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Transgender Protections Rolled Back; Angry Town Halls; A Big Day for the Right at CPAC. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired February 23, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:12] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Big blowback today after the White House rolls back protections, federal protections for transgender students nationwide. But the administration says it's just returning power to the states.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am angry constituent! You work for us!


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Anger boiling over against Republicans at town halls nationwide. Do Republicans have any answers for the many questions they face?

ROMANS: And leadership on stage for both political parties. Democrats hoping to lead the party battle on CNN, as Republicans descend on the most influential conservative conference in the nation.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START, Dave Briggs. I'm Christine Romans. Nice to see you.

BRIGGS: Nice to see you. I assume you did not win $400 million in the Powerball?

ROMANS: I did not.

BRIGGS: So, you are here.

ROMANS: I am here.

BRIGGS: As you said, I'm Dave Briggs. It's Thursday, February 23rd, 4:00 a.m. in the East.

Schools and students face heightened insecurity this morning after the Trump administration withdraws federal guidance on transgender bathroom use in public schools. The White House has dropped an Obama directive that ordered schools nationwide to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. The new administration kicking the question back to the states but it is offering no new guidance even as it declares that students do remain protected. ROMANS: The ACLU not buying that, slamming the decision in a

statement, "Revoking the guidance shows that the president's promise to protect LGBT rights was just empty rhetoric. School districts can and must protect transgender students and all students from discriminations. School districts that recognize that should continue doing the right thing. For the rest, we'll see them in court."

Even within the administration, not everyone was on board. The move faced strong opposition from one key figure.

Senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny has the latest.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, good morning. The White House issued new guidance on Wednesday about the transgender bathroom issue that was controversial in the last year. Now, essentially, they issued a directive to states to disregard what President Obama did last year by calling for extra federal protections for students using transgender restrooms.

Now, the Trump administration did not put out a new executive order. They simply put out a statement from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, advising people to ignore the guidance from President Obama from last year. Now, important to note, this is not taking away any protections. It simply is taking away the federal guidance of what to do, saying this should be in the hands of the states -- Christine and David.


ROMANS: All right. Thank you so much for that, Jeff Zeleny, this morning.

The biggest national gathering of conservatives shifts into high gear this morning outside Washington. The Conservative Political Action Conference known as CPAC welcoming top Republicans to the podium today. GOP figures once viewed as fringe are ready to address the gathering as members of the White House staff now.

Tal Kopan is leading our digital coverage of CPAC. She joins us live from Washington with the very latest.

Good morning.

So, there, this is going to be quite a lineup today. Preview it for us.

TAL KOPAN, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, good morning, Christine.

And you are absolutely right. You know, it's really interesting. This is going to be a very different CPAC than we have seen in years past. For the first time in a long time, Republicans are in control in a way that they haven't been in Washington for, you know, as they said, many years. And so, you know, we're seeing not just the usual conservative

gathering and talking about conservative ideals, but for the first time since, you know, Obama took office, we see the White House coming out in full force. And certainly they are.

You know, several of the speakers today, there's Kellyanne Conway, Betsy DeVos, the education secretary. You've got sort of the marquee duo between Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. That would be really interesting, and Mike Pence.

And then, of course, you know, Ted Cruz, who isn't a member of the White House, but has positioned himself as certainly a leader in the Republican Party and, you know, since his very terse head-to-head match up with Donald Trump in the primaries, he has actually come out as more of a conciliatory figure in the party. We don't really expect a firebrand speech from him today.

So, we're going to see, you know, certainly a hashing of conservative ideals. But I think the most important thing is we're going to see the new conservative ideals under the Trump White House.

BRIGGS: Yes, it will be interesting to see that dynamic between Priebus and Bannon together --


BRIGGS: -- and how the power struggle works. But is this more of a main line conference? It's usually on the fringe. The Ron and Rand Paul wing of the party. Is it more mainstream now than it has been in years past?

[04:05:00] KOPAN: Well, that's a really interesting question, Dave, and welcome.

BRIGGS: Thanks.

KOPAN: But, you know, the reason it's so really interesting question is I think that really encapsulates what the Republican Party has gone through in the last year, right? You know, in some ways, you have the fringe become the mainstream and that you have sort of the Breitbart, very sort of hard core right wingers in some ways represented in the White House. And, you know, you mentioned the Priebus/Bannon panel.

I mean, Reince Priebus was very much a symbol of the establishment as chairman of the RNC, and Steve Bannon was very much a symbol of, you know, slightly more fringe part of the party. Their job today is going to show a united front, to say everything is fine, we're totally (AUDIO GAP). The message of CPAC is (AUDIO GAP) to be, we once were fringe and now we're here and it's OK.

ROMANS: So, you're going to have kumbaya at CPAC. You know, that's going to be all the headlines for the Republicans today. But back home, at these town hall meetings back home, they are facing the wrath of some of their constituents.

You know, Sean Spicer and others have said that some of this is manufactured. Others say that this grassroots kind of stuff, you know, from folks who are worried about Obamacare. Tell us what Republicans are saying about they're facing when they go back home for these town halls.

KOPAN: Yes, you know, it's really interesting to watch the reaction. As you said, you know, Donald Trump has tweeted about paid protesters and some of the Republicans have handled it that way and said, you know, folks are coming in from out of district and they're sort of being pushed by other groups on them.

You know, I'm not sure that really matters. I mean, the truth is, yes, some protests have been organized in a sense by groups that are trying to make people aware of where these town halls are, but isn't that how our democracy is supposed to work? People are supposed to know to access lawmakers and make their voices heard. And so, you know, the lawmakers are going to have to deal with these town halls, whether the protesters are constituents or almost constituents or coming in from elsewhere.

And the videos we've seen are remarkable. I mean, just the lawmakers staring down and yelling. I mean, that has an impact that they have to deal with. And they can't get out of it by trying to casts dispersions on the character of the people that they're facing.

BRIGGS: Yes. Well, the idea certainly is a display of democracy. Is that how it's being implemented? Let's let the viewers decide. Here is Tom Cotton's town hall yesterday and it was fiery.


SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Everyone in the room has been hurt or helped by Obamacare.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have been helped. Obamacare saved by life, Senator.

UNIDENTIFIED KID: Donald Trump makes Mexicans not important to people who are in Arkansas who like Mexicans. Like me and my grandma. And he is deleting all the parts in PBS kids just to make a wall. He can't do that.


BRIGGS: OK, that was very well played by that young man. But that's not the typical interaction which we are seeing which is the angry shouting down of their congressman. And my question to you is, is this a display or is it opposite of that? Because they are allowing for discussion and dialogue from the senators? Are they even getting answers to their questions?

KOPAN: Well, that's certainly the viewpoint of some of the lawmakers. You know, there was video yesterday. Some which we carry live on our air of Bill Cassidy's town hall where he was saying, you know, do you want my answers or do you just want to yell?

ROMANS: Right. KOPAN: And, you know, it's hard to say right now.

You have a lot of people who are really frustrated. I mean, this election was very close. Yes, Republicans won, but it was very close. And so, you know, what you are seeing is folks who say, you may think you have a mandate to do these things, but I want you to hear from me first. I want you to hear how Obamacare has impacted my life, you know, now that you're getting ready to repeal it.

And so, in some ways, it's natural that folks who feel very passionate about this are going to use every avenue they can to be heard. But you're right. It's unclear if they are heard substantively or if they're just being heard, you know, sort of loudly.

ROMANS: I'll tell you, we have -- Kyung Lah has been crisscrossing the country, our correspondent, you know, going to some of these. And it's interesting that there are some pre-made signs, you know, no question.

But there are a lot of people putting, you know, stickers with their zip code on just to show no, I really am constituent. I really do live here. I'm not bussed in from some place else. So, it's been fascinating, fascinating to watch.

Well, you'll be covering CPAC for us. We'll talk a little bit about that later in the hour. Nice to see you this morning bright and early, Tal.

KOPAN: Thank you, guys.

ROMANS: All right. The first meeting on the president's agenda today, a listening session with CEOs of some of the nation's largest manufacturers. Job creation is likely the central topic.

[04:10:01] Trump promises to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. And he is already taking credit for thousands of factory jobs. But there's a lot of ground to make up. There were more than 17 million Americans working in factories in the year 2000, 17 million American. Today, there are 5 million less than that.

But the number has slowly rebounded since the recession and manufacturers are hiring right now. They say they are having a tough time finding workers with the right skills. There are 325,000 open manufacturing positions right now, 325,000 job openings. That's been steady for the past year at levels we haven't seen since 2006.

So, while Trump's moves to bring jobs back and call out companies may be working, another way to get Americans back into factories is equip them with the right skills and training. That is something, Dave, I have not heard really in the discussion quite yet.

BRIGGS: Not a word. Eighty-seven percent of the jobs lost were because of modernization. Not because of trade deals.

ROMANS: That's right.

BRIGGS: We need to hear more from that from the Republican Party and leadership.

Well, two members of the president's cabinet are in Mexico to try and smooth over relations after a rocky start under President Trump. We have a preview from Mexico City, next.


[04:15:20] BRIGGS: We'll now have to wait until next week to see the president's updated travel ban. The White House is postponing the rollout which had been expected this week. The administration no doubt taking time to get it right this time after the bungled rollout of the previous travel ban last month. That ended with the federal court blocking enforcement of the ban. This time, the White House counsel is taking the lead.

Among the big outstanding questions, whether Syrian refugees remain banned indefinitely as they were in the original order.

ROMANS: All right. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Secretary John Kelly are in Mexico. Their visit coming at a time when tensions between the U.S. and Mexico are a high not seen in decades. Tillerson and Kelly are slated to meet with the Mexican officials who have publicly slammed new immigration directives from the White House. The country's foreign minister has made it clear Mexico will not accept unilateral policies imposed by Washington.

CNN's Leyla Santiago has the latest for us this morning from Mexico City.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Christine, quite a busy schedule today for Secretary Tillerson, as well as Secretary Kelly who are now in Mexico City, scheduled to meet with the Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto but also with the foreign minister and some cabinet members here in Mexico.

So, what do we expect that they will talk about? Well, you better believe they will be talking about immigration, given the timing of this, given that this is just within days of the Trump administration releasing clarification and guidelines on immigration policies, sort of a crackdown as seen by some immigration advocates.

So, you can also expect that they will be talking about the economy, NAFTA, that free trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. that has really been kind of controversial. President Trump called it one of the worst deals in U.S. history. But Mexico points out, it is critical for U.S. jobs. A lot of U.S. jobs actually depend on it just as much as Mexico does -- David, Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Leyla Santiago, thank you for that. And there's a Mexican senator who wants to -- who has already written a bill and introduced a bill to wean Mexico off of U.S. corn, to try to hurt American corn farmers. BRIGGS: We know that hits you right in the heart.

ROMANS: I come from a corn farming family.

BRIGGS: You come from corn country.

ROMANS: But it just shows you how this is a complicated relationship and, you know, Mexico does have leverage, too.

BRIGGS: Well, they're going to have a tough time getting through that border adjustment tax. There are people in their own party that have not so keen to the idea.

Well, mixed messages from the White House are causing concern for European officials already trying to figure out how to work with President Trump. We're live in Berlin with more.


[4:22:26] ROMANS: So, a new wrinkle this morning in Europe's interactions with the new White House. While European leaders are trying to find their bearings in working with President Trump, CNN has learned E.U. countries were given conflicting messages by two members of the president's inner circle.

CNN's Atika Shubert is live in Berlin with the very latest.

And, Atika, these world leaders are trying to decipher what is the American administration's stance on the E.U.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And here in Germany, there's been a lot of hand-wringing among policymakers to try and get inside the mind of the Trump administration. And this is probably why they sent their German ambassador to meet with Steve Bannon.

Now, some conflicting reports about what exactly happened in the meeting, but according to our sources, it was a combative meeting in which Bannon said that the E.U. was a flawed institution and that the United States would rather deal with nations one-on-one in Europe.

On the other hand, a Trump administration official told us it was a short meeting, not very substantial, more of a quick hello. And the timing of this meeting is important. It happened actually a week before Vice President Pence came through Europe on his tour, giving basic reassurance to allies here that, yes, the U.S. is absolutely committed to NATO and the European Union.

So, there are some mixed messages coming through. Vice President Pence's speech here in Brussels and in other cities here did go some way to reassuring allies. But they are still not 100 percent sure. They want to see what the administration officials do next, what the exact policy will be towards the E.U.

ROMANS: All right. Posturing first. Now, we wait to see what the policy looks like. All right. Atika Shubert for us this morning in Berlin -- thank you.

BRIGGS: Growing concern this morning for U.S. troops in Iraq, as CNN has learned some of them may have been wounded on the frontlines in Mosul. A U.S. defense official says a number of troops operating in Mosul around Mosul have been injured and Medevac off the battlefield over the last six to eight weeks. But the official would not go into specifics about how many were wounded. U.S. forces are in the region helping Iraqi units regain control of western Mosul from ISIS.

ROMANS: It's supposed to be an advisory role there.


ROMANS: But I think what it shows -- military officials are saying what it shows is just how dangerous and how kind of --

BRIGGS: Complicated --

ROMANS: -- complicated this frontline is there.

All right. If you look into the sky this morning, there is something out there you can't see but it could hold the potential for live a life away from Earth. This story is far out, Dave Briggs.

Astronomers have discovered at least seven Earth-like exoplanets orbiting a star 40 light years away.

[04:25:05] Scientists believe they have the rare winning combination of being Earth-size and temperate, suggesting they could support life. They may even have oceans on their surfaces. It is the first time so many planets of this kind have been found around the same star. And, you know --

BRIGGS: Do we have life?

ROMANS: (INAUDIBLE) get really excited about stuff like this.

BRIGGS: Cue up the "ET" footage, come on.

ROMANS: I don't know.

BRIGGS: There's definitely life out there, we believe.

Well, why did the White House overrule a key cabinet secretary and decide to rollback protections for transgender students? The latest on the controversial move, next.


BRIGGS: Advocates for transgender students are pushing back after the White House rolled back some protections. Why does the White House say this move was necessary?

ROMANS: Republicans facing growing anger at town halls nationwide.