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No Proof on Allegations; Crucial Visit; Not to Budget Cuts; Fake News Not Allowed. Aired 3-4a ET

Aired March 17, 2017 - 03:00   ET



[03:00:00] NATALIE ALLEN, CNN HOST: The White House standing firm on unproven claims of wiretapping at Trump Tower, despite the findings of bipartisan Senate intelligence committee.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN HOST: The U.S. Secretary of State in South Korea at a time of heightened tensions.

We're live in the demilitarized zone.

ALLEN: A new research says large parts of the Great Barrier Reef are dying. We'll talk with the co-author of the report.

It's all next here on our news. Welcome to viewers around the world. I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell from CNN world headquarters in Atlanta. Newsroom starts now.

Good day to you. With no proof, with no evidence to support his claim at all, the U.S. President believes that his predecessor, Barack Obama, spied on him during the 2016 campaign. This according to the White House. All of this despite denials from top republicans and democrats in Congress that it didn't happen.

ALLEN: And the questionable wiretapping claims are just one of Mr. Trump's problems this week.

CNN's Jim Acosta reports.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The prime minister of Ireland may be in Washington but no luck of the Irish for President Trump. The president is becoming increasingly isolated on his baseless allegation that he was wiretapped by former President Obama.


PAUL RYAN, UNITED STATES SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The intelligence communities in their continuing widening ongoing investigations of all things Russia got to the bottom with so far with respect to our intelligence community that no such wiretapping existed.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ACOSTA: The chair and ranking democrat of the Senate intelligence

could not be more clear. "Based on the information available to us we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.


ACOSTA: But it sounds like, Sean, that you and the president are saying now, well, we don't mean wiretapping anymore because it is not true anymore.


ACOSTA: Other forms of surveillance. What is it going to be next?

SPICER: Jim, I think that's cute but at the end of the day we talked about this for three or four days. What the president had the quote "wiretapping" in quotes, he was referring to broad surveillance. And now you are basically going back. We talked about this several days ago.


ACOSTA: Still, the president is in search of a rationale for his claims pointing to an article in the New York Times and something he heard on Fox News.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There was an article. I think they used that exact term. I read other things. I watched your friend Bret Baier the day previous where he was talking about certain very complex sets of things happening and wiretapping. I said, wait a minute, there's a lot of wiretapping being talked about. I've been seeing a lot of things.


ACOSTA: The White House has said repeatedly the president's claim of wiretapping was shorthand for all kinds of surveillance, but democrats argue that's just a lame attempt at damage control.


PATRICK LEAHY, (D) UNITED STATES SENATOR: Every time he gets pushed back on a claim and is shown what he said wasn't true, he said, well, what we really meant was, or you have his press secretary going, air quotes, air quotes, air quotes. That's not the way to run the presidency.


ACOSTA: The president is also facing bipartisan criticism over his proposed budget which ramps up defense spending and fund of border wall while slashing the State Department, EPA, the national institute of health, while eliminating funding for public broadcasting. Even republicans are giving the budget the cold shoulder.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have an America first president and it shouldn't surprise anybody we have an America first budget.


ACOSTA: The president is also playing defense over starting a travel ban on six Muslim majority countries. Blocked once again in court the president took a veiled jab at the latest judge standing in his way.


TRUMP: And I have to be nice, otherwise I will get criticized for speaking poorly about our courts. I will be -- I will be criticized by these people among the most dishonest people in the world. This is a watered down version, and let me tell you something I think we ought to go back to the first one and go all the way which is what I want to do in the first place.


ACOSTA: But even the president's top aides have said it's not that watered down.


STEPHEN MILLER, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF POLICY ADVISOR: Fundamentally you're still going to have the same basic policy outcome for the country.


ACOSTA: For that reason democrats are confident the travel ban will be tied up indefinitely.


ADAM SCHIFF, (D) UNITED STATES REPRESENTATIVE: Think that the court is very likely to apply strict scrutiny to this because it will have the effect of discriminating against people of a certain faith.


ACOSTA: And the president will have an opportunity to answer all of those questions when he holds a joint news conference with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on Friday.

Jim Acosta, CNN, Washington.

HOWELL: Acosta, thank you for your reporting. You saw that the White House press secretary had an exchange there with Jim Acosta as Mr. Spicer cited various media reports trying to justify the president's wiretapping claim, keeping in mind some of the reports he cited they typically call fake news when they don't like the coverage.

[03:05:04] ALLEN: That's true. Most quoted anonymous sources -- and that's something the White House has frequently criticized. Here is one example.


SPICER: Last on Fox News on March 14th, Judge Andrew Napolitano mailed the following statement, quote, "Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn't use the NSA, he didn't use the CIA, he didn't use the FBI and he didn't use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ. What is that? It's the initials for the British intelligence spy agency. Simply by having two people saying to them, the president needs transcripts of conversations involving candidate Trump's conversation, involving President-elect he is able to get it and there is no American fingerprints on this."


ALLEN: Well, a GCHQ spokesman responded saying, "Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct wiretapping against the then-president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored."

HOWELL: All right Let's get some context with Leslie Vinjamuri, she is with the U.S. program at Chatham House, live in London with us this hour. Leslie, always a pleasure to have you with us, to try to break this down and make some sense of it.

So, we are hearing the response from the GCHQ. We are hearing the response from the bipartisan gang of eight, but the Donald Trump administration still holding to its claim, again without any evidence of wiretapping or as they call it surveillance or whatever the air quotes are there for that.


HOWELL: But they say that there's more information to come. The White House seems to be alone on this.

VINJAMURI: The White House does seem to be entirely alone on this, and I think what's most interesting is rather than trying to think about how to perhaps walk back this allegation that comes really out of a single tweet initially, they've ratcheted up at almost every turn.

And there's no evidence, I don't think, that this strategy has been successful with the very significant exception of Donald Trump's election, right? Throughout the campaign we saw this strategy work whenever he was attacked, he would come back very, very hard and frequently on baseless claims.

But this is -- this is very surprising, given especially there's been no support for him within his party, across Congress and amongst the FBI director, former director of national intelligence. Everybody has really come out against this.

The one success perhaps that it's had is that, of course, it has deflected attention from the broader issue, which is Russia's role in cyber attacks on the U.S. elections and whether or not there's any connection between Trump and his colleagues and that -- and the government of Russia on that broader campaign.

So it's moved a lot of the conversation away from that issue, which is where we had been, on to this. But really it's very hard to know where this goes that will win them any success.

HOWELL: You point that out, that it does move the goal post so to speak. But, you know, we do continue to report on those issues. Those are the questions that many people have about whether there are ties between the Trump administration and Russia.


HOWELL: Just to correct myself, I think I put air quotes over surveillance, the air quotes should have been over wiretapping. So I will correct myself there.

Let's talk about the facts of the president's budget.


HOWELL: This shift to hard power and spending more with military defense, but major cuts to social welfare programs, for the elderly, for children, for the arts. Many of these programs that benefit the very people who voted for the president. How might this help or hurt his base?

VINJAMURI: Well, it is very -- a couple of things here, right. This is a shift. It looks like a hard power budget, there's substantial increases in the defense spending, 54 billion is proposed. Major cuts to the State Department, so to diplomacy, to the soft power part of American engagement with the world, foreign aid.

But in terms of his base, right, these are cuts that are looking like they will hurt health, science, environment, things that will have both a long-term and a short-term impact on people. Things -- if you look at proposals to cut work study, this is one of the most important programs for Americans who want to go to university, who want to -- but need to work their way through, who can't afford to fund themselves.

He's keep the Pell Grants level, funding for the Pell Grant level. This is critical form of financial aid for those without many financial resources to go to university.

So the whole base of investment in research and science, in diplomacy, but also the tangible, you know, programs that people that voted for him look to for -- to support them on a daily basis. So, it's not only going to hurt America and itself power in the world, it is going to hurt Americans and a lot of people in his base. But of course, these are only proposed. These are proposals. They have

to get through Congress and the noise coming out of Congress right now has not been tremendously supportive.

[03:09:57] So, I think the White House is setting itself up for yet another battle at a time when its facing a lot of pushback on healthcare, on the, of course, the challenge on the travel ban, has been very significant and will be ongoing.

And here now we have a budget that's going to get a lot of pushback across a range of dimensions. But it's very -- potentially very harmful, cutting the national endowment for the humanities, the Woodrow Wilson Institute for Scholars. These are central parts of America's research, its expertise, really what it stood for the last several decades. I can't say how devastating it would be if the proposal actually went through.

HOWELL: A lot of those legislators obviously concerned about what it could mean for them when it comes to reelection as well.

Leslie Vinjamuri, thank you so much for your insight. We'll stay in touch with you.

VINJAMURI: Thank you.

ALLEN: President Trump is hours away from hosting one of America's biggest allies, someone he called a disaster while on the campaign trail.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit the White House Friday.

Our Atika Shubert digs into how important and maybe awkward their first meeting could be.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A massive blizzard may have thrown a wrench in their plans, causing some to view the storm's delay as a bad omen for the hotly anticipated meeting of two of the world's most powerful leaders, U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

And who could blame them? With comments like this from then-candidate Trump after migrants were blamed for hundreds of sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany on New Year's Eve last year.


TRUMP: The German people are going to riot, the German people are going to end up over throw this woman. I don't know what the hell she is thinking.


SHUBERT: It wasn't the first time Trump had publicly railed against Merkel. On the campaign trail in August 2016, he again assailed her decision to take in a large number of refugees.


TRUMP: In short, Hillary Clinton wants to be America's Angela Merkel. True. You know what a disaster this massive immigration has been to Germany and the people of Germany. Crime has risen to levels no one thought they would ever, ever see. It is a catastrophe.


SHUBERT: But just a year earlier, Trump sang Merkel's praises, telling Time magazine that she was probably the greatest leader in the world, adding, "She is fantastic and highly respected."

That opinion seemed to turn however, and when time chose Merkel as its person of the year in 2015, Trump tweeted his displeasure. "I told you time would never pick me, despite being the big favorite. Despite being the big favorite they picked the wrong person who is ruing Germany."

After his election Merkel was cordial, congratulating Trump on his victory but there was a thinly veiled message too.


ANGELA MERKEL, GERMAN CHANCELLOR (trough translator): Germany and America are bound together by values, democracy, freedom, respect of law and respect of people regardless of their origin, the color of their skin, their religion, gender, sexual orientation or their political believes.


SHUBERT: In response to Trump's continued criticism of her policy of taking in refugees, she said simply, "I think we Europeans have our fate in our own hands." And when Trump declared the media the, quote, "enemy of the people, here is how she responded."


MERKEL (through translator): I think a free and independent press is of the essence. I have great respect for journalists. We at least here in Germany have always done best when we show respect for each other and when we show mutual respect.


SHUBERT: Merkel's says Friday's meeting with Trump focus on talking together rather than talking about one another. A nod perhaps to the importance of mutual respect between two of the most powerful people in the world.

Atika Shubert, CNN, Berlin.

HOWELL: Atika Shubert, thank you for the report.

The U.S. military is disputing local reports from Syria that it carried out an air strike on a mosque in west Aleppo. Dozens of worshippers there were killed in that attack.

ALLEN: U.S. Central Command confirmed an air strike in neighboring Idlib believed to target an Al Qaeda meeting place. But a spokesman says there will be an investigation into the allegations of civilian casualties.

HOWELL: Now to France, authorities there are investigating two violent attacks. They both happened Thursday, the first in Paris at the International Monetary Fund's office. Officials say a letter bomb that contained parts of Greek stamps injured an IMF employee.

A Greek guerilla group claimed responsibility for a parcel bomb, then sent to the German finance ministry in Berlin Wednesday. It is unclear though if that's connected to what happened in Paris.

[03:14:59] ALLEN: And in southeastern France, a 17-year-old student has been arrested after a shooting at a high school. CNN affiliate BFM TV says the suspect entered the school around lunch time and fired at the head teacher. Three students and a principal were injured. Authorities say they don't consider the attack terrorism.

Still to come here, stepping into no-man's land. The new U.S. secretary of state tours the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. We will take you there live.

HOWELL: And against all odds, a lone figure, look at that, comes out of a swirling pile of debris in Peru, battered and muddy but still alive. Stay with us.


RHIANNON JONES, CNN WORLD SPORTS ANCHOR: I'm Rhiannon Jones in London with your CNN World Sport headlines.

Manchester United a three to the quarter finals at the Europa league. They went into the tie against FC Rostov level at 1 all after the first leg in Russia. Juan Mata scored the only goal of the game in the 70th minute.

And in the end it would be just enough. Manchester United win 1-nil. And it marks to the final 8th on a 2-1 aggregate.

Bad news for Chicago Bulls' fans. Star guard Dwayne Wade is out for the remainder of the regular season and MRI Scan reveals that the 35- year-old sustained a small fracture and sprain in his right elbow on Wednesday.

Wade went down in the fourth quarter of the Bulls loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. He twisted arm and he went out for a rebound with Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph. On the bright side, though, Wade hopes to be able to return to action, that is if they make it to the post season.

In Orlando, Florida, a special tribute to honor the late Arnold Palmer at the first edition of the tournament since his its host step back in September. A moment of silence as PGA to approach hits off the range on the seven-time major winner and a golfing legend. It was golf's very own version of the 21 gun salute, and certainly a tribute to remember.

That's a look at your sports headline. I'm Rhiannon Jones.

HOWELL: Welcome back to Newsroom. the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson touched down in South Korea early Friday. It's the second leg of his trip that will also take him to China.

ALLEN: His brief visit comes at a moment of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea in political turmoil after its elected President Park Geun-hye was forced out of office just days ago.

Our Paula Hancocks joins us now live from the Korean DMZ with more about it. Paula?

[03:20:03] PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Natalie. Well, just a few hours ago, the secretary of state was here at the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. He met with the top military brass to get a debrief and to find out exactly what the situation is at the moment on the Peninsula.

Right now he is meeting with acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn and then he will go on to meet his South Korean counterpart, the foreign minister here in South Korea.

But it's a very interesting time for Secretary of State Tillerson to be here as many of those people he is talking to right now probably won't be here in the same positions in less than two months.

South Korea has no president. Its people are sharply divided. The government says its business as usual when it is anything but. This is the South Korea that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is visiting.


DUYEON KIM, NONRESIDENT FELLOW, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF DIPLOMACY: It is only a matter of time until the North is able to successfully launch a long-range missile tipped with a nuclear device aimed at the U.S.


HANCOCKS: Top topic is North Korea and Kim Jong-un's determination to set the U.S. in its nuclear sites. North Korea describe itself as a nuclear state. The term Washington said it will never accept. One policy at least and Trump administrations agree on.

But the more North Korea tests the more it improves. The next four years are crucial. Tillerson arrives as the U.S./South Korean military drills are well underway. War games that infuriate North Korea and have resulted in threats from Pyongyang of nuclear war.

North Korea gets very nervous this time of year, the annual military drills it's the United States and South Korea say are defensive in nature but Pyongyang still sees them as a threat and says they see the U.S. forces as hostile.

The U.S. disagrees.


JAMES KIRBY, UNITED STATES NAVY: To build a relationship requires trust to operate together. So that requires practice and working through a series of exercises.


HANCOCKS: And military hardware apparently. The U.S. fired missile defense system is arriving in parts. South Korea wants assurances it will be fully operational to counter the threat of North Korean missiles as soon as possible.

The next president coming in in a couple of months is likely to be liberal and is likely not to want it.

Now Secretary Tillerson has said that the North Korean policy of the past 20 years has clearly failed. What he hasn't done at this point though is talk about what the Trump administration North Korean policy would be. That is being listened to very closely here in South Korea and of course just across the border in North Korea as well. Natalie?

ALLEN: All right. We'll wait and see if we learn about that. Thank you so much, Paula.

HOWELL: Back in the United States, the State Department is bracing for dramatic budget cuts. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the current budget is simply not sustainable. The Trump administration is proposing a 28 percent cut in funding. That is about $11 billion. Foreign aid spending in the budget would be slashed by 38 percent. The White House budget director is defending the plan. Let's listen.


MICK MULVANEY, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET: The president believes in diplomacy and we believe that this budget protects that core function of the State Department. It just so happens that much of the foreign aid that the president talked about in campaign, much of the money that goes to climate research, green energy, those types of things are actually in the State Department budget.

If those line items had been in the Department of Commerce, you would see Department of Commerce having gone down by that similarly large percentage. So the answer to your question is that most of the cuts within the State Department try to focus directly on foreign aid.


ALLEN: The Trump administration's proposed budget would also cut off funding entirely for several agencies including the arts, public broadcasting and development groups, and it proposes steep cuts to agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA. HOWELL: The White House says the cuts are needed to offset increases

in defense spending, but some critics are not convinced that this is the right move to make.


JEFFREY SACHS, DIRECTOR, THE EARTH INSTITUTE AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: This is a budget that goes after the poor, after the environment, after global diplomacy in order to raise military spending. It's shocking. It is as mean as can be and as a number of senators have said, it's not only dead on arrival it is dead on delivery.

It is just nastiness incarnate actually. They proudly call it a hard- power budget, so they went after everything soft like saving lives, doing science, helping medical research, honoring diplomatic niceties, things that we have signed up to for years in order to show how tough they are.

It doesn't prove anything but a kind of theater of the absurd because it is not going anywhere, but it does show a kind of disdain for America's constructive role in the world.


[03:25:07] HOWELL: One of the criticisms of the plan would be to cut funding for Meals on Wheels, and to help the elderly. So, certainly a lot of eyes on this particular budget. Of course, Congress will have the final say on the president's $1.1 trillion budget blueprint in the coming months.

I want to take you now to South America. Take a look here at Peru's pacific coast. It is getting hammered with torrential rains and mud slides there. At least a dozen people have been reported killed. Wow.

This truck, the driver there, was one of the lucky ones. Somehow he managed to escape his overturned vehicle and scramble to safety before it was swept away.

ALLEN: My goodness. I don't know how he got out of that. In another location another survivor emerge from the muck after she was caught in a flash flood.


ALLEN: Look at her. That is unreal that she got out of that. Bystanders cheered as the 32-year-old woman emerged from the remnants of a building and made her way to solid ground, covered in mud. Poor thing. She got out.

HOWELL: Looking at what she came out of there, just amazing.

ALLEN: Just ahead here, the misery of Mosul. The Iraqi city in ruins and its people driven out by battles in their backyards.

HOWELL: Plus, new problems for former Trump adviser Michael Flynn. The very latest ties for the Russian government revealed. CNN Newsroom continues after the break.


HOWELL: Welcome back to our viewers around the world. You're watching CNN Newsroom. It is good to have you with us. I'm George Howell.

[03:29:58] ALLEN: I'm Natalie Allen. Let's update you on our top stories this hour. The White House says President Trump stands by his claim that Barack Obama wiretapped him at Trump Tower. House Speaker Paul Ryan, plus the top democrats and republicans on the House and Senate intelligence committee all say they've seen no evidence to support the allegation.

HOWELL: Search efforts are underway in western Aleppo in Syria. This after dozens of people, mostly civilians were killed in an air strike on a mosque during evening prayers. The U.S. military says it did not target the mosque but says did hit a building believed to be an Al Qaeda meeting place in neighboring province.

ALLEN: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has arrived in South Korea at a moment of heightened tensions on the Peninsula. Seoul is on edge after a court forced its elected president from office a week ago, and regarding North Korea Tillerson lament 20 years of diplomacy have failed to keep Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons.

HOWELL: Six years ago, this month the Syrian Civil War started to simmer in Daraa. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are dead.

ALLEN: And millions are displaced. And when we talk about the scope of the war, it can be easy to lose sight of the individual. Well, here is a potent reminder. This is Mohammad Mohiedine Anis.

HOWELL: The image speaks volumes. At 70 years old he sits smoking a pipe in his wrecked bedroom in Aleppo. Anis He once collected classic cars, but like so many other Syrians he has lost nearly everything he once held dear. Still, he perseveres, a sign of resilience in the face of total destruction. Photographer Joseph Eid took the photo you see there.

ALLEN: That is quite telling, isn't it?


ALLEN: Iraqis living in Mosul can relate to Mohammad situation. Their city has been reduced to ash and rubble in the battle between ISIS and Iraqi security forces.

HOWELL: CNN's Ben Wedeman reports from inside Mosul for us.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They keep on coming. However, with whatever they could take, happy to have made it out of Mosul alive.

"The shelling was violent," says Jasin (Ph). "I haven't slept in two days." "It was hard, says Suria. (Ph) "We stayed inside without anything, not even bread." Their city now a bleak landscape of violence, destruction and death.

Hadija Hussein (Ph) still has four walls and a roof but her home is a charred shell. ISIS fighters ordered her familiarly to leave, she refused so they doused it with gasoline and set it on fire.

"My children survived, thank God," she says, "but why did they do this?"

We are just two kilometers or just over a mile from the Grand Nuri mosque, that's the leaning minaret over there where on the 4th of July, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the so-called cave of the Islamic state made his first public appearance, and Iraqi forces are just blocks away.

The state, he declared from Mosul, has turned to rubble and ash. So many of its inhabitants now homeless and hopeless. Struggling through the mud with his mother's wheelchair, Sufian (Ph) is going for good.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We lost everything, our hearts, our beliefs, our belongings. We don't belong here anymore. We want peace.

WEDEMAN: Will you come back?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I can't. I can't. No more. I can't. I am so scared they will kill us.


WEDEMAN: And so many of those who supported Baghdadi either dead or prisoners like these, fate unknown. This is what has become of Baghdadi's state.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, west Mosul.

HOWELL: Thousands of people just trying to get out of harm's way there.

ALLEN: Going where, they really don't know.

HOWELL: Yes. Ben Wedeman, thank you for the report. The man who led the chants on the campaign trail, "lock her up" against Hillary Clinton, well, he's in trouble again. The latest evidence tying Michael Flynn to the Russian government, next here on CNN Newsroom.

ALLEN: Also, we will tell you how Russia is fighting back against stories the government claims are fake news.


ALLEN: New evidence appears to link Donald Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to the Russian government.

HOWELL: Congressional investigators are already looking into the Trump campaign's ties to Moscow. CNN's Jim Sciutto has details for us.


MICHAEL FLYNN, FORMER UNITED STATES NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Thank you so much for inviting me and having me here.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN'S CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Recently fired National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn was paid tens of thousands of dollars by Russian state television for this speaking engagement in Moscow in 2015, potentially violating the law and U.S. army regulations.


FLYNN: I'm going to be really, really a bit provocative here today.


SCIUTTO: The Kremlin funded news agency Russia Today or RT which hosted the event paid Flynn $33,750 for his appearance. This, according to document obtained by the House oversight committee. In interviews last year, Flynn acknowledged accepting payment for the speech but denied being paid by the Russian government.


FLYNN: I didn't take money from Russia if that's what you're asking me.


FLYNN: My speaker's bureau. Ask them.


SCIUTTO: Documents obtained by the oversight committee indicate however that the money was coming from RT. E-mails show an official of RT Russia first haggling over Flynn's fee. Quote, "The speaking fee is a bit too high and exceeds our budget at the moment, so we had to negotiate it with the management. Do you think there is any possibility to reduce the price to $45,000?"

And then confirming that RT would provide the funds. Quote, "We will be covering the payment of General Flynn's fee from our London office."

The U.S. intelligence community has long-assessed RT to be a propaganda tool of the Kremlin. Writing in its January report on Russian interference in the U.S. election that the organization had participated in disinformation campaigned aimed at the U.S.

[03:40:04] U.S. intelligence first determined RT was backed by the Kremlin in 2012 when Flynn was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Price Floyd, spokesman for Flynn told CNN today, quote, "General Flynn reported the trip to the DIA both before he went to Russia and after he returned."


FLYNN: We have created some of these problems...


SCIUTTO: However, Flynn was required to do more than simply report the speech. Representative Elijah Cummings, the ranking democrat on the committee, has asked the White House, FBI and Pentagon whether Flynn appropriately reported the payments on his security clearance form as required by law. His spokesman declined to comment.


SCIUTTO: Cummings also accuses Flynn of violating military regulations that prohibit retired from officers from receiving payments from a foreign government. Flynn would have had to seek approval from the army for such a payment, something that the army tells CNN it has no record of.

The oversight committee found that General Flynn also received payments in excess of $10,000 from a Russian aircraft company, also from a Russian cyber security firm, those not officially tied to the Russian government, but keep in mind these payments were all being received as Russia was carrying out an unprecedented cyber-attack against the U.S. political system.

Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.

HOWELL: Sciutto, thank you.

As social media companies track so-called fake news articles, Moscow says that it is trying to put an end to misinformation. That's even though hackers in Russia have been accused of spreading some fake news stories as well.

Our Clare Sebastian is following this story. The new project to fight fake news, Clare, where to start here? It seems that the new way of brushing off stories that governments don't like is just calling it fake news. So how does Russia plan to fight fake news?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, George, that certainly seems to be an element of that. Russia feels that it's being very fair -- unfairly treated by the western media in recent months. And we have started to hear the word fake news, not always even translated into Russia, used more and more here in Moscow, and in recent weeks we have seen a couple of high profile efforts to try to counter what Russia is calling fake news.

A Kremlin-funded TV channel RT the issue of fake news is personal.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of people are saying, well, this is ironic, RT is doing fake check. Well, we don't think so.


SEBASTIAN: Fake check is a new project by RT, a slick interactive web site that it says aims to expose false or misleading elements in news stories.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not labeling anyone as fake. We're just saying, well, probably you could question this a little more.


SEBASTIAN: The stories selected though, including a now corrected Washington Post article which initially cited federal authorities suggesting Russian hackers penetrated the U.S. electricity grid points to a Russia that is fighting back.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This whole story about Russian hacking, for example, I mean, this is positioned by a lot of media as a fact, although as we know the report by the intelligence community did not have certainty. It had a certain degree of -- degree of certainty, not facts. That's why we do think that Russia is being victimized.


SEBASTIAN: And it is not just state-controlled media that feels that way. Russia's foreign ministry says fake news about Russia is becoming almost a daily occurrence, and it's taking action.

Last month, the ministry unveiled a new section of its web site dedicated to debunking what it calls fake reports. So far, the New York Times, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, and CNN all among those given the ministry's fake stamp on real news.

The claim against CNN, a report citing current and former senior U.S. government officials that Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak is, quote, "considered by the U.S. to be one of top spy and spy recruiters in Washington."

Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman had this response to CNN's Matthew Chance.


MARIA ZAKHAROVA, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESWOMAN: Stop spreading lie and false news. This is good advice for CNN.


SEBASTIAN: Konstantin von Eggert, an anchor for TV Rain, a rare independent Russian TV channel, says Russia is simply turning defense into offense. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KONSTANTIN VON EGGERT, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, TV RAIN: I think that accusations of fake news spread by Moscow have become so common in the west that finally a decision was taken to somehow react to that.


SEBASTIAN: So while Russia may still be waiting for a new friendship with U.S. President Trump, it seems they have at least found a common target.


TRUMP: It is all fake news. It's all fake news.

ZAKHAROVA: Please, stop this spreading lie and false news.

SEBASTIAN: You know, the parallels there are pretty striking. And I did ask at RT if their new campaign, their fake check web site was in any way inspired by the rhetoric that we are hearing coming out of the new Trump administration.

[03:45:05] They said no, but it is also worth noting that so far Russia's efforts to counter fake news, both the foreign ministry and RT are focusing on the western media, the English-language media, not the Russian media, although RT do say they're not ruling out checking the facts and whether or not they're fake in the Russian media in the future. So we will certainly keep an eye on that, George.

HOWELL: Clare Sebastian, live for us in the Russian capital. Clare, thank you for the report.

ALLEN: Well, scientists warn of unprecedented damage to one of the most incredible places on earth, the Great Barrier Reef. Much of it is dying, and we'll hear from someone on what's behind all of the destruction coming up.


DEREK VAN DAM, CNN METEOROLOGIST: After years of drought, this winter's heavy rain and snow has put an end to that, but also allowed for an interesting sight. The wildflowers have really blossomed and flourished into southern and central California.

Here is a jogger taking advantage of that with a nice trail run for the afternoon. Now, take a look at this. NOAA has actually put out its springtime temperature outlook for the United States, and it shows that the central and eastern U.S. look to have good chances of being above average.

If you like spring and summer-like temperatures you are going to like this forecast from Texas to the Deep South, the mid-Atlantic and the New England coastline. Even parts of the Great Lakes expecting above average temperatures that ranges from April through to about June. Let's talk day time highs for the day on Friday. Four degrees for New

York City. Chance of light rain into Chicago. San Francisco to Los Angeles, lower 20's. Denver have normally warm for this time of year, 21 degrees for you.

We do hava a weak system pushing through across the upper Midwest into the Great Lakes, in fact, this will bring a chance of snow showers to places like Grand Rapids, Michigan into Detroit. It will be warm enough to the south, though, Chicago you should stay all liquid, so that means rainfall for your Friday evening to the early hours of Saturday morning, as well.

Now south, the Bahamas, 25, cloudy conditions, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 29 and partly sunny.

HOWELL: Welcome back. Global warming threatens the largest living structure in the world. That's according to a paper about the Great Barrier Reef just published in the Journal Nature. it is due to record sea temperatures in Australia.

ALLEN: Those temperatures led to the most damaging coral bleaching event on record. That's when warmer water forces out the algae that grow inside the coral. It turns the reeves white and eliminates their main energy source.

[03:50:03] For more on we are joined out Clinton, Australia by Sean Connolly, one of the paper's authors and a marine biology professor at James Cook University. Thanks so much for being with us, Sean. This story...



ALLEN: Yes, absolutely. This story is just, you know, heart wrenching. Give us the scope of the bleaching. How big is the coral reef and how much is in decline or likely lost?

CONNOLLY: Well, the Great Barrier Reef system is an area about the size of Italy. So it's an enormous structure. The reefs are bit with the skeletons of dead corals over many thousands of years.

In 2016, we had by far the most serious mass bleaching event ever. Mass bleaching really only started after climate change started influencing sea temperatures in the -- in the 1980s. So this is a new phenomenon, and it is getting worse much faster than we believed.

ALLEN: Right. Didn't scientists think that it would be 30 more years before this happened?

CONNOLLY: Well, as I'm sure you know scientists love to differ with each other over points of detail, but I think everyone has been surprised by just how dramatic this was.

I mean, we had in 1998, in 2002, which were the last major bleaching events to affect the reef, only about 10 percent of reefs experienced what we called severe bleaching with more than 60 percent of the coral bleach. In 2016, it was nearly 50 percent of the reefs that we surveyed.

ALLEN: Can you elaborate on how bleaching damages the coral? It is a sign the water is too warm, is that right?

CONNOLLY: That's right. So, a coral is a partnership between an animal, which is what builds the skeleton and constructs the reefs that you see and the tiny one cell algae or plants that live inside it as you said. Hot temperatures cause that relationship to become toxic and so to save itself the animal expels the algae.

But when it expels the algae it loses its main source of food. And so if the bleaching event goes on for too long, then corals can die. Different coral types, different to how sensitive they are to bleaching. And what was so shocking about this event was that whereas under mild bleaching you have some species that suffer heavily and some that are very that are not affected very much. This time on those really severely bleached reefs almost every coral type was a loser.

ALLEN: And these coral reefs -- the Great Barrier Reef of course, it is one of the most stunning places in the world. It brings 70,000 jobs to Australia, billions of dollars in tourism. The question is can you recover, and what does it mean if we see our coral reefs decline and the marine life decline with them?

CONNOLLY: Well, you mentioned the statistics for Queensland. I mean, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world that live in the immediate vicinity of coral reefs and most of those people are in developing countries. And many of them depend on the reefs for their livelihood, for the food they feed their families and so forth.

And reefs around the world are threatened by this phenomenon. I mean, 2016 was a global mass bleaching event. And again this year we are seeing another mass bleaching event unfolding on the Great Barrier Reef.

So it is -- it is quite terrifying actually, the magnitude and severity of the event. Essentially what it tells us is that if bleaching events happen frequently, then reefs won't have time to recover to the state they were in before the bleaching event. Even fast-growing coral types take 10 to 15 years to recover their pre- bleaching levels of abundance.

And so if we have bleaching events happening every few years, we're going to be essentially ratcheting down to very, very low levels of coral cover, a loss of the beautiful branching corals that you see that so many fish and other coral reef organisms use for shelter and food and to hide from predators.

Those are the susceptible coral types. You are going to see not only a loss of coral, abundance in biodiversity but devastating effects on the rest of the ecosystem as well.

ALLEN: Yes, I mean, that's the important point. The other point is they're just so stunningly beautiful. It's like a magic land there. Just give us a sense in the few seconds we have left what that represents, the loss of this enormous, special, amazing place if people maybe haven't studied it recently or seen it.

[03:55:02] CONNOLLY: Well, many of your viewers will have seen video of coral reefs and so it's not hard to imagine many people in their first experience on a reef experience what some people will describe as a sort of spiritual moment when the boundary between themselves and the world kind of dissolves and you feel this incredible sense of awe and connection to something greater than yourself.

And to realize that we have the power of life and death over -- over so many of the animals that make their living on coral reefs is a pretty -- a pretty overwhelming thing to realize.

ALLEN: Right. That is just -- what a sad story. We'll continue to follow it. We appreciate you joining us so much. Sean Connolly for us from Queensland. Thank you, Sean.

CONNOLLY: Thank you.

ALLEN: All right. So, the loss of the Great Barrier Reef.


ALLEN: That is tragic. But we have something that's been found, so a little upbeat story. An incredible diamond that not only may be worth millions but also one of the largest ever discovered. How about that? A pastor found this 706 carat diamond in Sierra Leone's region.

HOWELL: But here is the thing, though. He didn't sell it. He handed it to the government. Sierra Leones president says the stone will benefit the country as a whole.

ALLEN: Sources say the uncut diamond is now in the country's central bank it will be auctioned off later, maybe selling for millions of dollars to help the country out.

HOWELL: That's cool. Does the guy get a trip from it or something?

ALLEN: I hope so.

HOWELL: Thanks for being with us. I'm George Howell.

ALLEN: And I'm Natalie Allen. After a quick break, more news with Max Foster in London. You are watching CNN.