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Trump Team Battles Back; Changes to Health Care Bill; Gorsuch Set for Senate Grilling; President Trump Talks Tough on North Korea. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired March 21, 2017 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:09] SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You can continue to look for something, but continuing to look for something that doesn't exist, doesn't matter.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The White House standing firm after the FBI acknowledged an investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. But will the administration ever be able to escape the clouds of this political storm?

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And overnight, Republican leaders with critical changes to their health care bill in an effort to appeal to skittish lawmakers. Is it enough to help the bill pass with the vote just two days away?

Good morning. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is Tuesday, March 21st. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East. Good morning, everyone.

President Trump back in Washington this morning after one of his trademark campaign-style rallies in Kentucky last night. He talked about health care, tax reform and other topics of the day, but did not touch on Monday's extraordinary, extraordinary testimony by the FBI Director James Comey. This despite tweeting all day long about the dramatic Capitol Hill hearing, a hearing that features some fireworks, but not smoking gun connecting Russia to the Trump campaign.

The FBI director confirmed for the first time there actually is an FBI investigation into whether Trump allies colluded with Russia in its election meddling.

BRIGGS: Comey told senators the FBI probe began in late July and that by a month after the election, the intelligence community had come to a clear conclusion about Russian interference, an effort Comey says was driven by President Putin's disdain for Hillary Clinton.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: They wanted to hurt our democracy. Hurt her. Help him. Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was, he had a clear preference to the person running against the person he hated so much. As the summer went on and the polls appeared to show that Secretary Clinton was going to win, the Russians sort of gave up and simply focused on trying to undermine her.


ROMANS: The Republicans focused during their part of the hearing on leaks that led to the forced resignation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer asked later about surveillance of Russian officials who Flynn secretly talked to, Spicer raised question who knew it was Flynn on the other end of those conversations and why did they leak?


SPICER: Why was a name that should have been protected by law from being put out into the public domain put out there? What were the motives behind that? What else do we need to know? Who was behind that kind of unmasking?

There is a ways to go and I get that you guys want to know the end of the book right now. But we are in the first chapter of this process.


BRIGGS: The other big news from the hearing, the FBI director's confirmation that there is no evidence to back President Trump's claim that Trump Tower was wiretapped and President Obama ordered it. Even so, President Trump still standing by the unfounded allegation. His press secretary, Mr. Spicer, saying Mr. Trump will not apologize to his predecessor, adding that questions remain about surveillance that may or may not have taken place during the campaign.

ROMANS: All right. For its part, Russia has denied meddling in the U.S. election at every turn. So, how is the Kremlin reacting this morning after Monday's explosive testimony by the FBI director?

Let's go live to Moscow and get the very latest from CNN's Frederik Pleitgen.

And, Fred, you know, we were sort of glued to the hearing all day long yesterday. And in it, you had two top law enforcement, national defense officials who are painting Russia as an adversary out to harm U.S. interests around the world.


Yes, and we were certainly glued to those hearings as well. But it seems as, though, the Kremlin and Russian officials are really going out of their way to try and not comment on these hearings at all.

We actually managed to get in touch with Vladimir Putin's spokesman, with Dmitry Peskov, as the hearing was going on. And we said, look, what do you -- what do you think? And he said that he we saw a, quote, "no reason to comment on the hearings." The same goes for a lot of other top level Russian officials who are usually quite active on Twitter and in the media. We are hearing very little from any sort of official sources.

One source that is commenting so far is Russian state owned TV Russia Today which, of course, was also substantially mentioned in those hearings as being a propaganda arm of the Kremlin. And they came out and they said that they believe that the hearings were like a 1970s soap opera which they say is repetitive and quite flat. But at the same time, you are still looking to see how all of it ends.

So, some critical reaction that came of Moscow. But by and large, you could see the Kremlin and also other entities here in the Russian government really want -- don't want to talk about this topic at all. They stand by what they have been saying all the time. They said that they believe all this is politically motivated and they say that their country is being demonized, Christine.

[04:05:00] ROMANS: All right. Frederik Pleitgen for us this morning in Moscow -- thanks, Fred.

A 1970s soap opera, Dave, 1970s soap opera.

BRIGGS: It is extraordinary political times.

Now, as the anchors of EARLY START, we play a limited role in the program. That seems to be on par with the argument used by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Listen to Spicer making these comments at the same time the House committee investigating whether or not Trump campaign aides colluded with Russia.


SPICER: Obviously, there's been this discussion of Paul Manafort who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time. But I believe Paul was brought on sometime in June and by the middle of August, he was no longer with the campaign. Meaning that for the entire stretch of the general election, he was not involved.


BRIGGS: Now, to be clear, Manafort was hired in March of 2016 to lead the delegate operation for the campaign. He was promoted in May to campaign chairman and chief strategist. Manafort eventually resigned amid competing power centers in the Trump campaign.

In a statement, Manafort did not reference his role in the campaign, but does deny any ties to or contact with the Russian government. He was the stabilizing force behind the campaign if you remember that moment. It was wildly fluctuating. And he really kind of moderated and stabilized things for a time. ROMANS: Well, some -- I remember at the time, some have called him,

you know, sort of the grown up in the room.

BRIGGS: Yes, right.

ROMANS: You know, was able to sort of unify that campaign.

ROMANS: All right. A limited role is what Sean Spicer says.

OK, in other news, breaking overnight. Up against mounting odds, Republicans unveil significant changes to their plan for repealing and replacing Obamacare. With the vote planned for Thursday, House Republican leaders last night, they rolled out a package of amendments to the American Health Care Act. The changes include work requirements and block grants for Medicaid and more money to ensure older Americans.

You remember that age tax that the AARP has been fighting against. More details in all that in a moment.

BRIGGS: Republican leaders making the changes to appease both GOP conservatives and moderates. But it may not be enough. The ultra conservative House Freedom Caucus announced last night it still has enough votes to block the bill. The president is expected to ratchet up the pressure on resistant lawmakers when he huddles with House Republicans at 9:00 on Capitol Hill.

That is where we find CNN's Phil Mattingly with the latest.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine and Dave, this is the big one week, and the president, he has been called the closer by Speaker Paul Ryan. He's going to be able to put that to the test this morning, coming in to meet behind closed doors with the House Republican conference.

And reality is this, they need his help to try and close the deal. They started to do some of the work on their own, releasing a manager's amendment, basically a package of changes to the underlying health care bill, in the hope of trying to draw both some of the moderates, some of these Tuesday group members that you hear about, and some of the conservatives who are wary about that underlying tax.

The big question now though becomes: will those changes and will this big final push from President Trump be enough to close the deal? Bottom line? They need 216 votes. They are still planning on having the final vote in the House on this bill on Thursday.

They're short right now. If you talk to aides, they're very honest. They know that there is work to do. But they believe, with the changes as they're incorporated with the president's help behind closed doors, as you said, the closer, if you will, that they get this across the finish line.

One of the really key issues to keep an eye on, guys, as this moves forward, obviously, besides what the president himself has to say behind closed doors is on those changes and what will happen next. You are starting to hear a lot of alliance on what the Senate will do to make this package more palatable. Is that enough to sell these skeptical House members? We'll see in just a couple of days time -- Christine and Dave.


ROMANS: Yes, the clock is ticking, Phil Mattingly.

So, let's talk about what these changes are that Republican leaders are making to get the bill through the House. They include giving states the option of taking their Medicaid money as one big block grant as per enrollee, as the bill says now. States could also require able bodied Medicaid recipients to work, something conservatives want. And states would be barred from expanding their Medicaid role now ahead of the planned phase out of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion in 2020.

The Obamacare taxes would be repealed this year instead of next. And $75 billion will be set aside to increase the health insurance tax credits for those consumers in their 50s and early 60s that AARP says they will hold lawmakers accountable if they, you know, raise costs for those older consumers.

BRIGGS: Right. It may satisfy lawmakers. Will it satisfy the AARP? Stand by.

Republican leaders face a steep climb just getting the bill through the House. Speaker Paul Ryan says he is playing the long game with an eye to passing a bill that can also make it through the Senate.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We always had to make sure that every change we make conforms to the Senate rules which we have to play by to make sure that it can't get filibustered. And so, that's what we've been doing. So, all these changes that have been added, we're doing to make sure they're done in such a way that they can't get filibustered.

[04:10:04] And we feel really good where we are.


BRIGGS: Now, after a frenzy of political horse trading, conservative lawmakers say they've been told no more changes. Negotiations are over. Conservative senators hoping to make changes emerge from the White House meeting Monday afternoon disappointed. So much so, Senator Mike Lee described the meeting as, quote, "terribly frustrating".

ROMANS: All right. Ten minutes past the hour.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be a no show at next month's gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. A State Department spokesman says Tillerson will instead be meeting with the Chinese president here in the U.S. Tillerson is also attending meetings in Russia next month. Democrats among others are raising questions about the administration's foreign policy commitments with Russia and China appearing to trump fellow NATO members.

BRIGGS: The Secret Service under fire again this morning. Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, calling the response to last week's White House fence jumper "pathetic and alarming". The suspect went undetected for 16 minutes before he was located and arrested. After reviewing video, Chaffetz told reporters, quote, "every single redundancy in the system failed."

ROMANS: All right. James Comey is not the only one on the hot seat. The president's Supreme Court nominee ready for 10 hours of questioning from Senator. A preview of day two of his confirmation hearings, next.


[04:15:30] BRIGGS: President Trump's Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch getting set for a grueling day on the Senate hot seat. Day two of his confirmation hearing begins in just hours. Tension fill the air during day one of the hearing as Democrats making it clear they believe the vacant Supreme Court seat was stolen from them. Judge Gorsuch doing his best to keep politics out of the process.


NEIL GORSUCH, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: These days, we sometimes hear judges cynically described as politicians in robes, seeking to enforce their own politics rather than striving to apply the law impartially. If I thought that were true, I'd hang up the robe.


ROMANS: All right. Each member of the Senate Judiciary Committee gets 30 minutes to grill Judge Gorsuch today.

We get more this morning from CNN's Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill.



Today is day two of Neil Gorsuch's confirmation hearings, very likely we will see a lot more fireworks coming from the committee today. On Monday, members of the committee, especially Democrats, really signaling they are gearing up for a fight here, that they will grill Neil Gorsuch Not only about his judicial philosophy, his independence from President Trump, but they clearly are intending to make this confirmation as much about President Trump as they can.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: You're going to have your hands full with this president. He's going to keep you busy. It's incumbent on any nominee to demonstrate that he or she will serve as an independent check or balance on the presidency.

SERFATY: The questioning will start later this morning and is anticipated to go for at least a few days. The chairman of that committee, Senator Grassley, he expects the committee to vote in the next couple weeks, likely the first week in April, and if confirmed through committee, he will then go to a full Senate vote -- Dave and Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Sunlen Serfaty, thank you.

Some passengers flying into the U.S. will be required to check almost all of their electronic devices. U.S. officials tell us the ban will cover nonstop flights into the U.S. Now, no specific airlines or airports yet, but this will cover parts of the Middle East and Africa. So, flights coming from the Middle East and Africa. An official says devices larger than a cell phone will have checked. We're talking iPad, laptop, the whole beat.

A State Department official says embassies have been notifying relevant countries and notifying airlines. Now, officials say the directive is to ensure security measures at select airports. It will cover a limited period of time.

If a passenger transferred through a secondary city with more trustworthy screening procedures, the threat would be negated, according to officials. The ban on the electronics is believed to be related to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The terror group has been actively trying to build bombs that contain little or no metal content to target commercial aircraft.

The intelligence ahs been tracking this threat for some time, but an official says information from a recent Special Forces raid in Yemen contributed to that move. Remember that recent raid in Yemen where they received all that material?

BRIGGS: Where we lost a Navy SEAL, yes. That is a terrifying story. Still more information needed there.

New concerns meanwhile about North Korea after Pyongyang's test of a rocket engine that could be used in an intercontinental ballistic missile. We're live in Beijing, next.



[04:23:09] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea, I'll tell you what, what's happening there is disgraceful and not smart. Not smart at all.


BRIGGS: President Trump talking tough on North Korea during the rally in Kentucky. This comes as we learned the rocket engine tested by Pyongyang over the weekend could possibly be used in an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S.

CNN international correspondent Will Ripley joining us live from Beijing.

Good morning to you, Will. Will, what's the international reaction here?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Dave, not a lot of specific reaction to President Trump's remarks. But what they do show is North Korea is really top of mind for the Trump administration right now. We know that there is supposed to be a briefing between Secretary Tillerson and President Trump as they try to come up with their strategy that they would then present to the Chinese President Xi Jinping who is expected to make a visit to the United States early next month.

All of this happening on the heels of that test over the weekend of a new high-thrust rocket engine and the sources that the Pentagon are telling CNN, that engine could be placed on an intercontinental ballistic missile, an ICBM, potentially capable of carrying a nuclear tipped warhead all the way to the mainland United States. We know that that is North Korea's end game.

And we also know based on satellite imagery that they had made rapid progress in producing the materials used to make nuclear weapons, plutonium and uranium. According to satellite images, the size of the Yongbyon nuclear facility has actually doubled recently. So, that's very alarming for people with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, their director general gave an interview to "The Wall Street Journal" where he said he doesn't think diplomacy is going to work here. Of course, Beijing wants the United States to sit down with North Korea and just stop military exercises. But the U.S. thinks China holds the cards here because they had economic leverage over North Korea because they conduct so much trade with the country.

So, there are a lot of things to discuss. And, clearly, the problem continues to grow and it's being felt in the region, especially in U.S. allied Japan and South Korea, which are really right in the bull's eye for these increasingly powerful and sophisticated weapons of North Korea, Dave.

[04:25:12] BRIGGS: Rex Tillerson's task that much greater this morning. Will, thank you.

ROMANS: All right. President Trump spent much of Monday tweeting about a House intelligence hearing --

BRIGGS: Imagine that.

ROMANS: -- where the FBI director said his campaign is investigated for possible ties to Russia. So, why did Trump go conspicuous quiet on the subject at a rally in Kentucky?


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SPICER: You can continue to look for something, but continuing to look for something that doesn't exist, doesn't matter.


BRIGGS: The White House not backing down on questions about coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, which came hours after an eerily familiar sight. FBI director weighing in publicly on the 2016 election.

ROMANS: And overnight, Republican leaders are making critical changes to their health care plan.