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The President Versus the Media; The Mystery of Kim Jong-nam's Death; Trump Pitches to Conservatives; "The New York Times" Stands Up for the Media; Iraqi Forces Close In on Western Mosul; What's Ahead at the Oscars. Aired 4-5a ET

Aired February 25, 2017 - 04:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The president versus the media. As the White House blocks several media outlets from a press briefing, including CNN.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A new development in the death of Kim Jong-nam, what one suspect is telling Indonesian officials about her role that day.

HOWELL: Plus the battle for Mosul, it continues, Iraqi forces approach a key area of that city in the fight against ISIS.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm George Howell and good to have this person back.

ALLEN: Thank you. Good to be with you, George. I'm Natalie Allen, CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


Al-Nusra Our top story, senior White House officials are pushing back against CNN's exclusive reporting denying any wrongdoing in asking the FBI to speak out against contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

HOWELL: 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. To get more on this important complex and important story, CNN Jim Sciutto reports.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 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 official 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 am 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 called the reports linking Trump campaign advisers to Russia, quote, "total B.S."

Priebus, the White House said, 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 tells 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 even 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.


TRUMP: 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."

Now on the larger question of the existence of communications between advisors of Trump during the campaign and Russian officials and other Russian known to U.S. intelligence, Reince Priebus, in his comments, seems to say there is nothing to those reports.

The fact is the FBI is still investigating those communications, as are both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees -- Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.


ALLEN: Mr. Trump took his war with the media to the political conservative action conference, promising a crowd of right-wing activists that he would be taking action against a critical news media.

HOWELL: His words have some --


HOWELL: -- concern that picking and choosing among media outlets, that could just be the beginning. Let's listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As you saw throughout the entire campaign, and even now, the fake news doesn't tell the truth, 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.


HOWELL: Which is just not correct.

ALLEN: Exactly. Journalists in the country haven't always been sure how to react to the president's attacks.

HOWELL: But our colleague Jake Tapper responded with some very direct, truthful words to the White House. Let's listen.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: let's not make any mistake about what is happening here.

A White House that has had some difficulty telling the truth and that has seemed to have trouble getting up to speed on the basic competent functioning of government and a president who seems particularly averse to any criticism and has called the press the enemies of the American people, they are taking the next step in attempting to avoid checks and balances and accountability.

It's not acceptable. In fact, it's petulant and indicative of a lack of basic understanding of how an adult White House functions. This White House does not seem to respect the idea of accountability.

This White House does not seem to value an independent press.

There is a word for that line of thinking. The word is un-American.


HOWELL: Jake Tapper, thank you.

Another word for it, "unacceptable," as per an official response from the cable news network, saying this, quote, "This is an unacceptable development by the Trump White House. Apparently, this is how they retaliate when you report facts that they don't like. We'll keep reporting, regardless."

Now more on CPAC. The president skipped that conference last year at a time when many Republicans were critical of his campaign. Some questioned whether he was a true conservative.

ALLEN: But at this year's gathering, the president took a victory lap drawing applause and hammering home his America first agenda. We get more from Tom Foreman.


TRUMP: You finally have a president, finally. Took you a long time.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For all the cheering at CPAC, Donald Trump is hardly the champion many conservatives expected. In much of the nomination process, his support among them was extremely low.

He is a former Democrat, married three times, the voice behind those vulgar comments about women.

TRUMP: Grab them by the (INAUDIBLE). You can do anything.

FOREMAN: He struggles to explain his faith.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?

TRUMP: That's a tough question.

FOREMAN: He has slammed Republican Party cornerstones, such as broad free trade deals. And on abortion rights, here's Donald Trump in 1999.

TRUMP: I'm very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debating the subject. But you still, I just believe in choice.

FOREMAN: That changed over the years and, after the election, he made sure his position was very clear.

TRUMP: I'm pro-life. The judges will be pro-life.

FOREMAN: So aside from that last answer, what do conservatives like about him?

Listen to the applause lines at CPAC.

TRUMP: It's time for all Americans to get off of welfare and get back to work. You are going to love it.

We are going to repeal and replace ObamaCare. We are going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country. I'm not representing the globe. I'm representing your country.

FOREMAN: Those stances have drawn traditional party Republicans, like White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, much closer to more radical social conservatives like White House adviser, Steve Bannon.

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: And I have got to tell you, if the party and the conservative movement are together, similar to Steve and I, it can't be stopped.

FOREMAN: Conservatives may yet find their faith tested, if President Trump strays too far from their orthodoxy. And he may find the party supports softening if his approval rating continues to fall in the polls. But for right now, as they say, everyone loves a winner and conservatives believe they are winning big -- Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.


HOWELL: Tom Foreman, thank you.

For more insight on the conference this year, let's bring in Silvia Borrelli. She is a reporter with Politico.

Silvia, it's good to have you with us this hour. Let's talk about this flap first off between the White House and the media. The media outlets that were banned, my colleague, Jake Tapper, called it un- American.

I pose to you this question.

Could it also be considered a distraction, a continued effort by this White House to distract, I should say, to --


HOWELL: -- confuse from the issues at hand, like Russia?

SILVIA BORRELLI, POLITICO: Well, George, I mean, it's becoming quite amusing, because the president is just in the habit of lashing out against the media and saying and doing all sorts of things that would have been unimaginable up until a month ago.

And I'm not sure if it's just a distraction because actually it's angering people and it's becoming obvious that the White House can't manage certain situations and they're having difficulties facing the criticism and also dealing with issues, like you said, Russia, that are actually concerning to the American people. There was a survey that polled Americans that actually want an

investigation into this communication between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election campaign.

And this is just something that the Trump administration has been going, he's not even talking about the facts any more, talking about the media making up fake news and saying it's all our fault for reporting things that are coming out of -- he doesn't even know where and sources that aren't accountable.

And he knows the people that the media are talking to. So it's impossible they're saying those certain things. It's not really a distraction, it's more the president having a hard time facing all this criticism and actually tackling all this us now that isn't really making him look great.

HOWELL: It is interesting, the attacks do keep coming.

Still, this is the President of the United States and is always due the respect of the President of the United States. But at the same time, the media will continue doing its job, digging for facts on these stories and also separating fact from fiction.

The president spoke at CPAC. And, keep this in mind, this was the same gathering of conservatives who tried to derail his path to the White House just a year ago. Let's listen.


TRUMP: Over all these years we have been together, now you finally have a president. Finally. It took a long time. It took a long time.


TRUMP: And patriots like you made it happen, believe me, believe me. You did it because you love your country, because you want a better future for your children and because you want to make America great again.


HOWELL: The president targeted the media, as we talked about before, targeted globalization, drove home his populist message of America first and economic nationalism.

But is that fully the message that will unite conservatives here?

BORRELLI: Well, I mean, it really looks like the fringe have become the mainstream. The Republican establishment went into hiding. We haven't seen much of them at CPAC at all.

The part of the Republican electorate that Trump is tapping into here are the ones that actually want to hear him speak truth to their anxieties rather than to facts. And so globalization and the fact that America has to become great

again, ObamaCare needs to get repealed, borders need to be made more secure, is exactly what they want to hear. Everything else becomes sort of secondary.

HOWELL: Let's look ahead now; the president set to address Congress for the first time Tuesday, not just speaking to a friendly crowd, as we saw at CPAC, of conservatives, but rather speaking to representatives of the both sides of the aisle, speaking to all Americans, even those who oppose him.

Is he likely to take this opportunity to, as he has suggested before, unite the nation around agenda?

Or will we continue to see President Trump continue to be Trump as we saw on the campaign trail?

BORRELLI: When he addresses Congress, he is going to also have to convince (INAUDIBLE) Democratic lawmakers to sort of side with him on certain bills that he can't pass through executive orders.

So, in Congress, he's definitely going to find a way to unite rather than divide. And what we think and what we expect is that he is going to outline his policies going forward but without getting into much detail, so he will talk about tax reform, repealing ObamaCare, making America more secure.

At the same time, he will probably not outline a clear strategy in detail. And in a televised speech before he addresses Congress, well, there, he, I think, is going to take the opportunity to sort of reset and go forward from what has been a very challenging and very complicated and eventful first month in office.

HOWELL: Silvia Borrelli, live for us in London, thank you so much for your insight. And we will stay in touch with you.

BORRELLI: Thank you, George.

President Donald Trump taking a victory lap. That is exactly what happened on Friday. We'll have more on the conservative gathering later this hour.

ALLEN: Also ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM, chilling new details surrounding the mysterious death of the North Korean leader's half- brother. We'll have a live report.






HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM.

We are following the murder mystery in Malaysia. Malaysian officials say no one needs to worry about coming into contact with the nerve agent that was used to kill Kim Jong-nam at the Kuala Lumpur airport.

ALLEN: They say the airport has been thoroughly cleaned. And no one has become sick from VX since the reported attack there February 13th.

HOWELL: Our Clarissa Ward has more now on the twists and turns now this case that has been capturing the world's attention.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: 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 confirm that the half-brother of North Korea's dictator was killed by VX, an international 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 is nothing a doctor can do for you. You just die. You get --


BAER: -- microscopic dot on you of this stuff, VX, you die.

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 an 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 INSPECTOR-GENERAL OF POLICE: These two ladies were trained to swab the deceased's face. And after that they were instructed to clean their hands. And they know it is toxic.

WARD: The hunt it 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 in to the mortuary where Kim's body is being kept, after which they stepped up security.

BAKAR: We know who they are. 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.

Would he use it on South Korea?

Would he use it in the United States?

There's simply no way for us to know.

WARD (voice-over): Clarissa Ward, CNN, London.


ALLEN: Alexandra Field joins us now live from Kuala Lumpur with more on the investigation.

You have been covering this from the start, Alexandria, and there is some new information coming from one of the purported suspects.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Indonesian diplomats have been able to meet with the Indonesian woman who is under arrest. She has been held by Malaysian authority. She's the woman who you saw in that CCTV video, the one who Malaysian police may have applied the poison to Kim Jong-nam's face.

She is now again telling Indonesian authorities that she believed that she was participating in a prank. The deputy ambassador here of Kuala Lumpur met with her for about half an hour. He then told reporters, that that's what she had said.

She told him she previously met with a group of people who she thought appeared to be either Korean or Japanese and that they had paid her around the equivalent of $900 U.S. to take this substance, which she described as being similar to an oil, and go and apply it to this man in the airport.

But again, she is telling them she thought it was a prank. You heard the police investigator here in Malaysia in Clarissa's piece, saying he doesn't buy it, that these women had to have been highly trained in order to handle this deadly substance properly.

But this is a point of contention for North Korean officials, who have criticized the investigation from the start and denied that Kim Jong- nam was poisoned. They have said from the beginning it's impossible that these two women would not have suffered symptoms if they had in fact handled that deadly chemical weapon.

Well, the Indonesian diplomats who met with the Indonesian woman today said that they didn't observe any signs that she had suffered any physical symptoms. But there are weapons analysts out there who say that in some cases VX needs two component parts that have to be combined together in order to produce a lethal effect. That's one possibility.

You also have investigators talking about the possibility that these women had been trained to protect themselves, perhaps with some kind of barrier on their hands. We know just the smallest dose of VX can prove deadly.

ALLEN: It really is bizarre how these women carried this out and are safe and Kim Jong-nam is dead.

What about the riff between North Korea and Malaysian authorities, Alexandria, about what happens to his body?

FIELD: Yes, tensions escalating. There's a lot of back and forth on how this investigation has been handled, with the Malaysian officials demanding more cooperation from the North Koreans. The Malaysians are looking to speak to as many as seven North Korean citizens, three of whom they believe may still be in Malaysia, one of whom is an employee of the North Korean embassy here in Kuala Lumpur.


FIELD: So they want North Korean officials to help them track these people down. For its part, the North Koreans are saying that the Malaysian investigation has been politicized, that it has been carried out in the way that is influenced too much by the South Korean agenda, which is to suggest that this is a (INAUDIBLE). Lots of back and forth and a debate over the body. Malaysian officials right now say they will not release it to North Korea unless next of kin comes to identify Kim Jong-nam -- Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, Alexandra Field there in Kuala Lumpur, thank you.

HOWELL: The attacks against the media continue by the Trump administration. Still ahead, "The New York Times" is fighting back, doing something it hasn't done in years.

ALLEN: Also ahead, we'll have more on President Trump's message to the conservative movement.




ALLEN: We are live in Atlanta. Welcome back to our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world. You are watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell with the headlines we are following for you this hour.


HOWELL (voice-over): A year ago his critics questioned whether he was a true conservative but these days the President of the United States Donald Trump is at the forefront of the conservative movement.

ALLEN (voice-over): And his fans at the conservative political action conference couldn't be happier. Our Phil Mattingly reports.


TRUMP: The era of empty talk is over. It's over.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, President Trump, the man who surprised the Republican Party and its conservative activists, laying out his hard line agenda to a movement that has become his own.

TRUMP: As we speak today, immigration officers are finding the gang members, the drug dealers and the criminal aliens and throwing them the hell out of our country.


TRUMP: And we will not let them back in. They're not coming back in folks.

MATTINGLY: Pledging to send Congress a request for a major boost in funding for the U.S. military.

TRUMP: We're also putting in a massive budget request for our beloved military.


TRUMP: And we will be substantially upgrading all of our military, all of our military, offensive, defensive, everything, bigger and better and stronger than ever before.

MATTINGLY: And again leveling an attack on an American ally, this time Paris, France, citing an unknown friend, named Jim, who told him --

TRUMP: Paris?

I don't go to there anymore. Paris is no longer Paris.

MATTINGLY: -- which quickly guard this Twitter response from the city's mayor, a picture from the Eiffel Tower with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Trump's campaign style speech even targeted his former rival, Hillary Clinton, for once calling Trump's supports deplorables.

But it was his sharply consistent pledge to stick to the very agenda he laid out during the campaign that resonated with the crowd.

TRUMP: So let me state this as clearly as I can, we are going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country.

MATTINGLY: All as Trump promised new anti-terrorism actions in the days ahead.

TRUMP: In the matter of days, we will be taking brand-new action to protect our people and keep America safe. You will see the actions.


HOWELL: The President of the United States there at CPAC.

Some U.S. newspapers are doing their part to stand up against the attacks. The masthead of "The Washington Post" website now has the slogan, "Democracy dies in darkness."

And "The New York Times" is airing its first TV ad in seven years. It will be shown during the Oscars come Sunday night.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The truth is, our nation is more divided than ever.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Alternative facts are just way delusional.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The truth is, we need to put the safety of the American people (INAUDIBLE).



ALLEN: The ad that will play during the Academy Awards. Senior vice president of "The New York Times," David Ruben, spoke with our Richard Quest about how the ad was designed and why they chose to air it during the Oscars.


DAVID RUBEN, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: There's a dialogue going on at the moment about how hard it is to find facts and know what the truth is. And we absolutely believe that and don't believe there's any one source of the truth.

We do believe that quality, independent, original journalism from expert journalists on the ground makes a difference to people's understanding of the truth. And that this spot is meant to both say that, but also to portray it.

RICHARD QUEST, CNNMONEY EDITOR AT LARGE: I mean, at the end of the day, this will be perceived as an attack -- [04:35:00]

QUEST: -- on the president and the administration and the way they're running things, in the sense that they have put the truth into question.

RUBEN: I mean, we see this as, there's a lot of things that are making it hard to find the truth today. A lot of discussion of fake news.

QUEST: That's the president.

RUBEN: Also, what you see in your social media feed and if you're sitting digitally, we know it's very hard to know what's true and what isn't. So, what we're really trying to say here is just that we believe that free press and the work that our journalists do have a really strong role to play in that process.

QUEST: Choosing the Oscars, choosing the Academy Awards, I mean, it's obviously very expensive and it didn't happen by accident.

RUBEN: We absolutely want to be part of the dialogue that's going on at the moment about the truth and how one finds it. We've seen since the election quite a growth in our subscriptions. And so, we think that being in the news ourselves has something to do with -- has everything to do with that growth. We were looking for a high-profile appointment viewing moment. This is when our ad was ready. And this is the biggest thing on TV upcoming.

QUEST: Was there much debate within "The Times" on whether you should do this?

RUBEN: Whether we should do the campaign itself?


RUBEN: Not really. We've seen a couple of things. One is that we've seen that readers in general, many don't have an understanding of what it takes to do the reporting that we do. But interestingly, when we tell them, if we're able to they will them, we see a bend in their willingness to pay.

So, we've been looking actually, for months, at how do we tell this story more effectively. Obviously, the current moment and the dialogue going on has heightened our desire to be in a more sort of premium appointment-viewing moment like the Oscars.

QUEST: So, since your campaign is about the difficulty of finding the facts, let me ask you a straightforward fact, if I may.


QUEST: The president says and calls you the failing "New York Times."


QUEST: Are you failing?

RUBEN: We've had -- we're now over 3 million subscribers. That's up 50 percent over a year ago and up over 25 percent in the last quarter.

QUEST: And how is "The Times" weathering, in the same way that we have to weather, an onslaught, a regular diet and onslaught of presidential attack?

RUBEN: Look, one of the things that we're seeing is that there's an increased heightened interest in what's going on in the world at the moment and that's good for interest in "The Times."

People are trying to figure out what's happening and they're turning to us to figure out our take on what it is. And the role we play in helping them understand that truth is exactly what this campaign is about.


HOWELL: That was Richard Quest there with us.

Federal authorities are investigating a possible hate crime in the U.S. state of Kansas after an Indian man was killed. The man's widow says she was worried about violence against foreigners but her husband said everything would be OK.

Mourners held a vigil on Friday night for the 32-year old. He died Wednesday after being shot while having an after-work beer with a friend, who was wounded himself in the shooting. The victim's widow spoke Friday about her husband.


SUNAYANA DUMALA, WIDOW OF SRINIVAS KUCHIBHOTLA: His passion was aviation. He wanted to succeed so much in this industry and do so much for this country and he has shown, he did not, I'm sorry. He did not deserve a death like this.


ALLEN: Authorities later arrested this man, 51 years old, witnesses told local media the man had shouted, "Get out of my country," before returning to the bar and firing. Police have not corroborated that.

HOWELL: Still ahead, weather extremes across the United States with blizzards in some areas spring-like temperatures and blooming trees in others.

What is happening?

Derek Van Dam will have the very latest.

ALLEN: Also, an update on the battle for Mosul. Iraqi forces making gains in a key part of the city with the help of U.S. soldiers.




ALLEN: Welcome back, Iraqi forces are closing in on a key area of Western Mosul as it fights to retake the city from ISIS. Senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman joins us from east of there, he is in Irbil, Iraq, for us with the very latest.

Hello, Ben.


Well, the Iraqi forces continue to push into West Mosul itself. We understand at this point they're entered the Josuk (ph) and Tairan (ph) neighborhoods, which are just the north of the airport, which they liberated just a few days ago. Now as they push ahead, they're getting a little bit of help from some friends.


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

WEDEMAN: 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.


WEDEMAN: 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.

WEDEMAN: Taking Mosul airport was really just the first step.


WEDEMAN: Now, these Iraqi forces are heading into the city proper. That's where the real battle will begin.

A battle in which Americans may play an even greater role.


WEDEMAN: And, Natalie, we have also learned that overnight, spotted about 15 kilometers to the west of Mosul, around 50, or rather more than 50 civilians were either killed or wounded when fleeing in the middle of the night from ISIS-controlled West Mosul.

They ended up in a minefield, so the situation is difficult for civilians. They stay in the city, they're under bombardment. They try to leave and they have this sort of thing happen to them. So it's a very difficult situation for the approximately 800,000 civilians still stuck inside Mosul -- Natalie.

HOWELL: We thank you, Ben Wedeman for us, reporting from Irbil.

CNN is teaming up with young people around the world for a unique student-led day of action against modern day slavery with the launch of My Freedom Day on March 14th.

HOWELL: Driving My Freedom Day is a very simple question.

What does freedom mean to you?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) and to me, the meaning of freedom is a life unhindered by the unfair restrictions that society creates.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To me, freedom means freedom (INAUDIBLE) for my family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To me freedom means the ability to make your own choices.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Freedom to me means doing whatever I want (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) and this year My Freedom Day.


ALLEN: So send us your answer via text, photo or video across social media using the #MyFreedomDay hashtag.

The seasons have become a bit twisted up in some parts of the U.S. this week with record-breaking high temperatures across the South and dramatic snowstorms across the central U.S.


ALLEN: Well, the weekend Hollywood has been waiting for is upon us, the 89th Academy Awards with all the statues and red carpet and stars get ready for Sunday, we take a look at some possible surprises and some snubs.




ALLEN: Hollywood's biggest weekend is upon us. Last year, of course, the Academy Awards were criticized because of the OscarsTooWhite (sic) controversy. This year it's looking like it may be one of the most diverse ever.

HOWELL: As Hollywood gears up for its biggest night on Sunday, our Stephanie Elam shows us what to watch for.


STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORERSPONDENT (voice-over): Musical romance --

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I was standing with you.

ELAM: -- family drama and extraterrestrial life all competing for Oscar.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: We keep running into each other.

ELAM: "La La Land" is the film to watch with 14 nominations, tying "All About Eve" and "Titanic" for the most nods in Oscar history.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Very, very exciting.

ELAM: The musical up for best picture, along with "Arrival," "Fences," "Hacksaw Ridge," "Hell or High Water," "Hidden Figures," "Lion," "Manchester by the Sea," and "Moonlight."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People think "Hidden Figures" could eke out in the end but I think, in the end, "La La Land" will prevail.

ELAM: Emma Stone is up for best actress. Ruth Negga in "Loving." And return winners, Meryl Streep and --


ELAM: -- and Natalie Portman. But Stone is the frontrunner.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Emma Stone has potentially won every single award you can win.

ELAM: The race for best actor, though, is tight. Andrew Garfield in "Hacksaw Ridge," Ryan Gosling in "La La Land" and the star of "Captain Fantastic" are all up for the honor. But the moment is with Denzel Washington for "Fences" and Casey Affleck for "Manchester by the Sea."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Everyone will be on the edge of their seat for that competition.

JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE: Do you know who is hosting the Oscars this year?

I'll give you a hint. He's touching your face.

ELAM: Jimmy Kimmel is taking on Hollywood's most notoriously challenging role. The late-night host will emcee the Oscars for the first time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He really is going to rely on his relationship with the actors in the room to try to make them comfortable and relax.

ELAM: Although a few will probably be excited and emotional after striking Oscar gold -- Stephanie Elam, CNN, Hollywood.


ALLEN: We'll all be watching.

A woman in Berkeley, California, unexpectedly gave birth inside her car.

HOWELL: So, lucky for her, she was parked next to the hospital, where she planned to deliver her baby girl. And a nurse on her way to the hospital was at the right place at the right time and helped deliver that beautiful baby.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's great. It's not what we had wanted to happen but, you know, it will be a fun story for her to have.


HOWELL: We are told that the mom and baby are healthy and doing fine. That's a good story.

ALLEN: Thank you for joining us. I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell, the news continues next hour. You are watching CNN. We are the world news leader.