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Tillerson in Russia; Spicer Under Fire; United Airlines CEO Apologizes... Again; White House Sends Warning to North Korea. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 04:30   ET


BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: 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.


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.

[04:30:04] Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

SANCHEZ: Always great to be here with you in the morning.

ROMANS: Nice to see you, Boris.

SANCHEZ: I'm Boris Sanchez. It is Wednesday, April 12th. Half past 4:00 a.m. on the East Coast.

And it is 11:30 a.m. in Moscow where a meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is just getting underway. These are live images from that meeting. Tillerson's visit comes as U.S. officials are accusing Russia of trying to cover up Syrian's leader Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people.

President Trump warning Putin against backing Assad in a new interview. Listen.


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. And in all fairness, you see the same kids no arms, no legs, no face. This is an animal.


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

Paula, those are the strongest words that we've heard from this administration on Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But yet we just heard a few moments ago that a Russian foreign minister says that the White House's position on Syria is a mystery to the Russians. What do we expect to come out of this meeting?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, at this point, when they say a mystery, they're saying, look, what's the end game for you in Syria? They're saying that you have had really, except for trying to fight ISIS in Syria, you've had no skin in this game and they want to know at this point with just one targeted U.S. airstrike, where is your bottom line?

Boris, this meeting is just started. It's just underway. I can see that the reporters in the room are now straining to see some opening comments. Right now, Rex Tillerson looking for some wiggle room with Russia. Not just on whether or not his support, Bashar al-Assad -- Russia's support for Bashar al-Assad is unconditional, whether or not they might move away from that regime, but also if they are willing to put their own credibility and leverage against some peace momentum.

How would that start, Boris? Perhaps it might start with humanitarian corridors, no fly zones. These have been issues another any table, any negotiation table to discuss Syria in the last few years. It's been impossible to get to that point. Some people are hoping that all of this heated rhetoric from both sides will actually be able to spark something at this negotiating table.

Boris, as the two of them sit down, Sergey Lavrov and Rex Tillerson, still no word whether Rex Tillerson will get that face to face with Vladimir Putin. If he doesn't, it will be quite a snub and perhaps throw negotiations back a bit because Vladimir Putin and Rex Tillerson know each other fairly well, and they would likely be able to get to some understanding of each other's position if they had that face-to- face meeting.

SANCHEZ: Yes, certainly, one of the silver linings in the tension between Russia and the U.S. is the fact that Rex Tillerson has that relationship with Vladimir Putin. He was given the Russian Order of Friendship medal just a few years ago. The eyes of the world on this meeting.

Paula, we thank you for keeping us updated.

ROMANS: So, topping the agenda today for the secretary and the foreign minister, the situation on the ground in Syria. Just days after the U.S. hit a Syrian air base with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, president Trump is promising America will not end up with boots on the ground there. Listen.


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.


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

You know, you've got to wonder, of course, what sort of effect these meetings will have on Syria's civil war. Not to mention the relation between the U.S. and Russia. You know, the contours of discussion here, a no-fly zone, humanitarian corridors, North Korea, Ukraine, a lot on the table.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There is a lot on the table. And Rex Tillerson has a very long wish list, and it remains to be seen whether he will be able to push any of those wishes through because the reality is that President Vladimir Putin and Russia have been supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad for decades now, while before Assad, his father, Hafez al-Assad, was also supported by the Russians. This is a very old, deep relationship.

The Russians have said for a while now it's not so much that they're attached to Bashar al-Assad as much as they are attached to the importance of sovereignty and respecting the sovereignty of Syria.

[04:35:01] But it will be very difficult to persuade them after all the money that they have spent supporting Assad, after all the weaponry that they have poured in there, after all the power on the geopolitical stage that they have been given by having this prominent seat in this conflict, it will be very difficult to persuade them, I think, to play that trump card, to essentially agree to renounce Bashar al-Assad, to distance themselves from his regime. It will take some fancy footwork for Rex Tillerson to be able to pull something like that off.

In the meantime, of course, the situation on the ground in Syria looks much the same as it has now for months. There are airstrikes and barrel bombs taking place on a daily basis. There has not been any real shift since the U.S. strike. But the U.S. strike even was in its purpose, according to the Pentagon, was not intended to take out all the barrel bombs and all sort of strikes in the future. The intention of this strike was to prevent another chemical attack from taking place.

So, a lot of questions to be answered at those meetings in Moscow and as yet to be seen what will come of them -- Christine.

ROMANS: And those meetings underway right now and we're monitoring those for you.

OK, Clarissa Ward, thank you so much for that.

SANCHEZ: Back in the States, 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 argued that at least Hitler did not use chemical weapons, something that is not even factually correct, and offensive since Hitler, in fact, had millions of people, mostly Jews, murdered in gas chambers.

Then, as reporters pressed him, Spicer's successive attempts to clarify only got more baffling.


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 --


SANCHEZ: Certainly some baffling cringe worthy statements.

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



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.


ROMANS: Certainly a puzzling afternoon. All right. Thank you so much for that, Jeff Zeleny.

A former Trump campaign advisor says a secret intelligence court warrant allowing the FBI to monitor his communications was unjustified. "The Washington Post" is reporting the FBI got a warrant on Carter Page after convincing a FISA court judge there was probable cause to believe he was knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence work on behalf of Moscow. In other words, that he was acting as a foreign agent. Page calls himself a junior member of the Trump foreign policy team and says he never actually met with the candidate.

SANCHEZ: Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the U.S. Mexico border announcing a new crackdown by the Trump administration on undocumented immigrants and a visit to the border town of Nogales, Arizona, Sessions pledged to step up prosecutions.


JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned. This is a new era. This is the Trump era.

The lawlessness, the abdication of duty to enforce our laws, and the catch and release policies of the past are over.


[04:40:09] SANCHEZ: The attorney general calling it the administration's first stand against, quote, "filth" like gangs and criminal aliens. Sessions says the Justice Department is placing two immigration judges and detention centers along the southern border.

ROMANS: All right. Time for an early start on your money this morning. The Trump administration set to inform federal agencies today that the president's federal ban on hiring is over, but the Office of Management and Budget expects agencies to be carrying out more targeted and surgical cuts to agencies staffing.

And this is an attempt by the Trump administration to drain the swamp. That's the slogan from his campaign. Just days after he became president, Trump signed a presidential memorandum imposing a hiring freeze on the federal government. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney is not providing figures on job cuts, but says the Trump administration can run the government more efficiently than the Obama administration did. That means fewer people.

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: If at first you don't succeed, you try again and again, especially as you watch your stock price plummet. United Airlines apologizing for the third time after this video emerged of a passenger being violently dragged off one of their planes. New details on this story, next.


[04:45:35] ROMANS: United Airlines cannot seem to wake up from its public relations nightmare. The airline's CEO has apologized yet again. This is now the third iteration of a response from the company, apologizing for a passenger being dragged off the sold-out United flight so crew members could make the trip from Chicago to Louisville.

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

Now, that is exactly what he should have said yesterday in the morning.


ROMANS: The passenger identified as Dr. David Dao is being treated at a Chicago hospital. His attorney says Dao appreciates the outpouring of support.

Let's get more on this story 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: It is interesting. Just last month, he received an award from P.R. magazine for best CEO communicator. That was not a great P.R. response, and that P.R. nightmare for United has a price tag of a quarter of a billion dollars. That's a hit to the value and the stock market yesterday. The airline stock down 4 percent during trading.

It could have been worse, Boris. Earlier in the day, a billion dollars was knocked off the market cap. By late afternoon, the stock had recovered from the worst losses. Shares right now looking to see if there's going to be anymore fallout. They're down 4/10 of a percent in premarket trading.

I think you're going to see that stabilize here. I mean, in a lot of markets, you don't have a lot of choice.


ROMANS: I mean, United -- and most, I think most passengers will choose the cheapest airfare and right time for them.

SANCHEZ: That's right. You're also making the point a moment ago which is that United is trying to break into the Chinese market and that is where this video has really caught fire. So --

ROMANS: Yes, 100 million views by midday yesterday in the Chinese market. And that's where United is trying to make a lot of headway. So, that's -- you know, this is an international problem for them.

SANCHEZ: Yikes. Speaking of international problems, President Trump issuing a stark warning to North Korea that the U.S. is sending an armada to the region. We'll go live to Seoul next.


SANCHEZ: President Trump sending a stern warning to North Korea after Pyongyang threatened a nuclear attack on the U.S. for any reckless acts of aggression. Listen.


TRUMP: -- 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.


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

Paula, we've been hearing this rhetoric escalate over the past few months. The United States saying that all options are on the table when it comes to North Korea this week, North Korea saying they won't bat an eyelash to respond.

How are people in Seoul who are in the center of all of this responding to these comments?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Boris, the people who live here in South Korea have been dealing with this for decades. They are still technically at war with their northern neighbors. There was never a peace treaty signed with North Korea, only an armistice.

So, certainly, people here are taking it in the stride. From the official point of view, South Korean officials are very pleased to see that there is more U.S. military hardware coming to South Korea. They are pleased the USS Carl Vinson, that aircraft carrier and everything that comes with it is coming into Korean waters, potentially as early as this Wednesday. So, certainly, that is welcome for the people here.

We also note that President Xi Jinping of China spoke to President Trump over the phone. They did discuss North Korea. China still wants the U.S. and North Korea to be negotiating. They want the peaceful solution to be sought and they want that to come through talks.

This is not what we're hearing from Washington, though. Clearly at this point, President Trump and Rex Tillerson and also James Mattis, all the ministers saying that they want all options on the table.

[04:55:04] So, of course, we're hearing from national security advisors here in South Korea as well that they are happy that at the same time having this discussion all options on the table, you are seeing the military hardware arrive here as well. It gives those threats credibility -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: Paula Hancocks, thank you for the update from Seoul.

ROMANS: All right. A big legislative save by Republicans. CNN projecting Kansas State Treasurer Ron Estes has won a special election for the congressional seat vacated by Mike Pompeo who became the CIA director, of course. Estes beat back a surprisingly strong challenge from Democrat Jim Thompson in Kansas's fourth congressional district. That district has been in Republican hands more than two decades.

Republicans in North Carolina still reeling from the bathroom bill controversy are now jumping into another political firestorm. Three Republican lawmakers have filed House Bill 78, also called the Uphold Historical Marriage Act, in an effort to somehow outlaw same sex marriage. They claim the Supreme Court overstepped its bound by ruling those marriages legal nationwide. The lawmakers say that if their bill passes, same sex marriages, whether officiated in or out of the state, would be in invalidated.

SANCHEZ: The J. Geils Band was so big in the '80s, their opening acts included the Eagles, U2 and Billy Joel. But now, there's word that rock group's founder, John Warren Geils, Jr., has died. He was found unresponsive in his home in Massachusetts on Monday. The cause of death is not yet known. But police say foul play is not suspected. He was 71 years old.

ROMANS: And when David Letterman was king of late night, his mother was a fan favorite. Now, Dave's mom Dorothy Mengering has passed away at the age of 95. She was a popular frequent guest on Letterman's late show often doing the nightly top 10 list. I remember that.

All right. Fifty-six minutes past the hour.

Cooler temperatures coming for the Northeast, just in time for the holiday weekend. Let's get to meteorologist Pedram Javaheri.


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

Pretty widespread coverage of 70s and 80s, still well above the norm for this time of year. St. Louis with 75 degrees. And that's high pressure is building right there over the next couple of days. But there is a front skirting across the Southeast, all the way around parts of the mid-Atlantic into the Northeast. With it showers and the big difference here going to be the cooler temperatures from the 80s to the 70s for New York City, from the mid-80s to the 60s in Boston.

Even Washington made it up to 84, 77 today, so still above normal. Still very comfortable. But could include some clouds and some showers with this later this afternoon as the front comes by. But again, really not a washout.

The best we're seeing here, generally about a quarter of an inch to half an inch as far as rainfall is concerned. Again, a light go around of rainfall but notice 19 record temperatures even tied -- either tied or set yesterday across the Northeast. Again, no such in the way of records for this afternoon.

You notice, we cool it off again into the 70s for New York City, and eventually by this Sunday, we get one more rebound back into the 80s here before cooler weather, but still above normal returns for Monday afternoon next week in New York -- guys.


ROMANS: All right. That is your weather.

Here is your money this morning. Let's get a check on money stream. Stock futures pointing higher. Investors awaiting the start of corporate earnings reports. They're expected to be strong. Looking for the banks actually today, stock markets in Europe and Asia are mixed.

President Trump says he has created 600,000 jobs. Those numbers don't add up. According to CNN Money's Trump jobs tracker we have that, we have a Trump jobs tracker: 317,000 jobs have been created since Trump took office.

The president is trying to take credit for nearly double that number of jobs. CNN Money's figure includes how many jobs the Labor Department created in February and March. The White House says Trump is including all the jobs added in January as well. Trump what was only in office 11.5 days that month. Even if you add all those, still don't quite get to 600,000, but we will keep track of that. You can follow that job tracker if you like on

Ride-sharing company Lyft is flying high. The company says it has raised a fresh $600 million from investors. New funding bumps up valuation to $7.5 billion. Still far short of competitor Uber's estimated worth of $68 billion. The news comes as Uber's ethics and company culture are being sharply criticized. Lyft says it's 60 percent increase in new passenger sign ups the week after the #deleteUber debacle.

Check out the new CNN Money Stream. It's business news personalized, stories, videos, tweets and topics you want. All in one feed. Download it now in the App Store or Google Play.

SANCHEZ: And you can download if as you wait and watch, because another edition of EARLY START starts right now.


SANCHEZ: Happening right now: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The visit comes at a critical time as U.S. officials accused Russia of a cover-up of Syria's used of chemical weapons.

ROMANS: The Trump administration issuing a rare apology after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made a comparison between Adolf Hitler and Bashar al Assad.

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