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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; Russia's Annexation of Crimea Three Years Old; Famine, Drought Threaten Millions in Somalia; Google Street View Takes Users Inside Volcano. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired March 18, 2017 - 03:00   ET



CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Building bridges, sort of; in his first meeting with Angela Merkel, Donald Trump jokes they've got "something in common" because, in his words, they've both been put under surveillance by the Obama administration. And there's still no evidence to support that claim.

A classified report from the Department of Justice does not confirm Mr. Trump's allegations.

Plus America's top diplomat says the U.S. has run out of patience with North Korea. Rex Tillerson is in China, exploring ways of curbing Pyongyang's nuclear program. We'll speak to Will Ripley in Beijing.

Hi, everyone, thank you very much for joining us. I'm Cyril Vanier in Atlanta. 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 wiretapped last year at Trump Tower.

President Trump had a chance on Friday to put this matter to rest but 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP) 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: Joining me now is CNN political analyst and columnist for "USA Today," Kirsten Powers. Kirsten, you have been covering and following this press conference

for us, the meeting between Angela Merkel and Donald Trump. There are two aspects of it and I'd like you to touch on both of them.

One that's more important I think to the U.S. audience and that is the wiretapping, even though I think the rest of the world is also looking at this with interest.

Once again, Donald Trump was given this opportunity, as Jim Acosta just said, to, you know, roll back his comments. And he didn't.

KIRSTEN POWERS, "USA TODAY": Yes, well, not only did he not roll them back, he sort of doubled down on them, right. He said essentially in a quip to Angela Merkel, suggested they had something in common and that they were both wiretapped, referring to --


POWERS: -- an incident that happened on President Obama's watch of surveilling her phones.

So that also suggested that Donald Trump still believes that he has somehow been under surveillance and, you know, that Barack Obama probably did it, even though there is no evidence whatsoever to prove that.

And he then reiterated what Sean Spicer had said at the podium, that we should look at this FOX News report by a legal analyst there. He's not even a reporter, a legal analyst there.


VANIER: Yes, he deflected blame towards FOX News, which is amazing for the president of the U.S.

POWERS: -- FOX News then came out and, through Shepard Smith, one of their hosts, and said that FOX News cannot confirm that the President of the United States was ever under any surveillance at the behest of Barack Obama.

VANIER: Yes, and let me just remind our viewers that the information is piling up against Donald Trump's claim of having been wiretapped by the former president, Barack Obama.

CNN reported earlier -- we did so at the top of this show -- that two government officials have told us that the Department of Justice report that was handed to Congress today doesn't support that claim, either.

I'd like to move to the other part of this story, which is very important to the rest of the world, which is how Donald Trump gets along with the rest of the world's leaders and whether that matters.

There were some sort of contentious moments between Donald Trump and Angela Merkel. I'd like you to listen to how Angela Merkel responded after Donald

Trump said that immigration was a privilege, not a right, and the safety of our citizens must come first. Listen to this.


MERKEL (through translator): We have to protect our external borders because -- and there we have to work in the basis of mutual interests with our neighbors.

Migration, immigration, integration has to be worked on, obviously. Traffickers have to be stopped.

But this has to be done while looking at the refugees as well, giving them opportunities to shape their own lives where they are; help countries who, right now, are not in an ability to do so, sometimes because they have civil war.

I think that's the right way of going about it. And this is obviously what we have an exchange of views about. But my position is the one that I have just set out for you.


VANIER: "My position is the one I've just set out," a very polite way of saying we disagree.

POWERS: Right, yes, I think it's fair to say that they do not have the same world view on this or probably most things, frankly. And that she recognizes that he is the President of the United States and that she needs to have a relationship with him. She reportedly was studying his speeches and his remarks and trying to get a sort of sense of him. Good luck with that.

And, you know, she's trying to figure out a way to have a relationship with somebody who I think who doesn't seem to have a lot of concern about maintaining good relationships with world leaders, is very happy to alienate, for example, the U.K., one of the -- the U.S.' closest ally, I guess you could say.

So I think she's got her work cut out for her and that was the most diplomatic way that she could say that. But they disagree on so many things. And I don't think she particularly -- if you looked at the body language of when he made his joke about her being --

VANIER: Yes, she was poker-faced.

POWERS: I don't think she really found that that funny.

VANIER: No, she did not laugh. She looked down. She wouldn't even look at him.

You say that he doesn't mind alienating allies and the common view is that that is it a problem.

Is it, though? When you are the world's only superpower, can't you afford to some extent to be uncouth or rude sometimes to your allies and still get away with it?

POWERS: I don't think so. And I think, look, we are dependent on other countries. If you want to just take one of Donald Trump's key issues he's concerned with, it's radical Islam, it's ISIS. The U.S. can't fight that battle themselves. They need the help of other countries on a lot of different levels.

We need to work with other countries and maintain good relations with them just for our own security. There is just so much cooperation. So I think that he has this idea that it's fine; he is a disruptive force and somehow the United States is getting pushed around by all these other countries, Mexico being an example of an ally and a neighbor that he feels somehow has pushed the U.S. around.

But in fact there are a lot of countries that really hate the United States and really want to harm the United States. So it doesn't make sense to alienate people who actually like you and want to have a relationship with you and we have these long-standing relationships with.

VANIER: All right, Kirsten Powers, thank you very much for your time.

POWERS: Thank you.

VANIER: America's top diplomat is in Beijing for the final leg of his first official trip to Asia. The North Korea weapons program is going to be a central part of that meeting between Chinese leaders and Rex Tillerson. Let's talk about that with Will Ripley. He joins us now from Beijing with more details.

Will, I want to read, first of all, a tweet by Donald Trump, about 16, 17, 18 hours ago now, that was tweeted.

"North Korea is behaving very badly. They've been playing the United States --


VANIER: "-- for years. China has done little to help."

So, bearing that in mind, what is Rex Tillerson looking for on his trip to China?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly would make for some potentially awkward conversations with China's leading diplomats and tomorrow's scheduled meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Secretary Tillerson.

It's basically teeing up what the Trump administration has been saying for quite some time, even during the campaign, that China, they believe, has much more leverage other North Korea than it lets on.

China likes to say that the United States blame for the tension on the Korean Peninsula and for the increasingly fast-paced nuclearization of Kim Jong-un's government with two nuclear tests last year, more than 20 missile launches this year; we've already had five ballistic missiles launched during the Trump administration since the inauguration.

And so China wants the U.S. to stop military exercises with South Korea.

The U.S. says that's not going to happen, that the military exercises are fully transparent and essential. The United States is going to tell China that they need to do more to rein in North Korea. And the primary method they would have that is economics. China does the majority of trade with North Korea, anywhere from 70-90 percent, depending on who's doing the estimate.

And so being North Korea's only meaningful trading partner, they believe, the U.S. administration believes that China has a lot of economic leverage that they're not using.

Tillerson also expected to tell them that if they don't rein in Chinese companies that are trading with North Korea in defense of U.N. sanctions, that the United States may consider sanctioning Chinese companies, which is certainly something that the Chinese government would not like to see happen.

VANIER: Will, you know North Korea as well as anyone. You've been there as much or more than any reporter I know. I want to tap into your knowledge of that very secretive country.

In your assessment -- and you were there recently, speaking to officials there -- in your assessment, is there anything that can give an incentive to North Korea to curb its weapons program?

RIPLEY: Yes, I was there just about a month ago just after that first ballistic missile launch.

The short answer, at least openly, is no. North Korea says that, unlike Iran, their nuclear weapons program is not up for sale. And analysts that are watching this country believe that the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, he looks at these nuclear weapons and these ballistic missiles and the eventual goal of having a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of reaching the mainland U.S. as a insurance policy, to ensure the security of the North Korean government to prevent invasion, to prevent the country from being taken over.

However, Secretary Tillerson's saying that no option's off the table if North Korea provokes the United States and its allies, meaning that military action could be a possibility.

That certainly could make the North Koreans nervous, as it could make the Chinese nervous, because nobody really knows what the Trump administration is going to do, what they are capable of.

They knew during the Obama years that strategic patience meant no military activity; perhaps cyber attacks to try to disrupt missile launches; of course, pushing for greater sanctions, which proved infective.

But this element of uncertainty could throw off North Koreans a bit, Cyril, because they obviously don't want to come under attack from the United States. They know that they're outgunned. They want to have leverage, and so that's what they're going to try to continue to secure.

VANIER: Will Ripley, reporting live from Beijing, following Rex Tillerson's first trip there as U.S. secretary of state. Thank you so much, Will.

All right. We're going to take a very short break, when we come back, a frustrating anniversary has been reached in the Ukrainian conflict. What the annexation of Crimea means three years on.

Plus torrential rains take over neighborhoods as a deadly storm rips through Peru. The latest on the rescue efforts when we come back.





VANIER: Welcome back.

It's not clear who's responsible for a deadly attack off the coast of Yemen. The International Organization for Migration says a boat packed with refugees was fired on; at least 42 people were killed. Many of the victims from Somalia. Survivors have given conflicting accounts of what happened. Some say a helicopter opened fire, while others say a military vessel attacked that boat.

And a key anniversary has been reached in the Ukrainian conflict. It was three years ago that Russian president Vladimir Putin announced his country's annexation of Crimea. For more on this announcement and its aftermath, let's talk to CNN's Clare Sebastian. She joins me live now from Moscow.

And, Clare, I'd like you to address what the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was talking about today when she met with the U.S. President Donald Trump, she pointedly referenced what was going on in Ukraine. This is what she had to say.


ANGELA MERKEL, CHANCELLOR OF GERMANY (through translator): I am very gratified to know that the American administration and also the president personally commit themselves to the Minsk process.

We need to come to a solution to this problem. There has to be a safe and secure solution for Ukraine, but the relationship with Russia has to be improved as well, once the situation there on the ground is clarified. (END VIDEO CLIP)

VANIER: So we just heard Angela Merkel there. She's pretty clear she wants the peace agreement in Ukraine to be fully implemented, something that's never fully happened.

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely not, Cyril. Two years on from when Minsk was first signed, we've never seen violence fully subside in Eastern Ukraine and, without that, the political process for a solution there has not been able to start.

Russia is also saying that it thinks -- it accuses Ukraine of not fully implementing Minsk. So there's still a kind of a frozen stalemate on both sides. As you said, there's another part of the Ukraine crisis that continues to divide Russia from the West. And that is the annexation of Crimea.

The order was signed three years ago today by President Putin to absorb Crimea into the Russian Federation. That took place two days after a referendum in Crimea in the presence of Russian troops there, a fact that have led most of the world to call this an illegal annexation, to not recognize Crimea as part of Russia and certainly it also led to sanctions on Russia from the U.S. and Europe, sanctions that are still in place, sanctions that contributed to a crippling financial crisis in Russia that is only just starting to subside.

And certainly, it's a critical issue for President Putin to see those sanctions lifted. There was some hope that the Trump administration might be willing to consider that. One of the reasons why President Trump or candidate Trump was so popular here during the campaign was that he did say at one point he might consider recognizing Crimea.

But certainly since his inauguration we've seen the rhetoric shift and the optics of him standing there with Angela Merkel and her talking about their shared commitment to the Minsk agreement is certainly something that won't be welcomed here in Russia.

But Crimea continues to be a major concern. There's a statement just out today just from the E.U. foreign policy chief, saying that the E.U. remains committed to fully recognizing its non-recognition of policy, including through restrictive measures on Crimea.

So they continue to condemn what they call as Russia's illegal occupation of Crimea and that despite the fact that we are going to see celebrations today in Russia today of that anniversary, it's seen as a source of national pride.

And politically the issue is seen as closed. Russia says it is not willing to discuss any change in its perceived status of Crimea as part of Russia.

VANIER: All right, Clare Sebastian, reporting live from Moscow, thank you very much.

Now more heavy rain is forecast for Peru. Meteorologist Derek Van Dam is joining us now. You've been tracking this situation for us over the last few hours.

It's been deadly; 62 people reported dead there over the last few days.

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: That's correct and 60,000 people displaced --


VAN DAM: -- 115,000 homes have been destroyed, including 100 bridges, so cutting people off from infrastructure and help and aid as well. So a concerning situation there, a very dire situation.

Look at the video coming out of that area. This is just absolutely astonishing. You can see some of the debris fields from the mudflows and the mudslides that have occurred across the coastal arias of Peru. The Peruvian president declaring a state of emergency in some locations.

Look closely, right in the middle of your television screen. A woman scrambles to her safety; this is about 40 kilometers outside the capital of Lima. She survived by hanging onto tree branches and pieces of wood, trying to build a makeshift bridge to pull herself out of the muck. She did so successfully and the onlookers near safety helped her, brought her to a hospital, where she is recovering.


VANIER: Yes. Derek Van Dam, thank you very much, from the CNN International Weather Center.

And also, as I turn to this next story, I want to point out to our viewers that Derek actually alerted us to the importance of this coming story several weeks ago here on CNN.

Millions of people could starve to death in a famine that the United Nations is calling the worst in decades. In Somalia, severe drought has made conditions even more desperate. The U.N. is asking for immediate financial assistance to help those who are suffering. Our Robyn Curnow takes a look at how health workers are trying to treat the sick. And many of them are children.


ROBYN CURNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a hospital in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, workers struggle to save people affected by famine.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In most of the cases, they are dying -- the death cause is dehydration.

CURNOW (voice-over): The head of pediatrics says they are rehydrating a baby, treating for diarrhea and cholera. But their best efforts are at times not enough. Some of the children come in already severely malnourished and workers here say nearly 50 died from hunger-related ailments over the past two months. The land in much of this country is dry and barren. There was little

rain here for about two years until 2016. And when the rains came, they did not last. Water sources have dried up in the countryside. Animals are dying and people are moving to the cities in search of food and water.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in the country earlier this month, appealing for more than $800 million to help about 6 million people who face the risk of starvation. He warned of a tragedy without that support.

Somalia is just one of several countries that the U.N. says faces the world's worst humanitarian crisis since 1945. Others are Yemen, South Sudan and Northeast Nigeria.

STEPHEN O'BRIEN, U.N. UNDERSECRETARY-GENERAL FOR HUMANITARIAN AID: Now more than 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine. Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death.

CURNOW (voice-over): In Yemen, more than 7 million people are facing what the U.N. calls severe food insecurity, not yet a famine but getting there.

ERTHARIN COUSIN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, WFP: We don't have enough food to support the scale-up that is required to ensure that we can avoid a famine.

CURNOW (voice-over): More than 2 million people face starvation in Nigeria --


CURNOW: -- while more than 5 million are at risk in South Sudan, where the World Food Programme, the WFP, has been airdropping supplies. Armed conflicts in need countries are compounding the problem. In Yemen, the WFP is asking warring factions for road access to deliver aid to some of the hardest-hit areas.

And in the affected areas in Northeast Nigeria, Boko Haram remains a threat even though the Nigerian government has had recent military success against them.

In Somalia, as people forage the land for food and water, Al-Shabaab continues its deadly campaign against any attempt at asserting central rule for Mogadishu. Yet aid workers, doctors and nurses are braving the storm to save some of the worst affected -- Robyn Curnow, CNN.


VANIER: One of the fun things about Google Street View is it allows users to see real scenes of many of the world's most famous sights. And now it's going underground. That means you can explore an active volcano from your couch. Here's Jonathan Mann with how the company captured amazing images from the inside of a fiery cauldron.



What's it like to go inside a volcano?

The web giant recently sent a crew to find out all the way to Vanuatu, an archipelago located in the South Pacific, more than 1,000 miles off the coast of Australia.

The tiny island nation is home to lush jungles, black sand beaches and nine active volcanoes. Google partnered with veteran explorers Geoff Mackley and Chris Horsley to go inside of one of them to get a view of a volcano like you've probably never seen before.

The team traveled to the island of Ambrym, home to two volcanoes, Benbow and Marim. Unpredictable and dangerous, the chief of the local village calls the volcano "devils," but their natural beauty is undeniable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's so vast and it's incredible landscape. Is it real, like a heartwarming feeling that you get when you see the lava lake itself, an incredible feeling.

MANN (voice-over): Strapping on a high-tech backpack called the Trekker, Horsley and Mackley rappelled down 400 meters inside the Marim crater to collect 360-degree Street View imagery. They got an up-close look at the volcano's giant lake of lava, a fiery cauldron of boiling rock roughly twice the size of a football field.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're standing just meters away from one of the most active lava lakes in the world, really surges energy through your whole body. It's like staring into the sun or the heartbeat of the planet, really.

MANN (voice-over): And now people all over the world can visit the volcano too, vicariously and safely from the comfort of their home, using Google's website.


VANIER: All right, that's it for us. Thank you very much for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier, I'll be back with the headlines in just a moment, though. Stay with us.