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CNN NEWSROOM

Authorities Scramble after White House Bomb Threat; Tillerson Says North Korea Military Option on the Table; Rock Legend Chuck Berry Dies at 90; Trump Aides Had Contact with Russia; Airport Attacker Wanted to "Die for Allah"; March Madness Consumes Basketball Fans. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired March 19, 2017 - 03:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): North Korea trumpets a new rocket engine that could be used in its weapons program. This as the U.S. secretary of state looking for new ways to counter Pyongyang.

And finally getting answers, FBI director James Comey to testify Monday on potential connections between Russian operatives and associates of Donald Trump.

Plus rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry dies at the age of 90. We'll be telling you about his enduring influence even on younger listeners who are not familiar with his career.

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

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VANIER: So we start this hour with a developing story out of Washington. There's been another security scare at the White House, this time involving a bomb threat. For more, CNN's Ryan Nobles joins us now live from the U.S. federal capital.

Ryan, walk us through what happened.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Cyril, we are now in hour four of the incident. And it's still not resolved at the White House in Washington D.C., it started just before 11 o'clock Eastern time here in Washington.

And that's when an individual drove a car up to a security checkpoint on the east side of the White House near the Treasury Department building.

He drove it right up to the checkpoint. He told the guard at that checkpoint that he had a bomb in the vehicle. He was immediately arrested and removed from the car.

And, basically, over the last four hours, Secret Service agents and law enforcement have been methodically picking this car apart, making sure that there is no type of weapon or device that could explode. And they -- it has been a painstaking process at various times throughout the night. They had a robot that they have used.

There has been a bomb squad on the scene as well, including one bomb technician in full bomb gear to make sure that nothing bad were to happen. They have been pulling out items from this car.

This suspect appeared to be some what of a pack rat. His trunk filled with material. And they have been going through each piece of material, to make sure that there is nothing there that could cause a problem. The car is still sitting behind me here, at the corner of 15th and E in Washington, D.C.

And at last check it was actually still running, Cyril, they did not even shut the car off. We could see the exhaust smoke coming from the back of the car. They're making sure to take every precaution possible.

But despite the fact that they're taking this incident so seriously, they don't appear to be under the impression that this causes or could pose an imminent threat. There are three major hotels within a block of this particular location. They did not evacuate any of them, in fact up until about an hour ago, the W hotel, which is directly across the street, was still very much, open for business. A loud party taking place on the roof of that building.

We should point out that the president himself, Donald Trump, is not here in Washington. He is at his Mar-a-lago estate. So at no point was he in any danger.

But I said before, Cyril, this investigation continues. They have that car still in the same spot that it was when the suspect drove up to that location on the east side of the White House, four hours ago.

VANIER: Yes, Ryan, we're looking at live pictures of that car. Thanks for pointing that out. We can see the engine still running. Not a lot going on immediately around the car right now, though.

Ryan, something else, when you live in the country and you watch local news coming out of Washington, you see that you can't help but notice there have been multiple security incidents at the White House recently.

NOBLES: Yes, in fact, I was at the White House this afternoon where a very minor security threat occurred. Someone jumped over an extended barrier that they have in front of the White House, attempting to deliver a letter to someone inside the White House.

And then it was a week ago when someone actually breached security. Jumped over multiple fences on the White House grounds. And was on the White House property for 16 minutes before being located by a Secret Service officer and put under arrest.

He actually got all the way up to the South Portico entrance and rattled the door of the residence of the White House before being apprehended.

So yes, one thing about the White House is that it is the people's house. It is a taxpayer-funded building that is designed to allow Americans to have easy access to the building.

You know, this is obviously a major tourist attraction in Washington, D.C., so there's certainly a balance between that public access and security. But after these repeated incidents, you have to imagine this is going to become a major debate here in the United States about beefing up security in --

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NOBLES: -- and around the White House.

VANIER: Yes, definitely. You have to look at the balance, as you say, between access and security. And the middle of the night right now, East Coast time in the U.S., Ryan, monitoring this even as it is raining in Washington. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

And there's been another provocation from North Korea. Claiming they have made a great leap forward in their rocket development. State media say these photos show leader Kim Jong-un overseeing the successful test of a powerful new rocket engine.

That technology could help North Korea launch a satellite or a long- range missile.

This comes as America's top diplomat is trying to figure out how to stop the North Korean nuclear threat. Rex Tillerson finished his trip to Asia by meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping. And CNN's Will Ripley is following that from Beijing.

Will, China is asking the U.S. to be cool-headed about its approach to North Korea. Of course this comes after Rex Tillerson said nothing was off the table, military option still could be considered against North Korea.

Is Beijing concerned that the new administration could be too impulsive perhaps when it comes to North Korea?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think that would be a safe assertion, Cyril. There's one thing that the Chinese government prizes above all else and that is stability, especially when it comes to the Korean Peninsula.

So when you hear the U.S. secretary of state saying that military action against the North Korean government, led by Kim Jong-un, is a possibility, that is very alarming for President Xi Jinping and others in Beijing because they don't want to see a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

And because they don't know what the Trump administration is capable of, they cannot be sure that that is just rhetoric. They just don't know.

And so the strategy that you are going to see from China is to try to announce what these meetings in Beijing were all about, to try to figure out exactly how far the United States is willing to go. And that's what Secretary Tillerson is trying to find out as well, how

far China is willing to go to do their part in reining in the North Korean nuclear threat.

VANIER: And it's interesting, we saw the picture, just as you were speaking, of Rex Tillerson shaking the hand of Chinese president, Xi Jinping. China is getting is first face-to-face contact with the Trump administration here.

There is potential bad blood as we know after Mr. Trump's criticisms of China. Threats of a trade war, criticisms of currency manipulation on the part of China.

How do you think all that factors into the meeting?

RIPLEY: Certainly the Chinese government doesn't really know what to make of President Trump yet. You saw the meeting between Secretary Tillerson and President Xi Jinping very cordial, friendly, laying the groundwork for what we expected will be a meeting in the United States sometime next month although no official confirmation of that. And we likely won't get that for quite some time. They usually don't announce these things until shortly before those trips.

But we know that yesterday in those conversations with China's two top diplomats, they were much more frank and candid, China stating that they think the United States bears the brunt of responsibility for the escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula because of ongoing military exercises with South Korea.

The United States' view is that China simply has not done enough to rein in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, because China has the -- is really the only meaningful trading partner with Pyongyang. The U.S. wants China to do more in terms of enforcement.

And we were expecting Secretary Tillerson to say that the U.S. is prepared to sanction Chinese companies that trade with North Korea in defiance of U.N. resolutions if China doesn't do it themselves.

VANIER: Reporting from live from Beijing, Will Ripley, thank you very much.

Joining us now is Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, CNN military analyst.

Mark, first I'd like you to address the latest event coming out of North Korea, the test of a new high-thrust engine. I think to most pp, we don't want to get into the specifics what the engine is, but what it means politically and in terms of threat for the region.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, politically it has to do with their speed of being able to launch a rocket without being -- without reconnaissance, showing that it's on the launch pad or being able to be refueled.

So some of the technologies which the North Koreans are including in their rocket expansion program actually have to do with a covert method of firing missiles without being detected in advance of actually exploding the devices. So that's part of the issue.

The other piece is, when you are talking about an intercontinental ballistic missile, the types of warheads and the amount of weight that are in the missile itself have to be launched off of a pad.

And the better they can improve their technology to do that, the more accurate these systems are going to be, not only from leaving the pad but also going into the atmosphere and then hitting the target on the other side.

So all of these things, Cyril, are steps in a grogram that continue to advance there technology.

VANIER: And to be blunt, what are dangers of a possible preemptive strike?

Because that has been -- that question has been raised again.

HERTLING: Well, this was a policy that the Bush administration took during George W.'s --

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HERTLING: -- presidency, where he actually promised the potential for preemption and it caused quite a distinct stir all around the world. It was pointed primarily at both North Korea and Iran during that period of time, that if they saw potential of launching a nuclear weapon, that they would take measures to preemptively strike it.

But in the case with North Korea, the problem is if you preemptively strike the nuclear program, they have an unbelievable amount of artillery and missile rockets that can hit, conventionally, South Korea.

And as many people know, Seoul, South Korea's largest city with over 10 million people, is within artillery distance of the North Korean border. And they can strike and catastrophically kill and damage the city. Kill a lot of people and damage the city.

VANIER: Yes, Mark, and I want to leave the viewers with the map so they can visualize what that is. We're looking at the border area between North Korea and South Korea. And that heat map from red to yellow is the part of northern -- of South Korea that North Korea could easily hit with, Mark, exactly what you are mentioning, all that artillery that's amassed at the border.

Thank you very much and we --

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HERTLING: -- what I'd like to point out too, Cyril, this isn't just the South Koreans that are in Seoul. The majority of the 28,000 U.S. forces are also under that artillery potential barrage. So that's also a dangerous issue for any kind of defensive measures that the South Koreans would take. VANIER: Absolutely. And that just increases the strategic risk intention in that region. Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, thank you very much, it's always a pleasure.

HERTLING: Thank you, Cyril.

VANIER: We lost another music legend on Saturday. The father of rock 'n' roll, Chuck Berry died at the age of 90. Listen to this.

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VANIER: Berry had a career spanning more than half a century with such hits as "Sweet Little 16", "Johnny B. Goode," "Rock 'n' Roll Music." His influence in music and in performance style has been both widespread and enduring.

Music legends like Elvis and The Beatles covered his songs. Chuck Berry was one of the first inductees to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Joining me now is Segun Oduolowu, an entertainment journalist and pop culture contributor to Access Hollywood Live.

Segun, each time I talk to you, an artist has died; Prince, George Michael, David Bowie, they were all people who were just not very successful, they were also artists who broke the mold. They influenced generations of others. Tell us about Chuck Berry.

SEGUN ODUOLOWU, ENTERTAINMENT JOURNALIST: Well, Chuck Berry is an icon. And it is a pleasure to be joining you, Cyril, I wish it was under better circumstances. But Chuck Berry would have to go down as one of the godfathers if not the godfather of rock 'n' roll.

If you imagine his guitar licks, his instrumentation, hiss songwriting, influenced The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and, of course, Elvis Presley. So there is no rock 'n' roll without Chuck Berry.

VANIER: That's interesting because I was talking to the team in the control room and the team that produces the show.

And I said, hey, guys, what is your favorite song?

And some people said we're not that old.

He doesn't necessarily resonate that much with a younger generation.

ODUOLOWU: Well, I think what is lost on the younger generation is the history of music. So you don't have Led Zeppelin, Guns N' Roses, (INAUDIBLE) --

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ODUOLOWU: -- any of the bands that people love today or listen to, they don't have that without Chuck Berry. And if you've haven't seen "Back to the Future," with Michael J. Fox

doing the Chuck Berry duck walk and playing "Johnny B. Goode" in the movie, then you really haven't lived. Chuck Berry is an icon from all corners of the world. His music and the music of rock 'n' roll has spread.

VANIER: That's what's interesting. He's one of those artists, even though -- even if you don't listen to him specifically, probably what you are listening to today, there has been some influence from him.

ODUOLOWU: Absolutely. If you think about it, rock 'n' roll music is rebellious music. It's revolutionary music. And, at the time that Chuck Berry and Little Richard and other icons were just formulating this type of anger against the system and putting it into their music and telling where they came from, it speaks to everybody.

So you could be a reggae artist in Jamaica that guitar spoke to you and you get some Bob Marley music. You could be English kids and The Beatles are influenced, the Stones are influenced, The Who is influenced. You can be a white kid in California and the --

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ODUOLOWU: -- Beach Boys are hearing guitar licks from Chuck Berry and it's being woven into their music. So Chuck Berry is the fabric of rock 'n' roll. You don't have this music without him.

VANIER: Now that's fascinating. Tell me about the revolutionary rebellious side.

ODUOLOWU: Well, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, they never existed more closely than in one man. You think of those three terms. He was arrested. He had battles with substance abuse. But the music was that underlying passion and that rebellion against the system.

Chuck actually said, I lived in the middle. I never got too high, I never got too low with the career. And he was still playing shows into his 80s. So that gives you an idea about how much that music meant to him, how much it stirred his soul and, I think, kept him young.

VANIER: All right, Segun Oduolowu, we thank you so much. And I make you a promise. Next time we speak it won't be, even though this is a celebration of Chuck Berry's life, it won't be after a passing. We'll find another topic. I make that promise. Thank you very much, Segun.

Coming up after the break, a dust devil rips through Brisbane's airport. That's just one part of the crazy weather hitting Australia.

Plus it's the most exciting time of year for U.S. college basketball fans. We explain March Madness and why so many Americans are mad about it.

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VANIER: Monday will mark one of the most important days yet for the new Trump administration. FBI Director James Comey is set to testify publicly before the House Intelligence Committee. The focus of that: possible Russian meddling in last year's election, especially any Russian connections with the Trump campaign.

I spoke earlier to CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali (ph), he says, even if the FBI director is short on details, it could still be a revealing moment.

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TIMOTHY NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I suspect that Monday, we will hear a little bit about the extent to which the FBI has undertaken a counterintelligence investigation about possible U.S. assistance to the Russian active measures or deception campaign.

I don't expect a lot of detail because that's highly classified information. But I suspect we will learn a little bit about the extent of the investigation.

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VANIER: And of course, Russia is front and center of that investigation.

So how is the Kremlin, how is Moscow looking at this?

CNN's Clare Sebastian joins us live from the Russian capital.

Clare, Moscow's view on this?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Cyril, the Kremlin tell us they're busy with their own work. They're not following the hearings, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said they don't expect to see anything new, and rather colorfully calling this "a broken record with futuristic songs," essentially making the point that these accusations against Russia keep coming despite Russia's --

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SEBASTIAN: -- repeated denials that it had anything to do with meddling in the U.S. and election and that any contact between the Russians and Trump campaign or now Trump administration were anything other than the day-to-day business of diplomacy.

But I think it's fair to say when you have the FBI director testifying under oath on Capitol Hill about an investigation he is doing into Russia, that Russia will certainly be watching this.

And I think this could be uncomfortable not only for the Trump administration but also for Russia. Don't forget, we have gone here in two months from a position of high hopes that there could be an improved relationship with the U.S. under Trump to a realization that Russia is now perhaps Trump's biggest Achilles heel.

An I think that's why you see these offhand denials and dismissals of all of these accusations against Russia. And I think that's why you have also seen here in Russia a marked reduction in the amount of media coverage of the Trump administration.

They're very much trying how to distance themselves from this -- Cyril.

VANIER: All right, Clare Sebastian, thank you very much, we'll want to know if there is any reaction after that public hearing on Monday. Clare, thanks a lot.

A French prosecutor says the man behind the Saturday attack at Paris Orly airport shouted, "I'm here to die for Allah" and "there will be deaths."

French troops shot and killed the attacker after he tried to grab a soldier's rifle and put a gun to her head. He has been identified as Ziyed Ben Belgacem. It is believed the 39-year old also shot a police officer north of Paris earlier the same day. He was known to authorities and three of his relatives have been taken into custody.

China has seen an incredible urbanization of its population within the past half-century and Shanghai is the perfect example of that. And meteorologist Derek Van Dam is the perfect person to explain that story -- Derek.

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Cyril, geographers who study this phenomenon have one word to describe what is happening; incredible. Let me show you the satellite image.

We go back to 1984. This is Shanghai. See just the major metropolitan area that it is, about 12 million people. Let's fast forward about 30 to 40 years. And look at the growth to 2016. Incredible to see that urbanization taking place so quickly across China.

In fact, in 1960, about 16 percent of the population of China lived within a city; now, fast forward to current date and time and we are talking 57 percent of China's population living within the city center.

So that just shows you what is happening across that country and Shanghai is that perfect example; the urban area is 1984 was 308 square kilometers. It's now measuring just under 1,400 square kilometers. So in a mass exodus of people from more of the rural areas, moving quickly into the city center of Shanghai and other cities across China as well.

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VANIER: All right. All right. It's mid-March. This is interesting. It's mid-March. In the U.S., the month of March means madness on the basketball court. That's what it is called really, the NCAA tournament pits more than 60 of the best university teams against each other.

The surprise, on Friday, last year's champion, Villanova University has been knocked out of this year's event in just the second round by the University of Wisconsin.

So Wisconsin is where we are headed right now. Kevin Holden is the sports director at WDJT in Milwaukee. He joins us via Skype.

Look, congratulations on your win. Congratulations on your team. But, really, we got, we got to get into this why this is such a big deal because, to the international audience, March Madness means nothing.

KEVIN HOLDEN, WDJT: It's interesting, Cyril, the NCAA basketball tournament is sort of like television binge watching for the American audience. If you think about the number of teams, there are 64, really 68 to start the tournament. And in the first four days, you get almost -- well, you get every team in action at least once and some twice. So you can sit in front of the TV and watch for 12 hours. You can watch teams --

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HOLDEN: -- you've never heard before. And try to learn how to pronounce words you have never heard, like Quinnipiac, who's a --

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VANIER: -- And schools are literally showing -- are on all the time, it's showing these games.

Culturally speaking, it's college basketball. You know, and I think in many of the parts of the world, professional sports are the thing.

Yes, that's true. It is a different thing in the United States because whether you went to a university or not, you tend to identify with these teams. With pro teams, you tend to root for players some times. But in the college level, the players, they rotate, they graduate. So it's the same uniforms. But different guys wearing them.

And you tend to root more for the team than you do for the player. It's a great time of year because just like what happened with Wisconsin and Villanova, the giant team can be taken down by the little guy. You find yourself, even if you don't know the players, you find yourself rooting sometimes for the underdog.

VANIER: So Derek was just telling us his team, Michigan, made it into the bracket a couple of times. You know, having been for me in this country not very long, I don't even know what that means.

HOLDEN: OK, so there is a day. It's Selection Sunday, where they announce the entire field, and this is one of the most exciting parts of this tournament selection process. If you are a fan of a school, you are watching, you are waiting with every word.

Is my team going to get in and where will they go and who will they play against?

And the other fascinating part is you don't know where your tournament games will be. Your team, Wisconsin, great example, they were in Washington, D.C., on Sunday when their selection was made, they flew back to Wisconsin and then out to Buffalo, New York.

And for those who don't know, you're going halfway across the country twice, in a three-day stretch. So they are tired before they even play their first tournament game.

So the selection means they're one of the top 68 teams in the country. And everybody plays until there is one champion. You can't lose more than once. You lose once you are out.

VANIER: Yes, that's pretty crazy. We're looking at the bracket right now, more than 60 teams.

Another aspect of this is the betting. And the betting goes on like in offices. And not just offices. Even in Vegas. It's very serious.

HOLDEN: And the funny thing is, yes, it's serious and there are odds- makers who predict these games. But at the same time, there is a joke that, around the workplace, sometimes the person who picks the basketball teams based on the colors or based on the mascots tends to do just as well as the expert because crazy things happen.

They call it March Madness because sometimes the teams you don't expect to win will end up winning. So even though I feel like I know a little bit about basketball, sometimes I don't do well in the bracket.

VANIER: Are you winning this year, your bets?

HOLDEN: I was doing well to start today. But this sounds awful but I didn't pick Wisconsin to beat Villanova. I thought Villanova would win.

VANIER: And you said it on live TV. All right, Kevin, thank you so much for explaining it to us. Thanks a lot.

And thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I'll be back with the headlines in just a moment. Stay with us.