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Report Does Not Confirm Trump Spy Claim; Trump-Merkel Meeting Has Awkward Moments; U.S. Seeks Support Reining In North Korea. Aired 2-2:30a ET

Aired March 18, 2017 - 02:00   ET



CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): An awkward moment between President Trump and Angela Merkel as the U.S. president joked that they were both put under surveillance by the Obama administration.

And there's still no evidence to support Mr. Trump's claim that he was wiretapped at all. A classified report from the Department of Justice does not confirm his allegations.

Plus America's top diplomat says 20 years of efforts to denuclearize North Korea have failed and U.S. patience is running out. We'll get into what a new approach might include.

Hi, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Cyril Vanier in Atlanta. And CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


VANIER: U.S. government officials tell CNN the Justice Department does not confirm President Trump's claim that he was spied on last year by his predecessor Barack Obama. The Justice Department delivered a classified report on the matter to Congress on Friday.

Officials familiar with the report say it found no evidence to back up Mr. Trump's assertion that he was indeed wiretapped last year at Trump Tower.

President Trump had a chance on Friday to put this matter to rest and he didn't. We get the latest from CNN's Jim Acosta.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was an opportunity for President Trump to withdraw a baseless accusation that former President Obama wiretapped him and apologize. But for a president who never admits mistakes, it was an opportunity missed.


QUESTION: Are there, from time to time, tweets that you regret?


QUESTION: Very seldom. So, you would never wish...

TRUMP: Very seldom. Probably wouldn't be here right now but very seldom.


ACOSTA (voice-over): At a news conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel, the president refused to back down, pointing to past reports that Merkel was once surveilled by the U.S. intelligence community during the Obama administration.


TRUMP: As far as wiretapping, I guess, you know, this past administration -- at least we have something in common, perhaps.


ACOSTA (voice-over): The White House is digging in even after press secretary Sean Spicer sparked a diplomatic uproar defending the president's comments.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESPERSON: You also tend to overlook all of the other sources that -- I know you want to cherry pick it. But, no, no, but you do.

But where was your concern about "The New York Times" reporting?


ACOSTA (voice-over): And to back up the president's wiretapping allegations, Spicer cited an unsubstantiated report from a FOX News commentator.


SPICER: Last on FOX News on March 14th, Judge Andrew Napolitano made 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 spying agency.


ACOSTA (voice-over): The British government was outraged, "utterly ridiculous, should be ignored," said the British signal intelligence agency, GCHQ. The British prime minister's office added, "We've made clear to the

U.S. administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored. We have received assurances that these allegations won't be repeated."

But during the news conference, the president said no apology was necessary.


TRUMP: All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind, who was the one responsible for saying that on television.

I didn't make an opinion on it. That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on FOX. And so you shouldn't be talking to me.

You should be talking to FOX?


ACOSTA (voice-over): After the press conference, Spicer told reporters he was just passing on news reports from various outlets.

"I don't think we regret anything," he said.

For the president, the Merkel visit was a chance to mend some fences.

In late 2015 he tweeted about Merkel, "I told you @TIME Magazine would never pick me as person of the year, despite being the big favorite. They picked person who is ruining Germany."

Tensions Merkel appeared to acknowledge.


ANGELA MERKEL, CHANCELLOR OF GERMANY (through translator): Is that I've always said it's much, much better to talk to one another and not about one another and I think our conversation proved this.


ACOSTA: And as for a response to the president's latest remarks at the news conference, a spokesperson for the British government offered no comment -- Jim Acosta, CNN, the White House.


VANIER: Now the wiretapping controversy overshadowed the president's White House meeting with Chancellor Merkel. But they did manage to talk about some pressing issues, including NATO, including trade, including terrorism.

Politico's chief Europe correspondent Matthew Karnitschnig (ph) joins us now via Skype from Berlin. Let's get the view from Europe on how that went. Matthew, Angela Merkel is without a doubt the strongest voice in

Europe right now; in that regard it wasn't just a meeting between Germany and the U.S., it was really to some extent between Europe and the U.S., how do you feel that went?

MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG (PH), POLITICO: Absolutely. And I think that was one of Merkel's key goals here was to explain to Trump the importance of the European Union both to Germany and to the United States in the long run and to really convince him that it was in his --


KARNITSCHNIG (PH): -- interest to ensure that the European Union stays together and that the trans-Atlantic alliance, which has really been the foundation of that integration over the last 70 years or so, remains intact. So I think that she really was partly trying to win President Trump over with this trip.

VANIER: Yes, and she politely but firmly stood by her position.

KARNITSCHNIG (PH): Absolutely. I think it was clear going in that she wasn't going to back away from the core views that she has, the core values that Germany and Europe have when it comes to issues like trade, for example, free trade being very important to her and obviously the border question, the immigration question, which appears not to have featured as prominently as maybe some people expected but also the issue of defense and NATO.

And she did win another endorsement from President Trump on question of the NATO alliance. He did stress that he continues to support it and how important it is and so on. He was, you know, less supportive it seems, at least in public, of the European Union.

VANIER: You mentioned trade as being a key issue that they discussed. And it's interesting because both leaders on the face of it agreed that trade needs to benefit everyone. So it looked like they were singing from the same hymn sheet but actually Washington, you really got the impression that they didn't necessarily mean the same thing for both parties.

KARNITSCHNIG (PH): That's right, you know, President Trump continues to point out that he is -- he's not against free trade, he's for fair trade. And Germany with Merkel there, with her CEOs, some of the CEOs of the biggest Germany companies, was trying to hit home the point that both sides really benefit from the trade arrangements that they have, that German companies employ hundreds of thousands of people in the United States, for example, and have invested hundreds of billions over the years.

But it's not really clear if Trump really bought that argument, if he was really willing to embrace it.

That said, he did seem to be somewhat convinced and enthusiastic about the German apprenticeship system, which Merkel was also detailing to him with her entourage there as something that could create more jobs in the United States, which is obviously a core issue for him.

VANIER: All right. Matthew Karnitschnig (ph) from Politico with the view from Europe, on that meeting, thank you very much.


Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel met just a day before a key date in the Ukraine conflict and that came up as well. It's been three years since Russian declared its annexation of Crimea. In her news conference, Ms. Merkel addressed the conflict and the U.S. and German role in solving it.


ANGELA MERKEL, CHANCELLOR OF GERMANY (through translator): I am very grateful to know that the American administration and also the president personally commits himself to the Minsk process. We need to come to a solution, (INAUDIBLE) problem. There has to be a safe and secure solution for Ukraine, the relationship with Russia has to be improved as well once the situation there on the ground is clarified.


VANIER: All right, CNN's Clare Sebastian joins us live from Moscow for more on this.

Clare, Angela Merkel referring to the situation on the ground has to stabilize and has to improve in Ukraine but if you look at the recent history of this conflict, it hasn't really changed in the last two years. I don't see much sense that it is going to change.

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely, Cyril, particular in Eastern Ukraine. We've seen violence very rarely completely comes to a stop there certainly in the last month or so. There's been a significant escalation and that as well as the situation in Crimea, which, three years on from its annexation, continues to be viewed as illegal by most of the world, particularly Russia -- particularly the U.S. and Europe.

And I think the optics in particular of Angela Merkel making those comments standing next to President Trump is certainly not going to be something that will be celebrated here three years on from that annexation. Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe do remain in place on Russia.

There was some hope in the early days of the Trump administration that those sanctions might be lifted. But certainly the position of the Trump administration appears to have shifted more towards where Merkel stands, which is a very tough stance that sanctions should remain in place.

So that a very critical issue for the Putin administration here in Russia. We do expect to see celebrations across Russia today, commemorating the third anniversary of the -- what they call the reunification of Crimea with Russia.

It's seen as a symbol of national pride. And the issue of Crimea is a closed one here. That's how the Russians view it. It is --


SEBASTIAN: -- now part of Russia. It is not up for discussion. So statements coming out of the Trump administration, particularly from the ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, saying that sanctions will not be lifted until Crimea is returned to the Ukraine. That is met with a very tough response in Russia. They do not see this as up for discussion -- Cyril.

VANIER: And, Clare, something else that you're monitoring in Moscow right now and it concerns something that's going to happen in the U.S. on Monday. FBI director James Comey is going to be briefing, updating congressmen about the state of the U.S. intelligence investigation to alleged Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

What's the view from Moscow on that?

SEBASTIAN: Well, Cyril, they're definitely trying to distance themselves from this. We asked the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, yesterday whether he was concerned about this hearing.

He said very frankly they have better things to do. They've got their own issues to worry about and they're not going to be paying any attention to it. He called it "a broken record with futuristic songs," that was the phrase he used.

And this is certainly the kind of rhetoric that we've been hearing coming out of Moscow. They've been accusing the U.S. as stirring up anti-Russian hysteria, the U.S. media as well.

And he's called it emotional extremism, they're basically trying to paint this as the U.S. using any possible excuse to kind of slight Russia. And he's also said recently that this could harm relations between the two countries. So we have two key issues that come between the U.S. and Russia today, the issue of Crimea and Ukraine and of course, this issue of the alleged hacking by Russia into the U.S. election -- Cyril.

VANIER: All right, "a broken record with futuristic songs," that's a colorful way to put it. Clare Sebastian will continue to monitor that for us from Moscow.

Now we're going to take a very short break. When we come back, America's top diplomat is sending a strong message to North Korea, back down or the U.S. will consider military action against Pyongyang if provoked. A live report from Beijing when we're back.




VANIER: America's top diplomat is in Beijing for meetings with China's leaders. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson is seeking Chinese support to rein in North Korea's weapons program.

His visit follows a stop in South Korea, where he said the U.S. would consider military action against North Korea if it was provoked.


REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed. So we have 20 years of failed approach.

In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required. The purpose of -- part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach.


VANIER: Will Ripley is in Beijing. He's following U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson's visit to China.


VANIER: Will, so Washington would like China to bring its influence to bear on North Korea.

What would that look like?

And what arguments can the U.S. put on the table to make it happen?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the indications we're getting from the State Department is that the Trump administration believes China has a lot more leverage over North Korea than they may lead the world to think.

In fact, you heard President Trump say that many times on the campaign trail, that really the responsibility for reining in North Korea's nuclear program falls on China, which is Pyongyang's primary, really only significant trading partner and really this country is responsible for keeping North Korea's economy afloat.

So what the United States wants China to do is to more strictly enforce the existing United Nations sanctions. They feel that -- in fact, there was a U.N. report that showed that North Korea has been able to get around the sanctions and continue trading with companies, including companies here in China.

And the U.S. is prepared to tell Beijing that if China doesn't crack down more severely on these companies and if they don't enforce the sanctions, then the United States is ready to actually place sanctions on individual Chinese companies, which, of course, the government here doesn't want.

VANIER: Rex Tillerson says America has run out of patience with North Korea.

What are the options here for the United States? RIPLEY: Well, from the Chinese government's perspective, they want the United States to stop the joint military exercises with South Korea. They say that is what is provoking all of this. Rex Tillerson has said that's not going to happen, that the exercises are happening with full transparency.

And that if these two militaries are going to continue to work together, as they are bound by treaty to do so, then they'll need to continue military drills.

So what leverage does the U.S. have?

Well, one is the sanctions; two, they have the card of military activity that they have now put on the table. And perhaps the United States wants China and others in the world to believe, including the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, that the U.S. is now willing under the Trump administration to launch a military strike on North Korea if provoked.

There was a lot of confidence over the last eight years that that wouldn't happen with the Obama administration's policy of strategic patience; Tillerson making clear that that policy is now through.

Also, what the U.S. can do is broaden their approach, instead of just a regional approach to rein North Korea with Japan, South Korea and China, perhaps trying to get more countries in the fold globally, in Europe and other places like that, an approach similar to the Obama administration's approach that led up to the Iran deal, which President Trump, by the way, was very critical of on the campaign trail.

So these discussions are ongoing; I'm sure there will be an exchange of ideas, some awkward conversations here in China, as both sides try to pass blame on the other.

But in the end, the shared objective here is to try to find something that will work because, so far, nothing has been able to rein in of the nuclear missile development out of North Korea.

VANIER: Yes. Will Ripley, reporting live from Beijing, a lot more from him throughout the day, thank you very much.

And joining me now to discuss this is CNN global affairs analyst David Rowe.

David, I think the White House -- I mean, this is my assessment here -- the White House really has a difficult problem when it comes to North Korea, the question being, what can they do. You just heard Rex Tillerson saying we're going to discuss new avenues.

What do you think is going on here?

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, to be fair, Tillerson talked about 20 years of failure. and he's right, I don't think that the current approach has worked, both by Republican presidents and Democratic presidents. North Korea is developing more and more sophisticated weapons that could deliver a nuclear warhead.

But the question is, what will they do?

I mean, it's not clear what other option he's talking about.

Is he talking about military action by the United States and North Korea, which could have enormous ramifications.

VANIER: Right, he pointedly said that nothing was off the table, which is another way of saying, yes, military action is a possibility.

ROHDE: And it could be rattle, you know, saber rattling, talk tough, you know, the key player in all of this is China, obviously.

But what if this saber rattling doesn't work?

What if this talk that military force is on the table, you know, what if the North Koreans and the Chinese sort of kind of call the Trump administration's bluff and they don't back down?

What does the Trump administration do then?

VANIER: Just so everyone understands, let's go through the options of what you can actually do because a number of avenues have already been attempted by the U.S. Diplomatic talks, those are the six-party talks, that lasted for a number of years and that got nowhere?

ROHDE: Correct.

There have been economic sanctions; they've tried that as well.

VANIER: All right, economic sanctions; just traditional diplomatic avenue, with the understanding is that the Obama administration also tried cyber strikes to weaken the North's missile capability.

ROHDE: Yes, that went on; they were initially successful, there was this pattern "The New York Times" had a great story on it, the missile launches failing. And it turned out that was because of cyber attacks that somehow they got them into the North Korean systems and it would cause these missiles to explode.

But that has, you know, that has stopped also. There has been more ballistic missile tests and they have been more successful lately, so, again, Tillerson is correct, the current approach is not working --


ROHDE: -- but what is the Trump administration going to do?

VANIER: As far as we know, what would happen if there were a pre- emptive strike on North Korea?

What are the specific dangers there?

ROHDE: What I've read -- and I'm no complete military expert -- but my understanding is the U.S., they could get in there and do severe damage to this -- these ballistic missiles and the other facilities where the North Koreans are preparing the nuclear weapons and other things.

The problem is that there are thousands and thousands of pieces of artillery in North Korea that are trained at Seoul. It's roughly 20 miles, if I'm correct; they're within the range, the suburbs of Seoul, of these artillery pieces.

And it could, even if you were to successfully bomb, there's no airstrike that can take out every single conventional artillery piece that is trained right now on Seoul. You could have thousands --

VANIER: So that would put South Korea immediately at risk then?

ROHDE: You could easily have thousand of -- tens of thousands, according to some estimates, of civilian casualties.

You know, would North Korea stand by if there was an American and South Korean bombing attack?

Or would they unleash this artillery on civilian parts of Seoul?

VANIER: All right, a very difficult equation for any administration, in this case the Trump administration. Thank you very much, David Rohde, CNN global affairs analyst, for your insights on this, thanks.

ROHDE: Thank you.

VANIER: We'll take a very short break. When we come back, intense rain and deadly flooding hit Peru, we'll have Derek Van Dam from the CNN International Weather Center with more on that.




VANIER: In South Sudan, U.N. officials are calling for emergency help for more than 1 million displaced people. Fighting has devastated the country and led to a severe famine. Drought has made the situation even worse. Here is how one U.N. leader explains the disaster.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eight months after fresh violence erupted in South Sudan, a famine produced by the vicious combination of fighting and drought is now driving the world's fastest growing refugee crisis.

Total displacement from South Sudan into neighboring region is now at 1.6 million people. The rate of new displacement is alarming, representing an impossible burden on a region that is significantly poorer and which is fast running short of resources to cope.

(END VIDEO CLIP) VANIER: And despite the deepening crisis, one positive note: a sports day encouraged students to be champions of peace in their schools and in their communities. One athlete says he is hoping for a reconciliation in South Sudan very soon.

Now torrential rain and flash floods are wreaking havoc in parts of Peru, where at least 62 people were killed and more than 100 injured after weeks of heavy downpour. Peru's government says more than 60,000 people have been displaced more heavy rain is in the forecast for the country.

Meteorologist Derek Van Dam joins us. He's got more on this and how long it might last as well.

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, it's not anytime soon, you say 60,000 people displaced, 115,000 homes destroyed, 100 bridges also destroyed, so the infrastructure across this part of the Peru are being impacted currently as we speak.

Take a look at some dramatic footage. This is about 40 kilometers outside of Lima, the capital. A woman emerging from the mud, crawling and stumbling over debris that were dragged along by this raging torrent --


VAN DAM: -- look closely, you can see her in the center, we focus in on her, and you can see, as she stumbles her way to shore and safety. She said she survived by grabbing on to pieces of wood, tree branches, trying to make a makeshift bridge to pull herself out of muck.

Onlookers immediately gathered around her and she was transferred to a nearby hospital, where she is currently recovering. One of the good stories coming out of this.

But unfortunately there have been scores of fatalities. And again, we talk about the infrastructure making some of these smaller towns inaccessible, 100 bridges that have been impacted by this particular disaster.

It is a scary moment, to say the least.


VANIER: And thank you very much for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. "THE CIRCUIT" is next. But first I will be back with the headlines.