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Humanitarian Aid Showdown in Venezuela; Russia Investigation; R. Kelly Turns Himself In; Nigerian Polls Open; Russia Threats to U.S.; Catholic Conference on Clergy Sex Abuse; 2019 Academy Awards. Aired 4-5a ET

Aired February 23, 2019 - 04:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The president of Venezuela vowing to block aid from getting past his border. But opposition supporters aren't listening as they prepare to face the blockade head- on.

Plus, an American R&B singer, R. Kelly, denied accusations of sexual abuse for years. Now he faces multiple charges as alleged victims wonder if justice will be served.

Also ahead, the owner of New England Patriots facing charges of soliciting prostitution snared as part of a trafficking crackdown in the state of Florida.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, we want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm George Howell. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


HOWELL: 4:00 am on the U.S. East Coast.

We start with Venezuela's humanitarian crisis. In a few hours' time, the opposition will try to bring food and medicine from neighboring countries into Venezuela. The president, Maduro, is vowing to stop it. Despite shortages in his country, he says the aid is not needed. The vice president says it's poisoned and carcinogen.

Venezuela's has closed the country's border with Colombia and Brazil where aid is being stacked, ready for delivery. The standoff near Brazil's border has become deadly. Officials say at least two people were killed there and 17 hurt when Venezuelan troops opened fire.

The U.N. secretary general called on Venezuela not to use lethal force. In the near term at Venezuela's border with Colombia, two concerts were held, a pro-opposition event in Colombia on the right side and a pro-Maduro one on the other side in Venezuela.

Our Nick Paton Walsh spoke with a sponsor of the pro-opposition concert, Richard Branson. Here's what he had to say. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Juan Guaido was initially keen on this happening, it was his idea, right?

RICHARD BRANSON, VIRGIN FOUNDER: Yes, and then we had a discussion and we tried to think what would be the best way to open the bridge and get humanitarian aid in. We are hoping that the army standing on that bridge will hear the music and that, tomorrow, when people bring white roses to those people on the bridge, that they'll let the much- needed supplies in.

WALSH: A million people on the other side, potentially as many here; the Venezuelan military saying they will prevent aid from getting across. (INAUDIBLE) security forces in, too. There's a lot that could go wrong.

BRANSON: There's always things that can go wrong in life. Nobody is going to try to force the bridge and --


WALSH: But they might do.

Would you oppose that if they did?

BRANSON: No, Juan Guaido is handling that side of things. We're just handling a concert. We're handling the need for humanitarian aid. Juan Guaido will then take over tomorrow and he'll handle trying to get humanitarian aid into his country.

And that is something which we are not part of.

WALSH: So after this, are you done with Venezuela or are you going to stay until the end?


BRANSON: If the bridge doesn't open tomorrow, you'll get fed up seeing us until humanitarian aid gets into the country.


HOWELL: Richard Branson speaking there.

The opposition leader, Juan Guaido, attended the concert in Colombia, despite being under a travel ban. We'll talk about that and more with Rory Carroll. Rory is a correspondent for "The Guardian" newspaper and wrote a book on former Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez.

Rory, thank you for your time.

RORY CARROLL, "THE GUARDIAN": Good morning. Thank you for having me.

HOWELL: As people from the Colombian side of the border approach Venezuela, the military on that side, the guards standing by watch, what do you expect to happen?

What do you expect to see as opposition tries to bring across this aid to Venezuela?

R. CARROLL: What we are seeing is a combustible game of chicken, where the two sides raise the stakes extremely to fever pitch. We just have to see who blinks first.

Clearly, it's a test of strength of both sides and we need to see whether the military, everything hinges on the Venezuelan military and what they are going to do to fracture and defections and a cascade of defections to the opposition. We have not seen that yet.


R. CARROLL: So at the moment, it looks to be in favor of Maduro and the government. I think they have lost the public relations battle. But they do retain the guns and the power in Venezuela. So this game of chicken at the time being, seems to be favoring the government.

HOWELL: Will there be sharp resistance, do you think or openings in the strategy?

R. CARROLL: It's such a fluid situation. Really, anything could happen. I mean, we have seen already in the past few days, people have died and this could very swiftly escalate. The government senses an existential threat. So it could feel the need to pull out all the stops and try to (INAUDIBLE) representation.

And the opposition I think also feels that the clock, in some ways, is against them. So they have brought this deadline on themselves to try to reach a crunch point, in which case, there will be a cascade of events in their favor.

That's why they are putting all their eggs in this basket.

The question is, the opposition and their backers in the United States and elsewhere, is there a plan B?

What happens if the Venezuelan military don't change sides?

It's unclear to me whether there really is a plan B. We could then enter with the opposition, a dangerous phase where they would lose momentum. The opposition doesn't want to lose momentum. They are really hoping there will be a breakthrough of sorts in the next few days.

The question is, if that happens, will there be violence and, if so, how much?

HOWELL: Of course, we have to see what this means.

If the aid is able to get into Venezuela, what will that mean for Maduro?

If it's not able to get in, what will it mean for Juan Guaido? Rory Carroll, thank you for your time.

Now to the Russia investigation. We are still waiting for an important part of Robert Mueller's probe, a key deadline regarding the sentencing recommendation for Paul Manafort came and went several hours ago.

That filing, concerning Donald Trump's former campaign chair, is expected to outline facts prosecutors believe the judge should consider when sentencing Manafort next month.

It deals with charges to which Manafort has pleaded guilty, including conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct justice. It's possible prosecutors sent the document to the judge but did not make it public.

In the meantime, the Justice Department says special counsel Robert Mueller will not release his final report next week as previously indicated. U.S. attorney general William Barr will get the first look at that report, then will decide how to release it.

Democrats want that report made public. When and if the report is made public, it will be one of the most pored over documents in Washington, D.C., and this nation in years. Our Tom Foreman checks out what might be in it.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Did Donald Trump's campaign collude with the Russians to help him win the 2016 presidential election?

That has been the key question all along for the Mueller probe. If we get to see Mueller's report, it could shed a lot of light on that topic.

For example, U.S. intelligence agencies have long believed the Russian government was behind the effort to hack Democratic email servers to pass that information on to WikiLeaks and have it published with the aim of hurting Hillary Clinton's campaign.

The Mueller report could tell us more details of how that happened and whether or not members of the president's team were involved in that process.

It could tell us more, too, about the general contact between Trump associates and the Russians. We know about the Trump Tower meeting and several others. We know from his former attorney, Michael Cohen, who has been working with the special prosecutor, that Trump was working on business deals in Moscow late into the campaign.

We know numerous Trump associates lied about their contact with the Russians initially. This could tell us more about what was going on and who was involved. That could bring up other names out there, that lawmakers and analysts talked about for a long time.

Were they involved in anything? The report could completely clear them or drag them deeper. We WILL: have to find out.

Lastly, what about Donald Trump himself?

He said all along, this is a witch hunt, a hoax, there was no collusion. If the Mueller report says something --


FOREMAN: -- was happening, lawmakers are going to want to know, what did he know, when did he know it and were any laws broken?

All of that could be revealed by the Mueller report, maybe some of it, maybe none of it. We will have to see if and when that report is made public.


HOWELL: All right, Tom Foreman, we will have to wait and see.

Another key Trump player, Michael Cohen, is reportedly giving New York federal prosecutors new information about the Trump family's business. According to "The New York Times," President Trump's former personal attorney offered information on possible irregularities in the Trump Organization and a donor to the inaugural committee.

Michael Cohen is set to start a three-year prison sentence in May for breaking campaign finance laws. But first, he will appear before Congress next week. President Trump says he is not concerned with Cohen's testimony.

Let's talk about it. Natasha Lindstaedt, a professor of government at the University of Essex joining us at this hour.

Good to have you.


HOWELL: With the attorney general expected to be the first to see Mueller's report, how do you see this playing out with Democrats who will push to make the report as public as possible?

LINDSTAEDT: They have already talked about this. They have made it very clear. If there is any indication the attorney general has not published the full report and is hiding things, they think that is, you know, their duty to make it clear to the American public. They are going to try to subpoena this.

This could get in a political battle that may end up in the courts. They are hoping all the report is communicated to the public so everybody has all the information.

HOWELL: Look, through court filings, we have been getting key insights into Mueller's investigation. It's as if he has been writing this report in public. Do you think we can expect surprises when that report is finally


LINDSTAEDT: Well, it's hard to say. I think people are still wondering whether or not there's going to be more indictments that may take place. There was constant talk about there could be an indictment of Jared Kushner or Don Jr.

There could be surprises whether or not Donald Trump was involved himself. These are all unknowns. We have to wait to see what happens.

The heart of the investigation is whether or not the Trump campaign had been working in and cooperating with the Russians to undermine the election. It's about which players were involved in this and the level of involvement of the president.

The question is, was he not involved at all, unwittingly involved or cooperating to undermine and defraud the U.S. government?

HOWELL: I want to ask you, regarding Michael Cohen, the U.S. president said he's not concerned what Cohen says to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Could Cohen's comments cause complications?

Should the president be concerned about Cohen might say?

LINDSTAEDT: Trump is doing a great job pretending not to be concerned about what Cohen is going to say. But he should be incredibly worried. This is his most trusted adviser with lots of dirt on him.

What Michael Cohen had been saying before is he had been working to pay hush money to individuals to silence them. What he's going to reveal in more detail are some of the activities of Trump's businesses that could be very suspicious, the suspicious activity during the inaugural campaign and with his charities.

So he could unload a heap of information that will be, you know, very public that could be incredibly damaging to the president, maybe not legally but definitely politically.

HOWELL: Natasha, the latest reporting on Cohen. It touches on several other investigations that are currently in play, even one report, that this president could be dogged with investigations for many, many years to come.

LINDSTAEDT: Yes. I'm impressed by how well he deflects and says, everything is fine, if the report is truthful, everything is fine. He has 17 ongoing investigations. You know, if he doesn't get re-elected in 2020, he is going to be in serious trouble.

HOWELL: I see. All right, Natasha, thank you, again, for your time.

LINDSTAEDT: Thanks for having me. HOWELL: Still ahead on CNN NEWSROOM, the owner of the New England Patriots criminally charged for personal fouls. When we come back, the serious charges against Robert Kraft.






HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM, I'm George Howell.

The current U.S. ambassador to Canada is expected to be nominated to represent the United States at the United Nations. Kelly Craft and her husband are big donors to the Republican Party with a large fortune made in the coal industry. The U.N. post has been vacant since Nikki Haley resigned almost two months ago.

Haley offered her congratulations on Twitter and said Craft would be a strong voice for America at the United Nations.

Now to the U.S. singer, R. Kelly. He is facing formal charges for sexual abuse after more than 20 years of speculation and rumors. Kelly turned himself into Chicago police Friday night, just hours after he was indicted. He's denied sexual abuse accusations for many years. But if convicted, Kelly could be facing up to 70 years in prison.

CNN's Sara Sidner has the latest for you from Chicago.


SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Stunning developments here in Chicago. R. Kelly is now in police custody. We now know the state's attorney has -- has a warrant put out for his arrest. A no bail warrant, which means if the judge does agree to it, he won't be let out of jail until his trial.

We should also mention the counts --


SIDNER (voice-over): -- brought against him. The charges, there are 10 of them. They're 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse against four women. The state's attorney detailing what those were by using the women's initials.

We know three of the women in those counts were under the age of 17. So sexual abuse of a minor in those cases and one that was later on the person was of age.

What we can also tell you is that R. Kelly left his studio on Friday night. We were there and captured that and then he came straight here to central booking in Chicago and our photographers also captured the moment when he walked into custody.

This has been -- there have been decades and decades of women coming forward, saying that R. Kelly abused them. Some have said they were minors at the time. Some of those cases had gone to court but then were settled out of court.

Fast forward to 2019. And you see these indictments come 11 years after he was on trial on 14 charges of child pornography. He was acquitted in that case. That case involved a videotape that prosecutors said had a girl on it who was underage and R. Kelly engaged in sex acts with her.

But they lost the case partly because the jury was not able to believe it was R. Kelly on the tape nor the girl on the tape. They were unable to positively identify either of them. And that was part of the reason why he was acquitted in that case.

There's another tape, a tape uncovered by attorney Michael Avenatti that was handed over to the state's attorney's office last week. We know a grand jury was convened and witnesses came in front of the grand jury and now we're here today and R. Kelly is in police custody. A very big development in Chicago. Certainly he was a top R&B singer and now that singer is in police custody awaiting his bail -- Sara Sidner, CNN, Chicago.


HOWELL: Sara, thank you.

R. Kelly's lawyer claims everyone is just trying to profit off his client. He spoke with reporters after Kelly turned himself in, saying the alleged victims were all lying and Kelly would be vindicated.


STEVE GREENBERG, ATTORNEY: Unfortunately the state's attorney now succumbed to public pressure, to pressure from grandstanders like Michael Avenatti and Gloria Allred and brought these charges. Mr. Kelly is strong. He's got a lot of support and he's going to be vindicated on all of these charges, one by one if it has to be.

SIDNER: Do you think these women are lying?


SIDNER: All of them?

GREENBERG: I think all of the women are lying.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HOWELL: Now to the billionaire owner of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots football team is being charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution. Police say Robert Kraft paid for sex acts twice at a massage parlor in Florida at a strip mall. The charges stem from a months-long sting operation in what police are calling a human trafficking investigation. Our Jason Carroll has the story.


DANIEL KERR, JUPITER POLICE CHIEF: We're as equally stunned as everybody else.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Police in Jupiter, Florida, shocked that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is allegedly caught in their sting operation at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa.

Kraft charged with two counts of soliciting another for prostitution, which are misdemeanors.

KERR: Much of our evidence comes directly from the businesses, also from body-worn cameras of our officers and also surveillance that we had been conducting.

J. CARROLL: Police say Kraft visited the spa on two occasions and they say they have videos allegedly showing him in a room receiving what detectives characterized as paid acts.

Their investigation into human trafficking at the spa lasted several months. More than two dozen men, or johns, including Kraft, are being charged for receiving illegal services.

KERR: He's being charged with the same offenses as the others. And that is soliciting another to commit prostitution.

J. CARROLL: Kraft, whose team won the Super Bowl three weeks ago, is the chairman and CEO of The Kraft Group. His worth is listed by "Forbes" at more than $6 billion.

And he is a friend of the president and a frequent visitor to Trump's club Mar-a-Lago. A spokesman for the 77-year-old billionaire released a statement which says: "We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity. Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further."

The Kraft family has been active in philanthropic efforts over the years. But police now say they will be issuing a warrant for his arrest.



HOWELL: Jason, thanks.

The American actor accused of staging an attack on himself is being cut from "Empire's" final two shows of the season. Jussie Smollett returned to the set Thursday. After posting bail, he apologized to the cast and crew for any embarrassment but still maintains his innocence.

Police say they have overwhelming evidence Smollett paid two men to attack him, yell racist and homophobic slurs in hopes of bolstering his career.


HOWELL (voice-over): A week later than planned but the polls are open in Nigeria.

What is at stake for Africa's largest economy?

Plus, the U.S. and Russia wrapping up a war of words. Russia says it is not afraid to escalate to a full-on missile crisis. Scary story but we have the details. Stay with us.




HOWELL: Welcome back to our viewers here in the United States and around the world, you are watching CNN NEWSROOM, live from Atlanta. I'm George Howell with the headlines.



HOWELL: Now to Nigeria where the polls are open this hour but there have been problems. Today's voting comes after a week's long delay. The presidential and parliamentary election was suddenly postponed last Saturday. The country's electoral commission cited logistical reasons but many were skeptical. The parties are pointing fingers at each other and the delay is blamed for low voter turnout.

Let's get the latest from David McKenzie. David is in Johannesburg. Also our Stephanie Busari following the story in Lagos.

We start with you, Stephanie.

What are you seeing at the polls?

What is the feeling, the mood, as people, I guess, return to vote after not being able to do so a week ago?

STEPHANIE BUSARI, CNN PRODUCER: Yes, so, what we are seeing here is more delays this morning. You know, people have been here for hours, two hours after the voting was supposed to start.

Election officials haven't turned up. You know, it was just a disappointment for many. They were telling us they were hoping, after the delay last week, things would have -- they would have expected things to start on time.

What is really obvious, the sense we are getting here at the polling stations, and we have been to several, is that Nigerians are determined for their votes and voices to be heard. I spoke to one young lady that came off a night shift and came

straight to a polling station. She had been there since 7:00 am this morning, was waiting patiently. She expressed her disappointment but she was determined to cast her vote.

President Buhari has voted. Several thousand citizens have not had a chance. Here, behind me, at this polling station, voting has started. There's a sense of relief. People are smiling. They are happy to finally, Africa's largest democracy voting is underway.

HOWELL: Stephanie, stand by. We will bring in David.

David, there are delays, as Stephanie pointed out. After a week-long delay, talk to us about that and what has been the reaction to that delay?

Is there a sense it may play into the low voter turnout?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's unclear at this stage. Certainly, it's more important how an election ends than how it begins. Certainly, there will be frustration amongst Nigerians, many who were at the polls last week to vote, only to find out when they arrived at the polling station, they couldn't vote.

In the last two elections, there were delays. In some cases days, in other cases weeks. The disturbing news today is there were more security issues at the capital. Though those details are sketchy, it points to the overall security situation northeast of the country.

Across Nigeria, more than 2 million people are displaced. They will be, if they can, trying to vote today. But the fear of being targeted because of voting shows how high the stakes are, not just for Nigerians but for the region.

This country is yearning for stability and an end to the corruption and these elections are obviously a critical point, a possible flashpoint. So the world will be watching this election closely.

HOWELL: David McKenzie following this story in Johannesburg and Stephanie Busari in Lagos. Thank you both very much.

In Syria, the U.S. president agreed to keep about 400 troops on the ground even after most U.S. forces will return home in a few months. President Trump says he is not reversing course, but that a small force of American soldiers will, quote, "stop it from starting again."

The troops will be part of a multinational force to keep the peace and target ISIS remnants and prevent the terror group's resurgence. Some 200 troops were scheduled to stay in Syria, at a base in Syria near the border with Iraq.

Russia's president says he is ready for a Cuban missile-style crisis, if that's what the U.S. wants. That's after the U.S. president --

[04:35:00] HOWELL: -- suspended the Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty. Russia has been warning that if the U.S. sends missiles to Europe, Russia will respond in kind. Our Fred Pleitgen has the latest.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Vladimir Putin ratcheting up the rhetoric against the U.S. The Russian leader saying if there was a nuclear standoff between Moscow and Washington, he wouldn't back down.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): This is no reason to escalate to the levels of the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s. We do not want this. But if somebody else wants this, well, OK, go ahead. I have said what will happen then. Let them do their math.

PLEITGEN: A major factor in Putin's calculation, his growing missile arsenal, saying if the U.S. deploys medium-range nukes in Europe, Russia will place new hypersonic missiles allegedly flying at nine times the speed of sound off the U.S. coast.

PUTIN: Nobody can prohibit warships and submarines from navigating in neutral waters. Plus, they will not be stationary. They will be on the go, making it more difficult to detect them.

PLEITGEN: Despite his friendly relationship with President Trump, Vladimir Putin has vastly accelerated Russia's missile programs, a move he openly says gives Moscow the edge over America.

PUTIN: How long would it take to reach the decision-making centers that threaten us? The calculation is not in their favor, at least not today. This is obvious.

PLEITGEN: Russia, North Korea and Iran, all American adversaries with limited defense budgets, looking to neutralize American military dominance by developing long-range missile capabilities.

A former Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander telling CNN, the rockets are also used as bargaining chips.

HOSSEIN KANANI MAGHADDAM, FORMER IRANIAN REVOLUTIONARY GUARD COMMANDER (through translator): One of our policies to counter sanctions is to expand our missile program. This is exactly the path we are following. The more they increase the sanctions, the more we will boost our missile capabilities.

PLEITGEN: Russia has had to cut military spending because of U.S. sanctions, but its missile program, Vladimir Putin says, continues to move forward full speed ahead -- Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Moscow.


HOWELL: Fred, thank you.

Catholic leaders are gathered in the Vatican to confront the scandalous behavior of priests toward children. We take you live to Rome for the three-day summit taking place there.

Also, battering cold in many parts of the United States. The forecast for the Midwest. It's already buried in snow.





HOWELL: It is day three of the Vatican summit on the clergy sex abuse. The theme around the talks, the theme is transparency. Some 200 church leaders have come together around the world and the singular goal is to tackle a scandal that has rocked the church for many decades.

It comes at a time when the church is facing increased scrutiny from law enforcement. A dozen states are conducting their own investigation into alleged misconduct by priests.

Rosa Flores is joining us live from Rome.

Good to have you. The focus, obviously, transparency.

How is the Vatican framing that proposal and what are some of the differences it would mean for the Catholic Church?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, George. You know, we are already seeing some of the transparency in action in some of the small things we are seeing that the Vatican is doing differently.

This summit, for example, is completely livestreamed on the Internet for the public to see. They have a website, as well, with all the information, the presentations, videos of the bishops reacting to different parts of this summit, which we had not seen before.

So it has been very, very transparent in that sense and they're holding press conferences every day where journalists can ask the speakers questions. Right now, we are hearing a speech by Cardinal Marse (ph), the archbishop of Munich, talking about transparency at the moment.

This is live and we are able to see it from our office. Anyone around the world can do the same. He mentioned, for him, transparency means actions, decisions, processes, procedures are understandable and also traceable. We'll learn more as we continue watching his speech.

Before him, there was a very dynamic and eloquent and down-to-earth nun from Nigeria that also expressed what she meant by transparency and what the church could do to be transparent.

This is a nun from Nigeria and she said the church is in a state of crisis and shame and, in preparation for this summit, she watched the movie "Spotlight." And she came to tears at the very end, when she started seeing all of the names and all of the cases that were coming out of the United States.

So she was asking for courageous transparency so the church could move beyond this and could also heal and also all of the Catholics.

So, George, there is a lot of dynamic discussion going on; survivors have been participating, some in video testimonies and, of course, there have been survivors on the sidelines, holding events, holding demonstrations.

As a matter of fact, in 15 minutes or so, there will be a demonstration of survivors. They are trying to march. We are not clear if that is going to happen. We are monitoring and will bring it to you, if that's the case.

Then I leave you with this, George, as you probably heard, Pope Francis released 21 reflection points he gave to bishops. Survivors are going to release their own 21 reflection points. We are waiting to hear from them on that to see what they have to say.

HOWELL: It will be interesting to see the differences between what the Vatican is putting forward and what the survivors had to say as well. Rosa Flores is on that story. Thank you.

A powerful storm system is threatening the central part of the United States with more heavy snow and even tornadoes.



HOWELL: A U.S. senator clashed with a group of children while discussing the issue of climate change policy. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein met with the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate change advocacy group. They asked her to vote yes on the New Green Deal, a progressive 10-year plan to mitigate climate change.

Feinstein argued it is unworkable. The Sunrise Movement says she was disrespectful to them. Watch.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator, is there something that can get turned around in 10 years?

You are looking at the faces of the people who are going to be living with it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The government is supposed to be working for the people, by the people --


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIF.: You know what's interesting about this group is I have been doing this for 30 years. I know what I'm doing. You come in here and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don't respond to that. I've gotten elected. I just ran. I was

elected by almost a million vote plurality. And I know what I'm doing. So you know, maybe people should listen a little bit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I hear what you are saying but we are the people who voted you. You are supposed to listen to us.

FEINSTEIN: How old are you?


FEINSTEIN: You didn't vote for me.


HOWELL: Feinstein says the children were heard loud and clear and the climate change crisis remains a top priority for her.

One of the year's Oscar nominated films might actually terrify you, if you are afraid of heights. It's a documentary about one man's incredible feat, his meticulous planning, ability and sheer raw nerves. The details ahead.






HOWELL: Hollywood's biggest awards night, the Oscars. It's a little more than a day away, Sunday. One of the films nominated is the documentary, "Free Solo," about a stunning climb up El Capitan, a sheer cliff that is so high, it dwarfs the Eiffel Tower in Paris, New York's Empire State Building and even Dubai's Burg Khalifa.

National Geographic is behind the film and will show it on their network come March 3rd. Hold your breath for this one. Our Robyn Curnow has the report.



ROBYN CURNOW, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): No ropes, no harness, nothing between Alex Honnold and the ground, hundreds of meters below.

ALEX HONNOLD, "FREE SOLO" CLIMBER (voice-over): I get afraid, just like anybody does. I know some things are very scary to me. When I know what I'm doing and I'm climbing well, then it feels meditative and very relaxing and beautiful.

But if I start to hesitate and star to get scared, then it can be a nightmare.

CURNOW (voice-over): At Yosemite National Park in California, he was the first to scale the face of this massive vertical rock with no protective gear in a form of climbing called free soloing. One slip could be the difference between life and death.

HONNOLD (voice-over): The day I free soloed it, when I looked at the wall, I was a little nervous. It's so big, it's very daunting. It's early morning and I felt a little tired. And it's like, whoa, look at that wall.

But at the same time, everything had been pointing toward that moment. And when that moment arrived, it happened.

CURNOW (voice-over): Honnold's long-time dream turned real-life challenge is the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, called "Free Solo." It captures hair-raising moments as he navigates the death-defying climb of El Capitan, which soars nearly 1,000 meters in the air, higher than the world's tallest building.

HONNOLD (voice-over): The main challenge isn't physical for free solo.


HONNOLD (voice-over): It's definitely a bigger mental challenge than physical. A lot of people, when they see the film, they're like, oh, that seems terrifying because they're kind of transposing their emotions onto it. I mean, it would be terrifying if you weren't prepared for it.

CURNOW (voice-over): Preparation included careful choreography of every move in advance, practicing protection before a free solo climb. But one section, called Sleepless Nights, which Honnold nicknamed "the boulder problem," it required a series of intricate movements as he clung onto pea-sized ledges.

HONNOLD (voice-over): That's the worst hold on the entire route. So you have maybe half your thumb on the hold.

CURNOW (voice-over): It took 3:56 for Honnold to finish. The scale of the accomplishment sinking in as he approached the summit.

HONNOLD (voice-over): Every time I see the end of the film, it really puts me right back into that same mood of what it felt like to get to the top. When I came over the summit, I was just like, this is awesome. Yes, it was incredible.

CURNOW (voice-over): Despite global recognition for his near- impossible climb, Honnold says this achievement will always be a personal one.

HONNOLD (voice-over): Regardless of film or any media coming, at some point I can just have a picnic with the family and look at the wall and be like, that is the wall that I climbed one. It's deeply satisfying. CURNOW (voice-over): Robyn Curnow, CNN.


HOWELL: CNN is partnering with people around the world for a student- led day of action against modern-day slavery March 14th. Ahead of My Freedom Day, we asked actor Mahershala Ali, he is nominated for an Oscar for best actor, a supporting role for his role in the movie "Green Book." We asked him, what makes you feel free?


MAHERSHALA ALI, ACTOR: I believe what makes me feel free is being able to go for exactly what I want, to work to be the person that I want to be and to be enfranchised and supported along the way at being and finding the things that bring about fulfillment in my life.


HOWELL: You can tell the world what makes you feel free using the #MyFreedomDay.

Thank you for being with us. I'm George Howell at the CNN Center in Atlanta. Another hour of news after the break. Stay with us.