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New Mixed Messaging on Trump's Syria Policy; Tillerson Heads to Moscow; United Airlines Passenger Dragged off Plane. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:09] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Is President Trump redefining his red line on Syria? More mixed messaging from the White House, leaving many wondering how far the U.S. is going to go.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: And tensions rising just hours ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's high-stakes visit to Moscow. With the Syria at the forefront, what message is he going to deliver to the Kremlin?

ROMANS: United Airlines facing a PR nightmare this morning after disturbing video emerges of a paying passenger being forcibly dragged from an airplane. A man who paid for his seat, a doctor who wanted to get back to his patients in Louisville, dragged off the plane. Universal condemnation for United this morning.

We'll get to the bottom of that story. Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

SANCHEZ: And I'm Boris Sanchez.

A pleasure to be with you here, as always, Christine.

ROMANS: Nice to see you.

SANCHEZ: It's Tuesday, April 11th, 4:00 a.m. on the East Coast.

And today, we start with the White House, sowing new confusion this morning over President Trump's red line in Syria. Press Secretary Sean Spicer defending the missile strikes President Trump ordered against the Syrian military air field. Taken literally, Spicer seemed to significantly lower the threshold for action by the Assad regime that would trigger a U.S. military response. But the administration is now saying that never mind, Spicer's words should not be taken literally.

CNN's Sara Murray has the latest from the White House.


SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Boris and Christine.

Ever since President Trump ordered a military strike in Syria, the question has been, what comes next?

Well, yesterday, the White House offered more confusion than clarity on that question after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you can -- you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable.

MURRAY: Now, Spicer made a reference to barrel bombs repeatedly yesterday in that briefing. Now, if that were the administration's new red line, if they were going to intervene any time there was a barrel bomb attack, that would be a significant shift in U.S. policy. But after that briefing, administration officials began to walk it back, saying this is not a signal of a change in policy, an indication that administration officials are not necessarily on the same page when it comes to what's next in Syria.

I think one thing is clear: the administration wants to be careful about not drawing a red line that they're not willing to back up and they want to stick to the president's previous comments, that he wants to be unpredictable on military action. He does not want to forecast his next steps. One thing is clear, though, this White House is not ruling out future intervention in Syria.

Back to you, guys.


ROMANS: A senior White House official tells Sara Murray that President Trump reached out to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, asking for a more complete damage assessment from the U.S. strike on the Syrian airbase. This after Trump heard reports that the runways have not been destroyed. Unknown what Secretary Mattis told the president.

But yesterday, Mattis released this statement. Quote, "The assessment of the Department of Defense is that the strike resulted in the damage or destruction of fuel and ammunition sites, air defense capabilities and 20 percent of Syria's operational aircraft."

SANCHEZ: We're keeping a close eye on this. Under way right now in Italy, a critical meeting of the foreign ministers from the G7 countries, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The meeting comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia over those missile strikes in Syria. Minutes after this meeting ends, Tillerson is going to get on a plane for Moscow, where he's going to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Le's go now to international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson. He's live for us in Lucca, Italy, where that meeting is taking take place.

Nic, a new meeting was actually added today, including some major players in the Mideast, all of them opposed to Assad. What are we hearing about that meeting?


This meeting that's supposed to give Rex Tillerson a strong mandate to take to Moscow. Some of the ideas that are being discussed here, the possibility of additional sanctions on Russian officials. The British foreign secretary discussing the idea that perhaps sanctions can be put on some of those Russian officers who are fighting inside Syria alongside Assad's forces. It's not clear that there's going to be broad support for that idea, but certainly the idea that's emerging from here. You have the British, you have the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Japanese, the Canadians as well as the core G7, as well as the Turkish, the Saudi, the Emirati, the Qatari and the Jordanian foreign ministers. So, very broad collective of foreign ministers here.

And the mandate that appears to be emerging that Secretary Tillerson should take to Moscow is that President Putin needs to back away from his support of President Assad. He has a small window to do that end. He needs then to work towards getting a ceasefire in Syria, and then begin supporting a political transition away from President Bashar al Assad.

What's unclear at this moment in the last couple of hours before Secretary Tillerson goes to Moscow is, will any sanctions be applied on Russia before he goes?

[04:05:08] Or will they sort to be given as a backup in his back pocket, if you will, that if Putin doesn't get on board with this idea, that there's something else that can be used -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: Nic, of course, you have to ask how persuasive can any argument made by Rex Tillerson be when it used to be the G8 now it's the G7? Russia got kicked out. So, how closely will they attentively listen to what he has to say?

ROBERTSON: Well, there's no doubt, certainly, amongst the allies here that Rex Tillerson can deliver a very blunt and strong message. Just 12 days ago at NATO headquarters, he came with a very clear, definitive message from President Trump, NATO members need to pay up.

So, there's no doubt in people's mind here that he's capable of delivering a strong message. The question is whether Putin is going to be in a mind to listen to it. And I think, you know, that's the idea of the meetings here. What can they additionally give Tillerson that will give him that extra leverage? That's really an open question.

SANCHEZ: All right. Nic Robertson reporting live from Italy -- thank you.

ROMANS: So, the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, he arrives in Moscow in just a matter of hours, after that G7 meeting in Italy. His visit comes at a crucial time. Relations between the U.S. and Russia deteriorating by the day. Tillerson slamming the Putin regime for supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Kremlin labeling the U.S. missile attack on a Syrian airbase an act of aggression.

CNN's Paula Newton live in Moscow, tracking the latest deteriorating developments.

Paula, what kind of message should we expect Tillerson to deliver today? We know he was talking with an awful lot of friends and allies in that G7 meeting about what kind of -- what kind of message to deliver to the Putin regime and who will he be delivering it to?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And key question. Who will he be delivering it to? We know he's going to meet with Sergei Lavrov.

And, Christine, look, Rex Tillerson knows this country being the head of ExxonMobil and as you know, in those business relationship, he can cut to the chase pretty quickly, he knows the lay of the land here.

What everyone is watching for, though, Christine, is whether or not he has that all important meeting with Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin saying, look, we didn't have anything on the schedule for this. Not exactly true. The State Department had been planning for that meeting. Now, the Kremlin is saying, look, we're not saying it won't happen, but right now, it's not on the schedule.

Why is that important? The Trump administration will be able to cut to what his demands are much more quickly, if he is speaking directly to Rex Tillerson, again, Christine, a man he knows, a man who gave a friendship award to.

And I don't believe that Rex Tillerson will be coming here with any sticks right now. He wants to see how you nudge Russia along to continue in the help against ISIS but also get Assad out of power, even if that means that what remains in place in Syria is a regime, a government that's still friendly, pro-Russia.

ROMANS: Yes, it will be fascinating, Paula, to see how he uses business acumen and that kind of -- those kind of negotiations skill in the foreign policy arena. Thank you so much for that.

SANCHEZ: That was a story everybody is talking about.

ROMANS: Everyone is talking about this.

SANCHEZ: We mentioned it at the top of the show. Everybody has that nightmare airport story, but few end up like this one. Watch this video.

He's an unidentified and bloodied United Airlines passenger in Chicago Sunday night. He gets yanked out of his seat. You could see him get dragged down the aisle of the plane by Chicago police.

Here is the story. United overbook this flight to Louisville, Kentucky, and they asked passengers to surrender their seats for compensation in order to make room for crew members. When nobody volunteered, United says it was forced into what it calls an involuntary de-boarding situation.

Involuntary is an understatement. The backlash sparked a social media frenzy, already leading to the suspension of one Chicago police officer.

United CEO Oscar Munoz was forced to release this statement, after first defending the ejection. He writes, quote, "This is an upsetting event. All of us here at United, our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened."

I think what upsets a lot of people isn't just the fact that he was bloodied, the fact that is being dragged through the aisle, but that this was done to accommodate their crew members.

ROMANS: It just seems like poor planning. But this is the way these airlines operate. You know, they overbook these flights.

It's probably happened to every person who's watching here right now. You know, many passenger might not realize, you agree to an airline's overbooking policy when you reserve your tickets. It's right there, that paperwork. And it's standard practice for airlines to sell more tickets than there are seats.

Now, in United's case, the back and forth usually happens at the gate, not after the passengers are already on the plane. Back in 2015, the latest data we have from the Department of Transportation, it shows that 36,000 travelers were involuntarily bumped from flights.

Now, in my view, there are so many adults in the room there, you know, how they couldn't deescalate that. And everyone's got a price.

[04:10:00] SANCHEZ: Right.

ROMANS: I know there are these limits. Raise the price. You know, give somebody $2,000, $3,000.

SANCHEZ: I think the FAA limit is about $1,300. I'm certain somebody on that plane would have said, yes, sure, I'll take that check and wait another day.

ROMANS: So, anyway, I think that the universal condemnation for United here, especially after a week of delays and rebookings for Delta have people feeling everyone's got a story about being disrespected by your airline.

All right. It's one of the biggest stories in banking history, involving those fake accounts at Wells Fargo that has shaken that bank to its core. And a new investigation reveals a report at Wells Fargo back in 2004 foretold this scandal almost to the letter. This 2004 report -- 2004, 13 years ago.

It warned that Wells Fargo employees had an incentive to cheat that was based on the fear of losing their jobs. It went on to say that workers felt they couldn't meet the bank's unrealistic sales goals without gaming the system. That report, again, in 2004, it was sent to Wells Fargo's chief auditor, HR personnel and others, but it fell on deaf ears.

The 110-page investigation released by the Wells Fargo's independent board of directors this week says there's no evidence that the report and its recommendations were further escalated. Wells Fargo's board announced Monday it took back $75 million from former CEO John Stumpf and the former head of Wells community banks. The board said Stump was too slow to investigate or critically challenge the bank's sales tactics. So, they reached in, clawed back that compensation.

SANCHEZ: Well, we've been talking a lot about Syria. But we do have to mention North Korea. The situation is escalating there. That country issuing a blistering statement against the U.S., warning they will retaliate against any aggression. More on that, next.


[04:15:54] ROMANS: North Korea says it will respond in kind to any acts of aggression by the U.S., as a U.S. aircraft carrier steams toward the Korean peninsula, following last week's missile test by North Korea. The U.S. turned the 97,000 ton USS Carl Vinson along with two guided missile cruisers and two destroyers toward the Sea of Japan, also called the East Sea.

Officials in Pyongyang provided a statement to CNN. It says, the, quote, "current grim situation justifies North Korea's self-defensive and preemptive strike capabilities with the nuclear force at the core." It goes on, "The dispatch of the Carl Vinson nuclear powered aircraft strike group into the waters of the Korean peninsula proves that the reckless acts of aggression of the U.S. against the DPRK, North Korea, have now entered a grave practical stage. The DPRK is willing and ready to respond to whatever methods the U.S. wants to take. We are not daunted even as to turn an eyelash."

SANCHEZ: Back to the states now. And the state of Alabama has a new governor this morning. The former one, Robert Bentley, resigned in disgrace yesterday, shortly after being booked in the Montgomery county jail. Bentley pled guilty to misdemeanors. He was facing impeachment hearings for allegedly using state resources to cover up an extramarital affair with a former aide.

Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey was sworn in last night as the 54 governor of Alabama. She called Bentley's resignation a dark day in that state. She also went on to say that it's now an opportunity for them to turn the image of Alabama around.

ROMANS: All right. Coming up, it is election day in Kansas and a crucial Republican congressional seat is up for grabs. More on that, next.


[04:21:59] SANCHEZ: Republicans are going to be keeping a close eye on a special election in Kansas today to fill the House seat vacated by Mike Pompeo, the new director of the CIA. President Trump and Vice President Pence have recorded robocalls supporting Republican candidate Ron Estes. The Wichita district is traditionally a GOP stronghold, but an energized Democratic base is rallying behind James Thompson and the race is tightening. Republicans are also nervous about next week's special election in

Georgia to fill the House seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. A 30-year-old Democratic candidate, John Ossoff is looking formidable. He's raised more than $8 million for his campaign.

ROMANS: Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, we can say that now, expected to take his seat on the high court and begin hearing cases next week. Gorsuch took the official oath Monday with the president by his side. The president clearly savoring the moment.

Listen to Trump patting himself on the back for how quickly his pick was confirmed.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've always heard that the most important thing that a president of the United States does is appoint people, hopefully great people like this appointment to the United States Supreme Court. I can say, this is a great honor. And I got it done in the first 100 days -- that's even nice. You think that's easy?



ROMANS: At 49 years old, Gorsuch will likely sit on the Supreme Court for decades, could even outlast all eight justices he'll be joining on the bench on Monday. And one of the justices he sits with on the bench he used to clerk for first time in history.

SANCHEZ: That's right.

ROMANS: Interesting.

SANCHEZ: Justice Anthony Kennedy who presented him yesterday at the Rose Garden.


SANCHEZ: The Trump Organization has settled a second lawsuit with the celebrity chef who backed out of a deal to open a restaurant in the president's downtown Washington hotel. Food Network's star Jeffrey Zakarian refused to open a hotel -- a restaurant rather in Trump's hotel. He claimed that the president's derogatory comments labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists would make it impossible to hire Hispanic staff or attract Hispanic patrons.

They come just three days after Trump settled a different lawsuit with famed chef Jose Andres who also broke a restaurant deal for similar reasons. The details of both settlements, as it's usual in these circumstances were kept private.

ROMANS: All right. To weather now, heavy rains hitting Texas, along with near record high temperatures in the Northeast. Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri joins us now from the CNN Weather



PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Boris and Christine.

This is across Eastern Texas here, going to be a mess into the afternoon hours. A lot of that rainfall that has already come down out toward the central portion of the state, but begin to linger off towards the east. So, Houston gets in line for some heavy rainfall, generally two to three inches. Some pockets could see greater than three inches over the next, say, 36 or so hours.

And the flood watches have already been issued from San Antonio out towards Austin. Wouldn't be surprised if this expands on to Houston towards the afternoon hours.

But look at these temperatures. In places like Chicago, about 74 yesterday, 52, the best we can do for you. While in New York City, in Washington, even in Boston, temps closing in on 80 degrees.

[04:25:04] I mean, you look at these numbers. We're talking what could be climatologically the first week of summer in some of these spots. New York City, that would be a 5th of July temperature, at 82 degrees. In Philly, 83 degrees typically happens on the 24th of June. You see the same sort of a trend out of D.C. as well.

But notice, it would get cooler the next couple of days, but still above average for places like New York, for places like Washington. So enjoy the next couple of days. A pretty mild perspective in store.

ROMANS: Eighty-two today in New York.

SANCHEZ: You got to enjoy that.

Well, we've been watching this all morning. And in just a few hours, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going to be heading to Moscow amid high tensions with the Kremlin. Details on his visit, next.


SANCHEZ: Is President Trump redefining his red line on Syria? More mixed messages from the White House, leaving many wondering just how far the U.S. is willing to go.

ROMANS: Tensions rising just hours ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's high stakes trip to Moscow.