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As Trump Lashes Out at Mueller, Congress at Standstill on Shielding Special Counsel; UMBC Ends Cinderella Run With Loss To Kansas State. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired March 19, 2018 - 02:00   ET


ROSEMARY CHURCH, ANCHOR, CNN NEWSROOM: Putin takes a victory lap. The Russian leader is celebrating his win of another six years in office.

GEORGE HOWELL, ANCHOR, CNN: Plus a warning for the US President as top Republicans tell him to leave Robert Mueller alone.

CHURCH: At a would-be Cinderella story in the most unlikely place. How a college basketball team's win shocked fans everywhere.

Hello, and welcome to our viewers joining us here in the United States, and of course, from all around the world. I'm Rosemary Church.

HOWELL: And I am George Howell from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta. Newsroom starts right now.

CHURCH: Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to control Russian politics for another six years. He is claiming victory in Sunday's presidential election. That's no surprise of course, because he was the only real contender.

His main political opponent was banned from running.

HOWELL: President Putin, you see him there addressing his supporters. This came after it became clear he was on his way to his fourth term as the President of Russia.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA: (Through interpreter). We have to think about the future of our country, the future of our children. We are doomed to success, are we not? Yes. Thank you very much.

Together, we will take up the massive job of work we have before us in the name of Russia. Thank you.


HOWELL: Going into this election, the question really wasn't about which candidate would win, but rather, more about the voter turnout of this election.

CHURCH: Yes, it appears voters gave him a strong stamp of approval with almost all the ballots counted, Russian officials say, President Putin has won nearly 77 percent of the votes.

Fred Pleitgen has more now from Moscow.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Vladimir Putin coasting to victory in the Russian Presidential election even as the first exit polls came out, shortly after 9 p.m. time in Moscow.

He was at over 70 percent of the votes. Now, the Russian President then came out shortly afterwards and spoke to supporters here right outside the Kremlin. He thanked them for their support. He also said that unity was very important now to Russia. There is a lot of work to be done to make Russia better for future generations.

There was about 35,000 people who turned out here at the square outside the Kremlin, many of them waiving Russian flags. It was a very patriotic event that took place.

No one here really expected that Vladimir Putin is going to lose this election, but two things were in question. First of all, how much of the vote was he going to get and then second of all how high was the turnout going to be, turnout of course, very important because one of the things that Vladimir Putin himself was weary of was whether or not there would be voter apathy. This is a man of course, who has been in power here in this country for a very long time.

The field of contenders running against Putin was quite weak. The next best contender, the runner-up, a communist, Pavel Grudinin, he really didn't get much of the vote. He was miles behind Vladimir Putin. So, it really wasn't in question that Putin was going to win this election. The only question is really how much and also how big the turnout was going to be.

Vladimir Putin also went back to business as usual very, very quickly talking about the case of the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter of course were poisoned and saying that Russia was not behind it and if it would have been a military grade nerve agent that was used that they would have been dead immediately.

So, clearly, the election for Vladimir Putin, not much more than a formality as far as the election itself was concerned and him going back to business as usual very quickly.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Moscow.


CHURCH: In his 18 years in power, President Putin has led Russia into multiple spats with the West, but his supporters at home continue to back him.

HOWELL: So, to understand why, it is important to look back at history to consider what life was like for Russians under the former President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin.

CNN contributor, Jill Dougherty says that helps to clarify why many Russians uphold Mr. Putin with such high regard.


JILL DOUGHERTY, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: People who support him say, he brought Russia up from its knees. Russia is standing tall. It's part of the world now. It's a major player and maybe the West doesn't like it, maybe people don't even like Russia, but they respect Russia.

And that's pretty much the viewpoint at least of those who support him. There are a lot of people in the opposition who think really very differently about the President.

I think also, don't forget that in the beginning especially right after Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin was able to improve the economic situation of many Russian citizens...


DOUGHERTY: ... and they still remember that. They remember the battle days in the '90s when there wasn't even enough food.

And I think those would be -- and then also, one other thing, I was talking to some Russians just today about this, that finally, when they had Mr. Putin, they had a President who was vigorous, strong, not unfortunately like Boris Yeltsin who had a drinking problem.

So, they were finally proud and not kind of embarrassed about their leader on the world stage. That still continues, at least among people who are a little bit older and who remember those days of Yeltsin.


HOWELL: Jill Dougherty there. Now, in the meantime, and in the background, there is that continuing rift between Russia and the United Kingdom.

The Russian President dismissing claims that Russia was behind the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England.

CHURCH: Mr. Putin says Russia destroyed the nerve agent used in that attack a long time ago. But the UK now says it has evidence Russia has been making the deadly substance for the last decade.

Melissa Bell reports from London.


MELISSA BELL, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: It was two weeks ago that Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious in Salisbury since we have seen claims and counterclaims, London and Moscow engaged in a war of words and rhetoric that has seemed to get more intense with every day that has passed.

Once again today, Boris Johnson spoke out having claimed on Friday, not only once again that the Russians were to blame for the poisoning, but that it had been ordered by Vladimir Putin himself.

This morning, speaking on British television, the British Foreign Secretary had this to add.

BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: We actually have evidence within the last 10 years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination, but it has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok.

BELL: Boris Johnson went on to say that on Monday, representatives, investigators from the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons would be here in the United Kingdom where they would be given access to those samples that the British Authorities had collected. They will then be taking those to labs to check what they say that the nerve agent is and to check the veracity of those British claims.

And their findings will matter a great deal because the entire world is being asked to judge to take sides in this war of words between London and Moscow and this of course, even as Boris Johnson prepares to go to the EU to get not only support from the rest of the European block, but he hopes further measures of retaliation against Russia.

Melissa Bell, CNN, in London.


HOWELL: Melissa, thank you. Here in the United States, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have a warning for the US President, Donald Trump, "Leave Robert Mueller alone."

CHURCH: And Mr. Trump attacked the Special Counsel and his team in a series of tweets this weekend and the latest calling into question their impartiality.

That prompted the White House attorney to assure lawmakers the President is not considering firing Mueller.

Boris Sanchez has the details now from Washington.


BORIS SANCHEZ, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: On Sunday, we saw President Trump make a distinct shift in the way that he has talked about the Special Counsel specifically, Rob Mueller and his team, though previously, the President had said that the Russia investigation was a hoax and a witch hunt, he never really singled out Robert Mueller by name for criticism until this weekend in a tweet sent out Sunday morning where the President was arguing that the special investigation was biased because there were no Republicans on Robert Mueller's team.

No one really there to defend the President, that of course is inaccurate. Robert Mueller himself is a Republican, one who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Further, many of the attorneys on his team have prosecuted both Republicans and Democrats. There's no real partisan streak there and perhaps, most importantly, Robert Mueller still maintains a vote of confidence from an important voice in the Deputy Attorney General, Ron Rosenstein who has repeatedly said that Robert Mueller is carrying out this investigation appropriately and that he is not letting anyone's personal political perspectives get in the way of finding the facts.

The President though letting his frustrations boil over on Twitter, not just about the Special Counsel, but also about the FBI, the Department of Justice, the State Department as well, and former Deputy FBI Director, Andrew McCabe.

At least one White House official, the Director of Legislative Affairs, Marc Short went on a Sunday morning talk show to defend the President saying that his frustrations were merited because the Russia investigation had gone on for so long and yielded, in his eyes, few results.

Listen to more from Marc Short.

MARC SHORT, DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: Everyone in the White House has cooperated on this and what I said is, is that we have cooperated every single way, every single paper they have asked for, every single interview, and I think the reality, Margaret is that yes...


SHORT: ... there is a growing frustration that after more than a year and millions and millions of dollars spent on this, there remains no evidence of collusion with Russia.

I think the President is expressing his frustration, which I think is well warranted and merited.

SANCHEZ: Of course, we should point out that the Russia investigation has yielded a lot of results. We have seen not only 13 indictments of Russian nationals for election meddling, but also four indictments of figures within the Trump campaign. People like George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn among others.

On top of all of this, you are seeing many Republican lawmakers now moving to try to defend Robert Mueller and warning the President that perhaps meddling in the special investigation isn't a good idea.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said that it would be a red line that the President should not cross, if in fact he were to decide to fire Robert Mueller. There's been some speculation that perhaps, some kind of legislation might be out there that would get passed on a bipartisan basis of course that would -- and so safeguards to give Robert Mueller some job security.

That previously had not gone anywhere, but now with a more abrasive stance that President Trump and others within the administration are taking to the Special Counsel, we may ultimately see that change.

Boris Sanchez, CNN at the White House.

(END VIDEO TAPE) HOWELL: All right, Boris, thanks. Let's put all of this into focus

now with Steven Erlanger. Steven, the chief diplomatic correspondent for the "New York Times" live via Skype this hour from Brussels. Always a pleasure to have you here on the show, Steve to talk about all of this.


HOWELL: The President, putting a renewed focus on the Mueller investigation, actually mentioning Mueller by name. This is the first time, Steven, he has ever done this on Twitter.

But according to his attorney, Ty Cobb who had this to say to our own Gloria Borger, we will pull this response up in response to media speculation and related questions being posted to the Administration. The White House yet again confirms that the President is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller.

All right, but mixed messages, Steven to say for sure. What do you make of these mixed messages?

ERLANGER: I think, once again, you have a lot of Republican upset at a President who is consistently undermining the institutions of justice in the United States, and that includes the FBI, which he has constantly attacked, which is important I think to the country as a symbol of neutral justice.

And it also includes the Mueller investigation. Now, it is clear, Trump is fed up with the Mueller investigation. He feels it's distorting his presidency.

But, he has consistently in fact, talked about firing Mueller. We know this. We know it comes up a lot. It's not true when the White House says there's no discussion of firing Mueller. Trump talks about it all the time.

Now, he is restrained from doing so partly by allies, like Lindsay Graham and Jeff Flake who sometimes will say very explicitly that this is a red line that the President should not cross.

Now, he can't fire Mueller. He would have to ask Ron Rosenstein to fire Mueller because Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the whole Russian affair, which also infuriates Trump who keeps coming back at it over and over and over again.

And Rosenstein might have to quit, rather than fire Mueller. We have to see. The third person in line at the Justice Department recently left her job because I think she was afraid of the responsibility for firing Mueller coming down on her if Rosenstein resigns.

So, we have a kind of potential Saturday night massacre ala Watergate, but so far, the President has restrained himself to simply complaining about everything on Twitter. HOWELL: All right, so you bring this up. His Republican colleagues,

you know, we've heard from a few of them. We've heard from Lindsey Graham for one who said that the firing of Mueller would be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.

This line in the sand that Republicans are drawing for the moment, would firing Mueller truly be a bridge too far for Republicans or would excuses be made for the President of the United States?

ERLANGER: Well, that's a hypothetical, but Republican lines on the sand have turned pink and then disappeared in the past. But I do think for someone like Lindsey Graham, the integrity of a judicial process and its independence from the politicization of the White House is really an important part of American democracy.

I think he's quite sincere about it. Now, would it be the end of the Trump presidency? I think we'll know more after the midterm...


ERLANGER: ... elections if the Democrats happen to take the House, one can imagine if Trump went through and pushed Rosenstein out and then managed to get Mueller fired, one could imagine an impeachment.

I still very much doubt the Senate would vote to convict, but the damage being done to, you know, the institutions of justice is I think what really bothers the Republicans.

I mean, they are -- you know, Republicans are the law and order party. They're the justice party. Trump is not in many ways a traditional Republican and they have been afraid of his popularity. They have been afraid of his Twitter abuse. They've been afraid of his insults.

But it feels like this is a line that many republicans wish, really wish the President would not cross.

HOWELL: Steven Erlanger, we appreciate your time and perspective on this. We'll stay in touch with you.

ERLANGER: Thanks, George.

HOWELL: To the Southern United States now, where the FBI is on the scene of another explosion in the capital of Texas, Austin.

Authorities there say two men in their 20's were taken to the hospital with serious injuries, but both are said to be in good condition at this point.

Police also examining a backpack now near the scene.

CHURCH: Now, earlier this month, three package bombs were delivered to different homes in Austin over a period of ten days. And police said last week, those explosions were all connected.

Two people were killed and two others injured in those blasts. It's not yet clear if Sunday's explosion might be related to the previous events.

US, South and North Korean representatives are set to meet in Finland, part of a series of diplomatic moves to discuss denuclearization ahead of the highest-level talks between the US and North Korea.

We will get the latest from South Korea.

HOWELL: Plus, the statue of a Kurdish legend toppled in Syria. The very latest on Turkey's Afrin offensive as CNN Newsroom pushes on.

KATE RILEY, SPORTS ANCHOR, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: I am Kate Riley with your CNN Worlds' Sport headlines. We begin with golf where Tiger Woods made quite a run of it, but in the end, it was Rory McIlroy taking the title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida.

Woods have pulled himself within just a stroke of the lead early on in the backline but would finish with two bogeys in his last three holes and pulled out of contention.

Out stepped McIlroy with an outstanding four birdies in a row on the backside en route to a three-shot victory, his first in September 2016.

To tennis, in an epic match between Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro, the world number one, Federer was off to a career best 17 and oh started 2018 and has three match points to finish...


RILEY: ...Del Potro off at the BNP Paribas Final in Indian Wells, but he couldn't and the 29-year-old from Argentina would take advantage after a mismatch point of his own to finally top Federer in a third set tie breaker. Del Potros has his first ever ATP Masters' Event Title.

And finally, Cristiano Ronaldo has got four golds as Real Madrid and British Girona's 6-3 on Sunday. The 33-year-old meted his 50th career hat trick in a competition just a few hours after seeing rival, Lionel Messi score in Barcelona's win earlier. Ronaldo now trails Messi by just three goals in Spanish La Liga scoring.

And that's the look at World Sports Headlines. I am Kate Riley.

HOWELL: Coming back to CNN Newsroom, representatives from North Korea and South Korea and the United States are set to meet in Finland.

This ahead of pending talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.

A top North Korean diplomat was spotted boarding a plane from Beijing to Finland on Monday. Finnish officials say the talks will not include members of the US government.

Remember, the US has no diplomatic relations with North Korea.

CHURCH: Meanwhile, the US National Security adviser H.R. McMaster met with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea this weekend. And in other developments, Sweden is hoping to negotiate the release

of three release Americans imprisoned in North Korea.

Our Paula Hancocks joins us us now from Seoul in South Korea. Paula, a lot happening.

Let's start with what's likely to come out of this meeting planned in Finland ahead of the much anticipated talks between US President Trump and North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Well, actually, we really don't expect anything to come out of these talks. This is the Track 1.5 talks which is governmental officials, non-governmental experts meeting together to talk in a more casual, laid back way and something that's not going to be reported. They don't have to come out with a statement at the end of it.

And it's something that they have done in the past to try and gather what each side in this arrangement actually wants to achieve.

So, what we're seeing in Finland is the US, the South Koreans and the North Koreans being represented. We understand that there will be a dinner this Monday evening and then the talking will start in earnest on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But the Finnish Foreign Ministry says there won't be any government officials from the United States. South Korea says they will be sending former officials and experts, but what we do know is that North Korea will be sending one of their top diplomats we understand.

He is heading Finland at the moment and he is the man who is in charge of US affairs when it comes to the North Korean Foreign Ministry. He is also the man, Choe Kang Il, who spent much of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang talking to South Korean officials.

He was part of those talks between North and South Korea, so he's really been center -- front and center of this whole process.

So, this is something that we have seen a number of times in the past. In fact, many times we don't even know that these Track 1.5 or Track 2 talks are ongoing, but it's a good chance for each side to talk in a more unofficial fashion to find out what each other's positions are. Rosemary?

CHURCH: And Paula, while this is happening, Sweden is trying to negotiate the release of three Americans held in North Korea. What progress has been made on that issue and how likely is it that we will see some sort of breakthrough?

HANCOCKS: It's really not clear at this point when or if this could happen. We're hearing from a number of experts and officials that it's something that would show good faith from the North Koreans to actually release these three detainees that are American citizens.

Now, we know that the Swedish side sources close to this situation is saying that they are trying to point out to the North Koreans that this would really point the right way forward. It would show the right direction ahead of a possible meeting between the US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

The Foreign Minister of North Korea has just left now. We understand he has arrived back in Beijing, presumably heading back to Pyeongyang, but he was there over the weekend and North Korea, as well through state-owned media, KC&A acknowledged he had met with the Foreign Minister, with the Prime Minister of Sweden, Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right, our Paula Hancocks...


CHURCH: ... bringing us up to date on those developments from Seoul in South Korea, many thanks.

HOWELL: On the ground in what's left of Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad stopped by for a visit amid the rubble.

The state media report that he met there with troops in the besieged enclave east of Damascus on Sunday.

CHURCH: A government offensive has been gaining ground against rebels in the area, but at a huge human cost.

Thousands of people have been displaced and more than a thousand civilians have been reported killed since mid-February.

Also, in Syria, Kurdish forces say, the battle for Afrin is not over yet. This after Turkey reportedly seized the town center on Sunday with allied rebels. The area had been controlled by the mostly Kurdish-Syrian democratic forces and the Kurdish YPG.

HOWELL: The video appears to show Turkish-led forces in firm control there, but a YPG official says the group will fight until there is no Turkish soldier left in Afrin.

Kurdish groups are also outraged over photos like what you see here. This photo appearing to show Turkish allied rebels in Afrin and the toppled statue of a mythic Kurdish hero.

CNN's Ian Lee following the story live for us in Istanbul, Turkey. Ian, let's first of all talk about these troops. Turkish troops claiming victory in the town center of Afrin, but Kurdish troops, they say the battle for that city is not done at this point. What more are you hearing there?

IAN LEE, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: That's right. Let's go back to that statue because that is very symbolic when you see that statue being toppled.

It's a statue of Kawa, he is a blacksmith, a folk hero of the Kurdish people and for this entire operation, the Turks have said that this is an operation against who they say are terrorists, the YPG and not against the Kurdish people, but the toppling of that statue is sending a message to the Kurds. One, that they don't like. As far as Afrin is concerned, the YPG pulled out of that as well, as

the SDF. They pulled out of Afrin. Right now, the Turks say that they're in a mop up operation going after little pockets of resistance as well as land mines that are still in that area.

But the YPG and the SDF still control territory south of Afrin. They have vowed to press on the fight although it's going to be very difficult.

Afrin was the main objective of operation, olive branch, the two-month operation. They've been able to push the Kurds and their allies just further south and continue to take land.

The YPG and the SDF have put up resistance, but just not enough. It's unlikely that they'll be able to launch a counter offensive to retake any territory.

HOWELL: Ian Lee, live for us in Istanbul, Turkey. Ian, thank you for the reporting.

CHURCH: Let's take a very short break here, but still to come, a Chinese village is now a living shrine of sorts where thousands of communist party members visit to pay tribute to Xi Jinping.

Plus, the team that delivered the biggest upset in men's college basketball history, well, now out of the big dance, but we'll have more on that Cinderella run that they had as CNN Newsroom continues.



[02:32:06] GEORGE HOWELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: We're coast to coast across the United States and live around the world this house. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. It is always a pleasure to have you with us. I'm George Howell.

ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: And I'm Rosemary Church. It's time now to update the main stories we've been following this hour. White House Special Counsel Ty Cobb is assuring the public and lawmakers that President Donald Trump is not considering or discussing the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. That they've come been response to several new Trump tweets harshly critical of Mueller and his team.

HOWELL: Sweden is helping to negotiating the release of three Americans imprisoned in North Korea. It's acting as a protecting power for the United States. U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea. Separately, National Security Chiefs from South Korea, the United States, and Japan has meet ahead of pending talks between the President of the United States Donald Trump and the leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un.

CHURCH: Russia President Vladimir Putin is claiming victory in Sunday's presidential election. That's no surprise of course. He was the only real contender. He's been in power for 18 years either as president or prime minister. This would be Mr. Putin's fourth term as president and should be his last under the constitution. So let's discuss the Russian election with Konstantin von Eggert. He is a Russian journalist and a political commentator. Thank you so much for being with us. No surprise of course as we mentioned that Vladimir Putin won his fourth term as president given he ensures there's very little to know a position to his leadership. You've called this a coronation, not an election. Why do you say that?

KONSTANTIN VON EGGERT, COMMENTATOR AND HOST AT KOMMERSANT FM: Well, I would -- let me correct myself. I don't want to send quite a lot of constitutional in a moment doing a good job. I think it's a self- reappointment. That's the best way to describe it. And the way we're seeing this so-called election developing is that the administration of the president, the local authorities, they put enormous pressure on vast army of people say were people, state, enterprises, bureaucrats, prisoners, military, police to come out vote, and report they're voting with, you know, taking a picture of their ballot paper over their smartphone. There was a 24-7 propaganda and as you rightly said, Rosemary, Mr. Putin was in fact not given the only contender, he's the only (INAUDIBLE) he didn't take part in the presidential debate. Actually, he never did and none of this so-called candidates including those who claim to be democratic candidates never demanded that he come to the studio and, you know, explain his policies and debate with them. So I think that's the only thing you need to about this -- about this so-called election.

CHURCH: And of course Vladimir Putin now has six more years as president, will we ever see a viable alternative to Putin? Will he ever allow that and what do you expect to see happen under his leadership over these next few years?

[02:35:15] VON EGGERT: Rosemary, if I knew the answer to your first question, I would have flown to your studio in a private jet owning a lot of money on the stock exchange. But frankly I think that there will be an alternative eventually because no one is eternal. But what I think and that's coming to your second question about the perspectives. I think that what we have a lot effect is worth key exploding up fortune including his true control of the political spectrum, a weakness of the west still enough petrol reserves to keep the populous happy. But what I think works against him is actually age. He and his team are aging and that's irreversible.

The coming onstage of the so-called (INAUDIBLE) the leader that was banned from taking part of the election, these are people that have lived all their lives on President Putin and his stability and glory narrative to them looks more like -- more like stagnation and hypocrisy out of it and that is also a generation that will becoming onstage in Russia in these six months (INAUDIBLE) I think need to know. Putin will leave the presidency after these six years. I don't think he will prolong his tenure and become president for life. This is -- Russia is not (INAUDIBLE) despotic like -- he's different. And I think that that will provide for this scramble, for succession, for this inevitable to me, internal political struggle in Moscow for this -- for the future and that will provide for six years of unending political crisis inside Russia which unfortunately I think will also spill out into the west as for his foreign policy, I do not think it will change.

CHURCH: Right. Yes. And I was going to ask you whether you thought he might change the constitution as we did say that move in China, so I wanted to move onto another issue then involving Russia of course. Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson claiming that the U.K. has evidence pointing to Russia, can you hear me? Pointing to Russia being behind the recent used of nerve agent. It used to poison a former Russian spy and his daughter in England. Mr. Putin denies this but who else would have wanted this former spy dead. All fingers seem to point at Russia being the culprit here.

VON EGGERT: Well, I -- I'm not there to investigate but it seems like no one else have reason to do that and by the way that links to the whole election outcome to some extent because this was presented on Russian television and there's yet another western aggression against Russia. What I think is quite clear is that that is a signal whoever sent it to people that may think about, you know, cooperating with the west or the running way to the west, people in Mr. Putin's entourage (INAUDIBLE) I would really like that and I think that this -- I think gives to some extent, a fore text of what their next six years will be in terms of foreign policy. Mr. Putin will continue its confrontation with the west because he's claimed to legitimacy and to all sort the inside of Russia is being not even so much a president but the commandant of fortress Russia and every Russian citizen has to be a solder in this garrison.

CHURCH: Konstantin von Eggert, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

HOWELL: Xi Jinping's unanimous reappointment as the president of China is generating language once used to describe Mao Zedong, the founder father of the People's Republic of China. The communist party's people daily -- People's Daily rather is calling Mr. Xi the helmsmen of the country.

CHURCH: Matt Rivers report the adoration has spurred thousands of ambitious party members to visit the village where President Xi himself was sent years ago for reeducation.

MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Critics call him China's new emperor but in this small village, adoration abounds for President Xi Jinping. All we need are Chairman Mao and President Xi says this visitor. She lived here for years in the early '70s transferred recently from an unknown backwater to a shrine for a living president.

[02:40:01] This smartly tour guide shows us where Xi slept, an picture on the wall. We see a well he helped dig and a sewing shop he setup, old farmers who knew Xi back then still roam about these pseudo mascots of this bizarre theme park. Three of us including Xi and I joined the Communist Party together says this man. Communist (INAUDIBLE) flood the village each day paying homage. There is a practical purpose for making this visit if you are an ambitious communist party member. It shows that you want to learn from the experiences of the party's most important person in decades. It's the kind of propaganda push driven by a cult of personality that the country hasn't seen since the days of Mao Zedong, founder of Communist China. Not far from Xi's village, we see where Mao once lived during World War II, similar caves, similar old photos in the wall, Mao held up as a great revolutionary leader with no mention of his ruthless reign that saw tens of millions die from starvation and political violence. His uncheck power lead to disastrous policies like the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.

Xi's father was senior politician was persecuted and imprisoned and like young people from cities across China, Xi himself was sent for, "Reeducation in a small village." That's how he ended up here. His family was ripped apart and yet his belief in the system has held firm ever since he spent his nights in a cold cave. Xi's recent power grab has drawn inevitable comparisons to the perils of the past with critics saying his clamp down on personal liberties and jailing of political opponents harkens back a darker time. Only a brave few have spoken out in protest. I have a sense of historical responsibility. When my children look back and ask me how I reacted, I want to be able to tell them I was firmly opposed to it. A former state run newspaper editor told us, yes, that guy is fooling us. We were followed by security the entire time we spent in Xi's old village even as we took photos with some visitors. They want to make sure that no one criticizes the leader in the China that once belong to Mao and now to Xi Jinping there is no room for dissent, a system of one man rule coming full circle. Matt Rivers, CNN Shanxi Province, China.

CHURCH: Cleaning up after a cyclone is of course an immense task. In Australia, it's getting all too familiar with the process. We'll have the forecast for you next.


[02:45:42] HOWELL: Time for check out the global weather forecast. Our Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri, will join us now. Maybe having some trouble with Pedram. I think we have you now. Pedram, please.

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, CNN INTERNATIONAL METEOROLOGIST: Yes, I hear you now, absolutely. I tell you what's happening here because the big story and I want to really break down what has been going on across portions of Australia. Incredible footage here, and rarely do you see a tropical system come ashore and with it, see the footage of perspective sea trees coming on right on camera, you see what winds of a 120 kilometer per hour can do here bringing down a massive tree. This is across the areas of Northwestern Australia near Darwin.

Have you know, Tropical Cyclone Marcus has been in place in this particular storm here. The good news was it, it is moving away from the coastline. It is going to be a menacing system over the next couple of days, gets up to 240 kilometers per hour. But, it stays away from the coastline, potentially, later on of the forecast. Pushes in towards portions of Southern Australia. But again, this looks like the threat with it, the damage with it has all been down now with the storm moving ashore and moving away from the coastline.

But, taking towards the Eastern Australia here, and notice this, just about 450 kilometers south of Sydney. It's a community of Tafra. And this particular region home to about 1,600 people but has been absolutely devastated in the last 24 to 48 hours. 40,000 hectares of land consumed, 70 structures lost, some 700 folks evacuated, as well.

Footage coming out of this region here showing you what we're dealing with. With not only gusty conditions in the last couple of days but temps as high as 38 degrees Celsius or 101 degrees Fahrenheit, what was experienced here over the past 24 hours. We know cooler temperatures are in store. That's fantastic news here because that will really help the firefighting efforts. In fact, the officials here are saying with that said, that's going to really help conditions going from Monday into Tuesday with temperatures dropping off a good 10 to15 degrees across that region of Australia, there. George.

HOWELL: All right, Pedram. Thank you so much.


HOWELL: Next here on NEWSROOM, they had a tough night tonight. It's fair to say, but the UMBC men's basketball team, they are sports heroes. Also a hero, the man behind this now infamous Twitter account. You'll hear from him directly after the break. Stay with us.


[02:50:00] JAVAHERI: Severe weather season not too far away. Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri, watching what's happening across the Southeastern United States. Some thunderstorms possible as we go from Monday into Tuesday. Some of this storm could exhibit some severe weather potential there across eastern portions of Alabama into Georgia.

Notice some lightning activity already this morning into parts of Louisiana, as well. And of course, as you go into April, eventually, May and June, now we're talking about peak season in severe weather. And we're only sitting about 50 percent of the normal tornado, count which should be about 150 in the United States. In so far, in 2018, we're sitting at roughly 80 tornados. So, sitting about half that mark.

But 21 is the temperature expected in Atlanta, some afternoon thunderstorms. Dallas, the warm spot there at 23. Miami makes it up to 31. Los Angeles, a beautiful day here on the final day of winter, up to around 19 degrees. But you notice, we do want to see temps cool off a little bit as we going towards later in the week. We think the southeast will be one of the first places to see a decent amount of cooling in start.

Nassau and to the Bahamas, sunny sky, 28 degrees. The same score out of Mexico City, remaining dry with partly cloudy condition is expected. (INAUDIBLE) towards South America and places like Manaus, about 31 in Rio, makes it up to 34 degrees. Looking at sunny skies across the board there in Bogota. Maybe a few showers there but the upper teens will be expected. And further towards to the south Rio Gallegos, around 11.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CHURCH: Welcome back everyone. We'll we turn now to the aptly named March madness, where 68 U.S. men's college basketball teams compete in a two and a half week tournament. The clock has already struck midnight for this year's favorite Cinderella team, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, lose Sunday to Kansas State University after their historic win over the University of Virginia.

HOWELL: We were just talking about this though. What an amazing story, what an amazing game. This just the first time in the men's tournament that the school rate number 16 to 16th, beat the number one ranked team. Sports Illustrated honored the significant moment with a digital-only cover. On magazine you see there, UMBC's Twitter account also scored points that night with the man behind the tweets getting almost as much attention as the team itself.

And now, via Skype, we have Zach Seidel. Zach is the director of multimedia communications and digital for the athletic department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Zach, good to have you with us. Look, I know, tonight's game didn't go exactly the way you would have wanted against K-State. But here's the response that you put up on Twitter, let's take a look at this. You said, "Well, it was fun you all. K-State may have won 50-43. But we hope to have won your hearts."

All right, let's look back though, at the game that really put UMBC on the map beating number one seed Virginia. What a game that was on the court, but Zach, on Twitter, you were sort of tearing it up yourself. Thousands of people caught on to what you were saying. Tell us about what that was like last Friday night, live tweeting to your supporters to doubters and everyone else in the middle.

ZACH SEIDEL, DIRECTOR OF MULTIMEDIA COMMUNICATIONS AND DIGITAL, ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, BALTIMORE COUNTY: And was it was bit odd because that's what I do for normal games. I guess that more people were tuning in that time. So normally, you know, during a game, the tweet. You know, women's across game, a baseball game or softball game, it's something like that.

You do that and you know, when we get one or two responses, it just so happened that -- you know, we're playing the number one team in the country. And as the game went on, people were trying to find us on -- you know, what's UMBC and they saw what we are doing. And it was normal for me, and then, I Skype, tweet that started blowing up. And that kind for me that something was going on.

HOWELL: All right, you say normal for you. But right, not exactly normal for you. Correct me if I'm wrong that this wasn't something you planned for. Typically, though other people handle that specific account? I mean, you were kind of fresh on deck here.

SEIDEL: Yes, it was -- you know, my boss Steve Levy, his men's basketball contact will do it or my co-work, Shawna Mosher, will do it or she is there. Or by the co-worker, Dave Catalano will do it with some of our interns. I'm normally working in the ESPN production truck -- ESPN production truck during our games, doing a replay or whatever they need me to do in there. And for this game, my boss was like we've got a lot going on. Can you just tweet for us? I can tweet about any sport, you know, my sport is (INAUDIBLE) volleyball. But, you know, if I'm not doing anything, I'll tweet during those games for the sports. And I think, I have tweeted one or two men's games this year. But, it so happened to be this game was love, the main one for me.

HOWELL: All right, and you tweeted a little excitement. You kind of threw some shade at a few people. Let's look back at some of the more memorable tweets like this one. OK, you said, "We remember this game at Maryland, December, hopefully, you'll enjoy our game from your coach dude. OK. So, was there any other moment or tweet that really stood out to you?

[02:55:16] SEIDEL: That's later, that, that's how I tweet normally from our account. Was just-- you know, having a personality, I thought, you know, some of the more fun ones where you know, one for realized the account was starting to blow up a bit. Was -- you know, when we are try it to happen, the second half started, I say, you know, "Remember guys, no matter what happens, we continue to locate the next to bottom (INAUDIBLE), on our great academic institution." That was like, "Hey, we're tied right now, people are tuning in." Let's get a shout out to the school (INAUDIBLE) while getting -- you know, the school publicity.

And were people to learn -- you know, they're watching us in basketball that work great academic institution, but people should know that. Just so happen, we won and people simple as few days learning about.

HOWELL: As sometimes I'll get on Twitter, my team is the University of Texas. And it were closed to a game, I want to tweet something. But I'm waiting to make sure, are we going to win this game? So, the question that I had for you, when did you know that this game was won? Or when did you feel that was safe to put out that final message for your school?

SEIDEL: Well, it's funny. I knew it was won with about a minute and a half left. You know, I spent the better part of the last five, six minutes -- you know, trying to calm myself down -- you know, going. If we were up 17 against any other team in the country in a normal home game, we'll be acting like this game are over. You know, we're talking about how what we're going to do in the post-game and stuff. But, you know, it's Virginia, the number one team in the country --

HOWELL: Right.

SEIDEL: -- you're still nervous. And so, in my head, I kind of -- I kind of knew what tweet I was going to do. I figured out what tweet I was going to do. And then, I forgot what the team cheerers made a layup. And I get the respect that us, that tweet, and that's when I -- that's when I started to feel really good about the win.

HOWELL: All right, look, didn't win tonight. But certainly, won in the minds of a lot of people. What a story, what a game that was inputting your school on the map. Your Twitter handle, in fact, growing from 54, a 100 people to our followers, rather, to more than 100,000. Thanks so much for your time today, and of course, we'll keep up with you on Twitter, Zach.

SEIDEL: All right, thank you. Thank you for your time.

HOWELL: That's a guy you wouldn't mind having a Twitter, take over for your account. Let's them pick the wheel for a second.

CHURCH: Tell me that we can do that.

HOWELL: Thanks for being with us. For NEWSROOM live, George Howell for this hour.

CHURCH: And I'm Rosemary Church, we will, of course, be right back with another hour of CNN NEWSROOM. Don't go anywhere.