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Tillerson Meets with Russian Foreign Minister; Spicer Draws Fire Comparing Assad to Hitler; United Airlines CEO Apologizes... Again; White House Sends Warning to North Korea. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:10] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson moments away from the high stakes meeting with Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. This visit comes at a critical time as U.S. officials now accuse Russia of a cover-up of Syria's use of chemical weapons.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, the Trump administration doing something it does not often do, issuing a rare apology, after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made shocking comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Bashar al-Assad.

Not a good look for Sean Spicer or the White House. We'll get to that and more in a second.

But, first, we thank you for joining us on EARLY START. I'm Boris Sanchez.

ROMANS: Nice to see you this morning, sitting in for this morning.

I'm Christine Romans. It is Wednesday, April 12th. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

It is 11:00 a.m. in Moscow and that's where a meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian foreign minister is just getting underway. Tillerson's visit comes just as U.S. officials are accusing Russia of trying to cover up Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people.

President Trump warning Vladimir Putin directly against backing Assad in this new interview.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person, and I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world. But when you drop gas or bombs or barrel bombs -- they have these

massive barrels with dynamite and they drop it in the middle of a group of people. In all fairness, you see the same kids no arms, no legs, no face. This is an animal.


ROMANS: For the latest, let's go live to CNN's Paula Newton in Moscow.

Paula, is Secretary Tillerson's meeting with the foreign minister there underway yet? What do we expect to come out of this?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not as of yet, but we do expect it to start at any moment, Christine. And if we take ourselves away from the punching and the counterpunching that we've been hearing for days now, Rex Tillerson at that table with Sergey Lavrov to understand what Russia is up for.

Now, at this point in time, Tillerson wanting to examine two things, whether or not the Russians have the unconditionally support Assad, if they will back away even so slightly from the regime and perhaps get to a point inside Syria where they will help administer humanitarian corridors.

From Russia's point of view, you know, Vladimir Putin coming out hard again with another Russian TV interview saying that the NATO allies were nodding like bobbleheads to all of this cover up allegations from Secretary Mattis that we heard yesterday, but also saying quite clearly that now at the table, there are two things that Russia is looking for. One is they want some maneuverability with their own sanctions that have been imposed on them since the conflict in Ukraine.

And, look, Christine, this has not been an easy conflict for Russia either. They have been in the field in Syria for more than 18 months. There is some fatigue there. So, some signs that some progress can be made at the table, but I wouldn't expect too much at this point in time.

Also, another thing we want to keep an eye on -- we can't say for sure Vladimir Putin will not meet with Rex Tillerson. It's still not on the schedule -- Christine.

ROMANS: Still not on the schedule.

All right. Paula Newton, keep us posted when that meeting begins and any developments. Thanks.

SANCHEZ: Topping the agenda for that meeting today between Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is the situation on the ground in Syria. Just a few days after the U.S. hit a Syrian air base with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, President Trump is promising that America will not end up with boots on the ground in that country.

Listen to what he said.


TRUMP: We're not going into Syria. But when I see people using horrible, horrible chemical weapons, which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration, but they violated it. What I did should have been done by the Obama administration a long time before I did it. And you would have had a much better -- I think Syria would be a lot better off right now than it has been.


SANCHEZ: Let's bring in senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward. She's live on Turkey's border with Syria for us this morning.

Clarissa, what kind of impact are you expecting that these meetings might have on the situation in Syria now?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Boris, I think it's tough to tell. I think that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson really has his work cut out for him. He is going to Moscow essentially trying to ask the Russians to disengage from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, to stop propping them up, and that's a very big ask because the relationship between Russia and the Assad family goes back decades.

Russia has spent hundreds of millions if not billions propping up the regime, selling them weaponry, helping them financially, not to mention its own military intervention.

[04:05:03] So, it is going to take a lot of persuasion to tell them that they should suddenly reverse course. It's important to remember that Syria is really Russia's only major ally or toehold in the entire Middle East. It has given them access to the Mediterranean.

And beyond all that, Boris, it has really become their geopolitical trump card. It has given them an enormous amount of leverage and geopolitical importance trying to persuade them to play that trump card is not going to be easy. But nonetheless, that is the situation that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finds himself on -- in.

Meanwhile on the ground inside Syria, it is business as usual. There are airstrikes that continue day in, day out, no sign that they are abating. I guess we will have to see what happens in this crucial meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: We'll be waiting for the details of that meeting. It is set to get underway in just a few minutes. Clarissa Ward, thank you so much.

ROMANS: And then there is this: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in damage control mode today, repeatedly apologizing for comments he made Tuesday comparing Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler. Spicer arguing that at least Hitler did not use chemical weapons on his own people -- something that is not even factually correct since Hitler, in fact, had millions of people, mostly Jews, murdered in gas chambers.

Then as reporters pressed him, actually even sort of threw him a lifeline at one point. His successive attempts clarify only got more baffling.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS) SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You know, you had a -- you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons.

I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no -- he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing -- there was not -- he brought him into -- the Holocaust center. I understand that. I'm saying in the way that Assad used them where he went into town, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of towns. It was brought -- so the use of it --


ROMANS: OK. It was the whole thing was baffling.

For more, let's turn to senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.



The Trump administration doing something it rarely has done, that is apologizing. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer giving an extraordinary apology for comments he made on Tuesday equating the Holocaust and chemical weapons attacks to what is going on in Syria, saying indeed that Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler because Hitler didn't use chemical weapons.

Of course, that's incorrect. That touched off a firestorm of criticism throughout the day.

So, finally, late on Tuesday, Sean Spicer came on CNN to apologize directly to Wolf Blitzer.

SPICER: I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week using chemical weapons and gas. And, frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which frankly there is no -- there is no comparison, and for that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.

ZELENY: And that apology was a direct message from the president as well as other senior administration officials telling Spicer to try and clean this up immediately.

But without question, it is the biggest apology directly this administration has made, trying to move on beyond this. The question is what is the credibility of Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, stand this morning as we begin the third day of this very busy week?

The president today will be holding his own press conference meeting with the NATO secretary general here. He'll be able to answer his own questions about Syria here at the White House -- Christine and Boris.


SANCHEZ: Jeff, thanks for that.

A former Trump campaign advisor says a secret intelligence court warrant allowing the FBI to monitor his communications was unjustified. "The Washington Post" reporting that the FBI got a warrant on Carter Page after convincing a FISA court judge that there was probable cause to believe that he was knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence work on behalf of Moscow. In other words, that he was acting as a foreign agent, a spy.

Page calls himself a junior member of the Trump foreign policy team and says that he never actually met with the candidate.

ROMANS: All right. President Trump raising eyebrows and new questions this morning about Steve Bannon's future. With comments he made about his chief strategist, when asked by "The New York Post" about the tense relationship between Bannon and his son-in-law Jared Kushner who is also a top aide, the president said this: quote, "I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors and I didn't know Steve. I'm my own strategist. Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will."

All right. Almost 10 minutes past the hour. Time for early start on the money this morning.

The Trump administration is set to inform federal agencies today to the president's federal ban on hiring is over, that the Office of Management and Budget expect agencies to begin carrying out more targeted and surgical cuts to agency staffing.

[04:10:07] This is an attempt by the Trump administration to make good on that promise to drain the swamp -- a slogan from his 2016 campaign. Just days after he became president, Trump signed a presidential memorandum imposing a hiring freeze on the federal government. Office of Management Budget Director Mick Mulvaney isn't providing figures on job cuts, but says the Trump administration can run the government more efficiently than the Obama administration could.

This comes just a day after President Trump met with top CEOs at the White House on how to make some of those cuts.

SANCHEZ: We watched this video nonstop yesterday, the video of the passenger on the United Airlines flight getting dragged out. Apparently, the CEO has now watched it well enough times. United apologizing for the third time after dragging this passenger off the plane. New details on this, next.


SANCHEZ: United Airlines cannot seem to wake up from its public relations nightmare.

[04:15:00] The airline's CEO has apologized yet again for a passenger getting dragged off an overbooked flight. Actually, it wasn't overbooked. They just had to get some pilots on board and so they asked folks to get off. No one would, and this is the consequence.

Chief executive Oscar Munoz now saying, quote, "I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer that was forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right."

That passenger has been identified as Dr. David Dao. He is being treated right now at a Chicago hospital. His attorney says that Dao appreciates the outpouring of support from the world a video has been played more than 100 million times online.

We get more now from CNN's Rene Marsh.


RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Boris, United Airlines CEO sent out his third message and Oscar Munoz finally got his tone right. But it took two days, a viral video, and fierce outrage from just about everyone who saw that video before. The airline made a direct apology to the passenger who was dragged off of that oversold United Airlines flight on Sunday. He called it truly horrific and pledged a thorough review of how the airline handles oversold flights and how it works with law enforcement. He said the review would be completed by April 30th.

Now, this new statement comes after Munoz doubled down in an e-mail sent to employees actually defending the flight crew and calling the passenger disruptive and belligerent. And in Munoz's first statement, he only apologized for having to re-accommodate passengers.

This has been a disaster for the airline. The press office has not really been responsive and today, lawmakers are demanding the Department of Transportation launch an investigation. We know that the agency said that it was reviewing the incident to determine if the passenger's rights were violated.

Back to you.


ROMANS: All right. Rene, thank you so much.

You know that PR nightmare for United has a price tag: a quarter of a billion dollars. That's the hit to the value of the company in the stock market yesterday. The airline's stock was at about 4 percent during trading. It could have been worse for us.

Earlier in the day, a billion dollars was knocked off the company's market cap. By late afternoon, the stock has recovered from the worst losses. Shares are currently trading down about 4/10 of a percent in the premarket.

And I can tell you, this will be a business school case study and CEOs never want your PR mess up to be a business school case study. But that's what it was. Oscar Munoz, the third time was the charm. That was the response that should have come right away.

SANCHEZ: Right. Well, at first, he was saying that they did this by the book. And obviously, watching the stock price --

ROMANS: If this doesn't follow your policies, you should have different policies.

SANCHEZ: Quite a few money parodies online. One of them from Jimmy Kimmel, I highly recommend you.

Moving on to a story in Europe now. German prosecutors were investigating a possible extremist link between the explosions which hit a bus carrying a German football team on Tuesday. One player was injured when at least three devices hit the bus with about 50 people aboard. People say -- police rather say that one of the devices failed to go off. It happened as the Borussia Dortmund team was heading to a championship match.

Investigators found a handwritten letter claiming responsibility for the attack nearby, and they say it referenced the deadly Berlin market attack back in December. The match has been rescheduled for tonight.

ROMANS: All right. It is a war of words between President Trump and North Korea. The president issuing a stark warning to Kim Jong-un. We'll go to Seoul, next.


[04:23:04] ROMANS: President Trump sending a warning to North Korea after Pyongyang threatened a nuclear attack on the U.S. for any, quote, "reckless acts of aggression".


TRUMP: We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you. And we have the best military people on Earth. And I will say this: he is doing the wrong thing.


ROMANS: Let's go to CNN international correspondent Paula Hancocks in Seoul.

Paula, these provocative statements going back and forth between President Trump and North Korea, what's the response where you are?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, when you look on the streets of Seoul, it's remarkable. You wouldn't even know this is going on. The South Korean people are incredibly resilient and they have been in this position for many decades, still technically at war with their northern neighbor.

But certainly, from an official point of view, South Korean officials and Japanese officials are very heartened at the fact that the U.S. is sending more military hardware to the region. We know that the USS Carl Vinson will be heading back into Korean waters at some point this Wednesday, and that, of course, a show of force against North Korea.

But this increase in rhetoric from both sides at this point, from President Trump and also from North Korea, is, of course, going to concern officials, but it is what we often see in this situation. I just spoke to a national security advisor for the former South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, and he said that it's not something that most people would be concerned about.

But the fact that all military and all options on the table, according to Washington, is important. It is an important to have that military hardware behind those threats so the threats have credibility. And he's hoping that that might prevent future missile or nuclear tests from North Korea -- Christine.

ROMANS: Paula Hancocks, thank you so much for that, in Seoul for us this morning.

There was some commentary yesterday from military experts that armada is a word you don't hear very much.

[04:25:02] It seems a little bit outdated. The carrier strike group that is heading there.


ROMANS: Armada sounds a little, I don't know, early 20th century.

SANCHEZ: Right, the Spanish inquisition or something, yes.


SANCHEZ: So, we've been watching this all morning and it's happening right now. The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The Kremlin's deputy foreign minister saying just moments ago the U.S. position on Syria remains a mystery to them. We'll take you there, next.


SANCHEZ: Happening right now: live pictures from Russia where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the visit coming at a crucial time as U.S. officials accuse Russia of a cover up of Syria's use of chemical weapons.

ROMANS: Yes, very tense.

The Trump administration issuing a rare apology after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made some shocking and wrong comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Bashar al-Assad.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.