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U.S. Lawmaker Denies Allegations of Relationship with Teen; France, Germany and Russian Discuss Vaccine Cooperation; People in the Balkans Flock to Serbia for Vaccinations; Bolsonaro Replacing Military Chiefs After Cabinet Overhaul; Suez Canal Works to Clear Backlog After Stranded Ship Freed; Watergate Break-In Mastermind Dies Aged 90; YouTube Videos Lead Police to Alleged Mafia Fugitive. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired March 31, 2021 - 04:30   ET



ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back, everyone. A U.S. Congressman from Florida is denying allegations he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and Matt Gaetz says he is the victim of an extortion plot involving a $25 million payoff. Our Ryan Nobles has more now from Washington.


RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Florida Congressman this morning is very much denying those allegations against him and saying that he is even the victim of an extortion attempt. This is a report from the "New York Times" that says that the Department of Justice is looking into a possible relationship that the Congressman had with an underage girl. And that he could be subject to charges of sexual trafficking because he traveled with this young woman across state lines and paid for things like hotels, plane tickets and meals, while at the same time being in a sexual relationship with her.

Now, the Congressman said very forcefully that he has never been in a sexual relationship with someone under the age of 18 and then he went on to say that a former Department of Justice prosecutor actually attempted to extort him and his father over these allegations. Saying that his father was texted by this individual who now works at a prominent Florida law firm asking him to give him $25 million in exchange for keeping that information under wraps.

Now, it's not exactly clear how far this investigation has gone and whether or not charges are even imminent. The Department of Justice declined to comment to CNN on the substance of these allegations. And Gaetz said that he has not been contacted directly by the FBI and that he first learned of this investigation by reading it in the "New York Times."

Now, what is interesting about all of this is that this, of course, Congressman Gaetz is one of, if not President Trump -- the former president's biggest supporters in the House of Representatives and this investigation according to the "New York Times" started while the former president was still in office. We will reiterate one more time the Congressman Gaetz strongly denies that he did anything wrong.


CHURCH: CNN's Ryan Nobles with that report.

Well Europe's COVID vaccine rollout is moving at such a sluggish pace some countries are now turning to Russia for help. The leaders of Germany and France have spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin about possibly using Russia's Sputnik V vaccine which is still being reviewed by the EU.

The talks come as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are under heavy pressure to contain growing outbreaks at home. Germany is steadily approaching 3 million confirmed cases of the virus and France is treating more than 5,000 COVID patients in ICUs, the highest number in nearly a year. President Macron is set to address his nation today about the crisis.

So let's cross to CNN's Melissa Bell, she joins us live from Paris. Good to see you, Melissa. So surging cases in France and Germany with both nations turning to Russia for help with the vaccine. What is the latest on all of this?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Rosemary. And that of course is an important shift. And so what we had seen so far is that the Sputnik, of course under investigation since March 4th by the European's Medicines Agency is going to take several months. If you look at what's happened to previous vaccines. Until now it was really only countries breaking ranks with the rest of Europe who turned to it, for Hungry for instance, we know also Austria which is extremely upset now about the way the vaccines are distributed amongst European countries now in negotiations with Russia to purchase a million doses of the Sputnik vaccine.

The fact that France and Germany should be speaking to Vladimir Putin about how they might cooperate in order to get it to Europe, really tells you all you need to know, Rosemary, about the severe vaccine shortages that are gripping Europe and making that vaccine rollout so slow.

This of course, with European leaders like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron under tremendous pressure now to try and get things moving with those surging COVID-19 figures.

So I'm here at a school just outside of Paris. One of those areas here in France that has been so heart hit by the COVID-19 wave, third wave.


Emmanuel Macron will address the nation tonight. One of the questions is whether he will change his policy which could far has been to buck the European trend and keep schools open. Will the pressure be such that he's obliged to close them, at least in some parts of France? The people working in ICUs, the people on the front line are certainly calling on the French government to do more than it has to restrict the movement of people and get those very worrying COVID-19 figures back under control -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: Absolutely. Melissa Bell joining us live from Paris. Many thanks.

Well Serbia has become a regional vaccination hub. The country has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world and it is becoming -- it is welcoming people from neighboring countries where there are vaccine shortages. Serbia's Prime Minister says her nation will not be safe unless the entire region is safe. And for more on this we want to bring in CNN's Frederik Pleitgen. He joins us live from Belgrade. Good to see you Fred. So how does Serbia been able to get this right while France, Germany and other European nations are struggling with vaccine rollouts?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Rosemary. Well I think there's two or three key factors to Serbia's success so far. They had a big sense of urgency at the very beginning where they said they needed to get vaccine as fast as possible. And then they had a lot of pragmatism where they got vaccines from many different suppliers. You can see over here you have the Sputnik V vaccine that's on offer. You also have if we pan over there you can the Sinopharm stalls over there.

Interesting enough Serbia was one of the first countries to sign a deal with Sinopharm. But Serbia was also one of the first countries to actually sign a deal with Pfizer/BioNTech as well. And that's also something that's available. And then you see over here one of the other key factors that they have is they are very quick in the way they vaccinate.

We spoke to people this morning. They have already vaccinated about 1,000 people just in the first 90 minutes that this place was open here. And the process only takes about ten minutes from when you walk in the door, you fill out a form, you talk to a doctor, you go to the IT system which is over there. Then you go to one of these stalls and you get your jab and then you're pretty much good to go after about ten minutes of rest. So things go very, very quickly.

And the Serbians -- as you rightly point out -- are saying they have so much vaccine that they are able to share it with neighboring nations and they are able to also invite foreigners here as well. It's not only folks from places like Bosnia or Croatia but we have seen people from Germany come here. We've seen people from Austria come here. We talked to someone from the Czech Republic who came here as well because they say it is difficult to get jabs in those countries. The people for instance who are on business trips here in Serbia are able to get vaccinated as well.

So far the Serbian government says that around 40,000 foreigners who don't have a residence here in Serbia have already gotten vaccinated against COVID-19. One of the interesting things also is you can actually choose your vaccine here. So some folks choose Sinopharm, some Sputnik, but you can also choose the Pfizer/BioNtech or AstraZeneca as well -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: What an impressive operation and model for the rest of the world no doubt. Frederik Pleitgen joining us live, appreciate it.

Well Germany says it will only administer the AstraZeneca vaccine to people aged 60 and older. The country's vaccine committee recommended the move after rare blood clots were reported in 31 people who got the first dose, but the decision goes against advice from the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency. Both say there is no apparent link between blood clots and the vaccine.

Coronavirus variants are spreading quickly across Canada and they are fueling a spike in cases and hospital admissions. The nation's top doctor calls it a third resurgence, one that's hitting younger people, especially hard. In Ontario intensive care units are seeing a growing number of patients under the age of 60 and the crisis is getting so bad officials are warning of more restrictions.

Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is facing harsh criticism for his handling of the pandemic. And he could be looking at rough reelection fight next year. That's the backdrop for a major reshuffle in his government over the past two days. Shasta Darlington explains.


SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The biggest cabinet shakeup since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office. On Monday he announced six cabinet changes including a new defense minister and a new foreign minister. On Tuesday, his government announced that the leaders of all three branches of the armed forces were being replaced.

The reshuffling an indication of how much pressure Bolsonaro is under as COVID-19 continues to ravage the country. The change in the armed forces also fueling speculation about a possible breakdown between Bolsonaro and the military.

On Tuesday Brazil registered a new record number of deaths from COVID- 19, more than 3,700.


The total death toll is over 300,000 people and the vaccine rollout has been slow and plagued by political infighting. Brazilians are increasingly directing their anger and frustration at Bolsonaro who downplayed the virus and lashed out at governors for lockdown measures.

The cabinet shuffle allows him to shore up support in Congress. It was also important because he replaced the foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, who came under fire from Congress for his antagonistic relationship with China. China is not only an important trade partner, they've also been a main supplier of raw ingredients in vaccines.

The other cabinet changes, however, took Brazil by surprise, especially Bolsonaro's decision to remove the defense minister. Bolsonaro has repeatedly claimed to have the support of the military and has appointed a number of generals to key positions. But he's grown frustrated with the lack of public support from the military in recent weeks. The departure of all three armed forces commanders on Tuesday highlights the growing rift.

Shasta Darlington, CNN, Sao Paulo.


CHURCH: And just ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM, Egypt's president promises new measures to avoid a repeat of the Suez Canal disaster as the backlog of ships starts to clear. We'll do that after the break.


CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone. Well, the Suez Canal is now open around the clock as it tries to clear the backlog of ships waiting to pass through it. Traffic resumed after the grounded ship Ever Given that had been blocking the trade route was freed, but experts warn the impact on global trade may be felt for months.

And for more on this let's bring in CNN's Ben Wedeman he joins us live from Cairo. Good to see you Ben. So Egypt working to clear the backlog of vessels in the Suez Canal. How long will this likely take and what has been the impact of all of this?


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well in terms of how long it's going to take to work away this backlog, the Egyptians are saying just a few more days. Some shipping companies think it could take as much as a week. Now, at its peak there were about 450 ships waiting in the Suez Canal itself in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Now, once the canal was reopened, which was at 6:00 p.m. Suez time on Monday they just, you know, one after another -- normally the Suez Canal is open just 10 to 12 hours a day. At the moment it is 24 hours a day to get these ships through and done.

We did hear the Osama Rabie, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, saying that we will not waste one second and certainly that does seem to be the case.

In terms of the impact of this crisis or problem, if it had gone on much longer it really would have been a serious problem with huge impact. It seems that it's just going to be a ripple in terms of world trade. But it is perhaps, or it should cause some rethinking about how world trade happens, that it's so dependent upon this one single route for about 30 percent of world container traffic, for instance. It does underscore the vulnerability of international trade to seemingly random events -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right, many thanks to our Ben Wedeman joining us live from Cairo.

One of the master minds of the Watergate burglary G. Gordon Liddy has died at the age of 90. Liddy is infamous for having overseen the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972 setting off one of the most stunning chapters in American political history. The scandal led to the downfall of former U.S. President Richard Nixon. As Richard Roth reports, Liddy said he wanted to live as most men only dream.


G. GORDON LIDDY, MASTER MIND OF WATERGATE BURGLARY: Most of all, go for the villain roles, I really like those.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): G. Gordon Liddy was a prime villain in one of the United States darkest moments.

LIDDY: As you know I was involved in Watergate.

ROTH (voice-over): Watergate, Liddy was the organizer of the infamous break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. It was 1972, his orders came from President Richard Nixon's White House.

LIDDY: I was told that we were going to repair an inoperative room bug.

ROTH (voice-over): Liddy supervised from nearby but did not go in with the five burglars that were caught in the act.

LIDDY: I certainly regret that the mission failed. Anything I do I always intend that it succeed.

ROTH (voice-over): A former FBI agent, Liddy had a reputation among colleagues for recklessness.

LIDDY: I wish I had a dollar for every successful burglary when I was in the FBI. That's called a black bag job, standard procedure.

ROTH (voice-over): Liddy was fearless in the hit Watergate movie "All the President's Men" famed leaker "deep throat" tells reporter Bob Woodward played by Robert Redford about Liddy.

DEEP THROAT, FROM MOVIE ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN: I was at a party once and Liddy put his hand over a candle, and he kept it there. He kept it right in the flame until his flesh was burned.

ROTH (voice-over): Liddy said it was to impress a new recruit.

LIDDY: The putting in the hand in the flame is true and there you can see it.

ROTH (voice-over): As the White House came under more heat Liddy was often discussed by President Nixon and top aides.

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Liddy is pretty tough. Yeah, he is, he is apparently on of these guys who's a masochist, he, uh, he enjoys punishing himself.

ROTH (voice-over): Liddy forever insisted the break-in was not about campaign material, he claimed it was about a call girl ring allegedly involving some top Democrats.

LIDDY: What we were in there doing was trying to get the sexual dirt on the Democrats, we were tapping into that thing.

ROTH (voice-over): The chief of the so-called plumbers unit Liddy was convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping.

LIDDY: It was an occupational hazard, first of all, secondly it was my job to go to prison at the time. I feel no bitterness at all.

ROTH (voice-over): Unlike some of his co-conspirators Liddy never talked before or during his 52-month prison stretch.

LIDDY: It doesn't take any talent to keep your mouth shut. I was the cut out, so I took the hit.

I was protecting my president. I was doing the best I could. It would have worked, too, if those other turkeys could have kept their mouth shut.

ROTH (voice-over): After prison Liddy took advantage of his notoriety hosting a radio talk show, guest starring in TV programs and speaking engagements in front of conservative groups.

LIDDY: Where were you when I needed you?


ROTH (voice-over): Liddy once said Watergate was a tempest in a teapot. His actions though, helped blow the lid on an American presidency.

LIDDY: When I did Watergate I probably had more fun doing that than I did anything else. I do and act and live as most men only dream.


CHURCH: Ahead on CNN NEWSROOM, the mafia fugitive who loved to cook, now his goose is cooked because he just couldn't stay off YouTube.


CHURCH: An alleged mafia fugitive on the run for years has finally been caught in the Caribbean. He wasn't cooking up any new schemes, he was cooking Italian dishes and sharing them on YouTube and that's how police found him. Here is Patrick Oppmann.


PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: An amateur chef who posted videos of himself cooking on YouTube may have given way more than recipes, Italian police say. Marc Feren Claude Biart is an alleged fugitive who according to Italian police was involved with drug trafficking between the Netherlands and Italy.


One Italian official said that Biart is one of the most dangerous fugitives that belong to the 'Ndrangheta, a powerful syndicate that is believed to be responsible for about 80 percent of the cocaine that enters Europe. For the last five years or so, Biart lived a quiet existence except for a hobby where he posted videos of him and his wife cooking on YouTube.

In the videos you don't see Biart's face, but you can make out some of his distinctive tattoos police say. And that led them to Biart and to his arrest. Biart was sent back to Italy on Monday to face some of those charges of alleged drug trafficking. CNN was unable to reach any of Biart's attorneys. Police in Italy say that since 2014, Biart has been on the run and that he may have been able to remain in hiding if not for his passion for Italian cooking which he shared with the world.

Patrick Oppmann, CNN, Havana.


CHURCH: And there you go. Well, another prototype rocket from SpaceX has failed during flight.

The unmanned spacecraft was launched from Texas on Tuesday and it was off to a good start, but a few minutes later the live broadcast suddenly froze. The rocket appears to have exploded. This marks the third time SpaceX has failed to land a prototype of the starship rocket which the company hopes will one day carry humans to Mars. Another starship exploded after landing earlier this month. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is trying to put a positive spin on the latest failed test. He tweeted, at least the crater is in the right place.

And thank you so much for your company. I'm Rosemary Church. "EARLY START" is up next. You're watching CNN. Have yourselves a wonderful day.