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House Intel Russia Probe Stalls; Health Care Back on the Table; GOP Going Nuclear; Trump: "We're Doing Very Well in Iraq"; British Prime Minister Triggers Brexit. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired March 29, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:11] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The House investigation into the Trump campaign ties to Russia on hold. How long until things get moving? Will they ever get moving? Will we ever hear from the former Justice Department official who could have damaging evidence?

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: New signs on health care from the Republicans. After declaring he was moving on, is the president ready to re-engage with lawmakers who spurned him?

ROMANS: And Republicans are going all in on Neil Gorsuch. A vote expected next week despite a growing number of Democrats ready to filibuster the Supreme Court nominee.

All right. Good morning, everybody. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs.

Russian salad dressing on the menu today on EARLY START. It's Wednesday, March 29th, 4:00 a.m. in the East. We'll get to that later.

But we start with the schedule today for the House Intelligence Committee investigating alleged ties between President Trump and Russia. What's on that schedule? No meetings. No hearings. Well, no nothing.

The Trump-Russia probe has completely broken down for now amid a growing divide over whether House Intel Chairman Devin Nunes should recuse himself. Those calls coming from a growing number of Democrats and now even from the ranks of Nunes own party.

Elijah Cummings, first, the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, points to a claim made by Nunes that he was on White House grounds to read classified material but no one on the west wing was aware. Cummings says, quote, "The claim by Chairman Nunes no one knew in the White House knew about a visit cannot be true. Chairman Nunes was not a White House fence jumper. He was invited in."

ROMANS: And now, there's a Republican House member saying Nunes should recuse himself, Walter Jones of North Carolina.

Meantime, Nunes is scoffing at the suggestion he might step aside.


MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Are you going to stay as chairman and run this investigation?

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Well, why would I not? You guys need go ask them why these things are being said.

RAJU: Can this investigation continue as you as chairman?

NUNES: Why would it not? Am I not briefing you guys continuously and keeping you up to speed?

RAJU: But they're saying that it cannot run with you as chairman.

NUNES: You got to talk to them. That sounds like their problem.


ROMANS: All right. Before the investigation resumes, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, he wants Republicans to agree to reschedule hearings that had been set for yesterday. Among them, one of which the former acting Attorney General Sally Yates was expected to testify about communications between former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn and Russia's ambassador to the U.S.

BRIGGS: "The Washington Post" reported Tuesday that the White House sought to block Yates from testifying, a claim Press Secretary Sean Spicer adamantly rejected.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The 24th, Miss Yates' attorney sent a letter to the White House counsel requesting that consent specifically stating that if they did not receive a response by March 27th at 10:00 a.m. They would, quote, "conclude that the White House does not assert executive privilege over these matters. The White House did not respond and took no action that prevented Miss Yates from testifying."

I hope she testifies. I look forward to it.


BRIGGS: There's at least one investigation moving forward in a bipartisan spirit today that's the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Intel Committee. They will offer an update on their Russia investigation today at 2:30, in a news conference.

ROMANS: Crickets from the House, but we'll hear from the Senate at 2:30.

All right. Spicer, Sean Spicer may be running out of ways to downplay the Trump administration's ties to Russia. Listen to the press secretary getting into a heated exchange with reporters after suggesting the media is looking for Kremlin connections that simply don't exist.


SPICER: I said it from the day that I got here until whatever, that there's no connection. You've got Russia. If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow there's a Russian connection.

But every single person -- no, well, no, that's -- I appreciate your agenda here but the reality is -- no, no, hold on. No, at some point, report the facts. The facts are that every single person who has been briefed on this subject has come away with the same conclusion. Republican, Democrat, so I'm sorry that disgusts you. You're shaking your head. I appreciate it.


SPICER: But, OK, but understand this, that at some point, the facts are what they are.


ROMANS: Sean Spicer accusing that respective reporter of having an agenda. April Ryan of American Urban Radio asked the question that sets Spicer off. She was also a reporter Spicer told her to stop shaking her head. She's going to join us live in the 8:00 a.m. hour of NEW DAY. April Ryan.

BRIGGS: Russian salad dressing. I mean, that really was the headline of the day. Really. I mean, it exploded online. I brought you a gift this morning.

ROMANS: Oh, no, are you kidding me?

[04:05:00] BRIGGS: Our producer, Leslie, resourceful at 3:00 a.m. Apparently, people still do use it.

ROMANS: And you did a little bit of research. What is the -- what is the preferred dressing in America?

BRIGGS: The 17th most popular salad dressing in America. Seventeenth. So, if he was using it, yes, that would be suspicious. Ranch dressing is your number one.

ROMANS: On my eggs, this morning.

BRIGGS: Number one.

ROMANS: May not this morning.

BRIGGS: Meanwhile, Republicans insisted they had no plan B on health care. So, since we're talking about insurance, we'll call this a rider number one. Just days after the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare ended in disaster we're learning the issue is now back on the table. If it was really ever off.

Officials telling us the president and vice president spoke with several house members over the weekend about a path forward. Even so, the White House now keeping a lower profile, encouraging talks between members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus and the moderate Tuesday Group.

ROMANS: A senior administration official says members whose opposition helped kill House bill last week are, quote, "terrified" of backlash, backlash that some are getting from their constituents who elected them to repeal and replace Obamacare. The official says White House believe its threat to move past health care helped jolt House Republicans into action.

And last night, President Trump all but admitted he's not done with this issue. For the very latest, I want to bring in CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, five days after the collapse of the health care bill, President Trump, the White House and some members on Capitol Hill are talking about reviving the bill and doing another type of deal. Now, they are in the very early beginning stages of talking about this. One is the pressure from the outside. Republicans, of course elected many of these people for years really to do something about health care and after the dramatic failure last week, of course, it fell apart.

But now, there are serious talks going on. And President Trump invited senators from both parties to the White House last night. And he mentioned health care actually isn't that hard.

Let's watch.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know that we're all going to make a deal on health care. That's such an easy one. So, I have no doubt that will happen very quickly. I think it will actually. I think it's going to happen, because we've all been promising, Democrat, Republican, we've all been promising that to the American people. So, I think a lot of good things are going to happen there.

ZELENY: Such an easy one the president says. But, of course, he knows all too well health care legislation is so much more difficult than that. But the fact that he invited bipartisan group of senators to the White House is the latest in a series of steps this White House is calling a course correction. They want to bring some Democrats on board as well to try and get some difficult pieces of legislation through.

We'll see if health care falls in that list or not. But, Christine and Dave, he certainly talked about it here last night.


BRIGGS: Yes, bringing on Democrats. That will be a difficult haul. Thank you, Jeff.

The number of Senate Democrats declaring opposition to Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is growing this morning. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has now set a date for the floor vote on the floor nomination, defiantly predicting that Gorsuch will be confirmed next Friday. The Judiciary Committee is already set to vote on Monday and McConnell says he wants the full Senate to vote before lawmakers head off for a two-week spring week.

ROMANS: McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer already squaring off over the Republican threat to invoke the nuclear option. That would change Senate rules to end the filibuster on high court nominees so they can be confirmed by 51 votes instead of 60.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: We're going to get Judge Gorsuch confirmed. It will be an opportunity for Democrats to invoke cloture. We'll see where that ends, but it will really up to them how the process to confirm Judge Gorsuch goes forward.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY), SENATE MINORITY LEADER: It's going to be a real uphill climb for him to get those 60 votes. It's such an important position. It should have bipartisan buy in. If a judge can't meet, if a nominee can't meet the 60 vote standard, you don't change the rules.


BRIGGS: As of now, 27 senators plan to filibuster the Gorsuch nomination. Three Democrats haven't said whether they will join the filibuster but said they would vote against Gorsuch on the floor and only two had said they won't take part in the filibuster. That's out of eight that Republicans need to break it.

ROMANS: All right. The future of online privacy is now in President Trump's hands. The House of Representatives and the Senate have voted to repeal Internet privacy protections that were approved in the final days of the Obama administration. The rules have not yet gone into effect. But they would have required Internet service providers to get permission before collecting and sharing your personal data such as web browsing history, app usage and geo-location. There's big money in using your information.

Providers would also have to notify customers about the data they collect. The goal was to give consumers extra control over their personal data online, the time when everything from smartphones to refrigerators can be connected to the Internet. Lawmakers who back the repeal say it's a duplicate regulation, getting rid of it will increase competition they say among Internet companies and cut the cost for those big companies.

[04:10:06] Democrats and privacy advocates argue the move effectively hands over your personal information to the highest bidder.

BRIGGS: She's emerged from the woods and now re-entered the political debate. Last night, speaking at a women's conference in San Francisco, Hillary Clinton gave her most pointed speech since election and got fired up talking about the Republican health plan.


HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When Congress and the administration try to jam through a bill that would have kicked 24 million off their health insurance, defunded Planned Parenthood, jeopardize access to affordable birth control, deprive people with disabilities and elderly and nursing homes of essential care, they were met with a wave of resistance. I mean really take away maternity care? Really? Take away mental health and substance abuse care? I mean, who do these people talk to?


BRIGGS: Clinton also told the crowd, quote, "There's no place I'd rather be here than with you", before clarifying other than the White House.

ROMANS: Interesting to hear from her, first really extended remarks I've heard in sometime.

BRIGGS: Yes, continued questions of who is the leader of the Democratic Party. Is it still her? Are they still -- is it Elizabeth Warren? Is it Chuck Schumer?

ROMANS: She's clearly plugged in and has things to say about the news of the day new question.

BRIGGS: Yes. All right. Comment from the president on Iraq raises some eyebrows this morning. And his assessments of the situation on the ground, let's just say, running afoul of the fact checkers. We're live in Iraq, next.



[04:15:43] TRUMP: Just had a call, long call from General Mattis and John I know is very happy to know that, he knows very well than anybody we're doing very well in Iraq. Our soldiers are fighting and fighting like never before and the results are very, very good. So, I just wanted to let everyone know.


BRIGGS: A rare public comment from the president on the fight against ISIS in Iraq. Mr. Trump's upbeat assessment coming in the wake of an airstrike that killed over 100 civilians in western Mosul. Iraqi military blames the U.S.-led coalition.

Listen to General Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, acknowledging the coalition likely did play a role in the tragedy while also pointing a finger at ISIS.


LT. GEN. STEPHEN TOWNSEND, COMMANDER OF COMBINED JOINT TASK FORCE, OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE: If we didn't strike in that area, I'd be telling you right now, it's unlikely. But because we struck in that area, I think there's a fair chance that we did it. My initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties. Now, here's what I don't know -- what I don't know is: were they gathered there by the enemy?


BRIGGS: General Townsend said the type of munitions used in the strike should not have collapsed the entire building where all those civilians perished.

Let's go live to Irbil, Iraq, and bring in CNN international correspondent Arwa Damon, who is just in Mosul.

Arwa, the president says we're doing very well in Iraq. What do the Iraqis say about that characterization?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's a bit of an oversimplification of what is a very complicated situation in terms of the design of the battlefield. Are the Iraqi security forces backed by the U.S. coalition slowly and painfully making advances against ISIS in Mosul? Yes. Of course, they are. But it has come at an astronomical cost for the country and for the civilian population.

We now have that in the spotlight because of these investigations being carried out by both the U.S. and Iraqis into whether or not a number of strikes may have caused civilian casualties. The bottom line, though, David, is that this is a battlefield. And it is arguably one of the toughest battlefields in modern history because not only do you have an enemy that is as vicious and experienced and sophisticated as ISIS, you have the Iraqi security forces trying to dislodge them from a city that had a population of around 1.2 million people before this operation began. And ISIS did not allow the population to leave. They effectively held them all as human shields.

When we were down in western Mosul yesterday, we were able to speak to the handful of civilians that we saw there and they described sheer terror as the force were advancing. They tried to keep themselves safe. They tried to stay away from the bombs and bullets and the explosions, but the intensity of the battle is such sometimes even if you're hiding in a cellar or in a basement, as we know, you cannot keep yourself safe.

And then, of course, you have the other atrocities that are being carried out. You have a woman who we met who stayed behind, living in the ruins of what was her home because ISIS actually took her husband away the day before her area was liberated and she's sitting there, waiting, hoping that he's somehow going to end up reappearing, coming back home. So, to characterize the battle is going very well, again, as I was saying, it's a very simplistic, especially given the reality that one would argue is what's happening next that is even more important.

BRIGGS: Your point is spot on. The most complicated battlefield we've ever seen. You can't simplify that process.

Arwa, thank you. We'll check in with you next hour.

ROMANS: And the work she does is so amazing, to try to bring it life for us every day.

BRIGGS: Yes, and at times, right in the middle of an active battlefield.

ROMANS: Yes. We thank her for that.

Nineteen -- 20 minutes past the hour. Also a big day in U.K. The process of divorce, leaving the E.U. getting underway. But now with a last minute curveball from Scotland over the drama. We're live in London, next.


[04:24:16] ROMANS: History is unfolding right now in the United Kingdom. The British Prime Minister Theresa May formally triggering Britain's exit from the European Union, to basically intention to divorce, signing a letter invoking Article 50. That letter will be delivered to the European Council in Brussels this morning.

But there's a new complication this morning. Scotland may want to secede from the U.K. before the U.K. exits the E.U.

CNN's Nic Robertson tracking the twists and turns live for us from London.

Scotland really trying to protect its own financial future with the E.U. here because of Britain's intent to exit.

[04:25:00] NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Sixty- two percent of people in Scotland voted to remain part of the European Union, the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, tweeted this morning that Prime Minister Theresa May is taking the country off a cliff with no safe place to land. She says the people of Scotland, didn't vote for this, they don't want it. She's calling for an independence referendum -- 69 votes for, 59 against in the Scottish parliament yesterday.

Theresa May has said and will today say in parliament when she reads out some of the details of that letter that will be delivered in a few hours time to the European Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels as he gets that letter that she signed last night, she will be going through some of the details of it in parliament just a couple of hours from now. And she will say her negotiations for Brexit will be inclusive for everyone in Britain, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, the North, the South, the cities, the country side, the villages, whether you're rich or poor, she said she will be negotiating in everyone's interest. But it is still a divided country over this. It is a very historic

day, Theresa May just -- in last half hour wrapped up a very early morning cabinet meeting here. In just a couple of hours she will go to parliament for the parliamentary question time and after that, she will read that historic letter.

ROMANS: Invoking Article 50, unbelievable.

All right. Nice to see you this morning, Nic Robertson for us live in London.

BRIGGS: Financial implications we're just getting a glimpse of.

ROMANS: Yes, I'm watching the markets. If they do this carefully and well, it may not rattle the stock markets too much, but currency markets have really moved dramatically on this over the past month. It's really, you know, hit the pound -- hit the pound hard. That's something that everybody feels.

BRIGGS: Perhaps that's the lesson the rest of the world can learn.

Well, coming up, the House Intel Committee probe into Trump-Russia connections at a standstill over bipartisan bickering. What Democrats say it will take to get things moving again after the actions of the Republican chairman?