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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 4:30-5a ET

Aired March 21, 2017 - 04:30   ET



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.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: 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.

[04:30:01] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And overnight, Republican leaders are making critical changes to their health care plan. They're trying to appease lawmakers who remain on the fence. With the vote just two days away, is this enough to help pass the health care bill?

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. What an extraordinary day.


BRIGGS: In our political history really, right?

ROMANS: Yes, it really was.

BRIGGS: The president tweeting, being fact checked in the House in real time --

ROMANS: By the FBI director.

BRIGGS: By the FBI director.

President Trump back in Washington this morning after one of his trademark campaign style rallies in Kentucky. He talked about health care, tax reform, college basketball and Colin Kaepernick, but did not touch on Monday's extraordinary testimony by FBI Director James Comey. This despite tweeting all day long about the dramatic Capitol Hill hearing, a hearing that featured fireworks and no smoking gun connecting Russia to the Trump campaign.

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

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


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.


BRIGGS: 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.


ROMANS: 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 this unfounded allegation. His press secretary, Mr. Spicer, saying the president will not apologize to President Obama, and adding that questions remain about surveillance that may or may not have taken place during the campaign. They won't put that to bed.

BRIGGS: Can't make this stuff up.

For its part, Russia has denied meddling in the 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 Fred Pleitgen.

Good morning to you, sir.

Essentially, Russia is on trial here. Do they acknowledge as such?


The Russians for their part and the Kremlin, Dave, are going out of their way to not comment. It is interesting, because we were able to get in touch with the spokesperson for Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, as the hearings were going on. We said, look, what do you think of this so far? He said, I don't believe there is any reason for me to comment on this at all.

Now, we do expect there is going to be a call, a conference call with the Kremlin at some point this morning. Certainly, they're going to try and get some more info from them at that point in time. But, so far, Russian officials who are known to comment a lot on social media platforms like Twitter, but also in the media in general, are really staying silent on that.

The only comment that we are getting so far, is from Russia Today, the state broadcaster that, of course, was heavily mentioned in those hearings. They say that to them this seems like a 1970s soap opera that they are seeing in America. The plot is flat and yet you do want to hear the outcome of it all.

So, certainly, the comments that we're getting are highly critical of these hearings, but the Russians standing by they had always said, is that they nothing to do with meddling in the U.S. electoral process and now, their new line is that they say the debate that's going on in the U.S., they call that humiliating for America, Dave.

BRIGGS: Fred, thank you. The TV network RT largely ignoring the hearings as well. Appreciate it, Fred.

Well, breaking overnight, up against mounting odds and ticking clock, Republicans unveil significant changes to their plan for repealing and replacing Obamacare. With the vote planned for Thursday, House Republican leaders last night rolled out a package of amendments to the health care act. The changes include work requirements, block grants for Medicaid and more money to ensure older Americans. More details on all that in a moment.

ROMANS: Republican leaders making the changes to appease both GOP conservatives and moderates. But it may not be enough. The ultra conservative House Freedom Caucus announcing last night it still has enough votes to block the bill. The president is expected to ratchet up the pressure on these 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 very 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.


BRIGGS: Thank you, Phil.

So, what are the changes the 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 instead of per enrollee, as the bill says now.

States could also require able-bodied Medicaid recipients to work. And states will be barred from expanding their Medicaid rolls 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 would be set aside to increase the tax credits for consumers in their 50s and early 60s.

ROMANS: Republican leaders face a steep climb just to getting the bill through the House. But Speaker Paul Ryan says he is playing the long game here, 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 and we feel really good where we are.


ROMANS: Now, after a frenzy of 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. Senator Mike Lee described the meeting as, quote, "terribly frustrating".

BRIGGS: Ivanka Trump is getting White House security clearance and an office in the West Wing. But the president's eldest daughter will not have an official title with her father's administration. The first daughter will be given government issued communications devices and clearance to access classified information. But she will not be considered a government employee, will not draw a salary in her advisory capacity.

ROMANS: 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 of the incident, Chaffetz told reporters, quote, "every single redundancy in the system failed."

Judge Andrew Napolitano benched by FOX News. He is the commentator who claimed last week that President Obama used the British to spy on President Trump. That allegation denied, strongly denied by U.S. and U.K. authorities. Napolitano has not been seen on the air since making that comment.

A FOX News source telling CNN he has been pulled indefinitely. Napolitano is a former New Jersey superior court judge. He is FOX's top legal analyst. He has been with the network since 1998.

BRIGGS: Extraordinary day and they talk about how that may have impacted the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. during the hearing as well.

ROMANS: That's right, that's right.

BRIGGS: The president's Supreme Court nominee ready for a long day on Capitol Hill. What does Neil Gorsuch say about the politically charged nature of his nomination? We'll tell you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [04:43:58] ROMANS: President Trump's Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch getting set for a grueling day in the Senate today. Day two of his confirmation hearings begin in hours. Tension filled the air during day one of the hearing. Democrats are making it clear they believe the vacant seat was stolen from them. And 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.


BRIGGS: Each member of the Senate Judiciary Committee gets 30 minutes to grill Judge Gorsuch today. We get more 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.

[04:45:12] 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. That should be exciting to watch again today. Thanks, Sunlen.

President Trump may be the first billionaire in the White House, but not he's not as rich as he used to be. A new ranking from "Forbes" put the president's net worth at $3.5 billion, down a billion from last year. He fell 220 spots on the list. He is tied with 19 other people as 544th richest person in the world. "Forbes" said that much of the decline is due to softness in the midtown Manhattan real estate market. The magazine estimates that 40 percent of his net worth is tied up in Trump Tower and eight buildings nearby. And Trump's wealth fluctuates with the real estate in that micro market. Trump also gave $66 million to his presidential campaign last year and he paid $25 million to settle a lawsuit related to Trump University.

BRIGGS: Trump tweeting "Forbes" in five, four, three. Almost trolling the president. Oh come on, given by 8:00, he will come after you, "Forbes."

Mystery solved meanwhile. Not one, but two Super Bowl jerseys --

ROMANS: What? They found them?

BRIGGS: Found them, headed back to New England after being found in Mexico by the FBI. According to the NFL, the jerseys from Brady's most recent Super Bowl win and the past 2015 win over Seattle were in the possession of the same credentialed member of the international media. He has been identified by the NFL network as Mauricio Ortega, a former executive with the Mexican newspaper "La Prensa". Brady thanking law enforcement officials for their hard work on the case.

Fascinating story. Love that developing.

ROMANS: I didn't realize there were two jerseys that walked away, one from the 2015 --

BRIGGS: Same guy. That is gutsy.

ROMANS: Wow. That is gutsy.

All right. Speaking of Tom Brady's jersey, how about the Patriots get injected in the James Comey hearings on Capitol Hill? A look at the lighter moments, next.



[04:51:53] 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.


ROMANS: 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.

You know, Will, we've heard from this administration that, you know, America's policy toward North Korea hasn't been working. It needs a new policy. He says it's terrible. Not smart. The president yesterday. So, what's the policy going to be?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's what we haven't heard, Christine, is specifics about the Trump administration plans to do about North Korea. It's easy for an incoming administration to say that everything done over the last 20 years has been a failure. But when you look at the list -- sanctions, economic and diplomatic isolation, reports of cyber attacks, try to disrupt the launches, none of it has worked.

North Korea is only advancing more rapidly, according to the U.N.'s top nuclear inspector, the director of the International Atomic Energy, told "The Wall Street Journal" that the size of the Yongbyon nuclear facility has doubled. This allows North Korea to produce much more plutonium. They're also producing more uranium. And that allows them to grow their arsenal of nuclear warheads very rapidly, and the numbers are believed to be in the dozens and possibly more of nuclear weapons. And North Korea could be in possession, some experts say, of this ICBM with a nuclear tip within the next couple of years, if things aren't checked.

So, what do we about it? Well, China thinks that the United States needs to stop joint military exercises with South Korea and sit down and negotiate with the North Koreans. But the director general of the IAEA doesn't think that that will necessarily work because he doesn't think that North Korea would be willing to give up their nuclear weapons like Iran gave up its nuclear program, because it's come a lot farther along. And, in fact, I heard that every time in North Korea and speak with officials, they say they absolutely will not give up their nuclear program. They want to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state.

The United States reportedly is considering a new round of even stronger sanctions that they hope China will more heavily enforce given the economic leverage over North Korea. But sanctions mean North Korea looks at other sources of revenue like selling the weapons that they are creating, including nuclear materials to rogue states and terrorist organizations. This is certainly not an easy situation. There is no easy solution.

And right now, we just don't know what the Trump administration is going to do. That meeting is still on track to happen next month between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Trump. North Korea, top of the agenda.

ROMANS: A lot of dangerous scenarios, no question.

All right. Will Ripley in Beijing for us -- thanks, Will.

BRIGGS: Well, there was plenty of political drama, but the James Comey hearing also had unusual focus on football. The same day the FBI announced they recovered two of Tom Brady's jerseys, the FBI director used his own contempt for New England to make this analogy to explain Vladimir Putin's reason for meddling in the election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) COMEY: And to put it in a homely metaphor, I hate the New England Patriots, and no matter who they play, I'd like them to lose.

[04:55:02] And so, I'm at the same time rooting against the Patriots and hoping their opponent beats them, because there are only two teams on the field.

Honestly, myself, the reason I don't like the Patriots, they represent sustained excellence. And as a Giants fan, that drives me crazy.


BRIGGS: So, settle down, Patriots fan. Sustained excellence.

And the football fun did not stop there. Texas Congressman Mike Conaway drew a college football comparison to question Comey's claim about Putin's presidential preference. Listen.


COMEY: He had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.

REP. MIKE CONAWAY (R), TEXAS: Yes, that may work on Sunday afternoon with the wife's Red Raiders playing the Texas Longhorns. She likes the Red Raiders.

COMEY: Part of it is the logic. Whoever the Red Raiders are playing, you want the Red Raiders to win. By definition, you want their opponent to lose.


BRIGGS: Oh, brings new definition to political football, right?

ROMANS: Yes, doesn't it?

BRIGGS: The Red Raiders trying to keep the chains moving. The football program tweeted this out, "Not sure what's going on, but we want the Red Raiders to win and our opponents to lose. #Comeyhearing. #WreckEm."

If that wasn't enough, President Trump talked about Colin Kaepernick last night in Louisville.

ROMANS: I know.

BRIGGS: Bizarre day, folks.

ROMANS: Sports are everywhere. I love the political football. That's a very good banner. You could be a headline writer.

Spring may be here, but the icy blast heading for the northeast by the end of the week. No!

Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri has the unfortunate forecast. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Christine and Dave, across the Northeast, there are big changes in the forecast the next couple of days. Of course, winter trying to hang even though we're officially now into the spring season. We get a couple of shots of cold air, the initial one here that comes in on Wednesday night into Thursday. Extremely short lived. It quickly pushes out and the mild temperatures build back in place and wait until you see the forecast come Saturday afternoon in New York City, because we go from 56 today to 35 tomorrow. Back up to almost 50 on Friday.

Look at Chicago. It kind of shows you sign of things to come here, from the 50s to the 30s, almost 70 degrees come Friday afternoon. Atlanta takes a nose dive from the 80s down to the 50s. But, again, all of this very short lived. Notice the trend, we warm up quickly back up to 63 or so degrees in New York City on Saturday.

The concern is going into early next week. You can see another drop. I don't think it will be as significant as the one we saw in the past 24 or so hours. But also watching some strong storms this afternoon across portions of the South, generally from Poplar Bluff, out towards Chattanooga and north of Atlanta, the large hail the concern in the evening hours as well.


ROMANS: All right. Pedram, thank you so much for that. Let's get a check on CNN Money Stream this morning.

The stock market has been slowing over the past few days. But investors are looking to resume the rally today. Stock futures are pointing slightly higher right now. Investors are hopeful that lawmakers can get pass yesterday's bombshell and get back to working on tax reform. But if Obamacare and the Obamacare replacement fails, that could derail those hopes. Stock markets in Europe are up as well. Shares in Asia closing mixed.

Two big readings in the housing market are due later this week. Housing, real estate remains one of the hottest parts of the U.S. economy. The last reading on existing home sales showed the highest sales tally since 2007. Mortgage rates though are rising, so we want to see what kind of effect that will have and there's tight inventory for those of you looking for a house, you've been seeing that.

The fake account scandal at Wells Fargo was revealed more than six months ago. But the bank is still struggling to win back customers. Applications for credit cards plunged 55 percent in February, the steepest decline since the scandal broke. Customers opened 43 percent fewer checking accounts and interactions with branch bankers down 21 percent. Wells Fargo's new head of community banking summed it up by saying we have more work to do.

Wells Fargo stock dropped 1.7 percent on the news. It has recovered nicely though since that news broke in September. Look at that, it's up 25 percent over the past six months. It is trading near a record high.

BRIGGS: Like all the big banks.

ROMANS: The banks have had a good time here.

So, how much have you saved for retirement? If it's less than $1,000, you're in good company. But that's not good news.

A long running survey of retirement trends from the Employee Benefit Research Institute finds this stunning stat. A quarter of U.S. adults and their spouses have less than $1,000 saved for retirement. People are optimistic, though, about having enough to live on when they call it quits, 60 percent feel somewhat or very confident they will save enough. That is up from 2012 when it hit 52 percent. But look at that, still below the 2007 tally of 70 percent before the recession.

BRIGGS: That is a crisis.


BRIGGS: In the making.

ROMANS: We -- these numbers, I have been covering these numbers for years. We don't save enough. We don't put enough money away. That's going to crimp standards of living later. It really is. If you don't live below your means today, I promise you, you will when it really counts.

BRIGGS: Especially given what's happening with our entitlements and where they're headed.

ROMANS: Absolutely.

BRIGGS: Yikes!

EARLY START continues right now.


SPICER: You can continue to look for something, but continuing to look for something that doesn't exist, doesn't matter.