ABU BAKAR, MALAYSIA'S INSPECTOR GENERAL OF POLICE: These two ladies were trained to swipe the deceased face, no? And after that, they were instructed to clean their hands. And they know it is toxic.

WARD: The hunt is now on for these four North Korean suspects who left the country on the day of the attack. Among them, a senior official with the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur. In yet another bizarre twist, police said someone tried to break into the mortuary where Kim's body is being kept after which they stepped up security.

BAKAR: We know who they are so no need for me to tell you.

WARD: So why would North Korea's erratic leader want his own half- brother dead? Of more concern to U.S. officials is how the dangerous dictator got his hands on one of the most deadly chemical weapons in the world and what else he could do with it? BAER: It's a nerve agent that has terrified intelligence agencies in

the West for a long time because it's so lethal. Saddam Hussein was accused of having it, in fact, he didn't, they couldn't figure out how to weaponize it.

What disturbs me is they have figured out how to weaponize it and deliver it. Now would he use it on South Korea? Would he use it in the United States? There's simply no way for to us know.

WARD: Clarissa Ward, CNN, London.


VANIER: And let's find out more about that VX nerve agent, how does it work, CNN's Anderson Cooper posed these questions to Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Sanjay, what exactly is this nerve agent used on Kim Jong-nam? How does it work?

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's called VX and I think the best way to think about it, sort of a very, very powerful pesticide in a way you think about pesticides, what they can do to pests, they're trying to do the same thing to humans with a nerve agents like this. And specifically what it does, you know, constantly -- our muscles are constantly firing and then relaxing. That's happening all the time. Right now your muscles are doing that Anderson, mine are as well.

What this does, it turns off the off-switch so that muscles are just firing all the time. They start to really contract and eventually get tired. And that's ultimately what can lead to death. Someone may stop breathing as a result of this.

COOPER: How does it differ from nerve gasses like sarin and how close do you actually have to be -- to be effective?

GUPTA: Yes. Sarin is the one that a lot of people hear about. And there's been various attacks over the years. Sarin is a gas. It's more of a gas. So that's something that people will often release, you know, disperse and they can affect a lot of people. VX can affect a lot of people as well but it's not typically a gas. It's almost sort of the consistency of motor oil. I mean, it's harder to turn into a gas.

So it's something that typically comes in contact with somebody's skin. That's typically what happens with VX. It can be used, you know, in the water supply or in food as well to be ingested, but typically it's just a small amount on the skin that can serve to cause all these symptoms.

COOPER: And what are chances of survival if you're exposed? Is there an antidote? If you've gotten to hospital and they knew what it was, could they have saved him? GUPTA: You know, it works very fast, so it's unlikely -- you know,

this is very toxic stuff. And Anderson, you may remember when you and I have covered conflicts and those concerns about chemical weapons we're often given a vial of atropine, that's sort of an antidote. And what we're often told, you may remember, is that, if there's any concern at all about a chemical weapon release, you go ahead and give the antidote because you don't have any time really, a very little time if there's an actual release.

But when it comes to something like VX, I mean, you can get a lethal dose in just a drop of the stuff. So that gives you an idea. And it also brings that this issue, Anderson, the people who are handling it, people who are actually moving it around, they're at risk. The people who may have cared for this gentleman, they're at risk. If they don't know what they're dealing with and they come in contact with the VX gas, they can also become poisoned as a result.

That's part of the reason it's banned and it's part of the reason people don't use it very often, because it is so dangerous for everyone involved.

COOPER: It's just incredible. Sanjay, thanks very much.

GUPTA: Yes, you got it. Thank you.


VANIER: CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta there speaking to CNN's Anderson Cooper.

[00:20:05] When we come back, an amazing story. We're going to take you inside a ground breaking surgery. How 56 hours changed this man's life forever.


VANIER: I want to tell you about something that's important to us here at CNN. We're teaming up with young people around the globe for a unique student-led day of action against modern day slavery and that's with the launch of My Freedom Day. That's going to take place on March 14th. Driving My Freedom Day is a simple question, what does freedom mean to you?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I come from Kenya. Freedom to me means going to school. What about you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think for me freedom is the ability to be yourself everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know that participating in my freedom day all kids need freedom to grow big and strong.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our high school loves My Freedom Day.


VANIER: Send us your answer via text, photo or video across social media using the #myfreedomday.

A man in the U.S. state of Wyoming is getting used to seeing someone different in the mirror. He's had a face transplant. Doctors say the marathon surgery appears to have worked and the patient says he's getting his confidence back.

Hala Gorani has more.


HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voice-over): Ten years ago, Andy Sandness attempted suicide, shooting himself in the face. Rushed to hospital, he miraculous survived but was left with life-changing injuries, without a nose, chin, or most of the flesh below his eyes.

ANDY SANDNESS, FACE TRANSPLANT PATIENT: You know what, I was stupid. I made the wrong choice and now I'm paying for it for the rest of my life.

GORANI: A decade on, last June, he was given a groundbreaking opportunity to get a new face via transplant. A donor was found. Calen Ross, who like Andy, had turned a weapon on himself, aged just 21. His tragic death offering Andy a glimmer of hope. His surgery, finally able to go ahead.

A team of specialists, led by Dr. Samir Mardini, had been practicing the face transplant technique for three years, rehearsing the full operation more than 30 times.

DR. SAMIR MARDINI, SURGICAL DIRECTOR, MAYO CLINIC: A face transplantation is a combination of so many other procedures that we do, including eyelid surgery, jaw surgery, facial nerve surgery.

GORANI: It involved mapping and preserving an intricate web of nerves on both Andy and the donor's face. The high-risk surgery lasted a full 56 hours, with surgeons taking shifts. And the result, after a few weeks of recovery --


GORANI: Unable to fully talk yet, Andy writes down his feelings for his medical team.

MARDINI: "Far exceeded my expectations." You don't know how happy this makes us feel.

GORANI: Andy's new facial features completely restored, though not the ones he was born with. His life, half a year later, is now transformed.

SANDNESS: And I was absolutely blown away by the results. I just feel like a normal person, walk around outside, going to the shopping malls. Nobody asks any questions, nobody stares. I feel like another face in the crowd. And now with this transplant, I just feel more comfortable and more confident in doing these things.

[00:25:02] GORANI: Andy will need to continue speech therapy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I boiled the peas.

SANDNESS: I boiled the peas.

GORANI: And he'll be on medication forever to stop his body rejecting the transplant. With a new face and a new lease on life.

Hala Gorani, CNN, London.


VANIER: And Hala spoke with the Mayo Clinic surgical director about Andy's transplant and what went into that operation.


MARDINI: After so many years of seeing Andy with his deformed face, missing so many functions, including, you know, not having teeth and all these things and the challenges and the struggles that he went through in life, we embarked on this journey together a few years ago, just beginning the discussion and introducing him to the team and going through all the rigorous things that you can imagine we had to go through at Mayo Clinic to get this approved and to do it. And then to do this surgery and see him look at himself in the mirror, we're already full of emotions.

I never expected -- I knew -- you know, I was looking at him, too. I was happy with what I saw, but to see those words coming out, you know, from him, it was just -- it's just heart-warming and really, really touching.

GORANI: And, Doctor, I have to say, one of the things I found most compelling about this, not obviously the 56 hours of surgery and four- hour shifts, the 3 1/2 years of practicing on cadaver heads, that pattern, connecting the nerves, all that, but he doesn't look like a man who's had a face transplant. I mean, he looks like someone who may have had a small accident or something.

MARDINI: You know, Hala, these patients -- you know, this is a huge investment for Andy.


MARDINI: And you know, to think about putting yourself through an operation like this and the life-long immune suppression that you're going to go through.


MARDINI: You know, his goal is to be normal. His goal is to be able to walk into a crowd and not be noticed, like, this is an abnormal person. And that's what we had in mind the whole time preparing for this transplant. You know, 3 1/2 years ago, we knew we were approved to do this. We knew we had a patient. We spent 50 Saturdays in the cadaver lab, just rehearsing and practicing and understanding the nuances, the small details that would make the biggest difference in his function and his appearance.

We looked at every aspect of this, thought about it a thousand times, so when we did the operation and we got the result, it would be something worthwhile. And, you know, Hala, one of the most significant things about this, and we can't ignore this at all, you know, we train and train and train as surgeons, but it's the generosity of the donor and the donor family.

GORANI: Absolutely.

MARDINI: And the beautiful face that he had and he gave to Andy, that's really what made it so, so spectacular.


VANIER: And the Doctor Mardini also told Hala he believes Andy will do well in the long term. So that's good news.

Thanks for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I'll be back with the headlines in just a moment.