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Trump Accuses Obama of Wiretapping; World Famine. Aired 2-2:30a ET

Aired March 5, 2017 - 02:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): President Donald Trump accuses his predecessor, Barack Obama, of wiretapping his phones before the election. It is a serious allegation but he offers no proof to back it up.

Stealing the president's thunder. How the ongoing controversy over Attorney General Jeff Sessions has Donald Trump angry.

And devastation in Somalia. More than 100 people have died; this after a severe famine hits that region.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to our viewers around the world. I'm George Howell. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


HOWELL: Saturday began with an explosive allegation from the President of the United States that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower last year.

But almost 24 hours afterwards, there is still no evidence to back up that claim. One former senior U.S. intelligence official dismissed the allegation out of hand, calling it, quote, "nonsense."

A spokesman for the former president, Barack Obama, also said this, "The accusation is, quote, "simply false."

The president apparently blindsided his own staff with a series of tweets aimed at Mr. Obama, including the one that you see here.

Quote, "How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process? This is Nixon Watergate bad or sick guy."

We get the very latest on the story from Athena Jones.


ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I, along with my colleagues, have been asking White House officials down here in Florida and also in Washington since early this morning to provide some evidence to back up these unsubstantiated allegations that the president made. There is still no official comment or statement from the White House.

But my colleague, Jeff Zeleny, the senior White House correspondent, did speak with a senior administration official in Washington. That official says that the White House colleagues only learned about the president's tweet storm after he began tweeting early this morning.

Now, he often does that. He wakes up and begins tweeting early in the morning, not in any way apparently running these tweets by any of his staffers. This morning he began those tweets at around 6:30 am.

Now, this official pointed to a story on the conservative website Breitbart News that has been circulating around the West Wing which followed up on comments made by radio talk show host Mark Levin (ph) that claimed that President Obama was trying to undermine Trump's Presidential campaign and his administration including through these various investigations on Russia and possible ties between Russians and Trump associates.

And these stories -- or that story in particular -- very much angered the President according to this senior administration official.

And just a couple of hours ago, the president's social media director and an adviser, Dan Scavino, tweeted out a link to that very same Breitbart News story which lends credence to the idea that this could be part of the basis for those tweets from the president. But as you mentioned, President Obama has strenuously denied this through a spokesperson.

Let's read that statement from Kevin Lewis. Here it is.

"A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false."

So a very vigorous denial there. And we have already had other former senior officials in the Obama administration point out that a president doesn't order wiretaps. Other officials have said that this is simply nonsense and it didn't happen.


HOWELL: Athena Jones, thank you.

Those tweets come alongside another big controversy: the U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his meetings with Russia's ambassador to the U.S.

Sessions recused himself Thursday from any investigation related to Trump's presidential campaign. This of course, after it came to light that Sessions met twice last year with Russia's ambassador.

Former and current U.S. officials have told CNN that the FBI was aware of the meetings, because the Russian ambassador has been under surveillance. Late Saturday, Sessions was in Florida to meet with the president. CNN's Jim Acosta explains that Mr. Trump is angry that Sessions' problems overshadowed the president's address to Congress last week.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We can tell you that President Trump was very frustrated with senior staff and communications team on Friday morning just before he departed for Mar- a-lago. According to one source that I spoke to, quote, "nobody has seen him that upset," end quote, the feeling being --


ACOSTA: -- inside the Oval Office -- and we had a camera there that was rolling, where you can see officials having a heated conversation with one another -- the feeling inside the Oval Office, according to sources we are talking to, is that the communication team, the press team of the White House had allowed the news of Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the Trump campaign and Russian investigation had sort of overtaken the narrative of the week.

They were feeling very enthusiastic after the president's performance at that speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

And from what we are hearing from sources, the president was very upset that Sessions had even recused himself from the case. That was something, according to one source, that the president thought was hasty and overkill. He was hot. He was exasperated over this because he felt that basically they were just giving their adversaries up on Capitol Hill more ammunition by having Jeff Sessions recuse himself.


HOWELL: Let's now bring in Larry Sabato, the director at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Always a pleasure to have you with us, Larry. Let's first talk about this claim that has been made by the president, offering no proof. He tweeted that the Obama administration engaged in wiretapping phones at the Trump Tower in New York before he was inaugurated.

This is a claim that harkens back to Nixon era tactics and Watergate, in a move that he compared to McCarthyism. This is a serious allegation.

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: George, allegations don't get much more serious. President Trump has essentially charged President Obama with a crime. And he has compared him, as you noted, to President Nixon in the depths of Watergate.

And it seems to me that it is incumbent upon President Trump now to put up or shut up. It's one or the other. I was delighted to see today that some lawmakers, including Republicans, said that they were determined to get to the bottom of this allegation one way or the other.

And I hope they follow up. We should not allow this to go by the boards.

HOWELL: Larry, there are suggestions that the president might be referring to a Breitbart story that was published Friday, critical of the Obama administration's actions before Mr. Trump's inauguration.

But, again, it is clear that this is a president who gets a lot of his information from conservative pundits on radio and television.

SABATO: That may well be the source but, of course, no one knows. And in a sense, it doesn't matter. What I don't think President Trump is focused on is how important each word he utters as president matters.

And these are truly his words, George. This, the Twitter Trump, in my view, is the real Trump. There is no filter. There is no editor. No staff members see it before it goes out.

And the fact that he would do this, especially after having said on Tuesday night in his speech to Congress, that the time for trivial matters was over and pundits having declared him to be very presidential, having made the pivot to being presidential, it's really quite amazing that President Trump would have gone on this Twitter tirade about President Obama and other things, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and the "Apprentice" show.

HOWELL: Some question whether this is a distraction from the story that won't seem to go away: Russia. And any ties that the Trump team may have had with Russian officials, one of them being the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who is in Florida for the weekend with a dinner with the president.

Mr. Sessions also set to offer clarification to his earlier testimony to the House Judiciary Committee about his meetings with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

SABATO: Yes, and I think that's the absolute minimum that we should expect of Attorney General Sessions at this point. He clearly misled the Senate during his confirmation hearings. And he is going to have to set the record straight.

Again, senators may want to question him in person rather than simply reading this reevaluation of his remarks. But to your earlier point, George, maybe this is a distraction. That is a rational motive for the tweets that President Trump sent out. I'm not really sure that that is the explanation. I'm not sure it is entirely rational.

HOWELL: The attorney general in Florida, in advance of what is expected to happen later this week, that new executive order on a travel ban.

How important will a discussion be between the president and the attorney general, with this new travel ban set to be signed?

SABATO: The president's got to get it right this time. The travel ban executive order was a disaster early in Trump's presidency. It took him off his focus and off his game for a week or 10 days. He has got to get it right.


SABATO: And one would assume that the attorney general of the United States would be in a position to tell him whether he is getting it right, according to the law.

HOWELL: Larry Sabato, director at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, Larry, thank you so much for your insight.

SABATO: Thank you, George.

HOWELL: And that executive order could come as soon as Monday, banning travel to the United States from certain Middle Eastern and African nations. The Trump administration is also temporarily suspending fast processing of the H-1B work visas.

That's a popular pathway for high-skilled foreigners to get work in the United States. The visas typically take up to six months to be approved. But companies could pay to have them expedited. Starting next month, the fast-track option will be halted, possibly for up to six months.

In Somalia, leaders there say that the country needs food and it needs water and needs it fast. More than 100 people have died from hunger in the last 48 hours alone. A full-blown famine from years of drought is threatening millions of lives in Somalia.

Save the Children warns that 50,000 children face starvation. One drought victim says, the crisis is catastrophic.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We are deeply suffering. We are thirsty. We are hungry. We did not grow any crops on our farms for nearly two years. Some of the families here have not cooked anything since they arrived here. We have nothing to survive on."


HOWELL: Also, in Yemen, that nation facing a severe food shortage. The U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator visited the embattled country earlier this week. He urged warring factions to guarantee more access to ports to allow food and supplies in. And he warned the consequences could be dire if nothing is changed.


STEPHEN O'BRIEN, U.N. EMERGENCY RELIEF COORDINATOR: We can see about 7 million Yemenis, not sure where their next meal will come from. And it is that which has caused us to declare that, if we do not step up now, in an even greater way, there is a real danger of famine here in Yemen.

We need access; safe, unimpeded access without security problems, without violence, where we have routes which are agreed and where we have a right to reach the people in need.


HOWELL: Stephen O'Brien saying that action is needed fast.

Thank you so much for being with us here for CNN NEWSROOM. "MARKETPLACE AFRICA" is next. I'm George Howell.