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Trump Threatens "Little Rocket Man;" Feud Between Trump and Pro Sports; Polls: Merkel's Party Ahead of Martin Shculz; Evacuations Near Failing Dam in Puerto Rico. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired September 24, 2017 - 03:00   ET



NEWTON: The standoff between North Korea and the U.S. grows ever more dangerous with more heated rhetoric and show of American military might. And President Trump escalates his brawl with some of the sporting world's top names.

But (ph) hurricane Maria's gone, but the danger is at Puerto Rico, residents keeping a close eye on a dam in danger of failing. Welcome to "CNN Newsroom." I'm Paula Newton in Atlanta.

A war of words at the U.N. is threatening to become a real conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. Now, U.S. President Donald Trump shot off this latest salvo on Twitter.

"Just heard foreign minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of little rocket man, they won't be around much longer." Little rocket man is Mr. Trump's new nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

North Korea's foreign minister said Saturday, insults like that could force his country to attack.


RI YONG HO, FOREIGN MINISTER, NORTH KOREA: He committed an irreversible mistake of making our rockets visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable all the more. None other than Trump himself is on a suicide mission.

In case innocent lives of the U.S. are harmed because of this suicide attack, Trump will be held totally responsible.


NEWTON: Now, but Twitter isn't the only weapon in Mr. Trump's arsenal. The U.S. flew bombers and fighter jets to the east of North Korea on Saturday.

The Pentagon says it was a message to Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile tests. Our Ben Wedeman is tracking the latest North Korean tensions. He joins me now from Tokyo.

It must be quite unnerving for the entire region to see the step-up in -- in rhetoric, of course, but also some very real military might on show there off the coast of North Korea.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly, the region is, to a certain extent, accustomed to tensions with North Korea. But the last week with the mudslinging back and forth between President Trump and Kim Jong-un has really changed the tenor of the whole atmosphere. The situation is -- has become very personal.

It's important to keep in mind, Paula, that in previous administrations, the United States tried to stress that the North Korean nuclear program was a regional problem. It was a problem for China, South Korea, Japan.

But this direct back and forth between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea has made it personal. And in a sense, it now is more than ever a direct unilateral conflict between Washington and Pyongyang, much more than it was before.

And keep in mind, for instance, if we make reference to the Iranian nuclear deal concluded in 2015, that was concluded between Iran on the one hand and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. So it was a collective task.

In this case, more and more, it appears that the United States is going it alone in dealing with the North Korean nuclear program. And it's leaving many in the region worried.

For instance, we heard the spokesman for the democratic party, the main ruling party in South Korea calling on both sides to calm down their speech and stop this name-calling because it simply isn't helping the situation one bit. Paula?

NEWTON: I'm assuming (ph) really in terms of South Korea warning us, you said both sides to deescalate the situation. Our Ben Wedeman there in Tokyo keeping an eye on things for us. Appreciate it.

Now, the controversial practice of taking a knee during the national anthem has now spread to major league baseball. Catcher Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland Athletics is believed to be the first major league player to join the silent protest over U.S. racial injustice.

You see him there. It comes on the heels of a deepening feud between Donald Trump and professional sports. On Saturday, the president abruptly disinvited the national basketball champion, Golden State Warriors, from visiting the White House.

He tweeted, "Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation withdrawn." NBA star, Lebron James, fired back, though, calling the president a bum.


He added, "Going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up." It started Friday when Mr. Trump blasted football players who refused to stand for the national anthem. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES: When somebody disrespects our flag, to say get that son of a bleep off the field right now, out. He's fired.


He's fired.


NEWTON: Now, on Saturday, some league owners shot back calling the president's remarks callus and offensive. Now, NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, was especially critical.

He said in a statement, "Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL and our great game, all of our players and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities." This controversy, you might have guessed isn't going away anytime soon. We get more now from CNN's Brian Stelter.


BRIAN STELTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there. This controversy involves politics, patriotism and two of America's favorite pastimes, the president seemingly taking a baseball bat and swinging at a hornet's nest, first on Friday night, at a rally in Alabama, then on Twitter on Saturday. In both cases, he's criticizing some of the best-known African-American athletes in the sports world.

That's causing some people to say that there's a racial component to these controversies, with the president speaking to a mostly white crowd in Alabama, was talking about the African-American players in the NFL who've been taking a knee during the national anthem before games, protesting, they say, racial injustice and inequality.

The president doesn't want to hear it. He says those football players who do so should be fired by NFL team owners. He said it at the rally on Friday.

He said it again on Twitter on Saturday, keeping this controversy going even as NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, weighed in a surprising move. He called the president's comments divisive, even though he didn't name President Trump directly.

So there is the NFL controversy. Then there's the NBA side, the president taking aim at Steph Curry, member of the championship Golden State Warriors team. On Twitter Saturday morning, the president was apparently inspired or motivated or ticked off by a segment on the Fox News morning show, "Fox and Friends."

Twenty minutes after, "Fox and Friends" mentioned that Steph Curry is thinking about skipping a White House visit. President Trump tweeted and said the invitation had been withdrawn. We've seen lots of prominent celebrities and athletes and CEOs having

to make these choices about whether to attend White House events, whether they want to be associated with President Trump or try to avoid it. Curry said he was going to avoid it.

Now, the Warriors say they're definitely not going because the president has disinvited them. And so this rolls on, these controversies, with a racial component to them continuing to fire up people on social media.

And now the question, by the way, is what's going to happen on Sunday? Are even more NFL players going to take a knee, not just to protest racism, but to protest President Trump? Brian Stelter, CNN, New York.


NEWTON: A lot of people will be watching those Sunday games. A short time ago, I spoke about this issue with senior -- CNN senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein, asked him why President Trump continually stirs up racially charged controversies. Here -- here is what he said.


RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think, you know, a lot of people, you know, question whether he starts these racially barbed, cultural conflicts to distract from other issues, to distract from the health care vote that's coming maybe this week, to distract from the Russia investigation. I don't think so.

I think this has been central to his strategy from day one -- literally from day one, when he came down the escalator in Trump Tower, announcing his candidacy, talking about Mexican rapists and criminals. I mean, the president has shown a very consistent desire to appeal to the elements of American society that are the most uneasy about demographic change, about cultural change, and also about economic change where there's a lot of overlap there and a kind of a false debate about whether it is cultural or economic anxiety at the root of -- of his political movement.

I think it's -- the two are now heavily intertwined. And so, you know, what the president is doing is essentially kneeling (ph) the Republic Party to the elements of American society that are most uneasy about what the country is becoming, both culturally, demographically, and economically.

And the risk in that is that he is doing this precisely as we are inexorably diversifying. I mean, the millennial generation is the most diverse generation in American history.

And in 2018, for the first time ever, it will be the largest generation of eligible voters. The generation behind the millennials, Paula, is even more diverse.

And by 2024, the two of them will equal about 45 percent of all eligible voters. In the long run, the challenge for Republicans is that he is maximizing their advantage among groups that are nonetheless shrinking as a share of the overall electorate and the overall society.


NEWTON: You know, Ron, I have to say, though, a lot of those same arguments and -- and we have to point out he didn't win the popular vote, but a lot of those same arguments were made as he was coming out with these statements in the campaign. And we all know what happened after that.

Having said that, I think these comments struck many people no matter what, you know, side you were on. Let's be clear, this isn't about sports. It's about race relations...


NEWTON: ...and meaning how is this dangerous for -- for the president to be speaking this way?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, I think first of all, your -- your point is well taken about 2016. But it is worth noting that Donald Trump won the same share of non-college whites as court ruled (ph), as Ronald Reagan did in 1984. That got Ronald Reagan to 59 percent of the total vote.

It got Donald Trump to 46 percent. So as that contraction happens, there is a, you know, there is a change in the electorate. And you kind of play it out 10 more years.

And you see where it leaves you. Look, I believe this inherently, no matter who is sitting in the oval office, this would inherently be a moment of racial tension in the United States because we are living through the most profound demographic change since the turn of the 20th century.

I don't know if people around the world know. But, you know, we're now at a point where the majority of our under 10 population are kids of color.

A majority of our public school students nationwide are kids of color. By the end of this decade, a majority of the entire under 18 population are going to be minority kids.

We are living through a big change. And not everyone is comfortable with that change. You kind of add to it that we're going through these big economic changes that have left many people feeling less secure.

And you have a recipe for some tension and volatility. I mean, it is precisely a moment when we need leadership that talks about the common, you know, the common ground that Americans face, the reality that older white America needs more of this younger, heavily nonwhite Americans to succeed because those are going to be workers who are paying the payroll taxes to support their retirement. None of that comes through now. Instead (ph), the president I think

has seen it in his interest or precisely the reasons you talked about at the beginning, from day one, to kind of suggest to big portions of white America that it is -- that is being eclipsed, that has -- has opportunities being taken away from it. And he will stand up for it against this kind of urbanized diverse, secular America that they view as -- as a threat.

NEWTON: OK, moving to Germany. Germans are now voting in their country's general election. Chancellor Angela Merkel s expected to keep her job as the leader of Germany.

But the hard-right party alternative for Germany could pick up seats in the federal parliament and become the first such party to do so in over half a century.

CNN's Senior International Correspondent, Fred Pleitgen joins us now from Berlin.

Good to see you, Fred. And you have to clear up some confusion for me. At this point, I've heard that, look, this could be the most boring election Germany has ever seen or that this party could actually shake things up in terms of the kind of coalition we're going to see.

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think -- I think both could actually be correct, Paula. On the one hand, I think you're absolutely right.

I think that Angela Merkel certainly has all the chances in the world to retain her job. Of course, the thing that Angela Merkel stands for is stability.

There's nothing really new in her election program. She's not volunteering any sort of new platform or changes from the current polices.

And I think that's something that a lot of Germans do value, that stability, especially in light of what they've seen in the rest of Europe over the past couple of years in places like Britain after Brexit, for instance. But at the same time, you do have that factor of the alternative for Germany, the AFD, that is really shaking things up, especially in the east of the country. But they do have followers in other places as well.

And it's one of those things where there are a lot of Germans who feel a little bit uninspired by the past couple of years of the Angela Merkel chancellorship. She has obviously been in office for 12 years now.

There are some people who feel that there should be a change in Germany. But they don't really see any other alternative to Angela Merkel.

So there are some who predict that the AFD could get as many as 10 percent of the vote. And that certainly is something that troubles a lot of people here in this country because there have been some really ultra right-wing views on the part of some senior AFD politicians, one of the party -- leaders of the party saying that Germans should be, quote, "proud" of their soldiers who fought in the two world wars.

That's something that's almost unheard of in a country obviously like Germany with the history that it did have, especially in World War II, Paula.

NEWTON: Yes, it seems a completely -- a complete change to the political discourse that's come before. And quickly, Fred, before...


NEWTON: ...I let you go, how long will these coalition negotiations -- how long could they go on after this election?

PLEITGEN: Well, that's -- that's a very good question, Paula. And it really depends on how all of this turns out.

Is Angela Merkel going to have to try and form another coalition with the other major party, the Social Democrats? No one really believes that their main candidate, Martin Schulz, is going to be able to pull it off.

Then I believe that the coalition talks could go fairly quickly. But there could also be coalitions with minor parties as well, for instance, the liberals in the Green Party.

And once you get into a sphere of where you have several parties that are involved, the coalition talks certainly could last a lot longer. There are some who believe that if the Social Democrats don't win this election, that they might actually go into the opposition simply to replenish their ranks, but also because possibly, if they don't do that, the alternative for Germany, the AFD, could be the largest opposition party in Germany.


And that's certainly something that none of the established parties here in this country really want to see, Paula.

NEWTON: Yes, it would certainly be a game-changer. Our Fred Pleitgen there, watching the election votes come in today. Appreciate it.

Now, earlier, I spoke with Constanze Stelzenmuller. She is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, began by asking if she was surprised Mrs. Merkel seems to be making a political comeback after some thought she would be facing defeat as chancellor.


CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER, SENIOR FELLOW, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think the low point for her came at the height of the confusion about the refugee crisis and where it was going to take Germany in late 2016. But all through the summer, she had enjoyed a rock solid lead in the polls, polling at around 40 percent well ahead of her Social Democratic challenger. And it's only in the last week or so that those polls have suddenly started shifting. And her victory s looking a little less good right now.

NEWTON: And when we talk about those shifting polls, I mean, even if she's chancellor, it can really affect how she governs, right, in terms of the coalition she can manage?

STELZENMULLER: Exactly. So there are a couple of things in play here. Last time, she got 41.5 percent of the vote.

She, throughout the summer, it was polling at 40, which, you know, looked like it might become a repeat since about 50 percent of the voters have not yet made up their mind. Right now, she is closer to 36 percent.

That's looking a little more dangerous as people have made up their mind more and more. And at the same time, the alternative for Germany and ethno nationalist, racist, and some sectors, anti-Semitic party, is gaining in the polls from what looked like, you know, single-digit, seven, eight percent is now near 11 or 12.

And that has meant that the coalition options for Angela Merkel have narrowed from four to two. And both of them could be quite difficult for her.

NEWTON: And when you say quite difficult, in terms of her governing, many people have pointed out that a far-right party, which would be unheard of really, which have happened the first time of being parliament since World War II, what kinds of policy decisions could she be forced into making that perhaps she herself would be uncomfortable with?

STELZENMULLER: Actually, it's not quite since World War II. There were right-wing parties that had a lot of old Nazis in them in the German Bundesrat, up until the early '60s, but not since then.

So we're looking at a 50-year hiatus. And of course, given our history, our culture of taking responsibility for the holocaust, for atonement and reconciliation with our -- with our neighbors, this is breaking the biggest national taboo that we have. So it's bad enough.

The two coalitions on offer for her are a repeat of the grand coalition that she has had so far. It would be the third time around for her Social Democratic partners.

And the problem that that would create is not just -- let me put it this way, the Social Democrats and Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats actually governed together quite well. They got a lot of legislation done.

But this was not good for the Social Democrats because Angela Merkel had triangulated her party so much into the middle that it was really hard for the Social Democrats to distinguish themselves. This is one of the reasons why they've been doing so badly in the polls. So they would much rather go into opposition and rebuild.


NEWTON: A desperate search for survivors continues in Mexico as another major earthquake shakes the already-jittery country. The latest from Mexico City next. Plus hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and now, residents in the northwest part of the island are facing yet another threat, details just ahead.




NEWTON: A 6.1 earthquake hits Southern Mexico early Saturday, less than a week after a more powerful quake struck just south of Mexico City. Now, the confirmed death toll from last week's disaster has now risen to 307.

And the hope that more survivors will be found under the rubble is beginning to dwindle. Ivan Watson has the latest.


IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sirens rang out across the Mexican capital when a 6.1 magnitude earthquake shook Central Mexico. So far, we have not gotten reports from the government of new casualties or significant damage.

But the tremors did interrupt some of the dangerous and vital rescue and recovery work taking place at sites like this office building, a six-story building that collapsed in Tuesday's much bigger earthquake. Now, at this time, there are rescue workers from four different nations at work here, from the U.S., Israel, Japan, and from Mexico.

And overnight Friday, the Mexican rescue workers recovered the body of one victim from this collapsed building. We spoke earlier with an Israeli lieutenant colonel from an Israeli defense force rescue team.

And he gave an update on this difficult work and was sounding rather pessimistic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have here a six-stories (ph) building, which collapsed for about three days already. And we believe that inside the building, there are between 50 to 60 men and women trapped.

And unfortunately, we believe they are already dead.

WATSON: At the site of another collapsed building several blocks from here Saturday morning, rescue workers recovered the bodies of two victims from that location. At this location, family members of the dozens of people missing have been conducting an agonizing vigil here, hoping for some kind of news about their missing loved ones. They had been assisted by an outpouring of volunteerism with ordinary

Mexicans coming out in droves, bringing in donations, aid and supply, trying to help their loved ones and trying to help their countrymen at this time of need. Ivan Watson, CNN, Mexico City.


NEWTON: In the meantime, hurricane Maria is edging away from the Bahamas into the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The category three storm -- yes, it's still a category three could cause dangerous rip currents along the Southeastern United States in the coming days.

In Puerto Rico, millions of people are still reeling after the deadly hurricane pummeled that island. Our Nick Valencia has more from San Juan.


NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As if the people on this island haven't been through enough already, now those in the northwest part of Puerto Rico are dealing with potential life-threatening floods. A crack was found in the Guajataca dam by engineers on Friday, leading to evacuations.

Those evacuations are still ongoing, nearly 70,000 people impacted by this. Those that can't evacuate themselves are being bussed (ph) out by local officials and transported to local shelters, all of this happening as more help is coming from the U.S. mainland.

We've learned earlier that 4,000 Army reservists have joined the efforts to try to help with the recovery efforts here on this island. They're joined by assets from FEMA, as well as local assets to try to bring this infrastructure back.

Communication is a major problem with all the cellphone towers down, at least 1,500 cellphone towers affected. Those loved ones who are trying to get in touch with people here on this island may have to wait months, the mayor here in San Juan telling people that the semblance of modern life may not exist for at least up to four to six months.


Being without electricity is going to be an issue. The situation is getting desperate as ever. Nick Valencia, CNN San Juan, Puerto Rico.


NEWTON: And to update you on hurricane Maria, it's now left Bahamas and Turks and Caicos islands but it's heading towards the U.S. East Coast. Meteorologist Karen Maginnis has more for us.

Now, Karen, and you know, it's been interesting, unfortunately, you see those models because they have been moving ever so slightly further west. KAREN MAGINNIS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes. They continue to do that.

We played this game with both Harvey, which greatly impacted Harris County and some of the surrounding counties in Texas, that's in the vicinity of Houston.

Also for Irma, gradually, we saw this computer model just kind of edge their way a little further towards the west. And that's exactly what computer models are doing here as we take a look at this particular system, still at category three.

I want to show you this image. This is water vapor image. It is still tapping that deep tropical moisture from the Atlantic but is not interacting with any land.

However, it is moving across an environment where the water temperatures are going to be cooler. And there is going to be some drive to bring it more towards the north.

However, having said that, it will come fairly dangerously close to the eastern sea border of the United States. I'll tell you about that in just one minute.

Here is a young woman who is cleaning out the debris and the mud left from the impact from Marie when it made landfall in Puerto Rico, this just outside the capital of San Juan. And there you can see even more debris just kind of piled up on the side.

You see that over and over across Puerto Rico as we saw in that piece from Nick Valencia. All right, we were talking about those computer models.

In the blue area, that's the European model. The red, which lies underneath it, we kind of see them somewhat together. They have definitely edged further to the west.

Here is Bermuda over here. And this is the -- these are the outer banks of North Carolina. Right on the periphery, that western edge of Maria, it looks like from Tuesday night and into Thursday morning, both of these computer models show the impact along the North Carolina Coast.

Now, were still a ways out. We don't know exactly what's going to happen. But these computer models have increasingly suggested it's going to be a lot closer to the U.S. Coast, too close for comfort than what we've seen over the last several days. Paula?

NEWTON: Yes, and we still have to wait for more of those models to come in obviously. Karen, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

And thank you for joining us here on "CNN Newsroom." I'm Paula Newton. I will be back in just a few moments with the headlines.