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Comey Faces House Intel Committee; Gorsuch Confirmation Hearings Start; AARP Steps Up Fight Against Health Care Bill; Red- Letter Week For Trump Agenda. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 20, 2017 - 05:00   ET



DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: -- Supreme Court pick facing tough questions in the Senate, the GOP's health care plan up for a vote in the House, we are breaking it all down. Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Just got the papers. It's 5:00 a.m. It is Monday, March 20th. It is 5:00 a.m. in the east. I can guarantee you the headline is all about the crucial week ahead for President Trump in every paper in America with his legislative agenda, his Supreme Court legacy and his credibility all on the line.

The drama starts this morning with two big hearings on the Hill. In just hours, FBI Director James Comey testifies to the House Intelligence Committee. Now we expect him to contradict the president. We expect him to tell lawmakers that the Trump campaign was not wiretapped on orders by President Obama.

Comey is also likely to be asked about alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election and whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

BRIGGS: And later this morning, Democrats may take aim at Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, as his Senate confirmation hearings begin. Let's start with the FBI director's testimony. CNN's Ryan Nobles has the very latest from Washington.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Dave and Christine. This morning's hearings will make the first time that lawmakers can get FBI Director James Comey to state publicly what his agency has learned about President Trump's claims that President Obama wiretapped him at Trump Tower.

The White House has refused to back down, this as both Democrats and Republicans say that there is no evidence to back up the president's claim. Now in addition to pressing Comey on the wiretap issue, expect the members of Congress to ask if the FBI has been able to conclude if the Russians were working directly with the Trump campaign to help elect the Republican.

This is something the administration has forcefully denied. The Republican House chair of the Intel Committee, Devin Nunes, has said, he's not seen any evidence to suggest there was collusion. His Democratic counterpart, Adam Schiff, though is not so sure.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you seen any evidence of any collusion between what I will call Trump world, associates of campaign officials, Trump world and the Russians to swing the 2016 presidential election?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll give you a simple answer. No.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: There is circumstantial evidence of collusion. There is direct evidence I think of deception. That's where we begin the investigation.


NOBLES: And this divide could be where the congressional investigation could breakdown. If the findings of the committee breakdown over party lines, that's where there is some danger that the probe could be written off by critics as being too political.

It is something the leaders of both the House and Senate Intel Committees have promised they will work to avoid. While Republicans and Democrats seemed to not be on the same page about Russian's influence on the election, both parties have been clear about one thing.

No one has been able to provide any evidence to support the president's wiretap claim. That is a point that could be emphasized during today's hearing -- Christine and Dave.

BRIGGS: Ryan, thank you. On the Senate side of the capitol this morning, confirmation hearings begin for President Trump's Supreme Court pick, Judge Neil Gorsuch. The big question hanging over the nomination, what will Senate Democrats do?

Gorsuch needs 60 votes to win his Senate confirmation, which means eight Democrats would have to cross the aisle and vote for him. Republicans say they are confident they can get enough Democrats partly by leaning on those facing re-election in states won by President Trump.

ROMANS: But many Democrats are still angry that President Obama's Supreme Court nominee never had a hearing last year. Could not even get a meeting with senators. They may look to retaliate and dig in their heels against Gorsuch.

But Republicans are making clear they will do what it takes to get Gorsuch on the high court even if it means changing Senate rules to cut off the possibility of a filibuster. The hearing is expected to last four days. Republican leaders hope for a vote next month.

BRIGGS: Healthcare reform is a top priority for President Trump. Today, he'll be meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and also with Ezekiel Emanuel, who is the key architect of Obamacare, interesting that one, right? House Republicans scrambling to secure the 216 votes they need to pass repeal and replace bill ahead of Thursday's critical floor vote. More than two dozen Republicans are against the measure or leaning that way. That's enough to kill the bill if no minds are changed.

The Trump administration signaling it may be willing to phase out the Medicaid expansion earlier to satisfy conservative critics. But meanwhile moderate Republicans are worried about the impact of Medicaid changes on the older, low income Americans.

ROMANS: Yes, and that's the part that AARP is stepping up the fight against in the Republican health care bill. It vows to hold lawmakers accountable for how they are voting and calls the bill a tax on older Americans.

In a statement, it says, quote, "AARP recognizes the magnitude of the upcoming vote on this harmful legislation that creates an age tax and cuts the life of Medicare and gives sweetheart deals to big drug and insurance companies while doing nothing to lower the cost of health care or prescriptions. We intend on letting all 38 million of our members know exactly how their representatives voted."

[05:05:08]AARP points to this example from the Congressional Budget Office for the age tax, 64-year-old earning $26,500 a year will see their premiums rise from $1,700 under Obamacare to $14,600, half of their income under the Republican plan.

They could pay even more because the new bill let's insurers charge older Americans four to five times what younger people will pay. This is why we have an expert here to break down the political drama that we expect today and all week long, our CNN politics reporter, Eugene Scott. Good morning.


ROMANS: We heard Paul Ryan, he said, hinted, said that there will be changes to the health care bill. In particular, he talked about the cohort, these people who are potential Trump supporters, rural, older Americans who would get hit under the GOP plan.


REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: We believe that we do need to add some additional assistance to people in those older cohorts. If the person in their 50s or 60s does have additional health care costs than say a person in their 20s and 30s, the tax credit adjusts for that. But you're right in saying, and we agree, we believe we should have even more assistance, and that is one of the things we're looking at.


ROMANS: It is interesting because they are being hit by both sides. You have conservatives who are talking to Steve Bannon who want the Medicaid expansion to be rolled back more quickly. And then you have on the other side, AARP and people representing that cohort who want more generous benefits.

SCOTT: Yes, they certainly are. I mean, I think one of the most interesting things in watching this push back to the plan to repeal Obamacare is just that some of the most vocal voices are not from the left. They've actually been from within the party.

We saw this weekend, Mike Pence was speaking with business leaders in Florida letting them know that they have been willing to make some changes to the plan in areas related to work requirements for able- bodied people and allowing block grants instead of the Medicaid expansion. And just the efforts to make it more appealing to some of the people who don't think it will work.

BRIGGS: But of course, the million dollar question or in this case, 1/5 of the economy question is, how do you produce a bill that satisfies the right, conservative group in the House, and then pleases the moderates in the Senate?

Those are worried about the Medicaid expansion. That is some gymnastics that none of the U.S. gymnasts were able to pull off. That is Simone Biles type o stuff. How do you pull that off? What's the thread in the needle?

SCOTT: You got Simone Biles into the health care conversation. That's pretty awesome. Well done. The reality is you can't. The president is working really hard trying to get some conservatives on his side. But there is some, no matter how much lobbying he does, no matter how many change are not going to support it because they really do think it is just a nicer version of Obamacare.

ROMANS: You know, we heard Paul Ryan and others, but mostly Paul Ryan is the cheerleader-in-chief of this saying, look, don't worry. We are where we need to be. This is what the process is all about. But there are 26 people now saying no or leaning no. We expect big changes this week.

SCOTT: Yes, we would have to. One of the things I'm very interested in and this happened after the election is the number of people who may not support the plan who just haven't been vocal about it, who we don't know. So it actually could be higher. We could be surprised to see the amount of push back.

ROMANS: It is hard to have the AARP staring you down. They are a big powerful lobby. They represent a demographic that's getting bigger and more powerful --

BRIGGS: You weigh that versus the Trump districts and that is a tough juggling act. Also today on Capitol Hill, we are talking about this Intel Committee hearing where James Comey is expected to say there is no evidence of wiretapping at Trump Tower. But also that perhaps there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. What do you think changes after today regarding this pivotal hearing?

SCOTT: Well, I don't think much will change quite frankly with President Trump. The reality that there may be no evidence will not stop him from putting forward this idea if he deeply believes this is what happened.

I mean, we saw with the birth certificate situation that despite multiple people presenting proof for years. We may be hearing this claim for a while.

I think, though, what some Democrats are hoping to do is just expose Donald Trump once again as someone who puts forward ideas that cannot be supported. But whether or not that even matters to some of the people in his base still remains to be seen.

BRIGGS: This is not about Democrats. This is about James Comey. Will he go far to say there is no evidence and suggest that the president lied?

SCOTT: He is expected to say that there is no evidence. I think one of the reasons why he will be a bit more aggressive is because of the integrity of the FBI is on the line right now. I mean, we saw the FBI and other intelligence agencies being accused of things that would be illegal if they didn't have permission from the president to do. There's no evidence suggesting that they have that permission.

[05:10:03]ROMANS: The integrity of the FBI and credibility of the White House, I mean, these are big questions. I want to play quickly just a bunch of different sound bites of Republicans over the weekend basically dismissing the president's claims. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was there a physical wiretap of Trump tower? No, but there never was.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No evidence to support the president's claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have not seen evidence of any of the like that you just described.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Did you know of any evidence to support that allegation?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jake, not that I have seen or aware of.


ROMANS: So I have maybe a counterintuitive assessment of what could happen today. You get James Comey who goes out and puts the period on that sentence. Then Donald Trump wins, the president wins because now this is sort of behind him. Everyone has said there is isn't any, he moves forward. We finally got the FBI and he moves forward. It is much like the birtherism debate where it kind of percolates with his supporters but there really isn't an official storyline anymore.

SCOTT: Well, here is the challenge with that, and that's very possible. Donald Trump campaigned and promised when he was elected that he would not just be president of his base. That he would be a president of all Americans. And we've seen very recently, even in the last week, his support with all Americans continues to go down. As someone who continues to talk about wanting to be in the White House for eight years, he has to approach this job in a way that convinces people who were not on the Trump train to get on it. I don't know that he can continue to win if he only has people who are already on his team backing him.

BRIGGS: Gallup shows his approval at 37 percent.

SCOTT: That's not enough to win again.

BRIGGS: All right, I want to ask about the Neil Gorsuch hearings later this hour. CNN will have live coverage of the House Intelligence Committee hearing with FBI Director James Comey. That is at 9:00 a.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

ROMANS: All right, the suspense building prey pivotal congressional hearing into Russia's meddling in the election, will Russia be paying attention. How officials in Moscow are responding. That is next.



ROMANS: FBI Director James Comey is expected to shine new light today on the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. The U.S. intelligence community has said Russia hacked the DNC and the Clinton campaign in an attempt to help President Trump win. How is the Russian government reacting to the investigation?

CNN senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, joins us live from Moscow. This a subject that has consumed the air waves here and the conversation here. What about there, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think at least on the surface saying the kremlin won't be watching today. That is the reflection of the scornful distance we have seen from the kremlin about these allegations. They say they have better things to be doing.

Now, of course, I'm sure somebody within the quiet walls of the kremlin will keep a careful eye on what James Comey actually has to say. But on the record, that spokesman, Dmitri Peskov (ph) is clear that they consider the allegations to be quote, "A broken record with a futuristic song." That is what he said a few days ago about this.

But of course, there is granular details from the FBI director or NSA head, Admiral Mike Rogers, the kremlin may feel oblige to respond, they'll simply retain this distance.

We got to take a step back here and look at how this is playing for them. I'm pretty sure some of them are relishing the idea even though they deny it that somehow they are able to manipulate the election from the other side of the Atlantic.

You have seen the fairly muscular report into allegations of assisting hacking and that Vladimir Putin directly ordered it. But if they were hoping in the years ahead then maybe Donald Trump will be more pliant, more persuadable in terms of adopting a pro-Moscow policy, maybe in the Middle East, Ukraine.

I think the volume of criticism of scrutiny and allegations of collusion between his people and those around Vladimir Putin will make that very hard for this White House to necessarily come up with anything which may please the Russians in terms of foreign policy.

And instead we are seeing relations now sinking to the worst they have been since the cold war. But I'm sure inside the kremlin, they are enjoying the disorder inside Washington today and that partisan rankle we are going to see. Back to you.

ROMANS: That is interesting irony, Nick. That may be so successful in meddling around with the election, but now it has undermined the goal. So interesting if that were to be true. OK, thanks, Nick in Moscow for us this morning.

BRIGGS: Meanwhile, the sweet 16 is set after a shocker in South Carolina. Second seeded Duke done. Coy Wire is here to stomp all over my brackets this morning with this morning's "Bleacher Report."



ROMANS: All right. Dave has cried his tears. After an action packed weekend, March Madness is down to the Sweet 16.

BRIGGS: Coy Wire, do we have to do this morning's "Bleacher Report?"

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: It is not a good day, Dave, for us. Millions of people had Duke going all the way like myself and Dave Briggs and they were all wrong. We were all wrong. Thanks to the gamecocks of South Carolina.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've been like a little kid all day. I've never been good enough to play in a game like this. Why don't you break the ice for me?


WIRE: Coach Frank Marsh's team heeded his words after shooting just 20 percent in the first half down by 10 at one point. South Carolina explodes for 65 points in the second half, the most ever given up by Mike Krzyzewski's Duke team.

They played in Greenville, which is only about 100 miles from the South Carolina campus so the fans were loud and rowdy just like the team in the locker room after that big upset. South Carolina dancing into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1973 back when Richard Nixon was president. Another big upset, the Michigan Wolverines, they are so hot, the coach has to cool them down with the super soaker. They stunned the number two, Louisville Cardinals continuing a run fit for a movie script. Wolverines have won six in a row since their plane slid off the runway before the big ten tournament. They will get the Oregon Ducks in the Sweet 16.

Kentucky ended Wichita State's season. The Shockers coach of Gregg Marshall apparently didn't take it very well. Lynn Marshall let her passion get the better of her. Security visited her three times for misbehaving. She was asked to leave the court area after the game. Wichita state declined to comment saying they were not aware of the incidents. I have to say, I'm with you, Lynn.

I understand your pain and frustration when I woke up and realized my Duke Blue Devils who I had winning it all were knocked out by South Carolina. She sums up how Dave and I are feeling this morning.

[05:25:09]BRIGGS: Yes, you usually get an escort to your husband's press conference. She got a police escort. Usually it's from a university officials, by the way, but Romans actually has a shot on these brackets, Coy. She looks good.

WIRE: She has three alive in the final four. I'm watching you, Romans.

BRIGGS: We sports guys know our stuff.

ROMANS: I tell you.

BRIGGS: Thank you, Coy. Appreciate it, man.

ROMANS: Start shooting darts at a dart board.

BRIGGS: I know. Well done.

A very important week, meanwhile, for President Trump, his agenda on the line as his Supreme Court pick's confirmation hearings begin, a crucial vote for the GOP's plan to replace Obamacare looms, and the head of the FBI testifying today about the Russian interference in the election. We will cover it all next.


BRIGGS: FBI Director James Comey set to testify on Russian meddling in the election today in a highly anticipated hearing. Comey is expected to deny the president's unfounded claims that Obama wire --