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Venezuela Opposition 'Has Met Military', Says Juan Guaido; U.N.: Rising Migrant Death Rate On Mediterranean; New Case Of Canadian Falling Mysteriously Sick In Cuba; Dangerous Cold Grips Parts Of U.S. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired January 31, 2019 - 02:00   ET




NICK WATT, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Nicolas Maduro holds a show of force photo-op with his soldiers as his opponent announces he has held secret meetings with members of the Venezuelan army.

Trump versus his experts: the U.S. president picked them to lead his intelligence teams But now Trump saying they should go back to school. We'll tell you why.

Plus Brexit uncertainty: E.U. lawmakers are refusing to renegotiate the Irish backstop.

What on Earth does Theresa May do next? We're live in Downing Street.

Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us from around the world. I'm Nick Watt and this is CNN NEWSROOM.


WATT: The battle for control of Venezuela is fast becoming a battle for the hearts and minds of the country's soldiers. Embattled President Nicolas Maduro rallied with troops on Wednesday. He appears to still have the support of the top generals.

But a number of army defectors are apparently now siding with opposition leader Juan Guaido, who wrote an op-ed in "The New York Times," stating, "The transition will require support from key military contingents. We have had clandestine meetings with members of the armed forces and the security forces.

"We have offered amnesty to all those who are found not guilty of crimes against humanity. The military's withdrawal of support from Mr. Maduro is crucial."

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh has more from neighboring Colombia.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It was one of many that will probably come but Wednesday's protests were smaller than the week before. Noisy all the same. Amplified globally by President Donald Trump, who personally telephoned self-declared interim president and opposition leader Juan Guaido just beforehand to offer support.


WALSH: Solid support and recognition, he said, to the Venezuelan constitution, something very important, few Trump and more presidents in the world, something being discussed now in Europe.

But Guaido has a long road ahead to turn the cause of international recognition and support into actual governing. Trump officials have met with opposition appointed diplomats in D.C. and say Guaido now has control over eventually billions of Venezuelan state funds frozen under sanctions in the United States.

But how on Earth he will actually get his hands on them or use them in the country to provide humanitarian aid to the hungry is not clear.

Embattled president Nicolas Maduro did what he could to appear in control Wednesday on a walkabout with the very military elites keeping him in power.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking Spanish).

WALSH (voice-over): And delivering a stark response to the White House's talk of all options being on the table.

"We won't allow a Vietnam in Latin America," he said. "If the U.S. intends to intervene against us, they will get a Vietnam worse than they could have imagined."

The U.S. has dangled the prospect of military action conspicuously in public view. National security advisor John Bolton's note to self to send 5,000 troops to Colombia, bluntly raising the temperature, whether real or faked.

Yet the Trump administration admits it hadn't heard of Guaido a month ago. And its hastily conjured vision of Venezuela's future still hasn't found a way to turn the opposition government they recognize into something real on the ground.

They must deal with the urgent and real starvation and poverty of millions that it will increasingly own that more inserts itself into Venezuela's future -- Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Bogota.



WATT: Let's some much-needed perspective on the protests and the developments in Venezuela with Brett Bruen. He is the former director of global engagement at the White House under President Obama and he joins us now from Washington. So, Brett, Maduro is claiming that the U.S. interest here is oil, that Trump wants Venezuelan oil and he is saying that this is going to become some sort of South American Vietnam. I mean, what is the Trump administration's motivation. This is not an administration really famed for an altruistic foreign policy.

BRETT BRUEN, PRESIDENT, THE GLOBAL SITUATION ROOM: No, it isn't. And this quite frankly, I would say even as an alum of the Obama White House is a bright spot --


BRUEN: -- in what is otherwise a pretty bleak Trump foreign policy. They're talking about issues like human rights and democracy here.

And Maduro's attempt at portraying this is some effort to take Venezuelan oil I think is quite tired and most of the world sees through those arguments because he is standing on top of human misery. I mean, we're talking about a country that has rapidly move down the human development charts in the last several years as he and his military officers have enrich themselves.

WATT: There were diplomats, Guaido diplomats in Washington today who met with some Trump officials. Let's just hear a little bit of what Carlos Vecchio, one of them had to say to Christiane Amanpour a little bit earlier.


VECCHIO: In my view, the majority of the military forces are with us. They are just stop by small elite on the top of the military institution, but at the end of the day they are Venezuelans there. They have family. They are suffering the same thing that we are suffering as ordinary people.

So, at the end of day in my view, with this pressure there that we are putting on the streets from our institution of the national assembly and from the international community. I hope they can just be there in the right side and support what our constitution says.


WATT: So, Brett, is Carlos Vecchio right, is the army the key to all of this?

BRUEN: The army is playing a key role. But I would also add that up until now, whether it is Guaido's government or the United States and the international community that they're standing with. We've heard a lot of words. Now is the moment to show. We need to see action. We need to see the results of what the international community Juan Guaido is able to deliver.

So, that will be a key factor in the coming hours and days is whether or not some of the tangible elements of what they are discussing are going to be born out in international aid, in other changes within the military officers that are starting to peel off. Because right now, while it is comforting to hear that officers have sympathy for Guaido we need to see it.

WATT: And finally, just quickly. How do you think this is going to play out, is Maduro going to successfully claim to power at this time?

BRUEN: I think that every day that passes Juan Guaido is still able to command people out in the streets is a more likely scenario that he will eventually take power. I think Maduro's days are numbered.

WATT: Brett joining us from Washington, we really appreciate your insights and your time. Thanks a lot.

BRUEN: Thank you.


WATT: The U.K. Parliament wants prime minister Theresa May to go back to Brussels again to somehow get a better Brexit deal. The big issue is the so-called backstop provision that would keep the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland wide open, even after Britain breaks away.

But E.U. leaders are lining up to reiterate: the Brexit deal is not for renegotiation. It is done, it's put to bed, take it or leave it.


JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER, PRESIDENT, EUROPEAN COMMISSION: The withdrawal agreement remains the best and only deal possible. The European Union said so in November. We said so in December. We said so after the first meaningful vote in the Commons in January.

The debate and votes in the House of Commons yesterday do not change that. The --


JUNCKER: -- withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated.


WATT: Our Nina dos Santos joining us now, live from Downing Street.

Nina, does Theresa May have any cards to play?

It seems that everybody is lining up to say, it is done and we're not going to talk.

What can Theresa May do to try and break this impasse?

NINA DOS SANTOS, CNNMONEY EUROPE EDITOR: It's unclear for the moment that appealing to the E.U., that has made it particularly clear, saying this agreement is not open to big concessions or any kind of rewriting. She can appeal to domestically to members of the opposition Labour

Party who thus far refuse to come to the table until she took no deal off the table. Now we have seen in the earlier part of the week is these amendments passing that essentially doesn't bind the house to committing to a no deal but will encourage Parliament to understand -- or the government to understand that Parliament wants to prevent a no deal.

But this contentious issue of the Northern Ireland backstop is still a thorn in everyone's side. We see potentially eurosceptics in the Conservative Party, seeing that as a big victory and that could help to bounce the U.K. into a hard Brexit scenario.

If neither the E.U. or the U.K. moves between now and March 29th, that's the default situation. In the meantime, Theresa May, according to "The Times" has already started talks with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, and potentially offered him some domestic spending help in parts of the U.K. that require extra financial support to spend domestically to try to extract concessions from him of other types or versions or her deal that could go through.

Timetable wise, the prime minister is set to brief the house by February 13th on where she plans to go from here. There's still members of her own party or pro-European as well as those anti- European. And we're likely to see in the newspapers some fighting it out between cabinet members in the Conservative Party, between the pro- and anti-European factions as this situation remains unclear.

WATT: Theresa May has been criticized over the past few months for not reaching across the aisle to the Labour Party and other MPs earlier.

Has she perhaps learned the lesson?

Some people were saying Jeremy Corbyn should forget about trying to get her out of office and that politicians in that ancient Parliament should just band together and try and do what is best for the country.

Is there any sign we'll see some unity for the good of the country rather than each politician fighting for their own political end?

DOS SANTOS: That would be great in theory if, for instance, you didn't have many disparate groups and different parties, including the Labour Party, that has had its own soul searching on the issue of Brexit, not least because its leader is pitted against the party membership in terms of euroscepticism.

Jeremy Corbyn is no fan of the E.U. and he has staunchly refused to call a second to back the court for a second referendum outright, even though his party would be for that. We have many different groups of politicians on all sides of the aisle, tugging in different directions.

This is why this week's set of amendments was so crucial. It at least gave the government and the house some direction as to where the majorities and the numbers could stack up. A lot of this is made extremely complicated by the fact that Theresa

May called a snap election back in 2015, an ill-fated one, and she lost the majority as a result. So the government itself relies on the support of the Northern Irish party, which itself has some very, very strong misgivings about how to avoid -- about the current deals the E.U. has put on the table for resolving Brexit and how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

In theory, it would be great if some groups of politicians find direction in this Brexit impasse. But as you said, with so many people in different directions, sometimes for their own political ambitions, remember we have seen a vote of confidence in Theresa May's leadership, which she won. She's in power for the next, at least, the Conservative Party for the next 12 months.

But ruptures of a leadership contest could start again further on in this year. And so, for this reason, it is difficult to see which collective --


DOS SANTOS: -- direction a lot of these MPs could pull together and, at the same time, on the other hand, the E.U. is staying staunch in its negotiating position and saying we had 2.5 years to negotiate this and this is the position we came to. It is not up for renegotiation, at least not substantially.

WATT: Nina dos Santos in Downing Street, thank you very much for your time.

Now, next, go back to school. Donald Trump's advice to his intelligence chiefs after he they publicly contradicted him about some of the greatest threats facing the U.S.

Plus the U.S. Treasury Secretary under fire for his effort to lift some sanctions on Russia; a possible Kremlin connection?

Just ahead.




WATT: The U.S. Justice Department says Moscow is meddling in and apparently trying to discredit Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The Justice Department documents shared with defense attorneys in one case against a Russian company were apparently doctored then leaked online as part of this disinformation campaign to discredit Mueller and his team.

President Trump spent his Wednesday insulting his handpicked intelligence chiefs after they openly contradicted him on critical national security matters and now the U.S. president is also dealing with a major blow to his promise for new U.S. manufacturing jobs. Here's Kaitlan Collins with more from the White House.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: (voice-over): Tonight, President Trump is blasting the nation's top intelligence chiefs as passive and naive after they publicly contradicted him while testifying on Capitol Hill.

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: We do not believe Iran is currently undertaking activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.

ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.

We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities.

COLLINS: On Twitter, Trump telling his own spy chiefs, "Go back to school," after they said North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons and that for now Iran isn't taking steps to produce a nuclear weapon. Trump insisting they are wrong about Iran, North --


COLLINS (voice-over): -- Korea and ISIS.

The sharp rebuke deepening the divide between what the president tells the nation and what his intelligence officials tell him.

TRUMP: I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.

COLLINS: This as a new report from the "Financial Times" claims Trump came face to face with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in November, chatting privately for 15 minutes with no U.S. translator or note taker present, just first lady Melania Trump and Putin's translator.

The White House isn't denying the report but tells CNN Trump merely reiterated to Putin why he cancelled their formal meeting at the summit, due to tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Asked if Trump's private conversation put the intelligence community at a disadvantage, the director of national intelligence said he'd rather answer behind closed doors.

COATS: Well, Senator, clearly this is a sensitive issue and it's an issue that we ought to talk about this afternoon. I look forward to discussing that in a closed session.

COLLINS: Meantime, the president has a warning for a group of bipartisan lawmakers meeting for the first time today in hopes of avoiding another government shutdown, tweeting that they're wasting their time if they don't factor in his demand for border wall money.

A Democratic lawmaker involved in the talks drawing a line in the sand today.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: If it's called a fence, does that change it for you?


COLLINS: Democrats may not be reversing course, but a technology company that claimed it would create thousands of manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin is.

TRUMP: They wouldn't have done it here, except that I became president, so that's good.

COLLINS: Foxconn now saying it will build a technology hub instead of the factory full of blue-collar jobs it promised the president.

TRUMP: As Foxconn has discovered, there is no better place to build, hire and grow than right here in the United States.

COLLINS: Trump touted the move as proof he was making good on his campaign promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. But now, Foxconn will make LCD panels overseas before shipping them here.

The president can't control the actions of a private company. Trump repeatedly tied the actions to what he promised on the trail and bring manufacturing jobs in the United States. We asked several hours ago for the president's response to the story and they have not gotten back to us yet -- Kaitlan Collins, CNN, the White House.



WATT: Joining me now is David Sanger, he is a CNN political and national security analyst. He's also a national security correspondent for the New York Times. David, Donald Trump doubling down on disagreement with his intelligence chiefs. He's tweeting calling them passive and naive and saying that they should go back to school.

Listen, Dan Coats was an ambassador to Germany. He served in the Senate intelligence committee. Gina Haspel served in the CIA for 34 years. Donald Trump is a former real estate developer and reality show barker. Why is he doing this?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: A couple of reasons. First of all, it's worth noting that of all of the intelligence chiefs that were testifying for the 2019 worldwide threat assessment, every one of them was now appointed by President Trump.

So, it's not as these were holdovers from the administration who were engage in some deep state effort of subterfuge against his policies.

The second is, I think the president has a fundamental misunderstanding of what the intelligence community's job is. It is not to come up with intelligence to support a policy that the president has already settled on. Instead, it's to give objective intelligence and assessments of what threats are, what countries are doing.

And then the president can choose to pay attention to that, to ignore it, to take a policy in a different direction, but you're not supposed to go bend the assessment in order to fit the policy. He's supposed to provide an unvarnished assessment and then let the chips fall where they may on a policy. So, what the president has done here is on the Iran case, the

intelligence agencies have said what they have always said, which is, there is no evidence that Iran is violating any of the commitments have made within the four corners of the nuclear agreement. Missiles are outside that agreement.

And the president instead comes back and says they're naive but he doesn't have any evidence.

WATT: So, that's Iran. Let's move on to Russia as we so often do when we're talking about Trump. There were couple of things today. There was a filing from the special counsel suggesting that --


WATT: -- some documents that they had given to defense attorneys have been doctored and then posted on the internet in an attempt to kind of delegitimize the Mueller probe.

I mean, that surely reaffirms what Dan Coats have been saying that Russia was a threat, is a threat and will continue to be a threat.

SANGER: I thought the most interesting part of the Coats testimony and the underlying report was its working assumption that the kind of data manipulation and influence operations we saw on 2016 are nothing compared to what's coming. An era where you can use artificial intelligence and other techniques to help you make deep fakes, to alter documents, to alter photographs, to create basically an alternative reality.

And that was the most scary part in some ways of the testimony. And almost as if to prove it the special counsel then steps up with this mysterious case of alteration of some documents before they're posted.

And you know, you are going to see a lot more of this between now and the 2020 election.

WATT: And still on Russia, there was a Financial Times report today that at the G20 late last year President Trump met again with Vladimir Putin with only Putin's translator and Melania there.

SANGER: Right.

WATT: Listen, you've been covering this kind of thing for a long time. How unusual and how potentially dangerous is that?

SANGER: Well, it is unusual because it looks like the president does out of his way to seek the use of social events where you don't normally have a notetaker with you. To stop off and rather than just exchange pleasantries with Putin he gets involved in deeper discussions.

This happened in Hamburg in 2017. And we now know it happened in Helsinki in 2018. Now, there were some witnesses to that, Melania, obviously, his wife. But relying on the Russian translator and not having a notetaker is dangerous if you move beyond questions like, how's the weather in Moscow this time of year.

So, this pattern of setting up these discussions outside of the ordinary diplomatic structure where there would be translator's note takers and so forth is beginning to look a little bit suspicious.

WATT: David Sanger joining us from Washington, we appreciate your time. Thanks a lot.

SANGER: Thank you.


WATT: Donald Trump's approval rating with voters may be in the mid- 30s but, according to the White House press secretary, he's got the blessing of a higher authority.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times. And I think that he wanted Donald Trump to become president. And that's why he's there. And I think he has done a tremendous job in -- in supporting a lot of the things that -- that people of faith really care about.


WATT: Sarah Sanders at the Christian Broadcasting Network. She also scoffed at the notion that a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico is immoral and saying it is the president's duty to protect Americans.

Under deadline for a trade deal, negotiators from the U.S. and China try to reach an agreement before more tariffs go into effect.


[02:31:10] WATT: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Nick Watt with the headlines we're following this hour. In a New York Times op-ed, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido claims that he didn't arbitrarily declare himself interim president. He claims he's just following the country's constitution which calls for the president of the National Assembly to take power if there is no elected head of state.

And Guaido says that President Nicolas Maduro's reelection last year was illegitimate. Guaido is now appealing for support from his country's military leaders to topple Maduro. And the U.K. Parliament wants Prime Minister Theresa May top go back to Brussels one more time and try to get the E.U. to budge on the so-called backstop created to keep the Irish border open. But E.U. bigwigs insist it's too late. The backstop is now nonnegotiable. The impasse could make a potentially messy no deal Brexit more likely.

U.S. President Donald Trump is lashing out at his own intelligence chiefs suggesting they should go back to school. Mr. Trump is on the defensive after his top officials contradicted his assessment of security threats including ISIS, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The White House says that President Trump is to meet with the Chinese vice premier Thursday as both countries try to reach a trade deal. Negotiations -- negotiators, I'm sorry, have been meeting facing a deadline that's just a month away.

U.S. tariffs on $280 billion of Chinese goods are set to jump from 10 to 25 percent on March the 1st. But both sides are under pressure. Beijing's economy is slowing. And in D.C., the congressional budget office says that tariffs are cutting into the U.S. GDP. For more in this let's go to Steven Jiang in Beijing. Steven, how is looking? Are they going to reach a deal?

STEVEN JIANG, CNN BEIJING SENIOR PRODUCER: Well, you know, behind all of the smiles and plight exchange of pleasantries you have seen, there was this stark realization that they have to make progress because of the reasons you mentioned. And I think there is a sense of cautious optimism because there is enough political will from both sides to see this deal through. But right now, there are still a lot to be done because there remains this wide gap between the two sides on a number of long standing issues particularly from the U.S. perspective.

The Americans have made clear they want to see more than just Chinese offers of buying more U.S. products and goods because they really want to see structural changes in the Chinese economy. We are talking about Chinese subsidies industries and the alleged Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property for example. But these are very difficult issues to be resolved quickly because some of them actually touch on the fundamental belief of this government of this ruling Communist party here in terms of how they view the economy should be run.

But we are seeing some hopeful signs. Lawmakers here have just finished the second reading of the new foreign investment law which addresses a number of long time U.S. demands such as offering better protection to foreign investors and treating foreign companies equally as their Chinese counterparts and banning the forced foreign technology transfers to Chinese partners. Now, what's the key here, of course, is verification because a lot these promises the Chinese had made in the past, but only to fail to follow through with concrete actions.

That's why the American negotiators say one key part of the current talks is to come up with these verification system mechanisms to ensure the latest pledges from China are not just empty talk, Nick.

[02:35:00] WATT: Steven, thanks as always. Now, a second summit between President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un is expected late next month. The North's top nuclear negotiator was in Washington recently and the White House has been saying that progress was made. But sources tell CNN not so fast. Here's Michelle Kosinski of the State Department.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: It was extraordinary to see North Korea's top negotiator Kim Yong-chol come here to Washington. He met with State Department people. He had this big meeting with President Trump at the White House. He then went back to the State Department to have more meetings. And in this, you know, what we get is a read-out from the State Department saying that there were good discussions on efforts to meet the commitments that were made to denuclearize.

The White House said that denuclearization did come up in these meetings. They talked about progress. It's just that when they're pressed on what progress means, you tend to get the same old answers that, well, North Korea hasn't launch a missile in more than a year and they're still talking to us. But that's not progress towards denuclearization. So what we have here are sources saying these meetings went absolutely nowhere on denuclearization.

Yes, they talked about the upcoming Trump-Kim Summit that is supposed to be at the end of February. But, you know, this administration is going to get a lot of criticism again for having another high-profile meeting between the President of the United States and the dictator of North Korea without any preconditions and without any advancement towards denuclearization on the part of North Korea.

WATT: Now, ahead of that second summit, we're also learning that the North Korean leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin might be forming a closer alliance that's one that could potentially pose an even greater threat to U.S. interests. Our Brian Todd has the details on that.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: New indications that two of America's most dangerous adversaries Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un could be teaming up. Russian officials says North Korean representatives have been in Moscow this week discussing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That's been such a prominent initiative for President Trump. And Putin deputy foreign minister says a possible visit by Kim to Moscow is, "On the agenda." But he didn't mention a specific date.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think they're both a little paranoid about regime change being perpetrated on them by the United States and the international community. A regime survival I think is their number one motivation. I think they both are trying to reduce U.S. military presence in Northeast Asia.

TODD: Meantime, the Washington Post reports that Putin's government made a secret offer to North Korea this past fall. Russia offering to build a nuclear power plant for North Korea if Kim's regime would dismantle its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Post says it's not clear how the North Korean's responded or if the offer is still being negotiated. A top Russian diplomat denies an offer was made. But experts wouldn't put it pass the former KGB colonel in the Kremlin. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vladimir Putin of course would love to insert

himself right into the middle of the North Korea talks especially at such a crucial moment for Donald Trump. Russia likes nothing more than remind the world that the United States is not the only global super power. This seems to me a classic Vladimir Putin move.

TODD: Neither the White House, the State Department, nor the CIA are commenting on the Post report. The Kim dynasty has a longstanding relationship with the Kremlin, an alliance that always worked against American interests. Kim's father and grandfather both took long trips to Moscow on board armored trains much like the one Kim has traveled on to China. Now, experts warn of how a new alliance between Kim and Putin could work against America.

They could share intelligence against the U.S. and other capabilities.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The North Koreans, you know, do have tremendous skills when it comes to cyber. They are using Russian technology (INAUDIBLE) technology to develop their missile program and that could conceivably be a renewed cooperation in that area.


TODD: But analysts have their words of caution for Kim Jong-un. They say if Kim's diplomatic dance with Donald Trump breaks down and Kim returns to his threatening posture against the U.S., he likely won't be able to count on Putin or the Chinese to completely back him up. Brian Todd, CNN Washington.

WATT: Now, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is of course looking into the Trump campaign and those alleged links to Russia during the 2016 election. But Democrats in Congress are also interested in the president's current cabinet and possible Kremlin connections. CNN's Sunlen Serfaty reports.


SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Democrats on Capitol Hill are ratcheting up pressure on Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin zeroing on his own alleged ties to Russia after the Treasury Department formally ease sanctions on Russian companies this weekend.

[02:40:07] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The conflict of interest is there.

SERFATY: Mnuchin hit with four letters in one day from Democrats in the House and Senate raising what they call alarming potential conflicts of interest regarding that decision. That issue whether Mnuchin has a connection to the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska who has close ties to Vladimir Putin. The U.S. has sanctioned Deripaska's companies last year in a move to punish the Kremlin for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Among those companies were sanctions now lifted by Mnuchin who saw an aluminum manufacturer who shareholders include a deep pocketed American Republican donor Len Blavatnik who Mnuchin has a personal history with reportedly investing in Mnuchin's film company and even hosting Mnuchin on his yacht according to the letters.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This suggests to me that there was never an intention to impose sanctions on these companies around Deripaska. It was done because the pressure got very hot and the administration had taken no action on the legislation pass by Congress.



SERFATY: Democrats writing to Mnuchin demanding an explanation as to how you manage your own potential conflicts of interests arising from your personal and professional relationship with Blavatnik. The Treasury Department firing back calling the Democrats suggestion of conflict of interest baseless saying Mnuchin had no direct business relationship with Mr. Blavatnik. It's not the first time a multi- millionaire with deep his ties to Hollywood has raised eyebrows.

Mnuchin was cleared of wrongdoing after taking a military plan to Kentucky during the solar eclipse famously posed with his wife at the mint with dollar bills bearing his signature. All these as Mnuchin is still putting off calls to testify on Capitol Hill. One of three cabinet secretaries to do so lately.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a question of what they're trying to hide but they can only do that for so long because Congress has subpoena power and they will be subpoenaed.


SERFATY: Here in Capitol Hill, tell me this increased attention on Steven Mnuchin is another indication on how they intend to hold the administration's feet to the fire so to speak with their new found power in the House. Sunlen Serfaty, CNN on Capitol Hill.

WATT: Political decisions are adding to a grim toll. That is according to the latest U.N. report on migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Plus, why the Canadian government is reducing its diplomatic staff in Cuba after another staffer mysteriously falls ill.


[02:45:24] WATT: Italy's Prime Minister has decided to allow migrants who've been blocked at sea to come ashore. 47 migrants have been on a -- or the rescue ship for 11 days. They were picked up off the Libyan coast. Seven European countries have agreed to accept some of them.

Italy's government closed its ports to humanitarian vessels in an attempt to force European Union partners to take in more migrants. The U.N. says policies like Italy's are contributing to a rising number of deaths of those trying to cross the Mediterranean. But at this point, a unified European approach to migration remains elusive. Simon Cullen reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SIMON CULLEN, CNN FIELD PRODUCER: These are the lucky ones. Rescued from the Mediterranean, this group of asylum seekers was eventually taken to European shores. Many others though, don't make it.

New figures from the U.N.'s refugee agency showed the death rate among migrants trying to reach Europe by boat increased again last year.

FILIPPO GRANDI, COMMISSIONER OF THE UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES: Six people per day on average lost their lives in the Mediterranean.

CULLEN: In total, nearly 117,000 people made the crossing. It's estimated 2,275 people died.

GRANDI: This in itself, in my opinion, is something that should make all Europeans reflect.

CULLEN: The UNHCR warns the high death rate is likely to continue. Given the cuts to search and rescue operations, and the decision by some Mediterranean countries most notably, Italy, to close their ports to rescue ships.

The U.N.'s report is yet another reminder if it was needed of the deepening divisions within Europe over how to deal with migrants. For the past few years, the European Commission has been trying to broker a solution to ease the pressure on front-line countries along the Mediterranean. The only problem, other countries like Austria and Hungary are refusing to agree.

VIKTOR ORBAN, PRIME MINISTER OF HUNGARY (through translator): The Hungarian position is well known. Only we, should decide who we live alongside. We do not support migrant quotas.

CULLEN: The European Commissioner for migration acknowledges there's no clear path ahead, but will keep trying to forge a consensus.

DIMITRIS AVRAMOPOULOS, COMMISSIONER FOR MIGRATION, EUROPEAN UNION: So it has become a huge political issue that is dividing Europe right now. And our role is to put together all these contradictory elements. I can tell you, it is not easy.

CULLEN: What's making his task even more difficult is the growing anti-migration sentiment in parts of Europe.

ORBAN: It is Hungary's goal for anti-immigration forces to be in the majority in every institution within the European Union.

AVRAMOPOULOS: We are against this approach. I have repeatedly said that the European Union stands for its principles. We do not want to see a fortress Europe.

CULLEN: But it might all be too late. With European parliamentary election scheduled for May, the tide of public opinion may soon demand changes to how the continent deals with migrants. Simon Cullen, CNN, London.


WATT: Now, a marathon church service in the Netherlands has prevented a family from being deported. The family of five from Armenia had requested asylum but was denied. The church helped them take advantage of a Dutch law that blocks police from entering a church during a religious service. The church held services continuously for 96 days. While the family sheltered inside in the end, the Dutch government struck a deal to reassess asylum applications from families who are already in the country.

And another diplomat has mysteriously fallen ill in Cuba. In the past two years, a number of U.S. diplomats have reports dizziness, insomnia, and other issues, after reportedly hearing a mysterious high-pitched sound. Canada is now confirming its 14th case of "unusual health symptoms" amongst diplomatic staff and their families at the Embassy in Havana. CNN's Patrick Oppmann is in the Cuban capital with more.

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Canada says it will order about half of the diplomats serving in Havana, the embassy here home. Following another case of a Canadian diplomat complaining of mysterious health symptoms. Both the U.S. and Canada, have said that their diplomats here have gotten sick for about the last two years. Some of them undergoing symptoms experiencing -- symptoms that are consistent with a concussion like hearing loss, memory loss, dizziness, and fatigue.

But the cause of these symptoms is still unexplained. The U.S. has even accused Cuba of being involved or covering up attacks on their diplomats possibly using sonic weapons.

Canada which has a very good relations with Cuba over million Canadian tourists come to the island each year has taken a different route. But as the cases continue to mount up, to continue to climb, now 14 cases. Canada says it needs to remove some of its diplomats because they are just no longer safe here.

The Cuban government says they have no role in any of this, it is a total mystery to them that they would not allow attacks or any kind of a dangerous situation to take place on the island, and the diplomats are protected here. But the diplomats continue to say that they are experiencing these symptoms. These are not symptoms that they are imagining, that there is a medical proof showing that they are experiencing these health symptoms. And for the government of Canada, at least, for its diplomats, Cuba is no longer safe. Patrick Oppmann, CNN, Havana.

[02:51:20] WATT: Now, the Cuban ambassador to Canada is calling out to his decision to cut the embassy staff in Havana incomprehensible. And she says that it will hurt diplomatic relations. Josefina Vidal went on to say that "It is well known that some individuals with high- level positions within U.S. foreign policy are trying very hard to create a climate of bilateral tension seeking to portray our country as a threat."

And a cautionary tale, not everything you see on the Internet is real. Take the University of Farmington. Looking at the web site, it seems like a nice place to get your college degree but it's fake, doesn't exist.

It was created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a sting to lure and catch people staying in the U.S. illegally by claiming to be students. You could say that the final exam in operation paper chase was carried out Wednesday, across the U.S. Eight so-called recruiters who got hundreds of immigrants to enroll at the fake school were charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit. Dozens of the phony students were also arrested.

And at one point on Wednesday, the temperature was below freezing in eighty percent of the United States. Ahead, a look at how people are handling this record-setting cold, and when things might start to fall-out.


WATT: More than 200 million people in the U.S. are right now shivering under a so-called polar vortex. At one point on Wednesday, more than 80 percent of the country was below freezing. The dangerous cold blamed for, at least, nine deaths this week as record lows are being shattered across the Midwest.

On Lake Michigan in Chicago, the surface temperature dropped to minus 30 degrees Celsius. With a thick layer of steam building above the water. Some in Chicago are trying to have fun with it all. Go to a bar, get some food coloring and boiling water and the result, some really colorful snow. And watch what happened when one guy in Chicago tried to take a shower.


[02:55:07] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Polar vortex, Chicago, 2019. Just took a shower and the steam froze around where the leaks are in my front door.


WATT: Up in Minnesota, a handful of runners' brave or reckless, take your pick, finished an ultra-marathon race in temperatures dozens of digits below freezing. Only slivers of skin exposed faces encased in ice. And finally, a look at New York City, and the time-lapse video of a snow squall moving across the Big Apple.

Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri joins us with more. Pedram, how is it looking out there?

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, CNN INTERNATIONAL METEOROLOGIST: You know it's still pretty cold. We've got a few more hours to go here as we peek across some of these areas, Nick, but finally going to see a warming trend here, at least, going through Friday and eventually Saturday across portions of the Midwest.

And still looking at 30-45 below zero wind chills across some of these areas. Just a little bit warmer than this time yesterday. But these temperatures minus 40, minus 50 reports of people saying they are hearing a hissing sound when they breathe. Kind of sounds like a snake as that breath comes out of their lungs into the atmosphere there.

And a frost quake event taking place in some of these areas as well. Probably a term you haven't heard of very often. Because it takes extreme conditions to cause this but if you've got moisture beneath your feet and the soil beneath your feet and these temps get down to the 40 and 50 below range, they can actually permeate the far enough down to where the moisture is, cause that moisture to freeze and expand and get kind of a popping sound, a rumble to it -- with it all across that region could happen in a very localized area.

But people have reported this in the past 24 hours across the Midwestern United States. So, again, speaks to the severity of this as it now shifts on in towards the Northeastern United States. But disruptions abound upwards of 6,500 flights either canceled or delayed. These are all pre-emptive flights for Thursday, and it's a Thursday afternoon. And Chicago airports in part of 2,100 of those flights being disrupted with the extreme temps across that region.

But notice this, 23 below in Philly, 26 below in New York City that is right now. This is the heart of the cold for them over the next 12 hours as conditions are expected to warm up beyond that. So, you notice Friday warm up a little bit to minus four. By Saturday, three above. By Sunday, seven above, which is well above average.

So, at least, it is going to be short-lived and Chicago also break out the shorts and t-shirts and I bet a lot of people are going to when you go from minus 30 to about eight degrees by Saturday and Sunday. Nick?

WATT: Thanks a lot, Pedram. And to all of you out there. Thanks for joining us. I'm Nick Watt. I'll be back with another hour of news in just a moment. You're watching CNN.