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News Outlets, Including CNN, Blocked From Press Briefing; Malaysian Police Say That VX was Used to Kill Kim Jong-un's Half- Brother; Iraqi Forces Closing In On A Key Area Of Western Mosul; A Look at the Transformation of the Republican Party's Support Base; The story of A Man With a Face Transplant; Hollywood Gearing Up for Oscar Sunday. Aired 5-6a ET

Aired February 25, 2017 - 05:00   ET


[05:00:00] GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump doubles down on his anti-media rhetoric as some news outlets, including CNN, find themselves blocked from a press briefing.

In Malaysia, police say that a chemical weapon used to kill Kim Jong- un's half-brother at an airport - that was used, but other travelers, they need not worry about that. We'll have the very latest from Kuala Lumpur.

And the story of a man who wanted to end his life, but wound up instead with an incredible second chance.

Live from CNN world headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm George Howell. CNN NEWSROOM starts.

It is 5 am on the US East Coast. A lot to talk about this day. Senior White House officials are pushing back against CNN's exclusive reporting. They're denying any wrongdoing in asking the FBI to speak out against reports of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians.

The administration does confirm it spoke to the FBI about those communications, but in an unprecedented move, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer blocked CNN and several other news organizations from an informal press briefing that was held Friday.

CNN's Pamela Brown has more.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The White House is saying it did nothing wrong after CNN's exclusive report that the FBI refused the White House's request to knock down media reports about contacts between Donald Trump associates and Russians during the campaign.

A senior administration official says the unusual White House request came only after the FBI approached White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to say a story in "The New York Times" as not true. The White House explained its actions by saying the conversation happened on February 15 after a 7:30 am meeting led by Priebus.

FBI Deputy Director Andy McCabe asked Priebus for five minutes alone after the meeting ends, according to senior administration officials, and calls "The New York Times" report "total BS." Priebus, the White House says, asks McCabe "can we do anything about it to set the record straight?"

In follow-up phone calls, administration officials say, both McCabe and FBI Director James Comey declined Priebus' request, but did tell him he could cite top intelligence officials to say there's nothing to the story.

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

BROWN (voice-over): The back and forth between the White House and the FBI raises questions about whether either side violated long- standing Justice Department procedures.

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's very, very important that you limit contacts between the White House and the Department of Justice for two reasons.

One, you don't want actual pressure placed upon the Department of Justice in connection with an investigation or prosecution.

And, two, you don't want the appearance of political influence with respect to an investigation or prosecution.

BROWN (voice-over): According to these DOJ memos, the communication should only happen when "it is important for the performance of the president's duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective." And the memos preclude FBI officials and White House officials from talking directly about pending investigations.

GONZALES: Typically, the contact from the Department of Justice side comes from the attorney general or the deputy attorney general. It would be unusual for the FBI director or the deputy director to have conversation with White House officials without the presence of the attorney general or the deputy attorney general because they report up to the attorney general.

BROWN (voice-over): With the unusual communication now under scrutiny, President Trump railed against the leaks that have plagued his administration, writing on Twitter: "The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security leakers."

"Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on US. FIND NOW."

And he accused the press of fabricating stories.

DONALD J. 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.


HOWELL: Pamela Brown reporting there for us. We are also hearing reaction from Ari Fleischer, the former White House Press Secretary for former President George W. Bush. Here is what he had to say to our Brooke Baldwin earlier.


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.

[05:05:10] 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: But 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 high. 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 as 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.


HOWELL: It really isn't about the media. It's just about the story. That's the focus. But as these attacks continue on the media, it is certainly a new frontier for many journalists. My colleague Jake Tapper had some very direct words for the White House.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST, THE LEAD: 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, CNN saying this: "This is an unacceptable development by the Trump White House. Apparently, this is how they retaliate when you report facts they don't like. We'll keep reporting regardless.

For more analysis on this, let's bring in Silvia Borrelli. She is a reporter with Politico, live in London this hour. It's good to have you with us. Let's talk more about this flap between the Trump White House and the media.

My colleague Jake Tapper calling it un-American. I pose the question to you. Could it also be considered simply a distraction? A continued effort by this White House to distract, to confuse from coverage on topics that they don't want to talk about like Russia.

SILVIA BORRELLI, REPORTER, POLITICO: Well, I mean, this is not new to Trump. He's been having this attitude toward the media all throughout the campaign. But they had promised that in case he was elected president, things would have been different.

And in December, his Press Secretary said that those kind of things and cutting out the media from press briefings wouldn't have happened when he was in the White House because, of course, regardless of the issues that are at stake, it's the president's duty to brief the media and to brief all of it and also to receive criticism and questions from the media.

So, actually, I don't know really if it's a distraction or just the fact that the Trump administration doesn't like criticism at all. One of my colleagues that was there yesterday at the White House asked the press secretary for comment as to what protocol was being followed for cutting out the media, and the press secretary said that she was being threatened by my colleague's questions.

This is a completely new landscape here and I'm not sure it's just a distraction. It's just a different approach to the media and a different approach to criticism.

HOWELL: That is interesting to point out. These attacks continue at the same time. This is the office of the presidency of the United States. The president do a level of respect that presidents are due at the same time, though the media will continue to dig on these different stories and to separate fact from fiction.

The president spoke today at CPAC, keeping in mind this was the same gathering of conservatives who tried to derail his path to the White House just last year. Let's listen to the president speaking to the crowd. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD J. 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: Well, the news exist to ask questions of the people who hold power. Mr. Trump targeted the media. He targeted globalization. He drove home his message, his populist message of America first and economic nationalism.

But the question here to you, Silvia, is that message fully uniting conservatives?

BORRELLI: Well, the question is who is Trump speaking to now because the fringe of the Republican Party seems like it's become mainstream. And what these people want to hear is precisely what Trump is telling them, but where is the Republican establishment. We've barely seen them at CPAC.

[05:10:02] And the people that were there, they were applauding him for lashing out against fake news, against the media, against the threats to the US border, promising deportations, are people that want to hear what Trump is telling them and that are fueling on this kind of rhetoric.

HOWELL: Let's look ahead to Tuesday. The president of the United States will address Congress for the first time. Not just speaking to a friendly crowd, Silvia, that we saw here at CPAC, these conservatives who came together, but rather speaking to representatives on both sides of the aisle. Also speaking to all of the American people, even those who opposed him. Is he likely to take this opportunity, as he suggested before, to unite the nation around his agenda?

BORRELLI: Well, somehow, he's going to have to reboot and restart because this has been a very complicated first month for him. And probably what he's going to do in his televised address to the nation is sort of tick the boxes of all the promises that he's already maintained and outline the new ones and the way forward.

The same he's going to be doing in Congress, outlining his policies and trying to get Democratic lawmakers aligned with his policies. But he's not going to go into much detail, I think. He's going to speak about the tax reform, about infrastructure investments, about repealing the Obamacare, and those are things that he's promised all along and that he is now trying to tell the people, 'you know, I'm going forward with my plan, with my strategy, what I had promised.' And after all the difficulties and after where Obama took this country, I'm making America great again. And that's going to be his message. The problem is, is he credible at this point? HOWELL: All eyes will be on that message come Tuesday. Silvia Borrelli live for us in London. Thank you so much for the insight and perspective.

Just days after two US administration officials held high-level talks in Mexico City, a trade war with the US seems more possible than ever. Mexico's foreign minister says his country will respond in kind if the Trump administration imposes a so-called border tax on Mexican goods. Let's listen.


LUIS VIDEGARAY, SECRETARY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS, MEXICO: Mexico will face this as a reality and not just as a rhetorical threat because we have realized that rhetorical threats come and go. As a reality, naturally, the Mexican government needs to respond. A response would probably not be to put together general tax on all imports from the United States because that will harm the Mexican consumer. It will hurt the daily lives of Mexicans. We will do it selectively.


HOWELL: Still ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM. Malaysia says that Kim Jong-nam was poisoned with VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur airport. And the airport is saying loud and clear that passengers traveling through there are not at risk of exposure. We'll have more on the deadly poisoning ahead.

Plus, a look at the operation to retake western Mosul as US soldiers help Iraqi forces to drive out ISIS. Stay with us.


[05:15:40] HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell. In Malaysia, officials say that if traveling through the Kuala Lumpur airport. No one needs to worry about coming into contact with the nerve agent that was used to kill Kim Jong-nam. They say that the airport has been thoroughly cleaned and no one has gotten sick from VX since his purported attack there last week.

CNN's Clarissa Ward has more on the twists and turns in this mysterious 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 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 is nothing a doctor can do for you. You just die. You get microscopic dot on you of this stuff, of VX, you die.

WARD (voice-over): 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 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 (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): So why would North Korea's erratic leader want his own half-brother dead?

Of more concern to US 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.


HOWELL: Clarissa Ward, thank you. And our Alexandra Field is following this story live in Kuala Lumpur with the very latest on the investigation. Alexandra.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. What we're learning today is that Indonesian diplomats have had access to the Indonesian woman who has been detained by Malaysian authorities. She is one of the women when investigators say is seen in that CCTV video inside the airport.

They've been holding her along with another Vietnamese woman, both of whom, they say, were trained to apply poison to Kim Jong-nam's face. But the deputy ambassador from Indonesia here in Kuala Lumpur, who met with her today, says this woman is again telling authorities that she thought she was participating in a prank, George.

She tells him that she met with a group of people who she believed were either Korean or Japanese and that they paid her about US$900. They gave her a substance that she describes as appearing similar to baby oil and they told her to go ahead and do this, George.

[05:20:06] HOWELL: What's the latest on the dispute really between Malaysia and North Korea with this investigation?

FIELD: There's certainly been a ratcheting up of tensions over this investigation. They are fighting mainly over the body of Kim Jong-nam right now. North Korean officials have demanded the return.

The body was found to have a diplomatic passport on it. They say that Malaysia in violation of international norms by not returning the body, but the Malaysian officials are digging in saying they want next of kin to come identify the body and provide a DNA sample before they are willing to hand it over.

North Korean officials have been critical of this investigation from the start. They have said the Malaysian officials are being unduly influenced by South Korean media reports, which they say, first led to the poisoning suspicion. They've denied that Kim-Jong-nam was poisoned.

Of course, the Malaysian officials say they've got the proof after finding that VX residue on the face and in the eyes of Kim Jong-nam. But both of these side having a lot of trouble working together. Malaysian officials saying that they need cooperation from the North Korean authorities as they still work to question as many as seven North Korean citizens in relation to this attack and the investigation here, George.

HOWELL: Alexandra Field, live for us in Kuala Lumpur following this investigation. Alexandra, thank you for the reporting.

On now to northern Syria, ISIS has claimed responsibility for a car bombing that killed as many as 60 people. Turkish state media says the blast in a village targeted a security building that was being used by rebels fighting the terror group.

In the meantime, a second set of attacks in homes has killed at least 32 people. This according to Syrian state media. Reports say that the bombers targeted two security centers in that regime-held city. Iraqi forces are closing in on a key area of western Mosul as it fights to retake that city from ISIS. Our senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman is live from east of there in Irbil, Iraq. It's good to have you with us, Ben. Let's talk about this particular part of Mosul. It was heavily fortified with defenses by ISIS. They've been there for several years. They dug in. How difficult is it - how is the battle going to retake that part of the city?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: At this point, George, it appears that the Iraqi forces are making some progress in entering the southern part of the Western city, just north of the airport. What we've seen is that they've entered two neighborhoods, Jawsaq and Tairan, which are just north of the airport.

But, yes, it really is hard going. Once they've - the airport in an open field basically, quite easy to take, but the city itself is very difficult. We've seen, for instance, ISIS seems to be taking a scorched earth policy every area - rather strategy. Every area they pull out of, they essentially set on fire. In addition to all the other things they have in place, for instance, tunnels, IEDs, suicide car bombers, snipers and so on. But what's interesting at this point, when we were up at the front lines yesterday, is it appears the American spotters and advisors are getting ever closer to the action.


WEDEMAN (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 US service personnel are operating ever closer to the action. The bombardment is western Mosul is intense and steady. Iraqis flying 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 (voice-over): 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 proceeding at an accelerated rate. Iraqi forces may be eager to avoid a repeat of the grueling three-month offensive to liberate the eastern part of the city.

WEDEMAN (voice-over): Taking Mosul airport was really just the first step. 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.


[05:25:12] WEDEMAN: And the Iraqi government says that, within the last 24 hours, about 1,500 people have fled one part of Western Mosul, the Ma'mun neighborhood, and we're also getting reports from the Iraqi federal police that somewhere over 50 people were killed and wounded when they were fleeing the city and ended up in an ISIS minefield. George?

HOWELL: Our senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman live in Irbil, Iraq. Thank you so much for the reporting, Ben. We'll stay in touch with you as the fighting continues.

The president of the United States enjoying a victory lap of sorts, taking the stage Friday before a crowd of enthusiastic supporters. We'll have the very latest from CPAC.

It is 5:25 AM in Atlanta, Georgia, broadcasting live on our networks in both the United States and around the world this hour. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.


HOWELL: A warm welcome back to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. It is good to have you with us. I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you this hour.

Indonesian officials have spoken with a suspect in the purported VX nerve agent attack that killed Kim Jong-nam. She told them she was asked by people who looked Japanese or Korean to apply it on Kim inside the airport in Kuala Lumpur. Officials say she thought the substance was "a kind of oil, like baby oil." We'll continue to follow that story.

[05:30:01] In Syria, suicide attacks in the regime held city of Homs have killed at least 32 people including a military intelligence official. This is all according to Syrian state media. Reports say the bombers targeted two security centers, a Syria umbrella organization that includes the former Nusra Front, has claimed responsibility.

Iraqi forces are closing in on a key part of Western Mosul, this as they continue to fight to take that city from ISIS. Dozens of militants have been killed, but others have escaped Western Mosul through tunnels. Iraqi fighter jets also bomb ISIS targets in both Iraq and Syria for the first time Friday.

The White House says it did nothing wrong in asking the FBI to publicly knock down reports of contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign back in 2016. Senior Trump officials say the FBI broached the subject first, but when the White House followed up with FBI Director James Comey, he declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.

The president of the United States Donald Trump was once an unlikely champion for American conservatives, but now he is a leader of that movement as he demonstrated at a major conference on Friday. Our Sarah Murray has this recap for us.


MURRAY (voice-over): The president leveraging his moment in front of a friendly audience to further escalate his attacks against his favorite foe.

TRUMP: I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It's fake. Phony. Fake.

A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people.

MURRAY (voice-over): After an extended opening screed against the media -

TRUMP: It doesn't represent the people, it never will represent the people, and we're going to do something about it.

MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump touted his presidential achievements so far.

TRUMP: Basically, all I've done is keep my promise.

MURRAY (voice-over): And defended his administration's plans to crack down on undocumented immigrants living in the US.

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.

MURRAY (voice-over): As Trump ticks through his top agenda items, he revived his campaign rallying cry and vowed to build a wall along the southern border.

TRUMP: We're building the wall. We're building the wall. In fact, it's going to start soon.

MURRAY (voice-over): US Customs and Border Protection announced it will soon ask for design proposals for prototype wall structures near the US-Mexico border. And after the administration's first effort to temporarily ban immigration from some Muslim-majority countries was blocked by the court, today, Trump previewed a new executive order.

TRUMP: We are going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country.

We will not be deterred from this course. And in a matter of days, we will be taking brand-new action to protect our people and keep America safe.

MURRAY (voice-over): All of this, as Trump offered clues about his first presidential budget. The president has insisted he would cut spending. But, today, he pointed to a dramatic increase in military spending. TRUMP: We're also putting in a massive budget request for our beloved military. It will be one of the greatest military buildups in American history.

MURRAY (voice-over): And he vowed yet again to repeal and replace Obamacare, dismissing the outcry members of Congress have seen back home in their districts.

TRUMP: The people that you're watching, they are not you. They are largely, many of them, are the side that lost. You know, they lost the election. It's like how many elections do we have to have. They lost the election. But I always say, Obamacare doesn't work.

MURRAY (voice-over): For Trump, the event today was something of a victory lap. While his 2011 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference previewed his political ambitions, Trump snubbed the event last year. And what a difference a year makes.

TRUMP: You know, the dishonest media, they'll say he didn't get a standing ovation.


HOWELL: The president of the United States on stage at the CPAC conference. That was our White House correspondent Sarah Murray reporting for us.

Mr. Trump drew applause from the Conservative Political Action Conference, but a prominent journalist says the president has some Republicans concerned. Here's what Carl Bernstein told CNN's Anderson Cooper.


ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, ANDERSON COOPER 360: Does it surprise you the extent to which - how much the Republican Party has embraced the sort of economic nationalism?

CARL BERNSTEIN, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Well, I think two things are happening. The base of his victory have embraced it and we're watching at CPAC a narcissistic demagogue even going farther with his message of anger and with his message of exclusion.

[05:35:13] While on Capitol Hill, what is happening, he is scaring the hell out of a lot of movement conservatives and a lot of senators and congressmen who worry about his stability and are well aware that he is presenting all of this in a fact-free universe.

There's great concern on Capitol Hill. I'm sure that others on this broadcast can attest to that. And so, we're heading in two different directions, where there's some real skepticism in his own party in Washington about his approach and whether he really is a president who knows what he's doing, while at the same time, he's energizing those who brought him to the dance.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HOWELL: Carl Bernstein there speaking to our Anderson Cooper.

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

Mourners held a vigil 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 that 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 for sure - he did not - I'm sorry. He did not deserve a death like this.


HOWELL: Authorities later arrested this man, 50-year-old - 51-year- old. Witnesses told local media that he shouted get out of my country before returning to the bar and opening fire. Police have not corroborated that information at this point.

Still ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM1, inside a groundbreaking surgery, how 56 hours changed this man's life forever.

Plus, Hollywood is getting ready for Oscars. A little later, we'll look at who could win that coveted statue and who might go home empty handed. Stay with us.


[05:41:10] HOWELL: Can I tell you about the story of a man in the US state of Wyoming who is getting used to seeing someone very different in the mirror these days. He had a face transplant. Doctors say Andy's marathon surgery appears to be working and Andy says he's getting his confidence back. Our Hala Gorani has his incredible story.


GORANI (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 (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): 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 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.

GORANI (voice-over): Andy will need to continue speech therapy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I boiled the peas.

SANDNESS: I boiled the peas.

GORANI (voice-over): 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.


HOWELL: Very good for him. Hala spoke with the Mayo Clinic's surgical director about Andy's transplant and why it was so important. Let's listen.


MARDINI: 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 time the whole time preparing for this transplant. You know, three-and-a-half 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.


[05:45:00] HOWELL: Dr. Mardini also told Hala he believes that Andy will do well in the long-term.

Switching over to weather now, the seasons have become a bit twisted up in some parts of the United States. This week, we got record- breaking high temperatures across the South and dramatic snowstorms across the central part of the US. Our meteorologist Derek Van Dam is here to tell us about it. Derek, I don't know where to start with this.

DEREK VAN DAM, CNN INTERNATIONAL WEATHER ANCHOR: I'll tell you that Punxsutawney Phil was incorrect in his prediction for a late spring becomes it seems like it's come early. We have plants that are blooming already, trees that are budding, but that wasn't the case if you're coming out of Minnesota and you're watching us now.

Take a look at what they had to deal with this morning. Well, that was yesterday actually, but they're still going to be waking up with the shoveling, some fresh fall in snow. This is in Rochester. And, wow, they had full on blizzard conditions in some locations across the Midwest, but George alluded to the seasons being kind of mixed up. Mother nature not quite sure whether it's spring, whether it's winter, whether it's summer or whether it's fall.

Take a look at this. This is the daily leaf index, OK? People actually keep track of this stuff. And what you're basically looking at here is that shading of red that stretches across the entire deep south in the mid-Atlantic all the way to Texas, it's an indicator of when the first leaf would occur on the trees. And what we're seeing is actually a 20 to 25 day earlier than usual leafing of these tree. Unbelievable.

And it's all thanks to this prolonged period of warmth that we've experienced. In fact, nearly 7,000 record high temperatures have been broken since the beginning of the year. Yesterday alone, we've just tallied up a new number, 80 record highs tied or smashed yesterday. Some all-time winter high temperatures actually recorded.

But we can say goodbye, sayonara to these warm temperatures because the seasons are about to change. So, little bit of a lesson from me to you if you're watching. Don't plant your vegetables too early. This could catch you off-guard because we get these cold arctic blasts. Look at the temperature separation between Cincinnati and Raleigh. We're talking over 30 degrees today. Unbelievable.

Obviously, something happening. The collision of air masses. Colder infiltrating the central and eastern parts of the country. And we know what happens this time of year when we start to see cold air meeting up with warm and more humid air. We get the potential for severe weather, and that's our threat today. We saw that across the Ohio River Valley yesterday.

Now that threat moves eastward and look who is in the radar scope of this. New York to Philly to Washington DC. You have the potential for large-scale isolated tornadoes, damaging winds, so something we're going to monitor very, very closely.

Elsewhere across the United States, cold air across the North, chance of rain showers for the Oscars this weekend in Los Angeles. Here's our rainfall potential across the East Coast.

I'll end off with this. I like to have a good note here for our weather segments. Well, this is coming out of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. People actually taking advantage of the storm system that came through. It actually kicked up a bit of surf on the freshwater. I don't know about that. Water temperatures are about 38 degrees. Would you do it, George?

HOWELL: They asked me to do the polar plunge in Chicago once and I was like uhhh.

VAN DAM: Good, good. You saw the ice chunks floating by and you said no way.

HOWELL: I think I'll pass and I'll settle for a Hawaii or something.

VAN DAM: All right.

HOWELL: Derek, thank you. I want to tell you about a story that the network is very - very important to the network. CNN teaming up with young people around the world for a unique student led day of action. The focus is on modern-day slavery with the launch of My Freedom Day on March 14.

Driving My Freedom Day is a very simple question we pose to you. What does freedom mean to you?

Here's what some students in the US had to say about that question?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Freedom to me means being able to own my body and my actions. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To me, freedom is a fundamental human right for every single person. It means being able to live a life free of exploitation and having the opportunities and the resources to reach your full potential.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Freedom to me means being able to live my life without fear.


HOWELL: My Freedom Day, March 14. Send us your answer via text, photo or video across social media using the hashtag #myfreedomday. Stay with us.


[05:50:54] DON RIDDELL, CNN ANCHOR, WORLD SPORT HEADLINES: Hey, there. I'm Don Riddell with your CNN World Sport Headlines. A day after being sacked as manager of Leicester City Claudio Ranieri gave his first reaction. He said in a statement on Friday, yesterday my dream died. He described Leicester's achievement last season as the greatest story in football, saying his biggest thank you to the supporter. Assistant coach Craig Shakespeare now takes over as caretaker manager of the Premier League champions.

Four-time Major champion Rory McIlroy responded on Friday after his round of golf with President Donald Trump gained national headlines last weekend. McIlroy went to Twitter on Friday to respond to those calling him a fascist and a bigot for golfing with Mr. Trump.

The four-time Major winner emphasized it wasn't an endorsement or a political statement of any kind. It was quite simply a round of golf, adding golf was our common ground, nothing else. McIlroy also noted that he will return from a rib injury during week at the Royal Golf Championships in Mexico.

This is always that time of great excitement in Formula One. The new season is just over a month away and the new cards are being unveiled. Ferrari showed off their new SF7OH on Friday. And McLaren Honda also revealed their new MCL32. The British-based team is hoping that after some disappointing years that this model can return them to former glories. The sleek orange livery is certainly a return to their tradition of colors.

That is your sports headlines. I'm Don Riddell.


HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell. While conservatives and supporters in the United States cheered the current president, the former US President Barack Obama was also met with cheers and applause on the streets of New York.

The woman who took the videos says that she heard a commotion near her job and wanted to go check it out. She says after a 30-minute wait, she was rewarded with the video you see there, the 44th president of the US was walking out of a Starbucks right there in front of her.

Also in France, some fans of the former US president want him to lead their nation next. It can't happen, but a guerrilla campaign is trying to get 1 million signatures on a petition urging him to run. The organizer says the campaign is a joke, but he wants to show French politicians that the people are fed up. The first round of voting for the new president of France is April 23.

Finally, this hour, Hollywood gearing up for its biggest night on Sunday. Our Stephanie Elam shows us what to watch out for.


STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Musical romance, family drama, and extraterrestrial life, all competing for Oscars. "La La Land" is the film to watch with 14 nominations tying "All About Eve" and "Titanic" for the most nods in Oscar history.

[05:55:01] The musical is up for Best Picture along with "Arrival," "Fences," "Hacksaw Ridge," "Hell or High Water," "Hidden Figures," "Lion," "Manchester By The Sea," and "Moonlight."

RAMIN SETOODEH, NEW YORK BUREAU CHIEF, "VARIETY": Some people think that maybe "Hidden Figures" could eke out in the end, but I think that in the end "La La Land" will prevail.

ELAM: "La La Land's" Emma Stone is up for best actress as is Isabelle Huppert for "Elle," Ruth Negga in "Loving," and return winners, Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins, and Natalie Portman as Jackie, but Stone is the frontrunner.

SETOODEH: Emma Stone has essentially won every single award you can win.

ELAM: The race for best actor, however, is tight. Andrew Garfield in "Hacksaw Ridge," Ryan Gosling in "La La Land," and Viggo Mortensen in "Captain Fantastic" are all up for the honor. But the momentum is with Denzel Washington for "Fences" and Casey Affleck in "Manchester By The Sea."

SETOODEH: Everyone is going to be on the edge of their seat for that competition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know who's hosting 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.

SETOODEH: 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.


HOWELL: All eyes will be watching to see what happens. We thank you for watching us this hour. I'm George Howell at the CNN Center in Atlanta. For our viewers in the United States, "New Day" is next. For other viewers around the world, Best of Quest comes in a moment. Thank you for watching the Cable News Network. CNN, we are the world's new leader.