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Trump Accuses Obama of Wiretapping; China Opens National People's Congress; EPA Braces for Deep Budget Cuts. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired March 5, 2017 - 03:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A serious allegation, President Trump accuses his predecessor of wiretapping his offices in New York. But he offers no proof to back it up.

And that Russia connection, it isn't over yet. The attorney general meets with his boss before clarifying this week his testimony to Congress.

Devastation in Somalia: more than 100 people have died after a severe famine hits the region.

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


HOWELL: Good day to you.

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 after it, 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 Obama said this, "The accusation is simply false."

The president apparently blindsided his own staff when he unloaded a series of tweets. This tweet 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 now from CNN's 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, reporting for us.

The tweets came out alongside another controversy, one that won't seem to go away. This one, over the U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his connection to Russian officials.

On Thursday, Sessions recused himself 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, 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 inside --


ACOSTA: -- 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.

And one would assume that -- [03:10:00]

SABATO: -- 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 across the United States, people came together in support of President Trump in at least 28 states on Saturday. Many of the rallies were peaceful.

But inside Minnesota's state capital, take a look here. Six anti- Trump protestors arrested there after clashing with supporters. Ten people were also arrested at a rally in Berkeley, California. Police there confiscated a number of weapons.

Protesters argued with each other at many of these rallies with mild fighting reported at some.

As soon as Monday, there could be a new executive order, banning travel to the United States from certain Middle Eastern and African nations. The Trump administration is temporarily suspending fast processing of the H-1B work visa, it's a popular pathway for high- skilled foreigners to 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.

Still ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM, China's National People's Congress has opened in Beijing. We go live to the Chinese capital for a report -- still ahead.

Plus, Somalia announces a startling death toll from starvation amid warnings of a looming full-blown famine. That story ahead as well.




HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell.

In Malaysia, government officials there plan to expel North Korea's ambassador amid fallout over the death of Kim Jong-nam. Malaysia police say that the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader was poisoned by a banned nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur's airport.

North Korea rejects Malaysia's investigation. Its ambassador accused Malaysia of conspiring with, quote, "hostile forces." Malaysia demanded an apology but didn't get one. Now it has given North Korea's ambassador 48 hours to leave that country.

China has opened the annual session of its National People's Congress and it's forecasting its slowest economic growth in decades. John Defterios is CNNMoney emerging markets editor and is live this hour in Beijing.

John, always a pleasure to have you with us. So the grand opening, the grand ceremony to open the Congress. But the message that was delivered, not entirely a good one.

JOHN DEFTERIOS, CNN EMERGING MARKETS EDITOR: No, indeed, George it was not. But it is a meeting of (INAUDIBLE) --


HOWELL: We may have lost John Defterios but, again, we understand from that ceremony that the growth will be slower than we have seen in the year before. So that is important to point out. We'll continue to reach out to John and get his perspective if we can here in the broadcast.

The families of those on board missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 say that they will continue the search even if they have to pay for it themselves. Those families launched a campaign Saturday to privately fund the search for that aircraft.

In January, officials in Australia, China and Malaysia suspended their efforts. MH370 vanished, as you will remember, in 2014, somewhere over the Indian Ocean.

In Somalia, at least 110 people have starved to death in just 48 hours. This as a full-blown famine looms, this is according to the Somalia prime minister, who is now pleading for international help. Millions of people, more than half the country's population, in fact, are on the brink of starvation.

A severe drought has gripped the country now for three years in a row, causing a food and water crisis.


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: Somalis are not alone. As you look at this map, you get a sense of what's happening. More than 20 million people in several African countries are in need of food urgently. They include Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia. South Sudan officially declared famine just last month. A dozen people have been wounded in Iraq from what the Red Cross is

calling a suspected chemical attack that took place in Mosul. Our senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman reports. But we do warn you going into this story, many of the images are hard to watch.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 11- year-old Yassed lies unconscious in bed. A rocket lit outside his home Wednesday in liberated east Mosul, leaving him with a concussion and symptoms doctors at this hospital in Erbil say point to a chemical attack.

DR. LAWAND MIRAN, DIRECTOR, IRAQ HOSPITAL: Shortness of breath. Second-degree burn.

WEDEMAN: Hospital director Dr. Lawand Miran has no doubt about what happened.

MIRAN: It is a chemical gas.

WEDEMAN: Twelve people including a month-old baby have been treated for exposure to chemical agents in the first such attack by ISIS since the start of the Mosul offensive last October. Wisam Rashid was in his house when a rocket landed outside.

There was a rotten smell, he recalls and there was something like burnt oil. There was gas, no one can breathe in the whole area. We left the house and the civil defense sealed it up.

The U.S. defense department has warned that ISIS has developed a primitive capacity to develop chemical weapons and has used them in Syria and Iraq. The worry is with ISIS desperate and surrounded in western Mosul it won't hesitate to use everything in its arsenal.

The Red Cross is setting up tents in the event there are more chemical attacks. Now, in a statement related to this incident, the Red Cross stressed that the use of chemical weapons is a war crime. Not that that makes any difference to ISIS. Indifferent as it is to the suffering of its victims -- Ben Wedeman, CNN, Irbil, Iraq.


HOWELL: Ben Wedeman, thank you.

Earlier, we were talking to John Defterios just to tell you more about what is taking place in China. China expecting its economy to slow down after decades of expansion. This discussed at opening of the annual National People's Congress.

China's premier says that Beijing aims to expand the economy by around 6.5 percent in 2017. That compares to 6.7 percent growth just last year.



HOWELL: The effort to control climate change could be turning on its head, turned on its head rather. The Environmental Protection Agency in the United States is bracing for deep budget cuts; 3,000 employees could see their jobs all but disappear. And every one of them in 50 states will be impacted in some way or shape. Rene Marsh brings us the big picture.


RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump's proposed budget could slash state grants aimed at enforcing environmental laws as well as regional programs that address specific pollution problems -- a double whammy for some states.

BILL BECKER, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CLEAN AIR AGENCIES: If the states and localities are robbed from having sufficient resources and technical tools to clean up the air or their water, public health will suffer.

MARSH: Under the proposed EPA budget, some regions could get additional cuts. On the East Coast, grant money used to clean up the badly polluted Chesapeake Bay, the country's largest estuary, could be slashed 93 percent, with funding dropping from $73 million down to $5 million.

BECKER: Many of the wonderfully enjoyable seafood that most East Coasters participate, take advantage of, will be poisoned or at least inedible.

The Great Lakes region could see a 97 percent cut from $300 million down to $10 million. The funds are used to clean up pollution sites like the St. Louis River that feeds into Lake Superior, the Great Lakes provide drinking water to people in eight states. Officials there say it could cost more to treat drinking water and that cost would be passed on to consumers.

Washington state could see a 93 percent cut in grants used to clean up and protect the Puget Sound, from $28 million down to $2 million. It's the second largest estuary in the nation and leads the country in the production of farmed shellfish.

While he did not address these specific programs, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said Thursday, some other programs could be spared.

SCOTT PRUITT, ADMINSTRATOR, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY: There are some concerns about some of these grant programs that EPA has been a part of historically. I want you to know that with the White House and also with Congress, I am communicating a message that the Brownfields program, the Superfund program, water infrastructure, WIFIA grants, state revolving funds are essential to protect.

MARSH: The rationale for the proposed cuts: limiting federal spending and overreach by allowing states to enforce environmental laws.


HOWELL: For more on this now, let's bring in Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the chief program officer for the National Resources Defense Council.

Susan, a pleasure to have you with us. Let's talk about the EPA here. No doubt this agency will be under great pressure with this new president. There is the possibility the agency could see a 25 percent reduction in funding, weakening regulations on air and water and targeting various programs on climate change.



CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: And you know the EPA safeguards fundamental rights to a healthy environment across the United States. Nobody voted for dirty air and dirty water and unhealthy climate in this last election. And that's something that President Trump and the Congress need to recognize.

HOWELL: But the president has said, just to point out that he said there is a way to have clean coal, things of that nature.

Your take on how that has been presented to the American public?

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: So far, everything that President Trump has said that he would do is an all-out assault on the environment, on our health and on our water and on our air and on the healthy climate around the world.

He may claim that he wants clean air and clean water but his actions show that he intends to undermine them and do what is good for big business, especially polluting business, instead of for people in America and people around the world.

HOWELL: One of the programs specifically the president is expect to kick off the process, to undo the clean power plan, that's designed to cut airborne pollution.

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: That's right. The clean power plan was a regulation, a safeguard meant to tackle climate pollution from especially coal-powered power plants across the United States.

It's a critical -- it's a critical rule, if we are, in the United States, are going to meet our commitments under the Paris climate agreement. The good news here is that it will take the president a very long time to undo the clean power plan it he is able to do it at all.

He is not able to make decisions like this by fiat. The process for undoing a regulation is very similar to the process for making one. There has to be a lot of public comment. And the public want clean energy. They do not want to go back to the dirty ways of the past.

HOWELL: When it comes to clean air, let's talk about this reported division in the White House on the president's promise to cancel the Paris agreement to curb global warming. The president's senior adviser, Steve Bannon, wants to pull the United States out of that agreement.

But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, they may have a different point of view on this.

So what do you make of this division?

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: You know, what's clear is that world leaders have stood by their commitment to the Paris climate agreement. And if the United States backs out, it is going to become a global pariah. And that means things that are bad not only for our position in the world on things like leading on fighting climate change but our position economically in the world.

So it just is good common sense to stay in the Paris agreement and to keep meeting our commitments under that. It's good common sense and it's good economic sense.

And I think that that is hopefully what some of President Trump's advisers are telling him.

HOWELL: Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the chief program officer for the National Resources Defense Council, thank you so much for your insight.

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: Thank you for having me.

HOWELL: And thank you for being with us for this hour. I'm George Howell. Your world headlines right after the break.