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Entertainment World Mourns Death of Singer George Michael at Age 53; Tensions Between the U.S. and Israel Rising in Last Days of Obama Administration; Donald Trump to Address Potential Conflicts of Interest in His Administration; Americans Unloaded Hundreds Of Billions Of Dollars On Gifts; Japan's Prime Minister Set to Make Historic Visit to Hawaii. Aired 4-4:0a ET

Aired December 26, 2016 - 04:00   ET



[04:00.00] GEORGE MICHAEL, ARTIST: The sun goes down on me.


JOE JOHNS, CNN ANCHOR: There's a lot of great music there. Remembering George Michael, the pop icon passing away overnight at just 53 years old. We're going to have details and tributes from London this morning.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN ANCHOR: A fierce response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the U.S. refusing to stand in the way of a U.N. resolution condemning settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu meeting with the U.S. ambassador behind closed doors. We have the latest.

JOHNS: And Donald Trump is looking to calm concerns about conflict of interest, and he says he's going to shutter his charitable foundation, but the questions is whether that's possible to do before he takes the oath of office.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START, I'm Joe Johns.

KOSIK: Good morning, Joe. And good morning to all of you, I'm Alison Kosik. It's Monday, December the 26th. It's 4:00 a.m. in the East. And John and Christine are off.

Up first, the entertainment world is mourning the sudden death of singer George Michael at the tender age of 53.


GEORGE MICHAEL: Last Christmas I gave you my heart.


KOSIK: The British pop icon first rose to fame in the 1980's as part of the two-man group, Wham. Michael went on to have a long and very successful solo career selling more than 100 million records and collaborating with some of the biggest names in the music business. His manager reportedly saying it's suspected that George Michael died of heart failure. CNN's Ian Lee, live in London now with details. Ian, I bet those fans are just in shock at this point, and certainly gathering at his home.

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Alison. We're at his home here in London. And behind us, there are people that you can see are gathering, people are leaving messages, also leaving candles in remembrance. But you've also have people just talking about who George Michael was as an artist, as a pop icon, as someone who really influenced a lot of people's lives. This is a person where if you grew up in the 1980's, especially, he was part of your sound track growing up with Careless Whisper, there's Faith. There's just a whole list of tracks that -- he sold over 100 million albums. So this is someone who definitely had an impact. He was a true artist, too. Someone who could cross genres not just in the pop world, but also when he went solo after breaking up with Wham. Really was able to continue and progress as a solo artist. This is someone also who knew how to play a number of instruments. So this isn't someone who was just able to sing, had a good voice. This was a true musical artist.

KOSIK: He really was. You know, you talk about he was the sound track of our lives in our youth. He's certainly was in mine. He's still the soundtrack on my iTunes list. You know, you think about, who he's impacted. Yes, he was a big pop icon in the '80s. But what are the ages of people you are seeing gather there around his house because as you say he wasn't just a singer, he wasn't just a performer, he wrote and produced a lot of his music, so -- and his voice was certainly timeless.

LEE: That's right. He was actually just starting to work on another album with a musical producer, Naughty Boy. Unfortunately, we won't be able to get that music. But this is someone who -- even for people who may not have grown up in the '80s or know him personally, but they know his music. You hear his music on the radio. You hear his music in the movies. His music is definitely recognizable. And so, you know, even though, you know, some people may not know who he was and his struggles throughout his life, they definitely know his music. And he has had a quite few struggles in his life as well. His music career spanned decades, but it was later, he was struggling with alcohol. He had a real health scare with pneumonia in 2011. He was said in his own words that he almost died, but the doctors were able to bring him back and really change his life. But tragically, that life ended yesterday on Christmas, probably a day that he's well known for Last Christmas, one of his most popular songs, so really just tragic. A lot of people coming here and just remembering this icon.

KOSIK: Yeah, definitely a lot of shock and a lot of sadness. This was one true musician. All right, CNN's Ian Lee. Thanks so much.

[04:47.00] JOHNS: Tensions between the U.S. and Israel are rising in the last days of the Obama administration. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoning the U.S. ambassador just days after the U.S. refused to use its veto power to stop the U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Israel settlements in the West Bank. The prime minister accusing the U.S. of being complicit in the resolution, saying quote, from the information that we have, we no doubt say the Obama administration initiated it, stood behind it, coordinated in the wording and demanded it be passed. We will do whatever is necessary that Israel will not be damaged by this shameful resolution. CNN's Oren Liebermann following developments live in Jerusalem. Oren.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Joe, if you want an idea how angry the Israeli administration is about this resolution, think about this, they summoned not only the U.S. ambassador, but the ambassador of 10 other countries on Christmas day, for meetings here in the Holy Land. Ten of those countries, which is to say the countries met with the foreign ministries, it was specifically to U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, who met privately with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so Netanyahu could express his anger over this resolution. Netanyahu could have waited, right. He could have waited for the Trump administration which is only weeks away, and Trump's new pick for ambassador. Instead, he wanted to make sure this statement was loud and clear. Here's what Netanyahu said in a cabinet meeting of the week.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAEL PRIME MINISTER: Over decades, the American administration and Israeli government had disagreed about settlements, that we agree that the Security Council was not the place to resolve this issue. We knew that going there would make negotiations harder and drive peace further away. And as I told John Kerry on Thursday, friends don't take friends to the Security Council.

LIEBERMANN: And let me point out how unusual that was. That was at the Israeli cabinet meeting. Netanyahu normally only speaks in Hebrew there. He's addressing his government and his people. For him to make a statement in English is very much him addressing Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry directly from this meeting. Joe.

JOHNS: So when you look at this thing with the Trump administration coming into power and frankly just a few days, this really shows us how different the Trump administration might approach the very same issue compared to the outgoing Obama administration.

LIEBERMANN: Absolutely. And I think Netanyahu is expecting that and perhaps counting on that. He's made that clear in his statements. He's done working with Obama. He's ready to work with president-elect Trump. And I think he's expect first far less criticism of construction in the West Bank, construction in East Jerusalem, and also protection at the United Nations. In fact, it was Senator Lindsey Graham who said the U.S. would consider cutting funding to the United Nation over the Security Council resolution. Israel is already taking its own steps against the U.N., cutting funding to five different U.N. organizations. And Netanyahu has ordered the foreign minister here to look at other steps it can take against the U.N., they're already looking at the relationship with U.N. ambassadors and U.N. staff here. So this could just be the beginning of steps taken against the U.N., and we'll see what more parting shots there are between the Obama administration and Netanyahu government. Joe.

JOHNS: And Oren, they're pointing the finger at the Obama administration, but it's not even an open secret that the Obama administration has held sentiments along these lines for quite a while.

LIEBERMANN: Well, the Obama administration always wanted to leave some mark on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was Secretary of State Kerry who led the last round of negotiation between Israeli and Palestinians that fell apart back in April of 2014, just a few short months before the Gaza war. And Kerry had expressed his frustration over and over again about not being to leave a mark. This is what the Obama administration did to leave a mark. They said, which is to say U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, said this wasn't their number one choice, but they felt given how far settlement in advance, and how far the settlement population had grown, as well as a few bills here in Israel that would promote settlements they felt this was what they had to do. Netanyahu made his anger very clear over this.

JOHNS: Oren Liebermann in Jerusalem, thanks so much for that.

KOSIK: Here at home, 25 days until Donald Trump taking office, and the president-elect is moving to address potential conflicts of interest in his administration. That includes dissolving the charitable foundation that bears his name. But it appears the plan is already hitting a big legal snag. Let's get more now from CNN's Jeremy Diamond.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Joe and Alison. President-elect Donald Trump is staying at his Mar-a-Lago residence here in Palm Beach, Florida, today. He's got nothing publicly scheduled. But that comes after this weekend where he spent the Christmas holiday with his family. He also attended Christmas Eve services at a church here in Palm Beach, Florida. But on Saturday, he made a bit of news. The president-elect announcing in a statement that he plans to shutter the Trump Foundation, that's the charitable foundation in his name. But that may be a little bit easier said than done. The New York attorney general's office releasing a statement saying that Donald Trump cannot legally shutter that foundation because an investigation is ongoing. The New York attorney general launched that investigation in relation to accusations of self- dealings, meaning that Donald Trump has been accused of using his charity foundation to settle private legal disputes, business disputes involving him, using the charity's money. Donald Trump has actually not donated himself to the charity since 2008, and has not released his tax returns. So there is no public record yet of how much money Donald Trump has given over the years to charitable causes.

The Democrats have been quick to pounce on Donald Trump's announcement of shuttering his foundation saying it is nothing but a fig leaf and that it is simply a distraction, not really showing anything as far as Donald Trump resolving his conflicts of interest. But we will see over the coming weeks. Donald Trump is expected to announce more steps to disentangle himself from conflicts of interests between his business and his duties as president of the United States. We are expecting him to give a press conference on the matter some time next month before he takes office. Joe and Alison. >

JOHNS: That's Jeremy Diamond reporting. In the meantime, the Republican National Committee is getting heat for a Christmas message that some say compare Donald Trump to Jesus. The message from RNC chair and soon-to-be Trump chief of staff, Reince Priebus, says quote, over two millennia ago, a new hope born into the word, a savior who offered the promise of salvation to all mankind just as three wise men did on that night. This Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new king.

Now, last year's Christmas message from Priebus made no reference to a king. This will note, touched off a firestorm on social media leading RNC spokesman and incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer to shoot back with this tweet. Christ is the king. He was born today, so we could be saved. It is sad and disappointing you are politicizing such a holy day. >

KOSIK: OK. A day after Christmas, and it is now time to kind of count up what you got. And the question is did you get any?

JOHNS: Actually, I made more money this year than last year.

KOSIK: Well, you know, you're not alone there. So with that, the holiday shopping season coming to a close, how did retailers fare? A check of CNN Money coming up next.


[04:15:30] KOSIK: All right. The holiday shopping season is wrapping up. And Americans unloaded hundreds of billions of dollars on gifts. The National Retail Federation forecasts a 3.6 percent jump in sales from last year. A total amount spent, an incredible $655 billion on gifts. Americans plan to spend an average of $935 on gifts, second only to last year. Mobile was a bright spot for retailers. Stores like Macy's and Kohl's and Best Buy reinventing their mobile site, trying to make it easier for shoppers. And there is also an employment bump from the holiday rush as well. The National Retail Federation says as many as 690,000 seasonal workers scored jobs this holiday season. That is in line with last year's 675,000 new holiday positions. Many of those jobs will disappear in the New Year. But a steady level of holiday jobs, what it does is it shows consumer demand is strong. Retail sales in the first quarter will be important to the broader economy because it has been a sluggish past few years.

JOHNS: Yeah.

KOSIK: SO retailers have a lot of ground to make up.

JOHNS: A big difference over the lasts few years. We would say things are looking up, I guess.

KOSIK: Well, part of -- I guess, the confidence is coming from when you look at the stock market. The Dow is almost at 20,000. That helps to instill confidence in the buying public.

JOHNS: Absolutely. Keep those gift cards coming.


JOHNS: The weather, Christmas whiteout from the Rockies to the northern plains. As much as foot and a half of snow falling in the nation's mid section. Blizzard warnings still in effects through this morning along with dangerous accumulations of black ice on the roads. Parts of North Dakota buried in a deep freeze. The State Department of Transportation closing portions of three major highways because of what they call life-threatening conditions. No travel advisories also in effect for Bismarck where National Weather Service says traveling is quote dangerous if not impossible. Let's get more now from meteorologist Derek Van Dam. Derek.

DEREK VAN DAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Joe and Alison. It is the day after Christmas. Of course, lots of people traveling, either going back to work or coming home from loved ones houses. Well, take a look at this map because we have got a significant storm system moving across the northern plains and it will also impact the New England coastline.

First, we start across the Dakotas where a full fledged blizzard is taking place as we speak. You see the large storm system rotating across the region. Still blizzard warnings in effect through noon today across parts of North and South Dakota. As the system moves north and east, we have a mixture of precipitation across Pennsylvania, New York, parts of Massachusetts, upstate Vermont and into New Hampshire as well.

That's not the other story worth covering. We have potential record highs across much of the eastern parts of the country, 22 potential records being shattered through the course of the day today. Get a load of these temperatures soaring from Chicago to Atlanta. Back to you. >

KOSIK: OK, Derek, thank you very much. Now, nearly 11,000 people are stranded as typhoon Nock-ten rips across the east and central parts of the Philippines. Authorities say at least one person has died. You can see some of the effects of the storm here. The wind gusts up to 158 miles per hour, hammering the region. You know, if you look on our category, it would be category five. The biggest fear at this point is more flooding and landslide. There are some good news here though. The storm is weakening.

JOHNS: We got some very bad news. A tragedy in Russia as a military plane goes down carrying a famed military choir traveling to perform in Syria. We will talk about what brought the jet down and nearly 100 people on it. We are live in Moscow coming up.


KOSIK: Japan's prime minister is set to make a historic visit to Hawaii. Shinzo Abe will take part in ceremonies today before tomorrow's visit with President Obama to Pearl Harbor. Abe will be the first Japanese prime minister to visit the wreck of the USS Arizona more than 75 years after the surprise attack by Japan, which left 2,400 Americans dead, most of them, military personnel. Abe's visit comes a few months after President Obama's visit to Hiroshima, the site of the U.S. atomic bombing.

JOHNS: Russian President Vladimir Putin declaring a national day of mourning today after a military jet crashed Sunday killing all 92 people on board. The plane carrying the victims' bodies arriving in Moscow overnight. The passengers included the members of the military choir who are scheduled to perform for Russian troops in Syria on New Year's Eve. Now, Russian officials are weighing in on the likely cause of the disaster. CNN's Matthew Chance is live in Moscow with the very latest. And, Matthew, do we know anything more about what caused this?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. I mean, the investigation is still very much under way. In fact, we are still in the phase of recovering bits of the aircraft with some three and a half thousand Russian personnel who have been deployed to the Black Sea area, where the aircraft crashed on Sunday, shortly after takeoff. There are a number of ships involved in the operation. The Russian defense ministry said 139 divers forming the search teams, part of the search teams. And they have been deployed on an eight-hour shift basis for the past 24 hours trying to recover bodies and fragments of the aircraft. There were no survivors that have been found at this point.

In terms of the cause of the crash, the Russian transport minister said they are looking at pilot error or mechanical failure as the reason for this. They are saying that terrorism is not a main version of events that they are looking at the this point. And so Russian officials are very early on to trying to rule out terrorism as a cause of this. But the fact is those remarks were made before the investigation is completed. And this was a military aircraft. It was carrying members of the Russian armed forces, and although members of the Russian army choir to Syria to stage that performance for troops that are based there, Russian of course based in Syria, has troops in Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And it is a target for terrorists and target for Islamic militants in particular. Not just over that issue, but over other issues as well. When an aircraft like this simply disappears from radar minutes after taking off, it is probably you know wise to leave the option of terrorism open.

JOHNS: Matthew Chance in Moscow, thank you so much for that. A lot of questions yet to be answered.

An update now on Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher. Her mother, Debbie Reynolds tweeting this on Christmas, she says Carrie is in stable condition, in an in-flight medical emergency on Friday. Reynolds also thanking Carrie's fans and friends for their prayers and good wishes. The 60-year-old Fisher suffered a cardiac event flying from London to Los Angeles.

KOSIK: For the first time in almost three decades, Queen Elizabeth did not make it to the traditional Christmas day church service. The 90- year-old is still recovering from a bad cold and will stay indoors to help with her recovery. But in a Christmas message taped before she got sick, the Queen urged Britain to come together and work toward peace, especially after a turbulent election year.

JOHNS: The music world remembering George Michael. The pop icon passing away on Christmas at just 53 years old. We are live in London where fans are remembering this one-of-a-kind talent.